And the winner of Startup Battlefield at Disrupt Berlin 2018 is… Legacy

Startups participating in the Startup Battlefield have all been hand-picked to participate in our highly competitive startup competition. They all presented in front of multiple groups of VCs and tech leaders serving as judges for a chance to win $50,000 and the coveted Disrupt Cup. After hours of deliberations, TechCrunch editors pored over the judges’ […]

At the very beginning, there were 13 startups. After two days of incredibly fierce competition, we now have a winner.

Startups participating in the Startup Battlefield have all been hand-picked to participate in our highly competitive startup competition. They all presented in front of multiple groups of VCs and tech leaders serving as judges for a chance to win $50,000 and the coveted Disrupt Cup.

After hours of deliberations, TechCrunch editors pored over the judges’ notes and narrowed the list down to five finalists: Imago AI, Kalepso, Legacy, Polyteia and Spike.

These startups made their way to the finale to demo in front of our final panel of judges, which included: Sophia Bendz (Atomico), Niko Bonatsos (General Catalyst), Luciana Luxiandru (Accel), Ida Tin (Clue), Matt Turck (FirstMark Capital) and Matthew Panzarino (TechCrunch).

And now, meet the Startup Battlefield winner of TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin 2018.

Winner: Legacy

Legacy is tackling an interesting problem: the reduction of sperm motility as we age. By freezing men’s sperm, this Swiss-based company promises to keep our boys safe and potent as we get older, a consideration that many find vital as we marry and have kids later.

Read more about Legacy in our separate post.

Runner-Up: Imago AI

Imago AI is applying AI to help feed the world’s growing population by increasing crop yields and reducing food waste. To accomplish this, it’s using computer vision and machine learning technology to fully automate the laborious task of measuring crop output and quality.

Read more about Imago AI in our separate post.

Shuttle business Via could add scooters to its lineup

Via, a shuttle-based carpooling service and platform that partners with cities in the U.S. and Europe, could soon add scooters to its business. Via CEO and co-founder Daniel Ramot said on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin that the company is experimenting with the idea of adding scooters as a complement to its shuttle business. “We’re also adding scooters […]

Via, a shuttle-based carpooling service and platform that partners with cities in the U.S. and Europe, could soon add scooters to its business.

Via CEO and co-founder Daniel Ramot said on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin that the company is experimenting with the idea of adding scooters as a complement to its shuttle business.

“We’re also adding scooters mostly, again, for our partner cities, where they’re going to provide a holistic transportation solution as a public transit offering to the residents,” Ramot said.

Via’s consumer-facing shuttles are in Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York. The company also partners with cities and transportation authorities, giving clients access to their platform to deploy their own shuttles. For instance, Austin’s Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority uses the Via platform to power the city’s Pickup service. Via’s platform is also used by Arriva Bus UK, a Deutsche Bahn Company for a first and last-mile service connecting commuters to a high-speed train station in Kent, UK.

Via hasn’t launched scooters yet. But Ramot told TechCrunch backstage that Via is looking at launching scooters in Sacramento and is already in talks with city officials. The approach would be to add scooters in cities where it already has a presence. Scooters wouldn’t be launched without its core shuttle business or platform, Ramot said.

Via is still very much focused on building out its shuttle platform. By the end of next year, Via wants to be in about 300 cities powering the public transit system,” Ramot said.

Instagram now lets you share Stories to a Close Friends list

No one wants to post silly, racy, or vulnerable Stories if they’re worried their boss, parents, and distant acquaintances are watching. So to get people sharing more, and more authentically, Instagram will let you share to fewer people. Today after 17 months of testing, Instagram is globally launching Close Friends on iOS and Android over […]

No one wants to post silly, racy, or vulnerable Stories if they’re worried their boss, parents, and distant acquaintances are watching. So to get people sharing more, and more authentically, Instagram will let you share to fewer people. Today after 17 months of testing, Instagram is globally launching Close Friends on iOS and Android over the next two days. It lets you build a single private list of your best buddies on Instagram through suggestions or search, and then share Stories just to them. They’ll see a green circle around your profile pic in the existing Story tray to let them know this is Close Friends-only content, but no one gets notified if they’re added or removed from your list that only you can view.

