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Anker’s Spirit earbuds are wireless and waterproof

Anker, a battery maker turned accessory house, recently released the $39 Spirit X earbuds under their Soundcore brand. Aimed at runners and other heavy sweaters, the earbuds are completely waterproof under the IPX7 rating, a classification that means it can stand up to 1 meter of submersion.

What this means is that you get a surprisingly cheap and rugged set of workout earbuds that you’re not afraid to get a little dirty.

I tested a pair and found them quite nice for running. The rubber ear hooks kept them in place and the sound quality was not horrible, especially compared to my previous pair of Philips corded headphones. The sound quality, while a bit muffled, is what you’d expect from a standard pair of sports headphones, and the rubber earbuds stayed in place quite nicely. The company claims the headphones have a 12-hour battery life, which is about right — I used them for a few days and saw little change in the battery level.

A small flap on the bottom of the control bar hides a micro USB port for charging and there are three buttons — volume up, track advance and volume down. There are no voice prompts, but there is a built-in microphone for calls.

These are not swimming headphones. The IPX7 rating means they’ll stand up to sweat and rain but not a few dozen laps in the pool. An aqua-phobic nano-coating keeps the drops out of the inside of the headphones and should let you keep trucking long after other headphones have rusted out.

Long thought of as a bargain Amazon brand, Anker is expanding its reach and understanding of the market. By building inexpensive gear for those who don’t mind a slight trade-off in audio quality, they’ve hit an interesting spot in the headphone market. While this won’t beat your high-end over-ear headphones with all the trimmings, sometimes a $40 pair of daily wear earbuds is all you need.

Switchee raises £1.3M for its smart thermostat for social housing landlords

Switchee, an IoT startup based in London, has raised £1.3 million in “pre-Series A” funding for its smart thermostat and accompanying cloud-based service. However, unlike consumer offerings, such as Nest, Hive or Tado, the company’s product is targeting large landlords, initially within the social housing sector.

The idea is to help social landlords both tackle fuel poverty amongst their residents and as part of their social remit, and to provide a scalable technology solution for managing their properties. This includes something akin to an early warning system for common housing stock maintenance issues, such as mould, poor insulation, or a failing boiler.

Leading the round is Fair by Design Fund, a new £15 million fund managed by Ascension Ventures and backed by Big Society Capital and Joseph Rowntree Foundation. It specifically targets companies tackling the U.K.’s poverty premium.

Other backers of Switchee’s latest round include Contrarian Ventures, an early stage energy fund backed by Lietuvos Energija (the largest energy provider in the Baltics), and AU Capital Partners, a VC fund focused on the U.K.-India corridor and investing in technology companies in IOT, Smart Cities and fintech. Previously Mustard Seed, and ClearlySo invested.

“We solve two problems, one on the resident side the other on the landlord side,” Switchee co-founder Ian Napier tells TechCrunch. “For residents, fuel poverty and high energy costs, with 1 in 10 households in the U.K. having to make a choice between ‘heating’ or ‘eating’. For landlords, the poor or non-existent data about their housing stock and resultant maintenance and repair inefficiencies. To give an idea on cost, the average annual maintenance spend per property is £4,000. We have even seen examples of Housing Associations not knowing which houses they own”.

Interestingly, Switchee has decided to build its own hardware rather than, say, piecing together existing consumer smart home solutions or simply white labelling a competitor’s offering. This is something Napier says the startup has routinely debated internally but decided that to deliver a smart thermostat that truly fits the needs of social landlords, it was necessary to be fully vertically integrated, with bespoke hardware working in tandem with the Switchee cloud service and landlord analytics.

And that seems to be working out quite well so far. Following two years of commercial pilots, including successfully deploying Switchee on a national scale last winter, the company says it is now working with over 40 of the U.K.’s leading social landlords, including Flagship Group, The Guinness Partnership, and Peabody, in addition to a number of Local Authorities and Councils.

“We sell the hardware, which landlords give to their residents for free. We also sell access to our landlord SaaS dashboard which aggregates sensory data from Switchee thermostats and presents housing management and welfare alerts. These data insights allow landlords to better understand and manage their large housing portfolios, and the communities they house, more efficiently”.

The Switchee device itself has temperature, light, motion, humidity and air pressure sensors, which it uses to learn occupancy and a property’s “thermal profile” i.e. how quickly it heats and cools. Based on this data, it then optimizes heating settings remotely — meaning that the Switchee device can be used passively, which Napier says is crucial for a non-direct to consumer offering — and as a result claims to reduce resident energy bills by up to 15 percent. It connects via 2G phone networks (in addition to WiFi) so as not to have to rely on a resident’s own internet connection.

