Startups

Afore Capital raises second pre-seed venture capital fund

Posted by | Afore Capital, anamitra banerji, Android, charles hudson, foundation capital, funding, hustle fund, money, Petal, pre-seed, precursor ventures, Seed money, Startups, Twitter, Unshackled Ventures, Venture Capital | No Comments

As expectations from seed investors intensify, a new stage of investment has established itself earlier in the venture-backed company life cycle.

Known as “pre-seed” investing, one of the first legitimate outfits to double down on the stage has refueled, closing its second fund on $77 million.

Afore Capital’s sophomore fund is likely the largest pool of venture capital yet to focus exclusively on pre-seed companies, or pre-product businesses seeking their first bout of institutional capital. In many cases, a pre-seed startup may even be “pre-idea,” yet to fully incorporate. While some funds are happy to invest that early, Afore seeks slightly more mature companies.

Afore invests between $500,000 and $1 million in nascent startups. As it kicks off its second fund, founding partners Anamitra Banerji and Gaurav Jain tell TechCrunch they plan to lead all of their investments.

We have the opportunity to build a firm that defines a category. – Afore founding partner Anamitra Banerji

Standouts in Afore’s existing portfolio include the no-fee credit card company Petal — which has raised roughly $50 million to date — mobile executive coaching business BetterUp, childcare information platform Winnie and Modern Health, a B2B mental wellness platform.

Afore portfolio companies have raised more than $360 million in follow-on funding, with an aggregate market cap of $1.5 billion, Jain, the founding product manager at Android Nexus and former principal at Founder Collective, tells TechCrunch. “These are high-quality teams with high-quality projects and ideas.”

Jain and Banerji — a founding product manager at Twitter and former partner at Foundation Capital — began raising capital for Afore’s $47 million debut fund in 2016. Since then, the landscape for seed investing has shifted. Early-stage investors have begun funneling larger sums of capital to standout teams at the seed, while billion-dollar venture capital funds set aside capital for serial entrepreneurs working on their next big idea. As a result, deal sizes have swelled and deal count has shrunk simultaneously.

“Pre-seed has replaced seed in the venture ecosystem,” Banerji tells TechCrunch. “We saw this early as a result of both of us having been at funds. We knew that this was going to be a massive category just like seed was before it. Now we think it’s clearly here to stay and we have the opportunity to build a firm that defines a category.”

Since launching the firm, the pair explain they’ve noticed more and more founders explicitly stating that they are in the market for a pre-seed round, a statement you wouldn’t have heard as recently as two years ago.

This is a result of Afore’s efforts to legitimize the stage through investments and programming, including its annual Pre-Seed Summit. Though Afore is certainly not the only VC fund focused on the earliest stage of startup investing — other firms deploying capital at the stage include Hustle Fund, which closed an $11.8 million debut fund last year, plus the $20 million immigrant-focused pre-seed fund Unshackled Ventures and the predominant seed and pre-seed stage firm Precursor Ventures, which announced a $31 million second fund earlier this year.

In the past year alone, more than $200 million has been dedicated to the pre-seed stage, with at least nine new funds launching to nurture early-stage startups.

More and more firms are setting up shop at the pre-seed stage as competition at the seed stage reaches new heights. As we’ve previously reported, monster funds are becoming increasingly active at the seed stage, muscling seed funds out of top deals with less dilutive offers. While the pre-seed stage, for the most part, remains protected from competition at the later stage, these firms still have to compete.

“Nobody wants to lose sight of a deal, so they are willing to toss small amounts of capital very early behind interesting founders,” Jain said. “But frankly, we aren’t sure if it’s good for a company to raise that much capital that early in their life cycle.”

Working with a fund that isn’t passionate about what you are building or familiar with the plights of the stage of your business is terrible for founders, adds Jain. Pairing with a focused fund like Afore, on the other hand, allows for “incentive alignment.”

Afore invests across all industries, preferring to back startups in categories “before they are categories.”

“What we are looking for is deep authenticity and passion around the product they are building,” says Banerji. “Ideas on their own aren’t enough. Founder resumes on their own aren’t enough. While we do care about all of those aspects, we get crazy about their clarity of thought in the short term.”

