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With its goofy video loops, YC backed Splish wants to be the ‘anti-Instagram’

Is there any space on kids’ homescreens for another social sharing app to poke in? Y Combinator backed Splish wants to have a splash at it () — with a super-short-form video and photo sharing app aimed at the under-25s. The SF-based startup began bootstrapping out of their college dorm rooms last July, playing around with app ideas before settling on goofy video loops to be their social sharing steed of choice. The Splish app pops content into video loops of between 1-5 seconds. Photos can be uploaded too but motion must be added in the form of an animated effect of your choice. So basically nothing on Splish stays still. (Hence its watery name.) But while wobbly, content on Splish is intended to stick around — rather than ephemerally pass away (a la snaps). Here are a few examples of Splishes (embedded below as GIFs… but you can see them on its platform here, here and here): It’s the first startup for the four college buddy co-founders: Drake Rehfeld, Alex Pareto, Jackson Berry and Zac Denham, though between them they’ve also clocked up engineering hours working for Snapchat, Facebook and Team 10. Their initial web product went up in March and they landed a place on YC’s program at the start of May — when they also released their iOS app. An Android app is pending, and they’ll be on the hunt for funding come YC demo day. The gap in the social sharing market this young team reckons it’s spotted is a sort of ‘anti-Instagram’ — offering a playful contrast to the photo sharing platform’s polished (and at times preening) performances. The idea is that sharing stuff on Splish is a bonding experience; part of an ongoing smartphone-enabled conversation between mates, rather than a selectively manicured photoshoot which also has to be carefully packaged for public ‘gram consumption. Splish does have a public feed, though, so it’s not a pure messaging app — but the co-founders say the focus is friend group sharing rather than public grandstanding. “Splish is a social app for sharing casual looping videos with close friends,” says Rehfeld, giving the team’s elevator pitch. “It came out of our own experience, and we’re building for ourselves because we noticed that the way you socialize right now in real life is you do activities with your friends. You go to the beach, you go to the bar, the bowling alley. We’re working to bring this same type of experience online using Splish through photo and video. So it’s more about interaction and hanging out with your friends online.” “When you use Instagram you really feel like you’re looking at a magazine. It’s just the highlights of people’s lives,” he adds. “And so we’re trying to make a place where you’re getting to know your friends better and meeting new people as well. And then on the other side, on Snapchat, you’re really sharing interesting moments of your lives but it’s not really pushing the boundaries or creating with your friends. It’s more just a communication messaging tool. “So it’s kind of the space in between broadcast and chat — talking and interacting with your close friends through Splish, through photo and video.” Users of the Splish app can apply low-fi GIF(ish) retro filters and other photographic effects (such as a reverse negative look) to the video snippets and photos they want to send to friends or share more widely — with the effects intended to strip away at reality, rather than gloss it over. Which means content on Splish tends to look and feel grungy and/or goofy. Much like an animated GIF in fact. And much less like Instagram. The team’s hope is the format adds a bit of everyday grit and/or wit to the standard smartphone visual record, and that swapping Splishes gets taken up as a more fun and casual way of communicating vs other types of messaging or social sharing. And also that people will want to use Splish to capture and store fun times with friends because they can be checked out again later, having been conveniently packaged for GIF-style repeat lols. “Part of the power here in Splish is that relationships are built on shared experiences and nostalgia and so while [Snapchat-style] ephemerality reduced a lot of the barriers for posting what it didn’t do is strengthen relationships long term or over time because the chats and the photos disappeared,” says Rehfeld. The idea is a content format to gives people “shared experience that lasts”, he adds. They’re also directly nudging users to get creative via a little gamification, adding a new feature (called Jams) that lets users prompt each other to make a Splish in response to a specific content creation challenge. And filming actual (playful) physical shoulder pokes has apparently been an early thing on Splish. That’s the merry-go-round of social for ya. Being a fair march north of Splish’s target age-range, I have to confess the app’s loopy effects end up triggering something closer to motion sickness/vertigo/puking up for me. But words are my firm social currency of choice. Whereas Rehfeld argues the teenager-plus target for Splish is most comfortable with a smartphone in its hand, and letting a lens tell the tale of what they’re up to or how they’re feeling. “We started with that niche first because there’s a population in that age range that really enjoys this creative challenge of expressing yourself in pretty intuitive ways, and they understand how to do that. And they’re pretty excited about it,” he tells TechCrunch. “There’s also been a little bit of a shift here where users no longer just capture what they have in real-life using the camera, but the camera’s used as an extension of communication — especially in that age range, where people use the camera as part of their relationship, rather than just capturing