Apr
11
2019
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Rasa raises $13M led by Accel for its developer-friendly open-source approach to chatbots

Conversational AI and the use of chatbots have been through multiple cycles of hype and disillusionment in the tech world. You know the story: first you get a launch from the likes of Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Google or any number of other companies, and then you get the many examples of how their services don’t work as intended at the slightest challenge. But time brings improvements and more focused expectations, and today a startup that has been harnessing all those learnings is announcing funding to take to the next level its own approach to conversational AI.

Rasa, which has built an open-source platform for third parties to design and manage their own conversational (text or voice) AI chatbots, is today announcing that it has raised $13 million in a Series A round of funding led by Accel, with participation from Basis Set Ventures, Greg Brockman (co-founder & CTO OpenAI), Daniel Dines (founder & CEO UiPath) and Mitchell Hashimoto (co-founder & CTO Hashicorp).

Rasa was founded in Berlin, but with this round, it will be moving its headquarters to San Francisco, with a plan to hire more people there in sales, marketing and business development; and to continue its tech development with its roadmap including plans to expand the platform to cover images, too.

The company was founded 2.5 years ago, by co-founder/CEO Alex Weidauer’s own admission “when chatbot hype was at its peak.”

Rasa itself was not immune to it, too: “Everyone wanted to automate conversations, and so we set out to build something, too,” he said. “But we quickly realised it was extremely hard to do and that the developer tools were just not there yet.”

Rather than posing an insurmountable roadblock, the shortcomings of chatbots became the problem that Rasa set out to fix.

Alan Nichols, the co-founder who is now the CTO, is an AI PhD, not in natural language as you might expect, but in machine learning.

“What we do is more is address this as a mathematical, machine learning problem rather than one of language,” Weidauer said. Specifically, that means building a model that can be used by any company to tap its own resources to train their bots, in particular with unstructured information, which has been one of the trickier problems to solve in conversational AI.

At a time when many have raised concerns about who might “own” the progress of artificial intelligence, and specifically the data that goes into building these systems, Rasa’s approach is a refreshing one.

Typically, when an organization wants to build an AI chatbot either to interact with customers or to run something in the back end of their business, their developers most commonly opt for third-party cloud APIs that have restrictions on how they can be customized, or they build their own from scratch — but if the organization is not already a large tech company, it will be challenged to have the human or other resources to execute this.

Rasa underscores an emerging trend for a strong third contender. The company has built a stack of tools that it has open-sourced, meaning that anyone can (and thousands of developers do) use it for free, with a paid enterprise version that includes extra tools, including customer support, testing and training tools, and production container deployment. (It’s priced depending on size of organization and usage.)

Importantly, whichever package is used, the tools run on a company’s own training data; and the company can ultimately host their bots wherever they choose, which have been some of the unique selling points for those using Rasa’s platform, when they are less interested in working with organizations that might also be competitors.

Adobe’s new AI assistant for searching on Adobe Stock, which has some 100 million images, was built on Rasa.

“We wanted to give our users an AI assistant that lets them search with natural language commands,” said Brett Butterfield, director of software development at Adobe, in a statement. “We looked at several online services, and, in the end, Rasa was the clear choice because we were able to host our own servers and protect our user’s data privacy. Being able to automate full conversations and the fact it is open source were key elements for us.”

Other customers include Parallon and TalkSpace, Zurich and Allianz, Telekom and UBS.

Open source has become big business in the last several years, and so a startup that’s built an AI platform that has a very direct application in the enterprise built on it presents an obvious attraction for VCs.

“Automation is the next battleground for the enterprise, and while this is a very difficult space to win, especially for unstructured information like text and voice, we are confident Rasa has what it takes given their impressive adoption by developers,” said Andrei Brasoveanu, partner at Accel, in a statement.

“Existing solutions don’t let in-house developer teams control their own automation destiny. Rasa is applying commercial open source software solutions for AI environments similarly to what open source leaders such as Cloudera, Mulesoft, and Hashicorp have done for others.”

Mar
26
2019
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Lola.com raises $37M to take on SAP and others in the world of business travel

Business customers continue to be a huge target for the travel industry, and today a startup has raised a tidy sum to help it double down on the $1.7 trillion opportunity. Lola.com — a platform for business users to book and manage trips — has raised $37 million to continue building out its technology and hire more talent as it takes on incumbents like SAP targeting the corporate sector.

The Series C is led by General Catalyst and Accel, with participation from CRV, Tenaya Capital and GV. All are previous investors. We are asking about the valuation but it looks like prior to this, the company had raised just under $65 million, and its last post-money valuation, in 2017, was $100 million, according to PitchBook.

There are signs that the valuation will have had a bump in this round. The company said in 2018, its bookings have gone up by 423 percent, with revenues up 786 percent, although it’s not disclosing what the actual figures are for either.

