Sep
16
2020
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Luther.AI is a new AI tool that acts like Google for personal conversations

When it comes to pop culture, a company executive or history questions, most of us use Google as a memory crutch to recall information we can’t always keep in our heads, but Google can’t help you remember the name of your client’s spouse or the great idea you came up with at a meeting the other day.

Enter Luther.AI, which purports to be Google for your memory by capturing and transcribing audio recordings, while using AI to deliver the right information from your virtual memory bank in the moment of another online conversation or via search.

The company is releasing an initial browser-based version of their product this week at TechCrunch Disrupt where it’s competing for the $100,000 prize at TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield.

Luther.AI’s founders say the company is built on the premise that human memory is fallible, and that weakness limits our individual intelligence. The idea behind Luther.AI is to provide a tool to retain, recall and even augment our own brains.

It’s a tall order, but the company’s founders believe it’s possible through the growing power of artificial intelligence and other technologies.

“It’s made possible through a convergence of neuroscience, NLP and blockchain to deliver seamless in-the-moment recall. GPT-3 is built on the memories of the public internet, while Luther is built on the memories of your private self,” company founder and CEO Suman Kanuganti told TechCrunch.

It starts by recording your interactions throughout the day. For starters, that will be online meetings in a browser, as we find ourselves in a time where that is the way we interact most often. Over time though, they envision a high-quality 5G recording device you wear throughout your day at work and capture your interactions.

If that is worrisome to you from a privacy perspective, Luther is building in a few safeguards starting with high-end encryption. Further, you can only save other parties’ parts of a conversation with their explicit permission. “Technologically, we make users the owner of what they are speaking. So for example, if you and I are having a conversation in the physical world unless you provide explicit permission, your memories are not shared from this particular conversation with me,” Kanuganti explained.

Finally, each person owns their own data in Luther and nobody else can access or use these conversations either from Luther or any other individual. They will eventually enforce this ownership using blockchain technology, although Kanuganti says that will be added in a future version of the product.

Luther.ai search results recalling what person said at meeting the other day about customer feedback.

Image Credits: Luther.ai

Kanuganti says the true power of the product won’t be realized with a few individuals using the product inside a company, but in the network effect of having dozens or hundreds of people using it, even though it will have utility even for an individual to help with memory recall, he said.

While they are releasing the browser-based product this week, they will eventually have a stand-alone app, and can also envision other applications taking advantage of the technology in the future via an API where developers can build Luther functionality into other apps.

The company was founded at the beginning of this year by Kanuganti and three co-founders including CTO Sharon Zhang, design director Kristie Kaiser and scientist Marc Ettlinger . It has raised $500,000 and currently has 14 employees including the founders.

Sep
16
2020
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ServiceNow updates its workflow automation platform

ServiceNow today announced the latest release of its workflow automation platform. With this, the company is emphasizing a number of new solutions for specific verticals, including for telcos and financial services organizations. This focus on verticals extends the company’s previous efforts to branch out beyond the core IT management capabilities that defined its business during its early years. The company is also adding new features for making companies more resilient in the face of crises, as well as new machine learning-based tools.

Dubbed the “Paris” release, this update also marks one of the first major releases for the company since former SAP CEO Bill McDermott became its president and CEO last November.

“We are in the business of operating on purpose,” McDermott said. “And that purpose is to make the world of work work better for people. And frankly, it’s all about people. That’s all CEOs talk about all around the world. This COVID environment has put the focus on people. In today’s world, how do you get people to achieve missions across the enterprise? […] Businesses are changing how they run to drive customer loyalty and employee engagement.”

He argues that at this point, “technology is no longer supporting the business, technology is the business,” but at the same time, the majority of companies aren’t prepared to meet whatever digital disruption comes their way. ServiceNow, of course, wants to position itself as the platform that can help these businesses.

“We are very fortunate at ServiceNow,” CJ Desai, ServiceNow’s chief product officer, said. “We are the critical platform for digital transformation, as our customers are thinking about transforming their companies.”

As far as the actual product updates, ServiceNow is launching a total of six new products. These include new business continuity management features with automated business impact analysis and tools for continuity plan development, as well as new hardware asset management for IT teams and legal service delivery for legal operations teams.

