Oct
23
2018
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Customer service ‘behavioral pairing’ startup Afiniti quietly raised $130M at a $1.6B valuation

Artificial intelligence touches just about every aspect of the tech world these days, aiming to provide new ways of making old processes work better. Now, a startup that has built an AI platform that tackles the ever-present, but never-perfect, business of customer service has quietly raised a large round of funding as it gears up for its next act, an IPO. Afiniti, which uses machine learning and behavioral science to better match customers with customer service agents — “behavioral pairing” is how it describes the process — has closed a $130 million round of funding ($75 million cash, $60 million debt) — a Series D that Afiniti CEO Zia Chishti says values his company at $1.6 billion.

If you are not familiar with the name Afiniti, you might not be alone. The company has been relatively under the radar, in part because it has never made much of an effort to publicise itself, and in part because the funding that it has raised up to now has largely been from outside the hive of VCs that swarm around many other startup deals that push those startups into the limelight.

At the same time, its backers make for a pretty illustrious list. This latest round includes former Verizon CEO Ivan SeidenbergFred Ryan, the CEO and publisher of the Washington Post; and investors Global Asset ManagementThe Resource Group (which Chishti helped found), Zeke Capitalas well as unnamed Australian investors.

The previous Series C round of $26.5 million, also has an interesting list of backers and also was not widely reported. They included McKinsey & Company, Elisabeth Murdoch, former Thomson Reuters CEO Tom Glocer, and former BP CEO John Browne, alongside Global Asset Management, The Resource Group, Seidenberg and Ryan.

That Series C was at a $100 million valuation, meaning that Afiniti’s valuation has increased more than 10 times in the last year on the back of 100 percent revenue growth each year over the last five.

That momentum led the company also to file confidentially for an IPO — although ultimately Chishti told TechCrunch that the company decided to raise privately at the potential IPO valuation since the money was easy to come by. (It’s also been one of the reasons he said he’s also rebuffed acquisitions, although at least one of the companies that’s approached him, McKinsey, now an investor.)

Now, Chishti — who is a repeat entrepreneur, with his previous company, Align Technology (which makes teeth alignment alternatives to braces), now at a $24 billion market cap — said that Afiniti has started to tip into profitability, so it seems the prospect of an IPO might be back on the table. That is possibly one reason that the company has started to speak to the press more and to make itself more visible.

Chishti and Afiniti are based out of the US, but it has roots into a range of local businesses globally in part by way of its well-connected team of advisors and local leaders. Among them, Princess Beatrice (or Beatrice York), currently 8th in line to the throne to succeed Queen Elizabeth, is the company’s vice president of partnerships. Alonso Aznar, the son of the former prime minister of Spain, runs Afiniti’s operations in Madrid.

The company itself sits in the general area of CRM, and specifically among that wave of startups that are trying to build tools using AI and other new technology to improve on the old ways of getting things done (it’s not alone: just today we noted that People.ai raised $30 million for its own AI-based CRM tools).

Afiniti on one hand calls itself a traditional AI company, but on the other, its CEO laments how overused and hackneyed the term has become. “AI is just a bubble,” he said in an interview. “The intensity of interest in AI is unwarranted because nothing has changed. It’s the same algorithms and software, and we just have faster hardware now.”

In actual fact, what Afiniti does is supply an AI layer to a process that is otherwise “ninety-nine percent human”, in the words of Chishti. The company uses AI to analyse sales people’s performance with specific types of calls and situations, and also to analyse customers in terms of their previous interactions with a company. It then matches up customer service reps who it believes will be most compatible with specific customers.

Afiniti’s pricing model has been an important lever for getting its foot in the door with companies. The company does not price its service per-seat or even per-month, but on a calculation between how well the company does when its call routing and running through Afiniti, versus how much is sold when it does not.

“We run systems on for 15 minutes, off for 5 minutes, and we do that perpetually,” Chishti said. It integrates with a company’s CRM, sales and telephony systems at the back end, in order both to route calls but also to track when those calls result in a sale. “We count the revenues, calculate the delta, and we get a share of that delta.”

