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Bunch scores $3.8M to turn mobile games into video chat LAN parties

The best parts of gaming are the jokes and trash talk with friends. Whether it was four-player Goldeneye or linking up PCs for Quake battles in the basement, the social element keeps video games exciting. Yet on mobile we’ve lost a lot of that, playing silently by ourselves even if we’re in a squad with friends somewhere else. Bunch wants to bring the laughter back to mobile gaming by letting you sync up with friends and video chat while you play. It already works with hits like Fortnite and Roblox, and developers of titles like Spaceteam are integrating Bunch’s SDK to inspire longer game sessions. Bunch is like Discord for mobile, and the chance to challenge that gaming social network unicorn has attracted a $3.8 million seed round led by London Venture Partners and joined by Founders Fund, Betaworks, North Zone, Streamlined Ventures, 500 Startups and more. With Bunch already cracking the top 100 social iOS app chart, it’s planning a launch on Android. The cash will go to adding features like meeting new people to game with or sharing replays, plus ramping up user acquisition and developer partnerships. “I and my co-founders grew up with LAN parties, playing games like Starcraft and Counter Strike – where a lot of the fun is the live banter you have with friends” Bunch co-founder and CEO Selcuk Atli tells me. “We wanted to bring this kind of experience to mobile; where players could play with friends anytime anywhere.” Bunch Team Atli was a venture partner at 500 Startups after co-founding and selling two adtech companies: Manifest Commerce to Rakuten, and Boostable to Metric Collective. But before he got into startups, he co-founded a gaming magazine called Aftercala in Turkey at age 12, editing writers twice his age because “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” he tells me. Atli teamed up with Google senior mobile developer Jason Liang and a senior developer from startups like MUSE and Mox named Jordan Howlett to create Bunch. “Over a year ago, we built our first prototype. The moment we tried it ourselves, we saw it was nothing like what we’ve experienced on our phones before” Atli tells me. The team raised a $500,000 pre-seed round and launched its app in March. “Popular mobile games are becoming live, and live games are coming to mobile devices” says David Lau-Kee, general partner at London Venture Partners. “With this massive shift happening, players need better experiences to connect with friends and play together.” When you log on to Bunch’s iOS app you’ll see which friends are online and what they’re playing, plus a selection of games you can fire up. Bunch overlays group voice or video chat on the screen so you can strategize or satirize with up to eight pals. And if developers build in Bunch’s SDK, they can do more advanced things with video chat like pinning friends’ faces to their in-game characters. It’s a bit like OpenFeint or iOS Game Center mixed with HouseParty. For now Bunch isn’t monetizing as it hopes to reach massive scale first, but Atli thinks they could sell expression tools like emotes, voice and video filters, and more. Growing large will require beating Discord at its own game. The social giant now has over 130 million users across PCs, consoles, and mobile. But it’s also a bit too hardcore for some of today’s casual mobile gamers, requiring you to configure your own servers. “I find that execution speed will be most critical for our success or failure” Atli says. Bunch’s sole focus on making mobile game chat as easy as possible could win it a mainstream audience seduced by Fortnite, HQ Trivia and other phenomena. Research increasingly shows that online experiences can be isolating, and gaming is a big culprit. Hours spent playing alone can leave you feeling more exhausted than fulfilled. But through video chat, gaming can transcend the digital and become a new way to make memories with friends no matter where they are.

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Bunch scores $3.8M to turn mobile games into video chat LAN parties

