Oct
11
2019
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Descartes Labs snaps up $20M more for its AI-based geospatial imagery analytics platform

Satellite imagery holds a wealth of information that could be useful for industries, science and humanitarian causes, but one big and persistent challenge with it has been a lack of effective ways to tap that disparate data for specific ends.

That’s created a demand for better analytics, and now, one of the startups that has been building solutions to do just that is announcing a round of funding as it gears up for expansion. Descartes Labs, a geospatial imagery analytics startup out of Santa Fe, New Mexico, is today announcing that it has closed a $20 million round of funding, money that CEO and founder Mark Johnson described to me as a bridge round ahead of the startup closing and announcing a larger growth round.

The funding is being led by Union Grove Venture Partners, with Ajax Strategies, Crosslink Capital, and March Capital Partners (which led its previous round) also participating. It brings the total raised by Descartes Labs to $60 million, and while Johnson said the startup would not be disclosing its valuation, PitchBook notes that it is $220 million ($200 million pre-money in this round).

As a point of comparison, another startup in the area of geospatial analytics, Orbital Insight, is reportedly now raising money at a $430 million valuation (that data is from January of this year, and we’ve contacted the company to see if it ever closed).

Santa Fe — a city popular with retirees that counts tourism as its biggest industry — is an unlikely place to find a tech startup. Descartes Labs’ presence there is a result of that fact that it is a spinoff from the Los Alamos National Laboratory near the city.

Johnson — who had lived in San Francisco before coming to Santa Fe to help create Descartes Labs (his previous experience building Zite for media, he said, led the Los Alamos scientists to first conceive of the Descartes Labs IP as the basis of a kind of search engine) — admitted that he never thought the company would stay headquartered there beyond a short initial phase of growth of six months.

However, it turned out that the trends around more distributed workforces (and cloud computing to enable that), engineers looking for employment alternatives to living in pricey San Francisco, plus the heated competition for talent you get in the Valley all came together in a perfect storm that helped Descartes Labs establish and thrive on its home turf.

Descartes Labs — named after the seminal philosopher/mathematician Rene Descartes — describes itself as a “data refinery”. By this, it means it injests a lot of imagery and unstructured data related to the earth that is picked up primarily by satellites but also other sensors (Johnson notes that its sources include data from publicly available satellites; data from NASA and the European space agency, and data from the companies themselves); applies AI-based techniques including computer vision analysis and machine learning to make sense of the sometimes-grainy imagery; and distills and orders it to create insights into what is going on down below, and how that is likely to evolve.

Screenshot 2019 10 11 at 13.26.33

This includes not just what is happening on the surface of the earth, but also in the air above it: Descartes Labs has worked on projects to detect levels of methane gas in oil fields, the spread of wildfires, and how crops might grow in a particular area, and the impact of weather patterns on it all.

It has produced work for a range of clients that have included governments (the methane detection, pictured above, was commissioned as part of New Mexico’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions), energy giants and industrial agribusiness, and traders.

“The idea is to help them take advantage of all the new data going online,” Johnson said, noting that this can help, for example, bankers forecast how much a commodity will trade for, or the effect of a change in soil composition on a crop.

The fact that Descartes Labs’ work has connected it with the energy industry gives an interesting twist to the use of the phrase “data refinery”. But in case you were wondering, Johnson said that the company goes through a process of vetting potential customers to determine if the data Descartes Labs provides to them is for a positive end, or not.

“We have a deep belief that we can help them become more efficient,” he said. “Those looking at earth data are doing so because they care about the planet and are working to try to become more sustainable.”

Johnson also said (in answer to my question about it) that so far, there haven’t been any instances where the startup has been prohibited to work with any customers or countries, but you could imagine how — in this day of data being ‘the new oil’ and the fulcrum of power — that could potentially be an issue. (Related to this: Orbital Insight counts In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture arm, as one of its backers.)

Looking ahead, the company is building what it describes as a “digital twin” of the earth, the idea being that in doing so it can better model the imagery that it injests and link up data from different regions more seamlessly (since, after all, a climatic event in one part of the world inevitably impacts another). Notably, “digital twinning” is a common concept that we see applied in other AI-based enterprises to better predict activity: this is the approach that, for example, Forward Networks takes when building models of an enterprise’s network to determine how apps will behave and identify the reasons behind an outage.