“As you add more and more people [on any social network], you start not to know them. That’s obviously going to change the things that you’re sharing and it makes it even harder to form every deep connections with your closest friends because you’re basically curating for the largest possible distribution,” said Instagram director of product Robby Stein, who announced the news onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin. “To really be yourself and connect and be connected to your best friends, you need your own place.”

I spent the last few days demoing Close Friends and it’s remarkably smooth, intuitive, and useful. Suddenly there was a place to post what I might otherwise consider too random or embarrassing to share. Teens already invented the idea of “Finstagrams,” or fake Instagram accounts, to share feed posts to just their favorite people without the pressure to look cool. Now Instagram is formalizing that idea into “Finstastories” through Close Friends.

The feature is a wise way to counteract the natural social graph creep that occurs as people accept social networking requests out of a sense of obligatory courtesy from people they aren’t close to, which then causes them to only share blander content. Helping people express their wild side as must-see content for their Close Friends could drive up time spent on the app. But there’s also the risk that the launch creates private echo sphere havens for offensive content beyond the eyes of those who’d rightfully report it.

“No one has ever mastered a close friends graph and made it easy for people to understand” Stein notesThe path to variable sharing privacy winds through a cemetery. Facebook’s “Lists” product struggled to find traction for a decade before being half-shut down. Google+’s big selling point was “Circles” for sharing to different groups of people. But with both, user found it too boring and confusing to make a bunch of different lists they could share to or view feeds from. Snapchat launched its own Groups feature two months ago, but it’s easy to forget who’s in which list and they’re designed around group chat. Most users just end up trying their best to reject, unfollow, or mute people they didn’t want to see or share with.

Now after almost 15 years of Facebook, 12 years of Twitter, 8 years of Instagram, and 7 years of Snapchat, that strategy has failed for many, leading to noisy feeds and a fear of sharing to too many. “People get friend requests and they feel pressure to accept” Stein explains. “The curve is actually that your sharing goes up and as you add more people initially, as more people can respond to you. But then there’s a point where it reduces sharing over time.”

So Instagram chose to build Close Friends as just a single list in hopes that you won’t lose track of who’s part of it. As the feature rolls out today, there’ll be an explainer Story from Instagram about it in your tray, you’ll get walked through when you hit the Close Friends button on the Story composer, and there’ll be a call out on your profile to configure Close Friends in the settings menu. You’ll be able to search for your close friends or quickly add them from a list of suggestions based on who you interact with most. You can add or remove as many people as you want without them knowing, they just will or won’t see your green circled Close Friends story. “We’re protecting you and your right to share or not share to certain people. It gives you air cover” Stein tells me

From then on, you can use the Close Friends shortcut in the Stories composer to share it with just those people, who’ll see a green “Close Friends” label on the story to let them know they’re special. Instagram will use the signal of who you add to help rank and order your Stories tray, but it won’t automatically pop Close Friends Stories to the front. When asked if Facebook would use that data for personalization too, Stein told me “We’re the same company” but said using it to improve Facebook is “not something that we’re actively working on.”

There’s no screenshot alerts, similar to the rest of Instagram Stories, but you won’t be able to DM anyone someone else’s Close Friends Story. That’s it. “We haven’t invented any new design affordances or things you need to know” Stein beams. For now it’s meant for user profiles, but publishers, social media celebrities, and brands would probably love ways to build fan clubs through the feature. Perhaps Instagram would even allow creators to charge users to be admitted to Close Friends. If not, some savvy influencers will probably do it anyways as they try to make Instagram more like Patreon.

Instagram’s Robby Stein (left) tells TechCrunch’s Josh Constine about Close Friends at Disrupt Berlin

The one concern here is that Close Friends could create little bunkers in which people can share objectionable content without consequence. It’d be sad to see it harbor racism, sexism, or other stuff that doesn’t belong anywhere on Instagram. Stein says that because you’re talking with friends instead of strangers on a Reddit, “it self regulates what it’s used for. We haven’t seen a lot of that usage in the testing that we’ve done. It’s still a broadcast channel and it doesn’t generate this group discussion. It doesn’t spiral.”

