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Surging homegrown talent and VC spark Italy’s tech renaissance – TechCrunch

As Italy reinstates many COVID-19 restrictions, the country’s tech ecosystem is watching and waiting to see what the wider effects of the emergency will be. Italy’s ecosystem for tech venture capital and startups has been in development for years and has made decent strides in the last decade. Will the coronavirus stymie their efforts? Put […]…

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As Italy reinstates many COVID-19 restrictions, the country’s tech ecosystem is watching and waiting to see what the wider effects of the emergency will be. Italy’s ecosystem for tech venture capital and startups has been in development for years and has made decent strides in the last decade. Will the coronavirus stymie their efforts?

Put off by high taxes and paperwork in their home country, many Italian entrepreneurs moved to places like London in years past to startup. Indeed, the Italian Ministry of Economic Development and the Italian Trade & Investment Agency in London have even been known to fund Italian entrepreneurs abroad to help them gain more experience. There are an estimated 100,000 Italians already living in London, attracting the likes of Riccardo Zacconi, co-founder of King.com (maker of Candy Crush) and Simon Beckerman of social shopping app Depop.

Rome has more than 20 incubators/accelerators and many established VCs; because of its lower costs compared to other European cities, it’s become a major base for startups. However, while many startups exist in cities like Turin, Bologna, Naples and Rome, Milan is generally seen as a bigger ecosystem because of its mercantile culture and a significant share of VC funds.

The good news: VC funding in Italy has grown. In 2019, Italian startups attracted $850 million, compared to just €140 million in 2017, as the VC ecosystem became less insular and more international investors arrived. Milan tends to attract the lion’s share of VC funding — in 2019, startups located there received €311 million, according to NGP Capital. In 2019, about 300 deals were venture-backed.

Even so, Italy is still very much behind its European counterparts, which means founders tend to move their HQ to fundraise elsewhere, while keeping their comparatively cheaper workforce at home. Italy continues to have structural problems for startups: Credit is based on a company’s financial history, so loans are off-limits.

However, in June 2020, the Italian government sponsored a €1 billion investment program aimed at the native startup ecosystem, creating a new venture arm: CDP Venture Capital.

This has seven different funds under management, including a VC fund-of-funds, “Series A/B matching” funds and acceleration funds. It has also launched two different acceleration projects aimed at supporting SMEs and startups with mentoring, networking and support services.

Additionally, the Ministry of Economic Development launched an initiative called The Italian Startup Act that bundled previously passed legislation to incentivize the Italian ecosystem with tools like tax breaks on early-stage investments and R&D credits, plus a startup visa to attract talent.

Entrepreneurs still face plenty of red tape, however, which is tough enough for Italians, let alone outsiders who might consider relocating. And skeptical observers are concerned that some of the government-backed initiatives look like the government is trying to pick winners, which rarely ends well. Plus, there is controversy about how a €209 billion recovery fund from the European Union, earmarked for the country’s 11,000 startups, will be spent.

But the talent pool is increasing, with Italian universities attracting more overseas students with English-language-based courses and big corporates investing. Microsoft has announced a $1.5 billion investment plan, which includes its first cloud data center in the country. NTT data is investing in Calabria. Amazon has invested in new infrastructure. And Apple has sponsored a Naples-based developer academy.

With a population of 60 million (for comparison, U.K.: 66 million, Germany: 83 million, Spain: 46 million), Italy is not lacking in people, but GDP per capita is a low $34,000. It has an estimated 67 VC funds, with 18 of them started since 2015.

Notable startups from Italy include MoneyFarm (which has raised $127 million from United Ventures, Allianz), Prima.it (€100 million, Blackstone, Goldman Sachs), Soldo (€83 million, Accel, Battery Ventures), Casavo (€59 million, Greenoaks, Picus, Project A, 360 Capital), Milkman (€32 million, p101, 360 Capital Partners) and Mosaicoon (€12 million).

Approximately half of seed to Series A funds have raised $100 million+ funds in the last year. However, seed rounds for startups remain low, even for Europe, ranging from anywhere from €300,000 to €1 million.

ScaleIT is a notable tech business event for the country (which clearly took over from the fabulous TechCrunch Italy events of a million years ago).

And finally, WeWork is opening two more buildings in Milan, taking it to five locations in the city, by mid-2021. Milan-born Talent Garden, which has raised €56 million, is still bullish about co-working despite the pandemic. While this was announced before news of a vaccine emerged, it’s clear that major players are still betting on Italy’s emerging tech ecosystem.