what happens offline.” As with other social video apps, vertical full screen is the preferred Splish frame — for a more “immersive experience” and, well, because that’s how the kids do it. “It’s the way users, especially in this age range, hold and use their phones. It’s pretty natural to this age range just because it’s what they do everyday,” he says, adding: “It’s just the best way to consume on the phone because it fills the whole screen, it’s how you were already using the phone before you clicked into the video.” Notably, as part of the team’s soft-edged stance against social media influencer culture, Rehfeld says Splish is choosing not to bake “viral components” into the app — ergo: “Nobody’s rewarded for likes or ‘re-vines’. There’s no reblog, retweet.” Although, pressed on how firm that anti-social features stance is, he concedes they’re not abandoning the usual social suite entirely — but rather implementing that sort of stuff in relative moderation. “We have likes and we have a concept of friends or follows but the difference is we’re building those with the intention of not incentivizing virality or ‘influencership’,” he says. “So we always release them with some sort of limit, so with likes you can’t see a list of everybody who’s liked a post for example. So that’s one example of how we’ve, kind of, brought in a feature that people feel comfortable with and love but with our own spin that’s a little bit less geared towards building a following.” Asked if they’re trying to respond to the criticism that’s been leveled at a lot of consumer technology lately — i.e. that it’s engineered to be highly and even mindlessly addictive — Rehfeld says yes, the team wants to try and take a less viral path, less well travelled, adding: “We’re building as much as possible for user experience. And a lot of the big brands build and optimize towards engagement metrics… and so we’re focused on this reduction of virality so that we can promote personal connections.” Though it will be interesting to see if they can stick to medium-powered stun guns as they fight to carve out a niche in the shadow of social tech’s attention-sapping giants. Of course Splish’s public feed is a bit of a digital shop window. But, again, the idea is to make sure it’s a casual space, and not such a perfectionist hothouse as Instagram. “The way the product is built allows people to feel pretty comfortable even in the more public feeds, the more featured feeds,” adds Rehfeld. “They post still very casual moments, with a creative spin of course. So it’s stayed pretty similar content, private and public.” Short and long It’s fair to say that short form video for social sharing has a long but choppy history online. Today’s smartphone users aren’t exactly short of apps and online spaces to share moving pictures publicly or with followers or friends. And animated GIFs have had incredible staying power as the marathon runner of the short loop social sharing format. On the super-short form video side, the most notable app player of recent years — Twitter’s Vine — sprouted and spread virally in 2013, amassing a sizable community of fans. Although Instagram soon rained on its video party, albeit with a slightly less super-short form. The Facebook-owned behemoth has gatecrashed other social sharing parties in recent years too. Most notably by cloning Snapchat’s ‘video-ish’ social sharing slideshow Stories format, and using its long reach and deep resources to sap momentum from the rival product. Twitter voluntarily threw in the towel with Vine in 2016, focusing instead on its livestreaming video product, Periscope, which is certainly a better fit for its core business of being a real-time social information network, and its ambition to also become a mainstream entertainment network. Meanwhile Google’s focus in the social video space has long been on longer form content, via YouTube, and longer videos mesh better with the needs of its ad network (at least when YouTube content isn’t being accused of being toxic). Though Mountain View also of course plays in messaging, including the rich media sharing messaging space. Apple too has been adding more powerful and personalized visual effects for its iMessage users — such as face-mapping animoji. So smartphone users are indeed very, very spoiled for sharing choice. Vine’s success in building a community did show that super-short loops can win a new generation of fans, though. But in May its original co-founder, Dom Hofmann, indefinitely postponed the idea of reviving the app by building Vine 2 — citing financial and legal roadblocks, plus other commitments on his time. Though he did urge those “missing the original Vine experience” to check out some of the apps he said had “sprung up lately” (albeit, without namechecking any of the newbs). So perhaps a Splish or two had caught his eye. There’s no doubt the space will be a tough one to sustain. Plenty of apps have cracked in and had a moment but very few go the distance. Overly distinctive filters can also feel faddish and fall out of fashion as quickly as they blew up. Witness, for example, the viral rise of art effect photo app Prisma. (And now try and remember the last time you saw one of its art filtered photos in the wild… ) So sustaining a novel look and feel can be tough. Not least because social’s big beast, Facebook, has the resources and inclination to clone any innovations that look like they might be threatening. Add in network effects and the story of the space has been defined by a shrinking handful of dominant apps and platforms. And yet — there’s still always the chance that a new generation of smartphone users will shake things up because they see things differently and want to find new ways and new spaces to share their personal stuff. That’s the splash that Splish’s team is hoping to make.

