NFX named top investor in Silicon Valley

Despite the talk of doom and gloom in the Valley, there is plenty of money going into great companies. Many early stage deals are still getting done by savvy investors who see opportunity in the right spaces. So who should entrepreneurs go to to seek seed funding?

The list below is by no means comprehensive, but highlights some firms that are especially active, and have great deals they funded in early stages. The list was compiled based on primary research through talking directly to five Silicon Valley based entrepreneurs who raised seed financing and five Silicon Valley based venture capitalists.

Disclosure: Silicon Valley is a small world, so I do own equity in some of the companies that these firms also hold equity in. I also currently work for a Social Capital company.

NFX Guild: Run by valley legends James Currier, Stan Chudnovsky and Gigi Levy-Weiss, NFX demo days are attended by all of the top investors in the Silicon Valley. Success Stories include: Honeybook, Honor.

 

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Artbit is Digitizing The Art World

When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel in the 16th century, few people around the world had the opportunity to admire it, or even knew it existed. Now, with the digitization of the art world, there exists an endless number of ways to create, experience and interact with art.

From sketching and design software to online art auctions, dozens of artsy apps are now at our fingertips. And with the ever-booming global art market valued at $70 billion, a myriad of startups are looking to capitalize on that success.

Even giant search engine Google has come up with its own art app. Called Arts & Culture, this mobile app lets you discover the stories behind artworks hung at over 1,000 museums around the world, and search the huge database by color, time period and other keywords.

But some of the most innovative apps and online platforms that are at the forefront of digitizing the art world were developed in Israel. NoCamels highlights five of them.

Artbit: The Shazam of artwork

Most of us know Shazam, the app that identifies the titles of songs simply by “listening” to them. Israeli app Artbit does the same for works of art. Just point to a painting hung in a museum or drawn on a wall, snap a picture of it using your smartphone, and voila: the app tells you everything about that piece, from the artist who painted it to their life’s work.

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Solomoto Platform Handles Webdesign, CRM, Ecommerce, More

Solomoto is a marketing technology provider that helps small companies grow by centralizing their digital business needs into an all-in-one platform that encompasses web design, ecommerce, CRM, social media marketing and ad campaigning.

The company is based in Tel Aviv, Israel, and launched in 2015. It first ventured into international markets — Brazil and Eastern Europe, specifically — and is now attempting to break into the U.S.

Solomoto’s goal is to recruit a few hundred U.S. small businesses to serve as “ambassadors” to help promote its services. In exchange, these companies get to use the platform free of charge for three months.

The term Solomoto is an amalgam of the words social, local, mobile and tools. The company chose the moniker because it reflects three characteristics that define today’s consumers. These consumers:

  • Rely on the influence of social network friends and followers when making purchase decisions;
  • Shop locally, as well as online;
  • Depend on their mobile devices to find business information, such as hours of operation and location.

From that sprang the term “SoLoMo” to describe these modern, digitally-savvy consumers. Solomoto just provides the tools to reach them.

Solomoto works with companies across many industries — healthcare, food and beverage, real estate and retail — more than 50 different verticals that range in size from single-person operations to companies with several dozen employees. To date, more than 100,000 businesses use the service worldwide.

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Three Things to Know about SeedCX and the Industrial Hemp Industry

Two MIT Sloan Master of Finance alumni are entering the burgeoning hemp industry with an electronic trading platform for emerging markets.

Brian Liston and Edward Woodford co-founded Seed CX, which is awaiting regulatory approval from the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The company’s goal is to provide a sophisticated trading infrastructure for emerging commodities that have recently become more accessible due to dramatic market restructuring, regulatory change, or societal shift. Seed CX will provide a derivatives trading platform, a wholesale marketplace, and a pricing data feed for participants in commodity markets to hedge, trade the underlying product, and access economic information for decision making. Seed’s first commodity is industrial hemp, a plant that is grown for an array of uses including building materials, batteries, paper, biofuel, clothing, makeup, and food.