Image Credits: ServiceNow

With specialized solutions for financial services and telco users, the company is also now bringing together some of its existing solutions with more specialized services for these customers. As ServiceNow’s Dave Wright noted, this goes well beyond just putting together existing blocks.

“The first element is actually getting familiar with the business,” he explained. “So the technology, actually building the product, isn’t that hard. That’s relatively quick. But the uniqueness when you look at all of these workflows, it’s the connection of the operations to the customer service side. Telco is a great example. You’ve got the telco network operations side, making sure that all the operational equipment is active. And then you’ve got the business service side with customer service management, looking at how the customers are getting service. Now, the interesting thing is, because we’ve got both things sitting on one platform, we can link those together really easily.”

Image Credits: ServiceNow

On the machine learning side, ServiceNow made six acquisitions in the area in the last four years, Wright noted — and that is now starting to pay off. Specifically, the company is launching its new predictive intelligence workbench with this release. This new service makes it easier for process owners to detect issues, while also suggesting relevant tasks and content to agents, for example, and prioritizing incoming requests automatically. Using unsupervised learning, the system can also identify other kinds of patterns and with a number of pre-built templates, users can build their own solutions, too.

“The ServiceNow advantage has always been one architecture, one data model and one born-in-the-cloud platform that delivers workflows companies need and great experiences employees and customers expect,” said Desai. “The Now Platform Paris release provides smart experiences powered by AI, resilient operations, and the ability to optimize spend. Together, they will provide businesses with the agility they need to help them thrive in the COVID economy.”

Sep
15
2020
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In 2020, Warsaw’s startup ecosystem is ‘a place to observe carefully’

If you listed the trends that have captured the attention of 20 Warsaw-focused investors who replied to our recent surveys, automation/AI, enterprise SaaS, cleantech, health, remote work and the sharing economy would top the list. These VCs said they are seeking opportunities in the “digital twin” space, proptech and expanded blockchain tokenization inside industries.

Investors in Central and Eastern Europe are generally looking for the same things as VCs based elsewhere: startups that have a unique value proposition, capital efficiency, motivated teams, post-revenue and a well-defined market niche.

Out of the cohort we interviewed, several told us that COVID-19 had not yet substantially transformed how they do business. As Micha? Papuga, a partner at Flashpoint VC put it, “the situation since March hasn’t changed a lot, but we went from extreme panic to extreme bullishness. Neither of these is good and I would recommend to stick to the long-term goals and not to be pressured.”

Said Pawel Lipkowski of RBL_VC, “Warsaw is at its pivotal point — think Berlin in the ‘90s. It’s a place to observe carefully.”

Here’s who we interviewed for part one:

For the conclusion, we spoke to the following investors:

Karol Szubstarski, partner, OTB Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Gradual shift of enterprises toward increased use of automation and AI, that enables dramatic improvement of efficiency, cost reduction and transfer of enterprise resources from tedious, repeatable and mundane tasks to more exciting, value added opportunities.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
One of the most exciting opportunities is ICEYE. The company is a leader and first mover in synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) technology for microsatellites. It is building and operating its own commercial constellation of SAR microsatellites capable of providing satellite imagery regardless of the cloud cover, weather conditions and time of the day and night (comparable resolution to traditional SAR satellites with 100x lower cost factor), which is disrupting the multibillion dollar satellite imagery market.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
I would love to see more startups in the digital twin space; technology that enables creation of an exact digital replica/copy of something in physical space — a product, process or even the whole ecosystem. This kind of solution enables experiments and [the implementation of] changes that otherwise could be extremely costly or risky – it can provide immense value added for customers.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
A company with unique value proposition to its customers, deep tech component that provides competitive edge over other players in the market and a founder with global vision and focus on execution of that vision.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
No market/sector is too saturated and has no room for innovation. Some markets seem to be more challenging than others due to immense competitive landscape (e.g., food delivery, language-learning apps) but still can be the subject of disruption due to a unique value proposition of a new entrant.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
OTB is focused on opportunities with links to Central Eastern European talent (with no bias toward any hub in the region), meaning companies that leverage local engineering/entrepreneurial talent in order to build world-class products to compete globally (usually HQ outside CEE).

