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May 26, 2019
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Ikea invests in Livspace, a one-stop platform for interior design based in India

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Fresh from raising $70 million last year via big names including Goldman Sachs and TPG Growth, Livspace, an India-based startup that offers a one-stop-shop for interior design, has lured yet another marquee investor: Ikea.

The startup said today it has taken an undisclosed investment from Ingka Investments, the VC arm of Ikea parent Ingka Group, which operates 90 percent of Ikea’s retail footprint. Livspace CEO and co-founder Anuj Srivastava declined to provide a figure for the deal, but he told TechCrunch that the stake involved is a minor one while there is no plan to bolt a larger round on to this investment. Deal Street Asia first reported news of the deal.

“There is strong strategic and commercial potential,” Srivastava, a former Googler who started Livspace in 2015, said of the new investor. “This is an opportunity to create the best possible omnichannel experience for consumers.”

India is a tough place for international retail companies but Ikea has made progress in recent times.

The company opened its first India-based store in Hyderabad last year and, having gained FDI approval to operate retails store, it is planning a substantial expansion with at least 25 new stores in the offing.

Livspace, for those unaware of it, runs a service that is aimed at taking the hassle out of interior design. The company’s platform connects homeowners with designers and the supply chain to go through ideas, chose a plan and implement it. That includes, among other things, 3D virtual renders of a renovation, offline meetings at a Livspace design center and, in some cases, customized furnishings. By bringing all parties together, Livspace claims to offer cost savings to consumers as well as higher rates and more efficient use of time for designers.

That model resonates with Ikea (Ingka), according to Srivastava, who said the company sides began talking following the announcement of Livspace’s Series C round last September.

“We’ve felt the natural synergy always existed,” he said. “This is an extremely strong endorsement of our vision.”

Synergies, indeed, although somewhat frustratingly neither party is saying how they will work together going forward. The obvious suggestion would be that Ikea products become available through Livspace, but Srivastava said the specifics are still to be agreed.

Further down the line, though, he admitted that Ikea’s involvement could fuel an international expansion beyond India. Going overseas is something that the company is openly talked up in the past and, with Ikea’s global footprint of 367 stores across 30 markets, the investment from Ingka could give Livspace a running start in new markets.

That, like the details of the alliance, is something that will come later, however.

“The India business is keeping us really, really busy at this time,” said Srivastava on that possibility.

“We’re engaged in exploratory activities but there’s no immediate plan or timeline,” he added as a tease. A new market launch isn’t likely until something like 12-18 months down the line, the Livspace CEO said.

As for whether this deal might be a precursor to an eventual acquisition, such are the synergies, Srivastava said that possibility isn’t being entertained.

“There is no such intention as of now,” he explained. “We continue to have strong interest from financial investors and continue to operate with the intention to stay independent, there’s now even more belief in our platform approach.”

“There is distinctly an investment outlay involved [with] no long term indication of an M&A opportunity,” he added.

Part fund, part accelerator, Contrary Capital invests in student entrepreneurs

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First Round Capital has both the Dorm Room Fund and the Graduate Fund. General Catalyst has Rough Draft Ventures. And Prototype Capital and a few other micro-funds focus on investing in student founders, but overall, there’s a shortage of capital set aside for entrepreneurs still making their way through school.

Contrary Capital, a soon-to-be San Francisco-based operation led by Eric Tarczynski, is raising $35 million to invest between $50,000 and $200,000 in students and recent college dropouts. The firm, which operates a summer accelerator program for its portfolio companies, closed on $2.2 million for its debut, proof-of-concept fund in 2018.

“We really care about the founders building a great company who don’t have the proverbial rich uncle,” Tarczynski, a former founder and startup employee, told TechCrunch. “We thought, ‘What if there was a fund that could democratize access to both world-class capital and mentorship, and really increase the probability of success for bright university-based founders wherever they are?’ “

Contrary launched in 2016 with backing from Tesla co-founder Martin Eberhard, Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman, SoFi co-founder Dan Macklin, Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear, founding Facebook engineer Jeff Rothschild and MuleSoft founder Ross Mason. The firm has more than 100 “venture partners,” or entrepreneurial students at dozens of college campuses that help fill Contrary’s pipeline of deals.