If that sounds like a tricky measure, it doesn’t to customers, it seems. The zero-cost-to-try-it model is how it has surmounted the hurdle of getting used by a number of large, often slow-moving carriers and other large incumbents. “It means we have to continuously prove our value,” Chishti added.

As one example of how this works out, he used the example of Verizon (which is the owner of TechCrunch, by way of Oath). “Say Verizon makes $120 billion in revenues in a year,” he said, “and $30 billion of that is in phone-based sales. Afiniti would make $600 million on that.” Times that by dozens of customers in 22 countries, and that may point to how the company has quietly reached the valuation that it has.

Beyond its core product, the company has dozens of patents and more in the application phase in the US and other jurisdictions.

Oct
23
2018
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Bright Machines lands $179M to bring smarter robotics to manufacturing

Robotics has had a role in manufacturing since the 1970s, but even today they are aren’t often driven by the latest software. Bright Machines, a San Francisco startup wants to change that and it got a whopping $179 million Series A today to get this thing going. While it was at it, it also officially launched the company.

The startup wants to bring a software-driven approach to robotics, one that would let you take dumb robotics and program it in a more automated fashion to perform a set of tasks, taking advantage of artificial intelligence and machine learning in ways that they say most manufacturing companies simply aren’t equipped to handle right now.

This is clearly not your typical Series A and Bright Machines does not appear to be a typical Series A company, feeling its way trying to get a product to market. Perhaps that’s because the company began life as incubated project inside Flex, a customized manufacturing company. It was then spun out as a startup called AutoLab AI and changed the name to Bright Machines today for the big company unveiling.

It already boast over 300 employees and brought in CEO, Armar Hanspal, who was most recently co-CEO at Autodesk to run the show. Former Autodesk CEO Carl Bass is a board member. Other board members include Mike McNamara, CEO of Flex and Steve Luszo, CEO of Seagate. Eclipse led the round.

What is attracting all of this money and talent to such a young company? Bright Machines is trying to solve a hard and expensive manufacturing problem. “We’re putting together the people, the tech stack and funding and other resources to go really go tackle this big under-served environment by bringing more automation and software to the factory floor,” CEO Hanspal told TechCrunch.

While he acknowledges we have seen a move toward automating the factor floor for decades, they are attacking an area that up until now has been underserved by robotics because the technology simply wasn’t ready to handle it. “What we’re doing that’s different is going from dumb, blind and costly robots to ones that are sensor rich, have computer vision, machine learning and are adaptable,” he said.

What’s more, they are bringing a subscription model to this approach, allowing customers to set up custom manufacturing lines on the fly with what they claim is much lower cost and fuss they faced with more traditional approaches. 

They are taking on this sum of money so early because they believe it is a huge market and if they can attract the right talent, they can bring a substantive change to manufacturing that is lacking today. Time will tell if the bet pays off.

Oct
22
2018
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Oracle acquires DataFox, a developer of ‘predictive intelligence as a service’ across millions of company records

Oracle today announced that it has made another acquisition, this time to enhance both the kind of data that it can provide to its business customers, and its artificial intelligence capabilities: it is buying DataFox, a startup that has amassed a huge company database — currently covering 2.8 million public and private businesses, adding 1.2 million each year — and uses AI to analyse that to make larger business predictions. The business intelligence resulting from that service can in turn be used for a range of CRM-related services: prioritising sales accounts, finding leads, and so on.

“The combination of Oracle and DataFox will enhance Oracle Cloud Applications with an extensive set of AI-derived company-level data and signals, enabling customers to reach even better decisions and business outcomes,” noted Steve Miranda, EVP of applications development at Oracle, in a note to DataFox customers announcing the deal. He said that DataFox will sit among Oracle’s existing portfolio of business planning services like ERP, CX, HCM and SCM. “Together, Oracle and DataFox will enrich cloud applications with AI-driven company-level data, powering recommendations to elevate business performance across the enterprise.”

Terms of the deal do not appear to have been disclosed but we are trying to find out. DataFox — which launched in 2014 as a contender in the TC Battlefield at Disrupt — had raised just under $19 million and was last valued at $33 million back in January 2017, according to PitchBook. Investors in the company included Slack, GV, Howard Linzon, and strategic investor Goldman Sachs among others.

