Coral raises $4.3M to build an at-home manicure machine

Coral is a company that wants to “simplify the personal care space through smart automation,” and they’ve raised $ 4.3 million to get it done. Their first goal? An at-home, fully automated machine for painting your nails. Stick a finger in, press down, wait a few seconds and you’ve got a fully painted and dried nail. More than once in our conversations, the team referred to the idea as a “Keurig coffee machine, but for nails.”

It’s still early days for the company. While they’ve got a functional machine (pictured above), they’re quite clear about it being a prototype.

As such, they’re still staying pretty hush hush about the details, declining to say much about how it actually works. They did tell me that it paints one finger at a time, taking about 10 minutes to go from bare nails to all fingers painted and dried. To speed up drying time while ensuring a durable paint job, it’ll require Coral’s proprietary nail polish — so don’t expect to be able to pop open a bottle of nail polish and pour it in. Coral’s polish will come in pods (so the Keurig comparison is particularly fitting), which the user will be able to buy individually or get via subscription. Under the hood is a camera and some proprietary computer vision algorithms, allowing the machine to paint the nail accurately without requiring manual nail cleanup from the user after the fact.

Also still under wraps — or, more accurately, not determined yet — is the price. While Coral co-founder Ramya Venkateswaran tells me that she expects it to be a “premium device,” they haven’t nailed down an exact price just yet.

While we’ve seen all sorts of nail painting machines over the years (including ones that can do all kinds of wild art, like this one we saw at CES earlier this year), Coral says its system is the only one that works without requiring the user to first prime their nails with a base coat or clear coat it after. All you need here is a bare fingernail.

Coral’s team is currently made up of eight people — mostly mechanical, chemical and software engineers. Both co-founders, meanwhile, have backgrounds in hardware; Venkateswaran previously worked as a product strategy manager at Dolby, where she helped launch the Dolby Conference Phone. Her co-founder, Bradley Leong, raised around $ 800,000 on Kickstarter to ship Brydge (one of the earliest takes on a laptop-style iPad keyboard) back in 2012 before becoming a partner at the seed-stage venture fund Tandem Capital. It was during some industrial hardware research there, he tells me, when he found “the innovation that this machine is based off of.”

Vankateswaran tells me the team has raised $ 4.3 million to date from CrossLink Capital, Root Ventures, Tandem Capital and Y Combinator . The company is part of Y Combinator’s ongoing Winter 2020 class, so I’d expect to hear more about them as this batch’s demo day approaches in March of next year.

So what’s next? They’ll be working on turning the prototype into a consumer-ready device, and plan to spend the next few months running a small beta program (which you can sign up for here.)

Gadgets – TechCrunch

Perlego raises $9M Series A for its textbook subscription service

Perlego, the textbook subscription service, has raised $ 9 million in Series A funding.

Backing the round is Charlie Songhurst, Dedicated VC, and Thomas Leysen (Chairman of Mediahuis and Umicore). Perlego’s existing investors including ADV, Simon Franks and Alex Chesterman also reinvested on a pro-rata basis.

London-based Perlego says the additional funding will be used to develop the next generation of Perlego’s “smarter learning platform,” including adding new features that simplify and enhance the learning experience, as well as content libraries in non-English languages to enable further expansion to “strategic” European markets beyond its U.K. roots.

Pitched as akin to a “Spotify for textbooks,” Perlego enables students, and also professionals, who now make up 30% of users, to access textbooks on a subscription basis.

It houses over 300,000 eBooks, from over 2,300 publishers, and the service is cross-device — via the web and iOS and Android apps — and available in multiple languages. Along with U.K. publishers, Perlego now also includes content from key publishers in Germany, the Nordics and Italy.

For the students, the draw is obvious: text books are increasingly expensive to purchase, and public libraries are under resourced. In the U.K., Perlego gives readers access to its entire digital library for £12 per month. As long as the needed text books are available on the service, that is infinitely more affordable.

For publishers, Perlego claims to offer a distribution method that stems revenue losses caused by piracy and the buoyant used text book market — hence the comparison to Spotify’s positioning.

Publishers such as Pearson, Wiley and Sage are already on board, Perlego says it is seeing a 116% increase in new subscribers month-on-month, though it isn’t breaking out subscriber numbers.


