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Valon closes on $50M a16z-led Series A to grow mobile-first mortgage servicing platform

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If you’ve ever applied for a mortgage, you know it’s one of the most painful processes out there. Keeping up with payments and dealing with customer service over the course of the loan is no picnic either.

So it’s no surprise that big bucks are being poured into the space with the goal of making the process easier, more digital and more transparent.

To that end, Valon, a tech-enabled mortgage servicer, announced this morning it has raised $50 million in a Series A round of funding — which is large for its stage even by today’s standards.

Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) led the round for the New York-based company formerly known as Peach Street. Returning backers Jefferies Financial Group, New Residential Investment Corporation – an affiliate of Fortress Investment Group LLC – and 166 2nd LLC also participated in the financing.

Valon previously raised $3.2 million from seed investors such as serial entrepreneur Kevin Ryan’s Alley Corp, Soros, Kairos, and Zigg Capital. 

Andrew Wang, Eric Chiang and Jon Hsu founded Valon in June 2019 with the mission of breaking up what it sees as “a monopoly in the market,” with “the largest mortgage servicing software company” (software giant Black Knight) controlling more than half of all U.S. residential loans.

“We’re on the cusp of a mortgage foreclosure crisis comparable to 2008, and the majority of homeowners struggling to make their loan payments are unaware of their options,” Valon CEO Wang said. “This stranglehold has driven servicing costs up nearly 250% in the past decade, and the fees are passed on directly to the borrower.”

Concurrent with the raise, Valon recently got the green light from Fannie Mae to service its government sponsored home loans. (For the unacquainted, servicing loans means doing things like collecting payments on behalf of a lender). The approval will only continue to fuel Valon’s rapid growth, according to Wang.

“We went from no contracts committed to $10 billion in mortgages committed to be serviced in one year,” he told TechCrunch. 

Valon operates in 49 states, and expects to add New York this year. 

As a former investor in mortgage servicing space, Wang was frustrated by “the lack of service” provided by other servicers. So he teamed up with Chiang and Hsu, who had prior product and engineering experience at Google and Twilio, to launch Valon.

The company’s cloud-native platform aims to deliver what it describes as a borrower-oriented experience. Lenders also can request access to real-time API data feeds to view performance of their borrowers and reconcile transaction data. 

Unlike mortgage originators, which lend money to the borrower, a mortgage servicer interfaces with the borrower for the duration of their loan – and that can be anywhere from 15 to 30 years. 

“This includes things like collecting payments on behalf of the lender and providing assistance and guidance to the borrower in moments of stress,” Wang said. “Traditional mortgage servicers use antiquated technology and provide poor service to borrowers. Valon looks to change that dynamic by providing transparency and full self-service capabilities to homeowners.

The company also claims that its technology has the potential to reduce mortgage servicing costs by up to 50% by vertically integrating the entire process. Its platform is built on Google Cloud with security as a “first-principle” with features such as default encryption and intrusion detection, the company said.

Millions of Americans stopped paying their mortgages in 2020 due to the economic strain of the coronavirus pandemic. This led to requests for forbearance (postponement of payments) and foreclosure moratoriums.

“The pandemic highlighted the stress in the market and greatly accelerated the need for a new age mortgage servicer,” Wang said. “Homeowners faced a great deal of financial stress and had difficulty getting the right option and assistance from existing servicers due to their antiquated technology and inability to process requests… In 2021 we will see forbearance and foreclosure leniency come to an end and this need will be even more acute.”

Angela Strange, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz who joined Valon’s board in mid-2020, says Valon has built a mobile-first mortgage servicer from the ground up.

“Homeowners are faced with clumsy websites, call centers, and often misinformation,” she said in a written statement. “In Valon, they have a trusted software driven advisor who can provide clear, transparent, regulatory compliant information in good times and bad – without needing to pick up the phone.”

The Fannie Mae approval only serves as further validation of the platform the team has created, she added.

Valon plans to use its new capital to triple headcount to about 100 by year’s end as well as to acquire more mortgage servicing rights (MSR) contracts to service.

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GSV Ventures doubles assets managed with new fund focused on global edtech

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GSV Ventures, co-founded by Deborah Quazzo and Michael Cohn, has raised $180 million in its second fund, exclusively focused on backing edtech startups across the globe. The startup now manages $277 million in cumulative assets, inclusive of its debut fund that was closed in 2016.

The new fund will let GSV invest in 13 core holdings, with an average check size of $15 million. The firm reserves up to $20 million per position for follow-on capital. It will invest in seed, Series A and late growth-stage opportunities.