These are the investors we interviewed:

  • Giulia Giovannini, partner, United Ventures
  • Anna Tampieri, partner, ENEA Tech
  • Giuseppe Donvito, partner, P101 Ventures
  • Massimiliano Magrini, partner, United Ventures
  • Matteo Elli, partner, Pariter Partners
  • Fabio Pirovano, partner, United Ventures
  • Simone Riva, partner, H14
  • Matteo Confalonieri, associate, Milano Investment Partners
  • Gianluca Dettori, partner and founder, Primomiglio
  • Alessandro Petrich, partner, LVenture Group
  • Mario Scuderi, partner, CDP Venture Capital
  • What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?

    We are sector-agnostic in our approach, and we invest both in B2B and B2C tech/digital companies from various industries. We mainly invest in SaaS companies with some proven traction in the market – but overall, we seek the best technology entrepreneurs that want to make an impact. Our focus is on entrepreneurial and technological initiatives aimed at digitalizing and increasing the productivity of traditionally undigitized sectors. Lately, we have been looking into insurtech and medtech.

    What’s your latest, most exciting investment?

    In October 2020, we led a $7M Series A round in Boom Image Studio, a Milan-based company on a mission to reshuffle the world of commercial photography by transforming the way digital photo content is generated. We believe that Boom will significantly accelerate the photography industry’s digital transformation, dramatically improving the photo production experience for customers and photographers.

    Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?

    The strategy of venture capital is not to capitalize on the continuity of trends already existing on the market or to focus on the hype of the moment, but rather the exercise of imagining the demands of tomorrow, intercepting products and services capable of reinventing entire sectors with a view to a future industrial policy. Startups using tech to foster remote work, education, healthcare are undoubtedly in the spotlight at the moment: the key question is which technologies and platforms can meet current priorities and remain relevant in the post-pandemic future.

    What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?

    There is no such thing as a “typical United Ventures company,” but there is a paradigm that all our best investments have in common: ambitious founders with strong values and who know how to inspire their team, with an entrepreneurial project focused on a large growing market and the ability to scale internationally.

    Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?

    I have seen too many startups in payment services. I think the wave has passed.

    How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?

    We are a European VC with a strong focus – approximately 50% – on the Italian ecosystem, where we are best placed to support teams in terms of value-add. We are committed to making the most of the Italian market’s peculiarities, connecting Italian entrepreneurs and talents to the global market. On a national level, we are active all around Italy, with startups headquartered in Milan, Rome, Bologna, Pisa.

    Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not long-term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?

    Milan is well positioned on fintech matters, while Italy is home to many exciting initiatives very much oriented towards deep technologies thanks to research centers of excellence such as Milan and Turin Polytechnics and the IIT (Italian Institute of Technology). Concerning our portfolio, I am very excited by Credimi, a digital lending platform offering digital factoring solutions to enterprises experiencing significant growth rates, and I’m looking forward to working with Boom, our latest investment.

    How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?

    The Italian ecosystem is still small compared to other European hubs, but it has been developing rapidly in recent years. Milan has earned a national hub’s status and reached that critical mass — of large companies, multinationals, universities with cosmopolitan vocation, new companies — capable of generating an ecosystem able to attract the best talents and connect them with other continental and global hubs.

    Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?

    I think startups will continue to gravitate around big cities’ hubs because they bring value in terms of network and contamination. However, the pandemic has allowed an acceleration in the adoption of remote work organization, enabling the search and recruitment of talents from abroad. Many of our portfolio companies opened up fully-remote roles.

    Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?

    B2C startups are certainly favored due to the increased penetration of e-commerce. On the other side, the adoption of new B2B business models may be slowed down by the modus operandi of large companies that are not at their ease signing remote commercial agreements, causing delays.

    How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?

    Our role, as Venture Capital investors, is to support our portfolio companies at our best capacity. Getting fundraising done and signing customer deals has been challenging in these months, so our advice is, first of all, to control and manage the cash carefully. We highlighted the need to communicate effectively and realistically with their employees, clients, and stakeholders. Concerning our investment strategy, we refocused on the Italian market.

    Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?

    Tech startups are facing challenges and opportunities. Our portfolio is navigating the pandemic with determination and creativity. For example, Credimi has put in place several initiatives to aid Italian SMEs to face the COVID-19 emergency. More generally, B2C startups have seen significant growth in revenues, while B2B startups have, in some cases, seen a lengthening in the average time taken to underwrite commercial contracts.