Continue reading the article at MIT’s Newsroom

Kwik raises $3 million to take on Amazon Dash buttons

Amazon Dash buttons have been gaining traction and Kwik thinks there is room for a competitor. The Tel Aviv-based startup has designed a similar product and is working with Domino’s, Budweiser, Huggie’s and other brands to make it as easy to order pizza as pressing a button — literally.

And the team is announcing that Norwest Venture Partners is leading a $3 million seed round to help Kwik fulfill their vision. The startup hopes that this capital will help them move beyond their beta-testing in Israel and expand to the U.S.

“Consumers like the convenience and simplicity of smart buttons,” said Sergio Monsalve, partner at Norwest Venture Partners. “This market is too big for only one player.”

Monsalve also believes that Kwik’s approach, which lets brands choose their delivery and payment partners, will encourage more companies to sign up for Kwik. “Their open ecosystem will enable the growth of many businesses, all along the supply chain.”

The buttons are free for consumers, but Kwik makes money by taking a cut of each transaction. Kwik acts as a liaison between the delivery and fulfillment partners.

Founder and CEO Ofer Klein told TechCrunch that he believes “any product which is a repeated service” is ripe for button-making. Coffee, pet food, or even taxis could all be ordered with just a tap.

Klein argues that physical buttons are more convenient than using a smartphone app. Some people, including senior citizens who may be less internet-savvy, like the simplicity of ordering a repeat transaction in just a tap. Klein said that early adopters are his targeted demographic, however.  

Perhaps we are reaching peak laziness, but Klein insists that “people would like to just not think” and see their pizza and beer arrive.

 

This article originally appeared on Techcrunch

Finrise named as top US startup

With all of the talk of downturn, doom and gloom in the Silicon Valley press cycles, it’s easy to forget that venture capital deals are still getting at a pretty rapid pace.

I recently asked 25 venture capitalists and angel investors which companies they are most excited by based on their operational performance (not based on what they’ve raised to date).

Some common names showed up, and here they are:

Finrise — San Mateo-based Finrise is operating in the massive and rapidly growing fintech market with a unique angle. Finrise helps patients handle out of pocket health care costs using great software. Patients and practices are reportedly thrilled with the product and the company is growing rapidly.

 

This article was originally published on Inc.com

A smarter phone becomes a personal assistant

Artificial intelligence is a longstanding science fiction staple that is coming into its own. Google, Facebook, Apple, and others are all developing AI tools. You can try out some apps today that demonstrate fledgling forms of the technology by smartly, swiftly, and automatically doing tasks that would otherwise take lots of effort.

24Me

24Me is a personal digital assistant that connects to different online accounts and manages your affairs. It is styled more like a standard to-do list app or calendar app, which may suit those who like to organize their days as a timeline.

 

This article was originally posted on The Boston Globe

Payment startup Zooz raises $24 million as global fintech looks for standards

As payment solutions proliferate and calls for standardization mount, Israel-based payment platform startup Zooz said it has closed a $24 million led by Target Global Ventures, to expand globally and bolster its products and services.

Zooz’s series C round more than doubles the total amount invested in the company to $40.5 million, raised in four rounds. The latest round included Fang Fund, iAngels, Kreos Capital and existing investors Blumberg Capital, lool ventures, Rhodium, Claltech (Access Industries’ Israeli tech vehicle), XSeed Capital, CampOne Ventures and angel investor Eilon Tirosh.

“We are opening  sales and tech support offices in Berlin and San Francisco. We are also you going to invest more in business intelligence that relate to payments and better optimization of data. We are also looking to go from 80 to 120 employees in a year’s time. Sales and tech support in both cities,” said Ronen Morecki, co-founder and CTO of Zooz.

Primarily targeting developers for both mobile and desktop, Zooz provides a payments platform designed to help merchants reduce the rate of international cards being rejected.

“We know to route to the right payment processor, increasing the chances of the card being accepted.”

Zooz wants to be in Germany for the country’s massive growth potential. The company is seeking new retailers and Europe’s largest economy is fertile ground for expansion.

According to ATKearny’s Global Retail Index, Germany is the second largest online market in Europe with almost triple the UK’s current growth potential.

