Jan
17
2019
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Former Facebook engineer picks up $15M for AI platform Spell

In 2016, Serkan Piantino packed up his desk at Facebook with hopes to move on to something new. The former director of Engineering for Facebook AI Research had every intention to keep working on AI, but quickly realized a huge issue.

Unless you’re under the umbrella of one of these big tech companies like Facebook, it can be very difficult and incredibly expensive to get your hands on the hardware necessary to run machine learning experiments.

So he built Spell, which today received $15 million in Series A funding led by Eclipse Ventures and Two Sigma Ventures.

Spell is a collaborative platform that lets anyone run machine learning experiments. The company connects clients with the best, newest hardware hosted by Google, AWS and Microsoft Azure and gives them the software interface they need to run, collaborate and build with AI.

“We spent decades getting to a laptop powerful enough to develop a mobile app or a website, but we’re struggling with things we develop in AI that we haven’t struggled with since the 70s,” said Piantino. “Before PCs existed, the computers filled the whole room at a university or NASA and people used terminals to log into a single main frame. It’s why Unix was invented, and that’s kind of what AI needs right now.”

In a meeting with Piantino this week, TechCrunch got a peek at the product. First, Piantino pulled out his MacBook and opened up Terminal. He began to run his own code against MNIST, which is a database of handwritten digits commonly used to train image detection algorithms.

He started the program and then moved over to the Spell platform. While the original program was just getting started, Spell’s cloud computing platform had completed the test in less than a minute.

The advantage here is obvious. Engineers who want to work on AI, either on their own or for a company, have a huge task in front of them. They essentially have to build their own computer, complete with the high-powered GPUs necessary to run their tests.

With Spell, the newest GPUs from Nvidia and Google are virtually available for anyone to run their tests.

Individual users can get on for free, specify the type of GPU they need to compute their experiment and simply let it run. Corporate users, on the other hand, are able to view the runs taking place on Spell and compare experiments, allowing users to collaborate on their projects from within the platform.

Enterprise clients can set up their own cluster, and keep all of their programs private on the Spell platform, rather than running tests on the public cluster.

Spell also offers enterprise customers a “spell hyper” command that offers built-in support for hyperparameter optimization. Folks can track their models and results and deploy them to Kubernetes/Kubeflow in a single click.

But perhaps most importantly, Spell allows an organization to instantly transform their model into an API that can be used more broadly throughout the organization, or used directly within an app or website.

The implications here are huge. Small companies and startups looking to get into AI now have a much lower barrier to entry, whereas large traditional companies can build out their own proprietary machine learning algorithms for use within the organization without an outrageous upfront investment.

Individual users can get on the platform for free, whereas enterprise clients can get started for $99/month per host you use over the course of a month. Piantino explains that Spell charges based on concurrent usage, so if the customer has 10 concurrent things running, the company considers that the “size” of the Spell cluster and charges based on that.

Piantino sees Spell’s model as the key to defensibility. Whereas many cloud platforms try to lock customers in to their entire suite of products, Spell works with any language framework and lets users plug and play on the platforms of their choice by simply commodifying the hardware. In fact, Spell doesn’t even share with clients which cloud cluster (Microsoft Azure, Google or AWS) they’re on.

So, on the one hand the speed of the tests themselves goes up based on access to new hardware, but, because Spell is an agnostic platform, there is also a huge advantage in how quickly one can get set up and start working.

The company plans to use the funding to further grow the team and the product, and Piantino says he has his eye out for top-tier engineering talent, as well as a designer.

Jan
17
2019
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On-demand workspace platform Breather taps new CEO

Breather’s new CEO Bryan Murphy / Breather Press Kit

Breather, the platform that provides on-demand private workspace, announced today that it has appointed Bryan Murphy as its new CEO.

Before joining Breather, Murphy was the founder and president of direct-to-consumer mattress startup, Tomorrow Sleep. Prior to Tomorrow Sleep, Murphy held posts as an advisor to investment firms and as an executive at eBay after the company acquired his previous company, WHI Solutions — an e-commerce platform for aftermarket auto parts — where Murphy was the co-founder and CEO.

