Jan
28
2020
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RealityEngines launches its autonomous AI service

RealityEngines.AI, an AI and machine learning startup founded by a number of former Google executives and engineers, is coming out of stealth today and announcing its first set of products.

When the company first announced its $5.25 million seed round last year, CEO Bindu Reddy wasn’t quite ready to disclose RealityEngines’ mission beyond saying that it planned to make machine learning easier for enterprises. With today’s launch, the team is putting this into practice by launching a set of tools that specifically tackle a number of standard enterprise use cases for ML, including user churn predictions, fraud detection, sales lead forecasting, security threat detection and cloud spend optimization. For use cases that don’t fit neatly into these buckets, the service also offers a more general predictive modeling service.

Before co-founding RealiyEngines, Reddy was the head of product for Google Apps and general manager for AI verticals at AWS. Her co-founders are Arvind Sundararajan (formerly at Google and Uber) and Siddartha Naidu (who founded BigQuery at Google). Investors in the company include Eric Schmidt, Ram Shriram, Khosla Ventures and Paul Buchheit.

As Reddy noted, the idea behind this first set of products from RealityEngines is to give businesses an easy entry into machine learning, even if they don’t have data scientists on staff.

Besides talent, another issue that businesses often face is that they don’t always have massive amounts of data to train their networks effectively. That has long been a roadblock for many companies that want to see what AI can do for them but that didn’t have the right resources to do so. RealityEngines overcomes this by creating realistic synthetic data that it can then use to augment a company’s existing data. In its tests, this creates models that are up to 15% more accurate than models that were trained without the synthetic data.

“The most prominent use of generative adversarial networks — GANS — has been to create deepfakes,” said Reddy. “Deepfakes have captured the public’s imagination by highlighting how easy it to spread misinformation with these doctored videos and images. However, GANS can also be applied to productive and good use. They can be used to create synthetic data sets which when then be combined with the original data, to produce robust AI models even when a business doesn’t have much training data.”

RealityEngines currently has about 20 employees, most of whom have a deep background in ML/AI, both as researchers and practitioners.

Jan
28
2020
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Nutanix execs discuss how they built their 2016 IPO roadshow deck

Bringing a startup from idea to IPO isn’t an easy task, but if you can build something successful, one major milestone is to go public. Before your Nasdaq debut, however, there’s a major step — building a deck and taking it on the road for investors.

Cloud computing company Nutanix went public in 2016, so we spoke to CEO Dheeraj Pandey and CFO Duston Williams, both of whom were with the company for the big event, to learn about how a company should define itself for investors as it seeks to go public.

Who are you?

Building a roadshow deck is an exercise in communications as founders attempt to carefully lay out their company’s core purpose and how they built it, along with their ethics, aspirations, financials and value proposition. In a nutshell, an effective roadshow deck summarizes who you are, what you stand for and why your company will make a good investment.

CEO Pandey says that in addition to investment bank Goldman Sachs, a number of people from the company helped craft the presentation. “Fifteen people across different functions were involved in building the deck. That included product and marketing, to finance and corporate communications, to legal. I think there were at least six different departments,” he said.

Jan
28
2020
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ServiceNow acquires conversational AI startup Passage AI

ServiceNow announced this morning that it has acquired Passage AI, a startup that helps customers build chatbots in multiple languages, something that should come in handy as ServiceNow continues to modernize its digital service platform. The companies did not share terms of the deal.

With Passage AI, ServiceNow gets a bushel of AI talent, which in itself has value, but it also gets AI technology, which should fit in nicely with ServiceNow’s mission. For starters, the company’s chatbot solutions gives ServiceNow an automated way to respond to customer/user inquiries.

Even more interesting for ServiceNow, Passage includes an IT automation component that uses ” a conversational interface to submit tickets, handle queries and take direct action through APIs,” according to the company website. It also gets an HR automation piece, giving the company an intelligent tool it could incorporate across its Now Platform in tools like ServiceNow Virtual Agent and Service Portal, as well as Workspaces in multiple languages.

