Today in brighter crypto news: SEC says tokens are securities

Crypto news got a little boost last week after a dark month of crashes, stablecoins and birthdays. The SEC ruled that two ICO issuers, CarrierEQ Inc. and Paragon Coin Inc., were in fact selling securities instead of so-called utility tokens.

“Both companies have agreed to return funds to harmed investors, register the tokens as securities, file periodic reports with the Commission, and pay penalties,” wrote Pamela Sawhney of the SEC. “These are the Commission’s first cases imposing civil penalties solely for ICO securities offering registration violations.”

From the release:

Airfox, a Boston-based startup, raised approximately $15 million worth of digital assets to finance its development of a token-denominated “ecosystem” starting with a mobile application that would allow users in emerging markets to earn tokens and exchange them for data by interacting with advertisements. Paragon, an online entity, raised approximately $12 million worth of digital assets to develop and implement its business plan to add blockchain technology to the cannabis industry and work toward legalization of cannabis. Neither Airfox nor Paragon registered their ICOs pursuant to the federal securities laws, nor did they qualify for an exemption to the registration requirements.

This behavior — a sort of “damn the torpedoes” for the fintech set — was all the rage at the beginning of the year as no clear guidance was available for filing security tokens — essentially pieces of company equity — versus utility tokens which were, in theory, used within the company ecosystem. In fact, ICOed companies contorted themselves into all sorts of knots to appear to fit their “utility token” within the torturous confines of securities law.

“We have made it clear that companies that issue securities through ICOs are required to comply with existing statutes and rules governing the registration of securities,” said Stephanie Avakian, co-director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division. “These cases tell those who are considering taking similar actions that we continue to be on the lookout for violations of the federal securities laws with respect to digital assets.”

The SEC fined both companies $250,000 each. Future ICOs, at least in the U.S., would do well to keep this in mind.

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BuzzFeed News launches a paid membership program (and yes, there’s a tote bag)

BuzzFeed News is giving readers a new way to support its journalism — by paying a monthly or yearly fee.

BuzzFeed might not seem like the most obvious publication to ask readers for financial support, as it doesn’t really have the high-minded appeal of (say) NPR or The New Yorker. However, the company has been working to establish a separate identity for its team focused on real journalism (as opposed to the quizzes and other entertainment for which BuzzFeed is known). In fact, it launched a separate website for BuzzFeed News a few months ago.

In August, BuzzFeed News started giving readers a way to make one-off donations of between $5 and $100. It says the average donation was more than $20, with some readers asking for a way to support the organization on an ongoing basis.

So today, it’s launching a recurring membership program. For $5 a month, readers will receive members-only emails highlighting the latest scoops and taking them behind the scenes of BuzzFeed reporting. For $100 a year, they’ll also receive a BuzzFeed News tote bag.

BuzzFeed memberships

The memberships are available internationally, but you can only get a tote bag if you’re in the United States.

BuzzFeed reportedly missed its revenue target last year by as much as 20 percent, so it’s not surprising that the company is looking beyond advertising for ways to make money. However, in an email to the BuzzFeed team, Global News Director Lisa Tozzi said, “A membership program takes time to build, and we don’t expect it to be a huge portion of BuzzFeed’s revenue in 2019. That’s why we’re investing in it now and hope to see it contribute more to our work over time.”

And if you’re worried that this might be setting the stage for a paywall or meter on BuzzFeed News stories, Tozzi said flatly, “This is not a prelude to any sort of paywall.”

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Lidar startup AEye raises $40M Series B led by the Taiwanese government’s investment firm

Lidar technology developer AEye will scale its operations globally through manufacturing partnerships after raising a $40 million Series B. The round was led by Taiwania Capital, the investment firm created and backed by Taiwan’s National Development Council, and included returning investors Kleiner Perkins, Intel Capital, Airbus Ventures, and Tychee Partners.

This brings the California-based startup’s total funding so far to about $61 million. In a press statement, founder and CEO Luis Dussan said Taiwania’s investment is a strategic one and will give AEye more access to manufacturing, logistics, and tech resources in Asia. AEye also plans to launch a new product at CES in January.

In a press statement, Taiwania Capital’s managing partner Huang Lee said “We see AEye as the foremost innovator in this space, whose systems deliver highly precise, actionable information at speeds and distances never seen in commercially available lidar sensors. We look forward to working closely with AEye’s team to explore and pursue growth opportunities in this burgeoning space.”

