Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.
The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.
This week, we’re looking at the Apple-Epic trial, Apple’s App Store advertising expansion, App Tracking Transparency opt-in rates, TikTok’s new SDKs for third-party apps, Google’s plans for its own take on privacy labels, and more.
This Week in Apps will soon be a newsletter! Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters
Apple-Epic Trial kicks off
This was the first week of the Epic Games antitrust lawsuit against Apple over App Store fees, and already it’s yielding some interesting content — mainly thanks to the internal Apple emails that have become part of the trial’s exhibits. So far, we’ve learned how Apple thought about App Store fees in the past, have gotten a peek inside internal conversations, learned of special deals it cut for Hulu and how it thought about punishing Netflix for ditching IAP, among other things.
Here are some of the highlights you may have missed.
- Apple’s App Store head Phil Schiller, previously Apple’s marketing chief, a decade ago questioned if the 70/30 split would last. In an email to Eddy Cue, he suggested that once the App Store reached $1 billion in profitability, Apple should cut its fees to 20-25%.
- Despite having said he’s fighting for all developers, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney in court admitted he would have accepted a special deal for a lower commission if Apple had offered one.
- Apple is disputing testimony from financial researcher Ned Barnes, which said the App Store had operating margins of almost 78% in 2019. Barnes said he had access to P&L estimates for fiscal year 2020, and statements from 2013-15, which aided in his calculations. Apple rebutted that it doesn’t allocate costs for the App Store so any documents discussing it wouldn’t have included expenses.
- Apple’s App Store VP Matt Fischer was questioned over a 2016 email where an employee said Fischer felt strongly about not featuring competitor apps on the App Store. Fischer said the employee who wrote the email was “very misinformed” and Apple has promoted competitors long before he joined the team in 2010.
App Store rejections
- Apple said it rejected 33-36% of apps submitted to the App Store from 2017-2019. Despite the number of rejections, less than 1% of developers appeal Apple’s decision. Most of the decisions about rejections are still upheld.
- 2017: 5.177 million submissions, 1.69 million rejections (33%)
- 2018: 4.79 million submissions, 1.7 million rejections (35%)
- 2019: 4.8 million submissions, 1.74 million rejections (36%)
- Apple offered Hulu and others special deals that gave them App Store API access. In a 2018 email, an Apple exec confirmed Hulu was one of the whitelisted developers that had been given access to the subscription cancel/refund API which they had been using since 2015 to support instant upgrades using a two-family setup before subscription upgrade/downgrade capabilities were built.
- Emails revealed Apple tried to convince Netflix not to drop support for IAPs and questioned whether it should take punitive measures when Netflix’s tests were underway.
- Apple emails revealed internal conflict over the launch of App Store ads before launch, saying that ads would be at odds with Apple’s statements that it makes products without monetizing users.
- Fischer said he was “blindsided” by the payment update that kicked off Epic’s battle with the App Store, noting the developer and Apple had a good relationship previously. He recalled dropping everything to promote Fortnite’s Travis Scott concert on the App Store, which he described as a “really cool concept.”
- Fortnite made more than $9 billion in 2018 and 2019. It made $5.1 billion in 2020.
- Fortnite may be returning to iOS through Nvidia’s cloud streaming service GeForce NOW.
- It was revealed that Epic paid Sony additional royalties beyond the 70/30 split to compensate for cross-play. Apple’s argument is that it’s being singled out over the 30% cut, when Epic was actually paying more to Sony but didn’t go after the console maker with the same complaint.
- Apple and Epic had once planned a subscription bundle that would have offered Fortnite Crew, Apple Music and Apple TV+ in a $20/mo package. The cut of subscription revenue each would take would have been based on whether the user signed up through Apple or through Fortnite.
Google to add a “Safety” section on Google Play in 2022
Months after Apple’s App Store introduced privacy labels for apps, Google says its own mobile app marketplace, Google Play, will follow suit…sorta. The company this week pre-announced its plans to introduce a new “safety” section in Google Play, rolling out in Q2 2022, which will require app developers to share what sort of data their apps collect, how it’s stored and how it’s used.
But where Apple’s labels focus on what data is being collected for tracking purposes and what’s linked to the end user, Google’s additions seem to be more about whether or not you can trust the data being collected is being handled responsibly, by allowing the developer to showcase if they follow best practices around data security. It also gives the developer a way to make a case for why it’s collecting data right on the listing page itself. And Google says developers can showcase if their labels have been independently verified.
TikTok Login and more integrations are coming to third-party apps
TikTok is expanding its integrations with third-party apps. The company announced the launch of two new SDKs, the TikTok Login Kit and Sound Kit, that will allow apps on mobile, web and consoles to authenticate users via their TikTok credentials, build experiences that leverage users’ TikTok videos and share music and sounds back to TikTok from their own apps. The Login Kit allows an app’s users to sign in quickly using their TikTok log-in credentials, similar to other social log-ins offered by Facebook or Snap. Once signed in, users can then access their TikTok videos in the third-party app, potentially fueling entire new app ecosystems with TikTok content. Meanwhile, the Sounds Kit will let app users share their sounds or music back to TikTok as sounds.
Early adopters of Login Kit include gaming clips apps Allstar and Medal; anti-anxiety app Breathwrk; social app IRL; food reviews app Burpple; dating and friend-making apps Snack, Lolly, MeetMe, Monet, Swipehouse and EME Hive; creator tool provider Streamlabs; video game PUBG; and forthcoming NFT platform Neon. Sound Kits adopters include mobile multi-track recording studio Audiobridge; music creation and collaboration suite LANDR; hip hop music creation app Rapchat; and upcoming audio recording and remix app Yourdio.