Contrary Capital celebrating its Demo Day event last year

Last year, Contrary kicked off its summer accelerator, tapping 10 university-started companies to complete a Y Combinator -style program that culminates with a small, GP-only demo day. Admittedly, the roughly $100,000 investment Contrary deploys to its companies wouldn’t get your average Silicon Valley startup very far, but for students based in college towns across the U.S., it’s a game-changing deal.

“It gives you a tremendous amount of time to figure things out,” Tarczynski said, noting his own experience building a company while still in school. “We are trying to push them. This is the first time in many cases that these people are working on their companies full-time. This is the first time they are going all in.”

Contrary invests a good amount of its capital in Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard and MIT students, but has made a concerted effort to provide capital to students at underrepresented universities, too. To date, the team has completed three investments in teams out of Stanford, two out of MIT, two out of University of California San Diego and one each at Berekely, BYU, University of Texas-Austin, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University and University of California Santa Cruz.

“We wanted to have more come from the 40 to 50 schools across the U.S. that have comparable if not better tech curriculums but are underserviced,” Tarczynski explained. “The only difference between Stanford and these others universities is just the volume. The caliber is just as high.”

Contrary’s portfolio includes Memora Health, the provider of productivity software for clinics; Arc, which is building metal 3D-printing technologies to deliver rocket engines; and Deal Engine, a platform for facilitating corporate travel.

“We are one giant talent scout with all these different nodes across the country,” Tarczynski added. “I’ve spent every waking moment of my life the last eight years living and breathing university entrepreneurship … it’s pretty clear to me who is an exceptional university-based founder and who is just caught up in the hype.”

InnoVen Capital, one of Asia’s most prominent venture debt firms, adds $200M more to its kitty

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Founders might not believe it, but managing a venture capital firm isn’t all that dissimilar to a startup. Case in point today: InnoVen Capital, one of Asia’s most prominent venture debt firms, has pulled in $200 million in new money to continue its expansion in the region.

The money comes from InnoVen’s two shareholders — Singapore sovereign fund Temasek and Singapore’s UOB — each of which has added $100 million in additional firepower for the fund, which is popularising debt-based financing within Asia’s startup ecosystems.

The organization came to be in 2015 when Temasek acquired the Indian ‘branch’ of Silicon Valley Bank expressly to offer differentiated financing to startups. The spinout was named InnoVen and it quickly expanded beyond India with the opening of an office in Singapore in 2016 and then an outpost in Beijing in early 2018.

The firm operates without a specific fund size unlike many other investors, but already there are some numbers to indicate its growing role in Asia.

That regional play is still in its early days, but already the business has deployed over $500 million in financing to more than 200 companies, according to Ashish Sharma, the former head of GE Capital India who leads InnoVen’s India business.

The fund operates at Series A and beyond and Sharma told TechCrunch that its investment levels have sped up over the past two to three years, thanks in particular to the addition of offices in Southeast Asia and China.

Recent deals from the fund have included investments in Moglix, Carsome, RedDoorz, Awfis and even a stealthy startup, Indonesia-based logistics venture Kargo which included debt within its first round of funding. Already, the Chinese arm has accrued 30 deals in a little over a year, and some of the biggest names backed across the region include Vision Fund company OYO and Naspers investments Swiggy, which recently raised $1 billion, and Byju’s.

Yet despite InnoVen’s increased profile, there remains confusion on the role of venture debt in Asia. Anecdotally, I’ve heard many misguided opinions from so-called venture capital-focused reporters — and not just in Asia — who see debt-based investment as a ‘last resort’ for companies. Its addition in a round is a tell-tell sign of a struggling business, they claim.

That’s completely wrong, according to InnoVen’s Sharma.

“It doesn’t come in from a position of weakness, that’s a big misconception,” he explained to TechCrunch in an interview. “In fact, venture debt is not available to companies which are in trouble. Most companies that raise venture debt do so from a position of strength.”

“They’ll say ‘We’re raising $100 million, let’s lay in $20 million of venture debt to optimize the dilution,’” Sharma added. “We’ve helped some very large companies use venture debt to get to the next level.”

Ashish Sharma leads InnoVen Capital’s business in India [Image via InnoVen Capital]

Ambitious growth story? Check.

