Pink Floyd drummer invests in Disciple Media, a platform aimed at the creator economy

Much has been made of the rise of the “creator economy” in the last year. With the Pandemic biting, millions flooded online, looking for a way to make money or promote themselves. The podcasting world has exploded, and with it platforms like Patreon, Clubhouse, and many others. But the thorny problem remains: Do you really own your audience as a creator, or does the platform own you? Companies like Mighty Networks, Circle and Tribe have tried to address this, giving creators greater control than social networks do over their audiences. Now another joins the fray.

Disciple Media bills itself as a SaaS platform to enable online creators to build community-led businesses. It’s now raised $6 million in funding in what it calls a ‘large Angel round’. It already claims to have garnered 2 million members and 500 communities since launching in 2018. Investors include Nick Mason (drummer in Pink Floyd), Sir Peter Michael (CEO of Cray Computers, founder of classic FM, Quantel and Cosworth Engineering), Rob Pierre (founder and CEO of Jellyfish), and Keith Morris (ex. chairman Sabre Insurance). It’s also announced a new Chairman, Eirik Svendsen, a expert in online marketplaces, SaaS and the publishing and media industry.

On its communities so far it has American country star and American Idol judge Luke Bryan, Gor Tex, and Body by Ciara. The platform is also available on iOS and Android and comes with community management tools, a CRM, and monetization options. The company claims its creators are now “earning millions in revenue each year.”

Benji Vaughan, Founder and CEO said: “The scale and rapid growth of the creator economy is extraordinary, and today that growth is being driven by entrepreneurial creators looking to build independent businesses outside of Youtube and the social networks.”

Vaughan, a Techno DJ and artist-turned-entrepreneur, says he came up with the idea after building similar communities for clients. He says the data created on Disciple communities is owned entirely by the host who built the network, “removing third-party risk and allowing insights to be actioned immediately”.

He told me: “We are moving from a position of effectively having ‘gig economy workers for social networks’ to owners of businesses who use social networks for their needs, not the other way around. Therefore, these people are starting to leave social networks to build their businesses and using social networks as marketing channels, as the rest of the world does. Once that migration happens where they move away from social networks as their prime platform, they need a hub where their data is going to get pulled together, they have an audience, which we see as a community that connects with itself as much as they do with the host.”

He thinks the equivalent of Salesforce or HubSpot in the creative economy is going to be a community platform: “That’s where they’re going to aggregate all the information about their valuable audience or community engagement. So, we are looking to, over time, to build out something very akin to what HubSpot sites they have for tech companies or SaaS businesses: a complete package, a complete platform to manage your engagement with your users, grow your user base and then convert that into revenue.”

Rob Pierre, founder and CEO Jellyfish said: “Creating and engaging with your community digitally has never been more important. Disciple allows you to do both of those things with a fully functional, feature-rich platform which requires very little upfront capital expenditure. It also provides numerous options to monetize your community.”

Pivot Bio rakes in $430M round D as modified microbes prove their worth in agriculture

Pivot Bio makes fertilizer — but not directly. Its modified microorganisms are added to soil and they produce nitrogen that would otherwise have to be trucked in and dumped there. This biotech-powered approach can save farmers money and time and ultimately may be easier on the environment — a huge opportunity that investors have plowed $430 million into in the company’s latest funding round.

Nitrogen is among the nutrients crops need to survive and thrive, and it’s only by dumping fertilizer on the soil and mixing it in that farmers can keep growing at today’s rates. But in some ways we’re still doing what our forebears did generations ago.

“Fertilizer changed agriculture — it’s what made so much of the last century possible. But it’s not a perfect way to get nutrients to crops,” said Karsten Temme, CEO and co-founder of Pivot Bio. He pointed out the simple fact that distributing fertilizer over a thousand — let alone ten thousand or more — acres of farmland is an immense mechanical and logistical challenge, involving many people, heavy machinery and valuable time.

Not to mention the risk that a heavy rain might carry off a lot of the fertilizer before it’s absorbed and used, and the huge contributions of greenhouse gases the fertilizing process produces. (The microbe approach seems to be considerably better for the environment.)

Yet the reason we do this in the first place is essentially to imitate the work of microbes that live in the soil and produce nitrogen naturally. Plants and these microbes have a relationship going back millions of years, but the tiny organisms simply don’t produce enough. Pivot Bio’s insight when it started more than a decade ago was that a few tweaks could supercharge this natural nitrogen cycle.

