To fund Y Combinator’s top startups, VCs scoop them before Demo Day

Hundreds gathered this week at San Francisco’s Pier 48 to see the more than 200 companies in Y Combinator’s Winter 2019 cohort present their two-minute pitches. The audience of venture capitalists, who collectively manage hundreds of billions of dollars, noted their favorites. The very best investors, however, had already had their pick of the litter.

What many don’t realize about the Demo Day tradition is that pitching isn’t a requirement; in fact, some YC graduates skip out on their stage opportunity altogether. Why? Because they’ve already raised capital or are in the final stages of closing a deal.

ZeroDown, Overview.AI and Catch are among the startups in YC’s W19 batch that forwent Demo Day this week, having already pocketed venture capital. ZeroDown, a financing solution for real estate purchases in the Bay Area, raised a round upwards of $10 million at a $75 million valuation, sources tell TechCrunch. ZeroDown hasn’t responded to requests for comment, nor has its rumored lead investor: Goodwater Capital.

Without requiring a down payment, ZeroDown purchases homes outright for customers and helps them work toward ownership with monthly payments determined by their income. The business was founded by Zenefits co-founder and former chief technology officer Laks Srini, former Zenefits chief operating officer Abhijeet Dwivedi and Hari Viswanathan, a former Zenefits staff engineer.

The founders’ experience building Zenefits, despite its shortcomings, helped ZeroDown garner significant buzz ahead of Demo Day. Sources tell TechCrunch the startup had actually raised a small seed round ahead of YC from former YC president Sam Altman, who recently stepped down from the role to focus on OpenAI, an AI research organization. Altman is said to have encouraged ZeroDown to complete the respected Silicon Valley accelerator program, which, if nothing else, grants its companies a priceless network with which no other incubator or accelerator can compete.

Overview .AI’s founders’ resumes are impressive, too. Russell Nibbelink and Christopher Van Dyke were previously engineers at Salesforce and Tesla, respectively. An industrial automation startup, Overview is developing a smart camera capable of learning a machine’s routine to detect deviations, crashes or anomalies. TechCrunch hasn’t been able to get in touch with Overview’s team or pinpoint the size of its seed round, though sources confirm it skipped Demo Day because of a deal.

Catch, for its part, closed a $5.1 million seed round co-led by Khosla Ventures, NYCA Partners and Steve Jang prior to Demo Day. Instead of pitching their health insurance platform at the big event, Catch published a blog post announcing its first feature, The Catch Health Explorer.

“This is only the first glimpse of what we’re building this year,” Catch wrote in the blog post. “In a few months, we’ll be bringing end-to-end health insurance enrollment for individual plans into Catch to provide the best health insurance enrollment experience in the country.”

TechCrunch has more details on the healthtech startup’s funding, which included participation from Kleiner Perkins, the Urban Innovation Fund and the Graduate Fund.

Four more startups, Truora, Middesk, Glide and FlockJay had deals in the final stages when they walked onto the Demo Day stage, deciding to make their pitches rather than skip the big finale. Sources tell TechCrunch that renowned venture capital firm Accel invested in both Truora and Middesk, among other YC W19 graduates. Truora offers fast, reliable and affordable background checks for the Latin America market, while Middesk does due diligence for businesses to help them conduct risk and compliance assessments on customers.

Finally, Glide, which allows users to quickly and easily create well-designed mobile apps from Google Sheets pages, landed support from First Round Capital, and FlockJay, the operator an online sales academy that teaches job seekers from underrepresented backgrounds the skills and training they need to pursue a career in tech sales, secured investment from Lightspeed Venture Partners, according to sources familiar with the deal.

Pre-Demo Day M&A

Raising ahead of Demo Day isn’t a new phenomenon. Companies, thanks to the invaluable YC network, increase their chances at raising, as well as their valuation, the moment they enroll in the accelerator. They can begin chatting with VCs when they see fit, and they’re encouraged to mingle with YC alumni, a process that can result in pre-Demo Day acquisitions.

This year, Elph, a blockchain infrastructure startup, was bought by Brex, a buzzworthy fintech unicorn that itself graduated from YC only two years ago. The deal closed just one week before Demo Day. Brex’s head of engineering, Cosmin Nicolaescu, tells TechCrunch the Elph five-person team — including co-founders Ritik Malhotra and Tanooj Luthra, who previously founded the Box-acquired startup Steem — were being eyed by several larger companies as Brex negotiated the deal.

