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Apple talks App Store fraud, responds to antitrust complaints; Facebook growth is slipping – TechCrunch

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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 diving into how Apple is defending its App Store fees amid the Epic lawsuit and how it responded to the other complaints raised by Spotify, Match and Tile in the Senate antitrust hearing. We’re also looking at new data that implies Facebook’s grip on social is starting to loosen, TikTok’s new features, tests and plans for e-commerce, security issues with Twitter’s Tip Jar and more.

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Apple talks App Store fraud

Apple wants developers to know what they’re paying for with those App Store commissions. The company this week announced it stopped more than $1.5 billion in potentially fraudulent transactions in 2020, preventing theft of customers’ “money, information and time,” it said. And it kept nearly a million “risky and vulnerable” apps out of customers’ hands — meaning it rejected them from the App Store following their review. It also terminated 470,000 developer accounts in 2020 and rejected an additional 205,000 developer enrollments over fraud concerns. On the customer side, Apple deactivated 244 million customer accounts due to fraudulent and abusive activity, it said, and rejected 424 million attempted account creations because they “displayed patterns consistent with fraudulent and abusive activity.”

The company, of course, didn’t just randomly decide to post these figures. Its App Store fees and their legality, of sorts, are on trial as part of Epic Games’ lawsuit. The Fortnite maker alleges Apple is behaving as a monopolist by forcing app developers to use only Apple’s own payment mechanism — and by not even allowing developers to tell their customers where else they can make purchases, such as on the developer’s website, where App Store fees wouldn’t apply.

By publishing this data, Apple is attempting to position all the stories of fraudulent apps on the App Store as those that fell through the cracks of its much larger anti-fraud operation. That is, for all the mistakenly published fraudulent apps that Apple either internally fretted over, or those that have now come to light in the press (often now thanks to developer Kosta Eleftheriou‘s ongoing efforts), there were much, much larger numbers that Apple had stopped from making it through app review.

Where Apple’s case falls apart, however, is when Eleftheriou exposes how easy it is to find those scam apps after they mistakenly get approved. On his own, he’s building a tool that finds scams across the entire App Store. The question is, why can’t a multibillion-dollar company do the same — or even do more? A system that’s able to retroactively review apps that have both high revenues and a suspicious number of five-star reviews (amid a sizable amount of one-star reviews calling the app a scam), would give Apple’s app review team a good place to start a cleanup. The company has done widespread App Store sweeps in years past to get rid of junk, after all — maybe it needs another?

Facebook’s dominance is slipping

There are some signs that Facebook’s hold on the social app ecosystem is slipping. Already getting beat by TikTok and others as the most-downloaded apps of 2020, new data from Appfigures indicates Facebook’s app has been seeing an increasingly smaller number of monthly downloads over the past 12 months.

The Facebook app and Facebook Lite saw 15 million installs per week in May 2020, which dropped to 13 million in June 2020. As of April 2021, the number is now under 11 million — a loss of 23% of downloads in around 12 months. Meanwhile, a social app gaining downloads during this time has been TikTok, which saw 52 million downloads in April 2021.

Image Credits: Appfigures

In addition, eMarketer reported this week that Gen Z users now use TikTok more than Instagram in the U.S. This year, TikTok will have 37.3 million monthly active Gen Z users compared with 33.3 million Gen Z MAUs on Instagram. Snapchat is still leading, however, with 42.0 million MAUs this year. However, TikTok is on pace to surpass Snapchat as well, with 89.7 million total MAUs by 2023, compared with Snapchat’s 98.5 million.

Platforms: Apple

Apple expands its Apple Developer Academy to Detroit and Korea. The program provides training and tools to aspiring iOS developers and designers. Apple already runs programs in more than a dozen other sites in Brazil, Indonesia and Italy.

Apple releases third developer beta and public beta of iOS 14.6 and iPadOS 14.6, and the third developer beta and public beta of watchOS 7.5 The betas include under-the-hood improvements and fixes, as well as small changes like the ability to use an email address to put AirTags and other items into Lost Mode. Apple is also now no longer signing iOS 14.5, blocking downgrades.

Apple is being hit with a class-action suit in the U.K over App Store commissions. The group alleges Apple is behaving like a monopolist over its excessive collection of fees, and is asking for damages of around £1.5 billion ($2.1 billion).

Platforms: Google

Google announced the winners of its #AndroidDevChallenge, which showcased apps built with Android’s new UI toolkit, Jetpack Compose. In later rounds, winners received a Google Pixel 5.

