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Here are the 30+ startups showcasing at HAX's May 1 Demo Day | TechCrunch

A few weeks back, TechCrunch ventured out to New Jersey to pay an early visit to HAX’s Newark offices. As much as I complained about the 90-minute commute in from Queens, it’s nothing compared to the last time I paid a visit to the SOSV-run hardware accelerator’s Shenzhen space.

HAX’s China operations have shrunk considerably since then, courtesy of a global pandemic and all of the ensuing lockdowns. That space had remarkable proximity to the global supply chain. One simply had to walk downstairs into mall-like spaces, filled wall to wall with component vendors.

In some ways, the Newark space is a reflection of the Shenzhen offices. There’s a faint sense of déjà vu, entering through the doors and spotting the familiar stadium seating where company and startup meetings are held. The China offices were far more lived-in by the time I visited. As the first news organization to visit the HAX space, we were greeted with walls of boxes awaiting the recycling truck — a familiar sight to anyone who’s ever moved office or house.

One key thing the new office has is plenty of space. The Newark “flagship” is 35,000 square feet, funded — in part — by $25 million from the state of New Jersey. While the city of Newark does maintain some manufacturing facilities, startups here can’t simply skip down to the massive Shenzhen markets to get a new part or have an old one machined. Instead, HAX has invested a lot into on-site equipment, including metal fab, 3D printing, CNC machines and laser and water jet cutters. There’s even a chemistry lab on-site for deep tech projects.

HAX will host its first demo day in four years here. The list includes more than 30 companies, across climate, manufacturing, computing, health and energy. We’ve got the exclusive list of all those companies showcasing (below).

Here are a few notable ones TechCrunch has chatted with over the years:

CocoonCarbon: U.K.-based CocoonCarbon has built a small factory inside a shipping container that is capable of turning steel runoff (turns out it’s called “slag”) into sustainable cement.

PureLi: Founded nearby, this Princeton University startup has designed a simple system it promises can dramatically speed up lithium extraction in brine lakes. Located primarily in South American countries like Chile, these “lakes” are produced when drilling for oil and gas. The startup is currently working on a rev share model, using a technology it says can double or triple the evaporation rate.

Renovate Robotics: We first covered this robotic roofing firm last March, when it announced a $2.5 million seed round. The news also found HAX associate/analyst Dylan Crow jumping to the startup side of the fence as CEO. Renovate produced a winch-based robot that installs roof shingles in a gantry-like X,Y axis pattern. Roofing is an extremely dangerous business that’s prime for automation.

Silana: This Vienna firm is working on a robotic system that can completely automate the sewing process. Once completed, the startup says its technology (pictured at the top of the post) will be able to increase production speeds by 4x, while lowering costs and CO2 by 82% and 38%, respectively.

Swap Robotics: Swap has been around for a minute already. The firm actually competed in TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield at Disrupt 2022. Founded in 2019, the company has built a robotic system designed to landscape solar farms — that means both grass cutting and snow removal. Early last year, the Battlefield finalist scored $7 million in seed funding. The round was fittingly led by California-based solar provider, SOLV Energy.

HAX’s Demo Day kicks off at 2 p.m. ET on May 1.

Here’s the full list, courtesy of HAX:

Altiro Energy provides carbon-free high-temperature industrial heat where on-grid sources are unavailable. The technology uses iron as a rechargeable CO2-free fuel to provide the most flexible, clean energy carrier. Existing fossil fuel-based power generation assets can easily be retrofitted to use Altiro’s fuel.

Amatec developed a fast-curing, sustainable alternative to concrete. It allows for the world’s most rapid, low-cost and low-carbon production of ready-to-install, prefabricated panels for residential construction.

Arculus uses robots to upgrade gas pipelines to carry hydrogen with a unique coating process that breathes new life into stranded gas assets.

AtoMe has developed a unique approach to additive manufacturing that enables advanced materials with significant improvements in physical properties over traditional alloys. These materials can be applied in a variety of industries, including aviation, aerospace, nuclear, and oil and gas.

Aurasense quantifies neurological conditions by creating point-of-care devices to capture and analyze motor function and provide data-enabled treatment feedback.

CarbonBridge converts waste greenhouse gas into methanol using microbes. Their biological process enables the lowest energy and greenest process for methanol production, while achieving cost-parity with fossil fuels by 2027.

CocoonCarbon is decarbonizing the steel and cement industries through production of low-carbon cement additives produced from steel waste and industrial CO2 emissions.

Cool Amps has developed a novel, low energy, low capex, distributed process for battery recycling that does not require collection of black mass. Their process allows for recovery of all the battery components, including directly yielding usable cathode-active material.

DIA is on a mission to improve human health by measuring chemical threats daily, in real time, and at the point-of-need using groundbreaking electrochemical sensing technology integrated into wearable devices. Their first product measures cortisol — “the stress hormone” — with two drops of saliva in three minutes.

3DK Tech enables local advanced manufacturing by bringing forging-level durability and reliability to metal additive manufacturing.

Hyperlume AI is already creating a huge electricity burden, with data centers that today consume more electricity than Western countries like the U.K., and this is set to grow exponentially. Hyperlume builds high-speed, ultra-low-power, low-cost optical interconnects for data centers and high-performance computing systems that can save up to 10% energy.

