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Sending money from one country to another — either because you are a business paying someone for a service, or a family member working abroad and sending money back home, or something in between — is a huge business, worth some $ 700 million annually. Today, a London startup called Currencycloud, which has built a set of remittance APIs that let any financial business integrate money transfer services into its platform, is announcing that it has raised $ 80 million to tap into that opportunity, and to help take on the Western Unions of the world.

To date, over $ 50 billion has been transferred between some 180 countries using Currencycloud’s 85 APIs, which cover areas like inbound money collection (helping clients get paid), foreign exchange, outgoing payments, and digital wallet services managing multiple currencies and more.

Mike Laven, Currencycloud’s American CEO and founder, tells TechCrunch that the company has some 350 companies using its APIs as of the end of 2019, and it employs 230 people, but you are almost certainly never going to see it, even if you’ve used it.

“No one is doing what we’re doing in terms of the model we have,” Laven said, referring to what he describes as an “embedded model” where transfer is seamlessly embedded into its customers’ platform and workflow. “I’m not competing with our customers. My brand is invisible. We think we’re still the only one that has that kind of solution.”

This round, a Series E, has a number of heavy hitters among the startup’s new strategic investors. They include Visa, the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation, French bank BNP Paribas, the SBI Group (the Japanese giant that was once a part, but now independent, of SoftBank) and Thailand’s Siam Commercial Bank. With that, Laven said that Asia will be a big focus for Currencycloud in the year ahead, with a new office in Singapore to tap into providing money-transfer APIs to businesses in the region.

At least one of its newest investors, Visa, is also integrating Currencycloud’s services into its own. Existing investors Sapphire Ventures, Notion Capital, GV (formerly known as Google Ventures, which led its Series D), Accomplice, and Anthemis are also participating.

As for the valuation, Laven said it was not being disclosed but he confirmed that the pre-money amount was higher than when it previously raised.

For some context, we first reported the news that Currencycloud was raising last summer, and at the time, when it had closed about $ 40 million of the funding, PitchBook estimated the pre-money valuation at $ 114 million and post-money at $ 184 million. That would imply that this Series E puts the London-based startup’s valuation at around $ 220 million (and took somewhat longer to close than originally planned). To date, Currencycloud has raised $ 140 million.

The startup has been around since 2012 and was early to identify the opportunity in the money-transfer market.

The trend of globalisation in the world economy has led to a sharp rise in the pace of remittances, helped by the expansion of the internet and smartphone usage — which has spelled opportunity for companies leveraging the latter to enter the market. And in terms of the companies providing money-transfer services, while there are some notable legacy names like Western Union and Moneygram, by and large it’s a fragmented market — leaving an opportunity for many more hopefuls to get involved.

But on top of all that, the system is largely expensive and inefficient — meaning there was a lucrative opportunity for a company to come along and provide an easy way to plug into the rails — say, by way of APIs — to build these services (not unlike what companies like Adyen or Stripe have done for e-commerce payments).

All roads, effectively, led to Currencycloud, and it’s seen business expand. To date, Currencycloud says that it has processed more than $ 50 billion in cross-border payments, with the proliferation of so-called neobanks (or challenger banks, going head-to-head with traditional institutions in the business of deposits and lending using all-digital, mobile-first platforms) helping it along. Customers include Monzo, Moneze, Starling, Revolut and Dwolla — alongside the likes of bigger players like Visa now also getting involved.

“I’m delighted to be joining the board of such an exciting technology company,” added Colleen Ostrowski, SVP and Treasurer at Visa, in a statement. “Currencycloud is re-shaping the way that the platforms of the future are moving money around the world, and there is huge potential for the company to drive further innovation in the cross-border payments industry.” 


TechCrunch

We’re down in Sunnyvale, CA today, where Alchemist Accelerator is hosting a demo day for its most recent batch of companies. This is the 23rd class to graduate from Alchemist, with notable alums including LaunchDarkly, MightyHive, Matternet, and Rigetti Computing. As an enterprise accelerator, Alchemist focuses on companies that make their money from other businesses, rather than consumers.