Augmented Reality

Pokémon GO’s developer, Niantic Labs, is rebranding its development platform as Niantic Lightship and opening to more developers as it enters private beta. The goal of Lightship will be to allow more developers to use the company’s tech that powers apps like Pokémon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite to build their own immerse, multiplayer AR games.

New game studio Sequoia Games is planning to launch a tabletop AR game to capitalize on NBA Top Shot fever. The game has elements of trading cards, NFTs and AR.

Fintech

Coinbase hit No. 1 on the U.S. App Store for the first time since 2017 on May 10. The app had broken into the top 10 in mid-April, climbing as high as No. 2 on April 14, its IPO day.

Google Pay makes its first push into the remittances market. Users in the U.S. can now send money to users in India and Singapore.

PayPal ranked No. 2 for MAUs in finance apps in Q1 2021 in the U.S., behind PayPal-owned Venmo. It was No. 1 in the U.K. and No. 4 in France. The company is preparing to make PayPal a “super app” that will enable shopping, bill pay, check cashing, investing, crypto buying and selling, and more.

Image Credits: App Annie

Social

Snap suspends anonymous Q&A apps YOLO and LMMK following a lawsuit over a teen’s death. (TW: suicide). The mother of an Oregon teen is suing Snap, YOLO and LMK after her son took his own life in 2020. The teen had received bullying messages on YOLO and LMK for months leading up to his death. The suit alleges that anonymous messaging apps facilitate bullying to such an extent that they should be considered dangerous products.

TikTok is testing a system that will allow creators to pay to promote their own videos to the For You Page, according to reports. TikTok told us the new self-serve advertising tool is not widely available, but will allow users and brands to promote their TikTok videos and foster engagement with the community more easily. The user can center their promotions around campaign objectives like video views or visits to a landing page or website.

TikTok rolls out a Green Screen Duet feature and a new way to browse videos. The Green Screen Duet feature combines two of TikTok’s most popular editing tools to allow creators to use another video from TikTok as the background in their new video. The company also confirmed the test of a new way to discover videos. Called “Topics,” these are dedicated interest-based feeds featuring the top, trending videos in a given category.

Image Credits: TikTok

Facebook has begun testing its recently announced Clubhouse rival, Live Audio Rooms. The test was spotted being used by public figures in Taiwan, reported Bloomberg.

TikTok to take on LinkedIn? The video app is launching a job service that will offer a tool for brands to recruit employees. The platform isn’t integrated into the LinkedIn app, but is rather a separate web page for posting jobs and uploading video resumes.

TikTok also added a revamped Safety Center which includes a new section for parents and guardians that teaches them how to get started on the app and use its safety features, like Family Pairing. It also offers bully education and prevention resources, and details on safety and privacy tools, among other things.

Instagram is adding a dedicated spot for your pronouns in your Instagram bio. The company said it’s only available in a few countries right now, but is rolling out to others soon.

Facebook is testing new pop-up messages in its app that tell people to read a link before they share it, following the launch of a similar feature on Twitter. The goal is to encourage people to read through the article, rather than impulsively reshare potentially inflammatory content based on headlines.

Discord’s Clubhouse competitor, Stage Channels, will begin to surface events like open mic nights, book clubs, and more through a new portal called Stage Discovery starting in June. The company is also planning to add threaded conversations and ticketed events in the future.

discord-stage-discovery

Image Credits: Discord

Nearly half of TikTok users are buying from the brands they see on the platform. TikTok is preparing to double down on that trend, Bloomberg reports, noting it saw a brand testing special shopping features on its profile. TikTok also told us it’s running tests in select regions, including Southeast Asia, that will pave the way for its broader expansion into e-commerce. (But you already know about these, right? Because we told you back in February!)

Messaging

WhatsApp will gradually stop you from being able to call or message your contacts if you don’t agree to its new privacy policy. After a few weeks, users will lose access to their chat lists. In a few more weeks, they won’t receive notifications and calls.

Twitter DMs will be easier to search. Nearly two years after the search feature arrived on iOS, Twitter rolled out the DM search bar to Android. It also said that later this year users will be able to search DMs for message content, too.

Signal’s beta (v5.11.0) adds a feature that allows users to share 4K images by tapping a button and selecting “High” for the image quality.

Streaming & Entertainment

Clubhouse for Android launched in the U.S. on Sunday, a year after the iOS debut. It then rolled out to the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Podcast streaming app Castbox was found to be streaming dozens of subscription-only shows via leaked feeds. The podcasts offer their paying subscribers private feeds to listen. But these feeds can be easily shared, then accessed by any podcast app that supports RSS.

