Tandem CEO will tell you why building a bank is hard at Disrupt Berlin

Challenger banks, neobanks or digital-only banks… Whatever we choose to call them, Europe — and the U.K. in particular — has more than its fair share of bank upstarts battling it out for a slice of the growing fintech pie. One of those is Tandem, co-founded by financial technology veteran Ricky Knox, who we’re excited to announce will join us at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

Tandem — or the so-called “Good Bank” — has been on quite a journey this year. Most recently the bank launched a competitive fixed savings product, pitting it against a whole host of incumbent and challenger banks. It followed the launch of the Tandem credit card in February, which competes well on cash-back and FX rates when spending abroad.

Both products are part of a wider strategy where, like many other consumer-facing fintechs, Tandem wants to become your financial control centre and connect you to and offer various financial services. These are either products of its own or through partnerships with other fintech startups and more established providers.

At the heart of this is the Tandem mobile app, which acts as a Personal Finance Manager (PFM), including letting you aggregate your non-Tandem bank account data from other bank accounts or credit cards you might have, in addition to managing any Tandem products you’ve taken out. The company recently acquired fintech startup Pariti to beef up its account aggregation features.

However, what makes Tandem’s recent progress all the more interesting is that it comes after a definite bump in the road last year. This saw the company temporarily lose its banking license and forced to make lay-offs following the partial collapse of a £35 million investment round from department store House of Fraser, due to restrictions on capital leaving China. The remedy was further investment from existing backers and the bold move to acquire Harrods Bank, the banking arm of the U.K.’s most famous luxury department store.

As you can see, there is plenty to talk about. And some. So, why not grab your ticket to Disrupt Berlin to listen to the Tandem story. The conference will take place on November 29-30.

In addition to fireside chats and panels, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield Europe to win the highly coveted Battlefield cup.


Ricky Knox

CEO & Co-Founder, Tandem

Ricky is a serial investor and entrepreuner. He has built five technology disruptors in fintech and telecoms, each of which also does a bit of good for the world.

Before Tandem he founded Azimo and Small World, two remittance businesses, and is managing partner of Hexagon Partners, a private equity firm. He built Tandem to be a digital bank that helps improve customers’ lives with money.

Ricky has a first class degree from Bristol University and an MBA from INSEAD.

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‘Brotopia’ inspired OODA Health to raise its $40.5M round only from firm’s with female partners

It’s never particularly easy to raise a round of venture capital — but I think most experienced founders will tell you its not quite as bad the second or third time around, when you’ve got some experience under your belt and a track record to present to VCs.

It helps if you’re male too, at least according to all the data out there on the gender funding gap in VC.

The leadership team at OODA Health, a startup developing technology to make the U.S. healthcare payment system more efficient, is both male and experienced. But unlike most companies of that nature, OODA decided to raise money for the business only from VC firms that have at least one female leader, a solution to one of tech’s greatest problems that is oft suggested and rarely executed.

“‘Brotopia’ really hit me hard,” OODA Health co-founder and CEO Giovanni Colella told TechCrunch.

Colella is the founder and former CEO of Castlight Health, which raised nearly $200 million in VC funding before going public on the NYSE in 2014. Co-founder and COO Seth Cohen is Castlight’s former VP of sales and alliances and co-founder and CTO Usama Fayyad is the former global chief data officer at Barclays and Yahoo .

The trio ultimately landed on lead investors Annie Lamont of Oak HC/FT and Emily Melton of DFJ, both of which have joined the company’s board of directors.

We have a responsibility of setting an example,” Colella said. “There is no machismo in what we’ve done. We are not better than you because we did it. We were blessed. We had more investors that wanted to invest than we could accommodate.”

Though the company’s c-suite is occupied by men, Cohen and Colella were quick to clarify that the rest of their founding team, head of operations Julie Skaff, head of product Sophie Pinkard and director of product strategy Midori Uehara, are women.

The team began working on OODA Health last year after Colella and Cohen agreed to build something that would upend the healthcare industry. Healthcare, they realized, is at least 20 years behind the advances in financial tech.

The pair said their real aha moment was when they learned even insurance companies — the real laggards — are ready to be rid of the slow, futile billing and payment methods that accompany any and every doctor and hospital visit.

