Mar
02
2021
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Microsoft launches Azure Percept, its new hardware and software platform to bring AI to the edge

Microsoft today announced Azure Percept, its new hardware and software platform for bringing more of its Azure AI services to the edge. Percept combines Microsoft’s Azure cloud tools for managing devices and creating AI models with hardware from Microsoft’s device partners. The general idea here is to make it far easier for all kinds of businesses to build and implement AI for things like object detection, anomaly detections, shelf analytics and keyword spotting at the edge by providing them with an end-to-end solution that takes them from building AI models to deploying them on compatible hardware.

To kickstart this, Microsoft also today launches a hardware development kit with an intelligent camera for vision use cases (dubbed Azure Percept Vision). The kit features hardware-enabled AI modules for running models at the edge, but it can also be connected to the cloud. Users will also be able to trial their proofs-of-concept in the real world because the development kit conforms to the widely used 80/20 T-slot framing architecture.

In addition to Percept Vision, Microsoft is also launching Azure Percept Audio for audio-centric use cases.

Azure Percept devices, including Trust Platform Module, Azure Percept Vision and Azure Percept Audio

Azure Percept devices, including Trust Platform Module, Azure Percept Vision and Azure Percept Audio

“We’ve started with the two most common AI workloads, vision and voice, sight and sound, and we’ve given out that blueprint so that manufacturers can take the basics of what we’ve started,” said Roanne Sones, the corporate vice president of Microsoft’s edge and platform group, said. “But they can envision it in any kind of responsible form factor to cover a pattern of the world.”

Percept customers will have access to Azure’s cognitive service and machine learning models and Percept devices will automatically connect to Azure’s IoT hub.

Microsoft says it is working with silicon and equipment manufacturers to build an ecosystem of “intelligent edge devices that are certified to run on the Azure Percept platform.” Over the course of the next few months, Microsoft plans to certify third-party devices for inclusion in this program, which will ideally allow its customers to take their proofs-of-concept and easily deploy them to any certified devices.

“Anybody who builds a prototype using one of our development kits, if they buy a certified device, they don’t have to do any additional work,” said Christa St. Pierre, a product manager in Microsoft’s Azure edge and platform group.

St. Pierre also noted that all of the components of the platform will have to conform to Microsoft’s responsible AI principles — and go through extensive security testing.


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Jan
27
2021
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SAP launches ‘RISE with SAP,’ a concierge service for digital transformation

SAP today announced a new offering it calls ‘RISE with SAP,’ a solution that is meant to help the company’s customers go through their respective digital transformations and become what SAP calls ‘intelligent enterprises.’ RISE is a subscription service that combines a set of services and product offerings.

SAP’s head of product success Sven Denecken (and its COO for S/4Hana) described it as “the best concierge service you can get for your digital transformation” when I talked to him earlier this week. “We need to help our clients to embrace that change that they see currently,” he said. “Transformation is a journey. Every client wants to become that smarter, faster and that nimbler business, but they, of course, also see that they are faced with challenges today and in the future. This continuous transformation is what is happening to businesses. And we do know from working together with them, that actually they agree with those fundamentals. They want to be an intelligent enterprise. They want to adapt and change. But the key question is how to get there? And the key question they ask us is, please help us to get there.”

With RISE for SAP, businesses will get a single contact at SAP to help guide them through their journey, but also access to the SAP partner ecosystem.

The first step in this process, Denecken stressed, isn’t necessarily to bring in new technology, though that is also part of it, but to help businesses redesign and optimize their business processes and implement the best practices in their verticals — and then measure the outcome. “Business process redesign means that you analyze how your business processes perform. How can you get tailored recommendations? How can you benchmark against industry standards? And this helps you to set the tone and also to motivate your people — your IT, your business people — to adapt,” Denecken described. He also noted that in order for a digital transformation project to succeed, IT and business leaders and employees have to work together.

In part, that includes technology offerings and adopting robotic process automation (RPA), for example. As Denecken stressed, all of this builds on top of the work SAP has done with its customers over the years to define business processes and KPIs.

