Homer nabs $50M from Lego, Sesame Workshop and Gymboree for its early learning apps

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For better or worse, tablets and smartphones have become a cornerstone of how many smaller children pass the time. Today, a company that builds literacy and other educational apps to help make that time more worthwhile is announcing a large round of funding from a number of strategic backers to move into the next phase of its growth, building not just apps but a comprehensive learning platform.

BEGiN, the startup behind the Homer early learning program aimed primarily at kids between the ages of two and eight, has raised $50 million in a Series C round of funding, money that it plans to use to, in the words of  CEO Neal Shenoy (who co-founded the company with Stephanie Dua), create a “systematic experience” in learning.

The startup has been around since 2013 and got its start with literacy — it says that its reading apps are currently the most popular for children under 5 in the US App Store — which remains its core subject area, but it has also expanded into other subject areas and plans to take that further.

“We are launching the industry’s first comprehensive early learning program,” he said in an interview. “And so from a curriculum perspective, this will extend beyond reading to include math, critical thinking, creativity, and socio-emotional learning, we will deliver this learning these experiences across digital, physical, tangible product, and in class mediums, we will focus on both serving the child and the parent and the relationship between them says the parent is the child’s first teacher.”

The round includes a number of strategic investors that will help bring this together. The backers include LEGO Ventures, Sesame Workshop, the principal investor in Gymboree Play & Music, 3One4 Capital, Trustbridge Partners and Interlock Partners. In addition to the $50 million, Liquidity Capital is also contributing $25 million in trajectory-based funding for further growth. The strategic backers plan to help build the curriculum, the products and the distribution for the new program, he said.

The valuation of Homer, and BEGiN itself, are not being disclosed, but the company said that it already has hundreds of thousands of subscribers and generates tens of millions of dollars in revenues.

The funding news and strategic expansion comes at a critical time in the educational industry, and e-learning in particular.

Children’s educational apps — and taking even just those focused on early learning (Age of Learning is another leader in this segment of the market) — have been around for as long as the internet itself. But they have always existed in conjunction with a host of more conventional resources, such as nurseries and schools, playgroups and other activities, and general socialization. The global health pandemic, however, has changed all that for many people: many families, kids included, are spending more time at home and away from teachers and the (real life) social networks that play a part in how they develop.

That’s put a huge emphasis on rethinking how tech-based tools, starting with gadgets like tablets and software like apps, can make up the difference, for now or maybe even for longer, to make sure that kids continue to learn, but also feel engaged and stimulated at a time when a lot of options for doing that have been reduced.

Joining up app makers with those who make educational physical objects is a not a new thing per se: “educational toys,” as any parent knows, are a dime a dozen in terms of supply (if not cost… they can be expensive). But it’s interesting to see toy makers joining up with those who build entertainment content and other products for children for an even bigger-picture approach to identifying and building to address the challenge of how best to deliver some aspects of early-years education.

Indeed, LEGO Ventures is a newish effort from the Danish modular toy maker, founded to help the company, now over 70 years old, step into the next phase of how children learn and keep themselves entertained.

“HOMER’s vision and approach to playful learning fosters curiosity and collaboration in children that aligns closely with LEGO Ventures’ investment ethos supporting founders and companies in bringing the LEGO idea of learning-through-play to life,” said Jamie Beaumont, Managing Partner, LEGO Ventures, in a statement. “We look forward to working with Neal and the excellent team he has built, and supporting HOMER as they grow and scale their purposeful play offerings across hands-on, in-person and digital experiences.”

As with e-learning companies targeting other age groups, the startup has seen a huge boost in business in the last several months, with a 280% increase in annual subscriptions, 230% increase in website subscriptions, and children accessing 30% more lessons than this time last year. (Overall, the company has had 80%+ year-over-year growth since launch.)

“With its focus on research and kid-centric design, and expansion to embrace the whole child curriculum, HOMER’s approach reflects the mission of Sesame Workshop to help kids grow smarter, strong and kinder,” said Steve Youngwood, President of Media and Education, and Chief Operating Officer of Sesame Workshop, in a statement. “We’re excited to support HOMER’s growth and to look for further ways to partner with them to give young children the best possible start at a critical time of their learning and development.”