“The idea of submitting a claim and not knowing when you are going to get reimbursed or get a bill, that has been the same for decades,” Cohen told TechCrunch. “Imagine, today, if you took a Visa card and you went to a restaurant … and then a month later received a bill, that’s how healthcare works.”

If OODA has their way, paying for a doctor’s visit will be more like paying for a hotel. You’re told upfront what you owe and you work exclusively with the insurance company to make that payment. And in this idyllic future, you won’t receive an “explanation of benefits” notice in the mail as well as a bill and subsequently fall into a downward spiral of confusion, stress and frustration.

Headquartered in San Francisco, OODA has teamed with several big-name insurance providers, including Anthem, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, Blue Shield of California, Zaffre Investments, Dignity Health and Hill Physicians to make this happen.

As far as lifting up women in VC, that’s purely been a side benefit of the overall operation.

“At the end of the day, we found two of the best investors to back us,” Cohen said.

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Vegan meal delivery startup Allplants is served £7.5M Series A funding

Allplants, a London-based startup that delivers ready-made “plant-based” meals (that’s vegan, to you and me), has raised £7.5 million in Series A funding. The round is led by VC firm Octopus Ventures, which was an early backer in healthy snack delivery company Graze.

Additional investors in the round include existing backer Felix Capital (which I’m told has doubled its seed investment), Swedish VC firm Otiva, unnamed partners at VerlInvest (who are participating in a personal capacity), David Milner (ex-CEO Tyrells), Simon Nixon (founder of MoneySupermarket), and video blogger Jack Harries. Allplants reckons it is the U.K.’s largest Series A round for a vegan company.

Based on the premise that switching to a plant-based diet is the most impactful way to reduce our environmental footprint (and improve health), Allplants has developed a delivery service that wants to make it “effortlessly easy to eat more plants”. Specifically, either as a one-off or on a subscription basis, it delivers healthy, chef-made, vegan meals, for you to reheat at home.

They are “quick frozen” to lock in freshness and the idea is that you receive six meals at a time, to serve one or two people each, making the model more scalable and delivery more cost-effective. When your food is delivered you store it in your own freezer and cook/eat as needed, before your next order.

Since being founded in 2017 by brothers Jonathan and Alex Petrides, Allplants says it has served over 250,000 meals nationwide to plant-inspired foodies and built a “movement” with over 70,000 online fans. Notably, the company is a B-Corp, promising to do good by people and the planet.

Meanwhile, Allplants says it will use the investment to develop a broader range of ready-to-eat food, accelerate the growth of its community, further grow its North London-based 40-plus team, and expand the capacity of its production kitchen, which will operate on renewable and waste-created energy.

Adds Allplants’ Jonathan Petrides: “Most allplants customers aren’t veggie or vegan, they’re curious and hunting for convenient, healthy ways to boost their busy lives. This investment well help us fuel the plant-based movement forward”.

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Spire Health Tags are now on Apple’s shelves

Spire’s Health Tags, the dark and tiny devices you stick on your clothes to gather all sorts of health data from your steps, heartbeat and stress levels is now available at your local Apple Store.

The company started out with a breath tracking device to detect when you are feeling tense and help calm you down. But four years in and its now all about the wearable “tags” you stick on items of clothing like your pants or sports bra.

Yes, yes, there are lots of gadgets out there to gather similar information — the Apple Watch will now even detect if you have a fall or something is wrong with your heart — but the Spire health tag is nothing like a Fitbit or Apple Watch, according to the company. For one, there’s zero need to charge the device. One tag’s battery will last a year and a half before dying out. They’re also machine washable. You just pick a few outfits and stick a tag on each of them.

Of course a few other startups out there are working on making smart, washable, data-gathering clothes. Enflux makes the clothing and then sews in the motion sensor to tell you if you are lifting correctly. Vitali is a “smart” bra with a built-in sensor to detect stress. Then there’s OmSignal, which makes body-hugging workout clothes that gather “medical-grade biometric data to achieve optimal health.” But these tiny health tags are different in that they allow you to choose the clothes you want to adhere the monitor to.

Like Spire’s first product, the Stone, which earned more than $8 million in sales, according to the company, the tags will also pick up on times of stress and help calm you down through a series of breaths and focus on the app.

