To fund Y Combinator’s top startups, VCs scoop them before Demo Day

Hundreds gathered this week at San Francisco’s Pier 48 to see the more than 200 companies in Y Combinator’s Winter 2019 cohort present their two-minute pitches. The audience of venture capitalists, who collectively manage hundreds of billions of dollars, noted their favorites. The very best investors, however, had already had their pick of the litter.

What many don’t realize about the Demo Day tradition is that pitching isn’t a requirement; in fact, some YC graduates skip out on their stage opportunity altogether. Why? Because they’ve already raised capital or are in the final stages of closing a deal.

ZeroDown, Overview.AI and Catch are among the startups in YC’s W19 batch that forwent Demo Day this week, having already pocketed venture capital. ZeroDown, a financing solution for real estate purchases in the Bay Area, raised a round upwards of $10 million at a $75 million valuation, sources tell TechCrunch. ZeroDown hasn’t responded to requests for comment, nor has its rumored lead investor: Goodwater Capital.

Without requiring a down payment, ZeroDown purchases homes outright for customers and helps them work toward ownership with monthly payments determined by their income. The business was founded by Zenefits co-founder and former chief technology officer Laks Srini, former Zenefits chief operating officer Abhijeet Dwivedi and Hari Viswanathan, a former Zenefits staff engineer.

The founders’ experience building Zenefits, despite its shortcomings, helped ZeroDown garner significant buzz ahead of Demo Day. Sources tell TechCrunch the startup had actually raised a small seed round ahead of YC from former YC president Sam Altman, who recently stepped down from the role to focus on OpenAI, an AI research organization. Altman is said to have encouraged ZeroDown to complete the respected Silicon Valley accelerator program, which, if nothing else, grants its companies a priceless network with which no other incubator or accelerator can compete.

Overview .AI’s founders’ resumes are impressive, too. Russell Nibbelink and Christopher Van Dyke were previously engineers at Salesforce and Tesla, respectively. An industrial automation startup, Overview is developing a smart camera capable of learning a machine’s routine to detect deviations, crashes or anomalies. TechCrunch hasn’t been able to get in touch with Overview’s team or pinpoint the size of its seed round, though sources confirm it skipped Demo Day because of a deal.

Catch, for its part, closed a $5.1 million seed round co-led by Khosla Ventures, NYCA Partners and Steve Jang prior to Demo Day. Instead of pitching their health insurance platform at the big event, Catch published a blog post announcing its first feature, The Catch Health Explorer.

“This is only the first glimpse of what we’re building this year,” Catch wrote in the blog post. “In a few months, we’ll be bringing end-to-end health insurance enrollment for individual plans into Catch to provide the best health insurance enrollment experience in the country.”

TechCrunch has more details on the healthtech startup’s funding, which included participation from Kleiner Perkins, the Urban Innovation Fund and the Graduate Fund.

Four more startups, Truora, Middesk, Glide and FlockJay had deals in the final stages when they walked onto the Demo Day stage, deciding to make their pitches rather than skip the big finale. Sources tell TechCrunch that renowned venture capital firm Accel invested in both Truora and Middesk, among other YC W19 graduates. Truora offers fast, reliable and affordable background checks for the Latin America market, while Middesk does due diligence for businesses to help them conduct risk and compliance assessments on customers.

Finally, Glide, which allows users to quickly and easily create well-designed mobile apps from Google Sheets pages, landed support from First Round Capital, and FlockJay, the operator an online sales academy that teaches job seekers from underrepresented backgrounds the skills and training they need to pursue a career in tech sales, secured investment from Lightspeed Venture Partners, according to sources familiar with the deal.

Pre-Demo Day M&A

Raising ahead of Demo Day isn’t a new phenomenon. Companies, thanks to the invaluable YC network, increase their chances at raising, as well as their valuation, the moment they enroll in the accelerator. They can begin chatting with VCs when they see fit, and they’re encouraged to mingle with YC alumni, a process that can result in pre-Demo Day acquisitions.