Breather believes Murphy’s extensive background scaling e-commerce and SaaS platforms, as well as his experience working with incumbents across a number of traditional industries, can help it execute through its next stage of global growth.

Murphy is filling the vacancy left by co-founder and former CEO Julien Smith, who stepped down as chief executive this past September, just three months after the company completed its $45 million Series C round, which was led by Menlo Ventures and saw participation from RRE Ventures, Temasek Holdings, Ascendas-Singbridge and Caisse de Depot et Placement du Quebec.

In a past statement on his transition, Smith said: “As I reflect on my strengths and consider what it will take for the company to reach its full potential, I realize bringing on an executive with experience scaling a company through the next level of growth is the best thing for the business.”

Smith, who remains with the company as chairman of the board, believes Murphy more than fits the bill. “Bryan’s record of scaling brands in competitive markets makes him an ideal leader to support this momentum, and I’m excited to see where he takes us next,” Smith said.

In a conversation with TechCrunch, Murphy explained that Breather’s next growth phase will ultimately come down to its ability to continue the global expansion of its network of locations and partner landlords while striking the optimal balance between rental economics and employee utility, productivity and performance. With new spaces and ramped marketing efforts, Murphy and the company expect 2019 to be a big year for Breather — “I think this year, you’re going to start hearing a lot about Breather and it really being in a leadership role for the industry.”

Breather’s workspace at 900 Broadway in New York City is one of 500+ network locations accessible to users.

On Breather’s platform, users are currently able to access a network of more than 500 private workspaces across 10 major cities around the world, which can be booked as meeting space or short-term private office space.

Meeting spaces can be reserved for as little as two hours, while office space can be booked on a month-to-month basis, providing businesses with financial flexibility, private and more spacious alternatives to co-working options, and the ability to easily change offices as they grow. For landlords, Breather allows property owners to generate value from underutilized space by providing a turnkey digital booking system, as well as expertise in the short-term rental space.

Murphy explained to TechCrunch that part of what excited him most about his new role was his belief in Breather’s significant product-market fit and the immense addressable market that he sees for flexible workspaces longer-term. With limited penetration to date, Murphy feels the commercial office space industry is in just the third inning of significant transformation. 

Murphy believes that long-term growth for Breather and other flexible space providers will be driven by a heightened focus on employee flexibility and wellness, a growing number of currently underserved companies whose needs fall between co-working and traditional direct leasing, and the need for landlords to support a wider variety of office space options as workforce demographics and behaviors shift. 

Murphy believes that the ease, flexibility and unlocked value Breather provides puts the platform in a great position to win market share.

“Breather has built a remarkable commercial real estate e-commerce and services platform that offers one-click access to over 500 workspaces around the world,” said Murphy in a press release. “To our customers, having access to workspace that is turnkey, affordable, beautiful, productive and that can flex up and down based on needs is a total game changer.”

To date, Breather has served more than 500,000 customers and has raised more than $120 million in investment.

Jan
17
2019
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Alation announces $50M Series C investment as data catalog biz takes off

Alation, a startup that helps crawl a company’s databases in order to build a data search catalog, announced a $50 million Series C investment today.

The round was led by Sapphire Ventures and Salesforce Ventures. Existing investors Costanoa Ventures, DCVC (Data Collective), Harmony Partners and Icon Ventures also participated. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $82 million, according to Crunchbase data.

The participation of Sapphire Ventures, originally launched by SAP, and Salesforce Ventures, the venture arm of Salesforce, is particularly telling. One of the issues these enterprise software companies face when they go inside large enterprises is helping customer’s access and understand data wherever it lives. It’s one of the reasons that Salesforce bought MuleSoft for $6.5 billion last year.

This is a problem that employees face, as well. It’s simply inefficient to query multiple databases manually, or to even know what databases exist inside a large organization. Alation uses out-of-the-box connectors to connect to common data sources like Oracle, Redshift, Teradata, Spark and Tableau to create a centralized data catalog.

With that catalog in place, employees can search just as they would with any enterprise search engine, with the notable difference that this tool is focused strictly on structured data inside of supported data sources.

