Apr
03
2019
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Okta unveils $50M in-house venture capital fund

Identity management software provider Okta, which went public two years ago in what was one of the first pure-cloud subscription-based company IPOs, wants to fund the next generation of identity, security and privacy startups.

At its big customer conference Oktane, where the company has also announced a new level of identity protection at the server level, chief operating officer Frederic Kerrest (pictured above, right, with chief executive officer Todd McKinnon) will unveil a $50 million investment fund meant to back early-stage startups leveraging artificial intelligence, machine learning and blockchain technology.

“We view this as a natural extension of what we are doing today,” Okta senior vice president Monty Gray told TechCrunch. Gray was hired last year to oversee corporate development, i.e. beef up Okta’s M&A strategy.

Gray and Kerrest tell TechCrunch that Okta Ventures will invest capital in existing Okta partners, as well as other companies in the burgeoning identity management ecosystem. The team managing the fund will look to Okta’s former backers, Sequoia, Andreessen Horowitz and Greylock, for support in the deal sourcing process.

Okta Ventures will write checks sized between $250,000 and $2 million to eight to 10 early-stage businesses per year.

“It’s just a way of making sure we are aligning all our work and support with the right companies who have the right vision and values because there’s a lot of noise around identity, ML and AI,” Kerrest said. “It’s about formalizing the support strategy we’ve had for years and making sure people are clear of the fact we are helping these organizations build because it’s helpful to our customers.”

Okta Ventures’ first bet is Trusted Key, a blockchain-based digital identity platform that previously raised $3 million from Founders Co-Op. Okta’s investment in the startup, founded by former Microsoft, Oracle and Symantec executives, represents its expanding interest in the blockchain.

“Blockchain as a backdrop for identity is cutting edge if not bleeding edge,” Gray said.

Okta, founded in 2009, had raised precisely $231 million from Sequoia, Andreessen Horowitz, Greylock, Khosla Ventures, Floodgate and others prior to its exit. The company’s stock has fared well since its IPO, debuting at $17 per share in 2017 and climbing to more than $85 apiece with a market cap of $9.6 billion as of Tuesday closing.

Apr
03
2019
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Enterprise blockchain startup Offchain Labs scores $3.7M seed round

Two of the issues limiting blockchain adoption in the enterprise has been lack of scalability and privacy. Offchain Labs, a startup that spun out of research at Princeton, wants to help create more scalable smart contracts while shifting part of the process off of the public blockchain to increase privacy. Today, the company announced a $3.7M seed round led by Pantera Capital.

Compound VC, Raphael Ouzan of Blocknation, Jake Seid, managing director at Stone Bridge Ventures and other unnamed investors also participated.

The startup has created a protocol called Arbitrum that helps developers scale smart contracts in a way that’s difficult to do right now, says company co-founder Ed Felten. “We’re working to build a platform for smart contract development that provides what we think developers want, a combination of scalability so that you can scale to more transactions per second, more users, and to contracts that have more code and still have more data in them,” he explained.

In addition to scalability, the company believes that companies want a way to business without sharing everything they are doing, as is required on a public chain. “The second thing we think people want is privacy, meaning control over who gets to see what’s happening in their contract. So you don’t have to publish everything about your contracts, your code and everything it does on a public chain in order to get your work done.”

The last piece related to that is trust. “Our platform offers what we call the ‘Any Trust Guarantee’, which means that when you launch or deploy your contract, you specify a set of validators for it. And the guarantee we give you is that as long as at least one validator is acting honestly, your contract will execute correctly, no matter how evil or inattentive the other validators are,” Felten said.

The company was born out of research at Princeton University and began with what Felten called an academic prototype created in their labs. Felten is a computer science professor at Princeton, and also served as Deputy CTO to the White House under President Obama,

Those credentials and the prototype showed enough to attract investors. Today, the company is hoping to use the money to complete a Beta version of Arbitrum. He wouldn’t commit to a timeline, but said the product is close.

While Felten recognizes he is competing with giants like IBM and SAP in the enterprise blockchain space, he believes that the startup has come up with a solution to a persistent problem for blockchain developers, and they are releasing the protocol as open source to make it even more attractive.