“As business travelers have become increasingly mobile, Lola.com’s mission is to completely transform the landscape of corporate travel management,” said Mike Volpe, CEO of Lola.com, who took the top role at the company last year. “The continued support of our investors underscores the market potential, which is leading us to expand our partner ecosystem and double our headcount across engineering, sales and marketing. At the core, we continue to invest in building the best, simplest corporate travel management platform in the industry.”

Co-founded by Paul English and Bill O’Donnell — respectively, the former CTO/co-founder and chief architect of the wildly successful consumer travel booking platform Kayak — Lola originally tried to fix the very thing that Kayak and others like it had disrupted: it was designed as a platform for people to connect to live agents to help them organise their travel. That larger cruise ship might have already said, however (so to speak), and so the company later made a pivot to cater to a more specific demographic in the market that often needs and expects the human touch when arranging logistics: the business user.

Its unique selling point has not been just to provide a pain-free “agile” platform to make bookings, but for the platform’s human agents to be proactively pinging business users when there are modifications to a booking (for example because of flight delays), and offering help when needed to sort out the many aspects of modern travel that can be painful and time consuming for busy working people, such as technical issues around a frequent flyer program.

Lola.com is not the only one to spot the opportunity there. To further diversify its business and to move into higher-margin, bigger-ticket offerings, Airbnb has also been slowly building out its own travel platform targeting business customers by adding in hotels and room bookings.

There are others that are either hoping to bypass or complement existing services with their own takes on how to improve business travel such as TravelPerk (most recent raise: $44 million), Travelstop (an Asia-focused spin), and TripActions (most recently valued at $1 billion), to name a few. That speaks to an increasingly crowded market of players that are competing against incumbents like SAP, which owns Concur, Hipmunk and a plethora of other older services.

Lola.com has made some interesting headway in its own approach to the market, by partnering with one of the names most synonymous with corporate spending, American Express, and specifically a JV it is involved in called American Express Global Business Travel.

“Lola.com offers an incredibly simple solution to corporate travel management, which enables American Express Global Business Travel to take our value proposition to even more companies across the middle market,” said Evan Konwiser, VP of Product Strategy and Marketing for American Express GBT, in a statement.

Jan
24
2019
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Humio raises $9M Series A for its real-time log analysis platform

Humio, a startup that provides a real-time log analysis platform for on-premises and cloud infrastructures, today announced that it has raised a $9 million Series A round led by Accel. It previously raised its seed round from WestHill and Trifork.

The company, which has offices in San Francisco, the U.K. and Denmark, tells me that it saw a 13x increase in its annual revenue in 2018. Current customers include Bloomberg, Microsoft and Netlify .

“We are experiencing a fundamental shift in how companies build, manage and run their systems,” said Humio CEO Geeta Schmidt. “This shift is driven by the urgency to adopt cloud-based and microservice-driven application architectures for faster development cycles, and dealing with sophisticated security threats. These customer requirements demand a next-generation logging solution that can provide live system observability and efficiently store the massive amounts of log data they are generating.”

To offer them this solution, Humio raised this round with an eye toward fulfilling the demand for its service, expanding its research and development teams and moving into more markets across the globe.

As Schmidt also noted, many organizations are rather frustrated by the log management and analytics solutions they currently have in place. “Common frustrations we hear are that legacy tools are too slow — on ingestion, searches and visualizations — with complex and costly licensing models,” she said. “Ops teams want to focus on operations — not building, running and maintaining their log management platform.”

To build this next-generation analysis tool, Humio built its own time series database engine to ingest the data, with open-source tools like Scala, Elm and Kafka in the backend. As data enters the pipeline, it’s pushed through live searches and then stored for later queries. As Humio VP of Engineering Christian Hvitved tells me, though, running ad-hoc queries is the exception, and most users only do so when they encounter bugs or a DDoS attack.

The query language used for the live filters is also pretty straightforward. That was a conscious decision, Hvitved said. “If it’s too hard, then users don’t ask the question,” he said. “We’re inspired by the Unix philosophy of using pipes, so in Humio, larger searches are built by combining smaller searches with pipes. This is very familiar to developers and operations people since it is how they are used to using their terminal.”

Humio charges its customers based on how much data they want to ingest and for how long they want to store it. Pricing starts at $200 per month for 30 days of data retention and 2 GB of ingested data.

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.

Apr
12
2018
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Background checks pay for Checkr, which just rang up $100 million in new funding

Criminal records, driving records, employment verifications. Companies that use on-demand employees need to know that all the boxes have been checked before they send workers into the world on their behalf, and they often need those boxes checked quickly.

