CowryWise micro-savings service opens high yield government bonds to everyday Nigerians

In emerging market countries where economic volatility is a way of life, there aren’t a lot of relatively safe options for members of the burgeoning middle class to park their money.

For instance, countries like Nigeria have experienced a tremendous growth in the number of citizens entering the middle class, which now accounts for about 23% of the population (it’s around 50% in the U.S.), according to a recent article citing the African Development Bank.

While Nigeria now faces some significant headwinds from a weak domestic currency (the naira), high interest rates and a manufacturing recession, there are ways that local investment can both protect the wealth that’s been created and encourage investment domestically to potentially spur development.

At least, that’s the conclusion that college friends Razaq Ahmed and Edward Popoola came to while they were thinking about opportunities for new financial services options in their home country of Nigeria.

The two men, Ahmed with a background in finance and Popoola in computer science, are launching a company called CowryWise that gives Nigerian investors a way to save their money by investing in high yield government bonds. The rates on those products are high enough to absorb the wild swings in value of the naira and still provide a healthy return for investors, according to Ahmed.

Set to present at this year’s demo day from Y Combinator, CowryWise is one of a number of startups that Y Combinator has backed coming from the African continent and an example of the wellspring of entrepreneurial talent that is flourishing in sub-Saharan Africa.

Using CowryWise a customer would just have to sign up with their email address and phone number and link their bank account up to the CowryWise platform.

There are already roughly 57 million savings accounts in Nigeria and 32 million unique bank users. By investing in the bonds, these savers gain access to interest rates that range between 10% and 17%, according to Ahmed.

“The bonds… are similar to the treasuries issued by the U.S. government, which is A rated,” says Ahmed. Even if there were foreign currency risk from investing in the Naira, the inflation rate is currently around 11%, according to Ahmed. Given that most of the bonds are yielding interest rates on the higher end, it’s just a better deal for consumers, he said.

“There’s more value in keeping the money in government treasury bills,” than in the bank, says Ahmed.

For Ahmed and Popoola, the decision to launch CowryWise was a way to bring investment opportunities to a retail investor that hadn’t been able to access the best that the financial system in Nigeria had to offer.

To target these retail investors, meant leveraging technology to scale quickly and cheaply across the country. The two men started developing their service in January and tested it in February and March with friends and family.

CowryWise isn’t without competitors. Another Nigerian company, Piggybank, recently raised $1.1 million for its own automated savings solution. Like CowryWise Piggybank also taps into government bonds to offer better rates to its investors.

That company already has 53,000 registered users — who have saved in excess of $5 million since 2016, according to a release.

There are subtle differences between the two. Piggybank touts its ability to save through bonds, but it is primarily working with banks to get Nigerians saving money. Cowrywise is using Meristem Financial (Ahmed’s old employer) as the asset manager for its investments into the bond market.

Another difference is the time customers’ funds are locked up. Piggybank has a three month savings period required before investors can withdraw funds, while CowryWise will let its customers withdraw cash immediately, according to this teardown of the two services.

Ultimately, there’s a large enough market for multiple players, and a need for better financial services, according to Ahmed.

“We kept having interest from retail investors on why they want to do micro-savings and micro-investment, but they didn’t have the required capital,” Ahmed says. “That was the major reason for staring the company. Why not democratize the assets? And make them available in investments and savings in this traditional instrument?”

What should competitive Fortnite look like?

Last weekend, Epic Games put forth its first true effort at official competitive Fortnite Battle Royale. It was a disaster.

The private hosts used for the tournament were about as laggy as could be, with pro players getting eliminated simply because they couldn’t move. This tournament was for a total prize of $250K. That’s big money, and big frustration for pro players who were essentially eliminated by the whims of the server gods. But on top of the lag, the whole thing was, well, boring. A cardinal sin in any sport.

The fact is that when you put 100 pro players in a lobby together and tell them that the last man standing wins, most of them will simply sit in a fort and stay safe as long as possible. This does not generate a whole lot of action.

And when there is action on the map, there was no way for a spectator to know about it. There are, after all, a hundred people to watch out for, and jumping from one engagement to another is not only difficult but lacks a certain narrative quality, making the whole thing feel scattered.