While edtech was certainly spotlighted by the pandemic’s impact on the adoption of remote education, GSV Ventures is a case study in what happens when you invest in a category before it has generalist eyes on it. The first fund had three of its largest positions in Coursera, which is planning to go public this year; Course Hero, which was valued at $1.1 billion last year; and ClassDojo, which finally hit profitability after spending eight years focusing on customer growth instead of monetization.

The firm was also an early believer in Nearpod, which exited for $650 million in an all-cash deal in February 2021. Quazzo, who contributed her angel portfolio into the fund, says that this gives the firm 10 exits under its belt to date.

GSV Ventures began around the same time as other exclusively-edtech funds launched, such as Reach Capital, Learn Capital and Owl Ventures. These funds have all closed new capital in the wake of the coronavirus, with $165 million, $132 million and $585 million, respectively.

The biggest change between GSV Ventures’ debut fund and Fund II is the opportunity that Quazzo seeds internationally. Fund 1 only had one investment outside the United States, and Fund II already has holdings in Capetown, Croatia, Jordan, as well as, Quazzo confirms, six incoming investments split between Indonesia and India.

“There are very important businesses being built in these markets with missions to democratize and improve the delivery of learning at scale to all people,” Quazzo tells TechCrunch. To date, GSV Ventures’ portfolio has 37% female founders and 43% people of color.

While there was a four-year gap between Fund I and Fund II, GSV’s ability to back edtech startups with an ambitious trajectory hasn’t gone unnoticed. Its third fund, already mid-raise, will have its first close in the next few months.

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From the ashes of nearly a billion dollars, Ample resurrects Better Place’s battery swapping business model

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A little over thirteen years ago, Shai Agassi, a promising software executive who was in line to succeed the chief executive at SAP, then one of the world’s mightiest software companies, left the company he’d devoted the bulk of his professional career to and started a business called Better Place.

That startup promised to revolutionize the nascent electric vehicle market and make range anxiety a thing of the past. The company’s pitch? A network of automated battery swapping stations that would replace spent batteries with freshly charged ones.

Agassi’s company would go on to raise nearly $1 billion (back when that was considered a large sum of money) from some of the world’s top venture capital and growth equity firms. By 2013 it would be bankrupt and one of the many casualties of the first wave of cleantech investing.

Now serial entrepreneurs John de Souza and Khaled Hassounah are reviving the battery swapping business model with a startup called Ample and an approach that they say solves some of the problems that Better Place could never address at a time when the adoption of electric vehicles is creating a far larger addressable market.

In 2013, there were 220,000 vehicles on roads, according to data from Statista, a number which has grown to 4.8 million by 2019.

Ample has actually raised approximately $70 million from investors including Shell Ventures, the Spanish energy company Repsol, and the venture capital arm of the $10 billion money manager, Moore Capital Management. That includes a $34 million investment first reported back in 2018, and a later round from investors including Japan’s energy and metals company, Eneos Holdings that closed recently.

“We had a lot of people that either said, I somehow was involved in that and was suffering from PTSD,” said de Souza, of the similarities between his business and Better Place. “The people who weren’t involved read up about it and then ran away.”

For Ample, the difference is in the modularization of the battery pack and how that changes the relationship with the automakers that would use the technology.

“The approach we’ve taken… is to modularize the battery and then we have an adapter plate that is the structural element of the battery that has the same shape of the battery, same bolt pattern and same software interface. Even though we provide the same battery system.. .it’s same as replacing the tire,” said Hassounah, Ample’s co-founder and chief executive. “Effectively we’re giving them the plate. We don’t modify the car whatsoever. You either put a fixed battery system or an Ample battery plate. We’re able to work with the OEMS where you can make the battery swappable for the use cases where this makes a lot of sense. Without really changing the same vehicle.”

Ample’s currently working with five different OEMs and has validated its approach to battery swapping with nine different car models. One of those OEMs also brings back memories of Better Place.

It’s clear that the company has a deal with Nissan for the Leaf thanks to the other partnership that Ample has announced with Uber. Ample’s founders declined to comment on any OEM relationships.

It’s clear that Ample is working with Nissan because Nissan is the company that inked a deal with Uber earlier this year on zero-emission mobility. And Uber is the first company to use Ample’s robotic charging stations at a few locations in the Bay Area, the company said. This work with Nissan echoes Better Place’s one partnership with Renault, another arm of the automaker, which proved to be the biggest deal for the older, doomed, battery swapping startup.