The company goes beyond pure matching to find the data an employee is searching for. Company CEO and co-founder Satyen Sangani says they also use a method to analyze usage to display the most likely result. “What differentiates us in particular is that we look at the logs of how people are using that information,” he explained. This is analogous to how Google uses the PageRank algorithm to measure the popularity of a page based on the number of times people link to a page.

Alation catalog page. Screenshot: Alation

It is certainly not alone in the space, with competitors like Alteryx and Informatica, but Alation’s approach seems to be resonating. Sangani reports triple-digit growth four years running. The company has soared from 89 employees at the end of last year to around 200 today. It boasts 100 large enterprise customers in production, including names like BMW, Hilton, American Express and Salesforce (whose investment arm, Salesforce Ventures also helped lead today’s round).

As the company grows rapidly, Sangani says he wants the capital in place to help fuel the increasing interest. The size and scope of his customers means that he will need to hire not just engineers to keep developing the product and building new connectors, but customer support and sales and marketing. In all, he expects to add between 100 and 200 employees in the next year.

He also wants to continue building out partnerships. As an example, Teradata is an authorized reseller, and has helped sell the product in global markets where a startup like Alation might lack the resources to enter.

Based in Redwood City, Calif., the company launched in 2012 and released the first version of the product in 2014. Its most recent round prior to today was a $23 million Series B in 2017.

Jan
16
2019
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AWS launches Backup, a fully managed backup service for AWS

Amazon’s AWS cloud computing service today launched Backup, a new tool that makes it easier for developers on the platform to back up their data from various AWS services and their on-premises apps. Out of the box, the service, which is now available to all developers, lets you set up backup policies for services like Amazon EBS volumes, RDS databases, DynamoDB tables, EFS file systems and AWS Storage Gateway volumes. Support for more services is planned, too. To back up on-premises data, businesses can use the AWS Storage Gateway.

The service allows users to define their various backup policies and retention periods, including the ability to move backups to cold storage (for EFS data) or delete them completely after a certain time. By default, the data is stored in Amazon S3 buckets.

Most of the supported services, except for EFS file systems, already feature the ability to create snapshots. Backup essentially automates that process and creates rules around it, so it’s no surprise that pricing for Backup is the same as for using those snapshot features (with the exception of the file system backup, which will have a per-GB charge). It’s worth noting that you’ll also pay a per-GB fee for restoring data from EFS file systems and DynamoDB backups.

Currently, Backup’s scope is limited to a given AWS region, but the company says that it plans to offer cross-region functionality later this year.

“As the cloud has become the default choice for customers of all sizes, it has attracted two distinct types of builders,” writes Bill Vass, AWS’s VP of Storage, Automation, and Management Services. “Some are tinkerers who want to tweak and fine-tune the full range of AWS services into a desired architecture, and other builders are drawn to the same breadth and depth of functionality in AWS, but are willing to trade some of the service granularity to start at a higher abstraction layer, so they can build even faster. We designed AWS Backup for this second type of builder who has told us that they want one place to go for backups versus having to do it across multiple, individual services.”

Early adopters of AWS Backup are State Street Corporation, Smile Brands and Rackspace, though this is surely a service that will attract its fair share of users as it makes the life of admins quite a bit easier. AWS does have quite a few backup and storage partners, though, who may not be all that excited to see AWS jump into this market, too — though they often offer a wider range of functionality than AWS’s service, including cross-region and offsite backups.

 

Jan
16
2019
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We Company CEO in hot water over being both a tenant and a landlord

The company formerly known as WeWork has come under scrutiny for potential conflict of interest issues regarding CEO Adam Neumann’s partial ownership of three properties where WeWork is (or will be) a tenant. TechCrunch has seen excerpts of the company’s prospectus for investors that details upwards of $100 million in total future rents WeWork will pay to properties owned, in part, by Adam Neumann.

In March 2018, The Real Deal reported that Neumann had purchased a 50 percent stake in 88 University Place alongside fashion designer Elie Tahari. That property was then leased by WeWork, which then leased space within the building to IBM.

