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My Favorite Companies From The Seventh 500 Startups Accelerator Class

By   /  February 5, 2014  /  Business  /  No Comments

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It’s demo day again for the 500 Startups crew, as the seed stage investment firm and accelerator is showing off the latest batch of companies that have survived its three-month accelerator program. Those companies are presenting their products and services to investors and press for the first time in Mountain View, Calif.

There are 28 companies presenting today, but I’ll be honest: I don’t think I’ll be able to take notes and keep track of everyone that gets on stage. After all, demo days are exhausting and I’m just one dude.

If you were an investor at this demo day, you wouldn’t be writing checks to every single one of those companies (unless, of course, you were 500 Startups). You’d be picking those which you personally thought had the most potential. So I’m going to pretend for a day that I get to pick and choose who I would invest in, and just tell you about my favorites.

Anyway, here they are, in no particular order:

Realtyshares

As a sort of “LendingClub for Real Estate,” RelatyShares has provided a crowdfunding platform for investing in commercial real-estate, allowing investors to avoid all the hassles that come with it. Users can pre-buy shares in rental properties that are being purchased or built, without having to come up with all the capital necessary to do so. Already, the platform has signed up more than 1,100 accredited investors and 70 percent are repeat investors.

On the property management and development side, RealtyShares has signed up 150 companies who are signed up to raise capital through the platform. That allows them to focus on what they do best — which is to own and manage real estate. For that, they pay between 3% and 5% commission for access to investors.

RealtyShares has funded $1.1 million in deals since being launched in beta, and is now sourcing $1.5 million per week in real estate transactions per week.

PlateJoy

We’ve already covered PlateJoy in the past, but I still think it’s a good idea, so here goes. The company provides a platform that enables users to shop for groceries by meal, rather than shopping for individual food items.

PlateJoy gives users a choice of different meals, and then provides them the ingredients and recipes to make those meals. By doing so, it enables users to eat better and reduce waste.

PlateJoy partners with large grocery chains to source and deliver food to customers, so there’s no inventory or overhead from that perspective. And it’s seen a fair bit of success from customers, with more than half coming back to order a second time.

Partender

Partender gives the folks who work in bars an easy tool to manage inventory and ordering of all the liquors that they have sold or need to order. Using a simple mobile app, as well as Partnder’s backend platform, bar workers can easily keep track of how much is sold or how much is need.

With the app, workers only need to point to where on a bottle the liquor is filled up to to estimate how much has been used, and it records the result. That allows bars to track how much is being sold day-to-day, and also to estimate how much inventory they need going forward.

Depending on what features they need, Partender charges $99 to $899 a month, and has more than 550 bars and restaurants signed up to use the platform.

EquityZen

EquityZen provides a platform that enables employees to sell equity in hot startups to investors who would like to purchase them on secondary markets. It hopes to provide an alternative to offerings like SecondMarket, by giving the companies those employees work for or have shares in to have more control over secondary transactions.

“Secondary markets today are broken. The sellers get cash, buyers get access, and all the company gets is a headache,” said founder Atish Davda. EquityZen, by contrast, is designed with company in mind, giving it control over who gets to sell equity, how much, and when.

The platform already has 800 accredited investors signed up, and has seen $29 million in equity transferred over it. And it’s growing 60 percent month-over-month.

Builk

This company is building a big data platform for the construction industry. By providing a Mint.com-like interface for managing budgets and purchase orders, Build enables construction companies to better understand the costs of their projects. They can also save time and money in doing so.

But how does Builk make money? It gets that data for free, and then can sell it back to suppliers, giving them real-time information that can be used for understanding their customers to help increase sales. Builk is all over Southeast Asia already, and has grown 40 percent over the past three months.

OLSET

OLSET uses the power of big data to personalize travel booking. It’s developed patented technology to enable any travel booking site to offer hotel recommendations that appeal to individual users. The whole goal is to update travel booking, which is way too complicated and more confusing than it needs to be.

