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UK’s Atom Learning picks up $25M from SoftBank for an AI-based online learning platform aimed at elementary school-aged students

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UK’s Atom Learning picks up $25M from SoftBank for an AI-based online learning platform aimed at elementary school-aged students

The Covid-19 pandemic ushered in a new chapter for virtual learning, giving a boost of attention to existing tools and spurring the creation of new services and use cases as students of all ages were ordered to stay home and stay out of classrooms. Today, one of the startups that’s been a strong benefactor of that trend is announcing some funding to continue its growth. Atom Learning — a London startup that builds AI-based online education materials aimed at primary aged (7-11 years) children, their teachers, and their parents — has raised $25 million, money that it will use to continue its growth in the UK market, to start to look at plans to expand internationally, and to continue building out the data science and content that it provides to its users.

Specifically, Atom’s unique selling point is that it builds education materials that use machine learning and other AI tools to adapt to a users’ specific levels of knowledge; it also applies data science to build analytics and other tools to educators and parents to also work in more targeted ways to encourage more learning. All of these will also be getting more investment.

The funding is coming from a single backer, SoftBank, via its Vision Fund 2, and Aton claims that this sum is the largest-ever for Series A round for a UK edtech startup.

It is also notable for being Atom’s first outside funding. The company, founded in 2018, had been profitable and bootstrapped up to now, and it’s grown quite impressively in the last three years. Currently, Atom is used by 500 primary (elementary) schools in the UK, totaling some 100,000 students. (Given that there are some 22,000 primary schools in the country, it has a lot of growing left to do here.)

Co-founded by Jake O’Keeffe and Alexander Hatvany, O’Keeffe tells me that the two had their first taste of online learning when they worked as online tutors when still at university — very much a common side-gig for undergrads in the UK, where pre-university students face a battery of standardized tests as they go through their years in school, which each set narrowing the field for students and where they will end up for university, what they ultimately study, and essentially do with their lives.

(Indeed, as a parent of UK students who didn’t grow up here, I can tell you it’s a super stressful system that seems very far from perfect in all kinds of ways.)

Covering all ages and all subjects, the pair quickly saw the shortcomings in the model.

“We could see that no two private tutors were the same, even if the costs were always high,” he said. “We thought there was an opportunity to build a fully-automated platform to help standardize the quality and the price.”

They chose to focus on primary-aged children, he said, not only because there were already a number of online tutoring services out in the market for secondary-school students (aged 12-18), but also because they believed that the fundamentals of learning needed to be addressed at a younger age.

“If kids don’t learn those skills by the time they are 11, it’s hard to recover from that when you are older,” O’Keeffe said.

The obvious place for Atom was to start was online learning aimed at students. Specifically, it has built a three-tier model aimed first at teaching students the basics according to the national core curriculum (priced at £9.99/month); and then two subsequent tiers (£49.99/ and £59.99/month) aimed at students that are preparing for senior school entry exams — a system here in the UK for students going to private schools or for certain grammar schools.

Atom naturally evolved that then into content for teachers, with “question banks” for them to create better learning materials for students online and in the classroom, and then tools for parents to better track how everything progressed. The adaptive element means that the platform “reads” how students work to provide subsequent work tailored to each person’s individual level, but it also means that Atom can continually amass feedback on how those students are doing, useful for Atom’s own content library evolution as well as to create ways to track student progress.

These days, there are really a lot of online learning materials for all ages, a giant content trove made even bigger in the last two years with so many schools shuttering their doors and turning to remote learning. That means not only competition for Atom, but also a plethora of pedagogical approaches around what might work best in terms of acquiring knowledge, keeping it, keeping children engaged and so on.

Kahoot, for example, (another SoftBank-backed company) has borrowed heavily from the worlds of gaming, user-generated/creator content, and on-demand entertainment to create what it has been described at times a “Netflix for learning”: a huge library of educational modules, many of which have been created by Kahoot’s user community, which are built around the dynamics of gamification to motivate and engage pupils in a subject. Others, such as Microsoft’s tailoring of Teams for education or Zoom, are simply tools to make it easier for good old-fashioned humans to connect over remote distances and work together on white-board style interfaces to teach and learning.

