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Already On The Rise, Agtech Could See Added Boost From Biden Broadband Spending Proposal

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Connectivity can often be taken for granted in the U.S., where seemingly every block in a major city has free WiFi. But in much of rural America, connectivity can be a significant fight.

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Some of those issues could be eased with President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure spending plan, which includes $100 billion for greater broadband access that could in turn open up the rural U.S. to more connected and edge devices, and be a boon for agtech investors and startups.

“Connecting produce all the way to the consumer — being able to better connect upstream data to downstream — would be big,” said Nolan Paul, who leads food and agtech investment at Palo Alto, California-based Yamaha Motor Ventures.

Agtech already has seen increasing investor interest, according to Crunchbase numbers. While not approaching the funding numbers of enterprise software or fintech, agtech funding in the U.S. increased from about $1.8 billion in 2018 and $2.4 billion in 2019 to $3.3 billion last year. This year already has seen more than $1 billion invested in less than four months.

While U.S. investments dollars are on the rise, deal flow dropped slightly last year, from 317 funding rounds in 2019 to 251 last year. This year has witnessed 83 deals announced.

Better broadband

Those numbers could see an uptick if the proposed broadband plan becomes reality — something that is still far from certain — according to those who watch the agtech sector.

Better connectivity could mean more sensors and edge devices, which could mean more data and lead to more innovation. While it is important to note the plan does not mention 5G, even 5G requires some fiber installations, something increasing broadband would include as it builds out a better communication infrastructure.

“Investors like to build on good infrastructure,” said Nate Williams, founder and managing partner at San Francisco-based Union Labs, which invests in technologies like automation and AI with commercial applications in sectors including agtech.

Tim Brackbill, co-founder and CTO of farming robotics company Tortuga AgTech, said while it’s possible to implement advanced tech on LTE connection in rural areas, it’s expensive and slow — and sometimes even that is not available.

“Better internet access on farms would help in non-obvious ways,” he said. “Rural broadband access would certainly help more advanced technologies like our Tortuga harvesting robots and other tech, but we’ve seen that getting stable internet at a site even enables older tech like monitoring security cameras.”

Williams said due to connectivity issues, the agriculture sector still struggles with the process of just getting accurate data and converting it into usable insights that can lead to better practices.

Investment opportunity

“There’s no doubt agriculture is ripe for disruption,” said Kiersten Stead, managing partner at San Francisco-based DCVC Bio, which invests in therapeutics as well as improving agriculture and food. Stead added the sector has struggled for decades with communication issues mainly due to expense.

While venture capital flow has improved, Stead said she sees large rounds going to later-stage companies. She also sees more investment in “downstream” technology such as processing and supply chain, not in actual “upstream” endeavors like the actual production of food itself.

“Better communication would certainly make investing more attractive” at the field level, she said. “We need an infrastructure.”

Robotics and autonomous platforms that help with farming are of immense interest as connectivity improves, especially considering the safety and labor shortage issues farming is gouging through, Stead said.

Union Labs’ Williams said several deep technologies likely will attract investors if connectivity improves, such as supply chain monitoring and innovations around “precision agriculture,” which can detect micro-climates and plant changes for better yields. Even geo-location technologies to help farmers understand where livestock is moving could be of interest.

“There are just so many practices that need to be modernized,” said Katherine Sizov, co-founder CEO of Philadelphia-based Strella Biotechnology, a biosensing platform that predicts the ripeness of fruit. “We’ve created a system that is inefficient.”

Sizov said it is estimated nearly a third of all food is wasted before it has a chance to be consumed. There is no doubt that through better information and technology — helped by  connectivity —  that can be changed.

“Connectivity helps build a smart food chain,” she added.

Connectivity everywhere

Paul added that it is also important to note “rural” broadband does not just denote middle America. There are connectivity issues that have hindered farming in coastal states as well, where specialized horticulture farming of produce like berries and grapes often takes place.

In fact, Paul said, it is often that more high-touch farming that runs into labor shortages — as more workers are needed — and has been more likely to adapt to IoT and connected devices as they yield higher-margin produce.

While it’s difficult to say where the infrastructure bill and its broadband spending proposal will go, Paul said he has seen an increase in interest — and valuations — in the agtech space as people have become aware of sustainability and climate change. In 2016, Paul said he attended an agtech conference in London that attracted about 70 people. That same conference today brings in more than 1,000 people.

Nevertheless, those in agtech would love to see connectivity driven deeper into a sector that often is slow to change.

