The Silicon Valley exodus continues

For a long time, it was the norm for founders to haul their hardware to the 3000 block of Sand Hill Road, where the venture capitalists of “Silicon Valley” would be awaiting their pitches. Today, many of the investors that touted the exclusivity of “The Valley” have moved north to San Francisco, where they have better access to top entrepreneurs.

Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley institution and to many the lifeblood of the startups and venture capital ecosystem, is the latest to pack up shop. YC, which invests $150,000 for 7 percent equity in a few hundred startups per year, is currently searching for a space in SF to operate its accelerator program, sources close to YC confirm to TechCrunch, because the majority of YC’s employees and its portfolio founders reside in the city.

Founded in 2005, YC’s roots are in Mountain View, California. In its first four years, YC offered programs in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Mountain View before opting in 2009 to focus exclusively on The Valley. In late 2013, as more and more of its partners and portfolio companies were establishing themselves in SF, YC opened a satellite office in the city in what would be the beginning of its journey northbound.

The small satellite office, used to support SF-based staff and provide portfolio companies resources and workspace, is located in Union Square. The fate of YC’s Mountain View office is unclear.

YC’s move north will be the latest in a series of small changes that, together, point to a new era for the accelerator. Approaching its 15th birthday, YC announced in September it was changing up the way it invests. No longer would it seed startups with $120,000 for 7 percent equity, it would give startups an additional 30,000 to cover the expenses of getting a business off the ground and it would admit a whole lot more companies.

YC began mentoring its largest cohort of companies to date in late 2018. The astonishing 200-plus group in its winter 2019 batch is more than 50 percent larger than the 132-team cohort that graduated in spring 2018. To accommodate the truly gigantic group at YC Demo Days later this month (March 18 and 19), YC has moved to a new venue, SF’s Pier 48. Historically, YC Demo Days were hosted at the Computer History Museum near its home in Mountain View.

YC has also ditched “Investor Day,” which is typically an opportunity for investors to schedule meetings with startups that just completed the accelerator program. YC writes that the decision came “after analyzing its effectiveness.” On top of that, rumors suggest YC is planning to put an end to Demo Days. Other accelerators, AngelPad for example, put a stop to the tradition last year after realizing demo day was more of a stress to startup founders than a resource. Sources close to YC, however, tell TechCrunch these rumors are categorically false.

YC isn’t the first accelerator to ditch its Silicon Valley digs. 500 Startups, a smaller yet still prolific accelerator, opened an SF satellite office the same year as YC, and in 2018, the nine-year-old program made the decision to permanently relocate to SF. Venture capital firms, too, have realized the opportunities are larger in SF than on Sand Hill Road.

The transition from the peninsula to the city began around 2012, when VC heavyweights like Uber and Twitter-backer Benchmark opened an office in SF’s mid-market neighborhood. Months later, 47-year-old Kleiner Perkins, an investor in Stripe and DoorDash, opened the doors to its new workplace in SF’s South Park neighborhood.

Around that same time a whole bunch of firms followed suit: Shasta Ventures, Norwest Venture Partners, Accel, GV, General Catalyst and NEA opened SF shops, to name a few. Many of these firms, Benchmark, Kleiner and Accel, for example, held onto their Silicon Valley locations. Firms like True Ventures and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund planted stakes in SF years prior. Both firms have operated SF offices since 2005; True Ventures, for its part, has managed a Palo Alto office from the get-go, as well.

“When we first started, it was [expected] that it would be maybe 60-40 Peninsula to the city; it’s actually turned out to be 80-20 SF to The Valley,” True Ventures co-founder Phil Black told TechCrunch. “For us, it was important to be near our customer: the founder. It’s important for us to be in and around where founders are doing their things.”

The transition out of The Valley is ongoing. Other VC funds are still in the process of opening their first SF offices as more partners beg for shorter commutes. Khosla Ventures, for example, is currently searching for an SF headquarters.

Silicon Valley real estate will likely remain a hot — or warm, at least — commodity, however. Why? Because long-time investors have lives established in that part of the bay, where they’ve built homes in well-kept, affluent cities like Woodside, Atherton and Los Altos.

Still, Y Combinator’s move highlights an increasingly adopted mantra: Silicon Valley isn’t the goldmine it used to be. For the best deals and greatest access to entrepreneurs, SF takes the cake — for now, that is. But with rising rents and a changing attitude toward geographically diverse founders, how long SF will remain the destination for top talent is an entirely different question.

Wefox Group, the Berlin-based insurance tech startup, raises $125M Series B led by Mubadala

Wefox Group, the Berlin-based insurtech startup behind the consumer-facing insurance app and carrier One and the insurance platform Wefox, has raised $125 million in Series B funding. Notably, the round is led by Abu Dhabi government-owned Mubadala Ventures (which is also an LP in SoftBank’s Vision Fund) and is the first investment from Mubadala’s newly created European Investment Fund. Chinese investor Creditease also participated.