Today, the WSJ is reporting that 88 University Place isn’t alone. Neumann also personally invested in properties in San Jose that are either currently leased to WeWork as a tenant or are earmarked for such a purpose. Unlike 88 University, where Neumann is a 50/50 owner with Tahari, the CEO of the We Company — as WeWork is now known — invested in the two San Jose properties as part of a real estate consortium and owns a smaller stake of an unspecified percentage.

These transactions were all disclosed in the company prospectus documents it filed as part of its $700 million bond sale in April 2018. According to the prospectus, WeWork’s total future rents on these properties (partially owned by Neumann) are $110.8 million, as of December 2017.

That doesn’t include the reported $65 million purchase of a Chelsea property by Neumann and partners, which is said to be earmarked for a new WeLive space built from the ground up. That, too, will be subject to rent payments from the We Company to run WeLive out of it.

This raises questions of whether there is a conflict of interest in Neumann being both the landlord and the tenant of properties through WeWork. The WSJ says that investors of the company are concerned that the CEO could personally benefit on rents or other terms with the company in these deals.

According to WeWork, however, the company has not been made aware of any issues by any of its investors about related party transactions or their disclosures. The company also said that the majority of the Board are independent of Adam and all of these transactions were approved.

A WeWork spokesperson also had this to say: “WeWork has a review process in place for related party transactions. Those transactions are reviewed and approved by the board, and they are disclosed to investors.”

As it stands now, The We Company is privately held and in the midst of a transition as it contemplates how to turn a substantial profit on its more than 400 property assets across the world. The company is taking a broad-stroke approach, serving tiny startups and massive corporate clients alike, while also offering co-living WeLive spaces to renters and building out the Powered By We platform to spread its bets.

The company is valued at a hefty $47 billion, even after a scaled back investment from SoftBank (which went from $16 billion to $2 billion). But as the We Company inches toward an IPO, we may start to see a call for tighter corporate governance and more scrutiny of potential conflicts of interest.

Jan
16
2019
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Nvidia’s T4 GPUs are now available in beta on Google Cloud

Google Cloud today announced that Nvidia’s Turing-based Tesla T4 data center GPUs are now available in beta in its data centers in Brazil, India, Netherlands, Singapore, Tokyo and the United States. Google first announced a private test of these cards in November, but that was a very limited alpha test. All developers can now take these new T4 GPUs for a spin through Google’s Compute Engine service.

The T4, which essentially uses the same processor architecture as Nvidia’s RTX cards for consumers, slots in-between the existing Nvidia V100 and P4 GPUs on the Google Cloud Platform . While the V100 is optimized for machine learning, though, the T4 (as its P4 predecessor) is more of a general-purpose GPU that also turns out to be great for training models and inferencing.

In terms of machine and deep learning performance, the 16GB T4 is significantly slower than the V100, though if you are mostly running inference on the cards, you may actually see a speed boost. Unsurprisingly, using the T4 is also cheaper than the V100, starting at $0.95 per hour compared to $2.48 per hour for the V100, with another discount for using preemptible VMs and Google’s usual sustained use discounts.

Google says that the card’s 16GB memory should easily handle large machine learning models and the ability to run multiple smaller models at the same time. The standard PCI Express 3.0 card also comes with support for Nvidia’s Tensor Cores to accelerate deep learning and Nvidia’s new RTX ray-tracing cores. Performance tops out at 260 TOPS and developers can connect up to four T4 GPUs to a virtual machine.

It’s worth stressing that this is also the first GPU in the Google Cloud lineup that supports Nvidia’s ray-tracing technology. There isn’t a lot of software on the market yet that actually makes use of this technique, which allows you to render more lifelike images in real time, but if you need a virtual workstation with a powerful next-generation graphics card, that’s now an option.

With today’s beta launch of the T4, Google Cloud now offers quite a variety of Nvidia GPUs, including the K80, P4, P100 and V100, all at different price points and with different performance characteristics.

Jan
16
2019
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Infor lands $1.5 billion investment ahead of IPO

Infor, a NYC-based enterprise software company, announced a massive $1.5 billion investment today that could be the precursor to an IPO in the next 12-24 months. One analyst is estimating that the valuation could be at least $60 billion.

