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8 investors tell us the story behind the Romanian startup boom

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With record funding levels and three unicorns to show, local investors are buoyant about Romania’s prospects heading into 2021. We caught up with eight of them recently, and heard how the country’s technical talent pool, broadband access and low cost of living have positioned it for the era of remote-first global companies across industries.

The momentum from last year includes 58 startups that raised total funding of €30.39 million, according to a new report just out from long-time Romanian conference How To Web. This represents a 6% increase in the volume of investments overall, and a 51% increase of investments year on year overall. A significant part of these numbers came from companies raising money for the first time.

Key industries include cybersecurity, enterprise software and fintech, with many “super-geeky teams, with deep expertise in the field” as one investor put it. “We are very focused on Romanian founders,” said another. But because of significant emigration in recent years, “they can reside and launch anywhere in the world.”

Here are the investors in their own words, for any TechCrunch reader who is interested in hiring, investing or founding a company in the country:

Oh, and one more thing. We just launched Extra Crunch in Romania. Subscribe to access all of our investor surveys, company profiles and other inside tech coverage for startups everywhere. Save 25% off a one- or two-year Extra Crunch membership by entering this discount code: ECROMANIA 


Cristian Negrutiu, Sparking Capital, Founding Partner

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Given the incipient stage of Romanian ecosystem, our fund is industry agnostic. On a personal note, I’m interested in verticals like supply chain, mobility, proptech, circular/sharing economy.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Our latest investment is a start-up in the digital fitness industry.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
I would like to see more solutions in supply chain, as I believed that this industry needs a paradigm shift.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
1. Relevant market 2. Good product 3. Excellent team 4. Fit with us

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
I believe that in marketing and finance is difficult to enter or you need something really different. In terms of products/services, marketplaces need to evolve in order to be competitive

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We are strongly focused on Romania

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not long-term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Romanian ecosystem is still in infancy, but with a high velocity and very good prospects for the future. I believe that we will see soon more Romanian unicorns, including from our portfolio

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
As said above – still in early stages, but full of opportunities and going full speed

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Not for Romania. The ecosystem is still based on few cities like Bucharest, Cluj, Iasi and the hubs within those cities

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Apart from traditional HoReCa (Hotel/Restaurant/Café) businesses and overall trends, we didn’t see much impact. Actually, any start-up that promotes digitization in a specific industry (e.g. proptech) gained momentum in this period.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy?
We tried to be as normal as possible and maintain a steady flow of business. We advise founders to look after their teams and customers and be careful with cash

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes, as mentioned above.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
We always need to be positive and not exaggerate about the pandemic. It will pass.