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Landbot gets $2.2M for its on-message ‘anti-AI’ chatbot

Who needs AI to have a good conversation? Spanish startup Landbot has bagged a $2.2 million seed round for a ‘dumb’ chatbot that doesn’t use AI at all but offers something closer to an old school ‘choose your adventure’ interaction by using a conversational choice interface to engage potential customers when they land on a website. The rampant popularity of consumer messaging apps has long been influencing product development decisions, and plenty of fusty business tools have been consumerized in recent years, including by having messaging-style interfaces applied to simplify all kinds of digital interactions. In the case of Landbot, the team is deploying a familiar rich texting interface as a website navigation tool — meaning site visitors aren’t left to figure out where to click to find stuff on their own. Instead they’re pro-actively met with an interactive, adaptive messaging thread that uses conversational choice prompts to get them the information they need. Call it a chatty twist on the ‘lazyweb’… It’s also of course mobile first design, where constrained screen real estate is never very friendly to full fat homepages. Using a messaging thread interface plus marketing bots thus offers an alternative way to cut to the navigational chase, while simultaneously creaming off intent intelligence on potential customers. (Albeit it does risk getting old fast if your site visitors have a habit of clearing their cookies.) Landbot, which was launched just over a year ago in June 2017, started as an internal experiment after its makers got frustrated by the vagaries of their own AI chatbots. So they had the idea to create a drag-and-drop style bot-builder that doesn’t require coding to support custom conversation flows. “Since we already had a product, a business model, and some customers, we developed Landbot as an internal experiment. “What would happen with a full-screen conversation instead of the regular live-chat?,” we thought. What we got? A five times higher conversion rate on our homepage! Ever since, our whole strategy changed and Landbot, born from an experiment, became our core product,” explains CEO and co-founder Jiaqi Pan. At the same time, the current crop of ‘cutting-edge’ AI chatbots are more often defined by their limitations than by having impressively expansive conversational capacities. Witness, for example, Google’s Duplex voice AI, heavily trained to perform very specific and pretty formulaic tasks — such as booking a hair appointment or a restaurant. Very few companies are in a position to burn so much engineering resource to try and make AI useful. So there’s something rather elegant about eschewing the complexity and chaos of an AI engine (over)powering customer engagement tools — and just giving businesses user-friendly building blocks to create their own custom chat flows and channel site visitors through a few key flows. After all, a small business knows its customers best. So a tool that helps SMEs create an engaging interface themselves, without having to plough resources they likely don’t have into training high maintenance chat AIs which are probably overkill for their needs anyway, seems a good and sensible thing. Hence Pan talks about “democratizing the power of chatbots”. “Most landbot customers are marketing managers from small and medium companies that want to discover new ways of optimizing their conversion rates,” he tells us, saying that most are using the tool to convert more leads in their home/landing page; add dynamic surveys/forms to their websites; or explain their services — “in a more engaging way while scoring leads and being able to take over conversations when necessary”. (Buddy Nutrition is a Landbot customer, for example). “We started our chatbot journey using Artificial Intelligence technology but found out that there was a huge gap between user expectations and reality. No matter how well trained our chatbots were, users were constantly dropped off the desired flow, which ended up in 20 different ways of saying “TALK WITH A HUMAN”,” he adds. “But we were in love with the conversational approach and, inspired by some great automation flow builders out there, we decided to give Conversational User Interfaces a try. Some would call them ‘dumb chatbots’. “The results were amazing: The implementation process was way shorter, the technical background was removed from the equation and, finally, costs dropped too! Now, even companies with 100% focus on AI-based chatbots use Landbot as a truly cost-effective prototyping tool. We ended up creating the easiest and fastest chatbot builder out there. No technical knowledge, just a drag and drop interface and unlimited possibilities.” Despite the startup-y hyperbole, the team does seem to have hit a sweet spot for their product. In less than a year since launching — via Product Hunt — Landbot has signed up more than 900 customers from 50+ countries, and is seeing a 30-40% MRR Growth MoM, according to Pan. Although they are offering a (branded) freemium version to help stoke the product’s growth, as well as paid tiers. The $2.2M seed round is led by Nauta Capital, with Bankinter and Encomenda Smart Capital also participating. The plan for the funding is to grow headcount and pay for relocating Landbot’s head office from Valencia to Barcelona — to help with their international talent hunt as they look to triple the size of the team. They’ll also be using the funding on their own brand marketing, rather than relying on viral growth — acknowledging that marketing spend is going to be important to stand out in such a crowded space, with thousands of competing solutions also vying for SMEs’ cash. And, indeed, other conversational UIs out in the wild delivering a similarly chatty experience on the customer end, though Landbot’s claim is it’s differentiating in the market behind the scenes, with easy to use, ‘no coding necessary’ customization tools. On the competition from, Pan names the likes of Chatfuel and Manychat as “powerful but channel-dependent” rival chatbot builders, while at the more powerful end he points to DialogFlow or IBM Watson but notes they do require technical knowledge, so the market positioning is different. “Landbot tries to bring chatbots to the average Joe,” he adds. “While still keeping features for developers that demand complex functionalities in their chatbots (they can achieve by configuring webhooks, callbacks, CSS and JS customization).” He also identifies players in the automated lead generation space — such as Intercom (Operator) and Drift (Drift bot) — saying they are aiming to transform sales and marketing processes “into something more conversational”. “The flow customization possibilities are fewer but the whole product is robust as they cover each stage of the conversion funnel, all the way to customer service,” he adds. In terms of capabilities, Landbot also rubs up against survey/form offerings like SurveyMonkey and Google Form — or indeed Barcelona-based Typeform, which has raised around $50M since 2012 and bills itself as a platform for “conversational data collection”. Pan rather delightfully characterizes Typeform as “bringing that conversational essence to the almighty sequences of fields”. Though he argues it’s also more limited “in terms of integrations and real-time human take-over capabilities”, i.e. as a consequence of wrangling those “almighty sequences”. So basically his argument is that Landbot isn’t saddled with Typeform’s form(ulaic) straightjacket. (Though Typeform would probably retort that its conversational platform is flexible.) Still, where customer engagement is concerned, there’s never going to be one way. Sometimes the straight form will do it, but for another brand or use case something more colloquial might be called for. Commenting on the seed round in a statement, Jordi Vinas, general partner at Nauta Capital, adds: “Landbot has experienced strong commercial traction and virality over the past months and the team has been able to attract customers from a variety of countries and verticals. We strongly believe in Jiaqi’s ability to continue scaling the business in a capital efficient way.”