Apple expands App Store advertising
As Apple cracks down on the ad tech industry’s ability to personalize ads using user data, it is expanding its own advertising business with a new App Store ad slot. The new and more prominent ad placement is found on the App Store’s Search tab, which sees millions of visits from Apple device owners every month. The ad will appear in the Suggested section at the top of the list of apps.
Like Apple’s existing Search results campaigns, there’s no minimum spend required for a Search tab campaign, as these ads are called. Developers can spend as little or as much as they want, then start, stop or adjust the campaign at any time, says Apple. Ad pricing is based on a cost-per-thousand-impressions (CPM) model. The actual cost is the result of a second price auction, which calculates what the developer will pay based on what the next closest bidder is willing to pay. Impressions are counted when at least 50% of the ad is visible for one second.
✨ Although a poll indicated iOS 14.5 users may be more willing to allow apps to track them than previously thought, Flurry’s app data shows that few are opting in. After upgrading to the new version of iOS, only 4% of U.S. iPhone users have enabled app tracking. Worldwide, the number jumps to 12%.
Apple apologizes and refunds a woman $1,116.32, after her 9-year-old son (who has autism spectrum disorder) racked up charges on mobile games like Roblox and Coin Master. The son said he didn’t understand the games cost money. The son had memorized the mom’s Apple ID password, which he entered when asked to authorize the purchase. Apple had initially refused to refund the money, prompting Global News‘ Consumer Matters to step in and help.
Apple snags a former Google AI research scientist, Samy Bengio, to work on Siri. He will lead a new AI research unit alongside another ex-Googler, John Giannandrea, focused on making Siri more of a Google Assistant competitor.
Apple released iOS 14.5.1, which included a bug fix for App Tracking Transparency, which prevented some users from seeing the ATT prompts.
The Google Play Store in India paused auto-renewals and free trials, amid new rules on recurring transactions in the country from India’s central bank and financial regulator, the Reserve Bank of India. Google in an email to developers said the features would be paused while “ecosystem challenges are addressed.”
Some users aren’t happy with the recent Play Store redesign, which now makes it harder to see a list of your recently updated apps or those you’re beta testing.
Google releases Android Studio 4.2 in the stable release channel. The focus areas for this release is an upgraded IntelliJ platform and a handful of new features centered around improving developers’ productivity.
Snap will launch a new Creator Marketplace later this month, which will initially focus on connecting AR Lens Creators with businesses and brands who want to run AR ads. It will then expand to support all Snap Creators by 2022. It also announced a new lineup of Originals, including those with TikTok stars Charli and Dixie D’Amelio, Megan Thee Stallion, and others.
Top neobanking app Chime was asked by a California regulator to stop calling itself a “bank” in its website URLs and advertising. The app is not actually a bank — it offers front-end banking services to customers, but the accounts themselves are held with Chime’s banking partners, The Bancorp Bank and Stride Bank, both FDIC members. Chime updated its website to make it clear it’s not a bank. Expect other neobanks to follow suit, soon.
WhatsApp Pay is rolling out to users in Brazil on iOS and Android. The P2P payments feature requires the user has a Mastercard or Visa debit card in one of the following banks: Banco do Brazil, Banco Inter, Bradesco, Itaú, Mercado Pago, Next, Nubank, Sicredi or Woop Sicredi. The feature is also live in India.
Twitter expanded its Clubhouse rival, Twitter Spaces, to all users with 600 followers or more. The company says this number will allow users to have a good experience, but it still plans to expand to all users in the future.
Twitter launched a Tip Jar feature on mobile that lets users tip people directly on their user profile. The feature supports payment platforms PayPal, Venmo, Patreon, Cash App and Bandcamp.
Twitter also rolled out an improved version of its “reply prompts” feature, aimed at cutting down on harmful tweets. The feature, which is now globally available in English on mobile, shows a prompt that asks a user to reconsider their language when they were about to tweet something mean.
And Twitter rolled out the new feature that lets you post bigger images on iOS and Android, without having the images cropped. (Busy week!)
Instagram is rolling out a captions sticker for Stories, and soon Reels. The sticker, which only works in English-language for now, can be customized with your preferred style, color and text.
The majority of WhatsApp users have accepted the controversial privacy update and the company continues to grow its user base, Facebook said this week. Combined, Facebook’s family of apps had 3.45 billion MAUs as of March 31, 2021, up from 3.3 billion on December 31 and 3.21 billion on September 30. The company says it now won’t deactivate accounts for not accepting the new policy, but will keep reminding them.
Facebook opens registration for F8 Refresh, which is free to all developers worldwide. Sessions will include Facebook Business Messaging, Research, Open Source, Login, Business Tools, AR, Stories, Gaming, Startups and more.
Facebook is launching its Nextdoor clone, Neighborhoods, across Canada, and soon, the U.S. Unlike with Facebook Groups, Facebook users on Neighborhoods can create a separate subprofile that includes a custom bio and list of interests, which is included in a Neighborhoods Directory. Neighborhoods will also have moderators who review posts and comments and can hide posts that violate guidelines.
A court ruled Snap could be sued for its role in a fatal car crash that killed three young adults. The boys were using Snap’s controversial “speed filter” that shows your real-life speed, when the 17-year old driver accelerated the car to 123 MPH and then crashed into a tree. The parents sued Snap saying it knowingly created a dangerous game in the app, and bore some responsibility.
