Jul
01
2020
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Vendia raises $5.1M for its multicloud serverless platform

When the inventor of AWS Lambda, Tim Wagner, and the former head of blockchain at AWS, Shruthi Rao, co-found a startup, it’s probably worth paying attention. Vendia, as the new venture is called, combines the best of serverless and blockchain to help build a truly multicloud serverless platform for better data and code sharing.

Today, the Vendia team announced that it has raised a $5.1 million seed funding round, led by Neotribe’s Swaroop ‘Kittu’ Kolluri. Correlation Ventures, WestWave Capital, HWVP, Firebolt Ventures, Floodgate and Future\Perfect Ventures also participated in this oversubscribed round.

Image Credits: Vendia

Seeing Wagner at the helm of a blockchain-centric startup isn’t exactly a surprise. After building Lambda at AWS, he spent some time as VP of engineering at Coinbase, where he left about a year ago to build Vendia.

“One day, Coinbase approached me and said, ‘Hey, maybe we could do for the financial system what you’ve been doing over there for the cloud system,’” he told me. “And so I got interested in that. We had some conversations. I ended up going to Coinbase and spent a little over a year there as the VP of Engineering, helping them to set the stage for some of that platform work and tripling the size of the team.” He noted that Coinbase may be one of the few companies where distributed ledgers are actually mission-critical to their business, yet even Coinbase had a hard time scaling its Ethereum fleet, for example, and there was no cloud-based service available to help it do so.

Tim Wagner, Vendia co-founder and CEO. Image Credits: Vendia

“The thing that came to me as I was working there was why don’t we bring these two things together? Nobody’s thinking about how would you build a distributed ledger or blockchain as if it were a cloud service, with all the things that we’ve learned over the course of the last 10 years building out the public cloud and learning how to do it at scale,” he said.

Wagner then joined forces with Rao, who spent a lot of time in her role at AWS talking to blockchain customers. One thing she noticed was that while it makes a lot of sense to use blockchain to establish trust in a public setting, that’s really not an issue for enterprise.

“After the 500th customer, it started to make sense,” she said. “These customers had made quite a bit of investment in IoT and edge devices. They were gathering massive amounts of data. They also made investments on the other side, with AI and ML and analytics. And they said, ‘Well, there’s a lot of data and I want to push all of this data through these intelligent systems. I need a mechanism to get this data.’” But the majority of that data often comes from third-party services. At the same time, most blockchain proof of concepts weren’t moving into any real production usage because the process was often far too complex, especially enterprises that maybe wanted to connect their systems to those of their partners.

Shruthi Rao, Vendia co-founder and CBO. Image Credits: Vendia

“We are asking these partners to spin up Kubernetes clusters and install blockchain nodes. Why is that? That’s because for blockchain to bring trust into a system to ensure trust, you have to own your own data. And to own your own data, you need your own node. So we’re solving fundamentally the wrong problem,” she explained.

The first product Vendia is bringing to market is Vendia Share, a way for businesses to share data with partners (and across clouds) in real-time, all without giving up control over that data. As Wagner noted, businesses often want to share large data sets but they also want to ensure they can control who has access to that data. For those users, Vendia is essentially a virtual data lake with provenance tracking and tamper-proofing built in.

The company, which mostly raised this round after the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the U.S., is already working with a couple of design partners in multiple industries to test out its ideas, and plans to use the new funding to expand its engineering team to build out its tools.

“At Neotribe Ventures, we invest in breakthrough technologies that stretch the imagination and partner with companies that have category creation potential built upon a deep-tech platform,” said Neotribe founder and managing director Kolluri. “When we heard the Vendia story, it was a no-brainer for us. The size of the market for multiparty, multicloud data and code aggregation is enormous and only grows larger as companies capture every last bit of data. Vendia’s serverless-based technology offers benefits such as ease of experimentation, no operational heavy lifting and a pay-as-you-go pricing model, making it both very consumable and highly disruptive. Given both Tim and Shruthi’s backgrounds, we know we’ve found an ideal ‘Founder fit’ to solve this problem! We are very excited to be the lead investors and be a part of their journey.”

Jun
29
2020
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CodeGuru, AWS’s AI code reviewer and performance profiler, is now generally available

AWS today announced that CodeGuru, a set of tools that use machine learning to automatically review code for bugs and suggest potential optimizations, is now generally available. The tool launched into preview at AWS re:Invent last December.