The investment, which Wefox Group says is the first tranche in the Series B round, will be used for expansion into the European broker market. The German company will also grow its product and engineering teams, specifically in relation to applying “advanced data analytics” to realise Wefox’s vision for an all-in-one insurance platform that places personalisation at the heart of how various insurance coverage is sold and delivered.

Wefox’s existing investors include Target Global, Salesforce Ventures, Seedcamp, Idinvest and Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher’s investment vehicle Sound Ventures. The startup raised $28 million in Series A funding in late 2016.

In a call with Wefox Group co-founder and CEO Julian Teicke, he disclosed that Wefox has grown its revenues to around $40 million since being founded in 2014. The company now serves more than 1,500 brokers and more than 400,000 customers, making it “Europe’s number one insurtech platform.”

As it exists today, Wefox Group consists of two main products and subsidiaries: Wefox, and One.

Wefox is a platform that connects insurance providers, brokers and customers in an attempt to drag the insurance industry into the digital age. Rather than bypass human brokers entirely, Wefox lets independent brokers on-board their existing customers onto the platform to help deliver a better experience and more easily manage their clients’ coverage.

Efficiencies are achieved through a degree of automation, helping a broker scale the admin side of their business while also ensuring customers get the most appropriate coverage. From a consumer’s perspective, the Wefox app and website also acts as a “digital” wallet, where they can store details of the various insurance coverage to which they have subscribed.

Teicke says that about 80 percent of customers on the Wefox platform come via brokers. The remaining 20 percent sees customers sign-up direct. In this scenario, Wefox effectively acts as a lead generation or matching service for local brokers.

One is a direct-to-consumer fully digital insurance provider, offering various personal insurance coverage — and is only one of multiple insurance providers that reside on the Wefox platform and can be recommended by brokers. Teicke says it is also modular in design, letting customers select areas of coverage and essentially plugging in additional coverage based on their needs and appetite for risk at any given time. This includes pioneering the use of IoT and other data, customer permitting, to make insurance coverage proactive rather than reactive.

“The modular, timestamp and IoT triggered product design will be the role model for all insurance incumbents,” says Teicke. Related to this, Wefox Group plans to make the underlying technology of One available to other insurance providers so they too can plug proactive insurance provision into the Wefox platform, based on specific cohorts, scenarios and specialist coverage.

Ultimately, the grand vision and big bet — and no doubt what attracted such large amounts of capital into this Series B round — is that insurance will transition to a platform play, fueled by responsibly harnessing various types of data. The will see a platform exist to deliver the right coverage at the right time from a multitude of providers rather than the outdated and disparate model that exists today.

“Our hypothesis is that insurance will be massively impacted by the IoT data revolution,” says Teicke. “Insurers will have access to an exponentially grown number of real-time variables in order to price insurance products in real time. This trend will change insurance from a pure financial service to a service that offers proactive advice to reduce risk and consists of a financial service component only as an add-on to the core business model.”

Meanwhile, the new round of funding draws a line under a particularly tough period for Wefox Group after it was threatened with a lawsuit by New York-based insurance platform Lemon. The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court Southern District of NY, alleged that Wefox reverse-engineered Lemonade to create One, and infringed Lemonade’s intellectual property. Ultimately, however, the dispute panned out to be a “much ado about nothing,” with Lemonade quietly dropping the lawsuit a few months later.

IDC: Apple led wearables market in 2018, with 46.2M of the total 172.2M devices shipped

Apple devices continue to lead the wearables market, according to a new report from IDC out today, which claimed the Cupertino-based company shipped a total of 46.2 million wearables for the year. The firm also reported the worldwide market for wearable devices grew 31.4 percent during the fourth quarter of 2018, to reach 59.3 million units shipped, while shipments for the year grew 27.5 percent for a total of 172.2 million. Apple retained its No. 1 position in wearables again in Q4, with 16.2 million wearables shipped — 10.4 million of which were Apple Watches, the report said.

Smartwatches together grew 54.3 percent in 2018, and accounted for 29.8 percent of all wearables. Apple Watches accounted for nearly half that market, the report said.

IDC forecasts that Apple’s growth in wearables will continue, thanks to a strong start for the newer Apple Watch Series 4.

In addition, IDC noted it recently revised its “ear-worn” category of wearables to include wireless headphones that allow users to call upon a smart assistant through either a touch of a button or hot-word detection. That means devices like Apple’s AirPods, Google’s Pixel Buds, Bose’s QC35II and others are now being counted among the wearables category.

Much of the growth in wearables was also attributed to the increasing number of these sorts of ear-worn devices, like Apple AirPods.

In Q4, for example, ear-worn devices grew 66.4 percent from the year-ago quarter to capture at 21.9 percent market share.

The firm said the growth was due to a combination of factors, including the increasing popularity of smart assistants and the ditching of the smartphone’s headphone jack, led by Apple.

