Bill Gates-backed Vicarious Surgical adds a virtual reality twist to robots in the operating room

In an operating room in rural Idaho, doctors prep a patient for surgery. They make a tiny, thumb-sized incision into the patient and insert a small robot while across the country a surgeon puts on a virtual reality headset, grabs their controllers, and prepares to operate. While this scene may seem like science fiction now, […]

In an operating room in rural Idaho, doctors prep a patient for surgery. They make a tiny, thumb-sized incision into the patient and insert a small robot while across the country a surgeon puts on a virtual reality headset, grabs their controllers, and prepares to operate.

While this scene may seem like science fiction now, a Charlestown, Mass.-based startup called Vicarious Surgical, is developing the technology to make that vision a reality.

The company’s co-founders, Adam Sachs and Sammy Khalifa, have been developing and refining the technology almost since they met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as undergraduates.

The 27 year-old Sachs said that he and Khalifa formally launched the company roughly five years ago when they graduated from MIT and have been working on it ever since.

“We’ve been working on ways to miniaturize robotics and put all of the motion of surgery into the abdominal cavity,” says Sachs. “If you put all of the motion inside the abdominal cavity you are not confined to motion around the incision sites.”

What really set the founders’ brains buzzing was the potential for combining their miniature robots with the ability to see inside the body using virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift.

“It wasn’t a ‘Eureka!’ moment, but more like two-or-three weeks as the vision came together,” says Sachs. “We can make robotics more human-like and virtual reality would give you that presence in the body.”

The two founders initially bootstrapped their startup and then raised a small seed round and then began steadily closing larger tranches of a rolling round from luminaries like Bill Gates through his Gates Frontier fund, Khosla Ventures, Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors, AME Cloud Ventures (investment firm from Yahoo founder Jerry Yang) Singularity Ventures investor Neil Devani and Salesforce founder, Marc Benioff.

In all, the company has raised some $31.8 million to support the development of its technology.

For Sachs and Khalifa, even though the technology was broadly applicable in areas that would yield faster results than healthcare, tackling the health market first was important, Sachs says.

A lot of people pointed out that our technology has a lot of applications. [But] healthcare for all of the reasons that people talk about really is meaningful to us,” says Sachs. “I have the luxury of being able to work on a project that’s fascinating from a technology standpoint and meaningful from a social good aspect.”

Vicarious Surgical chief medical officer Dr. Barry Greene, chief executive, Adam Sachs, and chief technology officer, Sammy Khalifa

Science and entrepreneurship runs in the Sachs family. Adam’s father, Eli Sachs, is a professor at MIT and one of the co-founders of the revolutionary three d printing company, Desktop Metal .

According to Sachs, a number of innovations in robotics has led the company to develop what Sachs calls tiny humanoid robots. 

Picture a very robotic version of a two human arms and a human head,” says Sachs. “Two robotic arms that have the same degrees of freedom and proportions of a human arms and a camera that is placed above the shoulders of the robot… it’s a few inches across.”

Using the motorized robot a surgeon can remotely control the robots movements to operate on a patient. “They can be in another room or they can be hundreds of miles away (with an excellent internet connection,” says Sachs. 

For Vicarious Surgical’s founders and its investors the mission is to drive down both the cost of higher impact surgeries and access to the best surgeons through remote technologies.

The market for medical robots is highly lucrative. Earlier today, Johnson and Johnson announced the $3.4 billion acquisition of Auris Health — a maker of robotic diagnostics and surgical tools. In all, estimates put the robotic surgery market at somewhere around $90 billion according to a report from Allied Market Research.

“We like to invest in things if they work they truly change the industry.. Minimally invasive surgeries and surgical robotics is definitely the future and it’s just getting started,” says Dror Berman, a managing director with Innovation Endeavors.

There were 900,000 surgeries done using surgical robotics out of a total of 313 million surgical procedures. It’s a low percentage and it’s very expensive to buy those… In general that’s not offered to the vast majority of patients. Vicarious is about democratizing that access… if it works it will open a huge market for people who can use much better procedures for much better surgeries.,” Berman says. 

“One of the problems with that is that smaller hospitals can’t afford these $2 million robots,” says Sachs.  “By making the devices tiny and fitting the motion inside a patient we can expand access long-term and in smaller hospitals where a surgeon might be able to start a procedure.”

Later, as Vicarious is able to build up taxonomies of different surgical practices and methods, the hospitals could begin to automate more aspects of the procedures to the point where many of these surgeries may just be handled by the robot.

