The Stanford connections behind Latin America’s multi-billion dollar startup renaissance

The houses along the tree-lined blocks of Josina Avenue in Palo Alto, with their big back yards, swimming pools and driveways are about as far removed from the snarls of traffic, sputtering diesel engines, and smoggy air of South America’s major metropolises as one can get.

But it was in one of those houses, about a twelve-minute bicycle ride from Stanford University, that the seed was planted for what has become a renaissance in technology entrepreneurship in Latin America.

Back in 2010, when Adeyemi Ajao, Carlo Dapuzzo, and Juan de Antonio were students at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business they could not predict that they would be counted among the vanguard of investors and entrepreneurs transforming Latin America’s startup economy.

At the time, Ajao was negotiating the sale of his first business, the Spanish social networking company, Tuenti, to Telefonica (in what would be a $100 million exit). Carlo Dapuzzo was in Palo Alto taking a break from his job at Monashees, which at that time was a small, early-stage investment fund based in Brazil focused on investing in Latin America. Juan de Antonio had left a job as a consultant at BCG to attend Stanford’s business school on a Fulbright scholarship.

In just two years, Ajao would be a founding investor in de Antonio’s ride-hailing business, Cabify, focused on Latin America and Europe; and Dapuzzo would be seeding the ride-hailing service 99Taxis. Today, Cabify is worth over $1 billion and has focused its business primarily on Latin America while 99 was sold to the Chinese ride-hailing company Didi for $1 billion — making it one of the largest deals in Latin America’s young startup history.

The three men are now at the center of a vast web of startups whose intersection can, in many cases, be traced back to the house on Josina Avenue where Dapuzzo and de Antonio lived and where Ajao spent much of his free time.

“It’s the same dynamics as the PayPal Mafia,” says Ajao. “The new unicorn batches which started in Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil. Although they’re all trans-national, they all know each other and literally they are all friends and all co-investors in each other’s companies and they all have links to Silicon Valley… and… more importantly… to Stanford.”

Carlo Dapuzzo, Adeyemi Ajao, and Juan de Antonio at Stanford University

Stalled Economic Engines

If Ajao’s enthusiasm sounds familiar, that’s because it is. There was another wave of interest in Latin America that started surging nearly a decade ago, but crashed nearly five years into what was supposed to be the time of the region’s explosive growth in the global scene.

Back in 2008, as the U.S. was sliding into recession, global economists cast about for countries whose economic might could potentially provide some antidote to the toxic assets that were poisoning the global financial system in America and Western Europe. It was then that the concept coined by a Goldman Sachs economist back in 2001 (in the aftermath of another financial shock) baked Brazil, Russia, India and China into a BRIC — a group of nations that, as a bloc, could create enough growth to keep the global economy moving upwards.

All of them were growing at a rapid clip, albeit at different speeds and from different starting trajectories. But they were still all humming. Investment — from large financial institutions, private equity and venture capital firms — all began flowing into the four countries.

In Brazil and across Latin America, companies from the U.S. began to cast their eyes South for growth. That’s when Groupon began to make inroads into the region. When Groupon acquired the Chilean company ClanDescuento, it served as a starting gun for activity across multiple geographies.

Two years after that acquisition by Groupon, Redpoint’s Brazilian investment vehicle, Redpoint eVentures was able to close on a $130 million fund for Brazilian and Latin American investments in just under four months. While Brazil held the bulk of the capital, many of the largest startup companies were being launched out of Buenos Aires in Argentina.

Globant, Despegar, MercadoLibre, and OLX were all lucrative deals for the investors who made them. Today, they remain solid companies, but they didn’t create the ecosystem that both local investors and entrepreneurs were hoping for. Brazil’s Peixe Urbano was also a rising star at the time, but it too wound up selling, in its case to Chinese internet Baidu. Indeed, the Peixe Urbano funding gave investors like Benchmark’s Matt Cohler their first exposure to the region.

A 2012 default on Argentinian debt derailed the economy and Brazil’s economy began seizing up at around the same time. Then, in 2014, Brazil was hit by both an economic and political collapse that shook the country’s stability and ushered in a two-year-long recession.

