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Early-stage African VC firm, Microtraction reports portfolio boom despite the weight of COVID-19

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In a year marred by the coronavirus pandemic, it seems that early-stage startups on the African continent are continuing to see some notable growth, both in terms of their business and from investors looking to back them. 

Microtraction, an early-stage venture capital firm based in Lagos, Nigeria, saw funding nearly quadruple for its portfolio.

In a review of the year published last week, the firm noted that 21 companies in its portfolio have raised more than $33 million in funding. This represents nearly four-fold growth over a year ago when its portfolio raised $6 million (and just $3 million in 2018). The companies’ combined valuation stands at over $147 million according to the firm.

Founded by Yele Badamosi in 2017, Microtraction arrived on the continent’s early-stage investment scene with all intent to be “the most accessible and preferred source of pre-seed funding for African tech entrepreneurs.”

Badamosi, who returned to Nigeria from the UK in 2015, worked as the general manager for Starta Africa, an online community for African tech entrepreneurs. After his stint there, he saw the need to plug the gap of early-stage funding in Nigeria and the continent at large with Microtraction.

Microtraction does not specify the size of its fund, but what is more clear is that it has attracted a great deal of attention and has built a strong network in part because of who backs it. 

Michael Seibel, the CEO of Y Combinator, is a global advisor and an investor in the firm, and so is Andy Volk, the head of ecosystem for Google Sub-Saharan Africa. Other investors include Pave Investments and US-based angel investor, Chris Schultz.

Being entrepreneurs in the past, some of these investors know what it takes to build a startup in the U.S. But it’s completely different in Africa. With no on the ground know-how as to which startups to fund but an interest to do so, for portfolio diversification and other personal reasons, Microtraction and a few other early-stage investors present the best bets to accomplish this goal.

At first, Microtraction’s standard deal was to offer portfolio startups $15,000 in exchange for a 7.5% equity. But as a sign of how the market is firming up, that changed last year and now the firm invests $25,000 for 7% equity.

Microtraction revealed that it accepted over 500 applications from startups in Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia, and Mauritius in its first full year of operation. Though, just eight of those companies got investments.

The introductory batch was all Nigerian. Four fintech startups — Cowrywise, Riby, Wallets Africa, and ThankUCash; a crypto-exchange startup, BuyCoins; a SaaS platform, Accounteer; an edtech startup, Schoolable; and healthtech startup, 54gene.

2019 saw the local VC firm invest in six companies. This time there was a representative outside Nigeria — Ghanaian fintech startup, Bitsika. The Nigerian startups included social commerce startup, Sendbox; events startup, Festival Coins; communications-as-a-service platform, Termii. The rest were unannounced.

Half of its portfolio companies are backed by YC and other global accelerators

Last year (the one this latest review covers), Microtraction announced seven startups. The latest selection includes Nigerian fintech startups, Evolve Credit and Chaka; edtech startup, Gradely; bus-hailing platform, PlentyWaka; and Kenyan credit data marketplace, CARMA.

Of the total investments raised in 2019 and 2020, 54gene contributed more than half of those numbers by raising $4.5 million in seed and $15 million Series A investment. With an ingenious solution to solve the underrepresentation of African genomics data in global genomics research, 54gene got accepted into the winter batch in January 2019, the same month it officially launched.

Excluding 54gene, there were six other African-focused startups in the YC W19 batch. Two out of the six, Schoolable and Wallets Africa, were Microtraction portfolio companies. Others accepted into YC before and after included BuyCoins, Cowrywise, Termii, and two unannounced startups.

Microtraction-backed ThankUCash and a second unannounced startup have also joined cohorts at 500 Startups. On the other hand, Festival Coins is the only startup to be selected into Google for Startups Accelerator. With all accounted for, 11 out of the 21 startups are either backed by Y Combinator, 500 Startups, or Google for Startups.

The Microtraction team with founding partner, Yele Badamosi (far right)

Getting into these global accelerators is a surefire way to receive follow-up investment, ranging from $125,000 to $150,000. From the outside in, startups see Microtraction and other early-stage VC firms like Ventures Platform as a means to that end. There have also been arguments that these firms build startups to be “YC or any global accelerator ready.”

However, Dayo Koleowo, a partner at Microtraction alongside Chidinma Iwueke, debunks it saying there’s no formula behind the numbers we see. He believes YC and other accelerators share the same fundamentals with Microtraction which revolves around the team, the market, and traction.

“We love super technical teams, understand the industry they are in and are likely to succeed without us. We are always looking for companies that are solving huge problems that a lot of people face,” he told TechCrunch. “Also, the tech and startup world moves fast, so we like teams that understand that and can show in real-time that they can execute. I believe that these global accelerators look for these same things.”