The company is currently testing its miniature robots in laboratories and would not comment on whether it was using animal subjects. Vicarious is also modeling the human abdomen and conducting as many virtual tests as possible.

The new funding, Sachs says, will take the company through its applications for the Food and Drug Administration.

“A lot of our long term vision is about growing and scaling our technology to the point where it’s accessible not just to big cities and major hospitals in the U.S. and also the small cities and towns in the rural U.S. and around the world as well,” says Sachs. “Long term it’s about the democratization of surgery that can come from surgical robotics.”

As rocket companies proliferate, new enabling tech emerges as the next wave in the space race

Blue Origin, Rocket Lab, Relativity Space, Slingshot Aeropsace, SpaceX and Virgin Orbit have raised billions of dollars to create new vehicles to launch payloads into space, but as the private space industry develops in the U.S. investors are beginning to back enabling technologies boost the next wave of innovation. Whether it’s satellite manufacturers, new propulsion […]

Blue Origin, Rocket Lab, Relativity Space, Slingshot Aeropsace, SpaceX and Virgin Orbit have raised billions of dollars to create new vehicles to launch payloads into space, but as the private space industry develops in the U.S. investors are beginning to back enabling technologies boost the next wave of innovation.

Whether it’s satellite manufacturers, new propulsion systems for satellites, antennae for data transmission or actually building out the networks themselves, the new space race will be building the next generation of services that the increasing access to space provides.

Last year, investors put at least $2.3 billion into companies angling for their own corner of outer space.

By 2040, Morgan Stanley estimates that the space economy to be worth more than $1 trillion in 2040 — as well as for SpaceX to double, or even quintuple, its valuation — “are significantly tied to the developments related to satellite broadband.”

For the moment, the next wave is still focused on terrestrial applications.

Already, landmark deals are being signed to provide new space-based internet networking services like the agreement between the startup company Astranis and Pacific Dataport to provide high-speed, lower-cost broadband services to Alaska.

With only around $14 million in financing, Astranis has managed to sign its first deal to provide high speed internet to Alaskans by 2020, while OneWeb (which has raised over $1.7 billion) expects its networks to come online by 2022. SpaceX will launch the first Starlink satellites this year, with service coming online in the following years.

Astranis’ decision to work directly with a single customer rather than deploying a massive network points to the fact that companies can start generating real revenues relatively quickly — without the need for global ambitions off the bat.

Indeed, some space investors note that there are significant questions that remain unanswered for both SpaceX and OneWeb .

In a blog post earlier this month, Josephine Millward, the head of research at London-based space investment firm Seraphim Capital wrote:

After years of development, OneWeb and SpaceX will begin to deploy their Low Earth Orbit (LEO) mega-constellations in 2019, albeit their full constellation targets will take several more years. Both are planning global coverage to provide internet broadband to the billions of unconnected. Crucially both still need to define their “go-to-market” strategy and solve the ground segment element of their proposition ahead of commercial roll-out.

Astranis’ satellite-based service is expected to triple the amount of capacity that’s available to Alaskans for internet services and, with a price tag worth tens of millions of dollars, represents the largest contract signed by an early stage startup in the space business to date.

But networking services aren’t the only space-based applications that will gain additional traction in 2019. Using satellite imagery for data analysis, already a big pitch from companies like Satellogic and Planet — and newer companies like Capella Space and Iceye — is an industry that will come into its own, according to Seraphim Capital’s Chief Executive Mark Boggett. Meanwhile, companies like Cloud Constellation are pitching satellite-based data storage as inherently safer than their earthbound cloud computing counterparts.

“These satellite networks are now in place and they’re gathering massive amounts of data,”  says Boggett. “What we’re going to start seeing is companies start using this data.”

Boggett says stay tuned for big fundraising rounds across the board, not only in the satellite networks themselves, but in the services that enable them to refine their data collection techniques and increase the efficiency and power of their transmission capabilities.

These would be what Boggett calls “downlinking” companies and companies that manage satellite mobility in space. Startups like Kymeta, Bridgesat, Ansur, RBC Signals and the Japanese startup Infostellar are all focused on downlinking — taking data from satellites and transmitting it to receivers on earth so the information can be used effectively, or optimizing data collection and transmissions in space.

It’s a market that’s attracted the attention of one of the largest tech companies in the world — Amazon . Viewing the data collection business as an extension of its cloud services, late last year Amazon partnered with Lockheed Martin to announce a base station as a service business called Amazon Base Station (no one accused them of being branding geniuses).

