Cryptocurrency wallet startup Cobo raises $13M Series A to enter the U.S. and Southeast Asia

Cobo, a cryptocurrency wallet startup headquartered in Beijing, has raised a $13 million Series A to enter new international markets. The round was led by DHVC and Wu Capital, a family office based in China. Cobo plans to expand in the United States and Southeast Asia, in particular Vietnam and Indonesia. Cobo is also now taking pre-orders for Cobo Vault, a hardware wallet (pictured above) that it claims is military grade. Cobo’s Series A brings its total funding to $20 million so far.

Cobo Wallet allows users to store both proof-of-stake and proof-of-work coins. One incentive for people to pick the app over its competitors is the ability to pool proof-of-stake assets with other users so they can increase their chances of mining and validating new blocks on the blockchain. Since launching earlier this year, Cobo says its digital wallet has gained more than 500,000 users.

The startup was founded last year by CEO Shixing Mao, who is known as Discus Fish in the crypto community, and CTO Changhao Jiang, a former platform engineer at Facebook and Google who co-founded Bihang, a cryptocurrency wallet acquired by OKCoin in 2013. Discus Fish, meanwhile, is known for launching F2Pool, China’s first mining pool.

Cobo Vault, which will retail for $479, meets the MIL-STD-810G U.S. military standard for equipment, Cobo’s head of hardware Lixin Liu said in an email, adding that it was built with proprietary firmware created especially for the device, a bank-grade encryption chip and military-grade aluminum.

Cobo Vault’s creation was prompted by an August 2017 incident in which F2Pool was hacked and more than 8,000 ETH was stolen from Discus Fish’s account. Fish also refunded customers’ lost ETH from his own assets. “As a result, Discus Fish was resolute on the fact that for crypto to gain mass market adoption, products had to be made to be hacker-resistant and truly safe,” said Liu.

Applied gets $2M to make hiring fairer — using algorithms, not AI

London-based startup Applied has bagged £1.5M (~$2M) in seed funding for a fresh, diversity-sensitive approach to recruitment that deconstructs and reworks the traditional CV-bound process, drawing on behavioural science to level the playing field and help employers fill vacancies with skilled candidates they might otherwise have overlooked.

Fairer hiring is the pitch. “If you’re hiring for a product lead, for example, it’s true that loads and loads of product leads are straight, white men with beards. How do we get people to see well what is it actually that this job entails?” founder and CEO Kate Glazebrook tells us. “It might actually be the case that if I don’t know any of the demographic background I discover somebody who I would have otherwise overlooked.”

Applied launched its software as a service recruitment platform in 2016, and Glazebrook says so far it’s been used by more than 55 employers to recruit candidates for more than 2,000 jobs. While more than 50,000 candidates have applied via Applied to date.

The employers themselves are also a diverse bunch, not just the usual suspects from the charitable sector, with both public and private sector organizations, small and large, and from a range of industries, from book publishing to construction, signed up to Applied’s approach. “We’ve been pleased to see it’s not just the sort of thing that the kind of employers you would expect to care about care about,” says Glazebrook.

Applied’s own investor Blackbird Ventures, which is leading the seed round, is another customer — and ended up turning one investment associate vacancy, advertised via the platform, into two roles — hiring both an ethnic minority woman and a man with a startup background as a result of “not focusing on did they have the traditional profile we were expecting”, says Glazebrook.

“They discovered these people were fantastic and had the skills — just a really different set of background characteristics than they were expecting,” she adds.

Other investors in the seed include Skip Capital, Angel Academe, Giant Leap and Impact Generation Partners, plus some unnamed angels. Prior investors include the entity Applied was originally spun out of (Behavioural Insights Team, a “social purpose company” jointly owned by the UK government, innovation charity Nesta, and its own employees), as well as gender advocate and businesswoman Carol Schwartz, and Wharton Professor Adam Grant.

