Mar
19
2019
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The top 10 startups from Y Combinator W19 Demo Day 1

Electric-vehicle chargers, heads-up displays for soldiers and the Costco of weed were some of our favorites from prestigious startup accelerator Y Combinator’s Winter 2019 Demo Day 1. If you want to take the pulse of Silicon Valley, YC is the place to be. But with more than 200 startups presenting across two stages and two days, it’s tough to keep track.

You can check out our write-ups of all 85 startups that launched on Demo Day 1, and come back later for our full index and picks from Day 2. But now, based on feedback from top investors and TechCrunch’s team, here’s our selection of the top 10 companies from the first half of this Y Combinator batch, and why we picked each.

Ravn

Looking around corners is one of the most dangerous parts of war for infantry. Ravn builds heads-up displays that let soldiers and law enforcement see around corners thanks to cameras on their gun, drones or elsewhere. The ability to see the enemy while still being behind cover saves lives, and Ravn already has $490,000 in Navy and Air Force contracts. With a CEO who was a Navy Seal who went on to study computer science, plus experts in augmented reality and selling hardware to the Department of Defense, Ravn could deliver the inevitable future of soldier heads-up displays.

Why we picked Ravn: The AR battlefield is inevitable, but right now Microsoft’s HoloLens team is focused on providing mid-fight information, like how many bullets a soldier has in their clip and where their squad mates are. Ravn’s tech was built by a guy who watched the tragic consequences of getting into those shootouts. He wants to help soldiers avoid or win these battles before they get dangerous, and his team includes an expert in selling hardened tech to the U.S. government.

Middesk

It’s difficult to know if a business’ partners have paid their taxes, filed for bankruptcy or are involved in lawsuits. That leads businesses to write off $120 billion a year in uncollectable bad debt. Middesk does due diligence to sort out good businesses from the bad to provide assurance for B2B deals, loans, investments, acquisitions and more. By giving clients the confidence that they’ll be paid, Middesk could insert itself into a wide array of transactions.

Why we picked Middesk: It’s building the trust layer for the business world that could weave its way into practically every deal. More data means making fewer stupid decisions, and Middesk could put an end to putting faith in questionable partners.

Convictional

Convictional helps direct-to-consumer companies approach larger retailers more simply. It takes a lot of time for a supplier to build a relationship with a retailer and start selling their products. Convictional wants to speed things up by building a B2B self-service commerce platform that allows retailers to easily approach brands and make orders.

Why we picked Convictional: There’s been an explosion of D2C businesses selling everything from suitcases to shaving kits. But to drive exposure and scale, they need retail partners who’re eager not to be cut out of this growing commerce segment. Playing middleman could put Convictional in a lucrative position, while also making it a nexus of valuable shopping data.

Dyneti Technologies

Dyneti has invented a credit card scanner SDK that uses a smartphone’s camera to help prevent fraud by more than 50 percent and improve conversion for businesses by 5 percent. The business was started by a pair of former Uber employees, including CEO Julia Zheng, who launched the fraud analytics teams for Account Security and UberEATS. Dyneti’s service is powered by deep learning and works on any card format. In the two months since it launched, the company has signed contracts with Rappi, Gametime and others.

Why we picked Dyneti: Cybersecurity threats are growing and evolving, yet underequipped businesses are eager to do more business online. Dyneti is one of those fundamental B2B businesses that feels like Stripe — capable of bringing simplicity and trust to a complex problem so companies can focus on their product.

AmpUp

The “Airbnb for electric-vehicle chargers,” ampUp is preparing for a world in which the majority of us drive EVs — it operates a mobile app that connects a network of thousands of EV chargers and drivers. Using the app, an electric-vehicle owner can quickly identify an available and compatible charger, and EV charger owners can earn cash sharing their charger at their own price and their own schedule. The service is currently live in the Bay Area.

Why we picked ampUp: Electric vehicles are inevitable, but reliable charging is one of the leading fears dissuading people from buying. Rather than build out some massive owned network of chargers that will never match the distributed gas station network, ampUp could put an EV charger anywhere there’s someone looking to make a few bucks.

Flockjay

Flockjay operates an online sales academy that teaches job seekers from underrepresented backgrounds the skills and training they need to pursue a career in tech sales. The 12-week bootcamp offers trainees coaching and mentorship. The company has launched its debut cohort with 17 students, 100 percent of whom are already in job interviews and 40 percent of whom have already secured new careers in the tech industry.

Why we picked Flockjay: Unlike coding bootcamps that can require intense prerequisites, killer salespeople can be molded from anyone with hustle. Those from underrepresented backgrounds already know how to expertly sell themselves to attain opportunities others take for granted. Flockjay could provide economic mobility at a crucial juncture when job security is shaky.

Deel

Twenty million international contractors work with U.S. companies, but it’s difficult to onboard and train them. Deel handles the contracts, payments and taxes in one interface to eliminate paperwork and wasted time. Deel charges businesses $10 per contractor per month and a 1 percent fee on payouts, which earns it an average of $560 per contractor per year.