Overall, I think Close Friends will be a hit. When it started testing a prototype called Favorites in June 2017 it worked with feed posts too, but Instagram decided the off the cuff posts wouldn’t fit right next to your more widely broadcasted highlights. But confined to Stories, it feels like a natural and much-needed extension of what Instagram was always supposed to be but that’s gotten lost in our swelling social networks: giving the people you love a window into your life.

Language learning app Babbel sold 1M US subscriptions this year, moves into language travel

In the world of online language learning, there are basically two heavyweights: Duolingo and Babbel. Duolingo is betting on a freemium model and a strong focus on using algorithms to help you learn better, while Berlin-based Babbel is a paid service that employs hundreds of teachers. As Babbel co-founder and CEO Markus Witte announced at […]

In the world of online language learning, there are basically two heavyweights: Duolingo and Babbel. Duolingo is betting on a freemium model and a strong focus on using algorithms to help you learn better, while Berlin-based Babbel is a paid service that employs hundreds of teachers. As Babbel co-founder and CEO Markus Witte announced at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin today, his company is now moving into a new area of language learning with the launch of a language travel marketplace. The company also today announced that it now has over 1 million paying users in the United States.

This new service, which is scheduled to go live next year, is the result of the previously undisclosed acquisition of a Lingo Ventura, a Berlin-based startup that partners with international language schools and local providers to offer a language travel booking platform. As Witte told me ahead of today’s announcement, Lingo Ventura already had connections with 200 language schools in 30 countries. The company never quite managed to make a dent in this market, which has traditionally been quite fragmented.

Witte believes that Babbel, thanks to its existing user base, will be able to turn this into a profitable business, though. “There is a lot of potential here because the current market is not very transparent,” Witte told me. “In Europe, our brand is so well-known now that we are the first stop for learning languages.” And that brand awareness will surely help drive interest in this new platform. The person who uses the company’s app has, after all, already shown interest in learning languages and a willingness to pay for that.

While language travel is quite popular in Europe, it remains a bit of a foreign concept in the United States and few people specifically travel abroad to learn a language. This isn’t a small market, though. In Germany alone, market revenue was about €220 million in 2017, and the various companies that play in this space booked about 150,000 travel bookings last year.

Unsurprisingly, Babbel will first focus its marketing efforts for its yet-to-be-named travel marketplace (I think Babbel Travel is a safe bet) on Europe. The platform, however, is global, and Babbel isn’t going to stop anybody from booking through its platform, of course.

As far as the U.S. language travel market is concerned, though, Babbel expects that it’ll be able to pull in some customers there, too. “It’s not zero,” the company’s U.S. CEO Julie Hansen told me when I asked her about that market. “I think in due course, we’ll discover if there’s a place for us. In a way, you can serve a market better that is so fragmented and ill-defined.” North America in general has generated quite a bit of growth for Babbel recently, especially since it appointed Hansen as a CEO there, though it remains to be seen if travel will become a major revenue source for the company there.

No matter in which geography it will operate, though, Babbel will work with partners, and not run its own programs. “That was a strategic decision on our part,” said Witte. “We want to work with partners, and if we make acquisitions, those are almost always about building bridges to our partners.”

Watch Disrupt Berlin day 2 live right here

Disrupt Berlin generally kicked ass yesterday, and things are only going to get better from here. Welcome, friends, to Disrupt Berlin Day 2. We have a great show in store for you, including Julie Hansen and Markus Witte from Babbel, the full cast of Accel Philipe Botteri, Sonali De Rycker, Luciana Lixandru, and Harry Nelis. […]

Disrupt Berlin generally kicked ass yesterday, and things are only going to get better from here.

Welcome, friends, to Disrupt Berlin Day 2. We have a great show in store for you, including Julie Hansen and Markus Witte from Babbel, the full cast of Accel Philipe Botteri, Sonali De Rycker, Luciana Lixandru, and Harry Nelis. Plus, we’ll hear from Threads founder and CEO Sophie Hill, as well as Starling’s Anne Boden.

But that’s not all…

The Startup Battlefield finals are going down today. Five startups — Imago AI, Kalepso, Legacy, Polyteia, and Spike — will battle it out one last time for $50,000 USD, the Disrupt Cup and eternal glory.