Feb
20
2019
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Xage brings role-based single sign-on to industrial devices

Traditional industries like oil and gas and manufacturing often use equipment that was created in a time when remote access wasn’t a gleam in an engineer’s eye, and hackers had no way of connecting to them. Today, these devices require remote access, and some don’t have even rudimentary authentication. Xage, the startup that wants to make industrial infrastructure more secure, announced a new solution today to bring single sign-on and role-based control to even the oldest industrial devices.

Company CEO Duncan Greatwood says that some companies have adopted firewall technology, but if a hacker breaches the firewall, there often isn’t even a password to defend these kinds of devices. He adds that hackers have been increasingly targeting industrial infrastructure.

Xage has come up with a way to help these companies with its latest product called Xage Enforcement Point (XEP). This tool gives IT a way to control these devices with a single password, a kind of industrial password manager. Greatwood says that some companies have hundreds of passwords for various industrial tools. Sometimes, whether because of distance across a factory floor, or remoteness of location, workers would rather adjust these machines remotely when possible.

While operations wants to simplify this for workers with remote access, IT worries about security, and the tension can hold companies back, force them to make big firewall investments or, in some cases, implement these kinds of solutions without adequate protection.

XEP helps bring a level of protection to these pieces of equipment. “XEP is a relatively small piece of software that can run on a tiny credit-card size computer, and you simply insert it in front of the piece of equipment you want to protect,” Greatwood explained.

The rest of the Xage platform adds additional security. The company introduced fingerprinting last year, which gives unique identifiers to these pieces of equipment. If a hacker tries to spoof a piece of equipment, and the device lacks a known fingerprint, they can’t get on the system.

Xage also makes use of the blockchain and a rules engine to secure industrial systems. The customer can define rules and use the blockchain as an enforcement mechanism where each node in the chain carries the rules, and a certain number of nodes as defined by the customer must agree that the person, machine or application trying to gain access is a legitimate actor.

The platform taken as a whole provides several levels of protection in an effort to discourage hackers who are trying to breach these systems. Greatwood says that while companies don’t usually get rid of tools they already have, like firewalls, they may scale back their investment after buying the Xage solution.

Xage was founded at the end of 2017. It has raised $16 million to this point and has 30 employees. Greatwood didn’t want to discuss a specific number of customers, but did say they were making headway in oil and gas, renewable energy, utilities and manufacturing.

Jan
23
2019
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Anchorage emerges with $17M from a16z for ‘omnimetric’ crypto security

I’m not allowed to tell you exactly how Anchorage keeps rich institutions from being robbed of their cryptocurrency, but the off-the-record demo was damn impressive. Judging by the $17 million Series A this security startup raised last year led by Andreessen Horowitz and joined by Khosla Ventures, #Angels, Max Levchin, Elad Gil, Mark McCombe of Blackrock and AngelList’s Naval Ravikant, I’m not the only one who thinks so. In fact, crypto funds like Andreessen’s a16z crypto, Paradigm and Electric Capital are already using it.

They’re trusting in the guys who engineered Square’s first encrypted card reader and Docker’s security protocols. “It’s less about us choosing this space and more about this space choosing us. If you look at our backgrounds and you look at the problem, it’s like the universe handed us on a silver platter the Venn diagram of our skill set,” co-founder Diogo Monica tells me.

Today, Anchorage is coming out of stealth and launching its cryptocurrency custody service to the public. Anchorage holds and safeguards crypto assets for institutions like hedge funds and venture firms, and only allows transactions verified by an array of biometrics, behavioral analysis and human reviewers. And because it doesn’t use “buried in the backyard” cold storage, asset holders can actually earn rewards and advantages for participating in coin-holder votes without fear of getting their Bitcoin, Ethereum or other coins stolen.

The result is a crypto custody service that could finally lure big-time commercial banks, endowments, pensions, mutual funds and hedgies into the blockchain world. Whether they seek short-term gains off of crypto volatility or want to HODL long-term while participating in coin governance, Anchorage promises to protect them.