A business that’s misunderstood by many? Check.

Who said running a VC firm isn’t like running a startup?

Kargo is disrupting logistics in Myanmar, one of the world’s most challenging countries

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Founders in Seattle recently bemoaned a lack of capital and support when compared to Silicon Valley — what about those building startups in more remote markets?

Kargo, a company that takes the spirit of Uber and brings it to the disorganized world of trucking, has raised a SG$800,000 (US$580,000) round of funding, giving TechCrunch an excuse to delve into the world of startup development in Myanmar, one of the world’s most curious countries.

Ostracized from the world until its first free general election in 2015, Myanmar — which was previously known as Burma — has seen the world’s most radical digitization. Ruled by the military from 1962 until 2011, the price of a SIM card in the country was $250 as recently as 2013 (a big jump on $3,000-odd in the early 2000s) but that all change around the elections in 2015 when the country opened its doors to outside investment and global companies. Telecom companies rushed in, reducing the price of a SIM card to mere dollars, in U.S. terms, and giving those who bought them gigabits of data to use each month.

That rush saw services like Facebook go from non-existent to the key digital space overnight as Myanmar’s 55 million people poured online — the U.S. social network has failed to cope with that crazy growth. Today, some 46 million people are estimated to be online in the country, with mobile the dominant platform and Facebook the top browser — yep, the social network is that big.

Myanmar is getting its first 4G rollouts and the seeds have been sown for internet businesses and startups.

Simplifying logistics

Kargo — which is not to be confused by the Indonesia company of the same name that’s backed by Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick — was started in 2016 by Alexander Wicks, an Australian expat who had previously run digital marketing businesses.

The young company initially joined Phandeeyar, a tech accelerator in major city Yangon, before dropping out due to a disagreement on terms, CEO and founder Wicks said. He told TechCrunch that he valued the organization, but decided to “fly solo” with the business.

That is a bet that appeared to pay off, so far at least. Kargo won a grant from the GSM Association Ecosystem Accelerator Fund, a unit associated with the GSMA, and it represented Myanmar at the world Seedstars Summit last year. Now, it has secured this new funding led by Singapore-based early-stage specialist Cocoon Capital.

Wicks said the round is a pre-Series A deal and he hopes that Kargo can go on to raise a Series A to fuel overseas growth within the next year or 18 months.

Alexander Wicks started Kargo in 2016

Kargo works with multinational companies, including Coke and Nestle, to help them navigate the complicated world of logistics in Myanmar. By aggregating multiple fleets through its platform, Kargo becomes a single point of contact for companies moving product, thus simplifying the process massively. In the past, they’d deal with copious numbers of middlemen, who would liaise with truck fleets to add unnecessary levels of complication and cost.

“The market is very big, its a core part of how the whole country runs,” he explained, adding that Myanmar’s freight industry is expected to triple in the coming years.

Wicks said Kargo works with some 2,000-odd drivers mostly via fleet owners, who typically operate 5-50 trucks through their business. It disintermediates the aforementioned brokers and middlemen, to help drivers and fleet owners recoup a higher portion of each order and gain access to potential new clients. A partnership with Yoma Bank will also give the startup access to an SME loan that’ll enable it to make daily payouts to drivers that need more immediate cash flow than its regularly weekly deposits.

Kargo is currently close to $200,000 in monthly order volume, with 20-30 percent growth month-to-month during 2019, Wicks shared.

It is now exploring its first steps outside of Myanmar by covering ‘logistics corridors’ into Thailand. Wicks said the company has seen a high level of requests to move overseas from existing clients, and he intends to use those relationships to begin to step into new markets tentatively, starting with Thailand.

The new funding will also go towards developing Kargo’s new — and particularly improving the web app used by drivers — as well as increased education and training for truck operators and drivers.

“It’s very much a product for Myanmar,” Wicks said in an interview. “It’s an old industry being built with a new mindset.”

Finally, hiring is a key focus for the capital, too.

Kargo currently has a team of 32, most of whom are located in Yangon, and that headcount is forecast to rise to as many as 60 this year. Business development, fleet management and operations are the core areas where the startup plans to hire, and that will include beefing up its new office in Mandalay.