This year, Elph, a blockchain infrastructure startup, was bought by Brex, a buzzworthy fintech unicorn that itself graduated from YC only two years ago. The deal closed just one week before Demo Day. Brex’s head of engineering, Cosmin Nicolaescu, tells TechCrunch the Elph five-person team — including co-founders Ritik Malhotra and Tanooj Luthra, who previously founded the Box-acquired startup Steem — were being eyed by several larger companies as Brex negotiated the deal.

“For me, it was important to get them before batch day because that opens the floodgates,” Nicolaescu told TechCrunch. “The reason why I really liked them is they are very entrepreneurial, which aligns with what we want to do. Each of our products is really like its own business.”

Of course, Brex offers a credit card for startups and has no plans to dabble with blockchain or cryptocurrency. The Elph team, rather, will bring their infrastructure security know-how to Brex, helping the $1.1 billion company build its next product, a credit card for large enterprises. Brex declined to disclose the terms of its acquisition.

Hunting for the best deals

Y Combinator partners Michael Seibel and Dalton Caldwell, and moderator Josh Constine, speak onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images)

Ultimately, it’s up to startups to determine the cost at which they’ll give up equity. YC companies raise capital under the SAFE model, or a simple agreement for future equity, a form of fundraising invented by YC. Basically, an investor makes a cash investment in a YC startup, then receives company stock at a later date, typically upon a Series A or post-seed deal. YC made the switch from investing in startups on a pre-money safe basis to a post-money safe in 2018 to make cap table math easier for founders.

Michael Seibel, the chief executive officer of YC, says the accelerator works with each startup to develop a personalized fundraising plan. The businesses that raise at valuations north of $10 million, he explained, do so because of high demand.

“Each company decides on the amount of money they want to raise, the valuation they want to raise at, and when they want to start fundraising,” Seibel told TechCrunch via email. “YC is only an advisor and does not dictate how our companies operate. The vast majority of companies complete fundraising in the 1 to 2 months after Demo Day. According to our data, there is little correlation between the companies who are most in demand on Demo Day and ones who go on to become extremely successful. Our advice to founders is not to over optimize the fundraising process.”

Though Seibel says the majority raise in the months following Demo Day, it seems the very best investors know to be proactive about reviewing and investing in the batch before the big event.

Khosla Ventures, like other top VC firms, meets with YC companies as early as possible, partner Kristina Simmons tells TechCrunch, even scheduling interviews with companies in the period between when a startup is accepted to YC to before they actually begin the program. Another Khosla partner, Evan Moore, echoed Seibel’s statement, claiming there isn’t a correlation between the future unicorns and those that raise capital ahead of Demo Day. Moore is a co-founder of DoorDash, a YC graduate now worth $7.1 billion. DoorDash closed its first round of capital in the weeks following Demo Day.

“I think a lot of the activity before demo day is driven by investor FOMO,” Moore wrote in an email to TechCrunch. “I’ve had investors ask me how to get into a company without even knowing what the company does! I mostly see this as a side effect of a good thing: YC has helped tip the scale toward founders by creating an environment where investors compete. This dynamic isn’t what many investors are used to, so every batch some complain about valuations and how easy the founders have it, but making it easier for ambitious entrepreneurs to get funding and pursue their vision is a good thing for the economy.”

This year, given the number of recent changes at YC — namely the size of its latest batch — there was added pressure on the accelerator to showcase its best group yet. And while some did tell TechCrunch they were especially impressed with the lineup, others indeed expressed frustration with valuations.

Many YC startups are fundraising at valuations at or higher than $10 million. For context, that’s actually perfectly in line with the median seed-stage valuation in 2018. According to PitchBook, U.S. startups raised seed rounds at a median post-valuation of $10 million last year; so far this year, companies are raising seed rounds at a slightly higher post-valuation of $11 million. With that said, many of the startups in YC’s cohorts are not as mature as the average seed-stage company. Per PitchBook, a company can be several years of age before it secures its seed round.

Nonetheless, pricey deals can come as a disappointment to the seed investors who find themselves at YC every year but because their reputations aren’t as lofty as say, Accel, aren’t able to book pre-Demo Day meetings with YC’s top of class.