CodeGuru consists of two tools, Reviewer and Profiler, and those names pretty much describe exactly what they do. To build Reviewer, the AWS team actually trained its algorithm with the help of code from more than 10,000 open source projects on GitHub, as well as reviews from Amazon’s own internal codebase.

“Even for a large organization like Amazon, it’s challenging to have enough experienced developers with enough free time to do code reviews, given the amount of code that gets written every day,” the company notes in today’s announcement. “And even the most experienced reviewers miss problems before they impact customer-facing applications, resulting in bugs and performance issues.”

To use CodeGuru, developers continue to commit their code to their repository of choice, no matter whether that’s GitHub, Bitbucket Cloud, AWS’s own CodeCommit or another service. CodeGuru Reviewer then analyzes that code, tries to find bugs and, if it does, it will also offer potential fixes. All of this is done within the context of the code repository, so CodeGuru will create a GitHub pull request, for example, and add a comment to that pull request with some more info about the bug and potential fixes.

To train the machine learning model, users can also provide CodeGuru with some basic feedback, though we’re mostly talking “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” here.

The CodeGuru Application Profiler has a somewhat different mission. It is meant to help developers figure out where there might be some inefficiencies in their code and identify the most expensive lines of code. This includes support for serverless platforms like AWS Lambda and Fargate.

One feature the team added since it first announced CodeGuru is that Profiler now attaches an estimated dollar amount to the lines of unoptimized code.

“Our customers develop and run a lot of applications that include millions and millions of lines of code. Ensuring the quality and efficiency of that code is incredibly important, as bugs and inefficiencies in even a few lines of code can be very costly. Today, the methods for identifying code quality issues are time-consuming, manual, and error-prone, especially at scale,” said Swami Sivasubramanian, vice president, Amazon Machine Learning, in today’s announcement. “CodeGuru combines Amazon’s decades of experience developing and deploying applications at scale with considerable machine learning expertise to give customers a service that improves software quality, delights their customers with better application performance, and eliminates their most expensive lines of code.”

AWS says a number of companies started using CodeGuru during the preview period. These include the likes of Atlassian, EagleDream and DevFactory.

“While code reviews from our development team do a great job of preventing bugs from reaching production, it’s not always possible to predict how systems will behave under stress or manage complex data shapes, especially as we have multiple deployments per day,” said Zak Islam, head of Engineering, Tech Teams, at Atlassian. “When we detect anomalies in production, we have been able to reduce the investigation time from days to hours and sometimes minutes thanks to Amazon CodeGuru’s continuous profiling feature. Our developers now focus more of their energy on delivering differentiated capabilities and less time investigating problems in our production environment.”

Image Credits: AWS

Jun
24
2020
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Cape Privacy launches data science collaboration platform with $5.06M seed investment

Cape Privacy emerged from stealth today after spending two years building a platform for data scientists to privately share encrypted data. The startup also announced $2.95 million in new funding and $2.11 million in funding it got when the business launched in 2018, for a total of $5.06 million raised.

Boldstart Ventures and Version One led the round, with participation from Haystack, Radical Ventures and Faktory Ventures.

Company CEO Ché Wijesinghe says that data science teams often have to deal with data sets that contain sensitive data and share data internally or externally for collaboration purposes. It creates a legal and regulatory data privacy conundrum that Cape Privacy is trying to solve.

“Cape Privacy is a collaboration platform designed to help focus on data privacy for data scientists. So the biggest challenge that people have today from a business perspective is managing privacy policies for machine learning and data science,” Wijesinghe told TechCrunch.

The product breaks down that problem into a couple of key areas. First of all it can take language from lawyers and compliance teams and convert that into code that automatically generates policies about who can see the different types of data in a given data set. What’s more, it has machine learning underpinnings so it also learns about company rules and preferences over time.

It also has a cryptographic privacy component. By wrapping the data with a cryptographic cypher, it lets teams share sensitive data in a safe way without exposing the data to people who shouldn’t be seeing it because of legal or regulatory compliance reasons.

“You can send something to a competitor as an example that’s encrypted, and they’re able to process that encrypted data without decrypting it, so they can train their model on encrypted data,” company co-founder and CTO Gavin Uhma explained.

The company closed the new round in April, which means they were raising in the middle of a pandemic, but it didn’t hurt that they had built the product already and were ready to go to market, and that Uhma and his co-founders had already built a successful startup, GoInstant, which was acquired by Salesforce in 2012. (It’s worth noting that GoInstant debuted at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2011.)