Ultimately, the Brazilian component of the BRIC miracle, that would have potentially ushered in a brighter future for the broader region, didn’t materialize.

The next starting gun

Ajao began investing in Latin America as an angel investor during the beginnings of the downturn in Brazil and when Argentina was also seizing up. It’s also when Dapuzzo made the initial bet on 99Taxis — bringing Ajao in as an investor — and Cabify launched, eventually bringing its service to Mexico and seeing huge growth in the Latin American market.

500 Startups expanded to Mexico around the same period, in what turned out to be a prescient move. Because even as the broader economies were slowing, technology adoption — fueled by rising smartphone sales and new internet-enabled mobile services — was speeding up.

Groupon’s push into the region taught a new consumer market about the pleasures of venture-backed e-commerce, but it was ride-hailing that truly paved the way for Latin America’s future success. Many factors played a role, from the rise of smartphones to the stabilization and growth of economies in the region outside of Argentina and Brazil and the return of a generation of founders who gained exposure and experience in Silicon Valley.

Here again, the house on Josina Street and the friends that were made over the course of the two-year grad school program at Stanford would play a critical role.

“99 was the second start and this new generation of founders,” said one investor with a deep knowledge of the region.

A taxi driver uses the 99 taxi app for smartphones in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on October 11, 2018. (Photo via Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images)

A herd of unicorns

Ajao also sees 99 as ground zero for the network that has spawned a unicorn stampede in Latin America. It’s a group of companies that covers everything from financial services, mobility and logistics, food delivery and even pet care.

In some ways it’s an extension and culmination of the American on-demand thesis, with allowances for the unique characteristics of the region’s varied economies and cultural experience, investors and entrepreneurs said.

“In my mind 99 had a lot to do with what is happening right now with the current PayPal mafia [of Latin America] because they became the first big new exit on the continent,” Ajao says.

Entrepreneurs from 99 spun out to form Yellow, a dockless scooter and bike-sharing company that was initially backed by Monashees, Grishin Robotics and Base10 Ventures — the venture firm that Ajao co-founded and which closed a $137 million venture fund just nine months ago.

Monashees and Base10 also co-invested in Grin, a Mexico City-based dockless scooter company. Together the two companies managed to raise over $100 million before merging into one company earlier this. That deal ultimately provided a challenger to the automotive-based ride-sharing businesses that were beginning to encroach on the scooter business.

The growth of 99Taxis and the rise of startups in Latin America ultimately convinced David Velez, a former venture investor with Sequoia Capital to return to Brazil and try his hand at entrepreneurship as well. A year behind Ajao, de Antonio and Dapuzzo at Stanford, Velez was also friendly with the group.

Velez worked at Sequoia Capital and saw the opportunity that Latin America presented as an investment environment. After starting Sequoia Capital Latin America he transitioned into an entrepreneurial role and became the co-founder of Nubank, which would be Sequoia’s first Latin America investment. Now a $4 billion financial technology powerhouse, the Nubank deal was yet another proof point that the Latin American market had come of age — and another branch on a tree that has its roots in Stanford’s business school and the Silicon Valley venture community.

The final piece of this intersecting web of investments and relationships is Rappi — the Colombian delivery service business that was also backed by Monazhees and Base10. The first company from Latin America to enter YCombinator and the first investment from the new Silicon Valley power player, Andreessen Horowitz, Rappi epitomizes the new generation of Latin American startups.

“The way we think about this part of the world is as a massive market with 700 million people living on the continent and really dense cities,” says Rappi co-founder and president, Sebastian Mejia. “And it’s a region where the tech stack hasn’t been built, which gives you an opportunity to solve problems and create digital champions that look more similar to China than the U.S.”

Mejia epitomizes what Ajao calls a new breed of startup entrepreneur that doesn’t necessarily look to other markets for inspiration or business models, but solves local problems for a local customer, rather than a global one.

“Being local was more of a competitive advantage than a disadvantage and we can solve problems in a better way than a Silicon Valley company or a Chinese company could,” says Mejia. “What we’re starting to see now is that those changes in perspective allow us to build bigger companies.”

