Meet the startups in Alchemist’s 20th cohort

Yesterday, enterprise tech accelerator Alchemist announced a fresh $2.5 million in venture capital funding. Today, it presented its latest cohort of startups, 19 in total, to a jam-packed audience of investors.

Alchemist invests $36,000 in companies with a revenue stream that come from enterprises, not consumers, with a bent toward technical founders. Its 20th cohort included a mental health startup, a construction tech business, a fintech company and more. Here’s a quick look at the startups that just completed its six-month program:

Cruz Foam: Makes compostable packaging “from the ocean for the ocean.” Instead of using finite petroleum-based materials, Cruz Foam transforms waste into a structural foam that is at-home compostable. The startup counts Pepsi among its first customers. Cruz Foam is working with the beverage maker on a sustainable packaging project.

Bobly: Gathers real-time information that helps businesses better understand their customers through a gamified software product.

DeepBench: The MIT tech startup’s software enables companies to create their own network of knowledge experts, with a mission to “unlock the world’s knowledge by reducing the cost of finding and matching experts.”

dumpling: Empowers gig workers to run their own “highly personal” grocery delivery businesses. Dumpling says they make $8 in revenue on each order and is active in 24 states. The startup is led by Nate D’Anna, the former director of corporate development at Cisco.

Ejenta: Allows health providers to remotely monitor patients from their homes using technology developed by NASA intended to monitor astronauts. Ejenta is currently working with health providers across the U.S. Ejenta charges health providers a per patient, per month subscription fee that’s 100 percent reimbursable by Medicare.

IoTrek: Leverages artificial intelligence and IoT to improve the productivity of construction job sites. The startup says it has raised $500,000 in funding so far from European and Indian investors.

AirBoard: Developer of “the world’s most powerful drone” for the agricultural industry. AirBoard’s drone is the size of two Toyota Prius cars and will focus initially on automated agtech pesticide spraying.

Walrus Security: Founded by Michael Walfish, a former professor of computer science at New York University, Walrus Security ensures digital payments are transferred safely. Walrus has already landed backing from some high-profile angels, including Alex Roetter, the former SVP of engineering at Twitter and the president of Kitty Hawk.

Insera Health: Developer of a voice-enabled app that collects a patient’s medical history to improve medical encounters. Insera says this improves the experiences for patients and doctors, with better communication and outcomes.

Laava Tech: Decreasing energy consumption for indoor farmers with proprietary LED lighting and a Light as a Service (LaaS) business model.

Oberon Global: Helps conduct and manage compliant token sales. Oberon provides a secure investor onboarding platform for funds, as well as companies raising money under Regulation D 506(b) and 506(c).

Autify (formerly known as Behivee): Automates software testing with artificial intelligence.

PenguinSmart: Initially focused on the China market, PenguinSmart provides an AI-assist rehab support service for speech and language therapy. The startup is led by Amy Kwok, a speech-language pathologist.

Rosalyn Inc: A proctoring platform that uses AI and computer vision to make exams secure and scalable. The startup says it reduces overhead and lets companies scale up their certification process while reducing fraud.

Gridline AI (formerly known as Solisite): Helps property owners turn roofs from liabilities into assets by reducing roofing costs and generating additional income for commercial real estate.

Tangent: Is using AI to provide high-quality content for marketing campaigns. The AI-enabled platform develops personalized images for the fashion e-commerce industry. Expects $600,000 in revenue by the end of Q4 2019.

Foresight Mental Health: Delivers end-to-end mental healthcare with a tech-enabled platform that develops treatment plans, provides a real-time tracker of symptoms and more. The company plans to open a brick-and-mortar location in San Francisco in 2019.

Bitesize: A B2B messaging platform that lets companies speak directly with customers via SMS.

Digify: A document security service that provides insights and protection to users sharing documents online.

YC-backed Our World in Data wants you to know that the planet is doing okay

News is exhausting. Mexican murders are sky-high. Ebola is ravaging the eastern Congo. China is erasing an entire culture of Islam from its Western hinterlands. That news — negative and intense though it is — can easily occlude the many positive, longer term stories that are fundamental drivers of the world. Africa is reaching new levels of prosperity. Violence around the world is in retreat. Famine is down, a lot.

These trends are present, but getting high-quality data around them and correctly interpreting them can be challenging. How do you piece all these disparate threads together and start to make sense of the whole?

Enter Our World in Data. The non-profit startup, which started as a research project at Oxford University, builds datasets on human progress around the world and then uses visualizations and deep, clear explanations to allow people to grok exactly what’s happening as well as how to think about it.

