Sequoia reveals first cohort for its ‘Surge’ accelerator program in India and Southeast Asia

Back in January, Sequoia India announced plans for its first early-stage startup accelerator program in India and Southeast Asia, and today the firm revealed the first cohort of 17 startups.

To recap, the program — which is called Surge — gives each startup a $1.5 million check and participation in a four-month program that’s split across India and Singapore, as well as the wider Sequoia global presence in China and San Francisco.

The program kicked off last month, but the startups were only unveiled for the first time today — here they are:

  • Azani Sports: a ‘full stack’ sports clothing startup based in India that sells online and through selected high street retails
  • Bobobox: a capsule hotel company based in Indonesia
  • Bulbul: a live-streaming service with a focus on e-commerce across India
  • DancingMind: a Singapore startup that uses VR to enable remote for stroke victims and patients of debilitating diseases like Parkinson’s
  • Doubtnut: an India-based education startup that uses photos, videos and AI
  • Flynote: a travel booking service with a focus on personalized trips
  • Hippo Video: a platform developing, editing and analyzing marketing and sales videos
  • InterviewBit Academy: a computer science training and development platform in India — that’s not unlike recent Y Combinator graduate Skill-Lync
  • Khatabook: an accounting service for SMEs in India that already claims 120,000 weekly users
  • Qoala: a micro-insurance startup based in Indonesia, which competes with rivals like PasarPolis — which is backed by three of Indonesia’s unicorns
  • ShopUp: a social commerce startup that helps sellers in Bangladesh do business through Facebook — that’s a similar concept to established Indian startups Meesho (another YC alum) and LimeRoad which enable sellers on WhatsApp
  • Skillmatics: a startup headquartered in India that develops learning games for pre-school and primary school kids aged under 10
  • Telio: a b2b commerce platform that aims to digitize the process of brands and wholesalers selling to retailers
  • Uiza: a Singapore-Vietnam startup that lets publishers and companies develop their own video infrastructure independent of platforms like YouTube
  • Vybes: an e-commerce platform for social media influencers that’s based out of Singapore
  • Zenyum: a startup that provides invisible braces for consumers in Southeast Asia at a lower cost than traditional alternatives

There’s one additional startup which is being kept ‘under the radar’ for now, Sequoia said.

Sequoia India managing director Shailendra Singh previously told TechCrunch that Surge would support a ‘curated’ selections of fellow VCs who could invest alongside in the cohort alongside the firm, and Sequoia said that the 17 startups have attracted a total of $36 million in investment. A spokesperson also pointed out that five of the selection have at least one female co-founders, which is almost certainly above average for the region although it is tricky to get reliable data covering India and (in particular) Southeast Asia.

Surge is an interesting effort for Sequoia, which has traditionally played in post-seed and growth stages of the investment cycle. Sequoia closed its most recent fund for India and Southeast Asia at $695 million last year, and it also has access to a globally active ‘growth’ fund that is targeted at $8 billion. Reports have suggested that Surge will get its own sparkling new $200 million fund, which would make a lot of sense given the potential conflict and confusion of investing via its main fund. But the firm is declining to comment on that possibility for now.

One major addition to the program that has been confirmed, however, is Rajan Anandan, the executive who previously ran Google’s business in India and Southeast Asia and is a well-known angel investor. His arrival was announced earlier this month and he will lead the Surge initiative.

His recruitment is a major win for Sequoia, which is betting that Surge’s early stage push will reap it richer dividends in India and Southeast Asia. That part remains to be seen, but certainly, there is a dearth of early-stage programs in both regions compared to other parts of the world.

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Index Ventures, Stripe back bookkeeping service Pilot with $40M

Five years after Dropbox acquired their startup Zulip, Waseem Daher, Jeff Arnold and Jessica McKellar have gained traction for their third business together: Pilot.

Pilot helps startups and small businesses manage their back office. Chief executive officer Daher admits it may seem a little boring, but the market opportunity is undeniably huge. To tackle the market, Pilot is today announcing a $40 million Series B led by Index Ventures with participation from Stripe, the online payment processing system.

The round values Pilot, which has raised about $60 million to date, at $355 million.

“It’s a massive industry that has sucked in the past,” Daher told TechCrunch. “People want a really high-quality solution to the bookkeeping problem. The market really wants this to exist and we’ve assembled a world-class team that’s capable of knocking this out of the park.”

San Francisco-based Pilot launched in 2017, more than a decade after the three founders met in MIT’s student computing group. It’s not surprising they’ve garnered attention from venture capitalists, given that their first two companies resulted in notable acquisitions.