Oracle said that it is not committing to a specific product roadmap for DataFox longer term, but for now it will be keeping the product going as is for those who are already customers. The startup counted Goldman Sachs, Bain & Company and Twilio among those using its services. 

The deal is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it shows that larger platform providers are on the hunt for more AI-driven tools to provide an increasingly sophisticated level of service to customers. Second, in this case, it’s a sign of how content remains a compelling proposition, when it is presented and able to be manipulated for specific ends. Many customer databases can get old and out of date, so the idea of constantly trawling information sources in order to create the most accurate record of businesses possible is a very compelling idea to anyone who has faced the alternative, and that goes even more so in sales environments when people are trying to look their sharpest.

It also shows that, although both companies have evolved quite a lot, and there are many other alternatives on the market, Oracle remains in hot competition with Salesforce for customers and are hoping to woo and keep more of them with the better, integrated innovations. That also points to Oracle potentially cross and up-selling people who come to them by way of DataFox, which is an SaaS that pitches itself very much as something anyone can subscribe to online.

Oct
15
2018
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Celonis brings intelligent process automation software to cloud

Celonis has been helping companies analyze and improve their internal processes using machine learning. Today the company announced it was providing that same solution as a cloud service with a few nifty improvements you won’t find on prem.

The new approach, called Celonis Intelligent Business Cloud, allows customers to analyze a workflow, find inefficiencies and offer improvements very quickly. Companies typically follow a workflow that has developed over time and very rarely think about why it developed the way it did, or how to fix it. If they do, it usually involves bringing in consultants to help. Celonis puts software and machine learning to bear on the problem.

Co-founder and CEO Alexander Rinke says that his company deals with massive volumes of data and moving all of that to the cloud makes sense. “With Intelligent Business Cloud, we will unlock that [on prem data], bring it to the cloud in a very efficient infrastructure and provide much more value on top of it,” he told TechCrunch.

The idea is to speed up the whole ingestion process, allowing a company to see the inefficiencies in their business processes very quickly. Rinke says it starts with ingesting data from sources such as Salesforce or SAP and then creating a visual view of the process flow. There may be hundreds of variants from the main process workflow, but you can see which ones would give you the most value to change, based on the number of times the variation occurs.

Screenshot: Celonis

By packaging the Celonis tools as a cloud service, they are reducing the complexity of running and managing it. They are also introducing an app store with over 300 pre-packaged options for popular products like Salesforce and ServiceNow and popular process like order to cash. This should also help get customers up and running much more quickly.

New Celonis App Store. Screenshot: Celonis

The cloud service also includes an Action Engine, which Rinke describes as a big step toward moving Celonis from being purely analytical to operational. “Action Engine focuses on changing and improving processes. It gives workers concrete info on what to do next. For example in process analysis, it would notice on time delivery isn’t great because order to cash is to slow. It helps accelerate changes in system configuration,” he explained.

Celonis Action Engine. Screenshot: Celonis

The new cloud service is available today. Celonis was founded in 2011. It has raised over $77 million. The most recent round was a $50 million Series B on a valuation over $1 billion.

Oct
09
2018
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After its acquisition, Magento starts integrating Adobe’s personalization and analytics tools

It’s been less than six months since Adobe acquired commerce platform Magento for $1.68 billion and today, at Magento’s annual conference, the company announced the first set of integrations that bring the analytics and personalization features of Adobe’s Experience Cloud to Magento’s Commerce Cloud.

In many ways, the acquisition of Magento helps Adobe close the loop in its marketing story by giving its customers a full spectrum of services that go from analytics, marketing and customer acquisition all the way to closing the transaction. It’s no surprise then that the Experience Cloud and Commerce Cloud are growing closer to, in Adobe’s words, “make every experience shoppable.”

“From the time that this company started to today, our focus has been pretty much exactly the same,” Adobe’s SVP of Strategic Marketing Aseem Chandra told me. “This is, how do we deliver better experiences across any channel in which our customers are interacting with a brand? If you think about the way that customers interact today, every experience is valuable and important. […] It’s no longer just about the product, it’s more about the experience that we deliver around that product that really counts.”