Why we picked Deel: The destigmatization of remote work is opening new recruiting opportunities abroad for U.S. businesses. But unless teams can properly integrate these distant staffers, the cost savings of hiring overseas are negated. As the globalization megatrend continues, businesses will need better HR tools.

Glide

There has been a pretty major trend toward services that make it easier to build web pages or mobile apps. Glide lets customers easily create well-designed mobile apps from Google Sheets pages. This not only makes it easy to build the pages, but simplifies the skills needed to keep information updated on the site.

Why we picked Glide: While desktop website makers is a brutally competitive market, it’s still not easy to make a mobile site if you’re not a coder. Rather than starting from a visual layout tool with which many people would still be unfamiliar, Glide starts with a spreadsheet that almost everyone has used. And as the web begins to feel less personal with all the brands and influencers, Glide could help people make bespoke apps that put intimacy and personality first.

Docucharm

The platform, co-founded by former Uber product manager Minh Tri Pham, turns documents into structured data a computer can understand to accurately automate document processing workflows and take away the need for human data entry. Docucharm’s API can understand various forms of documents (like paystubs, for example) and will extract the necessary information without error. Its customers include tax prep company Tributi and lending business Aspire.

Why we picked Docucharm: Paying high-priced, high-skilled workers to do data entry is a huge waste. And optical character recognition like Docucharm’s will unlock new types of businesses based on data extraction. This startup could be the AI layer underneath it all.

Flower Co

Flower Co provides memberships for cheaper weed sales and delivery. Most dispensaries cater to high-end customers and newbies that want expensive products and tons of hand-holding. In contrast, Flower Co caters to long-time marijuana enthusiasts who want huge quantities at low prices. They’re currently selling $200.000 in marijuana per month to 700 members. They charge $100 a year for membership, and take 10 percent on product sales.

Why we picked Flower Co: Marijuana is the next gold rush, a once-in-a-generation land-grab opportunity. Yet most marijuana merchants have focused on hyper-discerning high-end customers despite the long-standing popularity of smoking big blunts of cheap weed with a bunch of friends. For those who want to make cannabis consumption a lifestyle, and there will be plenty, Flower Co could become their wholesaler.

Honorable Mentions

Atomic Alchemy – Filling the shortage of nuclear medicine

Yourchoice – Omni-gender non-hormonal birth control

Prometheus – Turning CO2 into gas

Lumos – Medical search engine for doctors

Heart Aerospace – Regional electric planes

Boundary Layer Technologies – Super-fast container ships

Additional reporting by Kate Clark, Greg Kumparak and Lucas Matney

Mar
08
2019
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Foursquare’s Hypertrending helps you spy on the coolest local happenings

Ten years after the launch of Foursquare at SXSW, the company is laying its technology bare with a futuristic version of its old app that doesn’t require a check-in at all. The godfather of location apps is returning to the launchpad with Hypertrending, but this time it hopes to learn what developers might do with real-time info about where people are and where they aren’t.

Hypertrending uses Foursquare’s Pilgrim technology, which is baked into Foursquare’s apps and offered as a third-party enterprise tool, to show where phones are in real time over the course of SXSW in Austin, Texas.

This information is relayed through dots on a map. The size of those dots is a reflection of the number of devices in that place at a given time. Users can filter the map by All places, Food, Nightlife and Fun (events and parties).

Hypertrending also has a Top 100 list that is updated in real time to show which places are super popular, with arrows to show whether a place is trending up or down.

Before you throw up your hands in outrage, the information on Hypertrending is aggregated and anonymized (just like it is within Pilgrim), and there are no trails showing the phone’s route from one place to another. Dots only appear on the map when the phone arrives at a destination.

Hypertrending was cooked up in Foursquare’s skunkworks division, Foursquare Labs, led by the company’s co-founder Dennis Crowley .

The feature is only available during SXSW and in the Austin area, and thus far Foursquare has no plans to launch this publicly. So… what’s the deal?

First and foremost, Hypertrending is about showing off the technology. In many ways, Hypertrending isn’t new at all, in that it runs off the Pilgrim technology that has powered Foursquare since around 2014.

Pilgrim is the tech that recognizes you’ve just sat down at a restaurant and offers up a tip about the menu on Foursquare City Guide, and it’s the same tech that notices you’ve just touched down in a new city and makes some recommendations on places to go. In Swarm, it’s the tech that offers up a list of all the places you’ve been in case you want to retroactively check in to them.

That sounds rather simple, but a combination of Foursquare’s 10 years’ worth of location data and Pilgrim’s hyper-precision is unparalleled when it comes to accuracy, according to Crowley.

Whereas other location tech might not understand the difference between you being in the cafe on the first floor or the salon on the second floor, or the bar that shares a wall with both, Pilgrim does.

This is what led Foursquare to build out the Pilgrim SDK, which now sees more than 100 million user-confirmed visits per month. Apps that use the Pilgrim SDK offer users the ability to opt-in to Foursquare’s always-on location tracking for its mobile app panel in the U.S., which has grown to 10 million devices.