The multilingual support was an aspect of the deal that appeals to Debu Chatterjee, senior director of AI Engineering at ServiceNow. “Building deep learning, conversational AI capabilities into the Now Platform will enable a work request initiated in German or a customer inquiry initiated in Japanese to be solved by Virtual Agent,” he said in a statement.

Companies are increasingly looking for ways to solve common customer problems using chatbots, while only bringing humans into the loop when the bot can’t answer the query. Passage AI gives ServiceNow much deeper knowledge in this growing area.

Passage AI, which launched in 2016, has raised $10.3 million, according to Crunchbase data. The company website lists a variety of large customers, including Mastercard, Shell, Mercedes-Benz and SoftBank. The acquisition comes less than a week after the company purchased another AI-focused startup, Loom Systems, one that concentrates on automating operations data.

The deal is expected to close this quarter. ServiceNow will be announcing earnings on Wednesday afternoon.

Jan
28
2020
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Cooks Venture raises $4 million from Golden West Food Group to ramp up distribution

Cooks Venture, the agtech company looking to revolutionize the chicken industry, has today announced the close of a $4 million funding round led by Golden West Food Group.

Cooks Venture has been working in stealth for many years, but launched onto the scene in 2018 with a plan to reshape agriculture from the ground up. And the key to that strategy? Chickens.

Cooks Venture geneticists and scientists have spent years isolating genetic lines of chickens to create a new, proprietary breed, called the Pioneer, a type of heirloom chicken. Most folks don’t know that, no matter what brand of chicken you buy at the store, chances are it’s one of two breeds, the Cobb 500 or the Ross 308, which are produced by Cobb and Aviagen, respectively.

Both of these breeds of broilers are fast-growing (they’re ready to be processed in just over five weeks) and use a three-phase feed system for growth. This system, and these breeds, are a big reason why animal activist groups express so much concern over the well-being of chicken livestock, often explaining that the birds are too young to carry around all the weight they put on so quickly.

Cooks Venture looked to science to solve the problem. The company’s Pioneer chicken can eat a highly diverse diet, and can be raised in 60 to 65 days. This means that the Pioneer chickens are truly free range, wandering around the farm. It also means that these chickens, with a digestive tract that can handle a diverse diet and the ability to exercise, live a healthier life, are higher in Omega-3 and taste better than your average Cobb 500 or Ross 308, according to the company.

But the chickens themselves are only part of the solution. A byproduct of the proliferation of these fast-growing chickens produced by Cobb and Aviagen is that they have to eat, and their diet is very specific. That means that farmers must produce a great deal of one or two crops to feed the millions of chickens out there. The result is that our agricultural land is not being used in an efficient or eco-friendly way.

In fact, Cooks Venture founder Matt Wadiak says that the vast majority of our crop production in the United States is used for ethanol or animal feed, which indexes toward corn and soy. The USDA says, of feed grains, that corn accounts for more than 95% of total production and use in the country.

Many farmers would love to implement regenerative agricultural practices, a big part of which includes creating a biodiverse ecosystem with many different crops, but who would they sell the extra, low-demand crops to?

The answer now can be Cooks Venture. With strong digestive systems, Cooks Venture chickens can eat a diet that comes from a more biodiverse farm. Moreover, when Cooks Venture is ready to expand globally, the chickens are able to eat crops local to the ecosystems of emerging nations, such as yucca and quinoa.

Cooks Venture has its own farm, and works with farm partners to set up regenerative agricultural practices around producing Pioneer chicken feed. Cooks also does its own processing at its own plant.

Golden West Food Group is a manufacturer of meat products and value-add food products like marinated chicken, such as Jack Daniel’s pulled pork. It’s worth noting that GWFG is not a competitor to Cooks Venture, as it produces no meat products whatsoever, but rather an important distribution partner for the brand.

Through the partnership with GWFG, Cooks can start to ramp up commercialization of its chickens, which are currently sold through some retailers, on the Cooks website and on FreshDirect.

As part of the announcement, Cooks Venture is also bringing on Ankur Agrawal as chief financial officer. Wadiak, a co-founder at Blue Apron, worked with Agrawal back in the Blue Apron, days and says that his understanding of agricultural finance is top of the line.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misidentified the Pioneer chicken and mistook HelloFresh for FreshDirect. It has been updated for accuracy.