Android – TechCrunch

Sim Shagaya’s uLesson African edtech startup raises $3.1M

Nigerian founder Sim Shagaya is back with a new startup —  uLesson — that has raised a $ 3.1 million seed round led by TLcom Capital.

The venture is integrating mobile platforms, SD cards, culture-specific curriculum and a network of tutors to bridge educational gaps for secondary school students in Nigeria and broader Africa.

Founded in 2019 by Shagaya — who also founded Nigerian e-commerce startup Konga and ad venture E-Motion — uLesson is headquartered in Lagos with a production studio in Jos.

The startup has been in development phase and plans to go to market in February 2020 in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Gambia — Shagaya told TechCrunch on a call.

“We’re targeting Anglophone West Africa…for a market of effectively 300 million people,” he said.

On product demand, Shagaya notes the priority placed on education across West African households vs. structural deficiencies — such as student teacher ratios as high as 1:70 in countries such as Nigeria.

“We have this massive gap…We’re adding more babies in this country nominally than all of Western Europe…Even if the [Nigerian] government was super efficient, it couldn’t catch up with the educational needs of the young people that are coming up,” Shagaya said.

To address this, uLesson will offer an app-based home education kit for students with an up-front yearly subscription price of around $ 70 and the option to pay as you go. The startup’s product pack will contain a dongle, SD card, and a set of headphones to connect to Android devices.

Curriculum on the uLesson program will include practice tests and tailored content around math, physics, chemistry, and biology. The venture has already created 3000 animated videos for core subjects, according to Shagaya.

To leverage high android mobile penetration in Africa — and minimize data-streaming costs — uLesson content and performance assessment will come via a combination of streaming and SD cards.

Parents and students can connect online temporarily to update the app and sync curriculum and results, while operating off-line for the bulk of lessons.

Shagaya likened the use of SD cards to the old Netflix model of sending and returning DVD’s by mail, prior to faster and more affordable internet service in the U.S.

The uLesson program will also package a human component. The startup plans to deploy a network of counselors in major distribution areas to instruct on how to use app and follow lesson plans.

uLesson is to be a supplement to secondary school education and a more affordable and effective alternative to private tutors, explained Shagaya.

After taking uLesson to market in Africa’s most populous nation — Nigeria — and other countries in the region, Shagaya and team plan to adapt the product for a future East Africa launch.

In both Nigeria and Kenya uLesson will face competition from existing ventures. Edtech in Africa doesn’t have as many companies (or as much VC funding) as leading startup sectors fintech and e-commerce, but there are a number of players.

Source: Briter Bridges

Nigeria has online edu startups, such as Tuteria. Feature phone based student learning company Eneza Education has scaled in Kenya and expanded to Ghana.

uLesson could count having Shagaya as CEO as one of its advantages in the edtech space. The venture marks the founder’s return to the startup scene after a hiatus. Shagaya earned a Harvard MBA and worked for Google before repatriating to Nigeria to found several digital companies.

His best known venture, Konga, went head to head with online retailer Jumia in pioneering e-commerce for Nigeria and Africa. Konga was sold in a distressed acquisition in 2018.

Shagaya successfully exited his digital advertising venture E-Motion this year, after it was purchased by Loatsad Promedia.

The Nigerian tech entrepreneur confirmed he’s redirected some of that windfall into uLesson’s $ 3.1 million seed-round.  As part of TLcom’s lead on the investment, partners Omobola Johnson and Ido Sum will join uLesson’s board, Sum confirmed to TechCrunch.

For his part, Sim Shagaya underscores the for-profit status of his new startup, while noting it carries greater meaning for him than past commercial endeavors.

“If you drill down to it all, all our problems in Africa are tied this problem of education…If we do this right, our impact will be huge. For me this is probably the most important work I’ll do,” he said.


Android – TechCrunch

Shine Bathroom raises $750K for a smart home add-on that flushes away your toilet doldrums

One ongoing theme in the world of smart homes has been the emergence of gadgets and other tools that can turn “ordinary” objects and systems into “connected” ones — removing the need to replace things wholesale that still essentially work, while still applying technology to improve the ways that they can be used.

In the latest development, a smart home startup from Santa Barbara called Shine Bathroom has raised $ 750,000 in seed funding to help build and distribute its first product: an accessory that you attach to an existing toilet to make it a “smart toilet.”

It’s a dirty business, but someone had to do it.