Evolving past “pirate security”

Anchorage’s story starts eight years ago when Monica and his co-founder Nathan McCauley met after joining Square the same week. Monica had been getting a PhD in distributed systems while McCauley designed anti-reverse engineering tech to keep U.S. military data from being extracted from abandoned tanks or jets. After four years of building systems that would eventually move more than $80 billion per year in credit card transactions, they packaged themselves as a “pre-product acqui-hire” Monica tells me, and they were snapped up by Docker.

As their reputation grew from work and conference keynotes, cryptocurrency funds started reaching out for help with custody of their private keys. One had lost a passphrase and the $1 million in currency it was protecting in a display of jaw-dropping ignorance. The pair realized there were no true standards in crypto custody, so they got to work on Anchorage.

“You look at the status quo and it was and still is cold storage. It’s the same technology used by pirates in the 1700s,” Monica explains. “You bury your crypto in a treasure chest and then you make a treasure map of where those gold coins are,” except with USB keys, security deposit boxes and checklists. “We started calling it Pirate Custody.” Anchorage set out to develop something better — a replacement for usernames and passwords or even phone numbers and two-factor authentication that could be misplaced or hijacked.

This led them to Andreessen Horowitz partner and a16z crypto leader Chris Dixon, who’s now on their board. “We’ve been buying crypto assets running back to Bitcoin for years now here at a16z crypto. [Once you’re holding crypto,] it’s hard to do it in a way that’s secure, regulatory compliant, and lets you access it. We felt this pain point directly.”

Andreessen Horowitz partner and Anchorage board member Chris Dixon

It’s at this point in the conversation when Monica and McCauley give me their off-the-record demo. While there are no screenshots to share, the enterprise security suite they’ve built has the polish of a consumer app like Robinhood. What I can say is that Anchorage works with clients to whitelist employees’ devices. It then uses multiple types of biometric signals and behavioral analytics about the person and device trying to log in to verify their identity.

But even once they have access, Anchorage is built around quorum-based approvals. Withdrawals, other transactions and even changing employee permissions requires approval from multiple users inside the client company. They could set up Anchorage so it requires five of seven executives’ approval to pull out assets. And finally, outlier detection algorithms and a human review the transaction to make sure it looks legit. A hacker or rogue employee can’t steal the funds even if they’re logged in because they need consensus of approval.

That kind of assurance means institutional investors can confidently start to invest in crypto assets. That swell of capital could help replace the retreating consumer investors who’ve fled the market this year, leading to massive price drops. The liquidity provided by these asset managers could keep the whole blockchain industry moving. “Institutional investing has had centuries to build up a set of market infrastructure. Custody was something that for other asset classes was solved hundreds of years ago, so it’s just now catching up [for crypto],” says McCauley. “We’re creating a bigger market in and of itself,” Monica adds.

With Anchorage steadfastly handling custody, the risk these co-founders admit worries them lies in the smart contracts that govern the cryptocurrencies themselves. “We need to be extremely wide in our level of support and extremely deep because each blockchain has details of implementation. This is inherently a very difficult problem,” McCauley explains. It doesn’t matter if the coins are safe in Anchorage’s custody if a janky smart contract can botch their transfer.

There are plenty of startups vying to offer crypto custody, ranging from Bitgo and Ledger to well-known names like Coinbase and Gemini. Yet Anchorage offers a rare combination of institutional-since-day-one security rigor with the ability to participate in votes and governance of crypto assets that’s impossible if they’re in cold storage. Down the line, Anchorage hints that it might serve clients recommendations for how to vote to maximize their yield and preserve the sanctity of their coin.

They’ll have crypto investment legend Chris Dixon on their board to guide them. “What you’ll see is in the same way that institutional investors want to buy stock in Facebook and Google and Netflix, they’ll want to buy the equivalent in the world 10 years from now and do that safely,” Dixon tells me. “Anchorage will be that layer for them.”

But why do the Anchorage founders care so much about the problem? McCauley concludes that, “When we look at what’s potentially possible with crypto, there a fundamentally more accessible economy. We view ourselves as a key component of bringing that future forward.”