The best parts of gaming are the jokes and trash talk with friends. Whether it was four-player Goldeneye or linking up PCs for Quake battles in the basement, the social element keeps video games exciting. Yet on mobile we’ve lost a lot of that, playing silently by ourselves even if we’re in a squad with friends somewhere else. Bunch wants to bring the laughter back to mobile gaming by letting you sync up with friends and video chat while you play. It already works with hits like Fortnite and Roblox, and developers of titles like Spaceteam are integrating Bunch’s SDK to inspire longer game sessions. Bunch is like Discord for mobile, and the chance to challenge that gaming social network unicorn has attracted a $3.8 million seed round led by London Venture Partners and joined by Founders Fund, Betaworks, North Zone, Streamlined Ventures, 500 Startups and more. With Bunch already cracking the top 100 social iOS app chart, it’s planning a launch on Android. The cash will go to adding features like meeting new people to game with or sharing replays, plus ramping up user acquisition and developer partnerships. “I and my co-founders grew up with LAN parties, playing games like Starcraft and Counter Strike – where a lot of the fun is the live banter you have with friends” Bunch co-founder and CEO Selcuk Atli tells me. “We wanted to bring this kind of experience to mobile; where players could play with friends anytime anywhere.” Bunch Team Atli was a venture partner at 500 Startups after co-founding and selling two adtech companies: Manifest Commerce to Rakuten, and Boostable to Metric Collective. But before he got into startups, he co-founded a gaming magazine called Aftercala in Turkey at age 12, editing writers twice his age because “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” he tells me. Atli teamed up with Google senior mobile developer Jason Liang and a senior developer from startups like MUSE and Mox named Jordan Howlett to create Bunch. “Over a year ago, we built our first prototype. The moment we tried it ourselves, we saw it was nothing like what we’ve experienced on our phones before” Atli tells me. The team raised a $500,000 pre-seed round and launched its app in March. “Popular mobile games are becoming live, and live games are coming to mobile devices” says David Lau-Kee, general partner at London Venture Partners. “With this massive shift happening, players need better experiences to connect with friends and play together.” When you log on to Bunch’s iOS app you’ll see which friends are online and what they’re playing, plus a selection of games you can fire up. Bunch overlays group voice or video chat on the screen so you can strategize or satirize with up to eight pals. And if developers build in Bunch’s SDK, they can do more advanced things with video chat like pinning friends’ faces to their in-game characters. It’s a bit like OpenFeint or iOS Game Center mixed with HouseParty. For now Bunch isn’t monetizing as it hopes to reach massive scale first, but Atli thinks they could sell expression tools like emotes, voice and video filters, and more. Growing large will require beating Discord at its own game. The social giant now has over 130 million users across PCs, consoles, and mobile. But it’s also a bit too hardcore for some of today’s casual mobile gamers, requiring you to configure your own servers. “I find that execution speed will be most critical for our success or failure” Atli says. Bunch’s sole focus on making mobile game chat as easy as possible could win it a mainstream audience seduced by Fortnite, HQ Trivia and other phenomena. Research increasingly shows that online experiences can be isolating, and gaming is a big culprit. Hours spent playing alone can leave you feeling more exhausted than fulfilled. But through video chat, gaming can transcend the digital and become a new way to make memories with friends no matter where they are.

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Standard Cognition raises $40M to replace retailers’ cashiers with cameras

