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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.

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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

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.”


TechCrunch

TruTag Technologies, a company that creates microscopic, edible barcodes to authenticate medications, food, vaping pods and other products, has raised a $ 7.5 million Series C. The funding, led by Pangaea Ventures and Happiness Capital, will be used to further commercialize its technology and develop new solutions.

Along with earlier rounds, this brings TruTag’s total funding to $ 25 million. Its clients include PwC, which uses the company’s technology in its Food Trust Platform quality assurance program for Australian beef exports.

A high magnification of TruTag particles, each of is an edible “chip” that authenticates the product it is applied to.

A high magnification of TruTag particles, each of is an edible “chip” that authenticates the product it is applied to.

Called TruTags, the company’s tiny barcodes are made out of nano-porous silica, a material that has received GRAS (generally recognized as safe) notice from the U.S Food and Drug Administration, and can be placed directly on products or in packaging to track it through the supply and logistics chain.

TruTags are used with hyperspectral imaging technology, which is able to process much more wavelengths than other imaging methods, so it can collect more precise and detailed data from an image. When scanned, the barcodes provide information about where a product was manufactured, lot numbers, authorized distributors and safe use.

In email, TruTag chief executive officer Michael Bartholomeusz, who holds a PhD in materials engineering from the University of Virginia, told TechCrunch that the company sees the most growth opportunities in industries, such as pharmaceuticals, nutraceutical foods and cannabis, that deal with counterfeit products from the black market or the “grey market,” including products from unauthorized suppliers.

A conceptual photo of TruTags' technology.

A conceptual photo of TruTags’ technology.

“TruTags material is an already approved excipient in pills by the FDA. Pharmaceuticals and food comprise a very large portion of the global counterfeiting problem, and given the very unique edible feature of TruTag’s solution, this is a core area of focus for the company,” he says.

For example, the technology can be used to lock vaping systems so they only work with authentic vaping pods, helping reduce the number of counterfeit pods on the market. Bartholomeusz adds that TruTags is close to coming to market in the CBD space.

TruTags’ ability to be placed directly on products, its edibility and instant authentication in one to five seconds differentiates it from other solutions. Bartholomeusz notes that other quality assurance tech include specialized symbols, inks and holograms, though many of those products have the disadvantages of being replicable by high-quality printers or relying on consumers’ ability to recognize them.

In a press statement, Matthew Cohen, director of technology at Pangaea, which focuses on investing in advanced materials technology, said “Pangaea is excited to partner with TruTag and help the company expand its team and product portfolio. We believe TruTag’s edible barcode technology will help increase consumer confidence and ultimately save lives. TruTag is making our world better by utilizing compelling advanced materials and advanced material process innovations to combat rising problems such as drug counterfeiting.”


TechCrunch

In less than two years, Revel has gone from an idea to a shared electric vehicle startup with more than 1,400 mopeds across Washington D.C., and Brooklyn and Queens, New York. Now, it’s ready to grow up — and beyond these three cities — with a fresh injection of $ 27.6 million in capital raised in a Series A round led by Ibex Investors.

The equity round included newcomer Toyota AI Ventures and further investments from Blue Collective, Launch Capital and Maniv Mobility.

The capital will, as it often does with startups, allow Revel to scale up. CEO and co-founder Frank Reig said this growth will extend to its fleet of scooters within the cities it currently operates as well as expand into new markets. Reig wouldn’t name where the New York-based startup will launch next, although he provided some hints. Large U.S. cities with the right population density and more temperate weather are at the top of the list.

Revel is targeting about 10 cities by mid-2020, Reig added.

How that growth occurs, and who is behind its operations, is what Reig believes differentiates Revel from other shared electric vehicle providers such as scooter startups that have had a record of deploying in cities before getting approval from local authorities.

Many startups in the shared industry, including Revel, talk up their focus on safety and desire to be responsible partners with cities. Revel’s choice of vehicle — along with a few other decisions — helps it stick to those promises.

“These mopeds are motor vehicles,” Reig noted. “This means there’s no regulatory gray area: you have to have a license plate. To get that license plate you have register each vehicle with the Department of Motor Vehicles in each state and show third-party auto liability insurance. And then because it’s a motor vehicle, it’s clear that it rides in the street, so we’re completely off sidewalks.”

Revel caps the speed of its mopeds to 30 miles per hour. The company also provides two helmets — and single-use liners — on every ride and requires users to be licensed drivers aged, 21 or older who pass an initial safe driving history check. About one out of every 12 applicants does not make it past this screening, according to Revel.

Any concerns about users bypassing the protective headgear are largely erased because both New York and Washington D.C. have helmet laws, Reig said.