Typically, YC and other accelerators may perform extended due diligence and risk assessments before cutting cheques for any African startup without a local backer. Koleowo points out that this might be why Microtraction portfolio companies get accepted quicker. “The icing on the cake is that there is a level of de-risking that has been done by Microtraction and other local investors on the ground before these global accelerators step in,” he added.

That said, there’s no denying the significance of Microtraction’s advisory board in playing a part as to why half the firm’s portfolio are in global accelerators. Besides the names mentioned earlier, Lexi Novitske, PIO at Singularity Investments and Dotun Olowoporoku, managing partner at Starta act as regional advisors, and Monique Woodward, a venture partner at 500 Startups is a global advisor.

And with the growing trends of globalization, plus the acceptance of a more decentralised approach to building and operations in the tech industry because of COVID-19, it’s a trend that might continue for a while.

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

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Firms backed by Robert Downey Jr. and Bill Gates have funded an electric motor company that slashes energy consumption

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Sometimes the smallest innovations can have the biggest impacts on the world’s efforts to stop global climate change. Arguably, one of the biggest contributors in the fight against climate change to date has been the switch to the humble LED light, which has slashed hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions simply by reducing energy consumption in buildings.

And now firms backed by Robert Downey Jr. and Bill Gates are joining investors like Amazon and iPod inventor Tony Fadell to pour money into a company called Turntide Technologies that believes it has the next great innovation in the world’s efforts to slow global climate change — a better electric motor.

It’s not as flashy as an arc reactor, but like light bulbs, motors are a ubiquitous and wholly unglamorous technology that have been operating basically the same way since the nineteenth century. And, like the light bulb, they’re due for an upgrade.

“Turntide’s technology and approach to restoring  our planet will directly reduce energy consumption,” said Steve Levin, the co-founder (along with Downey Jr. ) of FootPrint Coalition Ventures

The operation of buildings is responsible for 40% of CO2 emissions worldwide, Turntide noted in a statement. And, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), one-third of energy used in commercial buildings is wasted. Smart building technology adds an intelligent layer to eliminate this waste and inefficiency by automatically controlling lighting, air conditioning, heating, ventilation and other essential systems and Turntide’s electric motors can add additional savings.

That’s why investors have put over $100 million into Turntide in just the last six months.

PARIS, FRANCE – JUNE 16: Tony Fadell Inventor of the iPod and Founder and former CEO of Nest attends a conference during Viva Technology at Parc des Expositions Porte de Versailles on June 16, 2017 in Paris, France. Viva Technology is a fair that brings together, for the second year, major groups and startups around all the themes of innovation. (Photo by Christophe Morin/IP3/Getty Images)

The company, led by chief executive and chairman Ryan Morris is commercializing technology that was developed initially at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Turntide’s basic innovation is a software controlled motor, or switch reluctance motor, that uses precise pulses of energy instead of a constant flow of electricity. “In a conventional motor you are continuously driving current into the motor whatever speed you want to run it at,” Morris said. “We’re pulsing in precise amounts of current just at the times when you need the torque… It’s software defined hardware.” 

The technology spent eleven years under development, in part because the computing power didn’t exist to make the system work, according to Morris.

Morris was initially part of an investment firm called Meson Capital that acquired the technology back in 2013, and it was another four years of development before the motors were actually able to function in pilots, he said. The company spent the last three years developing the commercialization strategy and proving the value in its initial market — retrofitting the heating ventilation and cooling systems in buildings that are the main factor in the built environment’s 28% contribution to carbon dioxide emissions that are leading to global climate change.

“Our mission is to replace all of the motors in the world,” Morris said.

He estimates that the technology is applicable to 95% of where electric motors are used today, but the initial focus will be on smart buildings because it’s the easiest place to start and can have some of the largest immediate impact on energy usage. 

The carbon impact of what we’re doing is pretty massive,” Morris told me last year. “The average energy reduction [in buildings] has been a 64% reduction. If we can replace all the motors in buildings in the US that’s the carbon equivalent of adding over 300 million tons of carbon sequestration per year.”

That’s why Downey Jr.’s Footprint Coalition, and Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures and the real estate and construction focused venture firm Fifth Wall Ventures have joined the Amazon Climate Fund, Tony Fadell’s Future Shape, BMW’s iVentures fund and a host of other investors in backing the company.

The company has raised roughly $180 million in financing including the disclosure today of an $80 million investment round, which closed in October.

Buildings are clearly the current focus for Turntide, which only yesterday announced the acquisition of a small Santa Barbara, Calif.-based building management software developer called Riptide IO. But there’s also an application in another massive industry — electric vehicles.

“Two years from now we will definitely be in electric vehicles,” Morris said. 