“We don’t take the point of view of ‘here is some money, it’s OK to lose it,’ ” he adds. “For us to invest, the founder must be all in. And we generally don’t invest in celebrity founders; we are going after the underdog founder.”

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North now offers Focals smart glasses fittings and purchases via app

Posted by | Android, augmented reality, brooklyn, Canada, Clothing, eyewear, Gadgets, glasses, hardware, iOS, iPhone, north america, smartglasses, Startups, TC, technology, thalmic labs, toronto, ubiquitous computing | No Comments

North’s Focals smart glasses are the first in the category to even approach mainstream appeal, but to date, the only way to get a pair has been to go into a physical North showroom and get a custom fitting, then return once they’re ready for a pickup and final adjustment. Now, North has released its Showroom app, which makes Focals available across the U.S. and Canada without an in-person appointment.

This approach reduces considerable friction, and it’s able to do so thanks to technology available on board the iPhone X or later — essentially the same tech that makes Face ID possible. People can go through the sizing and fitting process using these later model iPhones (and you can borrow a friend’s if you’re on Android or an older iOS device) and then North takes those measurements and can produce either prescription or non-prescription Focals, shipped directly to your door after a few weeks.

The Showroom app also includes an AR-powered virtual try-on feature for making sure you like the look of the frames, and for picking out your favorite color. Once the Focals show up at your door, the final fitting process is also something you can do at home, guided by the app’s directions for getting the fit just right.

Should you still want to hit an actual physical showroom, North’s still going to be operating its Brooklyn and Toronto storefronts, and will be operating pop-ups across North America as well.

Focals began shipping earlier this year, bringing practical smart notification, guidance and other software experiences to your field of view via a tiny projector and in-lens transparent display. North, which previously existed as Thalmic Labs and created the Myo gesture control armband, recognized that they were building control devices optimized for exactly this kind of application, but also found that no one was yet getting wearable tech like smart glasses right. Last year, Thalmic Labs pivoted to become North and focus on Focals as a result.

Since launching its smart glasses to consumers, it’s been iterating the software to consistently add new features, and making them more accessible to customers. An early price drop significantly lessened sticker shock, and now removing the requirement to actually visit a location in person to both order and collect the glasses should help expand their customer base further still.

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PlayVS picks up $50 million Series C to build out high school esports

Posted by | delane parnell, esports, funding, Gaming, playvs, Recent Funding, Startups, TC | No Comments

PlayVS, the platform that allows high school students to compete on varsity esports teams through their school, has today announced the close of a $50 million Series C led by existing investor NEA. Battery Ventures, Dick Costolo and Adam Bain of 01 Advisors, Sapphire Sport, Michael Zeisser, Dennis Phelps of IVP and co-founder of CAA Michael Ovitz participated.

This brings the startup’s total funding to $96 million, the vast majority of which was raised in the last 13 months.

PlayVS launched in April of 2018 under founder and CEO Delane Parnell, who believes that the opportunity of esports is fundamentally broken without high school leagues. Through an exclusive partnership with the NFHS (the NCAA of high schools), PlayVS allows schools across the country to create esports teams and participate in leagues with their neighboring schools, just like any other varsity sport.

PlayVS also partners with the game publishers, which allows the platform to pull stats directly from the PlayVS website and track players’ performance across every game.

The startup charges either the player, parent/guardian or school $64 per player to participate in “Seasons,” PlayVS’s first product. It was launched in October of 2018 in five states and expanded to eight states this spring.

Since launch, 13,000 schools have joined the waitlist to get a varsity esports team through PlayVS, which represents 68% of the country. PlayVS says that just over 14,000 high schools in the United States have a football program, marking the idea of varsity esports as a relatively popular one.

With the upcoming fall Season for 2019, all 50 states will have access to the PlayVS platform, with 15 states competing for an actual State Championship in partnership with their state association. These states include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington D.C.

States that have not gotten an endorsement from their state association will still compete regionally for a PlayVS championship. PlayVS supports League of Legends, Rocket League and SMITE, with plans to support other games in the future.

