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Work trips are making a $5 billion comeback

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Would you bet millions of dollars on a corporate travel comeback? Doesn’t matter. Andreessen Horowitz, Addition and Elad Gil are anyways.

This week, the trio led a nine-figure financing round in TripActions, a software company that helps other companies book and manage corporate travel. But the news is (always) more than the number. I see TripActions’ growth as a signal to travel sector startups, which faced the brunt of the pandemic’s impact. We’ve heard the market is emerging again, but the fact that investors poured money into an up-round valued at $5 billion adds an extra layer of conviction.

TripActions, like many travel startups, laid off hundreds of employees in the beginning of the pandemic as the coronavirus froze business travel. It still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, but a spokesperson for the company said that a more distributed working class could boost corporate travels. If you don’t have to commute every day, maybe you don’t mind hopping on a flight once a month instead.

Here’s why this could be good news: Distributed work and corporate travel aren’t mutually exclusive categories. For founders in the remote work space, this is key wiggle room to consider as we wait for post-pandemic consumer behavior to be colored in. So often, founders pitch that their startup is remote-or-bust, and while that might make a good headline, it’s clear that everyone will come out of this time with a different mindset.

Read on, as we discuss Plaid’s new investment in early-stage founders, Israel’s startup ecosystem, and telehealth in two different ways. Also, here’s your weekly reminder that you can find me @nmasc_and send me tips on early-stage startup financings to natasha.m@techcrunch.com

Plaid takes notes from Y Combinator

Last week, I joked that ‘Plaid for X’ startups will live on, even though the business ended its plans to merge with Visa for $5.3 billion. This week, Plaid announced an accelerator to boost Plaid for X startups. You can’t make this stuff up.

What you need to know: Finrise, which began as an idea in an internal hackathon last summer, will help three to five entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds navigate starting a fintech business. There’s no capital involved, but there is Plaid mentorship, a bootcamp, and access to a network of investors.

Etc: It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Plaid is building out its own incubator program. Fintech as a sector has been booming. The latest fintech data dive shows un-exited fintech unicorns are now worth an all-time high. The “unicorn effect” is impacting average valuations and deal-size.

And in case other sectors are feeling left out, VCs invested $428 million into U.S.-based startups everyday in 2020.

unicorn

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Telehealth enters a ‘unique, high-growth period’

In our latest investor survey, eight healthcare-focused venture capitalists talked about the future of digital health.

What you need to know: Telehealth isn’t just growing in demand, it’s growing in definition. Investors examined the future of digital health financing, how the Biden administration will impact their portfolio companies, and how to balance opportunity with incentives in a sector as emotional as this. Here’s how Nan Li, managing director at Obvious Ventures, puts the opportunity ahead:

[This is] absolutely not a blip! We are headed into a unique, high-growth period in healthcare where many aspects of the healthcare ecosystem are being rebuilt. From insurance underwriting, the disease-specific standard of care protocols, clinical staffing models, to patient coordination and triage … every aspect of healthcare is fair game for innovative companies to address. This is a drastic expansion from the days where health tech was confined to “healthcare IT,” selling software to hospitals and the rise in investing attention reflects this generational opportunity.

Etc: Another investor survey for you this week: 6 investors on 2021’s mobile gaming trends and opportunities.

Isometric Healthcare and technology concept banner. Medical exams and online consultation concept. Medicine. Vector illustration

Speaking of the public markets

Up, up and away is the only way to phrase the performance of recent IPOs.

Here’s what you need to know:

Etc: Subscribe to The Exchange, a weekly newsletter penned by our IPO and public markets reporter Alex Wilhelm.

Image Credits: Hims & Hers

Around TechCrunch

The inimitable Drew Olanoff, an early writer for TechCrunch, has rejoined the team to build out our community offering for our Extra Crunch subscribers. He’s cooking up some exciting ways to help connect y’all to the TC team, the best founders in the business, and decision-makers in startups. If you have thoughts, bug him!

Extra Crunch Live is returning in a big way in 2021. We’ll be interviewing VC/founder duos about how their Series A deals went down, and Extra Crunch members will have the chance to get live feedback on their pitch deck. You can check out our plans for ECL in 2021 right here, or hit up this form to submit your pitch deck. Episodes air every Wednesday at 3pm ET/12pm PT starting in February.

