March 19, 2019
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Horizons Ventures

NYSE operator’s crypto project Bakkt brings in $182M

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The Intercontinental Exchange’s (ICE) cryptocurrency project Bakkt celebrated New Year’s Eve with the announcement of a $182.5 million equity round from a slew of notable institutional investors. ICE, the operator of several global exchanges, including the New York Stock Exchange, established Bakkt to build a trading platform that enables consumers and institutions to buy, sell, store and spend digital assets.

This is Bakkt’s first institutional funding round; it was not a token sale. Participating in the round are Horizons Ventures, Microsoft’s venture capital arm (M12), Pantera Capital, Naspers’ fintech arm (PayU), Protocol Ventures, Boston Consulting Group, CMT Digital, Eagle Seven, Galaxy Digital, Goldfinch Partners and more.

Bakkt is currently seeking regulatory approval to launch a one-day physically delivered Bitcoin futures contract along with physical warehousing. The startup initially planned for a November 2018 launch, but confirmed this morning an earlier CoinDesk report that it was delaying the launch to “early 2019” as it awaits permission from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Along with the funding, crypto news blog The Block Crypto also reports Bakkt has hired Balaji Devarasetty, a former vice president at Vantiv, as its head technology.

ICE’s crypto project was first announced in August and is led by chief executive officer Kelly Loeffler, ICE’s long-time chief communications and marketing officer. Bakkt quickly inked partnerships with Microsoft, which provides cloud infrastructure to the service, and Starbucks, to develop “practical, trusted and regulated applications for consumers to convert their digital assets into U.S. dollars for use at Starbucks,” Starbucks vice president of payments Maria Smith said in a statement at the time.

Many Bitcoin startups floundered in 2018, despite record amounts of venture capital invested in the industry. This was as a result of failed initial coin offerings, an inability to scale following periods of rapid growth and the falling price of Bitcoin. Still, VCs remained bullish on Bitcoin and blockchain technology in 2018, funneling a total of $2.2 billion in U.S.-based crypto projects — a nearly 4x increase year-over-year. Around the globe, investment hit a high of $4.6 billion — a more than 4x increase from last year, according to PitchBook.

“Notably, 2018 was the most active year for crypto in its brief ten-year history,” Loeffler wrote. “This was evidenced by rising investment in distributed ledger technology and digital assets, as well as by blockchain network metrics such as daily bitcoin transaction value and active addresses. Yet, these milestones tend to be overshadowed by the more narrow focus on bitcoin’s price, which has been seen by some, as a proxy for the potential of the technology.”

Today, the price of Bitcoin is hovering around $3,700 one year after a historic run valued the cryptocurrency at roughly $20,000. The crash caused many to dismiss Bitcoin and its underlying technology, while others remained committed to the tech and its potential for complete financial disruption. A project like Bakkt, created in-house at a respected financial institution with support from noteworthy businesses, is a logical bet for crypto and traditional private investors alike.

“The path to developing new markets is rarely linear: progress tends to modulate between innovation, dismissal, reinvention, and, finally, acceptance,” Loeffler added. “Each step, whether part of discovery or adversity, ultimately strengthens the product. Twenty years ago, it was controversial to suggest that commodities or bonds could trade electronically on a screen, and many steps were required for that evolution to play out.”

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Home insurance provider Hippo brings in $70M amid a record year in funding for insurtech startups

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Felicis Ventures and Lennar Corporation have co-led the $70 million Series C funding round for Hippo, a tech-enabled home insurance marketplace.

Existing investors in the startup, like Comcast Ventures, Fifth Wall Ventures, Horizons Ventures and GGV Capital, also participated in the round.

Hippo has raised $109 million to date, including a $25 million Series B earlier this year. Co-founder and chief executive officer Assaf Wand declined to disclose Hippo’s valuation.

Wand, who co-founded the startup in 2015 with Eyal Navon, said he spent 14 years imagining the technology that would become Hippo, inspired by his father’s career in the antiquated insurance industry.

Hippo co-founder and chief executive officer Assaf Wand.

“I was born into insurance,” Wand told TechCrunch. “Now, the entire real estate ecosystem is changing and the industry is massive. We are getting a crazy good challenge. We think the sky’s the limit with this thing.”

The Mountain View, California-based company officially launched to consumers in 2017. It plans to use its latest investment to fuel the growth of its product, which sells home insurance plans at lower premiums. So far this year, Hippo has expanded into 10 new states and says its sales have grown 30 percent month-over-month since January.

