Oct
10
2018
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Shared inbox startup Front launches a complete redesign

Front is launching a major revamp today. And it starts with a brand new design. Front is now powered by React for the web and desktop app, which should make it easier to add new features down the road.

Front hasn’t pivoted to become something else. At heart, it remains a multiplayer email client. You can share generic email addresses with your coworkers, such as sales@yourcompany or jobs@yourcompany. You can then assign emails, comment before replying and integrate your CRM with your email threads.

But the company is also adding a bunch of new features. The most interesting one is the ability to start a thread with your team without having to send an email first. If a client sends you an email, you can comment on the thread and mention your coworkers just like on a Facebook post.

Many companies already use emails for internal communications. So they started using Front to talk to their coworkers. Before today, you had to send an original email and then people could comment on it. Now, you can just create a post by giving it a title and jumping to the comment section. It’s much more straightforward.

“We aren’t planning for all internal conversations to move to Front, but a lot of them very well could. A tool like Slack is often used for questions that don’t require the immediate response that Slack demands,” co-founder and CEO Mathilde Collin told me. “By bringing these messages into Front, we aim to reduce disruptions and help people stay focused.”

In other words, a Slack message feels like a virtual tap on the shoulder. You have to interrupt what you’re doing to take a minute and answer. Front can be used for asynchronous conversations and things that don’t need an immediate response. That’s why you can now also send Slack messages to Front so that you can deal with them in Front.

With this update, Front is making sharing more granular. Front isn’t just about shared addresses. You can assign your personal emails to a coworker — this is much more efficient than forwarding an email. Now, you can easily see who can read and interact with an email thread at the top of the email view.

If somebody sends an email to Sarah and Sam, they’ll both have a copy of this email in their personal inboxes. If Sarah and Sam start commenting and @-mentioning people, Front will now merge the threads.

As a user, you get a unified inbox with all your personal emails, emails that were assigned to you and messages assigned to your team inbox.

Finally, Front has improved its smart filtering system. You can now create more flexible rules. For instance, if an email matches some or all criteria, Front can assign an email to a team or a person, send an automated reply, trigger another rule and more.

The new version of Front will be available later this month. Once again, Front remains focused on its core mission — making work conversations more efficient and more flexible. The company doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel and still relies heavily on emails.

Many people (myself included) say that email is too often a waste of time. Dealing with emails doesn’t necessarily mean getting work done. Front wants to remove all the pains of this messaging protocol so that you can focus on the content of the messages.

Oct
10
2018
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Zenefits’ Parker Conrad returns with Rippling to kill HR & IT busywork

Parker Conrad likes to save time, even though it’s gotten him in trouble. The former CEO of Zenefits was pushed out of the $4.5 billion human resources startup because he built a hack that let him and employees get faster insurance certifications. But 2.5 years later, he’s back to take the busy work out of staff onboarding as well as clumsy IT services like single sign-on to enterprise apps. Today his startup Rippling launches its combined employee management system, which Conrad calls a much larger endeavor than the minimum viable product it announced while in Y Combinator’s accelerator 18 months ago.

“It’s not an HR system. It’s a level below that,” Conrad tells me. “It’s this unholy, crazy mashup of three different things.” First, it handles payroll, benefits, taxes and PTO across all 50 states. “Except Syria and North Korea, you can pay anyone in the world with Rippling,” Conrad claims. That makes it a competitor with Gusto… and Zenefits.

Second, it’s a replacement for Okta, Duo and other enterprise single-sign on security apps that authenticate staffers across partnered apps. Rippling bookmarklets make it easy to auth into over 250 workplace apps, like Gmail, Slack, Dropbox, Asana, Trello, AWS, Salesforce, GitHub and more. When an employee is hired or changes teams, a single modification to their role in Rippling automatically changes all the permissions of what they can access.

And third, it handles computer endpoint security like Jamf. When an employee is hired, Rippling can instantly ship them a computer with all the right software installed and the hard drive encrypted, or have staffers add the Rippling agent that enforces the company’s security standards. The system is designed so there’s no need for an expert IT department to manage it.

“Distributed, fragmented systems of record for employee data are secretly the cause of almost all the annoying administrative work of running a company,” Conrad explains. “If you could build this system that ties all of it together, you could eliminate all this crap work.” That’s Rippling. It’s opening up to all potential clients today, charging them a combined subscription or à la carte fees for any of the three wings of the product.