Jan
22
2019
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Linux Foundation launches Hyperledger Grid to provide framework for supply chain projects

The Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger Project has a singular focus on the blockchain, but this morning it announced a framework for building supply chain projects where it didn’t want blockchain stealing the show.

In fact, the foundation is careful to point out that this project is not specifically about the blockchain, so much as providing the building blocks for a broader view of solving supply chain digitization issues. As it describes in a blog post announcing the project, it is neither an application nor a blockchain project, per se. So what is it?

“Grid is an ecosystem of technologies, frameworks and libraries that work together, letting application developers make the choice as to which components are most appropriate for their industry or market model.”

Hyperledger doesn’t want to get locked down by jargon or preconceived notions of what these projects should look like. It wants to provide developers with a set of tools and libraries and let them loose to come up with ideas and build applications specific to their industry requirements.

Primary contributors to the project to this point have been Cargill, Intel and Bitwise IO.

Supply chain has been a major early use case for distributed ledger applications in the enterprise. In fact, earlier today we covered an announcement from Citizens Reserve, a startup building a Supply Chain as a Service on the blockchain. IBM has been working on several supply chain uses cases, including diamond tracking and food supply protection.

But the distributed ledger idea is so new both for supply chain and the enterprise in general that developers are still very much finding their way. By providing a flexible, open-source framework, The Linux Foundation is giving developers an open option and trying to provide a flexible foundation to build applications as this all shakes out.

Jan
22
2019
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Citizens Reserve is building a supply chain platform on the blockchain

Citizens Reserve, a Bay Area startup, has a broad goal of digitizing the supply chain. Last fall, the company launched the Alpha version of Suku, a Supply Chain as a Service platform built on the blockchain. Today, it announced a partnership with Smartrac, an RFID tag manufacturer, based in Amsterdam, as a key identity piece for the platform.

Companies use RFID to track products from field or factory to market. Eric Piscini, CEO at Citizens, says this partnership helps solve a crucial piece of digitizing the supply chain. It provides a way to trace products on their journey to market, and ensure their provenance, whether that is to be sure no labor was exploited in production, environmental standards were maintained or that the products were stored under the proper conditions to ensure freshness.

One of the big issues in track and trace on the supply chain is simply identifying the universe of items in motion across the world at any given moment. RFID tagging provides a way to give each of these items a digital identity, which can be placed on the blockchain to help prevent fraud. Once you have an irrefutable digital identity, it solves a big problem around digitizing the supply chain.

He said this is all part of a broader effort to move the supply chain to the digital realm by building a platform on the blockchain. This not only provides an irrefutable, traceable digital record, it can have all kinds of additional benefits, like reducing theft and fraud and ensuring provenance.

There are so many parties involved in this process, from farmers and manufacturers to customs authorities to shipping and container companies to logistics companies moving the products to market to the stores that sell the goods. Getting all of the various parties involved in the supply chain to move to a blockchain solution remains a huge challenge.

Today’s partnership offers one way to help build an identity mechanism for the Citizens Reserve solution. The company is also working on other partnerships to help solve other problems, like warehouse management and logistics.

The company currently has 11 employees based in Los Gatos, Calif. It has raised $11 million, according to Piscini.

Nov
28
2018
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AWS launches a managed blockchain service

It was only a year ago that AWS CEO Andy Jassy said that he wasn’t all that interested in blockchain services. Clearly something has changed over the course of the last year because today, the company is launching two new blockchain services: Quantum Ledger Database and Amazon Managed Blockchain.

As the name implies, AWS Managed Blockchain is a managed blockchain service. It supports Ethereum and Hyperledger Fabric.

“This service is going to make it much easier for you to use the two most popular blockchain frameworks,” said AWS CEO Andy Jassy. He noted that companies tend to use Hyperledger Fabric when they know the number of members in their blockchain network and want robust private operations and capabilities. AWS promises that the service will scale to thousands of applications and will allow users to run millions of transactions (though the company didn’t say with what kind of latency).

Support for Hyperledger Fabric is available today. Ethereum support is launching a few months from now.

Getting started with Managed Blockchain is a matter of using the AWS Console and configuring nodes, adding members and deploying applications.

