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Daily Crunch: Google fires employee activists

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The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Google employee activist says she’s been fired

Employee activist Rebecca Rivers (who was involved in a campaign pressuring Google to end its contract with U.S. Customs and Border Protection) said yesterday that she’d been fired. Google declined to comment but confirmed an internal note published by Bloomberg, which said the company fired a total of four employees for repeatedly violating its data-security policies.

Earlier this month, Google put Rivers and Laurence Berland on leave for allegedly violating company policies. Ahead of an employee rally last week, however, organizers said the “attack” on Rivers and Berland “is an attack on all people who care about transparency and accountability for tech.”

2. Facebook Viewpoints pays users for well-being surveys & tasks

People in the U.S. who are over 18 can now download Viewpoints and participate in a survey to help Facebook can learn to “limit the negative impacts of social media and enhance the benefits.” Other opportunities include completing online chores on behalf of Facebook or trying out new apps or devices ahead of launch so Facebook can refine them.

3. Announcing the complete Disrupt Berlin agenda

Join us December 11 and December 12 as we sit down with CEOs from big-name companies such as UIPath, Samsung and Naspers, as well as leading investors from Atomico, SoftBank and Index.

4. Leavy.co, the app for millennials who want to rent out their room while traveling, discloses $14M funding

The Leavy.co app is described as a “travel community and marketplace” that wants to help millennials travel more for less. At the heart of its offering is a way for travelers (dubbed “Happy Leavers”) to rent out their room or apartment when they are away to help fund their trip.

5. NASA’s second free-flying assistant robot gets to work

NASA activated a free-floating autonomous robot called ‘Bumble’ earlier this year, and now Bumble has a new companion called Honey. Both are Astrobee robots, cube-like “robotic teammates” for ISS astronauts, that are designed to help with experiments, day-to-day activities and more.

6. Argentine fintech Ualá raises $150M led by Tencent and SoftBank

Founder and CEO Pierpaolo Barbieri, a Buenos Aires native and Harvard University graduate, says his ambition was to create a platform that would bring all financial services into one app linked to one card. As it exists now, Ualá is linked to a prepaid, global Mastercard and allows users to transfer money, invest in mutual funds, request loans, pay bills and top-up prepaid services.

7. The herd sours on unprofitable unicorns again

Wasabi CEO David Friend looks at why venture and private equity funds have been chasing unprofitable unicorns, and why they’ve soured on those unicorns lately. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/11/26/daily-crunch-google-firing/

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Fronted, from former Bud, Monzo and Apple employees, wants to make life easier for renters

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Fronted, a new London-based startup aiming to make life easier for renters, is breaking cover today.

The company, founded by Jamie Campbell, Simon Vans-Colina and Anthony Mann — former employees at Bud, Monzo and Apple, respectively — will launch early next year with a fintech product to help renters finance their rental deposits.

The plan is get accepted into the FCA “sandbox” program (run by the U.K. financial services regulator) to begin lending cash that can only be used for a rental deposit.

The thinking is that by using Open Banking and other financial technology and offering a credit product designed to finance deposits directly, Fronted can lend more cheaply than existing options, such as credit cards, pay-day lenders and overdrafts, or insurance-backed membership schemes, and at lower risk.

“Renting sucks — anyone who rents knows it,” Fronted CEO Jamie Campbell tells me. “There are so many problems to solve and we intend to tackle them all bit by bit. But first, we are going to pay people’s rent deposits for them so they can pay us back in bite-size manageable amounts. Deposits are a large upfront expense and most people either use mum and dad to sort it out or stay where they are (in the worst cases they do to pay-day lenders).”

In a call late last week with Campbell and CTO Vans-Colina, the pair explained that renters that apply to use the Fronted service will be asked to link their bank using Open Banking, therefore sharing their recent transaction data, and provide details of the property they wish to rent. Then, once Fronted has run the required checks and agreed to provide credit, the startup sends the money directly to the estate agent to be placed in the U.K.’s Deposit Protection Scheme, meaning that the loan never touches the renter’s hands (or wallet).