Pilot has taken on a massively overlooked but strategic segment — bookkeeping,” Index’s Mark Goldberg told TechCrunch via email. “While dry on the surface, the opportunity is enormous given that an estimated $60 billion is spent on bookkeeping and accounting in the U.S. alone. It’s a service industry that can finally be automated with technology and this is the perfect team to take this on — third-time founders with a perfect combo of financial acumen and engineering.”

The trio of founders’ first project, Linux upgrade software called Ksplice, sold to Oracle in 2011. Their next business, Zulip, exited to Dropbox before it even had the chance to publicly launch.

It was actually upon building Ksplice that Daher and team realized their dire need for tech-enabled bookkeeping solutions.

“We built something internally like this as a byproduct of just running [Ksplice],” Daher explained. “When Oracle was acquiring our company, we met with their finance people and we described this system to them and they were blown away.”

It took a few years for the team to refocus their efforts on streamlining back-office processes for startups, opting to build business chat software in Zulip first.

Pilot’s software integrates with other financial services products to bring the bookkeeping process into the 21st century. Its platform, for example, works seamlessly on top of QuickBooks so customers aren’t wasting precious time updating and managing the accounting application.

“It’s better than the slow, painful process of doing it yourself and it’s better than hiring a third-party bookkeeper,” Daher said. “If you care at all about having the work be high-quality, you have to have software do it. People aren’t good at these mechanical, repetitive, formula-driven tasks.”

Currently, Pilot handles bookkeeping for more than $100 million per month in financial transactions but hopes to use the infusion of venture funding to accelerate customer adoption. The company also plans to launch a tax prep offering that they say will make the tax prep experience “easy and seamless.”

“It’s our first foray into Pilot’s larger mission, which is taking care of running your companies entire back office so you can focus on your business,” Daher said.

As for whether the team will sell to another big acquirer, it’s unlikely.

“The opportunity for Pilot is so large and so substantive, I think it would be a mistake for this to be anything other than a large and enduring public company,” Daher said. “This is the company that we’re going to do this with.”

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Y Combinator grad, Fuzzbuzz lands $2.7M seed round to deliver fuzzing as service

Fuzzbuzz, a graduate of the most recent Y Combinator class, got the kind of news every early-stage startup wants to hear when it landed a $2.7 million seed round to help deliver a special class of automated software testing known as fuzzing in the form of a cloud service.

Fuel Capital led the round. Homebrew and Susa Ventures also participated along with various angel investors including Docker co-founder Solomon Hykes, Mesosphere co-founder Florian Leibert and Looker co-founder Ben Porterfield.

What Fuzzbuzz does specifically is automate fuzzing at scale, says co-founder and CEO Andrei Serban. “It’s a type of automated software testing that can perform thousands of tests per second,” he explained. Fuzzbuzz, is also taking advantage of artificial intelligence and machine learning underpinnings to use feedback from the results to generate new tests automatically, so that it should get smarter as it goes along.

The goal is to cover as much of the code as possible, much faster and more efficiently than human testers ever could, and find vulnerabilities and bugs. It’s the kind of testing every company generating code would obviously want to do, but the problem is that up until now the process has been expensive and required highly specialized security engineers to undertake. Companies like Google and Facebook are able to hire these kinds of people to build fuzzing solutions, but for the most part, it’s been out of reach for your average company.

Serban says his co-founder, Everest Munro-Zeisberger, worked on the Google Chrome fuzzing team, which has surfaced more than 15,000 bugs using this technique. He wanted to put this type of testing in reach of anyone.

“Today, anyone can start fuzzing on Fuzzbuzz in less than 20 minutes. We hook directly into GitHub and your CI/CD pipeline, categorize and de-duplicate each bug found, and then notify you through tools like Slack and Jira. Using the Fuzzbuzz CLI, developers can then test and fix the bug locally before pushing their code back up to GitHub,” the company wrote in a blog post announcing the funding.

It’s still early days, and the startup is working with some initial customers. The funding should help the three founders, Serban, Munro-Zesberger and Sabera Hussain; to hire more engineers and bring a more complete solution to market. It’s an ambitious undertaking, but if it succeeds in creating a fuzzing service, it could mean delivering code with fewer bugs and that would be good for everyone.

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Starbucks challenger Luckin’s fundraising spree continues with $150M investment

Coffee startup Luckin is continuing its fundraising spree as it sets its sight on becoming an alternative to Starbucks in China.

The a-year-and-a-half old company announced on Thursday that it closed a Series B-plus raise totaling $150 million. The fresh proceeds valued Luckin at $2.9 billion post-money, up from $2.2 billion just four months ago.

While many question Luckin’s cash-fueled expansion, Blackrock, which owns a 6.58 percent stake in Starbucks, shows its confidence in the Chinese startup by pumping $125 million through its private equity fund into Luckin’s new round.