In addition to the funding round, Descartes Labs named Phil Fraher its new CFO, and is announcing Veery Maxwell, Director for Energy Innovation and Patrick Cairns, who co-founded UGVP, as new board observers.

Oct
10
2019
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Clari snags $60M Series D on valuation of around $500M

Clari uses AI to help companies find key information like the customers most likely to convert, the state of orders in the sales process or the next big sources of revenue. As its revenue management system continues to flourish, the company announced a $60 million Series D investment today.

Sapphire Ventures led the round with help from newcomer Madrona Venture Group and existing investors Sequoia Capital, Bain Capital Ventures and Tenaya Capital. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $135 million, according to the company.

The valuation, which CEO and co-founder Andy Byrne pegged at around a half a billion, appears to be a hefty raise from what the company was likely valued at in 2018 after its $35 million Series C. As TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden wrote at the time:

For some context, Clari, according to Pitchbook, had a relatively modest post-money valuation of $83.5 million in its last round in 2014, so my guess is that it’s now comfortably into hundred-million territory, once you add in this latest $35 million.

Byrne says the company wasn’t even really looking for a new round, but when investors came knocking, he couldn’t refuse. “On the fundraise side, what’s really interesting is how this whole thing went down. We weren’t out looking, but we had a massive amount of interest from a lot of firms. We decided to engage, and we got it done in less than three weeks, which the board was kind of blown away by,” Byrne told TechCrunch.

What’s motivating these companies to invest is that Clari is helping to define this revenue operations category, and has attracted companies like Okta, Zoom and Qualtrics as customers. What they are providing is this AI-fueled way to see where the best sales opportunities are to drive revenue, and that’s what every company is looking for. At the same time, Byrne says that he’s moving companies away from a spreadsheet-driven record keeping system, enabling them to see all of the data in one place.

“Clari is allowing a rep to really understand where they should spend time, automating a lot of things for them to close deals faster, while giving managers new insights they’ve never had before to allow them to drive more revenue. And then we’re getting them out of ‘Excel hell.’ They’re no longer in these spreadsheets. They’re in Clari, and have more predictability in their forecasting,” he said.

Clari was founded in 2012 and is headquartered in Sunnyvale, Calif. It has more than 300 customers and just passed the 200 employee mark, a number that should increase as the company uses this money to begin to accelerate growth and expand the product’s capabilities.

Oct
08
2019
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Nadella warns government conference not to betray user trust

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, delivering the keynote at the Microsoft Government Leaders Summit in Washington, DC today, had a message for attendees to maintain user trust in their tools technologies above all else.

He said it is essential to earn user trust, regardless of your business. “Now, of course, the power law here is all around trust because one of the keys for us, as providers of platforms and tools, trust is everything,” he said today. But he says it doesn’t stop with the platform providers like Microsoft. Institutions using those tools also have to keep trust top of mind or risk alienating their users.

“That means you need to also ensure that there is trust in the technology that you adopt, and the technology that you create, and that’s what’s going to really define the power law on this equation. If you have trust, you will have exponential benefit. If you erode trust it will exponentially decay,” he said.

He says Microsoft sees trust along three dimensions: privacy, security and ethical use of artificial intelligence. All of these come together in his view to build a basis of trust with your customers.

Nadella said he sees privacy as a human right, pure and simple, and it’s up to vendors to ensure that privacy or lose the trust of their customers. “The investments around data governance is what’s going to define whether you’re serious about privacy or not,” he said. For Microsoft, they look at how transparent they are about how they use the data, their terms of service and how they use technology to ensure that’s being carried out at runtime.

He reiterated the call he made last year for a federal privacy law. With GDPR in Europe and California’s CCPA coming on line in January, he sees a centralized federal law as a way to streamline regulations for business.

As for security, as you might expect, he defined it in terms of how Microsoft was implementing it, but the message was clear that you needed security as part of your approach to trust, regardless of how you implement that. He asked several key questions of attendees.

“Cyber is the second area where we not only have to do our work, but you have to [ask], what’s your operational security posture, how have you thought about having the best security technology deployed across the entire chain, whether it’s on the application side, the infrastructure side or on the endpoint, side, and most importantly, around identity,” Nadella said.