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
CEE region is recognized for its sizable and highly skilled talent pool in the fields of engineering and software development. The region is well-positioned to build up solutions that leverage deep, unique tech regardless of vertical (especially B2B). Historically, the region was especially strong in AI/ML, voice/speech/NLP technologies, cybersecurity, data analytics, etc.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
CEE (including Poland and Warsaw) has always been recognized as an exceptionally strong region in terms of engineering/IT talent. Inherent risk aversion of entrepreneurs has driven, for a number of years, a more “copycat”/local market approach, while holding back more ambitious, deep tech opportunities. In recent years we are witnessing a paradigm shift with a new generation of entrepreneurs tackling problems with unique, deep tech solutions, putting emphasis on global expansion, neglecting shallow local markets. As such, the quality of deals has been steadily growing and currently reflects top quality on global scale, especially on tech level. CEE market demonstrates also a growing number of startups (in total), which is mostly driven by an abundance of early-stage capital and success stories in the region (e.g., DataRobot, Bolt, UiPath) that are successfully evangelizing entrepreneurship among corporates/engineers.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
I believe that local hubs will hold their dominant position in the ecosystem. The remote/digital workforce will grow in numbers but proximity to capital, human resources and markets still will remain the prevalent force in shaping local startup communities.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
OTB invests in general in companies with clearly defined technological advantage, making quantifiable and near-term difference to their customers (usually in the B2B sector), which is a value-add regardless of the market cycle. The economic downturn works generally in favor of technological solutions enabling enterprise clients to increase efficiency, cut costs, bring optimization and replace manual labour with automation — and the vast majority of OTB portfolio fits that description. As such, the majority of the OTB portfolio has not been heavily impacted by the COVID pandemic.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
The COVID pandemic has not impacted our investment strategy in any way. OTB still pursues unique tech opportunities that can provide its customers with immediate value added. This kind of approach provides a relatively high level of resilience against economic downturns (obviously, sales cycles are extending but in general sales pipeline/prospects/retention remains intact). Liquidity in portfolio is always the number one concern in uncertain, challenging times. Lean approach needs to be reintroduced, companies need to preserve cash and keep optimizing — that’s the only way to get through the crisis.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
A good example in our portfolio is Segron, a provider of an automated testing platform for applications, databases and enterprise network infrastructure. Software development, deployment and maintenance in enterprise IT ecosystem requires continuous and rigorous testing protocols and as such a lot of manual heavy lifting with highly skilled engineering talent being involved (which can be used in a more productive way elsewhere). The COVID pandemic has kept engineers home (with no ability for remote testing) while driving demand for digital services (and as such demand for a reliable IT ecosystem). The Segron automated framework enables full automation of enterprise testing leading to increased efficiency, cutting operating costs and giving enterprise customers peace of mind and a good night’s sleep regarding their IT infrastructure in the challenging economic environment.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
I remain impressed by the unshakeable determination of multiple founders and their teams to overcome all the challenges of the unfavorable economic ecosystem.

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.

Sep
09
2020
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Xometry raises $75M Series E to expand custom manufacturing marketplace

When companies need to find manufacturers to build custom parts, it’s not always an easy process, especially during a pandemic. Xometry, a seven-year-old startup based in Maryland, has built an online marketplace where companies can find manufacturers across the world with excess capacity to build whatever they need. Today, the company announced a $75 million Series E investment to keep expanding the platform.

T. Rowe Price Associates led the investment, with participation from new firms Durable Capital Partners LP and ArrowMark Partners. Previous investors also joined the round, including BMW i Ventures, Greenspring Associates, Dell Technologies Capital, Robert Bosch Venture Capital, Foundry Group, Highland Capital Partners and Almaz Capital . Today’s investment brings the total raised to $193 million, according to the company.

Company CEO and co-founder Randy Altschuler says Xometry fills a need by providing a digital way of putting buyers and manufacturers together with a dash of artificial intelligence to put the right combination together. “We’ve created a marketplace using artificial intelligence to power it, and provide an e-commerce experience for buyers of custom manufacturing and for suppliers to deliver that manufacturing,” Altschuler told TechCrunch.