“We’ve all known microbes were the way to go,” he said. “They’re naturally part of the root system — they were already there. They have this feedback loop, where if they detect fertilizer they don’t make nitrogen, to save energy. The only thing that we’ve done is, the portion of their genome responsible for producing nitrogen is offline, and we’re waking it up.”

Other agriculture-focused biotech companies like Indigo and AgBiome are also looking at modifying and managing the plant’s “microbiome,” which is to say the life that lives in the immediate vicinity of a given plant. A modified microbiome may be resistant to pests, reduce disease or offer other benefits.

Illustration showing stages of modifying and deploying nitrogen-producing microbes.

Image Credits: Pivot Bio

It’s not so different from yeast, which as many know from experience works as a living rising agent. That microbe has been cultivated to consume sugar and produce a gas, which leads to the air pockets in baked goods. This microbe has been modified a bit more directly to continually consume the sugars put out by plants and put out nitrogen. And they can do it at rates that massively reduce the need for adding solid fertilizer to the soil.

“We’ve taken what is traditionally tons and tons of physical materials, and shrunk that into a powder, like baker’s yeast, that you can fit in your hand,” Temme said (though, to be precise, the product is applied as a liquid). “All of a sudden managing that farm gets a little easier. You free up the time you would have spent sitting in the tractor applying fertilizer to the field; you’ll add our product at the same time you’d be planting your seeds. And you have the confidence that if a rainstorm comes through in the spring, it’s not washing it all away. Globally about half of all fertilizer is washed away… but microbes don’t mind.”

Instead, the microbes just quietly sit in the soil pumping out nitrogen at a rate of up to 40 pounds per acre — a remarkably old-fashioned way to measure it (why not grams per square centimeter?), but perhaps in keeping with agriculture’s occasional anachronistic tendencies. Depending on the crop and environment, that may be enough to do without added fertilizers at all, or it might be about half or less.

Whatever the proportion provided by the microbes, it must be tempting to employ them, because Pivot Bio tripled its revenue in 2021. You might wonder why they can be so sure only halfway through the year, but as they are currently only selling to farmers in the northern hemisphere and the product is applied at planting time early in the year, they’re done with sales for the year and can be sure it’s three times what they sold in 2020.

The microbes die off once the crop is harvested, so it’s not a permanent change to the ecosystem. And next year, when farmers come back for more, the organisms may well have been modified further. It’s not quite as simple as turning the nitrogen production on or off in the genome; the enzymatic pathway from sugar to nitrogen can be improved, and the threshold for when the microbes decide to undertake the process rather than rest can be changed as well. The latest iteration, Proven 40, has the yield mentioned above, but further improvements are planned, attracting potential customers on the fence about whether it’s worth the trouble to change tactics.

The potential for recurring revenue and growth (by their current estimate they are currently able to address about a quarter of a $200 billion total market) led to the current monster D round, which was led by DCVC and Temasek. There are about a dozen other investors, for which I refer readers to the press release, which lists them in no doubt a very carefully negotiated order.

Temme says the money will go toward deepening and broadening the platform and growing the relationship with farmers, who seem to be hooked after giving it a shot. Right now the microbes are specific to corn, wheat and rice, which of course covers a great deal of agriculture, but there are many other corners of the industry that would benefit from a streamlined, enhanced nitrogen cycle. And it’s certainly a powerful validation of the vision Temme and his co-founder Alvin Tamsir had 15 years ago in grad school, he said. Here’s hoping that’s food for thought for those in that position now, wondering if it’s all worth it.

Brokrete wants to be the ‘Shopify of construction’, raises $3M seed led by Xploration Capital

With the pandemic affecting every aspect of life and industry, it’s no surprise that digitization is coming to construction fast. Construction suppliers are increasingly under the same pressure as other sectors to perform at a higher level. We’ve seen the rise of companies like Dozer, Reno Run and Toolbox try to address this, but often the model is closer to a vertical integration rather than something more open. Even with that, it’s still the case that to order concrete or bricks, construction companies have to negotiate each time, with simultaneous record keeping.

This is the argument of Brokrete, which bills itself as the “Shopify of construction.”