It seems clear that a guided mode or hotspot indicator would go a long way to improving the viewing experience. Being told where the fighting was or could be happening or having a guide that flagged these opportunities could work. There could also be a documentary-style concept that followed a few top players on their entire run, with the hope that they’ll find action and maybe even be pushed into conflict to impress viewers.

Epic recently published a post-mortem on the event, outlining ways that the publisher can improve on the tournament. They’ve also set forth the rules for this weekend’s event, proposing a score-based tournament where both eliminations and Victory Royales count toward players’ overall score. Whether or not this will incentivize more action will be determined following the event.

It’s also worth noting that Epic scheduled today’s event during the Fortnite Friday tournament. Fortnite Friday, hosted by popular YouTuber Keemstar and facilitated by UMG, was a $20,000 elimination-based tournament with top players. In this week of the Summer Skirmish Series, which is worth a total of $8 million, Epic is choosing to host a two-day tournament, effectively rendering Fortnite Friday playerless.

It doesn’t have to be this way, Epic. I know that the concept of 100 of the best players in the world dropping into one map sounds incredible. It does. It sounds great, in theory. But in practice, it’s just a disorderly live stream of a bunch of highly talented players sitting around in bases, or, worse, lagging to the point of being frozen.

And, an invitational tournament (that goes terribly wrong) doesn’t scream “inclusive,” which is what Epic repeatedly says competitive Fortnite should be.

There is another way, and it’s the same way that Fortnite players have been competing for months now. A kill race.

But let’s back up a bit.

What should competitive Fortnite be?

Right now, Fortnite is played by 100 people in a single lobby, and “winning” the game is defined by being the last survivor(s). This can be played in solo mode, with 100 individuals facing off against the storm and each other, or in 50 teams of two (Duos), or 25 teams of four (Squads).

Video games often get tweaks for the competitive scene, whether it’s limiting the resources/gear that players can use or reducing the number of maps that can be played. When skill level is that high, most games must make changes to allow for true competition.

Given it’s still early days, Fortnite Battle Royale featuring purely pro players simply hasn’t worked.

But as it stands now, there are roughly two schools of thought.

Whoever gets the most eliminations wins.

Pros:

  • Super fun to watch
  • Requires skill
  • Inclusive to non-pro players

Cons:

  • A lot of RNG
  • More time-consuming

Gamebattle sites like CMG and UMG have been running minor tournaments for quite a while now using this format. Fortnite Friday, arguably one of the biggest weekly tournaments, also follows this format.

Here’s how it works: Individual players load up in a Duo match on the same team, or teams of two load up into a Squad match, also on the same team, and race for who can get the most kills in a public match.

This means that these opposing players can’t kill each other, but can keep track of each other’s kills and placement on the map. When you’re racing for kills, understanding where the other duo is fighting and how many kills they have is important information.

Given only four players are competing at a time, that means the rest of the 92 people on the map are regular Fortnite players.

This is where RNG comes into play. RNG is a term used in gaming that means Random Number Generator. It is the gaming equivalent of Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic.” It essentially means there is some level of random luck involved in the game. For example, you might land in a place where there is usually a weapon or chest, but that weapon or chest isn’t there, leaving you vulnerable to other players who land around you.

Great players can work around or overcome a certain level of RNG, but if the opposing team comes up on a squad of noobs and your team rolls up on a squad of great players, the tide of the match will inevitably shift against you, and may even result in a loss.

This is the cost of the 2v2 format that has become popularized with the vast majority of Fortnite competitive players.

While it takes more time to have 100 players compete four at a time, this format allows the viewer to watch no more than four players as they traverse the map and seek eliminations. At most, the audience has to follow along with four separate stories on the map. In most cases, duos play together, which brings that number down to two. In either case, it’s much easier than following along with the stories of 50 separate teams.

Traditional Battle Royale

Pros:

  • Less RNG
  • Amazing build fights
  • Fair, in the sense that players are fighting players of equal skill level

Cons:

  • It’s boring
  • Not inclusive
  • Confusing and scattered for viewers

This format was used during the Ninja Live tournament, the Fortnite ProAm tournament and, most recently, during the $8 million Summer Skirmish series, hosted by Epic Games.