Not only does PlayVS offer high school students the chance to play organized esports, but it also gives colleges and esports orgs a recruitment tool to scope and scoop young talent.

But what about that funding? Well, Parnell says that the new round gives the company a war chest to not only hire aggressively — the company has gone from 18 to 41 employees in the last year — but also to consider mergers and acquisitions as a means of growth.

Perhaps most importantly, the company will use the funding to explore products outside of high school, with eyes squarely focused on the collegiate market. With esports still in its infancy, there is a huge opportunity to provide the infrastructure of these leagues early on, and PlayVS is looking to capture that.

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FarmWise and its weed-pulling agribot harvest $14.5M in funding

Posted by | agriculture, artificial intelligence, farming, farmwise, funding, Gadgets, GreenTech, hardware, Recent Funding, robotics, Startups | No Comments

Automating agriculture is a complex proposition given the number and variety of tasks involved, but a number of robotics and autonomy companies are giving it their best shot. FarmWise seems to have impressed someone — it just raised $14.5 million to continue development of its autonomous weeding vehicle.

Currently in the prototype stage, these vehicles look like giant lumbering personnel carriers or the like, but are in fact precision instruments which scan the ground for invasive weeds among the crop and carefully pluck them out.

“Each day, one FarmWise robot can weed crops to feed a medium-sized city of approximately 400,000 inhabitants,” said FarmWise CEO Sebastien Boyer in a press release announcing the latest funding round. “We are now enhancing the scale and depth of our proprietary plant-detection technology to help growers with more of their processes and on more of their crops.”

Presumably the robot was developed and demonstrated with something of a specialty in one crop or another, more as a proof of concept than anything.

Well, it seems to have proved the concept. The new $14.5 million round, led by Calibrate Ventures, is likely due to the success of these early trials. This is far from an easy problem, so going from idea to nearly market-ready in under three years is pretty impressive. Farmers love tech — if it works. And tiny issues or error rates can lead to enormous problems with the vast monoculture fields that make up the majority of U.S. farms.

The company previously took in about $5.7 million in a seed round, following its debut on Alchemist Accelerator’s demo day back in 2017. Robots are expensive!

Hopefully the cash infusion will help propel FarmWise from prototype to commercialization, though it’s hard to imagine they could build more than a handful of the machines with that kind of money. Perhaps they’ll line up a couple big orders and build on that future revenue.

Meanwhile they’ll continue to develop the AI that powers the chunky, endearing vehicles.

“Looking ahead, our robots will increasingly act as specialized doctors for crops, monitoring individual health and adjusting targeted interventions according to a crop’s individual needs,” said Boyer. So not only will these lumbering platforms delicately remove weeds, but they’ll inspect for aphids and fungus and apply the necessary remedies.

With that kind of inspection they can make a data play later — what farmer wouldn’t want to be able to digitally inspect every plant in their fields?

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Pax Labs’ Bharat Vasan is out as CEO

Posted by | bharat vasan, Gadgets, Health, Pax Labs, Startups, TC | No Comments

Bharat Vasan is no longer the Chief Executive Officer at Pax Labs, the consumer tech company that makes cannabis vaporizers. A source familiar with the situation said that the board of directors made the decision to remove Vasan from the CEO role. His last day was Friday.

We’ve reached out to Vasan for comment. Pax is declining to elaborate on what drove its decision.

Certainly, it’s a surprising move, given that Vasan was appointed the CEO of Pax not so long ago —  in February of 2018. Before that, he served as President and COO of August Home, which was acquired by Swedish lock maker Assa Abloy in 2017. Previous to that, Vasan was the cofounder of Basis, a fitness-based wearable company that was acquired by Intel in 2014 for $100 million.

Vasan also led the company in its most recent round this past April, in which it secured $420 million from Tiger Global Management, Tao Capital, and Prescott General Partners, among others. The post-money valuation for the company at the time was $1.7 billion.

Vasan is a veteran of consumer electronics, but Pax may be looking for a CEO that has more operational experience in cannabis.