Our World in Data is backed by YC in its current batch, and is one of three non-profits this cycle (we profiled another one of them, Upsolve, which is helping consumers file for bankruptcy). The portal has been receiving about a million users per month and two citations a day in major newspapers, and the team is hoping to scale those metrics up as part of the YC program.

Max Roser, the founder and program director, officially organized the firm as a non-profit a few weeks ago, but has been working on it with a team of researchers over many years. “It began kind of slowly as a research project in around 2012,” he said. It was “a fairly small-scale project in the evenings and weekends in the beginning and got bigger and bigger over time.”

He points out that the progress we have seen in human society has happened at a blistering fast rate. “Even in today’s richest and happiest places, the changes have happened very recently. […] Just two hundred years ago, a huge majority of the population lived in extreme poverty.”

Roser sees an opportunity to revolutionize how academic research is disseminated with Our World in Data. “Our mission is to get research out of institutions,” he explained. “We come from this millennium-old institution with University of Oxford … and they have published research in exactly the same way since the invention of the printing press. […] In the communication of research, we haven’t adopted the technologies available with the internet at all … and we are trying to bring these two worlds together.”

Hannah Ritchie, a researcher with the project who holds a PhD in GeoSciences from the University of Edinburgh, said that “our top priority is reaching as many people as we can” and she sees the project becoming the “really credible go-to reference.”

Our World in Data may not be a conventional startup, but it is hitting a thesis close to home here. Arman and I have been doing a dive into the world of societal resilience startups – companies that are trying to protect humanity from itself by building self-healing systems, improving the climate, making our traffic more on time, improving the speed of construction and much, much more. But before we can do all that, we first need to understand what’s even going on with our world in the first place, and that is where Roser, Ritchie and the rest of their research team here can be hugely helpful.

Share your feedback on your startup’s attorney

We want to help startup founders work with attorneys who are right for them. My colleague Eric Eldon wrote a piece today describing our methodology and a little bit more of why we are doing this project.

We have had hundreds of founders give us their recommendations. If you have worked with a great early-stage startup attorney that you recommend, let us know using this short Google Forms survey and also spread the word. We will share the results and more in the coming weeks.

Stray Thoughts (aka, what I am reading)

Short summaries and analysis of important news stories

Startup socialism with capitalist characteristics

Robert P. Baird does a great job describing the rise of Jacobin, the socialist magazine startup that has become a linchpin in leftist politics. It’s a story of a college founder who hustled his way to financial independence and growth. From the article:

Sunkara, for his part, told me that there’s no contradiction between his entrepreneurial enthusiasm and his socialist ideals. “The market logic of creating a publication,” he says—attracting readers, getting them to subscribe, finding competitive advantages that will keep them on the rolls—“is politically pure.”

Is Surveillance Capitalism a thing?

Nicholas Carr wrote a deep dive review for the LA Review of Books of Shoshana Zuboff’s hot new book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” There has been a ton of discussion triggered here, particularly in light of France’s record $57 million fine against Google over GDPR violations earlier this week, and Carr wrote what is probably the best review and context piece available. Still, the question to me remains the same: does anyone actually care that their devices monitor them? Judging by device and services sales, I think much less than privacy advocates appreciate.

Why are investors still investing in Apple’s supply chain?

Bloomberg has an interesting conundrum to discuss: why are investors still standing behind companies like Han’s Laser Technology Industry Group Co., which have seen huge valuation losses over the slowdown in iPhone sales? It’s a bit of a complicated story, but basically investors still believe that high-end manufacturing will drive excess profits even in a chaotic, slower growing, and competitive world. An interesting discussion worth reading.

What’s next & obsessions

  • I have a lot of short books on my desk to read.
  • Arman is reading Never Lost Again by Bill Kilday, a history of mapping at Google and beyond.
  • Arman and I are interested in societal resilience startups that are targeting areas like water security, housing, infrastructure, climate change, disaster response, etc. Reach out if you have ideas or companies here <>

Idera acquires Travis CI

Travis CI, the popular Berlin-based open source continuous integration service, has been acquired by Idera, a company that offers a number of SQL database management and administration tools for both on-premises and cloud applications. The move comes at a time where other continuous integration services, including the likes of Circle CI, seem to be taking market share away from Travis CI.

Idera, which itself is owned by private equity firm TA Associates, says that Travis is complementary to its current testing tools business and that the acquisition will benefit its current customers. Idera’s other tools in its Testing Tools division are TestRail, Ranorex and Kiuwan. “We admire the business value driven by Travis CI and look forward to helping more customers achieve better and faster results,” said Suhail Malhotra, Idera’s General Manager for Travis CI .