OLSET isn’t looking to offer these direct to consumers, but through partners. An example is Any.Do, where users can get personalized hotel results right in the app, showing users which hotels are right for them.

Honorable mentions:

BTCJam – Aiming to provide global loans at reasonable rates around the world. And hey, it’s based on Bitcoin.
Launchtrack – Runs a next-gen ticketing platform that offers up customer information generally not available through other ticketing platforms.
Ubiome – You send them poop in a box, they send you information about your relative health.

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UXPin Picks Up $1.6M Round Led By Freestyle Capital To Democratize Design

By   /  February 5, 2014  /  Tech  /  No Comments

This morning UXPin announced the completion of a $1.6 million funding round led by Freestyle Capital, with participation from Andreessen Horowitz and IDG Ventures. UXPin is an online design tool designed to build a middle ground between professional-level tools that are too complex for the average person, and the simplistic opposite end of the market.

Its goal is to let people design anything from wearable technology to software with its technology, in its browser-based tool.

I’m no designer, though I did play with the product and found it simple enough to dig into. The company saw its revenue spike 950 percent year-over-year between 2012 and 2013, so it appears to be doing something right. (UXPin has “thousands” of customers, but did not provide a more specific number. With 3,000 customers paying $15 per month, UXPin has yearly revenue north of $500,000.)

A few things make UXPin unique: It offers no long-term free tier and is on a quick ramp to profitability. According to CEO Marcin Treder, UXPin should be profitable by the summer. A U.S.-venture-backed, Polish, in-browser design tool firm hiring in the U.S. that is about to rock into the black? Name another firm that is that unconventional.

In fact, according to Treder, only three Polish firms have ever received venture capital from the United States, and all three picked up the dollars in 2013.

The company’s $1.6 million in capital is not its first set of cash. According to Treder, UXPin picked up around a quarter million dollars from Polish investors previously. Then, the company raised $700,000 that closed last October. However, interest convinced them to extend the funding period, and so Freestyle came in with more capital. Freestyle’s own Joyce Kim will join its board.

As you expected, the company intends to invest its new cash into hiring in the United States and in developing its service.

All told UXPin is a neat service that has convinced a decent swath of designers to open their wallets. And that revenue was likely key to convincing some of the smarter money in Silicon Valley to take note and toss a few more dollars its way. Anyone want to gamble on how long until Adobe calls the firm?

Top Image Credit: Bruno Cordioli (Image Cropped)

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Hey, Big Spender! Venture Investment Soars In January

By   /  February 4, 2014  /  Tech  /  No Comments

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Holy shit did venture capitalists spend a lot of money in January.

Investments in new companies shot to $5.8 billion by the end of the month up from $3.5 billion over the same period last year, according to data from CrunchBase.

It’s only one month, not a full quarter, but it seems like venture investors are setting the stage for a very, very active year.

Software investments led all categories with just over $1 billion committed to deals, up from $597.3 billion last year. But hardware companies, e-commerce startups, mobile technologies, financial services offerings, and health-related technologies all attracted significantly more cash, CrunchBase data showed.

It’s also worth mentioning that while the total amounts that investors committed went up in most categories, the number of investments made by venture capitalists actually declined in six of the top 10 investment sectors by capital committed compared to last year’s figures. This lends credence to the notion that prices for companies continue to climb.

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The pace of investors’ commitments has caused some industry watchers to wonder whether the market is heading for some sort of reckoning.

“As soon as people start pouring money into a sector, that’s when we say we better slow down,” said one investor at a multi-billion-dollar venture capital fund. Meanwhile, limited partners are especially concerned about later-stage valuations, which seem… frothy.

“The later stage stuff is getting scary on the multiples,” said one investor at a large fund of funds. The last time venture investors put this kind of money to work in deals was in 2010, when VC-backed companies raised over $5.9 billion in deals.

Investments from VCs keep rising even as the amount of money venture investors raise from limited partners continues to slide. Data from Thomson Reuters and the National Venture Capital Association pegs the amount of capital that venture firms have raised at $16.7 billion in 2013, down from $19.6 billion in 2012.