“For me, it was important to get them before batch day because that opens the floodgates,” Nicolaescu told TechCrunch. “The reason why I really liked them is they are very entrepreneurial, which aligns with what we want to do. Each of our products is really like its own business.”

Of course, Brex offers a credit card for startups and has no plans to dabble with blockchain or cryptocurrency. The Elph team, rather, will bring their infrastructure security know-how to Brex, helping the $1.1 billion company build its next product, a credit card for large enterprises. Brex declined to disclose the terms of its acquisition.

Hunting for the best deals

Y Combinator partners Michael Seibel and Dalton Caldwell, and moderator Josh Constine, speak onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images)

Ultimately, it’s up to startups to determine the cost at which they’ll give up equity. YC companies raise capital under the SAFE model, or a simple agreement for future equity, a form of fundraising invented by YC. Basically, an investor makes a cash investment in a YC startup, then receives company stock at a later date, typically upon a Series A or post-seed deal. YC made the switch from investing in startups on a pre-money safe basis to a post-money safe in 2018 to make cap table math easier for founders.

Michael Seibel, the chief executive officer of YC, says the accelerator works with each startup to develop a personalized fundraising plan. The businesses that raise at valuations north of $10 million, he explained, do so because of high demand.

“Each company decides on the amount of money they want to raise, the valuation they want to raise at, and when they want to start fundraising,” Seibel told TechCrunch via email. “YC is only an advisor and does not dictate how our companies operate. The vast majority of companies complete fundraising in the 1 to 2 months after Demo Day. According to our data, there is little correlation between the companies who are most in demand on Demo Day and ones who go on to become extremely successful. Our advice to founders is not to over optimize the fundraising process.”

Though Seibel says the majority raise in the months following Demo Day, it seems the very best investors know to be proactive about reviewing and investing in the batch before the big event.

Khosla Ventures, like other top VC firms, meets with YC companies as early as possible, partner Kristina Simmons tells TechCrunch, even scheduling interviews with companies in the period between when a startup is accepted to YC to before they actually begin the program. Another Khosla partner, Evan Moore, echoed Seibel’s statement, claiming there isn’t a correlation between the future unicorns and those that raise capital ahead of Demo Day. Moore is a co-founder of DoorDash, a YC graduate now worth $7.1 billion. DoorDash closed its first round of capital in the weeks following Demo Day.

“I think a lot of the activity before demo day is driven by investor FOMO,” Moore wrote in an email to TechCrunch. “I’ve had investors ask me how to get into a company without even knowing what the company does! I mostly see this as a side effect of a good thing: YC has helped tip the scale toward founders by creating an environment where investors compete. This dynamic isn’t what many investors are used to, so every batch some complain about valuations and how easy the founders have it, but making it easier for ambitious entrepreneurs to get funding and pursue their vision is a good thing for the economy.”

This year, given the number of recent changes at YC — namely the size of its latest batch — there was added pressure on the accelerator to showcase its best group yet. And while some did tell TechCrunch they were especially impressed with the lineup, others indeed expressed frustration with valuations.

Many YC startups are fundraising at valuations at or higher than $10 million. For context, that’s actually perfectly in line with the median seed-stage valuation in 2018. According to PitchBook, U.S. startups raised seed rounds at a median post-valuation of $10 million last year; so far this year, companies are raising seed rounds at a slightly higher post-valuation of $11 million. With that said, many of the startups in YC’s cohorts are not as mature as the average seed-stage company. Per PitchBook, a company can be several years of age before it secures its seed round.

Nonetheless, pricey deals can come as a disappointment to the seed investors who find themselves at YC every year but because their reputations aren’t as lofty as say, Accel, aren’t able to book pre-Demo Day meetings with YC’s top of class.

The question is who is Y Combinator serving? And the answer is founders, not investors. YC is under no obligation to serve up deals of a certain valuation nor is it responsible for which investors gain access to its best companies at what time. After all, startups are raking in larger and larger rounds, earlier in their lifespans; shouldn’t YC, a microcosm for the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem, advise their startups to charge the best investors the going rate?