The final piece, one which he said was just coming into play, was how you use artificial intelligence ethically, a sensitive topic for a government audience, but one he wasn’t afraid to broach. “One of the things people say is, ‘Oh, this AI thing is so unexplainable, especially deep learning.’ But guess what, you created that deep learning [model]. In fact, the data on top of which you train the model, the parameters and the number of parameters you use — a lot of things are in your control. So we should not abdicate our responsibility when creating AI,” he said.

Whether Microsoft or the U.S. government can adhere to these lofty goals is unclear, but Nadella was careful to outline them both for his company’s benefit and this particular audience. It’s up to both of them to follow through.

Oct
08
2019
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Satya Nadella looks to the future with edge computing

Speaking today at the Microsoft Government Leaders Summit in Washington, DC, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella made the case for edge computing, even while pushing the Azure cloud as what he called “the world’s computer.”

While Amazon, Google and other competitors may have something to say about that, marketing hype aside, many companies are still in the midst of transitioning to the cloud. Nadella says the future of computing could actually be at the edge, where computing is done locally before data is then transferred to the cloud for AI and machine learning purposes. What goes around, comes around.

But as Nadella sees it, this is not going to be about either edge or cloud. It’s going to be the two technologies working in tandem. “Now, all this is being driven by this new tech paradigm that we describe as the intelligent cloud and the intelligent edge,” he said today.

He said that to truly understand the impact the edge is going to have on computing, you have to look at research, which predicts there will be 50 billion connected devices in the world by 2030, a number even he finds astonishing. “I mean this is pretty stunning. We think about a billion Windows machines or a couple of billion smartphones. This is 50 billion [devices], and that’s the scope,” he said.

The key here is that these 50 billion devices, whether you call them edge devices or the Internet of Things, will be generating tons of data. That means you will have to develop entirely new ways of thinking about how all this flows together. “The capacity at the edge, that ubiquity is going to be transformative in how we think about computation in any business process of ours,” he said. As we generate ever-increasing amounts of data, whether we are talking about public sector kinds of use case, or any business need, it’s going to be the fuel for artificial intelligence, and he sees the sheer amount of that data driving new AI use cases.

“Of course when you have that rich computational fabric, one of the things that you can do is create this new asset, which is data and AI. There is not going to be a single application, a single experience that you are going to build, that is not going to be driven by AI, and that means you have to really have the ability to reason over large amounts of data to create that AI,” he said.

Nadella would be more than happy to have his audience take care of all that using Microsoft products, whether Azure compute, database, AI tools or edge computers like the Data Box Edge it introduced in 2018. While Nadella is probably right about the future of computing, all of this could apply to any cloud, not just Microsoft.

As computing shifts to the edge, it’s going to have a profound impact on the way we think about technology in general, but it’s probably not going to involve being tied to a single vendor, regardless of how comprehensive their offerings may be.

Oct
03
2019
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T4 wants to transform market research data with a combination of AI and humans

When T4 co-founder and CEO Maks Khurgin was working at Bain and Company, he ran into a common problem for analysts looking for market data. He spent way too much time searching for it and felt there had to be a better way. He decided to build a centralized market data platform himself, and T4 was born. This week the company competes in the TechCrunch Disrupt SF Startup Battlefield.

What he created with the help of his long-time friend and CTO, Yev Spektor, was built on a couple of key components. The first is an industry classification system, a taxonomy, that organizes markets by industries and sub-industries. Using search and aggregation tools powered by artificial intelligence, it scours the web looking for information sources that match their taxonomy labels.

As they researched the tool, the founders realized that the AI could only get them so far. There were always pieces that it missed. So they built a second part to provide a way for human indexers to fill in those missing parts to offer as comprehensive a list of sources as possible.

“AI alone cannot solve this problem. If we bring people into this and avoid the last mile delivery problem, then you can actually start organizing this information in a much better way than anyone else had ever done,” Khurgin explained.

It seems simple enough, but it’s a problem that well-heeled companies like Bain have been trying to solve for years, and there was a lot of skepticism when Khurgin told his superiors he was leaving to build a product to solve this problem. “I had a partner at Bain and Company actually tell me, “You know, every consulting firm has tried to do something like this — and they failed. Why do you think you can do this?””