Facebook notes its Workplace business networking service now has 7 million paid subscribers, up 40% YoY. Customers now include Virgin Atlantic, Walmart, Telefónica, BT, Booking.com, Deliveroo, AstraZeneca, Starbucks and Save the Children.
Facebook and Instagram’s prompt that asks its users to opt into tracking on iOS 14.x uses scare tactics that suggests that Facebook could have to start charging for its app, if users didn’t agree to tracking. The pop-up says tracking enables personalized ads, supports businesses and “helps keep Facebook free of charge.”
Signal claimed Facebook rejected its ads and disabled its ad account for trying to run an ad campaign that showed the amount of data Instagram and Facebook collected on users. Facebook responded that this campaign was a marketing “stunt” and Signal never actually tried to run the ads. It also claimed Signal was showing off screenshots from a time its account was disabled briefly in March for an unrelated issue. If Signal’s being dishonest here, that’s not a good look for an app asking consumers to trust them.
Instagram adds new chat themes featuring Star Wars characters and Netflix’s “Selena: The Series,” as well as stickers celebrating Asian and Pacific Islanders for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and a read receipts feature for DMs. Another new feature available first on iOS allows Instagram users to reply with a photo or video in DMs.
On Messenger, the tap-to-record feature no longer requires users to hold down the button to record the message. It also introduced swipe to archive in Messenger and new a Archived Chats folder on mobile.
Streaming & Entertainment
Google rolls out a new feature to Android tablets called “Entertainment Space,“ which offers a personalized home page featuring the user’s favorite movies, shows, videos, games and books. This saves the user time hopping in between different apps to find something to do, whether that’s play, watch or read. Each user on the tablet can have their own personalized profile, as well, Google notes.
Is Clubhouse’s hype wearing off? App downloads were 900,000 in April, down from February’s 9.6 million. To combat the decline, Clubhouse this week released its Android app to public testing, and announced its “pilot season” of new shows it’s considering funding through its accelerator.
YouTube’s TikTok rival “Shorts” is now rolling out to all creators in the U.S., and will replace the “Explore” tab on the app’s home screen.
Soundcloud partners with Triller on an integration that will add a Soundcloud-curated playlist feature into the short-form video app. Soundcloud has offered curated programs to other platforms, including SiriusXM, Dash Radio and Australia’s Southern Cross Austereo.
Amazon says its free, ad-supported streaming service IMDb TV will have its own standalone mobile app sometime later this summer.
Twitch’s mobile app hits 22 million global installs in the first quarter of 2021, up 62% YoY, reports Sensor Tower. The app ended 2020 with 80.6 million installs, up 134% from 34.5 million for the year in 2019.
PUBG Mobile will relaunch in India as Battleground Mobile. The mobile game had originally been banned in the country alongside 200 others apps with links to China. Its South Korean developer Krafton didn’t say if it had talked to India’s government or if it had received permission, but will launch with new restrictions to protect minors and their privacy.
Health & Fitness
The Facebook app added a vaccine finder in India and announced a $10 million grant to support emergency response efforts in the country.
Tinder says it’s rolling out a new 48-hour, in-app event called “Vibes,” that combine the real-time push notifications from Swipe Surge with the on-profile icebreakers from Swipe Night. Vibes will present users with a series of questions ranging from personality traits to pop culture. People’s answers will be displayed on their profile for 72 hours.
Tinder parent Match Group also posted better-than-expected earnings for its first quarter and an upbeat revenue outlook, saying it’s seeing stronger recovery in areas with higher vaccination rates.
Government & Policy
China said 33 apps, including a map navigation software from Baidu and Tencent, violated regulations around collecting user data. The app developers were given 10 working days to fix issues or be subject to penalties.
💰 Music-making app Rapchat raised $2.3 million in funding co-led by Sony Music Entertainment and NYC VC firm Adjacent. The company has around 7 million registered users, some 250,000 songs have been created from a catalog of about 100,000 beats by 500,000 MAUs.
🤝 Twitter acquired distraction-free reading service Scroll to beef up its subscription product. In the future, Premium subscribers will be able to pay to read news without ads or website clutter, via Scroll. Unfortunately, Scroll’s news aggregator Nuzzel, has already shut down.
💰 Brazil fintech alt.bank, which offers a mobile banking app and debit card, raised $5.5 million in Series A funding led by Union Square Ventures. The app has been downloaded nearly 1 million times but doesn’t disclose how many active users it has.
💰 Finnish mobile games company Supercell extends a $180 million credit line to fellow Finnish games company Metacore, the maker of the popular title Merge Mansion, which has 800,000 daily players.
🤝 Cosmetic treatment review website and app RealSelf acquired YNS Group, a portfolio of websites that will give RealSelf a more international footprint.
🤝 Fortnite maker Epic Games acquires artist community ArtStation, where many artists upload work made with Epic’s Unreal Engine. The company immediately dropped commissions on sales from 30% to 12% — clearly aiming to make a point about a fair commission structure amid its trial with Apple over App Store fees.
💰 Sony announced an investment and partnership with Discord to bring the chat app to PlayStation. The investment amount was not disclosed, but gives Sony a minority stake. The news follows reports that Discord walked away from a $10 billion acquisition offer from Microsoft.
🤝 Zynga is acquiring mobile ad and monetization firm Chartboost for $250 million. The deal brings mobile game marketing, advertising and monetization in-house at a time when Apple’s privacy push is making targeting mobile ads more difficult.
🤝 Performance marketplace Perform, which offers technology to online and mobile marketers to help scale customer acquisitions, has been acquired by U.S. equity firm Beringer Capital.