In all, Monashees and Base10 have invested in companies operating in Latin America that have a combined valuation of over $6 billion between them. Through the extended network of Stanford connections and the startups that Velez has brought to the table that number is higher than $10 billion.

A bicycle courier working for Colombian online delivery company “Rappi”, rides his bike in Bogota, on October 11, 2018. (Photo via John Vizcaino/AFP/Getty Images)

The next $10 billion

If the Latin American market was once overlooked by venture investors like Sequoia Capital, Andreessen Horowitz, Benchmark or Accel, that’s certainly no longer the case.

Funds are pouring into the region at an unprecedented clip, driven by SoftBank and its interest on the continent following its commitment to launching a new $2 billion fund in the region and its subsequent $1 billion investment in Rappi.

“Latin America is on the cusp of becoming one of the most important economic regions in the world, and we anticipate significant growth in the decades ahead,” said Masayoshi Son, chairman and CEO of SBG, in a statement when SoftBank launched its fund.

“SBG plans to invest in entrepreneurs throughout Latin America and use technology to help address the challenges faced by many emerging economies with the goal of improving the lives of millions of Latin Americans,” he added.

Son is likely thinking about the 375 million internet users in Latin America and the 250 million smartphone users across the region. It’s also worth noting that retail e-commerce has been a huge driver of economic growth despite other economic obstacles. The region’s e-commerce has grown to $54 billion in 2018 up from $29.8 billion in 2015.

Even more critically, there are some key areas where innovation and new services are still sorely needed. Access to transportation isn’t great for the roughly 79% of the 700 million people across South America who live in cities. Then there are 400 million people across Latin America who are either unbanked or underbanked. Healthcare is another area where a lack of investment to date could create potential opportunities for new startups.

More generally, poor infrastructure remains a significant problem that companies like Rappi and another SoftBank investment, Loggi, are looking to make inroads into.

“Latin America was for many years, underinvested,” says de Antonio, whose Cabify business has managed to score a valuation of over $1 billion largely based on the opportunities ahead of it in the Latin American market. “You will see a bit more money to catch up. The market is big… and potentially huge… I’m a big believer that it’s a good moment now to invest.”

For de Antonio, Cabify, Rappi, and other startups are only now hitting their stride. In the future, they stand to enable a host of other opportunities, he believes.

“The entrepreneurial mindset is really ingrained in Latin America… the difference is maybe there wasn’t an ecosystem to help these ideas to scale.. .there are huge fortunes in the region but they typically… they have a lot of their assets invested in the region… but they need to diversify,” said de Antonio. “Until recently there hasn’t been an active funding market for all of these startups.”

For de Antonio and Ajao, one of the critical lessons that they learned from their time at Stanford and being exposed to the broader Silicon Valley ecosystem was the notion of collaboration.

“This is something we learned from San Francisco,” de Antonio said. “The way companies help each other is something that we haven’t seen people do before. And usually when you are a young company this can be the difference between being successful or a failure.

Aaron Rodgers raises $50M for Rx3 Ventures, a consumer fund backed by influencers

Aaron Rodgers is an athlete, an influencer and now, a venture capitalist.

The football star, Super Bowl champion and long-time quarterback for the Green Bay Packers has teamed up with ROTH Capital Partners’ Nate Raabe and Byron Roth to launch Rx3 Ventures. Today, the trio are announcing a $50 million debut fund focused on the consumer market.

The fund is supported by influencers in the sports and entertainment market, with a goal of giving them a stake in the companies for which they are hired to be spokespeople. Influencer marketing continues to gain traction; Rx3 wants to ensure authentic, equitable relationships between brands and public figures.

“As professional athletes, we’re constantly approached with investment opportunities,” Rodgers said in a statement. “With more and more access to deal flow, it’s hard for any athlete or high-profile individual to adequately evaluate each opportunity. We are in a unique position to help drive positive outcomes for companies, particularly consumer brands, but the relationship needs to be authentic. With Rx3, I saw the opportunity to create an investment platform that brings together a group of like-minded influential investors and their respective networks with the backing of institutional resources.”