Additional reporting Natasha Mascarenhas

September 30th 2020 Uncategorized

Coralogix lands $25M Series B to rethink log analysis and monitoring

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Logging and monitoring tends to be an expensive endeavor because of the sheer amount of data involved. Companies are therefore forced to pick and choose what they monitor, limiting what they can see. Coralogix wants to change that by offering a more flexible pricing model, and today the company announced a $25 million Series B and a new real time analytics solution called Streama.

First the funding. The round was led by Red Dot Capital Partners and O.G. Tech Ventures with help from existing investors Aleph VC, StageOne Ventures, Janvest Capital Partners and 2B Angels. Today’s round, which comes after the startup’s $10 million Series A last November, brings the total to $41.2 million raised, according to the company.

When we spoke to Coralogix CEO and co-founder Ariel Assaraf last year regarding the A round, he described his company as more of an intelligent applications performance monitoring with some security logging analytics.

Today, the company announced Streama, which has been in Alpha since July. Assaraf says companies can pick and choose how they monitor and pay only for the features they use. That means if a particular log is only tangentially important, a customer can set it to low priority and save money, and direct the budget toward more important targets.

As the pandemic has taken hold, he says that companies are appreciating the ability to save money on their monitoring costs, and directing those resources elsewhere in the company. “We’re basically building out this full platform that is going to be inside centric and value centric instead of volume or machine count centric in its pricing model,” Assaraf said.

Assaraf differentiates his company from others out there like Splunk, Datadog and Sumo Logic saying his is a more modern approach to the problem that simplifies the operations. “All these complicated engineering things are being abstracted away in a simple way, so that any user can very quickly create savings and demonstrate that it’s [no longer] an engineering problem, it’s more of a business value question,” he explained.

Since the A round, the company has grown from 25 to 60 people spread out between Israel and the U.S. It plans to grow to 120 people in the next year with the new funding. When it comes to diversity in hiring, he says Israel is fairly homogeneous, so it involves gender parity there, something that he says he is working to achieve. The U.S. is still relatively small with just 12 employees now, but it will be expanding in the next year and it’s something he says that he will need to be thinking about that as he hires.

As part of that hiring spree, he wants to kick his sales and marketing operations into higher gear and start spending more on those areas as the company grows.

September 30th 2020 Uncategorized

Waffle Yourself a Cheese Blintz

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Sweet cheese blintzes are the stars of the stuffed pancake pantheon, but they are, if not difficult, at least somewhat tedious to make and fill. And while I will always choose a homemade blintz over a store-bought frozen one, the less precious nature of frozen grocery store blintzes makes them ideal candidates for waffling.

There’s no need for oil, no need for a pan, no need for anything other than a nonstick waffle iron, and perhaps some sort of berry-based topping and/or sour cream. The waffle iron creates texture — there are soft spots and crunchy spots — while it warms the cheese filling. I really do enjoy texture.

Much like frozen pound cake, frozen pierogi, and frozen onion rings, frozen blintzes do not need to be defrosted before they are waffled. But, like frozen egg rolls, you have to be careful to not apply too much pressure as you waffle them. Otherwise the filling comes spilling out onto the plateaus and into the valleys of your waffle maker, where it caramelizes into quite the mess.

To waffle a cheese blintz, start out just below medium heat. Place your blintz parallel to the waffle maker’s hinge to help keep the applied pressure and heat as even as possible across the length of the blintz. Place the blintz in the waffle maker, and let the top plate rest on top of it. Do not press down. Let the waffle maker warm the blintz for a 2-3 minutes until the filling starts to soften.