The point cloud created by AEye’s iDAR

Along with its funding, AEye also claimed it has set a new record for the distance from which a lidar system is able to detect and track a moving object. (Lidar stands for “light detection and ranging” and is used to create “point clouds,” or three-dimensional maps made of coordinates from laser pulses. Lidar has many applications, but a lot of attention is being paid to how it is used by autonomous vehicles and drones).

In tests monitored and validated by VSI Labs, a research company that focuses on autonomous vehicle technology, AEye said that its iDAR sensor, which was launched earlier this year and combines a solid-state lidar and high-resolution camera in one device, was able to detect and track a moving truck from one kilometer away. AEye claims that this is four to five times the distance other current lidar systems can detect and is possible because iDAR is better able to mimic the way human brains process visual information. In a press statement, AEye chief of staff Blair LaCorte said the company believes iDAR can potentially track moving objects, including trucks and drones, from five kilometers to 10 kilometers away.

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Plastiq raises $27M at 2X+ value to let you pay for anything on credit

“I wasn’t asking to pay in Bitcoin!” Plastiq CEO and co-founder Eliot Buchanan recalls with a laugh. “I went to pay part of my tuition at Harvard and I was told that they didn’t (and never would) accept credit card. It was inconvenient and seemed odd. Credit cards had been around for 50 years.” That set off the a light bulb in his head. “Why couldn’t I use a credit card to pay for this important bill? So, I set out to solve my own problem.”

Whether you’re trying to pay your rent or tuition on credit, or you have a business and want to invest in a new opportunity or get a better rate by paying vendors up front, Plastiq can help. For a flat 2.5 percent fee, you pay Plastiq through your credit card, and it issues the proper wire transfer, check, or deposit for up to $500,000 on your behalf to whoever you owe.

Now with over 1 million clients, growth stage VCs are taking notice. Kleiner Perkins has just led a $27 million Series C for Plastiq with partner Ilya Fushman joining the board. A source says the raise that also comes from DST Global between doubles and triples Plastiq’s valuation over its 2017 Series B-1 rounds of $11 million and $16 million. Now with $73 million in total funding, it plans to add 100 more people to its current team of 60 while building out its small business product and bank partnerships.

“As tens of thousands of business owners started using Plastiq actively for billions of dollars in payments, we realized we had this incredible opportunity to serve as the hub/platform on which they (SMBs) could run all their payments. The very fabric of America’s economy — and certainly much of the world — is run by rising or aspiring small business owners” Buchanan tells me. He says that’s “the main reason that seeded this Kleiner financing and our renewed vision to ‘accelerate how small businesses grow’. [Helping people pay with credit cards] is merely the entry point to a much broader play where we are central to how a small business runs.”

For example, if a small business wants to ramp up production of something it’s selling, it’d typically have to pay up front for manufacturing, but wait months until the stuff is shipped and sold to recoup its investment. That can put a major squeeze on the company’s operating capital. With Plastiq, the business can pay with credit up front so they don’t have to worry about being in danger of running out of money in the meantime. Plastiq also lets businesses accept credit card payments, which can win them favor with partners.

Plastiq co-founders (from left): Eliot Buchanan and Dan Choi

Speciality medical clinic chain Metro Vein pays vendors who don’t take credit with Plastiq instead. “I was able to invest in a new line of business that has enabled me to more than double our revenues in the last ten months,” said CEO Dmitri Ivanov. And thanks to tax write-offs, business users of Plastiq can push its realized fee down to 2 percent.

Buchanan claims Plastiq doesn’t have any direct competitors that allow SMBs to pay for all their bills via credit. It does carry platform risk, though. “Like any payments business, we rely heavily on Visa, MasterCard, and American Express. A challenge or risk factor is that you’re relying on very large companies that are very successful. You have to learn to work hand in hand with those partners instead of ‘disrupt them’.” He says Plastiq’s relationships with them are positive right now since it’s driving new revenue for them and helping their customers spend in new areas.

There’s also the risk that people misuse Plastiq to procrastinate on actually paying their personal bills or get in over their head investing in their business. But Plastiq’s new board member Fushman calls the service “this elegant way for businesses to tap into credit they’ve been issued but they haven’t been able to utilize before.” For many who are happy to pay though just need some time and flexibility, Plastiq can pitch in.