“When we heard people saying ‘blockchain,’ we felt like there was their weird conveluting and conflating what they really wanted,” said Jassy. “And as we spent time working with customers and figuring out the jobs they were really trying to solve, this is what we think people are trying to do with blockchain.”

more AWS re:Invent 2018 coverage

Nov
14
2018
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This startup got $2.3M to identify physical objects using diamond dust

Imagine coating an expensive part with a layer of diamond dust the width of a human hair, capturing its light pattern as a unique identifier, then storing that identifier in a traditional database or on the blockchain. That’s precisely what Dust Identity, a Boston-based startup is trying to do, and today it got $2.3 million in seed money led by Kleiner Perkins with participation from New Science Ventures, Angular Ventures, and Castle Island Ventures.

The science behind Dust Identity was nurtured inside MIT, but the company has been at work for two years trying to build a solution based on that idea after receiving early support from DARPA. What these folks do is manufacture extremely tiny diamonds. They dust an object such as a circuit board with a coating of this and capture the diamonds in a polymer, company CEO and co-founder Ophir Gaathon explained.

“Once the diamonds fall on the surface of a polymer epoxy, and that polymer cures, the diamonds are fixed in their position, fixed in their orientation, and it’s actually the orientation of those diamonds that we developed a technology that allows us to read those angles very quickly,” Gaathon told TechCrunch.

For all the advanced technology at play here, Dust Identity is truly an identity company, but instead of identifying an individual, its purpose is to provide a trusted identity for an object using a physical anchor — in this case, diamond dust. You may be thinking that diamonds are kind of an expensive way to achieve this, but as it turns out, the company is actually creating the coating materials from low-cost diamond industrial waste.

“We start with diamond waste (for example, [from] the abrasive industry), but we developed a proprietary process (that’s of course highly scalable and economical) to purify and engineer the diamond waste into dust,” a company spokesperson explained.

The idea behind all of this is to prove that an object is valid and hasn’t been tampered with. The dust is applied at some point during the manufacturing process. The unique identifier is captured with some kind of commercial scanner and stored in the database. It provides a physical anchor for blockchain supply chain solutions that’s currently lacking. When the part makes its way to the buyer, they can run the part under a scanner and make sure it matches. If the dust pattern has been disturbed, there’s a good chance the piece was tampered with.

Finding a way to create uncopyable tags for physical objects is a kind of supply chain holy grail. Ilya Fushman, a partner at Kleiner Perkins says his firm recognized the potential of this solution. “We have a pretty strong hard tech practice. We understand the value of supply chain and supply chain integrity,” he said.

The company is not alone in trying to find a way to attach a physical anchor to items in the supply chain. In fact, you can go back to RFID tags and QR codes, but Gaathon says the security of these approaches has degraded over time as hackers figure out how to copy them. IBM and others are working on tiny chips to attach to objects, but the diamond dust approach could be the most secure if it can scale because it works with an entirely random light pattern that can never be reproduced.

The startup intends to take the money and try to prove this idea can be commercialized for government and manufacturing use cases. It certainly gets points for creativity here and it could be onto something that could transform how we track the integrity of items as they move through a supply chain.

Oct
23
2018
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Oracle delves deeper into blockchain with four new applications

Oracle is a traditional tech company that has been struggling to gain traction in the cloud, but it could see blockchain as a way to differentiate itself. At Oracle OpenWorld today it announced the Oracle Blockchain Applications Cloud, a series of four applications designed for transactions-based processing scenarios using Internet of Things as a data source.

“Customers struggle with how exactly to go from concepts like smart contracts, distributed ledger and cryptography to solving specific business problems,” Atul Mahamuni, VP of IoT and Blockchain at Oracle told TechCrunch.

The company actually introduced a more generalized blockchain as a service offering at OpenWorld last year, but this year they have decided to focus more on specific use cases, announcing four new applications. The blockchain comes into account because of its nature as an irrefutable and immutable record.