After all, Pax is at an interesting intersection in its path, navigating an oft-changing regulatory landscape around cannabis. Moreover, the entire cannabis industry — and vaporizer industry —  is under a microscope in the wake of hundreds of reports of vape-related lung illness. The CDC says that there have been 380 cases of lung illness reported across 36 states, with six deaths. Most patients reported a history of using e-cigarette products containing THC.

Pax is currently on the hunt for a new chief executive. In the meantime, its general counsel, Lisa Sergi, who joined the company at the end of July, will be its interim CEO and president.

Sergi had this to say in a prepared statement:

PAX is uniquely positioned as a leader in the burgeoning cannabis industry, with a talented team, an iconic brand, quality products and the balance sheet to achieve our ambitious goals and continued growth trajectory. I am extremely excited and honored to have been entrusted to lead this extraordinary company.

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Zyl raises $1.1 million to resurface old memories from your photos

Posted by | Apps, Comet, Europe, France Newsletter, Fundings & Exits, Mobile, photo, Recent Funding, Startups, Zyl | No Comments

French startup Zyl has raised $1 million (€1 million) in a round led by OneRagtime. The company has developed an app that uses artificial intelligence to find the most interesting photos and videos in your photo library.

Now that smartphones have been around for a while, many people have thousands of unsorted photos on their iPhone or Android device. And chances are you don’t often scroll back to look at past vacations and important life events.

Zyl is well aware of that. That’s why the company does the heavy lifting for you. The app scans your photo library to find important memories and photos you may have forgotten. It has even registered patents for some of its algorithms.

But identifying photos and videos is just one thing. In order to turn that process into a fun, nostalgia-powered experience, the app sends you a notification every day to tell you that Zyl has identified a new memory — they call it a Zyl. When you tap on it, the app reveals that memory and you can share it with your friends and family.

You then have to wait another 24 hours to unlock another Zyl. That slow-paced approach is key as you spend more time looking at Zyls and sharing them with loved ones.

mockup 3.1

It’s also worth noting that Zyl processes your photo library on your iPhone or Android device directly. Photos aren’t sent to the company’s server.

Up next, Zyl plans to enrich your collection of Zyls with more photos and videos from your friends and family. You could imagine a way to seamlessly share photos of the same life event with your loved ones, even if they are currently spread out over multiple smartphones.

With today’s funding round, the company wants to improve the app and reach millions of users. Zyl already has impressive retention rates, with 38% of users opening the app regularly during five weeks or more.

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InMobi’s Glance raises $45M to expand outside of India

Posted by | Apps, Asia, funding, india, InMobi, mithril capital, Mobile, Recent Funding, Samsung, Startups | No Comments

Glance, a subsidiary of Indian mobile ad business firm InMobi, said today it has raised $45 million as it prepares to scale its business outside of India and bulk up its product offerings.

The unnamed maiden financing round for Glance was funded by Mithril Capital, a growth-stage investment firm co-founded by Silicon Valley investors Peter Thiel and Ajay Royan.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Naveen Tewari, founder and CEO of InMobi Group, said the current round has not closed and could bag another $30 million to $55 million in the next two months.

Glance operates an eponymous service that shows media content in local languages on the lock screen of Android-powered smartphones. InMobi has partnered with a number of top smartphone vendors, including Xiaomi, Samsung and Gionee, to integrate Glance into their respective operating systems.

Glance, which was launched in September last year and supports English, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu, has amassed 50 million monthly active users in India, its primary market. Users are spending an average of 22 minutes with Glance each day, he said.

“All the new smartphone models launched by Samsung, Xiaomi and a handful of other vendors have launched with Glance on them,” Tewari said.

In a statement, Mithril Capital’s Royan said, “We share Glance’s global vision of breaking through the constraints of application architectures and linguistic markets to deliver rich, frictionless, and engaging experiences across a myriad of cultures and languages.” As part of the financing round, he is joining Glance’s board.

Glance does not show traditional ads, something it intends to never change, but shows a certain kind of content to drive engagement for brands.