Here’s how it works: 100 pro players/streamers pair off into teams of two and all load into the same lobby, with the goal of lasting the longest.

As I said, Fortnite Battle Royale is built around the idea that there would be a sole survivor, but doesn’t predicate that survival on a certain level of skill. In other words, it’s relatively easy to hide, avoid fights and survive to the near end of a game, or potentially even win. It doesn’t take much skill to squat in a bush or set traps in a house and sit in the bathroom.

Obviously, with pro players, there will be gunfights, and those gunfights should be pretty interesting. But they are few and far between, and are difficult to predict and capture for the live stream.

This also excludes regular players from being a part of the action. Yes, it’s a risk to construct a competitive scene on the backs of public gameplay. But it’s also never been done before in the pro gaming world. And it is the best way to include public players into the competitive scene. A regular player is far more likely to get interested in the competitive scene knowing that, on Friday or Saturday, they have the chance to play against the world’s greatest competitors.

The best way to build on the momentum of Fortnite’s popularity, as well as support the community as a whole, is to build out tournaments focused on eliminations within public lobbies.

It makes sense for Epic to want to control that experience, and it certainly makes sense for Epic to want the competitive scene to fit within the game they built, which is a Battle Royale. But thus far, competitive Battle Royale featuring purely pro players simply hasn’t worked. And it feels slightly underhanded for Epic to barrel over Fortnite Friday, given that the more competitive tournaments around Fortnite, the better for the game.

The community is here, telling you what it wants, Epic. And in true Fortnite fashion, if you build it, they will come.

Tempow’s Bluetooth stack can improve your TV setup

French startup Tempow has been working on improving the Bluetooth protocol at a low level to make it more versatile. The company is introducing a new audio profile for your TV or set-top box.

TV and set-top box manufacturers can license Tempow’s software and integrate new features in their devices. It works with regular Bluetooth chips, but it opens up new possibilities.

In particular, Tempow has been working on a one-to-many pairing model. You can pair multiple Bluetooth speakers with your TV to create a wireless surround system using good old Bluetooth speakers.

The reason why soundbars slowly replaced 5.1 systems is that you don’t have to run cables on the floor to the back speakers. Tempow solves that, and Bluetooth speakers are much cheaper than a bunch of Sonos speakers.

With Tempow’s stack, you can also stream different audio tracks to different devices. In other words, you could pair multiple headphones with your TV and watch a movie in different languages. If your kid is too young to read subtitles, you no longer need to make compromises.

You can also configure each speaker individually so that you can reproduce the same sound profile across the board, even if you’re using speakers from different brands.

The startup first worked on an audio profile for smartphones. For instance, if you have a Moto X4 phone, you can pair it with multiple Bluetooth speakers at once. With today’s news, the company is expanding beyond smartphones. But it’s still about Bluetooth.

Public shareholders got high today on Tilray, the first marijuana company to IPO on Nasdaq

Tilray, a five-year-old, British Columbia-based medical cannabis company that sells its products to patients, researchers, pharmacies and even governments, saw its shares get high (sorry) on the Nasdaq today, after the company priced 9 million shares at $17 apiece and watched them soar, closing at $22.39, a jump of slightly more than 32 percent.

The company raised $153 million in the offering, capital it will reportedly use in part to fuel its marijuana growing and processing facilities in Ontario.

It was a huge win for the cannabis industry, which has been growing like a weed (sorry again). Related startups attracted $593 million in funding last year, twice what they raised in 2016 and a meaningful jump from the $121 million invested in related startups in 2014, according to CB Insights. Among the different types of companies to garner investor dollars, shows CB Insights’ research, are: startups focused on research or distribution of medical marijuana products (as with Tilray); tools for ensuring compliance with state and federal marijuana laws; startups focused on payments for marijuana companies; startups collecting data and producing marketing insights about the industry; and companies creating novel strains and types of marijuana using new farming techniques.