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Sweden’s Engaging Care raises $800,000 for its digital healthcare SaaS

Engaging Care, a Swedish heathtech startup co-founded by Charlotta Tönsgård, who was previously CEO of online doctor app Min Doktor before being asked to step down, has raised $800,000 in “pre-seed” funding to continue building out its digital healthcare SaaS. Backing the burgeoning company are a host of well-established angel investors in the region. They include Hampus Jakobsson (venture partner at BlueYard Capital and co-founder of TAT, which sold to Blackberry for $150 million), Sophia Bendz (EIR at Atomico and the former Global Marketing Director at Spotify), Erik Byrenius (founder of OnlinePizza, an online food ordering company sold to Delivery Hero) and Neil Murray’s The Nordic Web Ventures. With the aim of dragging healthcare into the digital age, but in a more patient-friendly and patient-centred way than tradition electronic medical record systems, Engaging Care is developing a SaaS and accompanying apps to bring together patients, healthcare providers and partners to be “smarter and better connected”. Unlike software and digital services that work outside existing healthcare systems, the startup’s wares are billed as being designed to work within them. It is initially targeting people with long-term health conditions. “There has been tremendous progress made in the healthcare sector over the last decade. New advanced drugs, new methods for surgery and other treatments, but how healthcare workers share important information with the patient and the interaction between caregiver and patient still basically happens the same way it did 50 years ago,” Tönsgård tells me. “The systems of today are still designed around the doctor – even though we might spend as little as 15 minutes with him or her every year, but hours, days and years alone with our condition. On top of this, most western healthcare systems are struggling financially, with an ageing population, more prevalence of chronic diseases and a shift in expectations from the public, adding to the challenges”. In order to maintain current levels of service and make room for medical breakthroughs and new treatments that are happening at an increasing pace, Tönsgård argues that individual patients and healthcare providers need to work together in a different way. And that begins with empowering patients to better understand and take greater control of their health conditions and treatment — which is where a platform like Engaging Care can help. “Our ambition is to become the first truly global healthcare system; supporting us as individuals to be more in control, and to make better decisions about our healthcare and to provide digital tools for healthcare providers to share knowledge and use their resources more efficiently,” she says. “Our goal is to become the end-users first point of contact, but the clinics/healthcare providers are our customers. Right now we’re targeting specific clinics, but in the end, our platform will support any type of healthcare”. The first “vertical” Engaging Care is exploring is patients who have gone through an organ transplant. “It might sound like a strange place to start, but it’s actually perfect in many ways,” says Tönsgård. “Both in terms of the possibility to make a difference for the patients and the care teams, but also in terms of a landing pod when going international”. This has seen the company work with a small number of clinics in Sweden that are performing organ transplants to put patients through a pilot of the software. The first stages of commercial discussions are underway and Tönsgård is hopeful of securing the first customer this Fall, which will coincide with a full launch of the Engaging Care platform. “In parallel, we’re exploring multiple options for which verticals to kick off next,” she adds. Meanwhile, Murray of The Nordic Web Ventures concedes that Engaging Care’s goal to be the first platform that enables a truly global healthcare system is “incredibly lofty,” but says that if anyone has the “drive, passion, ambition and guts to pull this off then it’s Charlotta and team”.