He knew that figuring out the nature of the problem and why the other attempts had failed was the key to solving the puzzle. He decided to take the challenge, and on his 30th birthday, he quit his job at Bain and started T4 the next day — without a product yet, mind you.

This was not the first time he had left a high-paying job to try something unconventional. “Last time I left a high paying job, actually after undergrad, I was a commodities derivatives trader for a financial [services company]. I left that to pursue a lifelong dream of being in the Marine Corps,” Khurgin said.

T4 DSC00953

T4 was probably a less risky proposition, but it still took a leap of faith that only a startup founder can understand, who believes in his idea. “I felt the problem first-hand, and the the big kind of realization that I had was that there is actually a finite amount of information out there. Market research is created by humans, and you don’t necessarily have to take a pure AI approach,” he said.

The product searches for all of the related information on a topic, finds all of the data related to a category and places it in an index. Users can search by topic and find all of the free and paid reports related to that search. The product shows which reports are free and which will cost you money, and like Google, you get a title and a brief summary.

The company is just getting started with five main market categories so far, including cloud computing, cybersecurity, networking, data centers and eSports. The founders plan to add additional categories over time, and have a bold goal for the future.

“Our long-term vision is that we become your one-stop shop to find market research in the same way that if you need to buy something, you go to Amazon, or you need financial data, you go on Bloomberg or Thomson. If you need market research, our vision is that T4 is the place that you go,” Khurgin said.


Oct
03
2019
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India’s Fyle bags $4.5M to expand its expense management platform in the US, other international markets

Fyle, a Bangalore-headquartered startup that operates an expense management platform, has extended its previous financing round to add $4.5 million of new investment as it looks to court more clients in overseas markets.

The additional $4.5 million tranche of investment was led by U.S.-based hedge fund Steadview Capital, the startup said. Tiger Global, Freshworks and Pravega Ventures also participated in the round. The new tranche of investment, dubbed Series A1, means that the three-and-a-half-year-old startup has raised $8.7 million as part of its Series A financing round, and $10.5 million to date.

The SaaS startup offers an expense management platform that makes it easier for employees of a firm to report their business expenses. The eponymous service supports a range of popular email providers, including G Suite and Office 365, and uses a proprietary technology to scan and fetch details from emails, Yash Madhusudhan, co-founder and CEO of Fyle, demonstrated to TechCrunch last week.

A user, for instance, could open a flight ticket email and click on Fyle’s Chrome extension to fetch all details and report the expense in a single click in real-time. As part of today’s announcement, Madhusudhan unveiled an integration with WhatsApp . Users will now be able to take pictures of their tickets and other things and forward it to Fyle, which will quickly scan and report expense filings for them.

These integrations come in handy to users. “Eighty percent to ninety percent of a user’s spending patterns land on their email and messaging clients. And traditionally it has been a pain point for them to get done with their expense filings. So we built a platform that looks at the challenges faced by them. At the same time, our platform understands frauds and works with a company’s compliances and policies to ensure that the filings are legitimate,” he said.

“Every company today could make use of an intelligent expense platform like Fyle. Major giants already subscribe to ERP services that offer similar capabilities as part of their offerings. But as a company or startup grows beyond 50 to 100 people, it becomes tedious to manage expense filings,” he added.

Fyle maintains a web application and a mobile app, and users are free to use them. But the rationale behind introducing integrations with popular services is to make it easier than ever for them to report filings. The startup retains its algorithms each month to improve their scanning abilities. “The idea is to extend expense filing to a service that people already use,” he said.

International expansion

Until late last year, Fyle was serving customers in India. Earlier this year, it began searching for clients outside the nation. “Our philosophy was if we are able to sell in India remotely and get people to use the product without any training, we should be able to replicate this in any part of the world,” he said.

And that bet has worked. Fyle has amassed more than 300 clients, more than 250 of which are from outside of India. Today, the startup says it has customers in 17 nations, including the U.S. and the U.K. Furthermore, Fyle’s revenue has grown by five times in the last five months, said Madhusudhan, without disclosing the exact figures.

To accelerate its momentum, the startup is today also launching an enterprise version of Fyle that will serve the needs of major companies. The enterprise version supports a range of additional security features, such as IP restriction and a single sign-in option.