The startup has now raised a $3 million seed financing round led by Xploration Capital, which was joined by unnamed new strategic investors and existing investors. The startup graduated from Y Combinator’s winter cohort last year. Other strategic investors include Ronald Richardson, Avlok Kohli (CEO of AngeLlist Ventures) and the MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund (IAF). The funding will be used to expand in North American and European markets. Brokrete also launched Storefront, an e-commerce platform for suppliers in the construction industry.

Jordan Latourelle, the company’s founder and CEO said: “Construction today is a largely offline, $1.2 trillion market where legacy commerce is the norm. Brokrete’s Storefront product equips suppliers with the tools required to enhance their operations by orders of magnitude. I founded Brokrete after seeing an industry left behind by e-commerce giants. Now we are becoming the operating system for e-commerce in the construction industry, while staying easy and affordable at the same time.”

Brokrete says its platform is code-free, white-labeled, multi-channel and industry-specific to sell and manage orders online. Suppliers get an iOS and Android app for e-commerce to receive offline orders from more “traditional” customers. It then provides order management, payouts, dispatching, logistics and real-time delivery. There are also financial and operational ERP integrations. Brokrete claims to work with 1,000+ contractors and to have a 250+ supplier network.

Latourelle told me: “We’re giving the construction industry an opportunity to use it on a Shopify way, and create their own store. It’s like a branded storefront for suppliers.”

Eugene Timko, managing partner at Xploration Capital said: “Construction is one of the few remaining large industries with mostly undigitized supply chains. Historically the key problem was the lack of real-time access to actual stocks which prevented producers and distributors from going online. Now with Brokrete’s end-to-end solution, these businesses can not only sell through Brokrete’s marketplace but can also enable their own direct online channels. Similar to Shopify, this has allowed many thousands of previously offline businesses to start accepting orders online.”

This tool tells you if NSO’s Pegasus spyware targeted your phone

Over the weekend, an international consortium of news outlets reported that several authoritarian governments — including Mexico, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates — used spyware developed by NSO Group to hack into the phones of thousands of their most vocal critics, including journalists, activists, politicians and business executives.

A leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers of potential surveillance targets was obtained by Paris-based journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International and shared with the reporting consortium, including The Washington Post and The Guardian. Researchers analyzed the phones of dozens of victims to confirm they were targeted by the NSO’s Pegasus spyware, which can access all of the data on a person’s phone. The reports also confirm new details of the government customers themselves, which NSO Group closely guards. Hungary, a member of the European Union where privacy from surveillance is supposed to be a fundamental right for its 500 million residents, is named as an NSO customer.

The reporting shows for the first time how many individuals are likely targets of NSO’s intrusive device-level surveillance. Previous reporting had put the number of known victims in the hundreds or more than a thousand.

NSO Group sharply rejected the claims. NSO has long said that it doesn’t know who its customers target, which it reiterated in a statement to TechCrunch on Monday.

Researchers at Amnesty, whose work was reviewed by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, found that NSO can deliver Pegasus by sending a victim a link which when opened infects the phone, or silently and without any interaction at all through a “zero-click” exploit, which takes advantage of vulnerabilities in the iPhone’s software. Citizen Lab researcher Bill Marczak said in a tweet that NSO’s zero-clicks worked on iOS 14.6, which until today was the most up-to-date version.

Amnesty’s researchers showed their work by publishing meticulously detailed technical notes and a toolkit that they said may help others identify if their phones have been targeted by Pegasus.

The Mobile Verification Toolkit, or MVT, works on both iPhones and Android devices, but slightly differently. Amnesty said that more forensic traces were found on iPhones than Android devices, which makes it easier to detect on iPhones. MVT will let you take an entire iPhone backup (or a full system dump if you jailbreak your phone) and feed in for any indicators of compromise (IOCs) known to be used by NSO to deliver Pegasus, such as domain names used in NSO’s infrastructure that might be sent by text message or email. If you have an encrypted iPhone backup, you can also use MVT to decrypt your backup without having to make a whole new copy.

The Terminal output from the MVT toolkit, which scans iPhone and Android backup files for indicators of compromise. Image Credits: TechCrunch

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The toolkit works on the command line, so it’s not a refined and polished user experience and requires some basic knowledge of how to navigate the terminal. We got it working in about 10 minutes, plus the time to create a fresh backup of an iPhone, which you will want to do if you want to check up to the hour. To get the toolkit ready to scan your phone for signs of Pegasus, you’ll need to feed in Amnesty’s IOCs, which it has on its GitHub page. Any time the indicators of compromise file updates, download and use an up-to-date copy.