Uhma and his team brought Wijesinghe on board to build the sales and marketing team because, as a technical team, they wanted someone with go-to-market experience running the company so they could concentrate on building product.

The company has 14 employees and is already an all-remote team, so the team didn’t have to adjust at all when the pandemic hit. While it plans to keep hiring fairly limited for the foreseeable future, the company has had a diversity and inclusion plan from the start.

“You have to be intentional about about seeking diversity, so it’s something that when we sit down and map out our hiring and work with recruiters in terms of our pipeline, we really make sure that diversity is one of our objectives. You just have it as a goal, as part of your culture, and it’s something that when we see the picture of the team, we want to see diversity,” he said.

Wijesinghe adds, “As a person of color myself, I’m very sensitive to making sure that we have a very diverse team, not just from a color perspective, but a gender perspective as well.”

The company is gearing up to sell the product  and has paid pilots starting in the coming weeks.

Jun
22
2020
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ServiceNow to acquire Belgian configuration management startup Sweagle

With more companies moving workers home, making sure your systems are up and running has become more important than ever. ServiceNow, which includes in its product catalog an IT Help Desk component, recognizes that help desks have been bombarded during the pandemic. To help stop configuration problems before they start, the company today acquired Sweagle, a configuration management startup based in Belgium.

The companies did not share the purchase price.

ServiceNow gets a couple of boosts in the deal. First of all, it gets the startup’s configuration management products, which it can incorporate into its own catalog, but it also gains the machine learning and DevOps knowledge of the company’s employees. (The company would not share the exact number of employees, but PitchBook pegs it at 15.)

RJ Jainendra, ServiceNow’s vice president and general manager of DevOps and IT Business Management, sees a company that has pioneered the IT configuration management automation space, and brings with it capabilities that can boost ServiceNow’s offerings. “With capabilities for configuration data management from Sweagle, we will empower DevOps teams to deliver application and infrastructure changes more rapidly while reducing risk,” Jainendra said in a statement.

ServiceNow claims that there can be as many as 50,000 different configuration elements in a single enterprise application. Sweagle has designed a configuration data management platform with machine learning underpinnings to help customers simplify and automate that complexity. Configuration errors can cause shutdowns, security issues and other serious problems for companies.

Sweagle was founded in 2017 and raised $4.05 million on a post-valuation of $11.88 million, according to PitchBook data.

The company is part of a growing pattern of early-stage startups being sucked up by larger companies during the pandemic, including VMware acquiring Ocatarine and Atlassian buying Halp in May and NetApp snagging Spot earlier this month.

This is the third acquisition for ServiceNow this year, all involving AI underpinnings. In January it bought Loom Systems and Passsage AI. The deal is expected to close in Q3 this year, according to ServiceNow.

Jun
17
2020
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Cloudtenna raises $2.5M, launches mobile search app to find content across cloud services

Finding somewhere in a Slack conversation, or stored in Box, Dropbox, Google Docs or Office 365, that one document you want to attach to an email is a huge challenge as we find ourselves spreading our content across a variety of cloud services. It’s one challenge that Cloudtenna has been trying to solve, and today the company announced a $2.5 million funding round along with the release of a new mobile search tool.

The funding comes from a variety of unnamed investors, along with Blazar Ventures, and brings the total raised to $6.5 million, according to the company.

Cloudtenna co-founder Aaron Ganek says that by using AI and document metadata, his company can find content wherever it lives. “What we’re really focused on is helping companies bring order to file chaos. Files are scattered everywhere across the cloud, and we have developed AI-powered applications that help users find files, no matter where they’re stored,” he said.

The company introduced a desktop search application in 2018 and today it’s announcing a mobile search tool called Workspace to go with it. Ganek says they built this app from the ground up to take advantage of the mobile context.

“Today, we’re bringing the search technology to smartphones and tablets. And just to be clear, this is not just a mobile version of our desktop product, but a complete case study in how people collaborate on the go,” he said.

Image Credit: Cloudtenna

The AI component helps find files wherever they are based on your user history, who you tend to collaborate with and so forth. That helps the tool find the files that are most relevant to you, regardless of where they happen to be stored.

He says that raising money during a pandemic was certainly interesting, but the company has seen an uptick in usage due to the general increase in SaaS usage during this time, and investors saw that too, he said.

The company launched in 2016 and currently has nine employees, but Ganek said there aren’t any plans to expand on that number at this time, or at least any number he was ready to discuss.