“Hippo has set the bar for the future of insurance with its fully automated, proprietary policy management and proactive underwriting,” Felicis managing director Victoria Treyger said in a statement. “Insurance is the next big sector to undergo the dramatic transformation of customer experience and improved risk management enabled by access to real time data. We see Hippo’s current growth rate and efficient automated policy management system as just the beginning of driving this transformation.”

Treyger will join Hippo’s board of directors as part of the round.

The insurance industry is indeed undergoing a dramatic transformation as a result of technology companies targeting the sector, which are part of a relatively new category of startups dubbed insurtech.

According to PitchBook, insurtech startups have raised nearly $6 billion in venture capital funding since 2012. This year alone, companies in the space have brought in a record amount of capital at $1.8 billion across 94 deals.

Whether or not the hype for the emerging category will continue into 2019 remains to be seen.

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Lyft speeds ahead with its autonomous initiatives

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Lyft, the transportation on demand company that is heading to a $15 billion IPO in 2019, is racing ahead with its autonomous vehicle plans. TechCrunch has learned that it is acquiring the London-based augmented reality startup Blue Vision Labs and unveiling its first test vehicle with Ford to advance its vision for self-driving cars.

The first Ford car from Lyft’s Level 5 self-driving initiative will be the Ford Fusion Hybrid. It’s the culmination of a yearlong partnership the two companies had announced last September and will be hitting city streets “soon” the company said.

The Ford Fusion (now with Lyft autonomy!)

While the integration of Lyft’s autonomous technologies and Ford’s hardware is impressive, perhaps more meaningful is the company’s acquisition of Blue Vision Labs, a startup out of London that has developed a way of ingesting street-level imagery and is using it to build collaborative, interactive augmented reality layers — all by way of basic smartphone cameras.

Blue Vision will sit within Lyft’s Level 5 autonomous car division headed up by Luc Vincent (who joined the company last year as VP of engineering after creating and running Google Street View).

The startup and its staff of 39 (everyone is joining Lyft) will also become the anchor for a new R&D operation in London or the San Francisco-based company, focused on that autonomous driving effort. Level 5 is stepping up a gear in another way today, too: Lyft is unveiling a new vehicle that it will be using for testing.

Blue Vision has developed technology that provides both street level mapping and interactive augmented reality that lets two people see the same virtual objects. The company has already built highly detailed maps that developers can now use to develop collaborative AR experiences — it’s like the maps of these spaces become canvasses for virtual objects to be painted on. Over time, we may see various uses of it throughout the Lyft platform, but for now the main focus is Level 5.

“We are looking forward to focusing Blue Vision’s technology on building the best maps at scale to support our autonomous vehicles, and then localization to support our stacks,” Vincent said in an interview. “This is fundamental to our business. We need good maps and to understand where every passenger and vehicle is. To make our services more efficient and remove friction, we want their tech to drive improvements.”

People familiar with the acquisition tell us Blue Vision was acquired for around $72 million with $30 million on top of that based on hitting certain milestones. Lyft has declined to comment on the valuation. Blue Vision had raised $17 million and had only come out of stealth last March, after working quietly on the product for two years. Investors included GV, Accel, Horizons Ventures, SV Angel and more.

This deal is notable in part because this is the first acquisition that Lyft has made to expand its autonomous car operation, which now has 300 people working on it. At a time when many larger companies are snapping up startups that have developed interesting applications or technologies around areas like AR, mapping, and autonomous driving, there may be more to come. “We are always evaluating build versus buy,” Vincent said when asked about more acquisitions. But he also acknowledged that it is a very crowded field today, even when considering just the most promising companies.

“I don’t have a crystal ball but arguably there are quite a few players today, including big tech, startups, OEMs and car makers. There are well over 100 [strong] companies in the space and there is bound to be some consolidation.” Lyft earlier this year also inked an investment and partnership with Magna to integrate its self-driving car system into components it supplies to car makers.

But it also might face other pressures. The company counts Didi and GM among its investors, and both of these companies are making their own big strides in self-driving technology and each has inked deals to have more partners using that tech, in part to justify some of their own hefty investment.

Lyft, of course, will hope that acquisitions like Blue Vision will give it more leverage, and make it one of the consolidators, rather than the consolidated.

Blue Vision’s use of smartphones to ingest data to create its street-level imagery and mapping is crucial to Lyft’s quest for scale. In effect, every Lyft vehicle in operation today, with a smartphone on the dashboard, could be commandeered to become a “camera” watching, surveying and mapping the roads that those cars drive on, and how humans behave on them, using that to help Lyft’s autonomous vehicle (AV) platform learn more about driving overall.