These 10 million phones provide the data that powers Hypertrending.

Now, the data itself might not be new, per se. But Foursquare has never visualized the information quite like this, even for enterprise customers.

Whereas customers of the Foursquare Place Insights, Pinpoint and Attribution get snapshots into their own respective audiences, Hypertrending represents on a large scale just what Foursquare’s tech is capable of in not only knowing where people are, but where people aren’t.

This brings us back to SXSW, which happens to be the place where Foursquare first launched back in 2009.

“This week has felt a little nostalgic as we try to get this thing ready to go,” said Crowley. “It’s not that dissimilar to when we went to SXSW in 2009 and showed off Foursquare 1.0. There is this curious uncertainty and my whole thing is to get a sense of what people think of it.”

Crowley recalled his first trip to SXSW with co-founder Naveen Selvadurai. They couldn’t afford an actual pass to the show so they just went from party to party showing people the app and hearing what they thought. Crowley said that he doesn’t expect Hypertrending to be some huge consumer app.

“I want to show off what we can do with the technology and the data and hopefully inspire developers to do interesting stuff with this raw visualization of where phones are at,” said Crowley. “What would you do if you had access to this? Would you make something cool and fun or make something obnoxious and creepy?”

Beyond the common tie of SXSW, Hypertrending brings Foursquare’s story full circle in the fact that it’s potentially the most poignant example of what Crowley always wanted Foursquare to be. Location is one of the most powerful pieces of information about an individual. One’s physical location is, in many ways, the most purely truthful piece of information about them in a sea of digital clicks and scroll-bys.

If this data could be harnessed properly, without any work on the side of the consumer, what possibilities might open up?

“We’ve long talked about making ‘a check-in button you never had to press,’ ” said Crowley in the blog post. “Hypertrending is part of that vision realized, spread across multiple apps and services.”

Crowley also admits in the blog post that Hypertrending walks a fine line between creepy and cool, which is another reason for the ephemeral nature of the feature. It’s also the exact reason he wants to open it up to everyone.

From the blog post:

After 10 years, it’s clear that we (Foursquare!) are going to play a role in influencing how contextual-aware technologies shape the future – whether that’s apps that react to where you are and where you’ve been, smarter virtual assistants (e.g Alexa, Siri, Marsbot) that understand how you move through cities, or AR objects that need to appear at just the right time in just the right spot. We want to build a version of the future that we’re proud of, and we want your input as we get to work building it.

And…

We made Hypertrending to show people how Foursquare’s panel works in terms of what it can do (and what it will not do), as well as to show people how we as a company think about navigating this space. We feel the general trend with internet and technology companies these days has been to keep giving users a more and more personalized (albeit opaquely personalized) view of the world, while the companies that create these feeds keep the broad “God View” to themselves. Hypertrending is one example of how we can take Foursquare’s aggregate view of the world and make it available to the users who make it what it is. This is what we mean when we talk about “transparency” – we want to be honest, in public, about what our technology can do, how it works, and the specific design decisions we made in creating it.

We asked Crowley what would happen if brands and marketers loved the idea of Hypertrending, but general consumers were freaked out?

“This is an easy question,” said Crowley. “If this freaks people out, we don’t build stuff with it. We’re not ready for it yet. But I’d go back to the drawing board and ask ‘What do we learn from people that are freaked out about it that would help us communicate to them,’ or ‘what are the changes we could make to this that would make people comfortable,’ or ‘what are the things we could build that would illustrate the value of this that this view didn’t communicate?’ ”

As mentioned above, Hypertrending is only available during the SXSW conference in the Austin area. Users can access Hypertrending through both the Foursquare City Guide app and Swarm by simply shaking their phone.

Feb
21
2019
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JFrog acquires Shippable, adding continuous integration and delivery to its DevOps platform

JFrog, the popular DevOps startup now valued at more than $1 billion after raising $165 million last October, is making a move to expand the tools and services it provides to developers on its software operations platform: it has acquired Shippable, a cloud-based continuous integration and delivery platform (CI/CD) that developers use to ship code and deliver app and microservices updates, and plans to integrate it into its Enterprise+ platform.

Terms of the deal — JFrog’s fifth acquisition — are not being disclosed, said Shlomi Ben Haim, JFrog’s co-founder and CEO, in an interview. From what I understand, though, it was in the ballpark of Shippable’s most recent valuation, which was $42.6 million back in 2014 when it raised $8 million, according to PitchBook data.  (And that was the last time it raised money.)

Shippable employees are joining JFrog and plan to release the first integrations with Enterprise+ this coming summer, and a full integration by Q3 of this year.

Shippable, founded in 2013, made its name early on as a provider of a containerized continuous integration and delivery platform based on Docker containers, but as Kubernetes has overtaken Docker in containerized deployments, the startup had also shifted its focus beyond Docker containers.