Once the blintz has softened and flattened a little under the weight of the top plate, turn the heat up to medium-high, give it a slight press, and cook for a few more minutes until the outer layer is golden brown and crunchy in spots. Don’t worry if you get a little bit of spillage; that little bit will turn into what can only be described as “sweet cheese caramel,” and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

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September 30th 2020 Uncategorized

Lyft Amplifies Diverse Creators With New Cab-Top Campaign

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Lyft is committing to support minority creators and artists by amplifying their work atop New York taxi cabs. The rideshare company’s original content development arm has launched an ongoing creative campaign that uses Halo by Lyft, the brand’s outdoor advertising platform that brings targeted marketing to LED smart screens on cabs. The brand has kicked…

September 30th 2020 Uncategorized

Prosus Ventures leads $13 million investment in Pakistan’s ride-hailing giant Bykea

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Bykea, which leads the ride-hailing market in Pakistan, has raised $13 million in a new financing round as the five-year-old startup looks to deepen its penetration in the South Asian country and become a “super app.”

The startup’s new financing round, a Series B, was led by storied investment firm Prosus Ventures . It’s the first time Prosus Ventures has invested in a Pakistani startup. Bykea’s existing investors Middle East Venture Partners and Sarmayacar also invested in the round, which brings its total to-date raise to $22 million.

Bykea leads the two-wheeler ride-hailing market in Pakistan and also operates logistics delivery business and financial services business. The startup has partnered with banks to allow customers to pay phone bills and get cash delivered to them, Muneeb Maayr, founder and chief executive of Bykea, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Fahd Beg, Chief Investment Officer at Prosus Ventures, said firms like Bykea are helping transform big societal needs like transportation, logistics and payments through a technology-enabled platform in Pakistan. “Bykea has already seen impressive traction in the country and with our investment will be able to execute further on their vision to become Pakistan’s ‘super-app,” he said in a statement.

Bykea works with over 30,000 drivers who operate in Karachi, Rawalpindi and Lahore. (Two-wheelers are more popular in Pakistan. There are about 17 million two-wheeler vehicles on the road in the country today, compared to fewer than 4 million cars.)

The new investment comes at a time when Bykea restores the losses incurred by the coronavirus outbreak. Like several nations, Pakistan enforced a months-long lockdown to curtail the spread of the virus in March.

As with most other startups in travel business globally, this meant bad news for Bykea. Maayr said the startup did not eliminate jobs and instead cut several other expenses to navigate through the tough time.

One of those cuts was curtailing the startup’s reliance on Google Maps. Maayr said during the lockdown time Bykea built its own mapping navigation system with the help of its drivers. The startup, which was paying Google about $60,000 a month for using Maps, now pays less than a tenth of it, he said.

Starting August, the startup’s operations have largely recovered and it is looking to further expand its financial services business, said Maayr, who previously worked for Rocket Internet, helping the giant run fashion e-commerce platform Daraz in the country.

The startup has been able to out compete firms like Careem and Uber in Pakistan by offering localized solutions. It remains one of the few internet businesses in the country that supports Urdu language in its app, for instance.

“Our brand is now widely used as a verb for bike taxi and 30 minute deliveries, and the fresh capital allows us to expand our network to solidify our leading position,” he said.

I asked Maayr what he thinks of the opportunities in the three-wheelers category. Auto-rickshaws are some of the most popular mode of transportation in South Asian nations. Maayr said on-boarding those drivers and figuring out unit-economics that works for all the stakeholders remains a challenge in all South Asian nations, so the startup is still figuring it out.

Would he want to take Bykea to neighboring nations? Not anytime soon. Maayr said the opportunity within Pakistan and Bykea’s traction in the nation have convinced him to win the entire local market first.

September 30th 2020 Uncategorized

Element acquires Gitter to get more developers on board with the open Matrix messaging protocol

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Some interesting news for lovers of open, decentralized communications tech: Element, the company behind the eponymous Matrix -based Slack competitor (formerly known as Riot) has acquired developer-focused chat platform, Gitter, from dev services giant GitLab, which picked it up back in 2017.

The acquisition means Gitter’s community of some 1.7M users will be migrating to Matrix, the underlying decentralized comms protocol also made by Element — assuming they stick around for the ride with the new owner, of course. But Element is going out of its way to reassure Gitter users they’ll feel properly at home on Matrix.