Wicks — center in a cap — with the members of the Kargo team

Building a startup in Myanmar

When asked what the hardest part of operating a startup in Myanmar is, Wicks claimed that dealing with the government is just ahead of raising investment money.

“Bureaucracy… there are no stats or systems here,” he said. “We have to deal with a lot of government issues.”

Still, he said, the arrival of Uber and its regional competitor Grab — which ultimately acquired the U.S. firm’s regional business — in Myanmar in 2017 gave Kargo and other on-demand startups in the country a real foothold in working with governments by educating them on new business models.

“They made it clear what a platform is for the government,” Wicks said.

He believes that their arrival, coupled with growing internet usage and increased speed, have also helped get investors comfortable with the idea of investing in tech in Myanmar, although he insisted that they must still be “patient” over growth.

“It’s certainly a much more positive landscape for founders today,” Wicks said. “That trust has changed for investors, there are a few of us building companies across the country.”

Educating and training drivers is a major focus for Kargo following its fundraising

That’s certainly true for Cocoon Capital — which is currently raising for a $20 million fund having completed a first close last year.

Managing partner Michael Blakey told TechCrunch that Kargo is the firm’s second investment from that new fund. He’s equally bullish that Kargo is well placed to take advantage of both digital growth and the development of logistics as Myanmar continues to appeal to overseas businesses.

“Myanmar is the fastest growing economy in Southeast Asia and logistics is a key industry to support this growth,” Blakey said in a statement. “We believe the Kargo platform has the potential to disrupt the trucking industry, not only in Myanmar, but in the region.”

If ‘Myanmar 1.0’ was the establishment of credible startups, then the second chapter will be the cream of that crop venturing overseas. Kargo is one of the early contenders that is intent on making that move.

Dear Hollywood, here are 5 female founders to showcase instead of Elizabeth Holmes

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There’s a seemingly insatiable demand for Theranos content. John Carreyrou’s best-selling book, “Bad Blood,” has already inspired an HBO documentary, The Inventor; an ABC podcast called The Dropout, a prestige limited series starring SNL’s Kate McKinnon, was just announced; and Jennifer Lawrence is reportedly going to star in the feature film version of this tawdry “true crime meets tech” tale. That’s before getting started on the various and sundry cover stories and think pieces about her fraud.

I think it’s fair to say the Theranos story has been sufficiently well-documented, and I’m worried that this negative perception may be reinforced now that uBiome founder Jessica Richman has been placed on administrative leave. While it’s hard to pass on a chance to stoke startup schadenfreude, perhaps we could focus less on these rare, unrepresentative and dispiriting examples? Instead, Hollywood could put the spotlight on women who pioneered the bleeding edge of tech and actually produced billion-dollar successes. Here are a few candidates ready for their close-ups:

Judith Faulkner, founder and chief executive officer, Epic Systems

Judith Faulkner – Founder/CEO, Epic Systems

In the late 1970s, the picture of a working woman in Wisconsin was likely Laverne or Shirley. Little did anyone know that in the basement of a Victorian manse in Madison, the future of healthcare was being coded by Judith Faulkner, the founder and CEO of what would become Epic Systems. Epic is arguably the most impactful startup in the history of health software, and Faulkner was building medical scheduling software before most people could even picture a PC. Her efforts established the Electronic Medical Records market as we know it and today. Her company manages records for more than 200 million people, employs nearly 10,000 and generates around $2.7 billion per year in revenue — not bad for a math graduate who never raised any venture capital.

One might argue that the origins of medical software are too tepid to make for exciting TV, but something tells me the kind of CEO who hires Disney alums to design her corporate campus and dresses up like a wizard to address her employees might make for a compelling subject.

SANTA BARBARA, CA – FEBRUARY 09: Lynda Weinman speaks onstage (Photo by Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF)

Lynda Weinman – Founder/CEO, Lynda.com

Lynda Weinman might have the most esoteric path to becoming a billion-dollar entrepreneur in history. After getting a humanities degree from Evergreen College, where she was classmates with “Simpsons” creator Matt Groenig, Lynda opened a pair of punk rock fashion boutiques on LA’s Sunset Strip.