In the race for data to “teach” these AI systems, having that wide network of cameras deployed and picking up data so quickly is “game changing,” said Peter Ondruska, the co-founder and CEO of Blue Vision.

“The amount of data you have affects how much you can rely on your system,” Ondruska said in an interview. “What our tech allows us to do is to utilise Lyft’s fleet to train the cars. That is really game changing. I was working on this for eight years and you have to have a lot of data to get to the right level of safety. That is hard and we can get there faster using our technology.”

Lyft up to now has really concentrated its business presence in North America, and so this marks at least one kind of way that it is expanding on the other side of the pond. It opened its first European office in Munich earlier this year, a sign that it’s looking to this part of the world at least for R&D, if not to expand its business footprint to consumers, just yet. Vincent declined to comment on whether Lyft would get involved in autonomous trials in London, nor whether it would expand its transportation service there.

Another key area that is worth noting is that Blue Vision’s “collaborative” VR, which lets people look at the same spot in space and both see and create interactive, virtual figures in it, could be used by Lyft either to help drivers and would-be passengers better communicate, or even help passengers discover more services during a journey or at their destination.

When Ondruska first spoke to TechCrunch earlier this year as the company emerged from stealth, ride hailing applications, in fact, were one of the use cases that we pointed out could be helped by its tech.

Peter Ondruska, the startup’s co-founder and CEO, [said] that Blue Vision’s tech can pinpoint people and other moving objects in a space to within centimeters of their actual location — far more accurate than typical GPS — meaning that it could give better results in apps that require two parties to find each other, such as in a ride-hailing app. (Hands up if you and your Uber driver have ever lost each other before you’ve even stepped foot in the vehicle.)

Blue Vision isn’t the only company working to develop these virtual maps for the world. Startups like, Blippar and the incredibly well capitalized and wildly successful AR technology developer Niantic Labs are also building out these virtual maps on which developers can create applications. Indeed, Niantic’s Pokemon Go game is the most successful augmented reality application to date.

Large media companies have also been investing building content for these platforms, and investors have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into startups like 6d, Niantic, Blue Vision, and others that are building both software and hardware to usher in this new age of how we will, apparently, all soon be seeing the world.

The development of these new platforms will go a long way toward ensuring that more useful applications are just around the corner, waiting for users to pick them up.

“One of the reasons why AR hasn’t really reached mass market adoption is because of the tech that is on the market,” Ondruska told us earlier this year. “Single-user experiences are limiting. We are allowing the next step, letting people see the right place, for example. None of that was possible before in AR because the backend didn’t exist. But by filling in this piece, we are creating new AR use cases, ones that are important and will be used on a daily basis.”

The deal marks Lyft’s tenth acquisition, according to CrunchBase. In 2015, Lyft acquired the disappearing messaging company, Leo, to bring the company’s messaging expertise in house. Two years later, the ride-hailing company went on an acquisition tear, hoovering up FinitePaths, YesGraph, DataScore, and Kamcord. The first three seem like strategic acquisitions to bulk up mapping and marketing efforts  internally; but Kamcord, a social media network for video sharing, seemed a little farther afield.

For more on Lyft’s bigger plans for AV, watch the video below of Vincent talking about the company’s roadmap (so to speak).

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Airwallex raises $80M for its international payment service for businesses

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Airwallex, a three-year-old fintech startup focused on international payments for SMEs and businesses, is putting itself on the map after it raised an $80 million Series B round.

Based of out of Melbourne, but with six offices in Asia and other parts of the world, Airwallex’s new funding round is the second largest financing deal for an Australian startup in history. The round was led by existing investors Tencent, the $500 billion Chinese internet giant, and Sequoia China. Other participants included China’s Hillhouse, Horizons Ventures — the fund from Hong Kong’s richest man Li Ka-Shing — Indonesia-based Central Capital Ventura (BCA) and Australia’s Square Peg, a firm from Paul Bassat who took recruitment firm Seek to IPO and is one of Australia’s highest-profile founders.

The financing takes Airwallex to $102 million raised. Tencent led a $13 million Series A in May 2017, while Square Peg added $6 million more via a Series A+ in December. Mastercard is also a backer; the finance giant uses Airwallex to handle its “Send” product while Tencent uses the service to power an overseas remittance service for its WeChat app.

