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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

Twitter has kicked off the New Year by taking the wraps off a new hub for academic researchers to more easily access information and support around its APIs — saying the move is in response to feedback from the research community.

The new page — which it’s called ‘Twitter data for academic researchers’ — can be found here.

It includes links to apply for a developer account to access Twitter’s APIs; details of the different APIs offered and links to additional tools for researchers, covering data integration and access; analysis; visualization; and infrastructure and hosting.

“Over the past year, we’ve worked with many of you in the academic research community. We’ve learned about the challenges you face, and how Twitter can better support you in your efforts to advance understanding of the public conversation,” the social network writes, saying it wants to “make it even easier to learn from the public conversation”.

Twitter is also promising “more enhancements and resources” for researchers this year.

It’s likely no accident the platform is putting a fresh lick of paint on its offerings for academics given that 2020 is a key election year in the U.S. — and concerns about the risk of fresh election meddling are riding high.

Tracking conversation flow on Twitter also still means playing a game of ‘bot or not’ — one that has major implications for the health of democracies. And in Europe Twitter is one of a number of platform giants which, in 2018, signed up to a voluntary Code of Practice on disinformation that commits it to addressing fake accounts and online bots, as well as to empowering the research community to monitor online disinformation via “privacy-compliant” access to platform data.

“At Twitter, we value the contributions of academic researchers and see the potential for them to help us better understand our platform, keeping us accountable, while helping us tackle new challenges through discoveries and innovations,” the company writes on the new landing page for researchers while also taking the opportunity to big up the value of its platform — claiming that “if it exists, it’s probably been talked about on Twitter”.

If Twitter lives up to its promises of active engagement with researchers and their needs, it could smartly capitalize on rival Facebook’s parallel missteps in support for academics.

Last year Facebook was accused of ‘transparency-washing’ with its own API for researchers, with a group of sixty academics slamming the ad archive API as as much a hinderance as a help.

Months later Facebook was still being reported to have done little to improve the offering.


TechCrunch

Gorgias, a startup offering artificial intelligence tools for customer service and support, is announcing that it has raised $ 14 million in Series A funding.

Co-founder and CEO Romain Lapeyre told me that the startup (whose name is pronounced “gorgeous”) is taking advantage of a broader shift as brands are looking to sell directly to consumers, rather than going through intermediaries like Amazon — for example, he pointed to Nike’s recent decision to pull its products from Amazon.

As brands make this change, Lapeyre (pictured above with his co-founder and CTO Alex Plugaro) said they need a “bundle of tools” to build their online business, and “each little part of the bundle is separate.” So they might create a store with Shopify, accept payments via Stripe — and naturally, Lapeyre believes they should be handling their customer support through Gorgias .

The product integrates with Shopify, using AI and customer data to automate responses to basic questions like, “What’s my tracking number?” By doing this, the business can free customer service representatives from spending most of their time responding to these routine requests, and the customers get faster answers.

Gorgias screenshot

“The automation should just be the very basic questions,” Lapeyre added.

But even when it comes to more complex queries, Gorgias also provides tools that help the customer service representatives to respond more quickly and to upsell customers on additional products and services — Lapeyre said they’re acting as “sales associates rather than customer service agents.”

It seems like this approach is becoming a reality at some of Gorgias’ 2,000 customers — the Groovelife customer service team gets paid a commission based on upselling. At Steve Madden, meanwhile, the customer service team is using automation to respond to 20% of tickets.

Gorgias previously raised $ 1.5 million in seed funding. The new round was led by Flex Capital, with participation of SaaStr, Alven, CRV, Amplify Partners and Eric Yuan.

Lapeyre said Gorgias will use the money to build out the product with new  features while also bringing on more merchants.


TechCrunch

T-Mobile has confirmed a data breach affecting more than a million of its customers, whose personal data (but no financial or password data) was exposed to a malicious actor. The company alerted the affected customers but did not provide many details in its official account of the hack.

The company said in its disclosure to affected users that its security team had shut down “malicious, unauthorized access” to prepaid data customers. The data exposed appears to have been:

  • Name
  • Billing address
  • Phone number
  • Account number
  • Rate, plan and calling features (such as paying for international calls)

The latter data is considered “customer proprietary network information” and under telecoms regulations they are required to notify customers if it is leaked. The implication seems to be that they might not have done so otherwise. Of course some hacks, even hacks of historic magnitude, go undisclosed sometimes for years.

In this case, however, it seems that T-Mobile has disclosed the hack in a fairly prompt manner, though it provided very few details. When I asked, a T-Mobile representative indicated that “less than 1.5 percent” of customers were affected, which of the company’s approximately 75 million users adds up to somewhat over a million.

The company reports that “we take the security of your information very seriously,” a canard we’ve asked companies to stop saying in these situations.

The T-Mobile representative stated that the attack was discovered in early November and shut down “immediately.” They did not answer other questions I asked, such as whether it was on a public-facing or internal website or database, how long the data was exposed and what specifically the company had done to rectify the problem.

The data listed above is not necessarily highly damaging on its own, but it’s the kind of data with which someone might attempt to steal your identity or take over your account. Account hijacking is a fairly common tactic among cyber-ne’er-do-wells these days and it helps to have details like the target’s plan, home address and so on at one’s fingertips.

If you’re a T-Mobile customer, it may be a good idea to change your password there and check up on your account details.


TechCrunch

NASA has added five companies to the list of vendors that are cleared to bid on contracts for the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. This list, which already includes nine companies from a previous selection process, now adds SpaceX, Blue Origin, Ceres Robotics, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems. All of these companies can now place bids on NASA payload delivery to the lunar surface.