Fyle will use the new capital to develop more product solutions and integrations and expand its footprint in international markets, Madhusudhan said. The startup, which just recently set up its sales and marketing team, will also expand the headcount, he said.

Moving forward, Madhusudhan said the startup would also explore tie-ups with ERP providers and other ways to extend the reach of Fyle.

In a statement, Ravi Mehta, MD at Steadview Capital, said, “intelligent and automated systems will empower businesses to be more efficient in the coming decade. We are excited to partner with Fyle to transform one of the core business processes of expense management through intelligence and automation.”

Sep
29
2019
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Why is Dropbox reinventing itself?

According to Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, 80% of the product’s users rely on it, at least partially, for work.

It makes sense, then, that the company is refocusing to try and cement its spot in the workplace; to shed its image as “just” a file storage company (in a time when just about every big company has its own cloud storage offering) and evolve into something more immutably core to daily operations.

Earlier this week, Dropbox announced that the “new Dropbox” would be rolling out to all users. It takes the simple, shared folders that Dropbox is known for and turns them into what the company calls “Spaces” — little mini collaboration hubs for your team, complete with comment streams, AI for highlighting files you might need mid-meeting, and integrations into things like Slack, Trello and G Suite. With an overhauled interface that brings much of Dropbox’s functionality out of the OS and into its own dedicated app, it’s by far the biggest user-facing change the product has seen since launching 12 years ago.

Shortly after the announcement, I sat down with Dropbox VP of Product Adam Nash and CTO Quentin Clark . We chatted about why the company is changing things up, why they’re building this on top of the existing Dropbox product, and the things they know they just can’t change.

You can find these interviews below, edited for brevity and clarity.

Greg Kumparak: Can you explain the new focus a bit?

Adam Nash: Sure! I think you know this already, but I run products and growth, so I’m gonna have a bit of a product bias to this whole thing. But Dropbox… one of its differentiating characteristics is really that when we built this utility, this “magic folder”, it kind of went everywhere.

Sep
27
2019
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Google will soon open a cloud region in Poland

Google today announced its plans to open a new cloud region in Warsaw, Poland to better serve its customers in Central and Eastern Europe.

This move is part of Google’s overall investment in expanding the physical footprint of its data centers. Only a few days ago, after all, the company announced that, in the next two years, it would spend $3.3 billion on its data center presence in Europe alone.

Google Cloud currently operates 20 different regions with 61 availability zones. Warsaw, like most of Google’s regions, will feature three availability zones and launch with all the standard core Google Cloud services, including Compute Engine, App Engine, Google Kubernetes Engine, Cloud Bigtable, Cloud Spanner and BigQuery.

To launch the new region in Poland, Google is partnering with Domestic Cloud Provider (a.k.a. Chmury Krajowej, which itself is a joint venture of the Polish Development Fund and PKO Bank Polski). Domestic Cloud Provider (DCP) will become a Google Cloud reseller in the country and build managed services on top of Google’s infrastructure.

“Poland is in a period of rapid growth, is accelerating its digital transformation, and has become an international software engineering hub,” writes Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian. “The strategic partnership with DCP and the new Google Cloud region in Warsaw align with our commitment to boost Poland’s digital economy and will make it easier for Polish companies to build highly available, meaningful applications for their customers.”

Sep
25
2019
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Arceo.ai raises $37 million to expand cyber insurance coverage and access

Critical cyber attacks on both businesses and individuals have been grabbing headlines at an alarming rate. Cybersecurity has moved from a background risk for enterprises to a critical day-to-day threat to business operations, forcing executive teams to pour time and hundreds of billions in capital into monitoring and prevention efforts.

Yet even as investment in security ticks up, the frequency and cost of cybercrime to businesses continues to rapidly accelerate, with the World Economic Forum estimating the economic loss due to cybercrime could reach $3 trillion by 2020.

More companies are now turning to cyber insurance as a means of mitigating financial exposure. However, for traditional insurers, cybersecurity remains a relatively nascent and unfamiliar issue, requiring risk-assessment data points and methodologies largely different from those seen in traditional insurance products. As a result, businesses often struggle to get the scale of cybersecurity coverage they require.

