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Forecast: Investment In Financial Services Using Blockchain Poised For Growth in 2021




Experts say 2021 is poised to see greater adoption and venture capital investment in blockchain technology. That prediction comes as more financial services apps are built using blockchain technology and cryptocurrency has become more widely accepted.

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Also working in the industry’s favor is the fact that major financial services companies including PayPal, Visa and JPMorgan have adopted cryptocurrency as a payment method in the past year, as well as more startups coming on the scene—armed with capital—to develop more user-friendly blockchain platforms.

Still, blockchain faces hurdles, including volatility in cryptocurrency pricing and confusion and misunderstanding from many consumers about the technology and related financial services, experts say.

Blockchain is digital information that is stored in a public database, and the benefit, particularly in the financial sector, is the ability to have a shared ledger recording detailed transactions without any identifying information, leading to improved security.

Investment in this space is growing, particularly in Europe, which has been quicker to adopt enterprise blockchain, which includes financial services, health care, energy and food and agriculture, said David Chreng-Messembourg, co-founder and partner at LeadBlock Partners in London. LeadBlock is a venture capital fund investing in early-stage business-to-business blockchain startups.

“We expect a funding need of more than 350 million euros [about $425.5 million USD] in Europe in the next 12 to 18 months after speaking with more than 200 B2B blockchain startups for our Enterprise Blockchain 2020 report,” Chreng-Messembourg told Crunchbase News.


Within the financial services ecosystem but outside of cryptocurrency, he sees interesting startups and good progress being made in the areas of:

  • Tokenization, or the process of issuing a token on a blockchain which represents a real asset. This is a “highly active space with heavy VC investments,” said Chreng-Messembourg.
  • Fund administration, an area that is under pressure to manage costs, and one where startups are using blockchain to take up the challenge; and
  • Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDC), a new form of central bank money issued on a blockchain, essentially central bank-backed digital currency.

“To date, no country has launched one, however, many central banks are running pilot programs,” Chreng-Messembourg said. “We see several advantages including lowering transaction costs, accelerating transfer times and promoting financial inclusion. A CBDC could become a game changer for most fintech blockchain solutions as it would facilitate onchain transactions.”

As adoption of blockchain gains momentum, so does venture capital investment in the technology. For example, Bloccelerate VC, a 2-year-old, Seattle-based early-stage VC firm, closed its first fund of $12 million in December to support blockchain technology startups in the trade finance, financial services and supply chain spaces, and has already invested in six companies.

Investors handed out $23.2 billion to global blockchain companies since 2016, and $3.3 billion to U.S. companies during that same period, according to Crunchbase data.

Though deal flow between 2020 and 2019 was relatively flat due to the global pandemic, Brooke Pollack, managing partner at Hutt Capital, expects it to increase in 2021. Hutt Capital is a blockchain venture capital fund of funds.

“We saw a pickup in deal activity in the fourth quarter, driven by a strong year for companies across the blockchain and crypto ecosystem,” Pollack said. “Strong performance drove increased attention from investors, and we see this continuing in 2021.”

Pollack also expects to see high-growth companies that raised seed and Series A rounds to raise larger rounds this year as they scale and attract more attention from venture investors.

Startups are coming out with tools and products under decentralized finance, or DeFi, which is financial software built on the blockchain that can be pieced together. Some examples are Bitpay, which provides bitcoin payment solutions for businesses and organizations, and BlockFi, a secured non-bank lender that offers crypto-asset-backed loans to crypto-asset owners. Bitpay has raised $72.5 million, while BlockFi has raised nearly $160 million, according to Crunchbase data.

As DeFi surpasses $19 billion in total value locked (total supply being used), the amount of capital being invested into startups building in the blockchain space is impossible to ignore, said Alon Goren, founding partner at Draper Goren Holm, via email. The firm is a fintech venture studio focused on incubating and accelerating early-stage blockchain startups.

Apps are needed because current DeFi interfaces are clunky, hard to use and not as friendly yet for the average consumer, said Goren.

“We’re really excited about the wave of entrepreneurs eager to make decentralized finance available for the masses,” he said. “2021 will introduce the birth of mass-adoption inspired consumer-facing apps that will allow more people to tap into high yield generating decentralized financial protocols. It must be simple, clean, and to the point. All these additional features and navigational barriers are stifling adoption.”

Cryptocurrency adoption

With regard to cryptocurrency pricing volatility, after reaching an all-time high on Jan. 8 of approximately $41,500, Bitcoin crashed losing about 24 percent of its value as of Jan. 11. Ethereum, which reached a market cap of $120 billion in early January, also saw its price go down.