Meanwhile, investments into startups climbed in 2013 to $29.4 billion, up from $27.3 billion in 2012 and nearly level with the $29.7 billion committed in 2011, according to the NVCA.

Still investors are loath to define the market as a “bubble” despite the return of hedge funds and rising valuations.

A lot of this can be attributed to a movement from earlier stage to later stage deals. As the chart below shows, a lot of the money from the biggest spenders in January went to companies that had raised at least two or three rounds of financing.

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Some of these later-stage fundings — like the $101 million round raised by virtualization technology developer Nutanix, the $250 million Dropbox raised, or the $112 million for One Kings Lane – are all later-stage deals. The $30 million second tranche of a Series A for healthcare startup Oscar, or the $122.5 million for shaving company Harry’s, seem a little less… typical.

As other industry professionals have noted, there’s a bifurcation in Series A financing that’s happening, as well. Even the amount of money that early-stage investors are spending for angel, seed, and Series A round deals is increasing, according to data from CrunchBase.

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These numbers may just be an anomaly, but if investors keep up the pace, 2014 could signal a new beginning for an industry that had been trying to find its footing – or it could be another sign that VCs are walking closer to the edge.

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Future Ad Labs Turns CAPTCHAs Into Mini-Games (And Ad Revenue)

By   /  February 4, 2014  /  Business  /  No Comments

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We all hate CAPTCHAs, right? Those pesky additions to web forms that try to determine if you are a human and not a computer bot with nefarious intentions. A necessary evil to fight spam and other attacks, perhaps, but conversely also bad for business, dramatically increasing bounce rates and e-commerce shopping basket abandonment.

Future Ad Labs is on a mission to change this by replacing the CAPTCHA with something more engaging and game-like, which users might actually enjoy, while at the same time creating a new kind of ad unit that brands can enjoy, too.

Today, the UK-based startup is announcing it’s raised $1 million in funding (which I understand actually closed, in various stages, last year). The impressive list of backers includes Passion Capital, who led the round, as well as Balderton Capital, Ballpark Ventures, and accelerator Ignite100.

In addition, a portion of the investment was raised via the equity crowdfunding platform Seedrs. Angel investors Scott Button (founder/CEO of Unruly Media), Richard Fearne, Damon Reeves (former CEO of Unanimis) and Paul Whitehead (commercial director at WeR Interactive) are also in the list of backers.

Calling itself an ad tech company, Future Ad Labs’ “PlayCaptcha” ad unit (because on one level that’s what it is) lets users verify they are human, to the same end as a traditional CAPTCHA. But instead of asking users to enter a sequence of letters and numbers from a blurry image, they complete a game-like mini challenge (though, intentionally, they aren’t challenging at all), such as moving an on-screen slider in a straight-ish line to unwrap a virtual chocolate bar.

However, these challenges are fully branded, meaning that users are engaging with well-known brands at the same time. That chocolate bar, for example, could be a KitKat. It’s utterly brilliant (and utterly depressing if you have brand overload). Of course it’s also how Future Ad Labs and the sites it works with generate revenue. Not only is it solving an end-user problem, but it’s worked out a way to make money without being detrimental to the experience.

Noteworthy is that “PlayCaptchas” have been measured to have a 92% success rate (23% higher than standard CAPTCHAs) and 90% brand recall, according to the company.

It’s also one of those ‘why didn’t anybody think of this before?’ ideas. Unsurprisingly, however, other companies are operating in the same space. Future Ad Labs’ competitors include NYC-based Solve Media, and Are You A Human.

That said, the market opportunity is huge. Globally 300 million CAPTCHAs are completed per day. Meanwhile, I’m told that Future Ad Labs is on track to hit “7-digit revenues” in 2014. I’ve also heard from a source that the company recently hired away a VP of sales from a well-known legacy online gaming company, presumably to help boost ad revenue.