You can catch the whole thing live right here so sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

Meet the five Startup Battlefield finalists at Disrupt Berlin 2018

Thirteen companies took the stage today at Disrupt Berlin, delivering six-minute pitches and demos, then answering free-for-all questions from expert judges. Now that the judges have given us their feedback, we’ve chosen five finalists. These finalists will all take the stage again tomorrow afternoon to present in front of a new set of judges, who […]

Thirteen companies took the stage today at Disrupt Berlin, delivering six-minute pitches and demos, then answering free-for-all questions from expert judges. Now that the judges have given us their feedback, we’ve chosen five finalists.

These finalists will all take the stage again tomorrow afternoon to present in front of a new set of judges, who will have time to ask more in-depth questions. Then one winner will be chosen to take home the Disrupt Cup — not to mention $50,000, equity-free.

Here are the finalists. The competition will be live-streamed on TechCrunch starting at 2:05pm Berlin time on Friday.

Imago AI

Imago AI is applying AI to help feed the world’s growing population by increasing crop yields and reducing food waste. To accomplish this, it’s using computer vision and machine learning technology to fully automate the laborious task of measuring crop output and quality.

Read more about Imago AI here.

Kalepso

Kalepso says it can do better than other database offerings out there by melding strong security with high reliability, while filling in the spots where sensitive data can be accessed or obtained in the clear. Its Harvard-educated founders argued that all the existing database services out there are either slow or insecure.

Read more about Kalepso here.

Legacy

Legacy is tackling an interesting problem: the reduction of sperm motility as we age. By freezing men’s sperm, this Swiss-based company promises to keep our boys safe and potent as we get older, a consideration that many find vital as we marry and have kids later.

Read more about Legacy here.

Polyteia

Polyteia is building a platform that would allow city leaders to unify and analyze the data that represents the constituents they serve. The problem, the company says, is that local governments collect a lot of data, but they aren’t always great at organizing and using it efficiently.

Read more about Polyteia here.

Spike

Spike lets family and doctors lend a hand to diabetes patients by sending them real-time alerts about their stats. And the app’s artificial intelligence features can even send helpful reminders or suggest the most diabetes-friendly meals when you walk into a restaurant.

Read more about Spike Diabetes here.

Legacy freezes your sperm so you don’t have to

Legacy is tackling an interesting problem: the reduction of sperm motility as we age. By freezing our sperm, this Swiss-based company promises to keep our boys safe and potent as we get older, a consideration that many find vital as we marry and have kids later. Legacy, which exhibited in Startup Alley at Disrupt Berlin […]

Legacy is tackling an interesting problem: the reduction of sperm motility as we age. By freezing our sperm, this Swiss-based company promises to keep our boys safe and potent as we get older, a consideration that many find vital as we marry and have kids later. Legacy, which exhibited in Startup Alley at Disrupt Berlin 2018, was chosen as the wildcard company to present its services onstage during Startup Battlefield.

How does it work? Well, the company delivers a system for grabbing sperm. The material is kept in a specially made container and shipped to a nearby clinic where they then test the sperm and place it in cryogenic storage. You can then make a withdrawal when you’re ready for babies.

“Our unique at-home solution allows men to have their sperm analyzed and frozen at a clinic without leaving their home or having to meet with a physician,” said founder Khaled Kteily. “All clients receive a full fertility analysis, including personalized recommendations using our machine learning-driven technology.”

Kteily ensures us that our special sauce will stay safe over the years.

“Our core values of privacy, quality, and security ensure discretion, anonymity, and the highest level of quality for all our clients, including multi-site storage, whereby our clients’ deposits are stored in multiple tanks in multiple locations at high security.”

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The company offers three packages: Bronze, Gold and Platinum. The $1,000 Bronze package requires you to take your sperm to a clinic where it will be tested and cryogenically stored. The Platinum plan costs $10,000 and ensures the company will keep up to six samples of your swimmers indefinitely, affording your genetic material practical immortality.

Kteily founded the company after a friend looked for solutions to sperm storage while facing cancer treatment. Realizing there was nothing that looked trustworthy or usable, he used his background in health and entrepreneurship to build Legacy.

The company has raised $250,000 and they are profitable. Kteily sees his company as the “Swiss Bank” of sperm storage.