Arceo.ai is hoping to expand the size and scope of the cyber insurance market for both insurers and companies, by providing insurers with effective real-time data, analytics and context, necessary for safely and efficiently underwrite cyber risk.

This morning, Arceo took a major step in achieving that goal, announcing the company has raised a $37 million round of funding led by Lightspeed Venture Partners and Founders Fund with participation from CRV and  UL Ventures.

Arceo logoUsing an expansive set of global sources across a customer’s digital footprint, Arceo.AI collects internal, external and macro cyber risk data which it uses to evaluate a company’s security and cyber risk management behavior. By automating the data collection process and connecting it with insurer underwriting processes, Arceo is able to keep its data and policy assessments up to date in real-time and enable faster, more efficient quotes.

A vital component of Arceo’s platform is its analytics offering. Using patented data science and cyber risk models, Arceo generates analytics-driven insights for insurance carriers, brokers and end-insured customers. For end-insured customers, Arceo helps companies understand whether they’re using the best mitigation strategies by providing policy recommendations and industry benchmarking to help contextualize day-to-day cyber behavior and hygiene. For underwriters, Arceo can provide specific insurance recommendations based on particular policy coverages.

Ultimately, Arceo looks to provide both insurers and the insured with actionable answers to key questions such as how one assesses cyber risk, how one determines what risks can be mitigated with technology alone, how one knows which systems are best and whether those systems are being used appropriately.

Raj Shah

Arceo.ai Chairman Raj Shah. Image via Arceo.ai

In an interview with TechCrunch, Arceo Chairman Raj Shah explained that the company’s background expertise, proprietary data systems, and deep pedigree in both the security and insurance truly differentiate Arceo from competing solutions. For starters, both Shah and Arceo co-founder and CEO Vishaal Hariprasad have spent close to the entirety of their careers in national security and cybersecurity. Hariprasad started his career in the Airforce’s first cohort of cyber warfare officers, before teaming up with Shah to start Morta Security in 2012, a security startup the two sold to Palo Alto networks in just roughly two years.

After selling the company, Shah and Hariprasad remained in the security world before realizing that there was a natural intersection between security and insurance, and a real opportunity for risk transfer solutions.

“Having studied the market, we saw that people are spending more and more dollars on cybersecurity products… There are hundreds of thousands of new vendors every year… Spend is going up, but we don’t feel any safer!” Shah told TechCrunch.

“That’s when we said ‘Hey, we need to move beyond just thinking about technology points and products, and think about holistic cyber risk management.’ And this is where insurance has historically done a great job. Putting a price on behavior and making people think and letting them take risks… From life and death and health to buyers and property and casualty. And so cyber is that next class risk… So that’s really why we started the business. We wanted to provide a real way to manage the cyber stress that they’re facing and that will impact every single one of our digital lives.”

Since the company’s founding, Raj and Vishaal have been joined by a deep network of cyber and insurance experts. Today, Arceo also announced that Hemant Shah, founder and former CEO of catastrophe risk modeling company RMS has joined Arceo’s Board of Directors. Additionally, earlier this month, the company announced that Mario Vitale, the former CEO of publically-traded insurance companies Willis Towers Watson and Zurich Insurance Group, would be joining the Arceo team as the company’s President.

The company noted that participation from high-profile industry vets like Hemant and Mario not only further advance Arceo’s competitive advantage but also acts as another major validation of the company’s future and work to date.

According to Arceo Chairman Raj Shah, after years of investing in R&D, the latest funds will be used towards expansion efforts and scaling Arceo to the broader ecosystem of insurance and brokers. Longer-term, the company hopes to offer the most complete combined cybersecurity and risk transfer solution to insurers and the insured, easing the stress around cyber threats for both enterprises and individuals and ultimately improving broader cyber resiliency.

If you’d like to hear more from Arceo’s Raj Shah, Raj will also be joining us this year on the Extra Crunch stage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF, where he’ll discuss how founders and companies should think about potential US government investment. Grab tickets here and we hope to see you there!

Sep
25
2019
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Vannevar Labs comes out of stealth to bring best-in-class AI tech to national security agencies

Few organizations have the complex data and analytics problems that challenge the defense and intelligence communities every single day. Whether it is managing petabytes of text, audio, or video data, finding extraordinarily small patterns in the noise, or processing multilingual analytics, the agencies at the heart of America’s national security system confront cutting-edge problems every day.