Conrad refused to say how much Rippling has raised total, citing the enhanced scrutiny Zenefits’ raises drew. But he says a Wall Street Journal report that Rippling had raised $7 million was inaccurate. “We haven’t raised any priced VC rounds. Just a bunch of seed money. We raised from Initialized Capital, almost all the early seed investors at Zenefits and a lot of individuals.” He cited Y Combinator, YC Growth Fund, YC’s founder Jessica Livingston and president Sam Altman, other YC partners, as well as DFJ and SV Angel.

“Because we were able to raise a bunch of money and court great engineers . . . we were able to spend a lot of time building this fundamental technology,” Conrad tells me. Rippling has about 50 team members now, with about 40 of them being engineers, highlighting just how thoroughly Conrad wants to eradicate manual work about work, starting with his own startup.

The CEO refused to discuss details of exactly what went down at Zenefits and whether he thought his ejection was fair. He was accused of allowing Zenefits’ insurance brokers to sell in states where they weren’t licensed, and giving some employees a macro that let them more quickly pass the online insurance certification exam. Conrad ended up paying about $534,000 in SEC fines. Zenefits laid off 430 employees, or 45 percent of its staff, and moved to selling software to small-to-medium sized businesses through a network of insurance brokers.

But when asked what he’d learned from Zenefits, Conrad looked past those troubles and instead recalled that “one of the mistakes that we made was that we did a lot stuff manually behind the scenes. When you scale up, there are these manual processes, and it’s really hard to come back later when it’s a big hard complicated thing and replace it with technology. You get upside down on margins. If you start at the beginning and never let the manual processes creep in . . . it sort of works.”

Perhaps it was trying to cut corners that got Conrad into the Zenefits mess, but now that same intention has inspired Rippling’s goal of eliminating HR and IT drudgery with an all-in-one tool.

“I think I’m someone who feels the pain of that kind of stuff particularly strongly. So that’s always been a real irritant to me, and I saw this problem. The conventional wisdom is ‘don’t build something like this, start with something much smaller,’ ” Conrad concludes. “But I knew if I didn’t do this, that no one else was gong to do it and I really wanted this system to exist. This is a company that’s all about annoying stuff and making that fucking annoying stuff go away.”

Oct
09
2018
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Upskill launches support for Microsoft HoloLens

Upskill has been working on a platform to support augmented and mixed reality for almost as long as most people have been aware of the concept. It began developing an agnostic AR/MR platform way back in 2010. Google Glass didn’t even appear until two years later. Today, the company announced the early release of Skylight for Microsoft HoloLens.

Upskill has been developing Skylight as an operating platform to work across all devices, regardless of the manufacturer, but company co-founder and CEO Brian Ballard sees something special with HoloLens. “What HoloLens does for certain types of experiences, is it actually opens up a lot more real estate to display information in a way that users can take advantage of,” Ballard explained.

He believes the Microsoft device fits well within the broader approach his company has been taking over the last several years to support the range of hardware on the market while developing solutions for hands-free and connected workforce concepts.

“This is about extending Skylight into the spatial computing environment making sure that the workflows, the collaboration, the connectivity is seamless across all of these different devices,” he told TechCrunch.

Microsoft itself just announced some new HoloLens use cases for its Dynamics 365 platform around remote assistance and 3D layout, use cases which play to the HoloLens strengths, but Ballard says his company is a partner with Microsoft, offering an enhanced, full-stack solution on top of what Microsoft is giving customers out of the box.

That is certainly something Microsoft’s Terry Farrell, director of product marketing for mixed reality at Microsoft recognizes and acknowledges. “As adoption of Microsoft HoloLens continues to rapidly increase in industrial settings, Skylight offers a software platform that is flexible and can scale to meet any number of applications well suited for mixed reality experiences,” he said in a statement.

That involves features like spatial content placement, which allows employees to work with digital content in HoloLens, while keeping their hands free to work in the real world. They enhance this with the ability to see multiple reference materials across multiple windows at the same time, something we are used to doing with a desktop computer, but not with a device on our faces like HoloLens. Finally, workers can use hand gestures and simple gazes to navigate in virtual space, directing applications or moving windows, as we are used to doing with keyboard or mouse.

Upskill also builds on the Windows 10 capabilities in HoloLens with its broad experience securely connecting to back-end systems to pull the information into the mixed reality setting wherever it lives in the enterprise.