In a blog post discussing the acquisition, the top-line message from Element CEO and Matrix co-founder, Matthew Hodgson, is that nothing will change in the short term. Furthermore, the pitch to the Gitter community is that, down the line, there will be plenty to gain from the migration/eventual assimilation as a “Gitter-customized version of Element” running on Matrix.

This is because the pledge is feature parity first (so, yes, that means Element will be gaining a bunch of Gitter features; such as threads and instant live room peeking, to name two). Then, once Gitter migrates to Element, it’ll get access to “all the goodies” the combination brings — including end-to-end encryption; reactions; VoIP and conferencing; widgets; all the alternative clients, bots, bridges and servers; the full open standard Matrix API; and the ability to fully participate in that decentralized network…

Another enticing promise is “constantly improving native iOS & Android clients” — which the Element team notes is a welcome alternative to Gitter’s natives ones, given they’re already being deprecated.

The migration will also mean Element will be replacing the current “creaky” matrix-appservice-gitter bridge.

We’re going to build out native Matrix connectivity — running a dedicated Matrix homeserver on gitter.im with a new bridge direct into the heart of Gitter; letting all Gitter rooms be available to Matrix directly as (say) #angular_angular:gitter.im, and bridging all the historical conversations into Matrix via MSC2716 or similar,” it writes. 

“Gitter users will also be able to talk to other users elsewhere in the open Matrix network — e.g. DMing them, and (possibly) joining arbitrary Matrix rooms. Effectively, Gitter will have become a Matrix client,” Element adds.

So the tl;dr is that current Gitter users should have plenty of reasons to be cheerful about the acquisition. (Plus, as Hodgson points out, anyone less than happy with the direction of travel can of course fork the platform and go their own way, being as Element is an open source company. Though of course the hope is no one will feel the need to fork it.) 

The decision to migrate Gitter to Element has been made purely on resources/efficiency grounds, per Hodgson — to avoid the need for Element to maintain both apps over the longer term. He tells TechCrunch the migration will likely take around a year — “possibly more”.

Element also plans to “comprehensively” document the whole process so that it can serve as “the flagship example of how to make an existing chat system talk – and transition to — Matrix”, as it puts it, so it’s got its eye on encouraging more apps to make the move to Matrix.

While Element says GitLab approached them about taking on Gitter they confess to a long-time “crush” on the platform — saying they jumped at the chance when the other company came knocking. (Financial terms of the transaction are not being disclosed, however.)

TechCrunch can claim a teeny part in this open source love-in, being as we’re credited with accidentally introducing the teams — after they found themselves across the aisle exhibiting at Disrupt London, back in 2014 (so you truly never know who you’ll serendipitously meet in Startup Alley).

Taking on Gitter is not just a passion project for Element, though. They saw they see the acquisition boosting growth of the Matrix ecosystem as a whole other developer community gets plugged in and — they hope — converted to evangelists for the open network.

“If developers are using it then when they need something to build on — a technology for their messaging apps — then they will naturally use Matrix. And if we want to grow this ecosystem and have as many apps as possible built on top of the protocol then we need to make it known to everyone so if they’re using it for their own comms it makes it easier for them,” Element COO, Amandine Le Pape, tells TechCrunch.

“We’re really doing this for Matrix, rather than for Element,” adds Hodgson. “We’re just trying to grow and make the Matrix network larger and healthier. So it’s not a matter of we can then sell it to governments as a communication platform more easily, it’s much more… that it becomes known to more developers so that when they build their next WhatsApp they don’t go and invent the wheel all over again. They would just obviously use Matrix because that’s what they’re already using to co-ordinate on working on React or Angular or whatever technology they already know.”

He says bringing Gitter into the Matrix fold is “obviously” a boon to developers who already use Element — such as the Mozilla community and Rust developers — as it will help reduce fragmentation.

“Half the world is on Gitter, half the world is on Element, and some poor lost souls are stuck in Discord and Slack. So by going and bringing the open guys together it will just be very concretely more useful in Element that if you want to reach out to whatever developer you will be able to find them in once place rather than having this horrible split brain between the two,” he adds.

Asked about its decision to sell Gitter, GitLab told us it has never been a core element of its business focus.