21 companies presented in all, each getting five minutes to explain their mission to a room full of investors, media, and other founders.

Here are our notes on all 21 companies, in the order in which they presented:

i-50: Uses AI to monitor human actions on production lines, using computer vision to look for errors or abnormalities along the way. Founder Albert Kao says that 68% of manufacturing issues are caused by human error. The company currently has 3 paid pilots, totalling $ 190k in contracts.

Perimeter: A data visualization platform for firefighters and other first responders, allowing them to more quickly input and share information (such as how a fire is spreading) with each other and the public. Projecting $ 1.7M in revenue within 18 months.

Einsite: Computer vision-based analytics for mining and construction. Sensors and cameras are mounted on heavy machines (like dump trucks and excavators). Footage is analyzed in the cloud, with the data ultimately presented to job site managers to help monitor progress and identify issues. Founder Anirudh Reddy says the company will have $ 1.2M in bookings and be up and running on 2100 machines this year.

Mall IQ: A location-based marketing/analytics SDK for retail stores and malls to tie into their apps. Co-founder Batu Sat says they’ve built an “accurate and scalable” method of determining a customer’s indoor position without GPS or additional hardware like Bluetooth beacons.

Ipsum Analytics: Machine learning system meant to predict the outcome of a company’s ongoing legal cases by analyzing the relevant historical cases of a given jurisdiction, judge, etc. First target customer is hedge funds, helping them project how legal outcomes will impact the market.

Vincere Health: Works with insurance companies to pay people to stop smoking. They’ve built an app with companion breathalyzer hardware; each time a user checks in with the breathalyzer to prove they’re smoking less, the user gets paid. They’ve raised $ 400k so far.

Harmonize: A chat bot system for automating HR tasks, built to work with existing platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams. An employee could, for example, message the bot to request time off — the request is automatically forwarded to their manager, presenting them with one-click approve/deny buttons which handle everything behind the scenes. The company says it currently has 400 paying customers and is seeing $ 500k in ARR, projecting $ 2M ARR in 2020.

Coreshell Technologies: Working on a coating for lithium-Ion batteries which the company says makes them 25% cheaper and 50% faster to produce. The company’s co-founder says they have 11 patents filed, with 2 paid agreements signed and 12 more in the pipeline.

in3D: An SDK for 3D body scanning via smartphone, meant to help apps do things like gather body measurements for custom clothing, allow for virtual clothing try-ons, or create accurate digital avatars for games.

Domatic: “Intelligent power” for new building construction. Pushes both data and low-voltage power over a single “Class 2” wire , making it easier/cheaper for builders to make a building “smart”. Co-founder Jim Baldwin helped build Firewire at Apple, and co-founder Gladys Wong was previously a hardware engineer at Cisco.

MeToo Kit: a kit meant to allow victims of sexual assault or rape to gather evidence through an at-home, self-administered process. Co-founder Madison Campbell says that they’ve seen 100k kits ordered by universities, corporations, non-profits, and military organizations. The company garnered significant controversy in September of 2019 after multiple states issued cease-and-desist letters, with Michigan’s Attorney General arguing that such a kit would not be admissible in court. Campbell told Buzzfeed last year that she would “never stop fighting” for the concept.

AiChemist Metal: Building a thin, lightweight battery made of copper and cellulose “nanofibers”. Co-founder Sergey Lopatin says the company’s solution is 2-3x lighter, stronger, and cheaper than alternatives, and that the company is projecting profitability in 2021. Focusing first on batteries for robotics, flexible displays, and electric vehicles.

Delightree: A task management system for franchises, meant to help owners create and audit to-dos across locations. Monitors online customer reviews, automatically generating potential tasks accordingly. In pilot tests with 3 brands with 16 brands on a waitlist, which the company says translates to about $ 400k in potential ARR.

DigiFabster: A ML-powered “smart quoting” tool for manufacturing shops doing things like CNC machining to make custom parts and components. Currently working with 125 customers, they’re seeing $ 500k in ARR.

