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Business trip platform TravelPerk buys YC-backed rival NexTravel

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Barcelona-based TravelPerk has scooped up US-based rival NexTravel as the pandemic drives consolidation in one of the sector’s hardest hit by COVID-19.

It’s not disclosing how much it’s shelling out for NexTravel, which has some 700 customers globally and has processed around 300,000 trips since being founded back in 2013, but says the deal is its largest acquisition to date — with the aim of beefing up its business in the US. (Also today it’s announcing a partnership with Southwest Airlines that plugs a key gap in its US offering.)

The US has always been a top five market for TravelPerk, per CEO and co-founder, Avi Meir, but after the NexTravel acquisition it becomes its largest market.

“US customers, US know-how, [US-based] team,” he said, listing the drivers for the acquisition. “They’ve built an amazing product. It’s a Y Combinator company who started 2-3 years before us and they focused only or mostly on the US market so they have an expertise that is very complementary to what we’re doing.”

Meir confirmed NexTravel’s founders and team are joining TravelPerk as part of the deal. Existing customers include the likes of Yelp, Stripe and Harry’s.

“They’re a great company. I really think we have great execution and we got into the crisis with a much better cash position and COVID-19 is creating opportunities that didn’t exist before,” he added. “We had friendly competition and just the context of the situation was we were in a better position to acquire them vs them acquiring us.”

The plan is to migrate users of the US product onto TravelPerk’s platform over time but Meir said the NexTravel team will continue to support the product for the foreseeable future while it works on understanding and plugging any functionality gaps with the aim of ensuring a smooth, eventual transition for NexTravel customers in the future.

The acquisition is only TravelPerk’s second after it picked up risk management startup Albatross last summer — underlining how the coronavirus crisis is retooling priorities for businesses in the travel sector.

Or at least those that have enough funding to see them through the revenue crunch. And Meir confirmed TravelPerk has its eye on more acquisition targets.

“We are in the process of talking with a few more [potential acquisitions],” he said, adding: “In a moment of crisis consolidation typically happens so I think it’s fair to expect more of this.”

While a couple of years ahead of TravelPerk in starting up a business travel booking business, NexTravel has raised considerably less over its run — pulling in circa $4.5M in funding, according to Crunchbase.

The younger Spain-based startup, meanwhile, grew faster and has raised orders of magnitude more (~$134M to date) — including a $60M top-up to its Series C in 2019 when it was reporting 2,000 customers globally.

“We just happen to be in Europe,” Meir told TechCrunch, discussing how his European startup is in a position to buy a US rival (when the reverse is all too often the case in tech) — and pointing to knowledge of how to localize as a key advantage. “We were never targeting the Spanish market exclusively or not even the European market.

“To win in business travel, one of the paradoxes is you have to build a very localized product… So we never saw ourselves as a European business we just recognize that we have to really localize deeply in order to be successful anywhere. But we have to do it across the world. So this acquisition is just another step in localizing for the US.”

“[The acquisition] will obviously drive a lot of product development, of commercial investments, of partnerships,” he added. “In a way we’re doing it knowing that it will force us to do more of the US — so it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophesy — but it’s a $300BN business travel market so we should better make some moves around it.”

With the pandemic continuing to ravage much of the globe — including both the US and Europe — there’s likely to be considerably fewer billions of dollars on business travel value up for grabbed for a sizeable chunk of 2021. And Meir confirmed that TravelPerk isn’t expecting to see a revival in the market before the second half of this year.

Nonetheless, he remains bullish that once vaccinations are rolled out to the most vulnerable groups in society business travellers will be on the move once again — predicting that Zoom fatigue and the boom in remote working will rekindle demand for face-to-face human contact.

“My best guess right now is everything converges to around the second half of this year — around May-June maybe — where seasonality should hopefully hit. Meaning we’ll see the same decline in hospitalizations and deaths as we saw last year. That’s my hope,” he predicted. “On top of that we have the vaccines… Within the next 4-5 months there is reason to expect that we’ll see [vaccine rollouts] accelerating and then everything converges. We just need the at risk population to be safe for the world to be open again.”

“It doesn’t mean we’ll be completely done with corona but it won’t be as deadly as it is now so we’ll be able to open up more and remove restrictions and see travel coming back again,” he added.

Pressed on whether businesses might not have adjusted to a new, ‘more digital’ normal after 1.5 years of living with COVID-19 — having come to rely on a suite of videoconferencing and virtual meeting tools — Meir quashes the idea of a smaller business travel market replacing the pre-pandemic industry, predicting a “roaring ’20s” revival for business travel instead, fuelled by “Zoom fatigue” and networking FOMO once social distancing restrictions can be lifted.