For now, O’Keeffe said that Atom is focused on continuing to build out more content to bolster the approach it has taken: more adaptive content that complements the work that a school teacher puts in, with the bigger aim being to make sure that kids are, at the most simple level, learning according to the national curriculum (as set out by the government), and hopefully, exceeding that and developing an appetite to learn more.

That means: maybe some gamification somewhere down the line, but not for now. But it also means: Atom is bringing private tutors into the mix soon, too (right now there is a registration page for early access).

“The utilization of edtech and adaptive learning within established curricula has accelerated rapidly both in school and the home”, said Yanni Pipilis, managing partner for SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement. “Atom’s proprietary technology enables each child to progress at their optimal learning pace, and provides parents and teachers with real-time feedback on areas of strength and development. We’re excited to partner with the team in its vision to improve learning outcomes for every student.”

Source: Tech

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Spendesk is the fifth French startup to reach unicorn status this month

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Fintech startup Spendesk is announcing that it has raised an extension to its Series C round. Tiger Global is investing $114 million (€100 million) in the startup. Following today’s funding round, the company says that is has reached a valuation of more than $1.14 billion (more than €1 billion).

In other words, Spendesk is a new unicorn in the French tech ecosystem. Funding news has been accelerating over the last few months in France. In January alone, five startups announced that they have crossed the threshold to reach unicorn status — PayFit, Ankorstore, Qonto, Exotec and Spendesk.

Back Market, an e-commerce marketplace focused on refurbished smartphones and electronics devices, has also raised a mega round and reached a $5.7 billion valuation.

Let’s go back to Spendesk. The startup offers an all-in-one corporate spend management platform for medium companies in Europe. Originally focused on virtual cards for online payments, the company has expanded its product offering to tackle everything related to corporate spending.

Spendesk customers can order physical cards for employees, team members can use the platform to pay outstanding invoices, file expense reports, manage budgets and generate spending reports. By offering everything in a single service, Spendesk wants to simplify accounting and approvals in general so that money moves more freely.

The startup defines its platform as a “7-in-1 spend management solution”, meaning that Spendesk is no longer just a product that lets you order debit cards for your employees.

“We have had this goal since the beginning — we really want to become this platform, this operational system to manage your spending,” co-founder and CEO Rodolphe Ardant told me. “When we started working on the product, we looked at each use case and designed the right workflow for that.”

In particular, Spendesk helps you formalize your internal processes. You can define team budgets, set up complicated approval workflows for expensive payments, automate some pesky tasks, such as VAT extraction.

“We target mid-market clients. Those are customers with 50 to 1,000 employees. We have a few clients that are bigger than that and a few clients that are smaller than that,” Ardant said.

And the company currently has 3,500 clients — around half of them are based in France while other clients are mostly based in Germany and the U.K. Clients have spent €3 billion through Spendesk in 2021 alone.

With its central positioning in the financial stack, Spendesk needs to interface perfectly with other financial tools — banks on one side and ERP products on the other side.

The startup currently supports many of the popular accounting tools used by European companies, such as Xero and Datev. Spendesk customers can also export transaction batches and import them into Sage, Cegid and other accounting software solutions.

Spendesk is also working on automating the integrations with your bank accounts, which could be particularly useful for companies with multiple bank accounts. For instance, you could imagine setting up a rule that automatically triggers a transfer between your German bank account and your Spendesk account when you want to pay a German supplier.

Image Credits: Spendesk

Spend management in Europe

Spendesk isn’t the only spend management solution in Europe. There are some competitors, such as Pleo, which recently reached a $4.7 billion valuation, and Soldo — another well-funded competitor as it has raised $180 million last year.

In the U.S. as well, companies like Brex and Ramp have reached sky-high valuations. And yet, Spendesk doesn’t think it has the same positioning as American startups.

