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Ben raises $2.5M seed to fix employee benefits for SMEs

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Ben, a London-based employee benefits and rewards platform, has raised $2.5 million in funding. The seed round is led by Cherry Ventures, and Seedcamp.

A number of angel investors with backgrounds in fintech and HR tech also participated. They include Paul Forster (founder of Indeed), Taavet Hinrikus (founder of TransferWise), Carlos Gonzalez-Cadenas (previously an exec at GoCardless but now a partner at Index Ventures), Philip Reynolds (VP of Engineering at Workday), and Matt Robinson (founder of Nested).

Part fintech, part HR play, Ben has built an employee benefits platform to enable SMEs to offer much more personalised and flexible benefits to employees. The U.K. startup does this via a SaaS for managing benefits, including a benefits marketplace, combined with per-employee debit cards powered by Mastercard.

The idea is to give employees more individual choice around which benefits they choose, while making it easy to on-board additional providers. This can be via the marketplace or through whitelisting merchant or merchant categories via the employer issued Mastercards, such as food and drink or travel and mobility, or a specific co-working space etc.

“While most companies offer benefits in order to attract and engage team members, and ultimately drive productivity, most solutions don’t deliver the desired outcomes,” Ben co-founder and CEO Sebastian Fallert tells me. “To have impact, offerings need to work for the individual employees; after all, a ‘benefit’ that’s relevant for somebody working from home in their mid-40s could be next to useless for a new starter in their 20s”.

Fallert says that providing the required level of personalised benefits has been impossible for most small to medium-sized companies due to the “high cost and complexity” of creating and administering personalised programmes. This has seen only large enterprises able to offer flexible benefit programmes where employees get to pick from a range of options. Ben aims to remedy this.

“The Ben software platform allows companies to load funds and set individual spend rules on how these can be used,” explains Fallert. “Employees are then able to choose from group benefits, such as private medical insurance, mental wellbeing services, or dental plans, while a real per-employee Mastercard opens the door to pretty much any product or service in a tax-efficient and compliant way”.

The result is a “win-win,” says the Ben CEO. “Employees get tailored benefits, and companies only pay for what’s used, take advantage of tax exemptions and preferred pricing, while streamlining the administration”.

The Ben platform is currently used by smaller and mid-market companies, especially those with a distributed team. “It’s these firms in particular that have to deal with the growing complexity of their programmes to keep up with a more diverse and increasingly remote/distributed workforce,” says Fallert.

Meanwhile, Ben has three revenue streams: a SaaS fee; interchange revenue every time its cards get used; and, of course, affiliate revenue from its marketplace.

Adds the Ben CEO: “One of our core hypotheses is that there are so many amazing services out there that simply can’t get through to companies as they’re often not relevant for all employees, such as debt consolidation or fertility treatment. With Ben, they get easy distribution on standard commercial terms while companies get to offer an additional benefit without any additional overhead”.

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

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Facebook will pay $650 million to settle class action suit centered on Illinois privacy law

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Facebook was ordered to pay $650 million Friday for running afoul of an Illinois law designed to protect the state’s residents from invasive privacy practices.

That law, the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), is a powerful state measure that’s tripped up tech companies in recent years. The suit against Facebook was first filed in 2015, alleging that Facebook’s practice of tagging people in photos using facial recognition without their consent violated state law.

1.6 million Illinois residents will receive at least $345 under the final settlement ruling in California federal court. The final number is $100 higher than the $550 million Facebook proposed in 2020, which a judge deemed inadequate. Facebook disabled the automatic facial recognition tagging features in 2019, making it opt-in instead and addressing some of the privacy criticisms echoed by the Illinois class action suit.

A cluster of lawsuits accused Microsoft, Google and Amazon of breaking the same law last year after Illinois residents’ faces were used to train their facial recognition systems without explicit consent.

