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Authentication and StockX’s global arms race against fraudsters

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As we saw in part one of this EC-1, sneakers have evolved from an enthusiast community of collectors into a global multibillion dollar business, in part due to StockX’s influence over this burgeoning market. Individual pairs can sell for well over $100,000, and as sneakers have gone from cultural symbol to cultural asset, they have increasingly become the target for criminal groups looking to make a quick buck from counterfeits.

StockX is fighting an arms race against international criminals who can make a killing if they can get a fake through its authentication processes. Every year, StockX improves its practices, and every year, its opponents sharpen their skills, getting just one more detail right. Sneaker fraud is big business: The feds seized tens of millions of dollars in fake shoes last year in just one haul. By some estimates, the sneaker fake goods market is growing and is now well into the nine figure range.

As the key to the community’s trust and the company’s international expansion, StockX reveres themselves most on the constantly evolving process of authentication. Yet even with all its resources and skill, it can’t always get it 100% right.

As the key to the community’s trust and the company’s international expansion, StockX reveres themselves most on the constantly evolving process of authentication.

In this part of the EC-1, we’ll explore how authentication got started at StockX and how it has grown, as well as what it takes to compete with the fakes — and the fallout when the company gets a decision wrong.

“It was a crazy feeling — the worst.”

Longtime sneaker collector and newish sneaker YouTuber Blake Yarbrough always wanted Nike’s Tom Sachs Mars Yard sneakers. The 2012 extra exclusive release features Vectran fabric from the airbags on the actual Mars Excursion rover. However, as a one-time manager at FinishLine, he couldn’t see himself spending more than retail on sneakers.

“The original pair from 2012 is the one I really wanted and still want, but they’re just so much more money. When the 2.0 came out in 2017 I was like, they changed the materials and whatever, the color is a little bit different, but I still love it.”

The NikeCraft Mars Yard 2.0 sneakers. Image Credits: Nike

He picked up a pair for $1,650 — the most he’d ever spent on shoes at the time — from StockX in 2018 and wore them often and carefully, even removing the insoles and replacing them with other inserts so as not to wear off the insole graphics. The Tom Sachs Nike box has a quote that says, “These shoes are only valid if worn, and worn to death, by you. Poser need not apply.” Unlike some sneaker collectors or resellers who keep their shoes “deadstocked” or unworn, Yarbrough took that message to heart.

By the end of 2020 the resale value of his sneakers had significantly increased, ranging from $2,400 to $4,500. Yarbrough decided it was time to part ways with the shoes. They had a good run and he wanted to make some money to put toward other things. He posted the used pair on StockX-competitor GOAT for $3,000 and quickly received an offer for $2,600. Pleased with this number, he packaged them up in the original box along with a booklet that came with the shoes and sent them to GOAT to be authenticated and sent to the purchaser.

Yarbrough received an email saying the shoes would not be accepted, the transaction would not go through and that they were fakes. “It was a crazy feeling — the worst.” Yarbrough recalls it derailing his entire day and taking about two weeks to decide what to do about it.

“To open that email, see that it said that they are replicas, and know, essentially, that I’m stuck with these shoes, and I’m out this amount of money is a really terrible feeling. It was something I haven’t ever really felt before, like getting scammed,” he says.

The dream and nightmare of Black Friday

Before we continue with Yarbrough, let’s rewind the clock a few years back to the genesis of StockX. Sadelle Moore recalls the early days when he’d be sitting around the StockX Detroit headquarters waiting for sneakers to arrive. The brand launched with four dedicated authenticators in 2016, and he joined pre-launch during beta testing.

“Early on we were getting 10 boxes a day and didn’t have a set process. We’d wait for UPS to come with our orders and each have to make our own boxes. It was just me and a couple other guys, and it took us all a day to go through 10 shoes. It was such a long process,” Moore recalls.

Sadelle Moore was one of the first authenticators to join StockX. Image Credits: StockX.

As an early-stage company, processes were vague. “We’d have to fulfill our own orders as authenticators then. Once I authenticated the shoe, I’d put it right back in the box and I just may have to ship it right out, and that would take all day,” he said.

COO Greg Schwartz points to StockX’s first Black Friday in November 2016 as a particularly pivotal day in the company’s transformative early years. “We all went from sitting behind a computer or traveling or whatever anyone was doing at the time to literally everyone working in that authentication center — which was really just the basement of the building we were in — as boxes were piling up. UPS was unable to even deliver them all because it exceeded the loading dock capacity.”