Applied’s approach to recruitment employs plenty of algorithms — including for scoring candidates (its process involves chunking up applications and also getting candidates to answer questions that reflect “what a day in the job actually looks like”), and also anonymizing applications to further strip away bias risks, presenting the numbered candidates in a random order too.

But it does not involve any AI-based matching. If you want to make hiring fairer, AI doesn’t look like a great fit. Last week, for example, Reuters reported how in 2014 ecommerce giant Amazon built and then later scrapped a machine learning based recruitment tool, after it failed to rate candidates in a gender-neutral way — apparently reflecting wider industry biases.

“We’re really clear that we don’t do AI,” says Glazebrook. “We don’t fall into the traps that [companies like] Amazon did. Because it’s not that we’re parsing existing data-sets and saying ‘this is what you hired for last time so we’ll match candidates to that’. That’s exactly where you get this problem of replication of bias. So what we’ve done instead is say ‘actually what we should do is change what you see and how you see it so that you’re only focusing on the things that really matter’.

“So that levels the playing field for all candidates. All candidates are assessed on the basis of their skill, not whether or not they fit the historic profile of people you’ve previously hired. We avoid a lot of those pitfalls because we’re not doing AI-based or algorithmic hiring — we’re doing algorithms that reshape the information you see, not the prediction that you have to arrive at.”

In practice this means Applied must and does take over the entire recruitment process, including writing the job spec itself — to remove things like gendered language which could introduce bias into the process — and slicing and dicing the application process to be able to score and compare candidates and fill in any missing bits of data via role-specific skills tests.

Its approach can be thought of as entirely deconstructing the CV — to not just remove extraneous details and bits of information which can bias the process (such as names, education institutions attended, hobbies etc) but also to actively harvest data on the skills being sought, with employers using the platform to set tests to measure capacities and capabilities they’re after.

“We manage the hiring process right from the design of an inclusive job description, right through to the point of making a hiring decision and all of the selection that happens beneath that,” says Glazebrook. “So we use over 30 behavioural science nudges throughout the process to try and improve conversion and inclusivity — so that includes everything from removal of gendered language in jobs descriptions to anonymization of applications to testing candidates on job preview based assessments, rather than based on their CVs.”

“We also help people to run more evidence-based structured interviews and then make the hiring decision,” she adds. “From a behavioral science standpoint I guess our USP is we’ve redesigned the shortlisting process.”

The platform also provides jobseekers with greater visibility into the assessment process by providing them with feedback — “so candidates get to see where their strengths and weaknesses were” — so it’s not simply creating a new recruitment blackbox process that keeps people in the dark about the assessments being made about them. Which is important from an algorithmic accountability point of view, even without any AI involved. Because vanilla algorithms can still sum up to dumb decisions.

From the outside looking in, Applied’s approach might sound highly manual and high maintenance, given how necessarily involved the platform is in each and every hire, but Glazebrook says in fact it’s “all been baked into the tech” — so the platform takes the strain of the restructuring by automating the hand-holding involved in debiasing job ads and judgements, letting employers self-serve to step them through a reconstructed recruitment process.

“From the job description design, for example, there are eight different characteristics that are automatically picked out, so it’s all self-serve stuff,” explains Glazebrook, noting that the platform will do things like automatically flag words to watch out for in job descriptions or the length of the job ad itself.

“All with that totally automated. And client self-serve as well, so they use a library of questions — saying I’m looking for this particular skill-set and we can say well if you look through the library we’ll find you some questions which have worked well for testing that skill set before.”

“They do all of the assessment themselves, through the platform, so it’s basically like saying rather than having your recruiting team sifting through paper forms of CVs, we have them online scoring candidates through this redesigned process,” she adds.

Employers themselves need to commit to a new way of doing things, of course. Though Applied’s claim is that ultimately a fairer approach also saves time, as well as delivering great hires.

“In many ways, one of the things that we’ve discovered through many customers is that it’s actually saved them loads of time because the shortlisting process is devised in a way that it previously hasn’t been and more importantly they have data and reporting that they’ve never previously had,” she says. “So they now know, through the platform, which of the seven places that they placed the job actually found them the highest quality candidates and also found people who were from more diverse backgrounds because we could automatically pull the data.”