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VOI Technology, the e-scooter startup from Sweden, raises $50M led by Balderton Capital

VOI Technology, an e-scooter startup headquartered in Sweden but with pan-European ambitions, has raised $50 million in Series A funding, confirming our earlier scoop. As I previously reported, London-based venture capital firm Balderton Capital has led the round, alongside LocalGlobe, Raine Ventures, and previous VOI backer Vostok New Ventures.

A number of angel investors also participated. They include Cristina Stenbeck, Jeff Wilkes (Amazon), Justin Mateen (co-founder of Tinder), Nicolas Brusson (CEO and co-founder of BlaBlaCar), Sebastian Knutsson (co-founder of King), Spencer Rascoff (CEO of Zillow), and Keith Richman.

A source with knowledge of VOI’s early fundraising tells me this is in actual fact two rounds effectively being announced at the same time, although both VOI and Balderton say this is not the case. The e-scooter startup had previously raised around $3 million earlier this year.

What I do know, however, is the size of this new round got increased significantly very late on as VOI continues to gain early traction and the round became more competitive with a lot of VC interest. According to my sources, the initial target was $15 million at a pre-money valuation of between $35-40 million. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to confirm the new valuation based on this much larger fundraise. Both VOI and Balderton declined to comment.

Launched in Sweden’s Stockholm in August 2018 by founders Fredrik Hjelm, Douglas Stark, Adam Jafer and Filip Lindvall, VOI has since expanded to Madrid, Zaragoza and Malaga in Spain. The plan is to use the new funding to continue to expand into new European markets. Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, and Portugal are said to be launching “in the coming months”. The VOI jobs page reveals that VOI is recruiting country managers for Denmark, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey, and Finland, too.

Like other e-scooter startups, VOI pitches itself as a way to ease traffic-clogged city centres and reduce pollution, with VOI’s scooters offering a “clean, efficient, cost-effective and zero emission” first-and-last-mile alternative to cars and taxis. After downloading the VOI app, you simply locate a nearby scooter on the street or via the app’s map, press the ‘ride’ button, scan the VOI QR code, and ride anywhere in the city. The company charges a €1 unlocking fee and a ride costs €0.15 per minute.

In just 12 weeks, VOI claims to have garnered 120,000 users, who have taken 200,000 rides, travelling 350,000 kilometres. It says this makes VOI Europe’s leading e-scooter sharing company.

“We see that we’ve changed user behaviour drastically in a very short time period,” VOI CEO Fredrik Hjelm tells me. “We changed how people commute, people move themselves. We changed how people transport within cities almost instantly after they try the scooters for the first time”.

He says this has resulted in “very strong retention rates, recurring use, and also friend referrals”.

“I’m from up in the North in Sweden, and for me it’s very difficult to understand, and it’s absurd, why we have so many cars and why our cities are built for cars, taxes and trucks, and not for people, animals, scooters, bikes, and light electric vehicles,” explains Hjelm. “That’s more from an ideological perspective. For me, scooters power freedom”.

VOI is also talking up its “distinctive” European approach in the way the company works collaboratively with city authorities. This is very different to the ‘ask for forgiveness not permission’ mentality of Silicon Valley.

“When you are reading the news, you get the feeling that city politicians are against scooters. The reality is the other way around,” Hjelm says. “The only thing is that they want a say in this and how it should be operated, so we don’t end up in a scooter graveyard situation that we see in some U.S. cities… Pretty much every European city has some kind of ambition or vision to become less dependent on fossil fuel driven cars and other vehicles”.

Balderton’s entrance into the e-scooter market comes after three of the other “big four” London VC firms have already made U.S. investments in the space. Index and Accel have backed Bird, and Atomico has backed Lime.

Last month also saw Berlin’s Tier raise €25 million in Series A funding led by Northzone, in another attempt to create the “Bird or Lime of Europe,” even if it is far from clear that Bird or Lime won’t take that title for themselves (which is obviously the bet being made by Index, Accel and Atomico). And two month’s ago Taxify also announced its intention to do e-scooter rentals under the brand Bolt, first launched in Paris but also planning to be pan-European.

This has led some VCs to describe the e-scooter space in Europe as a venture capital “blood bath” waiting to happen. The thinking is that the market has become so competitive so early, a lot of VC dollars are going to be spent (and potentially wasted) before it is far from clear who will be the eventual winner. That feels quite unusual for Europe, where it is more common for competing VCs to back off or co-invest once one or two of the big firms (or Rocket Internet) have made their move or when there is a better-funded U.S. competitor on the horizon — a point I put to Balderton Partner Lars Fjeldsoe-Nielsen.