LightHearted has developed a novel medical device that can diagnose heart diseases cheaply, quickly and accurately, to enable preventative care, without the need of a clinician.

Lura Health creates sensors that monitor health through saliva. They enable a continual stream of critical data that can help prevent health emergencies, manage chronic diseases and help users achieve their health goals.

Material enables 3D-printed batteries for custom shapes and chemistries. This technology enables better design-engineering, improved cooling and performance and flexible production for infinite customization.

Mazlite saves automotive customers by preventing errors in coating processes. Their advanced spray monitoring and optimization technology makes industrial spraying processes sustainable and more profitable.

MesaQuantum creates grain-sized chip-scale atomic clocks. Their technology is a quantum-accurate timing standard for applications in defense, underwater, GPS replacement and secure wireless communications.

Metal Light is building a replacement for industrial diesel generators using metal and air to produce cost competitive, clean electricity with no emissions. They are applying this technology across a range of industries including construction, entertainment, mining and maritime shipping.

MIMiC has pioneered a refrigerant-free HVAC system that requires no moving parts, making it maintenance-free and reducing operating costs. This solid-state heat pump technology is a game-changer in the industry, as refrigerants are incredibly harmful GHG contributors.

Mitico has developed a point-source carbon capture system that can capture and purify CO2 at prices below $50/ton. Their amine-free system is modular and mass manufacturable and easily integrates into existing infrastructure, and utilizes non-toxic sorbents.

OLI is building intuitive, portable hemodialysis devices. It’s positioned to be the world’s most convenient form of kidney care, accessible from virtually anywhere.

PDS has developed a “toxicology-lab-in-a-box” which enables clinicians and investigators to streamline analytical testing with a seamless on-site solution, delivering laboratory-quality data while saving time and money.

PureLi dramatically expedites the extraction of lithium using environmentally safe methods within existing facilities and enables profitable lithium production from previously un-economic reserves.

Qnetic is building the world’s largest flywheel energy storage device that is both less expensive and more reliable than lithium ion storage for grid-scale storage.

Q5D combines robotics and AI to add wiring and printed electronics directly into products, automating what is currently a manual process. This reduces cost, simplifies supply chains, enables nearshore production and improves quality in the manufacturing of automotive, aerospace and consumer products.

Renovate Robotics automates roofing and solar installation with robotics. They increase the productivity, safety, quality and speed of roof installation.

Silana manufactures modular cut-and-sew robotically powered micro-factories that enable ultra-responsive supply chains for apparel manufacturing. This technological innovation enables sustainable, cost-effective production in high-wage countries.

SWAP Robotics addresses two significant cost challenges to the CapEx and OpEx of solar farms. Their robots for solar panel laying and vegetation management at large solar farms drastically reduce install costs and continuing O&M.

Still Bright has discovered transformative reaction chemistry to enable the local, rapid, clean and complete recovery of copper. This enables domestic production of copper, a critical mineral for electrification.

Terran Robotics makes automated home construction a mass-market reality. Their robots take one of the world’s most expensive, well-understood and labor-intensive forms of construction and automates its biggest cost component: labor. The result is extraordinary homes at an affordable price aimed at solving the housing crisis.

TrelliSense has built a methane intelligence platform that detects, localizes and quantifies emissions. Their advanced spectroscopic sensors are flexible and affordable, providing unparalleled continuous monitoring for oil and gas, waste management and agriculture companies.

Unicorn Bio builds machines to industrialize biomanufacturing processes by combining cutting-edge hardware, analytics and AI-driven control systems. This enables scalable manufacturing for industries including cell & gene therapies, pharmaceuticals and cultured meat at affordable cost and reliable quality.

Vandrax Technologies is on a mission to solve the housing crisis with the first fully automated building construction system that can build homes, office buildings, multi-family housing and infrastructure in a safer, faster, cheaper and more sustainable way. Their proprietary technology combines Building Information Modeling (BIM), standardization and AI-enabled robotics.

Verdex has developed a highly scalable and eco-friendly nanofiber manufacturing process to produce advanced filtration materials. These materials can be used for energy efficient HVAC, CO2 capture and green battery components.

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TLcom Capital closes second fund at $154M to back early-stage startups across Africa | TechCrunch

Venture capital activity in Africa has shown resilience over the past six months, with major firms backing startups on the continent closing their funds despite the ongoing funding winter. 

In the latest development, TLcom Capital, an African VC firm with offices in Lagos and Nairobi and a focus on early-stage startups, has concluded fundraising for its second fund, TIDE Africa Fund II, totaling $154 million. The final close positions the firm as Africa’s largest investor across seed and Series A.

The oversubscribed fund, initially targeted to close at $150 million, attracted participation from over 20 limited partners. Notable investors include the European Investment Bank (EIB), Visa Foundation, Bertelsmann, and AfricaGrow, a joint venture between Allianz and DEG Impact.

This news comes two years and a few months after TLcom Capital announced the first close of the second fund at $70 million, matching the size of its first fund, TIDE Africa Fund I. While the broader slowdown affecting venture capital and startups globally contributed to the prolonged fundraising period, the VC firm can count a few positives, managing partner Maurizio Caio told TechCrunch in an interview. 

Notably, TLcom Capital closed the second fund in a shorter timeframe than its preceding fund despite being twice its size. Caio attributes this success to an improved understanding and acceptance of venture capital in Africa among limited partners as a legitimate asset class. Additionally, a portfolio of companies exemplifying the firm’s investment strategy played a pivotal role in garnering investor confidence and support.