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India’s BookMyShow pulls in $100M to grow its online ticketing business

BookMyShow, an online ticketing service for cinemas, theatres and sports in India, has pulled in $100 million in new capital for growth. The round was led by private investment firm TPG Growth and it included participation from undisclosed existing investors. BookMyShow, which is headquartered in Mumbai, has now raised a total of $225 million from a range of backers that include Accel, SAIF and New York’s Stripes Group. When reached by TechCrunch via investors, the company declined to discuss details of the funding or the plans to utilize it. “[TPG Growth] brings with them extensive wealth of experience across the global media and entertainment sector which would be instrumental as we look to accelerate our growth plans in this space. The strategic value that all our investors continue to provide us will also be of immense importance as we begin a new chapter of our standout story,” said BookMyShow CEO and founder Ashish Hemrajani in a prepared statement. On that experience, TPG’s investments in the entertainment industry include Cirque du Soleil, Spotify, STX Entertainment, Vice Media and MoreTickets so you can imagine that the startup will find value from both that network and the experience that the firm has accrued working with its portfolio. BookMyShow was in expansion mode in 2017 when it made four acquisitions, which included rival ticketing startups Townscript and MastiTickets. The case of Townscript, which is a self-serve platform, post-acquisition the business is said to have tripled the number of events on its platform and doubled revenue, too. The firm has already ventured overseas with operations launched in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, so the capital may go towards more verticals expansions and other international market launches.

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Alibaba boosts its offline reach with $2B+ investment in outdoor digital marketing firm

Alibaba is investing big bucks into offline distribution. The Chinese e-commerce giant has forked out $2.23 billion in exchange for a sizeable piece of Focus Media, a Shanghai-based company that operates outdoor digital advertising screens across China, Singapore and Hong Kong, according to a U.S. filing. The deal itself is broken up into a few pieces. Alibaba itself is paying $1.43 billion for a 6.62 percent share of Focus Media, which is listed in Shanghai, It is also spending $504.7 million to buy 10 percent of an entity (managed by Focus Media founder and chairman Jason Nanchun Jiang) which controls 23.34 percent of Focus Media. In addition, an Alibaba-aligned fund called ‘New Retail Strategic Opportunities’ is buying 1.37 percent of Focus Media, while Alibaba itself is planning to exercise an option to buy five percent more of the business over the next twelve months. That additional transaction will add another $1 billion or so to the total investment, dependent, of course, on Focus Media’s stock price. That’s quite a mouthful but the objective of the deal is simpler to grok: Alibaba already has a formidable online channel to interact with consumers and now it is expanding what it can do offline. Focus Media currently claims to reach 200 million middle-class consumers across 300 Chinese cities via its outdoor advertising platform, which includes digital screens in streets, in subways and in elevators. The company plans to grow that to 500 million people across 500 cities, and that ties into Alibaba’s online-to-offline strategy, which it also calls ‘New Retail.’ That has seen the company buy up expensive stakes in offline retail businesses with the goal of marrying the benefits of online shopping — such as quick delivery, easy to find products and easy payment — with the customer experience of brick and mortar stores, like in-person customer service and try-before-you-buy. It isn’t hard to imagine a scenario in which a consumer sees a product advertised via Focus Media with the option to buy it, or arrange to see it in a store, simply by scanning a QR code. (Lest you forgot, QR codes are huge in China and a very key component in online/offline shopping.) Beyond the New Retail push, the distribution provided by Focus Media offers sellers on Alibaba’s e-commerce platform an alternative avenue through which to reach potential customers, particularly within China’s growing middle class. Will people reject being bombarded with ads on their commute or downtime, especially when they could just open an app on their phone? Alibaba likely isn’t keen to take the risk, and given the vast amount of cash it is sitting on this deal isn’t going to be a huge risk.