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

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Vietnamese electric motorbike startup Dat Bike raises $2.6M led by Jungle Ventures

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Son Nguyen, founder and chief executive officer of Dat Bike on one of the startup's motorbikes

Son Nguyen, founder and chief executive officer of Dat Bike

Dat Bike, a Vietnamese startup with ambitions to become the top electric motorbike company in Southeast Asia, has raised $2.6 million in pre-Series A funding led by Jungle Ventures. Made in Vietnam with mostly domestic parts, Dat Bike’s selling point is its ability to compete with gas motorbikes in terms of pricing and performance. Its new funding is the first time Jungle Ventures has invested in the mobility sector and included participation from Wavemaker Partners, Hustle Fund and iSeed Ventures.

Founder and chief executive officer Son Nguyen began learning how to build bikes from scrap parts while working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. In 2018, he moved back to Vietnam and launched Dat Bike. More than 80% of households in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam own two-wheeled vehicles, but the majority are fueled by gas. Nguyen told TechCrunch that many people want to switch to electric motorbikes, but a major obstacle is performance.

Nguyen said that Dat Bike offers three times the performance (5 kW versus 1.5 kW) and 2 times the range (100 km versus 50 km) of most electric motorbikes in the market, at the same price point. The company’s flagship motorbike, called Weaver, was created to compete against gas motorbikes. It seats two people, which Nguyen noted is an important selling point in Southeast Asian countries, and has a 5000W motor that accelerates from 0 to 50 km per hour in three seconds. The Weaver can be fully charged at a standard electric outlet in about three hours, and reach up to 100 km on one charge (the motorbike’s next iteration will go up to 200 km on one charge).

Dat Bike’s opened its first physical store in Ho Chi Minh City last December. Nguyen said the company “has shipped a few hundred motorbikes so far and still have a backlog of orders.” He added that it saw a 35% month-over-month growth in new orders after the Ho Chi Minh City store opened.

At 39.9 million dong, or about $1,700 USD, Weaver’s pricing is also comparable to the median price of gas motorbikes. Dat Bike partners with banks and financial institutions to offer consumers twelve-month payment plans with no interest.

“These guys are competing with each other to put the emerging middle class of Vietnam on the digital financial market for the first time ever and as a result, we get a very favorable rate,” he said.

While Vietnam’s government hasn’t implemented subsidies for electric motorbikes yet, the Ministry of Transportation has proposed new regulations mandating electric infrastructure at parking lots and bike stations, which Nguyen said will increase the adoption of electric vehicles. Other Vietnamese companies making electric two-wheeled vehicles include VinFast and PEGA.

One of Dat Bike’s advantages is that its bikes are developed in house, with locally-sourced parts. Nguyen said the benefits of manufacturing in Vietnam, instead of sourcing from China and other countries, include streamlined logistics and a more efficient supply chain, since most of Dat Bike’s suppliers are also domestic.

“There are also huge tax advantages for being local, as import tax for bikes is 45% and for bike parts ranging from 15% to 30%,” said Nguyen. “Trade within Southeast Asia is tariff-free though, which means that we have a competitive advantage to expand to the region, compare to foreign imported bikes.”

Dat Bike plans to expand by building its supply chain in Southeast Asia over the next two to three years, with the help of investors like Jungle Ventures.

In a statement, Jungle Ventures founding partner Amit Anand said, “The $25 billion two-wheeler industry in Southeast Asia in particular is ripe for reaping benefits of new developments in electric vehicles and automation. We believe that Dat Bike will lead this charge and create a new benchmark not just in the region but potentially globally for what the next generation of two-wheeler electric vehicles will look and perform like.”

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Binance Labs leads $1.6M seed round in DeFi startup MOUND, the developer of Pancake Bunny

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Decentralized finance startup MOUND, known for its yield farming aggregator Pancake Bunny, has raised $1.6 million in seed funding led by Binance Labs. Other participants included IDEO CoLab, SparkLabs Korea and Handshake co-founder Andrew Lee.

Built on Binance Smart Chain, a blockchain for developing high-performance DeFi apps, MOUND says Pancake Bunny now has over 30,000 daily average users, and has accumulated more than $2.1 billion in total value locked (TVL) since its launch in December 2020.