Cristian Munteanu, Managing partner, Early Game Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Given our limited geographical scope (we invest only in Romania), we have to have a generic approach and consider many verticals and trends. Just as an example, we are looking at startups applying technologies that reached mass adoption to niche fields: computer vision applied to specific crops (agritech) or applied to in-store customer behaviour (martech); biometric data (collected through wearable devices) applied to group interactions as opposed to single individuals; ultra-light blockchain ledgers applied to smart buildings… From another investment perspective, we are looking to invest in what we call “the infrastructure for innovation” such as startups building APIs — we believe that Romania is not yet API-fied enough.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
The last term sheet we signed was with a startup that is building technology to help enterprise-level companies to better manage their software licenses. Super-geeky team, with deep expertise in the field, creating a lot of value to their customers.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
I would like to find great teams trying to make in-game payments easier (building at the intersection of payments and gaming), or working on Irrigation-as-a-Service (agritech), or building a NASDAQ for energy.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
I am looking for founders that are both super competent and brave. Such people will dare tackle big problems and will have a chance to succeed at solving it.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
I’ve seen too many startups building apps to help people find parking spots, too many marketplaces that no one need, too much off the shelf technology for marketing, too many CRMs and ERPs.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We are investing only in Romania — 100% committed to the local ecosystem.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not long-term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
I think that, given the natural potential of Romania, agritech has a big chance; still this space is not fully serviced yet. Otherwise, cybersecurity, enterprise software, and fintech are quite well represented. From our portfolio of almost 20 startups, CODA is enabling managed service providers with cybersecurity skills; Humans is building a hub for synthetic media technologies; Mechine is making agricultural equipment speak to each other; Tokinomo is collecting and analyzing data from the shelf (in-store marketing); BunnyShell is building next-gen cloud tech and making it easy for anyone to set up servers in three clicks.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
The startup ecosystem in Romania is very young, with the first local VC funds established three years ago with support from the European Investment Fund. And yet, Romania is home to three unicorns and many other promising startups. The large technical talent pool, the widely spread broadband access and the low costs of doing business and living turn Romania into a market to keep an eye on.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
I expect founders from the big cities to stay in the big cities as setting up and working for a startup does not mean writing code on the laptop from a remote beach. In the tormenting search for product-market fit, founders need to talk business, visit partners, sign contracts, attend events, meet peers, do surveys, prototype and one thousand other things that cannot be done on Zoom to their full extent. The tech industry and the startupland took a hit from the pandemic as the rest of the world. And just as the rest of the world, they will survive, adapt, and mostly return to the normal interactions from before March 2020.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Unfortunately, I saw urban mobility apps suffer from the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Also, anything related to restaurants, hotels and conventional events was badly affected. We are invested in startups in these verticals and made everything we could to help them during the worst days of the pandemic.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Our fund registered a 20% decrease in the numbers of investments in 2020 compared to 2019 and a 40% decrease in the total value of deals; so the impact of COVID was significant. At the same time, in terms of fund performance, 2020 was a good year, with companies in our portfolio raising new investment rounds with outside investors, increasing their valuation, and showing good returns. The first half of 2020 was dedicated to damage control measures and supporting the portfolio companies, but the situation changed towards the end of the year, with high new deals activity in the last quarter (higher than in Q4 2019). VC-backed startups had investors to turn to in harsh times and benefited from support and additional funds when needed; things were much more difficult for the rest of the startups though.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Probably the first thing we noticed the moment the pandemic started was a peak in productivity. During the months of mandatory shelter at home, the early-stage startups working on their prototypes put in extra-hours and gained speed. Personnel retention was good, people were focused, there was a positive spirit and a general desire to make things happen. Indeed, some startups reported an immediate boost of sales, such as Tokinomo whose robots replace the human promoters in supermarkets.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
The highlight of 2020 was the week I spent on a magnificent yacht sailing with friends through the islands in Greece. It was a recharging moment that gave me a boost for the rest of the year. The next elating moment came in December with the Series A investments that increased our fund’s performance.


Andrei Pitis, Founding partner, Simple Capital

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Startups creating world leading Intellectual Property with Romanian and broader Eastern European founders

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Uniapply.com

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Strong committed founders with deep understanding of the domain they are planning to disrupt on a global scale through innovative intellectual property.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
I think too many people are trying to launch platforms without much understanding of how hard it is to launch it in the absence of a major differentiator. Customer acquisition through other digital marketing platforms is very expensive if there is no other unfair advantage to launch such a platform.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We are very focused on Romanian founders — but they can reside and launch anywhere in the world. We have investments in many US-based companies started by Romanian founders.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not long-term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
I think Romania is very well positioned to win in cybersecurity and enterprise software as well as AI-based engines. I am very excited about pentest-tools.com, deepstash.com, uniapply.com from our portfolio as well as Fintech OS and TypingDNA that are not in our portfolio.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Bucharest is a thriving ecosystem with plenty of opportunities ripe for global expansion.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Indeed we have seen a surge in founders from smaller cities in Romania. We are founding partners of the Innovation Labs pre-accelerator that has a nationwide footprint and we are seeing more and more students interested in becoming founders all over Romania.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Mobility solutions are impacted, local players are losing to bigger players like Lime.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
The pandemics delayed a lot of the investments, but we closed them toward the end of the year. Biggest worries for founders is that they have less and less leverage as a startup to attract tech talent. The problem is that the tech people can now work for any company in the world and this skyrocketed their salaries/rates.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes we have seen — some of them benefited from people staying at home and having more time.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
The introduction of the vaccine and the pace at which people are vaccinated in Romania, that is not the fastest but also not the slowest either. An online platform for appointments is up and running and people are using it!