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With eyes on Europe, Open Banking API provider TrueLayer raises $7.5M

TrueLayer, the London startup that’s built a developer platform to make it easy for fintech and other adjacent companies, such as retailers, to access bank APIs — and ride the Open Banking and PSD2 gravy train — has picked up further $7.5 million in funding. Leading the round is venture capital fund Northzone. It follows a $3 million Series A in June last year, and will be used for European expansion, starting with Germany and France. The new capital will also be invested in growing the TrueLayer team and to develop new products to help companies and consumers make the most of Open Banking and PSD2, where co-founder Francesco Simoneschi tells me the opportunities are huge, even if they remain largely untapped, thus far. “I think the first quarters of 2018 have been about working and educating companies on Open Banking and how to build propositions on top of it,” he says. “This has seen a silent yet massive stream of inbound demand for us. To put things in context, we grew 500 percent in terms of the developer community averaging hundreds of companies a month asking how to start using TrueLayer and the services that we enable — from two people in a garage to the largest enterprise”. Since Open Banking was tentatively launched in the U.K. January, TrueLayer has secured partnerships and integrations with a number of fintech companies including challenger banks Monzo and Starling Bank, along with the likes of Zopa, ClearScore, Canopy, Plum, BitBond, Emma, Anorak, and CreditLadder. This has happened in despite of a press narrative around a “failed Big Bang kind of uptake” and incumbent banks not cooperating or meeting their minimum statutory requirements in time (which is undeniably true, in some instances). The reality on the ground, however, is quite different, argues Simoneschi. “Remember that exponential growth often looks sub-linear at the very beginnings,” he says. “Based on the view of the market that we have, contracts signed, POCs and advanced conversations, I can assure you that you will see a wealth of high street banks and retailers, financial institutions, global platforms, marketplaces, loyalty and rewards propositions, crypto exchanges, wallets and fintech applications experimenting and launching Open Banking-based propositions in the next 12 months”. To that end, TrueLayer offers a single platform/API to connect to 16 major and not so major banks and credit cards in the U.K., using a mixture of official Open Banking APIs, access to private APIs, and, at a push, screen scraping — depending on a developer’s data needs and stomach for the different kinds of official and unofficial access available. As well as account verification, the platform supports KYC processes, and transactional data for things like account aggregation, credit scoring, and risk assessment. In addition to its developer-friendly ‘universal’ API, TrueLayer is also developing a number of other value-add services that do even more heavy-lifting and negate the need for other fintechs to keep re-inventing the wheel. These include features such as data cleansing, enhanced security and transaction categorisation. However, Simoneschi says there is a lot more Open Banking goodness to come yet, especially in the payments space. “We got FCA authorization for both access to data (AISP) and access to payments (PISP). The demand for the latter has been going through the roof in the last few months and we are taking steps to release a Payment API to the general public later this fall,” he tells me. This means that companies, such as online retailers, will be able to use TrueLayer to connect directly to customers’ bank accounts as a means of taking payment, therefore bypassing traditional debit and credit card charges, which legislators hope will help to break the duopoly of Visa and MasterCard. On that note, Jeppe Zink, Partner at Northzone, says that the “walled gardens” of financial institutions, such as banks, are being knocked down, and that banking transactions will increasingly take place away from a bank’s main interface. “To enable this to function, you need thousands of banks to deliver transaction data in a single, secure and compliant way,” he says. “This is a massive undertaking which TrueLayer intends to be the centrepiece of”.

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InkHunter heads to YC to build a try-and-buy tattoo marketplace