“Customers said that we have so much data in space with so many applications that want to use that data. Why don’t you make it easier,” said Amazon Web Services’ chief executive, Andy Jassy, at the time of the new service’s launch.

Propulsion technologies for satellites once they’re in space are another potential area for increased investment in 2019, according to investors.

Companies like Momentus, which raised $8.3 million in November; Tesseract, a European startup developing propulsion technologies; and Phase Four, the El Segundo, Calif.-based developer of a plasma-based propulsion system, are all bringing products to market.

Phase Four, which is in the middle of raising a new round right now, has actually inked its first supply deals with Capella Space and Tyvak, a division of the startup Terran Orbital, for its thrusters.

“It is an infrastructure arms race to get things efficiently built and deployed into space,” says M. Umair Siddiqui, the chief technology officer at Phase Four. “Now the next companies are racing to own who can manufacture the hardware that is going to generate the revenue in space.”

 

Most of the Fortune 100 still use flawed software that led to the Equifax breach

Almost two years after Equifax’s massive hack, the majority of Fortune 500 companies still aren’t learning the lessons of using vulnerable software. In the last six months of 2018, two-thirds of the Fortune 500 companies downloaded a vulnerable version of Apache Struts, the same vulnerable server software that was used by hackers to steal the […]

Almost two years after Equifax’s massive hack, the majority of Fortune 500 companies still aren’t learning the lessons of using vulnerable software.

In the last six months of 2018, two-thirds of the Fortune 500 companies downloaded a vulnerable version of Apache Struts, the same vulnerable server software that was used by hackers to steal the personal data on close to 150 million consumers, according to data shared by Sonatype, an open-source automation firm.

That’s despite almost two years’ worth of patched Struts versions being released since the attack.

Sonatype wouldn’t name the Fortune 100 firms that had downloaded the vulnerable software, nor was it clear what the software was used for. Sonatype did say that the companies included more than half of the 26 financial and 19 energy companies, and more than half of all healthcare and technology companies.

In all, more than 18,000 businesses downloaded vulnerable versions of Struts, the company said.

Sonatype’s technology monitors millions of open-source commits per day, Sonatype’s chief executive Wayne Jackson told TechCrunch last year. In doing so, it can see what’s new and updated, and can advise and update vulnerable software with newer, patched versions.

The company, which already works with Fannie Mae and Tomitribe, announced Tuesday a new working relationship with Equifax to monitor the use of the credit agency’s open-source libraries across its network to help prevent another breach.

It’s a stark turnaround from its massive 2017 hack, which a House committee investigation late last year found that the Equifax breach was “entirely preventable” had the company patched its vulnerable servers months earlier when the patches — and the advisories to companies — were released.

Bryson Koehler, Equifax’s chief technology officer of just six months, said in remarks that the company is “focused on building security into each software application from the start and enhancing it throughout the development process.”

Sonatype raised $80 million in September following a $30 million round two years earlier.

Putting the band back together, ExactTarget execs reunite to launch MetaCX

Scott McCorkle has spent most of his professional career thinking about business to business software and how to improve it for a company’s customers. The former President of ExactTarget and later chief executive of Salesforce Marketing Cloud has made billions of dollars building products to help support customer service and now he’s back at it […]

Scott McCorkle has spent most of his professional career thinking about business to business software and how to improve it for a company’s customers.

The former President of ExactTarget and later chief executive of Salesforce Marketing Cloud has made billions of dollars building products to help support customer service and now he’s back at it again with his latest venture MetaCX.

Alongside Jake Miller, the former chief engineering lead at Salesforce Marketing Cloud and chief technology officer at ExactTarget, and David Duke, the chief customer officer and another ExactTarget alumnus, McCorkle has raised $14 million to build a white-labeled service that offers a toolkit for monitoring, managing and supporting customers as they use new software tools.

If customers are doing the things i want them to be doing through my product. What is it that they want to achieve and why did they buy my product.

“MetaCX sits above any digital product,” McCorkle says. And its software monitors and manages the full spectrum of the customer relationship with that product. “It is API embeddable and we have a full user experience layer.”

For the company’s customers, MetaCX provides a dashboard that includes outcomes, the collaboration, metrics tracked as part of the relationship and all the metrics around that are part of that engagement layer,” says McCorkle.