Across the week

On TechCrunch 

Israel’s startup ecosystem powers ahead, amid a year of change

Instacart is eliminating the jobs of unionized workers

Eight Roads Ventures Europe promotes Lucile Cornet to Partner

Alphabet shuts down Loon internet balloon company

On Extra Crunch

15 steps to fundraising a new VC or private equity fund

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020

How and when to build marketing teams at deep tech companies

@EquityPod: The only take about the future of media is that media is the future

After a slew of media and VC stories this week, the Equity team had to weigh in on the future of journalism now that A16z is launching its own publication. I won’t give away our takes, but the title should give you a hint.

Other topics we got into included a barrage of mobility news, a Nigerian edtech startup, and a GPS story that is much more fascinating than the 400 pages it took to get to the end product.

Listen here, and remember that we also have a popular Monday morning show to prepare you for the week.

Okay, until next week!

Natasha

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

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What the NFT? VC David Pakman dumbs down the intensifying digital collectibles frenzy

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Non-fungible tokens have been around for two years, but these NFTs, one-of-one digital items on the Ethereum and other blockchains, are suddenly becoming a more popular way to collect visual art primarily, whether it’s an animated cat or an NBA clip or virtual furniture.

“Suddenly” is hardly an overstatement. According to the outlet Cointelegraph, during the second half of last year, $9 million worth of NFT goods sold to buyers; during one 24-hour window earlier this week, $60 million worth of digital goods were sold.

What’s going on? A thorough New York Times piece on the trend earlier this week likely fueled new interest, along with a separate piece in Esquire about the artist Beeple, a Wisconsin dad whose digital drawings, which he has created every single day for the last 13 years, began selling like hotcakes in December. If you need further evidence of a tipping point (and it is ample right now), consider that the work of Beeple, whose real name is Mike Winkelmann, was just made available through Christie’s. It’s the venerable auction house’s first sale of exclusively digital work.

To better understand the market and why it’s blowing up in real time, we talked this week with David Pakman, a former internet entrepreneur who joined the venture firm Venrock a dozen years ago and began tracking Bitcoin soon after, even mining the cryptocurrency at his Bay Area home beginning in 2015. (“People would come over and see racks of computers, and it was like, ‘It’s sort of hard to explain.’”)

Perhaps it’s no surprise that he also became convinced early on of the promise of NFTs, persuading Venrock to lead the $15 million Series A round for a young startup, Dapper Labs, when its primary offering was CryptoKitties, limited-edition digital cats that can be bought and bred with cryptocurrency.

While the concept baffled some at the time, Pakman has long seen the day when Dapper’s offerings will be far more extensive, and indeed, a recent Dapper deal with the NBA to sell collectible highlight clips has already attracted so much interest that Dapper is reportedly right now raising $250 million in new funding at a post-money valuation of $2 billion. While Pakman declined to confirm or correct that figure, he did answer our other questions in a chat that’s been edited here for length and clarity.

TC: David, dumb things down for us. Why is the world so gung-ho about NFTs right now?

DP: One of the biggest problems with crypto — the reason it scares so many people — is it uses all these really esoteric terms to explain very basic concepts, so let’s just keep it really simple. About 40% of humans collect things — baseball cards, shoes, artwork, wine. And there’s a whole bunch of psychological reasons why. Some people have a need to complete a set. Some people do it for investment reasons. Some people want an heirloom to pass down. But we could only collect things in the real world because digital collectibles were too easy to copy.

Then the blockchain came around and [it allowed us to] make digital collectibles immutable, with a record of who owns what that you can’t really copy. You can screenshot it, but you don’t really own the digital collectible, and you won’t be able to do anything with that screenshot. You won’t be able to to sell it or trade it. The proof is in the blockchain. So I was a believer that crypto-based collectibles could be really big and actually could be the thing that takes crypto mainstream and gets the normals into participating in crypto — and that’s exactly what’s happening now.

TC: You mentioned a lot of reasons that people collect items, but one you didn’t mention is status. Assuming that’s one’s motivation, how do you show off what you’ve amassed online? 

DP: You’re right that one of the other reasons why we collect is to show it off status, but I would actually argue it’s much easier to show off our collections in the digital world. If I’m a car collector, the only way you’re going to see my cars is to come over to the garage. Only a certain number of people can do that. But online, we can display our digital collections. NBA Top Shop, for example, makes it very easy for you to show off your moments. Everyone has a page and there’s an app that’s coming and you can just show it off to anyone in your app, and you can post it to your social networks. And it’s actually really easy to show off how big or exciting your collection is.

TC: It was back in October that Dapper rolled out these video moments, which you buy almost like a Pokemon set in that you’re buying a pack and know you’ll get something “good” but don’t know what. But while almost half it sales have come in through the last week. Why?

