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Quris combines AI with ‘patient on a chip’ to speed drug development and reduce animal testing – TechCrunch

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The necessity of animal testing is a sad one for the process of drug discovery, but there’s seemingly no good alternative to mice, even though they’re not particularly accurate human analogues. Quris claims to have the first real option in its combination of AI with data from a “patient on a chip” that provides remarkably robust testing and automation, all at a considerably lower cost — no mouse required.

The company has raised a $9M seed round to go from pilot to production, and an all-star team of backers and advisors are a promising indicator that the approach has fundamental merit.

The basic idea makes perfect sense: build a better small-scale simulation of a human body and use it to gather data that a machine learning system can easily interpret. It’s easier said than done, of course, but no sooner did researchers say it than Quris started doing it.

The Israel-based company’s approach builds on a major study at Harvard concerning the use of so-called “organs on a chip.” These systems, still relatively new but established in the field, use a small amount of stem cell-derived tissue (“organoids”) as a test bed for drugs or treatments — providing a good idea of how, for example, a human liver might respond to a combination of substances.

What the Harvard researchers found is that by linking multiple organ-on-a-chip systems together (like liver to kidney to heart cells), you end up with a surprisingly effective simulation of the human body. There’s nothing like the real thing, of course, but this serial organoid system or “patient on a chip” could be a real alternative to mouse testing; that’s still the most common way of seeing how a treatment affects a complete organ system, despite the fact that substances that pass the mouse phase only succeed in human tests about ten percent of the time.

CEO and co-founder Isaac Bentwich said that as soon as that study came out, he and his colleagues recognized the potential and started working on what needed to be done in terms of engineering and AI in order to turn this from an experimental system to a scalable product. It’s not just a mouse replacement, either — it’s a (relatively) inexpensive method to do limited human testing without the humans, and without the uncertainty of mice.

A rendering of how the full scale automated “chip on chip” device will look.

“Say you’re a pharma company,” said Bentwich in an interview. “Do you want to wait until you’re at the brink of going to clinical testing to find out whether a molecule that looks good on paper is actually effective? You can make all the genomics discoveries you want, but it won’t get you past mice experiments, where it fails 90 percent of the time. This lets you pick the winning horse before you go to the race.”

Considering drug candidates can cost hundreds of millions to get to the clinical stage, it’s more than worth spending even a small fortune (think tens of millions) to weed out a few destined for failure. If the technique is accurate — and indications are that it is — then the risk is practically nil and it will pay for itself if even a single expensive dead end is avoided. In other words, Bentwich put it, this brings the “fail early, fail cheap” mentality of software to a domain where neither was really an option.

The Quris system uses what it calls a chip-on-chip technique, in other words multiple organoid systems (chips) in sequence (on another chip), but smaller and more efficient than state of the art lab systems by an order of magnitude. It would cost millions to run a hundred simulated humans the way Harvard’s researchers did it, but thousands to do so on Quris’s system, which uses less raw biological material, can be automated, and is accompanied by a well-trained machine learning model.

That’s the other aspect that Quris is playing up: that this unique set of data will drive a unique AI that understands and can help run and interpret the experiments. The AI is already being trained with existing and some upcoming drugs, learning what signals from the various sensors mean for the safety of the substance. That allows effective testing to be done with a handful of chips rather than, say, 500 mice.

The chips themselves aren’t all the same, either. By manipulating and selecting the stem cells and tissues carefully, different types of people and different conditions or phenotypes can be tested for. If a company has a drug that works well but causes side effects 10 percent of the time and they don’t know why, testing against different genetic predispositions or complicating factors in an automated setting may be able to find out what genetic factors lead to those side effects.

Members of the Quris team work in a lab.

Members of the Quris team work in a lab.

Since the AI is aware of and cataloguing all this, it should get quite good at telling from a relatively small number of automated tests (think dozens, not thousands, and at a cost of thousands, not millions) whether a drug is a good candidate for human testing or not. Without the AI interpreting it, the data suddenly becomes a multi-PhD type of problem. But Bentwich was quick to note that they in no way anticipate eliminating the biological side and relying only on the AI. “It’s part of our philosophical and biological understanding that the AI has to work with a biological counterpart,” he said.

