Founders Fund invests in Tibber, a Norwegian AI to smartly manage energy

You probably have one electricity supplier for your house. But these days the average household could probably buy form several such companies, it just can’t easily access the market place of possible suppliers. Wouldn’t it be smarter in you had an AI in your house which could purchase energy from these producers, including those within the local grid, at the best prices and at the best time of day?

That’s what the Tibber startup does in Norway, and it’s just raised a $12M Series A funding from an iconic Silicon Valley VC.

Hailing originally from Stockholm, Tibber offers customers the ability to lower their energy bills in exactly the above manner, with the user using a simple app, and the purchasing of power is automatically done by its bots. That means Tiber is always looking for the lowest electricity prices as well as alerting customers to consume energy during the cheapest hours of the day.

The funding round was led by SF-based Founders Fund, known for their early investments in Spotify, Facebook, SpaceX, Palantir, Airbnb and Stripe. Tibber is the third investment ever in Europe for Founders Fund, which is quite something. The rest of the round came from existing investors including Wellstreet, BKK, Petter Stordalen and RFF Vest.

Prior to this round the company had raised $3-4m. It now plans to expand to Germany next.

In a statement Zack Hargreaves, Principal at Founders Fund said: “The tools we currently use to manage our utilities are completely outdated. Tibber combines wholesale electricity prices with IoT integrations to save users an average of 20 % on electricity bills. Consumers will see cost savings from simply downloading the app.”

Although Tibber only powers 40,000 homes right now, 25% of are smart homes, where customers are able to control their power usage through Tibber-connected devices, such as electric car charging, connected thermostats and smart plugs.

Edgeir Aksnes, CEO and founder says all their customer growth has come from word of mouth: “With this funding round complete, we are set to further expand in the Nordics, develop our product and launch Tibber in new markets in Europe.”

Tibber has a team of 21 people and currently operates in Sweden and Norway.

Last year, Tibber launched a smart charging feature for Tesla and other electric cars and hybrids. The company claims that its solution can cut 20 percent off the charging price compared to the rest of the market.

Zeus raises $24M to make you a living-as-a-service landlord

Cookie-cutter corporate housing turns people into worker drones. When an employee needs to move to a new city for a few months, they’re either stuck in bland, giant apartment complexes or Airbnbs meant for shorter stays. But Zeus lets any homeowner get paid to host white-collar transient labor. Through its managed ownership model, Zeus takes on all the furnishing, upkeep, and risk of filling the home while its landlords sit back earning cash.

Zeus has quietly risen to a $45 million revenue run rate from renting out 900 homes in 23 cities. That’s up 5X in a year thanks to Zeus’ 150 employees. With a 90 percent occupancy rate, it’s proven employers and their talent want more unique, trustworthy, well-equipped multi-month residences that actually make them feel at home.

Now while Airbnb is distracted with its upcoming IPO, Zeus has raised $24 million to steal the corporate housing market. That includes a previous $2.5 million seed round from Bowery, the new $11.5 million Series A led by Initialized Capital whose partner Garry Tan has joined Zeus’ board, and $10 million in debt to pay fixed costs like furniture. The plan is to roll up more homes, build better landlord portal software, and hammer out partnerships or in-house divisions for cleaning and furnishing.

“In the first decade out of school people used to have two jobs. Now it’s four jobs and it’s trending to five” says Zeus co-founder and CEO Kulveer Taggar. “We think in 10 years, these people won’t be buying furniture.” He imagines they’ll pay a premium for hand-holding in housing, which judging by the explosion in popularity of zero-friction on-demand services, seems like an accurate assessment of our lazy future. Meanwhile, Zeus aims to be “the quantum leap improvement in the experience of trying to rent out your home” where you just punch in your address plus some details and you’re cashing checks 10 days later.

Buying Mom A House Was Step 1

“When I sold my first startup, I bought a home for my mom in Vancouver” Taggar recalls. It was payback for when she let him remortgage her old house while he was in college to buy a condo in Mumbai he’d rent out to earn money. “Despite not having much growing up, my mom was a travel agent and we got to travel a lot” which Taggar says inspired his goal to live nomadically in homes around the world. Zeus could let other live that dream.

