Retail RIP: Sears is opting for liquidation, having rejected a $4.4 billion rescue offer from chairman Eddie Lampert.
Top of the Morning
Each day there are funding announcements for startups that claim to be building "AI" or "AI-enabled" technologies. It's become a buzzword so ubiquitous as to become almost meaningless.
So I asked Axios' AI reporter Kaveh Waddell for a simple definition of AI, to better understand when its use is (and isn't) legitimate. His reply:
“AI” is just advanced pattern matching, such as finding transactions with characteristics usually found in fraud, or figuring out if images from a lidar feed contain pedestrian-like shapes.
A company that promises 'AI solutions' could be using deep learning — the machine learning technique du jour, particularly suited to language understanding and image recognition — or Statistics 101.
When they hoped no one was looking, lots of companies and startups hit ctrl–F and replaced 'big data' with 'AI' in their marketing materials.
For many, that’s all they changed.
• SoftBank has agreed to invest another $2 billion into WeWork, per multiple sources and reports. Expect a large percentage of it to be secondary capital (i.e., buying out existing shareholders).
- Lots of buzz about how this deal is much smaller than what was originally contemplated, including one 2018 report whereby SoftBank could acquire a majority stake in the co-working space giant.
- We told you in October that the control deal was no longer on the table, but that investment negotiations were ongoing.
- Fast Company this morning reports, based on an interview with CEO Adam Neumann, that the two sides neared a much-larger deal that could have bought out all of WeWork's existing shareholders, but that SoftBank bailed after a disappointing IPO for its Japanese mobile unit. In short, SoftBank's corporate balance sheet was smaller and less flexible than had been originally anticipated.
- SoftBank theoretically has enough dry powder in its Vision Fund, but we hear that the Saudi connections made that prospect less appealing to both sides due to perceived regulatory risk (read: CFIUS, particularly in light of the Khashoggi murder).
- Don't read this deal as a macro commentary on unicorn troubles. SoftBank is still investing $2 billion into WeWork, in which it already holds a sizable position though both its balance sheet and Vision Fund, and doing so at a high valuation. Not even the most profligate investor spends that kind of coin if it believes the market is crumbling. There also is a NYT report that SoftBank may have had trouble getting enough WeWork shareholders to sell into the larger proposal.
• E-scooter wars: We haven't heard yet about either Bird or Lime closing their new financing rounds, but word continues to be that Bird's deal will be led by insiders, while Lime has an outside lead for what should be around a $400 million investment. That lead won't be Bain Capital Ventures, although we hear it is expected to participate as a new investor.
• Off the docket: In December we discussed how former Uber Southeast Asia exec Eric Alexander sued former Uber communications chief Rachel Whetstone (now at Netflix) for allegedly breaching a two-way non-disparagement agreement.
- We noted that the case "could remind potential media sources they have few legal privacy protections."
- But it probably won't, because a judge has approved Whetstone's motion to compel arbitration.
- In short, the judge agreed with Whetstone that since Alexander was seeking to enforce a contract, he remains subject to the terms of that contract — including its arbitration clause.
🎧 Pro Rata Podcast: New episode focuses on the federal government shutdown, and is notable for pessimism from eternal optimist Mike Allen. Listen here.
Lambda School, a San Ramon, Calif.-based coding school, raised $30 million in Series B funding at a $150 million post-money valuation. Bedrock Capital led, and was joined by Vy Capital, GGV Capital, Google Ventures, Y Combinator and Sound Ventures.
- Why it's the BFD: Because Americans owe around $1.5 trillion in student debt, significantly more than they owe on credit cars or for vehicles, and Lambda is helping to pioneer a model that eschews tuition in favor of repayments via a percentage of future salary.
- More: Lambda expects to train 3,000 students this year, just opened shop in Europe and CEO Austen Allred tells Axios that it plans Canada expansion either in Q1 or Q2 of this year. It also plans to soon expand its curriculum into cybersecurity, and next into medical services like nursing (which may include the purchase and reformatting of an existing school).