“Continuous health data will revolutionize health and wellness globally, but early incarnations have been hampered by poor user experiences and a focus on the hardware over the outcomes that the hardware can create,” Spire’s founder Jonathan Palley said. “By making the device ‘disappear’, we believe Health Tag is the first product to unlock the potential.”

Spire’s Health Tags will be sold in Apple Stores as a three-pack for $130, six-pack for $230 and an eight-pack for $300, with additional pack sizes available on the company’s website.

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Framer X design tool steps in the ring with InVision, Adobe, and Sketch

Design tools are becoming increasingly important to just about every brand out there. Today, a new entrant joins the race.

Framer X, a revamped version of three-year-old Framer, was founded by Koen Bok and Jorn van Dijk after the duo sold design software Sofa to Facebook in 2011. Framer X is a rich, React-based design tool that lets any designer draw out their interface components and instantly send them over to the engineering team for collaboration.

The key here is reusability and fidelity. With Framer X, engineers can send over existing components that are in production and let designers move forward from there. Conversely, designers aren’t sending developers a facsimile of a button or icon but the actual SVG code behind that component.

Framer X also allows users to collect components and other design items as a package within the Framer X store, so that they’re easily accessible during the design process. Framer X offers a public Framer X Store where casual designers can build off of the experience of advanced designers who’ve uploaded components to the store.

The company also allows enterprises to launch their own private store for use within the organization.

Framer costs $15/month for users, and private Framer X stores for the enterprise are priced flexibly based on the size of the organization.

Framer now joins a competitive landscape, which includes the likes of InVision, Adobe, and Sketch .

The company says it has around 50,000 monthly active users, with 200 companies (including Google, Facebook and Dropbox) using the product. Framer has raised $9 million to date from Greylock, Foundation Capital, Designer Fund, and Accel Europe.

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Lyft hits 1 billion rides a couple of months after Uber hit 10 billion trips

Today marks a big milestone for Lyft — one billion rides. That’s a milestone Uber hit in December 2015. Uber has since grown to 10 billion trips completed — including Eats deliveries — as of this past July. Uber, of course, had a bit of head start given it launched in 2009 while Lyft first launched in 2012.

This milestone for Lyft comes about a year after it announced it was completing one million rides a day. To celebrate it, Lyft employees are surprising 3,500 drives with a free tank of gas.

Earlier this month, Lyft officially entered the scooter sharing space when it launched electric scooters in Denver, Colo. Lyft has since deployed its scooters in Santa Monica, Calif. as part of the city’s pilot program. Lyft’s entrance into scooters came close after its acquisition of bike-share company Motivate. We’ll be watching closely to see how Lyft’s additional modes of transportation impacts number of trips completed.

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Marketing data startup Singular raises $30M

Singular, a startup working to unify data for marketers, is announcing that it has raised $30 million in Series B funding.

The company was founded by former Onavo executives, including Gadi Eliashiv, Eran Friedman and Susan Kuo — who now serve, respectively, as Singular’s CEO, CTO and COO.

Eliashiv explained that Singular was created in response to “this trend of data explosion in the marketing stack,” which require marketers to pull data from hundreds or thousands of different systems.

“Essentially what we see is the creation of this new category of marketing intelligence, where the complexity of the marketing stack has created the need for this layer that sits on top,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you use a marketing cloud like Adobe that’s bundling five products together — at the end of the day, you need a layer on top on making sense of it, helping you make better decisions.”

Singular Dashboard

Eliashiv said Singular is able to go from a high-level dashboard summary for CMOs to “the finest level of detail.” He also noted that while the company is designed to integrate with existing marketing tools, it will “oftentimes displace smaller point solutions.”

“Our principal is, it has to be relevant for data, meaning we’re never going to displace your ad-buying tool,” he added. “It’s not what we do. We’re an intelligence platform.”

The idea of unifying marketing data is one that I hear a lot, but Eliashiv’s claims seem weightier when you see that Singular is already working with a number of big names, including Lyft, Yelp, Airbnb, Linkedin, Symantec, Zynga, Match and Twitter.

Singular previously raised $20 million in funding. Norwest Venture Partners led the new round, with partner Scott Beechuk joining the board of directors.