In the months to come, Glance plans to expand the platform and bring short-form videos (Glance TV), and mini games (Glance Games) to the lock screen. It is also working on a feature dubbed Glance Nearby that will enable brands to court users in their vicinity, and Glance Shopping to explore ways to build commerce around content.

As of today, InMobi Group is not monetizing Glance platform, but plans to explore ways to make money from it early next year, Tewari said.

The 12-year-old firm said it plans to expand footprints of Glance outside of India. The company plans to take Glance to some Southeast Asian markets like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. InMobi’s Tewari said Glance has already started to find users in these markets.

InMobi Group, which had raised $320 million prior to today’s financing round, has been profitable for several years, but the company decided to raise outside funding to accelerate Glance’s growth, Tewari said.

The firm, which has three subsidiaries, including its marquee marketing cloud division, plans to go public in the next few years. But instead of taking the entire group public, Tewari said the firm is thinking of publicly listing each division as they mature. The marketing cloud division, which brings in the vast majority of revenue for the firm, will go public first, he said.

“The IPO plans remain, and we will evaluate them as we go along. The reality, however, is that the market is so big and there is so much room that we can continue to be private for a few more years,” he said.

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Drivetime nabs $11M from Makers Fund, Amazon and Google to build voice-based games for drivers

Posted by | Amazon, Apps, artificial intelligence, drivetime, Entertainment, funding, Gaming, Google, makers fund, Recent Funding, Startups, trivia, Voice interface, voice services | No Comments

Fully autonomous cars may (or may not) be just around the corner, but in the meantime, a startup that’s building in-car apps to help human drivers pass the time when behind the wheel has raised a round of funding.

Drivetime — which makes voice-based trivia quizzes, games and interactive stories that people can play while driving — has raised $11 million in funding led by Makers Fund (a prolific investor in gaming startups), with participation from Amazon (via the Alexa Fund) and Google (via its Assistant investment program).

The startup today has eight “channels” on its platform consisting of games and stories that you can access either within a limited free-to-play tier or via a paid subscription ($9.99 a month or $99.99 a year). The plan is to use the funding to continue expanding that catalog, as well as investing in deeper integrations with its new big-name strategic investors, who themselves have longstanding and deep interests in bringing more voice services and content to the in-car experience.

Co-founder and CEO Niko Vuori told TechCrunch that his ultimate ambition is for Drivetime to become “the Sirius XM of interactive content” for cars, with hundreds of different channels of content.

In keeping with those plans, along with the funding, Drivetime is today announcing a key content deal.

It has teamed up with the long-running, popular game show Jeopardy to build a trivia channel for the platform, which lets drivers test their own skills and also play against other drivers and people they know. The Jeopardy channel will source content from the TV show’s trove of IP and come with another familiar detail: it will be narrated by Alex Trebek, with a new quiz getting published every weekday for premium users.

That social element of the Jeopardy game is not a coincidence. The San Francisco-based startup is founded by Zynga alums, with Vuori and his co-founders Justin Cooper and Cory Johnson also working together at another startup called Rocket Games since leaving the social games giant and exiting that to gaming giant Penn National for up to $170 million. That track record goes some way to explaining the strong list of investors in the new startup.

“Social and interactive formats are the next frontier in audio entertainment,” said Makers Fund founding partner Jay Chi, in a statement. “Niko, Justin Cooper and Cory Johnson, with a decade-long history of working together and a proven track record in building new platforms, is the best team to bring this idea to life.”

“Gaming and entertainment are among customers’ favorite use cases for Alexa, and we think those categories will only grow in popularity as Alexa is integrated into more vehicles,” said Paul Bernard, director of the Alexa Fund at Amazon, in a separate statement. “Drivetime stands out for its focus on voice-first games in the car, and we’re excited to work with them to broaden the Alexa Auto experience and help customers make the most of their time behind the wheel.”

In addition to the three investors in this latest round, prior to this Drivetime had raised about $4 million from backers that include Felicis Ventures, Fuel Capital, Webb Investment Network (Maynard Webb’s fund) and Access Ventures.