Rx3 has invested in a number of startups already, including VICIS, known for its $950 Zero1 football helmet designed for adult players. The startup raised a $28.5 million Series B in November, with participation from Rodgers, as well as other pro footballers, including Roger Staubach, Jerry Rice, Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin.

Rx3, which invests alongside consumer private equity and growth capital funds, has also backed Hims, CorePower Yoga, glasses retailer Privé Revaux and Hydrow, a maker of indoor rowing machines.

Getsafe, the German insurance app, scores $17M Series A

Getsafe, the German insurance startup targeting millennials, has raised $17 million (€15m) in a Series A funding.

The round is led by Earlybird, with CommerzVentures and other existing investors also participating, while the capital will be used for European expansion. Notably, the company plans to launch in the U.K. by the end of the year.

Founded in May 2015 by Christian Wiens (CEO) and Marius Blaesing (CTO), Getsafe initially launched as a digital insurance broker but has since pivoted to a direct to digital consumer insurance offering of its own (its brokerage business was sold to Verivox).

The startup claims it is the market leader in the digital-first 20 to 35-year-old segment, with 60,000 customers, although competitors such as Wefox’s One may disagree.

Getsafe customers can take out renters insurance and liability insurance. The latter includes bike and drone coverage, with additional products to be added soon.

More broadly, Getsafe says it is “reinventing insurance”. The insurtech startup, based in Heidelberg, says its tech uses AI to help customers identify the insurance protection they might need. “With a few clicks, customers can learn about, buy, and manage insurance on their smartphone,” says the company. Claims can be done entirely digitally, too, via the Getsafe app and chatbot.

As part of the investment, Getsafe plans to grow its team from the current 50 employees to more than 100. The recruitment drive will span customer care, software development and data science. The startup also plans to raise further funds over next twelve months.

AntiToxin sells safetytech to clean up poisoned platforms

The big social networks and video games have failed to prioritize user well-being over their own growth. As a result, society is losing the battle against bullying, predators, hate speech, misinformation and scammers. Typically when a whole class of tech companies have a dire problem they can’t cost-effectively solve themselves, a software-as-a-service emerges to fill the gap in web hosting, payment processing, etc. So along comes AntiToxin Technologies, a new Israeli startup that wants to help web giants fix their abuse troubles with its safety-as-a-service.

It all started on Minecraft. AntiToxin co-founder Ron Porat is cybersecurity expert who’d started popular ad blocker Shine. Yet right under his nose, one of his kids was being mercilessly bullied on the hit children’s game. If even those most internet-savvy parents were being surprised by online abuse, Porat realized the issue was bigger than could be addressed by victims trying to protect themselves. The platforms had to do more, research confirmed.

A recent Ofcom study found almost 80% of children had a potentially harmful online experience in the past year. Indeed, 23% said they’d been cyberbullied, and 28% of 12 to 15-year-olds said they’d received unwelcome friend or follow requests from strangers. A Ditch The Label study found of 12 to 20-year-olds who’d been bullied online, 42% were bullied on Instagram.

Unfortunately, the massive scale of the threat combined with a late start on policing by top apps makes progress tough without tremendous spending. Facebook tripled the headcount of its content moderation and security team, taking a noticeable hit to its profits, yet toxicity persists. Other mainstays like YouTube and Twitter have yet to make concrete commitments to safety spending or staffing, and the result is non-stop scandals of child exploitation and targeted harassment. Smaller companies like Snap or Fortnite-maker Epic Games may not have the money to develop sufficient safeguards in-house.

“The tech giants have proven time and time again we can’t rely on them. They’ve abdicated their responsibility. Parents need to realize this problem won’t be solved by these companies” says AntiToxin CEO Zohar Levkovitz, who previously sold his mobile ad company Amobee to Singtel for $321 million. “You need new players, new thinking, new technology. A company where ‘Safety’ is the product, not an after-thought. And that’s where we come-in.” The startup recently raised a multimillion-dollar seed round from Mangrove Capital Partners and is allegedly prepping for a double-digit millions Series A.