Beechuk told me that he’d been studying marketing analytics market for quite some time, and he argued, “There is something really unique and special about Singular. It’s the bridge between mobile, web and offline, all on a single platform.”

“What you’re going to find is, there are going to be a lot of technologies that Singular replaces,” Beechuck continued. “Let’s say a CMO or [chief growth officer] has 300 different outlets where they are advertising … Every one of those systems tends to have their own analytics built in. The first thing Singular does, it replaces all of those analytics systems with a single pane of glass.”

General Catalyst, Method Capital, Telstra Ventures, Translink Capital and Thomvest also participated in the new funding.

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Ostrichpillow Hood, the latest product from Studio Banana, is no joke

I’m not going to lie, when Studio Banana released the original Ostrichpillow back in 2012, despite breaking all Kickstarter records at the time, I thought the whole thing might be an elaborate joke. Or, worse still, since the sleep-at-your-desk styled product had found popularity amongst people who worked at startups, Silicon Valley was now parodying itself.

Except that “transformative” design company Studio Banana is based in Europe, with offices based in London, Lake Geneva and Madrid. And 500,000 sales and five products later, the joke is arguably on its critics. As I’m fond of telling founders who ask for validation, ultimately it is the market that decides.

Enter the latest Ostrichpillow creation: the aptly named Ostrichpillow Hood. Aptly named because, well, it’s a hood. However, unlike the previous products in the range, which were designed to facilitate sleep in non-traditional places, the Ostrichpillow Hood, we’re told, is to be used in “everyday waking life”.

Specifically, by reducing the ability to see activity in the edges of your field of vision, it is intended to help you focus on the task at hand and/or reduce overstimulation, such as the kind induced by open plan co-working spaces.

The Ostrichpillow Original

“The product we’re launching now is the sixth of the different products that have emerged in the Ostrichpillow family and they’re catering to different needs,” Ali Ganjavian, co-founder of Studio Banana, tells me in a video call yesterday. “Ostrichpillow was really about complete isolation and it was really a statement product… So different products have different use-cases and different functions, and also different social acceptances”.

I suggest that the Ostrichpillow Hood may turn out to be broadly socially acceptable, not least for anyone already familiar with the original Ostrichpillow, but also because asking work colleagues to respect the need to focus is a lot different to asking them to ignore your need to take a nap at your desk. Ganjavian doesn’t degree, even though there is no doubt the two products share the same design heritage.

“A lot of the stuff we are thinking about now is about the state of mind,” he says, noting that throughout the working day we are bombarded with stimuli and information, from messaging apps, emails, social media, meetings and even something as innocuous as having to say hello to work mates. “[The Ostrichpillow Hood] is really about sheltering. It is not only a physical movement, there is psychology in the way it shelters you… it’s about shifting your mood”.

Next Ganjavian demonstrates the three positions the Ostrichpillow Hood is designed to be worn.

The ‘Hood’ position is for when you need to concentrate on something in public, for example when commuting or in an open plan office or coffee shop. Like wearing a pair of visually loud headphones, it also has the added effect of signalling to colleagues that you’d rather not be disturbed or are “wired in“.

The ‘Eclipse’ position, where the hood can be turned around to cover your face completely, is for when you need to truly switch off from your surroundings, such as to deeply think, take a short break or meditate. “If I’ve got my headphones on in that posture then what it allows me to do is to totally isolate myself in the same way I would with an Ostrichpillow but in a much more acceptable way,” says Ganjavian.

Finally, the ‘Hoop’ position, with the hood worn down around your neck, is designed to feel warm and cozy and turns the Ostrichpillow Hood into attire more akin to a fashion accessory.

Adds the Studio Banana co-founder: “What I find really exciting about this moment is that I currently work in between three different geographies, there is so much going on, and how do we create a tool or object that makes me feel good, helps me perform better, and helps me become more efficient, and also feeds that overall well-being that I’m looking for in my workplace. At the same time, I can just walk out into the street with it on and just go home and feel good about it”.

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Ultimate.ai nabs $1.3M for a customer service AI focused on non-English markets

For customer service, Ultimate.ai‘s thesis is it’s not humans or AI but humans and AI. The Helsinki- and Berlin-based startup has built an AI-powered suggestion engine that, once trained on clients’ data-sets, is able to provide real-time help to (human) staff dealing with customer queries via chat, email and social channels. So the AI layer is intended to make the humans behind the screens smarter and faster at responding to customer needs — as well as freeing them up from handling basic queries to focus on more complex issues.