Further validating the industry is major financial services companies adopting them, such as PayPal, said Daniel Polotsky, crypto chief and CEO of CoinFlip, which touts itself as the largest crypto ATM company in the world.

“I’m biased, but I have been in this space since 2013, and the fundamentals of bitcoin and cryptocurrency are awesome, and for financial services companies to see that—with PayPal and Square buying up some—everyone will follow on,” Polotsky said in an interview. “Our hope is that eventually it will be used more for a payment method.”

There is still a lot of work ahead though, said Graham McConnell, co-founder of blockchain-based fintech startup Nth Round.

While big banks are using cryptocurrency for international transfers, it is still not a compelling way of payment that most people typically understand or are able to manage, he said.

McConnell predicts 2021 could mean a wider adoption of blockchain and cryptocurrency as payment methods.

“There is a definite possibility that this could be the year,” McConnell said. “Almost daily, we are seeing banks taking it seriously, so this might be the year where it reaches mainstream.”

However, he cautions that price volatility in the marketplace is still an issue. He pointed to 2017 and 2018 as years when people jumped on crypto, urging the price up, only for the market to crash.

“What worries me is because there is speculation and the result is volatility, people could get hurt by it,” he added. “If it looks like a bubble, then people are getting in for the wrong reasons.”

One of the entities helping with the education component is Real Vision, a broadcast media company, which launched a crypto site last November to provide content for traders, finance professionals, policymakers and educators who want to learn more about crypto markets.

Co-founder Raoul Pal told Crunchbase News that as long as cryptocurrency was still “the wild west right now, there are going to be a lot of failures.” He agrees that 2021 will be the year for institutional adoption of cryptocurrency, which was one of the drivers of the new crypto site.

“People don’t quite know what is going on,” Pal said. “They want trusted ownership and transfer of assets. There are big and meaningful companies in this space, like BlockFi, which is just doing interesting stuff.”

Meanwhile, regulatory clarity regarding cryptocurrency has improved in the past five years, said Michael Gronager, CEO of Chainalysis. The company provides blockchain data and analysis to government agencies, exchanges and financial institutions.

Regulations enable companies to do what they do, protect citizens, as well as drive change in sentiment that “crypto is dark and scary,” said Gronager in an interview.

“We anticipate more deregulation of financial services,” he said. “In the past, there was a need for regulations around what banks needed to report, but with a change in transparent reporting, it will enable financial deregulation that will enable more commerce to happen, which is the only way to compete against other countries, like China.”

Illustration: Dom Guzman

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Start Ups

International footballer Chris Smalling invests ‘six figure sum’ in Virtue Drinks, a global clean energy drink startup




Rahi Daneshmand , founder of Virtue Drinks

ROMA AS and England National football star, Chris Smalling, has injected a six-figure sum into Virtue Drinks, a London-based brand that’s on a mission to clean up the energy drinks market. It’s the sixth ethical investment Smalling has made in the last year, demonstrating his determination to publicly support sustainable products.

Established in 2016, the multi-award winning brand, Virtue Drinks, creates clean energy drinks which are all natural, with zero sugar or calories. They have two ranges available globally, Virtue Clean Energy and Virtue Yerba Mate, exporting to leading retailers in 30 countries.

Smalling says: “Virtue has shaken up the industry and made a brilliant product that changes the game. I’m excited to be part of the journey. Why would you drink unhealthy energy drinks when Virtue exists?”.

COVID-19 has accelerated a global trend toward healthy living, with consumers rethinking their eating and drinking habits. More people are scrutinising product ingredients, shifting from sugary or artificial energy drinks, with high amounts of synthetic caffeine, to clean alternatives.

London born entrepreneur, Rahi Daneshmand, launched Virtue Drinks in 2016, after looking for a clean energy drink himself. Having avoided energy drinks post-university, whilst constantly trying to find ways to improve his energy levels, he felt there’d be a lot of people also looking for a natural pick-me-up, with zero sugar or calories.

Daneshmand says: “We have very high aspirations, with plans to bring Virtue to every store where you might find traditional energy drink brands. Each can of Virtue gives customers the same amount of natural caffeine as the leading energy drink or coffee, without any sacrifice on taste and none of the artificial chemicals.”


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British low-alcohol spirits startup CleanCo lands €7.8 million to promote ‘hangover-free drinking’ internationally




British premium low-alcohol spirits startup, CleanCo, has secured around €7.8 million in funding as investors and consumers reveal an insatiable thirst for hangover-free drinking. The latest investment takes the total now raised by the business to around €10.2 million.