💰 Virtual chronic condition care app Vida Health raised $110 million in Series D funding from General Atlantic, Centene and AXA Venture Partners. The company connects users with a personal health coach who guides them through programs for a variety of chronic conditions, including diabetes management, weight loss and mental health support.
💰 Connectcam raises $37 million from Insight Partners, O.G. Tech and others, for its smartphone app that helps employers manage remote, deskless workers.
🤝 Edtech website and app maker Kahoot acquires Clever, a startup that built a single sign-on portal for digital learning classrooms, used by 65% of U.S. K-12 schools. The deal values Clever between $435 million and $500 million.
💰 Avatar app Genies raised $65 million in Series B funding led by Mary Meeker’s firm Bond. The app, which lets users build their own digital personas, is now expanding into NFTs.
💰 Canadian fintech Wealthsimple raised $750 million CAD (~$610 million) at a post-money valuation of $5 billion CAD (~$4 billion). The round was led by Meritech and Greylock.
News in Bullets
This mobile news application lets you set your language and locale, then read through news summaries customized to you. But we wish they’d double down on a news reels feature — which is basically just a TikTok for news videos. Right now it presents a robotic narration of headlines overtop video news footage, that you then swipe through or double tap to like, as you would on TikTok. This could be even more useful, though, if the app would partner with news publishers already producing quality video content and make those the central focus of the video feed.
The Oregon Trail
This new Apple Arcade title refreshes the original 1970s text-based strategy game with 12 playable journeys where your every decision can impact your party and outcome. Players pick their traveling party and stock their wagon with supplies, then try to make it to Oregon by surviving a series of random events, like broken limbs, snowstorms, snakebites and more.
Brave’s mobile browser added a playlist feature that offers quick access to your favorite audio and video content.
As clinical guidelines shift, heart disease screening startup pulls in $43M Series B – TechCrunch
Cleerly Coronary, a company that uses A.I powered imaging to analyze heart scans, announced a $43 million Series B funding this week. The funding comes at a moment when it seems that a new way of screening for heart disease is on its way.
Cleerly was started in 2017 by James K. Min a cardiologist, and the director of the Dalio Institute for Cardiac Imaging at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical College. The company, which uses A.I to analyze detailed CT scans of the heart, has 60 employees, and has raised $54 million in total funding.
The Series B round was led by Vensana Capital, but also included LVR Health, New Leaf Venture Partners, DigiTx Partners, and Cigna Ventures.
The startup’s aim is to provide analysis of detailed pictures of the human heart that have been examined by artificial intelligence. This analysis is based on images taken via Cardiac Computer Tomography Angiogram (CTA), a new, but rapidly growing manner of scanning for plaques.
“We focus on the entire heart, so every artery, and its branches, and then atherosclerosis characterization and quantification,” says Min. “We look at all of the plaque buildup in the artery, [and] the walls of the artery, which historical and traditional methods that we’ve used in cardiology have never been able to do.”
Cleerly is a web application, and it requires that a CTA image specifically, which the A.I. is trained to analyze, is actually taken when patients go in for a checkup.
When a patient goes in for a heart exam after experiencing a symptom like chest pain, there are a few ways they can be screened. They might undergo a stress test, an echocardiogram (ECG), or a coronary angiogram – a catheter and x-ray-based test. CTA is a newer form of imaging in which a scanner takes detailed images of the heart, which is illuminated with an injected dye.
Cleerly’s platform is designed to analyze those CTA images in detail, but they’ve only recently become a first-line test (a go-to, in essence) when patients come in with suspected heart problems. The European Society of Cardiology updated guidelines to make CTA a first-line test in evaluating patients with chronic coronary disease. In the UK, it became a first-line test in the evaluation of patients with chest pain in 2016.
CTA is already used in the US, but guidelines may expand how often it’s actually used. A review on CTA published on the American College of Cardiology website notes that it shows “extraordinary potential.”
There’s movement on the insurance side, too. In 2020, United Healthcare announced the company will now reimburse for CTA scans when they’re ordered to examine low-to medium risk patients with chest pain. Reimbursement qualification is obviously a huge boon to broader adoption.
CTA imaging might not be great for people who already have stents in their hearts, or, says Min, those who are just in for a routine checkup (there is low-dose radiation associated with a CTA scan). Rather, Cleerly will focus on patients who have shown symptoms or are already at high risk for heart disease.
The CDC estimates that currently 18.2 million adults currently have coronary artery heart disease (the most common kind), and that 47 percent of Americans have one of the three most prominent risk factors for the disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or a smoking habit.
These shifts (and anticipated shifts) in guidelines suggest that a lot more of these high-risk patients may be getting CTA scans in the future, and Cleerly has been working on mining additional information from them in several large-scale clinical trials.
There are plenty of different risk factors that contribute to heart disease, but the most basic understanding is that heart attacks happen when plaques build up in the arteries, which narrows the arteries and constricts the flow of blood. Clinical trials have suggested that the types of plaques inside the body may contain information about how risky certain blockages are compared to others beyond just much of the artery they block.
A trial on 25,251 patients found that, indeed, the percentage of construction in the arteries increases the risk of heart attack. But the type of plaque in those arteries identified high-risk patients better than other measures. Patients who went on to have sudden heart attacks, for example, tended to have higher levels of fibrofatty or necrotic core plaque in their hearts.
These results do suggest that it’s worth knowing a bit more detail about plaque in the heart. Note that Min is an author of this study, but it was also conducted at 13 different medical centers.
As with all A.I based diagnostic tools the big question is: How well does it actually recognize features within a scan?
At the moment FDA documents emphasize that it is not meant to supplant a trained medical professional who can interpret the results of a scan. But tests have suggested it fares pretty well.