Brackbill said faster internet simply lowers the startup cost and operational friction to “just try” new technology in a rural location.

“If engineers and entrepreneurs could show up to any farm location in America without having to worry about hours and days of setup, costs, speed, reliability and ongoing maintenance of currently poor internet infrastructure, they’d save a huge amount of time and aggravation for both them and their farmer partners.”

— Christine Hall contributed to this article.

Illustration: Dom Guzman

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Source: https://news.crunchbase.com/news/already-on-the-rise-agtech-could-see-added-boost-from-biden-broadband-spending-proposal/

Start Ups

Seattle teen entrepreneurs sell their health-tech startup and take a break from college

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Sage Khanuja, left, and Nikolas Ioannou, the founders of Seattle-based Spira. (Spira Photo)

The news: Seattle entrepreneurs Sage Khanuja, 17, and Nikolas Ioannou, 18, have sold their telemedicine startup Spira to Galileo, a New York-based healthcare company.

“To be honest, I didn’t really think much or ask about their age,” Galileo CEO Tom Lee said of the teens. “I generally evaluate technology and teams based on their capabilities and potential. I think the only surprise for us was having to get parental permission on the final agreement.”

The tech: The co-founders built a backend, no-code tool which makes it easy to create digital “smart forms” that utilize machine learning algorithms to enhance patient screening and adapt to patients over time. Their work seized on the growth of telemedicine — even before COVID-19 ushered in a wave of acceptance for the practice.

How they got started: Khanuja and Ioannou met after they both enrolled at the University of Washington as early entrance students following 10th grade. They bonded over their shared interests in tech and health, calling existing technology in the space “lackluster.”

“We saw a lot of inefficiency,” Khanuja said. “If you’re a patient, before the doctor visit, there’s so much information that can be captured and synthesized to make the doctor’s visit more effective.”

Khanuja and Ioannou released a SMS COVID-19 tracker in March 2020. Their company’s initial focus was on respiratory health, and Spira — derived from “respiratory” — developed tech using a phone’s microphone to conduct a cough and auscultation test.

Spira evolved into a broader tool to meet the growing demand for patients’ multi-touchpoint experiences.

“20, 30 years ago, even five years ago, you would go to the doctor once a year and that would be it,” Ioannou said. “But now what we’re starting to see with digital health is it’s more of recurring relationship. It’s becoming very seamlessly integrated with the patient’s life. The whole idea is that smart forms are another way to interface with the patient.”

Product screen grabs for Galileo, the company acquiring Seattle-based Spira. (Galileo Images)

An interested buyer: Lee, a Seattle native who graduated from the UW School of Medicine, founded One Medical, a membership-based primary care provider with a heavy emphasis on technology, and he created the medical reference app Epocrates. Lee launched Galileo in 2018 to provide 24/7 mobile access and care directly to a wide range of patients, as well as through sponsorship by employers and health plans.

Galileo founder Tom Lee grew up in the Seattle area and studied at the University of Washington. (One Medical Photo)

“Sage and Nik are intelligent and wise beyond their years,” Lee said. “They see where healthcare is going and realize what types of design and technology will enable better healthcare decisions and outcomes.”

Khanuja said it’s challenging to grow a healthcare product and a patient base. He and Ioannou wanted Spira to have as much impact as possible and seized on that opportunity by joining Galileo, which could deploy its product quickly to a large and growing patient base.

The acquisition is Galileo’s first and terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Looking ahead: Khanuja and Ioannou have both taken a leave of absence from the UW and are working remotely for Galileo now, incorporating Spira’s tech into Galileo’s product solution.

When asked whether they will be returning to college, the boys chuckled over a Zoom call.

“You want the answer that our parents want us to say or the ones that we want to say?” Ioannou asked.

“I think we found what we really enjoy doing,” Khanuja said. “At heart we’re entrepreneurs. We’ll see where that leads us.”

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Source: https://www.geekwire.com/2021/entrepreneurs-heart-seattle-teens-sell-health-tech-startup-take-break-college/

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Start Ups

Jamf snags zero trust security startup Wandera for $400M

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Jamf, the enterprise Apple device management company, announced that it was acquiring Wandera, a zero trust security startup, for $400 million at the market close today. Today’s purchase is the largest in the company’s history.

Jamf provides IT at large organizations with a set of management services for Apple devices. It is the leader in the market, and snagging Wandera provides a missing modern security layer for the platform.