This basically means that these companies (which join Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space Systems, Draper Laboratory, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin Space, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express and OrbitBeyond) can build and fly lunar landers in service of NASA missions. They’ll compete with one another for these contracts, which will involve lunar surface deliveries of resources and supplies to support NASA’s Artemis program missions, the first major goal of which is to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2024.

These providers are specifically chosen to support delivery of heavier payloads, including “rovers, power sources, science experiments” and more, like the NASA VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover), which is hunting water on the Moon. All of these will be used both to establish a permanent presence on the lunar surface for astronautics to live and work from, as well as key research that needs to be completed to make getting and staying there a viable reality.

Artist’s concept of Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander

NASA has chosen to contract out rides to the Moon instead of running its own as a way to gain cost and speed advantages, and it hopes that these providers will be able to also ferry commercial payloads on the same rides as its own equipment to further defray the overall price tag. The companies will bid on these contracts, worth up to $ 2.6 billion through November 2028 in total, and NASA will select a vendor for each based on cost, technical feasibility and when they can make it happen.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announced at this year’s annual International Astronautical Congress that it would be partnering with Draper, as well as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, for an end-to-end lunar landing system. SpaceX, meanwhile, revealed that it will be targeting a lunar landing of its next spacecraft, the Starship, as early as 2022 in an effort to help set the stage for the 2024-targeted Artemis landing.


TechCrunch

How funding rounds are classified these days has much more to do with positioning than any VC definitions, but it’s still true that nothing has quite the pizazz as the “strategic investment” celebrity party round.

Sandbox VR, a location-based virtual reality startup that capped off a huge $ 68 million Series A led by Andreessen Horowitz at the beginning of the year, is bringing on some new investors in a $ 11 million “strategic” round, let’s call this one the Series A-listers round.

Yeah, there were a couple Silicon Valley folks, David Sacks and the Andreessen Horowitz Cultural Leadership Fund led the round, but they joined the much glitzier names of celebs including Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Orlando Bloom and Will Smith. Other investors include Michale Ovitz, Honda Keisuke and Kevin Durant.  Some of the investors in this latest round don’t have much in common beyond being LPs in the Andreessen Horowitz Cultural Leadership Fund, which seems to be the glue holding these stars together.

topanga4

Sandbox VR operates physical spaces, generally in retail locations, that users can play multiplayer virtual reality games inside with friends. It’s a next-generation arcade of sorts that’s relying on expensive new technology to attract customers, but that formula hasn’t been a slam dunk for plenty of other VR startups, and it’s forced the leadership to get creative.

“It’s a difficult space to be in, because it’s one of those spaces where you have to be three startups in one,” Sandbox VR exec Siqi Chen told TechCrunch in an interview. “You have to build your own content, build your own technology and construct and operate retail locations.”

While most virtual reality startups that have raised substantial amounts of capital have had to dump it into R&D, Sandbox’s business is more focused on pinning virtual reality experiences to physical real estate giving the curious a hub to try out the technology.

Sandbox has plenty of obstacles ahead, the most dire of which will be building a content ecosystem that’s exclusive to the system. Even Facebook’s Oculus has struggled to court established studios to the system without bankrolling development, a process that could get very expensive very quickly for Sandbox. Consumer expectations are also quite high given the steep $ 48 ticket prices for the 30 minute experience. Sandbox recently partnered with CBS Interactive Studios to create a title based on Star Trek IP.

Sandbox will have to compete with consumer headsets like the Oculus Quest that are far cheaper and simpler than previous-generation at-home headsets. The startup will also have to find ways to deepen experiences while still relying on plenty of off-the-shelf consumer hardware. Sandbox’s success relies at least a bit on consumer VR headset adoption growing at a sluggish pace, something Facebook is still spending billions to accelerate.

Generating venture-sized returns will undoubtedly involve more than jacking up ticket prices for more immersive games, though we haven’t heard much of a grand vision from the young startup yet. Whatever Sandbox does, the team is going to have to walk in the same footsteps of many VR companies before it all while improving perceptions of the technology, something the company’s executives hope their new celebrity investor friends can help with.

For Sandbox, gathering attention from celebrities like Kanye West has already been part of the strategy. “Part of it is brand, in that VR is not perceived as a cool thing to do,” Chen says. “So having influential people onboard helps with that perception a bit.”

Sandbox has 16 locations planned by the end of 2020. The company has now raised a whopping $ 82 million.


TechCrunch

In way, these new wireless controllers from 8BitDo kind of defeat the purpose of the Switch Lite. So, why do I kind of want them? Honestly, I’m pretty enamored with the new, more portable version of Nintendo’s wildly successful console. As I noted in a recent review, it’s exactly the take on the Switch I was looking for as a TV-less frequent traveler.

The idea of an accessory that’s roughly half the size of the Lite kind of goes against the whole bit about “built-in” Joy-Cons. Also, the Lite doesn’t have a built-in kickstand, so you’re either finding a way to prop it up or playing it flat on a table. Neither scenario is ideal, and yet here I am, thinking about shelling out $ 25 to augment my setup with a matching turquoise version.

Life comes at you fast.

The controller actually sports two D-pads, rather than sticks, which is nice for all of those NES and SNES titles that have been added to Switch Online. Honestly, my Switch playing has been like 95 percent A Link to the Past since I started testing the Lite. The controller is up for pre-order now through Amazon and set to start shipping at the end of October — plenty of time for me to come to my senses.

 

 


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