    What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.

    Having managed to close the investment in BOOM working remotely with the startup from the first meetings to the closing, I had the confirmation that our job can be easily managed through remote work.

    Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?

    Technology is driving radical change across all aspects of our life, and the uncertain times we are going through has accelerated the digital transformation in multiple ways. Our job requires a long-term outlook: now more than ever, we are confident in technological innovation’s potential to lay the groundwork for a brighter future.

    What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?

    Material science and biotech.

    What’s your latest, most exciting investment?

    Green Bone Ortho.

    Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?

    Startups dealing with new materials.

    What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?

    Innovative materials and solutions coming from recycling and the circular economy.

    What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?

    Food and beverage, biotech, automation and tourism.

    How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?

    Before the pandemic the business climate was positive, even if it was challenging.

    What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?

    Mainly biotech and company involved in developing various anti-COVID solutions.

    How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?

    Startups dealing with new solutions for personal mobility.

    Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?

    Many.

    What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.

    The moment that I contacted a newco developing an innovative cure for COVID-19 using monoclonal antibodies.

    Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?

    I would share an unpopular thought: To focus more on true innovations versus the short-term economic return.

    Source: https://techcrunch.com/2020/11/17/surging-homegrown-talent-and-vc-sparks-an-italian-tech-renaissance/

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    South Korean antitrust regulator fines Google $177M for abusing market dominance – TechCrunch

    The Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC) said on Tuesday it fined Google $177 million for abusing its market dominance in the Android operating system (OS) market. The U.S. tech company has restricted market competition by prohibiting local smartphone makers like Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics from customizing their Android OS, through Google’s anti-fragmentation agreements (AFA), […]

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    The Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC) said on Tuesday it fined Google $177 million for abusing its market dominance in the Android operating system (OS) market.

    The U.S. tech company has restricted market competition by prohibiting local smartphone makers like Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics from customizing their Android OS, through Google’s anti-fragmentation agreements (AFA), according to the antitrust regulator statement.

    Under the AFA, smartphone developers are not allowed to install or develop “Android forks”, modified versions of Android.

    The KFTC banned Google LLC, Google Asia Pacific and Google Korea from imposing local smartphone developers to sign the AFA and make changes on details about the existing version. The new measure in South Korea will be applied to not only mobiles devices but also other Android-powered smart devices including watches and TVs.

    Android has spurred innovation among Korean mobile operator owners and software developers and that has led to a better user experience for Korean consumers, Google said in its statement. “The KFTC’s decision released today ignores these benefits, and will undermine the advantages enjoyed by consumers. Google intends to appeal the KFTC’s decision,” a spokesperson at Google said.

    The commission has been investigating Google over the anti-competition practice in OS market since July 2016, a spokesperson at KFTC said.

    Google’s global mobile OS market share excluding China has been increased to 97.7% in 2019 from 38% in 2010, as per KFTC’s announcement.

    Google’s AFA has also limited to launch tech companies’ new devices like smart watches and TVs using the operating system (OS) including Samsung’s smart watch in 2013, LG Electronics’ LTE smart speaker in 2018 as well as Amazon’s smart TV in 2018.

    South Korea’s watchdog is probing into three other cases including the Play Store app market, billing system and the advertisement market.

    Meanwhile, South Korea’s “anti-Google law”, takes effect on 14 September, based on Korea Communications Commission’s press release.

    In late August, South Korea passed a bill to curb global tech companies including Google and Apple from imposing their own proprietary in-app payment service and commissions on app developers.

    Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/09/14/south-korean-antitrust-regulator-fines-google-177m-for-abusing-market-dominance/

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    The SEC and the DOJ just charged this startup founder with fraud, saying he lied to Tiger and others – TechCrunch

    Today, both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Manish Lachwani, cofounder of a mobile app testing company Headspin, with fraud. The SEC says he violated antifraud provisions, and the civil penalties it’s seeking include a permanent injunction, a conduct-based injunction, and to bar him for serving as a corporate […]

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    Today, both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Manish Lachwani, cofounder of a mobile app testing company Headspin, with fraud. The SEC says he violated antifraud provisions, and the civil penalties it’s seeking include a permanent injunction, a conduct-based injunction, and to bar him for serving as a corporate executive or board member.

    The DOJ, which arrested Lachwani earlier, has accused him of one count of wire fraud and one count of securities fraud, and the associated penalties if he’s found guilty are are more harsh, including, for wire fraud, a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. If he’s found guilty of securities fraud, he faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a fine of $5,000,000.