Ample says it only takes weeks to set up one of its charging pods at a facility and that the company’s charging drivers on energy delivered per mile. “We achieve economics that are 10% to 20% cheaper than gas. We are profitable on day one,” said Hassounah.

Uber is the first step. Ample is focused on fleets first and is in talks with multiple, undisclosed municipalities to get their cars added to the system. So far, Ample has done thousands of swaps, according to Hassounah with just Uber drivers alone.

The cars can also be charged at traditional charging facilities, Hassounah said, and the company’s billing system knows the split between the amount of energy it delivers versus another charging outlet, Hassounah said.

“So far, in the use cases that we have, for ride sharing it’s individual drivers who pay,” said de Souza. With the five fleets that Ample expects to deploy with later this year the company expects to have the fleet managers and owners pay for. charging.

Some of the inspiration for Ample came from Hassounah’s earlier experience working at One laptop per child, where he was forced to rethink assumptions about how the laptops would be used, the founder said.

“Initially i worked on the keyboard display and then quickly realized the challenge was in the field and developed a framework for creating infrastructure,” Hassounah said.

The problem was the initial design of the system did not take into account lack of access to power for laptops at children’s homes. So the initiative developed a charging unit for swapping batteries. Children would use their laptops over the course of the day and take them home, and when they needed a fresh charge, they would swap out the batteries.

“There are fleets that need this exact solution,” said de Souza. But there are advantages for individual car owners as well, he said. “The experience for the owner of a vehicle is after time the battery degrades. With ours as we put new batteries in the car can go further and further over time.” 

Right now, OEMs are sending cars without batteries and Ample is just installing their charging system, said Hassounah, but as the number of vehicles using the system rises above 1,000, the company expects to send their plates to manufacturers, who can then have Ample install their own packs.

Currently, Ample only supports level one and level two charging, but won’t offer fast charging options for the car makers it works with — likely because that option would cannibalize the company’s business and potentially obviate the need for its swapping technology.

At issue is the time it takes to charge a car. Fast chargers still take between 20 and 30 minutes to charge up, but advances in technologies should drive that figure down. Even if fast charging ultimately becomes a better option, Ample’s founders say they view their business as an additive step to faster electric vehicle adoption.

“When you’re moving 1 billion cars, you need everything… We have so many cars we need to put on the road,” Hassounah said. “We think we need all solutions to solve the problem. As you think of fleet applications you need a solution that can match gas in charge and not speed. Fast charging is not available in mass. The challenge will not be can the battery be charged in 5 minutes. The cost of building  charges that can deliver that amount of power is prohibitive.”

Looking beyond charging, Ample sees opportunities in the grid power market as well, the two founders said.

“Time shift is built into our economics… that’s another way we can help,” said de Souza. “We use that as grid storage… we can do demand charge and now that the federal mandate is there to feed into the grid we can help stabilize the grid by feeding back energy.. We don’t have a lot of stations to make a significant impact. As we scale up this year we will.”

Currently the company is operating at a storage capacity of tens of megawatts per hour, according to Hassounah.

“We can use the side storage to accelerate the development of swapping stations,” de Souza said. “You don’t have to invest an insane amount of money to put them in. We can finance the batteries in multiple ways as well as utilize other sources of financing.” 

Ample co-founders John de Souza and Khaled Hassounah. Image Credit: Ample

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Cables could help soft robots transform into harder structures

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The sub-category of soft robotics has transformed the way many think about the field. Oft-influenced by natural phenomenon, the technology offers a dramatically different approach than the sort of rigid structures we traditionally think of when we discuss robots.

Soft designs offer a number of benefits, including compliance, which has already seen a number of real-world applications in manufacturing and fulfillment. But like their more rigid cousins, soft robots have their limitations. As such, designers generally choose between one or the other for a given job — or, best-case scenario, design swappable parts.

A team at MIT’s CSAIL lab is exploring a technology that could make choosing less of a trade-off. The project has been in the works since 2017, though it’s still in the somewhat early stages — still largely the realm of computer simulation, though the details have been outlined in a new paper.

“This is the first step in trying to see if we can get the best of both worlds,” CSAIL post-doc James Bern said in a release.

In the project (or the simulated version, at least), the robot is controlled by a series of cables. Pulling on them in the right combination turns the soft structure into a hard one. The team uses the analogy of a series of muscles controlling the human arm — if the right ones are flexed, you can effectively lock a position in place.

The team will present their findings at a conference next month. For the time being, they’re currently working on a prototype to showcase how it operates in a real-world setting. Combining the two fields could go a ways toward building safer collaborative robots for interacting with human workers.

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