Cleo, the ‘digital assistant’ that replaces your banking apps, picks up $10M Series A led by Balderton

When Cleo, the London-based ‘digital assistant’ that wants to replace your banking apps, quietly entered the U.S., the company couldn’t have expected to be an instant hit. Many better funded British startups have failed to ‘break America’. However, just four months later, the fintech upstart counts 350,000 users across the pond — claiming more than 600,000 active users in the U.K., U.S. and Canada in total — and says it is adding 30,000 new signups each week. All of which hasn’t gone unnoticed by investors.

Already backed by some of the biggest VC names in the London tech scene — including Entrepreneur First, Moonfruit founder Wendy Tan White, Skype founder Niklas Zennström, Wonga founder Errol Damelin, TransferWise founder Taavet Hinrikus, and LocalGlobe — Cleo is adding Balderton Capital to the list.

The European venture capital firm, which has previously invested in fintech unicorn Revolut and the well-established GoCardless, has led Cleo’s $10 million Series A round, in which I understand most early backers, including Zennström, also followed on. One source told me the Series A gives the hot London startup a post-money valuation of around £30 million (~$39.7m), although Cleo declined to comment.

In a call with co-founder and CEO Barney Hussey-Yeo, he explained that the new capital will be used to continue scaling the company, with further international expansion the name of the game. Hussey-Yeo says Cleo will be targeting Western Europe, the Americas, and Australasia, aiming to launch in a whopping 22 countries in the next 12 months, as Cleo bids to become the “default interface” for millennials interacting and managing their money.

Primarily accessed via Facebook Messenger, the AI-powered chatbot gives insights into your spending across multiple accounts and credit cards, broken down by transaction, category or merchant. In addition, Cleo lets you take a number of actions based on the financial data it has gleaned. You can choose to put money aside for a rainy day or specific goal, send money to your Facebook Messenger contacts, donate to charity, set spending alerts, and more.

However, in the context of traction and Cleo’s broader global ambitions, it is the decision not to become a bank in its own right, that Hussey-Yeo feels is really beginning to bear fruit. His argument has always been that you don’t need to be a bank to become the primary way users interface with their finances, and that without the regulatory and capital burden that becoming a fully licensed bank brings, you can scale much more quickly. I have a feeling that strategy — and its pros and cons — has a long way to play out just yet.

Scientists have moved one step closer to RNA editing, which could be the next stage of CRISPR

Researchers at the prestigious Salk Institute are reporting that they have managed to map the molecular structure of a CRISPR enzyme that could allow scientists to more precisely manipulate functions within cells.

Over the past several years, CRISPR-Cas9 has seized the public imagination for its ability to edit genetic code in a way that may correct defects inside individual cells — potentially healing mutations and preventing the advent of many illnesses.

Specifically, Cas9 enzymes act sort of like scissors, snipping away pieces of genetic code and swapping them out with a replacement. But these enzymes target DNA, which is the fundamental building block for the development of an organism, and there are growing concerns that using the enzyme to essentially reprogram the DNA of a cell may cause more harm than good.

As this report in Scientific American illustrates:

Research published on Monday suggests that’s only the tip of a Titanic-sized iceberg: CRISPR-Cas9 can cause significantly greater genetic havoc than experts thought, the study concludes, perhaps enough to threaten the health of patients who would one day receive CRISPR-based therapy.

The results come hard on the heels of two studies that identified a related issue: Some CRISPR’d cells might be missing a key anti-cancer mechanism and therefore be able to initiate tumors.

CRISPR-CAS9 gene editing complex from Streptococcus pyogenes. The Cas9 nuclease protein uses a guide RNA sequence to cut DNA at a complementary site. Cas9 protein: white surface model. DNA fragments: blue ladder cartoon. RNA: red ladder cartoon. Photo courtesy Getty Images

The new findings from the Salk Institute, published in the journal Cell, provide the detailed molecular structure of CRISPR-Cas13d, an enzyme that can target RNA instead of DNA.

Once thought to just be the delivery mechanism for instructions encoded in DNA for cell operations, RNA is now known to carry out biochemical reactions like enzymes, and serve their own regulatory functions in cells. By identifying an enzyme that can target the mechanisms by which cells operate, rather than the overall plan for cellular function, scientists should be able to come up with even more highly refined treatments with fewer risks.