The first offerings will be launching in the beginning of 2019, but the company has dozens of customers already using its pilot, McCorkle said.

The Indianapolis -based company is one of the latest spinouts from High Alpha Studio, an accelerator and venture capital studio formed by Scott Dorsey, the former chief executive officer of ExactTarget. As one of a crop of venture investment firms and studios cropping up in the Midwest, High Alpha is something of a bellwether for the viability of the venture model in emerging ecosystems. And, from that respect, the success of the MetaCX round speaks volumes. Especially since the round was led by the Los Angeles-based venture firm Upfront Ventures.

“Our founding team includes world-class engineers, designers and architects who have been building billion-dollar SaaS products for two decades,” said McCorkle, in a statement. “We understand that enterprises often struggle to achieve the business outcomes they expect from SaaS, and the renewal process for SaaS suppliers is often an ambiguous guessing game. Our industry is shifting from a subscription economy to a performance economy, where suppliers and buyers of digital products need to transparently collaborate to achieve outcomes.”

As a result of the investment, Upfront partner Kobie Fuller will be taking a seat on the MetaCX board of directors alongside McCorkle and Dorsey.

“The MetaCX team is building a truly disruptive platform that will inject data-driven transparency, commitment and accountability against promised outcomes between SaaS buyers and vendors,” said Fuller, in a statement. “Having been on the journey with much of this team while shaping the martech industry with ExactTarget, I’m incredibly excited to partner again in building another category-defining business with Scott and his team in Indianapolis.”

 

Live streaming studio, Culture Genesis, launches its first show, the quiz-based Trivia Mob

A new generation of entrepreneurs is emerging to refashion the Los Angeles studio system for the digital age forming companies that combining live-streamed video, podcasts, and the newfound social media celebrities to craft entertainment for a new breed of consumer. Two of those startup founders, longtime Apple executive Cedric Rogers and former developer for VEVO […]

A new generation of entrepreneurs is emerging to refashion the Los Angeles studio system for the digital age forming companies that combining live-streamed video, podcasts, and the newfound social media celebrities to craft entertainment for a new breed of consumer.

Two of those startup founders, longtime Apple executive Cedric Rogers and former developer for VEVO and MLB digital Shaun Newsum, are now pulling the curtains back on the first fruit of their production studio, Culture Genesis, with the launch of TriviaMob — a new quiz show targeting urban audiences.

The two creators envision their company as a combination of 106 & Park and Jeopardy with questions aimed at cultural references for the Highsnobiety and Complex set.

TriviaMob banner

TriviaMob players can win up to $10,000 in cash by competing individually or as part of a group (or “mob”) to win collective prizes by tuning in and competing to shows that stream every Sunday. Each player has 10 seconds to answer 10 questions around art, music, science and history. Players that answer all of the questions correctly will get a share of the $10,000 prize and participants who opt to be part of the “mob” can earn points for sponsored prizes.

For its foray into live-streamed appointment entertainment, Culture Genesis has tapped Melvin Gregg, the influencer and star of Netflix’s American Vandal series along with a host of … well… hosts including former Miss USA contestant, Brittany Lucio; DJ Damage, the co-host of Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs’ flagship show, REVOLT Live; Jessica Flores; and TV host and comedic actress Dariany Santana.

Backed initially by Los Angeles-based accelerator MuckerLab and betaworks latest livecamp program, the two founders see Culture Genesis as tapping into the twin trends of gaming and mobile technology adoption in young African American and Latinx communities. The founders cite statistics indicating that 73 percent of African Americans and 72% of Latinx consumers over 13 years-old identify as gamers.

“We’re building software for an urban, multicultural audience that continues to lead and influence culture — not just in the U.S. but around the world,” said Rogers, in a statement. “We see this influence growing in Hollywood but it’s not happening fast enough in Silicon valley. We want to accelerate this shift.”

While the business model mimics that of HQ Trivia, the once-popular quiz show whose success has waned even as it scored massive gains in venture fundraising — valuing the company at a reported $100 million.

The founders of Culture Genesis see their first product as fundamentally different from HQ. “People want to see things for them by them,” says Rogers. “From our perspective HQ meant nothing to our audience.”

Newsum, the company’s chief technology officer, goes even further. “I think HQ was a prime example of our thesis. HQ from a multicultural perspective — that didn’t appeal to our audience. Part of what we’re doing with Cultural Genesis is bringing that urban understanding.”