Jamf CEO Dean Hager says that Wandera’s zero trust approach fills in an important piece in the Jamf platform tool set. “The combination of Wandera and Jamf will provide our customers a single source platform that handles deployment, application lifecycle management, policies, filtering and security capabilities across all Apple devices while delivering zero trust network access for all mobile workers,” Hager said in a statement.

Zero trust, as the name implies, is an approach to security where you don’t trust anybody regardless of whether they are inside or outside your network. It requires that you force everyone to provide multiple forms of authentication to prove their identity before they can access company resources.

The need for a zero trust approach became even more acute during the pandemic when employees  have often been working from home and have needed access to applications and other company resources from wherever they happened to be, a trend that was happening even prior to COVID, and is likely to continue after it ends.

Wandera, which is based in London, was founded in 2012 by brothers Roy and Eldar Tuvey, who had previously co-founded another security startup called ScanSafe. Cisco acquired that company, which helped protect web gateways as a service for $183 million back in 2009. The brothers raised over $53 million along the way for Wandera. Investors included Bessemer Venture Partners, 83North and Sapphire Ventures.

Sapphire co-founder and managing director Andreas Weiskam had this to say about the company: “I’ve had the pleasure of working with co-founders (and brothers) Eldar Tuvey and Roy Tuvey for the last several years now and I can honestly say they’re great entrepreneurs and leaders, having built a real company of consequence.”

He added, “They’ve created a unique security product which addresses mobile threats by leveraging the increasingly important zero trust network. By joining the Jamf family, the two will help shape the future of the zero trust cloud. And it goes without saying that this is a big win for the customers, especially for those in the Apple ecosystem.”

Under the terms of the deal, Jamf is paying Wandera $350 million in cash, then paying them two $25 million payments on October 1, 2021 and December 15, 2021. The deal is expected to close in the third quarter assuming it passes regulatory scrutiny.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/11/jamf-snags-zero-trust-security-startup-wandera-for-400m/

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Remitly lands investment from Visa amid reports of IPO preparation

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Seattle mobile remittance startup Remitly landed an undisclosed equity investment from Visa. The companies previously partnered in 2019 and have extended that partnership; Visa cited the deal in its earnings call last month. The investment comes as Remitly is reportedly preparing to go public. Total funding to date in the 10-year-old company, prior to the Visa investment, was nearly $400 million, including a $85 million Series F round raised in July. Remitly’s mobile technology lets people send and receive money across borders. The company is ranked No. 3 on the GeekWire 200 list of top Pacific Northwest tech startups.

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Source: https://www.geekwire.com/2021/remitly-lands-investment-visa-amid-reports-ipo-preparation/

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The Last Gameboard raises $4M to ship its digital tabletop gaming platform

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The tabletop gaming industry has exploded over the last few years as millions discovered or rediscovered its joys, but it too is evolving — and The Last Gameboard hopes to be the venue for that evolution. The digital tabletop platform has progressed from crowdfunding to $4M seed round, and having partnered with some of the biggest names in the industry, plans to ship by the end of the year.

As the company’s CEO and co-founder Shail Mehta explained in a TC Early Stage pitch-off earlier this year, The Last Gameboard is a 16-inch square touchscreen device with a custom OS and a sophisticated method of tracking game pieces and hand movements. The idea is to provide a digital alternative to physical games where that’s practical, and do so with the maximum benefit and minimum compromise.

If the pitch sounds familiar… it’s been attempted once or twice before. I distinctly remember being impressed by the possibilities of D&D on an original Microsoft Surface… back in 2009. And I played with another at PAX many years ago. Mehta said that until very recently there simply wasn’t the technology and market weren’t ready.

“People tried this before, but it was either way too expensive or they didn’t have the audience. And the tech just wasn’t there; they were missing that interaction piece,” she explained, and certainly any player will recognize that the, say, iPad version of a game definitely lacks physicality. The advance her company has achieved is in making the touchscreen able to detect not just taps and drags, but game pieces, gestures and movements above the screen, and more.

“What Gameboard does, no other existing touchscreen or tablet on the market can do — it’s not even close,” Mehta said. “We have unlimited touch, game pieces, passive and active… you can use your chess set at home, lift up and put down the pieces, we track it the whole time. We can do unique identifiers with tags and custom shapes. It’s the next step in how interactive surfaces can be.”