The new funding will be used to expand Pancake Bunny and develop new products. MOUND recently launched Smart Vaults and plans to unveil Cross-Chain Collateralization in about a month, bringing the startup closer to its goal of covering a wide range of DeFi use cases, including farming, lending and swapping.

Smart Vaults are for farming single asset yields on leveraged lending products. It also automatically checks if the cost of leveraging may be more than anticipated returns and can actively lend assets for MOUND’s cross-chain farming.

Cross-Chain Collateralization is cross-chain yield farming that lets users keep original assets on their native blockchain instead of relying on a bridge token. The user’s original assets serve as collateral when the Bunny protocol borrows assets on the Binance Smart Chain for yield farming. This allows users to keep assets on native blockchains while giving them liquidity to generate returns on the Binance Smart Chain.

In statement, Wei Zhou, Binance chief financial officer, and head of Binance Labs and M&A’s, said “Pancake Bunny’s growth and MOUND’s commitent to execution are impressive. Team MOUND’s expertise in live product design and servie was a key factor in our decision to invest. We look forward to expanding the horizons of Defi together with MOUND.”

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Battery Resourcers raises $20M to commercialize its recycling-plus-manufacturing operations

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As a greater share of the transportation market becomes electrified, companies have started to grapple with how to dispose of the thousands of tons of used electric vehicle batteries that are expected to come off the roads by the end of the decade.

Battery Resourcers proposes a seemingly simple solution: recycle them. But the company doesn’t stop there. It’s engineered a “closed loop” process to turn that recycled material into nickel-manganese-cobalt cathodes to sell back to battery manufacturers. It is also developing a process to recover and purify graphite, a material used in anodes, to battery-grade.

Battery Resourcers’ business model has attracted another round of investor attention, this time with a $20 million Series B equity round led by Orbia Ventures, with injections from At One Ventures, TDK Ventures, TRUMPF Venture, Doral Energy-Tech Ventures and InMotion Ventures. Battery Resourcers CEO Mike O’Kronley declined to disclose the company’s new valuation.

The cathode and anode, along with the electrolyzer, are major components of battery architecture, and O’Kronley told TechCrunch it is this recycling-plus-manufacturing process that distinguishes the company from other recyclers.

“When we say that we’re on the verge of revolutionizing this industry, what we are doing is we are making the cathode active material — we’re not just recovering the metals that are in the battery, which a lot of other recyclers are doing,” he said. “We’re recovering those materials, and formulating brand new cathode active material, and also recovering and purifying the graphite active material. So those two active materials will be sold to a battery manufacturer and go right back into the new battery.”

“Other recycling companies, they’re focused on recovering just the metals that are in [batteries]: there’s copper, there’s aluminum, there’s nickel, there’s cobalt. They’re focused on recovering those metals and selling them back as commodities into whatever industry needs those metals,” he added. “And they may or may not go back into a battery.”

The company says its approach could reduce the battery industry’s reliance on mined metals — a reliance that’s only anticipated to grow in the coming decades. A study published last December found that demand for cobalt could increase by a factor of 17 and nickel by a factor of 28, depending on the size of EV uptake and advances in battery chemistries.

Thus far, the company’s been operating a demonstration-scale facility in Worcester, Massachusetts, and has expanded into a facility in Novi, Michigan, where it does analytical testing and material characterization. Between the two sites, the company can make around 15 tons of cathode materials a year. This latest funding round will help facilitate the development of a commercial-scale facility, which Battery Resourcers said in a statement will boost its capacity to process 10,000 tons of batteries per year, or batteries from around 20,000 EVs.

Another major piece of its proprietary recycling process is the ability to take in both old and new EV batteries, process them and formulate the newest kind of cathodes used in today’s batteries. “So they can take in 10-year-old batteries from a Chevy Volt and reformulate the metals to make the high-Ni cathode active materials in use today,” a company spokesman explained to TechCrunch.

Battery Resourcers is already receiving inquiries from automakers and consumer electronics companies, O’Kronley said, though he did not provide additional details. But InMotion Ventures, the venture capital arm of Jaguar Land Rover, said in a statement its participation in the round as a “significant investment.”

“[Battery Resourcers’] proprietary end-to-end recycling process supports Jaguar Land Rover’s journey to become a net zero carbon business by 2039,” InMotion managing director Sebastian Peck said.

Battery Resourcers was founded in 2015 after being spun out from Massachusetts’ Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The company has previously received support from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium, a collaboration between General Motors, Ford Motor Company and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

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