“Customers will have a direct debit to pay us back over a set schedule, or they can pay it all off when they have the money to do so, [and] we don’t charge any fees,” says Campbell. There is also a planned “holiday mode” that will allow customers to temporarily reduce their monthly payments in order to help avoid falling into financial difficulty.

“Ultimately this first product is designed to be very convenient and we believe people will opt for this more manageable alternative to a normal deposit,” adds Campbell. “There are customers of ours that will be in ‘hidden households’ unable to move because of the upfront fees… Deposits can [also] sometimes take a long time to be returned from the schemes (something the government recently launched an enquiry into). Fronted wants to serve people who might otherwise be ‘double-exposed’ by deposits. We hope this first product increases social mobility by providing liquidity when people need it.”

Initially, Fronted will generate revenue through interest charged. It then plans to extend its fintech product offering with additional money-advance services “to help smooth out the bumps of renting.”

“We also intend on rolling out a ‘turn up and turn on’ service for utilities and internet,” says the Fronted CEO.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/12/03/fronted/

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Lessons from M-Pesa for Africas new VC-rich fintech startups

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In African fintech, the fourth quarter of 2019 brought big money to new entrants.

Chinese investors put $220 million into OPay and PalmPay — two fledgling startups with plans to scale in Nigeria and the broader continent. Several sources told me the big bucks had created anxiety for more than few payments ventures in Nigeria with similar strategies and smaller coffers. They may not need to fret just yet, however: lessons from Africa’s most successful mobile-money case study, M-Pesa, suggest that VC alone won’t buy scale in digital finance.

Startups and fintech in Africa

Over the last decade, Africa has been in the midst of a startup boom accompanied by big growth in VC and improvements in internet and mobile penetration.

Some definitive country centers for company formation, tech hubs and investment have emerged; Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya lead the continent in numbers for all those categories. Additional strong and emerging points for innovation and startups across Africa’s 54 countries and 1.2 billion people include Ghana, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Senegal.

The continent surpassed $1 billion in VC to startups in 2018 and per research done by Partech and WeeTracker, fintech is the focus of the bulk of capital and deal-flow.

By several estimates,  Africa is home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked and underbanked population.

This runs parallel to the region’s off-the-grid SME’s and economic activity — on display and in commercial motion through the street traders, roadside kiosks and open-air markets common from Nairobi to Lagos.

IMF estimates have pegged Africa’s informal economy as one of the largest in the world. Thousands of fintech startups have descended onto this large pool of unbanked and underbranked citizens and SMEs looking to grow digital finance products and market share.

In this race, the West African nation of Nigeria — home to Africa’s largest economy and population — is becoming an epicenter for VC. Many fintech-related companies are adopting a strategy of scaling there first before expanding outward.

Enter PalmPay and OPay

That includes new entrants OPay and PalmPay, which raised so much capital in fourth quarter 2019. It’s notable that both were founded in 2019 and largely incubated by Chinese actors.

PalmPay, a consumer-oriented payments product, went live in November with a $40 million seed-round (one of the largest in Africa in 2019) led by Africa’s biggest mobile-phones seller — China’s Transsion. The startup was upfront about its ambitions, stating its goals to become “Africa’s largest financial services platform,” in a company statement.

To that end, PalmPay conveniently entered a strategic partnership with its lead investor. The startup’s payment app will come pre-installed on Transsion’s mobile device brands, such as Tecno, in Africa — for an estimated reach of 20 million phones in 2020.

PalmPay also launched in Ghana in November and its U.K. and Africa-based CEO, Greg Reeve, confirmed plans to expand to additional African countries in 2020.

If PalmPay’s $40 million seed round got founders’ attention, OPay’s $120 million Series B created shock-waves, coming just months after the mobile-based fintech venture raised $50 million — making OPay’s $170 million capital haul equivalent to roughly a fifth of all VC raised in Africa in 2018.

Opera’s Africa fintech startup OPay gains $120M from Chinese investors

Founded by Chinese owned consumer internet company Opera — and backed by 9 Chinese investors — OPay is the payment utility for a suite of Opera -developed internet based commercial products in Nigeria that include ride-hail apps ORide and OCar and food delivery service OFood.