So with these new integrations, Magento Commerce Cloud users will get access to an integration with Adobe Target, for example, the company’s machine learning-based tool for personalizing shopping experiences. Similarly, they’ll get easy access to predictive analytics from Adobe Analytics to analyze their customers’ data and predict future churn and purchasing behavior, among other things.

These kinds of AI/ML capabilities were something Magento had long been thinking about, Magento’s former CEO and new Adobe SVP fo Commerce Mark Lavelle told me, but it took the acquisition by Adobe to really be able to push ahead with this. “Where the world’s going for Magento clients — and really for all of Adobe’s clients — is you can’t do this yourself,” he said. “you need to be associated with a platform that has not just technology and feature functionality, but actually has this living and breathing data environment that that learns and delivers intelligence back into the product so that your job is easier. That’s what Amazon and Google and all of the big companies that we’re all increasingly competing against or cooperating with have. They have that type of scale.” He also noted that at least part of this match-up of Adobe and Magento is to give their clients that kind of scale, even if they are small- or medium-sized merchants.

The other new Adobe-powered feature that’s now available is an integration with the Adobe Experience Manager. That’s Adobe’s content management tool that itself integrates many of these AI technologies for building personalized mobile and web content and shopping experiences.

“The goal here is really in unifying that profile, where we have a lot of behavioral information about our consumers,” said Aseem. “And what Magento allows us to do is bring in the transactional information and put those together so we get a much richer view of who the consumers are and how we personalize that experience with the next interaction that they have with a Magento-based commerce site.”

It’s worth noting that Magento is also launching a number of other new features to its Commerce Cloud that include a new drag-and-drop editing tool for site content, support for building Progressive Web Applications, a streamlined payment tool with improved risk management capabilities, as well as a new integration with the Amazon Sales Channel so Magento stores can sync their inventory with Amazon’s platform. Magneto is also announcing integrations with Google’s Merchant Center and Advertising Channels for Google Smart Shopping Campaigns.

Oct
02
2018
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Apple expands Business Chat with new businesses and additional countries

Apple Business Chat launched earlier this year as a way for consumers to communicate directly with businesses on Apple’s messaging platform. Today the company announced it was expanding the program to add new businesses and support for additional countries.

When it launched in January, business partners included Discover, Hilton, Lowe’s and Wells Fargo. Today’s announcement includes the likes of Burberry, West Elm, Kimpton Hotels, and Vodafone Germany.

The program, which remains in Beta, added 15 new companies today in the US and 15 internationally including in the UK, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, Italy, Australia and France.

Since the launch, companies have been coming up with creative ways to interact directly with customers in a chat setting that many users prefer over telephone trees and staticy wait music (I know I do).

For instance, Four Seasons, which launched Business Chat in July, is expanding usage to 88 properties across the globe with the ability to chat in more than 100 languages with reported average response times of around 90 seconds.

Apple previously added features like Apple Pay to iMessage to make it easy for consumers to transact directly with business in a fully digital way. If for instance, your customer service rep helps you find the perfect item, you can purchase it right then and there with Apple Pay in a fully digital payment system without having to supply a credit card in the chat interface.

Photo: Apple

What’s more, the CSR could share a link, photo or video to let you see more information on the item you’re interested in or to help you fix a problem with an item you already own. All of this can take place in iMessage, a tool millions of iPhone and iPad owners are comfortable using with friends and family.

To interact with Business Chat, customers are given messaging as a choice in contact information. If they touch this option, the interaction opens in iMessage and customers can conduct a conversation with the brand’s CSR, just as they would with friends.

Touch Message to move to iMessage conversation. Photo: Apple

This link to customer service and sales through a chat interface also fits well with the partnership with Salesforce announced last week and with the company’s overall push to the enterprise. Salesforce president and chief product officer, Bret Taylor described how Apple Business Chat could integrate with Salesforce’s Service Bot platform, which was introduced in 2017 to allow companies to build integrated automated and human response systems.

The bots could provide a first level of service and if the customer required more personal support, there could be an option to switch to Apple Business Chat.