The company is based outside of Washington, D.C. in Vienna, Virginia. It has raised over $45 million, according to Crunchbase. Ballard says the company currently has 70 employees. Customers using Skylight include Boeing, GE, Coca-Cola, Telstra and Accenture.

Oct
08
2018
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WeWork taps Lemonade to offer insurance to WeLive members

WeWork has partnered with Lemonade to provide renters insurance to WeLive members.

WeLive is the residential offering from WeWork, offering members a fully-furnished apartment, complete with amenities like housekeeping, mailroom, and on-site laundry, on a flexible rental schedule. In other words, bicoastal workers or generally nomadic individuals can rent a short-term living space without worrying about all the extras.

As part of that package, WeLive is now referring new and existing WeLive members to Lemonade for renters insurance.

WeLive currently has two locations — one in New York and one in D.C. — collectively representing more than 400 units. WeWork says that both units are nearly at capacity. The company has plans to open a third location in Seattle Washington by Spring 2020.

Lemonade, meanwhile, is an up-and-coming insurance startup that is rethinking the centuries-old industry. The company’s first big innovation was the digitization of getting insurance. The company uses a chatbot to lead prospective customers through the process in under a minute.

The second piece of Lemoande’s strategy is rooted in the business model. Unlike incumbent insurance providers, Lemonade takes its profit up-front, raking away a percentage of customers’ monthly payments. The rest, however, is set aside to fulfill claims. Whatever goes unclaimed at the end of the year is donated to the charity of each customer’s choice.

To date, Lemonade has raised a total of $180 million. WeWork, on the other hand, has raised just over $9 billion, with a reported valuation as high as $35 billion.

Of course, part of the reason for that lofty valuation is the fact that WeWork is a real estate behemoth, with Re/Code reporting that the company is Manhattan’s second biggest private office tenant. But beyond sheer square footage, WeWork has spent the past few years filling its arsenal with various service providers for its services store.

With 175,000 members (as of end of 2017, so that number is likely much higher now), WeWork has a considerable userbase with which it can negotiate deals with service providers, from enterprise software makers to… well, insurance providers.

Lemonade is likely just the beginning of WeWork’s stretch into developing a suite of services and partnerships for its residential members.

Oct
03
2018
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Palo Alto Networks to acquire RedLock for $173 M to beef up cloud security

Palo Alto Networks launched in 2005 in the age of firewalls. As we all know by now, the enterprise expanded beyond the cozy confines of a firewall long ago and vendors like Palo Alto have moved to securing data in the cloud now too. To that end, the company announced its intent to pay $173 million for RedLock today, an early-stage startup that helps companies make sure their cloud instances are locked down and secure.

The cloud vendors take responsibility for securing their own infrastructure, and for the most part the major vendors have done a decent job. What they can’t do is save their customers from themselves and that’s where a company like RedLock comes in.

As we’ve seen time and again, data has been exposed in cloud storage services like Amazon S3, not through any fault of Amazon itself, but because a faulty configuration has left the data exposed to the open internet. RedLock watches configurations like this and warns companies when something looks amiss.

When the company emerged from stealth just a year ago, Varun Badhwar, company founder and CEO told TechCrunch that this is part of Amazon’s shared responsibility model. “They have diagrams where they have responsibility to secure physical infrastructure, but ultimately it’s the customer’s responsibility to secure the content, applications and firewall settings,” Badhwar told TechCrunch last year.

Badhwar speaking in a video interview about the acquisition says they have been focused on helping developers build cloud applications safely and securely, whether that’s Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure or Google Cloud Platform. “We think about [RedLock] as guardrails or as bumper lanes in a bowling alley and just not letting somebody get that gutter ball and from a security standpoint, just making sure we don’t deviate from the best practices,” he explained.

“We built a technology platform that’s entirely cloud-based and very quick time to value since customers can just turn it on through API’s, and we love to shine the light and show our customers how to safely move into public cloud,” he added.

The acquisition will also fit nicely with Evident.io, a cloud infrastructure security startup, the company acquired in March for $300 million. Badhwar believes that customers will benefit from Evident’s compliance capabilities being combined with Red Lock’s analytics capabilities to provide a more complete cloud security solution.

RedLock launched in 2015 and has raised $12 million. The $173 million purchase would appear to be a great return for the investors who put their faith in the startup.

Oct
02
2018
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NYC wants to build a cyber army

Empires rise and fall, and none more so than business empires. Whole industries that once dominated the planet are just a figment in memory’s eye, while new industries quietly grow into massive behemoths.