“While GitLab has contributed to Gitter’s growth in the past three years, Gitter has always been a standalone product, independent of GitLab, even after GitLab’s acquisition in 2017. GitLab and Element saw an opportunity for Gitter to grow further under Element,” it said.

GitLab has a core business focus to be the market’s leading complete DevOps platform,” it added. “It is not a case of stepping away but seeing an opportunity for an important tool to grow further. In true open source fashion, Gitter is free to use, without limits, for everyone to create public or private communities and to contribute back to. It is currently the only developer-centric messaging platform which is an open source, free, uncapped messaging SaaS. The platform has not been monetized yet and has no commercial edition. Gitter is available on the web with clients available for Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, and Android.”

Image credit: GitLab/Gitter

Element said it will be bringing on board Gitter’s dev team as part of the acquisition — albeit, it’s actually just one “superstar” developer running the whole thing, per Hodgson and Le Pape. So the team integration process at least shouldn’t be too challenging. 

(For the record, Element is the new name for New Vector (the company) and Riot (the messaging app) which was originally called Vector. So that’s Vector > Riot > Element; and New Vector > Element. “We decided to bring everything under one single brand — as now Element the company, Element the app and Element Matrix Services for the hosting platform,” explains La Pape on this recent rebranding.)

Momentum for Matrix

Matrix, meanwhile, has been continuing to gain momentum throughout the pandemic — thanks to the accelerated shift to remote working pushing demand for secure (and, well, sovereign) digital messaging up the public sector agenda.

“Recently we’ve had the German education system coming on board, the German military coming on board. And we have two other governments who, irritatingly, we can’t disclose yet — but suffice to say they are both very big and very exciting,” notes Hodgson. “They’re in paid trials. Once we successfully convert those it will be as big, if not bigger, than France in terms of banging on about it.” 

“In all of these instances they have gone and slightly tweaked the app. They have forked Element, they have branded it, they’ve built it into an existing tool that they have and it really ties in with the developer story — the reason that they feel happy building on an open standard is because of the wider developer ecosystem,” he adds.

“We’re also seeing a whole galaxy of little startups — nothing to do with us — who are building on Matrix successfully,” Hodgson also tells us, pointing to a German healthcare startup called Famedly as one example.

“It’s unrelated to us but it’s fun to see other companies basically betting the farm on the protocol. So, again, the happier developers are to use the protocol the more random startups like that will begin to bubble up,” he adds. “And if the next-gen of Slack killers happen to be on Matrix — whether it’s us, or anybody else, so much the better.”

Another key factor that could accelerate momentum for Matrix is interoperability — a topic area regulators are increasingly eyeing as they consider how to ensure competition thrives in digital markets that can be prone to ‘winner takes all’ network effects.

Accusations of anti-competitive behavior are also being thrown around in the real-time messaging space specifically. Notably, in July, Slack filed an antitrust complaint against Microsoft arguing the latter is being anti-competitive by unfairly bundling its rival Teams product with its cloud-based productivity suite, Microsoft 365.

The Matrix network is no such walled garden, of course — and Element the app offers bridges to other messaging platforms, enabling its users to chat with others siloed on proprietary platforms like Slack. Slack, however, hasn’t offered the same courtesy to Element (only going so far as offering a bridge for, er, email users last year).

“It would be great for Slack, and [Microsoft] Teams and Discord to join in,” says Hodgson, arguing: “I think there’s probably more impetus for them to do so in terms of being able to interoperate with other systems, because we have so many bridges. If you were migrating from Skype for Business to Slack or something the Matrix could be the bridge between the two.”

“They have different users, right,” continues Le Pape, fleshing out the case for such platforms to open up to Matrix. “Usually Teams ends up being the one for the big companies who are actually using Office 365 while Slack might be more of the startup side of things so, in the end, if we could actually join everything together it would be good.” “If you all actually were able to talk to one another then that would solve it,” she adds in reference to Slack’s antitrust complaint against Microsoft.

Hodgson posits that if Microsoft were to expose Teams into Matrix it could help it defend against the complaint — being as it would be able to tell regulators it’s “participating in a global open standard network” that lets users pick whichever client they like. “I think that’s a very compelling solution,” he suggests, adding that Element is involved in discussions with “various parties” on the EU side “to make sure people understand there are viable open standards for doing this”. 

