European gaming studios Happy Volcano and Snowprint nab millions of investment from Hiro Capital

Today Hiro Capital, a VC focused on backing innovators in video games, the metaverse, e-sports and digital fitness, has announced investing around €12.3 million into two European-based, and one US-based, game studios. On the European side, the two startups are Stockholm/Berlin-based Snowprint and Belgian startup Happy Volcano, with the US-based startup being Double Loop Games in San Francisco….

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EU-Startups

From food delivery to housing: Former Favor founders raise millions for Sunroom Rentals

Real estate tech startup Sunroom Rentals, which leases units on behalf of property managers and apartment owners, has raised $ 11 million in a Series A round of funding led by Gigafund.

Ben Doherty and Zachary Maurais, former founders of the delivery app Favor, launched Sunroom in May 2018 with the mission of “boosting the profitability” of mid-size property managers and apartment owners by giving them a way to outsource their leasing operations.

The pair sold Favor to Texas grocer H-E-B in 2018 and soon after shifted their focus on building out Sunroom. The Austin-based company has developed an app that it says gives renters a way to tour, apply for and lease a unit “entirely online.” COVID-19 has led to more renters wanting virtual ways to explore and secure rental units. Mobile-first, Maurais noted, is particularly appealing to millennials and Gen Zers.

“Personally, we love to create products that fulfill consumer’s most basic needs,” said Maurais, the company’s president. “With food under our belt, we decided to focus on housing.”

While one might wonder what the parallels between food delivery and housing might be beyond fulfilling consumers’ needs, CEO Doherty said the rental market in 2021 looks a lot like the food delivery market in 2013.

“In 2013, Grubhub had successfully put many restaurant menus online, but most of the transactions and delivery process was still offline,” he told TechCrunch. “We’re in a similar position with the rental market, as the majority of rental listings are online, but touring, applying or leasing units is still done offline.”

Since its launch, Sunroom Rentals has signed more than 2,000 leases and had over 100,000 renters sign up for its services in fast-growing Austin, where it focused its initial efforts.

“According to the U.S. Census, that represents roughly 10% of renters in the greater Austin metro,” Maurais said. “Instead of going shallow and wide nationally, we decided to go deep in markets, in an effort to gain network effects, which was a strategy that worked well for us at Favor.”

Sunroom Rentals claims that it’s leasing units five days faster than the market average. This benefits property managers, Doherty said, because they can grow quicker “while improving leasing performance.”

Looking ahead, the company will use the funding to expand across Texas, including in Houston, San Antonio and Dallas. It will also invest in its partner portal, which aims to give owners and property managers a way to view real-time data on leasing performance.

Sunroom Rentals currently has 18 employees with the goal of more than doubling its headcount this year. It’s in particular looking to hire across its engineering, product and sales departments.

As mentioned above, Gigafund led the Series A financing, which included participation from NextGen Venture Partners, Calpoly Ventures and a slew of angel investors, including Gokul Rajaram (Google & Square) and Homeward’s Tim Heyl, among others. Existing backers include Founders Fund Seed, Draper Associates, Boost VC and Capital Factory (among many others). The round marked Sunroom’s first “priced” round, meaning the first time it’s given up stock.

Jonathan Basset, managing partner at NextGen Venture Partners, believes Sunroom was essentially in the right place at the right time and “on trend with touchless leasing even before COVID hit.”

“I watched them build a profitable consumer marketplace in a competitive market with Favor and was impressed with them as operators,” he said. “These businesses have a surprising amount of similarities and I’m confident they can rise to the challenge.

Last week, TechCrunch reported on the raise of another startup operating in this increasingly crowded space. Seattle-based Knock — a company that has developed tools to give property management companies a competitive edge — raised $ 20 million in a growth funding round led by Fifth Wall Ventures.

Knock’s goal is to provide CRM tools to modernize front office operations for these companies so they can do things like offer virtual tours and communicate with renters via text, email or social media from “a single conversation screen.” For renters, it offers an easier way to communicate and engage with landlords.

Maurais said the two differ in that Knock is a CRM built for leasing agents with a SAAS model where as Sunroom is a marketplace, where renters match, tour and apply with partnered properties.

“Sunroom also provides a suite of leasing & analytics software to its partners and generates both transactional and subscription revenues,” he added.

Startups – TechCrunch

Labster gets millions from a16z to bring virtual science lab software to the world

Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital firm with $ 16.5 billion in assets under management, has poured millions into an edtech startup that sells virtual STEM lab simulations to institutions.