“Male fertility has declined by 50 percent. Every 8 months, men produce a new genetic mutation that gets passed on to their children. Birth rates around the world are plummeting and men are responsible for infertility in 30-50 percent of couples. Meanwhile, you can freeze sperm indefinitely with no loss in quality — through Legacy, without having to leave your home and at a tenth of the cost of egg freezing,” he said. “We treat our clients as a private bank would — our core values of quality, privacy and security ensure our clients are taken care of at every level.”

Koo! is a social network for short-form podcasts

Alexandre Meregan says that music, and audio in general, has always been core to his life. But one day on his five-minute commute to work, trying to listen to a podcast for the first time, he realized that by the time he arrived at work he had only heard an introduction and a commercial jingle. […]

Alexandre Meregan says that music, and audio in general, has always been core to his life. But one day on his five-minute commute to work, trying to listen to a podcast for the first time, he realized that by the time he arrived at work he had only heard an introduction and a commercial jingle.

He immediately went to work on Koo!, a short-form podcast app aimed at young people. Koo! lets users record up to one minute of audio, add “sound stickers” like a drum roll or a poop sound, and share the “Koo” in a feed with their friends and followers.

Meregan believes that some young people are hesitant to share their thoughts on social media, which is mostly picture or video-based, because of the quantification of their self-worth through Like counters. With Koo! users can simply speak their thoughts without having to share a picture or video.

“At Koo! we believe a lot of great content is being held back by teenagers due to insecurities that comes with photo and video,” said Meregan onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin on the Startup Battlefield. “We feel that what you say should be more important than how you look.”

Like most social networks, Koo! is primarily focused on acquiring new users before focusing on a revenue model. Ad-supported revenue is the most obvious option to make money, but Meregan says that the team has been floating around a few other ideas, as well.

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One user-acquisition tactic, according to Meregan, is to target YouTube content creators and give them a complimentary service to share their thoughts and voice.

A handful of startups have tried their hand at audio-based social networks, but few have managed to gain much traction.

Koo! is backed by Sweet Studio, though Meregan declined to share the amount of funding the company has received to date.

Rlay offers a blockchain-powered platform to help companies build better crowdsourced data sets

The team behind Rlay believes that blockchain technology can play a crucial role in helping businesses crowdsource their data-gathering tasks. Founder Michael Hirn said this is a problem he encountered while working with Sunstone Capital to develop a more quantitative approach to venture capital, which meant pulling startup data from a wide variety of online […]

The team behind Rlay believes that blockchain technology can play a crucial role in helping businesses crowdsource their data-gathering tasks.

Founder Michael Hirn said this is a problem he encountered while working with Sunstone Capital to develop a more quantitative approach to venture capital, which meant pulling startup data from a wide variety of online sources. It ended up being an incredibly time-consuming process, and he said, “90 percent of the time was spent cleaning the data and acquiring the data.”

CTO Max Goisser argued that this is a broad problem. There are already successful examples of crowdsourced data, most notably Wikipedia, but in his view, they succeeded because “these things were of value for the entire world — everyone’s interested in that.”

“But what if you wanted to crowdsource something that is [only] interesting to you as a company?” Goisser said. Then you’d need the right incentive system to convince people to contribute. And that’s where Rlay (pronounced “relay”) comes in — the startup is launching onstage today as part of our Startup Battlefield at Disrupt Berlin.

There are other startups, like Dirt Protocol, offering blockchain-powered tools for data collection and verification. But it sounds like one of Rlay’s big selling points is its ability to integrate with existing enterprise database technology.

In other words, Rlay leverages the blockchain side of things to provide a mechanism for people to contribute data and be rewarded for their contributions (each customer decides how they want to structure the incentives), but the goal is to collect the data in a format that’s useful for the company, and where, if the company desires, it can be kept private.

“We abstract over the backend database that you as a company would use, we abstract over the blockchain or ledger technology — it’s currently Ethereum, but technically, it doesn’t matter,” Hirn said. “So you don’t have to figure out how to work between Postgres and Ethereum, you don’t have to figure out ‘How do we represent the data?’, all of that is taken care of by Rlay.”