The acquisition speaks to the consolidation that is afoot in the world of DevOps, where developers and organizations are looking for more end-to-end toolkits, not just to help develop, update and run their apps and microservices, but to provide security and more — or at least, makers of DevOps tools hope they will be, as they themselves look to grow their margins and business.

As more organizations run ever more of their operations as apps and microservices, DevOps have risen in prominence and are offered both toolkits from standalone businesses as well as those whose infrastructure is touched and used by DevOps tools. That means a company like JFrog has an expanding pool of competitors that include not just the likes of Docker, Sonatype and GitLab, but also AWS, Google Cloud Platform and Azure and “the Red Hats of the world,” in the words of Ben Haim.

For Shippable customers, the integration will give them access to security, binary management and other enterprise development tools.

“We’re thrilled to join the JFrog family and further the vision around Liquid Software,” said Avi Cavale, founder and CEO of Shippable, in a statement. “Shippable users and customers have long enjoyed our next-generation technology, but now will have access to leading security, binary management and other high-powered enterprise tools in the end-to-end JFrog Platform. This is truly exciting, as the combined forces of JFrog and Shippable can make full DevOps automation from code to production a reality.”

On the part of JFrog, the company will be using Shippable to provide a native CI/CD tool directly within JFrog.

“Before most of our users would use Jenkins, Circle CI and other CI/CD automation tools,” Ben Haim said. “But what you are starting to see in the wider market is a gradual consolidation of CI tools into code repository.”

He emphasized that this will not mean any changes for developers who are already happy using Jenkins or other integrations: just that it will now be offering a native solution that will be offered alongside these (presumably both with easier functionality and with competitive pricing).

JFrog today has 5,000 paying customers, up from 4,500 in October, including “most of the Fortune 500,” with marquee customers including the likes of Apple and Adobe, but also banks, healthcare organizations and insurance companies — “conservative businesses,” said Ben Haim, that are also now realizing the importance of using DevOps.

Feb
19
2019
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Slack off — send videos instead with $11M-funded Loom

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many emails can you replace with a video? As offices fragment into remote teams, work becomes more visual and social media makes us more comfortable on camera, it’s time for collaboration to go beyond text. That’s the idea behind Loom, a fast-rising startup that equips enterprises with instant video messaging tools. In a click, you can film yourself or narrate a screenshare to get an idea across in a more vivid, personal way. Instead of scheduling a video call, employees can asynchronously discuss projects or give “stand-up” updates without massive disruptions to their workflow.

In the 2.5 years since launch, Loom has signed up 1.1 million users from 18,000 companies. And that was just as a Chrome extension. Today Loom launches its PC and Mac apps that give it a dedicated presence in your digital work space. Whether you’re communicating across the room or across the globe, “Loom is the next best thing to being there,” co-founder Shahed Khan tells me.

Now Loom is ready to spin up bigger sales and product teams thanks to an $11 million Series A led by Kleiner Perkins . The firm’s partner Ilya Fushman, formally Dropbox’s head of product and corporate development, will join Loom’s board. He’ll shepherd Loom through today’s launch of its $10 per month per user Pro version that offers HD recording, calls-to-action at the end of videos, clip editing, live annotation drawings and analytics to see who actually watched like they’re supposed to.

“We’re ditching the suits and ties and bringing our whole selves to work. We’re emailing and messaging like never before, but though we may be more connected, we’re further apart,” Khan tells me. “We want to make it very easy to bring the humanity back in.”

Loom co-founder Shahed Khan

But back in 2016, Loom was just trying to survive. Khan had worked at Upfront Ventures after a stint as a product designer at website builder Weebly. He and two close friends, Joe Thomas and Vinay Hiremath, started Opentest to let app makers get usability feedback from experts via video. But after six months and going through the NFX accelerator, they were running out of bootstrapped money. That’s when they realized it was the video messaging that could be a business as teams sought to keep in touch with members working from home or remotely.

Together they launched Loom in mid-2016, raising a pre-seed and seed round amounting to $4 million. Part of its secret sauce is that Loom immediately starts uploading bytes of your video while you’re still recording so it’s ready to send the moment you’re finished. That makes sharing your face, voice and screen feel as seamless as firing off a Slack message, but with more emotion and nuance.

“Sales teams use it to close more deals by sending personalized messages to leads. Marketing teams use Loom to walk through internal presentations and social posts. Product teams use Loom to capture bugs, stand ups, etc.,” Khan explains.

Loom has grown to a 16-person team that will expand thanks to the new $11 million Series A from Kleiner, Slack, Cue founder Daniel Gross and actor Jared Leto that brings it to $15 million in funding. They predict the new desktop apps that open Loom to a larger market will see it spread from team to team for both internal collaboration and external discussions from focus groups to customer service.

Loom will have to hope that after becoming popular at a company, managers will pay for the Pro version that shows exactly how long each viewer watched. That could clue them in that they need to be more concise, or that someone is cutting corners on training and cooperation. It’s also a great way to onboard new employees. “Just watch this collection of videos and let us know what you don’t understand.” At $10 per month though, the same cost as Google’s entire GSuite, Loom could be priced too high.