“Yeah, and I think if we kept doing that as a VC community, we would never see any billion dollar companies coming out of Europe,” he replies. “This is why we’re backing VOI. [But] I get your point: it’s up against large amounts of capital”.

Describing e-scooters as a massive opportunity to change that, Fjeldsoe-Nielsen says that in the last four weeks VOI has doubled it revenues and that Balderton is seeing the same kind of traction and market reaction as Bird and Lime in the U.S.

“We believe an equally big company can come out of Europe,” he adds.

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Microsoft to shut down HockeyApp

Microsoft announced plans to shut down HockeyApp and replace it with Visual Studio App Center. The company acquired the startup behind HockeyApp back in 2014. And if you’re still using HockeyApp, the service will officially shut down on November 16, 2019.

HockeyApp was a service that let you distribute beta versions of your app, get crash reports and analytics. There are other similar SDKs, such as Google’s Crashlytics, TestFairy, Appaloosa, DeployGate and native beta distribution channels (Apple’s TestFlight and Google Play Store’s beta feature).

Microsoft hasn’t really been hiding its plans to shut down the service. Last year, the company called App Center “the future of HockeyApp”. The company has also been cloning your HockeyApp projects into App Center for a while.

It doesn’t mean that you’ll find the same features in App Center just yet. The company has put up a page with a feature roadmap. Let’s hope that Microsoft has enough time to release everything before HockeyApp shuts down.

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How cities can fix tourism hell

A steep and rapid rise in tourism has left behind a wake of economic and environmental damage in cities around the globe. In response, governments have been responding with policies that attempt to limit the number of visitors who come in. We’ve decided to spare you from any more Amazon HQ2 talk and instead focus on why cities should shy away from reactive policies and should instead utilize their growing set of technological capabilities to change how they manage tourists within city lines.

Consider this an ongoing discussion about Urban Tech, its intersection with regulation, issues of public service, and other complexities that people have full PHDs on. I’m just a bitter, born-and-bred New Yorker trying to figure out why I’ve been stuck in between subway stops for the last 15 minutes, so please reach out with your take on any of these thoughts:

Well – it didn’t take long for the phrase “overtourism” to get overused. The popular buzzword describes the influx of tourists who flood a location and damage the quality of life for full-time residents. The term has become such a common topic of debate in recent months that it was even featured this past week on Oxford Dictionaries’ annual “Words of the Year” list.

But the expression’s frequent appearance in headlines highlights the growing number of cities plagued by the externalities from rising tourism.

In the last decade, travel has become easier and more accessible than ever. Low-cost ticketing services and apartment-rental companies have brought down the costs of transportation and lodging; the ubiquity of social media has ticked up tourism marketing efforts and consumer demand for travel; economic globalization has increased the frequency of business travel; and rising incomes in emerging markets have opened up travel to many who previously couldn’t afford it.

Now, unsurprisingly, tourism has spiked dramatically, with the UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reporting that tourist arrivals grew an estimated 7% in 2017 – materially above the roughly 4% seen consistently since 2010. The sudden and rapid increase of visitors has left many cities and residents overwhelmed, dealing with issues like overcrowding, pollution, and rising costs of goods and housing.

The problems cities face with rising tourism are only set to intensify. And while it’s hard for me to imagine when walking shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers on tight New York streets, the number of tourists in major cities like these can very possibly double over the next 10 to 15 years.

China and other emerging markets have already seen significant growth in the middle-class and have long runway ahead. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the global middle class is expected to rise from the 1.8 billion observed in 2009 to 3.2 billion by 2020 and 4.9 billion by 2030. The new money brings with it a new wave of travelers looking to catch a selfie with the Eiffel Tower, with the UNWTO forecasting international tourist arrivals to increase from 1.3 billion to 1.8 billion by 2030.

With a growing sense of urgency around managing their guests, more and more cities have been implementing policies focused on limiting the number of tourists that visit altogether by imposing hard visitor limits, tourist taxes or otherwise.

But as the UNWTO points out in its report on overtourism, the negative effects from inflating tourism are not solely tied to the number of visitors in a city but are also largely driven by touristy seasonality, tourist behavior, the behavior of the resident population, and the functionality of city infrastructure. We’ve seen cities with few tourists, for example, have experienced similar issues to those experienced in cities with millions.