NachoNacho: Helps small/medium businesses monitor and manage software subscriptions their employees sign up for. Issues virtual credit cards which small businesses use to sign up for services; you can place budgets on each card, cancel cards, and quickly determine where your money is going. Launched 9 months ago, NachoNacho says it’s currently working with over 1600 businesses.

Zapiens: a virtual assistant-style tool for sharing knowledge within a company, tied into tools like Slack/Salesforce/Microsoft 365. Answers employee questions, or uses its understanding of each employee’s expertise to find someone within the company who can answer the question.

Onebrief: A tool aiming to make military planning more efficient. Co-founder/Army officer Grant Demaree says that much of the military’s planning is buried in Word/Powerpoint documents, with inefficiencies leading to ballooning team sizes. By modernizing the planning approach with a focus on visualization, automation and data re-usability, he says planning teams could be smaller yet more agile.

Perceive: Spatial analytics for retail stores. Builds a sensor that hooks into existing in-store lighting wiring to create a 3D map of stores, analyzing customer movement/behavior (without face recognition or WiFi/beacon tracking) to identify weak spots in store layout or staffing.

Acoustic Wells: IoT devices for monitoring and controlling production from oil fields. Analyzes sound from pipes “ten thousand feet underground” to regulate how a machine is running, optimizing production while minimizing waste. Charges monthly fee per oil well. Currently has letters of intent to roll out their solution in over 1,000 wells.

SocialGlass: A marketplace for government procurement. Lets governments buy goods/services valued under $ 10,000 without going through a bidding process, with SocialGlass guaranteeing they’ve found the cheapest price. Currently working with 50+ suppliers offering 10,000 SKUs.

Applied Particle Technology: Continuous, realtime worker health/safety tracking for industrial environments. Working on wireless, wearable monitors that stream environmental data to identify potential exposure risks. Focusing first on mining and metals industries, later moving into construction, firefighting, and utilities environments.


TechCrunch

Memphis Meats, a developer of technologies to manufacture meat, seafood and poultry from animal cells, has raised $ 161 million in financing from investors including Softbank Group, Norwest and Temasek, the investment fund backed by the government of Singapore.

The investment brings the company’s total financing to $ 180 million. Previous investors include individual and institutional investors like Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Threshold Ventures, Cargill, Tyson Foods, Finistere, Future Ventures, Kimbal Musk, Fifty Years and CPT Capital.

Other companies including Future Meat Technologies, Aleph Farms, Higher Steaks, Mosa Meat and Meatable are pursuing meat grown from cell cultures as a replacement for animal husbandry, whose environmental impact is a large contributor to deforestation and climate change around the world.

Innovations in computational biology, bio-engineering and materials science are creating new opportunities for companies to develop and commercialize technologies that could replace traditional farming with new ways to produce foods that have a much lower carbon footprint and bring about an age of superabundance, according to investors.

The race is on to see who will be the first to market with a product.

“For the entire industry, an investment of this size strengthens confidence that this technology is here today rather than some far-off future endeavor. Once there is a “proof of concept” for cultivated meat — a commercially available product at a reasonable price point — this should accelerate interest and investment in the industry,” said Bruce Friedrich, the executive director of the Good Food Institute, in an email. “This is still an industry that has sprung up almost overnight and it’s important to keep a sense of perspective here. While the idea of cultivated meat has been percolating for close to a century, the very first prototype was only produced six years ago.”


TechCrunch

The Catalyst Fund has gained $ 15 million in new support from JP Morgan and UK Aid and will back 30 fintech startups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next three years.

The Boston based accelerator provides mentorship and non-equity funding to early-stage tech ventures focused on driving financial inclusion in emerging and frontier markets.

That means connecting people who may not have access to basic financial services — like a bank account, credit or lending options — to those products.

Catalyst Fund will choose an annual cohort of 10 fintech startups in five designated countries: Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India and Mexico. Those selected will gain grant-funds and go through a six-month accelerator program. The details of that and how to apply are found here.