Copenhagen-based Labster, which sells virtual science laboratory simulations to schools, announced today that it has raised $ 60 million in a Series C round led by the prominent Silicon Valley firm, including participation from existing investors GGV Capital, Owl Ventures and Balderton Capital. Labster has now raised $ 100 million in total known venture capital to date.

Like many edtech companies, Labster has found itself centered and validated as the pandemic underscores the need for remote work. In April, Labster signed a contract to bring its services to the entire California Community College network, which includes more than 2.1 million students. Months later, the startup brought on $ 9 million in equity funding to bring GGV’s Jenny Lee onto the board and expand its Asia operations.

“A16z is very excited about investing in technology companies that have a big impact and potential to become massive global successes’,” CEO and co-founder Michael Bodekaer Jensen said. “The fact that Labster is a platform innovating learning at scale is really what attracted them.”

The new capital will help Labster increase its staff, grow into new regions that include Latin America and Africa, as well as invest in new product development to better support teachers.

Jensen says that today’s raise, which is singularly larger than any capital Labster has raised prior, “dramatically increased” the valuation of the company. Jensen did confirm that Labster has not yet hit the $ 1 billion mark in terms of valuation, nor did he comment on whether the startup had hit profitability or not.

What Jensen did share, though, is that he thinks Labster’s new capital brings the startup one step closer to two big goals: serve 100 million students in the next few years, and become a platform to “enable anyone in the world to customize and build their own simulations on their platform.”

“We’re not a content company,” the co-founder said. “We’re a platform for immersive learning.”

Currently, Labster sells its e-learning solution to support and enhance in-person courses. Based on the subscription an institution chooses, participants can get differing degrees of access to a virtual laboratory. Imagine a range of experiments, from understanding bacterial growth and isolation to exploring the biodiversity of an exoplanet. Along with each simulation, Labster offers 3D animations for certain concepts, re-plays of simulations, quiz questions and a virtual learning assistant.

Image Credits: Labster

Jensen is hinting that the startup might finally be able to move past pre-determined learning tracks and into the world of customizable immersive learning. Other startups, including Inspirit, are also aiming to bring the creativity associated with games such as Minecraft or Roblox to the day-to-day schoolwork of students around the world.

With platform ambition, Labster is pausing its virtual reality efforts, which requires acquiring headsets at scale.

“VR is good for learning, but we need to make sure that we understand and provide services and solutions that work with the hardware that institutions already have and are available,” he said, adding that many institutions have been unable to afford headsets for all students. The fact that Labster is stepping away from virtual reality and framing itself as an immersive learning environment is more than a branding decision, but suggests that the future of scalable edtech might look less like goggles and more like a customizable web page.

“In the early days there was definitely a little naïve entrepreneurial mindset to build it and suddenly all teachers will come,” Jensen said. “[VR] was in no way as revolutionary as we hopped and thought of.”

New investments for the startup include Labster Portal, which is a dashboard for teachers to understand how individual students are using the immersive simulations and what lessons make sense to embed together. The company is also focused on landing partnerships with institutions, on either a country or state-wide level or district-level. Jensen says that the bigger the contract, the bigger the discount because it saves them money on onboarding costs. Labster recently signed a deal to bring its technology to the entire country of Denmark.

Labster currently has more than 2,000 colleges, universities and high schools on its platform.

“Post-COVID, the growth will slow,” Jensen said. “When we have conversations with institutions we are increasingly talking about post-COVID and continuing how we can further use Labster in new and innovative ways.”

Startups – TechCrunch

‘Anonymous’ fintech startup Millions raises $3 million, gives away cash on Twitter

An “anonymously”-led startup called Millions has raised a $ 3 million seed round for its fintech company that’s currently giving away free money through its Twitter account. The concept, inspired by the likes of YouTuber David Dobrik, is partly aimed at attracting attention for the new company but is also setting the stage for a forthcoming business model of sorts, where brands could participate in giveaways more directly.

The idea of brand and cash giveaways is not a new one, of course. Outside of social media personalities and traditional sweepstakes like Publishers Clearing House, the mobile game HQ Trivia more recently had tried to integrate brand giveaways in an attempt to draw players to its live trivia games. But HQ Trivia couldn’t maintain an audience after the novelty wore off and eventually shut down, after also dealing with internal strife and tragedy.