Applied ran its own comparative study of its reshaped process vs a traditional sifting of CVs and Glazebrook says it discovered “statistically significant differences” in the resulting candidate choices — claiming that over half of the pool of 700+ candidates “wouldn’t have got the job if we’d been looking at their CVs”.

They also looked at the differences between the choices made in the study and also found statistically significant differences “particularly in educational and economic background” — “so we were diversifying the people we were hiring by those metrics”.

“We also saw directional evidence around improvements in diversity on disability status and ethnicity,” she adds. “And some interesting stuff around gender as well.”

Applied wants to go further on the proof front, and Glazebrook says it is now automatically collecting performance data while candidates are on the job — “so that we can do an even better job of proving here is a person that you hired and you did a really good job of identifying the skill-sets that they are proving they have when they’re on the job”.

She says it will be feeding this intel back into the platform — “to build a better feedback loop the next time you’re looking to hire that particular role”.

“At the moment, what is astonishing, is that most HR departments 1) have terrible data anyway to answer these important questions, and 2) to the extent they have them they don’t pair those data sets in a way that allows them to prove — so they don’t know ‘did we hire them because of X or Y’ and ‘did that help us to actually replicate what was working well and jettison what wasn’t’,” she adds.

The seed funding will go on further developing these sorts of data science predictions, and also on updates to Applied’s gendered language tool and inclusive job description tool — as well as on sales and marketing to generally grow the business.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Nick Crocker, general partner at Blackbird Ventures said: “Our mission is to find the most ambitious founders, and support them through every stage of their company journey. Kate and the team blew us away with the depth of their insight, the thoughtfulness of their product, and a mission that we’re obsessed with.”

In another supporting statement, Owain Service, CEO of BI Ventures, added: “Applied uses the latest behavioural science research to help companies find the best talent. We ourselves have recruited over 130 people through the platform. This investment represents an exciting next step to supporting more organisations to remove bias from their recruitment processes, in exactly the same way that we do.”

Unifonic, dubbed the Twilio of emerging markets, closes $21M Series A round

Those of you familiar with the incredible rise of Twilio, which came along to utterly disrupt the communications world, will be interested to hear that another player plans to do the same, but this time in the staid and tricky area of emerging markets.

Unifonic, which has been dubbed “the Twilio of emerging markets” has today closed a $21M Series A funding round led by Saudi Technology Ventures (STV), and the emerging market specialist fund Endeavor Catalyst, which is backed by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, among others. Other participants include RTF ELM, and Raed Ventures.

At $500M, STV is the largest VC fund in the region, and anchored by the Saudi Telecom Company (STC), the largest telecom company in the Middle East. Former Googler turned VC Abdulrahman Tarabzouni lead this round.

As far as we can tell, the is the largest Series A funding in the history of the Middle East technology sector. Appropriately, it shows the sheer growth in the region and comes on the heels of our recent and highly successful TechCrunch Startup Battlefield MENA in Beirut, as well as the Series C round announced by the “Uber for Doctors” in MENA Vezeeta’s Series C.

The capital will be used by Unifonic to scale the company across the MENA region and globally, and invest in the platform.

Unifonic is similar to Twilio in that it is a B2B cloud communications platform, a space that is sometimes called Communications Platform as a Service (CPaaS).
With 100+ employees spread across nine regional offices, and over 5,000 B2B clients, many of whom are giants in the MENA region, such as Souq.com, Aramex, Al Jazeera, HSBC, Uber, FedEx, Carrefour and others, they are the MENA region’s clear No.1 in this arena.

Started by two brothers – Hassan and Ahmed Hamdan, they were funded 5 years ago by Endeavor since July 2013. They now regularly compete against their European counterpart, MessageBird, which recently raised $60M (led by Accel and Atomico), and their US benchmark, Twilio.