 

Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman announce the name of their stealthy mobile video startup

Called Quibi, short for quick bites, the company is creating content with notable filmmakers Sam Raimi, Guillermo del Toro and Antoine Fuqua.

On stage at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit in Los Angeles, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman unveiled the name of their highly-anticipated mobile video company known until now as NewTV.

The name is Quibi, short for “quick bites,” per a note on its new website: “Something cool is coming from Hollywood and Silicon Valley — quick bites of captivating entertainment, created for mobile by the best talent, designed to fit perfectly into any moment of your day.”

The short-form video service, launching next year, will operate on a two-tiered subscription model similar to Hulu, per Deadline. Quibi is cooking up original content with Oscar-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, Southpaw director Antoine Fuqua and Spiderman director Sami Raimi, as well as Get Out producer Jason Blum and Van Toffler, the CEO of digital media production company Gunpowder & Sky.

The Hollywood Reporter says the del Toro project “is a modern zombie story,” the Fuqua project is “a modern version of Dog Day Afternoon” and the Blum project, titled Wolves and Villagers, could be compared to Fatal Attraction.

Katzenberg, the former chairman of Walt Disney Studios and founder of WndrCo, a consumer tech investment and holding company, has raised $1 billion for Quibi from Disney, 21st Century Fox, Entertainment One, NBCUniversal, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Alibaba Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Madrone Capital and several others. He hired Meg Whitman as Quibi’s CEO in January.

Quibi, given Katzenberg and Whitman’s entertainment and business acumen, is expected to compete with the biggest players in the space, including Instagram, Netflix and Snap, which today announced Snap Originals. The new effort will have the ephemeral messaging service rolling out 12 new scripted shows on its app from Keeping Up With The Kardashians creator Bunim/Murray, Friday Night Lights writer Carter Harris and more.

Quibi is hiring aggressively, recently bringing on former Viacom executive Doug Herzog, former Instagram product manager Blake Barnes and former Hulu chief technology officer Rob Post, also per THR.

Quibi did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Africa Roundup: Paga goes global and 4 startups raise $99M in VC

Jake Bright Contributor Jake Bright is a writer and author in New York City. He is co-author of The Next Africa. More posts by this contributor Polestar unveils first production EV with aim to overtake Tesla Liquid Telecom goes long on Africa’s startups as future clients Nigerian digital payments startup Paga is gearing up for international expansion […]

Nigerian digital payments startup Paga is gearing up for international expansion with a $10 million round led by the Global Innovation Fund.

The company is exploring the release of its payments product in Ethiopia, Mexico, and the Philippines—CEO Tayo Oviosu told TechCrunch.

Paga looks to go head to head with regional and global payment players, such as PayPal, Alipay, and Safaricom according to Oviosu.

“We are not only in a position to compete with them, we’re going beyond them,” he said of Kenya’s MPesa mobile money product. “Our goal is to build a global payment ecosystem across many emerging markets.”

Launched in 2012, Paga has created a multi-channel network and platform to transfer money, pay bills, and buy things digitally 9 million customers in Nigeria—including 6000 businesses.

Since inception, the startup has processed 57 million transactions worth $3.6 billion, according to Oviosu. He joined Cellulant CEO Ken Njoroge and Helios Investment Partners’ Fope Adelowo at Disrupt San Francisco to discuss fintech and Africa’s tech ecosystem.

South African fintech startup Jumo raised a $52 million round (led by Goldman Sachs) to bring its fintech services to Asia. The company—that offers loans to the unbanked in Africa—has opened an office in Singapore to lead the way.

The new round takes Jumo to $90 million raised from investors and also saw participation from existing backers that include Proparco — which is attached to the French Development Agency — Finnfund, Vostok Emerging Finance, Gemcorp Capital, and LeapFrog Investments.

Launched in 2014, Jumo specializes in social impact financial products. That means loans and saving options for those who sit outside of the existing banking system, and particularly small businesses.

To date, it claims to have helped nine million consumers across its six markets in Africa and originated over $700 million in loans. The company, which has some 350 staff across 10 offices in Africa, Europe and Asia, was part of Google’s Launchpad accelerator last year. Jumo is led by CEO Andrew Watkins-Ball, who has close to two decades in finance and investing.

Lagos based Paystack raised an $8 million Series A round led by Stripe.

In Nigeria the company’s payment API integrates with tens of thousands of businesses, and in two years it has grown to process 15 percent of all online payments.

In 2016, Paystack became the first startup from Nigeria to enter Y Combinator, and the incubator is doing some follow-on investing in this round.