Gig workers need health & benefits — Catch is their safety net

One of the hottest Y Combinator startups just raised a big seed round to clean up the mess created by Uber, Postmates, and the gig economy. Catch sells health insurance, retirement savings plans, and tax withholding directly to freelancers, contractors, or anyone uncovered. By building and curating simplified benefits services, Catch can offer a safety net for the future of work.

“In order to stay competitive as a society, we need to address inequality and volatility. We think Catch is the first step to offering alternatives to the mandate that benefits can only come from an employer or the government” writes Catch co-founder and COO Kristen Tyrrell. Her co-founder and CEO Andrew Ambrosino, a former Kleiner Perkins design fellow, stumbled onto the problem as he struggled to juggle all the paperwork and programs companies typically hire an HR manager to handle. “Setting up a benefits plan was a pain. You had to be come an expert in the space, and even once you were, executing and getting the stuff you needed was pretty difficult.” Catch does all this annoying but essential work for you.

Now Catch is getting its first press after piloting its product with tens of thousands of users. TechCrunch caught wind of its highly competitive seed round closing, and Catch confirms it’s raised $5.1 million at a $20.5 million post-money valuation co-led by Khosla Ventures, NYCA Partners and Kindred Ventures. This follow-up to its $1 million pre-seed will fuel its expansion into full heath insurance enrollment, life insurance, and more.

“Benefits, as a system built and provided by employers, created the mid-century middle class. In the post-war economic boom, companies offering benefits in the form of health insurance and pensions enabled familial stability that led to expansive growth and prosperity” recalls Tyrrell, who was formerly the director of product at student debt repayment benefits startup FutureFuel.io. “Emboldened by private-sector growth (and apparent self-sufficiency), the 1970s and 80s saw a massive shift in financial risk management from the government to employers. The public safety net contracted in favor of privatized solutions. As technological advances progressed, employers and employees continued to redefine what work looked like. The bureaucratic and inflexible benefits system was unable to keep up. The private safety net crumbled.”

That problem has ballooned in recent years with the advent of the on-demand economy where millions become Uber drivers, Instacart shoppers, DoorDash deliverers, and TaskRabbits. Meanwhile, the destigmatization of remote work and digital nomadism has turned more people into permanent freelancers and contractors, or full-time employees without benefits. “A new class of worker emerged: one with volatile, complex income streams and limited access to second-order financial products like automated savings, individual retirement plans, and independent health insurance. We entered the new millennium with rot under the surface of new opportunity from the proliferation of the internet” Tyrrell declares. “The last 15 years are borrowed time for the unconventional proletariat. It is time to come to terms and design a safety net that is personal, portable, modern, and flexible. That’s why we built Catch.”

Catch co-founders Andrew Ambrosino and Kristen Tyrrell

Currently Catch offers the following services, each with their own way of earning the startup revenue:

  • Health Explorer lets users compare plans from insurers and calculate subsidies, while Catch serves as a broker collecting a fee from insurance providers
  • Retirement Savings gives users a Catch robo-advisor compatible with IRA and Roth IRA, while Catch earns the industry standard 1 basis point on saved assets
  • Tax Withholding provides an FDIC-insured Catch account that automatically saves what you’ll need to pay taxes later, while Catch earns interest on the funds
  • Time Off Savings similarly lets you automatically squirrel away money to finance ‘paid’ time off, while Catch earns interest

These and the rest of Catch’s services are curated through its Guide. You answer a few questions about what benefits you have and need, connect your bank account, choose what programs you want, and get push notifications whenever Catch needs your decisions or approvals. It’s designed to minimize busy work so if you have a child, you can add them to all your programs with a click instead of slogging through reconfiguring them all one at a time. That simplicity has ignited explosive growth for Catch, with the balances it holds for tax withholding, time off, and retirement balances up 300% in each of the last three months.

In 2019 it plans to add Catch-branded student loan refinancing, vision and dental enrollment plus payments via existing providers, life insurance through a partner such as Ladder or Ethos, and full health insurance enrollment plus subsidies and premium payments via existing insurance companies like Blue Shield and Oscar. And in 2020 it’s hoping to build out its own blended retirement savings solution and income smoothing tools.