The Amazon Go store requires hundreds of cameras to detect who’s picking up what items. Standard Cognition needs just 27 to go after the $27 trillion market of equipping regular shops with autonomous retail technology. Walk into one of its partners’ stores and overhead cameras identify you by shape and movement, not facial recognition. Open up its iOS or Android app and a special light pattern flashes, allowing the cameras to tie you to your account and payment method. Grab whatever you want, and just walk out. Standard Cognition will bill you. It even works without an app. Shop like normal and then walk up to kiosk screen, the cameras tell it what items you nabbed, and you can pay with cash or credit card. That means Standard Cognition stores never exclude anyone, unlike Amazon Go. “Our tagline has been ‘rehumanizing retail'” co-founder Michael Suswal tells me. “We’re removing the machines that are between people: conveyor belts, cash registers, scanners…” The potential to help worried merchants compete with Amazon has drawn a new $40 million Series A funding round to Standard Cognition, led by Alexis Ohanian and Garry Tan’s Initialized Capital . CRV, Y Combinator, and Draper Associates joined the round that builds on the startup’s $11 million in seed funding. Just a year old, Standard Cognition already has 40 employees, but plans to hire 70 to 80 more over the next 6 months so it can speed up deployment to more partners. Suswal wouldn’t reveal Standard Cognition’s valuation but said the round was roughly in line with the traditional percentage startups sell in an A round, That’s usually about 20 to 25 percent, indicating the startup could be valued around $160 million to $200 million pre-money. Instead of some lofty tech solution that requires a whole new store to be built around it, Standard Cognition gets retailers to pay for the capital expenditures to install its low number of ceiling cameras and a computer to run them. They can even alter their store layout without working with an engineer as they pay a monthly SAAS fee based on their store’s size, SKUs, and product changes. Standard Cognition’s founding team Amazon Go uses thousands of cameras to track what you pick up Suswal tells me “Retailers’ two biggest complaints are long lines and poor customer service.” Standard Cognition lets stores eliminate the lines and reassign cashiers to become concierges who make sure customers find the perfect products. “It’s already fun to shop, but I think it’s going to become a lot more fun in the future” Suswal predicts. Having seven co-founders is pretty atypical for startups, but it’s helped Standard Cognition move quickly. The crew came together while all working at the SEC. They’d meet up as part of a technology research group, discussing the latest findings on computer vision and machine learning. Suswal recalls that “After about a year, we said ‘if we were going to productize this somehow, what would we do?” They settled on retail, and narrowed it down to autonomous checkout. Then a bombshell dropped. Amazon Go, the first truly signficant cashierless store, was announced. “We initially thought ‘oh no, this is bad.’ And then we quickly came to our senses that this was the best thing that could happen” Suswal explains. Retailers would be desperate for assistance to fight off Amazon. So the squad quit their jobs and started Standard Cognition. In September, Standard Cognition opened a 1,900 sq ft flagship test store on Market St in San Francisco, besting Amazon to the punch. Customers can stuff items in their bags, reconsider and put some back, and stroll out of the store with no stop at the cashier. Standard Cognition claims its camera system is 99 percent accurate, and is trained to identify the suspicious movements and behavior of shoplifters. The store is part of a sudden wave of autonomous retail startups including Zippen that opened the first one in SF, fellow Y Combinator startup Inokyo that launched a bare-bones pop-up in Mountain View, and Trigo Vision which is partnering with Israeli an grocery chain for more than 200 stores. Now with plenty of capital and eager customers, Standard Cognition is equipping stores for its first four partners — all public companies. Three refuse to be named but include US grocery, drug store, and convenience store businesses. The fourth is Japan’s pharmacy chain Yakuodo. Standard Cognition is already working on its store mapping for its cameras and will begin camera installation next month, though it will be a little while until it opens. Japan is the perfect market for Standard Cognition because their aging population has produced a labor shortage. “They literally can’t find people to work in their stores” Suswal explains. Autonomous checkout could keep Japanese retailers growing. And because 70 percent of transactions in Japan are cash-based, it also forced the startup to learn how to handle payments outside of its app. That could make Standard Cognition appealing for retailers that want to embrace the future without abandoning the past. Getting long-running retail businesses to invest in evolving may be the startup’s biggest challenge. Since they have to pay up front for the installation, they’re gambling that the system will reliably increase sales or at least decrease labor costs. But if it makes their stores too confusing, they could see an exodus of customers instead of an influx. As for Standard Cognition’s impact on the labor class, Suswal admits that “the major chains will have some reduction . . . no one is going to get fired but fewer people will get hired.” He believes his tech could actually save some jobs too. “I was walking around NYC talking to (small chains and mom-and-pop) retailers about problems they face, and an alarming number of them told me ‘we’re closing in a year. We’re closing in 6 months.’ And it was all tied to the next minimum wage hike” Suswal tells me. Reducing labor costs could keep those shops viable. “These stores can stay open with a reduction of labor so people are keeping their jobs, not losing them” he claims. Whether that proves true will take some time, but at least Standard Cognition’s tech could incentivize merchants to retrain their clerks for more fulfilling roles as concierges.

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Ezra raises $4M to diagnose cancer with MRIs, not painful biopsies