“We can be passive ‘fit and forget’,” says Napier. “Switchee will automatically calculate optimum heating settings and regulate heating to reduce wastage and cut bills. Residents who receive a free thermostat can be less engaged than a consumer who chooses to buy a Nest or Hive… so we can’t rely on engagement. But we hope residents will love our technology and use it. We just don’t need them to if they have other things going on”.

The data the device collects is also used to produce a landlord dashboard displaying a range of welfare and maintenance KPIs and alerts such as mould risk, poor insulation, fuel poverty risk and boiler performance. “This facilitates a shift from reactive to pre-emptive maintenance, saving money and delivering better outcomes,” he says.

On the topic of data privacy, Napier says the Switchee team believe in using “data for good”. In this instance, to combat fuel poverty and to help social landlords care for properties and communities more effectively. “The real key to data privacy, we believe, is transparency and communication: we explain to residents what information we are collecting and why. And we always obtain consent before installing,” he says.

Asked specifically about the occupancy data the device collects and how it can be used, Napier says the company is not interested in the occupancy profiles that drive residents’ energy bill savings, only the outcome, i.e. lower energy bills. “Similarly, we don’t share raw occupancy with landlords, but we do have a couple of features derived from that occupancy. We can suggest convenient times for engineer, repair or other house visits. And we can alert landlords if we think a property has been abandoned,” he adds.

SAP latest enterprise player to offer cloud blockchain service

SAP announced today at its Sapphire customer conference it was making the SAP Leonardo Blockchain service generally available. The latter is a cloud service to help companies build applications based on digital ledger-style technology.

Gil Perez, senior vice president for product and innovation and head of digital customer initiatives at SAP, says most of the customers he talks to are still very early in the proof of concept stage, but not so early that SAP doesn’t want to provide a service to help move them along the maturity curve.

“We are announcing the general availability of the SAP Cloud Platform Blockchain Services.” This is a generalized service on top of which customers can begin building their blockchain projects. He says SAP is taking an agnostic approach to the underlying ledger technology whether it’s the open source Hyperledger project, where SAP is a platinum sponsor, MultiChain or any additional blockchain or decentralized distributed ledger technologies.

Perez said part of the reason for this flexibility is that blockchain technology is really still being defined and SAP doesn’t want to commit to any underlying ledger approach until the market decides which way to go. He says this should allow them to minimize the impact on customers as the technology evolves.

They join other enterprise companies like Oracle, IBM, Microsoft and Amazon who have previously released blockchains services for their customers. For SAP, which many companies use for the back-office management of everything from finance to logistics, the blockchain could present some interesting use cases for its customers such as supply chain management.

In this case, the blockchain could help reduce paperwork, bring products to market more quickly and provide an easy audit trail. Instead of requesting a scanned copy of a signed document, you could simply click on a node on the blockchain and see the approval (or denial) and follow the products through the shipping process to the marketplace.

But Perez stresses that just because it’s early doesn’t mean they aren’t working on some pretty substantial projects. He cited one with a pharmaceutical company to ensure the provenance of drugs that involved over a billion transactions already.

SAP is simply trying to keep up with what customers want. Prior to the GA announced today, the company conducted a survey of 250 customers and found, that although it was early days, there is enterprise interest in exploring blockchain technology. Whether this initiative can expand into a broader business is hard to say, but SAP sees blockchain as logical adjacent technology to their core offerings.

Order-ahead app Ritual picks up $70M to rethink the social office lunch break

While DoorDash, Postmates and other apps are looking to reimagine what the food delivery experience looks like, Ray Reddy says he wants to figure out what the next generation of a food court looks like. Sort of.

Reddy’s startup, Ritual, aims to remake the whole process of leaving your office and walking around five minutes to a nearby deli or cafe to pick up food for lunch. But Reddy and his Ritual founders, Larry Stinson and Robert Kim, wanted to focus first on getting that experience right for a single building that leaves to go pick up coffee or food — and has that daily ritual of getting lunch with the team, or something along those lines. The whole process boils down to an app for consumers to order food or drinks as well as have coworkers piggyback onto that order to create a more socialized experience around getting up and going around the corner for a snack. Ritual said it has raised a new $70 million round led by Georgian Partners, with existing investors Greylock Partners, Insight Ventures, and Mistral Venture Partners all participating.

“If we [couldn’t] build something that is compelling for the 300 people who work at this single building, it’s not gonna work period,” Redddy said. “That helped us define the problem narrowly. We thought, here are the 12 or 14 spots within a five minute walk of this building, let’s focus on simulating what would happen. Let’s not worry about financials or economics, let’s prove this works. Just like Uber’s a remote control for the real world, we viewed this in a similar way where ultimately the app is a remote control for a real world experience.”