“If you still own any Zoom shares you should sell them!” he quipped, speaking via Zoom call (obviously). “This is going down from now. Everybody is tired of this. The Zoom fatigue is real. It creates a lot of mental health concerns, social isolation… Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs is still here, and it’s even stronger than ever, I think, because we realize how bad it is when we don’t meet people in real life. When everything has to be through this weird, proxy to human connection. The virus doesn’t change human nature. We still need to meet each other face to face.”

“The first sales person who’s going to lose a sale because the competition went and took the customer to dinner and they wanted to do it via Zoom, they’re on a plane the next day. So competition will solve it — even if we put aside human nature,” he added. “I think we all recognize even more how much we need human connection.”

So even if some some “transactional meetings” do move permanently to Zoom, as Meir conceded “maybe” happens, he said they’re not the primary driver for the bulk of business travel anyway.

Furthermore, the pandemic will create new demand for business travel because of the boom in remote working creating ongoing need for distributed colleagues to travel to meet each other face to face, with Meir arguing that more flexible working is certainly here to stay.

“My team, like many other teams, used to be all in Barcelona in the same building — and now we allow them to work from anywhere in the world. Because why not? Many companies will stick to that I think,” he said. “We have recognized that people like it, the employees like it and it’s cheaper, because you don’t have to have as much office real estate — and people are more productive and they’re happier and they have a better balance between their personal and work life.

“So this requires a new type of travel because… you have to bring [your team] together for a week of work together. So I think the small decline in business travel due to this one hour transactional call that you can move to Zoom will be compensated even more — increased by — this new way of working that requires a new type of business travel.”

While TravelPerk was fortunate enough to go into the pandemic well-capitalized, having topped up its Series C in 2019, investor interest in travel startups undoubtedly went on holiday for a considerable chunk of last year. But, again, Meir suggests, an uptick on that front.

“We don’t need to raise any time soon — we have enough cash. The expectation is for the business to go back to growing year on year sometime in Q3, Q4 of this year,” he told us. “Having said that, what’s interesting — and I don’t know if I’m the only one — is we went from [being a fast-growing company] and you get a lot of inbound from investors and then COVID-19 hit and my inbox was empty for a while.

“It was pretty sad, pretty pathetic. And then the last few weeks — since the beginning of the school year — September/October, my inbox is not empty anymore. So there is some movement in the market. There’s a lot of money looking for a home — for good investments. And I think even in an industry which is suffering obviously, the good companies can raise at good terms right now. So I’m not looking to raise but I’m always open to the opportunity.”

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Unmind raises $47M for a platform to provide mental health support in your workplace

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Mental health has been put into the spotlight in a big way in recent times. For many of us, our lives and lifestyles have changed massively in the last year, and alongside that, we’re collectively facing pandemic-fueled mortality on a global scale in a way that hasn’t existed for generations, a perfect storm of sorts that has inevitably had an impact on our state of mind and our moods.

Today a startup that has built a platform to help people think about and respond to this situation is announcing a big round of growth funding, specifically to help address all of this and how it plays out in one of the more stress-inducing aspects of our life — our workplaces.

Unmind — a London startup that has built a mental health app for the workplace — has raised $47 million, a Series B that it will be using to continue investing in its research and development and also to expand its business reach. The funding is being led by EQT Ventures –- a very active investor at the moment in UK growth rounds — with participation also from Sapphire Ventures and previous backers Project A, Felix Capital, and True.

The core of Unmind’s service is an app built around a set of questions to help employees explore their own states of mental health, which could include depression, anxiety, insomnia, and a host of other manifestations. It provides advice and content to begin addressing the results of that — exercises, advice, podcasts, links for further reading, and links to seeing further help from professionals (not more machine interfaces, but humans). It also provides a service to the employers, sharing anonymized data from the app with them so that they, too, can consider how better to respond to their employees’ needs.

The app has seen some notable traction especially in the last year, a time when the conversation about mental health has become much more commonplace and critical, given the environment we’ve been living in.

Unmind does not disclose user numbers, nor how they have grown, but it tells me that uptake and adoption of its app ranges from 15% to over 60% of an organization’s workforce (this varies by size, and the emphasis that the organization itself puts on using the app, among other things). It said that of those employees who are using Unmind, 88% have said they experience an improvement in mental wellbeing, work, or relationships, while 92% report higher confidence, awareness, and understanding of mental health.

The company also said that revenues grew by more than 3x in the last 12 months. Meanwhile, its customers include major retailers like John Lewis and M&S, high street bank TSB, Uber, Samsung, Virgin Media, British Airways and Asos — a list of companies that have strong degrees of customer service around them, have been greatly impacted by the lockdowns, and you can imagine must have a lot of people working in them pretty stressed out as a result of being on the front lines of interfacing with a stressed-out wider population of consumers.