The question is who is Y Combinator serving? And the answer is founders, not investors. YC is under no obligation to serve up deals of a certain valuation nor is it responsible for which investors gain access to its best companies at what time. After all, startups are raking in larger and larger rounds, earlier in their lifespans; shouldn’t YC, a microcosm for the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem, advise their startups to charge the best investors the going rate?

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Airbnb agrees to acquire last-minute hotel-booking app HotelTonight

As Airbnb gears up for its big leap into the public markets, it’s expanding its accommodations platform to include more than just treehouses and quirky homes.

Today, the company has confirmed its intent to acquire HotelTonight, the developer of a hotel-booking application that lets travelers arrange last-minute accommodations. The deal was previously reported by The Wall Street Journal, which wrote in January that negotiations for the transaction had “gone cold.”

Airbnb is expected to complete an initial public offering as soon as this year, though co-founder and chief executive officer Brian Chesky has refrained from revealing a specific timeline. Like Uber, which plans to become the ultimate transportation company, Airbnb’s long-term ambition is to build an end-to-end travel platform complete with home sharing, hotel booking, business travel arrangements, experiences and more.

Airbnb declined to disclose terms of its HotelTonight acquisition. Once the deal is complete, the HotelTonight app and website will continue to operate independently, with co-founder and CEO Sam Shank reporting to Airbnb’s president of homes, Greg Greeley.

“We started HotelTonight because we knew people wanted a better way to book an amazing hotel room on-demand, and we are excited to join forces with Airbnb to bring this service to guests around the world,” Shank said in a statement. “Together, HotelTonight and Airbnb can give guests more choices and the world’s best boutique and independent hotels a genuine partner to connect them with those guests.”

Founded in 2010, San Francisco-based HotelTonight garnered a valuation of $463 million with a $37 million Series E funding in 2017, according to PitchBook. In total, the startup has raised $131 million in venture capital funding from Accel and Battery Ventures, which have participated in nearly every funding round for HotelTonight. Other early investors include Forerunner Ventures and First Round Capital.

Airbnb, for its part, was valued at $31 billion in 2017, with a $1 billion round. In January, Airbnb said it was profitable for the second consecutive year on an EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) basis.

HotelTonight offers discounts at hotels in the Americas, Europe and Australia. The company partners with hotels to offer un-sold rooms, catering to flexible travelers or those looking to make last-minute arrangements. The deal will make it easier for Airbnb users to book hotels without planning weeks or months in advance and will help Airbnb expand its community beyond short-term rental hosts and guests.

Airbnb introduced boutique hotels to its platform in early 2018 and has boasted its quick growth. In 2018, the business said it more than doubled the number of boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, hostels and resorts available. Airbnb’s business travel unit, Airbnb for Work, also had quick success. Launched in 2014, it now accounts for 15 percent of bookings. In total, Airbnb offers some 5 million places to stay in 191 countries.

Airbnb is kicking off 2019 with an acquisitive streak. In January, the company acquired Danish startup Gaest, a provider of a marketplace-style platform for people to post and book venues for meetings and other work-related events. The company again declined to pinpoint the price, though given Gaest had raised just $3.5 million in equity funding, the deal pales in comparison to Airbnb’s HotelTonight acquisition.

2019 is stacking up to be a particularly busy year for unicorn IPOs, some of which were likely delayed by a weeks-long government shutdown at the start of the year. Lyft, which recently unveiled its S-1, is poised to be the first billion-dollar company to exit to the stock markets, followed by Uber, Slack and Pinterest. Will Airbnb nudge its way into that lineup? We’ll see.

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It’s a new era for fertility tech

Women’s health has long been devoid of technological innovation, but when it comes to fertility options, that’s starting to change. Startups in the space are securing hundreds of millions in venture capital investment, a significant increase to the dearth of funding collected in previous years.