“Historically, before Matrix, basically there wasn’t anything that had the feature set that you would expect from Slack or Teams. Whereas now there is actually a viable middle language,” he adds.

Asked if it’s a wild idea that a polished consumer messaging app such as Telegram could ever move to Matrix, Hodgson describes it as an “interesting” thought — but admits there’s still a bit of a feature gap for Element, while also lauding the Telegram’s technical performance.

“I could see there being some friction in joining Matrix as it is today because it would be a slight backwards step for them… However the pressure is therefore on us to go and get to the point that Element is as snappy and as polished as Telegram — and [Element already] has good encryption,” he says. “At which point I think the tables could turn interestingly.

“But they’ve got hundreds of millions of users. I guess they feel they’re doing it right. They would rather, perhaps, become the next WhatsApp and be a 2BN user silo rather than play nice with other people because they’re already past critical mass. But perhaps if we do our job and make Matrix large enough and interesting enough that it is worth their while to link to it then why not?”

September 30th 2020 Uncategorized

Juno Bio launches a vaginal microbiome test kit — targeting the women’s health data gap

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Entrepreneur First -backed Juno Bio has launched a home test kit for women wanting to get a better understanding of their vaginal microbiome while also contributing data to further research into women’s health.

The vaginal microbiome refers to the community of microbes and bacteria that naturally live in the vagina. Variances in the vaginal microbiome are thought to have implications for women’s health conditions — such as recurrent bacterial-vaginosis or a higher risk of contracting an STI, and even preterm birth and infertility. But a historical lack of research into women’s health issues means there’s still a long way to go to fully understand what’s going on. (Or indeed how to intervene to correct an unhealthy imbalance.)

That’s where Juno Bio wants to come in.

Last year the 2018-founded UK startup ran a study in the US that gathered samples from more than 1,000 women to build up a repository of data on the vaginal microbiome. That initial data-set underpins the commercial Vaginal Microbiome Test kit it’s launching today — at a cost of $149 (which includes free shipping).

Women who pay to be screened will receive a test kit in the post. They then carry out a sample gathering procedure at home, passing a Q-tip like swab across the walls of their vagina for around 20 seconds and sealing the sample in the tube provided (with stabilizing agents) to return it by post to Juno Bio for analysis.

Once the sample has been processed the user will be invited to log in online and view her results, with the option to book a one-on-one call with a Juno Bio “vaginal coach” to discuss the data.

It’s worth emphasizing that the startup is being careful to caveat what kind of service it’s offering.

A disclaimer on its website states the tests are “currently exclusively intended to be used for wellness purposes” — and it further adds: “The tests we offer are not intended to diagnose or treat disease, or to substitute for a physician’s consultation.”

Juno Bio confirms the test is purely a commercial offer for now — although it says it’s working on “a regulated version” so it will be able to inform clinical decision making in this area in the future, starting with the US which is its initial market focus (though test kits are also available in the UK).

“For sure we’re not replacing a doctor here,” says CEO and co-founder Hana Janebdar, in a call with TechCrunch. “There’s really two buckets of women, if you like, that tend to join the Juno Study or pre-order a test. And the first woman is someone who wants to be very proactive about her general wellness and wants to know more about her body — and this is one of the best ways that you can learn about your microbes and what that means for your vaginal wellness and your pH etc.

“The other women are women who may have had recurrent bacterial vaginosis or recurrent infections and want to know more about what it is that’s causing it potentially — and so she wants a comprehensive picture of her vaginal microbiome. Because if you go and try and figure out, right now, what is causing your bacterial vaginosis using existing methods of diagnosis they’re not always the most helpful. So while that should always be the first port of call, and women should always go to their doctor when they think they have an issue, this is an incredibly important resource when it comes to wellness for a lot of women.”

“There are 10% of women in America, for instance, who have recurrent bacterial vaginosis — which is just one condition of the vaginal microbiome. And it’s one of the highest recurrent rates in medicine,” she adds. “And partly because the diagnostics are terrible in this space.”