Idera clearly wants to move into the DevOps business and continuous integration is obviously a major building block. This still feels like a bit of an odd acquisition, given that Idera isn’t exactly known for being on the leading edge of today’s technology (if it’s known at all). But Travis CI also brings 700,000 users to Idera and customers like IBM and Zendesk, so while we don’t know the cost of the acquisition, this is a big deal in the CI ecosystem.

“We are excited about our next chapter of growth with the Idera team,” said Konstantin Haase, a founder of Travis CI, in today’s announcement. “Our customers and partners will benefit from Idera’s highly complementary portfolio and ability to scale software businesses to the next level. Our goal is to attract as many users to Travis CI as possible, while staying true to our open source roots and community.”

That’s pretty much what all founders write (or what the acquiring company’s PR team writes for them), so we’ll have to see how Idera will steer Travis CI going forward.

In his blog post, Haase says that nothing will change for Travis CI users. “With the support from our new partners, we will be able to invest in expanding and improving our core product, to have Travis CI be the best Continuous Integration and Development solution for software projects out there,” he writes and also notes that the Travis CI will stay open source. “This is who we are, this is what made us successful.”

How we’re finding the best lawyers for early-stage startups

We’re nearing 1,000 submissions from startup founders and leaders in Silicon Valley and across the world about the best early-stage tech lawyers to work with. As we’ve sorted through survey responses and begun scheduling interviews with the first qualified nominees, we’ve gotten a bunch of questions. We love questions.

First of all, why are we creating a living list of great tech startup lawyers? Lawyers don’t create startups, but they can help great startups succeed. They can also kill promising ventures before they have time to get off the ground. Who you use as your lawyer matters, and yet, there are no great resources to help early-stage founders navigate this decision.

Need more detail before you take the survey? Read on.

A living list

We are not making a listicle or an occasional ranking like what you might see on other news sites or legal review services. Instead, we are making a living body of knowledge about service providers by and for people who are building companies. This survey will be staying open indefinitely and we’ll be updating our findings whenever we have enough feedback from our community about an individual lawyer. Ultimately, we will add as many lawyers as there are lawyers in the world who qualify.

We are just beginning what will be a continuous process. Each additional recommendation will help you know more about who to hire to help you with your work.

Early-stage focus

We are interested in featuring lawyers who are today heavily focused on early-stage technology startups. We realize that “early-stage” can mean multiple funding rounds and many, many millions of dollars, so we are not drawing hard boundaries. As a rule of thumb, think of startups in the process of finding product-market fit and/or a scalable business model, and are maybe even in the early stages of growth.

We realize that attorneys who have succeeded with early-stage companies over the years will themselves often move into later-stage legal work. We’re happy to hear about these folks — particularly what they have done for a company in key early moments — but we know they’re often busy and will take on few if any young companies today.

We’re happy to feature them when relevant, but we’ll also note that if you’re looking for the overall top technology lawyers in Silicon Valley or elsewhere, you should really be checking out Chambers and Partners, Martindale-Hubbell, Super Lawyers, The American Lawyer, National Law Journal and the numerous other established sources for lawyer rankings.

Tech focus

“Tech” has been heavily abused by marketers in recent years. If you’re leaving a review as a founder, but you’re not clearly building some sort of meaningful technology yourself, we will likely discard your recommendation. There are plenty of great lawyers out there who can assist with starting a business, who are not going to be familiar with the myriad challenges that a startup faces when it attempts meaningful technology innovation.

Global breadth

We’re open to submissions about lawyers working anywhere in the world. As the tech industry has gone global, locally focused attorneys have helped nurture their startup hubs and develop new crops of successful companies. Based on our survey results so far, we’re going to be featuring a geographically broad range of people to help the next generation of entrepreneurs get the best support from people who understand their surroundings.

Online legal services

While traditional law firms continue to be the preferred route for many founders, especially when they scale into the later stages of company-building, we’ve gotten a number of strong recommendations about attorneys working through software-enabled services. We see this as an important part of the future of the industry — if you’ve had a great experience, let us know about both the lawyer and the product they’re working within.

Attorneys who haven’t made partner (yet)

While submissions to date tend to focus on lawyers who have already made partner at larger firms, or have founded their own established operations, we have also gotten glowing recommendations about folks who are earlier in their careers. Like companies themselves, the top lawyers of tomorrow are working hard to get there today — so we very much want to hear about them now. Maybe we can even help them get to the top faster?