Bogdan Axinia, Managing partner, eMAG Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Health & wellbeing are areas that “helped” by the pandemic crisis are on brink of transformation and growth. A blend of software and hardware readiness is developing fast together with the openness of clients and regulatory authorities.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Food delivery services. It is still day 0 with great opportunities ahead in terms of consumer services and business growth: food, ready to cook meals, convenience items, grocery, etc.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
It is still room to grow on B2C and B2B2C fintech space despite relatively high numbers of startups.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Bucharest and Romania in general have great potential when we look at talent pool from tech perspective and are a great place to start to scale regional and globally.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Great place to come: great infrastructure (internet cost & speed, number of hubs), talent pool and increased number of investments transactions in last 3 years.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
I expect to see a growth but not a surge of founders from other geographies. And I believe thats a good thing for the ecosystem.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Travel is both exposed and in the same time with great potential for new startups to come. There will be a “revenge travel” period from consumers but they will look for something different and in the same time business travel will not be the same and this will generate new practices and behaviour.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
We see opportunities to grow and we are allocating more capital for investments and we are advising our startups to invest more and grow faster.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
The start of the vaccine campaign across the globe and the initial results.


Dan Mihaescu, Founding partner, GapMinder Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
B2B platforms enabled by ML/automation/AI in fintech, SaaS enterprise software, cybersecurity, healthcare IT, low-code development environments, conversational technologies, automation in logistics

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Latest investment was DruidAI, announced on January 12th, 2021. GapMinder led a $2.5M round.
– Other 2020 exciting new investments or follow-ons: TypingDNA, FintechOS, DeepStash, Soleadify, Machinations, Innoship, Frisbo, Cartloop, XVision

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
– Stage: Seed or Series A
– Technology: Automation or conversational technology assisted by ML or AI
– Team: Mature with track-record for International expansion;
– Product: B2B scalable international, with B2B platforms as main focus

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Copies of B2C models (from US) that are borne in CEE tend to be limited to small local markets, and evolve into highly crowded environments. Shared economy companies borne in Romania are such examples. Unit economics were simply not attractive for us as VC investor.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
More than 70%

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not long-term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
– Models we consider will continue to thrive: B2B platforms enabled by automation/conversational technologies (assisted by ML/AI) have a higher potential for internationalisation vs B2C models.
– Reg verticals with higher potential, we mentioned above a few.
– GapMinder portfolio exciting companies: FintechOS, TypingDNA, DeepStash, DruidAI, Soleadify, Machinations, Innoship, Frisbo, Cartloop, SmartDreamers, XVision, among others

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Romania (in cities such as Bucharest, Cluj, Timisoara, Brasov, Oradea and Iasi) is a high-opportunity market, with excellent teams, startups borne with international vision, excellent environment for automation and ML enabled projects.

The ecosystem becomes more mature, from coverage of pre-seed rounds towards Series A, while not overcrowded yet.
Overall, a high opportunity environment for Series B and late Series A investors from US or rest of Europe.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
The hubs are concentrated in terms of education pool, potential customers (B2B or more sophisticated B2C) to test new products, potential investors on the pre-seed phase that are crucial for the initial steps of start-up developments.

For more advanced start-ups, hyper-growth is important, therefore the capability to scale up and go international might be helped by the presence in certain hubs.
In other words, there is a complex mix that the hubs are offering. So, at Romanian level, we do not expect a diminishing role of the hubs.