On the technical side, SAP is obviously offering its own services, including its Business Technology Platform, and cloud infrastructure, but it will also support customers on all of the large cloud providers. Also included in RISE is support for more than 2,200 APIs to integrate various on-premises, cloud and non-SAP systems, access to SAP’s low-code and no-code capabilities and, of course, its database and analytics offerings.

“Geopolitical tensions, environmental challenges and the ongoing pandemic are forcing businesses to deal with change faster than ever before,” said Christian Klein, SAP’s CEO, in today’s announcement. “Companies that can adapt their business processes quickly will thrive – and SAP can help them achieve this. This is what RISE with SAP is all about: It helps customers continuously unlock new ways of running businesses in the cloud to stay ahead of their industry.”

With this new offering, SAP is now providing its customers with a number of solutions that were previously available through its partner ecosystem. Denecken doesn’t see this as SAP competing with its own partners, though. Instead, he argues that this is very much a partner play and that this new solution will likely only bring more customers to its partners as well.

“Needless to say, this has been a negotiation with those partners,” he said. “Because yes, it’s sometimes topics that we now take over they [previously] did. But we are looking for scale here. The need in the market for digital transformation has just started. And this is where we see that this is definitely a big offering, together with partners. “

Dec
02
2020
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Fylamynt raises $6.5M for its cloud workflow automation platform

Fylamynt, a new service that helps businesses automate their cloud workflows, today announced both the official launch of its platform as well as a $6.5 million seed round. The funding round was led by Google’s AI-focused Gradient Ventures fund. Mango Capital and Point72 Ventures also participated.

At first glance, the idea behind Fylamynt may sound familiar. Workflow automation has become a pretty competitive space, after all, and the service helps developers connect their various cloud tools to create repeatable workflows. We’re not talking about your standard IFTTT- or Zapier -like integrations between SaaS products, though. The focus of Fylamynt is squarely on building infrastructure workflows. While that may sound familiar, too, with tools like Ansible and Terraform automating a lot of that already, Fylamynt sits on top of those and integrates with them.

Image Credits: Fylamynt

“Some time ago, we used to do Bash and scripting — and then [ … ] came Chef and Puppet in 2006, 2007. SaltStack, as well. Then Terraform and Ansible,” Fylamynt co-founder and CEO Pradeep Padala told me. “They have all done an extremely good job of making it easier to simplify infrastructure operations so you don’t have to write low-level code. You can write a slightly higher-level language. We are not replacing that. What we are doing is connecting that code.”

So if you have a Terraform template, an Ansible playbook and maybe a Python script, you can now use Fylamynt to connect those. In the end, Fylamynt becomes the orchestration engine to run all of your infrastructure code — and then allows you to connect all of that to the likes of DataDog, Splunk, PagerDuty Slack and ServiceNow.

Image Credits: Fylamynt

The service currently connects to Terraform, Ansible, Datadog, Jira, Slack, Instance, CloudWatch, CloudFormation and your Kubernetes clusters. The company notes that some of the standard use cases for its service are automated remediation, governance and compliance, as well as cost and performance management.

The company is already working with a number of design partners, including Snowflake.

Fylamynt CEO Padala has quite a bit of experience in the infrastructure space. He co-founded ContainerX, an early container-management platform, which later sold to Cisco. Before starting ContainerX, he was at VMWare and DOCOMO Labs. His co-founders, VP of Engineering Xiaoyun Zhu and CTO David Lee, also have deep expertise in building out cloud infrastructure and operating it.

“If you look at any company — any company building a product — let’s say a SaaS product, and they want to run their operations, infrastructure operations very efficiently,” Padala said. “But there are always challenges. You need a lot of people, it takes time. So what is the bottleneck? If you ask that question and dig deeper, you’ll find that there is one bottleneck for automation: that’s code. Someone has to write code to automate. Everything revolves around that.”