Fertility entrepreneurs are focused on a growing market: couples are choosing to reproduce later in life, an increasing number of female breadwinners are able to make their own decisions about when and how to reproduce, and overall, around 10% of women in the US today have trouble conceiving, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Startups, as a result, are working to improve various pain points in a women’s fertility journey, whether that be with new-age brick-and-mortar clinics, information platforms, mobile applications, wearables, direct-to-consumer medical tests or otherwise.

Although the investment numbers are still relatively small (compared to, say, scooters), the trend is up — here’s the latest from founders and investors in the space.

VCs want to help you get pregnant

Clue, a period and ovulation-tracking app, co-founder and CEO Ida Tin talks at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin 2017 (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

This fall, TechCrunch received a tip that SoftBank, a prolific venture capital firm known for its nearly $100 billion Vision Fund, was investing in Glow, a period-tracking app meant to help women get pregnant. Max Levchin, Glow’s co-founder and a well-known member of the PayPal mafia, succinctly responded to a TechCrunch inquiry regarding the deal via e-mail: “Fairly sure you got this particular story wrong,” he wrote. Glow co-founder and chief executive officer Mike Huang did not respond to multiple requests for comment at the time.

Needless to say, some semblance of a SoftBank fertility deal got this reporter interested in a space that seldom populates tech blogs.

Femtech, a term coined by Ida Tin, the founder of another period and ovulation-tracking app Clue, is defined as any software, diagnostics, products and services that leverage technology to improve women’s health. Femtech, and more specifically the businesses in the fertility and contraception lanes, hasn’t made headlines as often as AI or blockchain technology has, for example. Probably because companies in the sector haven’t closed as many notable venture deals. That’s changing.

The global fertility services market is expected to exceed $21 billion by 2020, according to Technavio. Meanwhile, private investment in the femtech space surpassed $400 million in 2018 after reaching a high of $354 million the previous year, per data collected from PitchBook and Crunchbase. This year already several companies have inked venture deals, including men’s fertility business Dadi and Extend Fertility, which helps women freeze their eggs.

“In the last three to six months, it feels like investor interest has gone through the roof,” Jake Anderson-Bialis, co-founder of FertilityIQ and a former investor at Sequoia Capital, told TechCrunch. “It’s three to four emails a day; people are coming out of the woodwork. It feels like somebody shook the snow globe here and it just hasn’t stopped for months now.”

Dadi, Extend Fertility and FertilityIQ are among a growing list of startups in the fertility space to crop up in recent years. FertilityIQ, for its part, provides a digital platform for fertility patients to research and review doctors and clinics. The company also collects data and issues reports, like this one, which ranked businesses by fertility benefits. Anderson-Bialis launched the platform with his wife, co-founder Deborah Anderson-Bialis, in 2016 after the pair overcame their own set of infertility issues.

Anderson-Bialis said he has recently fielded requests from seed, Series A and growth-stage investors interested in exploring the growing fertility market. His company, however, has yet to raise any outside capital. Why? He doesn’t see FertilityIQ as a venture-scale business, but rather a passion project, and he’s skeptical of the true market opportunity for other businesses in the space.

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Athenascope nabs $2.5M seed led by First Round to bring gamers AI-edited highlight reels

As massive cross-platform gaming titles become even larger time-sucks for a lot of people, it’s probably worth reflecting on how to savor your in-game accomplishments.

Streaming of esports celebrities on sites like Twitch has taken off like no one imagined, but for the most part the toil-heavy editing process has left this attention largely focused on those with the ambitions of making gaming their full-time gig.

Athenascope is a small startup aiming to tap computer vision intelligence to record, review and recap what more novice gamers were able to pull off in their latest battle royale with a short, shareable highlight reel. The team is led by Chris Kirmse, who previously founded Xfire, a game messaging client that Viacom bought in 2006 for north of $100 million.

The company announced this week that they’ve closed a $2.5 million seed round led by First Round Capital to grow its tools and its team. They’re also rolling out their AI highlight reel tool for gamers. The tool is pretty customized for individual titles; they’re launching with support for Fortnite, Rocket League and PUBG, but Kirmse hopes to expand that list significantly in the future.