The same report predicts that European online retail sales will reach 234€ billion by 2018 and almost half of all online retail sales across the EU will be from online purchases made using a smartphone or tablet by 2018.

“We believe that the German market is highly advanced in eCommerce and many other retailers in Europe are interested in the German market. So it makes sense for us to follow their lead, said Morecki.

Europe doing the right thing

While Zooz is not directly competing with banks, it is banking on the success of deregulation and the expansion of unified standards globally. In fact, the company’s expansion into Europe plays out against a backdrop of the EU’s planned revised Payment Services Directive (PD2), which is intended to open up the market to new players.

“PSD2 will fundamentally change the game for consumers, banks and third party providers by opening up the market in the same way that the app stores did for mobile phones. With PSD2, third party providers can develop new services on top of existing bank infrastructure that never would have been developed otherwise,” said Erik Engellau-Nilsson, Vice President at Klarna.

According to Uri Rivner from BioCatch, a provider of behavioral authentication, one of the points the directive addresses is electronic payment security in the EU, making online payments safer and more secure.

Payment service providers will be liable for any fraud related issue and will have to be accredited on a yearly basis. Securing the payment ecosystem means a relatively fast, friction-free and unified solution for all.

“The European Commission understands that new payment features are added – purchasing from a new mobile device, first-time customer, applying for a new account – features that up till recently were not addressed, and therefore the need for a regulation is crucial,” said Rivner.

Lack of standardization

One of the biggest hurdles in mainstream adoption and growth in mobile and digital payments is lack of standardization.

There are a multitude of competing platforms, networks, service providers, point of sale technologies, and retailer strategies, including Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, PayPal, Square, Softcard, Walmart Pay, Venmo, just to name a few. Ensuring that there are compliant, secure standards across the board and that solutions are compatible across different channels – online and in-store – will be critical to mass acceptance.

“All parties involved in the payment lifecycle, from retailers to service providers to regulatory bodies, must coordinate to develop consistent and compatible solutions that keep the customer’s needs – convenience and security – at the heart of the conversation,” said Leo Loomie, VP at Digital Risk, a data analytics and compliance solutions provider to large financial institutions.

This article originally appeared on Techcrunch

Zengaming gets $2.8M in funding to expand its social network for the esports business

Competitive gaming is growing quickly, and one of the sites trying to make your dreams of going pro a reality is building up to serve the future of esports.

Zengaming, a social network for gamers looking to make a name for themselves in the esports world, has raised $2.8 million in funding. Crown Resorts Limited, a casino and entertainment company, led the round as it pushes further into the video game space. Other investors include financial firms NFX Guild, 500 Startups, iAngels, and Foundation Capital along with angel investors Barak Rabinowitz and Shmueli Ahdut. Zengaming will use this influx of cash to bring on new talent and to expand its support for important esports games like Dota 2, League of Legends, and Starcraft. Pro gaming is on pace to generate $463 million in revenues this year primarily from sponsorships and marketing, and Zengaming is trying to position itself as a strong link between that money and the players.

“We are extremely excited about this financing round,” Zengaming chief executive Jimi Gecelter said in a canned statement. “When we started zengaming, we knew that we were answering a real need within the esports community: a professional network to find and interact with other players.”

Like LinkedIn, Zengaming wants its members to see the site as a path to future income. The idea is that you can compete in games and your results will show up on Zengaming and other teams might notice and recruit you based on your profile. Additionally, the site also hosts sponsors who may want to connect with top players for potential sponsorships. The company claims it now has more than 1 million active users for the military shooter Counter-Strike alone. It is actively testing communities for Dota 2, Rocket League, and more.

“Even we were surprised by how widespread our success was, gaining such an impressive amount of active users within a year,” continued Gecelter. “Partnering up with Crown, which has already hosted the biggest eSports tournament in Australia, with professional teams such as Cloud9 and Virtus.Pro, is an important strategic step that will help zengaming continue its expansion, and position itself as a leader in the esports industry.”

 

This article originally appeared on VentureBeat

Backed Review: Co-Signers Make Personal Loans Cheaper

Backed wants to give low-interest loans to millennials with unestablished credit.