“Our technology has huge advantages for the electric vehicle industry. There’s no rare earth minerals. Every EV uses rare earth minerals to get better performance of their electric motors,” he continued. “They’re expensive, destructive to mine and China controls 95 percent of the global supply chain for them. We do not use any exotic materials, rare earth minerals or magnets.. We’re replacing that with very advanced software and computation. It’s the first time Moore’s law applies to the motor.”

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Dooly closes on $20M for AI-based tools to help salespeople with their busywork

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Robotic process automation has taken the enterprise world by storm, by providing a set of tools for those doing repetitive, volume-based tasks to use software to remove some of that labor to let those people focus on more complicated tasks. Today a startup that’s taken some of that ethos and is applying it to more individualized work — that of salespeople — is announcing some funding.

Dooly, a Vancouver, Canada-based startup that has built a set of AI-based tools that automate the busywork that goes into updating data in their sales software, and namely Salesforce — has picked up $20 million in funding to build out its business, which to date has picked up a number of customers among the sales teams of enterprise-focused software companies. They include Intercom, Contentful, Vidyard, BigCommerce, Liftoff and CrowdRiff.

Its aim is to make sales software more useful for salespeople by eliminating the work that goes into inputting data into those systems.

“Really they’ve just created a mountain of virtual filing cabinets,” Kris Hartvigsen, Dooly’s founder and CEO, said in an emailed interview with me. “Filing cabinets just wait for drawers to be opened — or in the case of enterprise software, reports to be pulled and data to be input. We know people are capturing information across the business and our job is to make sure that the people and systems across the business have a better, faster, more far-reaching way of staying informed.”

The funding is being announced today, but it was actually raised in two tranches that had not previously been disclosed. A $3.3 million seed round was led by boldstart ventures and also included BoxGroup. Its $17 million Series A, meanwhile, was led by Addition, with boldstart and BoxGroup again participating, along with Battery Ventures, Mantis (representing musicians The Chainsmokers), and SV Angel.

Alongside the VCs, there are a number of interesting strategic individual investors, too. Daniel Dines and Brandon Deer of UIPath (the RPA connection clearly is not one that I’m imagining!); Allison Pickens, the ex-COO Gainsight; Zander Lurie of SurveyMonkey); Jay Simons, ex-CEO of Atlassian); Harry Stebbings, and other unnamed investors are all also involved. Ed Sim of Boldstart is joining Dooly’s board of directors with this announcement.

The challenge that Dooly has been built to solve is that while there are a lot of tools out there now to help salespeople source leads, manage the progress of their sales, give them advice and other helpful material to supplement their charm and the basic strength of a product, manage customers once they’ve signed on, and so on, all of them still require something important to work: a time commitment from salespeople to keep them updated with information. Ironically, the more tools to help them that are built, the more time salespeople need to spend feeding them data.

Even more ironically, one of the big daddies of the problem — the somewhat overweight Salesforce — has published figures (cited by Dooly) that say salespeople spend just 34% of their time selling. The rest (minus trips to get coffee to stay caffeinated) seems to be about data entry.

The idea with Dooly is that you turn it on, connect it to what you are using — starting with Salesforce — and Dooly lets you make notes which it then organises and puts into the right places in the rest of your apps.

“When a salesperson starts using Dooly, the ‘aha moment’ is pretty immediate,” Hartvigsen said. “Whether they want to do quick pipeline edits or push their notes to Salesforce, we don’t ask the user to learn any new patterns they aren’t familiar with, we just automate a bunch of things they hate doing, often comparing those traditional chores to clerical work.” For example, he notes, when they sync a note, Dooly automatically updates any Salesforce with any contacts found in the meeting, update fields, add in to-do’s, log activities, push messages to the appropriate internal stakeholders on Slack, all in the same motion.

The product currently also integrates with Slack, G-Cal, and G-Drive, because, Hartvigsen said, “we see this as an area where there is the most immediate friction and an area that was in need of disruption.” He added that the plans is to add more integrations over time. “We see need to expand the solutions that anchor to our connected workspace, with our near-term focus being the systems that touch revenue teams,” he said.

The design of Dooly seems to be about investing a little in order to save more. On average people are using Dooly between 2.5 and 5 hours each week, but Hartvigsen claims that right now the system helps people make up for more hours each week in lost productivity. Its pricing starts at $25 per user per month, going up depending on features and use.

There are quite literally thousands of products out in the market today, and among them hundreds of strong ones, being built to help salespeople with different aspects of getting their jobs done. I’ve written about quite a few of them, and I’ve actually asked companies about whether they are tackling the very issue that Dooly has identified and is trying to fix.

They weren’t, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t. Chief among them are companies like UiPath and Salesforce, which sit on different sides of this problem and could well move into it as they keep growing. (Having UiPath as a backer by way of its founder and a senior executive points to a relationship there, which is interesting.)