“We’re offering grants of up to $ 100,000 to early-stage companies, plus venture building support…and really…putting these companies on a path to product market fit,” Catalyst Fund Director Maelis Carraro told TechCrunch.

Program participants gain exposure to the fund’s investor networks and investor advisory committee, that include Accion and 500 Startups. With the $ 15 million Catalyst Fund will also make some additions to its network of global partners that support the accelerator program. Names will be forthcoming, but Carraro, was able to disclose that India’s Yes Bank and University of Cambridge are among them.

Catalyst fund has already accelerated 25 startups through its program. Companies, such as African payments venture ChipperCash and SokoWatch — an East African B2B e-commerce startup for informal retailers — have gone on to raise seven-figure rounds and expand to new markets.

Those are kinds of business moves Catalyst Fund aims to spur with its program. The accelerator was founded in 2016, backed by JP Morgan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Catalyst Fund is now supported and managed by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and global tech consulting firm BFA.

African fintech startups have dominated the accelerator’s startups, comprising 56% of the portfolio into 2019.

That trend continued with Catalyst Fund’s most recent cohort, where five of six fintech ventures — Pesakit, Kwara, Cowrywise, Meerkat and Spoon — are African and one, agtech credit startup Farmart, operates in India.

The draw to Africa is because the continent demonstrates some of the greatest need for Catalyst Fund’s financial inclusion mission.

By several estimates, Africa is home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population and has a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

Collectively, these numbers have led to the bulk of Africa’s VC funding going to thousands of fintech startups attempting to scale finance solutions on the continent.

Digital finance in Africa has also caught the attention of notable outside names. Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey recently took an interest in Africa’s cryptocurrency potential and Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs has invested in fintech related startups on the continent.

This lends to the question of JP Morgan’s interests vis-a-vis Catalyst Fund and Africa’s financial sector.

For now, JP Morgan doesn’t have plans to invest directly in Africa startups and is taking a long-view in its support of the accelerator, according to Colleen Briggs — JP Morgan’s Head of Community Innovation

“We find financial health and financial inclusion is a…cornerstone for inclusive growth…For us if you care about a stable economy, you have to start with financial inclusion,” said Briggs, who also oversees the Catalyst Fund.

This take aligns with JP Morgan’s 2019 announcement of a $ 125 million, philanthropic, five-year global commitment to improve financial health in the U.S. and globally.

More recently, JP Morgan Chase posted some of the strongest financial results on Wall Street, with Q4 profits of $ 2.9 billion. It’ll be worth following if the company shifts any of its income-generating prowess to business and venture funding activities in Catalyst Fund markets like Nigeria, India and Mexico.


TechCrunch

NASA and partners Boeing and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) are gearing up for a crucial milestone moment on Friday: The ‘Orbital Flight Test’ (OFT) of the Boeing Starliner CST-100 Crew Capsule. The capsule, a spacecraft designed to carry astronauts on board from U.S. soil for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle program, will be launched on an Atlas V rocket provided by ULA – without anyone on board this time, but in a mission that is one of the last key steps before astronauts take their first ride.

What’s happening

On Friday, pending weather and everything else cooperates, ULA’s Atlas V rocket will carry the Boeing Starliner CST-100 crew capsule to the International Space Station (ISS). This launch will be essentially a full run-through of the forthcoming Crew Flight Test (CFT), the first flight of the Boeing crewed spacecraft with actual astronauts on board.

While this is one key component before that CFT mission takes place, it’s not the only one remaining: Starliner must still undergo three remaining reliability tests for its parachute system, on top of the data gained about this crucial component of the overall launcher, before the spacecraft is certified for regular service transporting astronauts to and from the ISS in a non-testing capacity.