“The market for ear-worn wearables has grown substantially this past year and we expect this to continue in the years to come,” said Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst for IDC Mobile Device Trackers, in a statement. “It is the next battleground for companies as these types of headphones become a necessity for many given the exclusion of headphone jacks from modern devices. Add to that the rise of smart assistants and in-ear biometrics and companies have the perfect formula to sell consumers on a device that’s complimentary to the device ecosystem that lives on their wrist and in their pocket,” he added.

Meanwhile, smartwatches grew 55.2 percent to capture a 34.3 percent share. Wristbands reached a 30 percent market share, thanks to launches from Xiaomi, Huawei and Fitbit.

Xiaomi was in second place for the quarter, behind Apple, with a 12.6 percent market share compared with Apple’s 27.4 percent. The company remains strong in its home country of China, but sales of its Mi Band 3 have also done well. Of note, its Mi Band 3 accounted for more than 30 percent of all wristbands shipped during Q4.

Behind Xiaomi was Huawei, which grew by a sizable 248.5 percent thanks to Huawei and Honor phones being bundled with wearables, along with other product launches. Fitbit and Samsung rounded out the top 5, with the former returning to growth thanks to the Charge 3 and promotions around its Versa, and the latter also by bundling wearables with its smartphones.

Samsung shipped 4 million wearables in Q4, compared with Apple’s 16.2 million.

Matterport raises $48M to ramp up its 3D imaging platform

The growth of augmented and virtual reality applications and hardware is ushering in a new age of digital media and imaging technologies, and startups that are putting themselves at the center of that are attracting interest.

TechCrunch has learned and confirmed that Matterport — which started out making cameras but has since diversified into a wider platform to capture, create, search and utilise 3D imagery of interior and enclosed spaces in immersive real estate, design, insurance and other B2C and B2B applications — has raised $48 million. Sources tell us the money came at a pre-money valuation of around $325 million, although the company is not commenting on that.

From what we understand, the funding is coming ahead of a larger growth round from existing and new investors, to tap into what they see as a big opportunity for building and providing (as a service) highly accurate 3D images of enclosed spaces.

The company in December appointed a new CEO, RJ Pittman — who had been the chief product officer at eBay, and before that held executive roles at Apple and Google — to help fill out that bigger strategy.

Matterport had raised just under $63 million prior to this and had been valued at around $207 million, according to PitchBook estimates.This current round is coming from existing backers, which include Lux Capital, DCM, Qualcomm Ventures and more.

Matterport’s roots are in high-end cameras built to capture multiple images to create 3D interior imagery for a variety of applications, from interior design and real estate to gaming. Changing tides in the worlds of industry and hardware have somewhat shifted its course.

On the hardware side, we’ve seen a rise in the functionality of smartphone cameras, as well as a proliferation of specialised 3D cameras at lower price points. So while Matterport still sells its own high-end cameras, it is also starting to work with less expensive devices with spherical lenses — such as the Ricoh Theta, which is nearly 10 times less expensive than Matterport’s Pro2 camera — and smartphones.

Using an AI engine — which it has been building for some time — packaged into a service it calls Matterport Cloud 3.0, it converts 2D panoramic and 360-degree images into 3D images. (Matterport Cloud 3.0 is currently in beta and will be launching fully on the 18th of March, initially supporting the Ricoh Theta V, the Theta Z1, the Insta360 ONE X and the Leica Geosystems BLK360 laser scanner.)

Matterport is further using this technology to grow its wider database of images. It already has racked up 1.6 million 3D images and millions of 2D images, and at its current growth rate, the aim is to expand its library to 100 million in the coming years, positioning it as a Getty for 3D enclosed images.

These, in turn, will be used in two ways: to feed Matterport’s machine learning to train it to create better and faster 3D images; and to become part of a wider library, accessible to other businesses by way of a set of APIs.

And, from what I understand, the object will not just be to use images as they are: people would be able to manipulate the images to, for example, remove all the furniture in a room and re-stage it completely without needing to physically do that work ahead of listing a house for sale. Another is adding immersive interior shots into mapping applications like Google’s Street View.

“We are a data company,” Pittman told me when I met him for coffee last month.

The ability to convert 2D into 3D images using artificial intelligence to help automate the process is a potentially big area that Matterport, and its investors, believe will be in increasing demand. That’s not just because people still think there will one day be a bigger market for virtual reality headsets, which will need more interesting content, but because we as consumers already have come to expect more realistic and immersive experiences today, even when viewing things on regular screens — and because B2B and enterprise services (for example design or insurance applications) have also grown in sophistication and now require these kinds of images.

(That demand is driving the creation of other kinds of 3D imaging startups, too. Threedy.ai launched last week with a seed round from a number of angels and VCs to perform a similar kind of 2D-to-3D mapping technique for objects rather than interior spaces. It is already working with a number of e-commerce sites to bypass some of the costs and inefficiencies of more established, manual methods of 3D rendering.)

While Matterport is doubling down on its cloud services strategy, it also has been making some hires to take the business to its next steps. In addition to Pittman, they have added Dave Lippman, formerly design head at eBay, as its chief design officer; and engineering veteran Lou Marzano as its VP of hardware, R&D and manufacturing, with more hires to come.