AI-fuelled chatbots have fast become a very crowded market, with hundreds of so called ‘conversational AI’ startups all vying to serve the customer service cause.

Ultimate.ai stands out by merit of having focused on non-English language markets, says co-founder and CEO Reetu Kainulainen. This is a consequence of the business being founded in Finland, whose language belongs to a cluster of Eastern and Northern Eurasian languages that are plenty removed from English in sound and grammatical character.

“[We] started with one of the toughest languages in the world,” he tells TechCrunch. “With no available NLP [natural language processing] able to tackle Finnish, we had to build everything in house. To solve the problem, we leveraged state-of-the-art deep neural network technologies.

“Today, our proprietary deep learning algorithms enable us to learn the structure of any language by training on our clients’ customer service data. Core within this is our use of transfer learning, which we use to transfer knowledge between languages and customers, to provide a high-accuracy NLU engine. We grow more accurate the more clients we have and the more agents use our platform.”

Ultimate.ai was founded in November 2016 and launched its first product in summer 2017. It now has more than 25 enterprise clients, including the likes of Zalando, Telia and Finnair. It also touts partnerships with tech giants including SAP, Microsoft, Salesforce and Genesys — integrating with their Contact Center solutions.

“We partner with these players both technically (on client deployments) and commercially (via co-selling). We also list our solution on their Marketplaces,” he notes.

Up to taking in its first seed round now it had raised an angel round of €230k in March 2017, as well as relying on revenue generated by the product as soon as it launched.

The $1.3M seed round is co-led by Holtzbrinck Ventures and Maki.vc.

Kainulainen says one of the “key strengths” of Ultimate.ai’s approach to AI for text-based customer service touch-points is rapid set-up when it comes to ingesting a client’s historical customer logs to train the suggestion system.

“Our proprietary clustering algorithms automatically cluster our customer’s historical data (chat, email, knowledge base) to train our neural network. We can go from millions of lines of unstructured data into a trained deep neural network within a day,” he says.

“Alongside this, our state-of-the-art transfer learning algorithms can seed the AI with very limited data — we have deployed Contact Center automation for enterprise clients with as little as 500 lines of historical conversation.”

Ultimate.ai’s proprietary NLP achieves “state-of-the-art accuracy at 98.6%”, he claims.

It can also make use of what he dubs “semi-supervised learning” to further boost accuracy over time as agents use the tool.

“Finally, we leverage transfer learning to apply a single algorithmic model across all clients, scaling our learnings from client-to-client and constantly improving our solution,” he adds.

On the competitive front, it’s going up against the likes of IBM’s Watson AI. However Kainulainen argues that IBM’s manual tools — which he argues “require large onboarding projects and are limited in languages with no self-learning capabilities” — make that sort of manual approach to chatbot building “unsustainable in the long-term”.

He also contends that many rivals are saddled with “lengthy set-up and heavy maintenance requirements” which makes them “extortionately expensive”.

A closer competitor (in terms of approach) which he namechecks is TC Disrupt battlefield alum Digital Genius. But again they’ve got English language origins — so he flags that as a differentiating factor vs the proprietary NLP at the core of Ultimate.ai’s product (which he claims can handle any language).

“It is very difficult to scale out of English to other languages,” he argues. “It also uneconomical to rebuild your architecture to serve multi-language scenarios. Out of necessity, we have been language-agnostic since day one.”

“Our technology and team is tailored to the customer service problem; generic conversational AI tools cannot compete,” he adds. “Within this, we are a full package for enterprises. We provide a complete AI platform, from automation to augmentation, as well as omnichannel capabilities across Chat, Email and Social. Languages are also a key technical strength, enabling our clients to serve their customers wherever they may be.”

The multi-language architecture is not the only claimed differentiator, either.

Kainulainen points to the team’s mission as another key factor on that front, saying: “We want to transform how people work in customer service. It’s not about building a simple FAQ bot, it’s about deeply understanding how the division and the people work and building tools to empower them. For us, it’s not Superagent vs. Botman, it’s Superagent + Botman.”