Jan
28
2020
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Chicago’s ActiveCampaign raises $100M for an all-in-one marketing and sales automation platform

Marketing and sales automation — tools that leverage the advances and data of our digital age to better identify and then interact with customers — is big business, with the whole market expected to generate some $6.6 billion in revenues for related companies by 2025.

But “companies” is the operative word here: it’s a very fragmented space, with dozens of hopefuls covering different aspects of marketing and sales, each with its own unique approach. There is an alternative trend, though, and today a customer experience automation company called ActiveCampaign, catering not just to large enterprises but small and medium businesses too, has raised a large round of funding to build out its own one-stop-shop model. It includes the tools to run email and messaging-based marketing campaigns; marketing automation across sites and events; and sales and CRM.

The Chicago-based company is today announcing that it has closed a Series B of $100 million, money that it will use to invest in building out new technology and to expand internationally. The funding is being led by Susquehanna Growth Equity, with PE firm Silversmith Capital Partners also participating.

ActiveCampaign is not your typical startup. It has been around since 2003, and this is only the second time it has raised money — the first time was in 2016, a modest $20 million round from Silversmith. Fundraising is not the only thing that sets it apart: it’s also profitable and has been for years (one reason it hasn’t raised money), and it’s actually already quite large, with 90,000 customers in 161 countries.

Yet it’s something of a theme in the world of “startups” — meaning tech companies that are still privately owned and raising from VCs and related backers — particularly those that are B2B focused, that some of the more interesting and successfully bootstrapped of them at some point turn to VC and private equity when it comes to needing an extra boost to move beyond what has become its natural growth rate.

In the case of ActiveCampaign, it had a taste of what a little outside investment could do in the last few years: Jason VandeBoom, founder and CEO of ActiveCampaign, said the company has seen its annual recurring revenues grow 6x since 2016 to $90 million, with employees booming from 65 to more than 550.

The company’s core proposition is that it provides a less fragmented approach to businesses interested in building in some digital marketing or sales tools into their outreach and then considering what to do next.

“What we are up against are a number of companies focused on a single slice of customer experience, either CRM or a customer success platform,” VandeBoom said. “We’re still at this point in the industry where the category is taking shape,” which spells a ripe opportunity for ActiveCampaign.

The need for what ActiveCampaign provides is a basic one: Whether you are an online retailer or any business that wants to expand its audience or make sure to stay connected to the one you already have, you need tools to reach users, figure out what they want to see from you and connect in a relevant way.

VandeBoom added while there are no specific plans for acquisitions that can be discussed now, the funding also gives the company “optionality” in terms of what it might do next.

Part of the company’s approach is to build technology in-house, but in the spirit of all-in-one platforms, its value also lies in how many other things its users can plug into using ActiveCampaign.

The company has some 260 technology partners and a “recipe library” with more than 250 automations already built, or users can build and customise themselves from more than 300 possible apps that can be integrated, including Shopify, Square, Facebook, Eventbrite and Salesforce.

With this round, Martin Angert, director at Susquehanna, is joining ActiveCampaign’s board of directors. His existing roles on the boards of Workfront, WhiteSource, XebiaLabs and Allocadia speaks to interesting potential strategic partnerships for ActiveCampaign.

“ActiveCampaign and the CXA category have grown significantly and our investment in the series B reconfirms Silversmith’s commitment to ActiveCampaign’s future,” said Todd Maclean, co-founder and managing partner of Silversmith Capital Partners, in a statement.

Jan
28
2020
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Persona raises $17.5M for an identify verification platform that goes beyond user IDs and passwords

The proliferation of data breaches based on leaked passwords, and the rising tide of regulation that puts a hard stop on just how much user information can be collected, stored and used by companies have laid bare the holes in simple password and memorable-information-based verification systems.

Today a startup called Persona, which has built a platform to make it easier for organisations to implement more watertight methods based on third-party documentation, real-time evaluation, and AI to verify users, is announcing a funding round, speaking to the shift in the market and subsequent demand for new alternatives to the old way of doing things.

