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With $20M A round, Promise brings financial flexibility to outdated government and utility payment systems

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The last year has been one of financial hardship for billions, and among the specific hardships is the elementary one of paying for utilities, taxes and other government fees — the systems for which are rarely set up for easy or flexible payment. Promise aims to change that by integrating with official payment systems and offering more forgiving terms for fees and debts people can’t handle all at once, and has raised $20 million to do so.

When every penny is going toward rent and food, it can be hard to muster the cash to pay an irregular bill like water or electricity. They’re less likely to be shut off on short notice than a mobile plan, so it’s safer to kick the can down the road… until a few bills add up and suddenly a family is looking at hundreds of dollars of unpaid bills and no way to split them up or pay over time. Same with tickets and other fees and fines.

The CEO and co-founder of Promise, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, explained that this (among other places) is where current systems fall down. Unlike buying a TV or piece of furniture, where payment plans may be offered in a single click during online checkout, there frequently is no such option for municipal ticket payment sites or utilities.

“We have found that people struggling to pay their bills want to pay and will pay at extremely high rates if you offer them reminders, accessible payment options and flexibility. The systems are the problem — they are not designed for people who don’t always have a surplus of money in their bank accounts,” she told TechCrunch.

“They assume for example that if someone makes their first payment at 10 PM on the 15th, they will have the same amount of money the next month on the 15th at 10 PM,” she continued. “These systems do not recognize that most people are struggling with their basic needs. Payments may need to be weekly or split up into multiple payment types.”

Even those that do offer plans still see many failures to pay, due at least partly to a lack of flexibility on their part, said Ellis-Lamkins — failure to make a payment can lead to the whole plan being cancelled. Furthermore, it may be difficult to get enrolled in the first place.

“Some cities offer payment plans but you have to go in person to sign up, complete a multiple-page form, show proof of income and meet restrictive criteria,” she said. “We have been able to work with our partners to use self-certification to ease the process as opposed to providing tax returns or other documentation. Currently, we have over a 90% repayment rate.”

Promise acts as a sort of middleman, integrating lightly with the agency or utility, which in turn makes anyone owing money aware of the possibility of the different payment system. It’s similar to how you might see various payment options, including installments, when making a purchase at an online shop.

Mobile and computer screens showing payment interfaces with optiosn to pay over time.

Image Credits: Promise

The user enrolls in a payment plan (the service is mobile-friendly because that’s the only form of internet many people have) and Promise handles that end of it, with reminders, receipts and processing, passing on the money to the agency as it comes in — the company doesn’t cover the cost up front and collect on its own terms. Essentially it’s a bolt-on flexible payment mechanism that specializes in government agencies and other public-facing fee collectors.

Promise makes money by subscription fees (i.e. SaaS) and/or through transaction fees, whichever makes more sense for the given customer. As you might imagine, it makes more sense for a utility to pay a couple bucks to be more sure of collecting $500, than to take its chance on getting none of that $500, or having to resort to more heavy-handed and expensive debt collection methods.

Lest you think this is not a big problem (and consequently not a big market), Ellis-Lamkins noted a recent study from the California Water Boards showing there are 1.6 million people with a total of $1 billion in water debt in the state — one in eight households is in arrears to an average of $500.

Those numbers are likely worse than normal, given the immense financial pressure that the pandemic has placed on nearly all households — but like payment plans in other circumstances, households of many incomes and types find their own reason to take advantage of such systems. And pretty much anyone who’s had to deal with an obtusely designed utility payment site would welcome an alternative.

The new round brings the company’s total raised to over $30 million, counting $10 million it raised immediately after leaving Y Combinator in 2018. The funding comes from existing investors Kapor Capital, XYZ, Bronze, First Round, YC, Village, and others.

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

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How Rani Therapeutics’ robotic pill could change subcutaneous injection treament

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A new auto-injecting pill might soon become a replacement for subcutaneous injection treatments.

The idea for this so-called robotic pill came out of a research project around eight years ago from InCube Labs—a life sciences lab operated by Rani Therapeutics Chairman and CEO Mir Imran, who has degrees in electrical and biomedical engineering from Rutgers University. A prominent figure in life sciences innovation, Imran has founded over 20 medical device companies and helped develop the world’s first implantable cardiac defibrillator.

In working on the technology behind San Jose-based Rani Therapeutics, Imran and his team wanted to find a way to relieve some of the painful side effects of subcutaneous (or under-the-skin) injections, while also improving the treatment’s efficacy. “The technology itself started with a very simple thesis,” said Imran in an interview. “We thought, why can’t we create a pill that contains a biologic drug that you swallow, and once it gets to the intestine, it transforms itself and delivers a pain-free injection?”

Rani Therapeutics’ approach is based on inherent properties of the gastrointestinal tract. An injecting mechanism in their pill is surrounded by a pH-sensitive coating that dissolves as the capsule moves from a patient’s stomach to the small intestine. This helps ensure that the pill starts injecting the medicine in the right place at the right time. Once there, the reactants mix and produce carbon dioxide, which in turn inflates a small balloon that helps create a pressure difference to help inject the drug-loaded needles into the intestinal wall. “So it’s a really well-timed cascade of events that results in the delivery of this needle,” said Imran.

Despite its somewhat mechanical procedure, the pill itself contains no metal or springs, reducing the chance of an inflammatory response in the body. The needles and other components are instead made of injectable-grade polymers, that Imran said has been used in other medical devices as well. Delivering the injections to the upper part of the small intestine also carries little risk of infection, as the prevalence of stomach acid and bile from the liver prevent bacteria from readily growing there.