At European or US level, it is debatable if main hubs are too overcrowded or over-expensive for the teams. However, the business growth potential for the more advanced start-ups is important.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
The behaviour of users, both internal and external, has migrated towards a need for autonomy, which drives the need for:
– Tools that allow conversational interactions (including in natural language) with evolved human like feeling
– Remote collaborative low code development tools
– A general need for all companies (from the smallest ones to enterprise) to move yesterday to digital interactions

In 2020 a lot of consumers and companies were forced to focus on core priorities, and move to secondary focus the “nice-to-have” services or products. The VCs have seen even a sharper delimitation between high-tech and tech-enabled companies, not to mention some “interesting” proofs of Fake Tech. This shift has impacted lots of verticals, and such shift might be here to stay.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
GapMinder’s strategy described above is focussed on companies that actually have been benefiting from the tide of urgency in accelerating digital transformations of companies. And we seen it in the 2x-3x growth of most of our portfolio companies in 2020.
Our advices to our portfolio companies have been simple:
1. Cash is king. Make sure you have an 18 months minimum runway. If an opportunity to raise, seriously consider it.
2. Customers are the most important partners you have. Listen to them
3. The team is your most important asset. Keep it close and take care of it in these daring times.
4. Act fast

Of course, on top of the above, we had very specific conversations with each team.

To be candid, this all looks good at the end of 2020, but the first half of 2020 has been intense for founders in our portfolio and filled with doubts about decisional freeze in some verticals, stress on implementation in international markets wherever travel was needed, alignment between teams inside larger companies. Looking back, this was just normal. We feel fortunate to be part of the life of such great teams and start-ups, that proved so good during tough times.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes, we already felt signs of recovery in second half of 2020, especially Q4.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
Starting at scale the vaccination against COVID-19 in last 6 weeks is definitely the most important positive sign at human level, society level, but also from a pure business perspective.
In our team, GapMinder, we feel optimistic!


Alexandru Popescu, Managing Partner, Cleverage Investment

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
HealthTech

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Oncochain

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Team, idea, traction

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
50%

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not long-term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Sanopass; Oncochain ( our portfolio); Fintech ( Fintech OS – Teodeor Blidarus; Sergiu Negut)

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Very dynamic yet at an early stage

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
No.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Telemedicine – advantage; dentistry – exposed;

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
No impact due COVID; biggest worries are related to teams maturity & to market capacity to absorb new ideas fast enough; my advice is to look for know-how and try to grow as fast as possible

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Definitely I see “green shoots”

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
Much better evaluation of one of our investments after only few months


Theodor Genoiu, Associate, Roca X

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Edutech, energy, deeptech

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
eCommerce marketplaces, some service areas, mobility

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Our thesis has a goal of a 40% distribution of the AuM in Romania

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not long-term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Positive industry outlook – edutech, medtech, fintech, logistics;

Exciting companies – Fintech OS, Medicai, Kinderpedia, iFactor and a few others.

Negative industry outlook – marketplaces, Deeptech, gaming (in terms of funding, not talent), advertising

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Growing ecosystem with a large technical talent pool but in need of true entrepreneurial education, experience and mentality.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?

Yes and no, in more established ecosystems a surge in founders coming from geographies outside major cities might be an outcome, the onset of remote work will bring a major boost to startups, although talented technical employees will become more and more difficult to onboard.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Our investment strategy remains unchanged, the most commons worries of founders in our portfolio are linked to attracting new funding partners, lack of foresight in some target markets and difficulty in finding employees in certain verticals. We don’t have a general advice for all our startups, it’s case by case, we advise some to pivot, others to start conversion efforts on their large customer base and others to launch in new geographies.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
The openness to adopt new technologies and try new things from well-known conservative verticals such as education.