Fylamynt aims to take the effort out of that by allowing developers to either write Python and JSON to automate their workflows (think “infrastructure as code” but for workflows) or to use Fylamynt’s visual no-code drag-and-drop tool. As Padala noted, this gives developers a lot of flexibility in how they want to use the service. If you never want to see the Fylamynt UI, you can go about your merry coding ways, but chances are the UI will allow you to get everything done as well.

One area the team is currently focusing on — and will use the new funding for — is building out its analytics capabilities that can help developers debug their workflows. The service already provides log and audit trails, but the plan is to expand its AI capabilities to also recommend the right workflows based on the alerts you are getting.

“The eventual goal is to help people automate any service and connect any code. That’s the holy grail. And AI is an enabler in that,” Padala said.

Gradient Ventures partner Muzzammil “MZ” Zaveri echoed this. “Fylamynt is at the intersection of applied AI and workflow automation,” he said. “We’re excited to support the Fylamynt team in this uniquely positioned product with a deep bench of integrations and a nonprescriptive builder approach. The vision of automating every part of a cloud workflow is just the beginning.”

The team, which now includes about 20 employees, plans to use the new round of funding, which closed in September, to focus on its R&D, build out its product and expand its go-to-market team. On the product side, that specifically means building more connectors.

The company offers both a free plan as well as enterprise pricing and its platform is now generally available.

Oct
01
2020
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Microsoft enhances customer data platform as pandemic drives need for personalization

When Microsoft introduced its customer data platform last February, the focus was on simply connecting silos of data to help customers get the data into the system. But as the pandemic has taken hold this year, customers need deeper insight into their customers, and Microsoft has made some enhancements to the platform today.

James Phillips, president of Microsoft Business Applications Group, says the goal of the platform is about understanding customers at a deeper level. “From that depth of understanding our customers can engage their customers through the entirety of the customer lifecycle,” Phillips told TechCrunch.

That could involve a variety of activities, such as personalizing offers, speaking to them in a way that they know their customers want to be spoken to, offering them new products and services that better meet their needs or supporting them better, he said.

He adds that COVID-19 has changed customer priorities and forced them to make adjustments to the way they do business and how they interact with customers. “As everything’s gone digital, the need to deeply understand your customer and to increase the efficacy of those engagements has really been heightened through this pandemic,” he said.

The company is announcing several new components to the customer data platform product to help customers build that understanding. The first is called Engagement Insights, which, as the name implies takes, all that data they’ve pushed to the CDP to help understand how the company is engaging with the customer better and deliver more meaningful interactions. That goes into preview today.

“Engagement Insights is about directly funneling web, mobile and connected product data back into Customer Insights to help continue to enrich that understanding of the customer in order to better serve them,” he said.

The next piece is about putting AI to work on all that data to allow marketers to make more educated predictions about the customers based on what they know about them. This takes advantage of Azure Synapse Analytics and provides a set of pre-built AI templates to help customers with elements like predicting customer churn, automating product recommendations and estimating customer lifetime value.

In addition, the company is offering a data governance product to help protect that data, and it’s integrating with Microsoft Customer Voice, the company’s survey tool to give customers the ability to fill in the blanks in the data by asking the customers when all of the data doesn’t provide an answer.

Phillips says all of these capabilities are about helping customers be more agile, so that as the world shifts, as it has so dramatically this year, businesses can be in a better position to react to those changes more quickly and meet the changing customer requirements.

It’s worth noting that Microsoft clearly isn’t alone in this type of offering, as every big company that sells marketing tools from Adobe to Salesforce to SAP is offering similar products for similar reasons.

Sep
25
2020
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Privacy data management innovations reduce risk, create new revenue channels

Privacy data mismanagement is a lurking liability within every commercial enterprise. The very definition of privacy data is evolving over time and has been broadened to include information concerning an individual’s health, wealth, college grades, geolocation and web surfing behaviors. Regulations are proliferating at state, national and international levels that seek to define privacy data and establish controls governing its maintenance and use.

Existing regulations are relatively new and are being translated into operational business practices through a series of judicial challenges that are currently in progress, adding to the confusion regarding proper data handling procedures. In this confusing and sometimes chaotic environment, the privacy risks faced by almost every corporation are frequently ambiguous, constantly changing and continually expanding.