During the mission, the Starliner will ascend atop the Atlas V rocket to a heigh of 98 nautical miles, at which point it’ll separate from the rocket and continue under its own power for the remainder of the trip to orbit, where it’ll rendez-vous with the ISS for docking. Astronauts on board the ISS will assist with docking using the station’s robotic arm, and then unload around 600 lbs of equipment and supplies that’s being carried aboard the crew capsule as a secondary mission, before the capsule undocks and returns to Earth.

When and where it’s going down

The launch is scheduled for Friday morning, December 20th at 6:36 AM EST (3:36 AM PST). It’ll launch from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and currently weather conditions are looking 80% favorable based on current forecasts, which means that as it stands there’s a good chance weather will be within acceptable limits for take-off.

The launch window is instantaneous, meaning that it only open for that specific time and if anything prevents the launch from happening, there are backup dates potentially available either December 21 and 23 – as well as options on either Christmas Day or a few days following. After launch, the Starliner will dock with the station on the morning of December 21, and then spend around a week at the ISS, before undocking on December 28 for its return trip. The journey back is as important as the trip to the ISS in terms of proving out the spacecraft’s proper functioning.

What happens after that

Should everything go to plan, Boeing’s Starliner CST-100 will be much closer to its ultimate goal of transporting people to space. As mentioned above, the parachute system still requires some additional testing for certification purposes, but the crewed CFT test launch should happen sometime in “early 2020” according to Boeing provided everything meets their strict requirements in terms of safety and other readiness standards.

On Wednesday, ULA rolled out its mobile launch platform and the Atlas V rocket to the launchpad in preparation for Friday’s mission. The teams will now conduct pre-launch preparations leading up to Friday, a process it already conducted in dress rehearsal mode covering everything right up to the actual ignition two weeks ago.

We’ll have live coverage of the launch right here on TechCrunch as it happens, and a summary of how the launch went immediately following, so check back Friday for updates.


TechCrunch

China has reportedly ordered all foreign PC hardware and operating systems to be replaced in the next three years, intensifying an ongoing tech war. The country has attempted this sort of thing before halfheartedly, but this is the most serious effort yet to isolate itself from the influence of the western technology sector.

The order came from high up in the Chinese government earlier this year, according to a Financial Times report citing Chinese tech analysts. The goal is not simply to replace American and European software and operating systems with Chinese equivalents, but the hardware they run on as well.

China has previously ordered purges of western software, but they were more limited or related to certain security issues; there were efforts five years ago to wean the country off Android and Windows, but ultimately they proved abortive.

This time could very easily be different. The relationship between the U.S. and China has become strained, to say the least, especially in the world of tech, where the two countries have shifted from earnest rivals to real adversaries. The U.S. has recently moved to ban some large Chinese hardware providers, such as ZTE and Huawei, from use in American infrastructure (Huawei has called the ban “unconstitutional”), and miscellaneous other policy decisions have widened the rift.

The apparently decisive nature of the order, then, should come as no surprise. The goal is reportedly to replace 30 percent of the computers and software by the end of 2020, an additional 50 percent in 2021, and the remaining 20 percent in 2022.

The three year “3-5-2” plan is ambitious to say the least. Tens of millions of devices will need to be replaced, but it isn’t as simple as trading out HP machines for Chinese-manufactured ones. The components and software must be Chinese as well, so Intel and AMD processors are out, as are Nvidia GPUs, ARM architectures, Sony image processors, and so on.

This won’t be quite the shock it seems, however, as many Chinese companies have been preparing for this eventuality for years. China has made its desire to establish independence from U.S. companies especially quite clear and many state-backed enterprises have been unable to use U.S. suppliers for some time.

Even so, Chinese equivalents to products like Windows and Android have nowhere near the level of maturity and developer support necessary to swap them out with no consequences. And the ban may hamstring other major efforts like the country’s push to dominate the AI ecosystem. If Chinese government-backed researchers are unable to use the same tools as their academic and private counterparts elsewhere in the world, their results will almost certainly suffer.

The specifics of the plan are still confidential but will likely trickle out as they begin to be enforced. But this is likely to be a major driver of industry dynamics for several years as suppliers, developers, and manufacturers all learn to navigate the divergent markets.


