Freight trucking startup Shipwell gets a $10 million boost

Shipwell, a startup pitching a marketplace for domestic ground shipping and fleet and cargo management services for freight trucking companies, has raised $10 million in a new round of funding. A booming American economy coupled with failing infrastructure and a low-margin business reluctant to adopt new technologies have put stress on domestic logistics companies in the […]

Shipwell, a startup pitching a marketplace for domestic ground shipping and fleet and cargo management services for freight trucking companies, has raised $10 million in a new round of funding.

A booming American economy coupled with failing infrastructure and a low-margin business reluctant to adopt new technologies have put stress on domestic logistics companies in the $900 billion market for U.S. trucking services.

Shipwell combines a marketplace for shippers to connect with freight companies and online tools to manage those shipments. In effect, the company is pitching a version of the proprietary logistics management toolkit that has made Amazon so successful, to any retailer or outlet. 

We coordinate the freight, we pay the truckers, we help optimize the fleets,” says Shipwell president and co-founder, Jason Traff. 

Those services — and the company’s growing business among small and medium-sized suppliers to the construction industry — brought the Austin-based company to the attention of Fifth Wall Ventures, the Los Angeles based investment firm whose limited partners are among the biggest construction companies in the world.

For Fifth Wall the opportunity was clear. “Shipwell’s full-service, digitized brokerage platform can streamline the way many of our Anchor LPs and portfolio companies approach large-scale freight shipping,” the firm’s principal — and newest Shipwell board member — Vik Chawla wrote in a blog post announcing its most recent deal.

Fifth Wall led the company’s Series A round, which also included the new investor Global Founders Capital and previous investors First Round Capital, Base 10 Ventures, Capital Theory and Village Global .

The company’s business isn’t for big shippers that deal with thousands of shipments per-day, but rather the small and medium sized businesses that spend $100 million or less per-year on freight. And the small-fleet shipping companies that make up the bulk of the industry.

“In addition to the obvious use case for Shipwell customers who own warehousing, landlords can use Shipwell to become effective facilitators for their tenants,” according to Chawla. “Some Anchor LPs [the limited partners that provide capital for Fifth Wall to invest] are already engaged in this shipping ecosystem on behalf of their tenants, while others act as transport hubs. Beyond these, however, there are easy tie-ins within a number of key categories of Fifth Wall Anchors [sic] that regularly ship or receive freight—developers, of course, but also retail, office, homebuilding anchors.”

“We focus on the longer tail. If you are doing $50 million in freight per-year then you’re doing dozens of shipments per week,” said Traff. “Most of our freight is less than a truckload or a full truckload freight and it’s more long-haul.”

It hasn’t been a straight road for Traff and his co-founder Gregory Price. Traff originally got the startup bug in Asia, where he launched a company that would sell low-cost copies of old masters paintings. When he sold that business he moved back to the U.S. and pitched an idea to Y Combinator that eventually became Leaky, a car insurance company.

When Leaky shut down and its business was acquired by Navion in 2013, Traff moved to Austin to figure out his next move.I t was there that he ran into a fellow Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumnus named Greg Price and the two began hatching schemes for the company that would become Shipwell.

The two men began planning the business in 2016 and only launched the service in the beginning of this year. “Supply chains were very complex and there was a lot of building to do,” Traff said. 

Shipwell makes money by charging a commission on freight services and fees for its freight management software platform.

Ultimately this could create a new model to unify a fragmented industry. “This connective approach makes all of the difference in an industry with so many small companies at play,” Chawla wrote. “A surprising 89% of freight trucks in the U.S. are owned by carriers with fewer than five total trucks, and 99% of freight carriers possess fewer than 10 total trucks in their fleet. Despite the big business of freight shipping in the U.S., it’s actually a fragmented market of small businesses.”