If any of this sounds boring, that’s kind of the point. Instead of sorting through this mind-numbing stuff unassisted, Catch holds your hand. Its benefits Guide is available on the web today and it’s beta testing iOS and Android apps that will launch soon. Catch is focused on direct-to-consumer sales because “We’ve seen too many startups waste time on channels/partnerships before they know people truly want their product and get lost along the way” Tyrrell writes. Eventually it wants to set up integrations directly into where users get paid.

Catch’s biggest competition is people haphazardly managing benefits with Excel spreadsheets and a mishmash of healthcare.gov and solutions for specific programs. 21 percent of Americans have saved $0 for retirement, which you could see as either a challenge to scaling Catch or a massive greenfield opportunity. Track.tax, one of its direct competitors, charges a subscription price that has driven users to Catch. And automated advisors like Betterment and Wealthfront accounts don’t work so well for gig workers with lots of income volatility.

So do the founders think the gig economy, with its suppression of benefits, helps or hinders our species? “We believe the story is complex, but overall, the existing state of the gig economy is hurting society. Without better systems to provide support for freelance/contract workers, we are making people more precarious and less likely to succeed financially.”

When I ask what keeps the founders up at night, Tyrrell admits “The safety net is not built for individuals. It’s built to be distributed through HR departments and employers. We are very worried that the products we offer aren’t on equal footing with group/company products.” For example, there’s a $6,000/year IRA limit for individuals while the corporate equivalent 401k limit is $19,000, and health insurance is much cheaper for groups than individuals.

To surmount those humps, Catch assembled a huge list of angel investors who’ve built a range of financial services including Nerdwallet founder Jake Gibson, Earnest founders Louis Beryl and Ben Hutchinson, ANDCO (acquired by Fiverr) founder Leif Abraham, Totem founder Neal Khosla, Commuter Club fonder Petko Plachkov, Playable (acquired by Stripe) founder Tad Milbourn, and Synapse founder Bruno Faviero. It also brough on a wide range of venture funds to open doors for it. Those include Urban Innovation Fund, Kleiner Perkins, Y Combinator, Tempo Ventures, Prehype, Loup Ventures, Indicator Ventures, Ground Up Ventures, and Graduate Fund.

Hopefully the fact that there are three lead investors and so many more in the round won’t mean that none feel truly accountable to oversee the company. With 80 million Americans lacking employer-sponsored benefits and 27 million without health insurance and median job tenure down to 2.8 years for people ages 25 to 34 leading to more gaps between jobs, our workforce is vulnerable. Catch can’t operate like a traditional software startup with leniency for screw-ups. If it can move cautiously and fix things, it could earn labor’s trust and become a fundamental piece of the welfare stack.

Robotics process automation startup UiPath raising $400M at more than $7B valuation

UiPath, a robotics process automation platform targeting IT businesses, is raising more than $400 million in Series D funding from venture capital investors at a valuation north of $7 billion, sources have confirmed to TechCrunch following a report from Business Insider.

We’ve reached out to the company for comment.

UiPath, founded in 2005, has raised $409 million to date, meaning the new round of capital will double the total capital invested in the startup, as well as its valuation. Its $225 million Series C, raised just six months ago, valued the business at $3 billion, according to PitchBook. UiPath is backed by top-tier investors CapitalG and Sequoia Capital, which co-led its Series C, as well as Accel, Credo Ventures and Earlybird Venture Capital, among others.

The latest funding round is being led by a public institutional investor.

UiPath develops automated software workflows meant to facilitate the tedious, everyday tasks within business operations. RPA is probably a misnomer. It’s not necessarily a robot in the way we think of it today. It’s more like a highly sophisticated macro recorder or workflow automation tool, letting a computer handle a series of highly repeatable activities in a common workflow, like accounts payable.

For example, the process could start by scanning a check, then use OCR to read the payer and the amount, add that information to an Excel spreadsheet and send an email to a human to confirm it has been done. Humans still have a role, especially in processing exceptions, but it provides a way to bring a level of automation to legacy systems, which might not otherwise benefit from more modern tooling.

The company began raising private capital in 2015 and has since experienced rapid growth of its valuation and annual recurring revenue (ARR). UiPath garnered a $1.1 billion valuation with its Series B in March 2018, more than doubled it with its Series C and is again seeing a 2x increase in value with this latest round. This is a result of its swelling ARR.