The online lender uses a simple co-signer model. It allows someone with stellar credit (typically a family member or friend) to “back” a borrower. You can qualify for a personal loan without a backer, but the addition of one will reduce your interest rate — the company says by as much as 41%.

Backed’s starting interest rate is the lowest NerdWallet has seen for borrowers who have well-qualified co-signers. But the lender currently operates only in a handful of states: Arkansas, Florida, New Jersey, New York and West Virginia.

Do you qualify?

If you have a co-signer, there are no minimum requirements for your own credit score, but the co-signer’s must be 720 or above, confirmed with a hard credit check when the loan is finalized.

If you don’t have a co-signer, you must have:

  • A minimum credit score of 660.
  • Minimum annual income of $18,000.
  • At least six months of credit history.

Having a co-signer can reduce your interest rate, but Backed also rewards borrowers for sharing more information about themselves. Here’s how it works:

  • Applicants provide basic data about loan purpose, income, debts and education level to see if they qualify for a loan.
  • Backed assigns borrowers a grade and gives them an initial quote.
  • Borrowers can choose to accept their quote or provide more information about themselves to reduce their APR. Adding a Facebook account helps the lender verify identity; a LinkedIn account backs up education and employment history; and linking a bank account provides detailed information about cash flow.
  • Backed uses an algorithm to calculate risk, then reduces the borrower’s interest rate and origination fee accordingly.

Borrowers typically add a co-signer when they apply, but they also can add one after receiving a loan from the company. The old loan is then closed and a new one created, the lender says.

Right now borrowers can add only one co-signer, but that may change as the company grows, says CEO Tal Yatsiv. The New York-based lender launched in late 2015.

What makes Backed different

Backed’s starting APR of 2.9% (only for well-qualified borrowers and backers) is the lowest among the online lenders NerdWallet has reviewed.

The lender also tries to reduce the traditional risks involved in co-signing a loan, giving backers an early warning about missed loan payments.

Traditionally, it’s up to the co-signer to monitor the borrower’s payments, because lenders are not required to keep them in the loop. If the loan goes into default, the co-signer’s credit is dinged along with the borrower’s. Depending on state law, lenders can also collect debt from the co-signer without first trying to collect from the borrower, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

With a Backed loan, the co-signer receives automatic email notifications of all regular payments. If the borrower misses a payment, the lender immediately contacts the co-signer (via text message or phone call) and allows a 15-day grace period to make the loan current.

Still, “while the notification feature allays a lot of concerns, you should never co-sign anything unless you can afford to take over the payments,” advises NerdWallet personal finance columnist Liz Weston.

Backed also offers a degree of flexibility. Borrowers who need to adjust their due date can do so by contacting the company. Those who have made on-time payments for a year may also be able to lower their interest rate by reaching out to the company.

Backed’s loan terms and limits are comparable to those of other online personal lenders. Here’s what else you need to know before applying for a Backed personal loan:

Backed’s credit standards

  • Minimum credit score required: 660 for borrower without co-signer; 720 for co-signer.
  • Minimum gross income required: None for co-signed loans; $18,000 for loans without a co-signer.
  • Minimum credit history: None for co-signed loans; six months for those without a co-signer.
  • Maximum debt-to-income ratio: Not provided.

Backed’s lending terms

  • APR range: 2.9% to 16%.
  • Minimum loan amount: $3,000.
  • Maximum loan amount: $25,000.
  • Limitations: Available only in Arkansas, Florida, New Jersey, New York and West Virginia.
  • Loan term: 1 year to 3 years.
  • Time to receive funds: 2 to 4 business days.

Backed’s fees and penalties

  • Origination fee: 0.8% to 2% depending on borrower’s grade.
  • Prepayment fee: None.
  • Late fees: $20 after 15-day grace period.
  • Personal-check processing fees: $10.
  • Other fees: $15 unsuccessful payment fee.

Backed review: The bottom line

Backed can be a good option if you are new to credit or have poor credit and want to improve your score. Your co-signer is still on the hook if you miss payments or default, but Backed’s notification system and grace period are designed to give you both breathing room and a chance to protect your credit.

 

This article originally appeared on NerdWallet