A June 2021 study compared Cleerly’s A.I analysis of CTA scans to that of three expert readers, and found that the A.I had a diagnostic accuracy of about 99.7 percent when evaluating patients who had severe narrowing in their arteries. Three of nine study authors hold equity in Cleerly.
With this most recent round of funding, Min says he aims to pursue more commercial partnerships and scale up to meet the existing demand. “We have sort of stayed under the radar, but we came above the radar because now I think we’re prepared to fulfill demand,” he says.
Still, the product itself will continue to be tested and refined. Cleerly is in the midst of seven performance indication studies that will evaluate just how well the software can spot the litany of plaques that can build up in the heart.
Iceland’s Frumtak Ventures raises its third, $57M, fund focusing on post-seed and Series A – TechCrunch
Frumtak Ventures, one of the few VCs in Iceland, has raised its third fund, Frumtak III. The $57 million (ISK 7b, €48m) fund will focus on post-seed and Series A startups. The firm says its typical ticket size will range from $1-5 million (€850k-4.2m).
Frumtak was a somewhat lesser-known European VC until it popped up on our radar as the backers behind the Controlant real-time supply chain monitoring startup, the technology from which was pictured beside Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, when he held up a box containing the first-ever shipment of the COVID-19 vaccine to the city. Controlant has been a key player in the global distribution cold chain associated with vaccines.
However, the fund has also backed digital banking solutions provider Meniga, digital therapeutics scaleup Sidekick Health, travel CRM and travel booking system provider Kaptio, live event and fan engagement data analytics company Activity Stream, and Data Market, which was acquired by Qlik in 2014.
Svana Gunnarsdottir, managing partner of Frumtak Ventures said: “We are proud of the accomplishments of our portfolio companies and their teams, as well as the investment decisions we made through our first two funds. We look forward to continuing our support of high-potential startups and brilliant founders with Frumtak III. We are also grateful for the confidence shown to us by our LP’s, many of whom have been with us since our first fund in 2009.”
Concurrently, Asthildur Otharsdottir has joined the firm as partner and Frumtak III’s lead investment manager. Otharsdottir was previously Frumtak’s Chairman for 6 years and has been on the board of Marel and Icelandair Group.
Aircall raises $120 million for its cloud-based phone system – TechCrunch
Aircall has raised a $120 million Series D round led by Goldman Sachs Asset Management. Following today’s funding round, the company has reached unicorn status, which means it has a valuation above $1 billion — this is the 16th French unicorn.
The startup has been building a cloud-based phone system for call centers, support lines and sales teams. It integrates with Salesforce, HubSpot, Zendesk, Slack, Intercom and other popular CRM, support and communication systems.
Aircall customers can create local numbers and set up an interactive voice response directory. The service manages the call queue for you and your agents can start answering inbound calls. Agents can transfer calls and put customers on hold. Admins can see analytics, monitor calls and see how everyone is doing.
In addition to Goldman Sachs Asset Management, existing investors DTCP, eFounders, Draper Esprit, Adam Street Partners, NextWorldCap and Gaia are also participating once again in today’s funding round.
As a cloud-based software product, Aircall works well with remote or hybrid teams. For the past year, many companies have been looking for a new phone system with various lockdowns taking place around the world. And Aircall has capitalized on this influx of customers.
When it comes to metrics, it means that signups increased by 65% in 2020. New customers include Caudalie, OpenClassrooms and Too Good To Go. Overall, Aircall has 8,500 customers. 15% of them are based in France, 35% in the U.S. and 50% in other countries.
With the new funding round, the company plans to iterate on its product with new integrations with third-party tools, and in particular industry-specific integrations. There will be new offices in London and Berlin as well as new hires in the company’s existing offices based in New York, Paris, Sydney and Madrid.
The company also plans to control a bigger chunk of its tech stack. It means that it’ll collaborate with big telecommunications companies to leverage their networks. You can also expect more product features with better transcription and better sentiment analysis.
These Forge cofounders just raised $5 million to work on a new, still-stealth investing startup – TechCrunch
Sohail Prasad and Samvit Ramadurgam are cofounders who met during Y Combinator’s 2012 summer batch and went on to cofound Forge, which helps accredited investors and institutions buy and sell private company shares and which most recently raised $150 million in new funding in May.
Forge — originally known as Equidate — has taken off as demand for private company shares has ballooned. The company, launched in 2014, has now raised $250 million altogether, including from, Deutsche Börse, Temasek, Wells Fargo, BNP Paribas, and Munich Re. It acquired rival SharesPost last year for $160 million in cash and stock. According to the company, it now has more than $14 billion in assets under custody.
Prasad and Ramadurgam — who helped hire Forge CEO Kelly Rodriques back in 2018 — say they’re excited about that success. They still own a stake in the company; they remain non-voting board members.
But after spending 18 months as co-president of Forge at the outset of Rodrigues’s tenure, they left early last year to begin tinkering on a new idea, one that Prasad says is centered around giving a much wider pool of people access to private company shares. Called D/XYZ (pronounced “Destiny”), the idea is to enable any investor — not just the 1% — to invest in startups whose services they use and love.
Unfortunately, the two aren’t offering much more of a curtain raiser than that right now, though Prasad suggests D/XYZ is neither a new fund nor a crowdfunding vehicle. It’s also not selling any tokens, we gather. Instead, Prasad hints at an entirely new product, saying the company is being cautious in how much it shares publicly because it first wants to “get the go-ahead from regulators, as well as to ensure we have a clear path to market,” he says.