Millions has a different idea. Instead of weekly live games, users follow the Twitter account @millions, which either does a drop of some sort or gives away money to its followers every month. This month, for example, the account is launching its “million dollar sweepstakes.” Users follow @millions on Twitter, visit Millions.app, the enter 6 numbers. If all 6 match, they win $ 1 million*. (See details below). 

Next month, the startup will launch a game called “are you my number neighbor?” where users will enter their phone number on a website, and if it’s just a digit off from the phone number on the site, the user wins $ 100,000.

These stunts — apparently just giving away investor cash — are meant to raise brand awareness and acquire customers.

Image Credits: Millions/MyCard, Inc.

“If you think about customer acquisition costs — and this is a little bit controversial — people just give money to Facebook or Instagram, or Apple or Google. The money goes straight to a social network and not the people,” explained a Millions co-founder, who asked to remain anonymous. “They’re trying to get the people, but they’re not giving the people the money. The Millions way is really giving the people the money. We don’t need to run advertisements. We’re giving the money directly to the people, and hopefully, they follow our ecosystem, subscribe for updates, and they’ll see the future launch,” they said.

Ultimately, the larger plan for Millions is to transfer the customers it acquires through the games to the fintech play, which will also have something to do with winning money.

TechCrunch agreed to not reveal the co-founders’ name during a discussion to learn what the startup was up to, as they said they wanted to keep the game playful and anonymous for the time being. But we’re not breaking any agreements by pointing to what’s easy-to-access, publicly available data. We found the company, Mycard Inc. is referenced on the Millions website’s Terms as the legal entity behind this endeavour. That same company is on this SEC filing for a $ 3 million fundraise in December 2020. The filing lists two names: Kieran and Rory O’Reilly. These are the same names as the brothers behind gifs.com.

Investors in the startup’s seed round included Giant Ventures, 8VC, Supernode, Supernode, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, Italic CEO Jeremy Cai, Allbirds co-founder and CEO Joey Zwillinger, Casper co-founders Neil Parikh and Luke Sherwin, MSCHF head of strategy and growth Daniel Greenberg, CEO of Deel Alex Bouaziz, CEO of Hellosaurus James Ruben, CEO of Beek Pamela Valdes, PM at Facebook (for the Payments Gateway team) Luis Vargas, co-founder of Block Renovations Koda Want, CEO of Nebula Genomics Kamal Obbad, plus some of the co-founders from Warby Parker and Harry’s, and other fintech angels.

A few investors also agreed to vouch for Millions on the record, and hinted at the MyCard product to come.

“This company is creating delight from what would otherwise be the mundane, everyday necessity of swiping a credit card. We invested in Millions because they will spark joy in people’s lives, and think the traditional points model of accumulating hard-to-use airline and hotel points is tired, and ripe for reinvention,” said Allbirds co-founder and CEO Joey Zwillinger.

“Millions is building an incredibly loyal audience through an unparalleled, engaging customer experience and the $ 1M giveaway is only the tip of the iceberg of what’s to come. These are some of the strongest founders I know and have truly captured lightning in a bottle,” said Italic CEO Jeremy Cai.

“I invested in Millions because the trend is clear – people love winning money.It’s clear that there’s something going on here. Millions is dedicated to giving away money in crazy ways and I’m happy to be involved,” said MSCHF head of strategy and growth, Daniel Greenberg.

Millions’ arrival, however, comes at a time when people are desperate for money due to the economic downturn driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and lack of government assistance. The pandemic has exacerbated the class divide, leading people (including the Pope) to question whether capitalism has failed. It has fueled the “eat the rich” ethos behind the GameStop frenzy. And this situation has added a darker layer to otherwise do-gooder activities, like Dobrick’s stunts or Lexy Kadey’s TikTok “Venmo Challenges,” where she tips waitstaff and fast food workers hundreds or even a thousand dollars and films them breaking down in relief.

Millions’ co-founder acknowledges we’re in a time of need, but also argues that’s why the product makes sense.

“If you think about what’s going on in the world right now — with the pandemic and the 99% versus the 1% — people are looking for a) hope and b) money,” they said. “If you can combine a product that has two of those things, you’re giving people fun, excitement, and something to look forward to…I think that’s really inspiring.”

*Note: Like many sweepstakes, you’re playing for a “chance” to win. But in this case, $ 10,000 is a guaranteed Grand Prize win for one person. The Millions website lists the digital promotions company Realtime Media as being involved in helping manage the game. However, the insurance provider that insures the program is actually HCC.  