Put more simply, having editing tools can allow scientists to modify a gene’s activity without making permanent — and potentially dangerous — changes to the gene itself seems like a good option to explore.

“DNA is constant, but what’s always changing are the RNA messages that are copied from the DNA,” says Salk Research Associate Silvana Konermann, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Hanna Gray Fellow and one of the study’s first authors, in a statement. “Being able to modulate those messages by directly controlling the RNA has important implications for influencing a cell’s fate.”

Researchers at Salk first identified the family of enzymes they’re calling CRISPR-Cas13d earlier this year and suggested that this alternate system could recognize and cut RNA. Their first work was around dementia treatment, and the team showed that the tool could be used to correct protein imbalances in cells of dementia patients.

“In our previous paper, we discovered a new CRISPR family that can be used to engineer RNA directly inside of human cells,” said Helmsley-Salk Fellow Patrick Hsu, who is the other corresponding author of the new work. “Now that we’ve been able to visualize the structure of Cas13d, we can see in more detail how the enzyme is guided to the RNA and how it is able to cut the RNA. These insights are allowing us to improve the system and make the process more effective, paving the way for new strategies to treat RNA-based diseases.”

The paper’s other authors were Nicholas J. Brideau and Peter Lotfy of Salk; Xuebing Wu of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research; and Scott J. Novick, Timothy Strutzenberg and Patrick R. Griffin of The Scripps Research Institute, according to a statement.

uBeam wireless power’s CEO Meredith Perry steps aside amidst B2B pivot

After repeatedly missing self-imposed deadlines for progress on its wireless charging-at-a-distance phone case, uBeam’s CEO Meredith Perry has decided to shift out of the CEO position and into a board member and senior advisor role. She’d founded the company in 2011 from her dorm room and brought in over $40 million in funding by selling a wide range of elite investors on her vision for a cordless future, including Andreessen Horowitz, Founders Fund, CrunchFund (disclosure: started by TechCrunch’s founder), Marissa Mayer and Mark Cuban.

Now rather than trying to build its own consumer products like wireless power transmitters and receivers that could charge your phone from across the room using ultrasound frequencies, uBeam is pivoting to licensing its technology for use in other companies’ products.

“Meredith made the decision to step down as CEO. She wanted the company to hire a CEO who had experience in overseeing the rollout of a b2b electronics product,” tweeted one of the startup’s lead investors, Mark Suster of Upfront Capital. Axios’ Dan Primack reported the news earlier today. TechCrunch spoke to Perry but she declined to comment on the record.

For the interim, uBeam’s head of HR and finance Jacqueline McCauley, who joined in 2016, will lead the company. In a blog post today, she announced that “Meredith felt it was time to bring on a seasoned executive in the electronics field to lead the company through its commercialization phase. The company has begun a search for this new CEO.”

uBeam had wowed investors and AllThingsD conference attendees in 2011 with a demo showing it could deliver at least some power over a distance of a few feet. A source at one point said uBeam was holding talks with top retail and dining chains, and insinuated one of the world’s top phone makers might build on its technology.

But the startup made big promises about public demonstrations and the efficiency of its technology it couldn’t keep. In 2015 Perry had told TechCrunch real-life public demos would be ready the next year, which came and went.

In 2016, things started to fall apart. The startup’s former VP of Engineering Paul Reynolds wrote a series of blog posts accusing uBeam’s technology of not working, and noted that “When I left it was an ugly departure, but was reported to the investors as ‘the VP Engineering left for personal reasons’ — personal reasons being ‘sick of putting up with this bullshit.’” He also revealed that uBeam’s original CTO and new CFO had left the company, and that Perry’s co-founder Nora Dweck had sued her over an unfair equity split (and settled).

It wasn’t until 2017 that uBeam gave two limited public demonstrations at the Upfront Ventures conference and to USA Today. It proved that an impractically large uBeam transmitter could deliver enough power over the distance of four to 10 feet to make multiple phones signal they were charging. But the company never opened itself up to more scrutiny regarding just how much power it was delivering, how fast a phone would actually charge and whether the tech could surmount practical issues like phones moving or being blocked by clothing.