Zeus co-founder and CEO Kulveer Taggar

After Oxford and working as an analyst at Deutsche Bank, Taggar built student marketplace Boso before moving to the United States. There, he co-founded auction tool Auctomatic with his cousin Harjeet Taggar and future Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison, went through Y Combinator, and sold it to Live Current Media for $5 million just 10 months later. That gave him the runway to gift a home to his mom and start tinkering on new ideas.

With Y Combinator’s backing again, Taggar started NFC-triggered task launcher Tagstand, which pivoted into app settings configurer Agent, which pivoted into automatic location sharing app Status. But when his co-founder Joe Wong had to move an hour south from San Francisco to Palo Alto, Taggar was dumbfounded by how distracting the process was. Listing and securing a new tenant was difficult, as was finding a medium-term rental without having to deal with exhorbitant prices or sketchy Cragislist. Having seen his former co-founder go on to great success with Stripe’s dead-simple payments integration, Taggar wanted to combine that vision with OpenDoor’s easy home sales to making renting or renting out a place instantaneous. That spawned Zeus.

Stripe Meets OpenDoor To Beat Airbnb

To become a Zeus landlord, you just type in your address, how many bedrooms and bathrooms, and some aesthetic specs, and you get a monthly price quote for what you’ll be paid. Zeus comes in and does a 250-point quality assessment, collects floor plans, furnishes the property, and handles cleaning and maintenance. It works with partners like Helix mattresses, Parachute sheets, and Simple Human trash cans to get bulk rates. “We raised debt because we had these fixed investments into furniture. It’s not as dilutive as selling pure equity” Taggar explains.

Zeus quickly finds a tenant thanks to listings in Airbnb and relationships with employers like Darktrace and ZS Associates with lots of employees moving around. After passing background checks, tenants get digital lock codes and access to 24/7 support in case something doesn’t look right. The goal is to get someone sleeping there in just 10 days. “Traditional corporate housing is $10,000 a month in SF in the summer or at extended stay hotels. Airbnb isn’t well suited [for multi-month stays]. ” Taggar claims. “We’re about half the price of traditional corporate housing for a better product and a better experience.”

Zeus signs minimum two-year leases with landlords and tries to extend them to five years when possible. It gets one free month of rent as is standard for property managers, but doesn’t charge an additional rate. For example, Zeus might lease your home for $4,000 per month but gets the first month free, and rent it out for $5,000 so it earns $60,000 but pays you $44,000. That’s a tidy margin if Zeus can get homes filled fast and hold down its upkeep costs.

“Zeus has been instrumental for my company to start the process of re-location to the Bay Area and to host our visiting employees from abroad now that we are settled” writes Zeus client Meitre’s Luis Caviglia. “I particularly like the ‘hard truths’ featured in every property, and the support we have received when issues arose during our stays.”

At Home, Anywhere

There’s no shortage of competitors chasing this $18 billion market in the US alone. There are the old-school corporations and chains like Oakwood and Barbary Coast that typically rent out apartments from vast, generic complexes at steep rates. Stays over 30 days made up 15 percent of Airbnb’s business last year, but the platform wasn’t designed for peace-of-mind around long-term stays. There are pure marketplaces like UrbanDoor that don’t always take care of everything for the landlord or provide consistent tenant experiences. And then there are direct competitors like $130 million-funded Sonder, $66 million-funded Domio, recently GV-backed 2nd Address, and European entants like MagicStay, AtHomeHotel, and Homelike.

Zeus’ property unit growth

There’s plenty of pie, though. With 330,000 housing units in SF alone, Zeus has plenty of room to grow. The rise of remote work means companies whose employee typically didn’t relocate may now need to bring in distant workers for a multi-month sprint. A recession could make companies more expense-cautious, leading them to rethink putting up staffers in hotels for months on end. Regulatory red tape and taxes could scare landlords away from short-term rentals and towards coprorate housing. And the need to expand into new businesses could tempt the big vacation rental platforms like Airbnb to make acquisitions in the space — or try to crush Zeus.

