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MotoRefi raises $10M to keep pedal on auto refinancing growth

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A month before the COVID-19 pandemic had spread to North America, auto fintech startup MotoRefi — newly armed with nearly $9 million in venture capital — was preparing to bring its refinancing platform to the masses.

CEO Kevin Bennett, and the investors behind the company, saw the opportunity to service Americans who collectively hold $1.2 trillion in auto loans. What they didn’t anticipate was the sudden uptick in demand fueled by COVID-19 and the uncertainty and chaos that the pandemic created.

MotoRefi, which was born out of QED Investors in 2017, developed an auto refinancing platform that handles the entire process, including finding the best rates,  paying off the old lender and re-titling the vehicle. The company has benefitted from the convergence of two trends sparked by COVID-19 that has turbocharged its business: an accelerated adoption of fintech across the economy and growing attention towards personal finance. 

Now, investors are pouring more money into the startup to help it make the most of the spike in demand for auto refinancing.

MotoRefi said Friday it has raised $10 million in a round led by Moderne Ventures. Liza Benson, a partner at Moderne Venture, will join the board.

“Many people are looking around saying how can they save money?” Bennett said, commenting on the events of the past year. “And while auto refinance historically is in a relatively low awareness category of personal finance, that interest has really grown and accelerated through 2020.”

For instance, Google searches for auto refinance increased about 40% in 2020 over the previous year, he added.

The company said its revenue rose by sixfold, its workforce tripled to more than 150 people and the number of lenders on its platform doubled over the past year. MotoRefi said it refinanced more than $250 million of auto loans in 2020.

“We actually weren’t planning on raising twice in a year,” Bennett said. “But the growth had been pretty noticeable from the investor standpoint in the market.”

That new capital will be used to hire more employees and expand its offerings, according to Bennett, who noted that MotoRefi now operates in 42 states and Washington DC.

MotoRefi has raised more than $24 million to date. The company raised last February $8.6 million in a Series A funding round. That round, which would later grow to $9.4 million, was co-led by Accomplice and Link Ventures. Motley Fool Ventures, CMFG Ventures (part of CUNA Mutual Group) and Gaingels also participated in the round. The Series A round followed $4.7 million in seed funding that MotoRefi announced in March 2019.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Last-mile delivery robotics company Refraction AI raises $4.2M

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Ann Arbor-based Refraction AI announced today that it has raised a $4.2 million seed round. The startup, which debuted on the TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility stage back in 2019, was founded by a pair of University of Michigan professors (Matthew Johnson-Roberson — now CTO — and Ram Vasudevan) seeking to solve a number of issues posed by many delivery robots.

With an initial prototype built on a bicycle foundation, the company’s REV-1 robot is designed to operate in bike lanes and roads, rather than the standard sidewalk ‘bot. The different approach allows the robot to travel at higher speeds (topping out at 15 miles per hour) and removes some of the messy pedestrian-dodging issues that come with sidewalk use (while introducing some new ones on that narrow sliver of asphalt shared by cyclists).

Refraction is currently testing a small fleet in its native Ann Arbor. The seed round, led by Pillar VC, will be used for R&D, expanding the company’s reach and recruiting more customers, with a focus on grocery store and restaurant deliveries. Other investors include, eLab Ventures, Osage Venture Partners, Trucks Venture Capital, Alumni Ventures Group, Chad Laurans and Invest Michigan.

Another key differentiator is the use of cameras, versus LIDAR. The decision comes with some technological trade-offs, but benefits include a lower price point and the ability for the company to more quickly scale its fleet. The technology is also not easily districted by weather conditions encountered in the upper midwest, though it has limitations, too. As the company puts it, if you’re not comfortable walking out in it, the robot probably won’t be, either.

“Our platform uses technology that exists today in an innovative way, to get people the things they need, when they need them, where they live,” CEO Luke Schneider said in a release tied to the news. “And we’re doing so in a way that reduces business’ costs, makes roads less congested, and eliminates carbon emissions.”

With this new funding, the company plans to expand operations beyond its native Ann Arbor, though no additional test markets have been announced.

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New clinical trial data from Locus Biosciences shows promise in CRISPR-Cas3 technology

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Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest potential threats to global health today. But Locus Biosciences is hoping that their crPhage technology might provide a new solution.

Based in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, the startup recently announced promising phase 1b clinical trial results for their use of CRISPR-Cas3-enhanced bacteriophages as a treatment for urinary tract infections caused by escherichia coli. Led in part by former Patheon executive and current Locus CEO Paul Garofolo, the startup launched in 2015 with the goal of using a less popular application of CRISPR technology to address growing antimicrobial resistance.

CRISPR-Cas3 technology has notably different mechanisms from its more well-known CRISPR-Cas9 counterpart. Where the Cas9 enzyme has the ability to cleanly cut through a piece of DNA like a pair of scissors, Garofolo describes Cas3 more like a Pac-Man, shredding the DNA as it moves along a strand.