DP: There’s only about maybe 30,000 or 40,000 people playing right now. It’s growing 50% or 100% a day. But the growth has been completely organic. The game is actually still in beta, so we haven’t been doing any marketing other than posting some stuff on Twitter. There hasn’t been attempt to market this and get a lot of players [talking about it] because we’re still working the bugs out, and there are a lot of bugs still to be worked out.

But a couple NBA players have seen this and gotten excited about their own moments [on social media]. And there’s maybe a little bit of machismo going on where, ‘Hey, I want my moment to trade for a higher price.’ But I also think it’s the normals who are playing this. All you need to play is a credit card, and something like 65% of the people playing have never owned or traded in crypto before. So I think the thesis that crypto collectibles could be the thing that brings mainstream users into crypto is playing out before our eyes.

TC: How does Dapper get paid?

DP: We get 5% of secondary sales and 100% minus the cost of the transaction on primary sales. Of course, we have a relationship with the NBA, which collects some of that, too. But that’s the basic economics of how the system works.

TC: Does the NBA have a minimum that it has to be paid every year, and then above and beyond that it receives a cut of the action?

DP: I don’t think the company has gone public with the exact economic terms of their relationships with the NBA and the Players Association. But obviously the NBA is the IP owner, and the teams and the players have economic participation in this, which is good, because they’re the ones that are creating the intellectual property here.

But a lot of the appreciation of these moments — if you get one in a pack and you sell it for a higher price — 95% of that appreciation goes to the owner. So it’s very similar to baseball cards, but now IP owners can participate through the life of the product in the downstream economic activity of their intellectual property, which I think is super appealing whether you’re the NBA or someone like Disney, who’s been in the IP licensing business for decades.

And it’s not just major IP where this NFT space is happening. It’s individual creators, musicians, digital artists who could create a piece of digital art, make only five copies of it, and auction it off. They too can collect a little bit each time their works sell in the future.

TC: Regarding NBA Top Shot specifically, prices range massively in terms of what people are paying for the same limited-edition clip. Why?

DP: There are two reasons. One is that like scarce items, lower numbers are worth more than higher numbers, so if there’s a very particular LeBron moment, and they made 500 [copies] of them, and I own number one, and you own number 399, the marketplace is ascribing a higher value to the lower numbers, which is very typical of limited-edition collector pieces. It’s sort of a funny concept. But it is a very human concept.

The other thing is that over time there has been more and more demand to get into this game, so people are willing to pay higher and higher prices. That’s why there’s been a lot of price appreciation for these moments over time.

TC: You mentioned that some of the esoteric language around crypto scares people, but so does the fact that 20% of the world’s bitcoin is permanently inaccessible to its owners, including because of forgotten passwords. Is that a risk with these digital items, which you are essentially storing in a digital locker or wallet?

DP: It’s a complex topic,  but I will say that Dapper has tried to build this in a way where that won’t happen, where there’s effectively some type of password recovery process for people who are storing their moments in Dapper’s wallet.

You will be able to take your moments away from Dapper’s account and put it into other accounts, where you may be on your own in terms of password recovery.

TC: Why is it a complex topic?

DP: There are people who believe that even though centralized account storage is convenient for users, it’s somehow can be distrustful — that the company could de-platform you or turn your account off. And in the crypto world, there’s almost a religious ferocity about making sure that no one can de-platform you, that the things that you buy — your cryptocurrencies or your NFTs. Long term, Dapper supports that. You’ll be able to take your moments anywhere you want. But today, our customers don’t have to worry about that I-lost-my-password-and-I’ll-never-get-my-moments-again problem.

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The one-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson now has FDA support in the US

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An advisory board to the US Food and Drug Administration voted unanimously in favor of the first single-shot covid-19 vaccine, clearing the path for the health agency to authorize its immediate use as soon as tomorrow.

The one-shot vaccine, developed by Johnson & Johnson, has the additional advantage of being easy to store, because it requires nothing colder than ordinary refrigerator temperatures. It stopped 66% of mild and serious covid-19 cases in a trial carried out on three continents.

It will join a US covid arsenal that already includes authorized vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer. Those vaccines, which use messenger RNA, were significantly more effective (they stopped about 95% of cases), but they require two shots, and the doses need to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures.

Globally, a growing list of injections developed in Russia, China, India, and the United Kingdom all are starting to see wide use.

While the new J&J vaccine isn’t as effective as those made using messenger RNA technology, health officials said that shouldn’t dissuade people from getting it, since it still sharply reduces the chance of illness and death.

“To have two is fine, and having three is absolutely better,” Anthony Fauci, the country’s chief virologist, said during an interview on NBC. “It’s more choices and increases the supply. It will certainly contribute to getting control.”