The company was co-founded by Dr Nick Taylor, who previously had been a clinical psychologist and worked for years in mental health care (and before that was a classically-trained singer), who said he came up with the idea after feeling like he was seeing too many people only for the first time at a stage when their issues were already very advanced.

“I kept encountering the same frustration time and again: I wish I’d met this person six months ago,” Taylor said in an interview.

As with all kinds of preventative healthcare, it’s always better to identify and work on issues before they grow big and more urgent, and so he set out to think about how one might approach the concept of a preventative check-up and check-in for mental health.

The workplace is not a bad place to base that effort. Not only is it often a source of stress for people, but it’s a regular place for them to be every day so creating a way of assessing mental health through that implicitly creates a kind of routine to the effort. It also potentially means a closer connection to the employer to work on issues more collectively when and if they emerge, in a way that the employer might not do (or ever discover) through other means.

The connection between work and mental health is a longstanding one but has perhaps been proven out more than ever before in the last year.

“I didn’t know what would happen with mental health during Covid,” Taylor recalled. “I actually wondered if it would be demoted,” given all of the other conflicting priorities. “But the prevalence of mental illness has escalated. It’s out of control. And in the workplace, it’s a leading cause of absenteeism and turnover.” And given how full-on everything has become, including likely more hours spent working since now it all has merged with our home lives, we all know (and may well be among) many people who are feeling incredibly burned out right now.

Taylor said that in fact quite the opposite has happened to his early skepticism: mental health has become front of mind, “and the shackles of stigma are falling away.”

This is part of what has really caught the eye of investors: technology that is not just effective, but very relevant to right now. “It is now universally recognized that our Mental Health is as important if not more important than our physical health – but has long been neglected. That is now changing rapidly,” said Alastair Mitchell, a partner at EQT Ventures. “As a result there has been a massive rise in the popularity of consumer mental health apps which is now being matched by surging demand from employers and employees for the same in the workplace. Unmind is the leading mental health app for the enterprise and we are so excited to work with Dr Nick and the team to support their scaling globally.” EQT is also a strategic investor, not just a financial one: it’s rolling out Unmind across its own workplace and its many portfolio companies.

Unmind, it should be noted, is not the only company that has identified this “opportunity,” if you could call it that. They include other startups like SF-based Ginger — which has also built a platform that partners with employers, but also healthcare providers and other stakeholders, to help people identify and manage their state of mind. Ginger has been well-capitalised over the years. Others in the same space include Welbot in New York, Spill also out of London and a host of others providing different aspects of mental wellness like Calm and Headspace, the meditation apps.

I’m inclined to think that, given the size of the problem and that mental health should not be a bunfight but something that takes a village to address, the key will be in how each company approaches its remit, and how people respond to it, and whether what people do ultimately use results in better bridges for employees to getting the help and peace they need, whether it’s from the app or a professional.

“We have a responsibility to connect with our mental health in the same way that we do when it comes to healthcare,” Taylor said, likening the effort to how it takes a number of skill sets sometimes to work on the complexities of a health issue. “Great healthcare integrates across a number of systems.”

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Dutch startup QphoX raises €2M to connect Quantum computers with a Quantum modem

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When eventually they become a working reality, Quantum computers won’t be of much value if they simply sit there on their own. Just like the internet, the value is in the network. But right now there’s scant technology to link these powerful devices together.

That’s where QphoX comes in. Thus Dutch startup has raised €2 million to connect Quantum computers with a ‘Quantum modem’.

The funding round was led by Quantonation, Speedinvest, and High-Tech Gründerfonds, with participation from TU Delft.

QphoX aims to develop the Quantum Modem it created at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) into a commercial product. This networks separate processors together, allowing quantum computers to scale beyond 10’s or 100’s of qubits. Look out for the Singularity folks…

Simon Gröblacher, CEO and co-founder of QphoX told me: “It is the exact same thing as a classical modem except for quantum computers, so it kind of converts electrical and microwave signals to optical signals coherently, so you don’t do any of the quantum information in the process. It then converts it back so you can really have two quantum computers talk to one another.

I noted that there’s more than one type of quantum computer. He countered “We are in principle agnostic to what kind of quantum computer it is. All we do at the moment is we focus on the microwave part, so we can work with superconducting qubits, topological qubits etc. We can convert microwaves to optical signals and they can talk to each other. Currently, the only competitors I know are all the in the academic world. So this is we’re the first company to actually starts building a real product.”