In the meantime, the two have raised $5 million in seed funding from numerous founders who like the idea of making private company shares easier for their parents, friends, customers, partners, and everyone else who likes what they’re building. Among the round’s participants is Coinbase cofounder Fred Ehrsam; Plaid cofounder and CEO Zach Perret; Quora and Expo cofounder Charlie Cheever; Superhuman founder and CEO Rahul Vohra; and serial entrepreneur Siqi Chen, who most recently founded a finance software company called Runway.
As for some of the nascent startup’s most obvious competition, Prasad doesn’t sound concerned. Asked, for example, about Carta, a well-funded company that helps private companies and their employees manage and sell their stock and options and that has long talked about democratizing access to private company shares, Prasad says it remains very much a direct competitor instead to Forge given that both cater first and foremost to companies, not individuals.
And what of SPACs, the special purpose acquisition companies that are moving private companies onto the public market faster, allowing (at least in theory) more people to access high-growth companies at earlier stages? It’s a partial solution, says Prasad. But the way he sees it, “SPACs are more a reflection that people want late-stage access to private tech and their best option right now is giving money to a SPAC manager who will hopefully find a promising company to merge with in two years or less.” He calls them a “layer of abstraction.”
Of course, there’s also the question of whether Forge will be a friend of foe if whatever Prasad and Ramadurgam are building succeeds. Could their tech be sold back to their first company? Could Forge come to see them as a rival to its business?
“What we’re doing now is not competitive,” insists Prasad. “It’s more picking up the mantle where we left off. Forge is focused on trading, custody, company solutions and data. It has built what some call boring plumbing.” Now that the plumbing has been erected, it has “enabled a lot of other interesting things to be built, too.”
So is D/XYZ working with Forge in some capacity? Prasad demurs. “Potentially,” he says.
In other words, stay tuned.
Pictured above, left to right: Sohail Prasad and Samvit Ramadurgam.
Viva Republica, developer of Korean financial super app Toss, raises $410M at a $7.4B valuation – TechCrunch
Viva Republica, the Seoul-based fintech company behind Toss, a super app with more than 40 financial services, announced today it has raised $410 million at a post-money valuation of $7.4 billion. The new funding was led by Alkeon Capital, an American investment firm, and included participation from new investors like Korea Development Bank, and returning backers Altos Ventures and Greyhound Capital.
The company plans to launch Toss Bank, a neobank, in September 2021, which it describes as “the final key component” of its super app strategy. It will also use the funding to continue its expansion in overseas markets, including Vietnam, where Toss launched last year.
Viva Republica, which hit unicorn status in 2018, has now raised more than $940 million in equity funding.
Founder and chief executive officer SG Lee told TechCrunch that Toss Bank will focus on lending, and also offer savings accounts with competitive interest rates.
“A lot of challenger banks and neobanks are focusing on the banking experience, such as cards, so their main revenue source is interchange fees,” he said. “Toss is quite different because we already cover all that. We cover P2P payment, money transfer, cards and all sorts of services. So we are focusing on loans, unsecured loans, mortgages, all sorts of loans. We are going to use this vehicle to give the most competitive interest rates to users, and Toss Bank will not have a separate app, since we have super app strategy.”
One of the reasons Toss Bank is focusing on loans is because if someone has a middling credit score, many South Korean banks will only offer them loans at subprime interest rates, Lee said. Toss Bank will be able to offer better rates because its risk-scoring model leverages data from its millions of users.
Toss now claims a total of 20 million users (or more than a third of South Korea’s 51.7 population) and of that amount, 11 million are monthly active users.
The app launched as a Venmo-like peer-to-peer money transfer platform in 2015, before adding more services. Now its users can turn to the app for almost all of their financial needs.
For example, they can check their balances at different banks and credit cards on a dashboard. Merchants can use Toss Payments to send and receive online payments and manage their business finances. Other features include budgeting tools, bill payments, a credit score tracker and insurance plans. Lee said more than 20% of bank accounts and credit cards in South Korea are already registered on Toss.
As a financial super app, Toss Bank will be able to supplement information from South Korea’s main credit rating agencies with its own data about user transactions: for example, where do they spend money, how often do they spend, their cash flow and balances.
Lee added that one of South Korea’s leading credit bureaus, KCB (Korea Credit Bureau), backtested Toss’ engine with data from over two million users, and it turned out to be 150% better in terms of differential power analysis and 30% lower in delinquency rates. “This is the first engine that counts this asset-related data, and no machine-learning technologies have been used in credit evaluation” in South Korea, he said. “I think Toss Bank is really well-positioned to disrupt the whole loan market.”
In March, Toss also launched an investment service called Toss Securities, designed to make stock trading accessible to new investors who shy away from traditional brokerages. Over the past three months, it has signed up more than 3.5 million users.
Viva Republica launched Toss in Vietnam, its first international market, in 2020, and the app now has services like no-fee money transfers, debit cards and a financial dashboard through a partnership with CIMB bank. Toss currently claims more than three million monthly active users in Vietnam and says it adds more than 500,000 active users every month. Toss is planning to enter other Southeast Asian markets, too.
Toss hasn’t finalized a timeline, but it is targeting Malaysia for its next market by the end of this year. “The product that we built for Vietnam is actually quite scalable across all Southeast Asia markets, so it’s a matter of time,” Lee said. “But we want to focus on the Vietnam market because it’s scaling increasingly fast and we have to cover the growth.”