In the meantime, there have been some other interesting innovations using AI to improve the sales process, with companies like Pipedrive, Clari, Seismic, Chorus.ai and Gong all using natural language, machine learning, and big data analytics (itself helped by AI) to improve how sales get done.

“The first thing we noticed when we met the Dooly team was the thoughtful design first approach to product that engendered tons of customer love. This love was inherent not only on popular ratings sites like G2 Crowd but also in the individual usage and viral adoption throughout companies with only one initial user,” said Ed Sim, Founder and Managing Partner at boldstart ventures in a statement. “Dooly is revolutionizing the note-taking experience for customer facing end users from sales to customer success to product.”

“Dooly is relentlessly focused on building a user-first experience for its customers to seamlessly create workflows and unlock new revenue opportunities,” said Lee Fixel, Founder of Addition, added. “We are thrilled to support Dooly as it continues to scale and enhance the sales function for more businesses.”

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Flextock is a YC-backed e-commerce fulfillment provider for Africa and the Middle East

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When merchants launch their e-commerce businesses, they can easily manage the end-to-end operations in the early stages. But as they begin to grow, managing their own operations, from warehousing and logistics to delivery and cash collection, can become difficult. This can prevent them from scaling effectively despite having a steady inflow of demand.

Now, there’s a need to offload some of this workload. This is where e-commerce fulfillment services come in handy.

Today, Flextock, one such company providing this service to businesses and consumers in Egypt, is announcing that it is part of Y Combinator’s Winter 2021 batch. Founded by Mohamed Mossaad and Enas Siam in September 2020, the Egyptian company launched in stealth this January.

According to COO Siam, the founders noticed that as e-commerce activities in the Middle East and North African regions accelerated due to the pandemic, merchants were left overwhelmed with the volume of orders they received.

“We saw it as an opportunity to build a tech-enabled platform to be able to help anyone that wanted to grow their own independent brand or store,” she told TechCrunch. “We wanted them to focus on their products and marketing while leaving the supply chain and logistics bit to us, which we do through our end-to-end proprietary software.”

Mossaad, the company’s CEO, describes Flextock as a tech-enabled fulfillment provider. When merchants sign up to the platform, they send their products to one of the company’s fulfillment centers. Flextock takes the whole catalog and tags the products for tracking purposes. Then, integration is made between Flextock and any online store they use, be it Shopify, WooCommerce, Wix and Odoo, among others

As orders are made, Flextock packages and ships the products from the fulfillment center to the customers. Flextock doesn’t own any delivery vehicles, so to achieve this, the company partners with existing logistics companies in Egypt. This model has helped the startup to create a marketplace for different last-mile delivery companies in the country.

Image Credits: Flextock

There’s also a dashboard for these merchants to track each order, get more visibility into their shipping process and know how well their products sell.

Flextock makes money on a per-order basis. That means the merchants on the platform pay a flat fee that changes with respect to the volume of products moved.

Mossaad says that since the company beta launched in January with more than 20 businesses, it has been growing 50% week on week. It has also completed over 300,000 orders across 28 cities in the country.

According to the CEO, Flextock is the first end-to-end fulfillment service in Egypt. And in a market that will likely see more competition in the next couple of years, Mossaad thinks Flextock has the opportunity to become the market leader.

Behind this rationale is that the six-month-old startup is backed by Y Combinator and has also raised $850,000 which is just the first part of its million-dollar pre-seed round that will close sometime this year.

“We were able to very quickly get the acceptance of YC given the size of the opportunity we are focused on. We believe that commerce is expected to change in the Middle East and Africa, and Flextock is going to be at the forefront of powering this next generation of commerce,” he said.

The founders combine a wealth of corporate experience and a strong track record of scaling tech startups in the MENA region.

L-R: Mohamed Mossaad (CEO) and Enas Siam (COO)

Siam started her career managing supply operations at Nestle across the Middle East and North Africa. Later, she became the General Manager of Careem Bus, a mass-transit service and Uber subsidiary, where she helped build the product from scratch and grew it to 150,000 monthly rides in a year.

Mossaad, on the other hand, has worked on multiple turnarounds across different African countries during his time at Bain & Company. He joined Egyptian online food delivery platform, Elmenus, as Chief Strategy Officer. He helped scale the company’s revenues 5x in less than a year and was instrumental to its $8 million Series B round.

The CEO says Flextock has its sights on other African and Middle Eastern markets — specifically Saudi Arabia — and the plan is to provide its services to over 1 million businesses in these regions over the next decade.

“We are on a mission to enable more than 1 million merchants in Africa and the Middle East to sell online without carrying out the hassle of running their own operations. We are well-positioned to do that, and hopefully, we will be able to achieve that in a record time.”

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