Dating

Bumble’s shares fell sharply after its first-quarter earnings, falling below the IPO price of $43 to $38.91. Investors were spooked by Bumble’s cautious H2 guidance. Bumble reported revenue of $170.7 million in Q1 2021, up from $79.1 million in Q1 2021. Paying users increased 30% to 2.8 million.

Gaming

Roblox reported its revenue grew 140% YoY in its first earnings report since the company went public. The company reported $387 million in revenue and a loss per share of $0.46. The net loss for the quarter was $134.2 million. DAUs rose 79% YoY to 42.1 million, with users spending 9.7 billion hours on the platform, up 98% YoY.

The top five IP-based gaming titles generated $1.4 billion in the U.S. in 2020, reports Sensor Tower. The games included Pokémon GO, PUBG Mobile, Call of Duty: Mobile, Marvel Strike Force and Dragon Ball Z: Dokkan Battle. Pokémon GO led with $480 million.

Health & Fitness

Facebook shared updates on its vaccination efforts, saying more than 3.3 million people in the U.S. have used its vaccine finder since its March 11 launch. It has also given out $30 million in ad credits to governments, NGOs and other orgs to reach people with vaccine info. More than 5 million people globally have added the profile frame that shows support for vaccines, and more than 7 million people have used Instagram stickers for vaccines. Over 50% of people in the U.S. on Facebook have seen someone use the COVID-19 vaccine profile frames so far.

Uber and Lyft are giving free rides to COVID-19 vaccine sites in a deal with the White House. The free rides will last through July 4, the date when President Joe Biden wants 70% of U.S. adults to be vaccinated.

The NHS contact-tracing app had a significant impact on lowering the spread of the coronavirus in the U.K., a peer-reviewed report states. The app was “used regularly” by 16.5 million people, or roughly 28% of the U.K. population.

Apple is again seeking to dismiss an $800 million COVID app lawsuit. Apple rejected the app last year on the grounds that it didn’t come from a recognized health authority or institution.

Government & Policy

Apple’s Chief Compliance Officer Kyle Andeer responded to complaints made by Spotify, Match and Tile during the hearing held by the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust, and Consumer Rights. In a letter, Andeer reiterates Apple’s arguments, including that its commission structure is fair (e.g. it drops to 15% in year two for subscription apps; a 70/30 split is an industry standard); that the commission pays for far more than processing payments; that it doesn’t prohibit developers from communicating with customers — it only asks them to not do so inside their iOS app; and that it will provide access to UWB for Tile and others in its space, among other things.

Apple dealt some notable blows in the letter, too: it said Match had tried to implement shady pricing in Tinder that would have made an upfront six-month payment look like a subscription at one point, which is why it rejected its app update. And it refuted the idea that it used data from Tile’s retail sales inside stores to inform AirTag pricing, noting Tile “did not sell well” at Apple Stores.

Apple’s Senate Subcommittee Letter May 2021 by TechCrunch on Scribd

Facebook is ordered not to apply its controversial WhatsApp T&Cs in Germany. The Hamburg data protection agency is blocking Facebook from processing the additional WhatsApp user data it was granting itself through the T&C change.

State Attorneys General representing 44 U.S. states and territories are pressuring Facebook to walk away from its plans to launch a version of Instagram aimed at children under the age of 13, citing the potential harm to children’s privacy and development health, as well as Facebook’s track record of prioritizing growth over the well-being of users.

TikTok removed over 500,000 accounts in Italy after the country’s data protection watchdog asked the company to recheck the ages of all Italian users and block access to those under the age of 13.

Google was fined just over €100 million (~$123 million) by Italy’s antitrust watchdog for its abuse of a dominant market position related to Android Auto. Google had restricted access to the platform to electric car charging app JuicePass, made by energy company Enel X Italia.

Security & Privacy

Twitter’s new Tip Jar feature, which lets users tip others via PayPal, Venmo, Cash App and others, was quickly found to have a privacy issue. Sending PayPal payments would reveal the recipient’s home address. And even without a transaction, it would reveal a user’s email. Twitter, meanwhile, permits users to be anonymous — but PayPal would expose them.

The FTC finalized its settlement with photo app Everalbum, which misled users of its Ever app saying that it would not apply facial recognition unless users opted in. But the company did activate the feature for all users except those in three U.S. states and the E.U. It also didn’t delete users’ photos and videos when accounts were deactivated. The company must now delete the users’ content and must obtain consent before using facial recognition.

A survey from SellCell found that 73% of respondents agree with Apple’s privacy changes around App Tracking Transparency, compared with 18% who opposed it and 9% who weren’t sure. Additionally, 36% said ATT was their favorite iOS 14.5 feature.

💰 Apptopia raised $20 million to expand its competitive intelligence platform beyond mobile to include data coming from smartwatches, desktop and connected TVs.