Another of the startup’s investors is life sciences giant, Illumina, which is providing the DNA sequencing technology it’s using to analysis the samples, per Janebdar.

“This is the first comprehensive vaginal microbiome test kit that’s available that’s next generation sequencing based,” she says of the test kit. “Obviously vaginal testing has existed for a while but no one has really used next generation sequencing — which is the technology that enables a really comprehensive picture of what all the microbes that are in the vagina are. And that’s what’s needed to A) unravel the vaginal microbiome and its impact on women’s lives and fertility and health, and then B) to give women actually the full picture of what those microbes are.”

“The conditions that have been associated with the vaginal microbiome — like BV, or recurrent yeast infections or even the downstream conditions like pelvic inflammatory disease — they’ve historically been poorly characterized. So the diagnosis that have existed to date have been [poor at determining] when and what women have these conditions and therefore what the best treatments should be,” she adds.

Janebdar says the prevailing scientific understanding has been that a Lactobacillus dominant vaginal microbiome is healthy — but more recent studies suggest a more nuanced understanding is needed.

“What’s become clear in the literature is that maybe that’s not always be the case. And also the type of Lactobacilli is important. And also there’s really important differences between the vaginal microbiomes and what healthy might look like for caucasian women vs African American women, for instance,” she notes.

Her background includes a degree in biology and a masters in biochemical engineering — including specific work on microbiome science. It was via her experience of the research field that she says she realized there was a huge gap in women’s health research.

Juno Bio CEO and co-founder, Hana Janebdar (Photo credit: Juno Bio)

“What really shocked me what that while there was this explosion of research and work and commercialization of the gut microbiome and the soil microbiome and every microbiome under the earth that you could think of the vaginal microbiome had been relatively ignored,” she says, going back to 2017-18 and her inspiration for the startup.

“It really shocked me because of all the microbiomes the vaginal microbiome was the most readily accessible, the most readily associated with the conditions that could improve women’s lives and there were so many women that have these conditions — it was really a sense of hang on, what is going on? And why is this just so incredibly ignored?” she adds. “This needs to be fixed.

“As an Afghan woman — women’s rights and the fact that women are ignored, and medical health research has been sidelined when it comes to women — it’s a very core part of my actual experience as well.

Juno Bio’s ultimate goal is to gather enough data and understanding to be able to offer “microbial interventions” that can be used to correct problematic imbalances, per Janebdar.

“One of the saddest things… is the fact that microbial interventions could work but having it in this wishy-washy, probiotic, kombucha land has meant that people haven’t fully realized it’s real potential — and it’s really exciting that in the gut microbiome space, which is analogous to us, first the first time this year you’re seeing sort of phase three approved microbial interventions for the gut. So I see the vaginal space as analogous to that. And this is the kind of stuff that the Juno data-sets will unlock.”

Those shelling out to donate their vaginal microbiome data to Juno Bio’s repository are promised it will be “anonymized” — though clearly links will be retained to some individual data points, such as age and ethnicity.

The startup’s privacy policy can be found here — where it writes: “The information we use in Research is often summarised, aggregated, or combined across a group of subjects to minimize the chance of identification.”

“In the event we require use of individual-level Personally Identifiable Information in Research or for other purposes, we will reach out to you and obtain specific consents applicable to such other use,” it adds.

Juno Bio is being advised by Dr Gregory Buck, Ph.D., who was the principal investigator on the Vaginal Human Microbiome Project (VaHMP) and the Multi Omic Microbiome Study Pregnancy Initiative (MOMS PI) — two studies that were part of the US National Institutes of Health Human Microbiome Project.

Commenting in a statement about the launch of the test kit, Buck said: “While previous studies have worked to characterize the vaginal microbiome, these studies have often been limited in population size, utilize limited gene sequences and lack metadata. As a result, present studies now lack data and a comprehensive strain bank of vaginally associated microbes. Having dedicated much of my career to researching microbiomes of the female reproductive tract, I am confident that the Vaginal Microbiome Test will create one of the richest research repositories of data for future research into vaginal health and related issues. Not only that, but it will help change the stigma around vaginal wellness for the better.”