New York City has certainly seen its share of empires. Today, the city is a global center of finance, real estate, legal services, technology, and many, many more industries. It hosts the headquarters of roughly 10% of the Fortune 500, and the metro’s GDP is roughly equivalent to that of Canada.

So much wealth and power, and all under constant attack. The value of technology and data has skyrocketed, and so has the value of stealing and disrupting the services that rely upon it. Cyber crime and cyber wars are adding up: according to a report published jointly between McAfee and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the costs of these operations are in the hundreds of billions of dollars – and New York’s top industries such as financial services bear the brunt of the losses.

Yet, New York City has hardly been a bastion for the cybersecurity industry. Boston and Washington DC are far stronger today on the Acela corridor, and San Francisco and Israel have both made huge impacts on the space. Now, NYC’s leaders are looking to build a whole new local empire that might just act as a bulwark for its other leading ecosystems.

Today, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) announced the launch of Cyber NYC, a $30 million “catalyzing” investment designed to rapidly grow the city’s ecosystem and infrastructure for cybersecurity.

James Patchett, CEO of New York City Economic Development Corporation. (Photo from NYCEDC)

James Patchett, CEO of NYCEDC, explained in an interview with TechCrunch that cybersecurity is “both an incredible opportunity and also a huge threat.” He noted that “the financial industry has been the lifeblood of this city for our entire history,” and the costs of cybercrime are rising quickly. “It’s a lose-lose if we fail to invest in the innovation that keeps the city strong” but “it’s a win if we can create all of that innovation here and the corresponding jobs,” he said.

The Cyber NYC program is made up of a constellation of programs:

  • Partnering with Jerusalem Venture Partners, an accelerator called Hub.NYC will develop enterprise cybersecurity companies by connecting them with advisors and customers. The program will be hosted in a nearly 100,000 square foot building in SoHo.
  • Partnering with SOSA, the city will create a new, 15,000 square foot Global Cyber Center co-working facility in Chelsea, where talented individuals in the cyber industry can hang out and learn from each other through event programming and meetups.
  • With Fullstack Academy and Laguardia Community College, a Cyber Boot Camp will be created to enhance the ability of local workers to find jobs in the cybersecurity space.
  • Through an “Applied Learning Initiative,” students will be able to earn a “CUNY-Facebook Master’s Degree” in cybersecurity. The program has participation from the City University of New York, New York University, Columbia University, Cornell Tech, and iQ4.
  • With Columbia University’s Technology Ventures, NYCEDC will introduce a program called Inventors to Founders that will work to commercialize university research.

NYCEDC’s map of the Cyber NYC initiative. (Photo from NYCEDC)

In addition to Facebook, other companies have made commitments to the program, including Goldman Sachs, MasterCard, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and edX.org. Two Goldman execs, Chief Operational Risk Officer Phil Venables and Chief Information Security Officer Andy Ozment, have joined the initiative’s advisory boards.

The NYCEDC estimates that there are roughly 6,000 cybersecurity professionals currently employed in New York City. Through these programs, it estimates that the number could increase by another 10,000. Patchett said that “it is as close to a no-brainer in economic development because of the opportunity and the risk.”

From Jerusalem to New York

To tackle its ambitious cybersecurity goals, the NYCEDC is partnering with two venture firms, Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP) and SOSA, with significant experience investing, operating, and growing companies in the sector.

Jerusalem-based JVP is an established investor that should help founders at Hub.NYC get access to smart capital, sector expertise, and the entrepreneurial experience needed to help their startups scale. JVP invests in early-, late-, and growth-stage companies focused on cybersecurity, big data, media, and enterprise software.

JVP will run Hub.NYC, a startup accelerator that will help cybersecurity startups connect with customers and mentors. (Photo from JVP)

Erel Margalit, who founded the firm in 1993, said that “If you look at what JVP has done … we create ecosystems.” Working with Jerusalem’s metro government, Margalit and the firm pioneered a number of institutions such as accelerators that turned Israel into an economic powerhouse in the cybersecurity industry. His social and economic work eventually led him to the Knesset, Israel’s unicameral legislature, where he served as an MP from 2015-2017 with the Labor Party.

Israel is a very small country with a relative dearth of large companies though, a huge challenge for startups looking to scale up. “Today if you want to build the next-generation leading companies, you have to be not only where the ideas are being brewed, but also where the solutions are being [purchased],” Margalit explained. “You need to be working with the biggest customers in the world.”