Questions began to mount about whether uBeam’s approach could produce a marketable product in a palatable form factor with real utility. In the meantime, larger competitors like WattUp-maker Energous and COTA-maker Ossia have started to make real progress on over the air wireless charging. A recent deep-dive by PC Mag revealed how these two companies are starting to be able to deliver 1 watt of power across a room. But Energous and Ossia executives were careful to be realistic in their predictions about the hurdles to delivering rapid phone charging at a distance and how many years they’d need to get there.

Now with Perry stepping down, uBeam will shift gears and move to the same B2B licensing model Energous and Ossia use. They’ll now be directly competing to get their wireless power transmitters and receivers built into other products such as televisions, sound bar speakers, phone cases and more. But the industry is taking a while to mature. Energous, a public company that had raised $117 million, is trading at $10.62, down from a peak above $22 earlier this year and $15 in mid-2017. Ossia has only raised $25 million.

A bulky early uBeam transmitter prototype

Apple last year announced it was building a less ambitious AirPower near-field wireless charging pad that could juice up an AirPods case sitting on it. That was supposed to arrive in “early 2018,” but there was no mention of it onstage at the recent iPhone XS launch event. Today’s Qi-standard wireless charging pads require direct contact with devices and some fidgeting to get them to connect.

uBeam’s stumbles may make it tough to hire or retain talent, and the organizational disruption amidst direct competition could cost it valuable time as it strives to get its tech ready for licensing. The startup’s audacious idea for a world without wires may still one day come to fruition. There remains big potential in the more technically feasible over the air charging of Internet of Things devices that don’t need much power. But uBeam could serve as a reminder to fellow startups that grand visions might make it easier to secure funding, but can raise expectations that are much harder to fulfill.

The long list of new Alexa devices Amazon announced at its hardware event

Everyone’s favorite trillion-dollar retailer hosted a private event today where they continued to exercise their highly-strategic approach to hardware where they just throw everything at the wall and wait to see what sticks.

We got some new Amazon Echo devices, sure, but there was also an amp, a camera, a clock and a microwave…? There’s a lot to take a look at, including some product refreshes and entirely new verticals, so let’s get to it.

Here are the new devices we heard about today from Amazon.

A new, louder Echo Dot

For a lot of people, the cheap and tinny Echo Dot was their first interaction with a home assistant. The frequently discounted $50 device is getting an updated look and a 75 percent more powerful speaker so that it can keep the tunes bumping.

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An Echo for your car

If you’re thinking about places where you actually need hands-free voice controls, your car is probably one of the only places. Amazon wants to get Alexa into your ride and it’s doing so with Echo Auto, a $50 dashboard accessory that you can ask to pick tunes, call people or shut off some appliance you accidentally left on.

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The booming Echo Sub

The Echo Sub may look like a giant HomePod, but it’s all about that bass. You can pair the giant speaker with and Echo or two to build out a more robust sound system. It’s $130 so the company is seriously undercutting competitors like Sonos with its sound system ambitions, it’s unclear, for now, how the audio stacks up though. We’ll have to take a closer listen.

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The live-recording Fire TV Recast

One of Amazon’s big ambitions has not only been to get its devices into your home but to take over your TV. It’s a great piece of gadget real estate to have especially when the company is looking to push Prime Video. The company’s ambitions with the $230 Fire TV Recast are focused on live-recording TV and beaming that video to other devices you have. It connects to a digital antenna and can be placed anywhere in your house, then the DVR recordings can be streamed to your Fire TV, Echo Show, Echo Spot or iOS/Android devices.

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A slicker Echo Show

If any of Amazon’s Echo devices were in need of a design refresh this was it, the Echo Show was the first of its kind but with Smart Display devices from Google starting to emerge and Facebook still hard at work on their own device, it’s clear that the company needed to up their game. The $229 device now has a 10-inch screen and works with Skype so you won’t have to voice call from the Alexa app.

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A new Ring security camera

Amazon bought Ring earlier this year and at its hardware event, it introduced a new device called the Stick Up Camera that is meant to be an indoor or outdoor security camera. The camera comes in wired and battery-operated versions and goes for $180.

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The speaker-less Echo Input

One of the best features of the Echo Dot was that you could output audio to an existing speaker system. Amazon showed off a new device today that does just that. The $35 device is going to be something you might see pop up in third party speaker bundles the company says.

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A wildly unnecessary Alexa microwave

One of the more outlandish product releases of the day was an Amazon Basics microwave with Alexa controls and Dash button functionality so you can order more popcorn. It doesn’t have voice controls built-in but it will communicate with a nearby Echo so you can ask it to add a minute to cooking something if that’s really how you want to do it. Thankfully, it’s just $60 so it’s a cheap dystopia at least.