    Both the the SEC and the DOJ say Lachwani — who led the six-year-old company as CEO until May of last year — defrauded investors out of $80 million by falsely claiming that his company, Headspin, had “achieved strong and consistent growth in acquiring customers and generating revenue” when he was pitching its Series C round to potential backers.

    By the SEC’s telling, his fabrications were designed to help secure the round at a so-called unicorn valuation. That apparent plan worked, too, with Palo Alto-based Headspin attracting coverage in Forbes in February of last year after Dell Technologies Capital, Iconiq Capital and Tiger Global provided the company with $60 million in Series C funding at a $1.16 billion valuation. Forbes reported at the time that the valuation was double the valuation investors assigned HeadSpin when it closed its Series B round in October 2018.

    The SEC also says that Lachwani was looking to enrich himself, saying he did so “by selling $2.5 million of his HeadSpin shares in a fundraising round during which he made misrepresentations to an existing HeadSpin investor.” (It isn’t clear from its complaint whether the SEC is referring to the Series C or an earlier round.)

    The DOJ’s federal complaint suggests that Lachwani’s alleged scheming dates back to at least November 2019, when the company was fundraising. It says it was then that the success of Palo Alto-based Headspin — which helps apps and devices work in different environments around the world – was being knowingly misrepresented to investors by Lachwani.

    More specifically, the complaint alleges that “in materials and presentations to potential investors, Lachwani reported false revenue and overstated key financial metrics of the company. . . he maintained control over operations, sales, and record-keeping, including invoicing, and he was the final decision maker on what revenue was booked and included in the company’s financial records.”

    In the investigation that led to the DOJ’s charges, the FBI discovered “multiple examples” of Lachwani “instructing employees to include revenue from potential customers that inquired but did not engage Headspin, from past customers who no longer did business with Headspin, and from existing customers whose business was far less than the reported revenue,” says the department.

    How far off were these collective calculations? The complaint says that ultimately, Lachwani “provided investors false information that overstated Headspin’s annual recurring revenue . . . by approximately $51 to $55 million.”

    According to the complaint, Lachwani’s fraud unraveled after the company’s board of directors conducted an internal investigation and revised HeadSpin’s valuation down from $1.1 billion to $300 million. Indeed, in August of last year, The Information reported that the company was planning to lower the value of its Series C stock by nearly 80%.

    The outlet reported at the time that Lachwani had already been replaced by another executive. That person, according to LinkedIn, is Rajeev Butani, who joined Headspin as its chief sales officer around the time its Series C round was being announced in February of last year.

    Nikesh Arora, a former SoftBank president, the current CEO and chairman of Palo Alto Networks helped lead the internal review as a then-director on the board of Headspin, said The Information.

    The SEC says it’s investigation is continuing. Meanwhile, the DOJ notes in its announcement that “a complaint merely alleges that crimes have been committed, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

    Either way, the outlook doesn’t look very promising right now for Lachwani, who, according to Forbes, previously sold a mobile cloud business to Google and wound up co-founding Headspin after Yahoo cofounder Jerry Yang introduced him to Brien Colwell, a former Palantir and Quora engineer was working at the time on a different startup.

    Colwell remains with Headspin as its CTO. He has not been named in either the SEC or the DOJ’s complaints relating to Headspin.

    The company itself, which says it has been cooperating with the government’s investigation, was also not charged.

    Pictured above, left to right, Headspin founders Lachwani and Colwell.

    The DOJ’s federal complaint suggests that Lachwani’s alleged scheming dates back to at least November 2019, when the company was fundraising. It says it was then that the success of Palo Alto-based Headspin — which helps apps and devices work in different environments around the world – was being knowingly misrepresented to investors by Lachwani.

    Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/08/25/the-sec-and-the-doj-just-charged-this-startup-ceo-with-fraud-saying-he-lied-to-tiger-and-others/

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    Blockchain startup XREX gets $17M to make cross-border trade faster – TechCrunch

    A substantial portion of the world’s trade is done in United States dollars, creating problems for businesses in countries with a dollar shortage. Blockchain startup XREX was launched to help cross-border businesses in emerging markets perform faster transactions with products like a payment escrow service and crypto-fiat exchange platform. The Taipei-headquartered company announced today it has […]

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    Blockchain startup co-founders Winston Hsiao and Wayne Huang in front of the company's logo

    XREX co-founders Winston Hsiao and Wayne Huang

    A substantial portion of the world’s trade is done in United States dollars, creating problems for businesses in countries with a dollar shortage. Blockchain startup XREX was launched to help cross-border businesses in emerging markets perform faster transactions with products like a payment escrow service and crypto-fiat exchange platform.