Robert Langer, co-founder of Moderna, is on the scientific advisory board, and told TechCrunch in the same interview that he concurred, and expects this technique to be adopted quickly, but not necessarily by the naturally conservative larger pharma companies.

“This does seem to be a very big opportunity,” he said. “I’ve had similar ideas in other areas of chemistry, that you can use AI to make these predictions. It certainly won’t replace testing but it narrows the possibilities, and my view is it would speed things up tremendously.”

It’s nice to have someone like Langer on your side (along with Nobel laureate Aaron Ciechanover), but Bentwich said that they’re relying more on their patent portfolio and first mover advantage to get a foot in the door. An agreement with the NY Stem Cell Foundation gives them special access to that organization’s stem cell workflow.

There are two prongs to the business model. One is providing the service to a pharma company of screening their drug candidates, with payment contingent on the results proving to be accurate — for example, a drug cleared by the system makes it to a given testing milestone as predicted. The other is to work on their own drugs; right now the company has a treatment for the Autism-linked Fragile X condition that it will be taking to clinical testing next year.

Bentwich pointed out that despite the proliferation of and investment in AI-powered drug discovery, few companies can claim to have a molecule resulting from their work entering clinical trials. This isn’t because they aren’t doing what they claim, for instance identifying molecules with certain bioreactivity or a method to manufacture them efficiently, but rather because there are so many other steps in the long discovery, testing, and approval process that the chance of making it through, while higher than it once was, is still very low.

The $9M seed round “funds us very well to finish the productization of the setup that we have, making it more efficient and automated, and testing the first hundred or thousand initial drugs to train the AI,” Bentwich said. The round was led by “Dr. Judith Richter and Dr. Kobi Richter, pioneers of cardiovascular intervention therapeutics, with participation from Moshe Yanai, a disruptive data-storage technology leader, and strategic angel investors,” as the press release puts it. A distinct lack of institutional capital — draw your own conclusions there.

Bentwich’s vision for the company is part of his general vision of “completely personalized medicine.” If the cost of stem cells continues to drop (already it has gone from millions to thousands), it would open up entirely new markets.

“It’ll no longer be just doing expensive experiments for pharma companies. In 5-10 years time this may well be what hundreds of millions of people are doing. If you think about it, it’s actually kind of barbaric how we’re living now,” he said. “You go to the pharmacist and they list the possible side effects, but you don’t know for sure. What, are you the guinea pig? The answer is: yes, we’re all guinea pigs. But this is a first step away from that.”



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Smart mug maker Ember raises $23.5M, as it looks toward medical storage – TechCrunch

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Back in February, Ember’s new consumer CEO (ex-Dyson) Jim Rowan outlined for TechCrunch the company’s plans to expand beyond the temperature-controlled smart mugs that bear its name. At the time, the executive cited the cold chain – specifically medicine transport – as a potentially important category for the startup, going forward.

Seems Ember is now ready to start making good on that promise, courtesy of a new $23.5 million Series E that pushes its total funding to around $70 million. Tellingly, the round was led by Foxconn subsidiary GOLDTek, along with Singapore-based EDBI. The latter comes as Ember announces plans to open an R&D center in the Southeast Asian country, in a bid to expand its international presence.

That comes with a further expanded headcount for the firm, which says it already increased its team by 76% this year.

“Since launching Ember five years ago, our company’s mission has always been to use our expertise in precision temperature control to solve real-world problems for our customers,” founder and group CEO Clay Alexander said in a release. “To date, Ember has over 129 granted patents surrounding temperature control, data, and connectivity. This additional capital will be instrumental in bringing to life technology across our vast patent portfolio in the coming years, particularly in the healthcare and infant feeding space.”