“On the American market, it shouldn’t be called the spend management industry — it’s the corporate card industry. Players like Brex and Ramp position themselves as a payment method,” Spendesk co-founder and CEO Rodolphe Ardant told me. “Europe’s corporate culture is a culture of debit — not credit. We don’t provide payment methods, we provide a process.”

It’s a slight difference in product positioning, so it’s going to be interesting to see if a European spend management startup can successfully enter the U.S. and vice versa.

When it comes to business model as well, Spendesk considers itself as a software-as-a-service company with recurring subscriptions. The startup didn’t want to share any hard numbers for its revenue. Its CEO just said that Spendesk’s revenue “more than doubles every year.”

With today’s funding round, Spendesk plans to triple the size of its team over the next two years. The company plans to have 1,000 employees by the end of 2023.

Source: Tech

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Crypto.com expands venture arm to $500 million to back early-stage web3 startups

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Crypto.com, a popular cryptocurrency exchange, has extended its venture arm’s fund size to $500 million as it looks to more aggressively back early-stage startups to help the nascent ecosystem grow, following similar moves by rivals Binance, Coinbase and FTX.

The broadening of Crypto.com Capital comes less than a year after the Singapore-headquartered firm unveiled its maiden fund of $200 million. The fund, unlike those of many of its rivals, has no LPs (meaning, it’s fully financed by the firm’s balance sheet.)

The maiden fund, whose individual checks run up to $10 million in size, has been so far deployed to back about 20 startups including YGG SEA, multi-chain crypto portfolio tracker DeBank, cross-chain token infrastructure Efinity and Ethereum scaling solution Matter Labs.

Crypto.com will continue to focus on backing early-stage startups, said Jon Russell, who joined the firm as a general partner this month, in an interview with TechCrunch.

With the fund, Crypto.com is broadly focusing on gaming, decentralized-finance and startups innovating on cross-chain solutions. But he cautioned that the industry could change and expand, as it has in recent years, to areas “we don’t know about,” hence the firm is keeping an eye out on everything.

Tuesday’s announcement also further illustrates the growing involvement of cryptocurrency exchanges in being the rainmaker – and beneficiary – of the ecosystem which encompasses the industry in which they operate.

FTX, which has backed over 15 startups, last week announced a $2 billion crypto fund. Its founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, also owns Alameda Research, a venture firm that has backed close to 100 web3 startups.

Coinbase Ventures, the investment arm of the only crypto exchange that is publicly traded, and Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange by trading volume, are also among the most prolific investors in the web3 space.

Venture investment in crypto / web3 in 2021 by category (Image credits: Galaxy Digital)

The funding activity in the space, even as most of the aforementioned names often co-invest in startups, is at an all-time high. VCs invested more than $33 billion in crypto/web3 startups in 2021, more than all prior years combined, Galaxy Digital, another prolific investor in the space, wrote in a recent report.

“Valuations in the crypto/blockchain space were 141% higher than the rest of the venture capital space in Q4, highlighting a founder-friendly environment and the intense competition among investors for deal allocations,” the report added.

Scores of venture capital firms have also raised new funds for their crypto investments. Just last year, Andreessen Horowitz added a $2.2 billion crypto fund, Paradigm unveiled a $2.5 billion fund, and Hivemind Capital Partners announced a $1.5 billion fund. Katie Haun, who co-led a16z’s $2.2 billion crypto fund, has left the firm to launch her own crypto-focused fund.

Russell – a former journalist who previously had stints at TechCrunch, The Next Web, and The Ken – said Crypto.com is backing startups to help the ecosystem grow.

“If you’re in the industry, it’s in your interest to help companies grow in the ecosystem and the ecosystem itself to grow,” he said. (Worth pointing out that Solana, Avalanche, Polkadot — as well as some of their major investors — are also aggressively backing startups that are building applications for the native blockchains.)

The startups Crypto.com backs are under no obligation to list their tokens on Crypto.com over any of its rivals or offer the exchange any other preferential treatment, he said. The exchange team similarly doesn’t have a soft spot for the investment arm’s portfolio firms, he added.