Conventional information security (infosec) tools are designed to prevent the inadvertent loss or intentional theft of sensitive information. They are not sufficient to prevent the mismanagement of privacy data. Privacy safeguards not only need to prevent loss or theft but they must also prevent the inappropriate exposure or unauthorized usage of such data, even when no loss or breach has occurred. A new generation of infosec tools is needed to address the unique risks associated with the management of privacy data.

The first wave of innovation

A variety of privacy-focused security tools emerged over the past few years, triggered in part by the introduction of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) within the European Union in 2018. New capabilities introduced by this first wave of innovation were focused in the following three areas:

Data discovery, classification and cataloging. Modern enterprises collect a wide variety of personal information from customers, business partners and employees at different times for different purposes with different IT systems. This data is frequently disseminated throughout a company’s application portfolio via APIs, collaboration tools, automation bots and wholesale replication. Maintaining an accurate catalog of the location of such data is a major challenge and a perpetual activity. BigID, DataGuise and Integris Software have gained prominence as popular solutions for data discovery. Collibra and Alation are leaders in providing complementary capabilities for data cataloging.

Consent management. Individuals are commonly presented with privacy statements describing the intended use and safeguards that will be employed in handling the personal data they supply to corporations. They consent to these statements — either explicitly or implicitly — at the time such data is initially collected. Osano, Transcend.io and DataGrail.io specialize in the management of consent agreements and the enforcement of their terms. These tools enable individuals to exercise their consensual data rights, such as the right to view, edit or delete personal information they’ve provided in the past.

Sep
22
2020
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EasySend raises $16M from Intel, more for its no-code approach to automating B2C interfaces

No-code and low-code software have become increasingly popular ways for companies — especially those that don’t count technology as part of their DNA — to bring in more updated IT processes without the heavy lifting needed to build and integrate services from the ground up.

As a mark of that trend, today, a company that has taken this approach to speeding up customer experience is announcing some funding. EasySend, an Israeli startup which has built a no-code platform for insurance companies and other regulated businesses to build out forms and other interfaces to take in customer information and subsequently use AI systems to process it more efficiently, is announcing that it has raised $16 million.

The funding has actually come in two tranches, a $5 million seed round from Vertex Ventures and Menora Insurance that it never disclosed, and another $11 million round that closed more recently, led by Hanaco with participation from Intel Capital. The company is already generating revenue, and did so from the start, enough that it was actually bootstrapped for the first three years of its life.

Tal Daskal, EasySend’s CEO and co-founder, said that the funding being announced today will be used to help it expand into more verticals: up to now its primary target has been insurance companies, although organically it’s picked up customers from a number of other verticals, such as telecoms carriers, banks and more.

The plan will be now to hone in on specifically marketing to and building solutions for the financial services sector, as well as hiring and expanding in Asia, Europe and the US.

Longer term, he said, that another area EasySend might like to look at more in the future is robotic process automation (RPA). RPA, and companies that deal in it like UIPath, Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism, is today focused on the back office, and EasySend’s focus on the “front office” integrates with leaders in that area. But over time, it would make sense for EasySend to cover this in a more holistic way, he added.

Menora was a strategic backer: it’s one of the largest insurance providers in Israel, Daskal said, and it used EasySend to build out better ways for consumers to submit data for claims and apply for insurance.

Intel, he said, is also strategic although how is still being worked out: what’s notable to mention here is that Intel has been building out a huge autonomous driving business in Israel, anchored by MobileEye, and not only will insurance (and overall risk management) play a big part in how that business develops, but longer term you can see how there will be a need for a lot of seamless customer interactions (and form filling) between would-be car owners, operators, and passengers in order for services to operate more efficiently.

Intel Capital chose to invest in EasySend because of its intelligent and impactful approach to accelerating digital transformation to improve customer experiences,” said Nick Washburn, senior managing director, Intel Capital, in a statement. “EasySend’s no-code platform utilizes AI to digitize thousands of forms quickly and easily, reducing development time from months to days, and transforming customer journeys that have been paper-based, inefficient and frustrating. In today’s world, this is more critical than ever before.”