Other strategic investors in this Series A include Visa and the Chinese online giant Tencent, parent of WeChat and a plethora of other services. Tencent also invested in Paystack’s previous round: the startup has raised $10 million to date.

Paystack integrates a wide range of payment options (wire transfers, cards, and mobile) that Nigerians (and soon, those in other countries in Africa) use both to accept and make payments. There’s more about the company’s platform and strategy in this TechCrunch feature.

South African startup Yoco raised $16 million in a new round of funding to expand its payment management and audit services for small and medium-sized businesses as it angles to become one of Africa’s billion-dollar businesses.

To get there the company that “builds tools and services to help SMEs get paid and manage their business” plans to tap $20 billion in commercial activity that the company’s co-founder and chief executive, Katlego Maphai estimates is waiting to move from cash payments to digital offerings.

Yoco offers a point of sale card reader that links to its proprietary payment and performance software at an entry cost of just over $100.

With this kit, cash-based businesses can start accepting cards and tracking metrics such as top-selling products, peak sales periods, and inventory flows.

Yoco has positioned itself as a missing link to “solving an access problem” for SMEs. Though South Africa has POS and business enterprise providers — and relatively high card (75 percent) and mobile penetration (68 percent) — the company estimates only 7 percent of South African businesses accept cards.

Yoco says it is already processing $280 million in annualized payment volume for just under 30,000 businesses.

The startup generates revenue through margins on hardware and software sales and fees of 2.95 percent per transaction on its POS devices.

Yoco will use the $16 million round on product and platform development, growing its distribution channels, and acquiring new talent.

Emerging markets credit startup Mines.io closed a $13 million Series A round led by The Rise Fund, and looks to expand in South America and Asia.

Mines provides business to consumer (B2C) “credit-as-a-service” products to large firms.

“We’re a technology company that facilitates local institutions — banks, mobile operators, retailers — to offer credit to their customers,” Mines CEO and co-founder Ekechi Nwokah told TechCrunch.

Most of Mines’ partnerships entail white-label lending products offered on mobile phones, including non-smart USSD devices.

With offices in San Mateo and Lagos, Mines uses big-data (extracted primarily from mobile users) and proprietary risk algorithms “to enable lending decisions,” Nwokah explained.

Mines started operations in Nigeria and counts payment processor Interswitch and mobile operator Airtel as current partners. In addition to talent acquisition, the startup plans to use the Series A to expand its credit-as-a-service products into new markets in South America and Southeast Asia “in the next few months,” according to its CEO.

Nwokah wouldn’t name specific countries for the startup’s pending South America and Southeast Asia expansion, but believes “this technology is scalable across geographies.”

As part of the Series A, Yemi Lalude from TPG Growth (founder of The Rise Fund) will join Mines’ board of directors.

 

Digital infrastructure company Liquid Telecom is betting big on African startups by rolling out multiple sponsorships and free internet across key access points to the continent’s tech entrepreneurs.

The Econet Wireless subsidiary is also partnering with local and global players like Afrilabs and Microsoft­­ to create a cross-border commercial network for the continent’s startup community.

“We believe startups will be key employers in Africa’s future economy. They’re also our future customers,” Liquid Telecom’s Head of Innovation Partnerships Oswald Jumira told TechCrunch.

With 13 offices on the continent, Liquid Telecom’s core business is building the infrastructure for all things digital in Africa.

The company provides voice, high-speed internet, and IP services at the carrier, enterprise, and retail level across Eastern, Central, and Southern Africa. It operates data centers in Nairobi and Johannesburg with 6,800 square meters of rack space.

Liquid Telecom has built a 50,000 kilometer fiber network, from Cape Town to Nairobi and this year switched on the Cape to Cairo initiative—a land-based fiber link from South Africa to Egypt.

Though startups don’t provide an immediate revenue windfall, the company is betting they will as future enterprise clients.

“Step one…in supporting startups has been….supporting co-working spaces and events with sponsorships and free internet,” Liquid Telecom CTO Ben Roberts told TechCrunch. “Step two is helping startups to adopt…business services.”

Liquid Telecom provides free internet to 30 hubs in seven countries and is active sponsoring startup related events.

On the infrastructure side, it’s developing commercial services for startups to plug into.

“At the early stage and middle stage, we’re offering startups connectivity, skills development, and access to capital through the hubs,” said Liquid Telecom’s Oswald Jumira.