“You wouldn’t be able to use it for most of the editing platforms people were after,” he said, noting that meant there wouldn’t be as much competition around Cas3. “So I knew it would be protected for some time, and that we could keep it quiet.”

Garofolo and his team wanted to use CRISPR-Cas3 not to edit harmful bacteria found in the body, but to destroy it. To do this, they took the DNA-shredding mechanism of Cas3 and used it to enhance bacteriophages—viruses that can attack and kill different species of bacteria. Together, co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer Dave Ousterout—who has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Duke—thinks this technology offers an extremely direct and targeted way of killing bacteria.

“We armed the phages with this Cas3 system that attacks E. coli, and that sort of dual mechanism of action is what comes together, essentially, as a really potent way to remove just E. coli,” he said in an interview.

That specificity is something that antibiotics lack. Rather than targeting only harmful bacteria in the body, antibiotics typically wipe out all bacteria they come across. “Every time we take antibiotics, we’re not thinking about all the other parts of us that are impacted by the bacteria that do good things,” said Garofolo. But the precision of Locus Biosciences’ crPhage technology means that only the targeted bacteria would be wiped out, leaving those necessary to the body’s normal function intact.

Beyond offering this more specific approach to treatment of pathogens, or any bacteria-based disease, Garofolo and his team also suspect that their approach will also be extremely safe. Though deadly to bacteria, bacteriophages are typically harmless to humans. The safety of CRISPR in humans is well-established, too.

“That’s our secret sauce,” said Garofolo. “We can build drugs that are more powerful than the antibiotics they’re trying to replace, and they use phage, which is probably one of the world’s safest ways to deliver something into the human body.”

While this new technology could certainly help treat pathogens and infectious diseases, Garofolo hopes that indications in immunology, oncology, and neurology might benefit from it too. “We’re starting to figure out that some bacteria might promote cancer, or inflammation in your gut,” he said. If researchers can identify the bacteria at the root cause of those conditions, Garofolo and Ousterout think the crPhage technology might prove to be an effective treatment.

“If we’re right about that, it’s not just about infections or antimicrobial resistance, but helping people overcome cancer or delay the onset of dementia,” Garofolo said. “It’s changing the way we think about how bacteria really help us live.”


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Amazon expands its food delivery service across Bangalore

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Amazon said on Monday it has expanded its food delivery service, called Amazon Food, across 62 zip codes in Bangalore, in what is the first public update since entering the new category in India last May.

The American e-commerce group said Amazon Food now reaches key localities in Bangalore such as Whitefield, HSR, Sarjapur, Koramangala, Indiranagar, MG Road, Jayanagar, JP Nagar, Frazer Town, Malleshwaram, Rajajinagar, and Vijayanaga.

At the time of the launch in May last year, Amazon Food was available in just four zip codes in Bangalore.

Even as Amazon Food remains limited to one key market in India, the company is aggressively trying to undercut the competition — heavily funded startups Zomato and Swiggy — in the city.

Food delivery is free to Prime members, while others have to pay a fee of 19 Indian rupees (26 cents) — cheaper than fees levied by Swiggy and Zomato.

The company, which has committed to investing $6.5 billion in its India operations, said it has amassed 2,5000 restaurants and cloud kitchens in Bangalore — also referred as Bengaluru. Amazon Food customers can enjoy “offers” from these restaurants as well as cashbacks from Amazon, the company said.

It, however, did not share why it has been uncharacteristically so slow with the expansion of Amazon Food in the country.

(Well, I mean, there is a global pandemic — but Amazon also makes a number of what its employees say “one-way door” and “two-way door” bets. Two-way door bets are those that the company has not fully committed to and is just attempting to test the waters before making a concrete decision. Think of Amazon Prime as a one-way door bet. So it’s not clear from day 1 how committed Amazon is to any new service.)

“With the expansion of Amazon Food in Bengaluru, we continue in our endeavor to offer unmatched convenience and value while being a part of their everyday lives. Amazon Food brings some of the city’s top restaurants including national outlets and as well as local favorites which are popular and follow strict delivery and safety protocols,” said Sameer Khetarpal, Director of Category Management at Amazon India, in a statement.

Ant Financial-backed Zomato and Prosus Ventures-backed Swiggy have established duopoly in the food delivery market in India, with analysts at Bank of America estimating their combined market share to be over 90%. (Uber exited the Indian food delivery market early last year after selling its local food business to Zomato.)

The expansion of Amazon Food also comes at a time when Zomato, which according to analysts leads the market, is preparing to file for an IPO.

India’s food delivery market is especially tough to crack because of local conditions. Unlike in the developed markets such as the U.S., where the value of each delivery item is about $33, in India, a similar item carries the price tag of $4, according to research firms. Both Zomato and Swiggy have significantly improved their unit economics in the past year.

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