AntiToxin’s technology plugs into the backends of apps with social communities that either broadcast or message with each other and are thereby exposed to abuse. AntiToxin’s systems privately and securely crunch all the available signals regarding user behavior and policy violation reports, from text to videos to blocking. It then can flag a wide range of toxic actions and let the client decide whether to delete the activity, suspend the user responsible or how else to proceed based on their terms and local laws.

Through the use of artificial intelligence, including natural language processing, machine learning and computer vision, AntiToxin can identify the intent of behavior to determine if it’s malicious. For example, the company tells me it can distinguish between a married couple consensually exchanging nude photos on a messaging app versus an adult sending inappropriate imagery to a child. It also can determine if two teens are swearing at each other playfully as they compete in a video game or if one is verbally harassing the other. The company says that beats using static dictionary blacklists of forbidden words.

AntiToxin is under NDA, so it can’t reveal its client list, but claims recent media attention and looming regulation regarding online abuse has ramped up inbound interest. Eventually the company hopes to build better predictive software to identify users who’ve shown signs of increasingly worrisome behavior so their activity can be more closely moderated before they lash out. And it’s trying to build a “safety graph” that will help it identify bad actors across services so they can be broadly deplatformed similar to the way Facebook uses data on Instagram abuse to police connected WhatsApp accounts.

“We’re approaching this very human problem like a cybersecurity company, that is, everything is a Zero-Day for us” says Levkowitz, discussing how AntiToxin indexes new patterns of abuse it can then search for across its clients. “We’ve got intelligence unit alums, PhDs and data scientists creating anti-toxicity detection algorithms that the world is yearning for.” AntiToxin is already having an impact. TechCrunch commissioned it to investigate a tip about child sexual imagery on Microsoft’s Bing search engine. We discovered Bing was actually recommending child abuse image results to people who’d conducted innocent searches, leading Bing to make changes to clean up its act.

AntiToxin identified publicly listed WhatsApp Groups where child sexual abuse imagery was exchanged

One major threat to AntiToxin’s business is what’s often seen as boosting online safety: end-to-end encryption. AntiToxin claims that when companies like Facebook expand encryption, they’re purposefully hiding problematic content from themselves so they don’t have to police it.

Facebook claims it still can use metadata about connections on its already encrypted WhatApp network to suspend those who violate its policy. But AntiToxin provided research to TechCrunch for an investigation that found child sexual abuse imagery sharing groups were openly accessible and discoverable on WhatsApp — in part because encryption made them hard to hunt down for WhatsApp’s automated systems.

AntiToxin believes abuse would proliferate if encryption becomes a wider trend, and it claims the harm that it  causes outweighs fears about companies or governments surveiling unencrypted transmissions. It’s a tough call. Political dissidents, whistleblowers and perhaps the whole concept of civil liberty rely on encryption. But parents may see sex offenders and bullies as a more dire concern that’s reinforced by platforms having no idea what people are saying inside chat threads.

What seems clear is that the status quo has got to go. Shaming, exclusion, sexism, grooming, impersonation and threats of violence have started to feel commonplace. A culture of cruelty breeds more cruelty. Tech’s success stories are being marred by horror stories from their users. Paying to pick up new weapons in the fight against toxicity seems like a reasonable investment to demand.

NoBroker raises $51M to help Indians buy and rent without real estate brokers

A startup that is attempting to significantly improve the way how Indians rent or buy an apartment just raised a substantially big amount to further pursue its mission. Bangalore-based real estate property operator NoBroker said today it has raised $51 million in a new round of funding.

The Series C financing round for the five-year-old startup was led by General Atlantic . It valued NoBroker at about $200 million, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. Existing investors SAIF Partners and BEENEXT also participated in the round. NoBroker has raised about $71 million in capital to date, it said in a statement.

NoBroker, which operates in Bengaluru, Chennai, Gurgaon, Mumbai and Pune, has quickly emerged as one of the largest players in the real estate business. It operates over 2.5 million properties on its website and has already served more than 6 million users to date — up from 1.5 million customers two years ago. The startup helps Indians looking for an apartment avoid the brokers  — hence the name NoBroker — and connects them directly to property owners.