Once you set off the process, the toolkit scans your iPhone backup file for any evidence of compromise. The process took about a minute or two to run and spit out several files in a folder with the results of the scan. If the toolkit finds a possible compromise, it will say so in the outputted files. In our case, we got one “detection,” which turned out to be a false positive and has been removed from the IOCs after we checked with the Amnesty researchers. A new scan using the updated IOCs returned no signs of compromise.

Given it’s more difficult to detect an Android infection, MVT takes a similar but simpler approach by scanning your Android device backup for text messages with links to domains known to be used by NSO. The toolkit also lets you scan for potentially malicious applications installed on your device.

The toolkit is — as command line tools go — relatively simple to use, though the project is open source so it won’t be long before someone will surely build a user interface for it. The project’s detailed documentation will help you — as it did us.

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Rise Gardens grows with $9M Series A to help anyone be an indoor farmer

As more consumers embrace plant-based diets and sustainable food practices, Rise Gardens is giving anyone the ability to have a green thumb from the comfort of their own home.

The Chicago-based indoor, smart hydroponic company raised $9 million in an oversubscribed Series A round, led by TELUS Ventures, with existing investors True Ventures and Amazon Alexa Fund and new investor Listen Ventures joining in. The company has a total of $13 million in venture-backed investments since Rise was founded in 2017, founder and CEO Hank Adams told TechCrunch.

Though he began in 2017, Adams, who has a background in sports technology, said he spent a few years working on prototypes before launching the first products in 2019. Rise’s IoT-connected systems are designed to grow vegetables, herbs and microgreens year-round.

Customers can choose between three system levels and get started with their first garden for about $300.

There is a “kind of joyousness” in being able to grow something, but people are looking for assistance because they don’t want to get into a hobby that will become demanding or stressful, Adams said. As a result, Rise’s accompanying mobile app monitors water levels and plant progress, then alert users when it’s time to water, fertilize or care for their plants.

“People are paying attention to food, and they care about what they eat,” he added. “Then the global pandemic played a part in this, with people leaning into growing their own food.”

In fact, customers leaned into growing food so much that Rise Gardens saw its sales eclipse seven figures in 2020, and gardens sold out three times during the year. Customers purchased close to 100,000 plants and have harvested 50,000.

The company estimates it helped keep more than 2,000 pounds of food from being wasted and saved 250,000 gallons of water since launching in 2019.

The concept of an indoor farm is not new. Incumbents include AeroGarden, AeroGrow, which was acquired by Scotts-Miracle Gro last November, and Click & Grow. Rise is among a new crop of startups that have raised funds that include Gardyn.

However, Rise Gardens is differentiating itself from those competitors by making its gardens from powder-coated metals and glass and are designed to be a focal point in the room. It is also offering ways for people to experiment with their gardens.

“We wanted something that would be flexible because once you have mastered a hobby, you will get bored,” he added. “You can start at one level and they swap out tray lids to grow more densely. We have a microgreens kit you can add, or add plant supports for tomatoes and peppers. You can also build a trellis to vine snap peas.”

Adams will focus the Series A dollars into product development, inventory, manufacturing, expansion into new markets and building up the team, especially in the areas of customer service and marketing. Rise has about 25 employees and plans to bring on another eight this year.

In addition, Rise Gardens’ products will soon be available on Amazon — its first channel outside of its website. The company is also expanding into schools in what Adams calls “version 2.0” of the school garden.

When Rich Osborn, president and managing partner of TELUS Ventures, evaluated the indoor garden space, he told TechCrunch that Adams and his team rose to the top of the list because of their background, data experience and syndication with Amazon.

Not only was consumer demand there for these kinds of products, but the sustainability and social impact created from these kinds of investments couldn’t be overemphasized, he said.

Nishan Majarian, co-founder and CEO of TELUS Agriculture, said he sees a future where there is a spectrum of food growth, and crop management will be at the plant level.

“Ever since Climate Corp. was acquired by Monsanto, there has been a massive influx into agriculture to get to the next billion-dollar exit,” Majarian added. “Agrifood is the last segmented supply chain. Every crop is different, every market is different. That makes it local, complex and fertile soil — pun intended — for startups who get capital to solve those issues and scale.”