Winners will be determined in part by who has the widest and cheapest selection of properties, but also by which makes people most comfortable in a new city. That’s why Taggar is taking a cue from WeWork by trying to arrange more community events for its tenants. Often in need of friends, Zeus could become a favorite by helping people feel part of a neighborhood rather than a faceless inmate in a massive apartment block or hotel. That gives Zeus network effect if it can develop density in top markets.

Taggar says the biggest challenge is that “I feels like I’m running five startups at once. Pricing, supply chain, customer service, B2B. We’ve decided to make everything custom — our own property manager software, our own internal CRM. We think these advantages compound, but I could be wrong and they could be wasted effort.”

The benefits of Zeus‘ success would go beyond the founder’s bank account. “I’ve had friends in New York get great opportuntiies in San Francisco but not take them because of the friction of moving” Taggar says. Routing talent where it belongs could get more things built. And easy housing might make people more apt to live abroad temporarily. Taggar concludes, “I think it’s a great way to build empathy.”

Passbase is building a full-stack identity engine with privacy baked in

Digital identity startup Passbase has bagged $600,000 in pre-seed funding led by a group of business angel investors from Alphabet, Stanford, Kleiner Perkins and EY, as well as seed fund investment from Chicago-based Upheaval Investments and Seedcamp.

The 2018-founded Silicon Valley-based startup — whose co-founder we chatted to briefly on camera at Disrupt Berlin — is building what it dubs an “identity engine” to simplify identity verification online.

Passbase offers a set of SDKs to developers to integrate into their service facial recognition, liveness detection, ID authenticity checks and ID information extraction, while also baking in privacy protections that allow individual users to control their own identity data.

A demo video of the verification product shows a user being asked to record a FaceID-style 3D selfie by tilting their face in front of a webcam and then scanning an ID document, also by holding it up to the camera.

On the developer front, the flagship claim is Passbase’s identity verification product can be deployed to a website or mobile app in less than three minutes, with just seven lines of code.

Co-founder Mathias Klenk tells TechCrunch the system architecture draws on ideas from public-private key encryption, blockchain and biometric authentication — and is capable of completing “zero-knowledge authentications.”

In practice, that means a website visitor or app user can prove who they are (or how old they are) without having to share their full identity document with the service.

Klenk, a Stanford alum, says the founding team pivoted to digital identity in the middle of last year after their earlier startup — a crypto exchange management app called Coinance — ran into regulatory difficulties right after they’d decided to go full-time on the project.

He says they got a call from Apple, in August 2018, informing them Coinance had been pulled from the AppStore. The issue was they needed to be able to comply with know your customer (KYC) requirements as regulators cracked down on the risk of cryptocurrency being used for money laundering.

“With a quick call to our lawyers, we learned it was because we now needed to complete strong identity verification with every exchange integrated for every user in order to fulfill our KYC obligations,” explains Klenk. “This is how our pivot to Passbase began.”

The experience with Coinance convinced Klenk and his two co-founders — Felix Gerlach (an ex-Rocket Internet product manager/designer) and Dave McGibbon (previously an investment associate at GoogleX) — that there was a “huge opportunity” to build a “full-stack” identity verification tool that was easy for engineering teams to integrate. So it sounds like it’s thinking along similar lines to Estonian startup Veriff.

Klenk claims current vendors “take weeks to integrate and charged thousands of dollars from the start.” And in classic startup formula fashion, he too condenses the idea down to: “Stripe for Identity Verification” — arguing that: “In order to solve digital identity verification, you cannot only streamline the identity verification process, you need to enable identity ownership and reuse across different services.”

At the same time, Klenk says the founding team saw a growing need for a privacy-focused identity verification tool — to “protect people’s information by design and help companies collect only the information they need.”

On this he freely cites Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation as an inspiring force. (“GDPR is built into the DNA of this product,” is the top-line claim.)

“Companies gain access to users’ information in a secure enclave, and avoid the dangers of getting hacked and leaking sensitive information,” says Klenk, describing the system architecture for verification as the core IP of the business.

They’re in the process of filing patents for the “developed technology,” working with two technical advisors, he adds. 

Passbase’s verification stack itself involves modular pieces so that it can adapt to changing threats, as Klenk tells it.