Real estate brokers in India, as is true in other markets, help people find properties. But they can charge up to 10 months worth of rent (leasing) — or a single-digit percent of the apartment’s worth if someone is buying the property — in urban cities as their commission.

Amit Kumar, CEO and cofounder of NoBroker, told TechCrunch in an interview that the startup will use the fresh capital to expand its operations in the nation. “This current funding round will support us in our plans to expand our operations. Our objective is to accelerate customer and deal-closure growth and continue to deliver value to customers across the country. We will also invest in our home store and financial services products,” he said.

Kumar said the startup, which generates revenue in two ways, is increasingly reaching profitability. First, it lets non-paying users get in touch with only nine property owners. Those who wish to contact more property owners are required to pay a fee. Second, property owners can opt to pay NoBroker to have its representatives deal with prospective buyers — in a move that ironically makes the startup serve as a broker.

As noble as NoBroker’s mission sounds, its path to expansion is filled with challenges. The startup is competing with a number of players including heavily backed NestAway, which counts Goldman Sachs and Tiger Global among its investors. NestAway operates in eight cities and has raised north of $100 million to date. Budget hotel startup Oyo, which now counts Airbnb as an investor, also entered this space with Oyo Living. India’s real estate industry is estimated to grow to $1 trillion in worth by 2030.

Besides, there are some other local challenges. Brokers are unsurprisingly not happy with startups such as NoBroker and have grown hostile in recent years. They continue to attack and harass NoBroker employees. So much so that the startup had to delist its address from Google Maps.

“We have been extremely impressed by the strength of the NoBroker team and their relentless focus on using technology to create an improved user experience in the large real estate market in India. We look forward to supporting them in their journey of making real estate transactions easier and convenient,” said Sharad Bhojnagarwala, VP of General Atlantic, in a prepared statement.

Mirakl Connect lets sellers list products on multiple e-commerce marketplaces

Mirakl is launching a new product called Mirakl Connect. As the name suggests, this central dashboard lets you control which marketplace you’re working with, and which seller you want to list on your marketplace.

Mirakl is a French startup that recently raised a $70 million funding round. The company works with e-commerce platforms so that they can add a marketplace of third-party sellers in addition to their own inventory.

Marketplaces are increasingly popular on e-commerce websites, and Mirakl powers the marketplaces for Darty, Office Depot, Best Buy in Canada, etc. The company also powers B2B marketplaces.

But now that marketplaces are booming, it becomes increasingly complicated for sellers to list their products on different marketplaces and reach as many clients as possible.

Thanks to Mirakl Connect, sellers can create a company profile and promote products on multiple marketplaces at once. On the other side, e-commerce platforms that are just starting can find third-party sellers more easily.

If you’re running a small e-commerce website, third-party sellers don’t want to waste time and efforts to list products if it doesn’t lead to a lot of sales. By minimizing efforts, it should boost smaller marketplaces.

Sellers and marketplace owners can discuss together on Mirakl Connect with a built-in chat feature. Yes, Mirakl Connect sounds a bit like a marketplace of marketplaces — double marketplaces all the way.

Diving deep into Africa’s blossoming tech scene

Jumia may be the first startup you’ve heard of from Africa. But the e-commerce venture that recently listed on the NYSE is definitely not the first or last word in African tech.

The continent has an expansive digital innovation scene, the components of which are intersecting rapidly across Africa’s 54 countries and 1.2 billion people.

When measured by monetary values, Africa’s tech ecosystem is tiny by Shenzen or Silicon Valley standards.

But when you look at volumes and year over year expansion in VC, startup formation, and tech hubs, it’s one of the fastest growing tech markets in the world. In 2017, the continent also saw the largest global increase in internet users—20 percent.

If you’re a VC or founder in London, Bangalore, or San Francisco, you’ll likely interact with some part of Africa’s tech landscape for the first time—or more—in the near future.