Startups – TechCrunch

Expectful’s new chief executive experienced the trauma she just raised millions to solve

Nathalie Walton almost didn’t become a mother. Her risky pregnancy caused her placenta to burst during childbirth, almost killing her and her son last year. Walton, who feels lucky to have survived, says the haunting experience made her an example of a reality she had long known: To be a pregnant Black woman is to be at risk, regardless of economic background.

The stress of her pregnancy led Walton to download Expectful, a meditation and sleep app for new mothers. She recalls stabilizing, emotionally and physically, within a week, bringing an otherwise “soft landing” to a volatile pregnancy.

Weeks after delivering her son, Everett, Walton just so happened to hear of an advisory role opening at Expectful. Even though she was mid-maternity leave from her managerial role at Airbnb, she jumped at the opportunity.

“I definitely had a full-time job, I had a newborn baby,” Walton said. But, she says, it was an opportunity to be entrepreneurial in a sector she cared about. Even if it was just for a few months.

And now, Walton is the chief executive of the company. The business is pivoting its product strategy to grow beyond recorded meditations. Walton helped it raise its first millions in venture capital, making her one of the few dozen Black female founders to do so. New financing and the boom of the mental health focus amid the coronavirus pandemic puts Expectful in a coveted spot. And it puts Walton, who is at the helm of a company for the first time, in a pressure-cooker spotlight.

Even in the world of startups, going from user to chief executive in less than a year is a remarkable feat. But it’s not one that she rushed.

A quarter-life crisis

Walton graduated from Georgetown and immediately joined the New York banking world. After a few years as an analyst at JP Morgan, though, she became unsatisfied with the work.

“I think I had a quarter-life crisis,” Walton said. Searching for new opportunities, she ended up at a prospective students day at Stanford University in what would become a pivotal moment in her life.

“For the first time, I met entrepreneurs and saw an actual concept that you can pursue a career you like, be successful and make a difference in the world,” she said. Walton eventually applied, and got accepted, to Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB), a prestigious program that produces founders and top executives. It was then that she realized she wanted to be a chief executive one day.

“I admired them, but I just didn’t see the pathway for me to get there,” she said, of the entrepreneurs she met, who were then largely white and male. “I didn’t have the confidence.”

So, she set that hope aside and pursued intrapreneurship, which would let her join a stable organization and act as a mini-founder within it. Employees in this role are tasked with building a startup within a startup, whether that is rooting an innovative idea or leading an experiential team. Corporations have long embraced this idea to bring momentum to otherwise red-tapey processes.

Walton joined eBay and soon rose to work as the head of business operations and development. Her work helped the company break into 3D printing.

Over the years, this has been the defining characteristic of Walton: join an organization, build a scrappy idea from scratch, and then do it all over again. She has held roles in Airbnb and Google that all required her to have the agility of a founder convincing people on a moonshot vision, and the rigor of a manager who can get a deal done.

She had the same vision heading into an advisory role at Expectful. But when Walton landed a key Expectful partnership with Johnson & Johnson, then-CEO and founder Mark Krassner had an idea.

‘It was on my mind from day No. 1’

Before starting Expectful, Krassner experienced the benefits of meditation firsthand. He also saw his mother face depression, which made him realize how meditation could have a positive impact on others. After seeing research that showed how meditation could positively impact a pregnancy, he began thinking of a solution in this cross-section. He eventually started a course on Teachable, a startup that lets anyone create and monetize an online class, with 15 moms and a guided meditation.

Over time, the idea stuck. Krassner eventually turned his course into a 12-person startup. Under his leadership, Expectful grew to profitability and over 13,000 paid users. Its conversion rate from free to paid users was five times higher than industry standards, the company claims.

That said, from the moment Mark Krassner started Expectful, he knew he was an unlikely founder. He doesn’t have any children, so leading a meditation and sleep app for new mothers comes with its own hurdles.

“As a male founder with no kids, it was on my mind from day No. 1,” Krassner said. He eventually wanted to put a female at the head of the company, he says. Walton was the obvious choice.

Walton returned to Airbnb after her maternity leave right as Airbnb had aggressive COVID-19 layoffs. While her job was saved, her team disappeared as part of the cuts. She started looking for jobs, and received lucrative offers from Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon. When she told Krassner she was leaning toward a lead product manager position at Amazon, he replied with an offer to take over Expectful’s entire business.

“I think it caught her off guard,” Krassner said, who is still a board member at the company. “Usually you don’t think a CEO is looking for [a new CEO] unless things are going to hell in a handbasket.”