InkHunter, an augmented reality tattoo try-on app that was born out of a 48-hour hackathon back in the altogether gentler days of 2014 has bagged a place in Y Combinator’s summer 2018 batch, scoring itself the seed accelerator’s standard $120,000 deal in exchange for 7% equity. We first covered InkHunter in April 2016 when it had just launched an MVP on iOS and was toying with building a marketplace for tattoo artists. Several months and 2.5 million downloads later InkHunter launched its Android app, having spent summer 2016 going through the ERA accelerator program in New York. At that time the team was considering a b2b business model pivot, based on licensing their core AR tech to ecommerce apps and other developers. Though they wanted to keep the tattoo try on app ticking over as a showcase. Fast forward two years and it’s the SDK idea on ice after InkHunter’s app gained enough traction in the tattoo community for the team to revive their marketplace idea — having passed eight million users — so they’ve relocated to Mountain View and swung back around to the original concept of a try-before-you buy tattoo app, using AR to drive bookings for local tattoo artists. “We are focusing on iterating from ‘try’ to ‘try and buy’ experience, based on feedback we got from our users. And this is our goal for the YC program, which places a lot of focus on growth and user interactions,” CTO Pavel Razumovskyi tells us. “Last time we have talked, we did not expect such adoption on the tattoo market. But when we saw really strong usage and feedback from the tattoo community, we decided to double down on that audience.” The newly added booking option is very much an MVP at this stage — with InkHunter using a Typeform interface to ask users who tap through with a booking request to input their details to be contacted later, via text message, with information about relevant local tattoo artists (starting with the US market). But the team’s hope for the YC program is help to hone their approach. Razumovskyi confirms they’ve started with a booking request concierge service in the US without onboarding any tattoo artists into the planned marketplace as yet, and are merely hand picking local tattoo artists to help users with bookings. “While this approach doesn’t scale, it helps us to figure out problems and quickly iterate solutions,” he adds. “We are almost done with this stage, and close to launch an in-app search for tattoo artist into selected locations, listing only licensed artists with the large portfolio.” InkHunter says close to half (45%) its users have expressed a desire to get a tattoo within the next few months, while it got more than 500 booking requests in the first week of the concierge feature. Though you do have to wonder whether users’ desire to experiment with ink on their skin will also extend to a desire to experiment with different tattoo artists too — or whether many regular inkers might not prefer to stick with a tattooist they already know and trust, and whose style they like. (A scenario which may not require an app to sit in the middle to take repeat bookings.) “We want to help them do this with as little regret as possible,” says CEO Oleksandra Rohachova of InkHunter’s tattoo hungry users — so presumably the team will also be carefully vetting the tattoo artists they list on their marketplace. The main function of the app lets users browse thousands of tattoo designs and virtually try them on using its core AR feature — which requires people spill a little real-world ink to anchor the virtual design by making a few pen marks on their skin where they want the tattoo to live. As use-cases for AR go it’s a pretty pleasing one. InkHunter also supports taking and sharing photos — to loop friends’ opinions into your skin-augmenting decision, and help the app’s fame spread. The team’s hope for the next stage of building an app business is once an InkHunter user has settled on the design and placement of their next tat, they’ll get comfortable about relying on the app to find and book an artist. And the next time, for their next tattoo too.

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Light raises $121M led by SoftBank as it prepares to bring its camera tech to smartphones

Camera technology company Light is the latest to do the money dance with SoftBank’s massive Vision Fund after it raised a $121 million Series D round. The funding round was led by Vision Fund, the near-$100 billion fund anchored by SoftBank, with participation from consumer camera giant Leica Camera AG. Light is best known for its futuristic camera technology and shooters. The company first introduced the $1,950 L16 camera back in 2015, which then began shipping in 2017. The camera uses 16 lenses to capture 52 megapixel imagery which produces impressive results. Perhaps most notably, the L16 is tiny which makes it hugely portable and convenient. Given the small form factor and the rise of mobile photography, it was with little surprise that earlier this month Light teased its first smartphone camera product. Exact details of what that product will finally look like are unclear, but a Light representative told TechCrunch that its mobile technology has been licensed to an OEM which plans to launch a Light-powered smartphone this coming September. “In this era, pocketable, connected cameras can reconstruct the world in three dimensions and superhuman detail, cars are able to perceive the objects around them without the need for special sensors, and robots are able to thread the elusive needle autonomously,” Light said in a statement. In addition, the company claims the tech, which supports up to nine cameras on the rear side of the phone, will “shatter the expectations of mobile photography.” A representative said also that Leica and Light’s partnership may see the duo develop consumer products that utlize Light’s tech, although details of that are even less clear than the smartphone plan at this point. That foray into mobile underscores the plans for this new round of funding for Light. The company said it intends to push its technology, which to date has been utilized in the consumer space, into security, robotic, automotive, aerial and industrial imaging verticals.

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The Ken raises $1.5M to grow its subscription journalism business in India