The startup is partnering with service providers for various verification components. Though he says it also has in-house computer vision experts who have built its anti-spoofing and liveness detection.

“This will always be an arms race against the latest spoofing tactics. We plan to stay ahead of the curve by introducing multi-factor authentication techniques and partnering with the best technology providers,” he adds on that.

He says they’re also working with a U.S.-based security company and other security experts to test the robustness and security of their system on an ongoing basis, adding: “We are planning to obtain all required certifications to ensure the security of our system e.g. ISO, Fido.”

Passbase’s product is currently in a closed beta with more than 200 companies signed up to its early access program.

Five have been “handpicked and onboarded” for a closed pilot — and Klenk says it’s now running tests and figuring out final requirements for an open beta launch planned for the middle of this year.

“Our early customers are mostly trust-based marketplaces (like an Airbnb),” he tells TechCrunch. “We are adding features such as PEP, OFAC and others over the next month to allow us to also service the mobility space, age-restricted products and eventually online banking and fintechs with KYC obligations.”

The startup’s first tranche of investor funding will be used for building out its core tech and mobile apps — while also “delighting our first clients with our B2B solution, getting traction, nailing product market fit,” as Klenk puts it.

He emphasizes that they’re also keen to nail a healthy startup culture from the get-go — saying that building “an exciting and inclusive place to work” is a priority. (“Since many high-growth startups dropped the priority for this in order for growth. We want to get this right from the beginning.”)

On the competitive front, Passbase is certainly driving into a noisy arena with no shortage of past effort and current players touting identity and digital verification services — albeit, all that activity underlines the high demand level for robust online verification.

Demand that’s likely to rise as more policymakers and governments wake up to the risks and challenges posed by online fakes — and prepare to regulate internet firms.

Discussing the competitive landscape, Klenk name-checks Jumio, Onfido and Veriff in the identity verification space, though he argues Passbase’s “developer-focused go-to-market and focus on creating digital identity” creates a different set of incentives which he also claims “allow us to get really creative on price and auxiliary offerings.”

“Our competition cares about price x volume. We care about creating a robust and secure network of trusted user-owned digital identities,” he suggests.

On the digital identity front he points to Civic, Verimi and Authenteq as being focused on “digital and self-sovereign identity,” though he says they have “tended” to take a B2C approach versus Passbase’s “full-stack” developer offering, which he claims is “immediately useful to a large market of players.”

There’s clearly plenty still to play for where digital identity is concerned. It remains a complex and challenging problem that loops in all sorts of entities, touchpoints and responsibilities.

But add privacy considerations into the mix and Passbase’s hope is that, by going the extra mile to build a zero-knowledge architecture, it can become a key player.

Breedr raises £2M led by LocalGlobe for its livestock data and trading platform

Breedr, a U.K. startup that wants to help farmers make better use of their livestock data to improve profitability, has raised £2.2 million in funding.

The seed round is led by London-based LocalGlobe, with participation from Mons Investment and a number of angel investors. They include Ian Hogarth, Darren Shapland and Jonathan McKay. The company was previously backed by Forward Partners and Gumtree founder Michael Pennington, which both followed on.

Founded in early 2018 by Ian Wheal and later joined by co-founder Claire Lewis — both of whom grew up on a farm — Breedr aims to bring the livestock industry into the digital age. The company provides farmers with an app to lets them capture data on their livestock and then use that data to improve the efficiency of their farms and help ensure that they can sell the animals at the most optimum time and price.

This ranges from understanding which sires result in the most profitable offspring, to predicting the date of peak profit for each animal. More broadly, Breedr says that farmers using the app can benefit from a “measurable increase in profitability,” while also reducing the environmental impact and waste caused by overfeeding or poor breeding decisions.

“The current market for livestock operates the same way it has for centuries,” Wheal tells TechCrunch. “Most trading is completed with manual processes and at the last minute, with very little visibility for retailers, processors and buyers up and down the supply chain.”

This lack of visibility generates two main problems within the industry. The first is that too much guesswork leads to a mismatch in supply and demand. Unlike industries that use “just in time” manufacturing, Wheal says that in some parts of the world processors do not know on a Friday if enough animals will be available the following Monday.