“When they reach the more mature level, we’re focused on how we can scale them up…and be a go to market partner for them. To do that they’ll need to leverage…cloud services.”

Microsoft and Liquid Telecom announced a partnership in 2017 to offer cloud services such as Microsoft’s Azure, Dynamics 365, and Office 365 to select startups through free credits—and connected to comp packages of Liquid Telecom product offerings.

On the venture side, Liquid Telecom doesn’t have a fund but that could be in the cards.

“We haven’t yet started investing in startups, but I’d like to see that we do,” said chief technology officer Ben Roberts. “That can be the next move onwards… from having successful business partnerships.”

And finally, tickets are now available here for Startup Battlefield Africa in Lagos this December. The first two speakers were also announced, TLcom Capital senior partner and former minister of communication technology for Nigeria Omobola Johnson and Singularity Investment’s Lexi Novitske will discuss keys to investing across Africa’s startup landscape.

More Africa Related Stories @TechCrunch

African Tech Around the Net

Coinbase hires Fannie Mae exec Brian Brooks as chief legal officer

Coinbase has made yet another addition to its C-suite. The cryptocurrency trading platform has hired Brian Brooks, the former executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Fannie Mae, as its chief legal officer. The hiring is part of the company’s effort to expand its legal, compliance and government affairs teams. Mike Lempres, who […]

Coinbase has made yet another addition to its C-suite. The cryptocurrency trading platform has hired Brian Brooks, the former executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Fannie Mae, as its chief legal officer.

The hiring is part of the company’s effort to expand its legal, compliance and government affairs teams. Mike Lempres, who until now held the chief legal and risk officer title, will transition into the role of chief policy officer.

“From the time it was founded seven years ago, Coinbase has been a leading advocate for the adoption of cryptocurrency,” Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong said in a statement. “We’ve engaged proactively with regulators as we built products and services that allow people to buy, sell and use cryptocurrency all over the world. In recent years, the industry expanded faster than we could have imagined with an explosion in customer demand and entrepreneurial activity pushing the capabilities of the ecosystem forward. As this trend continues, it is more important than ever that we contribute to a public policy and regulatory environment that fosters innovation while protecting investors.”

Brooks joined Fannie Mae in 2014; before that, he was the vice chairman of OneWest Bank and a managing partner at the law firm O’Melveny & Myers.

The news comes one day after Coinbase announced the hiring of Michael Li as VP of data. Li had spent the last seven years at LinkedIn, most recently as its head of analytics and data science.

Here’s an updated round-up of Coinbase’s other notable 2018 hires:

  • Michael Li, VP of data (September). Li was previously the head of analytics and data science at LinkedIn.
  • Tim Wagner, VP of engineering (July). Wagner was previously a general manager at Amazon Web Services.
  • Jeff Horowitz, chief compliance officer (July). Horowitz was the former global head of compliance at Pershing.
  • Jennifer Jones, chief accounting officer (July). Jones joined from EY, where she was a senior manager.
  • Alesia Haas, chief financial officer (April). Haas joined from New York-based alternative asset management firm Oz Management.
  • Balaji Srinivasan, chief technology officer (April). Srinivasan joined through the company’s acquisition of Earn.com, where he was CEO.
  • Rachael Horwitz, VP of communications (April). Horwitz was formerly a partner at Spark Capital.
  • Tariq Meyers, global head of belonging and inclusion (April). Meyers was formerly the head of diversity and inclusion at Lyft.
  • Emilie Choi, VP of corporate and business development (March). Choi joined from LinkedIn, where she was head of corporate development.

Lockheed Martin teams up with drone racers to add AI

Lockheed Martin and the Drone Racing League are working together to make driverless drones much, much smarter. The project, aimed at bringing AI to commercial drone flyers, is “challenging teams to develop artificial intelligence (AI) technology that will enable an autonomous drone to race a pilot-operated drone – and win.” The racers can win up […]

Lockheed Martin and the Drone Racing League are working together to make driverless drones much, much smarter. The project, aimed at bringing AI to commercial drone flyers, is “challenging teams to develop artificial intelligence (AI) technology that will enable an autonomous drone to race a pilot-operated drone – and win.”

The racers can win up to $2 million in prizes. Lockheed Martin Chief Technology Officer Keoki Jackson announced the challenge at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco today.