TechCrunch

Global retail e-commerce is expected to be a $ 25 trillion business this year, and today one of the companies that has built a set of tools to help larger enterprises to sell to consumers online has raised a large growth round to meet that demand. Commercetools, a German startup that provides a set of APIs that power e-commerce sales and related functions for large businesses, has raised $ 145 million (€130 million) in a growth round of funding led by Insight Partners, at a valuation that we understand from a close source is around $ 300 million.

The funding comes at the same time that commercetools is getting spun out by REWE, a German retail and tourist services giant that acquired the startup in 2015 for an undisclosed amount.

The route the company took after that is a not-totally-uncommon one for tech startups acquired by non-tech companies: commercetools had been acquired by REWE as part of a strategy to take some of its own e-commerce tech in-house, but commercetools had always continued to work with outside clients and has been growing at about 110% annually, CEO and co-founder Dirk Hoerig said in an interview.

Current companies include Audi, Bang & Olufsen, Carhartt, Yamaha and some very big names in retail products and services (including major telco/media brands in the USA that you will definitely know). Ultimately, the decision was taken to bring in outside funding and spin out the businesses as an independent startup once again to supercharge that growth. REWE will remain a significant shareholder with this deal.

Hoerig said that commercetools had raised only around $ 30 million in outside funding when it was a startup ahead of getting acquired.

Although e-commerce has grown over the last couple of years with slightly less momentum than in previous years given wider economic uncertainty, it continues to expand, and in that growth, we’ve seen a swing back to individual retail brands looking for ways of connecting more directly with customers outside of the third-party marketplaces (like Amazon) that have come to dominate how people spending money online.

That is giving a boost to those providing essentially non-tech businesses the tools to build e-commerce activity by offering “headless” tools that are attached to front-end systems designed by others.

Shopify — coincidentally, also backed by Insight when it was still a private company — focuses more on providing e-commerce tools by way of APIs to medium and smaller customers, and it has ballooned to some 800,000 customers. Commercetools, in contrast, focuses more on companies that typically generate revenues in excess of $ 100 million annually, Hoerig said.

Commercetools has no plans to expand to smaller companies — “We have no plan to compete against Shopify,” Hoerig said. Nor is there any strategy in place to extend into logistics, another important component of e-commerce services.

That’s not to say that commercetools doesn’t have a crowded field when it comes to competition, though. Hoerig noted that companies like SAP, Oracle and IBM are typical competitors and are more often already the incumbent provider to large enterprises. Then, there are others like Microsoft, in hot competition with Amazon for cloud customers, also expanding their commerce services for business. Companies typically make the change to replace them with something like commercetools, he said, when they decide they need a “more modern” approach.

In all (if that list alone wasn’t a strong enough hint), the wider market for e-commerce tools is very fragmented.

“Even SAP has only something like a 2% share,” he added.

Today, commercetools offers a range of services, starting at APIs to power the basics of webshops and mobile sites, along with IoT services (“machines buying from machines,” Hoerig noted), powering chatbots, the architecture for running marketplaces, social commerce services (for example, powering selling through Instagram), and augmented reality. It currently integrates with Adobe, Frontastic, Bloomreach and Magnolia.

Commercetools plans to use the funding to continue expanding its business in North America and other parts of the world, as well as to continue building up its B2B2B offering — that is, tools for businesses to sell to other businesses. This is an area that companies like Alibaba are very strong in (and Amazon has been also growing its business), and the idea is to provide tools to let companies sell on their own sites either as a complement to, or to replace, third-party marketplaces.

Another area where it will continue to figure where it can play better is in the development of better online-to-offline technology.

Richard Wells and Matt Gatto of Insight are both joining the board with this deal.

“With a strong track record of investing in retail software leaders, we are excited to have the opportunity to invest in commercetools and help them scale up internationally,” said Wells in a statement. “In our opinion commercetools represents the next wave of enterprise commerce software and has the potential to unlock powerful innovation and growth within the e-commerce sector.”


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