1 in 41 men will die of prostate cancer. But sticking a needle through your rectum into your prostate to screen for cancer brings along a ton of bacteria and terrible side effects like pain, infection, urinary trouble, and even erectile dysfunction. It turns out you can detect cancer with Magnetic Resonance Imaging…it’s just prohibitively expensive to do one-off MRIs and have radiologists analyze the scans. But by buying MRI slots in bulk and using artificial intelligence to scan them, a new medtech startup called Ezra wants to replace blood tests and biopsies with MRIs as the new standard of care. Today, Ezra launches v1 of its MRI prostate cancer screening subscription service in New York City. For $999 per year, patients get one MRI, access to medical staff and educational guides, and on-going support if the test finds they have cancer. For now, human radiologists still analyze the scans. However, Ezra is working to get FDA approval next year for its AI analysis that’s was initially found to be 90 percent as accurate as medical experts, and could turn Ezra into a lucrative and scalable medtech company. Comparing Radiologist and AI detection of cancer in MRI scans “One of the biggest problems in cancer is that there’s no accurate, fast, painless, way to scan for cancer anywhere in the body” says Ezra co-founder and CEO Emi Gal. He hopes that eventually, Ezra could offer full-body MRIs that make screening for all types of cancer easier to stomach so more cases can be caught early and more patients can survive. To build out its team and market to potential patients at risk for prostate cancer, Ezra is also announcing it’s raised a $4 million seed round led by Accomplice, the health-focused VC that funded PillPack before it was acquired by Amazon for nearly $1 billion. The firm was attracted by Ezra’s 50 percent gross margin on subscriptions that could get even higher at lower subscription prices once its AI is approved. “We’re not losing money every sale” Gal tells me. And while $999 might sound steep, he says a prostate MRI will cost you $1500 if you book it yourself. With 30 million men in the US alone at risk of prostate cancer, there’s urgent need for Ezra to fulfill its mission of “making MRI-based cancer screening affordable to everyone.” Ezra’s Super Hero Origin Gal has one of those startup founder super hero origin stories that gives him the grit necessary to see the problem through. “I developed hundreds of moles as a child that put me at very high risk of melanoma. Every year I’ve had to check for abnormalities and do a couple of biopsies” he candidly revealed. “I’ve been acutely aware of the importance of cancer screening since a young age.” Ezra co-founder and CeO Emi Gal After studying computer science and applied math in his home country of Romania, he built an adtech company at age 20 and sold it at 30. While working with terminally ill cancer patient charity Hospices Of Hope, he seized on the need for better cancer screenings and began his research about different methods. “The more scientists I spoke to, the more convinced I became to build a new screening modality” he recalls. Typically, prostate cancer screenings involve a blood test for prostate-specific antigen, with an needle-through-the-rectum biopsy done if PSA levels are elevated. But PSA levels can be inaccurate, triggering painful and unnecessary biopsies. Gal discovered a recent study by a leading urologist that looked at 500 patients with some diagnosed the traditional way, and some with an MRI that when cancer is detected is then used to guide a biopsy. The latter method identified 18 percent more cases of cancer while reducing unnecessary biopsies and the associated side effects by 27 percent, the study found. MRIs could work. So Ezra conducted its own investigation to see if AI could perform as well as a radiologist. It had three experts mark up a data set from the National Institute Of Health and trained its AI on the data set through the work of Gal’s co-founder Diego Canto, a PhD in deep learning applied to MRI. They found the AI was 90 accurate at agreeing with the experts on a new data set. Now an FDA regulatory expert on the team is trying to get the AI approved to assist radiologists to lower Ezra’s labor costs. Magnetic Resonance Innovation Rather than wait around, Ezra has partnered with the leading MRI facility network RadNet. It buys MRI time slots in bulk for a cheaper rate, starting with a location in Lenox Hill, Manhattan. Next year it will expand to more RadNet locations beyond New York City. If the AI gets approval, there’ll still be human medical experts involved. The AI eliminates the grunt work of doing measurements and annotating MRI scans so the human can focus on just making the cancer/not cancer call. And if the diagnosis sadly is positive, “What we don’t want to do is just drop a report on people that says ‘you likely have cancer’. We want to help with the treatment process and recommend the best urologists” Gal tells me. A study found AI to agree with medical experts on prostate cancer detection 90 percent of the time The combination of hard technology and the booming direct-to-consumer industry drew the $4 million round that also includes Founders Future, Credo Ventures, Seedcamp, Esther Dyson and a number of startup founders and angel investors like SoundCloud co-founder Alex Ljung. They see Ezra as differentiated from expensive overall health screening services like the $25,000 Human Longevity Inc. “Ezra’s uniqueness stands as much in the company’s investigational AI technology as it does in its innovative consumer-centric cancer screening model” says John Crues, M.D. RadNet’s Medical Director. But the biggest threat to Ezra is insurance. If it can’t convince insurers that MRIs that are expensive up front but could be more accurate with fewer complications are more capital efficient long-term than the biopsy status quo, it may have a very tough time getting people to pay $1000 out of pocket. It will also have to find the right balance of margins and affordability that insurers will tolerate. “We want to focus on building a data set that proves [MRIs] are more accurate, less painful, and faster than that the standard of care” Gal concludes. If it can institute MRIs as the new standard for prostate screenings, Ezra will be on its way to offering a single painless test that could spot cancer early enough that it can be beaten. Cancer will kill 9.6 million people this year. It doesn’t have to be that way.