On the cold chain front, the company alluded to the forthcoming arrival of its “first self-refrigerated, cloud-based shipping box.” Targeted at the pharmaceutical industry, the technology is looking to target a global supply chain currently subjected to unprecedented strain.



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India’s Simpl raises $40 million for its buy now, pay later service – TechCrunch

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Bangalore-based fintech startup Simpl has raised $40 million as it looks to expand its online buy now, pay later service’s offerings in the world’s second-largest market.

Valar Ventures and IA Ventures led the six-year-old startup’s Series B round. LFH Ventures and some existing investors also participated in the round, said the startup, which has raised $83 million to date.

Simpl partners with popular online brands and offers their customers the ability to make purchases without paying for them at that very moment.

Over the years, additionally, it has also developed a range of offerings including a one-time checkout feature; Bill Box, which allows customers to automate their recurring expense payouts, and splitting a bill in three parts, to build a “full-stack solution,” said Nitya Sharma, co-founder and chief executive of Simpl, in an interview with TechCrunch.

Some of Simpl’s partners include telecom network Jio Platforms, food delivery service Zomato, pharmacy 1MG, grocer BigBasket and ticketing platform MakeMyTrip.

Buy now, pay later services have existed in India for several years but have started to gain fast traction only in recent quarters as e-commerce and digital payments increase their reach in the country.

One of the factors that is making these services popular among consumers is the trust deficit that exists between them and the services with which they are engaging, said Sharma, pointing to continued popularity of cash as the payment method for e-commerce firms.

Fun fact: Uber introduced the ability to let users pay driver partners with cash for the first time in its existence months after launching in India.

With a service like Simpl, customers know that they don’t have to pay right away and have the ability to dispute transactions and quickly request a refund, he said. The startup uses its own underwriting technology to determine the customers to whom it can offer its services, he said. For brands, too, an easier checkout process means the conversion increases significantly, he added.

“We built a full-stack checkout platform that gives merchants ultimate control of the user experience and helps them build trust with consumers at checkout. Simpl is like a Khata or a Tab for online commerce. This intuitive user experience, built on the bedrock of trust, will enable a larger e-commerce market and will lead to greater adoption of mobile payments in India and the rest of the world,” he said.

The startup said it has grown its monthly active merchants and active user base by 10 times in the past 18 months. Over 7,000 brands now use Simpl, the startup said. It now plans to work on further improving the consumer and merchants experience on its platform and also expand to new areas including bringing Simpl to offline neighborhood stores and building a loyalty program, said Sharma.

“India’s e-commerce market is at an inflection point and we believe Simpl’s solution is a key enabler in accelerating adoption of digital payments in e-commerce” said James Fitzgerald, partner at Valar Ventures, in a statement. “It significantly improves consumer experience, which is why it is quickly becoming a preferred partner for merchants. The team has shown great execution and we are excited to join their mission of democratizing e-commerce for all merchants big and small.”

Pay later fintech players today finance loans worth $500 million each year, analysts at Bernstein wrote in a recent note to clients. They expect the figure to balloon to $26 billion by 2025.



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Brazilian workspace-on-demand marketplace BeerOrCoffee snags $10M – TechCrunch

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BeerOrCoffee, a São Paulo-based flexible office marketplace, has raised $10 million in a Series A round led by Kaszek.

Valor Capital Group also participated in the round, which brings BeerOrCoffee’s total raised to about $13 million since its 2017 inception. Kees Koolen, the founder of Booking.com, led the startup’s seed round in 2018.

BeerOrCoffee describes itself as a B2B marketplace of workspaces on demand that aims to provide hybrid work solutions for companies. It offers over 1,100 shared workspaces in 160 Brazilian cities on its marketplace, including WeWork, Selina and Impact Hub

The company’s flagship offering, OfficePass, works as a corporate benefit. It is an office subscription that gives employees access to a distributed network of office spaces, where the employer only pays for the actual use of the space through a payment as a service (PaaS) model. People can choose the closest space and book to use shared spaces, meeting rooms or private offices, according to Roberta Vasconcellos, CEO and co-founder of BeerOrCoffee. 