Remember, we invite any lawyer who is actively working with early-stage technology companies anywhere in the world to share this survey with their clients.

Now go take the survey if you haven’t already.

Uplift raises $123M to bring flexible payments to the travel industry

Travel financing startup Uplift is announcing that it has raised $123 million in Series C funding.

Uplift has been relatively quiet about its business until now. Its founder and CEO is Brian Barth, who previously sold his travel startup SideStep to Kayak for $200 million.

“We’ve been exceedingly low-profile, because it’s a really good idea and we wanted to keep it a secret,” said President Robert Soderberry. “But now we’re at a size and scale where we’re ready to raise our visibility.”

Besides, he acknowledge that it would be hard to “keep a $123 million Series C financing round a secret.”

The idea is pretty straightforward: Uplift works with partners like the vacation package sites of United Airlines, Southwest and American Airlines, as well as Allegiant Travel Company and Kayak, to offer financing to travelers, allowing them to pay for their trips in monthly installments. (It has a bank partner for the loans.)

For example, Soderberry said that if a family is considering a trip to Disneyland for a price of $2,000, Uplift might be able to offer a one-year financing plan with monthly payments of $189 a month.

“We make it really easy for consumers to understand,” he said. “It’s a convenient way to book travel, it reduces the upfront cost and encourages them to book more often, which in turn drives conversion for our travel partners. It’s really a win-win.”

It’s an idea that’s spreading in retail through companies like Affirm — and in fact, Affirm has been moving into travel. But Soderberry said Uplift is is the only lending company focused entirely on the travel industry.

“Planning and purchasing travel is really different buying a mattress or a gym membership,” he said. “It’s a different kind of product and different technology.”

And although Uplift launched less than two years ago, Soderberry said the company is on-track to drive nearly $1 billion in loans in 2019. He said that for some partners, Uplift represents 20 percent of their business.

The new funding should allow Uplift to bring on new partners, offer new services and otherwise grow the business. At the same time, Soderberry said the company will remain focused on travel, and on reaching consumers through its partners rather than launching a marketplace of its own

“Travel companies want to protect their customers and they don’t want us to be sourcing or acquiring their consumers,” he said. “We stand behind our partners … We don’t bring [customers] to our site to try to create a marketplace, we’re not trying to build a consumer platform, we’re building a platform for travel partners.”

PitchReport reports (membership required) that the funding was at a $195 million pre-money valuation, but an Uplift spokesperson declined to comment on the valuation.

Uplift previously raised $23 million in funding. The Series C was led by Madrone Capital Partners, with participation from Draper Nexus, Ridge Ventures, Highgate Ventures, Barton Asset Management and PAR Capital.

Uplift’s focused business model of bringing flexible payments to travel is a winner,” said Madrone’s Jamie McJunkin in a statement. “Our confidence to invest was driven by an experienced management team, a very large market opportunity and the competitive advantages driven by the innovations Uplift has brought to the travel market.”

Brandless introduces a $9 price point with the launch of baby and pet products

Since launch, Brandless has looked to make shopping for everyday items simple by pricing everything at $3. Today, for the first time since the company came on the scene, Brandless will be adding new items that exceed its own $3 limit.

The e-commerce brand is adding baby and pet products to its portfolio.

Baby products include Premium Diapers with no latex, lotion fragrance or chlorine processing, organic baby food pouches and cruelty-free baby care products like baby wipes, lotion, shampoo and diaper rash cream. Pet products include protein treats, supplement chews, non-toxic toys, hemp collars and pet cleanup waste bags made with a TDPA technology material that breaks down faster in landfills.

Though some of these products won’t wear the $3 pricetag as a uniform like other Brandless goods, the company says that 90 percent of its products still fall into the $3 category. Products that are not $3 or less will be $9.

Brandless recently introduced a subscription, giving users a stickier way to interact with the brand, especially on the heels of the launch of pet and baby products.

The subscription is free, but it asks users to meet a minimum of $36 for free shipping, and it auto-fills the box with goods you’ve chosen for monthly resupplies.

The time between purchase and receipt is difficult for products like the ones Brandless sells. Toilet paper, snacks, pet food etc. all come in different amounts that last a different length of time. This means that options like Amazon Prime, which offers shipping as fast as same-day in some cases, become incredibly attractive to restock on that one thing that ran out too quick.

Edison Trends took a look at Brandless over a period between 2017 and 2018 and found that retention was the company’s most pressing issue. Only 20 percent of customers who bought something in late 2017 came back the next quarter for a purchase, and only 13 percent came back the quarter after that.