- Bottom line: "It is an approach meant to treat students as investments rather than cash cows — a fundamental shift that could finally lift the crippling debt load we routinely push onto students. But it also comes with a peculiar kind of danger: By seeking safe investments, programs like this could cast aside the strides made to expand educational opportunities to higher-risk students and reduce the appeal of educations that focus on noble, but lower compensated, professions." — Andrew Ross Sorkin, NY Times
Venture Capital Deals
🚑 Apollomics (fka CBT Pharma), a Foster City, Calif.-based developer of oncology combination therapies, raised $100 million in Series B funding. CMB International led, and was joined by return backer OrbiMed Asia. http://axios.link/kTNl
• Dorae, a London-based “physical commodities cloud,” raised $50 million in Series B funding from undisclosed investors. www.dorae.com
🚑 Stelexis Therapeutics, a New York-based drug developer focused on targeting pre-cancerous stem cells, raised $43 million in Series A funding led by Deerfield Management. http://axios.link/vLv2
• Humatics, a Waltham, Mass.-based developer of micro-location software, raised $28 million in Series A-1 funding. Tenfore Holdings led, and was joined by Blackhorn Ventures, JCI Ventures, Fontinalis Partners, Airbus Ventures, Lockheed Martin Ventures and Presidio Ventures. http://axios.link/fXwM
🚑 Exscientia, a British drug discovery startup, raised $26 million in Series B funding from Celgene, GT Healthcare Capital Partners and return backer Evotec. http://axios.link/hHx3
🚑 Keros Therapeutics, a Lexington, Mass.-based drug startup focused on neuromuscular diseases, raised $23 million in Series B funding from Global Health Sciences Fund and return backers Pontifax, Arkin BioVentures, Partners Innovation Fund and Medison Pharma. http://axios.link/iJqx
Headset, a Seattle-based provider of data and analytics to the cannabis industry, raised $12.1 million in Series A funding co-led by Poseidon Asset Management and AFI Capital Partners. www.headset.io
• Scape Technologies, a London-based computer vision startup focused on location accuracy, raised $8 million in seed funding from LocalGlobe, Mosaic Ventures, Fly Ventures and Entrepreneur First. http://axios.link/ietY
• Flytrex, an Israeli drones logistics startup, raised $7.5 million in Series B funding led by Benhamou Global Ventures. www.flytrex.com
Private Equity Deals
• Clayton, Dubilier & Rice agreed to acquire a “significant” stake in British restaurant and catering company WSH Investments at around a $1 billion valuation, per the WSJ. http://axios.link/UO0H
🚑 Cressey & Co. invested in HHAeXchange, a Long Island City, N.Y.-based provider of home care management software. www.hhaexchange.com
⛽ Elliott Management offered to buy QEP Resources (NYSE: QEP), a Denver-based oil and gas exploration company focused on the Permian Basin, for $2.07 billion, or $8.75 per share (44% premium to Friday’s closing price). http://axios.link/HyGc
🚑 Health & Safety Institute, a Eugene, Ore.-based portfolio company of The Riverside Company, acquired EMS Safety Services, a San Clemente, Calif.-based provider of first aid and CPR training. www.hsi.com
🚑 Healthgrades, a Denver-based portfolio company of Vestar Capital Partners, acquired Influence Health, a Birmingham, Ala.-based provider of patient engagement software, from backers like Sumeru Equity Partners. www.healthgrades.com
• H.I.G. Capital acquired Lipari, a Warren, Mich.-based distributor of perimeter-of-the-store food products, from Sterling Investment Partners. www.liparifoods.com
🚑 IZI, an Owings Mills, Md.-based radiology medical device company owned by Shore Capital Partners, acquired certain soft tissue biopsy and breast localization needle assets from Cook Medical. www.izimed.com
• J.H. Whitney Capital Partners acquired a majority stake in Firebirds, a fast-casual restaurant chain focused on wood-fired entrees, from Angelo Gordon & Co. www.firebirdsrestaurants.com
• Lovell Minnick Partners acquired Attom Data Solutions, an Irvine, Calif.-based provider of national real estate data and analytics, from Renovo Capital and Rosewood Private Investments. www.attomdata.com
• Nonantum Capital Partners acquired RoadOne, a Randolph, Mass.-based intermodal drayage provider, from Tritium Partners. www.roadone.com
• Sycamore Partners completed its $1.3 billion purchase of fishing gear maker Pure Fishing from Newell Brands (NYSE: NWL).
⛽ Transom Capital Group bought SemiTorr, a Tualatin, Ore.-based distributor of gas and fluid handling systems, from Riverlake Partners. www.semitorrinc.com
• Triartisan Capital Advisors is in exclusive talks to buy restaurant chain P.F. Chang’s for upwards of $700 million from Centerbridge Partners, per Bloomberg. http://axios.link/PCsd
🚑 Alector, a South San Francisco-based immuno-neurology company, filed for a $150 million IPO. It plans to trade on the Nasdaq (ALEC) with Morgan Stanley as lead underwriter, and raised over $200 million from firms like Polaris Venture Partners (21.7% stake) and OrbiMed (21.4%).
• Audi has formed an independent company called Holoride, which will focus on providing VR experiences to back-seat passengers. http://axios.link/ha8G
• Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle and a Tesla (Nasdaq: TSLA) director since last month, disclosed a $1 billion stake in the electric automaker. http://axios.link/EMov
• Sika (SWX: SIKA), a Swiss chemicals company, agreed to buy French rival Parex for $2.55 billion. http://axios.link/cS4i
• Audax Group raised $1.65 billion for a direct lending fund focused on North American middle-market companies. www.audaxgroup.com
• Elisabeth Bourqui has resigned as the chief operating investment officer at CalPERS, after just eight months on the job, according to an internal email obtained by Axios.
• ICV Partners, a lower middle-markets private equity firm, promoted John Wallace and Everett Hill to managing directors. www.icvpartners.com
• Leeds Equity, a private equity firm focused on knowledge industries, promoted Eric Geveda and Christopher Mairs to managing directors, and Kevin Malone and David Neverson to principals.
• Keegan Vance Forte stepped down as director of strategic partnerships at Ceros in order to join VC firm Flybridge Capital Partners as VP of marketing.