Next Loom will have to figure out a mobile strategy — something that’s surprisingly absent. Khan imagines users being able to record quick clips from their phones to relay updates from travel and client meetings. Loom also plans to build out voice transcription to add automatic subtitles to videos and even divide clips into thematic sections you can fast-forward between. Loom will have to stay ahead of competitors like Vidyard’s GoVideo and Wistia’s Soapbox that have cropped up since its launch. But Khan says Loom looms largest in the space thanks to customers at Uber, Dropbox, Airbnb, Red Bull and 1,100 employees at HubSpot.

“The overall space of collaboration tools is becoming deeper than just email + docs,” says Fushman, citing Slack, Zoom, Dropbox Paper, Coda, Notion, Intercom, Productboard and Figma. To get things done the fastest, businesses are cobbling together B2B software so they can skip building it in-house and focus on their own product.

No piece of enterprise software has to solve everything. But Loom is dependent on apps like Slack, Google Docs, Convo and Asana. Because it lacks a social or identity layer, you’ll need to send the links to your videos through another service. Loom should really build its own video messaging system into its desktop app. But at least Slack is an investor, and Khan says “they’re trying to be the hub of text-based communication,” and the soon-to-be-public unicorn tells him anything it does in video will focus on real-time interaction.

Still, the biggest threat to Loom is apathy. People already feel overwhelmed with Slack and email, and if recording videos comes off as more of a chore than an efficiency, workers will stick to text. And without the skimability of an email, you can imagine a big queue of videos piling up that staffers don’t want to watch. But Khan thinks the ubiquity of Instagram Stories is making it seem natural to jump on camera briefly. And the advantage is that you don’t need a bunch of time-wasting pleasantries to ensure no one misinterprets your message as sarcastic or pissed off.

Khan concludes, “We believe instantly sharable video can foster more authentic communication between people at work, and convey complex scenarios and ideas with empathy.”

Feb
05
2019
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BetterCloud can now manage any SaaS application

BetterCloud began life as a way to provide an operations layer for G Suite. More recently, after a platform overhaul, it began layering on a handful of other SaaS applications. Today, the company announced, it is now possible to add any SaaS application to its operations dashboard and monitor usage across applications via an API.

As founder and CEO David Politis explains, a tool like Okta provides a way to authenticate your SaaS app, but once an employee starts using it, BetterCloud gives you visibility into how it’s being used.

“The first order problem was identity, the access, the connections. What we’re doing is we’re solving the second order problem, which is the interactions,” Politis explained. In his view, companies lack the ability to monitor and understand the interactions going on across SaaS applications, as people interact and share information, inside and outside the organization. BetterCloud has been designed to give IT control and security over what is occurring in their environment, he explained.

He says they can provide as much or as little control as a company needs, and they can set controls by application or across a number of applications without actually changing the user’s experience. They do this through a scripting library. BetterCloud comes with a number of scripts and provides log access to give visibility into the scripting activity.

If a customer is looking to use this data more effectively, the solution includes a Graph API for ingesting data and seeing the connections across the data that BetterCloud is collecting. Customers can also set event triggers or actions based on the data being collected as certain conditions are met.

All of this is possible because the company overhauled the platform last year to allow BetterCloud to move beyond G Suite and plug other SaaS applications into it. Today’s announcement is the ultimate manifestation of that capability. Instead of BetterCloud building the connectors, it’s providing an API to let its customers do it.

The company was founded in 2011 and has raised more than $106 million, according to Crunchbase.

Feb
05
2019
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Coda’s programmable document editor comes out of beta, launches iOS app

Coda, which is coming out of its limited beta today, wants to reinvent how you think about documents and spreadsheets. That’s about as tough a challenge as you can set yourself, given how ingrained tools like Word, Excel and their equivalents from the likes of Google, Zoho and others are. Coda’s secret weapon is that it combines text and spreadsheet functionality into a single document, with the ability to build some basic programming into them and add features from third-party services as a bonus.

In addition to opening up the service to anyone, Coda also today launched its new mobile app for iOS (with Android following at some point in the future).

“It’s the best of documents, spreadsheets, presentations, applications — all brought into one new surface,” Coda founder and CEO (and former head of product for YouTube Shishir Mehrotra told me. “But the phrase we like to use is that Coda allows anyone to make a doc as powerful as an app.”

You’re not going to use Coda, which was founded in 2017 and received funding from VC heavyweights like Greylock, Khosla Ventures and NEA, as a full-blown low code/no code service. It’s still a bit too limited for that. But you can use it to build your own custom inventory system, for example, or to build a basic CRM or to-do app that fits your specific needs. Or you could just use it as an online text editor and then slowly add features like third-party integrations with the likes of Slack or Figma as needed. All of that is easy enough for anybody who has ever used a function in Excel or Google Sheets.