A growing number of them use Checkr, a San Francisco-based company that says it currently runs one million background checks per month for more than 10,000 customers, including, most newly, the car-share company Lyft, the services marketplace Thumbtack, and eyewear seller Warby Parker.

Investors are betting many more customers will come aboard, too. This morning, Checkr is announcing $100 million in Series C funding led by T. Rowe Price, which was joined by earlier backers Accel and Y Combinator.

The round brings the company’s total funding to roughly $150 million altogether, which is a lot of capital in not a lot of time. Yet Checkr is very well-positioned considering the changing nature of work. The company was born when software engineers Daniel Yanisse and Jonathan Perichon worked together at same-day delivery service startup Deliv and together eyed the chance to build a faster, more efficient background check. The number of flexible workers has only exploded in the four years since.

So-called alternative employment arrangements, in the parlance of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, including gig economy jobs, have grown from representing 10.1 percent of U.S. employees in 2005 to 15.8 percent of employees in 2015. And that percentage looks to rise further still as more digital platforms provide direct connections between people needing a service and workers willing to provide it.

Meanwhile, Checkr, which has been capitalizing on this race for talent, has its sights on much more than the on-demand workforce, says Yanisse, who is Checkr’s CEO. While the 180-person company counts Uber, Instacart, and GrubHub among its base of customers, Checkr is also actively expanding outside of the tech and gig economy, he says. It recently began working with the staffing giant Adecco, for example, as well as the major insurer Allstate.

At present, all of these customers pay Checkr per background check. That may change over time, however, particularly if the company plans to go public eventually, which Yanisse suggests is the case. (Public shareholders, like private shareholders, love recurring revenue.)

“Right now, our pricing model for customers is pay-per-applicant,” says Yanisse. “But we have a whole suite of SaaS products and tools” — including an interesting new tool designed to help hiring managers eradicate their unwitting hiring biases — “so we’re becoming more like a SaaS” business.

While things are ticking along nicely, every startup has its challenges. In Checkr’s case, one of these would seem to be those high-profile cases where background checks are painted as far from foolproof. One situation that springs to mind is the individual who began driving for Uber last year, six months before intentionally plowing into a busy bike path in New York. Indeed, though Checkr claims that it can tear through a lot of information within 24 hours — including education verification, reference checks, drug screening — we wonder if it isn’t so fast that it misses red flags.

Yanisse doesn’t think so. “Overall background checks aren’t a silver bullet,” he says. “Our job is to make the process faster, more efficient, more accurate, and more fair. But past information doesn’t guarantee future performance,” he adds. “This isn’t ‘Minority Report.’”

We also ask Yanisse about Checkr’s revenue. Often, a financing round of the size that Checkr is announcing today suggests a revenue run rate of $100 million or so. Yanisse declines to say, telling us Checkr doesn’t share revenue or its valuation publicly. “It’s still a bit early,” he says. “There’s this obsession with metrics in Silicon Valley, and we just want to make sure we’re focused on the right things.”

But, he adds, “you’re in the ballpark.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Visa as a customer.

Dec
14
2017
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Instana raises $20 million for its microservice monitoring and management service

 Instana, a company that helps enterprises monitor and manage their microservice deployments with the help of automation and artificial intelligence, today announced that it has raised a $20 million Series B round led by Accel, with participation from existing investor Target Partners. This brings Instana’s total funding to $26 million to date. Launched in 2015, Instana bills itself as… Read More

Jul
18
2017
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Corelight closes $9.2M Series A to help enterprises battle ransomware

 It’s already been a year of multiple high profile ransomware attacks and now cybersecurity startup Corelight has bagged a $9.2 million Series A round, led by Accel Partners. Read More

May
09
2017
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Online review startup Podium has raised a fat new $32 million round from Accel and GV

 Podium, a Utah-based enterprise software company specializing in customer review management, has pulled in an over-subscribed $32 million Series A round, led by Accel Partners. Read More

Apr
12
2017
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VoiceOps launches to put insights in the hands of managers coaching sales reps

 The enterprise voice space grows hotter today as VoiceOps announces its seed round with participation from Accel, Founders Fund and Lowercase Capital. The YC-backed startup aims to support sales teams by offering managers clear insights into what tactics are being used on the front lines. Founders, Daria Evdokimova, Ethan Barhydt and Nate Becker designed a machine learning-powered system… Read More

Nov
17
2016
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Kubernetes founders launch Heptio with $8.5M in funding to help bring containers to the enterprise

Kepple Terminal with cityscape For years, the public face of Kubernetes was one of the project’s founders: Google group product manager Craig McLuckie. He started the open-source container-management project together with Joe Beda, Brendan Burns and a few other engineers inside of Google, which has since brought it under the guidance of the newly formed Cloud Native Computing Foundation.
Beda became an… Read More

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