The startup has raised $17.5 million in a Series A from a list of impressive investors that include Coatue and First Round Capital, money that it plans to use to double down on its core product: a platform that businesses and organisations can access by way of an API, which lets them use a variety of documents, from government-issued IDs through to biometrics, to verify that customers are who they say they are.

Current customers include Rippling, Petal, UrbanSitter, Branch, Brex, Postmates, Outdoorsy, Rently, SimpleHealth and Hipcamp, among others. Persona’s target user today is any company involved in any kind of online financial transaction to verify for regulatory compliance, fraud prevention and for trust and safety.

The startup is young and is not disclosing valuation. Previously, Persona had raised an undisclosed amount of funding from Kleiner Perkins and FirstRound, according to data from PitchBook. Angels in the company have included Zach Perret and William Hockey (co-founders of Plaid), Dylan Field (founded Figma), Scott Belsky (Behance) and Tony Xu (DoorDash).

Founded by Rick Song and Charles Yeh, respectively former engineers from Square and Dropbox (companies that have had their own concerns with identity verification and breaches), Persona’s main premise is that most companies are not security companies and therefore lack the people, skills, time and money to build strong authentication and verification services — much less to keep up with the latest developments on what is best practice.

And on top of that, there have been too many breaches that have underscored the problem with companies holding too much information on users, collected for identification purposes but then sitting there waiting to be hacked. While a number of services have arisen to help protect identity for repeat users of products — for example Duo and Okta on the enterprise front, or authenticators for online applications as a more secure alternative to two-factor authentication using text messaging — these don’t really fill the use case of verification for the kinds of companies that are typical Persona customers.

The name of the game for Persona is to provide services that are easy to use and as wide as possible in their applicability. For those who can’t or don’t access the code of their apps or websites for registration flows, they can even verify users by way of email-based links.

“Digital identity is one of the most important things to get right, but there is no silver bullet,” Song, who is the CEO, said in an interview. “I believe longer term we’ll see that it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.” Not least because malicious hackers have an ever-increasing array of tools to get around every system that gets put into place. (The latest is the rise of deep-fakes to mimic people, putting into question how to get around that in, say, a video verification system.)

At Persona, the company currently gives customers the option to ask for social security numbers, biometric verification such as fingerprints or pictures, or government ID uploads and phone lookups, some of which (like biometrics) is built by Persona itself and some of which is accessed via third-party partnerships.

Added to that are other tools like quizzes and video-based interactions. Song said the list is expanding, and the company is looking at ways of using the AI engine that it’s building — which actually performs the matching — to also potentially suggest the best tools for each and every transaction.

It’s notable to me that the platform has been conceived of and built in part by an engineer from a payments company.

API-based platforms taking out some of the extreme complexity of payment systems by doing all the hard work “under the hood” have been a building block of how a lot of financial services get integrated into workflows in cases where the business in question may rely on them but is actually not actually a fintechs (or payment tech provider) in and of themselves. This has been the premise of companies like Stripe, Adyen, CurrencyCloud and even Square to an extent, since its customers are integrating the tool that Square has built for them.

Another key point with Persona is that it provides a way for its customers to access and use information for verification by linking up with other databases, meaning the data is then not kept by the customer itself.

This is a moving target, and one that is becoming increasingly harder to focus on, given not just the rise in malicious hacking, but also regulation that limits how and when data can be accessed and used by online businesses.

Persona notes a McKinsey forecast that the personal identify and verification market will be worth some $20 billion by 2022, which is not a surprising figure when you consider the nearly $9 billion that Google has been fined so far for GDPR violations, or the $700 million Equifax paid out, or the $50 million Yahoo (a sister company now) paid out for its own user-data breach.

Jan
27
2020
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Pantheon bets on WebOps as it charts a course to an IPO

It has been 10 years since Pantheon launched. At the time, it was mostly a hosting service for Drupal sites, but about six years ago, it added WordPress hosting to its lineup and raised more VC money as some of its competitors did the same. After its 2016 Series C round, things started quieting down, though the company has clear ambitions to become a public company in the next few years. To chat about those plans and the overall state of the business, I sat down with Pantheon co-founder and CEO Zack Rosen and new Pantheon board member Elissa Fink, former CMO of Tableau.