Unlike many VC firms that progress from backing startups in pre-seed and seed stages to later-stage investments with subsequent funds, TLcom Capital maintains a consistent strategy. The London-based firm continues to prioritize early-stage opportunities, particularly at the seed and Series A stages, while also considering opportunistic deals at growth and later stages. For example, the investor backed 10 out of the 11 companies from its first fund at seed or Series A. Yet, it has deployed capital in follow-on rounds at later stages across both funds (a Series C investment in Andela, a unicorn provider of global job placement for software developers, and a Series B round in FairMoney, a Nigerian digital bank.)

“We like to start early when the entrepreneur is raising seed or Series A and then to be with the entrepreneur along the journey and continue to invest if we think that the company deserves more capital deployed,” remarked Caio. “The reason is that we build our portfolio such that we back 20 to 25 companies that ‘if everything works out’ can return the fund individually.”

The managing partner emphasizes that when TLcom evaluates early-stage opportunities, it assesses the potential of its portfolio companies to generate 10-20x returns. The approach, he says, is to ensure that successful companies compensate for losses and allow the firm to achieve 3-4x return on an aggregate basis.

One way the firm is bettering its risk in this regard is by backing repeat founders. Sim Shagaya (of uLesson and Konga), Etop Ikpe (Autochek and Cars45), and Grant Brooke (Shara and Twiga) are a few examples. Despite past ventures not achieving desired success, Caio says these founders gained valuable insights to avoid repeating past mistakes in their new ventures. “When things don’t go as planned, it’s important to act swiftly, pivot, and move on to the next venture, knowing that lessons learned will pave the way for future success,” he noted. 

Another is by investing earlier in deals, at the pre-seed stage. In 2020, TLcom Capital invested in Autochek and Okra at the pre-seed stage and has since followed up in subsequent rounds. Two years later, the firm launched a pre-seed strategy that involved allocating $5 million to be disbursed in small check sizes and a low-touch approach to create a pipeline to its primary strategy at seed and Series A (Upskilling platform Talstack is its first recipient). A portion of this fund, $2 million, was dedicated to co-investing in female-led startups through FirstCheck Africa, a female-focused pre-seed fund. The firm says its commitment to gender balance is evident in its majority-female partnership and investment committee, where three out of five partners are women.

TLcom Capital, which focuses on traditional sectors like fintech, mobility, agriculture, healthcare, education, and commerce, has already backed six companies from its new fund, making initial investments ranging from $1 million to $3 million. They include SeamlessHR, FairMoney, Zone, and Vendease. Additionally, the firm has expanded its portfolio to include ILLA, a middle-mile logistics platform, and Littlefish, which enable payments and banking products for SMEs, marking its first investments in Egypt and South Africa, respectively.

“For us, the Big Four markets always continue to produce the most valuable companies, so it was important to add Egypt and South Africa as destinations of our capital,” said Caio, noting that TLcom’s portfolio before now has primarily been startups based in Nigeria and Kenya, countries where the firm has since expanded its operational capacity and expertise. 

The multi-sector-focused firm and other notable venture capital firms like Norrsken22, Al Mada, Novastar’s Africa People + Planet, and Partech Africa have raised significant funds to back African startups from pre-seed to Series C. However, as these funds are deployed across various stages of startup growth, attention will turn to the exit opportunities they facilitate and the tangible returns they deliver to their LPs, as these outcomes play a crucial role in driving the overall growth of the African tech ecosystem.

“Africa shouldn’t just be about how much money is going in but also about returns,” emphasizes Caio. “We need global capital to look at Africa and think of a place where good investments can be made and technology can generate much value. That’s still to be achieved at scale, so that’s our primary target.”

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Introducing the ScaleUp Startups Program at Disrupt 2024 for Series A to B startups | TechCrunch

We are thrilled to unveil our latest innovation: ScaleUp Startups Exhibitor Program at TechCrunch Disrupt 2024.

Tailored specifically for startups in Series A to B funding stages with $35 million or less in funding, this program offers unparalleled access to 10,000 tech leaders, invaluable networking opportunities with investors, and exclusive sessions focused on scaling strategies — all without the hefty sponsor exhibitor fees. As a ScaleUp exhibitor, you’ll have the chance to showcase your company on the Disrupt expo floor for one dynamic day, along with receiving four startup passes for your team to fully immerse themselves in the conference experience. Seize this opportunity to propel your startup’s growth — get your package here!

Showcase your innovation on the Expo Floor

Secure prime space on the Disrupt Expo Floor for a full day and shine the spotlight on your company for 10,000 tech leaders, investors, and fellow entrepreneurs. This is your chance to captivate the audience with your groundbreaking ideas and innovative solutions.

Maximize your team’s impact at Disrupt

With four conference passes included, ScaleUp Startup Exhibitors can make the most of all three days of the event. Take advantage of extensive networking opportunities, attend insightful sessions, and promote your startup to a diverse audience. Empower your team to engage with industry leaders and forge valuable connections that could fuel your company’s growth.

Get eyes on your startup

ScaleUp Startup Exhibitors will enjoy prominent visibility on the Disrupt website, exhibitor lists, and event app. Your startup will be prominently featured, ensuring that attendees and potential investors can easily discover and learn about your company. Additionally, exhibitors will have access to the press list, enhancing your exposure and amplifying your brand’s reach.