For example, customer iFood offers the OfficePass benefit to its more than 4,500 employees and uses a total of 240 different spaces across 67 cities throughout Brazil. Among the startup’s other clients are Itaú, Banco Inter, Creditas, QuintoAndar, Stellantis, Sodexo, MRV, Mapfre and Movile. 

“On one hand we improve people’s work/life balance and productivity and on the other, we optimize companies’ costs and time with an as a service model and centralize all their workspace management in a single dashboard,” she told TechCrunch.

The pandemic, naturally, fueled the company’s growth as the world saw an increasingly distributed workforce. 

“We had a great leap in demand for our service,”  Vasconcellos said. “We’re helping companies make the best use of workspaces and giving their employees the flexibility to work however they want.”

That demand continues. In the third quarter of 2021, BeerOrCoffee said it saw the number of bookings made on its marketplace grow 243% compared to the previous quarter. It declined to reveal hard revenue figures, though.

Image Credits: BeerOrCoffee

In addition to OfficePass, the startup also offers private “hubs,” or office spaces, with flexible terms. The benefit to companies, it says, is that they don’t need to invest in infrastructure such as furniture, internet and cleaning. 

BeerOrCoffee practices what it preaches. Its team (currently made up of 82 people) has operated in over five countries since day one, noted Vasconcellos. While it is currently focused on Brazil only, it eventually plans to expand across Latin America.

Hernan Kazah, managing partner and co-founder of Kaszek, says his firm has “always been very impressed by the high-quality network of offices BeerOrCoffee was building and the great feedback they were getting” from some of its portfolio companies.

The pandemic convinced the firm that the trend towards a more flexible working model was here to stay so Kaszek reached out to Vasconcellos with interest in investing.

It’s important to point out that BeerOrCoffee does not operate as a direct opponent with similar offerings such as coworking networks, noted Kazah.

“The co-working networks are partners and BeerOrCoffee is an asset light company,” he said. “As a marketplace, it does not own or directly operate its supply, but rather offer the product and technology necessary for its clients to find and manage their workspace and real estate solutions. This also allows them to bring new demand to the workspaces, providing a better and the cheapest channel of customer acquisition for them and allowing them to add value in their offering by being plugged into BeerOrCoffee’s network.”



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GajiGesa, a fintech for unbanked Indonesian workers, lands $6.6M pre-Series A – TechCrunch

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GajiGesa’s earned wage access feature user flow

GajiGesa, a fintech company focused on services for Indonesian workers, announced today that it has raised $6.6 million USD in pre-Series A funding. The round was led by MassMutual Ventures, with participation from January Capital, European earned wage access company Wagestream (EWA is GajiGesa’s flagship feature), Bunda Group, Smile Group, Oliver Jung, Northstar Group partners including Patrick Walujo, Nipun Mehra (the CEO of Ula) and Noah Pepper (Stripe’s head of APAC). Returning investors included defy.vc, Quest Ventures, GK Plug and Play and Next Billion Ventures.

For a more in-depth look at GajiGesa, take a look at TechCrunch’s profile of the company from February, when it raised its $2.5 million seed round.

Agrawal and Malinowska said in a press release that GajiGesa’s team has doubled in size over the past six months to over 50, and the startup plans to use its latest funding on product development, expansion across Indonesia and entering new markets in Southeast Asia.

The startup is aimed at unbanked workers and focuses on earned wage access, which lets people withdraw their wages immediately instead of waiting for monthly paychecks, because the founders—husband-and-wife team Vidit Agrawal and Martyna Malinowska—said that gives workers much more liquidity and protects them from predatory lenders.

GajiGesa now works with more than 120 companies in a wide range of sectors, including factories, plantations, manufacturing, retail, restaurants, hospitals and tech companies. Based on a survey of its clients, GajiGesa claims that over 80% of their employees have stopped using informal lenders because of its EWA feature and 40% are using other financial services through the platform like bill payments and data recharge.

