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a16z-backed fintech Synapse lays off 40% of its staff

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Banking-as-a-service startup Synapse confirmed today that it has laid off 86 people, or about 40% of the company.

The San Francisco-based company, which operates a platform enabling banks and fintech companies to easily develop financial services, has been open about past layoffs. In June, CEO Sankaet Pathak wrote in a blog post that the company had let go of 18% of its workforce as “the current macroeconomic conditions” had begun to impact its clients and platforms, affecting its anticipated growth.

Today, via email, a company spokesperson sent the following statement: “We deeply regret saying goodbye to incredibly talented and dedicated members of Synapse team. However, we have a strong group in place to manage all of our operations and support our customers going forward. We don’t have anything to add to this right now beyond what’s been previously reported.”

Earlier this week, Fintech Business Weekly publisher Jason Mikula posted on X that “one of the company’s largest clients, Mercury, gave notice of non-renewal & plans to move directly to Evolve.”  He had also heard that the company was actually laying off at least 130 people.

In 2019, TechCrunch reported on the company’s $33 million Series B raise led by Andreessen Horowitz after rebranding from SynapseFi. That was the company’s last known fundraise. In total, it has brought in just over $50 million in venture capital.

The startup was founded in 2014 by Bryan Keltner and India-born CEO Sankaet Pathak, who came to the U.S. to study but grew frustrated at the difficulty of opening a bank account without U.S. social security history. 

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Google Pay takes its QR soundbox to small merchants in India after trial run

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Google said Thursday it plans to roll out the SoundPod, its portable speaker designed to instantly validate and announce successful payments, to small merchants across India over the coming months. The Google Pay expansion in India, where the company is among the mobile payment market leaders, comes even as the firm winds down some of its payments apps in the U.S.

The company, which began a limited trial of SoundPod last year, received positive feedback during the testing and helped merchants reduce the checkout time, Ambarish Kenghe, VP of Products for Google Pay, wrote in a blog post.

The miniature jukeboxes, colloquially dubbed “soundboxes” domestically, have witnessed wide adoption in India, enabling merchants to find respite upon receipt of remuneration and contest any illegitimate claims.

Financial services firm Paytm currently leads the soundbox market and PhonePe is also increasingly expanding its device. More than 20 million merchants in the country already use one of these boxes, which industry insiders estimate costs about $18 to $20 to make. (Incidentally, Paytm is currently “fighting for its survival” as it navigates regulatory clampdown.)

The soundbox was invented to serve small Indian merchants unable to afford regular point-of-sale devices but accepting of UPI payments. (UPI, a payments network built by a coalition of retail banks in India, has become the most popular way for Indians to transact.) Now more popular than Visa, Mastercard and Amex combined, the devices last year prompted the payment giants to look at ways to take advantage of their reach.

It has also evolved into a lucrative subscription model over time as various players impose subscription charges on merchants. The real allure of the soundbox, according to one industry insider, extends beyond its auditory alerts — it provides invaluable insights into merchant behaviors, facilitating the offering of loans based on this data.

Google Pay is offering the SoundPod at a minimal cost — levying a one-time fee of $18 for one year, or a one-time fee of $6.06 per day for 25 days in a month. The company said merchants who use SoundPod to process 400 payments in a month will get $1.5 in cash back.

“To be able to play a role in India’s digital payments story is a matter of deep pride for us, providing invaluable lessons on how digital transformation happens in tech-forward societies, and we continue to stay deeply invested in this journey for the long term,” added Google’s Kenghe.

Reliance, India’s largest firm by market cap, also began testing a similar device at its campus last year, TechCrunch earlier reported. The company confirmed the device in a subsequent earnings call and said it plans to soon launch it to the market.



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NASA Opens Applications For Yearlong Simulated Mars Mission; Here’s How You Can Apply

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NASA has announced an extraordinary opportunity for those seeking extreme challenges: the chance to participate in its second yearlong simulated Mars mission, the Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA 2). Scheduled to commence in spring 2025, the mission will immerse four selected crew members in a 1,700-square-foot 3D-printed habitat located in Houston. Interested individuals can apply on the CHAPEA website until April 2.

Although it’s a paid position, NASA has not disclosed the compensation details.