Hassan told me: “Unifonic’s competition in emerging markets are small players that operate in a single country not cross the region like Unifonic. The product suite is designed for both the non-tech-savvy with last-mile tools already built to plug and play, localized to telecom infrastructure, hosted on multiple clouds, geographically in the region, to increase reliability and minimize latency so transactions are processed in milliseconds.”

In a joint statement Reid Hoffman, Linkedin co-founder and chairman of Endeavor Catalyst and Linda Rottenberg, Endeavor’s Co-founder and CEO said: “Endeavor selects and connects the most promising global companies and entrepreneurs with experienced business advisors to help drive growth and economic development around the world. The founders of Unifonic were selected as high-impact Endeavor Entrepreneurs in 2013, and we are thrilled to announce the Endeavor Catalyst fund is now investing in Unifonic alongside STV as the company continues scaling up.”

Why should you care?

Well, this comes on the heels of the first tech wave in the MENA region (culminating in Amazon’s acquisition of e-commerce player Souq.com last year, and large funding rounds for ride-hailing leader, Careem), this funding represents that Middle East investors are now starting to bet on B2B. It’s also STV’s 3rd publicly announced investment, as they previously invested co-led Careem’s Series D in December 2016 and last month led Vezeeta’s Series B.

As I wrote last year, Middle East startups are growing fast, and that’s even before the flying taxis arrive.

Memory raises $5M to bring AI to time tracking

Memory, a startup out of Norway and maker of time tracking app Timely, has raised $5 million in further funding. Leading the round is Concentric, and Investinor, with participation from existing investor SNÖ Ventures. The company had previously raised $1 million in 2016 from 500 Startups, and SNÖ.

Founded by Mathias Mikkelsen, a designer by background and who I understand turned down a job offer at Facebook to try his hand at startup life, Memory is applying what it describes as AI and digital technology to create various tools to help solve “the abuses of time” that workers typically face in the modern workplace. The first of those abuses being tackled is the monotonous and time-consuming task of time tracking and filing time sheets — a meta problem if there ever was one.

“The problem we’re trying to solve is with time tracking, the most common currency of work that exists,” Mikkelsen tells me. “The problem is that people find it extremely painful to do and thus do it incorrectly. For example, what did you do last Friday? How long did it take? Humans are not built to remember that kind of detail and we shouldn’t be doing it. Harvard Business Review estimates that U.S. companies loose billions of dollars per day because of incorrect time tracking, so we think the potential is massive”.

The resulting product, dubbed Timely, is billed as a fully automatic time tracking tool. Powered by “AI”, it automatically records everything employees work on and then claims to create accurate time sheets on their behalf.

“We solve it with tons of data and machine learning,” says Mikkelsen. “We have built an ML model (recurring neural net) that literally tracks, completely privately and securely, everything you do in life. Files you work on, locations, websites, calendar, email, etc. Then we analyse all of that, make sense of it and automatically create a timesheet for you. We round up the time, choose projects, tags, all of it. It matches your individual pattern and the only thing our customers have to do is to hit an Accept button and you’re done with your timesheet”.

Mikkelsen says that Timely is currently used by more than 4,000 paying businesses across 160 countries, and that having created a complete “virtual memory” of time data, the Oslo startup is developing new tools to improve the “quality of time” and help businesses use time more effectively. As part of this effort, Memory will use the new funding to double its current 30-person team. It also plans on refining Timely’s AI model and to accelerate international growth.

Samsung acquires network analytics startup Zhilabs to help its transition to 5G

Samsung Electronics is betting that acquiring Zhilabs, a real-time networks analytics startup based in Barcelona, will ease its transition from 4G to 5G technologies. Financial details of the deal, which was announced today, have not been disclosed. Zhilabs will be fully owned by Samsung, but it will continue to operate independently under its own management.

The acquisition of Zhilabs is part of Samsung’s initiative, announced in August, to invest 25 trillion won (about $22 billion) in businesses working on AI, 5G, components for self-driving vehicles, and biopharmaceutical technologies.