While many cities have focused on reactive policies that are meant to quell tourism, they should instead focus on technology-driven solutions that can help manage tourist behavior, create structural changes to city tourism infrastructure, while allowing cities to continue capturing the significant revenue stream that tourism provides.


Yes, cities are faced with the headwind of a growing tourism population, but city policymakers also benefit from the tailwind of having more technological capabilities than their predecessors. With the rise of smart city and Internet of Things (IoT) initiatives, many cities are equipped with tools such as connected infrastructure, lidar-sensors, high-quality broadband, and troves of data that make it easier to manage issues around congestion, infrastructure, or otherwise.

On the congestion side, we have already seen companies using geo-tracking and other smart city technologies to manage congestion around event venues, roads, and stores. Cities can apply the same strategies to manage the flow of tourist and resident movement.

And while you can’t necessarily prevent people from people visiting the Louvre or the Coliseum, cities are using a variety of methods to incentivize the use of less congested space or disperse the times in which people flock to highly-trafficked locations by using tools such as real-time congestion notifications, data-driven ticketing schedules for museums and landmarks, or digitally-guided tours through uncontested routes.

Companies and municipalities in cities like London and Antwerp are already working on using tourist movement tracking to manage crowds and help notify and guide tourists to certain locations at the most efficient times. Other cities have developed augmented reality tours that can guide tourists in real-time to less congested spaces by dynamically adjusting their routes.

A number of startups are also working with cities to use collected movement data to help reshape infrastructure to better fit the long-term needs and changing demographics of its occupants. Companies like Stae or Calthorpe Analytics use analytics on movement, permitting, business trends or otherwise to help cities implement more effective zoning and land use plans. City planners can use the same technology to help effectively design street structure to increase usable sidewalk space and to better allocate zoning for hotels, retail or other tourist-friendly attractions.

Focusing counter-overtourism efforts on smart city technologies can help adjust the behavior and movement of travelers in a city through a number of avenues, in a way tourist caps or tourist taxes do not.

And at the end of the day, tourism is one of the largest sources of city income, meaning it also plays a vital role in determining the budgets cities have to plow back into transit, roads, digital infrastructure, the energy grid, and other pain points that plague residents and travelers alike year-round. And by disallowing or disincentivizing tourism, cities can lose valuable capital for infrastructure, which can subsequently exacerbate congestion problems in the long-run.

Some cities have justified tourist taxes by saying the revenue stream would be invested into improving the issues overtourism has caused. But daily or upon-entry tourist taxes we’ve seen so far haven’t come close to offsetting the lost revenue from disincentivized tourists, who at the start of 2017 spent all-in nearly $700 per day in the US on transportation, souvenirs and other expenses according to the U.S. National Travel and Tourism Office.

In 2017, international tourism alone drove to $1.6 trillion in earnings and in 2016, travel & tourism accounted for roughly 1 in 10 jobs in the global economy according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. And the benefits of travel are not only economic, with cross-border tourism promoting transfers of culture, knowledge and experience.

But to be clear, I don’t mean to say smart city technology initiatives alone are going to solve overtourism. The significant wave of growth in the number of global travelers is a serious challenge and many of the issues that result from spiking tourism, like housing affordability, are incredibly complex and come down to more than just data. However, I do believe cities should be focused less on tourist reduction and more on solutions that enable tourist management.

Utilizing and allocating more resources to smart city technologies can not only more effectively and structurally limit the negative impacts from overtourism, but it also allows cities to benefit from a significant and high growth tourism revenue stream. Cities can then create a virtuous cycle of reinvestment where they plow investment back into its infrastructure to better manage visitor growth, resident growth, and quality of life over the long-term. Cities can have their cake and eat it too.

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SparkLabs Taipei closes initial $4.25M for its first fund, adds Jeremy Lin as an advisor

SparkLabs Taipei, part of SparkLabs Group, the global network of accelerator programs and funds that works with emerging startup ecosystems, has raised $4.25 million in an initial close led by CTBC Group, along with individual investors, for its first venture capital fund. SparkLabs Taipei also announced today that it has added Atlanta Hawks player Jeremy Lin, who sparked “Linsanity” as the first player of Chinese- or Taiwanese-descent in the NBA, to its board of advisors.

The funding was first disclosed in a Form D filed with the SEC this week that says SparkLabs Taipei’s ultimate goal for the fund is to raise $10 million.