Jun
16
2020
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Outreach nabs $50M at a $1.33B valuation for software that helps with sales engagement

CRM software has become a critical piece of IT when it comes to getting business done, and today a startup focusing on one specific aspect of that stack — sales automation — is announcing a growth round of funding underscoring its own momentum. Outreach, which has built a popular suite of tools used by salespeople to help identify and reach out to prospects and improve their relationships en route to closing deals, has raised $50 million in a Series F round of funding that values the company at $1.33 billion. 

The funding will be used to continue expanding geographically — headquartered in Seattle, Outreach also has an office in London and wants to do more in Europe and eventually Asia — as well as to invest in product development.

The platform today essentially integrates with a company’s existing CRM, be it Salesforce, or Microsoft’s, or Kustomer, or something else — and provides an SaaS-based set of tools for helping to source and track meetings, have to-hand information on sales targets, and a communications manager that helps with outreach calls and other communication in real time. It will be investing in more AI around the product, such as its newest product Kaia (an acronym for “knowledge AI assistant”), and it has also hired a new CFO, Melissa Fisher, from Qualys, possibly a sign of where it hopes to go next as a business.

Sands Capital — an investor out of Virginia that also backs the likes of UiPath and DoorDash — is leading the round, Outreach noted, with “strong participation” also from strategic backer Salesforce Ventures. Other investors include Operator Collective (a new backer that launched last year and focuses on B2B) and previous backers Lone Pine Capital, Spark Capital, Meritech Capital Partners, Trinity Ventures, Mayfield and Sapphire Ventures.

Outreach has raised $289 million to date, and for some more context, this is definitely an up round: the startup was last valued at $1.1 billion when it raised a Series E in April 2019.

The funding comes on the heels of strong growth for the company: More than 4,000 businesses now use its tools, including Adobe, Tableau, DoorDash, Splunk, DocuSign and SAP, making Outreach the biggest player in a field that also includes Salesloft (which also raised a significant round last year on the heels of Outreach’s), ClariChorus.aiGongConversica and Afiniti. Its sweet spot has been working with technology-led businesses and that sector continues to expand its sales operations, even as much of the economy has contracted in recent months. 

“You are seeing a cambric explosion of B2B startups happening everywhere,” Manny Medina, CEO and co-founder of Outreach, said in a phone interview this week. “It means that sales roles are being created as we speak.” And that translates to a growing pool of potential customers for Outreach.

It wasn’t always this way.

When Outreach was first founded in 2011 in Seattle, it wasn’t a sales automation company. It was a recruitment startup called GroupTalent working on software to help source and hire talent, aimed at tech companies. That business was rolling along, until it wasn’t: In 2015, the startup found itself with only two months of runway left, with little hope of raising more. 

“We were not hitting our stride, and growth was hard. We didn’t make the numbers in 2014 and then had two months of cash left and no prospects of raising more,” Medina recalled. “So I sat down with my co-founders,” — Gordon Hempton, Andrew Kinzer and Wes Hather, none of whom are at the company anymore — “and we decided to sell our way out of it. We thought that if we generated more meetings we could gain more opportunities to try to sell our recruitment software.

“So we built the engine to do that, and we saw that we were getting 40% reply rates to our own outreaching emails. It was so successful we had a 10x increase in productivity. But we ran out of sales capacity, so we started selling the meetings we had managed to secure with potential talent directly to the tech companies themselves,” in other words, the other side of its marketplace, those looking to fill vacancies.

That quickly tipped over into a business opportunity of its own. “Companies were saying to us, ‘I don’t want to buy the recruitment software. I need that sales engine!” The company never looked back, and changed its name to work for the pivot.

Fast-forward to 2020, and times are challenging in a completely different way, defined as we are by a global health pandemic that affects what we do every day, where we go, how we work, how we interact with people and much more. 

Medina says the impact of the novel coronavirus has been a significant one for the company and its customers, in part because it fits well with two main types of usage cases that have emerged in the world of sales in the time of COVID-19.

“Older sellers now working from home are accomplished and don’t need to be babysat,” he said, but added they can’t rely on their traditional touchpoints “like meetings, dinners and bar mitzvahs” anymore to seal deals. “They don’t have the tools to get over the line. So our product is being called in to help them.”

Another group at the other end of the spectrum, he said, are “younger and less experienced salespeople who don’t have the physical environment [many live in smaller places with roommates] nor experience to sell well alone. For them it’s been challenging not to come into an office because especially in smaller companies, they rely on each other to train, to listen to others on calls to learn how to sell.”