As for the possibility of holding an initial public offering or finding another exit opportunity, Lee said the company is still finalizing its plans. “As an Asian company, reaching a $7.4 billion valuation is pretty high, and I think at some point we will face not being able to do more fundraising in the private market. So we’re targeting to raise once more by the end of this year or early next year for over $300 million. That will be our last private fundraising, and then we’re thinking a timeline of three years, and we are reviewing not only for a Korean listing but also a U.S. listing.”
Oyster, an HR platform for distributed workforces, snaps up $50M on a $475M valuation – TechCrunch
The future of work is long on long-distance, and today a startup that’s built a platform to help organizations hire global talent and build out those remote workforces is announcing a round of funding on the heels of strong growth.
Oyster — which provides tools to help with hiring, onboarding, payroll, benefits and salary management services for both contractors and full-time employees working outside of an organization’s home country — has closed a Series B of $50 million.
We understand that the funding is coming in at a $475 million valuation, six times the company’s valuation when it last raised money — a $20 million round just four months ago. The company itself has seen business grow “exponentially” since then, said Tony Jamous, London-based Oyster’s CEO who co-founded the company with Jack Mardack. The company now works with 80 large businesses, he said, helping them fill knowledge worker roles.
Stripes is leading the Series B, with previous backers Emergence Capital and The Slack Fund, as well as new investor Avid Ventures, also participating.
Jamous told me back in February that the idea for building Oyster was first planted when he was working at his first startup, Nexmo (which eventually he sold to Vonage), after being faced with the challenges of hiring talent internationally, and specifically the millions the company invested to build out the infrastructure to do so itself, since every country has very specific procedures for employing people and handling all of the contractural, tax, and regulatory details related to that.
Oyster’s mission has been to make it possible for any company to hire wherever they want, without going through that pain themselves, making the “world their oyster,” so to speak.
While that in itself is a great idea that definitely fills a need for businesses, it has also been compounded by recent changing tides. Not only are more people wanting to work further afield, but at “home”, many companies — especially those who need to fill knowledge worker roles — are facing talent shortages. All of this is driving even more demand for sourcing and hiring candidates from further afield, and a culture in the workplace that it’s possible to work well even if you are not in the same physical space.
“What’s happening in the world is that there’s a talent shortage, and also there’s no need to be in the office anymore,” he said. “When it comes to tapping into the global talent pool, if you think about it, if you’re a London-based company, then the chances that your best talent is in London is less than 1%. So by tapping into the global talent pool, suddenly you’re dramatically increasing your chances, especially if you depend on talent as as a key source of your success.”
The number of startups in the market today targeting the remote working opportunity — helping companies source and hire people wherever they happen to be located — and Oyster is not the only one of them raising big money to scale. Others include Deel, which is now valued at $1.25 billion; Turing; Papaya Global (now also valued at over $1 billion); Remote, and many more.
Oyster is not — yet? — in the business of helping to source or vet potential hires, but once someone is identified and an organization wants to make an offer, Oyster provides a seamless way to handle the rest, including giving advice on whether it’s best to hire the person as a contractor or full time employee (the trend here, he said, is full-time), how to handle benefits based on the country in which the talent is based; and other aspects of remuneration, again particular to each local market. Pricing ranges from $29 per person, per month for contractors, to $399 for working with full employees, to other packages for larger deployments.
The company also has a public service mission in all this. Jamous himself originally hails from Lebanon and has a particular mission to help people from less high-profile parts of the world, and emerging countries, also get on the career ladder. In this day and age, since relocation and migration are no longer a must-do, it opens up a lot of opportunities for people that didn’t exist before. Oyster applied for, and now has B-Corp certification, which it’s using to fill out that global employment and talent mandate.
This is not just for greater good, though. There are actual talent shortages, and a recent study from Korn Ferry, cited by Oyster, found that 1.5 billion knowledge workers will be entering the workforce in the next decade from emerging economies. Building tools to help hire and manage that talent makes business sense.
“We’re thrilled to partner with Stripes for the next chapter of growth and positive impact for Oyster,” said Jack Mardack, co-Founder of Oyster, in a statement. “Investors like Stripes, Emergence, Slack Fund, Avid, and PeopleTech Partners among others, who share in our passion for the Oyster mission and vision for the future of work, give us the rocket fuel we need to change the world by unblocking access to job opportunities for everyone.”
“The transition to remote work is one of the most fundamental macro trends in business today and COVID-19 accelerated that transition by 10 years,” said Saagar Kulkarni, partner at Stripes, in a statement. “Oyster makes it seamless for any company to hire the best person for each job, removing location as a barrier. Tony and the team have built the best software product in the market and are poised to build a market-defining company. We are thrilled to join the entire Oyster team on their mission to level the playing field for the global workforce.”
A.I. drug discovery platform Insilico Medicine announces $255 million in Series C funding – TechCrunch
Insilico Medicine, an A.I-based platform for drug development and discovery announced $255 million in Series C financing on Tuesday. The massive round is reflective of a recent breakthrough for the company: proof that it’s A.I based platform can create a new target for a disease, develop a bespoke molecule to address it, and begin the clinical trial process.
It’s also yet another indicator that A.I and drug discovery continues to be especially attractive for investors.
Insilico Medicine is a Hong Kong-based company founded in 2014 around one central premise: that A.I assisted systems can identify novel drug targets for untreated diseases, assist in the development of new treatments, and eventually predict how well those treatments may perform in clinical trials. Previously, the company had raised $51.3 million in funding, according to Crunchbase.
Insilico Medicine’s aim to use A.I to drive drug development isn’t particularly new, but there is some data to suggest that the company might actually accomplish that gauntlet of discovery all the way through trial prediction. In 2020, the company identified a novel drug target for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a disease in which tiny air sacs in the lungs become scarred, which makes breathing laborious.