Ritual’s main flow is probably something the typical user is accustomed to at this point when it comes to food. They pick a place they like, place an order for food (or coffee), and then go pick it up. But the whole background process involves not only getting restaurants on board with the specific things they want while still trying to calibrate a consistent experience that users at this point expect when it comes to ordering something online after being trained on that simplicity for years by Postmates, DoorDash, or even apps by companies like Starbucks.

But over the past year or so, the company has increasingly tuned itself to employees jumping aboard the same order when considering what to pick up for a snack or a meal. The whole process aims at emulating that experience of figuring out where you want to eat in a Slack channel or arguing over a Seamless order, and in the end whoever has time to run out and grab something will be able to bring things back for teammates (or, of course, everyone can leave at the same time). That whole process is called “piggybacking,” a feature the company introduced around 18 months ago. The company has around 44,500 teams using the app, Reddy said.

 

All this is aimed to help restaurants adapt to the same changes in user behavior that retail has seen in the past decade, Reddy said. Amazon trained users to buy things online, forcing retailers to shift their strategies, just as Postmates and DoorDash have trained users to order food delivery through apps and immediately have access to a ton of options. With all that comes more and more data, which has helped those industries slowly tune their models over time and try to keep up with the increase in demand that has come with reducing friction around the whole experience.

“What restaurants are seeing are right now the same challenges retailers saw 10 years ago,” Reddy said. “What does it mean to become omni-channel, how do you go from one customer segment to dealing with walk-ins plus digital orders. Retailers faced a lot of those challenges 10 years ago, they faced challenges around pricing, fulfillment, and how do they build new capabilities. They are dealing with a new source of demand, and fundamentally the problem was a lot of stores weren’t designed for accepting multi-channel origins.”

While an order-ahead app might be one way to connect online users to a physical location, there’s still plenty of work to do as most restaurants, coffee shops or typical stores aren’t tuned for a digital-first experience, Reddy said. That extends to even not having enough counter space to hold coffee cups that customers have ordered ahead of time, much less including things like NFC readers or QR codes — the latter of which has proved wildly popular and effective throughout Asia thanks to services like Alipay and WeChat. And that’s largely a result of iOS and Android, the main platforms in North America, not really doing a lot with QR codes for a very long time. Reddy said that North America was making some progress, especially when it came to NFC, but for now the company still has to figure out unique ways to connect users to those restaurants.

That can take a lot of different forms. While Ritual has to figure out how to create a seamless experience that covers a lot of different restaurants or shops, Reddy said the startup still has to offer those same stores some kind of control over the experience. That means giving those customers some value proposition beyond just telling them to sign up for another order-ahead app. Ritual, for example, lets restaurants who onboard Ritual customers themselves keep the full transaction for a purchase, while it takes a small slice off other transactions. That, in addition to other marketing options, helps restaurants control their own destiny, he said.

Of course, at its heart, it’s an order-ahead app — even with that social experience on top of it. And if you’ve ever looked at where to eat nearby with coworkers, you’ve probably checked Yelp or a few other places, and possibly even settled the argument with a giant order on an online ordering platform like DoorDash or Seamless. All these have already tapped that user experience, and it’s not clear if Ritual would be able to clear enough room should any one of them go after a similar experience while already having that customer and user relationship, in addition to being the spot customers go already. In the end, Reddy says that it’ll come down to users having a few apps, and hopes that by offering restaurants flexibility and focusing on the hyper-local idea of just a single office building will help build up that moat.

“The way that things have played out in Asia [with platforms like WeChat] is exactly striking the right balance between a platform and giving stores control,” Reddy said. “When you think of the consumer view, people — for the same reason you don’t have 10 retail apps — don’t have 10 food apps. You’re not gonna download an app for every neighborhood spot. It’s not that these apps are bad or don’t work well, people are just not gonna download 10 apps. There’s gonna be a handful of platforms people are going to use to access their neighborhoods. We have to have a unified platform, but give restaurant partners enough control, not only over being able to speak with their customers, but control for the look and feel of their storefront. That’s the middle ground we’re looking to find, which we think is a win for customers and our storefronts.”

Marley Spoon, the cook-at-home meal kit service, announces IPO

Marley Spoon, the meal kit subscription service that competes with the likes of Blue Apron and HelloFresh, has filed for an IPO in Australia. The Berlin-headquartered company is aiming to raise 70 million Australian Dollars (approximately $53m), and has chosen to list on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) in part because Australia is one of its strongest markets. It also operates in the U.S. and in four European countries, including Germany.

The IPO, which should complete in early July, will give Marley Spoon an indicative market capitalisation of ~200 million AUD (~$152m) on listing, priced at $1.42 per CDI. The majority of capital to be raised has already been placed with various public market institutional investors in Australia and a number of other eligible jurisdictions, while a minority will be made available to Australian resident investors via an allocation from their broker in a couple of week’s time, as per regulatory rules.