The investment is being led by Koch Industries’ investment arm, Koch Equity Development, and Golden Gate Capital. Today’s investment comes on top of a $2 billion+ cash infusion from Koch in 2017, bringing the total raised to at least more than $3.5 billion along with a hefty $6.1 billion in debt. That’s a lot of cash.

In fact, the company plans to use a large portion of today’s investment to pay down part of that debt, including $500 million in senior secured notes due in 2020, which it plans to pay off next month, and $750 million in HoldCo senior contingent cash pay notes due in 2021, which it plans to pay off in May. The thinking is that the company wants to reduce its debt load ahead of its IPO.

“We expect this paydown, in combination with cash flows and estimated IPO proceeds, will provide Infor with leverage levels consistent with other successful IPOs over the past few years,” Infor CFO Kevin Samuelson explained during an investor call today.

The company wouldn’t rule out additional investments before going public, but it was looking firmly toward an IPO. “We’ve spoken for some time about the many advantages that we believe Infor will receive if the company goes public, including improved brand recognition, a broader employee equity program, additional currency for M&A and more financial clarity for our customers and prospects,” Samuelson said.

Infor may be the largest company you never heard of, with more than 17,000 employees and 68,000 customers in more than 100 countries worldwide. All of those customers generated $3 billion in revenue in 2018. That’s a significant presence.

Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst at Constellation Research, told TechCrunch that based on that revenue, he believes the valuation could be in the neighborhood of $60 billion. He based that on $3 billion in revenue, while using Oracle and SAP as similar industry comparisons. These companies have a 20X price/earnings ratio. He adds, that would make it the largest tech IPO ever for a NYC tech company if that comes to pass. Infor would not confirm this number with a spokesperson telling TechCrunch, “We cannot comment on value at this time.”

What does this company do to achieve this size and scope? It’s not unlike many other large enterprise companies, says Wang. It produces cloud software solutions around typical enterprise needs such as CRM, ERP and supply chain asset management.

Daniel Newman, principal analyst at Futurum Research, says that Infor has grown rapidly through a series of acquisitions and an unusual approach to enterprise software. “What makes its approach to enterprise software unique is that rather than building software and then attempting to customize it for the unique [customer] needs, Infor takes an industry-based approach that incorporates both subtle and material capabilities to address specific industry needs that more generic ERP tools aren’t capable of out of the box,” Newman told TechCrunch.

He adds that this difference is attractive to many companies seeking ERP and enterprise asset management tools that are built with their business in mind, rather than completely customizing a software designed for any business in any industry.

As it turns out, Koch isn’t just an investor, it’s an Infor customer. “Koch was a customer of Infor before we became an investor in the company, and Koch Industries’ companies continue to move their most mission critical applications to Infor CloudSuites,” Jim Hannan, executive vice president and CEO for Enterprises at Koch Industries said in a statement.

The company, which was founded way back in 2002, has been shifting to the cloud over the last five years. It reports that more than 70 percent of its revenue is now derived from cloud products, fueled in part by an aggressive acquisition strategy.

Jan
16
2019
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HyperScience, the machine learning startup tackling data entry, raises $30 million Series B

HyperScience, the machine learning company that turns human readable data into machine readable data, has today announced the close of a $30 million Series B funding round led by Stripes Group, with participation from existing investors FirstMark Capital and Felicis Ventures, as well as new investors Battery Ventures, Global Founders Capital, TD Ameritrade and QBE.

HyperScience launched out of stealth in 2016 with a suite of enterprise products focused on the healthcare, insurance, finance and government industries. The original products were HSForms (which handled data-entry by converting hand-written forms to digital), HSFreeForm (which did a similar function for hand-written emails or other non-form content) and HSEvaluate (which could parse through complex data on a form to help insurance companies approve or deny claims by pulling out all the relevant info).

Now, the company has combined all three of those products into a single product called HyperScience. The product is meant to help companies and organizations reduce their data-entry backlog and better serve their customers, saving money and resources.