The company within the “nolo” (no- or low- alcohol) category received the cash injection from existing and new gold-stamped investors including: Ursula Burns, board member of Uber and former board member of Diageo, and Stonebridge PLC, a digital-first consumer brand investment firm set up by DTC entrepreneur James Cox, who shall also advise the company on its future growth plans.

Providing people with a healthier alternative to traditional tipples, CleanCo has cultivated a loyal ‘sober-curious’ following of over 50,000 customers in just 15 months with its authentic taste and ‘cheeky-luxe’ positioning.

Recording +580% uplift in sales since the start of ‘Dry January 2021’ and +1419% YoY, the low-abv spirits business founded by TV personality and entrepreneur, Spencer Matthews  with the support of ex-director of the Gin Guild, Justin Hicklin, who acts as Chairmain. CleanCo uses traditional distilling methods to create low-alcohol spirits, and entered the market in November 2019 with CleanGin, followed by CleanRum in May 2020, both at 1.2% ABV. 

The fresh funds raised in its latest financing push will support the brand’s international expansion, including plans to launch a number of significant new markets in H1 2021. The new funds will also allow for ‘significant’ marketing investment in the UK to increase brand awareness. 

“Nobody wakes up saying “I wish I drank more last night,” explained co-founder Matthews, who has been sober since 2018. “Anyone can have a good reason to avoid or reduce their intake of alcohol. After a sub-par 2020, many of us will start 2021 with a sore head, coupled with fresh resolve and ambition to change destructive habits. We want more drinkers to be aware that there are choices when it comes to drinking high- or low-strength alcohol. At CleanCo, we’re offering an easy transition with quality and credible replacements – without compromising on taste or social experience.”

The UK producer of spirits has also just released its first ready-to-drink, canned cocktail range, featuring 0.5% ABV twists on classic serves. CleanRum & Cola is made using traditional Jamaican rum techniques and is said to deliver undertones of caramel and cayenne pepper, paired with ‘premium cola’. Meanwhile, CleanGin & Tonic offers a ‘crisp botanical blend’ of juniper, grapefruit, cardamom, mint, ginger and cinnamon. The London-headquartered company also plans to release a vodka later this year.

“Our concept is absolutely in line with market trends, as people look to change their drinking habits and as health conscious consumers consider their options,” said Justin Hicklin, Chairman of CleanCo.

To create low or no alcohol beverages, manufacturers often replace the alcohol with sugar, but to reduce the sugar and retain full flavour is challenging, and unique to CleanCo, in a closely guarded and developing process, which Hicklin reveals only as a “multiplicity of distillations.”


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Munich-based HR scaleup Personio lands €103.5 million Series D funding and a €1.4 billion valuation




Munich-based Personio, the all-in-one HR platform, today announces approx. €103.5 million of new and preemptive Series D funding in an investment round that values the business at around €1.4 billion.

The new funding will accelerate further the scaleup’s international expansion, supporting its ambition of becoming Europe’s leading HR platform for SMEs. It follows a strong year of growth for the business in 2020, which saw it double revenues despite adverse market conditions.

Founded in 2015, Personio offers an all-in-one HR software for small- and medium-sized companies with 10 to 2,000 employees. Its mission is to make HR processes as transparent and efficient as possible so human resources team members can focus on the most valuable assets in the company: the people. Personio’s software includes human resources, recruiting and payroll and supports all core HR processes every business needs to do. Personio is already helping more than 3,000 SMEs across Europe unlock their productive potential by digitizing and automating their people operations.

The latest funding was led by existing investor Index Ventures, which has previously supported high-profile software companies including Slack, Dropbox and Zendesk to their IPO. All of Personio’s other existing investors – Accel, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Northzone, Global Founders Capital and Picus – participated in this latest funding round.

They have also been joined by Meritech, which has a long-standing track record of backing highly successful SaaS companies, including Salesforce, where they were the first outside investor, as well as recent high-flyers Datadog, Snowflake and UiPath.

The funding round comes only twelve months after the business received around €67.6 million Series C funding, in a round led by Accel. The new capital will enable Personio to increase its expansion across Europe and focus on the further development of its cloud-based software, as it builds Europe’s leading HR operating system for recruiting, personnel administration and payroll for small and medium-sized companies.

Personio’s plans for the coming year include further enhancing the product’s core capabilities, launching the Personio Marketplace with new integrations in Q1, continuing fast growth across Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and doubling down its investments in markets that the business entered in 2020 such as Spain, the UK and Ireland, the Nordics and Benelux. In 2021 it will also enter new markets, including France and Italy. In additional, it planes to double its international headcount from 500 to 1000 by the end of 2021, across its four offices in Munich (HQ), Madrid, London and Dublin, where its new international sales and engineering hub has been established.