One of Imran’s priorities for the pill was to eliminate the painful side effects of subcutaneous injections. “It wouldn’t make sense to replace them with another painful injection,” he said. “But biology was on our side, because your intestines don’t have the kind of pain sensors your skin does.” What’s more, administering the injection into the highly vascularized wall of the small intestine actually allows the treatment to work more efficiently than when applied through subcutaneous injection, which typically deposits the treatment into fatty tissue.

Imran and his team have plans to use the pill for a variety of indications, including the growth hormone disorder acromegaly, diabetes, and osteoporosis. In January 2020, their acromegaly treatment, Octreotide, demonstrated both safety and sustained bioavailability in primary clinical trials. They hope to pursue future clinical trials for other indications, but chose to prioritize acromegaly initially because of its well-established treatment drug but “very painful injection,” Imran said.

At the end of last year, Rani Therapeutics raised $69 million in new funding to help further develop and test their platform. “This will finance us for the next several years,” said Imran. “Our approach to the business is to make the technology very robust and manufacturable.”

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Address cybersecurity challenges before rolling out robotic process automation

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Robotic process automation (RPA) is making a major impact across every industry. But many don’t know how common the technology is and may not realize that they are interacting with it regularly. RPA is a growing megatrend — by 2022, Gartner predicts that 90% of organizations globally will have adopted RPA and its received over $1.8 billion in investments in the past two years alone.

Due to the shift to remote work, companies across every industry have implemented some form of RPA to simplify their operations to deal with an influx of requests. For example, when major airlines were bombarded with cancellation requests at the onset of the pandemic, RPA became essential to their customer service strategy.

Throughout 2021, security teams will begin to realize the unconsidered security challenges of robotic process automation.

According to Forrester, one major airline had over 120,000 cancellations during the first few weeks of the pandemic. By utilizing RPA to handle the influx of cancellations, the airline was able to simplify its refund process and assist customers in a timely matter.

Delivering this type of streamlined cancellation process with such high demand would have been extremely challenging, if not impossible, without RPA technology.

The multitude of other RPA use cases that have popped up since COVID-19 have made it evident that RPA isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, interest in the usage of RPA is at an unprecedented high. Gartner inquiries related to RPA increased over 1,000% during 2020 as companies continue to invest.

However, there’s one big issue that’s commonly overlooked when it comes to RPA — security. Like we’ve seen with other innovations, the security aspect of RPA isn’t implemented in the early stages of development — leaving organizations vulnerable to cybercriminals.

If the security vulnerabilities of RPA aren’t addressed quickly, there will be a string of significant RPA breaches in 2021. However, by realizing that these new “digital coworkers” have identities of their own, companies can secure RPA before they make the headlines as the latest major breach.

Understanding RPA’s digital identity

With RPA, digital workers are created to take over repetitive manual tasks that have been traditionally performed by humans. Their interaction directly with business applications mimics the way humans use credentials and privilege — ultimately giving the robot an identity of its own. An identity that is created and operates much faster than any human identity but doesn’t eat, sleep, take holidays, go on strike or even get paid.

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Eco raises $26M in a16z-led round to scale its digital cryptocurrency platform

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‍Eco, which has built out a digital global cryptocurrency platform, announced Friday that it has raised $26 million in a funding round led by a16z Crypto.

Founded in 2018, the SF-based startup’s platform is designed to be used as a payment tool around the world for daily-use transactions. The company emphasizes that it’s “not a bank, checking account, or credit card.”

“We’re building something better than all of those combined,” it said in a blog post. The company’s mission has also been described as an effort to use cryptocurrency as a way “to marry savings and spending,” according to this CoinList article.

Eco users can earn up to 5% annually on their deposits and get 5% cashback on when transacting with merchants such as Amazon, Uber, and others. Next up: the company says it will give its users the ability to pay bills, pay friends and more “all from the same, single wallet.” That same wallet, it says, rewards people every time they spend or save.

After a “successful” alpha test with millions of dollars deposited, the company’s Eco App is now available to the public.

A slew of other VC firms participated in Eco’s latest financing, including Founders Fund, Activant Capital, Slow Ventures, Coinbase Ventures, Tribe Capital, Valor Capital Group, and more than one hundred other funds and angels.  Expa and Pantera Capital co-led the company’s $8.5 million funding round.

CoinList co-founder Andy Bromberg stepped down from his role last fall to head up Eco. The startup was originally called Beam before rebranding to Eco “thanks to involvement by founding advisor, Garrett Camp, who held the Eco brand,” according to Coindesk. Camp is an Uber co-founder and Expa is his venture fund.

For a16z Crypto, leading the round is in line with its mission.

In a blog post co-written by Katie Haun and Arianna Simpson, the firm outlined why it’s pumped about Eco and its plans.

“One of the challenges in any new industry — crypto being no exception — is building things that are not just cool for the sake of cool, but that manage to reach and delight a broad set of users,” they wrote. “Technology is at its best when it’s improving the lives of people in tangible, concrete ways…At a16z Crypto, we are constantly on the lookout for paths to get cryptocurrency into the hands of the next billion people. How do we think that will happen? By helping them achieve what they already want to do: spend, save, and make money — and by focusing users on tangible benefits, not on the underlying technology.”

Eco is not the only crypto platform offering rewards to users. Lolli gives users free bitcoin or cash when they shop at over 1,000 top stores.


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