In a statement, Youngky Kim, Samsung Electronic’s president and head of networks business, said “5G will enable unprecedented services attributed to the generation of exponential data traffic, for which automated and intelligent network analytics tools are vital. The acquisition of Zhilabs will help Samsung meet these demands to assure each subscriber receives the best possible service.”

Founded in 2008, Zhilabs’ products are used by customers including Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Vodafone, and Telefonica to analyze and test network performance in real-time. Because its solutions allow service issues to be automatically detected and fixed, Zhilabs’ AI-based automation will help Samsung launch new services related to the industrial Internet of Things and smart cars.

Amazon puts $10M in Closed Loop Fund to make recycling easier in more American cities

Amazon announced today that it has invested $10 million in Closed Loop Fund, which finances the creation of recycling infrastructure and services in U.S. cities. In a statement, the e-commerce behemoth claimed that its investment will keep one million tons of recyclable material out of landfills and “eliminate the equivalent of two million metric tons of CO2 by 2028, equivalent to shutting down a coal-fired power plant for six months.”

Founded in 2014, Closed Loop Fund invests in companies and organizations working on services, infrastructure, or technology that will make recycling accessible to more communities in the U.S. Only a few cities have made recycling mandatory and in many municipalities, trucking trash to the landfill is still much cheaper than offering curbside recycling. According to Amazon’s announcement, about half of Americans “lack access to convenient, sufficient curbside recycling at their homes.” Over the next 10 years, Closed Loop Fund wants to save more than 8 million tons of waste from landfills by making recycling easier for 18 million households.

In a statement, Closed Loop Fund CEO Ron Gonen said “Amazon’s investment in Closed Loop Fund is another example of how recycling is good business in America. Companies are seeing that they can meet consumer demand and reduce costs while supporting a more sustainable future and growing good jobs across the country. We applaud Amazon’s commitment to cut waste, and we hope their leadership drives other brands and retailers to follow suit.”

As the largest online retailer in the U.S. by far, Amazon packages produce a massive amount of cardboard and packaging waste every year. More than 5 billion items were shipped through Amazon Prime last year, while the company’s fulfillment and shipping network increased by more than 30% in square footage.

The burden placed on overwhelmed municipalities and waste collection services that need to dispose of packaging from Amazon and other e-commerce stores has been dubbed the “Amazon Effect” and blamed for contributing to the decline in the cardboard recycling rate. According to the American Forestry and Packaging Association, the recycling rate for cardboard fell to 88.8% in 2017 from 92.9% in 1999.

Amazon claims its Frustration-Free Packaging program, which offers brands incentives to use less wasteful packaging, has eliminated more than 244,000 tons of packaging materials and made it possible to avoid more than 500 million shipping boxes since launching 10 years ago. But with its rapid pace of growth—Amazon is expected to reach $258.22 billion in U.S. retail sales this year, accounting for 49.1 percent of all online retail spending in the country and 5 percent of all retail sales—there is still a lot of work to do if it really wants to stop contributing to packaging waste.

Video-based recruitment startup JobUFO scores €2M seed

JobUFO, the Berlin-based startup that has built a video focussed app to help facilitate better job applications, has raised €2 million in seed funding. Leading the round is IBB and Hevella Capital, with the investment to be used for growth.

Claiming to re-invent the way companies handle the application process, JobUFO has developed an online/mobile application form that focuses on the personality of the candidate. This includes being asked to created a CV in a specific format and the ability to record or upload a personal application video. The JobUFO application form can be embedded anywhere online, such as a company’s career page or job ad, so that it becomes the preferred way to receive applications.

“The HR market is overloaded with too many information and recruiting tools,” JobUFO co-founder and CEO Thomas Paucker tells me when asked to describe the problem being tackled. “This makes it very hard to find the best process of applying to a job. That’s why everybody is writing the same motivational letters. You still need a laptop and there is no real first impression of yourself when you apply. Recruiters do not read motivational letters because someone else could have written it. The longer a recruiting process is, the higher the average dropout rate of an applicant”.