It’s accomplished via a not particularly exotic method, which saves the Gameboard from the fate of the Surface and its successors, which cost several thousand dollars due to their unique and expensive makeups. Mehta explained that they work strictly with ordinary capacitive touch data, albeit at a higher framerate than is commonly used, and then use machine learning to characterize and track object outlines. “We haven’t created a completely new mechanism, we’re just optimizing what’s available today,” she said.

The Last Gameboard's interface, showing games available to play on the tablet's surface.

Image Credits: The Last Gameboard

At $699 for the Gameboard it’s not exactly an impulse buy, either, but the fact of the matter is people spend a lot of money on gaming, with some titles running into multiple hundreds of dollars for all the expansions and pieces. Tabletop is now a more than $20 billion industry. If the experience is as good as they hope to make it, this is an investment many a player will not hesitate (much, anyway) to make.

Of course, the most robust set of gestures and features won’t matter if all they had on the platform were bargain-bin titles and grandpa’s-parlor favorites like Parcheesi. Fortunately The Last Gameboard has managed to stack up some of the most popular tabletop companies out there, and aims to have the definitive digital edition for their games.

Asmodee Digital is probably the biggest catch, having adapted many of today’s biggest hits, from modern classics Catan and Carcassone to crowdfunded breakout hit Scythe and immense dungeon-crawler Gloomhaven. The full list of partners right now includes Dire Wolf Digital, Nomad Games, Auroch Digital, Restoration Games, Steve Jackson Games, Knights of Unity, Skyship Studios, EncounterPlus, PlannarAlly, and Sugar Gamers, as well as individual creators and developers.

Animation of two players grabbing dots on a screen and moving them around.

Image Credits: The Last Gameboard

These games may be best played in person, but have successfully transitioned to digital versions, and one imagines that a larger screen and inclusion of real pieces could make for an improved hybrid experience. There will be options both to purchase games individually, like you might on mobile or Steam, or to subscribe to an unlimited access model (pricing to be determined on both).

It would also be something that the many gaming shops and playing venues might want to have a couple of on hand. Testing out a game in-store and then buying a few to stock, or convincing consumers to do the same, could be a great sales tactic for all involved.

In addition to providing a unique and superior digital version of a game, the device can connect with others to trade moves, send game invites, and all that sort of thing. The whole OS, Mehta said, “is alive and real. If we didn’t own it and create it, this wouldn’t work.” This is more than a skin on top of Android with a built-in store, but there’s enough shared that Android-based ports will be able to be brought over with little fuss.

Head of content Lee Allentuck suggested that the last couple years (including the pandemic) have started to change game developers’ and publishers’ minds about the readiness of the industry for what’s next. “They see the digital crossover is going to happen — people are playing online board games now. If you can be part of that new trend at the very beginning, it gives you a big opportunity,” he said.

CEO Shail Mehta (center) plays Stop Thief on the Gameboard with others on the team. Image Credits: The Last Gameboard

Allentuck, who previously worked at Hasbro, said there’s widespread interest in the toy and tabletop industry to be more tech-forward, but there’s been a “chicken and egg scenario,” where there’s no market because no one innovates, and no one innovates because there’s no market. Fortunately things have progressed to the point where a company like The Last Gameboard can raise $4M series A to help cover the cost of creating that market.

The round was led by TheVentureCity, with participation from SOSV, Riot Games, Conscience VC, Corner3 VC, and others. While the company didn’t go through HAX, SOSV’s involvement has that HAX-y air, and partner Garrett Winther gives a glowing recommendation of its approach: “They are the first to effectively tie collaborative physical and digital gameplay together while not losing the community, storytelling or competitive foundations that we all look for in gaming.”

Mehta noted that the pandemic nearly cooked the company by derailing their funding, which was originally supposed to come through around this time last year when everything went pear-shaped. “We had our functioning prototype, we had filed for a patent, we got the traction, we were gonna raise, everything was great… and then COVID hit,” she recalled. “But we got a lot of time to do R&D, which was actually kind of a blessing. Our team was super small so we didn’t have to lay anyone off — we just went into survival mode for like six months and optimized, developed the platform. 2020 was rough for everyone, but we were able to focus on the core product.”

Now the company is poised to start its beta program over the summer and (following feedback from that) ship its first production units before the holiday season when purchases like this one seem to make a lot of sense.

(This article originally referred to this raise as The Last Gameboard’s round A — it’s actually the seed. This has been updated.)

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/11/the-last-gameboard-raises-4m-to-ship-its-digital-tabletop-gaming-platform/

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