Fintech startup Plaid raises $250M at a $2.65B valuation

In the five years since its product was showcased onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt New York’s hackathon, Plaid has emerged as one of the most critical contributors to financial technology’s evolution — and one of the most under the radar.

That is, until now. The company is today announcing a $250 million Series C investment led by famed venture capitalist and the author of the Internet Trends report Mary Meeker, who will join its board of directors as part of the deal. The funds were raised at a valuation of $2.65 billion, according to sources close to the company. Capital from Meeker’s investment came from Kleiner Perkins’ growth fund — where Meeker has been a partner since 2010 — not from the reported billion-dollar-plus solo fund she’s in the process of raising.

New investors Andreessen Horowitz, Index Ventures, Norwest Venture Partners and Coatue Management also participated, as did existing investors Goldman Sachs, NEA and Spark Capital. The financing brings Plaid’s total raised to $310 million and provides a major boost to its valuation, which was just over $200 million with its 2016 Series B.

Making money easier for everyone

Plaid builds infrastructure that allows a consumer to interact with their bank account on the web through a number of third-party applications, like Venmo, Robinhood, Coinbase, Acorns and LendingClub. The San Francisco-based startup has integrated with 10,000 banks in the U.S. and Canada and says 25 percent of people living in those countries with bank accounts have linked with Plaid through at least one of the hundreds of apps that leverage Plaid’s application program interfaces (APIs) — an increase from 13 percent last year.

The platform allows companies to create financial services applications without having to hire their own team of engineers to build out a tool that connects apps to its users’ bank accounts, something Plaid’s founders themselves lacked when they set out to build a fintech startup years ago. Plaid was founded by a pair of former Bain consultants, William Hockey and Zach Perret, the chief technology officer and chief executive officer, respectively, in 2012.

“We were always really infatuated with the concept of financial services,” Hockey told TechCrunch. “We thought it had so much power to impact and improve people’s lives but at the time it really wasn’t … We quickly realized building financial services was almost impossible to do because there wasn’t the tooling or the infrastructure, so we turned around and started building that infrastructure.”

Plaid closed a $44 million Series B in mid-2016 and has since seen its valuation increase more than tenfold. On top of that, it doubled its customer base this year, launched in Canada — its first market outside the U.S. — opened its third office, expanded its overall headcount to 175 employees and debuted a digital mortgage product called Assets.

Hockey and Perret say the new funding will be used to continue expanding the team in San Francisco, Salt Lake City and New York. Plaid, given how essential its tools are to any technology companies that deals with payments in any fashion, which these days is the vast majority of businesses, is a company to watch going into 2019.

“When we think about our long-term goals, we want to make money easier for everyone,” Perret told TechCrunch. “We want everyone to lives these simple, straightforward digitally enabled financial lives and for us, that means supporting these tech innovators in the space and these large incumbents. We want to be able to help them create great consumer financial experiences so consumers can live simpler financial lives.”

Move over notch, the hole-punch smartphone camera is coming

First it was the notch, now the hole-punch has emerged as the latest tech for concealing selfie cameras whilst keeping our smartphones as free of bezel as possible to maximize the screen space.

This week, Samsung and Huawei both unveiled new phones that dispense with the iconic “notch” — pioneered by Apple but popularized by everyone — in favor of positioning the front-facing camera in a small “Infinity-O” hole located on the top-left side of the screen.

Dubbed hole-punch, the approach is part of Samsung’s new Galaxy A8s and Huawei’s View 20, which were unveiled hours apart on Tuesday. Huawei was first by just hours, although Samsung has been pretty public with its intention to explore a number notch alternatives, including the hole-punch, which makes sense given that it has persistently mocked Apple for the feature.

The Samsung Galaxy S8a will debut in China with a hole-punch spot for the camera [Image via Samsung]

Don’t expect to see any hole-punches just yet though.

The Samsung A8s is just for China right now, while the View 20 isn’t being fully unveiled until December 26 in China and, for global audiences, January 22 in Paris. We also don’t have a price for either, but they do represent a new trend that could become widely adopted across phones from other OEMs in 2019.

That’s certainly Samsung’s plan. The Korea firm is rolling out the hole-punch on the A8s, but it has plans to expand its adoption into other devices and series. The A8s itself is pretty mid-range, but that makes it an ideal candidate to test the potential appeal of a more subtle selfie camera since Samsung’s market share has fallen in China where local rivals have pushed it hard. It starts there, but it could yet be adopted in higher-end devices with global availability.

As for the View 20, Huawei has also been pretty global with its ambitions, except in the U.S., where it hasn’t managed to strike a carrier deal despite reports that it has been close before. The current crisis with its CFO — the daughter of the company’s founder who was arrested during a trip to Canada — is another stark reminder that Huawei’s business is unlikely to ever get a break in the U.S. market: so expect the View 20 to be a model for Europe and Asia.

Huawei previewed its View 20 with a punch-hole selfie camera lens this week [Image via Huawei]

Samsung hasn’t said a tonne about the hole-punch design, but our sister publication Engadget — which attended the View 20’s early launch event in Hong Kong — said it was mounted below the display “like a diamond” to maintain the structure.

“This hole is not a traditional hole,” Huawei told Engadget.