Maybe the biggest change at Pantheon is that when it launched, its team was almost solely focused on the developer experience. And while Pantheon was essentially a hosting service and offers personal plans, its focus was never on individuals who wanted a WordPress blog (which a lot of companies focused on, especially in the pre-Twitter days). Its efforts always revolved around businesses, large enterprises and the agencies that serve them.

“Back then, our overriding focus was really around the developer experience — the practitioner experience — of using our product,” Rosen explained. “And frankly, at the time, we actually really didn’t know what to call it. It really didn’t have a category, but we always felt it was something new.” He noted that over the last few years, Pantheon started talking to a lot of marketers and realized that the needs of these marketing leaders are driving this space.

Jan
24
2020
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As SaaS stocks set new records, Atlassian’s earnings show there’s still room to grow

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

SaaS stocks had a good run in late 2019. TechCrunch covered their ascent, a recovery from early-year doldrums and a summer slowdown. In 2020 so far, SaaS and cloud stocks have surged to all-time highs. The latest records are only a hair higher than what the same companies saw in July of last year, but they represent a return to form all the same.

Given that public SaaS companies have now managed to crest their prior highs and have been rewarded for doing so with several days of flat trading, you might think that there isn’t much room left for them to rise. Not so, at least according to Atlassian . The well-known software company reported earnings after-hours yesterday and the market quickly pushed its shares up by more than 10%.

Why? It’s worth understanding, because if we know why Atlassian is suddenly worth lots more, we’ll better grok what investors — public and private — are hunting for in SaaS companies and how much more room they may have to rise.

Jan
23
2020
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Talking Drupal #233 – Cache Me If You Can

Drupal 8 caching is far superior to previous versions of Drupal and it pretty much just works. In the episode we focus on the key caching concepts.

www.talkingdrupal.com/233

Topics

  • Home automation
  • Tome
  • Legos
  • Lando performance
  • Global contrib weekend
  • Google search results
  • Goals of caching
  • Key concepts
  • Core cacing modules
  • Other caching
  • External caching

Resources

Key Conceprts  – https://www.drupal.org/docs/user_guide/en/prevent-cache.html

Internal Page Cache  https://www.drupal.org/docs/8/administering-a-drupal-8-site/internal-page-cache

Dynamic Page Cache – https://www.drupal.org/docs/8/core/modules/dynamic-page-cache/overview

 

Hosts

Stephen Cross – www.stephencross.com @stephencross

John Picozzi – www.oomphinc.com @johnpicozzi

Nic Laflin – www.nLighteneddevelopment.com @nicxvan

 

 

Jan
23
2020
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Xerox wants to replace HP board that rejected takeover bid

In Xerox’s latest effort to get HP to bend to its will and combine the two companies, it announced its intent today to try to replace the entire HP board of directors at the company’s stockholder’s meeting in April. That would be the same board that unanimously rejected Xerox’s takeover bid.

Xerox and HP have been playing a highly public game of tit for tat in recent months. Xerox wants very much to combine with HP, and offered $34 billion, an offer HP summarily rejected at the end of last year. Xerox threatened to take it to shareholders.

Now it wants to take over the board, announcing today that it had nominated 11 people to replace the current slate of directors.

As you might imagine, HP was none too pleased with this latest move by Xerox. “We believe these nominations are a self-serving tactic by Xerox to advance its proposal, that significantly undervalues HP and creates meaningful risk to the detriment of HP shareholders,” HP fired back in a statement today emailed to TechCrunch.

It went on to blame Xerox shareholder Carl Icahn for the continued pressure. “We believe that Xerox’s proposal and nominations are being driven by Carl Icahn, and his large ownership position in Xerox means that his interests are not aligned with those of other HP shareholders. Due to Mr. Icahn’s ownership position, he would disproportionately benefit from an acquisition of HP by Xerox at a price that undervalues HP,” the company stated.

The two companies exchanged increasingly harsh letters in November as Xerox signaled its intent to take over the much larger HP. HP questioned Xerox’s ability to raise the money, but earlier this month it announced had in fact raised the $24 billion it would need to buy the company. HP was still not convinced.

Today’s exchange is just the latest between the two companies in an increasingly hostile bid by Xerox to combine the two companies.

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