Two A.I-based platforms first identified 20 potential targets, narrowed it down to one, and then designed a small molecule treatment that showed promise in animal studies. The company is currently filing an investigational new drug application with the FDA and will begin human dosing this year, with aims to begin a clinical trial late this year or early next year.
The focus here isn’t on the drug, though, it’s on the process. This project condensed the process of preclinical drug development that typically takes multiple years and hundreds of millions of dollars into just 18 months, for a total cost of about $2.6 million. Still, founder Alex Zhavoronkov doesn’t think that Insilico Medicine’s strengths lie primarily in accelerating preclinical drug development or reducing costs: its main appeal is in eliminating an element of guesswork in drug discovery, he suggests.
“Currently we have 16 therapeutic assets, not just IPF,” he says. “It definitely raised some eyebrows.”
“It’s about the probability of success,” he continues. “So the probability of success of connecting the right target to the right disease with a great molecule is very, very low. The fact that we managed to do it in IPF and other diseases I can’t talk about yet – it increases confidence in A.I in general.”
Bolstered partially by the proof-of-concept developed by the IPF project and enthusiasm around A.I based drug development, Insilico Medicine attracted a long list of investors in this most recent round.
The round is led by Warburg Pincus, but also includes investment from Qiming Venture Partners, Pavilion Capital, Eight Roads Ventures, Lilly Asia Ventures, Sinovation Ventures, BOLD Capital Partners, Formic Ventures, Baidu Ventures, and new investors. Those include CPE, OrbiMed, Mirae Asset Capital, B Capital Group, Deerfield Management, Maison Capital, Lake Bleu Capital, President International Development Corporation, Sequoia Capital China and Sage Partners.
This current round was oversubscribed four-fold, according to Zhavoronkov.
A 2018 study of 63 drugs approved by the FDA between 2009 and 2018 found that the median capitalized research and development investment needed to bring a drug to market was $985 million, which also includes the cost of failed clinical trials.
Those costs and the low likelihood of getting a drug approved has initially slowed the process of drug development. R&D returns for biopharmaceuticals hit a low of 1.6 percent in 2019, and bounced back to a measly 2.5 percent in 2020 according to a 2021 Deloitte report.
Ideally, Zhavoronkov imagines an A.I-based platform trained on rich data that can cut down on the amount of failed trials. There are two major pieces of that puzzle: PandaOmics, an A.I platform that can identify those targets; and Chemistry 42, a platform that can manufacture a molecule to bind to that target.
“We have a tool, which incorporates more than 60 philosophies for target discovery,” he says.
“You are betting something that is novel, but at the same time you have some pockets of evidence that strengthen your hypothesis. That’s what our A.I does very well.”
Although the IPF project has not been fully published in a peer-reviewed journal, a similar project published in Nature Biotechnology was. In that paper, Insilco’s deep learning model was able to identify potential compounds in just 21 days.
The IPF project is a scale-up of this idea. Zhavoronkov doesn’t just want to identify molecules for known targets, he wants to find new ones and shepherd them all the way through clinical trials. And, indeed, also to continue to collect data during those clinical trials that might improve future drug discovery projects.
“So far nobody has challenged us to solve a disease in partnership” he says. “If that happens, I’ll be a very happy man.”
That said, Insilico Medicine’s approach to novel target discovery has been used piecemeal, too. For instance, Insilico Medicine has collaborated with Pfizer on novel target discovery, and Johnson and Johnson on small molecule design and done both with Taisho Pharmaceuticals. Today, the company also announced a new partnership with Teva Branded Pharmaceutical Products R&D, Inc. Teva will aim to use PandaOmics to identify new drug targets.
That said, it’s not just Insilico Medicine raking in money and partnerships. The whole field of A.I-based novel targets has been experiencing significant hype.
In 2019 Nature noted that at least 20 partnerships between major drug companies and A.I drug discovery tech companies had been reported. In 2020, investment in A.I companies pursuing drug development increased to $13.9 billion, a four-fold increase from 2019, per Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Index annual report. R&D cost
Drug discovery projects received the greatest amount of private A.I investment in 2020, a trend that can partially be attributed to the pandemic’s need for rapid drug development. However, the roots of the hype predate Covid-19.
Zhavorokov is aware that A.I based drug development is riding a bit of a hype wave right now. “Companies without substantial evidence supporting their A.I powered drug discovery claims manage to raise very quickly,” he notes.
Insilico Medicine, he says, can distinguish itself based on the quality of its investors. “Our investors don’t gamble,” he says.
But like so many other A.I-based drug discovery platforms, we’ll have to see whether they make it through the clinical trial churn.
As clinical guidelines shift, heart disease screening startup pulls in $43M Series B – TechCrunch
Lego plans to sell bricks from recycled bottles in two years
Iceland’s Frumtak Ventures raises its third, $57M, fund focusing on post-seed and Series A – TechCrunch
- News6 days ago
Hillary Clinton was not hanged at Guantanamo Bay
- News2 days ago
Man lured to home on dating app is killed in baseball bat ambush, Indiana police say
- News5 days ago
Charges dropped for hundreds of alleged looters in New York City
- Technology6 days ago
Ford acquires Electriphi as it prepares to woo EV fleet customers – TechCrunch
- Technology6 days ago
Delivery service Gopuff acquires rideOS for $115 million – TechCrunch
- News5 days ago
Girl, 5, reunited with mother in Australia
- Technology5 days ago
Tiger Global in talks to back BharatPe at $2.5 billion valuation – TechCrunch
- News4 days ago
‘I hope I’m not being abducted’