That place, in his mind, is New York City. It’s a city he has known since his youth – he worked at Moshe’s Moving IN NYC while attending Columbia as a grad student where he got his PhD in philosophy. Now, he can pack up his own success from Israel and scale it up to an even larger ecosystem.

Since its founding, JVP has successfully raised $1.1 billion across eight funds, including a $60 million fund specifically focused on the cybersecurity space. Over the same period, the firm has seen 32 successful exits, including cybersecurity companies CyberArk (IPO in 2014) and CyActive (Acquired by PayPal in 2013).

JVP’s efforts in the cybersecurity space also go beyond the investment process, with the firm recently establishing an incubator, known as JVP Cyber Labs, specifically focused on identifying, nurturing and building the next wave of Israeli cybersecurity and big data companies.

On average, the firm has focused on deals in the $5-$10 million range, with a general proclivity for earlier-stage companies where the firm can take a more hands-on mentorship role. Some of JVP’s notable active portfolio companies include Source Defense, which uses automation to protect against website supply chain attacks, ThetaRay, which uses big data to analyze threats, and Morphisec, which sells endpoint security solutions.

Opening up innovation with SOSA

The self-described “open-innovation platform,” SOSA is a global network of corporations, investors, and entrepreneurs that connects major institutions with innovative startups tackling core needs.

SOSA works closely with its partner startups, providing investor sourcing, hands-on mentorship and the physical resources needed to achieve growth. The group’s areas of expertise include cybersecurity, fintech, automation, energy, mobility, and logistics. Though headquartered in Tel Aviv, SOSA recently opened an innovation lab in New York, backed by major partners including HP, RBC, and Jefferies.

With the eight-floor Global Cyber Center located in Chelsea, it is turning its attention to an even more ambitious agenda. Uzi Scheffer, CEO of SOSA, said to TechCrunch in a statement that “The Global Cyber Center will serve as a center of gravity for the entire cybersecurity industry where they can meet, interact and connect to the finest talent from New York, the States, Israel and our entire global network.”

SOSA’s new building in Chelsea will be a center for the cybersecurity community (Photo from SOSA)

With an already established presence in New York, SOSA’s local network could help spur the local corporate participation key to the EDC’s plan, while SOSA’s broader global network can help achieve aspirations of turning New York City into a global cybersecurity leader.

It is no coincidence that both of the EDC’s venture partners are familiar with the Israeli cybersecurity ecosystem. Israel has long been viewed as a leader in cybersecurity innovation and policy, and has benefited from the same successful public-private sector coordination New York hopes to replicate.

Furthermore, while New York hopes to create organic growth within its own local ecosystem, the partnerships could also benefit the city if leading Israeli cybersecurity companies look to relocate due to the limited size of the Israeli market.

Big plans, big results?

While we spent comparatively less time discussing them, the NYCEDC’s educational programs are particularly interesting. Students will be able to take classes at any university in the five-member consortium, and transfer credits freely, a concept that the NYCEDC bills as “stackable certificates.”

Meanwhile, Facebook has partnered with the City University of New York to create a professional master’s degree program to train up a new class of cybersecurity leaders. The idea is to provide a pathway to a widely-respected credential without having to take too much time off of work. NYCEDC CEO Patchett said, ”you probably don’t have the time to take two years off to do a masters program,” and so the program’s flexibility should provide better access to more professionals.

Together, all of these disparate programs add up to a bold attempt to put New York City on the map for cybersecurity. Talent development, founder development, customer development – all have been addressed with capital and new initiatives.

Will the community show up at initiatives like the Global Cyber Center, pictured here? (Photo from SOSA)

Yet, despite the time that NYCEDC has spent to put all of these partners together cohesively under one initiative, the real challenge starts with getting the community to participate and build upon these nascent institutions. “What we hear from folks a lot of time,” Patchett said to us, is that “there is no community for cyber professionals in New York City.” Now the buildings have been placed, but the people need to walk through the front doors.

The city wants these programs to be self-sustaining as soon as possible. “In all cases, we don’t want to support these ecosystems forever,” Patchett said. “If we don’t think they’re financially sustainable, we haven’t done our job right.” He believes that “there should be a natural incentive to invest once the ecosystem is off the ground.”

As the world encounters an ever-increasing array of cyber threats, old empires can falter – and new empires can grow. Cybersecurity may well be one of the next great industries, and it may just provide the needed defenses to ensure that New York City’s other empires can live another day.