Tilray’s performance today is also a very positive signal for Seattle-based Privateer Holdings, a private equity firm that owned 100 percent of the startup as it headed into its offering. In fact, Privateer’s CEO, Brendan Kennedy, is also the CEO of Tilray. (Cannabis companies are weird.)

Privateer has itself raised more than $200 million since its founding in 2010, including from Founders Fund and Subversive Capital, and it has used that money to finance, acquire and incubate companies. While it incubated Tilray, for example, it also owns Leafly, a large cannabis information resource that it acquired in 2011. Another of its portfolio companies is Marley Natural, a Bob Marley-branded cannabis line that it launched in partnership with the Marley’s estate and that sells a line of cannabis strains, smoking accessories and even body care products.

It isn’t exactly clear how much Privateer had sunk into Tilray (we have a press request into the company). Tilray announced C$60 million in Series A funding back in February, money it said had come from a “group of leading global institutional investors.” But according to its S-1, it was solely owned until today by Privateer.

What we do know: Tilray remains unprofitable, reporting a net loss of $7.8 million last year. The company also cannot sell its products in the U.S. market, given that marijuana remains illegal under federal law, even though 30 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized it in some form. The reason: The U.S. government classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, meaning it’s considered to have no medical value and a high potential for abuse.

That could change, but as this Vox explainer makes clear, a review process for the current schedule would need to be initiated by either the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services or the Attorney General, and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions despises marijuana, saying once that “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.

He seems to be among a dwindling minority. According to a Gallup Poll published last October, 64 percent of Americans favor legalization.

Yelp partners with event management startup Gather to make planning your next party easier

Event management software company Gather today announced the introduction of its Gather Booking Network, and inaugural partners Yelp and EVENTUp. The network is designed to help party go-ers, venues and event planners connect more easily and start celebrating sooner.

Gather was founded in 2013 by CEO and co-founder Nick Miller, Alex Lassiter (SVP of Sales) and Tom Merrihew (VP of Engineering) after their experience organizing corporate events for a consulting group led them head-first into the dark, mostly disorganized world of event planning.

“We kind of fell into and uncovered what is a manual and disorganized process,” CEO and co-founder Nick Miller told TechCrunch. “On both sides of the table. For both the person planning the event but also for the folks who work at the restaurants and venues. We set out to fix the problem.”

Since its creation, Gather has teamed up with more than 12,500 venues and restaurants across the United States and expanded its three person team to 95 Atlanta-based employees. The company helps coordinate a wide range of events, ranging from corporate gatherings to full-blown weddings. As part of its expansion and to refine its services, Gather raised a $2.5 million Series A round in 2016 led by Ryan Floyd of Storm Ventures and a strategic investment and partnership with Vista Equity Partners in 2017.

Now, the company’s sights are on growing its booking network to provide a one-stop shop for event planning needs.

After the company acquired the venue and event space company EVENTUp in June — a move that more than doubled the number of venues and restaurants in its roster — the announcement today of its collaboration with Yelp is bringing its services to the average party goer as well.

“The Gather partnership gives Yelp users a single destination to search and book restaurants and venues, no matter the party size or timeframe,” Chad Richard, Yelp’s Senior Vice President of Business and Corporate Development, told TechCrunch in an email. “Diners on Yelp have been able to book reservations weeks in advance or snag a table at the last-minute using Yelp Nowait, but to date we haven’t had a solution for diners looking to reserve for large groups or special events.”

As Gather continues looking forward, Miller says that the company has plans in the coming weeks to announce further partnerships for its booking network, as well as work to develop more efficient services for the platform, including real-time booking.

PureSec exits stealth to secure serverless code

PureSec, a startup out of Israel emerged from stealth today to provide a way to make serverless computing more secure.

Serverless computing reduces programming to writing functions, so that when a certain event happens, it triggers an automated action. The cloud vendor takes care of the underlying infrastructure and developers just write the code. It may sound like Shangri La for tech, but in reality there are still security concerns.

You might think that a process that lasts only milliseconds wouldn’t be subject to conventional kinds of attacks, but the fact is serverless functions are designed to take human checks and balances out of the equation, says company co-founder Ory Segal, and if you don’t set up the functions correctly you could be vulnerable.