The company says it went from $1 million to $100 million in annual recurring revenue in less than two years. With its Series C, it counted 1,800 enterprise customers and was adding six new customers a day. Sources tell TechCrunch that UiPath did 180 million in ARR last year and is on track to do $450 million in ARR in 2019.

Rent the Runway hits a $1 billion valuation

Rent the Runway just closed a $125 million led by Franklin Templeton Investments and Bain Capital Ventures. This round values the company at $1 billion. In total, Rent the Runway has raised $337 million in venture funding.

“Shared, dynamic ownership is a movement that Rent the Runway has pioneered over the last decade and we’re excited to continue to lead the market and innovate our subscription service,” Rent the Runway CEO Jennifer Hyman said in a statement.

Late last year, Rent the Runway opened a physical location in San Francisco, marking the company’s fifth standalone brick and mortar space. Rent the Runway, which launched about ten years ago, has expanded from the sole offering of one-time rentals to now three offerings, including two subscription offerings.

With the funding, Rent the Runway plans to scale its subscription business, broaden its clothing and home decor offerings, and open additional fulfillment facilities.

Since its founding, a number of other fashion services have cropped up. The most notable one is StitchFix, which went public in 2017.  But what differentiates Rent the Runway from the likes of Stitch Fix is that, “they’re trying to get you to buy stuff,” Rent the Runway COO Maureen Sullivan told me back in September. “You’re still buying things that accumulate in your closet.”

Veteran tech journalist Dan Frommer launches his own subscription publication, The New Consumer

Dan Frommer has worked at some of the best-known publications in tech and business journalism — he was editor in chief of Recode, an editor at Business Insider and he’s even done some writing and chart-making for TechCrunch. But he’s also started his own things, including the tech news site SplatF and the mobile travel guide startup City Notes.

Now, five months after leaving Recode, Frommer is launching a new publication, The New Consumer — an umbrella term he’s using to describe the changing landscape in e-commerce, online advertising and direct-to-consumer brands.

The goal, he said, is to become the first thing that industry executives read in the morning, whether they’re CMOs at Fortune 500 companies, or the founders of direct-to-consumer startups or “anyone who’s in the professional world [trying to figure out] what’s next, how are people using technology differently, how is technology influencing how people spend money differently.”

These are all topics covered by the major tech news sites and general interest publications, but Frommer said he will focus less on “covering the day-to-day moves at tech companies” and more on “the messy lines between the announcements,” and on what is and isn’t working.

“That thing that this company announced a few weeks ago, is it actually working?” he said. “Are people actually using it, is it successful or not and why? What are we learning from it?”

Dan Frommer

Dan Frommer

The core product at The New Consumer will be the Executive Briefing, a newsletter that Frommer plans to put out twice a week, and that you’ll need to pay a $200 annual subscription fee to read. He said that this month will be a “paid beta,” where you’ll need to subscribe to read the newsletters, but you’ll get 13 months of access for your money, rather than 12.

Frommer also plans to publish non-paywalled feature articles (like this piece about cookware startup Great Jones), and to organizing events such as industry dinners as well.

He added that he’s hopeful that the subscription model can allow him to build a sustainable operation that he can spend all or most of his time on.

“I’m committed to this for the long term,” he said. “This is a job I’d love to be doing for 10 years, 20 years. But I also recognize that I have to iterate a little bit meet the market where it is.”

The New Consumer is starting out as a one-man operation, with Frommer citing Ben Thompson’s Stratechery as one of his inspirations to build an “individual news agency” that’s focused on newsletters and supported by subscriptions. At the same time, he’s interested in expanding the team if things go well.

“Consumer spending represents the majority of all money around the world,” he said. “This is something that could eventually stretch to all kinds of verticals, from sports to entertainment to personal finance.”

Epic Games CEO says Apex Legends hasn’t made a dent in Fortnite

In the wake of Apex Legends, which has briskly grown to 50 million players, many have wondered whether Fortnite has felt the impact.

But Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney told GamesBeat that Apex hasn’t really made a dent. Without being asked about Apex Legends, Sweeney said “an Apex Legends worth” of players have come over to Fortnite.

“We’re very close to hitting 250 million Fortnite players,” said Sweeney. “Since Apex Legends came out, we’ve gained an Apex Legends worth of Fortnite players, which is amazing.”