So far, tens of thousands of people have used the service during its private beta. Mehrotra tells me that about 15 percent of them are from the Bay Area and that a good amount of them simply use the service as a basic document editor.

The new iOS app, unsurprisingly, mostly focuses on consuming content and using the functions that you have built in the web app. It’s unlikely that you’ll want to build a whole new experience on your phone, after all. In the demos I’ve seen, Coda nicely transforms cells and their functions into usable tables and cards on the iPhone.

Jan
23
2019
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Anchorage emerges with $17M from a16z for ‘omnimetric’ crypto security

I’m not allowed to tell you exactly how Anchorage keeps rich institutions from being robbed of their cryptocurrency, but the off-the-record demo was damn impressive. Judging by the $17 million Series A this security startup raised last year led by Andreessen Horowitz and joined by Khosla Ventures, #Angels, Max Levchin, Elad Gil, Mark McCombe of Blackrock and AngelList’s Naval Ravikant, I’m not the only one who thinks so. In fact, crypto funds like Andreessen’s a16z crypto, Paradigm and Electric Capital are already using it.

They’re trusting in the guys who engineered Square’s first encrypted card reader and Docker’s security protocols. “It’s less about us choosing this space and more about this space choosing us. If you look at our backgrounds and you look at the problem, it’s like the universe handed us on a silver platter the Venn diagram of our skill set,” co-founder Diogo Monica tells me.

Today, Anchorage is coming out of stealth and launching its cryptocurrency custody service to the public. Anchorage holds and safeguards crypto assets for institutions like hedge funds and venture firms, and only allows transactions verified by an array of biometrics, behavioral analysis and human reviewers. And because it doesn’t use “buried in the backyard” cold storage, asset holders can actually earn rewards and advantages for participating in coin-holder votes without fear of getting their Bitcoin, Ethereum or other coins stolen.

The result is a crypto custody service that could finally lure big-time commercial banks, endowments, pensions, mutual funds and hedgies into the blockchain world. Whether they seek short-term gains off of crypto volatility or want to HODL long-term while participating in coin governance, Anchorage promises to protect them.

Evolving past “pirate security”

Anchorage’s story starts eight years ago when Monica and his co-founder Nathan McCauley met after joining Square the same week. Monica had been getting a PhD in distributed systems while McCauley designed anti-reverse engineering tech to keep U.S. military data from being extracted from abandoned tanks or jets. After four years of building systems that would eventually move more than $80 billion per year in credit card transactions, they packaged themselves as a “pre-product acqui-hire” Monica tells me, and they were snapped up by Docker.

As their reputation grew from work and conference keynotes, cryptocurrency funds started reaching out for help with custody of their private keys. One had lost a passphrase and the $1 million in currency it was protecting in a display of jaw-dropping ignorance. The pair realized there were no true standards in crypto custody, so they got to work on Anchorage.

“You look at the status quo and it was and still is cold storage. It’s the same technology used by pirates in the 1700s,” Monica explains. “You bury your crypto in a treasure chest and then you make a treasure map of where those gold coins are,” except with USB keys, security deposit boxes and checklists. “We started calling it Pirate Custody.” Anchorage set out to develop something better — a replacement for usernames and passwords or even phone numbers and two-factor authentication that could be misplaced or hijacked.

This led them to Andreessen Horowitz partner and a16z crypto leader Chris Dixon, who’s now on their board. “We’ve been buying crypto assets running back to Bitcoin for years now here at a16z crypto. [Once you’re holding crypto,] it’s hard to do it in a way that’s secure, regulatory compliant, and lets you access it. We felt this pain point directly.”

Andreessen Horowitz partner and Anchorage board member Chris Dixon

It’s at this point in the conversation when Monica and McCauley give me their off-the-record demo. While there are no screenshots to share, the enterprise security suite they’ve built has the polish of a consumer app like Robinhood. What I can say is that Anchorage works with clients to whitelist employees’ devices. It then uses multiple types of biometric signals and behavioral analytics about the person and device trying to log in to verify their identity.

But even once they have access, Anchorage is built around quorum-based approvals. Withdrawals, other transactions and even changing employee permissions requires approval from multiple users inside the client company. They could set up Anchorage so it requires five of seven executives’ approval to pull out assets. And finally, outlier detection algorithms and a human review the transaction to make sure it looks legit. A hacker or rogue employee can’t steal the funds even if they’re logged in because they need consensus of approval.

That kind of assurance means institutional investors can confidently start to invest in crypto assets. That swell of capital could help replace the retreating consumer investors who’ve fled the market this year, leading to massive price drops. The liquidity provided by these asset managers could keep the whole blockchain industry moving. “Institutional investing has had centuries to build up a set of market infrastructure. Custody was something that for other asset classes was solved hundreds of years ago, so it’s just now catching up [for crypto],” says McCauley. “We’re creating a bigger market in and of itself,” Monica adds.