So it’s not trying to suggest that AI should replace your entire customers service team but rather enhance your in house humans.

Asked what the AI can’t do well, he says this boils down to interactions that are transactional vs relational — with the former category meshing well with automation, but the latter (aka interactions that require emotional engagement and/or complex thought) definitely not something to attempt to automate away.

“Transactional cases are mechanical and AI is good at mechanical. The customer knows what they want (a specific query or action) and so can frame their request clearly. It’s a simple, in-and-out case. Full automation can be powerful here,” he says. “Relational cases are more frequent, more human and more complex. They can require empathy, persuasion and complex thought. Sometimes a customer doesn’t know what the problem is — “it’s just not working”.

“Other times are sales opportunities, which businesses definitely don’t want to automate away (AI isn’t great at persuasion). And some specific industries, e.g. emergency services, see the human response as so vital that they refuse automation entirely. In all of these situations, AI which augments people, rather than replaces, is most effective.

“We see work in customer service being transformed over the next decade. As automation of simple requests becomes the status-quo, businesses will increasingly differentiate through the quality of their human-touch. Customer service will become less labour intensive, higher skilled work. We try and imagine what tools will power this workforce of tomorrow and build them, today.”

On the ethics front, he says customers are always told when they are transferred to a human agent — though that agent will still be receiving AI support (i.e. in the form of suggested replies to help “bolster their speed and quality”) behind the scenes.

Ultimate.ai’s customers define cases they’d prefer an agent to handle — for instance where there may be a sales opportunity.

“In these cases, the AI may gather some pre-qualifying customer information to speed up the agent handle time. Human agents are also brought in for complex cases where the AI has had difficulty understanding the customer query, based on a set confidence threshold,” he adds.

Kainulainen says the seed funding will be used to enhance the scalability of the product, with investments going into its AI clustering system.

The team will also be targeting underserved language markets to chase scale — “focusing heavily on the Nordics and DACH [Germany, Austria, Switzerland]”.

“We are building out our teams across Berlin and Helsinki. We will be working closely with our partners – SAP, Microsoft, Salesforce and Genesys — to further this vision,” he adds. 

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Jasper Masemann, investment manager at Holtzbrinck Ventures, added: “The customer service industry is a huge market and one of the world’s largest employers. Ultimate.ai addresses the main industry challenges of inefficiency, quality control and high people turnover with latest advancements in deep learning and human machine hybrid models. The results and customer feedback are the best I have seen, which makes me very confident the team can become a forerunner in this space.”

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Divido, the consumer finance platform, scores $15M Series A

Divido, the consumer finance platform that lets you take out credit at the point of purchase to help spread the cost of buying new things, has raised $15 million in Series A funding.

Leading the round is Dawn Capital, and DN Capital, with participation from Mastercard, American Express Ventures and a number of previous investors. Renier Lemmens, who previously served as Chief Executive Officer of PayPal EMEA and was an executive at Barclays, has also been appointed as chairman.

Launched in late 2015, London-based Divido currently works with over 1,000 partners to enable them to offer B2C and B2B finance to their customers at checkout. This includes being able to spread the cost of any product or service over a period of time by providing instant access to credit at the point of purchase, either online and in-store.

However, where the company differentiates from the likes of Klarna is that Divido doesn’t provide the line of credit itself or work with a single lender, instead operating a marketplace model. This sees lenders compete to offer the most suitable credit.

The broader pitch is that Divido’s consumer finance at the point of sale leads to up to 20 percent more sales for retailers, more lending for banks and more transactions for payment partners. The company’s clients include Mercedes-Benz, BNP Paribas Shopify.

Explains Christer Holloman, CEO of Divido, in a statement: “Proactive retailers know they have to try new initiatives to grow sales. Offering customers the option to pay later doesn’t just increase footfall and eyeballs, but it also raises average order values and conversion rates. And what’s good for the retailers is also good for the lenders who are providing this credit, and the intermediaries that facilitate the transactions”.

Meanwhile, Divido says the injection of capital will be used for global expansion. The platform is currently available in the U.K., Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Nordics, and the U.S., and the company wants to be in 10 more countries by the end of 2019. Divido is also pivoting to licence its platform to banks and lenders via a service called “Powered by Divido”. This will let partners white label its technology to provide finance services to their customers.

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