The second problem is that farmers aren’t able to accurately buy, grow and sell animals on the metrics that drive the most value for their farms. By analysing profitability of individual animals, Breedr has already been able to demonstrate that the top 20 percent of profit is often wiped out by the bottom 20 percent of poor-performing animals.

Linked to the startup’s data play is the Breedr marketplace, which uses the same livestock data to improve traceability and help farmers sell their livestock to meat processors and retailers. It is also ultimately where the startup will generate revenue by charging a small transaction fee and potentially upselling other financial products in the future, such as insurance or financing.

“Our data and trading platform is moving the industry from trading on how things look to the actual data that drives commercial return to the industry,” adds Wheal. “[We enable] farmers to utilise data to differentiate their livestock to customer requirements rather than seed the market as a commodity. Suppliers can for the first time have visibility of supply to buy animals at specification, and retailers can plan promotions and build premium brands based on a trusted supply chain.”

Meanwhile, in addition to the company’s seed round, Breedr has been given a grant from Innovate UK, the U.K.’s innovation agency, to lead a consortium developing a “Smart Contracts” system for the meat and livestock sector. Working with farming groups, Imperial College London and Dunbia (one of Europe’s largest processors of red meat), it plans to use blockchain or distributed ledger technology (DLT) to capture the flows of data and transactions between multiple parties within the livestock industry.

Wattpad gains strategic investment from Times Bridge to further expand in India

Wattpad is further expanding into Asia with a new partnership and undisclosed strategic investment from Times Bridge, the global investment arm of the Times Group in India. The deal aims to help the storytelling community establish a larger presence in the country where it already counts over 2.6 million monthly users who have shared more than 4 million stories to date, it says.

Similar to its recent partnership with entertainment partner Huayi Brothers Korea, the deal with Times Bridge is also focused on turning more Wattpad stories into books, TV shows, movies, and other digital projects in the region.

This is an area where Wattpad has found some success. In the U.S., one of the stories on its platform became the Netflix teen hit “The Kissing Booth,” and other stories have become projects at Hulu, AwesomenessTV, eOne, Sony, SYFY, iflix, Universal Cable Productions (NBCU), and elsewhere. The company also just launched its own books division to better capitalize on bringing its online stories to print.

India has been a more recent focus for Wattpad, following its  $51 million raise from Tencent. Soon after, the company appointed its first Head of Asia for Wattpad Studios, Dexter Ong. And it also recently hired its first GM of India, Devashish Sharma, who has been working with local partners to turn its stories into movies, TV, digital and print in the region.

“Millions of Indian readers and writers have already found a home Wattpad,” said Sharma, in a statement. “Times Bridge and The Times Group have an unmatched media and entertainment portfolio, and connections with some of India’s most-respected authors and cultural figures. We’re excited to work together to create new opportunities for Indian storytellers,” he added.

Today, Wattpad’s app supports a number of local languages including Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Assamese, Marathi, and Oriya.

To find the stories that become popular, Wattpad relies on a combination of human curation and technology – the latter with its Story DNA machine learning system that helps to identify the standouts by deconstructing things like sentence structure, word use, grammar and other factors that contribute to popularity.

“We’re thrilled to work with Times Bridge expand our footprint in the region and create more opportunities for India’s rich literary community to tell their stories, reaching new audiences in India and around the world,” said Wattpad co-founder and CEO Allen Lau, in a statement.

Wattpad didn’t disclose Times Group’s investment. The firm has previously partnered with other tech companies in India, and has investments in Uber, Airbnb, Coursera, Houzz, MUBI, Smule, and others.

CXA, a health-focused digital insurance startup, raises $25M

CXA Group, a Singapore-based startup that helps make insurance more accessible and affordable, has raised $25 million for expansion in Asia and later into Europe and North America.

The startup takes a unique route to insurance. Rather than going to consumers directly, it taps corporations to offer their employees health flexible options. That’s to say that instead of rigid plans that force employees to use a certain gym or particular healthcare, a collection over 1,000 programs and options can be tailored to let employees pick what’s relevant or appealing to them. The ultimate goal is to bring value to employees to keep them healthier and lower the overall premiums for their employers.