 

Spearhead is transforming founders into angel investors

Becoming an angel investor is simple in principle: have money and invest. Unfortunately for many of the smartest founders in the startup ecosystem, that requirement can prove a complete block on investing in the companies they see day after day, since early liquidity can be hard to find for founders. Spearhead was launched earlier this […]

Becoming an angel investor is simple in principle: have money and invest. Unfortunately for many of the smartest founders in the startup ecosystem, that requirement can prove a complete block on investing in the companies they see day after day, since early liquidity can be hard to find for founders.

Spearhead was launched earlier this year with a mandate to identify promising startup founders and give them cash to invest in startups autonomously. The brainchild of AngelList’s Naval Ravikant and Accomplice’s Jeff Fagnan, the program identifies promising startup founders and provides them with $200,000 of investible capital, and potentially $1 million. It also sets them up with the right legal entities to invest.

It selected its first cohort — a group of 19 founders selected from 1,500 applications — earlier this year, and the program announced that its second cohort is open for applications today.

Ravikant explained to me that Fagnan and him designed Spearhead to be very different from the scout programs offered by venture firms. “This is the first program that is trying to turn you into a capitalist, and not a laborer,” he explained. “Unlike a traditional scout program, we are not training scouts, we are building full-fledged VCs … [The founders] are not getting a slice of carry in a fund, they are getting carry in their own funds.” He emphasized that “this is really about teaching, learning, and scaling the craft of investing.”

Training founders to be angels is a competitive space, with First Round offering an “Angel Track” program that teaches founders and emerging investors the ropes of investing. What makes Spearhead unique is the program’s capital commitment — you don’t just learn to make investments, you actually get a pool of capital by which to invest from.

Since Spearhead creates independent funds for its members, the founders in Spearhead are free to raise additional capital from outside investors and expand their funds beyond Spearhead’s initial seed capital.

Founders investing in founders

Fagnan noted he had some “sleepless nights” as he and Ravikant designed Spearhead. “Just because we put people in this program, we didn’t know if they are going to write a check,” he said. That was particularly true since “we definitely skewed toward people who didn’t consider themselves angels.” Being an operator and being an angel investor require very different skillsets and knowledge, and it wasn’t clear at all that founders could context-switch easily.

The good news: they can. So far, the first cohort has made roughly 50 seed investments into startups, mostly at the pre-seed and seed stages.

One major surprise with the first cohort is that the founders were much more sophisticated about venture capital dynamics than expected. “What we got wrong, we thought we would spoon-feed venture 101,” Fagnan said. But instead, during office hours, “it’s almost the same level of discussion as the principals and partners at Accomplice.”

I talked with six of the founders in the program about their experience. One pattern that came up consistently in my chats is that these founders have all had to go through their own venture capital fundraises, and they wanted to share their lessons learned with other founders to help them succeed and be the kind of venture capitalist that they needed for their own businesses.

For instance, Alice Zhang at Verge Genomics explained that she hoped to use her angel fund to bridge the gap between traditional life sciences investors and a new wave of healthtech startups that are led by computer scientists. “I have a thesis that there will be an explosion of companies that are going to be at the intersection of technology and the life sciences,” she said, but venture capitalists targeting the industry don’t fully see that emerging pattern yet. “I’m spending a lot of time on weekends helping founders in this space.” So far, she has invested in two companies.

That intention to help other founders in a focused industry also applied to Noah Ready Campbell at Ready Robotics, who says that when it comes to robotics investing, “a lot of things that were impossible five years ago are possible now.” He saw an opportunity to use his fund to “help participate in the robotics community in the Bay Area” and accelerate the industry. He’s invested in four companies so far, typically with $50k checks.

For others though, it’s less about industry and more about who they know. Alex MacCaw, a well-known JavaScript developer, former Stripe engineer, and founder of Clearbit, told me that a large component of his dealflow is “a bunch of ex-Stripes which I call the Stripe mafia.” He invests very early, and “sometimes there isn’t even a domain name, but I do it based on the fact that I know the founder pretty well.” He’s done five deals so far.

Building an affinity network

The founders of Spearhead (Image from Spearhead)

Beyond investing in other startups, the founders in the program also emphasized that they are learning from each other. Spearhead hosts a variety of in-person get-togethers, and also holds regular office hours to allow the founders to ask questions and get feedback on their deals from Ravikant and Fagnan, as well as Accomplice’s Cack Wilhelm and AngeList’s Jake Zeller.