Matei Dumitrescu, Founding Partner, Smart Impact Capital

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Impact, health, energy

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
iFactor, Ringhel, Sanopass

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Yes, there are: impact startups

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Impact, innovation, scalability

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Marcom, ecomm, marketplaces

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Almost 100% focused on local startups with a global view

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not long-term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Tech, ehealth. Medicai and its founder Mircea Popa are examples of great potential.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Bucharest is booming, the market in getting bigger, the VCs are growing, the number of new initiatives is dramatically increased.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
No, but remote work is possible

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
We had an opportunity with e-education and e-health. However, sharing economy was exposed to problems.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Our startups were already agile, working remote and selling through digital channels digital products or services.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes, we do.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
There wasn’t such moment.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
We invest in IMPACT, because the impact creates VALUE, and that is what people pay for!

 

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Personal skin problems leads founder to launch skincare startup Nøie, raises $12M Series A

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Inspired by his own problems with skin ailments, tech founder Daniel Jensen decided there had to be a better way. So, using an in-house tech platform, his Copenhagen-based startup Nøie developed its own database of skin profiles, to better care for sensitive skin.

Nøie has now raised $12m in a Series A funding round led by Talis Capital, with participation from Inventure, as well as existing investors including Thomas Ryge Mikkelsen, former CMO of Pandora, and Kristian Schrøder Hart-Hansen, former CEO of LEO Pharma’s Innovation Lab.

Nøie’s customized skincare products target sensitive skin conditions including acne, psoriasis and eczema. Using its own R&D, Nøie says it screens thousands of skincare products on the market, selects what it thinks are the best, and uses an algorithm to assign customers to their ‘skin family’. Customers then get recommendations for customized products to suit their skin.

Skin+Me is probably the best-known perceived competitor, but this is a prescription provider. Noie is non-prescription.

Jensen said: “We firmly believe that the biggest competition is the broader skincare industry and the consumer behavior that comes with it. I truly believe that in 2030 we’ll be surprised that we ever went into a store and picked up a one-size-fits-all product to combat our skincare issues, based on what has the nicest packaging or the best marketing. In a sense, any new company that emerges in this space are peers to us: we’re all working together to intrinsically change how people choose skincare products. We’re all demonstrating to people that they can now receive highly-personalized products based on their own skin’s specific needs.”

Of his own problems to find the right skincare provider, he said: “It’s just extremely difficult to find something that works. When you look at technology, online, and all our apps and everything, we got so smart in so many areas, but not when it comes to consumer skin products. I believe that in five or 10 years down the line, you’ll be laughing that we really used to just go in and pick up products just off the shelf, without knowing what we’re supposed to be using. I think everything we will be using in the bathroom will be customized.”

Beatrice Aliprandi, principal at Talis Capital, said: “For too long have both the dermatology sector and the skincare industry relied on the outdated ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to addressing chronic skin conditions. By instead taking a data-driven and community feedback approach, Nøie is building the next generation of skincare by providing complete personalization for its customers at a massive scale, pioneering the next revolution in skincare.”

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Comms expert and VC Caryn Marooney will detail how to get attention at TC Early Stage

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We’re thrilled to announce Caryn Marooney is speaking at our upcoming TechCrunch Early Stage virtual event in July. She spoke with us last year and we had to have her back.

Just look at her resume. She was the co-founder and CEO of The Outcast Agency, one of Silicon Valley’s best-regarded public relations firms. She left her company to serve as VP of Global Communication at Facebook, which she did for eight years, overseeing communication for Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus. In 2019 she joined Coatue Management as a general partner, where she went on to invest in Startburst, Supabase, Defined Networks and others.

Needless to say, Marooney is one of the Valley’s experts on getting people’s attention — a skill that’s critical when running a startup, nonprofit or school bake sale.

She said it best last year: “People just fundamentally aren’t walking around caring about this new startup — actually, nobody does.” So how do you get people to care? That’s the trick and why we’re having her back to speak on this evergreen topic.

Watch her presentation from 2020 here. It’s fantastic.

One of the great things about TC Early Stage is that the show is designed around breakout sessions, with each speaker leading a chat around a specific startup core competency (like fundraising, designing a brand, mastering the art of PR and more). Moreover, there is plenty of time for audience Q&A in each session.

