Welcome to Startups Weekly, with your shiny, newly minted host, yours sincerely. If you’ve seen my name on TechCrunch, it’s probably because of my popular Pitch Deck Teardown series, where I take a startup’s pitch deck and celebrate the good, lambast the bad and use both to learn more about what the world of VC pitching looks like. This week, I published the 50th installment of the series (hooray!) with a deep dive into the deck Danish company Ageras used to raise a $36 million round from private equity investors. If you’re feeling brave, I’d love to take a loving, educational hack-and-slash at your pitch deck, too. Go on, it’ll be fun. Maybe.
Okay, that’s quite enough of the navel gazing, let’s get on to what happened in the world of startups.
Startups are acquired mostly for their staff all the time. Investors generally don’t love it when that happens — it’s usually not a great outcome for them — but it can be a great way for startup founders to get a soft landing when a company is circling the dr… I mean… when an opportunity shows itself.
That, it seems, is not quite what happened with Ring founder Jamie Siminoff. Brian reports that Siminoff was stealthily working on another startup named Honest Day’s Work. The company was acquired by Latch (best known for its smart locks), who then promptly invited Siminoff to take over as its CEO. The lesson here appears to be that if at first your recruitment efforts fail, buy the entire company your desired CEO works for.
Apropos recruitment — if you have budget to spend, there’s a godawful number of incredible team members available right now; we’ve summarized all the tech layoffs so far this year.
Generative AI goes mainstream
The first time I covered generative AI on TechCrunch in any depth back in 2021, it involved an early version of ChatGPT-3. The novelty of asking an AI to cowrite an article with me seemed thrilling — boy howdy how far we have come.
Since then, I’ve been experimenting extensively with ChatGPT, and I keep coming to the conclusion that it cannot replace me as a writer quite yet, but we’re getting scarily close to that point. I also had a bit of an existential crisis where I co-founded an avocado-oriented octopus cult called the Octo-guacamolians and wondered if perhaps, deep down, I was an AI myself.
Fast forward to this week, when Kyle reports that nobody really knows what’s written by an AI anymore, and Frederic notes that Google announced PaLM 2, its next-gen large language model. Annoyingly (and perhaps suspiciously) the search giant failed to share much in the way of details of how it trained its model. “What we found in our work is that it’s not really the sort of size of model — that the larger is not always better,” DeepMind VP Zoubin Ghahramani said in a press briefing, leaving more questions than answers on the table.
Meta, in turn, is also going heavy into AI. Kyle reports that the company is developing custom chips for AI training, and Ivan added that the company rolled out generative AI features … for advertisers.
- To invest or not to invest in AI: Natasha M takes a look at the debate happening inside of every VC firm (TC+).
- Breaking out the crystal ball: Connie spoke with renowned investor Elad Gil on how the great AI race will likely shake out.
- Wait what is it? Elon Musk used to brag that he had invested $100 million in OpenAI. Mark Harris checked the receipts for us, and it seems like something isn’t adding up…
Climate tech continues to have its time in the sun
You know what scares the crap out of me? The fact that VCs are finally starting to take climate change seriously means that they believe they can get outsize returns within the 7-10 year time horizon of a venture fund (that’s how VC works, after all). For that to make sense financially, they know something many of us have known for a long time: Climate change is about to change everything.
The silver lining is that where there is huge, somewhat predictable, change there are opportunities.
I reported that Pale Blue Dot announced a new $100 million fund, and it promptly announced that it backed Amini, an African climate tech startup solving environmental data scarcity with a $2 million investment, as Tage reported.
Perhaps that investment into a company led by a woman of color was prescient, because Tim and Dominic-Midori published a pair of articles on TC+ this week, concluding that without Black representation in climate tech, “the planet will burn,” and that VC funding of women climate tech founders is abysmal — the pair dug into how the VC community could improve that.
- There’s hope?: Tim argues that despite a rocky start, climate tech is in a good position to tackle the rest of 2023 (TC+).
- Cooling the hot and heating the cool: Harri reports that Kelvin (née Radiator Labs) eyes heat pumps and nabs $30 million.
- Less con-fusion, more fusion: In a landmark deal, Helion Energy penned a deal with Microsoft, with a plan in place to start providing the software giant with fusion energy starting in 2028. Helion secured a whopping $2.2 billion of funds back in 2021.
Rough times for (alleged) startup criminals
In a truly baffling story, Kate reports that Terraform’s Do Kwon pleads “not guilty” to charges of traveling on fake documents. The disgraced founder was arrested back in March, reportedly holding Belgian and Costa Rican passports. The founder was released on bail, which seems stupendously silly for a person arrested for allegedly holding a couple of false passports. It screams “flight risk,” to me, but what do I know?
Meanwhile, Amanda reports that time’s up for Elizabeth Holmes, after the court decided it had had quite enough of the former Theranos founder’s shenanigans. Holmes is to report to jail at the end of the month to start serving an 11-year sentence and pay almost half a billion dollars worth of restitution to victims of their fraud.
Criminals are gonna criminal, but it’s somewhat reassuring that the legal system is trying to keep everyone to roughly the same set of rules. (LOL, who are we kidding, but at least there are startups working on criminal justice reform, too.)
Apropos crime and data hijinks, our security reporting team are knocking it out of the ball park with a ton of incredible stories. Here’s a smattering:
- That’s just a bad idea, period: Carly reports that the FTC says popular fertility tracking app Premom shared sensitive data with Chinese analytics firms.
- Who’s watching you? Zack reports that popular Android TV boxes sold on Amazon are laced with malware.
- The Russian Ransomware Report: Carly writes that US sanctions a Russian national accused of being a ‘central figure’ in major ransomware attacks.
My favorite top reads on TechCrunch this week
- From the pages of Forbes to the cap table: Connie reports that Luminar founder Austin Russell became the youngest self-made billionaire in 2021 and then went for the ultimate rich-person flex: Buying Forbes, the home of the “best VCs” Midas List and the “richest people” Billionaires List.
- I, Robot: Brian reports that ever since Tesla announced it plans to build a humanoid robot, startups have been going gaga for them. The newest example is Sanctuary AI’s new humanoid robot, which stands 5’7″ and can lift 55 pounds.
Best startup advice from TechCrunch+ this week
Our subscription service TechCrunch+ is one of the best resources for startups to get the inside track. Yeah, yeah, I’m hella biased, but … judge for yourself:
- Venture debt x2: Becca reports that the new rules of venture debt are already being written in our post-Silicon Valley Bank era; she also spoke to five investors to discuss what’s in store for venture debt.
- Maybe rising valuations ain’t all that sweet: Alex and Anna question whether rising seed-stage valuations are a poisoned gift for startups.
- Hiring is hard: Meanwhile, I dig into the magic of hiring your first employee for your startup, and how, to hire well, you need to start with a list of 1,500 people.
Calling all early-stage startups! Apply to join the Startup Battlefield 200 cohort at TechCrunch Disrupt 2023. All finalists get expert training, VC networking, a booth at Disrupt, and the chance to compete for $100,000 in equity-free funds. Applications close May 31. Apply today.
UPDATE: The original version of this post read “startup criminals” as one of the subheadings. We updated it to “(alleged) startup criminals,” as not everyone discussed in that section has been convicted, as their PR firm was eager to point out to us.