What comes with the package?

  • One 6’ x 30″ table, one table linen, and two chairs.
  • One day to exhibit. Date is decided by the TechCrunch team.
  • One 11” x 14” tabletop sign with startup logo.
  • Access to lead generation provided.
  • Access to complimentary partner Wi-Fi network.
  • Logo and company profile in the TechCrunch Disrupt mobile app.
  • Access to the TechCrunch Disrupt press list.
  • 10 Expo+ passes.
  • 4 startup exhibit team-member passes.

How much does it cost?

Upon intent to participate, the ScaleUp Exhibitor Packages are $3,500 and, if your startup is accepted, that fee is non-refundable. If your startup is rejected, the fee is fully refundable.

Is this different than Startup Battlefield 200?

Yes, Startup Battlefield 200 is a program specifically for pre-series A, bootstrapped startups and is free to apply. The ScaleUp Startups Exhibitor Program is for Series A to B startups with $35 million or less in funding and costs $3,500 to participate if accepted.

Don’t miss out on this chance to elevate your startup’s trajectory and position your company for success. Book your package now to become a ScaleUp Startup Exhibitor at Disrupt and unlock unparalleled opportunities for growth and visibility.

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Robotic Automations

How PayJoy built $300M in revenue by letting the underserved use their smartphones as collateral for loans | TechCrunch

Lerato Motloung is a mother of two who works in a supermarket in Johannesburg, South Africa. After her phone was stolen, Motloung had to go without a mobile phone for nine months because she could not afford a new one. Then, in February 2024, she saw a sign about PayJoy, a startup that offers lending to the underserved in emerging markets. She was soon able to buy her first smartphone.

Motloung is one of millions of customers that San Francisco–based PayJoy has helped since its 2015 inception. (She was its 10 millionth customer.) The company’s mission is to “provide a fair and responsible entry point for individuals in emerging markets to enter the modern financial system, build credit, achieve economic freedom, and access digital connectivity.”

Image Credits: PayJoy

PayJoy became a public benefit corporation last year and is an example of a company attempting to do good while also generating meaningful revenue and running a profitable business. And, unlike other startups offering loans to the underserved, it’s doing so in a way that’s not predatory, it says.

“We meet customers where they are — even with no bank account or formal credit history, we create access to financial services and carve a path into the financial system,” said co-founder and CEO Doug Ricket.

PayJoy is applying a buy now, pay-as-you-go model to the estimated 3 billion adults globally who don’t have credit by allowing them to purchase smartphones and pay weekly for a 3- to 12-month period. The phones themselves are used as collateral for the loan.

While the loans are interest free, with no late or hidden fees, the company does mark up the price it charges for the phones by a “multiple,” Ricket said. But it shares the full price upfront before customers sign a contract.

“Users will never pay more than the disclosed amount and can return their phone and walk away debt-free at any time,” he says.

If a customer does miss a payment, their device is locked and is unusable outside of contacting PayJoy or emergency services. To unlock the device, the user needs to make a single weekly payment and the device will then be unlocked for 7 days.

Adds Ricket: “Even upon serious delinquency, PayJoy does not repossess the device and does not communicate individual loan performance to retail partners. PayJoy does report loan performance to credit bureaus including both positive and negative history, so their credit report will be affected accordingly.”

By the fourth quarter of 2023, PayJoy had achieved an annualized run rate of more than $300 million, Ricket told TechCrunch exclusively. That’s up from $10 million in 2020, when it first introduced lending. And the company was “net income profitable” in 2023. It also managed to raise significant capital during a challenging fundraising environment. Last September, PayJoy announced that it had secured $150 million in Series C equity funding and $210 million in debt financing. Warburg Pincus led its equity raise, which included participation from Invus, Citi Ventures and prior lead investors Union Square Ventures and Greylock.

PayJoy has come a long way since TechCrunch first profiled it in December 2015 when it had secured $4.3 million in equity and debt about 10 months after its inception.

Image Credits: PayJoy

Today, the company operates in seven countries across regions such as Latin America, India, Africa and most recently, the Philippines — providing over $2 billion of credit to date. In October of 2023, the company launched PayJoy Card in Mexico, providing customers who have successfully repaid their smartphone loans with a revolving line of credit. Ricket says that PayJoy can “enable cheaper credit and … reduce default rates” by using data science and machine learning to underwrite its loans to assess a customer’s creditworthiness. He says 47% of its customers are women, 40% are new to credit and 37% are first-time smartphone users.

Ricket was inspired to start PayJoy after serving in the Peace Corps following his graduation from MIT. He then spent two years as a volunteer teacher in West Africa, where he became interested in technology in the context of international development. After the Peace Corps, he landed at Google, where he helped create the world’s first complete digital map.

Ricket then moved back to West Africa where he worked for D.Light Design in the pay-as-you-go solar industry. All of that experience has been combined in PayJoy.

The company is on track to achieve over 35% revenue growth this year, with strong momentum in Brazil and new product offerings in development, according to Ricket. Presently, the company has 1,400 employees. It has raised more than $400 million in debt and equity over its lifetime.

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Startups Weekly: Is the wind going out of the AI sails? | TechCrunch

Welcome to Startups Weekly — your weekly recap of everything you can’t miss from the world of startups. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Friday.