That’s the other scenario where Outreach is finding some traction: They’re using Outreach’s tools as a proxy for physically sitting alongside and learning from more experienced colleagues, and using it as a supplement to learning the ropes in the old way.

“Outreach’s leadership position in the market, clear mission, and value-added approach make the company a natural investment choice for us,” said Michael Clarke, partner at Sands Capital’s Global Innovation Fund, in a statement. “Now more than ever, companies need an AI-powered sales engagement platform like Outreach. Enterprise sales teams are rapidly adopting sales engagement platforms and Outreach’s rapid growth reflects this.”

Like a lot of sales tools that are powered by AI, Outreach in part is taking on some of the more mundane jobs of salespeople.

But Medina doesn’t believe that this will play out in the “man versus machine” scenario we often ponder when we think about human obsolescence in the face of technological efficiency. In other words, he doesn’t think we’re close to replacing the humans in the mix, even at a time when we’re seeing so many layoffs.

“We are at the early innings,” he said. “There are 6.8 million sales people and we only have north of 100,000 users, not even 2% of the market. There may be a redefinition of the role, but not a reduction.”

Jun
04
2020
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Searchable.ai nabs additional $4M seed to continue building AI-driven search

Searchable.ai is an early-stage startup in the alpha phase of testing its initial product, but it has an idea compelling enough to attract investment, even during a pandemic. Today the company announced an additional $4 million in seed capital to continue building its AI-driven search solution.

Susquehanna International Group and Omicron Media co-led the round, with participation by Defy Partners, NextView Ventures and a group of unnamed angel investors. Today’s investment comes on top of the $2 million in seed money the startup announced in October.

Company co-founder and CEO Brian Shin said that when he presented to his investors in early March at the last event he attended before everything shut down, they approached him about additional money, and given the economic uncertainty, he decided to take it.

“Honestly we probably would not have taken additional money if it was not for the uncertainty around the macro environment right now,” he told TechCrunch.

The company is trying to solve enterprise search and, being pre-revenue, Shin recognized that having additional capital would give them more room to build the product and get it to market.

“We are trying to solve this problem where people just can’t find information that they need in order to do their jobs. When you look within the workplace, this problem is just getting worse and worse with the proliferation of different formats and people storing their information in many different places, local networks, cloud repositories, email and Slack,” he explained.

They have a few thousand people in the alpha program right now testing a personal desktop version of the application that helps individual users find their content wherever it happens to be. The plan is to open that up to a wider group soon.

The road map calls for a teams version, where groups of employees can search among their different individual repositories; a developer version to build the search technology into other operations; and eventually an enterprise tool. They also want to add voice search starting with an Alexa skill, with the general belief that we need to move beyond keyword searches to more natural language approaches.

“We believe that there’ll be a whole new category of search, search companies and search products that are more conversational. […] Being able to interact with your information more naturally, more and more conversationally, that’s where we think the market is going,” he said.

The company now has more money in the bank to help achieve that vision.

Jun
04
2020
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Nanox, maker of a low-cost scanning service to replace X-rays, expands Series B to $51M

A lot of the attention in medical technology today has been focused on tools and innovations that might help the world better fight the COVID-19 global health pandemic. Today comes news of another startup that is taking on some funding for a disruptive innovation that has the potential to make both COVID-19 as well as other kinds of clinical assessments more accessible.

Nanox, a startup out of Israel that has developed a small, low-cost scanning system and “medical screening as a service” to replace the costly and large machines and corresponding software typically used for X-rays, CAT scans, PET scans and other body imaging services, is today announcing that it has raised $20 million from a strategic investor, South Korean carrier SK Telecom.

SK Telecom in turn plans to help distribute physical scanners equipped with Nanox technology as well as resell the pay-per-scan imaging service, branded Nanox.Cloud, and corresponding 5G wireless network capacity to operate them. Nanox currently licenses its tech to big names in the imaging space, like FujiFilm, and Foxconn is also manufacturing its donut-shaped Nanox.Arc scanners.

The funding is technically an extension of Nanox’s previous round, which was announced earlier this year at $26 million with backing from Foxconn, FujiFilm and more. Nanox says that the full round is now closed off at $51 million, with the company having raised $80 million since launching almost a decade ago, in 2011.

Nanox’s valuation is not being publicly disclosed, but a news report in the Israeli press from December said that one option the startup was considering was an IPO at a $500 million valuation. We understand from sources that the valuation is about $100 million higher now.