The new Expectful

Expectful began as a guided meditation library, which will continue to be its core. But now, Walton wants to take advantage of that momentum and evolve the company into a “go-to wellness resource for hopeful, expecting and new parents.”

The language suggests that the startup is evolving in how it markets itself. Right now, the site has a number of references to “motherhood” and women. But Walton says Expectful defines a mother by anyone who identifies themselves as one. While the startup primarily has content geared toward the gestational parent, or the one who gives birth to the child, Walton says they have a “a partner’s library for non-gestational parents that identify as non-gestational mothers, fathers, or however they choose to identify.”

Walton plans to pivot the startup in three phases: content, marketplace and community.

For content, Expectful wants to organize pregnancy-related information. Currently, a lot of information or advice around pregnancy lives in books or in-person classes. But the learning experience, which Walton says is similar to middle school-style lectures, doesn’t feel built for this century.

The next step in her plan is digitizing the service providers that help women through pregnancy. In simpler words, replace the disorganized recommendations in Facebook groups for parents.

“When I went to ask my OB-GYN for recommendations for a doula, she gave me a sheet of paper with the names of 10 doulas,” she said. “You have to text the doula, ask them questions and if they want to meet up — it all feels yucky.” Expectful wants to put all that information in one platform so moms can access tips and recommendations from the ease of their homes.

The end-product here would be a peer-reviewed platform that can help a mom find everything from a therapist to a live-in nanny, with reviews built-in.

Finally, Walton wants to invest in the community. Expectful recently launched Mother Circles, which connects postpartum mothers into support cohorts led by a doula facilitator. The circles include six weekly video calls, a group chat and 500 hours of on-demand doula support.

Image Credits: Expectful

Part of Walton’s focus through all of these priorities is to invest in Black maternal health outcomes. Her own experience, she says, showed her how even a “Stanford-educated wellness junkie” such as herself can be at a high-risk for pregnancy because of her skin color.

It’s a lofty goal, even with the promising growth and strong library of guided meditations. The competition is steep. One of Expectful’s closest competitors is Peanut, a social network for moms used by over 1.2 million people. Mahmee, a digital support network for postpartum mothers, has raised $ 3 million and views itself as complementary to Expectful. Headspace has launched its own motherhood meditation series, but it is not as comprehensive as Expectful’s.

“I think we’re able to connect with women in a way that some of these other companies aren’t,” Walton said. “People are paying for the service, so they clearly need it.”

While Walton declined to share new user metrics, she said that the company’s revenue has grown 100% since March 2020.

Long-term, Expectful wants to mimic Peloton’s playbook in terms of getting premium content and community to the right audience. Still, growing from a startup to a venture business requires more than just ambition and market fit. It requires the ability to exponentially grow and keep growing.

A handful of investors believe that Walton’s Expectful can do it. Expectful raised $ 3 million in a seed financing round led by Harlem Capital. Indicator Ventures, Sequoia Scout Fund, Joyance Partners, Break Trail Ventures, Chinagona Ventures, Powerhouse Capital, AVG Basecamp Fund and Babylist also participated. Angel investors included Ellen Pao, Mike Smith and Ashley Mayer. The round also included $ 1.2 million in convertible SAFE notes, making the financing round a total of $ 4.2 million.

“Historically when I look at what black women raise fundraising, I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to raise this round,” Walton said.

Harlem Capital founding partner Henri Pierre-Jacques said that “obviously, given our focus we weren’t going to invest in a white male.” Walton’s “founder-market fit” is what made the firm invest, even with the hairy dynamic of an exiting CEO.

Mayer, head of communications at Glossier, was the one who introduced Walton to the woman who told her about the advisory role of Expectful. She says that Nathalie’s “path to entrepreneurship feels inevitable.

“It was always just a question of finding the space where her passions collided,” Mayer said.

As a new mother and new founder, Walton has had a busy balancing act of a year.

“I’m working more now than I have really in the last decade,” she said. “But I’ve never been more fulfilled because, as someone who went through this, and I’m still going through this, I feel so personally the level of pain that so many women suffer through.”

Startups – TechCrunch

[Beyond Meat in Plant Based News] Kim Kardashian Promotes Plant-Based Diet To Millions Of Followers

The reality star and businesswoman Kim Kardashian has promoted a plant-based diet on her Instagram stories to 198 million followers. Kardashian shared an image of a delivery from the plant-based meat-alternative giant, Beyond Meat, with the caption: ‘Someone heard I went plant-based’.

Read more here.

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