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Lightmatter’s photonic AI ambitions light up an $80M B round

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AI is fundamental to many products and services today, but its hunger for data and computing cycles is bottomless. Lightmatter plans to leapfrog Moore’s law with its ultra-fast photonic chips specialized for AI work, and with a new $80M round the company is poised to take its light-powered computing to market.

We first covered Lightmatter in 2018, when the founders were fresh out of MIT and had raised $11M to prove that their idea of photonic computing was as valuable as they claimed. They spent the next three years and change building and refining the tech — and running into all the hurdles that hardware startups and technical founders tend to find.

For a full breakdown of what the company’s tech does, read that feature — the essentials haven’t changed.

In a nutshell, Lightmatter’s chips perform certain complex calculations fundamental to machine learning in a flash — literally. Instead of using charge, logic gates, and transistors to record and manipulate data, the chips use photonic circuits that perform the calculations by manipulating the path of light. It’s been possible for years, but until recently getting it to work at scale, and for a practical, indeed a highly valuable purpose has not.

Prototype to product

It wasn’t entirely clear in 2018 when Lightmatter was getting off the ground whether this tech would be something they could sell to replace more traditional compute clusters like the thousands of custom units companies like Google and Amazon use to train their AIs.

“We knew in principle the tech should be great, but there were a lot of details we needed to figure out,” CEO and co-founder Nick Harris told TechCrunch in an interview. “Lots of hard theoretical computer science and chip design challenges we needed to overcome… and COVID was a beast.”

With suppliers out of commission and many in the industry pausing partnerships, delaying projects, and other things, the pandemic put Lightmatter months behind schedule, but they came out the other side stronger. Harris said that the challenges of building a chip company from the ground up were substantial, if not unexpected.

A rack of Lightmatter servers.

Image Credits: Lightmatter

“In general what we’re doing is pretty crazy,” he admitted. “We’re building computers from nothing. We design the chip, the chip package, the card the chip package sits on, the system the cards go in, and the software that runs on it…. we’ve had to build a company that straddles all this expertise.”

That company has grown from its handful of founders to more than 70 employees in Mountain View and Boston, and the growth will continue as it brings its new product to market.

Where a few years ago Lightmatter’s product was more of a well-informed twinkle in the eye, now it has taken a more solid form in the Envise, which they call a ‘general purpose photonic AI accelerator.” It’s a server unit designed to fit into normal datacenter racks but equipped with multiple photonic computing units, which can perform neural network inference processes at mind-boggling speeds. (It’s limited to certain types of calculations, namely linear algebra for now, and not complex logic, but this type of math happens to be a major component of machine learning processes.)

Harris was reticent to provide exact numbers on performance improvements, but more because those improvements are increasing than that they’re not impressive enough. The website suggests it’s 5x faster than an NVIDIA A100 unit on a large transformer model like BERT, while using about 15 percent of the energy. That makes the platform doubly attractive to deep-pocketed AI giants like Google and Amazon, which constantly require both more computing power and who pay through the nose for the energy required to use it. Either better performance or lower energy cost would be great — both together is irresistible.

It’s Lightmatter’s initial plan to test these units with its most likely customers by the end of 2021, refining it and bringing it up to production levels so it can be sold widely. But Harris emphasized this was essentially the Model T of their new approach.

“If we’re right, we just invented the next transistor,” he said, and for the purposes of large-scale computing, the claim is not without merit. You’re not going to have a miniature photonic computer in your hand any time soon, but in datacenters, where as much as 10 percent of the world’s power is predicted to go by 2030, “they really have unlimited appetite.”

The color of math

A Lightmatter chip with its logo on the side.

Image Credits: Lightmatter

There are two main ways by which Lightmatter plans to improve the capabilities of its photonic computers. The first, and most insane sounding, is processing in different colors.

It’s not so wild when you think about how these computers actually work. Transistors, which have been at the heart of computing for decades, use electricity to perform logic operations, opening and closing gates and so on. At a macro scale you can have different frequencies of electricity that can be manipulated like waveforms, but at this smaller scale it doesn’t work like that. You just have one form of currency, electrons, and gates are either open or closed.