The Ken, a subscription news startup from India, is moving through the gears after it raised $1.5 million in fresh funding to build out its media business. We first profiled the company in March 2017 and now, nearly 18 months later, the startup has raised its Series A round led by Omidyar Networks, which has invested in new media companies such as Rappler in the Philippines. Other investors included Yuj Kutumb, the Family Foundation headed by Xander Group founder Sid Yog, and existing and new angel investors. Rohin Dharmakumar, co-founder and CEO of The Ken, told TechCrunch that the company still has more than half of its $400,000 seed round in the bank, but it has raised this additional cash to go after new opportunities. The Ken has made its mark by publishing one thoughtfully-reported long-form story each day. An annual subscription is priced at Rs 2750 (around $43) in India or $108 overseas, there are also options for quarterly and single-story access. Thus far it has covered technology startups, healthcare and business verticals but now it is aiming to expand that focus. “We were a single product experience,” Dharmakumar said. “But this funding allows us to slowly transition The Ken to a media brand with a portfolio of products that gives our readers different things to connect to on different days.” “We don’t want to replace newspapers, we want to complement them [and] be the deep read that you take alongside the newspaper,” Dharmakumar added, explaining that The Ken will never churn out “dozens” of stories each day. “We do one story [per day] right now and we might go to two or three, but we’ll organize it so people can read different slices. Increasingly it’s our belief that we don’t want to bombard readers with too much stuff to read each day [because] we can’t do justice to our stories and readers can’t process the information,” he said. Beyond expanding the scope of reporting, The Ken is looking to cover international topics for its India-based audience and it is also dabbling with different types of storytelling. That’s already manifested in a weekend edition — which Dharmakumar said has a very different tone — but the startup is looking into audio storytelling, podcasts and other mediums that allow it to “stay true to our brand of journalism.” Video is, at this point, off the table although it could be used in conjunction with stories but not standalone. Dharmakumar noted that The Ken may also experiment with events over the next twelve months, but he was quick to point out that the focus should be on bringing value to subscribers and not simply pulling in cash. Events are, of course, can be hugely lucrative for media companies — its a key revenue driver for TechCrunch among others, for example — but his concern is that it takes the company down a road it doesn’t want to be on. “It’s easy to get sidetracked by events,” Dharmakumar said. “We didn’t start this business to do events.” On the subject of revenue, however, The Ken appears to be doing well even though it isn’t divulging specific numbers at this point. The company proudly announced it was cash flow positive in April 2018 and Dharmakumar revealed that revenue for its most recent quarter was doubled the previous quarter, and up 3X on the period one year previous. A key part of that seems to be group subscriptions. The Ken has developed a self-serve option that allows corporates to sign-up staff on their dime, while the launch of a discounted student price has also led major educational institutions, including Havard Business School India, to signing up students en masse. “We’ve proved [the naysers] wrong and with a team of 15 people — we pay market salaries to all our journalists— we became cash flow positive,” Dharmakumar said. “We’re on the cusp of a significant uptick in subscribers. More and more people are discovering us and realizing ‘Hey this price isn’t so bad and the journalism they commit to delivering is good.’” That team is spread across three offices and the headcount looks set to jump to 30 over the next few months with The Ken in full on hiring mode right now, its CEO said. You can read more about The Ken’s new funding round on its website here — that post is free to view, of course.

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Swim.ai raises $10M to bring real-time analytics to the edge

Once upon a time, it looked like cloud-based serviced would become the central hub for analyzing all IoT data. But it didn’t quite turn out that way because most IoT solutions simply generate too much data to do this effectively and the round-trip to the data center doesn’t work for applications that have to react in real time. Hence the advent of edge computing, which is spawning its own ecosystem of startups. Among those is Swim.ai, which today announced that it has raised a $10 million Series B funding round led by Cambridge Innovation Capital, with participation from Silver Creek Ventures and Harris Barton Asset Management. The round also included a strategic investment from Arm, the chip design firm you may still remember as ARM (but don’t write it like that or their PR department will promptly email you). This brings the company’s total funding to about $18 million. Swim.ai has an interesting take on edge computing. The company’s SWIM EDX product combines both local data processing and analytics with local machine learning. In a traditional approach, the edge devices collect the data, maybe perform some basic operations against the data to bring down the bandwidth cost and then ship it to the cloud where the hard work is done and where, if you are doing machine learning, the models are trained. Swim.ai argues that this doesn’t work for applications that need to respond in real time. Swim.ai, however, performs the model training on the edge device itself by pulling in data from all connected devices. It then builds a digital twin for each one of these devices and uses that to self-train its models based on this data. “Demand for the EDX software is rapidly increasing, driven by our software’s unique ability to analyze and reduce data, share new insights instantly peer-to-peer – locally at the ‘edge’ on existing equipment. Efficiently processing edge data and enabling insights to be easily created and delivered with the lowest latency are critical needs for any organization,” said Rusty Cumpston, co-founder and CEO of Swim.ai. “We are thrilled to partner with our new and existing investors who share our vision and look forward to shaping the future of real-time analytics at the edge.” The company doesn’t disclose any current customers, but it is focusing its efforts on manufacturers, service providers and smart city solutions. Update: Swim.ai did tell us about two customers after we published this story: The City of Palo Alto and Itron. Swim.ai plans to use its new funding to launch a new R&D center in Cambridge, UK, expand its product development team and tackle new verticals and geographies with an expanded sales and marketing team.

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