That’s why TechCrunch put together this Extra-Crunch deep-dive on Africa’s technology sector.

Tech Hubs

A foundation for African tech is the continent’s 442 active hubs, accelerators, and incubators (as tallied by GSMA). These spaces have become focal points for startup formation, digital skills building, events, and IT activity on the continent.

Prominent tech hubs in Africa include CcHub in Nigeria, Pan-African incubator MEST, and Kenya’s iHub, with over 200 resident members. More of these organizations are receiving funds from DFIs, such as the World Bank, and aid agencies, including France’s $76 million African tech fund.

Blue-chip companies such as Google and Microsoft are also providing money and support. In 2018 Facebook opened its own Hub_NG in Lagos with partner CcHub, to foster startups using AI and machine learning.

Necto looks to help individuals get their own local ISP businesses off the ground

If you live in a city, you’re probably deciding between a handful of major broadband or wireless carriers — maybe something like Comcast or AT&T. But there’s a good chance that there are a bunch of local carriers that are looking to get off the ground, and Benjamin Huang wants to help make sure there are even more options/.

That’s the idea behind Necto, a startup looking to create a sort of ISP school to help people get started with their own internet service provider founded by Huang and Adam Montgomery. Typically that’s a pretty tall order, but Necto works with individuals to learn how to build a network, get the right equipment, and deploy it in order to get consumers access to a new internet service provider that’s an alternative to the larger carriers. There are already emerging providers like Sonic in San Francisco, which aims to offer quick internet for a cheaper price, but there’s a whole group of individuals waiting in the wings that are trying to build their own ISP and the associated business behind it, Huang said. Necto is launching out of Y Combinator’s winter 2018 class.

“Ultimately, we want to see so many ISPs that net neutrality isn’t an issue,” Montgomery said. “It’s cheaper than ever and easier to start an internet service provider. People didn’t know they could do this, and networking engineering is the highest cost. You have to have a lot of stuff to build out. We remove that and bundle it as an ISP starter kit service. We give guidance to the operators, these are the customers you have, this is the equipment you need buy, here’s how to construct them. It’s more like constructing Ikea furniture. The hard part we remove which is automatically configuring these routers.”

Necto started off as its own attempt at an internet service provider, but Huang and Montgomery found that trying to get wholesale fiber was a high barrier to entry. The pair started looking into wholesale wireless, and Huang said that technology is getting to the point where it’s just as fast as typical broadband and an option for resale. The challenge then is getting the equipment into the hands of individuals that want to ramp up their own ISP and showing them how to get started. Then, they’re off to the races and work to build a business around that, including customer service and other facets of it.

Necto essentially charges for the guidance of how to start an ISP, including a class that individuals go through in order to get one off the ground. Then the company continues to ship software to ensure that it’s not as difficult to keep the equipment up and running, as well as provide ongoing support for those individuals. The equipment is all off the shelf, Huang said, in order to lower the barrier to entry for these providers.

The challenge here, however, will be ensuring that not only individuals know they can get an ISP off the ground, but getting their — and consumers’ — attention in the first place. Necto hopes to take a hyper-local strategy, Montgomery said, like traveling to farmers’ markets and working with local operators to ensure they can track down the right people that are looking to build a business around ISPs. There are still going to be plenty of challenges as it continues to work with wholesale wireless providers in order to get these businesses off the ground.

Free stock trading app Robinhood rockets to a $5.6B valuation with new funding round

Robinhood started off as a dead-simple stock trading application that had no transaction fees — but since it’s continued to grow, and especially as it starts to dive into cryptocurrency, investors are getting pretty excited about its prospects and are pouring a ton of new funding into it.

And it’s that tantalizing prospect of creating a next generation way of trading assets and cryptocurrency is now sending Robinhood to a $5.6 billion valuation in a new financing round that the company is announcing today. Robinhood says it’s closed a $363 million Series D financing round, with DST Global led this new round and Iconiq, Kleiner Perkins, Sequoia and Capital G participated. Robinhood had a $1.3 billion valuation last year when it had around 2 million users, and Robinhood says it now has 4 million users and has passed $150 billion in transaction volume.