Prasanna Sankar, who was director of engineering at Zenefits and left with Zenefits co-founder Parker Conrad to create Rippling, said that one of the biggest things he has had to learn is the difference between angel investing and stock market investing. “We don’t make an investment for the price, so it is like the opposite of the stock market,” he said. “If you are a new angel, it would take five years to have these experiences… but these guys can fast-track your exposure to these things.” He has invested in five startups, mostly at $25k checks and with one at $50k.

Ankur Nagpal at Teachable emphasized that learning from the other founders in the cohort didn’t just train him on being a better angel investor, but also how to operate his business better. “Everyone operates so differently,” he said, and talking with others helped him learn “not just what you should be doing, but also about how you are different from other businesses.”

Fagnan noted that a large priority in the first cohort was geographical representation, and he expected that Spearhead would design its next cohort to have “fewer people taking deeper accountability to each other.”

The next-generation of venture capitalists?

For Ravikant and Fagnan, the dream of their program was to create the next-generation of competent and committed angel investors scattered around the country. They have certainly gotten that plan underway, but the question is how far will these cohort members go in their investing careers?

Many founders I talked to insisted that their focus remains 100% on their companies, and that angel investing as just a side passion. Outside of MacCaw at Clerabit, almost no one was intending to scale up their funds beyond the initial seed capital, and even MacCaw was just looking to have a little more cash to invest since he has already invested his whole fund.

Ultimately, that might play well for Spearhead, since one of the challenges of traditional venture capital funds is their increasing scale. Ravikant noted that the sort of pre-seed checks that these investors are writing are hard for venture capital firms to do given their size.

Sankar said that “I always thought that Silicon Valley startup as an asset class is one of the most undervalued and underrated.” That seems to match Ravikant’s entire mantra, who told me that “I want to quintuple down on [Spearhead].” He hopes that more of his founders can build distinguished track records, and become the leading angel investors of their generation. We hope that they are “going to be bigger than Naval and Jeff sometime, and if not, then we have failed.”

Spearhead’s first cohort of 19 founders included:

RDMD attacks rare diseases with data mined from health records

You wouldn’t expect a medical app to get its start as a Snapchat competitor. Neither did video chat startup TapTalk’s founder Onno Faber. But four years ago he was diagnosed with a rare disease called Neurofibromatosis Type 2 that caused tumors leading Onno to lose hearing in one ear. He’s amongst the one in ten people with […]

You wouldn’t expect a medical app to get its start as a Snapchat competitor. Neither did video chat startup TapTalk’s founder Onno Faber. But four years ago he was diagnosed with a rare disease called Neurofibromatosis Type 2 that caused tumors leading Onno to lose hearing in one ear. He’s amongst the one in ten people with an uncommon health condition suffering from the lack of data designed to invent treatments for their ails. And he’s now the co-founder of RDMD.

Emerging from stealth today, RDMD aggregates and analyzes medical records and sells the de-identified data to pharmaceutical companies to help them develop medicines. In exchange for access to the data, patients gets their fragmented medical records organized into an app they can use to track their treatment and get second opinions. It’s like Flatiron Health, the Google-backed cancer data startup that just got bought for $2 billion, but for rare diseases.

Now RDMD is announcing it’s raised a $3 million seed round led by Lux Capital and joined by Village Global, Shasta, Garuda, First Round’s Healthcare Coop, and a ton of top healthtech angels including Flatiron investors and board members. The cash will help RDMD expand to build out its product and address more rare diseases.

RDMD founders (from left): Nancy Yu and Onno Faber

We believe that the traditional way rare disease R&D is done needs to change” RDMD CEO Nancy Yu tells TechCrunch. The former head of corp dev at 23andme explains that, “There are over 7,000 rare diseases and growing, yet <5% of them have an FDA-approved therapy . . . it’s a massive problem.” 