In the US, there have been approximately 28 million confirmed cases of covid-19 and 500,000 deaths.

The limited supplies of the Moderna and Pfizer shots mean most Americans are still waiting to be vaccinated. About 1.4 million doses of those two vaccines were given each day last week in the US. At that pace it would take about a year to vaccinate the whole nation.

In theory, an easily stored single-shot vaccine could kick up the pace. In practice, though, supply shortages of the J&J vaccine could limit the role it plays in the US vaccination campaign. In testimony before Congress this week, Johnson & Johnson said it had only 4 million shots ready to go, a third of the initial supply promised, and would deliver only 20 million doses by the end of March.

“I wonder if the J&J vaccine is going to be a significant part of the US landscape,” says Eric Topol, a doctor at the Scripps Research Institute, who called initial supplies “paltry” given that the company received extensive government support.

The vaccine also has what Topol called a “notable dropdown in efficacy overall” compared with messenger RNA shots, although many health experts this week rushed to defend the vaccine against any suggestion it was inferior.

“Everything we’ve seen so far says these are excellent vaccines,” Ashish Jha, a health policy researcher and doctor at Brown University, wrote on Twitter, where he argued that comparing “headline efficacy” among vaccines can be misleading since “they all are essentially 100% at preventing hospitalizations [and] deaths once they’ve kicked in.”

New shot

The new one-shot vaccine, called Ad26.COV2.S, was developed by Johnson & Johnson using work from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. It employs a harmless viral carrier, adenovirus 26, which can enter cells but doesn’t multiply or grow. Instead, the carrier is used to drop off gene instructions that tell a person’s cells to make the distinctive coronavirus spike protein, which in turn trains the immune system to combat the pathogen.

The New York Times published a detailed graphical explanation of how the vaccine works.

Richard Nettles, vice president of US medical affairs at Janssen, a J&J subsidiary, told Congress during testimony on February 23 that production of the vaccine is “highly complex” and said the company was working to manufacture the shots at eight locations, including a US site in Maryland.

The manufacturing is complicated because the vaccine virus is grown in living cells before it is purified and bottled. Making a batch of virus takes two months, which is why there is no way to immediately increase supplies if timelines are missed.

Indeed, the biggest disappointment around the new vaccine is a supply shortfall caused by manufacturing problems. Jeffrey Zients, coordinator of President Biden’s covid-19 task force, said during a White House press conference on Wednesday, February 24, that the new administration had only “learned that J&J was behind on manufacturing” when it took office five week ago.

“It was disappointing when we arrived,” he said. “The initial production ramp … was slower than we’d like.”

Pretty effective

In late January, the company announced results from a 45,000-person study it carried out in the US, South Africa, and South America, in which people got either the vaccine or a placebo.

Overall, the vaccine was 66% effective in stopping covid-19, and somewhat better at stopping severe disease. In the trial, for instance, seven people died of covid-19, but all of these were in the placebo arm. Also, its effects increased with time—after a month, no one in the vaccine arm had to go to the hospital for covid-19.

Johnson & Johnson claims it will not be making a profit from the vaccine, which will also be sold outside the US. Instead, Nettles said, the vaccine will be sold at a single “not-for-profit” price to all countries “for emergency pandemic use.”

Nettles didn’t say what that price would be, but the US agreed last year to pay the company about $1 billion for a guarantee of 100 million doses and has given the company a similar amount of development funding, making it one of the major investments of Operation Warp Speed, as the vaccine effort was known during the Trump administration.

Shortage to surplus

At least for the moment, vaccine supply remains a limiting factor in the US inoculation campaign, which has seen 70 million doses administered since it began in December, according to Bloomberg. “I don’t see an excess of vaccine for a while,” says Peter Hotez, a virologist and vaccine developer at the Baylor College of Medicine.

All told, the US will have received enough shots to fully vaccinate 130 million Americans by the end of March, when projected supplies from Pfizer, Moderna, and J&J are tallied together.

Still, vaccine shortages could turn to excess before summer, creating a situation in which it’s no longer vaccines that are in short supply, but people willing or eligible to receive them.

That is because in the US, children under 18 make up about a quarter of the population but aren’t yet allowed to receive the shots. As well, about 30% of American adults claim they won’t get a covid-19 vaccine at all. Children and vaccine doubters together make up half the population.

By August, the three companies say, they will deliver the US enough vaccines for 400 million people, or more than the country’s population. That does not account for a fourth vaccine, manufactured by Novavax, that may also win US authorization.