The rise and persistence of Covid-19 globally has had a big, multi-faceted impact how we all do business, and two of those ways have fed directly into the growth of EasySend.

First, the move to remote working has given organizations a giant fillip to work on digital transformation, refreshing and replacing legacy systems with processes that work faster and rely on newer technologies.

Second, consumers have really reassessed their use of insurance services, specifically health and home policies, respectively to make sure they are better equipped in the event of a Covid-19-precipitated scare, and to make sure that they are adequately covered for how they now use their homes all hours of the day.

EasySend’s platform for building and running interfaces for customer experience fall directly into the kinds of apps and services that are being identified and updated, precisely at a time when its initial target customers, insurers, are seeing a surge in business. It’s that “perfect storm” of circumstances that the startup wouldn’t have wished on the world, but which has definitely helped it along.

While there are a lot of companies on the market today that help organizations automate and run their customer interaction processes, the Daskal said that EasySend’s focus on using AI to process information is what makes the startup more unique, as it can be used not just to run things, but to help improve how things work.

It’s not just about taking in character recognition and organizing data, it’s “understanding the business logic,” he said. “We have a lot of data and we can understand [for example] where customers left the process [when filling out forms]. We can give insights into how to increase the conversion rates.”

It’s that balance of providing tools to do business better today, as well as to focus on how to build more business for tomorrow, that has caught the eye of investors.

“Hanaco is firmly invested in building a digital future. By bridging the gap between manual processes and digitization, EasySend is making this not only possible, but also easy, affordable, and practical,” said Hanaco founding partner Alon Lifshitz, in a statement.

Sep
15
2020
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Latent AI makes edge AI workloads more efficient

Latent AI, a startup that was spun out of SRI International, makes it easier to run AI workloads at the edge by dynamically managing workloads as necessary.

Using its proprietary compression and compilation process, Latent AI promises to compress library files by 10x and run them with 5x lower latency than other systems, all while using less power thanks to its new adaptive AI technology, which the company is launching as part of its appearance in the TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield competition today.

Founded by CEO Jags Kandasamy and CTO Sek Chai, the company has already raised a $6.5 million seed round led by Steve Jurvetson of Future Ventures and followed by Autotech Ventures .

Before starting Latent AI, Kandasamy sold his previous startup OtoSense to Analog Devices (in addition to managing HPE Mid-Market Security business before that). OtoSense used data from sound and vibration sensors for predictive maintenance use cases. Before its sale, the company worked with the likes of Delta Airlines and Airbus.

Image Credits: Latent AI

In some ways, Latent AI picks up some of this work and marries it with IP from SRI International .

“With OtoSense, I had already done some edge work,” Kandasamy said. “We had moved the audio recognition part out of the cloud. We did the learning in the cloud, but the recognition was done in the edge device and we had to convert quickly and get it down. Our bill in the first few months made us move that way. You couldn’t be streaming data over LTE or 3G for too long.”

At SRI, Chai worked on a project that looked at how to best manage power for flying objects where, if you have a single source of power, the system could intelligently allocate resources for either powering the flight or running the onboard compute workloads, mostly for surveillance, and then switch between them as needed. Most of the time, in a surveillance use case, nothing happens. And while that’s the case, you don’t need to compute every frame you see.

“We took that and we made it into a tool and a platform so that you can apply it to all sorts of use cases, from voice to vision to segmentation to time series stuff,” Kandasamy explained.

What’s important to note here is that the company offers the various components of what it calls the Latent AI Efficient Inference Platform (LEIP) as standalone modules or as a fully integrated system. The compressor and compiler are the first two of these and what the company is launching today is LEIP Adapt, the part of the system that manages the dynamic AI workloads Kandasamy described above.