Vuori declined to say how many installs or active users the app has today — although from the looks of it on AppAnnie, it’s seeing decent if not blockbuster success on iOS and Android so far.

Instead, the company prefers to focus on another stat, its addressable market, which it says is 110 million drivers in North America alone.

Meanwhile, adding a Jeopardy channel is building on what has worked best so far. The most popular category at the moment is trivia, with Tunetime (a “name that tune” game) coming in second and storytelling a third.

Drivetime’s premise is an interesting one. Drivers are a captive audience, but one that has up to now had a relatively limited amount of entertainment created for it, focusing mainly on music and spoken word.

However, the rise of voice-based interfaces and interactivity using natural language — spurred by the rise of personal assistant apps and in-home hubs like Amazon’s Echo — have opened a new opportunity, developing interactive, voice-based content for drivers to engage with more proactively.

You might think that this sounds like a recipe for a car accident. Won’t a driver get too distracted trying to remember the fourth president of the United States, or who was known as the father of the Constitution? (Hint: It’s the same guy.)

Vuori claims it’s actually the reverse: Having an interactive game that requires the driver to speak out loud can focus him or her and keep the driver more alert.

“We are double-dipping in safety,” he said. “On the one hand, we embody the safety aspects of Alertness Maintaining Tasks (AMTs). But we also act as a preventative, meaning that while players engage with Drivetime, they are not engaging with anything else.”

While the content today may serve as a way of keeping drivers from doing things they shouldn’t be doing while in a car, there is another obvious opportunity that might come as drivers become less necessary and will need other things to occupy themselves.

Longer term, the Jeopardy deal could usher in other channels based on popular game shows. Sony Pictures Television Games, which owns the rights to it, also owns Wheel of Fortune and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

“We are thrilled to work with Sony Pictures Television Games to bring Jeopardy, the greatest game show on the planet, to an underserved audience that desperately needs interactive entertainment the most – the 110 million commuters in North America driving to and from work by themselves every day,” said Vuori said in a statement.

Interestingly, despite the growth of “skills” for Alexa or apps for Google Home and other home hubs, and the overall popularity of these as a way of interacting with apps and sourcing information, Vuori says that he hasn’t seen any competition emerge yet from other app developers to build voice-based entertainment for drivers in the way that Drivetime has.

That gives the company ample opportunity to continue picking up new users — and more deals with publishers and content companies looking for more mileage (sorry) for their legacy IP and new business.

“Drivetime is one of the early pioneers in creating safe, stimulating entertainment for drivers in the car,” Ilya Gelfenbeyn, founding lead of the Google Assistant Investments Program, noted in a statement. “More and more people are using their voice to stay productive on the road, asking the Google Assistant on Android and iOS phones to help send text messages, make calls and access entertainment hands free. We share Drivetime’s vision, and look forward to working with their team to make the daily commute more enjoyable.”

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Looking to become the video-based social network of the gaming world, Medal.tv raises $9 million

Posted by | discord, Europe, gamer, Gaming, Google, Horizons Ventures, makers fund, medal.tv, Recent Funding, Social, social network, Startups, TC | No Comments

When Medal.tv first launched on the scene, the company was an upstart trying to be the social network for the gaming generation.

Since its debut in February, the clipping and messaging service for gamers has amassed 5 million total users with hundreds of thousands of daily active users. And now it has a $9 million new investment from firms, led by Horizons Ventures, the venture capital fund established by Hong Kong multi-billionaire Li Ka-shing.

“We’re seeing sharing of short-form video emerge as a means of self-expression and entertainment for the current generation. We believe Medal’s platform will be a foundation for interactive social experiences beyond what you can find in a game,” says Jonathan Tam, an investor with Horizons Ventures .

Medal sees potential both in its social network and in the ability for game developers to use the platform as a marketing and discovery tool for the gaming audience.

“Friends are the main driver of game discovery, and game developers benefit from shareable games as a result. Medal.tv is trying to enable that without the complexity of streaming,” says Matteo Vallone, the former head of Google Play games in Europe and an angel investor in Medal.

Assets Web 1

It’s a platform that saw investors willing to fork over as much as $20 million for the company, according to chief executive Pim de Witte. “There are still too many risks involved to take capital like that,” de Witte says.