Sep
26
2018
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Instana raises $30M for its application performance monitoring service

Instana, an application performance monitoring (APM) service with a focus on modern containerized services, today announced that it has raised a $30 million Series C funding round. The round was led by Meritech Capital, with participation from existing investor Accel. This brings Instana’s total funding to $57 million.

The company, which counts the likes of Audi, Edmunds.com, Yahoo Japan and Franklin American Mortgage as its customers, considers itself an APM 3.0 player. It argues that its solution is far lighter than those of older players like New Relic and AppDynamics (which sold to Cisco hours before it was supposed to go public). Those solutions, the company says, weren’t built for modern software organizations (though I’m sure they would dispute that).

What really makes Instana stand out is its ability to automatically discover and monitor the ever-changing infrastructure that makes up a modern application, especially when it comes to running containerized microservices. The service automatically catalogs all of the endpoints that make up a service’s infrastructure, and then monitors them. It’s also worth noting that the company says that it can offer far more granular metrics that its competitors.

Instana says that its annual sales grew 600 percent over the course of the last year, something that surely attracted this new investment.

“Monitoring containerized microservice applications has become a critical requirement for today’s digital enterprises,” said Meritech Capital’s Alex Kurland. “Instana is packed with industry veterans who understand the APM industry, as well as the paradigm shifts now occurring in agile software development. Meritech is excited to partner with Instana as they continue to disrupt one of the largest and most important markets with their automated APM experience.”

The company plans to use the new funding to fulfill the demand for its service and expand its product line.

Sep
20
2018
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MariaDB acquires Clustrix

MariaDB, the company behind the eponymous MySQL drop-in replacement database, today announced that it has acquired Clustrix, which itself is a MySQL drop-in replacement database, but with a focus on scalability. MariaDB will integrate Clustrix’s technology into its own database, which will allow it to offer its users a more scalable database service in the long run.

That by itself would be an interesting development for the popular open source database company. But there’s another angle to this story, too. In addition to the acquisition, MariaDB also today announced that cloud computing company ServiceNow is investing in MariaDB, an investment that helped it get to today’s acquisition. ServiceNow doesn’t typically make investments, though it has made a few acquisitions. It is a very large MariaDB user, though, and it’s exactly the kind of customer that will benefit from the Clustrix acquisition.

MariaDB CEO Michael Howard tells me that ServiceNow current supports about 80,000 instances of MariaDB. With this investment (which is actually an add-on to MariaDB’s 2017 Series C round), ServiceNow’s SVP of Development and Operations Pat Casey will join MariaDB’s board.

Why would MariaDB acquire a company like Clustrix, though? When I asked Howard about the motivation, he noted that he’s now seeing more companies like ServiceNow that are looking at a more scalable way to run MariaDB. Howard noted that it would take years to build a new database engine from the ground up.

“You can hire a lot of smart people individually, but not necessarily have that experience built into their profile,” he said. “So that was important and then to have a jumpstart in relation to this market opportunity — this mandate from our market. It typically takes about nine years, to get a brand new, thorough database technology off the ground. It’s not like a SaaS application where you can get a front-end going in about a year or so.

Howard also stressed that the fact that the teams at Clustrix and MariaDB share the same vocabulary, given that they both work on similar problems and aim to be compatible with MySQL, made this a good fit.

While integrating the Clustrix database technology into MariaDB won’t be trivial, Howard stressed that the database was always built to accommodate external database storage engines. MariaDB will have to make some changes to its APIs to be ready for the clustering features of Clustrix. “It’s not going to be a 1-2-3 effort,” he said. “It’s going to be a heavy-duty effort for us to do this right. But everyone on the team wants to do it because it’s good for the company and our customers.

MariaDB did not disclose the price of the acquisition. Since it was founded in 2006, though, the Y Combinator-incubated Clustrix had raised just under $72 million, though. MariaDB has raised just under $100 million so far, so it’s probably a fair guess that Clustrix didn’t necessarily sell for a large multiple of that.

Sep
19
2018
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Fresh out of Y Combinator, Leena AI scores $2M seed round

Leena AI, a recent Y Combinator graduate focusing on HR chatbots to help employees answer questions like how much vacation time they have left, announced a $2 million seed round today from a variety of investors including Elad Gil and Snapdeal co-founders Kunal Bahl and Rohit Bansal.