After years of booming growth, the AI industry is now experiencing a significant slowdown in investment, as detailed in a recent report from Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI). The report highlights a notable decrease in both private and corporate investments in the AI sector for the second consecutive year, with overall investments dropping by 20% in 2023 compared to the previous year, Kyle reports. Despite this general downturn, certain segments like generative AI continue to attract significant funding, indicating a selective yet substantial interest in specific AI applications.

AI investment is slowing down for a few reasons, like the crowded market and the steep costs of building big AI models. According to Gartner analyst John-David Lovelock, the money is now flowing more toward big, established companies that are strengthening their positions, while it’s getting tougher for new players to get a piece of the pie. Investors are getting pickier and want to see real, solid returns instead of just throwing money at hopeful growth. (That isn’t stopping them from raising billion-dollar funds focusing on AI, of course.)

Despite these hurdles, there’s still a strong belief in the future of AI, especially in ways it can boost efficiency and spark innovation across different sectors. Right now, the market is just going through a bit of a cleanup, shifting from the wild spending of the past to a more thoughtful and sustainable way of funding. This change is key to creating AI solutions that actually work in the real world and can truly change industries, and worm its way into our battle-weary hearts.

Oh, and before we pile into the rest of the startup news this week … Do you have a pitch deck that might be a good fit for my Pitch Deck Teardown series? You can submit yours here — I’d love to take a closer look and potentially share it with TechCrunch’s readers, along with an in-depth review!

Most interesting startup stories from the week

The Humane Ai Pin. Image Credits: Brian Heater / TechCrunch

Oh hey! Look! It’s the triumphant return of TechCrunch old-timer Anthony Ha, who writes that Airchat, the latest brainchild of Naval Ravikant and Brian Norgard, is here to revolutionize social media with its groundbreaking concept: people talking to each other — shocking, right? This app, which is essentially a high-tech walkie-talkie, lets you follow others, scroll through a feed, and interact with audio posts that are also conveniently transcribed for those who can’t stand the sound of human voices. It’s currently climbing the social ladder on the App Store, all while being invite-only because nothing screams exclusivity like needing a golden ticket to listen to strangers ramble. Whether this will genuinely reduce online squabbles or just make them more melodious remains to be seen.

Airchat is like a tech-centric coffee shop where everyone’s buzzing about the latest in Silicon Valley, complete with a transcription feature that even gets Pokémon names right — because priorities. But don’t get too excited; it’s invite-only, making it another Silicon Valley whisper network. And while it’s all fun and audio games, the platform’s laid-back approach to content moderation could make it the Wild West of voice chats, where the only sheriff in town is the mute button.

  • Noname loses its unicorn horn: Noname Security, the cybersecurity startup that once strutted around with a $1 billion valuation, is now whispering sweet nothings to Akamai Technologies for a more modest $500 million.
  • Dude, where’s my phone: In a world where your smartphone feels like an extension of your hand, Humane is pitching a $699 wearable, the Ai Pin, that promises to be the next big thing — and hardware editor Brian takes a deep dive into where the company came from … and where it might be going.
  • Breaking out an army of ‘bots: Betaworks is diving headfirst into the AI pool, but instead of splashing around with the big LLMs, they’re floating a new idea — AI agents designed to tackle the mundane tasks we all love to hate. They’ve hatched nine of these digital minions from their latest “Camp” incubator, hoping to automate everything from email sorting to meeting scheduling.

Most interesting fundraises this week

Image Credits: Ramp / Ramp co-founders Karim Atiyeh, Eric Glyman and Gene Lee

Rippling, the HR tech darling that’s been vacuuming up venture capital like it’s going out of style, is at it again. This time, they’re passing around the Silicon Valley collection plate to the tune of $200 million in fresh capital, while also letting current shareholders cash out a cool $670 million. This latest fundraising fiesta, dubbed Series F, could puff up Rippling’s valuation to a breezy $13.4 billion. Not too shabby for a company that, just last year during the Silicon Valley Bank meltdown, had its CEO Parker Conrad frantically tweeting and dialing for dollars to make payroll. Now, with everyone writing record-breaking checks (and Coatue leading the round), it seems Rippling is less about the ripples and more about making waves.

  • Ramping up rapidly: Ramp, the spend management startup that’s apparently allergic to profitability, has just bagged another $150 million to keep the lights on and the acquisitions rolling. Now valued at a cool $7.7 billion, Ramp is playing financial Tetris with a mix of old and new investors, including the star-studded lineup of Khosla Ventures, Founders Fund, and Sequoia Capital.
  • And why do you think that is?: Two Chairs, the therapy startup that once championed the quaint notion of “actual human interaction,” has succumbed to the digital wave, swapping its stylish clinics for Zoom rooms. Fresh off a $72 million cash infusion, the company plans to keep expanding its digital domain, because while finding the right therapist online is still as tricky as a Sudoku puzzle, at least you don’t have to leave your couch to get disappointed.
  • Dust yourself off and try again: Rivos, the chip startup that Apple once accused of playing “Catch Me If You Can” with its trade secrets, has somehow managed to turn its courtroom soap opera into a $250 million funding fiesta. After Apple’s lawsuit drama cooled down, Rivos didn’t just walk away; they sprinted back to the lab to crank out chips that might just give the iPhone maker a run for its money.