With Anchorage steadfastly handling custody, the risk these co-founders admit worries them lies in the smart contracts that govern the cryptocurrencies themselves. “We need to be extremely wide in our level of support and extremely deep because each blockchain has details of implementation. This is inherently a very difficult problem,” McCauley explains. It doesn’t matter if the coins are safe in Anchorage’s custody if a janky smart contract can botch their transfer.

There are plenty of startups vying to offer crypto custody, ranging from Bitgo and Ledger to well-known names like Coinbase and Gemini. Yet Anchorage offers a rare combination of institutional-since-day-one security rigor with the ability to participate in votes and governance of crypto assets that’s impossible if they’re in cold storage. Down the line, Anchorage hints that it might serve clients recommendations for how to vote to maximize their yield and preserve the sanctity of their coin.

They’ll have crypto investment legend Chris Dixon on their board to guide them. “What you’ll see is in the same way that institutional investors want to buy stock in Facebook and Google and Netflix, they’ll want to buy the equivalent in the world 10 years from now and do that safely,” Dixon tells me. “Anchorage will be that layer for them.”

But why do the Anchorage founders care so much about the problem? McCauley concludes that, “When we look at what’s potentially possible with crypto, there a fundamentally more accessible economy. We view ourselves as a key component of bringing that future forward.”

Jan
17
2019
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On-demand workspace platform Breather taps new CEO

Breather’s new CEO Bryan Murphy / Breather Press Kit

Breather, the platform that provides on-demand private workspace, announced today that it has appointed Bryan Murphy as its new CEO.

Before joining Breather, Murphy was the founder and president of direct-to-consumer mattress startup, Tomorrow Sleep. Prior to Tomorrow Sleep, Murphy held posts as an advisor to investment firms and as an executive at eBay after the company acquired his previous company, WHI Solutions — an e-commerce platform for aftermarket auto parts — where Murphy was the co-founder and CEO.

Breather believes Murphy’s extensive background scaling e-commerce and SaaS platforms, as well as his experience working with incumbents across a number of traditional industries, can help it execute through its next stage of global growth.

Murphy is filling the vacancy left by co-founder and former CEO Julien Smith, who stepped down as chief executive this past September, just three months after the company completed its $45 million Series C round, which was led by Menlo Ventures and saw participation from RRE Ventures, Temasek Holdings, Ascendas-Singbridge and Caisse de Depot et Placement du Quebec.

In a past statement on his transition, Smith said: “As I reflect on my strengths and consider what it will take for the company to reach its full potential, I realize bringing on an executive with experience scaling a company through the next level of growth is the best thing for the business.”

Smith, who remains with the company as chairman of the board, believes Murphy more than fits the bill. “Bryan’s record of scaling brands in competitive markets makes him an ideal leader to support this momentum, and I’m excited to see where he takes us next,” Smith said.

In a conversation with TechCrunch, Murphy explained that Breather’s next growth phase will ultimately come down to its ability to continue the global expansion of its network of locations and partner landlords while striking the optimal balance between rental economics and employee utility, productivity and performance. With new spaces and ramped marketing efforts, Murphy and the company expect 2019 to be a big year for Breather — “I think this year, you’re going to start hearing a lot about Breather and it really being in a leadership role for the industry.”

Breather’s workspace at 900 Broadway in New York City is one of 500+ network locations accessible to users.

On Breather’s platform, users are currently able to access a network of more than 500 private workspaces across 10 major cities around the world, which can be booked as meeting space or short-term private office space.

Meeting spaces can be reserved for as little as two hours, while office space can be booked on a month-to-month basis, providing businesses with financial flexibility, private and more spacious alternatives to co-working options, and the ability to easily change offices as they grow. For landlords, Breather allows property owners to generate value from underutilized space by providing a turnkey digital booking system, as well as expertise in the short-term rental space.

Murphy explained to TechCrunch that part of what excited him most about his new role was his belief in Breather’s significant product-market fit and the immense addressable market that he sees for flexible workspaces longer-term. With limited penetration to date, Murphy feels the commercial office space industry is in just the third inning of significant transformation. 

Murphy believes that long-term growth for Breather and other flexible space providers will be driven by a heightened focus on employee flexibility and wellness, a growing number of currently underserved companies whose needs fall between co-working and traditional direct leasing, and the need for landlords to support a wider variety of office space options as workforce demographics and behaviors shift. 

Murphy believes that the ease, flexibility and unlocked value Breather provides puts the platform in a great position to win market share.

“Breather has built a remarkable commercial real estate e-commerce and services platform that offers one-click access to over 500 workspaces around the world,” said Murphy in a press release. “To our customers, having access to workspace that is turnkey, affordable, beautiful, productive and that can flex up and down based on needs is a total game changer.”

To date, Breather has served more than 500,000 customers and has raised more than $120 million in investment.

Jan
10
2019
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Daily Crunch: How the government shutdown is damaging cybersecurity and future IPOs

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here:

1. How Trump’s government shutdown is harming cyber and national security
The government has been shut down for nearly three weeks, and there’s no end in sight. While most of the core government departments — State, Treasury, Justice and Defense — are still operational, others like Homeland Security, which takes the bulk of the government’s cybersecurity responsibilities, are suffering the most.