In Lightmatter’s devices, however, light passes through waveguides that perform the calculations as it goes, simplifying (in some ways) and speeding up the process. And light, as we all learned in science class, comes in a variety of wavelengths — all of which can be used independently and simultaneously on the same hardware.

The same optical magic that lets a signal sent from a blue laser be processed at the speed of light works for a red or a green laser with minimal modification. And if the light waves don’t interfere with one another, they can travel through the same optical components at the same time without losing any coherence.

That means that if a Lightmatter chip can do, say, a million calculations a second using a red laser source, adding another color doubles that to two million, adding another makes three — with very little in the way of modification needed. The chief obstacle is getting lasers that are up to the task, Harris said. Being able to take roughly the same hardware and near-instantly double, triple, or 20x the performance makes for a nice roadmap.

It also leads to the second challenge the company is working on clearing away, namely interconnect. Any supercomputer is composed of many small individual computers, thousands and thousands of them, working in perfect synchrony. In order for them to do so, they need to communicate constantly to make sure each core knows what other cores are doing, and otherwise coordinate the immensely complex computing problems supercomputing is designed to take on. (Intel talks about this “concurrency” problem building an exa-scale supercomputer here.)

“One of the things we’ve learned along the way is, how do you get these chips to talk to each other when they get to the point where they’re so fast that they’re just sitting there waiting most of the time?” said Harris. The Lightmatter chips are doing work so quickly that they can’t rely on traditional computing cores to coordinate between them.

A photonic problem, it seems, requires a photonic solution: a wafer-scale interconnect board that uses waveguides instead of fiber optics to transfer data between the different cores. Fiber connections aren’t exactly slow, of course, but they aren’t infinitely fast, and the fibers themselves are actually fairly bulky at the scales chips are designed, limiting the number of channels you can have between cores.

“We built the optics, the waveguides, into the chip itself; we can fit 40 waveguides into the space of a single optical fiber,” said Harris. “That means you have way more lanes operating in parallel — it gets you to absurdly high interconnect speeds.” (Chip and server fiends can find that specs here.)

The optical interconnect board is called Passage, and will be part of a future generation of its Envise products — but as with the color calculation, it’s for a future generation. 5-10x performance at a fraction of the power will have to satisfy their potential customers for the present.

Putting that $80M to work

Those customers, initially the “hyper-scale” data handlers that already own datacenters and supercomputers that they’re maxing out, will be getting the first test chips later this year. That’s where the B round is primarily going, Harris said: “We’re funding our early access program.”

That means both building hardware to ship (very expensive per unit before economies of scale kick in, not to mention the present difficulties with suppliers) and building the go-to-market team. Servicing, support, and the immense amount of software that goes along with something like this — there’s a lot of hiring going on.

The round itself was led by Viking Global Investors, with participation from HP Enterprise, Lockheed Martin, SIP Global Partners, and previous investors GV, Matrix Partners and Spark Capital. It brings their total raised to about $113 million; There was the initial $11M A round, then GV hopping on with a $22M A-1, then this $80M.

Although there are other companies pursuing photonic computing and its potential applications in neural networks especially, Harris didn’t seem to feel that they were nipping at Lightmatter’s heels. Few if any seem close to shipping a product, and at any rate this is a market that is in the middle of its hockey stick moment. He pointed to an OpenAI study indicating that the demand for AI-related computing is increasing far faster than existing technology can provide it, except with ever larger datacenters.

The next decade will bring economic and political pressure to rein in that power consumption, just as we’ve seen with the cryptocurrency world, and Lightmatter is poised and ready to provide an efficient, powerful alternative to the usual GPU-based fare.

As Harris suggested hopefully earlier, what his company has made is potentially transformative in the industry and if so there’s no hurry — if there’s a gold rush, they’ve already staked their claim.

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