(What’s up with the career move? “I’ve been crypto curious for a number of years but I wasn’t gasping to dive in full-time. This project appeals to me because Crypto.com is ambitious but yet it does things the right way. There’s certainly a lot of hype and hot air in crypto and web3 right now, but it’s impossible to ignore the talent that’s pouring into the industry,” he said.)

Crypto.com, which started its life as a blog of professor Matt Blaze (who sold the domain to the crypto exchange), has aggressively expanded in the past year as it looks to court more users. The Singapore-headquartered firm last year agreed to pay more than $700 million for the naming rights of the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The downtown Los Angeles complex has been rebranded as Crypto.com Arena for the next 20 years.

The firm, which bills itself as the “fastest-growing” crypto exchange, said at the time of the announcement that the move is positioned to make cryptocurrencies mainstream. Crypto.com, which processes trade volumes of over $2.5 billion every day, also teamed up with Hollywood star Matt Damon last year to promote the brand and cryptocurrencies.

The Damon-starring ad equated buying crypto tokens and NFTs to one of the greatest and boldest accomplishments in the history of humankind. Hyperbole, to be sure, but having the most mainstream American actor as Crypto.com’s celebrity sponsor has certainly helped bring the trading platform, and all that it sells, into the mainstream. The ad went viral and also attracted criticism for being cringeworthy.

Source: Tech

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Focused on smaller cities, Vietnamese social commerce startup Mio raises $8M Series A

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Mio, the Vietnamese social commerce platform, has raised an $8 million Series A, less than a year after announcing its seed round. The funding was led by Jungle Ventures, Patamar Capital and Oliver Jung, with participation from returning investors GGV, Venturra, Hustle Fund, iSEED SEA and Gokul Rajaram.

TechCrunch first covered Mio at the time of its $1 million seed funding in May 2021. Founded in 2020, Mio is a group buying platform that focuses on selling fresh produce and groceries in Tier 2 and 3 cities in Vietnam. The company is able to offer next day delivery because it built a logistics infrastructure that enables it to send produce directly from farms to customers.

The Series A brings Mio’s total raised to $9.1 million, and will be used to expand its logistics and fulfillment system, enter new areas in Vietnam and add new product categories like fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) and household appliances.

Mio co-founder and chief executive officer Trung Huynh said that since TechCrunch first covered Mio seven months ago, it has achieved 10x gross merchandise value growth, a 10x increase in agents, or resellers, and grew its team from 60 people to 240. It now fulfills more than 10,000 pieces of fresh produce per day, operating in Ho Chi Minh, Thu Duc, Binh Duong, Dong Nai and Long An, with plans to expand into northern Vietnam.

The numbers “strengthened our conviction in this model and its potential,” he said. “We need fresh capital to accelerate hiring, product development and supply chain to keep up with the pace of growth as we deepen our presence in existing geographies and expand to new provinces.”

Mio is able to offer next day deliveries because its vertically integrated mayor layers of the value chain, including procurement, warehousing, order sorting and bulk delivery. The startup owns the majority of its logistics infrastructure and uses its own fleet of couriers. Its ability to delivery fresh produce directly from farms to customers in less than 16 hours contributed to higher customer retention and growth, Huynh said, and it will continue to shorten delivery times. .

Mio resellers are called Mio Partners. Huynh said one of the driving factors behind Mio is targeting the right people for the program, or “housewives and stay-home-moms in lower income regions who love sharing value-for-money products to their social circle of friends.”

They aggregate orders, usually from friends and family, and orders are delivered to them in batches for distribution. The startup claims Mio Partners can make up to $400 a month, including a 10% commission on each order and additional commissions based on the monthly performance of other resellers they referred to the program.

“There is a strong possibility” that Mio will expand beyond Vietnam, Huynh said, “but will only be considered at a more appropriate time after we successfully built our playbook for Vietnam.”

Source: Tech

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