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Pirate Studios raises $20M from Talis Capital for its ‘self-service’ tech-enabled music studios

Pirate Studios, the music technology company that operates fully automated and self-service 24 hour music studios, has secured $20 million. The investment was led by Talis Capital, the London-based VC family office. Talis was already an existing backer of Pirate Studios, with Talis’ Matus Maar also named as a co-founder of the startup. Other investors include Eric Archambeau (Spotify investor and ex-partner at Benchmark and Wellington Partners), Bart Swanson of Horizons Ventures, and partners of Gaw Capital, the $20 billion Hong Kong-headquartered proptech fund. The new funding will enable Pirate Studios to continue to expand across the U.K., Germany and the U.S., where it has been building what the startup describes as a community of musicians, DJs, producers and podcasters who need access to professional rehearsal, production and recording studios at affordable rates. The company charges as little as £4 per hour, depending on what kind of music studio space and facilities you book. However, what really sets Pirate Studios apart from a lot of existing rehearsal rooms and music production and recording studios, is that the startup is employing a lot of tech to power the logistics around its service and, in theory, make it a lot more scalable. This includes online booking, 24 hour keycode access, and other IoT controls for managing facilities. Perhaps even smarter, Pirate Studios offers “automated recording” and live streaming from many of its studios. This means that bands or DJs rehearsing in one of the company’s rooms can easily record their session via built in room mics and other inputs, and the studio’s cloud software will handle mixing and mastering afterwards. Likewise, rooms are set up to be able to video and audio stream sessions, too. Both options tap into the YouTube, SoundCloud, and Spotify generation’s unstoppable appetite for more content from their favourite upcoming and established acts, as well as the dreaded music industry’s favourite new metric: how much social media reach an act has, which can in turn make or break a recording contract opportunity or the chance to get booked at larger, more lucrative live events. I say all of the above as someone who was previously in quite a serious band and used to book rehearsal rooms on a regular basis. I’m also still in touch and collaborating with a number of gigging musicians and professional acts. However, during the last ten years, I’ve seen quite a few studios in London go out of business as property owners look to cash in, and even though there is something a little WeWork about Pirate Studios’ model (and being backed by relatively large amounts of VC cash at this stage) which makes me slightly uneasy, overall I’m very bullish on what the company offers. Without a place to practice, hone your craft, in addition to somewhere to perform, rock ‘n’ roll really would be dead. To that end, in just three years, Pirate has grown to 350 studios in 21 locations, including London, New York, and Berlin. Cue statement from David Borrie, co-founder and CEO of Pirate Studios: “When we founded Pirate Studios our dream was to create innovative spaces to support emerging talent. We want to see music thrive and help musicians get their music out to their fans, through whatever route they think is most appropriate. We are building both the physical space to create, as well as the technology to record and share, that puts power back into the hands of musicians in a period when the digitisation of music continues to radically upset the old order of this industry”.

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iBanFirst raises $17 million to help companies move money around the world

French startup iBanFirst is raising another $17 million (€15 million) from Serena Capital and Breega Capital, with existing investor Xavier Niel putting in more money, as well. iBanFirst solves a very specific problem. If you operate a company that works with suppliers all over the world, chances are you waste a ton of money exchanging and sending money. iBanFirst wants to make currency conversion as easy as transferring money from your savings account to your current account. You first send money from your corporate bank account to your iBanFirst account. You can then convert and hold money in 28 currencies. iBanFirst shows you the interbank exchange rate and how many fees you’ll pay. But you’ll likely pay way less than using your traditional bank account. With 100 employees and 2,000 clients, iBanFirst now focuses on clients who transfer at least €100,000 per year. “We’ve already done a €50 million transfer,” iBanFirst founder and CEO Pierre-Antoine Dusoulier told me. After that, you can send money to a client, a supplier, a partner, etc. It’ll look like a local transfer and you’ll save money on fees. Many companies already do that. But iBanFirst goes one step further by giving you banking information for each currency. If you’re an iBanFirst customer, you can share a Turkish IBAN, an American account number or Chinese banking details. It’s easier to get paid from all your clients. With your French IBAN, the startup is doing something special. “We realized that some IBANs had a letter here and there,” Dusoulier said. “We called SWIFT, and they told us that we could put whatever we wanted for 10 characters.” iBanFirst took advantage of that to create a sort of domain names for IBANs. If you want, you can put your company name in your banking information. The company wants to add more currencies and more features. Thanks to the upcoming European regulation, you could imagine connecting to your regular corporate account from the iBanFirst interface to initiate a transfer. That would be much more straightforward than transferring money to iBanFirst before using it.