He went on to say that the only game that noticeably takes Fortnite gamers away from Fortnite is FIFA.

“We hit a Fortnite non-event peak twice after Apex was out,” said Sweeney. “We haven’t seen any visible cut into Fortnite. It’s a funny thing. The only game you can see where its peaks cut into Fortnite playtime is FIFA. It’s another game for everybody, wildly popular around the world.”

On the one hand, Apex only has about one-fifth of the players that Fortnite has. In a world where Netflix sees Fortnite as a greater threat than HBO, the scale of the two games isn’t comparable.

However, Apex is picking up some serious steam. It only took seven days for Apex to hit 25 million users (it took Fortnite 41 days), and one month to hit 50 million users (it took Fortnite more than four months).

As impressive as that is, it’s also to be expected that a game like Apex, a relative latecomer to the Battle Royale genre, would grow faster by reaping the benefits of the entire industry’s years of work and growth. It’s also worth noting that EA paid a pretty penny to successfully launch Apex Legends, with Ninja alone earning $1 million for streaming the game at launch.

“What Apex Legends has done is re-energized a lot of shooter players, people who come in and out of shooters depending on what’s popular,” said Sweeney. “It’s awesome to see other games picking up on battle royale, adding their unique spin to it and advancing the state of the industry.”

Adding a unique spin is exactly what Apex Legends has done. They’ve taken the fundamental building blocks of Battle Royale and the free-to-play model and tweaked them to be, in some ways, better.

Where play is concerned, Apex is a markedly team-oriented game, complete with a beautifully executed non-verbal comms system and a Jumpmaster mechanic to encourage teammates to land and play as a unit. Plus, Apex uses a hero system to give each character their own unique abilities.

This not only makes each fight interesting, but it gives Apex a different way to monetize beyond its recently launched BattlePass. The company just introduced its first new character, which can be unlocked with Apex Coins, the games virtual currency.

Only time will tell if Respawn and EA can build something as sticky as Fortnite, which has truly become a pop culture phenomenon. But there is one clear winner in this epic competition between Fortnite and Apex, and that’s gamers.

LogRocket nabs $11M Series A to fix web application errors faster

Every time a visitor experiences an issue on your website, it’s going to have an impact on their impression of the company. That’s why companies want to resolve issues in a timely manner.  LogRocket, a Cambridge, MA startup, announced an $11 Million Series A investment today to give engineering and web development teams access to more precise information they need to fix issues faster.

The round was led by Battery Ventures with participation from seed investor Matrix Partners. When combined with an earlier unannounced $4 million seed round, the company has raised of total of $15 million.

The two founders, Matthew Arbesfeld and Ben Edelstein, have been friends since birth growing up together in the Boston suburbs. After attending college separately at MIT and Columbia, the two friends both moved to San Francisco where they worked as engineers building front-end applications.

The company idea grew from the founders’ own frustration tracking errors. They found that they would have to do a lot of manual research to find problems, and it was taking too much time. That’s where they got the idea for LogRocket .

“What LogRocket does is we capture a recording in real time of all the user activity so the developer on the other end can replay exactly what went wrong and troubleshoot issues faster,” Arbesfeld explained.

Screenshot: LogRocket

The tool works by capturing low-resolution images of troublesome activity of each user and putting them together in a video. When there is an error or problem, the engineer can review the video and watch exactly what the user was doing when he or she encountered an error, allowing them to identify and resolve the problem much more quickly.

Arbesfeld said the company doesn’t have a video storage issue because it concentrates on capturing problems instead of the entire experience. “We’re looking at frustrating moments of the user, so that we can focus on the problem areas,” he explained.

Customers can access the data in the LogRocket dashboard, or it can be incorporated into help desk software like Zendesk. The company is growing quickly with 25 employees and 500 customers in just 18 months since inception, including Reddit, Ikea, CarGrus and Bloomberg.

As for the funding, they see this as the start of a long-term journey. “Our goal is to get out to a much wider audience and build a mature sales and marketing organization,” Arbesfeld said. He sees a future with thousands of customers and ambitious revenue goals. “We want to continue to use the data we have to offer more proactive insights into highest impact problems,” he said

Morphin instantly Deepfakes your face into GIFs

Want to star in your favorite memes and movie scenes? Upload a selfie to Morphin, choose your favorite GIF, and your face is grafted in to create a personalized copy you can share anywhere. Become Tony Stark as he suits up like Iron Man. Drop the mic like Obama, dance like Drake, or slap your mug on Fortnite characters.