Company co-founder and CEO Adit Jain says the seed money is about scaling the company and gaining customers. They hope to have 50 enterprise customers within the next 12-18 months. They currently have 16.

We wrote about the company in June when it was part of the Y Combinator Summer 2018 class. At the time Jain explained that they began in 2015 in India as a company called Chatteron. The original idea was to help others build chatbots, but like many startups, they realized there was a need not being addressed, in this case around HR, and they started Leena AI last year to focus specifically on that.

As they delved deeper into the HR problem, they found most employees had trouble getting answers to basic questions like how much vacation time they had or how to get a new baby on their health insurance. This forced a call to a help desk when the information was available online, but not always easy to find.

Jain pointed out that most HR policies are defined in policy documents, but employees don’t always know where they are. They felt a chatbot would be a good way to solve this problem and save a lot of time searching or calling for answers that should be easily found. What’s more, they learned that the vast majority of questions are fairly common and therefore easier for a system to learn.

Employees can access the Leena chatbot in Slack, Workplace by Facebook, Outlook, Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams and Cisco Spark. They also offer Web and mobile access to their service independent of these other tools.

Photo: Leena AI

What’s more, since most companies use a common set of backend HR systems like those from Oracle, SAP and NetSuite (also owned by Oracle), they have been able to build a set of standard integrators that are available out of the box with their solution.

The customer provides Leena with a handbook or a set of policy documents and they put their machine learning to work on that. Jain says, armed with this information, they can convert these documents into a structured set of questions and answers and feed that to the chatbot. They apply Natural Language Processing (NLP) to understand the question being asked and provide the correct answer.

They see room to move beyond HR and expand into other departments such as IT, finance and vendor procurement that could also take advantage of bots to answer a set of common questions. For now, as a recent YC graduate, they have their first bit of significant funding and they will concentrate on building HR chatbots and see where that takes them.

Sep
18
2018
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UiPath lands $225M Series C on $3 billion valuation as robotic process automation soars

UiPath is bringing automation to repetitive processes inside large organizations and it seems to have landed on a huge pain point. Today it announced a massive $225 million Series C on a $3 billion valuation.

The round was led by CapitalG and Sequoia Capital. Accel, which invested in the companies A and B rounds also participated. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $408 million, according to Crunchbase, and comes just months after a $153 million Series B we reported on last March. At that time, it had a valuation of over $1 billion, meaning the valuation has tripled in less than six months.

There’s a reason this company you might have never heard of is garnering this level of investment so quickly. For starters, it’s growing in leaps in bounds. Consider that it went from $1 million to $100 million in annual recurring revenue in under 21 months, according to the company. It currently has 1800 enterprise customers and claims to be adding 6 new ones a day, an astonishing rate of customer acquisition.

The company is part of the growing field of robotic process automation or RPA . While the robotics part of the name could be considered a bit of a misnomer, the software helps automate a series of mundane tasks that were typically handled by humans. It allows companies to bring a level of automation to legacy processes like accounts payable, employee onboarding, procurement and reconciliation without actually having to replace legacy systems.

Phil Fersht, CEO and chief analyst at HfS, a firm that watches the RPA market, says RPA isn’t actually that intelligent. “It’s about taking manual work, work-arounds and integrated processes built on legacy technology and finding way to stitch them together,” he told TechCrunch in an interview earlier this year.

It isn’t quite as simple as the old macro recorders that used to record a series of tasks and execute them with a keystroke, but it is somewhat analogous to that approach. Today, it’s more akin to a bot that may help you complete a task in Slack. RPA is a bit more sophisticated moving through a workflow in an automated fashion.

Ian Barkin from Symphony Ventures, a firm that used to do outsourcing, has embraced RPA. He says while most organizations have a hard time getting a handle on AI, RPA allows them to institute fundamental change around desktop routines without having to understand AI.

If you’re worrying about this technology replacing humans, it is somewhat valid, but Barkin says the technology is replacing jobs that most humans don’t enjoy doing. “The work people enjoy doing is exceptions and judgment based, which isn’t the sweet spot of RPA. It frees them from mundaneness of routine,” he said in an interview last year.

Whatever it is, it’s resonating inside large organizations and UiPath, is benefiting from the growing need by offering its own flavor of RPA. Today its customers include the likes of Autodesk, BMW Group and Huawei.

As it has grown over the last year, the number of employees has increased 3x  and the company expects to reach 1700 employees by the end of the year.

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