Image Credits: Latent AI

In practical terms, the use case for LEIP Adapt is that your battery-powered smart doorbell, for example, can run in a low-powered mode for a long time, waiting for something to happen. Then, when somebody arrives at your door, the camera wakes up to run a larger model — maybe even on the doorbell’s base station that is plugged into power — to do image recognition. And if a whole group of people arrives at ones (which isn’t likely right now, but maybe next year, after the pandemic is under control), the system can offload the workload to the cloud as needed.

Kandasamy tells me that the interest in the technology has been “tremendous.” Given his previous experience and the network of SRI International, it’s maybe no surprise that Latent AI is getting a lot of interest from the automotive industry, but Kandasamy also noted that the company is working with consumer companies, including a camera and a hearing aid maker.

The company is also working with a major telco company that is looking at Latent AI as part of its AI orchestration platform and a large CDN provider to help them run AI workloads on a JavaScript backend.

May
20
2020
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Directly, which taps experts to train chatbots, raises $11M, closes out Series B at $51M

Directly, a startup whose mission is to help build better customer service chatbots by using experts in specific areas to train them, has raised more funding as it opens up a new front to grow its business: APIs and a partner ecosystem that can now also tap into its expert network. Today Directly is announcing that it has added $11 million to close out its Series B at $51 million (it raised $20 million back in January of this year, and another $20 million as part of the Series B back in 2018).

The funding is coming from Triangle Peak Partners and Toba Capital, while its previous investors in the round included strategic backers Samsung NEXT and Microsoft’s M12 Ventures (who are both customers, alongside companies like Airbnb), as well as Industry Ventures, True Ventures, Costanoa Ventures and Northgate. (As we reported when covering the initial close, Directly’s valuation at that time was at $110 million post-money, and so this would likely put it at $120 million or higher, given how the business has expanded.)

While chatbots have now been around for years, a key focus in the tech world has been how to help them work better, after initial efforts saw so many disappointing results that it was fair to ask whether they were even worth the trouble.

Directly’s premise is that the most important part of getting a chatbot to work well is to make sure that it’s trained correctly, and its approach to that is very practical: find experts both to troubleshoot questions and provide answers.

As we’ve described before, its platform helps businesses identify and reach out to “experts” in the business or product in question, collect knowledge from them, and then fold that into a company’s AI to help train it and answer questions more accurately. It also looks at data input and output into those AI systems to figure out what is working, and what is not, and how to fix that, too.

The information is typically collected by way of question-and-answer sessions. Directly compensates experts both for submitting information as well as to pay out royalties when their knowledge has been put to use, “just as you would in traditional copyright licensing in music,” its co-founder Antony Brydon explained to me earlier this year.

It can take as little as 100 experts, but potentially many more, to train a system, depending on how much the information needs to be updated over time. (Directly’s work for Xbox, for example, used 1,000 experts but has to date answered millions of questions.)

Directly’s pitch to customers is that building a better chatbot can help deflect more questions from actual live agents (and subsequently cut operational costs for a business). It claims that customer contacts can be reduced by up to 80%, with customer satisfaction by up to 20%, as a result.

What’s interesting is that now Directly sees an opportunity in expanding that expert ecosystem to a wider group of partners, some of which might have previously been seen as competitors. (Not unlike Amazon’s AI powering a multitude of other businesses, some of which might also be in the market of selling the same services that Amazon does).

The partner ecosystem, as Directly calls it, use APIs to link into Directly’s platform. Meya, Percept.ai, and SmartAction — which themselves provide a range of customer service automation tools — are three of the first users.

“The team at Directly have quickly proven to be trusted and invaluable partners,” said Erik Kalviainen, CEO at Meya, in a statement. “As a result of our collaboration, Meya is now able to take advantage of a whole new set of capabilities that will enable us to deliver automated solutions both faster and with higher resolution rates, without customers needing to deploy significant internal resources. That’s a powerful advantage at a time when scale and efficiency are key to any successful customer support operation.”

The prospect of a bigger business funnel beyond even what Directly was pulling in itself is likely what attracted the most recent investment.