2. With SEC workers offline, the government shutdown could screw IPO-ready companies
The SEC has been shut down since December 27 and only has 285 of its 4,436 employees on the clock for emergency situations. While tech’s most buzz-worthy unicorns like Uber and Lyft won’t suffer too much from the shutdown, smaller businesses, particularly those in need of an infusion of capital to continue operating, will bear the brunt of any IPO delays.

3. The state of seed 

In 2018, seed activity as a percentage of all deals shrank from 31 percent to 25 percent — a decade low — while the share and size of late-stage deals swelled to record highs.

4. Banking startup N26 raises $300 million at $2.7 billion valuation

N26 is building a retail bank from scratch. The company prides itself on the speed and simplicity of setting up an account and managing assets. In the past year, N26’s valuation has exploded as its user base has tripled, with nearly a third of customers paying for a premium account.

5. E-scooter startup Bird is raising another $300M 

Bird is reportedly nearing a deal to extend its Series C round with a $300 million infusion led by Fidelity. The funding, however, comes at a time when scooter companies are losing steam and struggling to prove that its product is the clear solution to last-mile transportation.

6. AWS gives open source the middle finger 

It’s no secret that AWS has long been accused of taking the best open-source projects and re-using and re-branding them without always giving back to those communities.

7. The Galaxy S10 is coming on February 20 

Looks like Samsung is giving Mobile World Congress the cold shoulder and has decided to announce its latest flagship phone a week earlier in San Francisco.

Jan
08
2019
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Amid a legal fight in LA, IBM’s Weather Company launches hyperlocal weather forecasts globally

While IBM is getting sued by the city of Los Angeles, accusing it of covertly mining user data in the Weather Channel app in the US, it’s testing the waters for another hyperlocal weather feature that — coincidentally — relies on data that it picks up from sensors on app users’ smartphones, among other devices, combined with AI at IBM’s end to help model the information.

Today at CES, the company announced new service called the Global High-Resolution Atmospheric Forecasting System — GRAF for short — a new weather forecasting system that says it will provide the most accurate weather for anywhere in the world, running every hour, and in increments of every three kilometers everywhere by way of crunching around 10 terabytes of data every day.

The new hyperlocal weather data will start to become available in 2019.

This is a key piece of news particularly for the developing world. There has been some effort already to create and use hyperlocal weather information in the US market using things like in-built sensors that can pick up information on, for example, barometric pressure — the very feature that is now the subject of a lawsuit — but there have been fewer efforts to bring that kind of service to a wider, global audience.

“If you’re a farmer in Kenya or Kansas, you will get a way better weather prediction,” said Ginny Rometty, the CEO of IBM, announcing the service today at CES.

She added that other potential end users of the data could include airlines to better predict when a plane might encounter turbulence or other patterns that could affect a flight; insurance companies managing recovery operations and claims around natural disasters; and utility companies monitoring for faults or preparing for severe weather strains on their systems.

Rometty said that the Weather Channel app’s 100 million users — and, in an estimation from Mary Glackin, the Weather Channel’s VP of business solutions, 300 million monthly active users when considering the wider network of places where the data gets used including Weather.com and Weather Underground — will be providing the data “with consent”. Data sourced from businesses will be coming from customers that are partners and are also likely to become users of the data.

That data in turn will be run through IBM’s Power9 supercomputers, the same ones used in the US Department of Energy’s Summit and Sierra  supercomputers, and modelled using suplementary data from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

The news represents a big step change for the Weather Company and for meteorology research, Glackin said in an interview.

“This is going to be the first significant implementation of GPUs at the Weather Company,” she told me. “The weather community has been slow to adopt to technology, but this is providing much improved performance for us, with higher resolutions and a much finer scale and focus of short-term forecasts.”

The new service of providing hyperlocal data also underscores an interesting turn for IBM as it turns its efforts to building the Weather Channel business into a more global operation, and one that helps deliver more business returns for IBM itself.

Glackin said the Weather Channel app was the most-downloaded weather app in India last year, underscoring how it, like other consumer apps, is seeing more growth outside of the US at the moment after already reaching market saturation in its home market.

Saturation, and some controversy. It’s not clear how the lawsuit in LA will play out, but the fact that it’s been filed definitely points to changing opinions and sensibilities when it comes to the use of personal data, and more generally how consumers and authorities are starting to think about how all that data that we are generating every day on our connected devices is getting used.

IBM is by far not the only company, nor the most vilified, when it comes to this issue, but at a time when the company is still trying to capitalise on the potential of how to commercialise the trove of information and customer connections in its wider business network, this will be something that will impact it as well.

Notably, Rometty closed off her keynote today at CES with a few parting words that reference that.

“As we work on these technologies, all that data that we talked about, that ownership, they belong to the user, and with their permission, we use that,” she said, adding, “These technologies also need to be open and explainable.”

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