Other unmissable TechCrunch stories …

Every week, there’s always a few stories I want to share with you that somehow don’t fit into the categories above. It’d be a shame if you missed ’em, so here’s a random grab bag of goodies for ya:

  • You’ve been hacked: Apple is playing the digital knight in shining armor by sending out mass “you might be hacked” notifications to iPhone users across 92 countries. This isn’t your garden-variety phishing scam but a full-blown spyware drama featuring shadowy attackers and possibly a cameo by the infamous Pegasus spyware.
  • Tesla cuts staff: Tesla, in a classic pre-earnings panic move, decided to thin the herd by axing 14,000 of its workers, including some of the star players. Apparently, the electric car giant has been feeling the pinch from an ongoing EV price war, prompting a “company-wide restructuring” to supposedly boost productivity and brace for its “next phase of growth.” This corporate euphemism translates to cutting loose even high performers, particularly those unlucky enough to work on now low-priority projects.
  • Humanoid robotics shake-up: A day after retiring the hydraulic model, Boston Dynamics’ CEO discusses the company’s commercial humanoid ambitions with electric options.
  • Continuing to run Twitter into the ground: Elon Musk, in his latest bid to save his corner of the internet, has decided that the best way to tackle X’s bot epidemic is to hit new users where it hurts: their wallets. For the low, low price of an undisclosed fee, you too can prove your humanity and earn the privilege to post on the platform.
  • Hello, is the doctor in?: Hugging Face is always up for a challenge. This time, it has decided to tackle the Wild West of AI in healthcare with its latest creation, Open Medical LLM. This new benchmark is essentially a Frankenstein’s monster of existing medical test sets, stitched together to see if AI can actually handle the big leagues of healthcare without accidentally suggesting leeches for a headache. It’s a noble effort to bring some standardization to the chaotic realm of generative AI, which has been thrown into healthcare settings with a mix of high hopes and crossed fingers.

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Robotic Automations

Cambium is building a recycled wood supply chain | TechCrunch

The global demand for wood could grow by 54% between 2010 and 2050, according to a study by the World Resources Institute. While some building materials like steel get consistently recycled back into the supply chain, wood does not. Cambium hopes to fix that.

Cambium looks to build the supply chain that keeps wood from being wasted by connecting those with already-been-used wood to the businesses and folks that need it. Cambium co-founder and CEO Ben Christensen recently told TechCrunch’s Found podcast that only 5% to 10% of wood gets reused currently, with most ending up in landfills or turned into mulch.

“We’re building a better value chain where you can use local material, you can use salvaged material, and all of that is connected through our technology,” Christensen said. “So that’s what we do is we deliver carbon smart wood, locally salvaged wood, tracked on our technology, to large buyers to build buildings, to build furniture, to use any sort of thing that you use wood for. And we do that in a really efficient and cost-competitive way.”

Demand for more sustainable wood has been growing in recent years, Christensen said, but before Cambium there wasn’t a good system to find the recycled wood. Cambium fixes that and more, he said. The company goes to businesses with recycled wood to sell and shows them the demand for their products while also selling its software that helps with inventory management and point of sale to these suppliers.

Cambium also helps buyers get better visibility into where their wood is coming from and can further reduce their carbon footprint by selecting a local vendor, Christensen said.

“People like really, really want to buy this material, we’ve been really overwhelmed with demand there and that helps us get sourcing and volume onto the platform in order to go and meet that demand,” Christensen said.

Christensen added that the company has benefited from a generational shift too as construction companies and people in wood-related trades retire and the next generation of folks in those fields look to adopt technology and be more environmentally friendly.

Cambium was founded in 2019 and is based in Washington, D.C. The startup has raised more than $8.5 million in funding from VCs including The Alumni Fund, Gaingels and MaC Venture Capital, among others.

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Robotic Automations

Screen Skinz raises $1.5 million seed to create custom screen protectors | TechCrunch

Clay Canning had an idea while in high school: smartphone screen protectors that featured logos, right on the screen.

He later connected with Rashaun Brown, who was working in sports and licensing at the time, and the idea for Screen Skinz was born.

“We both understood the opportunity and complemented each other’s weakness,” Brown, the company’s CEO, told TechCrunch. “In December 2022, I resigned from my job to pursue building Screen Skinz with Clay full time.”

Now, Screen Skinz can officially announce the closing of a $1.5 million seed round led by South Loop Ventures and Abo Ventures.

The company produces custom, patent-pending phone screen protectors that feature personalized logos or slogans that are visible when the phone screen is black and then disappear when the phone is in use. Customers can create their own designs or pick from the company’s existing catalog.

Phone accessories have always been a massive market, with the global screen protector market alone worth an estimated $51 billion as of 2023.

Screen Skinz already holds creative licenses with various big-name brands, working with organizations such as the NFL and NBA and entertainment brands like Marvel and the WWE.

Example of Screen Skinz screen protector. Image Credits: Screen Skinz

The latest fundraise allowed Screen Skinz to move manufacturing from Asia to the U.S., allowing it to more easily control its supply chain.

The company is looking to double down on the screen protection industry, and though it currently only focuses on smartphones, there is a plan to one day expand to making screen protectors for tablets. “With our IP, we can essentially develop screen protection for any mobile device that has use for a screen protector and features a backlit display,” Brown said.