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An updated Echo Plus

Like the new Echo Dot, the Echo Plus is getting a fabric redesign. The $150 pro Echo still has its smart hub and one of the new features that will enable is offline commands so if your WiFi goes out you’ll still be able to turn off your lights before bed. The new Echo Plus will also ship with an integrated temperature sensor so you can ask it for the temp inside or build a routine where it, say, turns on the fan when it gets too hot inside.

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An Alexa Clock that visualizes your timers

This was another sort of weird one. The $30 Wall Clock pairs with your Alexa devices and visualizes any alarms or timers you have set up with its ring of 60 LEDs. It’s a cheap device and it’s nice to be able to visualize things that you’d otherwise have to ask Alexa for updates on, but it still feels like a bit of an odd release.

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The very pluggable Echo Smart Plug

Every smart home company has a smart plug, why doesn’t Amazon? They thought that too and now they have one! It’s $25 which is pretty standard and can turn things on and off.

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The Echo Link and Link Amp

This one was a bit surprising and showcases that Amazon is pretty serious about taking over your sound system. The $200 Echo Link connects to your receiver or amplifier and adds a bunch of inputs so you can connect speakers to it while the $300 Echo Link Amp also features a built-in 60W 2-channel amplifier to improve sound quality.

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Updates to Alexa

It wasn’t all hardware announcements at the event, though to be honest it was mostly hardware announcements at the event. We also heard about some new updates coming to Alexa, including Hunches a system where Alexa will learn about certain smart home habits and offer occasional suggestions if it gets the feeling you forgot to do something like turn off an outdoor porch light before you go to bed. Another Alexa feature is Guard mode which can be set when users are away and will listen for more than just its name, including noises like glass breaking.

 

That’s a wrap. Damn, that’s a lot of devices. Check back as we’ll be taking some of these gadget for a spin with some hands-on time, with about 13 new pieces of hardware being released in rapid fire succession, we might need a few extra hands.

Social Capital will no longer raise outside capital

Former Facebook executive turned venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya announced this morning that his firm, Social Capital, would no longer raise outside capital.

The firm will transition into a technology holding company by the end of 2018 and will invest $50 million to $250 million off a “multi-billion dollar balance sheet of internal capital only.”

“[We] will focus our efforts on businesses where we can make a difference, in keeping with our mission and values,” Palihapitiya wrote in the announcement.

“Solving hard problems is what we started to do and solving hard problems is what we need to do more of. This requires a radical form of self-belief — not necessarily about our ability to solve them but in our desire to commit ourselves to the long, sometimes uncomfortable path towards progress.”

A spokesperson for Social Capital declined to provide additional information on the firm’s transition.

The new chapter for Social Capital will involve more exits. Several partners have departed the firm in recent months and Palihapitiya writes that “several more are in the process” of leaving.

As far as the reason for transitioning out of VC investing, he says the business had drifted too far from its “core mission” and that he’d tired of the status quo.

“As far as the business of investing goes, Social Capital was firing on all cylinders. We were the second fastest firm in our industry to pass $1B of assets, was managing more than $2B of capital, and investors were clamoring to get in. However, as the firm grew, I found us incrementally drifting away from our core mission and our strategy was increasingly that of a traditional investment firm. It became harder to take the risks we took in 2011 and it became easier to play the same game as every other VC — raise a fund, collect fees, manage limited partners, deploy the capital in obvious things, rinse, repeat. While this is a very reasonable path for most people, it wasn’t right for me and my core team.”

 

GoPro kills the Session camera cube

Three years after its introduction, GoPro is killing its Session camera line.

The cute little cube was dropped today after GoPro revealed its latest lineup of Hero7 cameras.

When the Hero4 Session was first revealed in 2015, it was the action camera company’s first major redesign and signaled some dramatic ethos shifts, some that ultimately found their way to other GoPro cameras and others that it seems to be taking to the grave. It was the first GoPro to have a waterproof/shockproof casing built-in, it dropped the user replaceable battery and it significantly reduced the camera’s footprint.