September 30th 2020 Uncategorized

Gusto is expanding from payroll into a full suite financial wellness platform

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When we caught up with Gusto last year, the small business payroll startup had just raised $200 million and was launching a new office in New York City. Over the past few years though, Gusto has also been accruing new features outside of its original payroll product, features that redefine the borders between payroll and financial wellness, and in the process, are blurring the lines of the classic fintech market map.

Today, the company announced a slew of new offerings that it hopes will give employees better financial and health options through their employers.

The most interesting one here is a tool the company is calling Gusto Wallet. It’s an app and collection of products for employees paid through Gusto that basically acts as a mini bank and financial health monitor. It offers an interest-bearing cash account (called, appropriately enough, Cash Accounts) which can also divert a small slice of each paycheck into a user’s savings, similar to products like Acorns and Digit. Cash stored in the account earns 0.34% interest today, and you can also get a Gusto debit card to spend it.

Gusto’s app gives you access to financial services and wellness tools. Photo via Gusto

For employees, what’s interesting here is that these services are offered essentially for free: Gusto makes money on its payroll services from employers as a software subscription fee, and so it offers financial services like these as an inducement to keep employers and employees engaged. Gusto hopes that this can keep debt low for employees, and also offer them more financial stability, particularly as businesses open and close in the wake of COVID-19.

In addition, Gusto Wallet also offers “Cashout,” which can accelerate a payday ahead of time based on the pay history of an employee. Rather than securing a high-cost payday loan, the product is designed to help users smooth out a bit of their income if they need their paycheck a bit ahead of their actual direct deposit. It’s also free of fees.

Gusto CEO Joshua Reeves said that “One of the biggest problems is people are oftentimes living paycheck-to-paycheck — they’re either not saving money, or they’re getting stuck in debt accessing things like overdraft fees, or credit card debt, or payday loans.” The hope with Gusto Wallet is that its easy availability and low costs not only attract users, but leave them in much better financial shape than before.

What’s interesting to me is placing these new features in the wider scope of the fintech landscape. It seems that every week, there is another startup launching a consumer credit card, or a new debt product, or another savings app designed to help consumers with their finances. And then every week, we hear about the credit card startup launching a new savings account, or the savings app launching an insurance product.

The math is simple: it’s very, very hard to acquire a customer in financial services, and it’s so competitive that the cost per acquired customer is extremely high (think hundreds of dollars or more per customer). For most of these startups, once you have a customer using one financial product, much like traditional banks, they want you to use all of their other products as well to maximize customer value and amortize those high CAC costs.

Gusto is an interesting play here precisely since it starts at the payroll layer. Banks and other savings apps often try to get you to send your paycheck to their service, since if your money resides there, you are much more likely to use that service’s features. Gusto intercepts that transaction and owns it itself. Plus, because it ultimately is selling subscriptions to payroll and not financial services, it can offer many of these features outright for free.

Reeves said that “This is a future that just seems inevitable, like all this information right now is sitting in silos. How do we give the employee more of that ownership and access through one location?” By combining payroll, 401K planning, savings accounts, debit cards, and more in one place, Gusto is hoping to become the key financial health tool for its employee end users.

That’s the financial side. In addition, Gusto announced today that it is now helping small businesses setup health reimbursement accounts. Under a provision passed by Congress a few years ago, small businesses have a unique mechanism (called QSHERA) to offer health reimbursement to their employees. That program is riven with technicalities and administrivia though. Gusto believes its new offering will help more small businesses create these kinds of programs.

Given Gusto’s small business focus, this year has seen huge changes thanks to the global pandemic. “It’s been an inspiring, challenging, motivating, [and] galvanizing time for the company,” Reeves said. “Normally, I would say [we have] three home bases: New York, SF, [and] Denver. Now we have 1,400 home bases.” That hasn’t stopped the company’s mission, and if anything, has brought many of its employees closer to the small businesses they ultimately serve.

Gusto team, with CEO Joshua Reeves on the left of the second row. Photo via Gusto

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