Apple Business Chat requires iOS 11.3 or higher.

Oct
02
2018
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NYC wants to build a cyber army

Empires rise and fall, and none more so than business empires. Whole industries that once dominated the planet are just a figment in memory’s eye, while new industries quietly grow into massive behemoths.

New York City has certainly seen its share of empires. Today, the city is a global center of finance, real estate, legal services, technology, and many, many more industries. It hosts the headquarters of roughly 10% of the Fortune 500, and the metro’s GDP is roughly equivalent to that of Canada.

So much wealth and power, and all under constant attack. The value of technology and data has skyrocketed, and so has the value of stealing and disrupting the services that rely upon it. Cyber crime and cyber wars are adding up: according to a report published jointly between McAfee and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the costs of these operations are in the hundreds of billions of dollars – and New York’s top industries such as financial services bear the brunt of the losses.

Yet, New York City has hardly been a bastion for the cybersecurity industry. Boston and Washington DC are far stronger today on the Acela corridor, and San Francisco and Israel have both made huge impacts on the space. Now, NYC’s leaders are looking to build a whole new local empire that might just act as a bulwark for its other leading ecosystems.

Today, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) announced the launch of Cyber NYC, a $30 million “catalyzing” investment designed to rapidly grow the city’s ecosystem and infrastructure for cybersecurity.

James Patchett, CEO of New York City Economic Development Corporation. (Photo from NYCEDC)

James Patchett, CEO of NYCEDC, explained in an interview with TechCrunch that cybersecurity is “both an incredible opportunity and also a huge threat.” He noted that “the financial industry has been the lifeblood of this city for our entire history,” and the costs of cybercrime are rising quickly. “It’s a lose-lose if we fail to invest in the innovation that keeps the city strong” but “it’s a win if we can create all of that innovation here and the corresponding jobs,” he said.

The Cyber NYC program is made up of a constellation of programs:

  • Partnering with Jerusalem Venture Partners, an accelerator called Hub.NYC will develop enterprise cybersecurity companies by connecting them with advisors and customers. The program will be hosted in a nearly 100,000 square foot building in SoHo.
  • Partnering with SOSA, the city will create a new, 15,000 square foot Global Cyber Center co-working facility in Chelsea, where talented individuals in the cyber industry can hang out and learn from each other through event programming and meetups.
  • With Fullstack Academy and Laguardia Community College, a Cyber Boot Camp will be created to enhance the ability of local workers to find jobs in the cybersecurity space.
  • Through an “Applied Learning Initiative,” students will be able to earn a “CUNY-Facebook Master’s Degree” in cybersecurity. The program has participation from the City University of New York, New York University, Columbia University, Cornell Tech, and iQ4.
  • With Columbia University’s Technology Ventures, NYCEDC will introduce a program called Inventors to Founders that will work to commercialize university research.

NYCEDC’s map of the Cyber NYC initiative. (Photo from NYCEDC)

In addition to Facebook, other companies have made commitments to the program, including Goldman Sachs, MasterCard, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and edX.org. Two Goldman execs, Chief Operational Risk Officer Phil Venables and Chief Information Security Officer Andy Ozment, have joined the initiative’s advisory boards.

The NYCEDC estimates that there are roughly 6,000 cybersecurity professionals currently employed in New York City. Through these programs, it estimates that the number could increase by another 10,000. Patchett said that “it is as close to a no-brainer in economic development because of the opportunity and the risk.”

From Jerusalem to New York

To tackle its ambitious cybersecurity goals, the NYCEDC is partnering with two venture firms, Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP) and SOSA, with significant experience investing, operating, and growing companies in the sector.

Jerusalem-based JVP is an established investor that should help founders at Hub.NYC get access to smart capital, sector expertise, and the entrepreneurial experience needed to help their startups scale. JVP invests in early-, late-, and growth-stage companies focused on cybersecurity, big data, media, and enterprise software.