Future Ad Labs has already launched with the National TV Awards and the BBC (it was part of BBC Labs). On the brand side it’s secured campaigns and revenue from Heinz, Reckitt Benckiser and Nestle, among others.

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Happy Capital

By   /  February 2, 2014  /  Business  /  No Comments

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Happy Capital is the first French non-discriminatory platform participatory financing capital input (crowdinvesting). It brings together entrepreneurs seeking funding on the one hand, and individual investors who wish to invest their savings in the real economy on the other.

Tags: crowdfunding, crowdinvesting, crowdsourcing, french

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One Spark Grows to $3.25 Million in Private Investment Opportunities for Creators

By   /  February 1, 2014  /  Business  /  No Comments

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“Our partnership with Arsenal Venture Partners, Florida Blue, Healthbox, PS27 Ventures, UE Investors and STACHE Investments Corp. continues to elevate the level of funding opportunities on the table for One Spark 2014 creators,” said Elton Rivas, One Spark co-founder. “Connecting great ideas to investment dollars is a critical component of a successful event. The caliber of capital partners who will be at One Spark 2014 looking for the next big thing is truly remarkable.”

SOURCE:http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/one-spark-grows-to-325-million-in-private-investment-opportunities-for-creators-242578361.html

Tags: crowd-funding, crowdfunding, crowdsource, crowdsourcing, one-spark

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Vector Capital Makes Controlling Investment In CollabNet Developer Platform

By   /  January 31, 2014  /  Tech  /  No Comments

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CollabNet is one of the leading agile development platforms in the enterprise and the company behind the Subversion version control software. It has millions of users on its platform, which launched back in 1999. Today, Vector Capital is making a controlling investment in the company as part of a concurrent equity round that includes another, undisclosed investor.

The company did not disclose the size of the round, but Vector Capital currently manages over $2 billion in equity capital and typically invests from $100 million to $300 million in each of its portfolio companies.

Vector Capital may not be a household name, but the company has previously invested in companies like Corel, LANDesk, RealNetworks, Register.com and WinZip. The firm says it usually invests in companies with at least $100 million in revenue.

As Vector Capital partner Rob Amen told me, CollabNet is exactly the kind of company the firm likes to invest in. “CollabNet is a gem,” he told me. “It is rare, as a technology investor, to get an opportunity like this. It’s A+ technology and an incredible management team with a ton of experience. All it needs is a partner with deep pockets that can help it grow.” As part of this investment, Amen will take a seat on CollabNet’s board.

Last year, CollabNet raised a $2.5 million debt round, which today’s round will wipe out. The company raised most of its funding in its early years, with an $11 million round in 2002 and a $9.5 million Series B in 2005. Previous investors include Benchmark, Norwest Venture Partners and Intel Capital.

According to CollabNet CEO Bill Portelli, the 300-person company used this funding to grow through the recession but the industry wasn’t quite ready for its solutions yet. While CollabNet was among the first companies to enable software development in the cloud, enterprises weren’t quite ready for this concept. It’s only now, in his view, that enterprises are starting to catch up with CollabNet’s vision and are starting to adopt agile development.

“What we are seeing now,” he told me, ” is that the world is moving to a distributed and fragmented development model, with data inside and outside the company. There is an ever-increasing need for developers to use their favorite tools, but enterprises also need transparency into this.” This fragmentation, he also stressed, is leading to integration issues for enterprises.

CollabNet’s tools include its set of TeamForge application lifecycle management tools that enable teams to collaborate in a distributed team while using a large variety of tools, whether that’s Subversion or git, Jenkins, Eclipse, Visual Studio, ScrumWorksPro or any other of over 50 tools integrated into TeamForge. For smaller teams, the company offers CloudForge, a hosted version of Subversion, Git and TeamForge.

The company tells me that there are currently approximately 9 million Subversion users, with 1 million on paid plans. TeamForge has about 425,000 users from several hundred customers. The company also tells me it has trained about 17,000 “ScrumMasters.”