The Nanox system is based around proprietary technology related to digital X-rays. Digital radiography is a relatively new area in the world of imaging that relies on digital scans rather than X-ray plates to capture and process images.

Nanox says the ARC comes in at 70 kg versus 2,000 kg for the average CT scanner, and production costs are around $10,000 compared to $1-3 million for the CT scanner.

But in addition to being smaller (and thus cheaper) machines with much of the processing of images done in the cloud, the Nanox system, according to CEO and founder Ran Poliakine, can make its images in a tiny fraction of a second, making them significantly safer in terms of radiation exposure compared to existing methods.

Imaging has been in the news a lot of late because it has so far been one of the most accurate methods for detecting the progress of COVID-19 in patients or would-be patients in terms of how it is affecting patients’ lungs and other organs. While the dissemination of equipment like Nanox’s definitely could play a role in handling those cases better, the ultimate goal of the startup is much wider than that.

Ultimately, the company hopes to make its devices and cloud-based scanning service ubiquitous enough that it would be possible to run early detection, preventative scans for a much wider proportion of the population.

“What is the best way to fight cancer today? Early detection. But with two-thirds of the world without access to imaging, you may need to wait weeks and months for those scans today,” said Poliakine.

The startup’s mission is to distribute some 15,000 of its machines over the next several years to bridge that gap, and it’s getting there through partnerships. In addition to the SK Telecom deal it’s announcing today, last March, Nanox inked a $174 million deal to distribute 1,000 machines across Australia, New Zealand and Norway in partnership with a company called the Gateway Group.

The SK Telecom investment is an interesting development that underscores how carriers see 5G as an opportunity to revisit what kinds of services they resell and offer to businesses and individuals, and SK Telecom specifically has singled out healthcare as one obvious and big opportunity.

“Telecoms carriers are looking for opportunities around how to sell 5G,” said Ilung Kim, SK Telecom’s president, in an interview. “Now you can imagine a scanner of this size being used in an ambulance, using 5G data. It’s a game changer for the industry.”

Looking ahead, Nanox will continue to ink partnerships for distributing its hardware and reselling its cloud-based services for processing the scans, but Poliakine said it does not plan to develop its own technology beyond that to gain insights from the raw data. For that, it’s working with third parties — currently three AI companies — that plug into its APIs, and it plans to add more to the ecosystem over time.

May
21
2020
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12 VCs share their thoughts on enterprise startup trends and opportunities

Compared to other tech firms, enterprise companies have held up well during the pandemic.

If anything, the problems enterprises were facing prior to the economic downturn have become even more pronounced; if you were thinking about moving to the cloud or just dabbling in it, you’re probably accelerating that motion. If you were trying to move off of legacy systems, that has become even more imperative. And if you were attempting to modernize processes and workflows, whether engineer- and developer-related, or across other parts of the organization, chances are good that you are giving that a much closer look.

We won’t be locked down forever and employees will eventually return to offices, but it’s likely that many companies will take the lessons they learned during this era and put them to work inside their organizations. Startups are uniquely positioned to help companies solve these new modern kinds of problems, much more so than a legacy vendor (which could be itself trying to update its approach).

Venture capitalists certainly understand all of these dynamics and are always dutifully searching for startups that could help companies shift to a digital future more quickly.

We spoke to 12 of them to take their pulse and learn more about the trends that are exciting them, what they look for in an investment opportunity and which parts of the enterprise are ripe for startups to impact:

  • Max Gazor, CRV
  • Navin Chadda, Mayfield
  • Matt Murphy, Menlo Venture Capital
  • Soma Somasagar, Madrona Ventures
  • Jon Lehr, Work-Bench
  • Steve Herrod, General Catalyst
  • Jai Das, Sapphire Ventures
  • Max Gazor,  CRV
  • Ed Sim, Boldstart Ventures
  • Martin Cassado, Andreessen Horowitz
  • Vassant Natarajan, Accel
  • Dharmesh Thakker, Battery Ventures

Max Gazor, CRV

What trends are you most excited about in the enterprise from an investing perspective?

It’s abundantly clear that cloud software markets are bigger than most people anticipated. We continue to invest heavily there as we have been doing for the last decade.

Specifically, the most exciting trend right now in enterprise is low-code software development. I’m on the board of Airtable, where I led the Series A and co-led the Series B investments, so I see first hand how this will play out. We are heading toward a future where hundreds of millions of people will be empowered to compose software that fits their own needs. Imagine the productivity and transformation that will unlock in the world! It may be one of the largest market opportunities we have seen since cloud computing.

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.”

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