The company offers an employer app called GajiTim, which it claims is Southeast Asia’s “first and largest integrated employee management solution.” By that, it means that employers can manage a wide array of workforce administrative tasks, including part-time and full-time employees and gig workers. The company says GajiTim currently has more than 200,000 users.

In a statement about the investment, MassMutual Ventures managing director Anvesh Ramineni said, “[GajiGesa’s] integrated platform combines customer-centric product design and world class technology infrastructure to ensure they are uniquely positioned to empower an chronically underserved market and help expand financial resilience for millions across Southeast Asia.



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Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen will talk Section 230 reform with Congress this week – TechCrunch

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Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen will go before Congress again this week, this time offering her unique perspective on the company’s moderation and policy failures as they relate to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the key legal shield that protects online platforms from liability for the user-created content they host.

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology will hold the hearing, titled “Holding Big Tech Accountable: Targeted Reforms to Tech’s Legal Immunity,” this Wednesday, December 1 at 10:30 AM ET. Color of Change President Rashad Robinson and Common Sense Media CEO James Steyer will also testify on Wednesday.

The hearing is the latest Section 230-focused discussion from the House committee. In March, the chief executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter went before lawmakers to defend the measures they’ve taken to fight misinformation and disinformation — two major areas of concern that have inspired Democratic lawmakers to reexamine tech’s longstanding liability shield.

In an October Senate hearing, Haugen advocated for changes to Section 230 that would hold platforms accountable for the content that they promote algorithmically. While Haugen isn’t an expert on legislative solutions to some of social media’s current ills, given her time with Facebook’s since-dismantled civic integrity team, she’s uniquely positioned to give lawmakers insight into some of the most dangerous societal outcomes of algorithmically amplified content.

“User-generated content is something companies have less control over. But they have 100% control over their algorithms,” Haugen said. “Facebook should not get a free pass on choices it makes to prioritize growth, virality and reactiveness over public safety.”

Facebook’s former News Feed lead and current Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri is also set to testify before the Senate for the first time next week, addressing revelations in leaked documents that the company knows its business takes a toll on the mental health of some of its youngest, most vulnerable users.

In its announcement, the House Energy and Commerce committee cited four tech reform bills that Congress is currently mulling: the Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act of 2021, the SAFE TECH Act, the Civil Rights Modernization Act of 2021 and the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act. The first bill, proposed by the committee holding Wednesday’s hearing, would lift Section 230’s liability protections in cases when a platform “knowingly or recklessly” recommends harmful content using algorithms.



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Co-working and EdTech company Talent Garden acquires Hyper Island to scale online courses globally – TechCrunch

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Talent Garden is a sort of ‘European-WeWork-meets-General-Assembly’ in that its business model is a combination of co-working spaces (in places like Italy, Austria, Romania, among others) plus online/offline digital courses. It’s also a post Series B company (its last round was $73.5 million), having raised from investors such as 500 Startups and Social Capital. It’s now upping its game further with the acquisition of a majority (54%) stake in Hyper Island a place some Europeans regard as the continent’s ‘Digital Harvard University’.

Hyper Island emerged in the 90s as a school of excellence in the emerging world of UX and games design and has gone on to produce an enormous range of talent, which is routinely hoovered-up by the biggest tech players.

The combination of the two will no doubt expand both’ ability to scale their online courses (and offline, where applicable).

For instance, Talent Garden offers a myriad of business training courses for the digital world, processing around 20,000 students a year. Likewise, Hyper Island has traditionally been best known for its online education, but with Talent Garden, that inline component will no-doubt be expanded. Talent Garden also has 20 campuses across Europe.

Talent Garden Co-founder Rasa Strumskyte told me: “Over 60% of our courses are online and the rest on campus and we will work to expand existing courses to more markets and create new ones, especially online.”

It’s estimated that some 97 million new digital jobs will emerge in the next few years, with the global digital education market estimated to grow from $8.4 billion in 2020 to $33.2 billion by 2025, making it one of the fastest-growing sectors of the post-pandemic era.