As with any type of cloud security, there is a shared security model with serverless computing. On the vendor side, they ensure their data centers and systems are secure, but at the application level, it’s up to the developer. Certainly we have seen many instances where applications have been left exposed and data has leaked.

Segal says the function may be only a few lines of code triggering an action, but the action usually involves interacting with one or more external services. When that happens, there is an opportunity to manipulate the function and make it do something it wasn’t designed to do such as inject malicious code.

The product looks at your serverless code and lets you know which vulnerabilities you may have left exposed. It can even fix those problems for you if you wish. It also allows you to configure a security profile for your code from a dashboard and see a log of activity to track problems when they occur.

Screenshot: PureSec

Segal says when the company launched in 2016, it was just a couple of years after AWS launched its Lambda serverless product. At the time, it was not widely used or understood. Serverless computing remains very early in its development, but in order to grow it needs a set of underlying tools like security to really take off.

PureSec is built from the ground up to provide serverless security, and itself is built on top of serverless architecture. As Segal points out, traditional security products require underlying infrastructure to deploy something either on the server or network. With serverless architecture, there is no underlying architecture on which to deploy until event is triggered and the cloud provider figures out what compute, memory and storage is required to complete the process.

The company has been in stealth mode up until today and has raised $3 million in seed investment, according to Crunchbase. It has 7 employees based in Tel Aviv.

Sweden’s Engaging Care raises $800,000 for its digital healthcare SaaS

Engaging Care, a Swedish heathtech startup co-founded by Charlotta Tönsgård, who was previously CEO of online doctor app Min Doktor before being asked to step down, has raised $800,000 in “pre-seed” funding to continue building out its digital healthcare SaaS. Backing the burgeoning company are a host of well-established angel investors in the region.

They include Hampus Jakobsson (venture partner at BlueYard Capital and co-founder of TAT, which sold to Blackberry for $150 million), Sophia Bendz (EIR at Atomico and the former Global Marketing Director at Spotify), Erik Byrenius (founder of OnlinePizza, an online food ordering company sold to Delivery Hero) and Neil Murray’s The Nordic Web Ventures.

With the aim of dragging healthcare into the digital age, but in a more patient-friendly and patient-centred way than tradition electronic medical record systems, Engaging Care is developing a SaaS and accompanying apps to bring together patients, healthcare providers and partners to be “smarter and better connected”. Unlike software and digital services that work outside existing healthcare systems, the startup’s wares are billed as being designed to work within them. It is initially targeting people with long-term health conditions.

“There has been tremendous progress made in the healthcare sector over the last decade. New advanced drugs, new methods for surgery and other treatments, but how healthcare workers share important information with the patient and the interaction between caregiver and patient still basically happens the same way it did 50 years ago,” Tönsgård tells me.

“The systems of today are still designed around the doctor – even though we might spend as little as 15 minutes with him or her every year, but hours, days and years alone with our condition. On top of this, most western healthcare systems are struggling financially, with an ageing population, more prevalence of chronic diseases and a shift in expectations from the public, adding to the challenges”.

In order to maintain current levels of service and make room for medical breakthroughs and new treatments that are happening at an increasing pace, Tönsgård argues that individual patients and healthcare providers need to work together in a different way. And that begins with empowering patients to better understand and take greater control of their health conditions and treatment — which is where a platform like Engaging Care can help.

“Our ambition is to become the first truly global healthcare system; supporting us as individuals to be more in control, and to make better decisions about our healthcare and to provide digital tools for healthcare providers to share knowledge and use their resources more efficiently,” she says.

“Our goal is to become the end-users first point of contact, but the clinics/healthcare providers are our customers. Right now we’re targeting specific clinics, but in the end, our platform will support any type of healthcare”.

The first “vertical” Engaging Care is exploring is patients who have gone through an organ transplant. “It might sound like a strange place to start, but it’s actually perfect in many ways,” says Tönsgård. “Both in terms of the possibility to make a difference for the patients and the care teams, but also in terms of a landing pod when going international”.