No giga workers

The company, unlike most on-demand mobility startups, does not have any gig economy workers either. Revel only has full-time employees, said Reig, adding that it’s decision he intends to stick with it even as his company grows.

“We don’t use gig economy in anything we do and I see a ton of value in that,” Reig said. “We need a well-trained workforce that is really committed and cares about the vehicles, because if not it’s something we’re going to be throwing out every 60 days.”

Revel’s shared mopeds have a 3-year asset life, Reig said based on their in-house estimates. To ensure the mopeds last, which has become a key factor in the unit economics of shared mobility businesses, they remain on street.

The mopeds are removed by employees for routine maintenance that occurs every four to six months. Otherwise, the mopeds aren’t loaded into vans by gig economy workers who make money by charging them up — a common practice with the small stand-up scooters that have inundated cities like San Diego and San Francisco. Instead, employees swap out the batteries on the mopeds, which have a range of about 50 miles.

20 months and 1,400 scooters

The idea for Revel was borne out of Reig’s travels to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he witnessed locals on every form of two-wheeled vehicle.

“A sort of light bulb went off my head, and I asked myself, ‘why is it not a thing in the U.S?,” Reig told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “I came back to New York, started studying the market more and saw all these electric moped operators had been popping up in Europe over the last few years and just realized that if I don’t do it, somebody else will.”

The company started with a small pilot of 68 mopeds in a few neighborhoods within Brooklyn. In May, after a nine-month pilot, Revel pulled the original mopeds it used in its limited pilot and has replaced them with 1,000 new models built for two riders and equipped with kickstands for parking. With more mopeds in its fleet, Revel expanded the service to more than 20 neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. In August, Revel launched its service in Washington D.C., where there are now more than 400 mopeds.

Revel rides cost $ 1 per person to start, followed by $ 0.25 per minute to ride and $ 0.10 per minute while parked. Revel says it will cut the cost by 40% for eligible riders — and give them a $ 25 credit — through its Revel Access program. Riders who use public assistance programs like SNAP or live in NYCHA housing are eligible for the program.


TechCrunch

An Indian startup that is attempting to improve the way how millions of people in the nation lease or buy an apartment — by not paying any brokerage — just raised a significant amount of capital to further expand its business.

NoBroker said on Wednesday it has raised $ 50 million in a new financing round. The Series D round for the Bangalore-based real estate property operator was led by Tiger Global Management and included participation from existing investor General Atlantic. The five-year-old startup, which closed its previous financing round in June, has raised $ 121 million to date. The new round valued NoBroker at about $ 325 million, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

NoBroker operates in six cities in India: Bengaluru, Chennai, Gurgaon, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Pune. The startup has established itself as one of the largest players in the local real estate business. It operates over 3 million properties on its website and serves about 7 million users. It is adding more than 280,000 new users each month, Amit Kumar, cofounder and CEO of NoBroker, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Real estate brokers in India, as is true in other markets, help people find properties. But they can charge up to 10 months worth of rent (leasing) — or a single-digit percent of the apartment’s worth if someone is buying the property — in urban cities as their commission. NoBroker allows the owner of a property to directly connect with potential tenants to remove brokerage charges from the equation.

The startup makes money in three ways. First, it lets non-paying users get in touch with only nine property owners. Those who wish to contact more property owners are required to pay a fee. Second, property owners can opt to pay NoBroker to have its representatives deal with prospective buyers — in a move that ironically makes the startup serve as a broker.

NoBroker also offers end-to-end services such as rent agreements, home loans, and movers and packers, for which it also charges a fee. The startup says it uses machine learning to speed up the transactions and make it service low-cost.

The startup processes about $ 14 million in rent each month, Kumar said. This is increasing by 25%-30% each month, he said. NoBroker’s business in Bangalore and Mumbai, two of its largest cities, are already profitable, Kumar said.

The startup will use the fresh capital to expand its business and build more products. It recently launched a community and digital management app to keep a digital log of all the entries — say a Flipkart delivery personnel comes to your house — occurring in a society, and maintain a dialogue with other people in a vicinity. The app also allows users to exchange goods with one another and pay their utility bills, startup’s executives said.

The new financing round is oddly smaller than $ 51 million NoBroker had raised in June this year. Saurabh Garg, chief business officer of NoBroker, told TechCrunch in an interview that the founding team did not want to dilute their stake in the startup, hence they opted for a smaller round.

NoBroker is competing with a number of players including Proptiger, 99Acres, and heavily backed NestAway, which counts Goldman Sachs and Tiger Global among its investors. NestAway operates in eight Indian cities and has raised north of $ 100 million to date. Budget hotel startup Oyo, which has already become one of the largest hotel businesses in the world, also operates in NoBroker’s territory with Oyo Living.