In a prepared statement, Lin said “SparkLabs Taipei is an innovative fund offering support and guidance for entrepreneurs in Taiwan. Being a trailblazer is challenging and having a strong support is critical to your success. I’m excited to join a strong team of partners and advisors at SparkLabs Taipei and look forward to meeting some great entrepreneurs.”

Other SparkLabs Taipei advisors include YouTube co-founder Steve Chen; Kabam co-founder and CEO Kevin Chou; and RedOctane (the producer of Guitar Hero) co-founders Charles and Kai Huang.

SparkLabs Taipei was launched last year under the leadership of Edgar Chiu, the former COO of Taipei-based app developer Gogolook (acquired by Korean Internet giant Naver in 2013) and founding general manager of Camp Mobile Taiwan, part of Naver’s mobile app development subsidiary. In an interview with TechCrunch at the time, Chiu said SparkLabs Taipei’s goal is to help prepare Taiwanese startups to enter global markets.

In a press statement, Chiu said “Jeremy Lin embodies what we look for in our entrepreneurs. Persistence, dedication, and hard work. Our team is extremely excited and proud to have him on board and join an already stellar board of advisors. Plus I’ve been a big fan when he first joined the NBA, through the craziness of ‘Linsanity’ and his continued excellence in the NBA.”

While the SparkLabs network backs tech companies from around the world, it is known in particular for its work with Asian startups. SparkLabs launched in South Korea in 2012, and since then has opened accelerator programs across the Asia-Pacific region and in Washington, D.C., including programs dedicated to financial technology, agriculture, cybersecurity and blockchain startups, and energy.

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Blockchain gaming gets a boost with Mythical Games’ $16M Series A

Fortnite, the free multi-player survival game, has earned an astonishing $1 billion from in-game virtual purchases alone. Now, others in the gaming industry are experimenting with how they too can capitalize on new trends in gaming.

Mythical Games, a startup out of stealth today with $16 million in Series A funding, is embracing a future in gaming where user-generated content and intimate ties between players, content creators, brands and developers is the norm. Mythical is using its infusion of venture capital to develop a line of PC, mobile and console games on the EOSIO blockchain, which will also be open to developers to build games with “player-owned economies.”

The company says an announcement regarding its initial lineup of games is on the way.

Mythical is led by a group of gaming industry veterans. Its chief executive officer is John Linden, a former studio head at Activision and president of the Niantic-acquired Seismic Games. The rest of its C-suite includes chief compliance officer Jamie Jackson, another former studio head at Activision; chief product officer Stephan Cunningham, a former director of product management at Yahoo; and head of blockchain Rudy Kock, a former senior producer at Blizzard — the Activision subsidiary known for World of Warcraft. Together, the team has worked on games including Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, Marvel Strike Force and Skylanders.

Galaxy Digital’s EOS VC Fund has led the round for Mythical. The $325 million fund, launched earlier this year, is focused on expanding the EOSIO ecosystem via strategic investments in startups building on EOSIO blockchain software. Javelin Venture Partners, Divergence Digital Currency, cryptocurrency exchange OKCoin and others also participated in the round.

It’s no surprise investors are getting excited about the booming gaming business given the success of Epic Games, Twitch, Discord and others in the space.

Epic Games raised a $1.25 billion round late last month thanks to the cultural phenomenon that its game, Fortnite, has become. KKR, Iconiq Capital, Smash Ventures,Vulcan Capital, Kleiner Perkins, Lightspeed Venture Partners and others participated in that round. Discord, a chat application for gamers, raised a $50 million financing in April at a $1.65 billion valuation from Benchmark Capital, Greylock Partners, IVP, Spark Capital and Tencent. And Dapper Labs, best known for the blockchain-based game CryptoKitties, even raised a VC round this year — a $15 million financing led by Venrock, with participation from GV and Samsung NEXT.

In total, VCs have invested $1.8 billion in gaming startups this year, per PitchBook.

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Kairos founder countersues his own company for $10 million

The turmoil continues at facial recognition startup Kairos. Last night, Kairos founder Brian Brackeen filed a counter lawsuit against Kairos and its interim CEO Melissa Doval that seeks $10 million in damages.

Kairos is a facial recognition startup that has become well-known for its stance to never sell to law enforcement. At Disrupt SF 2018, Brackeen showed his technology and spoke on a panel about the hazards of facial recognition and algorithmic bias.