“Our purpose is to empower personalized choices for better living for employees,” CXA founder and CEO Rosaline Koo told TechCrunch in an interview. “We use data and tech to recommend better choices.”

The company is primarily focused on China, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia where it claims to works with 600 enterprises including Fortune 500 firms. The company has over 200 staff, and it has acquired two traditional insurance brokerages in China to help grow its footprint, gain requisite licenses and its logistics in areas such as health checkups.

We last wrote about CXA in 2017 when it raised a $25 million Series B, and this new Series C round takes it to $58 million from investors to date. Existing backers include B Capital, the BCG-backed fund from Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, EDBI — the investment arm of the Singapore Economic Development Board — and early Go-Jek backer Openspace Ventures, and they are joined by a glut of big-name backers in this round.

Those new investors include a lot of corporates. There’s HSBC, Singtel Innov8 (of Singaporean telco Singtel), Telkom Indonesia MDI Ventures (of Indonesia telco Telkom), Sumitomo Corporation Equity Asia (Japanese trading firm) Muang Thai Fuchsia Ventures (Thailand-based insurance firm), Humanica (Thailand-based HR firm) and PE firm Heritas Venture Fund.

“There are additional insurance companies and strategic partners that we aren’t listing,” said Koo.

Rosaline Koo is founder and CEO of CXA Group

That’s a very deliberate selection of large corporates which is part of a new strategy to widen CXA audience.

The company had initially gone after massive firms — it claims to reach a collective 400,000 employees — but now the goal is to reach SMEs and non-Fortune 500 enterprises. To do that, it is using the reach and connections of larger service companies to reach their customers.

“We believe that banks and telcos can cross-sell insurance and banking services,” said Koo, who grew up in LA and counts benefits broker Mercer on her resume. “With demographic and work life event data, plus health data, we’re able to target the right banking and insurance services.

“We can help move them away from spamming,” she added. “Because we will have the right data to really target the right offering to the right person at the right time. No firm wants an agent sitting in their canteen bothering their staff, now it’s all digital and we’re moving insurance and banking into a new paradigm.”

The ultimate goal is to combat a health problem that Koo believes is only getting worse in the Asia Pacific region.

“Chronic disease comes here 10 years before anywhere else,” she said, citing an Emory research paper which concluded that chronic diseases in Asia are “rising at a rate that exceeds global increases.”

“There’s such a crying need for solutions, but companies can’t force the brokers to lower costs as employees are getting sick… double-digit increases are normal, but we think this approach can help drop them. We want to start changing the cost of healthcare in Asia, where it is an epidemic, using data and personalization at scale in a way to help the community,” Koo added.

Talking to Koo makes it very clear that she is focused on growing CXA’s reach in Asia this year, but further down the line, there are ambitions to expand to other parts of the world. Europe and North America, she said, may come in 2020.

HealthJoy raises $12.5M Series B to help employees make the most of their healthcare benefits

Healthcare in the United States is so complicated that even employees with good benefits might have a hard time navigating their options. HealthJoy wants to help with a health benefits platform that uses AI to answer questions. The Chicago-based startup announced today that it has raised $12.5 million in Series B funding led by U.S. Venture Partners, with participation from Epic Ventures and returning investors Chicago Ventures, Sidekick Ventures and its co-founders.

This brings HealthJoy’s total funding, including a $3 million Series A announced in August 2017, to $9 million. The company will use its Series B to double its team to 250 people over the next 10 months. It currently has about 200,000 users, grew by 610% last year and expects to grow by 250% this year. USVP general partner Jonathan Root will join HealthJoy’s board.

Launched in 2014 by Justin Holland and Doug Morse-Schindler, HealthJoy’s app helps its users manage claims, deductibles, their health savings accounts and prescriptions, in addition to guiding them through point solutions, or specific services offered by a single vendor as part of their benefits package. For example, it might direct members to a telemedicine provider. Holland, HealthJoy’s CEO, told TechCrunch in an email that last year, telemedicine utilization was 27.3 percent across the startup’s entire book of business. He added that telemedicine usually translates into about $450 to $500 in savings per visit by avoiding office visits, urgent care or trips to the emergency room.