But NoBroker’s Kumar said he does not see Oyo and other startups as competition. Instead, “these other players are some of our largest clients,” he said. India’s real estate industry is estimated to grow to $ 1 trillion in worth by 2030.

The business model of NoBroker has also created new local challenges for the startup. Brokers are unsurprisingly not happy with startups such as NoBroker and have grown hostile in recent years. In recent years, they have attacked and harassed NoBroker employees. So much so that the startup had to delist its address from Google Maps. But Kumar said the mindset of people is changing.


TechCrunch

Fintech startup Bnext has raised a $ 25 million funding round. The Spanish company is building a banking product and has managed to attract 300,000 active users.

DN Capital, Redalpine and Speedinvest are leading today’s funding round. Existing investors Founders Future and Cometa are also participating. Other investors include Enern, USM and Conexo.

When you open a Bnext account, you get a card and you can upload money to your account. Bnext accounts aren’t technically bank accounts — the company has an e-money license. You can then use your card and spend money anywhere around the world without any foreign transaction fee. You can also freeze and unfreeze your card from the app.

“As of now we'll stick to the e-money license, as our international expansion plans complicate potential passporting of banking licenses. We will first need to understand in which countries makes more sense to get a banking license, and then we'll make a decision,” co-founder and CEO Guillermo Vicandi told me.

You can also connect to your traditional bank accounts from the Bnext app. This way, you can manage your money from a single app.

And Bnext takes this one step further by offering financial products from third-party companies as well. It’s clear that the company wants to build a financial hub, the only finance app that you need.

You can lend money to small and medium businesses and earn interests through October, you can save money using Raisin, you can get a loan, a mortgage, an insurance product, etc. Bnext generates revenue from those partnerships.

While Bnext only operates in Spain for now, the company has managed to attract 300,000 active users. It processes €100 million in transactions every month ($ 109 million).

Up next, Bnext plans to offer premium plans with more features and individual IBANs. The company also plans to expand to Latin America, starting with Mexico later this year.


TechCrunch

Manila-based financial tech startup PayMongo has raised $ 2.7 million in seed funding to give merchants in the Philippines and other Southeast Asian markets simple ways to set up online payments. Investors included Founders Fund, Peter Thiel and Stripe, with participation from Y Combinator (PayMongo is the first Philippine fintech company it has funded), Global Founders Capital, Soma Capital, Tinder co-founder Justin Mateen and other angel investors.

PayMongo was launched in June by a founding team that includes CEO Francis Plaza, COO Edwin Lacierda, CTO Jamie Hing and chief growth officer Luis Sia. Since then, more than 1,000 businesses have started using its platform and the startup says its total transaction value processed is growing at an average of 117% week over week. PayMongo’s seed round will be used for hiring, product development, business acquisitions and strategic partnerships.

paymongo founders

PayMongo founders

The startup will focus on the Philippines first, where the country’s central bank has set a target of increasing the rate of cashless payments to 20%. Plaza says PayMongo’s goal is to become the largest payment service provider in the country before expanding to other markets in Southeast Asia.

Prior to launching PayMongo, its team spent several years working on other projects. During that time, they realized payments were the hardest feature to integrate into products and services. Even though the Philippines’ Internet economy is growing quickly (a report from Google expects it to increase from $ 5 billion in 2018 to $ 21 billion by 2025) and more people are using e-commerce, online payments have lagged behind the rest of the world, Plaza says.

“When you want to launch something online for a payment gateway, you have to deal with banks and many different financial institutions. It takes months, we tried it ourselves, from negotiating rates to submitting paperwork. It takes a long time, and then in the end you are charged high fees,” he tells TechCrunch.

Even after businesses finish dealing with banks, they need to figure out payment gateways that are often difficult for people with little tech experience to start using.

PayMongo has already partnered with several financial institutions and its technology, including a payments API that Plaza says can be set up in minutes, is designed to be user friendly. Since many online merchants in the Philippines sell through social media platforms and messaging apps, like Facebook, Instagram, Viber and WhatsApp, PayMongo also provides customizable payment links that they can send to customers.

The credit card penetration rate in the Philippines is only about 6%, Plaza says, so PayMongo also supports e-wallets like GCash and PayMaya and services that allow people to pay for online purchases in cash at convenience stores. PayMongo’s products for micro-entrepreneurs, like freelancers and people who sell items through social media, help it differentiate from competitors like Paynamics, Dragonpay and PesoPay that typically focus on serving larger businesses (though Plaza says PayMongo has also been adopted by large retail chains).

In a statement, Y Combinator partner Kevin Hale said “At YC, we love companies who build services that empower startups. We believe PayMongo will provide the infrastructure that is needed for more Filipinos to become founders who are in charge of their own destiny.”


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