Despite the desire for better tools though, intelligence analysts are often stymied to procure up-to-date software due to the byzantine rules that drive Pentagon and intelligence procurement.

That’s why a former intelligence official and former intelligence investor are looking to build a new platform that connects the best minds in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing and bundling it together into a service purchasable by these government agencies.

Through Palo Alto-based Vannevar, co-founders Brett Granberg and Nini Moorhead are hoping to launch their first product, which is focused on bringing NLP technologies like feature detection to international counterterrorism missions.

Vannevar Labs

Co-founders Nimi Moorhead and Brett Granberg of Vannevar Labs. Photo via Vannevar Labs.

The company is named for Vannevar Bush, who is often credited with inventing an early form of the computer, putting together the Manhattan Project which led to the atom bomb, and for writing a seminal essay that sort of predicted the internet decades before its inception.

The two chose this particular product as an entrée because of their past experiences. Before beginning Vannevar, Granberg spent two years at In-Q-Tel, the non-profit VC firm that works deeply with the intelligence community to supply agencies with the best in startup technology. He also was an advisor at Lilt, a real-time deep learning translation product that spun out of Chris Manning’s famed Stanford NLP research lab.

Meanwhile, Moorhead spent seven years working as a counterterrorism officer within the intelligence community, working to disrupt terrorist networks.

The two met while they overlapped at Stanford GSB and realized they had seen similar problems that they both wanted to solve. While in business school, “top of mind for me was some of the technological challenges that I encountered as an end user [and] analyst in the intelligence community,” Moorhead said. “We immediately connected and shared a lot of experiences in common in terms of seeing gaps between the really hard domain problems that I’d been working on in my career as an analyst and some of the technology that was available to me,” she said. The two actually met the first day of school.

Their approach is to take proven techniques and attempt to translate them into government use cases. “We’re not sort of inventing new math to solve these problems, we’re more taking cutting-edge approaches and just applying them to specific use cases,” Granberg said.

While the project is early, the team raised a $4.5 million seed venture capital funding from fellow GSB alum Katherine Boyle of General Catalyst and Costanoa Ventures. Boyle has made a big push into defense and highly-regulated industries as part of her investment practice, where she previously funded Anduril, the company started by Oculus founder Palmer Luckey that has attempted to apply ML technology to security issues such as battlefield awareness and border control (and gotten into some controversy along the way as well).

She is particularly excited about new ways for startups to secure government contracts at a speed faster than the sun burning out. Talking to me about the potential in this industry, she said:

We’ve been spending a lot of time with companies that are going after what’s known as Other Transaction Authorities, which are a new type of contracting vehicle that was developed in 2015 by former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, to help tech companies work very quickly with the Department of Defense and with the intelligence community. So what historically might have taken 18 months to get a contract now takes 30 to 60 days for critical pieces of technology

Boyle explained that Vannevar fits directly into her thesis for the future of government procurement. “Our view is that the companies that do best in the space are people who have worked in government or understand how to sell to governments,” she said. She noted that the company is very early, and her investment was primarily focused on the team.

I asked about recent controversies that have hit companies like Google, which saw a revolt by some employees over its involvement with a defense program called Project Maven, which attempted to use machine learning technology and apply that to the battlefield, so that, for instance, drones could increase their effectiveness during strikes.

Granberg said that “we think that the people that defend our country should have access to the best tools and technologies to do their job. We know these people, we used to work with them, and we want to help them.”

He understands the concerns of critics though, and says that Vannevar intends to work with the government to ensure ethics remains core to its product. “We believe it’s our responsibility to sort of shape that technology and help the government think about putting in place policies that … prevent the misuse from happening.”

Boyle agreed. “One of the things that we’ve noticed is that if you’re very transparent and upfront about the types of products you’re going to be building in the beginning, it’s not a recruitment problem, it’s not an ethics problem.” Unlike Google, which had a six-figure large workforce with many employees who don’t want to touch defense-related code, the hope for Granberg and Moorhead is that a company like Vannevar can build a coalition of the willing, as it were, and maybe solve some serious security problems as well.

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