“Directly has established itself as a true leader in helping customers thrive during these turbulent economic times,” said Tyler Peterson, Partner at Triangle Peak Partners, in a statement. “There is little doubt that automation will play a tremendous role in the future of customer support, but Directly is realizing that potential today. Their platform enables businesses to strike just the right balance between automation and human support, helping them adopt AI-powered solutions in a way that is practical, accessible, and demonstrably effective.”

In January, Mike de la Cruz, who took over as CEO at the time of the funding announcement, said the company was gearing up for a larger Series C in 2021. It’s not clear how and if that will be impacted by the current state of the world. But in the meantime, as more organizations are looking for ways to connect with customers outside of channels that might require people to physically visit stores, or for employees to sit in call centres, it presents a huge opportunity for companies like this one.

“At its core, our business is about helping customer support leaders resolve customer issues with the right mix of automation and human support,” said de la Cruz in a statement. “It’s one thing to deliver a great product today, but we’re committed to ensuring that our customers have the solutions they need over the long term. That means constantly investing in our platform and expanding our capabilities, so that we can keep up with the rapid pace of technological change and an unpredictable economic landscape. These new partnerships and this latest expansion of our recent funding round have positioned us to do just that. We’re excited to be collaborating with our new partners, and very thankful to all of our investors for their support.”

May
19
2020
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Microsoft launches Project Bonsai, its new machine teaching service for building autonomous systems

At its Build developer conference, Microsoft today announced that Project Bonsai, its new machine teaching service, is now in public preview.

If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you remember that Microsoft acquired Bonsai, a company that focuses on machine teaching, back in 2018. Bonsai combined simulation tools with different machine learning techniques to build a general-purpose deep reinforcement learning platform, with a focus on industrial control systems.

It’s maybe no surprise then that Project Bonsai, too, has a similar focus on helping businesses teach and manage their autonomous machines. “With Project Bonsai, subject-matter experts can add state-of-the-art intelligence to their most dynamic physical systems and processes without needing a background in AI,” the company notes in its press materials.

“The public preview of Project Bonsai builds on top of the Bonsai acquisition and the autonomous systems private preview announcements made at Build and Ignite of last year,” a Microsoft spokesperson told me.

Interestingly, Microsoft notes that project Bonsai is only the first block of a larger vision to help its customers build these autonomous systems. The company also stresses the advantages of machine teaching over other machine learning approach, especially the fact that it’s less of a black box approach than other methods, which makes it easier for developers and engineers to debug systems that don’t work as expected.

In addition to Bonsai, Microsoft also today announced Project Moab, an open-source balancing robot that is meant to help engineers and developers learn the basics of how to build a real-world control system. The idea here is to teach the robot to keep a ball balanced on top of a platform that is held by three arms.

Potential users will be able to either 3D print the robot themselves or buy one when it goes on sale later this year. There is also a simulation, developed by MathWorks, that developers can try out immediately.

“You can very quickly take it into areas where doing it in traditional ways would not be easy, such as balancing an egg instead,” said Mark Hammond, Microsoft General Manager
for Autonomous Systems. “The point of the Project Moab system is to provide that
playground where engineers tackling various problems can learn how to use the tooling and simulation models. Once they understand the concepts, they can apply it to their novel use case.”

May
18
2020
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GO1, an enterprise learning platform, picks up $40M from Microsoft, Salesforce and more

With a large proportion of knowledge workers doing now doing their jobs from home, the need for tools to help them feel connected to their profession can be as important as tools to, more practically, keep them connected. Today, a company that helps do precisely that is announcing a growth round of funding after seeing engagement on its platform triple in the last month.

GO1.com, an online learning platform focused specifically on professional training courses (both those to enhance a worker’s skills as well as those needed for company compliance training), is today announcing that it has raised $40 million in funding, a Series C that it plans to use to continue expanding its business. The startup was founded in Brisbane, Australia and now has operations also based out of San Francisco — it was part of a Y Combinator cohort back in 2015 — and more specifically, it wants to continue growth in North America, and to continue expanding its partner network.