Brown described Screen Skinz’s fundraising process as “different,” stating that it took the company about a year to close its seed round. Brown and Canning intentionally took their time, as they also sought to refine their supply chain and prepare inventory for a mass go-to-market. “We wanted to do the work of selling a realistic vision to investors,” Brown said.

Screen Skinz met its co-lead investor, Abo Ventures, through Brown’s network from when he worked at Texas A&M. They then met South Loop Ventures while participating in the DivInc Sports Tech Accelerator in Houston.

Michelle Micone, the former SVP of consumer products at NFL and Hasbro, said she liked that the team had a unique concept and also figured out the manufacturing and logistics of producing it. “Customers want a high level of personalization, but it’s really, really hard to deliver on time and at a reasonable price. Screen Skinz has that formula, and I wanted to be part of it,” she told TechCrunch.

Other investors in the round include Brent Montgomery, the CEO of Wheelhouse CEO, alongside Wayne Pfeffer and Brendan O’Donnel, former directors of worldwide mobile accessory products at Apple. Pfeffer, in particular, was also sold on the idea of making screen protectors more personalizable. “For years, personalizing your device was limited to the case,” he told TechCrunch. “When I saw the evolution to the front on a screen protector, I was sold!

Brown said the company could look to raise as early as next year again. Screen Skinz next has some partnerships lined up and is focused on customer acquisition and deepening licensing relationships.

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Robotic Automations

Live selling startup CommentSold uses AI to generate shoppable, social-ready clips | TechCrunch

CommentSold, the e-commerce tech startup that provides web and video tools to online retailers, launched a new generative AI-powered tool on Wednesday that can sift through livestreamed footage and generate short product explainer videos for sellers to post to their website, app and social media platforms.

The “AI ClipHero” feature creates short clips from livestreamed selling events, which often last for hours. Instead of retailers rewatching content and scouring for relevant clips to edit and post, CommentSold’s new tool saves them some time by automatically identifying the most interesting parts of the livestream for customers who missed the event to get a brief summary of the products. The tool also uses speech recognition to generate captions.

“Shoppable ‘explainer’ videos are the most powerful video commerce medium right now, with TikTok and Instagram becoming the primary way Gen Z discovers, learns about products and purchases products. However, creating shoppable videos [requires] significant production times,” CommentSold CEO Guatam Goswami told TechCrunch.

Image Credits: CommentSold

AI-powered clipping software isn’t new, but not many companies have developed AI-powered tools specifically designed for live commerce. Various startups (Powder, Eklipse, and others), though, have introduced similar features for content creators to capture highlights from gaming streams.

“Companies like TikTok and Twitch have been trying to create AI that can create shoppable videos from live-stream events … CommentSold is now the first provider to launch a commercially available AI, which learns from millions of hours of livestreams in CommentSold’s library to identify and create product explainer videos from livestream selling events,” Goswami said.

In addition to its AI ClipHero feature, CommentSold recently rolled out PopClips, which allows retailers to tag products in a banner at the bottom of each clip to direct customers to the product page and drive more sales. The company also provides tools for custom website and mobile app building, as well as systems to automate inventory, invoices, shipping, and more.

Since launching in 2017, CommentSold now helps over 7,000 small- and mid-sized businesses deliver live shopping and e-commerce experiences. According to the company, it has facilitated the sale of over 180 million items with more than $4.4 billion in lifetime gross merchandise value (GMV), up from $3.8 billion in 2023.

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Robotic Automations

Space startups are licking their lips after NASA converts $11B Mars mission into a free-for-all | TechCrunch

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has pronounced the agency’s $11 billion, 15-year mission to collect and return samples from Mars: insufficient. But the strategy shift could be a huge boon to space startups, to which much of that planned funding will almost certainly be redirected.

“The bottom line is, an $11 billion budget is too expensive, and a 2040 return date is too far away,” Nelson said at a press conference. “We need to look outside the box to find a way ahead that is both affordable and returns samples in a reasonable timeframe.”

In other words, clear the decks and start over — with commercial providers on board from the get-go.

The Mars Sample Return mission was still in the planning stages, but an independent review of the project last year found that, given budget, technology and other constraints, the mission was unlikely to complete before 2040, and at a cost of $8 billion 11 billion. (And like goldfish, projects like these tend to grow to the maximum budget projected.)

Though NASA proposed a revised plan in the mold of the original, it has now also challenged the space community to go further: “NASA soon will solicit architecture proposals from industry that could return samples in the 2030s, and lowers cost, risk, and mission complexity.”

Considering how heavily both primes and space startups have been investing in interplanetary capability, this announcement arguably amounts to a historic windfall. A company like Intuitive Machines, riding high after accomplishing the first private lunar landing, will almost certainly be firing on all cylinders to take on what could be a multi-billion-dollar contract.

Even if NASA wants to assign only half or even a quarter of the original budget to an endeavor led by a commercial space company, private industry has already shown that it can do more with less when compared to legacy outfits.

It’s also catnip for launch companies, since the time horizon is far enough out that heavy launch vehicles like Blue Origin’s New Glenn, Rocket Lab’s Neutron and, of course, SpaceX’s Starship may be cleared to fly when the mission is ready to progress. That was no doubt also the plan with the 2040 timeline, but “2030s” (the notional new one) is a lot closer to the present, and a hamburger today is worth 10 in a decade.