JVP will run Hub.NYC, a startup accelerator that will help cybersecurity startups connect with customers and mentors. (Photo from JVP)

Erel Margalit, who founded the firm in 1993, said that “If you look at what JVP has done … we create ecosystems.” Working with Jerusalem’s metro government, Margalit and the firm pioneered a number of institutions such as accelerators that turned Israel into an economic powerhouse in the cybersecurity industry. His social and economic work eventually led him to the Knesset, Israel’s unicameral legislature, where he served as an MP from 2015-2017 with the Labor Party.

Israel is a very small country with a relative dearth of large companies though, a huge challenge for startups looking to scale up. “Today if you want to build the next-generation leading companies, you have to be not only where the ideas are being brewed, but also where the solutions are being [purchased],” Margalit explained. “You need to be working with the biggest customers in the world.”

That place, in his mind, is New York City. It’s a city he has known since his youth – he worked at Moshe’s Moving IN NYC while attending Columbia as a grad student where he got his PhD in philosophy. Now, he can pack up his own success from Israel and scale it up to an even larger ecosystem.

Since its founding, JVP has successfully raised $1.1 billion across eight funds, including a $60 million fund specifically focused on the cybersecurity space. Over the same period, the firm has seen 32 successful exits, including cybersecurity companies CyberArk (IPO in 2014) and CyActive (Acquired by PayPal in 2013).

JVP’s efforts in the cybersecurity space also go beyond the investment process, with the firm recently establishing an incubator, known as JVP Cyber Labs, specifically focused on identifying, nurturing and building the next wave of Israeli cybersecurity and big data companies.

On average, the firm has focused on deals in the $5-$10 million range, with a general proclivity for earlier-stage companies where the firm can take a more hands-on mentorship role. Some of JVP’s notable active portfolio companies include Source Defense, which uses automation to protect against website supply chain attacks, ThetaRay, which uses big data to analyze threats, and Morphisec, which sells endpoint security solutions.

Opening up innovation with SOSA

The self-described “open-innovation platform,” SOSA is a global network of corporations, investors, and entrepreneurs that connects major institutions with innovative startups tackling core needs.

SOSA works closely with its partner startups, providing investor sourcing, hands-on mentorship and the physical resources needed to achieve growth. The group’s areas of expertise include cybersecurity, fintech, automation, energy, mobility, and logistics. Though headquartered in Tel Aviv, SOSA recently opened an innovation lab in New York, backed by major partners including HP, RBC, and Jefferies.

With the eight-floor Global Cyber Center located in Chelsea, it is turning its attention to an even more ambitious agenda. Uzi Scheffer, CEO of SOSA, said to TechCrunch in a statement that “The Global Cyber Center will serve as a center of gravity for the entire cybersecurity industry where they can meet, interact and connect to the finest talent from New York, the States, Israel and our entire global network.”

SOSA’s new building in Chelsea will be a center for the cybersecurity community (Photo from SOSA)

With an already established presence in New York, SOSA’s local network could help spur the local corporate participation key to the EDC’s plan, while SOSA’s broader global network can help achieve aspirations of turning New York City into a global cybersecurity leader.

It is no coincidence that both of the EDC’s venture partners are familiar with the Israeli cybersecurity ecosystem. Israel has long been viewed as a leader in cybersecurity innovation and policy, and has benefited from the same successful public-private sector coordination New York hopes to replicate.

Furthermore, while New York hopes to create organic growth within its own local ecosystem, the partnerships could also benefit the city if leading Israeli cybersecurity companies look to relocate due to the limited size of the Israeli market.

Big plans, big results?

While we spent comparatively less time discussing them, the NYCEDC’s educational programs are particularly interesting. Students will be able to take classes at any university in the five-member consortium, and transfer credits freely, a concept that the NYCEDC bills as “stackable certificates.”

Meanwhile, Facebook has partnered with the City University of New York to create a professional master’s degree program to train up a new class of cybersecurity leaders. The idea is to provide a pathway to a widely-respected credential without having to take too much time off of work. NYCEDC CEO Patchett said, ”you probably don’t have the time to take two years off to do a masters program,” and so the program’s flexibility should provide better access to more professionals.

Together, all of these disparate programs add up to a bold attempt to put New York City on the map for cybersecurity. Talent development, founder development, customer development – all have been addressed with capital and new initiatives.