The kind of custom pieces that are facilitated by this platform include mechanical parts for aerospace, defense, automotive, robotics and medical devices — what Altschuler calls mission-critical parts. Being able to put companies together in this fashion is particularly useful during COVID-19 when certain regions might have been shut down.

“COVID has reinforced the need for distributed manufacturing and our platform enables that by empowering these local manufacturers, and because we’re using technology to do it, as COVID has unfolded […] and as continents have shut down, and even specific states in the United States have shut down, our platform has allowed customers to autocorrect and shift work to other locations,” he explained

What’s more, companies could take advantage of the platform to manufacture critical personal protective equipment. “One of the beauties of our platform was when COVID hit customers could come to our platform and suddenly access this tremendous amount of manufacturing capacity to produce this much-needed PPE,” he said.

Xometry makes money by facilitating the sale between the buyer and producer. They help set the price and then make money on the difference between the cost to produce and how much the buyer was willing to pay to have it done.

They have relationships with 5,000 manufacturers located throughout the world and 30,000 customers using the platform to build the parts they need. The company currently has around 350 employees, with plans to use the money to add more to keep enhancing the platform.

Altschuler says from a human perspective, he wants his company to have a diverse workforce because he never wants to see people being discriminated against for whatever reason, but he also says as a company with an international market, having a diverse workforce is also critical to his business. “The more diversity that we have within Xometry, the more we’re able to effectively market to those folks, sell to those folks and understand how they utilize technology. We’re just going to better understand our customer set as we [build a more diverse workforce],” he said.

As a Series E-stage company, Altschuler does not shy away from the IPO question. In fact, he recently brought in new CFO Jim Rallo, who has experience taking a company public. “The market that we operate in is so large, and there’s so many opportunities for us to serve both our customers and our suppliers, and we have to be great for both of them. We need capital to do that, and the public markets can be an efficient way to access that capital and to grow our business, and in the end that’s what we want to do,” he said.

Sep
02
2020
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Hypatos gets $11.8M for a deep learning approach to document processing

Process automation startup Hypatos has raised a €10 million (~$11.8 million) seed round of funding from investors including Blackfin Tech, Grazia Equity, UVC Partners and Plug & Play Ventures.

The Germany and Poland-based company was spun out of AI for accounting startup Smacc at the back end of 2018 to apply deep learning tech to power a wider range of back-office automation, with a focus on industries with heavy financial document processing needs, such as the financial and insurance sectors.

Hypatos is applying language processing AI and computer vision tech to speed up financial document processing for business use cases such as invoices, travel and expense management, loan application validation and insurance claims handling via — touting a training data set of more than 10 million annotated data entities.

It says the new seed funding will go on R&D to expand its portfolio of AI models so it can automate business processing for more types of documents, as well as for fueling growth in Europe, North American and Asia. Its customer base at this point includes Fortune 500 companies, major accounting firms and more than 300 software companies.

While there are plenty of business process automation plays, Hypatos says its use of deep learning tech supports an “in-depth understanding” of document content — which in turn allows it to offer customers a “soup to nuts” automation menu that covers document classification, information capturing, content validation and data enrichment.

It dubs its approach “cognitive process automation” (CPA) versus more basic applications of business process automation with software robots (RPA), which it argues aren’t so contextually savvy — thereby claiming an edge.

As well as document processing solutions, it has developed machine learning modules for enhancing customers’ existing systems (e.g. ECM, ERP, CRM, RPA); and offers APIs for software providers to draw on its machine learning tech for their own applications.

“All offerings include machine learning pipeline software for continuous model training in the cloud or in on-premise deployments,” it notes in a press release.

“We have deep knowledge of how financial documents are processed and millions of data entities in our training data,” says chief commercial officer Cem Dilmegani, discussing where Hypatos fits in the business process automation landscape. “We get compared to RPA companies like UiPath, enterprise content management (ECM) companies like Kofax Readsoft as well as generalist ML document automation companies like Hyperscience. However, we are quite different.