This countersuit comes after Kairos terminated Brackeen from his role as chief executive officer, citing Brackeen misled shareholders and potential investors, misappropriated corporate funds, did not report to the board of directors and created a divisive atmosphere. Kairos followed that up with a lawsuit, alleging theft and breach of fiduciary duties — among other things.

In a countersuit, Brackeen now “seeks to hold Kairos and Doval accountable for intentionally destroying his reputation and livelihood through fraudulent conduct, the publication of malicious falsehoods, and the commission of illegal corporate acts.” The suit also alleges Kairos refused to pay him the compensation to which he was entitled.

In one example, Brackeen alleges Kairos, under the leadership of board chairperson Stephen O’Hara, did not pay him a salary for 34 weeks in order for Kairos to have a better cash flow.

“We’ve come to expect this behavior on his behalf,” Doval said in an email to TechCrunch. “We stand firmly with our original complaint and the courts will rule in our favor once they are presented with the evidence for the case. Our fiduciary duty is to our stakeholders, and we remain dedicated to doing right by them.”

The lawsuit alleges O’Hara also did not share Brackeen’s commitment to ensuring Kairos’ technology did not contribute to racial bias and other social injustices. It also alleges O’Hara pressured Brackeen to retract his promise to never sell the technology to law enforcement. That clash, the lawsuit alleges, resulted in O’Hara seeking to push Brackeen out of the company. O’Hara, in an email to TechCrunch, denies those claims.

“Of note, as far as I know as chairman of the board, we are not trying to sell this to law enforcement and have no plans to do so until such time we can insure [sic] any biases of facial recognition are solved and all privacy issues addressed,” O’Hara wrote. “Frankly, we are focused on much more attractive opportunities now.”


In the coming weeks, Kairos will hold a meeting of the shareholders, where Brackeen hopes they will vote to remove the board and reinstate him as CEO. That meeting was supposed to happen last week, but has since been rescheduled. Brackeen says he’s currently trying to get enough shareholders on his side to force a vote. In the last week, however, the company presented an offering to shareholders that was fully subscribed.

“Meanwhile, thanks to a vote of support from all classes of shareholders this past week, Kairos under Melissa Doval is focused on building its business behind its new on-premise product,” O’Hara wrote. In a follow-up email, O’Hara said, “Shareholders voted to approve the Rights offering which was fully subscribed, and included ratification of the Board and Ms. Doval.”

That offering valued the company at $1.5 million — a significant drop from Kairos’ previous $120 million valuation. That means shareholders were able to purchase 43,366,780 shares at a price of just $0.01153 per share.

“Though the emergency nature of this offering and the Company’s precarious financial position have led the Company to offer common stock in this offering at a price well below that received in prior fundraising transactions, the structure of the offering as a rights offering to all existing investors in the Company will allow the Company to raise needed capital without subjecting participating investors to dilution of their ownership stakes in the Company,” the memo, obtained by TechCrunch, states.

One of the conditions of that offering is to reconstitute the Kairos board of directors as a three-person board that consists of O’Hara, Kairos Director Mike Gardner and Doval.

The point of this offering is to raise $500,019 in “emergency capital” to be able to pay its employees and continue operating into 2019. As O’Hara noted, the offering was fully subscribed.

Thanks to this current legal situation, which Brackeen refers to as a “cram down,” his ownership in the company has decreased by 90 percent, which “shows a disrespect for founders.”

Kairos is pretty cash-strapped right now. Even with the emergency capital in place, Kairos is only set up to be able to operate through Q1 2019, “by the end of which management believes that revenue growth through sales either will enable the Company to become financially self-sustaining or will place the Company on a more sound financial footing that allows it to conduct further capital-raising,” the memo states.

Meanwhile, however, Brackeen says he has been able to raise $3.5 million in venture funding, and is targeting a total of $5 million. This funding, he hopes, will be successful in convincing shareholders to vote to replace the board. Brackeen raised this funding from Beyond Capital Markets, an impact investment fund.

But convincing them to invest given the current state of Kairos was quite the feat, Brackeen said.

“It’s like riding a bike backwards with one arm — and blind,” he told me.

The lesson for founders, Brackeen told me, is “when you’re taking those first investments and you’re really excited, you need to have callouts for the founder versus the current CEO.”

He added that “angel groups shouldn’t have that kind of power too late in a company’s lifecycle.” Additionally, once founders are starting to raise a Series A, “you need to make sure your lawyers are not meeting them halfway on docs and not necessarily playing nice.”

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