As with a number of other competing recipe kit services, the Marley Spoon proposition sees it deliver pre-portioned fresh ingredients for each recipe offered, so as to make it easier, more inspiring, and more cost-effective to cook at home. However, co-founder and CEO Fabian Siegel — who was previously co-CEO of online take-out marketplace Delivery Hero — has long argued that the weekly grocery shop, and to some extent restaurants, is the company’s direct competition.

To help with this, in the U.S. Marley Spoon has a partnership with Martha Stewart under the Martha & Marley Spoon brand. More recently, the company launched a cheaper, more mass-market offering called Dinnerly in a bid to make meal-kits less price sensitive and widen the product category’s appeal.

Siegel says the primary channel of customer acquisition is via customer referrals — for which no incentives are currently offered. In terms of paid marketing, Facebook trumps Google, since nobody really searches for recipe kits online and awareness that the product category exists at all is and remains the main challenge.

To that end, Marley Spoon claims 110,000 active customers across Australia, the U.S., Austria, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands (about a tenth the size of HelloFresh in the U.S.), and has forecast revenue of 93 million Euros this year.

Regards the decision to list on ASX, as of March this year, Australia represented 37 per cent of its revenue, which is slightly ahead of the U.S. and Europe. Siegel also tells me Marley Spoon is already break-even in Australia and is expected to be profitable in the country in the second half of the 2018 financial year, a pattern the company is aiming to replicate in other markets.

Asked why Marley Spoon has shunned further VC or private equity funding, Siegel, who was previously a Partner at Rocket Internet’s venture arm GFC, says he wants to be in it for the long term, and that an IPO — which sees 34 per cent of the company listed — means that the management team retains control. “You shouldn’t just blindly do what other people do, you have to understand what venture capital means for you,” he says, noting that VC was crucial to start the business and get it off the ground, but now he has decided it is “not the right thing for us”.

Specifically, since the channel switch from offline to online hasn’t yet really happened — which Siegel says it will eventually — he believes an IPO buys Marley Spoon enough time to grow the company at the same pace as the market for online grocery develops, rather than spending excessively on customer acquisition and other short term growth strategies.

“It’s a unique approach… We are still at day one now and we still have to prove to ourselves and the rest of the world that this in the end will have been the better strategy,” he says, candidly. But if it is, there’s a lot more of the $6.1 trillion global grocery market to eat into.

MoloFinance scores £3.7M seed funding to offer a fully digital mortgage

MoloFinance, a London-based fintech that is developing a “fully digital” mortgage solution, has closed £3.7 million in seed funding. The round is led by Ubon Partners, a Nordic fund specialised in financial services, and will be used to launch the company’s first product release later this summer.

Initially targeting ‘Buy to Let’ mortgages — i.e. people looking to buy property as an investment — while the company works through its regulatory approval process with the FCA, MoloFinance wants to offer an end-to-end mortgage process that is entirely digital and with the ability to give a near-instant decision.

The idea, says the startup, is to provide a frictionless experience for the customer whilst helping to eliminate any unnecessary costs related to the current process. Once FCA approved, MoloFinance plans to begin offering residential mortgages, too.

“The problem is simple: getting a mortgage today is a terrible experience, a painful process, based on obsolete practices, outdated in any other consumer experience,” MoloFinance co-founder Francesca Carlesi tells me. “Just try to compare the 4-6 weeks paper-based process of getting a mortgage with the instant set up of a current account online now available in most challenger banks”.

Carlesi says the status quo is entirely unnecessary as the technology needed to offer something a lot better is already here. Furthermore, customers are more than ready and future generations will expect instant, digital mortgages. “At Molo we are simply making it happen now,” she says.

This has seen the MoloFinance team design a fully digital mortgage journey, where most decisions are automated, most of the information needed is sourced digitally, and where a transparent “robo-advisor” substitutes puts the interest of customers first. “The net result is that we give people what they deserve for the most important financial decision of their life: speed, ease and lower costs,” argues Carlesi.

Similar offerings are already up and running in the U.S. and Australia, but in the U.K. the most disruptive forces, in the form of Habito and Trussle, have taken aim at mortgage brokerage. Carlesi concedes that these companies “have done a great first step” that was hugely overdue and that they can be considered MoloFinance’s closest peers but that the business model is “radically different”.

“We are not a broker, we don’t intend to disrupt the broker market. We are instead focusing on the overall lending process, from beginning to the end, with the goal to make the overall process quick, easy and more convenient and ultimately provide fully digital instant mortgages online. So in short we tried to solve the full problem that customers face today. As solving only one part of it in our view doesn’t solve the problem at all”.

On how MoloFinance plans to generate revenue, Carlesi says the startup will take a small share of the money made from the interest that a customer pays on their mortgage, leaving the majority for its funding partners. It won’t charge customers any unnecessary additional fees (e.g. broker fees, arrangement fees).