“It’s the only place right now where you can trade crypto, stocks, and options all in one place,” CEO Vlad Tenev said. “For us to construct an experience that feels seamless and natural for customers, that for example want to sell an equity and use the proceeds to buy crypto, seamlessly, that’s been challenging not just from a product and design standpoint, but also infrastructure standpoint. There’s complexity under the hood, and our goal is to make it as seamless as possible in the process and make that complexity go away.”

Those 4 million users — and that valuation — indicates that Robinhood has clearly exposed a lot of demand for an easier way to users to dip their toes into financial services without having to work with firms that have trading fees like Scotttrade or E*Trade. And while there are a lot of services that offer robo-advisory services like Betterment and Wealthront, which make it easier to start investing small amounts of money, Robinhood offers users the opportunity to do these things at a more granular level.

And, of course, there’s the cryptocurrency aspect that is clearly spurring a lot of interest in the company. At the time, 1 million users waitlisted for access in just the five days after Robinhood Crypto was announced. Robinhood has premium services like Robinhood Gold, where the company can find additional ways to generate revenue that offset the requirements of running a system that allows users to trade stocks for free. Robinhood has raised $539 million to date, as diving into financial services can be an expensive prospect, as well as getting enough users on board to the point that it can scale to a level that the business starts to increasingly make sense.

Robinhood’s crypto trading service came out in February and by today, the company says it’s available in 11 states. The company also rolled out a web version and stock option trading, trying to become a more robust financial services company that’s still tuned to a younger generation that wants an easier way to get into investing without needing a big balance to invest. Most of Robinhood’s users, too, aren’t so-called “day traders” and are instead holding stocks for a while after they buy them.

“If you look at the data and the statistics, people that are active day traders are actually a very small percentage of our space,” Tenev said. “People that are actually transacting on that cadence are the minority of our customers. Most of our customers engage in more of these buy and hold accumulation strategies. We really see a lot of unique things because we don’t charge trading commissions. There are customers that deposit money regularly twice or once a month and then buy stocks as soon as those deposits come in. We don’t see a lot of customers that are doing rapid buying and selling.”

Still, as it tries to further expand — especially into products like crypto and new regions — it’s going to increasingly find itself trying to jump hurdles that financial services companies find when going abroad. And there’s always a chance that the trading platforms will try to become a little more competitive (and companies like Square are even getting into Bitcoin trading). That’s going to require a robust amount of funding to try to outmaneuver well-capitalized companies that might already have those relationships in place to more easily expand.

“The political climate is uncertain, it sort of affects everyone, it doesn’t affect us uniquely,” Tenev said. “We’re a crypto business now. Not a lot of people have a ton of clarity on what that’s gonna look like in the future, it’s a new space that’s evolving really rapidly. I think that we’re confident we can adapt and evolve, and we’re operating the business in a responsible way. There’s only so much you can do, but I feel like we’ve done a lot to address any concerns.”

Tailor Brands raises $15.5M for AI-driven logo creation and more

Tailor Brands, a startup that automates parts of the branding and marketing process for small businesses, announced this morning that it has raised $15.5 million in Series B funding.

CEO Yali Saar has said the company sits at the intersection of design and machine learning. The idea is to create technology that understands the best practices of logo design, copywriting and social media strategy.

It’s the automated design that’s most immediately eye-catching, and that’s the big feature highlighted on the Tailor Brands website. You’ll need to pay to get access to high-quality image files, but before that, you can actually try creating a logo for free, just by entering some basic information about your company and identifying the designs you prefer.

Related: What do you guys think of the new TechCrunch logo?

techcrunch tailor brands

Tailor Brands, which launched at TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield in 2014, said the technology has already been used to create 45 million logos. The company says it had 3.86 million customers last year, and is adding half a million new businesses to the platform each month.

The new funding was led by Pitango Venture Capital Growth Fund and British Armat Group, with participation from Disruptive Technologies and Mangrove Capital Partners. The company has now raised a total of $20.6 million and says it will use the money to expand globally, add more languages and introduce more tools to its full branding suite.