Since Brandless gives back the cost of marketing its products to consumers, word of mouth and customer loyalty are the two pillars upon which the company is built. Subscriptions and new product categories are two ways to bring on new users and build loyalty with an existing customer base.

But the seven-year-old company has plenty of work to do. With nearly $300 million in funding, investors and shareholders are expecting big things from Brandless.

Jupiter Networks invests $2.5M in enterprise tech accelerator Alchemist

Alchemist, which began as an experiment to better promote enterprise entrepreneurs, has morphed into a well-established Silicon Valley accelerator.

To prove it, San Francisco-based Alchemist is announcing a fresh $2.5 million investment ahead of its 20th demo day on Wednesday. Jupiter Networks, a networking and cybersecurity solutions business, has led the round, with participation from Siemens’ venture capital unit Next47.

Launched in 2012 by former Draper Fisher Jurvetson investor Ravi Belani, Alchemist provides participating teams with six months of mentorship and a $36,000 investment. Alchemist admits companies whose revenue stream comes from enterprises, not consumers, with a bent toward technical founders.

According to numbers provided by the accelerator, dubbed the “Y Combinator of Enterprise,” 115 Alchemist portfolio companies have gone on to raise $556 million across several VC deals. Another 25 have been acquired, including S4 Capital’s recent $150 million acquisition of media consultancy MightyHive, Alchemist’s largest exit to date.

Other notable alums include Rigetti Computing, LaunchDarkly, which helps startups soft-launch features and drone startup Matternet.

Alchemist has previously raised venture capital funding, including a $2 million financing in 2017 led by GE and an undisclosed investment from Salesforce.

Nineteen companies will demo products onstage tomorrow. You can live stream Alchemist’s 20th demo day here.

To rebuild satellite communications, Ubiquitilink starts at ground level

Communications satellites are multiplying year by year as more companies vie to create an orbital network that brings high-speed internet to the globe. Ubiquitilink, a new company headed by Nanoracks co-founder Charles Miller, is taking a different tack: reinventing the Earthbound side of the technology stack.

Miller’s intuition, backed by approval and funding from a number of investors and communications giants, is that people are competing to solve the wrong problem in the comsat world. Driving down the cost of satellites isn’t going to create the revolution they hope. Instead, he thinks the way forward lies in completely rebuilding the “user terminal,” usually a ground station or large antenna.

“If you’re focused on bridging the digital divide, say you have to build a thousand satellites and a hundred million user terminals,” he said, “which should you optimize for cost?”

Of course dropping the price of satellites has plenty of benefits on its own, but he does have a point. What happens when a satellite network is in place to cover most of the planet but the only devices that can access it cost thousands of dollars or have to be in proximity to some subsidized high-tech hub?

There are billions of phones on the planet, he points out, yet only 10 percent of the world has anything like a mobile connection. Serving the hundreds of millions who at any given moment have no signal, he suggests, is a no-brainer. And you’re not going to do it by adding more towers; if that was a valid business proposition, telecoms would have done it years ago.

Instead, Miller’s plan is to outfit phones with a new hardware-software stack that will offer a baseline level of communication whenever a phone would otherwise lapse into “no service.” And he claims it’ll be possible for less than $5 per person.

He was coy about the exact nature of this tech, but I didn’t get the sense that it’s vaporware or anything like that. Miller and his team are seasoned space and telecoms people, and of course you don’t generally launch a satellite to test vaporware.

But Ubiquitilink does have a bird in the air, with testing of their tech set to start next month and two more launches planned. The stack already been proven on the ground, Miller said, and has garnered serious interest.

“We’ve been in stealth for several years and have signed up 22 partners — 20 are multi-billion dollar companies,” he said, adding that the latter are mainly communications companies, though he declined to name them. The company has also gotten regulatory clearance to test in five countries, including the US.

Miller self-funded the company at the outset, but soon raised a pre-seed round led by Blazar Ventures (and indirectly, telecoms infrastructure standby Neustar). Unshackled led the seed round, along with RRE Ventures, Rise of the Rest, and One Way Ventures. All told the company is working with a total $6.5 million, which it will use to finance its launches and tests; once they’ve taken place it will be safer to dispel a bit of the mystery around the tech.

“UbiquitiLink represents one of the largest opportunities in telecommunications,” Unshackled founding partner Manan Mehta said, calling the company’s team “maniacally focused.”

I’m more than a little interested to find out more about this stealth attempt, three years in the making so far, to rebuild satellite communications from the ground up. Some skepticism is warranted, but the pedigree here is difficult to doubt; we’ll know more once orbital testing commences in the next few months.