The Mars Dune Alpha habitat at NASA’s Johnson Space Center mirrors the harsh conditions and limited resources future explorers may encounter on the red planet. Volunteers for CHAPEA 2 will engage in habitat maintenance, crop cultivation, and various other tasks during their tenure.

Additionally, the habitat includes a 1,200-square-foot sandbox for simulated spacewalks.

Applicants must meet specific criteria, including being US citizens aged 30-55, proficient in English, holding a master’s degree in a STEM field, possessing at least two years of professional experience, and having either a thousand hours of piloting an aircraft or two years of work toward a STEM doctoral program.

Certain types of professional experience may also qualify applicants without a master’s degree. CHAPEA 2 marks the second of three planned missions in the program, with the first launched on June 25, 2023.

SEE ALSO: Early Look At iOS 17.4: Easier Battery Monitoring, CarPlay Gets An Upgrade And More



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Antler’s founder on its vertical AI bet in Southeast Asia

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A growing roster of vertical AI startups is emerging in Southeast Asia to serve sectors ranging from seafood to finance. Singapore-based venture capital firm Antler recently made a bet on 37 of them, investing $5.1 million in total for pre-seed deals. Antler also announced a partnership with Khazanah, Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund.

“If you look at the rest of the world, there’s lots of horizontal AI and it’s becoming insanely competitive,” Antler co-founder and managing partner Jussi Salovaara tells TechCrunch. “What founders are increasingly looking to solve in this part of the world are practical problems in different industries.”

He adds that even though Southeast Asia doesn’t have the talent pool to build something like OpenAI yet, they can take a customer-first approach to AI apps, solving pain points unique to different sectors and markets.

Within verticalized AI, different trends are emerging in each country. For example, Vietnam has a large pool of technical talent. Founders there who are working on a consumer startup usually focus more on the domestic market at first, but B2B startups are more globally-oriented from the beginning, Salovaara says. On the other hand, Indonesian startups tend not to target international expansion because their domestic market is so large, but Antler hopes to see more of them expand internationally.

One of Antler’s investments is BorderDollar, which is building an invoice financing platform for cross border logistics. Since funding structures are different in Southeast Asia than the rest of the world, BorderDollar used their own training data to build a credit scoring system.

“You can’t really take something from the West and then just plug it in here and use that,” says Salovaara.

Another member of Antler’s portfolio is CapGo, which Antler backed in large part because of the founders’ backgrounds: CTO Chen Yu worked on machine learning at Grab and CEO Yichen Guo earned a Harvard MBA and worked at Citi, Almanac and VIPKid as a product manager. CapGo automates data acquisition for market research, a pain point Salovaara is familiar with because he used to work at an investment bank.

“It’s super unclear why you would throw endless amounts of human hours into researching a market when AI can do so much more effectively and efficiently,” he says, adding that CapGo’s competitive moat is its ability to build data sources that are tailored first for Southeast Asia. It plans to expand into the rest of the Asia Pacific region.

Both Zolo and Seafoody were created to solve problems in Southeast Asia’s food supply chain infrastructure. Based in Malaysai, Seafoody was founded by Eleen Kee, Samantha Ooi and Zach Leong. Kee, its CEO, comes from a family that has worked in the seafood industry for several generations. Seafoody is focused on using AI to eliminate middlemen in the seafood supply chain and sell directly to businesses. Zolo, meanwhile, is also simplifying the food supply chain by using AI to shorten the order management process, which usually entails a lot of back-and-forth between suppliers and restaurants on WhatsApp.

Another startup Salovaara highlights is Malaysia-based Coex. It uses AI to digitize project claims and bills of quantity, so approvals, communication and preparing materials can all be performed more quickly. “Construction is obviously one of the most analog and old school industries, so this is largely a play to optimize capital efficiency and operational efficiency,” says Salovaara.

Building a vertical AI startup comes with its own challenges. For example, the right team has to be put together and include not only a technical founder with the right expertise, but also someone who understands the industry they are targeting very well. They also need the right data for training. But once a vertical AI startup comes together, Salovaara says they can build a very deep competitive moat.

“If you want to raise funding for a quote unquote ‘hardcore’ horizontal AI out of Southeast Asia, it would be challenging, especially to enter into a race with a company based in Silicon Valley,” he adds. “Trying to compete with a place that has more talent or a better funding infrastructure in this space, especially at the later stage, is still quite difficult. So these vertical plays are the way to go.”



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