The Illinois privacy law has tangled up some of tech’s giants, but BIPA has even more potential to impact smaller companies with questionable privacy practices. The controversial facial recognition software company Clearview AI now faces its own BIPA-based class action lawsuit in the state after the company failed to dodge the suit by pushing it out of state courts.

A $650 million settlement would be enough to crush any normal company, though Facebook can brush it off much like it did with the FTC’s record-setting $5 billion penalty in 2019. But the Illinois law isn’t without teeth. For Clearview, it was enough to make the company pull out of business in the state altogether.

The law can’t punish a behemoth like Facebook in the same way, but it is one piece in a regulatory puzzle that poses an increasing threat to the way tech’s data brokers have done business for years. With regulators at the federal, state and legislative level proposing aggressive measures to rein in tech, the landmark Illinois law provides a compelling framework that other states could copy and paste. And if big tech thinks navigating federal oversight will be a nightmare, a patchwork of aggressive state laws governing how tech companies do business on a state-by-state basis is an alternate regulatory future that could prove even less palatable.

 

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AWS reorganizes DeepRacer League to encourage more newbies

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AWS launched the DeepRacer League in 2018 as a fun way to teach developers machine learning, and it’s been building on the idea ever since. Today, it announced the latest league season with two divisions: Open and Pro.

As Marcia Villalba wrote in a blog post announcing the new league, “AWS DeepRacer is an autonomous 1/18th scale race car designed to test [reinforcement learning] models by racing virtually in the AWS DeepRacer console or physically on a track at AWS and customer events. AWS DeepRacer is for developers of all skill levels, even if you don’t have any ML experience. When learning RL using AWS DeepRacer, you can take part in the AWS DeepRacer League where you get experience with machine learning in a fun and competitive environment.”

While the company started these as in-person races with physical cars, the pandemic has forced them to make it a virtual event over the last year, but the new format seemed to be blocking out newcomers. Since the goal is to teach people about machine learning, getting new people involved is crucial to the company.

That’s why it created the Open League, which as the name suggests is open to anyone. You can test your skills and if you’re good enough, finishing in the top 10%, you can compete in the Pro division. Everyone competes for prizes as well such as vehicle customizations.

The top 16 in the Pro League each month race for a chance to go to the finals at AWS re:Invent in 2021, an event that may or may not be virtual, depending on where we are in the pandemic recovery.

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Free 30-day trial of Extra Crunch included with TC Sessions: Justice tickets

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TC Sessions: Justice is coming up on Wednesday, and we’ve decided to sweeten the deal for what’s included with your event pass. Buy your ticket now and you’ll get a free month of access to Extra Crunch, our membership program focused on founders and startup teams with exclusive articles published daily.

Extra Crunch unlocks access to our weekly investor surveys, private market analysis and in-depth interviews with experts on fundraising, growth, monetization and other core startup topics. Get feedback on your pitch deck through Extra Crunch Live, and stay informed with our members-only Extra Crunch newsletter. Other benefits include an improved TechCrunch.com experience and savings on software services from AWS, Crunchbase and more.

Learn more about Extra Crunch benefits here, and buy your TC Sessions: Justice tickets here.  

What is TC Sessions: Justice? 

TC Sessions: Justice is a single-day virtual event that explores diversity, equity and inclusion in tech, the gig worker experience, the justice system and more. We’ll host a series of interviews with key figures in the tech community. 

The event will take place March 3, and we’d love to have you join. 

View the event agenda here, and purchase tickets here

Once you buy your TC Sessions: Justice pass, you will be emailed a link and unique code you can use to claim the free month of Extra Crunch.

Already bought your TC Sessions: Justice ticket?

Existing pass holders will be emailed with information on how to claim the free month of Extra Crunch membership. All new ticket purchases will receive information over email immediately after the purchase is complete.

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We’re happy to extend a free month of access to existing users. Please contact extracrunch@techcrunch.com and mention that you are existing Extra Crunch members who bought a ticket to TC Sessions: Justice. 

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