“We don’t play favorite,” Portelli said. Even though the company developed Subversion, which was essentially the first open-source version control software, it was also one of the early adopters of the rival Git version control system, for example. “We are the only company that pulls together so many open source technologies in such a scalable way,” he also noted.

Over the last few years, the company made a number of pricing changes to better compete with the likes of Atlassian, GitHub and BitBucket, all of which offer similar development and collaboration tools. These changes included the introduction of free accounts for its platform. This has helped CollabNet prime its pipeline for selling paid accounts. And, as the team told me, its website traffic tripled over the course of the last year, too.

To harness all of this interest in the platform, the team needed today’s investment because, as Portelli noted, the company’s main challenge recently was capital.

With this new influx of funding, CollabNet plans to increase its investment in its agile and DevOps products. It also wants to scale up its marketing efforts to teach companies about agile development practices and how to adopt them at scale. The company also plans to use the funding to make a number of acquisitions in the future.

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Intel & Alpine Back Speaktoit To Put Natural Language Personal Assistant In Cars, Robots, And Wearables

By   /  January 30, 2014  /  Tech  /  No Comments

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Speaktoit, the Russian startup behind Speaktoit Assistant, a Siri alternative for Android, iOS and Windows Phone that also competes with a host of other AI and natural language-driven ‘personal assistants’, has raised a new round of funding. The amount remains undisclosed, but once again Intel Capital, the chip maker’s venture and M&A arm, is investing, along with new investor Alpine Electronics through its Alpine Technology Fund. Two strategic investors is better than one, I guess.

More noteworthy, however, especially in light of Google picking up AI startup DeepMind for a reportedly cool $500 million+, is that Speaktoit says the new capital will be used to accelerate the development of its platform for allowing clients to add natural language virtual assistant capabilities to applications, gadgets, cars, robots, and wearable technology. Those are, without exception, all areas that Mountain View is busy plotting its future.

It’s also more evidence that Artificial Intelligence, in the loosest sense, is heating up again. Could this be a long hot summer before another AI winter? It seems unlikely but it wouldn’t be the first time.

Speaktoit claims 10 million downloads to date, making it Android’s top-rated virtual assistant app, apparently. Like its competitors, including TechCrunch Disrupt finalist Maluuba, the app attempts to understand questions and voice commands using natural language processing to perform various tasks, such as setting a calendar reminder, composing a text message or email, updating Twitter or Facebook, opening an app or website, searching for directions, and so on.

In January last year, it introduced a premium version of Speaktoit Assistant that added the ability to change the list of ‘trigger’ phrases and customise how the app responds, essentially letting you teach it new commands.

In a canned statement, Ilya Gelfenbeyn, CEO of Speaktoit, talks up the pairing of its two strategic investors and Speaktoit’s cross-platform, cross-device future: “What has begun with smartphones over the past three years will soon touch many areas of our lives, including our cars and our homes. Intel Capital and Alpine Technology Fund are the perfect partners for Speaktoit’s continued technological advancements in human-computer interaction technology,” he says.

It’s hard to argue with that. And, certainly, a voice-driven natural language UI seems better placed in cars, “robots”, and wearables, where hands-free operation is almost mandatory, than a smartphone where typing and swiping, in most use-cases, works just fine.

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Jason Calacanis’ Mahalo Is Reborn As Mobile News App Inside

By   /  January 28, 2014  /  Tech  /  No Comments

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Jason Calacanis is getting back into the news business with a new app called Inside, which highlights and summarizes the top news stories.

Although Calacanis has been involved in several startups and startup events (including the TechCrunch50 conferences, prior to an acrimonious split), he may still be best known as the founder of Silicon Alley Reporter and especially of Weblogs, Inc., a group of blogs that includes Engadget and was acquired to AOL (which owns TechCrunch). More recently, he was the founder of Mahalo — in fact, Inside is technically the same company.

For Inside, Calacanis hired Gabriel Snyder, formerly editor of The Wire at The Atlantic, to be his chief content officer.