As another example of how HealthJoy has helped users, Holland says one employee was spending more than $10,000 every month on maintenance drugs, but that amount was reduced over 90% through strategies including alternative medications, an international pharmacy program and manufacturer assistance. This saved the employee more than $1,000 in out-of-pocket costs and the employer $8,000.

Holland became interested in the health benefits space after he injured his knee while skiing and had to schedule an MRI scan. Since he hadn’t reached the deductible on his individual Affordable Care Act plan yet, Holland needed to pay for the scan out-of-pocket. Researching MRI pricing “took me down a rabbit hole of the incredibly complex and non-transparent world of healthcare pricing,” he said. “At the end of several days of work, I found that two nearly identical MRIs could vary in cost from $500 to $5,000. That pricing disparity in itself seemed like a big problem worth solving.”

Holland and Morse-Schindler already had successful startup exits on their resumes (including OpenInstall, which was acquired by AVG Technologies in 2012, and FreeCause, acquired by Rakuten in 2010). The two decided to tackle the challenge of improving how consumers experience the healthcare system. At first they focused on a direct-to-consumer model with individual health plans, but then pivoted to working with employers in early 2017.

“We found out that our focus on the member was just as applicable to employees and that with increasing deductibles, employees were anxious to become healthcare shoppers. Over 40% of healthcare is considered ‘shoppable,’” Holland said.

Other tech companies focused on improving the health benefits space from different angles include League, Lumity, Lyra Health and Spring Health. Holland views those companies are potential partners for HealthJoy.

“Typically, we are not selling against competitors, but rather selling against lack of utilization for single point solutions” by gathering all services into one platform to increase utilization. “Benefit administration platforms are vital to us from an operational perspective and entirely complementary.”

Airbnb agrees to acquire last-minute hotel-booking app HotelTonight

As Airbnb gears up for its big leap into the public markets, it’s expanding its accommodations platform to include more than just treehouses and quirky homes.

Today, the company has confirmed its intent to acquire HotelTonight, the developer of a hotel-booking application that lets travelers arrange last-minute accommodations. The deal was previously reported by The Wall Street Journal, which wrote in January that negotiations for the transaction had “gone cold.”

Airbnb is expected to complete an initial public offering as soon as this year, though co-founder and chief executive officer Brian Chesky has refrained from revealing a specific timeline. Like Uber, which plans to become the ultimate transportation company, Airbnb’s long-term ambition is to build an end-to-end travel platform complete with home sharing, hotel booking, business travel arrangements, experiences and more.

Airbnb declined to disclose terms of its HotelTonight acquisition. Once the deal is complete, the HotelTonight app and website will continue to operate independently, with co-founder and CEO Sam Shank reporting to Airbnb’s president of homes, Greg Greeley.

“We started HotelTonight because we knew people wanted a better way to book an amazing hotel room on-demand, and we are excited to join forces with Airbnb to bring this service to guests around the world,” Shank said in a statement. “Together, HotelTonight and Airbnb can give guests more choices and the world’s best boutique and independent hotels a genuine partner to connect them with those guests.”

Founded in 2010, San Francisco-based HotelTonight garnered a valuation of $463 million with a $37 million Series E funding in 2017, according to PitchBook. In total, the startup has raised $131 million in venture capital funding from Accel and Battery Ventures, which have participated in nearly every funding round for HotelTonight. Other early investors include Forerunner Ventures and First Round Capital.

Airbnb, for its part, was valued at $31 billion in 2017, with a $1 billion round. In January, Airbnb said it was profitable for the second consecutive year on an EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) basis.

HotelTonight offers discounts at hotels in the Americas, Europe and Australia. The company partners with hotels to offer un-sold rooms, catering to business travelers or those looking to make last-minute arrangements. The deal will make it easier for Airbnb users to book hotels without planning weeks or months in advance and will help Airbnb expand its community beyond short-term rental hosts and guests.

Airbnb introduced boutique hotels to its platform in early 2018 and has boasted its quick growth. In 2018, the business said it more than doubled the number of boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, hostels and resorts available. Airbnb’s business travel unit, Airbnb for Work, also had quick success. Launched in 2014, it now accounts for 15 percent of bookings. In total, Airbnb offers some 5 million places to stay in 191 countries.