While data infrastructure supports development of treatments for more common diseases like cancer and diabetes, rare diseases have been ignored because it’s wildly expensive and difficult to collect the high-quality data required to invent new medicines. But “RDMD generates research-grade, regulatory-grade data from patient medical records for use in rare disease drug R&D” says Yu. The more data it can collect, the more pharma companies can do to help patients.

Trading Utility For Patient Data

With RDMD’s app, a patient’s medical data that’s strewn across hospitals and health facilities can be compiled, organized and synthesized. Handwritten physicians’ notes and faxes are digitized with optical character recognition, structuring the data for scientific research. RDMD lays out a patients’ records in a disease-specific timeline that summarizes their data that can be kept updated, delivered to specialists for consultations, or shared with their family and caregivers.

If users opt in, that data can be anonymized and provided to research organizations, hospitals, and pharma companies that pay RDMD, though these patients can delete their accounts at any time. Since it’s straight from the medical records, the data is reliable enough to be regulation-compliant and research-ready. That allows it to accelerate the drug development process that’s both lucrative and life-saving. “It normally takes millions of dollars over several years to gather this type of data in rare diseases” Yu notes. “For the first time, we have a centralized and consented set of data for use in translational research, in a fraction of the time and cost.”

So far, RDMD has enrolled 150 patients with neurofibromatosis. But the potential to expand to other rare diseases attracted a previous pre-seed round from Village Global and new funding from angels like Clover Health CEO and Flatiron board member Vivek Garipalli, Flatiron investor and GV (Google Ventures) partner Vineeta Agarwala, Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal, former 23andme president Andy Page, and the husband and wife duo of former Instagram VP of product Kevin Weil and 137 Ventures managing director Elizabeth Weil.

“Onno and Nancy realized there’s an opportunity to do in rare diseases what Flatiron has done in oncology — to aggregate clinical data from patients, and to leverage that data in clinical trials and other use cases for biotech and pharma” says Shasta partner Nikhil Basu Trivedi. RDMD will be competing against pharma contract research organizations that incur high costs for collecting data the startup gets for free from patients in exchange for its product. Luckily, Flatiron’s exit paved the way for industry acceptance of RDMD’s model.

“The biggest risk for our company is if we lose our focus on providing real, immediate value to rare disease patients and families. Patients are the reason we are all here, and only with their trust can we fundamentally change how rare disease drug research is done” says Yu. RDMD will have to ensure it can protect the privacy of patients, the security of data, and the efficacy of its application to drug development.

Hindering this process is just one more consequence of our fractured medical records. Hopefully if startups like RDMD and Flatiron can demonstrate the massive value created by unifying medical data, it will pressure the healthcare power players to cooperate on a true industry standard.

Wonderschool raises $20M to help people start in-home preschools

Educators already don’t get paid enough, and those that work in preschools or daycares often make 48% less. Meanwhile, parents struggle to find great early education programs where kids receive enough attention and there’s space, but they don’t need special connections or to pass grueling admissions interviews to get in. Any time there’s a lousy […]

Educators already don’t get paid enough, and those that work in preschools or daycares often make 48% less. Meanwhile, parents struggle to find great early education programs where kids receive enough attention and there’s space, but they don’t need special connections or to pass grueling admissions interviews to get in.

Any time there’s a lousy experience people have an emotional connection to and spend a lot of money on, there’s an opportunity for a startup. Enter ‘Wonderschool‘, a company that lets licensed educators and caretakers launch in-home preschools or daycares. Wonderschool helps candidates get credentialed, set up their programs, launch their websites, boost enrollment, and take payments in exchange for a 10 percent cut of tuition. The startup is now helping run 140 schools in the SF Bay, LA, and NYC where parents are happy to pay to give their kids an advantage.

That chance to fill a lucrative gap in the education market has attracted a new $20 million Series A for Wonderschool led by Andreessen Horowitz . The round brings the startup to $24.1 million in total funding just two years after launch. With the cash and Andreessen partner Jeff Jordan joining its board, Wonderschool is looking to build powerful lead generation and management software to turn teachers into savvy entrepreneurs.