“We focus on end-to-end automation, we don’t only help companies capture data, we help them process it using our deep domain understanding, enabling higher rates of automation. For example, to automate incoming invoice processing (A/P automation) we apply our document understanding AI to capture all data, classify the document, identify the specific goods and services, validate for internal/external compliance and assign financial accounts, cost centers, cost categories etc. to automate all processing tasks.

“Finally, we offer this technology as components easily accessible via APIs. This allows RPA or ECM users to leverage our technology and increase their level of automation.”

Hypatos claims it’s seeing uplift as a result of the coronavirus pandemic — noting it’s providing a service to more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies to help with in-shoring efforts, which it says are accelerating as a result of COVID-19 putting pressure on the traditional business process outsourcing model as offshore workforce productivity in lower wage regions is affected by coronavirus lockdowns.

“We believe that we are in a pivotal moment of machine learning adoption in large organizations,” adds Andreas Unseld, partner at UVC Partners, in a supporting statement. “Hypatos’ technology provides ample opportunity to transform many core business processes. We’re impressed by the Hypatos machine learning technology and see the team in a perfect position to take a leading role in the machine learning revolution to come.”

Sep
02
2020
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Transposit scores $35M to build data-driven runbooks for faster disaster recovery

Transposit is a company built by engineers to help engineers, and one big way to help them is to get systems up and running faster when things go wrong — as they always will at some point. Transposit has come up with a way to build runbooks for faster disaster recovery, while using data to update them in an automated fashion.

Today, the company announced a $35 million Series B investment led by Altimeter Capital, with participation from existing investors Sutter Hill Ventures, SignalFire and Unusual Ventures. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $50.4 million, according to the company.

Company CEO Divanny Lamas and CTO and founder Tina Huang see technology issues as less an engineering problem and more as a human problem, because it’s humans who have to clean up the messes when things go wrong. Huang says forgetting the human side of things is where she thinks technology has gone astray.

“We know that the real superpower of the product is that we focus on the human and the user side of things. And as a result, we’re building an engineering culture that I think is somewhat differentiated,” Huang told TechCrunch.

Transposit is a platform that at its core helps manage APIs, connections to other programs, so it starts with a basic understanding of how various underlying technologies work together inside a company. This is essential for a tool that is trying to help engineers in a moment of panic figure out how to get back to a working state.

When it comes to disaster recovery, there are essentially two pieces: getting the systems working again, then figuring out what happened. For the first piece, the company is building data-driven runbooks. By being data-driven, they aren’t static documents. Instead, the underlying machine learning algorithms can look at how the engineers recovered and adjust accordingly.

Transposit diaster recovery dashboard

Image Credits: Transposit

“We realized that no one was focusing on what we realize is the root problem here, which is how do I have access to the right set of data to make it easier to reconstruct that timeline, and understand what happened? We took those two pieces together, this notion that runbooks are a critical piece of how you spread knowledge and spread process, and this other piece, which is the data, is critical,” Huang said.

Today the company has 26 employees, including Huang and Lamas, who Huang brought on board from Splunk last year to be CEO. The company is somewhat unique having two women running the organization, and they are trying to build a diverse workforce as they build their company to 50 people in the next 12 months.

The current make-up is 47% female engineers, and the goal is to remain diverse as they build the company, something that Lamas admits is challenging to do. “I wish I had a magic answer, or that Tina had a magic answer. The reality is that we’re just very demanding on recruiters. And we are very insistent that we have a diverse pipeline of candidates, and are constantly looking at our numbers and looking at how we’re doing,” Lamas said.

She says being diverse actually makes it easier to recruit good candidates. “People want to work at diverse companies. And so it gives us a real edge from a kind of culture perspective, and we find that we get really amazing candidates that are just tired of the status quo. They’re tired of the old way of doing things and they want to work in a company that reflects the world that they want to live in,” she said.

The company, which launched in 2016, took a few years to build the first piece, the underlying API platform. This year it added the disaster recovery piece on top of that platform, and has been running its beta since the beginning of the summer. They hope to add additional beta customers before making it generally available later this year.

Sep
01
2020
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Google Cloud lets businesses create their own text-to-speech voices

Google launched a few updates to its Contact Center AI product today, but the most interesting one is probably the beta of its new Custom Voice service, which will let brands create their own text-to-speech voices to best represent their own brands.