Will the community show up at initiatives like the Global Cyber Center, pictured here? (Photo from SOSA)

Yet, despite the time that NYCEDC has spent to put all of these partners together cohesively under one initiative, the real challenge starts with getting the community to participate and build upon these nascent institutions. “What we hear from folks a lot of time,” Patchett said to us, is that “there is no community for cyber professionals in New York City.” Now the buildings have been placed, but the people need to walk through the front doors.

The city wants these programs to be self-sustaining as soon as possible. “In all cases, we don’t want to support these ecosystems forever,” Patchett said. “If we don’t think they’re financially sustainable, we haven’t done our job right.” He believes that “there should be a natural incentive to invest once the ecosystem is off the ground.”

As the world encounters an ever-increasing array of cyber threats, old empires can falter – and new empires can grow. Cybersecurity may well be one of the next great industries, and it may just provide the needed defenses to ensure that New York City’s other empires can live another day.

Sep
27
2018
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Dropbox overhauls internal search to improve speed and accuracy

Over the last several months, Dropbox has been undertaking an overhaul of its internal search engine for the first time since 2015. Today, the company announced that the new version, dubbed Nautilus, is ready for the world. The latest search tool takes advantage of a new architecture powered by machine learning to help pinpoint the exact piece of content a user is looking for.

While an individual user may have a much smaller body of documents to search across than the World Wide Web, the paradox of enterprise search says that the fewer documents you have, the harder it is to locate the correct one. Yet Dropbox faces of a host of additional challenges when it comes to search. It has more than 500 million users and hundreds of billions of documents, making finding the correct piece for a particular user even more difficult. The company had to take all of this into consideration when it was rebuilding its internal search engine.

One way for the search team to attack a problem of this scale was to put machine learning to bear on it, but it required more than an underlying level of intelligence to make this work. It also required completely rethinking the entire search tool from an architectural level.

That meant separating two main pieces of the system, indexing and serving. The indexing piece is crucial of course in any search engine. A system of this size and scope needs a fast indexing engine to cover the number of documents in a whirl of changing content. This is the piece that’s hidden behind the scenes. The serving side of the equation is what end users see when they query the search engine, and the system generates a set of results.

Nautilus Architecture Diagram: Dropbox

Dropbox described the indexing system in a blog post announcing the new search engine: “The role of the indexing pipeline is to process file and user activity, extract content and metadata out of it, and create a search index.” They added that the easiest way to index a corpus of documents would be to just keep checking and iterating, but that couldn’t keep up with a system this large and complex, especially one that is focused on a unique set of content for each user (or group of users in the business tool).

They account for that in a couple of ways. They create offline builds every few days, but they also watch as users interact with their content and try to learn from that. As that happens, Dropbox creates what it calls “index mutations,” which they merge with the running indexes from the offline builds to help provide ever more accurate results.

The indexing process has to take into account the textual content assuming it’s a document, but it also has to look at the underlying metadata as a clue to the content. They use this information to feed a retrieval engine, whose job is to find as many documents as it can, as fast it can and worry about accuracy later.

It has to make sure it checks all of the repositories. For instance, Dropbox Paper is a separate repository, so the answer could be found there. It also has to take into account the access-level security, only displaying content that the person querying has the right to access.

Once it has a set of possible results, it uses machine learning to pinpoint the correct content. “The ranking engine is powered by a [machine learning] model that outputs a score for each document based on a variety of signals. Some signals measure the relevance of the document to the query (e.g., BM25), while others measure the relevance of the document to the user at the current moment in time,” they explained in the blog post.

After the system has a list of potential candidates, it ranks them and displays the results for the end user in the search interface, but a lot of work goes into that from the moment the user types the query until it displays a set of potential files. This new system is designed to make that process as fast and accurate as possible.

Sep
25
2018
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Salesforce, AWS expand partnership with secure data sharing between platforms

Salesforce and Amazon’s cloud arm, AWS, have had a pretty close relationship for some time, signing a $400 million deal for infrastructure cloud services in 2016, but today at Dreamforce, Salesforce’s massive customer conference taking place this week in San Francisco, they took it to another level. The two companies announced they were offering a new set of data integration services between the two cloud platforms for common customers.