“The idea behind it is that the world is heading to mobile, but there still isn’t a solution in the new space,” Snyder told me. “I feel like the transition, in terms of news and mobile, is sort of where news and the web was in 2002. Everyone knew the web was going to be huge, but there still wasn’t a grammar to the form.”

Naturally, Snyder hopes that Inside is going to reinvent that “grammar” on mobile. The “atomic units,” he said, are brief updates created by a global team of curators who find and summarize important news stories. The idea is to give you the basic facts of the news if you’re just browsing or you’re in a hurry, but if you’re interested in digging in, you can read the original article or swipe left to read the previous updates on the same topic — Snyder described it as an attempt to “marry what humans are good at and what technology is good at” in one product.

The idea has similarities to Circa and to what Calacanis was already doing on a smaller scale for tech news with the Launch Ticker. Snyder and Calacanis aren’t pitching this as a replacement for original news coverage (“The news story isn’t broken,” Snyder insisted) and they emphasized their goal of linking to high-quality journalism, not just someone who has reblogged another publication’s stories.

Snyder also said Inside’s curators are focused on making the headlines and updates as fact-based as possible, with a limit of 300 characters for each update — so the entire headline, image, and update text will fit on your smartphone screen without any scrolling. (My sense from browsing the app is that the updates tended to consist of terse declarations of a story’s main ideas divided by semicolons.) He added that over time, he’s interested in experimenting with what an update can do — for example, he suggested that it could become a new way to share live coverage of an event.

Initially, you just browse the Inside app based on the top stories and on different news categories, but as you read, you can indicate the kinds of articles you want to see more and less of, and Inside will create a personalized news feed.

And even though Snyder said the team is focused on the mobile experience, there’s a browser-based version too, which will be particularly important when people link to the updates on social networks.

As for making money, the obvious plan would be advertising, but Inside doesn’t have any ads at launch, and Snyder said, “I don’t think anyone is really thinking about that right now.”

As I mentioned, from a corporate perspective, this is actually latest iteration of Mahalo, with the same investors (including Sequoia Capital, Elon Musk, News Corp, CBS, and Mark Cuban). The company started out as a “human-powered search engine” and pivoted several times. We last wrote about Calacanis, Mahalo, and Inside.com in the fall of 2012, when it seemed like the site was going to launch as a “knowledge community.”

Calacanis told me today via email that a knowledge community was never the plan for Inside.com — he said that after he realized that Mahalo’s efforts to create YouTube content were a “suckers game”, the team has been “focused 100%” on developing the current product, and it still has enough money to continue running for two years. (The team has “sunset” Mahalo itself, which Calacanis said “is a fancy way of saying it makes 7 figures so we’re not shutting it off but we are not investing in it.”)

I also asked how the news business has changed since Calacanis sold Weblogs, and he told me:

In a way, what I’ve learned as a consumer is that the big problem today is not that there isn’t great journalism going on — it’s that there is so much “other” and “bad” stuff going on.

You have massive link-baiting and reblogging going on, and the news organizations who do the best social media optimization are winning over the folks who ware doing the best journalism. I’m hoping that Inside highlighting the best journalism the product creates a “healthier media diet” for our consumers. Sort of like Whole Foods, where they don’t let any of the bad stuff [in].

Inside’s iPhone App can be downloaded here, its BlackBerry app can be downloaded here, and the mobile web version can be accessed here.

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Crowdfunding: Interest Among Serious Finance Players Grows

By   /  January 26, 2014  /  Business  /  No Comments

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Interest in crowdfunding from traditional finance players like private equity’s Bain Capital is growing, even though skeptics have downplayed crowdfunding in serious corporate finance. RockThePost, a crowdfunding platform that seeks money for startups, also holds monthly “Demo Days,” where startups pitch ideas to wealthy investors, angel investors, family office investors and institutional investors.

SOURCE LINK to full article: http://www.ibtimes.com/crowdfunding-interest-among-serious-finance-players-grows-1546743

Tags: crowd-funding, crowdfunding, crowdsource, crowdsourcing, jobs-act, knowledge, sec, sec-rule

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