Maybe your company has a well-known spokesperson for example, but it would be pretty arduous to have them record every sentence in an automated response system or bring them back to the studio whenever you launch a new product or procedure. With Custom Voice, businesses can bring in their voice talent to the studio and have them record a script provided by Google. The company will then take those recordings and train its speech models based on them.

As of now, this seems to be a somewhat manual task on Google’s side. Training and evaluating the model will take “several weeks,” the company says and Google itself will conduct its own tests of the trained model before sending it back to the business that commissioned the model. After that, the business must follow Google’s own testing process to evaluate the results and sign off on it.

For now, these custom voices are still in beta and only American English is supported so far.

It’s also worth noting that Google’s review process is meant to ensure that the result is aligned with its internal AI Principles, which it released back in 2018.

Like with similar projects, I would expect that this lengthy process of creating custom voices for these contact center solutions will become mainstream quickly. While it will just be a gimmick for some brands (remember those custom voices for stand-alone GPS systems back in the day?), it will allow the more forward-thinking brands to distinguish their own contact center experiences from those of the competition. Nobody likes calling customer support, but a more thoughtful experience that doesn’t make you think you’re talking to a random phone tree may just help alleviate some of the stress at least.

Sep
01
2020
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12 Paris-based VCs look at the state of their city

Four years after the Great Recession, France’s newly elected socialist president François Hollande raised taxes and increased regulations on founder-led startups. The subsequent flight of entrepreneurs to places like London and Silicon Valley portrayed France as a tough place to launch a company. By 2016, France’s national statistics bureau estimated that about three million native-born citizens had moved abroad.

Those who remained fought back: The Family was an early accelerator that encouraged French entrepreneurs to adopt Silicon Valley’s startup methodology, and the 2012 creation of Bpifrance, a public investment bank, put money into the startup ecosystem system via investors. Organizers founded La French Tech to beat the drum about native startups.

When President Emmanuel Macron took office in May 2017, he scrapped the wealth tax on everything except property assets and introduced a flat 30% tax rate on capital gains. Station F, a giant startup campus funded by billionaire entrepreneur Xavier Niel on the site of a former railway station, began attracting international talent. Tony Fadell, one of the fathers of the iPod and founder of Nest Labs, moved to Paris to set up investment firm Future Shape; VivaTech was created with government backing to become one of Europe’s largest startup conference and expos.

Now, in the COVID-19 era, the government has made €4 billion available to entrepreneurs to keep the lights on. According to a recent report from VC firm Atomico, there are 11 unicorns in France, including BlaBlaCar, OVHcloud, Deezer and Veepee. More appear to be coming; last year Macron said he wanted to see “25 French unicorns by 2025.”

According to Station F, by the end of August, there had been 24 funding rounds led by international VCs and a few big transactions. Enterprise artificial intelligence and machine-learning platform Dataiku raised a $100 million Series D round, and Paris-based gaming startup Voodoo raised an undisclosed amount from Tencent Holdings.

We asked 12 Paris-based investors to comment on the state of play in their city:

Alison Imbert, Partech

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?

All the fintechs addressing SMBs to help them to focus more on their core business (including banks disintermediation by fintech, new infrastructures tech that are lowering the barrier to entry to nonfintech companies).

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?

77foods (plant-based bacon) — love that alternative proteins trend as well. Obviously, we need to transform our diet toward more sustainable food. It’s the next challenge for humanity.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Impact investment: Logistic companies tackling the life cycle of products to reduce their carbon footprint and green fintech that reinvent our spending and investment strategy around more sustainable products.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
D2C products.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
100% investing in France as I’m managing Paris Saclay Seed Fund, a €53 million fund, investing in pre-seed and seed startups launched by graduates and researchers from the best engineering and business schools from this ecosystem.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Deep tech, biotech and medical devices. Paris, and France in general, has thousands of outstanding engineers that graduate each year. Researchers are more and more willing to found companies to have a true impact on our society. I do believe that the ecosystem is more and more structured to help them to build such companies.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Paris is booming for sure. It’s still behind London and Berlin probably. But we are seeing more and more European VC offices opening in the city to get direct access to our ecosystem. Even in seed rounds, we start to have European VCs competing against us. It’s good — that means that our startups are moving to the next level.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
For sure startups will more and more push for remote organizations. It’s an amazing way to combine quality of life for employees and attracting talent. Yet I don’t think it will be the majority. Not all founders are willing/able to build a fully remote company. It’s an important cultural choice and it’s adapted to a certain type of business. I believe in more flexible organization (e.g., tech team working remotely or 1-2 days a week for any employee).