    The Taipei-headquartered company announced today it has raised $17 million in pre-Series A funding led by CDIB Capital Group. The oversubscribed round also included participation from SBI Investment (a subsidiary of SBI Holdings), Global Founders Capital, ThreeD Capital, E.Sun Venture Capital, Systex Corporation, MetaPlanet Holdings, AppWorks, BlackMarble, New Economy Ventures and Seraph Group. XREX’s last funding was a $7 million seed round in 2019.

    Part of the new round will be use to apply for financial licenses in Singapore, Hong Kong and South Africa, and partner with banks and financial institutions, like payment gateways.

    “We specifically wanted to build a regulatory-friendly cap table,” XREX co-founder and chief executive officer Wayne Huang told TechCrunch. “It’s really hard for a startup like us to raise from banks and public companies, but as you can see, this round we deliberately to do that and we were successful.”

    Huang sold his previous startup, anti-malware SaaS developer Armorize Technologies, to Proofpoint in 2013. Armorize analyzed source code to find vulnerabilities, and many of its clients were developers in Bangalore and Chennai, so Huang spent a lot of time traveling there.

    “We ran into all sorts of cross-border money transfer issues. It seemed almost unstoppable,” Huang said. “Growing up in the U.S. and then in Taiwan, we were not exposed to those issues. So that planted a seed, and then when Satoshi [Nakamoto] published the bitcoin white paper, of course that was a big thing for all cybersecurity experts.”

    He began thinking of how blockchain can support financial inclusion in emerging markets like India. The idea came to fruition Huang teamed up with XREX co-founder Winston Hsiao, the founder of BTCEx-TW, one of Taiwan’s first bitcoin exchanges. Hsiao grew up in India and founded Verico International, exporting Taiwan-manufactured semiconductors and electronics to other countries, so he was also familiar with cross-border trade issues.

    XREX Crypto Services give merchants, especially those in countries with low U.S. dollar liquidity, tools to conduct trade in digital fiat currencies. “They have to get quick access to the U.S. dollar and be able to pay it out quick enough for them to secure important commodities that they want to import, and that’s the problem we want to solve,” said Huang.

    To use the platform, merchants and their customers sign up for XREX’s wallet, which includes a commercial escrow service called Bitcheck. Huang said it is similar to having a standby letter of credit from a commercial bank, because buyers can use it to guarantee they will be able to make payments. Bitcheck uses digital currencies like USDT and USDC, stablecoins that are pegged to the U.S. dollar.

    Merchants pay stablecoin to suppliers and XREX escrows the funds until the supplier provides proof of shipment, at which point it moves the payment to them. XREX’s crypto-fiat exchange allows users to convert USDT and USDC to U.S. dollars, which they can also withdraw and deposit through the platform.

    Part of XREX’s funding will be used to expand its fiat currency platform, though Huang said it doesn’t plan to add too many cryptocurrencies “because we’re not built for crypto traders, we’re built for businesses and brand really matters to them. Brand and compliance, so whatever the U.S. Comptroller of the Currency says is a good stablecoin is what they’re going to use.”

    Some of XREX’s partners include compliance and anti-money laundering providers like CipherTrace, Sum&Substance and TRISA. Part of XREX’s funding will be used to expand its security and compliance features, including Public Profiles, which are mandatory for customers, and user Reputation Index to increase transparency.

    In a statement about the funding, CDIB Capital Innovation Fund head Ryan Kuo said, “CDIB was an early investor in XREX. After witnessing the company’s fast revenue growth and their commitment to compliance, we were determined to double our investment and lead this strategic round.”

    The Taipei-headquartered company announced today it has raised $17 million in pre-Series A funding led by CDIB Capital Group. The oversubscribed round also included participation from SBI Investment (a subsidiary of SBI Holdings), Global Founders Capital, ThreeD Capital, E.Sun Venture Capital, Systex Corporation, MetaPlanet Holdings, AppWorks, BlackMarble, New Economy Ventures and Seraph Group. XREX’s last funding was a $7 million seed round in 2019.

    Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/08/22/blockchain-startup-xrex-gets-17m-to-make-cross-border-trade-faster/

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