To remedy this, the JobUFO mobile app or web-version enables applicants to quickly create a “DIN-correct” CV in combination with a guided video of up to thirty seconds. Paucker says the idea is to be able to give a good first impression at the very moment the application is received. JobUFO powered applications are pushed directly into a company’s application tracking system via the JobUFO API.

“Recruiters get more and reliable applications without changing their daily routine,” he says. “Applicants get recommendations based on big data and are guided nearly fully automatically during their whole work life. Additionally we automate the communication between those two groups to focus on the main goal: filling the vacancy with someone who fits and likes the job”.

To that end, in two years since being founded, JobUFO has grown its customer base to over 30 well-known companies operating in Germany. They include Deutsche Bahn, Edeka, Evonik, Hertz, and Ikea. In 2018 alone, over 60,000 applications have been generated.

“Digitalisation is changing the recruiting sector,” adds Paucker, noting that younger applicants have no prior knowledge of a more traditional application process and are much more akin to using consumer apps such as Instagram and YouTube. “Since we guide the applicants directly through the application process, JobUFO is particularly popular with this younger target group,” he says.

In addition, the “talking application photos” concept is resonating with recruiters and HR managers since the last mile to the applicant is often the most time-consuming and least scalable. “The company sees the video as well as the checked data of the applicant directly in its own applicant management system. For both sides, this is an uncomplicated process that continues to spur us on to expand,” says the JobUFO CEO.

Syncron, a SaaS to help manufacturers move to a service model, raises $67M

Syncron, a Stockholm-headquartered company that offers a SaaS to help equipment and other product manufacturers move to a service model, has raised $67 million, its first ever funding round despite being over 15 years old. Leading the round is growth equity firm Summit Partners, while a source close to Syncron pegs the post-money valuation at $175 million.

Tapping into the growing “servitization” trend — that is, offering a product as a service or a subscription — Syncron’s SaaS grew out of the company’s original consultancy offering and is designed to solve issues around post-sales support offered by equipment manufacturers targeting various heavy industry.

For example, when heavy equipment breaks down –- think tractors, bulldozers and dump trucks -– it can stall a multimillion-dollar project. To help mitigate this, Syncron uses AI to enable equipment manufacturers to predict when machine parts will fail and need to be replaced — a shift from the traditional “when it breaks, then I’ll fix it” model.

“There is currently a gap between customers’ increasing demand for maximized product uptime and manufacturers’ ability to deliver it,” explains Syncron CEO Anders Gruden in an email. “For decades, manufacturers have been focused on repair execution (repairing a product after it has already broken down), but today’s customers want products that work all the time.

“As consumers, we are all familiar with subscription-based businesses like Netflix, Spotify and more. This shift -– where customers pay for access and output as opposed for a product itself -– is known as servitization. This mindset has carried over into manufacturing and means products need to be up and running and accessible at all times”.

Specifically, Syncron’s tech reads IoT sensor data on equipment and parts to analyse their lifetime and suggest replacement, inventory restocking, and price for replacement parts. In other words, Syncron makes IoT data actionable.

“Manufacturers are turning to Syncron to help in the shift to servitization, which requires maximized product uptime,” explains Gruden. “As more products are equipped with smart sensors, it is more important than ever to shift from a reactive, break-fix service model to one focused on maximizing product uptime, or preemptively repairing equipment before it ever fails. The best way to achieve this is to leverage sensor-based IoT data to ensure parts are pre-emptively replaced before they fail – and this is where Syncron and our solutions come in”.

The strategy appears to be working, too, given today’s growth funding and the list of companies as customers Syncron boasts, which span various manufacturers that make heavy machines and equipment, everything from industrial and agricultural equipment to mining and construction, automotive, aerospace, energy and utilities, and more. They include ABB, Atlas Copco, BAE, Brother, CLAAS, Electrolux, Hitachi, JCB, Manitowoc, Mazda, Motor Coach Industries, Perkins, Renault, Siemens, and Terex.