The idea is that many of the forms we use in life or in the workplace are in an arbitrary format. My bank statements don’t look the same as your bank statements, and invoices from your company might look different than invoices from my company.

HyperScience is able to take those forms and pipe them into the system quickly and easily, without help from humans.

Instead of charging by seat, HyperScience charges by documents, as the mere use of HyperScience should mean that fewer humans are actually “using” the product.

The latest round brings HyperScience’s total funding to $50 million, and the company plans to use a good deal of that funding to grow the team.

“We have a product that works and a phenomenally good product market fit,” said CEO Peter Brodsky. “What will determine our success is our ability to build and scale the team.”

Jan
15
2019
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Box hires former SAP exec as chief information security officer

Box announced today that it has hired Lakshmi Hanspal to be the company’s new chief information security officer (CISO). She boasts 20 years of security experience, including holding executive security roles at SAP Ariba and Bank of America. She also spent time in a senior role at PayPal.

In a blog post announcing the hire, the company defined her role this way: “In the role of CISO, Lakshmi will be responsible for Box’s cyber security practice, security operations and data and platform protection.”

Hanspal sees similarities in Box from her time at SAP Ariba, but she recognizes that she will face a different set of challenges. “My role at Box is similar to what I focused on at SAP Ariba with the biggest difference being Box’s geographical footprint. Box is a born in the cloud company and expanding rapidly globally, so my focus will also include securing public cloud operations (future stack) and risk transparency for our customers,” she told TechCrunch.

She said that will involve improving service maturity and sustainability through automation, while continuing to ensure the highest level of security of both Box corporate and product platforms.

Box CEO Aaron Levie indicated that security is central to everything Box does, so finding the right chief information security officer was absolutely critical. “Not only does Lakshmi bring with her an impressive and diverse leadership experience from her time at SAP, PayPal and Bank of America, but she’s an incredible team builder and culture add for Box that will take our security team to the next level,” Levie said.

Hanspal is the third woman on Box’s executive team, joining Stephanie Carullo, who was hired as chief operating officer in 2017 and chief people officer, Christie Lake.

Jan
15
2019
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Microsoft continues to build government security credentials ahead of JEDI decision

While the DoD is in the process of reviewing the $10 billion JEDI cloud contract RFPs (assuming the work continues during the government shutdown), Microsoft continues to build up its federal government security bona fides, regardless.

Today the company announced it has achieved the highest level of federal government clearance for the Outlook mobile app, allowing US Government Community Cloud (GCC) High and Department of Defense employees to use the mobile app. This is on top of FedRamp compliance, the company achieved last year.

“To meet the high level of government security and compliance requirements, we updated the Outlook mobile architecture so that it establishes a direct connection between the Outlook mobile app and the compliant Exchange Online backend services using a native Microsoft sync technology and removes middle tier services,” the company wrote in a blog post announcing the update.

The update will allows these highly security-conscious employees to access some of the more recent updates to Outlook Mobile such as the ability to add a comment when canceling an event.

This is in line with government security updates the company made last year. While none of these changes are specifically designed to help win the $10 billion JEDI cloud contract, they certainly help make a case for Microsoft from a technology standpoint

As Microsoft corporate vice president for Azure, Julia White stated in a blog post last year, which we covered, “Moving forward, we are simplifying our approach to regulatory compliance for federal agencies, so that our government customers can gain access to innovation more rapidly,” White wrote at the time. The Outlook Mobile release is clearly in line with that.

Today’s announcement comes after the Pentagon announced just last week that it has awarded Microsoft a separate large contract for $1.7 billion. This involves providing Microsoft Enterprise Services for the Department of Defense (DoD), Coast Guard and the intelligence community, according to a statement from DoD.

All of this comes ahead of decision on the massive $10 billion, winner-take-all cloud contract. Final RFPs were submitted in October and the DoD is expected to make a decision in April. The process has not been without controversy with Oracle and IBM submitting a formal protests even before the RFP deadline — and more recently, Oracle filing a lawsuit alleging the contract terms violate federal procurement laws. Oracle has been particularly concerned that the contract was designed to favor Amazon, a point the DoD has repeatedly denied.

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