Between the lines can be seen the admission that any mission planned before the present bloom of orbital and interplanetary capability is, very simply, no longer feasible. Although NASA’s troubled Space Launch System heavy launch vehicle is perhaps the largest such project, to abandon it now would be to throw away a great deal, while preemptively opting for a leaner Mars program fueled by commercial ambitions seems to have no obvious downside. (There’s plenty of time to save and repurpose the most important concepts and research already done by NASA and its partners.)

No doubt that many of the companies this decision stands to benefit — not just startups and growing space companies but also primes and launch providers — saw the writing on the wall and have been looking forward to this day. But the official announcement, and the implication that it is the new generation of space companies that will accomplish ambitious goals like a there-and-back trip to Mars, must be very validating.

To be clear, there is no money on the table just yet — but the promise has essentially been made that what would have belonged to the Mars Sample Return mission will be repurposed according to whatever new plan the expansive “NASA community” decides on. Whatever that new plan may be, it will almost certainly rely far more than before on commercial services and hardware.

Just as the Commercial Lunar Payload Services accelerated and incentivized the proliferation of vehicles, spacecraft and landers we see today — including some by companies that didn’t exist a few years ago — the newly recast Mars Sample Return mission may have fired the starting gun on commercial ambitions for the red planet.

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Robotic Automations

Mahbod Moghadam, who rose to fame as the co-founder of Genius, has died | TechCrunch

Mahbod Moghadam, the controversial, never-boring co-founder of Genius and Everipedia, as well as an angel investor, passed away last month at age 41 owing to “complications from a recurring brain tumor,” according to a post attributed to his family and published on Genius.

The startup world appears to have caught wind of his passing just this weekend, with numerous tributes springing up on the X platform, including by former TechCrunch writer-turned-investor Josh Constine, who once interviewed Moghadam and his founders at Genius when the company was still in its relative infancy and called Rap Genius. Wrote Constine: “RIP to Mahbod. A complex, edgy, and at times problematic guy, but also genuinely funny, brilliant, and always unique.”

Moghadam was most recently living in Los Angeles, where, after spending roughly 20 months with the venture firm Mucker Capital as an entrepreneur in residence, he was focused in part on figuring out schemes to help creators get paid more directly for their work.

One of those recent efforts was HellaDoge, a short-lived social media platform that offered to pay its users dogecoin for contributing dogecoin-related content for the benefit of the rest of the platform’s users. The ostensible idea was that, unlike a Facebook or Twitter, which generate ad revenue for themselves based on the engagement of their users, HellaDoge’s users would benefit directly from their participation.

In an interview 11 months ago with the online media outfit According 2 Hip Hop, Moghadam talked about a similar idea for a company called Communistagram where, he said, “you’d connect your Venmo and [as a creator] just get paid for using it,” rather than rely on Spotify or YouTube to receive payment.

Moghadam’s interest in how people can and should get paid dates back to 2009. After graduating from Yale and then Stanford Law School, he became a lawyer just as the economy was crashing in 2008. In that same interview from last year, Moghadam said he was “just, like, tiptoeing” around the offices of the law firm where he landed his first job and praying he wouldn’t be fired.

When the inevitable happened — Moghadam said the law firm “ended up basically just giving us some money to go away” — he used the money to co-found Rap Genius with two of his Yale friends: Ilan Zechory and Tom Lehman.

Originally, the site invited users to annotate and explain hip-hop lyrics, eventually becoming so well-known that rappers gravitated to the platform to explain their own lyrics — as well as to correct users who’d mangled them — including the rapper Nas, who became an advisor and one of its first investors.

By the time that Rap Genius graced the stage at TechCrunch Disrupt in May 2013, the three had landed funding from Andreessen Horowitz and were on the verge of rebranding Rap Genius as Genius and expanding its remit.

But Moghadam also began attracting attention to the annotation company for belligerent behavior, both public and private. In November 2013, he attributed his poor conduct to a fetal benign brain tumor that was removed in emergency surgery. He kept pushing the envelope, however. Indeed, in 2014, after posting provocative comments as annotations after a murderer’s manifesto was posted to Genius’s platform, Moghadam resigned at the urging of Lehman, who was the company’s CEO.

Moghadam later co-founded Everipedia, a decentralized, blockchain-based encyclopedia that in 2022 was renamed

As it was still trying to find its footing, he joined Mucker Capital.

Looking back, Moghadam expressed dismay that Genius contributors weren’t paid for helping to build out the platform. “The only reason Genius can get by with doing slave labor for lyrics is because people love music so much,” he said during last year’s interview with According 2 Hip Hop.

Either way, the company fell short of its ambitions, failing to expand far beyond its core audience of rap fans and unsuccessfully suing Google for copying and posting its lyrics at the top of search results to capture users who might otherwise have visited Genius.

In 2021, it sold for $80 million — less than half of what it raised from venture investors — to a holding company.

While Moghadam never reached the same heights professionally as during the early days of Genius, he remained highly regarded by many of Genius’s most ardent fans, appearing on a variety of podcasts where enthusiastic hosts fawned over him.

Moghadam also never forgave Lehman and was still trying to sue the company as of last year in an attempt to “squeeze some juice from this rock,” he said in that interview last year.

Slamming the new owners of Genius, Moghadam had added that “at least the [original] CEO [Lehman] straight up built Genius with his own two hands. He’s a nerd. That’s the only good thing about him.”

Software Development in Sri Lanka