Josh Kopelman, a partner at First Round Capital who is joining Athenascope’s board, highlighted that a lot of existing tools for gaming entertainment are “really skewed towards the high-end.”

“They’re not democratized, they’re for professional gamers,” Kopelman told TechCrunch. “What I think Chris is trying to do with Athenascope is enable anyone to create these high-quality game highlights — what the pros have to do manually.”

The company is tackling a problem familiar to video-editing software companies: how to prevent footage from dying on the device. The answer here is the same as many others have posited, tapping computer vision deep learning to do the heavy lifting in determining which footage is interesting and worthy of a highlight reel. Athenascope has some key advantages over the companies like GoPro that are trying to do the same with real-world video, namely the games they support operate in fundamentally more predictable ways and 2D interface cues offer some pretty healthy indicators of when exciting stuff is going down.

The game isn’t a plug-in that needs pipeline access to your Fortnite account or anything, the product simply analyzes exactly what you’re seeing when you play. The startup is also working on cool tools that allow you to see multiple perspectives of individual moments in gameplay by essentially syncing footage from other people involved in a match that are also Athenascope’s service and giving a sort of multi-view replay.

The company has broader ambitions of how it can evolve these gaming insights with computer vision, including ways to help gamers learn about their strengths and weaknesses in a way that lets Athenascope serve as a sort of computer vision coach. For now though, the big focus is on getting gamers these entertaining snapshots of their gaming experiences in an intelligent way.

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New pre-seed fund powered by First Round Capital will target recent graduates

In 2012, early Uber investor First Round Capital decided it needed an avenue to access the best companies brewing inside dormitories across the U.S. So the seed-stage venture capital firm launched Dorm Room Fund, a pool of capital managed by students for students. The project has brought 250 startups, including Harper Wilde and Brooklinen, and more than 400 entrepreneurs into the First Round network to date.

“But there’s an even bigger community of founders just on the other side of that graduation threshold; and if students can make great founders, then recent graduates make great founders as well,” wrote Bruno Faviero, a former managing partner of Dorm Room Fund and current co-founder and chief executive officer of Synapse Technology, in a recent blog post. “Yet the level of resources and support drops off when you’re no longer in school.”

Faviero, in partnership with Segment.com product manager Lauren Reeder, Totemic co-founder Neal Khosla and former Google project manager Parthi Loganathan, has formed Graduate Fund, a pre-seed fund targeting recent graduates of undergraduate or master’s programs. Just like Dorm Room Fund, Graduate Fund is supported by First Round Capital, leveraging the firm’s financial and managerial expertise but operating independently.

The Graduate Fund will write “angel-sized investments” or roughly $100,000 checks — larger than Dorm Room Fund’s $20,000 investments — to startups that lack a network of angel investors and that are not ready for big-name investor support. The idea is to not only fill First Round’s pipeline of viable investments but to protect projects from turning to startup accelerators that ask for a large stake in return for a small investment.

The Graduate Fund has backed five companies so far: And Comfort, a direct-to-consumer plus-sized clothing brand; Floating Point Group, a cryptocurrency trading platform; Ally Shoes, which makes high-performance high-heeled shoes for women; Spellbrush, an AI assistant for artists; and probiotics maker Zbiotics.

Pre-seed investing emerged a couple of years ago as a result of the growing size of seed and Series A deals. A pre-seed check is typically under $1 million, or, in other words, the size a seed deal was a decade ago. The median U.S. seed deal hit a new high of $2.1 million in the fourth quarter of 2018 and the median Series A funding grew to $8 million.

Many in the venture capital community still scoff at the notion of pre-seed investing but multiple funds, The Graduate Fund being the latest, have cropped up with pre-seed at the center of their theses. Elizabeth Yin and Eric Bahn partnered to launch Hustle Fund in 2017. The pre-seed firm closed on $11.5 million late last year. Afore Capital, led by Anamitra Banerji and Gaurav Jain, pulled in $47 million for their debut pre-seed vehicle in 2017. Bee Partners, K9, Pear, Precursor, Notation and Wonder have similarly startup pre-seed-focused outfits.

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