After those folded in the early 1980s, she taught herself enough computer graphics to become a freelance animator on movies like “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” which in turn led to her becoming a teacher at the prestigious Art Center College of Design. Her academic pedigree provided the launching pad to write an influential textbook; that, in turn, gave her the star power to strike out on her own as one of the first web celebrities.

Keep in mind; this dramatic arc only covers the time before she started the eponymous Lynda.com, and bootstrapped it to a $1.5 billion exit in edtech — an industry most VCs and entrepreneurs fear to tread. In terms of material for a memoir, Hannah Horvath has nothing on Lynda Weinman.

FRAMINGHAM, MA – MAY 30: Shira Goodman, former chief executive at Staples, poses for a portrait in Framingham, MA on May 30, 2017 (Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Shira Goodman – CEO, Staples.com

Shira Goodman has arguably done more for online shopping in the U.S. than anyone not named Bezos. She didn’t found Staples, but she did start and scale its “delivery business,” as she humbly calls it, to the point where it became the fourth largest e-commerce company in the U.S.

At a time when more nimble startups were disrupting big-box retailers, Shira did what few of her contemporaries could do — rapidly shifted a multi-billion-dollar legacy company in an ancient industry into the future, and eventually became CEO of the entire enterprise. She did this while also raising three children and supporting her husband when he decided to change careers and go to Rabbinical school. Sitcoms have been premised on less, and since two versions of “The Office” have captivated audiences, perhaps it’s time to provide the perspective from the CEO of Dunder-Mifflin HQ?

Helen Greiner, co-founder, iRobot

Helen Greiner – Co-founder, iRobot

From C. A. Rotwang in “Metropolis” to Tony Stark in the Marvel movies, there have been plenty of cinematic explorations of robot builders, but the story of iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner might be more interesting than anything yet committed to celluloid. As a recent grad from MIT, Greiner spent a substantial chunk of the 1990s applying her mechanical genius to everything from a mechatronic dinosaur for Disney to a store cleaning robot with the potential for mass destruction for SC Johnson.

Far from an ivory-tower academic, Grenier helped the government deploy search and rescue efforts at Ground Zero after 9/11 and cave-clearing ‘bots in Afghanistan, and the bomb-disposing Packbot she developed has saved the lives of thousands of service members. Grenier, at age 38, took her company public and made the Jetson’s vision of a robot housekeeper a reality in the form of the Roomba.

CAMBRIDGE, MA – MARCH 15: Kelsey Wirth, who has a grassroots organization called Mothers Out Front: Mobilizing For A Livable Climate (Photo by Essdras M Suarez/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kelsey Wirth – Co-founder, Align Technologies

While the original startup bros were inflating the tech bubble in the late 1990s, Kelsey Wirth was pioneering 3D printing, which at the time was as fantastical as anything Theranos promised. Wirth’s story as the co-founder of Align Technology is especially compelling in the way it shares some surface similarities with Holmes’ narrative. Prominent skeptics of Invisalign cast doubts on the company in its early days, noting that the startup’s PR had outstripped its clinical validation. Wirth had to solve seemingly intractable technical challenges, including scanning misaligned incisors, developing algorithms to overcome underbites, pioneering new manufacturing process, convincing the FDA to clear the product and then selling it across the country — armed only with an English lit degree and an MBA. Despite the long odds of curing crossbites with software, Wirth started what has become a publicly traded business that is currently worth more than 20 billion dollars.


Most of these founders faced setbacks, including external obstacles and those of their own making. There were layoffs, bad deals and few of these stories had perfectly happy endings. Still, while a contemporary startup can earn plaudits for simply repackaging CBD and pushing it on Facebook, these entrepreneurs demonstrated a level of ambition rarely seen among modern upstarts.

The sensational focus on Elizabeth Holmes’ misdeeds steal focus from a group of landmark female entrepreneurs and waste a tremendous opportunity to inspire the next generation with heroic tales instead of fables of fabrication. None of these accounts have the black and white morality of the Theranos debacle, but these founders cleared hurdles both scientific and social. They flipped the script and made history; surely Hollywood can find some drama in that.

Thanks to Parul Singh, Elizabeth Condon and Alyssa Rosenzweig for reviewing drafts of this post.

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