GO1 not disclosing its valuation but we are asking. It’s worth pointing out that not only has it seen engagement triple in the last month as companies turn to online learning to keep users connected to their professional lives even as they work among children and house pets, noisy neighbours, dirty laundry, sourdough starters, and the rest (and that’s before you count the harrowing health news we are hit with on a regular basis). But even beyond that, longer term GO1 has shown some strong signs that speak of its traction.

It counts the likes of the University of Oxford, Suzuki, Asahi and Thrifty among its 3,000+ customers, with more than 1.5 million users overall able to access over 170,000 courses and other resources provided by some 100 vetted content partners. Overall usage has grown five-fold over the last 12 months. (GO1 works both with in-house learning management systems or provides its own.)

“GO1’s growth over the last couple of months has been unprecedented and the use of online tools for training is now undergoing a structural shift,” said Andrew Barnes, CEO of GO1, in a statement. “It is gratifying to fill an important void right now as workers embrace online solutions. We are inspired about the future that we are building as we expand our platform with new mediums that reach millions of people every day with the content they need.”

The funding is coming from a very strong list of backers: it’s being co-led by Madrona Venture Group and SEEK — the online recruitment and course directory company that has backed a number of edtech startups, including FutureLearn and Coursera — with participation also from Microsoft’s venture arm M12; new backer Salesforce Ventures, the investing arm of the CRM giant; and another previous backer, Our Innovation Fund.

Microsoft is a strategic backer: GO1 integrated with Teams, so now users can access GO1 content directly via Microsoft’s enterprise-facing video and messaging platform.

“GO1 has been critical for business continuity as organizations navigate the remote realities of COVID-19,” said Nagraj Kashyap, Microsoft Corporate Vice President and Global Head of M12, in a statement. “The GO1 integration with Microsoft Teams offers a seamless learning experience at a time when 75 million people are using the application daily. We’re proud to invest in a solution helping keep employees learning and businesses growing through this time.”

Similarly, Salesforce is also coming in as a strategic, integrating this into its own online personal development products and initiatives.

“We are excited about partnering with GO1 as it looks to scale its online content hub globally. While the majority of corporate learning is done in person today, we believe the new digital imperative will see an acceleration in the shift to online learning tools. We believe GO1 fits well into the Trailhead ecosystem and our vision of creating the life-long learner journey,” said Rob Keith, Head of Australia, Salesforce Ventures, in a statement.

Working remotely has raised a whole new set of challenges for organizations, especially those whose employees typically have never before worked for days, weeks and months outside of the office.

Some of these have been challenges of a more basic IT nature: getting secure access to systems on the right kinds of machines and making sure people can communicate in the ways that they need to to get work done.

But others are more nuanced and long-term but actually just as important, such as making sure people remain in a healthy state of mind about work. Education is one way of getting them on the right track: professional development is not only useful for the person to do her or his job better, but it’s a way to motivate people, to focus their minds, and take a rest from their routines, but in a way that still remains relevant to work.

GO1 is absolutely not the only company pursuing this opportunity. Others include Udemy and Coursera, which have both come to enterprise after initially focusing more on traditional education plays. And LinkedIn Learning (which used to be known as Lynda, before LinkedIn acquired it and shifted the branding) was a trailblazer in this space.

For these, enterprise training sits in a different strategic place to GO1, which started out with compliance training and onboarding of employees before gravitating into a much wider set of topics that range from photography and design, through to Java, accounting, and even yoga and mindfulness training and everything in between.

It’s perhaps the directional approach, alongside its success, that have set GO1 apart from the competition and that has attracted the investment, which seems to have come ahead even of the current boost in usage.

“We met GO1 many months before COVID-19 was on the tip of everyone’s tongue and were impressed then with the growth of the platform and the ability of the team to expand their corporate training offering significantly in North America and Europe,” commented S. Somasegar, managing director, Madrona Venture Group, in a statement. “The global pandemic has only increased the need to both provide training and retraining – and also to do it remotely. GO1 is an important link in the chain of recovery.” As part of the funding Somasegar will join the GO1 board of directors.

Notably, GO1 is currently making all COVID-19 related learning resources available for free “to help teams continue to perform and feel supported during this time of disruption and change,” the company said.

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