Instead, the $9 million from Horizons, and previous investors like Makers Fund, will be used to steadily grow the business.

“At Medal, we believe the next big social platform will emerge in gaming, perhaps built on top of short-form content, partially as a result of gaming publishers trying to build their own isolated gaming stores and systems,” said de Witte, in a statement. “That drives social fragmentation in the market and brings out the need for platforms such as Medal and Discord, which unite gamers across games and platforms in a meaningful way.”

As digital gaming becomes the social medium of choice for a generation, new tools that allow consumers to share their virtual experiences will become increasingly common. This phenomenon will only accelerate as more events like the Marshmello concert in Fortnite become the norm.

“Medal has the exciting potential to enable a seamless social exchange of virtual experiences,” says Ryann Lai, an investor from Makers Fund.

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‘Mental fitness’ startup Elevate Labs launches a personalized meditation app called Balance

Posted by | Apps, Elevate Labs, funding, Health, Keesing Media Group, Mobile, Recent Funding, Startups | No Comments

While investors are already writing big checks for meditation startups, Elevate Labs founder and CEO Jesse Pickard said that none of the existing meditation apps can replace the experience of working with a human coach.

“This experience where you have somebody that meets with you is wildly better than any digital product that’s out there,” Pickard said. “The problem is, it’s not affordable to 99% of the planet.”

So Elevate Labs is launching a new mobile app today called Balance, which is designed to replicate the experience of working with a live meditation coach.

“Even with meditation increasingly getting into the mainstream, it’s a fairly difficult practice to adhere to,” Pickard said. “We take away a lot of that indecision and present you with a path that is unique to you … People live all sorts of different lives: Some people care about stress, some people care about sleep, some people care about focus. But when you and I go into any of the other major apps, we’re getting the exact same recording.”

With Balance, on the other hand, you’re not just browsing through a library of prerecorded content. Instead, the app starts out by asking you about your goals, your meditation experience and more. You’ll then get a set of introductory meditations that may look familiar, but Pickard said that each meditation is actually “a combination of dozens and dozens of clips woven together that’s personalized to you.”

For example, I told the app that I already had experience with meditation, and that my top goal was to stay focused. As a result, my first meditation skipped most of the introductory explanations, and the main exercise was designed to help me focus on the sound of my breath.

Pickard said the app will continue to ask you questions about your experience over time, which in turn will lead to more personalization. The meditations are narrated by coach Leah Santa Cruz, who’s also involved in writing the content, and there are other meditation experts on the Balance team.

The app’s initial 10-day course is free. After that, to get access to additional meditations, you’ll need to pay $11.99 per month, $49.99 per year or $199.99 for a lifetime subscription. In addition to the meditations, Balance also includes a guided activity designed to help people sleep.

On top of launching a new app, Elevate Labs is also announcing that it has raised a $7.1 million Series B led by Keesing Media Group, with participation from Oakhouse Partners.

Under its old name MindSnacks, the company built language-learning games before shifting focus to Elevate, a “brain training” app that has supposedly been downloaded 25 million times and won Apple’s App of the Year Award in 2014. Pickard (who, thanks to the magic of Craigslist, was my roommate for about a year when I was first starting at TechCrunch) said that unlike most of the other apps that are marketed as improving your mind, Elevate focuses on trainable skills like reading, writing and math — rather than, say, improving your memory.

“We’ve been extremely careful about [not] venturing into untrainable skills — things like improving your attention span, those activities are not as provenly teachable,” he said.

It’s been a while since the company has raised outside funding — seven years since MindSnacks announced a Series A from Sequoia. Pickard said the company actually raised another bridge round in 2015, then “buckled down for a number of years and really just had to build a business that actually was sustainable.”

Apparently that’s paid off — he said Elevate Labs was cash-flow positive last year. With a total of $17.1 million in funding, the plan now is to continue supporting and growing Elevate while also launching Balance and building a whole line of related apps.

“We think there’s a really huge brand to be built around mental fitness,” Pickard said.

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