Finding good childcare has become one of the most difficult experiences for families. I’ve seen parents who are making a livable wage in urban cities like San Francisco and New York still struggle to find and afford quality childcare” says co-founder and CEO Chris Bennett. “We wanted to deliver a solution for parents that also had the potential to create jobs and empower the caregiver — that’s Wonderschool.”

By spawning and uniting programs across the country, Wonderschool could scale as the way software eats preschool. But without vigorous oversight of each educator, Wonderschool is also at risk of a safety mishap at one of its franchises ruining the brand for them all.

Airbnb For Schooling

Wonderschool started when co-founder Arrel Gray was having trouble finding childcare for his daughter close to home. “My little sister went to an in-home preschool, so I suggested he check them out” says Bennett. “But he wasn’t very satisfied with the options – the majority were full and some didn’t meet the expectations for his family. We also found that they didn’t use the internet much so they were hard to find and contact.”

The two were seeking to pivot their social commerce startup Soldsie after Facebook algorithm changes curtailed its growth. Their research led to the discovery of just how much lower preschool and daycare workers’ wages were. “When we had the idea we thought, ‘what the best way to test this?’ Why don’t we start a preschool ourselves'” says Bennett. “So we rented a home in the Berkeley Hills, hired an amazing educator, set up a school and started one. The school ended up being a huge success. Five-star reviews on Yelp. A high NPS. Parents loved the place.” It also netted the teacher a 3X higher salary than before.

With that proof, Wonderschool went on to raise $4.1 million from Josh Kopelman at First Round Capital, Omidyar Network, Cross Culture Ventures, Uncork Capital, Lerer Ventures, FundersClub, and Edelweiss. That let Bennett and Gray flesh out the business. Wonderschool would recruit existing teachers and caregivers or guide people to get licensed so they could become “directors” of in-home schools. Wonderschool acts almost like Airbnb by turning them into small businesses earning money from home.

Teachers can pick whatever schedule, curriculum, or format they want, like Montesori or nature-focused learning. Wonderschool now has over 500 directors working with its software, with some making as much as $150,000 or $200,000. In exchange for its 10 percent cut of tuition, Wonderschool provides directors with a “bootcamp” to prep them for the job. It pairs them with a mentor, then helps them build their website and figure out their pricing options. Coaching guides train the directors to scout for new leads, offer appealing tours, and track their fledgling business.

The $20 million from Andreessen, OmidyarGary Community Investments, and First Round will go to expanding the Wonderschool software. Each student slot it can help director fill, the more it earns. The startup will also have to compete with  companies like Wildflower Schools, which Bennett admits has a similar business model but he says “We are focused on in home and they also focus on Montessori while we are curriculum agnostic.” There’s also Cottage Class which powers homeschooling for students up to age 18, Tinkergarten that concentrates on short-term outdoor education, and VIPKid connects kids in China with U.S. teachers over video chat.

They, like Wonderschool, are trying to scale up to meet the massive existing demand. “The challenge is that there aren’t enough programs for the number of children needing public or private schooling – 1st grade or earlier – and our goal is to provide enough supply for every child” Bennett explains.

Still, safety remains a top concern. Bennett notes that “Wonderschool has a support team that helps school Directors prepare their homes for operation. With regard to safety, each state’s licensing office covers this in their approval process for being granted a license to operate.” But could a problem at one school shake the businesses of all the rest of its franchises? “We have a system of checks in balances in place that we feel confident would allow us to anticipate any potential issues, including regular, weekly check-ins with Directors and a feedback loop with parents. We also email parents on a regular cadence to get feedback from parents and we step in and work with the Director if we find that there are issues” Bennett insists.

If Wonderschool can keep its brand clean through thorough oversight, it could both create better paying jobs in a field rife with undercompensated heroes, and open early schooling to a wider range of students. Bennett’s parents moved to the U.S. from Honduras, pouring their efforts into supporting his and his sister’s education. Now he’s building the next generation of teachers the tools to give more kids a head start in life.