This has seen the company work with a small number of clinics in Sweden that are performing organ transplants to put patients through a pilot of the software. The first stages of commercial discussions are underway and Tönsgård is hopeful of securing the first customer this Fall, which will coincide with a full launch of the Engaging Care platform. “In parallel, we’re exploring multiple options for which verticals to kick off next,” she adds.

Meanwhile, Murray of The Nordic Web Ventures concedes that Engaging Care’s goal to be the first platform that enables a truly global healthcare system is “incredibly lofty,” but says that if anyone has the “drive, passion, ambition and guts to pull this off then it’s Charlotta and team”.

The Accel team is coming to Disrupt Berlin

Every time Accel invests in a startup, it’s an instant positive sign in the startup community. The venture capital firm has a rich history with decades of investments in successful startups. That’s why we’re excited to have four partners at Accel on stage at Disrupt Berlin.

Philippe Botteri, Sonali De Rycker, Luciana Lixandru and Harry Nelis will all relocate their partner meeting to our stage.

Accel is a different VC firm for many reasons. First, while the firm started in Silicon Valley, the team bet early on the European startup scene, back in 2001. With an office in London, the team keeps an eye on the entire continent for investment opportunities.

The firm has invested in Deliveroo, BlaBlaCar, Supercell, Spotify and so many others. With such a good track record, it’s clear that some recent investments are also going to become massive companies — nobody has realized it just yet.

In November, we will have four Accel partners on stage to discuss the firm’s investment thesis, each partner’s current obsessions and their collective thoughts on the startup scene in Europe.

It’s going to be a great way to hear the granularity of a team with strong beliefs. I’m sure they don’t always agree on everything, but somehow they manage to invest together as a firm.

TechCrunch is coming back to Berlin to talk with the best and brightest people in tech from Europe and the rest of the world. In addition to fireside chats and panels, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield Europe to win the coveted cup.

Grab your ticket to Disrupt Berlin before August 1st as prices will increase after that. The conference will take place on November 29-30.


Philippe Botteri, Partner, Accel

Philippe Botteri focuses on SaaS, enterprise and marketplace businesses.

Philippe led Accel’s investments in DocuSign (IPO), PeopleDoc, Qubit, Algolia, BlaBlaCar, Doctolib and Zenaton. He also works closely with the team at Fiverr and CrowdStrike. Prior to joining Accel, Philippe was with Bessemer, where he worked with the firm’s SaaS and Ad Tech investments including Cornerstone OnDemand (public), Eloqua (public) and Criteo (public).

Philippe is from Paris and graduated from Ecole Polytechnique, where he is a member of the Entrepreneurship Advisory Board, and Ecole des Mines.

Sonali De Rycker, Partner, Accel

Sonali De Rycker focuses on consumer, software and financial services businesses.

She led Accel’s investments in Avito (acquired by Naspers), Lyst, Spotify, Wallapop, KupiVIP, Calastone, Catawiki, JobToday, Wonga, Shift Technology and SilverRail. She is also an independent director of Match Group (public). Prior to Accel, Sonali was with Atlas Ventures.

Sonali grew up in Mumbai and graduated from Bryn Mawr College and Harvard Business School.

Luciana Lixandru, Partner, Accel

Luciana Lixandru focuses on consumer internet, software and marketplace businesses.

She helped lead Accel’s investments and ongoing work in UiPath, Deliveroo, Framer, Avito, Catawiki, Vinted and others. She is also an independent director of Showroomprive (public). Prior to Accel, Luciana was with Summit Partners.

Luciana is from Romania and graduated from Georgetown University.

Harry Nelis, Partner, Accel

Harry Nelis focuses on consumer internet, financial services and software companies.

He led Accel’s investments in CHECK24, Funding Circle, KAYAK (IPO; acquired by Priceline), Showroomprive (IPO), WorldRemit, Celonis, Callsign, Instana and others.

Harry started his career as an engineer at Hewlett-Packard before founding the venture-backed software company E-motion.

Harry is from the Netherlands and graduated from Delft University of Technology and Harvard Business School.