Matt Garman, vice president of Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, says customers looking to transform digitally are still primarily concerned about security when moving data between cloud vendors, More specifically, they were asking for a way to move data more securely between the Salesforce and Amazon platforms. “Customers talked to us about sensitive data in Salesforce and using deep analytics and data processing on AWS and moving them back and forth in secure way,” he said. Today’s announcements let them do that.

In practice, Salesforce customers can set up a direct connection using AWS Private Link to connect directly to private Salesforce APIs and move data from Salesforce to an Amazon service such as Redshift, the company’s data warehouse product, without ever exposing the data to the open internet.

Further, Salesforce customers can set up Lambda functions so that when certain conditions are met in Salesforce, it triggers an action such as moving data (or vice versa). This is commonly known as serverless computing and developers are increasingly using event triggers to drive business processes.

Finally, the two companies are integrating more directly with Amazon Connect, the Amazon contact center software it launched in 2017. This is where it gets more interesting because of course Salesforce offers its own contact center services with Salesforce Service Cloud. The two companies found a way to help common customers work together here to build what they are calling AI-driven self-service applications using Amazon Connect on the Salesforce mobile Lightning development platform.

This could involve among other things, building mobile applications that take advantage of Amazon Lex, AWS’s bot building application and Salesforce Einstein, Salesforce’s artificial intelligence platform. Common customers can download the Amazon Connect CTI Adapter on the Salesforce AppExchange.

Make no mistake, this is a significant announcement in that it involves two of the most successful cloud companies on the planet working directly together to offer products and services that benefit their common customers. This was not lost on Bret Taylor, president and chief product officer at Salesforce. “We’re enabling something that wouldn’t have been possible. It’s really exciting because it’s something unique in the marketplace,” he said.

What’s more, it comes on the heels of yesterday’s partnership news with Apple, giving Salesforce two powerful partners to work with moving forward.

While the level of today’s news is unprecedented between the two companies, they  have been working together for some time. As Garman points out, Heroku, which Salesforce bought in 2010 and Quip, which it bought last year were both built on AWS from the get-go. Salesforce, which mostly runs its own data centers in the U.S. runs most of its public cloud on AWS, especially outside the U.S. Conversely, Amazon uses Salesforce tools internally.

Sep
24
2018
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Adobe introduces AI assistant to help Analytics users find deeper insights

Adobe Analytics is a sophisticated product, so much so that users might focus on a set of known metrics at the cost of missing key insights. Adobe introduced an AI-fueled virtual assistant called Intelligent Alerts today to help users find deeper insights they might have otherwise missed.

John Bates, director of product management for Adobe Analytics says that in the past, the company has used artificial intelligence and machine learning under the hood of Analytics to help their users understand their customer’s behavior better. This marks the first time, Adobe will be using this technology to understand how the user works with Analytics to offer new data they might not have considered.

“Historically we’ve analyzed the data that we collect on behalf of our customers, on behalf of brands and help provide insights. Now we’re analyzing our users’ behavior within Adobe Analytics, and then mashing them up with those insights that are most relevant and personalized for that individual, based on the signals that we see and how they use our tool,” Bates explained.

Adobe Intelligent Alerts. Screenshot: Adobe

Bates says that this isn’t unlike Netflix recommendations, which recommends content based on other shows and movies you’ve watched before, but applying it to the enterprise user, especially someone who really knows their way around Adobe Analytics. That’s because these power users provide the artificial intelligence engine with the strongest signals.

The way it works is the analyst receives some alerts they can dig into to give them additional insights. If they don’t like what they’re seeing, they can tune the system and it should learn over time what the analyst needs in terms of data.

Intelligent Alert Settings. Screenshot: Adobe

They can configure how often they see the alerts and how many they want to see. This all falls within the realm of Adobe’s artificial intelligence platform they call Sensei. Adobe built Sensei with the idea of injecting intelligence across the Adobe product line.

“It’s really a vision and strategy around how do we take things that data scientists do, and how we inject that into our technology such that an everyday user of Adobe Analytics can leverage the power of these advanced algorithms to help them better understand their customers and better perform in their jobs,” he said.

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