💰 Sanlo raised $3.5 million co-led by Index Ventures and Initial Capital to help apps and games gain access to financial insights and capital. The company will ingest select data from the developer’s account related to customer acquisition costs, retention, marketing data and a subset of financial data. It will then offer insights as to when to smartly deploy capital and even offer the financing.

💰 Blind, a social networking app for verified, but pseudonymous employees, raised $37 million in Series C funding led by South Korean venture firm Mainstreet Investment. The app now has 5 million users and is building out its hiring platform, “Talent by Blind.”

💰 Snack, a “Tinder meets TikTok”-style dating app, opens up to Gen Z investors in latest round. The startup will allow Gen Z community members, influencers, creators and others to invest in the company’s upcoming $2 million SAFE, alongside other funds and angels.

💰 SightCall raised $42 million for its AR-based visual assistance platform for field service teams and their customers to carry out technical and mechanical maintenance or repairs. The core of its service is AR technology, which comes embedded in their apps or the service apps used by customers.

💰 Lili, a neobank aimed at freelancers, raised $55 million in Series B funding after seeing usage grow 1,500% in a year. The service has topped 200K users.

💰 Fair, a multilingual neobank, is launching to the public after raising $20 million earlier this year. The app targets people new to the U.S., have no credit or need access to interest-free loans.

🤝 Enterprise Apple device management company Jamf acquired zero trust security startup Wandera for $400 million.

💰 U.K. fashion app Lyst raised $85 million in a pre-IPO round at a $700 million valuation. The company now has 150 million users, and a catalog of 8 million products from 17,000 brands and retailers.

💰 Vietnamese flexible pay startup Nano raised $3 million in seed funding led by returning investors Golden Gate Ventures and Venturra Discovery. Its app, VUI, now serves more than 20,000 employees from companies like GS25, LanChi Mart and Annam Gourmet.

🤝 Korea’s Kakao buys serialized fiction app Radish as well as Tapas Media’ storytelling apps, which have more than 3 million readers, for a combined total of $950 million. The former was valued at $440 million and the latter at $510 million.

🤝 The $600 million acquisition of reading community app Wattpad by South Korean internet giant Naver has now formally closed. Wattpad will continue to operate from Toronto, Canada, with co-founder Allen Lau remaining CEO and reporting to the CEO of Naver’s Webtoon, Jun Koo Kim.

💰 Astrology app Sanctuary raised $3 million in seed funding led by BITKRAFT Ventures to grow its live, on-demand astrology, tarot and psychic readings business.

GasBuddy

Image Credits: GasBuddy app screenshot

The GasBuddy app, which has been around for over a decade, hit the No. 1 spot on the U.S. App Store for the first time ever due the Colonial pipeline attack. The app became a must-have app for finding gas stations nearby that aren’t out of fuel or diesel, following a surge of panic-buying across over a dozen U.S. states reporting outages. The company told TechCrunch it counted 313,001 total downloads on Wednesday, to give you an idea of how many users it’s been gaining as a result of the crisis.

Waitlist this: Pok Pok Playroom

Image Credits: Snowman

Snowman, the small studio behind award-winning iOS games Alto’s Adventure, Alto’s Odyssey, Skate City and others, is spinning out a new company, Pok Pok, that will focus on educational children’s entertainment. Later this month, Pok Pok will debut its first title, Pok Pok Playroom, aimed at inspiring creative thinking through play for the preschool crowd. The app will feature a range of creative “digital toys” grounded in the real world — no unicorns or fairies or talking animals here. Rather it will feature a diverse range of characters that represent the real world as it is. The subscription-based app will have no ads or in-app purchases, so kids are encouraged to play, not pressured to buy things. The company has pre-announced its May 20th launch, but users can sign up on the website now to get an email when the app arrives.



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As clinical guidelines shift, heart disease screening startup pulls in $43M Series B – TechCrunch

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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.



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Iceland’s Frumtak Ventures raises its third, $57M, fund focusing on post-seed and Series A – TechCrunch

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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.



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Aircall raises $120 million for its cloud-based phone system – TechCrunch

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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.



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These Forge cofounders just raised $5 million to work on a new, still-stealth investing startup – TechCrunch

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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.



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Viva Republica, developer of Korean financial super app Toss, raises $410M at a $7.4B valuation – TechCrunch

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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.”

Toss founder SG Lee

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.”



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Oyster, an HR platform for distributed workforces, snaps up $50M on a $475M valuation – TechCrunch

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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.”



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A.I. drug discovery platform Insilico Medicine announces $255 million in Series C funding – TechCrunch

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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. 



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