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Travel and hospitality sectors are of course hugely impacted. Yet there are opportunities for helping those incumbents to face current challenges (e.g., better customer care and services, stronger flexibility, cost reduction and process automation).

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Cash is king more than ever before. My only piece of advice will be to keep a good level of cash as we have a limited view on events coming ahead. It’s easy to say but much more difficult to put in practice (e.g., to what extend should I reduce my cash burn? Should I keep on investing in the product? What is the impact on the sales team?). Startups should focus only on what is mission-critical for their clients. Yet it doesn’t impact our seed investments as we invest pre-revenue and often pre-product.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
There is no reason to be hopeless. Crises have happened in the past. Humanity has faced other pandemics. Humans are resilient and resourceful enough to adapt to a new environment and new constraints.

Sep
01
2020
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Salesforce beefing up field service offering with AI

Salesforce has been adding artificial intelligence to all parts of its platform for several years now. It calls the underlying artificial intelligence layer on the Salesforce platform Einstein. Today the company announced some enhancements to its field service offerings that take advantage of this capability.

Eric Jacobson, VP of product management at Salesforce says that when COVID hit, it pretty much stopped field service in its tracks during April, but like many other parts of business, it began to pick up again later in the quarter, and people still needed to have their appliances maintained.

“Even though we’re sheltering in place, the physical world still has physical needs. Hospitals still have to maintain their equipment. Employees still need to have equipment replaced or repaired while working at home and people still need their washing machine [or other appliances] repaired,” Jacobson said.

Today’s announcements are designed in some ways for a COVID world where efficiency is more critical than ever. That means the field service tech needs to be prepared ahead of time on all of the details of the nature of the repair. He or she has to have the right parts and customers need to know when their technician will be there.

While it’s possible to do much of that in a manual fashion, adding a dose of AI helps streamline and scale that process. For starters, the company announced Dynamic Priority. Certainly humans are capable of prioritizing a list of repairs, but by letting the machine set priority based on factors like service agreement type or how critical the repair is, it can organize calls much faster, leaving dispatchers to handle other tasks.

Even before the day starts, technicians receive their schedule and, using machine learning, can determine what parts they are most likely to need in the truck for the day’s repairs. Based on the nature of the repair and the particular make and model of machine, the Einstein Recommendation Builder can help predict the parts that will be needed to minimize the number of required trips, something that is important at all times, but especially during a pandemic.

“It’s always been an inconvenience and annoyance to have somebody come back for a follow-up appointment. But now it’s not just an annoyance, it’s actually a safety consideration for you and for the technician because it’s increased exposure,” Jacobson explained.

Salesforce also wants to give the customer the same capability they are used to getting in a rideshare app, where you can track the progress of the driver to your destination. Appointment Assistant, a new app, gives customers this ability, so they know when to expect the repair person to arrive.

Finally, Salesforce has teamed with ServiceMax to offer a new capability to get the big picture view of an asset with the goal of ensuring uptime, particularly important in settings like hospitals or manufacturing. “We’ve partnered with a long-time Salesforce partner ServiceMax to create a brand new offering that takes industry best practice and builds it right in. Asset 360 builds on top of Salesforce field service and delivers those specific capabilities around asset performance insight, viewing and managing up time and managing warranty processes to really ensure availability,” he said.

As with all Salesforce announcements, the availability of these capabilities will vary as each is in various forms of development. “Dynamic Priority will be generally available in October 2020. Einstein Recommendation Builder will be in beta in October 2020. Asset 360 will be generally available in November 2020. Appointment Assistant will be in closed pilot in US in October 2020,” according to information provided by the company.

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