Airbnb is kicking off 2019 with an acquisitive streak. In January, the company acquired Danish startup Gaest, a provider of a marketplace-style platform for people to post and book venues for meetings and other work-related events. The company again declined to pinpoint the price, though given Gaest had raised just $3.5 million in equity funding, the deal pales in comparison to Airbnb’s HotelTonight acquisition.

2019 is stacking up to be a particularly busy year for unicorn IPOs, some of which were likely delayed by a weeks-long government shutdown at the start of the year. Lyft, which recently unveiled its S-1, is poised to be the first billion-dollar company to exit to the stock markets, followed by Uber, Slack and Pinterest. Will Airbnb nudge its way into that lineup? We’ll see.

Airbnb acquires Denmark’s Gaest to expand in bookings for meetings and offsites

Meditation app Calm hits unicorn status with fresh $88 million funding

Calm, the meditation and wellness app that launched back in 2012, has today announced the close of an $88 million Series B financing with a valuation of $1 billion. (We have not been able to clarify whether the valuation was post- or pre-money.)

The funding was led by TPG Growth, with participation from CAA and existing investors Insight Venture Partners and Sound Ventures.

As meditation grows in popularity across the U.S. — the CDC says it tripled from 4.1 percent in 2012 to 14.2 percent in 2017 — Calm has capitalized on the craze by offering a suite of mindfulness and wellness tools, from guided meditation sessions to a product called “Sleep Stories,” via a subscription.

But Calm is also meeting stress where it lives. For example, the company invested $3 million in XPresSpa late in 2018. XPresSpa is a chain of quick spa stores found in airports. Meanwhile, Calm partnered with American Airlines to offer Calm content within AA’s in-flight entertainment system.

The growth of Calm is hard to deny. The company says that it has topped 40 million downloads worldwide, with more than one million paying subscribers. Calm also says that it quadrupled its revenue in 2018 — the company is now profitable — and is on track to do $150 million in annual revenue.

With the new financing, Calm’s total amount raised comes to $116 million.

Moreover, Calm’s valuation has soared from $250 million at the beginning of 2018, on the heels of a $27 million Series A, to now hit $1 billion.

Here’s what cofounder and co-CEO Michael Acton Smith had to say in a prepared statement:

We started as a meditation app, but have grown far beyond that. Our vision is to build one of the most valuable and meaningful brands of the 21st century. Health and wellness is a $4 trillion industry and we believe there is a big opportunity to build the leading company in this fast growing and important space.

Cofounder and co-CEO Alex Tew said that the funding will predominantly go towards international growth and increased investment in content.

HouseMyDog and Gudog merge in European dog walking roll up

Two dog walking and sitting startups are merging: HouseMyDog, the U.K.-headquartered online community that enables dog owners to find and book local trusted dog walkers and sitters, has agreed to join forces with Gudog, a similar offering based in Spain.

I understand that HouseMyDog and Gudog will continue to operate under their existing brands for now, but will consolidate into a single brand in “early 2019”. The combined companies also say the roll up creates what they claim is the largest platform of its kind in Europe.

Specifically, the merger seeds the combined platform with more than 25,000 approved dog sitters and walkers in over 70 cities across eight European countries, including the U.K., Ireland, Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Belgium.

Gudog is said to be the market leader in Spain and “growing rapidly” in France and Germany, adding to HouseMyDog’s strong foothold in other parts of Europe (HouseMyDog has offices in London, Dublin and Berlin). I’m also told that Gudog founder’s Loly Garrido and Javier Cuevas are staying on, taking up the company-wide roles of CPO and CTO respectively.

Meanwhile, the combined entity has a current headcount of 21, but expects to more than double revenue in 2019 and plans to grow the team to 35 to drive further European growth.

James McElroy, co-founder of HouseMyDog, comments: “We’ve had a close relationship with the Gudog team since we met in 2016. We admire what they have achieved and their passion for the community they have built. While today’s announcement makes strategic sense in combining our market share to accelerate our growth, we are also delighted to be working with a team that shares the same values and vision for the future of pet services in Europe”.