Shine’s immediate goal is to flush away the old, ecologically unfriendly way of cleaning toilets; and to provide the tools to detect when something is not working right in the plumbing, even helping you fix it without calling out a plumber.

The longer-term vision is to apply technology and science to rethink the whole bathroom to put less strain on our natural resources, and to use it in a way that lines up with what we want to do as consumers, using this first product to test that market.

“Bathrooms are evolving from places where we practice basic hygiene to where we prepare ourselves for the day,” said Chris Herbert, the founder and CEO of Shine. “Wellness and self care will be happening more in the home, and this is a big opportunity.”

Intro

Shine’s first injection of money is coming from two VCs also based in Southern California: Entrada Ventures (like Shine also in Santa Barbara), and Mucker Capital, an LA fund specifically backing startups not based in Silicon Valley (others in its current porfolio include Naritiv, Everipedia and Next Trucking).

The Shine Bathroom Assistant, as the first product is called, is currently being sold via Indiegogo starting at $ 99, with the first products expected to ship in February 2020.

It’s a fitting challenge for a hardware entrepreneur: toilets are a necessary part of our modern lives, but they are unloved, and they haven’t really been innovated for a long time.

Herbert admitted to me (and I’m sure Freud would have something to say here, too) that this has been something of a years-long obsession, stretching back to when he made a trip to Japan as a sophomore in high school and was struck by how companies like Toto were innovating in the business, with fancy, all-cleaning (and all-singing and dancing) loos.

“We thought to ourselves, how could we make a better bathroom?” he said. “We decided that the answer was through software. When you take a thesis like that, you can see lots of opportunity.”

Sized similar to an Amazon Echo or other connected home speaker, Shine’s toilet attachment is battery operated and comes in three parts: a water vessel, a sensor and spraying nozzle that you place inside your toilet bowl, and a third sensor fitted with an accelerometer that you attach to the main line that fills up the toilet’s tank. The vessel is filled with tap water (which you replace periodically).

That water is passed through a special filter that electrolyzes it (by sending a current through the water) and then sprays it with every flush to clean and deodarize. Shine claims this spraying technique is five times as powerful as traditional deodarizing spray, and as powerful as bleach, but without the harsh chemicals: the water converts back into saline after it does its work. (And to be clear, there are no soaps or other detergents involved.)

Alongside the cleaning features, the second part of the bathroom assistant is Sam, an AI on your phone. Linked up to the hardware and sensors, Sam identifies common toilet problems, such as leaks that trickle out hundreds of gallons of water, by measuring variations in vibrations, and when it does, it sends out a free repair kit to fix it yourself.

Users can also link up Sam to work with Alexa to order the machine to clean, check water levels, and do more in future.

AlexaAskSam

The solution of monitoring vibrations is notable for how it links up with a past entrepreneurial life for Herbert and some of his team.

Herbert was one of two co-founders of Trackr, a Tile-like product that also played on the idea of making “dumb” objects smart: Trackr’s basic product was a small fob with Bluetooth inside it that could be attached to keys, wallets, bags and more to find their location when they were misplaced.

The company’s longer term goals extended into the area of IoT and how “dumb” machines could be made smarter by attaching sensors to them to monitor vibrations and sounds to determine how they were working — concepts that never materialised at Trackr but have found a new life at Shine.

On the other hand, Trackr is a cautionary tale about how a good idea can be inspiring, but not always enough.

The startup in its time raised more than $ 70 million, from a set of investors that included Amazon, Revolution, NTT, the Foundry Group and more. Ultimately, the basic concept was too commoditized (trackers are a dime a dozen on Amazon), Tile emerged as the market leader among the independents — a position it’s used to evolve its product — but even so, that’s before we’ve even determined if there really is a profitable business to be had here, and if platform companies potentially make their move to upset it in a different way.

Eventually, Trackr’s team (including Herbert) scattered and a new leadership team came in and rebranded to Adero . Now, even that team is gone, with the CEO Nate Kelly and others decamping to Glowforge. Multiple attempts to contact the company have been unanswered, although from what we understand, it’s not down for the count just yet. (Watch this space.)

“There is still something there, and I hope they can do something,” Herbert said of his previous startup.  

Meanwhile, he and several of his ex-Trackr colleagues have now turned their attention to a new shiny challenge, the toilet and the bigger bathroom where it sits, and investors want in.