In cases where there is a dispute over the accuracy of a particular piece of data, the blockchain can provide incontrovertible proof. As for the Internet of Things, that provides data points you can use to provide that proof. Your sensor feeds the data and it (or some reference to it) gets added to the blockchain, leaving no room for doubt.

The four applications involve supply chain-transaction data including a track and trace capability to follow a product through its delivery from inception to market, proof of provenance for valuables like drugs, intelligent temperature tracking (what they are calling Intelligent Cold Chain) and warranty and usage tracking. Intelligent Cold chain ensures that a product that is supposed to be kept cold didn’t get exposed to higher than recommended temperatures, while warranty tracking ensures that a product was being used in a proscribed fashion and should be subject to warranty claims.

Each of these plays to the some of Oracle’s strengths as a company that builds databases and ERP software. It can draw on the information it tends to collect any way as part of the nature of its business processes and add it to a blockchain and other applications when it makes sense.

“So what we do is we get events and insights from IoT systems, as well as from supply chain ERP data, and we get those insights and translation from all of this and then put them into the blockchain and then do the correlations and artificial intelligence machine learning algorithms on top of those transactions,” Mahamuni explained.

This year perhaps even more so than the last couple, Oracle is trying to differentiate itself from the rest of the cloud pack, as it tries to right its cloud business. By building applications on top of base technologies like blockchain, IoT and artificial intelligence, while taking advantage of their domain knowledge around databases and ERP, they are hoping to show customers they can offer something their cloud competitors can’t.

Sep
24
2018
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Walmart is betting on the blockchain to improve food safety

Walmart has been working with IBM on a food safety blockchain solution and today it announced it’s requiring that all suppliers of leafy green vegetable for Sam’s and Walmart upload their data to the blockchain by September 2019 .

Most supply chains are bogged down in manual processes. This makes it difficult and time consuming to track down an issue should one like the E. coli romaine lettuce problem from last spring rear its head. By placing a supply chain on the blockchain, it makes the process more traceable, transparent and fully digital. Each node on the blockchain could represent an entity that has handled the food on the way to the store, making it much easier and faster to see if one of the affected farms sold infected supply to a particular location with much greater precision.

Walmart has been working with IBM for over a year on using the blockchain to digitize the food supply chain process. In fact, supply chain is one of the premiere business use cases for blockchain (beyond digital currency). Walmart is using the IBM Food Trust Solution, specifically developed for this use case.

“We built the IBM Food Trust solution using IBM Blockchain Platform, which is a tool or capability that IBM has built to help companies build, govern and run blockchain networks. It’s built using Hyperledger Fabric (the open source digital ledger technology) and it runs on IBM Cloud,” Bridget van Kralingen, IBM’s senior VP for Global Industries, Platforms and Blockchain explained.

Before moving the process to the blockchain, it typically took approximately 7 days to trace the source of food. With the blockchain, it’s been reduced to 2.2 seconds. That substantially reduces the likelihood  that infected food will reach the consumer.

Photo:  Shana Novak/Getty Images

One of the issues in a requiring the suppliers to put their information on the blockchain is understanding that there will be a range of approaches from paper to Excel spreadsheets to sophisticated ERP systems all uploading data to the blockchain. Walmart spokesperson Molly Blakeman says that this something they worked hard on with IBM to account for. Suppliers don’t have to be blockchain experts by any means. They simply have to know how to upload data to the blockchain application.

“IBM will offer an onboarding system that orients users with the service easily. Think about when you get a new iPhone – the instructions are easy to understand and you’re quickly up and running. That’s the aim here. Essentially, suppliers will need a smart device and internet to participate,” she said.

After working with it for a year, the company things it’s ready for broader implementation with the goal ultimately being making sure that the food that is sold at Walmart is safe for consumption, and if there is a problem, making auditing the supply chain a trivial activity.

“Our customers deserve a more transparent supply chain. We felt the one-step-up and one-step-back model of food traceability was outdated for the 21st century. This is a smart, technology-supported move that will greatly benefit our customers and transform the food system, benefitting all stakeholders,” Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety for Walmart said in statement.

In addition to the blockchain requirement, the company is also requiring that suppliers adhere to one of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), which have been internationally recognized as food safety standards, according to the company.

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