Airwallex handles cross-border transactions for companies that do business in multiple countries using international currencies. So it’s not unlike a Transferwise-style service for SMEs that lack the capital to develop a sophisticated (and expensive) international banking system of their own.

The service uses wholesale FX rates to route overseas payments back to a client’s domestic bank and is capable of processing “thousands of transactions per second,” according to the company. A use case example might include helping a China-based seller return money earned in the U.S. or Europe via Amazon or other e-commerce services, or route sales revenue back directly from their own website.

Airwallex CEO Jack Zhang (far right) on stage at TechCrunch Shenzhen in 2017

China is a key market for Airwallex — which was started by four Australian-Chinese founders — as well as the wider Asian region, and in particular Australia, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. With this new capital, Airwallex co-founder and CEO Jack Zhang said the company will increase its focus on Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, whilst also extending its business in Europe (where it has a London-based office) and pushing into North America.

Product R&D is shared across Melbourne and Shanghai, while Hong Kong accounts for business development, compliance and more, Zhang explained. However, Airwallex’s locations in London and San Francisco are likely to account for most of the upcoming headcount growth planned following this funding. Right now, Airwallex has around 100 staff, according to Zhang.

The company is also aiming to expand its product range, too.

The firm is in the process of applying for a virtual banking license in Hong Kong, a third-party payment license in mainland China, and a cross-border Chinese yuan license. One goal, Zhang revealed, is to offer working capital loans to SMEs to help them to scale their businesses to the next level. Airwallex is working with an undisclosed partner to underwrite deals in the future. Zhang explained that the company sees a gap in the market since banks don’t have access to critical data on clients for loan assessments.

More generally, he’s bullish for the future despite Brexit and the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China.

“The trade war gives the Chinese yuan a lot of vitality, and we’ve seen more demand in the market. China’s belt road initiative has really taken off, too, and we’re seeing the impact in many many of our payment corridors,” he explained. “Business has been booming, especially as traditional offline SMEs start to move online and go from domestic to global.”

“We want to be the backbone to support these new opportunities for businesses,” Zhang added.

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Bolt Threads joins Modern Meadow in the quest to bring lab-grown leather to market

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There’s a new world of lab-grown replacements coming for everything from the meat department in your grocery store to a department store near you.

Lab-made leather replacements will soon join vegetable-based meat replacements on store shelves thanks to startups like Bolt Threads, which today announced that it would join companies like Modern Meadow in the quest to bring vegetable-based replacements for animal hides to market.

Earlier this year, the Silicon Valley-based Bolt Threads raised a $123 million financing to expand its business beyond the manufacture of spider silk which had brought the company acclaim — and an initial slate of products.

The announcement today of its new product, Mylo, is the first step on that path.

Working with established partner, Stella McCartney, and using technology licensed from the biomaterials company Ecovative Design, Bolt is bringing Mylo’s mushroom-based leather replacement to the world in a debut of one of McCartney’s Falabella bag designs made from the mushroom material.

The first bag will be available at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Fashioned from Nature exhibit, open to the public on April 21st in London.

In an interview with Fast Company last year, McCartney discussed her commitment to sustainability. “I don’t think you should compromise anything for sustainability,” McCartney told the magazine. “The ultimate achievement for me is when someone comes into one of my stores and buys a Falabella bag thinking it’s real leather.”

While Bolt Threads is licensing its technology from Ecovative Design, Modern Meadow is choosing to develop its own intellectual property for growing a replacement leather.

Taking a different path to its California-based competitor, Brooklyn’s Modern Meadow model is going for a mass market while Bolt Threads is more bespoke.

The East Coast company partnered with the European chemical giant Evonik — and has raised over $40 million dollars from billionaire backers like Peter Thiel’s Breakout Ventures and Horizons Ventures (financed by Li Ka Shing — one of China’s wealthiest men) — along with the Singaporean investment giant, Temasek.

Both companies are examples of how animal husbandry is being replaced by technology in the search for a more sustainable way to feed and clothe the world’s growing population. It’s a population that’s demanding quality goods without sacrificing sustainable industrial practices — all things that are made possible by new material — and data — science along with novel manufacturing capabilities that show promise in taking things from the laboratory to the heart of the animal industries they’re looking to replace.

This is a pattern that’s not just happening in fashion, but being replicated in food science as well.

How quickly the change will come — and how viable these alternatives will be — depend on them scaling to meet a broad consumer demand. One purse in a museum show isn’t enough. Once there are hundreds of handbags on Target shelves — that’s when the revolution won’t need to be televised, because it will already have been commercialized.

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