“We were impressed by Shine’s vision for a bathroom to better prepare us for our day head and saw a massively overlooked opportunity in the bathroom space” said Taylor Tyng from Entrada Ventures.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

Afore Capital raises second pre-seed venture capital fund

As expectations from seed investors intensify, a new stage of investment has established itself earlier in the venture-backed company life cycle.

Known as “pre-seed” investing, one of the first legitimate outfits to double down on the stage has refueled, closing its second fund on $ 77 million.

Afore Capital’s sophomore fund is likely the largest pool of venture capital yet to focus exclusively on pre-seed companies, or pre-product businesses seeking their first bout of institutional capital. In many cases, a pre-seed startup may even be “pre-idea,” yet to fully incorporate.

Afore invests between $ 500,000 and $ 1 million in nascent startups. As it kicks off its second fund, founding partners Anamitra Banerji and Gaurav Jain tell TechCrunch they plan to lead all of their investments.

We have the opportunity to build a firm that defines a category. – Afore founding partner Anamitra Banerji

Standouts in Afore’s existing portfolio include the no-fee credit card company Petal — which has raised roughly $ 50 million to date — mobile executive coaching business BetterUp, childcare information platform Winnie and Modern Health, a B2B mental wellness platform.

Afore portfolio companies have raised more than $ 360 million in follow-on funding, with an aggregate market cap of $ 1.5 billion, Jain, the founding product manager at Android Nexus and former principal at Founder Collective, tells TechCrunch. “These are high-quality teams with high-quality projects and ideas.”

Jain and Banerji — a founding product manager at Twitter and former partner at Foundation Capital — began raising capital for Afore’s $ 47 million debut fund in 2016. Since then, the landscape for seed investing has shifted. Early-stage investors have begun funneling larger sums of capital to standout teams at the seed, while billion-dollar venture capital funds set aside capital for serial entrepreneurs working on their next big idea. As a result, deal sizes have swelled and deal count has shrunk simultaneously.

“Pre-seed has replaced seed in the venture ecosystem,” Banerji tells TechCrunch. “We saw this early as a result of both of us having been at funds. We knew that this was going to be a massive category just like seed was before it. Now we think it’s clearly here to stay and we have the opportunity to build a firm that defines a category.”

Since launching the firm, the pair explain they’ve noticed more and more founders explicitly stating that they are in the market for a pre-seed round, a statement you wouldn’t have heard as recently as two years ago.

This is a result of Afore’s efforts to legitimize the stage through investments and programming, including its annual Pre-Seed Summit. Though Afore is certainly not the only VC fund focused on the earliest stage of startup investing — other firms deploying capital at the stage include Hustle Fund, which closed an $ 11.8 million debut fund last year, plus the $ 20 million immigrant-focused pre-seed fund Unshackled Ventures and the predominant seed and pre-seed stage firm Precursor Ventures, which announced a $ 31 million second fund earlier this year.

In the past year alone, more than $ 200 million has been dedicated to the pre-seed stage, with at least nine new funds launching to nurture early-stage startups.

More and more firms are setting up shop at the pre-seed stage as competition at the seed stage reaches new heights. As we’ve previously reported, monster funds are becoming increasingly active at the seed stage, muscling seed funds out of top deals with less dilutive offers. While the pre-seed stage, for the most part, remains protected from competition at the later stage, these firms still have to compete.

“Nobody wants to lose sight of a deal, so they are willing to toss small amounts of capital very early behind interesting founders,” Jain said. “But frankly, we aren’t sure if it’s good for a company to raise that much capital that early in their life cycle.”

Working with a fund that isn’t passionate about what you are building or familiar with the plights of the stage of your business is terrible for founders, adds Jain. Pairing with a focused fund like Afore, on the other hand, allows for “incentive alignment.”

Afore invests across all industries, preferring to back startups in categories “before they are categories.”

“What we are looking for is deep authenticity and passion around the product they are building,” says Banerji. “Ideas on their own aren’t enough. Founder resumes on their own aren’t enough. While we do care about all of those aspects, we get crazy about their clarity of thought in the short term.”

“We don’t take the point of view of ‘here is some money, it’s OK to lose it,’ ” he adds. “For us to invest, the founder must be all in. And we generally don’t invest in celebrity founders; we are going after the underdog founder.”


Android – TechCrunch