Huawei will no doubt also talk up the fact that its hole is 4.5mm versus an apparent 6mm from Samsung.

Small details aside, one important upcoming trend from these new devices is the birth of the “mega” megapixel smartphone camera.

The View 20 packs a whopping 48-megapixel lens for a rear camera, which is something that we’re going to see a lot more of in 2019. Xiaomi, for one, is preparing a January launch for a device that’ll have the 48-megapixel camera, according to a message on Sina Weibo from company co-founder Bin Lin. There’s no word on which camera enclosure that device will have, though.

Xiaomi teased an upcoming smartphone that’ll sport a 48-megapixel camera [Image via Bin Lin/Weibo]

Hardware Club closes its $50 million fund

French VC firm Hardware Club just announced the final closing of its first fund. The firm will invest $50 million in total in hardware startups (as the name suggests).

Hardware Club first started as a community of hardware startups sharing knowledge, tips and contacts in the hardware community. If you’re launching a hardware product, chances are many companies before you had the same supply chain struggles.

The club itself has negotiated partnerships with well-known manufacturers and distributors, such as Foxconn, Amazon and Honda. Right now, there are 470 startups in the club from 39 countries, as well as 150 partners.

And Hardware Club then invests in the most promising startups that are part of the club. Let’s hope that startups get enough perks from the community because investing in some companies but not all of them creates a signaling issue.

After the first closing of $28 million, Hardware Club already invested in multiple companies, such as Cowboy Bike, Alcatraz AI, Automata and Left Hand Robotics. Overall, Hardware Club invested in 28 startups and expects to realize an exit very soon. The firm also plans to invest in another 20 startups with this fund, ideally in a seed or Series A round.

Molotov creates a VR coffee shop to watch TV together

French startup Molotov is slowly becoming the leading platform to stream TV in France. With a single account, you can watch TV on your phone, tablet, computer and set-top box. The company is about to release a VR app that lets you watch TV using a virtual reality headset — but there’s a twist.

The new service is called Molotov Together and is an interesting experience in many ways. I tried an early version of the service a couple of weeks ago.

At first, I was quite reluctant about the idea of watching TV in a VR headset. I’m not a fan of VR in general, and many VR headsets already let you watch videos in in virtual reality.

In many cases, you end up with a YouTube player in a web browser projected on a virtual wall in a virtual room. But Molotov is aware of that and knows that watching a video is still better on an actual TV.

When Molotov co-founder and CEO Jean-David Blanc started pitching me the idea of Molotov Together, he first talked about live TV.

In the era of Netflix shows and huge iTunes libraries, it’s hard to remember that watching TV used to mean watching something live, sharing a moment together. You can still experience this with football matches, election nights and other important events.

And in those cases, the side conversations and jokes can be as important as the content itself.

TV for long-distance besties

Molotov has created a virtual reality coffee shop called Molotov Café. With Molotov Together, you can invite one or two friends to watch TV with you in the café. You all sit in comfortable virtual reality armchairs and can see each other.

Each person can control the TV channel they want to watch and access all Molotov content — in that experience, you don’t share a TV, everyone has its own TV. But Molotov Together truly shines when you’re all watching the same channel.

After that, you can watch the same content and talk together using voice chat. You don’t have to press any button, you can just casually sit back and watch something together.

I tried Molotov Together with Jean-David Blanc and I didn’t expect it to work so well. At first, entering the virtual coffee shop is a bit odd because it’s a significant context change. But once you start chatting with the other person and comment on what you see, it feels like you’re sitting next to each other.

Long-distance friends and couples sometimes watch the same movie with Skype or FaceTime running on a device. Molotov wants to perfect this concept and people in this situation will love the service. Similarly, there’s a reason why people watch reaction videos to popular TV shows. Hearing jokes and comments on your favorite show is a good way to enhance your favorite content.

Mind tricks

A product like Molotov Together doesn’t work well if the team behind it isn’t paying attention to small details. I tried Molotov Together with an Oculus Go but the app should eventually work with all major VR headsets.

Molotov Together is a multiplayer experience. Just like a video game, you need to see the same thing at the same time. If your favorite team scores a goal and your feed is five seconds behind, it’s not going to cut it. That’s why Molotov made sure that two persons stream from the same content delivery network so that the video feeds are perfectly in sync.

While you can control the volume of your virtual TV, the voices of your friends are also spatialized. Even if both of your friends have a similar sounding voice, you know who is talking without even looking.

From the coffee shop to your living room

Molotov Together will be released in February 2019. Any Molotov user will be able to access the service if they have a compatible VR headset.

The company wants to release new features after that. In particular, Molotov will let you invite people to your own virtual living room and watch your TV. This time, the host controls the TV and can stream premium content — other people can watch premium content even if they are not subscribers. It’s going to be interesting to see the reaction of French regulators.

Molotov currently has around 7 million users in France. Every day, 1.2 million users watch something on Molotov. They stream a total of 1.1 million hours of content. As you can see, those Molotov sessions can be quite long.

With this new product, Molotov proves that it’s a technology company that competes with content companies. Molotov Together won’t change the face of the company. But the startup is still experimenting with new ways to watch TV. And that might be enough to give it an edge over its competitors.