With its latest Series A, OPay announced it would expand in Kenya, South Africa, and Ghana.

In Nigeria, OPay’s $170 million Series A and B announced in the span of months dwarfs just about anything raised by new and existing fintech players, with the exception of Interswitch.

The homegrown payments processing company — which pioneered much of Nigeria’s digital finance infrastructure — reached unicorn status in November when Visa took a reported $200 million minority stake in the venture.

A sampling of more common funding amounts for payments ventures in Nigeria includes established fintech company Paga’s $10 million Series B. Recent market entrant Chipper Cash’s May 2019 seed-round was $2.4 million.

There is a large disparity between fintech startups in Nigeria with capital raises in ones and tens of millions vs. OPay and PalmPay’s $40 and $120 million rounds. Conventional wisdom could be that the big-capital, big spending firms have an unmistakable advantage in scaling digital payments in Nigeria and other markets.

A look at Kenya’s M-Pesa may prove otherwise.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/12/04/lessons-from-m-pesa-for-africas-new-vc-rich-fintech-startups/

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Disrupt Berlin 2019 opens in just one week

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Synchronize your watches, dust off your passports and pack your bags, startuppers. Disrupt Berlin 2019 kicks off in just seven short days. Thousands of you — representing more than 50 countries — will arrive in Berlin ready to learn, exhibit, compete and network for two action-packed days.

Good news for professional procrastinators and last-minute decisions makers. Buy a late registration pass to Disrupt Berlin now, and you can still save up to €200 over the onsite ticket price.

There’s so much to do in just two days — how will you spend your time at Disrupt?

Hear from the leading names, minds, makers and shakers of the early-stage startup community. These are the folks who’ve dreamed, launched, pivoted, scaled and succeeded. And they’ll be on hand to share how they did it. Here are just two of the presentations we have on tap for you. You’ll find the complete schedule of events and presentations in the Disrupt Berlin ’19 agenda.

How to Fit Blockchain into Your Startup Strategy: Chances are, you keep hearing about this “blockchain” thing — and maybe you’re ignoring it but deep down, you know you should probably think about how it could help your startup. To help you with that and maybe demystify blockchain a bit, too, we’ll be joined by Justin Drake (Ethereum Foundation), Ash Egan (Accomplice VC) and Ashley Tyson (Web3 Foundation) — all of whom have deep roots in the blockchain community.

From Startup Battlefield to IPO: In 2010, Cloudflare participated in one of the very first Disrupt Battlefields and a few months ago, the company made its debut on the New York Stock Exchange. In this conversation with Co-founder and CEO Matthew Prince, we’ll talk about Cloudflare’s path to an IPO, the unique challenges it faced, and what’s next for the company.

And speaking of Startup Battlefield, don’t miss this epic throwdown as a cadre of the very best startups takes the Main Stage to launch to the world. They’ll pitch to an expert panel of judges and vie for the Disrupt Cup, $50,000 and potentially life-altering investor and media attention.

Enjoy watching startuppers compete? Get this — we’re holding the TC Hackathon finals on the Extra Crunch Stage. The 10 finalists chose from a range of sponsored challenges — each with its own cash prize. Then they endured a grueling, sleep-deprived 24 hours to create and code a working product that solves a real-world problem.

Be there as they power through a two-minute pitch to a panel of expert judges. And stick around to see who earns the title of best over-all hack — along with $5,000 — from the TechCrunch editors.

Network among hundreds of outstanding startups in Startup Alley, our exhibition hall. That’s also where you’ll find the TC Top Picks. TechCrunch editors chose these companies — fine startups one and all — to represent the best in these tech categories: AI/Machine Learning, Biotech/Healthtech, Blockchain, Fintech, Mobility, Privacy/Security, Retail/E-commerce, Robotics/IoT/Hardware, and CRM/Enterprise.

You have just seven days before all glorious heck breaks loose in the form of Disrupt Berlin 2019. Don’t miss out on the opportunity, the fun, the connection and the community. Buy your pass today and save up to €200. We’ll see you in Berlin!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt Berlin 2019? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/12/04/disrupt-berlin-2019-opens-in-just-one-week/

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