Rlay screenshot

As for the incentives, he said:

There are almost as many ways [of] incentivizing as there are different types of financial products. Obviously some ways are more robust than others and we outlined a very general and universal incentive mechanism in our whitepaper, but for most of the applications that is a little bit to complex. So with Rlay, we will provide some templates in the future and certainly advice for certain ways when we work with a client, but Rlay just gives a good interface to define these things very easily.

Ultimately, this should allow companies to acquire the data they need at a lower cost than going out and buying data sets or hiring their own data collection team. For example, Hirn said Rlay is working with “a big name in the blockchain space” to gather environmental, social and governance (ESG) data required by hedge funds and other investors.

For now, Hirn said Rlay is focused on working with developers to collect data that’s online but not aggregated or structured in a way that makes it easily accessible. In the ESG case, that means writing scripts to pull the data from the reports that many companies are already publishing. Ultimately, Rlay could move into collecting data from the physical world, as well.

Goisser said the company is also developing various ways to recognize and resolve conflicting data, so its customers can be sure that the information they’re collecting is accurate.

Spike Diabetes applies social pressure to keep patients safe

It can be tough for diabetes patients to keep a constant eye on their glucose levels. Spike Diabetes lets family and doctors lend a hand by sending them real-time alerts about the patient’s stats. And the app’s artificial intelligence features can even send helpful reminders or suggest the most diabetes-friendly meals when you walk into […]

It can be tough for diabetes patients to keep a constant eye on their glucose levels. Spike Diabetes lets family and doctors lend a hand by sending them real-time alerts about the patient’s stats. And the app’s artificial intelligence features can even send helpful reminders or suggest the most diabetes-friendly meals when you walk into a restaurant.

Today onstage at the TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin Startup Battlefield, Spike Diabetes is launching its Guardian Portal so loved ones with permission can get a closer look at a patients’ data and coach them about staying healthy.

“Diabetes is an incurable chronic disease that forces diabetics to live a life of carb-counting and insulin injections. Since diabetics are forced to do those mundane tasks for the rest of their lives, they tend to fall off the tracks sometimes simply because of how demanding those tasks can be,” says Spike co-founder Ziad Alame. “As for guardians and parents, they are left in the dark about their loved ones.” With doctors often only getting data during quarterly or semi-annual checkups, patients are often left on their own. A lifetime of management is very stressful, especially if your life depends on it.”

The startup faces stiff competition from literally hundreds of apps claiming to help patients monitor their vitals. MySugr, Diabetes Connect and Health2Sync are amongst the most popular. But Alame says many require users to track their levels through complex spreadsheets. Spike offers customizable mobile charts, and will even read users their stats out loud to make staying safe an easier part of daily life. Spike is invite-only and just on iOS, but it also touts an Apple Watch app plus optimized engineering to minimize battery usage.

“Spike started off as a personal project to help myself adhere better to my medication after reaching critical times in my diabetic life,” Alame tells me. Now he’s bringing to the problem his experience as CTO of the GivingLoop charity platform, TeensWhoCode summer camp and Zoomal crowdfunding site for the Arab world. Alame has assembled a team of diabetics, engineers and PhDs, plus $200,000 in seed funding from MEVP, Cedar Mundi and Phoenician Funds. They hope to see the premium paid version of Spike’s freemium app overtake longstanding competition through word-of-mouth triggered by bringing loved ones and doctors into the loop.

One of the app’s most interesting features is the proactive info it delivers. “For example, you walk into McDonald’s around 2 PM. Spike would automatically know it’s lunch time for you and suggest the top three options you can have with approximate carb counts,” Alame tells me. “After some time (~25 minutes) Spike automatically reminds you of your insulin and syncs with your diabetic devices to log all the details. With time, as the app gets to know the diabetic’s taste more, Spike would be able to suggest small behavioral tweaks to enhance lifestyle such as walking routes suggestions or new places similar to the diabetic’s taste but with a lower insulin consumption rate.”

Alame jokes that “The biggest risk [to Spike] is the best thing that can happen — which is finding a cure for diabetes.” But even if that happens, he believes Spike’s app for tracking and actively coaching users could be relevant to other diseases, as well. For now, though, it will have to convince users that an app could make managing diabetes simpler rather than more complex.