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Another crypto exchange goes old school as KuCoin raises $20M from VCs

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: One of the biggest trends in crypto this year is companies raising money the old-fashioned way — through venture capitalists. Hot on the heels of Binance raising money from Singapore’s Vertex Ventures, KuCoin, a relatively new crypto exchange, has pulled in $20 million. The money comes from two big-name investors — IDG Capital and Matrix Partners — and the venture capital arm of Chinese crypto organization Neo, and it’ll be used to expand KuCoin’s global reach, develop technology and launch an investment arm of its own. We’ve confirmed that the deal is based on equity, not a sale of tokens as is often the case with crypto investments. Binance took its investment as part of its plan to introduce a fiat currency exchange in Singapore, and likewise KuCoin — which relocated from Hong Kong to Singapore this year — is turning to investors to help advance its business by tapping into networks and connections. The deal will “open new doors” for the company, KuCoin CEO Michael Gan told TechCrunch in an interview. KuCoin started trading in September 2017 following an ICO that raised 5,500 Bitcoin, then worth around $27.5 million. Still, the company is unlikely to be short of money. The exchange business is the most lucrative perch in the crypto space and, while it hasn’t reached the size of Binance, KuCoin is ranked as the 49th largest exchange according to Coinmarketcap.com, which puts its daily trading at around $25 million. Gan — who previously spent time with Alibaba’s Ant Financial affiliate — said that the capital will go toward hiring, both on new developers and doubling its 50-person support team. In particular, KuCoin is developing features for serious traders, including faster transactions, stop-loss features and more. Decentralized exchanges — which remove the middleman to connect buyer and seller directly — are the big buzzword right now in the exchange world, with figures like Binance making progress on offerings. Gan said that KuCoin will need “a little more time” to develop its “Dex.” He declined to provide a time frame. KuCoin, he explained, is focused on ensuring that it will offer a quality user experience and on a stable platform. Elsewhere, the firm said it plans to offer its service in more languages. It claims that it is working closely with regulators in Europe to gain a license to offer its services in the region, although the company did not comment on whether it plans to adhere to regulations in New York where authorities are investigating a number of other exchanges for doing business unlawfully. First up, KuCoin aims to launch “communities” in Vietnam, Turkey, Italy, Russia and Spanish-speaking countries before the end of this year using online marketing and ads. It aims to grow its reach to 10 markets within the next six months while it is doubling down on in-house research to identify promising projects. Linked to that last point, KuCoin is also getting into the investment game. As I wrote earlier this year, cash-rich crypto companies are turning provider with investments in smaller organizations to build out platforms, establish relationships and more. Binance is perhaps the most notable mover — with a fund that it claims is worth $1 billion and an ambitious early-stage accelerator program. Gan confirmed the plan to launch a “VC arm” but he declined to detail its size or investment strategy at this point. Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

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Microsoft to acquire Xoxco as focus on AI and bot developers continues

Microsoft has been all in on AI this year, and in the build versus buy equation, the company has been leaning heavily toward buying. This morning, the company announced its intent to acquire Xoxco, an Austin-based software developer with a focus on bot design, making it the fourth AI-related company Microsoft has purchased this year. “Today, we are announcing we have signed an agreement to acquire Xoxco, a software product design and development studio known for its conversational AI and bot development capabilities,” Lili Cheng, corporate VP for conversational AI at Microsoft wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition. Xoxco, which was founded in 2009 — long before most of us were thinking about conversational bots — has raised $1.5 million. It began working on bots in 2013, and is credited with developing the first bot for Slack to help schedule meetings. The companies did not reveal the price, but it fits nicely with Microsoft’s overall acquisition strategy this year, and an announcement today involving a new bot building tool to help companies build conversational bots more easily. When you call into a call center these days, or even interact on chat, chances are your initial interaction is with a conversational bot, rather than a human. Microsoft is trying to make it easier for developers without AI experience to tap into Microsoft’s expertise on the Azure platform (or by downloading the bot framework from its newly acquired GitHub). “With this acquisition, we are continuing to realize our approach of democratizing AI development, conversation and dialog, and integrating conversational experiences where people communicate,” Cheng wrote. The new Virtual Assistant Accelerator solution announced today also aligns with the Xoxco purchase. Eric Boyd, corporate VP for AI at Microsoft, says the Virtual Assistant Accelerator pulls together some AI tools such as speech-to-text, natural language processing and an action engine into a single place to simplify bot creation. “It’s a tool that makes it much easier for you to go and create a virtual assistant. It orchestrates a number of components that we offer, but we didn’t make them easy to use [together]. And so it’s really simplifying the creation of a virtual assistant,” he explained. Today’s acquisition comes on the heels of a number of AI-related acquisitions. The company bought Semantic Machines in May to give users a more life-like conversation with bots. It snagged Bonsai in June to help simplify AI development. And it grabbed Lobe in September, another tool for making it easier for developers to incorporate AI in their applications.