Hyper Island has a global presence operating in Europe, Asia-Pacific, North and South America through physical establishments in the UK, Singapore, USA and Brazil.

The combined entity says it will have expected revenues of €50 million in 2022, 20,000 professionals trained a year, 5,000 students placed on the job market “with a 98% placement rate and more than 4,500 start-ups and digital innovators as teachers and community members.”

Davide Dattoli, Talent Garden’s Co-Founder and Executive President said: “Through joining forces with Hyper Island, our project is making a new leap forward. In such an important but fragmented market, we are readier as ever before to act as aggregators and game-changers. We will expand our training offering for the benefit of many current and future workers who are living through this time of digital transition.”

Irene Boni, new CEO of Talent Garden said: “Talent Garden has an opportunity to grow considerably in the in the digital education market in Europe, also by training individuals as well as large companies that want to take advantage of the benefits of digitization — which is certainly a technological issue, but most of all a question of human capital.”

Before joining Talent Garden, Boni had been working for the past ten years in the unicorn Yoox Net a Porter (today part of Richemont luxury group) as CoGeneral Manager. Before that she worked at McKinsey.

Fredrik Mansson, Chairman of Hyper Island said: “Through the alliance with Talent Garden we will jointly get a substantial increase in the resources to accelerate both companies growth and impact in the world.”



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Second-hand car auction platform Motorway hits Unicorn status after $190M raise with Index, ICONIQ – TechCrunch

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It was only in June that Motorway – a U.K. platform on which professional car dealers can bid in an auction for privately owned cars for sale – raised $67.7 million in a Series B round. It’s now raised a $190m Series C funding round led by Index Ventures and ICONIQ Growth, a leading Silicon Valley technology growth investment firm. Existing investors Latitude, Unbound, and BMW i Ventures also participated in the round. The startup is now claiming a valuation of over $1bn.

Part of the reason is the impact of the COVID pandemic on supply chains. Second-hand cars have boomed in price because new cars are being made in smaller numbers due to the lack of supply of computer chips and other essential equipment from China.

On Motorway consumers can sell their car via a smartphone app that also uses computer vision to assess the state of the car. The cars are then bid on by professional car dealers in a daily online auction, with the car collected for free by the winning dealer within 24 hours. Given it’s also a “contactless” process, dealers and car owners increasingly seeking to buy and sell cars online.

Motorway says it now has a network of 4,000 professional car dealers using the platform and claims it has booked a 300% uplift in third-quarter sales to $411 million compared with $105 million last year. Some 100,000 used cars have been sold on Motorway since launch, with over 8,000 cars currently being sold a month, with over $2bn projected completed sales over the next year.

Motorway is also announcing the appointment of James Wilson, former Director of Marketplace Fulfillment for Amazon UK, as Chief Operating Officer.

Tom Leathes, CEO of Motorway, said: “8,000 car sales a month is still less than one percent of UK used car sales – so there’s a massive opportunity ahead.”

Danny Rimer, Partner at Index Ventures, said: “Since joining the board, following our initial investment in June, I have experienced first-hand just how fast Motorway is growing and how agile the team is in scaling the business to support this incredible growth.”

Yoonkee Sull, Partner at ICONIQ Growth said: “The used car market’s move online is only accelerating and we believe Motorway is delivering the best consumer experience and the most differentiated supply to dealers in the UK.”

This latest investment brings Motorway’s all-time raise to $273m since it was founded by Leathes, Harry Jones and Alex Buttle in 2017.

In a call with me Leathes added: “There’s no connection with BMW particularly, but they are automotive specialists so they bring quite a lot of knowledge to the white broader market and trends that are happening. They were also part of the B along with Latitude and Unbound.”

“What motorway does differently to a lot of competitors is that we are we’re not a retailer. We don’t own inventory. We’re a marketplace. And so that that allows us to scale much more quickly,” he said.



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