While the funding also provides the option for further acquisitions, such as the purchase of Rollbox in 2019, there are currently no M&A activities planned and the focus remains on continued strong organic growth.

Hanno Renner, co-founder and CEO of Personio commented: “While the past year has proven difficult for many industries and businesses, it has at the same time accelerated the digitization of small and mid-sized businesses. It has also showcased the important role of HR teams, especially while so many of us continue to work remotely. We are grateful for a strong year in which we could grow to serve over 3,000 European SMEs. By further expanding our platform, we’ll continue to support our customers in tackling their current challenges and beyond.”

“This preemptive investment comes earlier than we had anticipated, as we’re still well funded from our previous round in January 2020. Such strong interest and support from our investors demonstrates not only the value of Personio’s offering, but also the huge potential the business has for further development and growth in the future. We are only scratching the surface of the market potential.”

Martin Mignot, Partner at Index Ventures and Personio Board Member said: “SMEs are the backbone of the European economy, employing 100 million people across the continent, but it is also a sector that has been neglected by software companies focused predominantly on large enterprises. Personio changes that, having created a set of powerful tools tailored to address the needs of small businesses. Under the leadership of the company’s co-founder Hanno Renner, Personio has quickly become one of the most impactful and impressive businesses in Europe, and we’re thrilled to be working with him and the team as they scale and respond to rising demand for their products.”

Alex Clayton, General Partner at Meritech Capital and Personio’s newest Board Member said: “We have had the pleasure of working with some of the most successful SaaS companies in the world, and given Personio’s success over the past five years and the immense market potential, we strongly believe in Personio’s ability to build an equally successful and impactful business. After many great discussions with Hanno over recent years, we are now excited to be joining the journey.”

The latest valuation places Personio among the most valuable private software companies in Europe as it joins the likes of UiPath, Revolut, Deliveroo or Klarna in the ranks of European startups with a valuation of more than $1 billion – the ‘unicorns’.


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Mental health startup Spill raises €2.2 million to help companies emotionally support their employees over Slack




Spill, a British startup that provides remote mental health support for companies through the workplace messaging tool ‘Slack’, today announces that it has raised €2.2 million in a seed round led by Ada Ventures. 

The rising demand for employee mental health support in 2020 drove rapid growth for Spill last year. After its founding in 2017 and relaunch in January 2020, Spill has grown from 0 to 100+ paying companies in less than 12 months, and counts Typeform, Bulb and Depop as clients.

New research by Spill and Censuswide found that 38% of tech sector workers have considered therapy for the first time this year. The data also indicates that the need for psychological support may be greater for startups: 44% of those at smaller companies (10-99 people) considered therapy for the first time this year, compared to 31% in larger companies (100+ people). More than 1 in 4 (26%) tech workers also felt their company had failed to provide adequate mental health support in the last year.

Previously a message-based therapy app for iOS and Android, Spill relaunched in January this year to provide all-in-one mental health support through Slack. Employees at companies signed up to Spill can book a video session with a qualified therapist in just three clicks. Alternatively, they can message a therapist and receive a considered reply by the next day, or browse mental health tools and content, all through Slack.

Spill employs over 30 therapists around the UK, who work remotely over video, phone or message. All are registered with the BACP, NCS, or an equivalent professional body, have at least 200 hours’ clinical experience, and a minimum three-year relevant degree. Among users who did a course of six therapy sessions, Spill was more effective at reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety than either NHS therapy or a course of antidepressants.

The fresh funds were raised from Ada Ventures, with partner Francesca Warner joining the Spill board, along with Seedcamp and the government’s Future Fund initiative. Spill will use the money to develop proactive tools that help to create a more psychologically considerate workplace, moving from mental health treatment towards prevention. The raise follows a pre-seed investment in 2019 led by Passion Capital.

Calvin Benton, Founder at Spill, said: “The events of the past year have made workplace mental health issues front of mind for many, but these are problems which have long needed solving. It’s vital that, in today’s knowledge-driven economy, workers have access to high-quality mental health support that’s barrier-free, stigma-free, and free at the point of use. And that’s exactly what Spill will be able to deliver dramatically more of with the help of this latest funding round, led by Ada Ventures. We’re excited to help more companies create environments where people feel secure, engaged, and fundamentally understood — which is not only the humane thing to do for the team, but it’s the smart thing to do for the business. ”

Francesca Warner, Founding Partner at Ada Ventures, said: “We’ve been looking to invest in a company tackling the mental health crisis our society faces for some time. We’ve struggled to find products that are accessible, affordable, effective, and used regularly. Spill’s product is all of these things. We’re pleased to have the opportunity to invest in this exceptional team and look forward to the product being available to millions of people in the years to come.”


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