It was not designed to be the “cheap camera” and was initially positioned at a $399 price point near the high-end of its lineup at the time. The company ultimately failed to really differentiate the Session form factor and despite an ambitious introduction it just kind of ended up becoming the company’s low-end product that didn’t work with any of the existing GoPro accessories that were being sold.

The writing was on the wall when the company neglected to refresh the hardware at its Hero6 event last year, but the Hero5 Session kept chugging along as the entry-level GoPro until the company showed off a new $199 Hero camera in March.

The Hero5 Session is not alone singing its swan song, the Hero6 Black and Hero5 Black have also been officially discontinued replaced by the Hero7 White, Silver and Black editions.

Exhibit for free in Startup Alley at Disrupt Berlin 2018

Disrupt Berlin 2018 takes place on 29-30 November, and we simply can’t wait to see you all there. We always get super stoked about Startup Alley, the Disrupt exhibition hall, where hundreds of innovative early-stage startups display the very latest tech products, platforms and services. Now, the only thing better than exhibiting in Startup Alley is to do it for free. Yes…free.

Here’s the deal. We’re searching for founders of exceptional startups to be TC Top Picks. If you should earn that title, you’ll receive a FREE Startup Alley Exhibitor Package. All the benefits of exhibiting in Startup Alley with none of the cost. The deadline to apply to be a TC Top Pick is 28 September, so, get ‘er done!

If you’re not familiar with Startup Alley, know this: it’s a breeding ground for opportunity. Consider what Vlad Larin, co-founder of Zeroqode, had to say about his Startup Alley experience:

“Startup Alley was a great networking opportunity. It was full of all the people you could possibly hope to meet at a tech conference. They spanned diverse backgrounds and industries. We talked to people looking for partnerships, investments, new ideas, collaboration and inspiration.”

Here’s the first Top Pick qualification hurdle you need to clear. Your startup must fall into one of the tech categories below:

  • AI/Machine Learning
  • Blockchain
  • CRM/Enterprise
  • E-commerce
  • Education
  • Fintech
  • Healthtech/Biotech
  • Hardware, Robotics, IoT
  • Mobility
  • Gaming

Our selection process is highly curated, and TechCrunch editors will review and vet each qualified application thoroughly. They’ll choose up to five startups to represent each category.

Each Top Pick receives one Startup Alley Exhibitor Package, which includes a one-day exhibit space, three Disrupt Berlin Founder Passes, access to CrunchMatch (our free investor-to-startup matching platform) and access to the Disrupt press list. With all these tools and resources at your disposal, you’ll be an unstoppable networking machine.

And who knows? The attendees in Startup Alley might even vote your startup as a Wild Card company, which would let you participate in the Startup Battlefield pitch competition for a $50,000 cash prize. That’s exactly what happened to RecordGram at Disrupt NY 2017, and it went on to win the grand prize.

Along with lots of attention from media outlets roaming through the Alley, Top Picks also receive a three-minute interview with a TechCrunch editor on the Showcase Stage, which we promote across our social media platforms. That kind of exposure has life-changing potential, and it can help take your business to the next level.

Disrupt Berlin 2018 takes place 29-30 November, and we hope to see you exhibiting in Startup Alley — for free. Remember, the deadline to apply to be a TC Top Pick is 28 September. Seize the day and the opportunity!

Meituan-Dianping’s IPO off to a good start as shares climb 7% on debut

Meituan-Dianping (3690.HK) enjoyed a strong debut today in Hong Kong, a sign that investors are confident in the Tencent-backed company’s prospects despite its cash-burning growth strategy, heavy competition and a sluggish Hong Kong stock market.

During morning trading, Meituan’s shares reached a high of HKD$73.85 (about $9.41), a 7% increase over its initial public offering price of HKD$69. When Meituan reportedly set a target valuation of $55 billion for its debut, it triggered concerns that the company, which bills itself a “one-stop super app” for everything from food delivery to ticket bookings, as overconfident.

While Meituan, the owner of Mobile, is the leading online marketplace for services in China, it faces formidable competition from Alibaba’s Ele.me and operating on tight margins and heavy losses as it spends money on marketing and user acquisition costs. As it prepared for its IPO, Meituan was also under the shadow of underwhelming Hong Kong debuts by Xiaomi and China Tower. Like Xiaomi, Meituan is listed under a new dual-class share structure designed to attract tech companies by allowing them to give weighted voting rights to founders.

The sponsors of Meituan’s IPO are Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.