Rick Hao, Principal with Speedinvest’s Deep Tech team, added: “ We want to invest in seed-stage deep technology startups that shape the future and QphoX is well-positioned to make a major impact. Over the next couple of years, there will be rapid progress in quantum computers. Quantum Modem, the product developed by QphoX, enables the development of quantum computers that demonstrate quantum advantage by combining separate quantum processors.”

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UK fashion portal Lyst raises $85M in a ‘pre-IPO’ round, reportedly at a $500M valuation

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E-commerce continues to be a huge focus for investors watching consumer behavior and spending patterns in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the latest development, UK startup Lyst, a portal for high fashion brands and stores to sell directly to users, has picked up $85 million, in what the startup is describing as a ‘pre-IPO’ round.

The news comes as the company says that it has now grown to 150 million users browsing and buying from a catalog of 8 million products from 17,000 brands and retailers.

List said that gross merchandise value in 2020 was over $500 million, with new user numbers growing 1100% growth in new users. GMV has definitely been accelerating. Lyst has been around since 2010 and said today that lifetime GMV is more than $2 billion.

“Lyst is rapidly becoming a fashion category leader, which hundreds of millions of fashion lovers rely on to decide what to buy. While our app and website already enjoy very large audiences in the USA & Europe, fashion e-commerce remains under-penetrated in general, with huge growth potential globally. We’re excited to use this raise from top-tier investors to continue personalising the fashion shopping experience to each of our millions of customers, while helping our partner brands thrive,” said Chris Morton, Lyst’s CEO and founder, in a statement.

We have contacted the company to ask about the timing and location for a public listing and while it has not commented, we understand that London or New York would be the most obvious locations for a listing, which is not likely to be for another year or even three.

For now, Lyst has disclosed that investors in this latest injection include funds managed by Fidelity International, Novator Capital, Giano Capital and C4 Ventures, as well as a mix of financial and strategic previous backers Draper Esprit, 14W, Accel, Balderton Capital, Venrex and LVMH. Carmen Busquets — a strategic advisor to the company who co-founded Net-a-Porter, one of Lyst’s competitors in the space — also increased her investment in the company with this round, the company said.

Lyst is not disclosing its valuation but PitchBook notes that with this round, it is $500 million post-money. (We’ve also asked the company to confirm whether this is an accurate figure.) Sky News, where the funding news was leaked last night, did not have a valuation figure.

For some further comparison and context, though, Farfetch, another competitor in the same space as Lyst, listed publicly some years ago and currently has a market cap of $14.4 billion. And more generally, there is a lot to play for here online, not just against other pure-play fashion portals, but also standalone retailers, marketplaces like Amazon, and increasingly social media apps like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat, which are all looking at how they can better capitalize on how their platforms are already being used quite aggressively and widely for social commerce.

Social media sites would be an ironic but perhaps very unsurprising competitor for Lyst, which started life as a pioneer in the concept, creating a way for people to follow influential high fashion brands and influencers on its platform — who were not actually called “influencers” at the time, but curators and bloggers (the more things change, eh?) — and get alerts when items would be posted by them for sale.

People might have originally been very skeptical about how well high fahion (read: expensive, sometimes esoteric) might play over screens, but over time Lyst and the others in the same proved it all out in spades, raising successive rounds over time to back up its premise. Balenciaga, Balmain, Bottega Veneta, Burberry, Fendi, Gucci, Moncler, Off-White, Prada, Saint Laurent and Valentino are among the brands that appear on Lyst today.

Over the years, more variations and competitors have presented themselves, but the salient fact remains that high fashion has a huge target audience delivered in the right way, and that is something that investors, brands, influencers, and these marketplaces themselves have all doubled down on in the pandemic.

It’s been a time when people who have not found themselves outright struggling financially (and there are lot of those, unfortunately), have instead found themselves with more disposable income since they went out and travelled significantly less than before. Fashion and buying goods for ourselves has become a form of escapism, and for those who get a lift out of the tree falling in the forest and being there to hear the sound, we can still put on the outfits, snap ourselves for our Stories, and exposure will still be ours.

“Lyst has made huge progress over the past year with its industry leading app for the fast- growing online luxury fashion market – a trend which looks set to continue as consumers retain their newfound digital habits, and demand for fashion rises further post-pandemic. In recent years we have seen other high-growth fashion tech businesses taking the next step, and we believe Lyst is well positioned to capitalise on this market momentum. Draper Esprit has backed Lyst since Series A and we believe this latest round sets the business up for an exciting next phase,” said Nicola McClafferty, a partner, Draper Esprit, in a statement.

Lyst also announced a few appointments to firm up its executive bench in the lead-up to its next steps as a company. Mateo Rando previously at Spotify, is joining as chief product officer to focus largely on Lyst’s popular mobile app. And Emma McFerran, formerly general counsel and chief people officer, is stepping up as COO and a new board member.

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