With that, the New York-based investment firm has its bet on two contrasting models for China’s coffee consumption. While Starbucks zeroes in on the brick-and-mortar experience, Luckin is a network of last-mile coffee delivery centers plus places for people to pick up orders and sit down targeting busy white-collar workers.

In a move that would amp up its battle with Luckin, Starbucks teamed up with Alibaba’s food delivery unit Ele.me last August to put hot and cold drinks in people’s hands.

Luckin did not disclose how it will spend the fresh capital infusion, but the pace at which it’s raising suggests the startup is in dire need of cash. The new round arrived less than a year after it secured a $200 million Series A in July and another $200 million from a Series B in December.

Indeed, Luckin founder Qian Zhiya, a former executive at auto rental firm Car Inc, confessed the company burned through $150 million within just six months from launching. A big chunk of money had gone to shelling out deep discounts for consumers, while the coffee challenger’s offline expansion was as cash-intensive.

As of late, Luckin has opened 2,000 outlets consisting of small prep kitchens, pickup stations and cafes in 22 Chinese cities, up from 1,700 locations reached in December. That gives Luckin less than eight months to fulfill its ambition of becoming the “biggest coffee chain in China by the number of outlets run and cups sold.” The goal is to top 4,500 outlets by the end of 2019.

Starbucks, which made its foray into China 20 years ago, has also been aggressively putting up storefronts. It currently runs 3,600 stores across 150 cities in China, up from 3,300 last May.

When it comes to actual people using the service, Starbucks still enjoys a huge lead. The Luckin app that allows one to order and pay has 650 thousand unique downloads in March, data from research firm iResearch shows. Starbucks’s app is more than four times its size with 2.81 million unique downloads from the same period.

Other investors who joined in on Luckin’s latest round included existing backers such as Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC, Chinese government-controlled China International Capital Corporation, Dazheng Capital and Joy Capital, whose founding partner Liu Erhai sits on Luckin’s board.

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Co-Star raises $5 million to bring its astrology app to Android

Nothing scales like a horoscope.

If you haven’t heard of Co-Star, you might just be in the wrong circles. In some social scenes it’s pretty much ubiquitous. Wherever conversations regularly kick off by comparing astrological charts, it’s useful to have that info at hand. The trend is so notable that the app even got a shout out in a New York Times piece on VCs flocking to astrology startups.

This week, the company behind probably the hottest iOS astrology app announced that it has raised a $5.2 million seed round. Maveron, Aspect, 14w and Female Founder Fund all participated in the round, which follows $750,000 in prior pre-seed funding. The company plans to use the funding to craft an Android companion to its iOS-only app, grow its team and “build features that encourage new ways get closer, new ways to take care of ourselves, and new ways to grow.”

TechCrunch spoke with Banu Guler, the CEO and co-founder of Co-Star about what it was like talking to potential investors to drum up money for an idea that Silicon Valley’s elite echo chambers might find unconventional.

“We certainly talked to some who were dismissive,” Guler told TechCrunch in an email. “But the reality is that interest in astrology is skyrocketing… It was all about finding the right investors who see the value in astrology and the potential for growth.”

“There are people out there who think astrology is silly or unserious. But in our experience, the number of people who find value and meaning in astrology is far greater than the number of people who are turned off by it.”

If you’ve ever used a traditional astrology app or website to look up your birth chart — that is, to determine the positions of the planets on the day and time you were born — then you’ve probably noticed how most of those services share more in common with ancient Geocities sites than they do with bright, modern apps. In contrast, Co-Star’s app is clean and artful, with encyclopedia-like illustrations and a simple layout. It’s not something with an infinite scroll you’ll get lost in, but it’s pleasant to dip into Co-Star, check your algorithmically-generated horoscope and see what your passive aggressive ex’s rising sign is.

In a world still obsessed with the long-debunked Meyers-Briggs test, you can think of astrology as a kind of cosmic organizational psychology, but one more interested in peoples’ emotional realities than their modus operandi in the workplace. For many young people — and queer people, from personal experience — astrology is a thoroughly playful way to take stock of life. Instead of directly predicting future events (good luck with that), it’s is more commonly used as a way to evaluate relationships, events and anything else. If astrology memes on Instagram are any indication, there’s a whole cohort of people using astrology as a framework for talking about their emotional lives. That search for authenticity — and no doubt the proliferation of truly inspired viral content — is likely fueling the astrology boom. 

“By positioning human experience against a backdrop of a vast universe, Co–Star creates a shortcut to real talk in a sea of small talk: a way to talk about who we are and how we relate to each other,” the company wrote in its funding announcement. “It doesn’t reduce complexity. It doesn’t judge. It understands.”

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