Now after three years in a stealth developing image mapping technology, Morphin is ready to launch its put-you-in-a-GIF maker. While it might look like just a toy, investors see real business potential. Morphin raised $1 million last summer from Betaworks, the incubator that spawned Giphy, plus Founders Fund, Precursor, Shrug Capital, and Boost.vc’s accelerator.

Elon Musk as Iron Man

“We believe in the future you’ll be able to be the main character in your own film. Imagine a super hero movie where you’re a the main protagonist?” co-founder Loic Ledoux asks. “That sounded like science fiction a few years ago and now with AI and computer vision we definitely see our tech going there.”

Ledoux also wants to reclaim faceswaps as something fun rather than a weapon for misinformation. “Deepfakes brought something pretty negative to computer vision. But it’s not all bad. It’s about how you use the tech to give people a new tool for self expressions and storytelling.” And since Morphin re-generates the whole clip from scratch with CGI animation, they look right at a glance but clearly aren’t manipulated copies of the original video designed to fool anyone.

Kanye performs magic

Morphin started three years ago with the intention to build personalized avatars for games and VR so you could be a FIFA soccer player or Skyrim knight. Ledoux had started a 3D printing company to explore opportunities in scanning and modeling when he saw a chance to connect your real and virtual faces. He teamed up with his co-founder Nicholas Heriveaux who’d spent 13 years working on 3D tech while modding games like Grand Theft Auto to insert his avatar and assets.

What they quickly recognized was that “People were just reacting to themselves on the screen”, ignoring the gameplay, Ledoux recalls. “Being able to see yourself as a hero was the underlying sentiment, so we focused on video completely.” Recognizable GIFs became its preferred medium, as they combine familiarity and the ability to convey complex emotions with a template that’s easy to personalize so they stand out.

Morphin’s tech no longer requires 3D scanning hardware and it works with just a regular selfie. You just snap a headshot, select a GIF from its iOS or Android app’s library, and a few seconds later you have a CGI version of yourself in the scene with no watermark that you can export and post. “We wanted it to be super straight forward because we wanted people to relate to the content” Ledoux notes. Over 1 million scenes have been created by 50,000 beta users, and each time a celebrity shares one of the GIFs Morphin has been sending them for marketing, scores of their followers demand to know what app they were using.

Morphin’s 9-person French team will have to keep innovating to stay ahead of avatar-making competitors like the ubiquitous Snapchat Bitmoji, Genies, Moji Edit, and Mirror AI. Facebook, Microsoft, and Google all have launched or are building their own avatar creators. But these typically live as 2D stickers or 3D AR animations you overlay on the real world. By using GIFs as a canvas, Morphin takes the pressure off your visage looking perfect and instead emphasizes the message you’re trying to get across.

The challenge will be for Morphin to become a consistent part of people’s communication stack. It’s easy to imagine playing with it and posting a few GIFs. But iconic new GIFs don’t emerge each day and without a social network to stay for, Morphin is at risk of becoming a merely a forgotten tool. The app might need TikTok-style challenges like submitting the best personalized GIF to match a prompt or a GIF browsing feed to keep people coming back.

Turning Donald Glover into Jay Gatsby

Morphin isn’t racing to monetize yet, but sees a chance to sell longer premium video scenes a la carte or as an unlimited subscription. Ledoux eventually hopes to unlock new forms of storytelling beyond existing GIFs. There’s also a chance for Morphin to highlight sponsored clips from upcoming movies or TV shows. “In the long-term we’re more interested in the analogy of Lil Miquela and how people are interacting with digital characters” Ledoux explains, citing a virtual pop star who’s developer Brud recently raised at a $125 million valuation.

One of the most exciting things about Morphin is that it will allow people to take the spotlight no matter how they look. Often times certain races, genders, and looks are unfairly excluded from starring in today’s most popular media. But Morphin could let the underrepresented take their rightful place as stars of the screen.

Your faithful author Josh Constine dropping the mic like Obama