“By the summer we will be in good shape. The question is how we navigate this space between now and June,” says Hotez.

Growing arsenal

The Johnson & Johnson shot joins a growing worldwide list of approved vaccines that includes the two messenger RNA vaccines, injections from AstraZeneca and Chinese manufacturers, and Russia’s “Sputnik” vaccine, all of which are in use outside the US.

People who get any of the vaccines will, on average, see their chance of dying from covid-19 plummet to near zero. That is down from an overall death rate of around 1.7% of diagnosed cases in the US—and a risk several times higher in elderly people.

The J&J shot has fewer side effects than the mRNA vaccines and has also proved effective against a highly transmissible South African variant of the virus that has accumulated numerous mutations.

The South Africa variant has alarmed researchers because it clearly decreases the effectiveness of some vaccines. A study in South Africa by AstraZeneca found its vaccine didn’t offer protection against the variant at all, causing officials to scrap a plan to distribute the shot there.

According to health minister Zweli Mkhize, South Africa is instead pivoting to the J&J vaccine, with a plan to vaccinate 80,000 health-care workers in the next two weeks.

This week, Moderna also said it would develop a shot tailored against the South African variant, and Pfizer indicated it was also preparing to counter new strains as they arise. Another strategy being contemplated to fend off variants is to give people extra booster doses of the current vaccines.

Some experts in the US continue to urge the government to adopt faster-paced vaccine schemes, like delaying second doses of the messenger RNA shots or using half doses, arguing that the more people who have “good enough” protection, the sooner the pandemic will end.

So far, though, it’s not clear what agency or official would be ready, or even legally authorized, to make that call.

“We are all scratching our heads about who could make that decision,” says Hotez. “And it all depends on how much urgency you feel. The big picture is if you know the numbers are going down, and feel they are going to stay down due to seasonality, then you have some breathing space. But if you are worried about variants, then you have a problem, and you want to vaccinate ahead of schedule.”

On NBC, Fauci said people shouldn’t wait for the best vaccine but take what’s offered. “Even one that may be somewhat less effective is still effective against severe disease, as we have seen with the J&J vaccine,” he said. “Get vaccinated when the vaccine is available to you.”

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Daily Crunch: Facebook launches rap app

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Facebook unveils another experimental app, Atlassian acquires a data visualization startup and Newsela becomes a unicorn. This is your Daily Crunch for February 26, 2021.

The big story: Facebook launches rap app

The new BARS app was created by NPE Team (Facebook’s internal R&D group), allowing rappers to select from professionally created beats, and then create and share their own raps and videos. It includes autotune and will even suggest rhymes as you’re writing the lyrics.

This marks NPE Team’s second musical effort — the first was the music video app Collab. (It could also be seen as another attempt by Facebook to launch a TikTok competitor.) BARS is available in the iOS App Store in the U.S., with Facebook gradually admitting users off a waitlist.

The tech giants

Atlassian is acquiring Chartio to bring data visualization to the platform — Atlassian sees Chartio as a way to really take advantage of the data locked inside its products.

Yelp puts trust and safety in the spotlight — Yelp released its very first trust and safety report this week, with the goal of explaining the work that it does to crack down on fraudulent and otherwise inaccurate or unhelpful content.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Newsela, the replacement for textbooks, raises $100M and becomes a unicorn —  If Newsela is doing its job right, its third-party content can replace textbooks within a classroom altogether, while helping teachers provide fresh, personalized material.

Tim Hortons marks two years in China with Tencent investment — The Canadian coffee and doughnut giant has raised a new round of funding for its Chinese venture.

Sources: Lightspeed is close to hiring a new London-based partner to put down further roots in Europe — According to multiple sources, Paul Murphy is being hired away from Northzone.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

In freemium marketing, product analytics are the difference between conversion and confusion — Considering that most freemium providers see fewer than 5% of free users move to paid plans, even a slight improvement in conversion can translate to significant revenue gains.

As BNPL startups raise, a look at Klarna, Affirm and Afterpay earnings — With buy-now-pay-later options, consumers turn a one-time purchase into a limited string of regular payments.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Jamaica’s JamCOVID pulled offline after third security lapse exposed travelers’ data — JamCOVID was set up last year to help the government process travelers arriving on the island.

AT&T is turning DirecTV into a standalone company — AT&T says it will own 70% of the new company, while private equity firm TPG will own 30%.

How to ace the 1-hour, and ever-elusive, pitch presentation at TC Early Stage — Norwest’s Lisa Wu has a message for founders: Think like a VC during your pitch presentation.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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