“At Lockheed Martin, we are working to pioneer state-of-the-art, AI-enabled technologies that can help solve some of the world’s most complex challenges – from fighting wildfires and saving lives during natural disasters to exploring the farthest reaches of deep space,” said Jackson. “Now, we are inviting the next generation of AI innovators to join us with our AlphaPilot Innovation Challenge. Competitors will have an opportunity to define the future of autonomy and AI and help our world leverage these promising technologies to build a brighter future.”

Contestants will use NVIDIA’s Jetson platform to fly drones “without any pre-programming or human intervention” through a multi-dimensional race course. The contestants can win an extra $250,000 for creating an AI that outperforms a DRL human-piloted drone, a sort drone Turing test that could mean smarter drones for both amateur flyers and Lockheed’s own extensive drone programs.

Lockheed Martin is working with the Drone Racing League to bring the competitors in human-controlled drone racing into the AI future. The goal is to create a drone that flies as well – or better – than a human.

You can learn more here and the challenge opens in November.

Lending startup Portal Finance nabs $200 million for small business loans in Latin America

Latin American small businesses just got a big boost with a new commitment for a $200 million lending joint venture between the Bogota-based startup Portal Finance and Latin America’s largest financial services institution, BTG Pactual. For Portal Finance, the deal with BTG caps a meteoric rise, which has seen the company raise $1.5 million at […]

Latin American small businesses just got a big boost with a new commitment for a $200 million lending joint venture between the Bogota-based startup Portal Finance and Latin America’s largest financial services institution, BTG Pactual.

For Portal Finance, the deal with BTG caps a meteoric rise, which has seen the company raise $1.5 million at a $60 million valuation and move from a small $5 million lending pilot to a $200 million deal in the span of two years.

A year ago we were four guys in a closet. Now we’re 70 people,” says Diego Caicedo, the company’s chief executive and co-founder. 

The company’s success is a testament to the changing fortunes of many Latin American economies and the role that venture capital is playing. For the last several years Colombia’s economic fortunes have been rising since the successful conclusion of peace talks with the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, brought an end to 50 years of civil war.

Meanwhile, investment firms like Magma Partners, which led the pre-seed and seed rounds for Portal Finance are linking innovative companies in places like Buenos Aires, Bogota, and Lima with Chile’s stable economic base to provide a market where innovative startups can gain traction.

It’s also a sign of the significant demand for small business loans across Latin America. In the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis small businesses found their credit lines pulled as banks refused to take on the risks associated with lending to small businesses.

That left businesses with only supply chain financing and factoring as the only alternatives. With interest rates that are typically between 20% and 50% annually. These rates are being charged even though invoices can be used as collateral and default rates hover at around 1% per year.

Portal Finance, and other companies like it, solve the problem by giving banks a better window into their borrowers finances by tackling the problem from three ways. The first is by working with factoring firms who were the lenders of last resort to companies who needed cash for operations and improvement and could not take out loans or raise equity financing. Second, the company has a window into the receivables of small businesses through the large corporate customers they supply. Finally, the company has reached out to the small businesses themselves to collect additional data, giving lenders a complete view of the borrowers’ financing.

That “full-stack” approach to small business financial statements was the vision that Caicedo had for his company from the moment he and his co-founders Felipe Puntarelli and Nicholas Bohorquez, took their first financing — $50,000 from Magma Partners (a Latin American focused venture capital firm).

The opportunity was so great that he was able to convince his eventual Charlie Cliff, a former defense contractor in the aerospace industry, to come down to Bogota without knowing a single word of Spanish to help jumpstart the business as Chief Technology Officer. Cliff, who was connected to Caicedo through Magma Partners’ managing director and co-founder Nathan Lustig, flew down after three phone calls.

Diego Caicedo and Charlie Cliff, the chief executive and chief technical officers for Portal Finance

Caicedo and Cliff first tackled the problem for the factoring firms that would lend money to businesses off of the projected income for accounts receivable. It was the first product that Portal Finance brought to market when it launched in 2016.

By 2017, it expanded its products to include an offering for large corporations to help them manage their payments to small businesses.

With that information in hand, Caicedo reached out to financial services firms to set up a lending operation. BTG Pactual agreed to a pilot in Chile in January, and expanded to the $200 million lending joint venture in July that covers both Chile and Colombia.

Caicedo called the program the largest investment in a fintech startup by a Latin American financial services firm. So far, the company has issued 200 loans in Chile and 500 in Colombia. On the heels of that investment, Caicedo says that the company expects to close an additional $2.5 million in financing soon and will be profitable by the end of November.