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Loans marketplace Mintos scores €5M Series A and plans to launch a debit card

Mintos, the Latvian fintech that operates a global loans marketplace to let you invest in loans from various loan originators, has raised €5 million in Series A funding. Backing the startup once again is the Riga-based venture capital firm Grumpy Investments (previously known as Skillion Ventures). More noteworthy, the new capital will be used to launch a Mintos banking account and debit card, significantly expanding the company’s offering. “Both banking account and the card in our opinion is a natural step in our journey of revolutionising financial services through technology and serving our investors and will nicely complement our current offering of investments in loans, and low-fee mid-market rate currency exchange,” Mintos co-founder and CEO Martins Sulte tells me. “This development also means that, theoretically, our investors won’t need their banks anymore”. The Mintos banking account will act like any other IBAN account. You’ll be able to receive a salary into your Mintos account, use it to get paid by companies, or receive money from friends. And of course you’ll be able to transfer money out of your Mintos account, just like a regular bank account. Sulte says the idea behind plans to launch a Mintos banking account, and the reason why the company is applying for a European e-money license, is to improve the overall Mintos experience. This includes making it quicker to access money generated by the loans you have invested in (which is held by Mintos on your behalf) and easier to invest on a regular basis. “The card will allow investors to access the money they hold on the Mintos account instantly by paying at their local grocery shop or online or withdrawing money at ATMs; basically use the card like any other bank card,” he says. “They will no longer need to request a withdrawal from the platform to their bank account and wait up to two days for their money to arrive”. The fintech startup claims a customer base of 87,000 investors from 71 different countries. In addition to launching the Mintos banking account, it will use the additional funding for further geographical expansion, including Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. The company will also invest in acquiring more customers, and plans to significantly expand the size of its 60 person team. Notably, Mintos has been profitable since January 2017. To that end, the fintech says it has already facilitated more than €1 billion in investments in loans through its marketplace since launching in 2015. It says investors in total have earned €26.7 million in interest through loans to individuals and businesses and have attained an average net return of nearly 12 percent.

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WeWork picks up ANOTHER $3B from SoftBank

WeWork has picked up another $3 billion in financing from SoftBank Corp, not to be confused with SoftBank Vision Fund. The deal comes in the form of a warrant, allowing SoftBank to pay $3 billion for the opportunity to buy shares before September 2019 at a price of $110 or higher, ultimately valuing WeWork at $42 billion minimum. In August, SoftBank Corp invested $1 billion in WeWork in the form of a convertible note. According to the Financial Times, SoftBank will pay WeWork $1.5 billion on January 15, 2019 and another $1.5 billion on April 15. SoftBank is far and away WeWork’s biggest investor, with SoftBank Vision Fund having poured $4.4 billion into the company just last year. The real estate play out of WeWork is just one facet of the company’s strategy. More than physical land, WeWork wants to be the central connective tissue for work in general. The company often strikes deals with major service providers at “whole sale” prices by negotiating on behalf of its 300,000 members. Plus, WeWork has developed enterprise products for large corporations, such as Microsoft, who tend to sign longer, more lucrative leases. In fact, these types of deals make up 29 percent of WeWork’s revenue. The biggest issue is whether or not WeWork can sustain its outrageous growth, which seems to have been the key to its soaring valuation. After all, WeWork hasn’t yet achieved profitability. Can the vision become a reality? SoftBank seems willing to bet on it.

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