Dec
15
2018
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The limits of coworking

It feels like there’s a WeWork on every street nowadays. Take a walk through midtown Manhattan (please don’t actually) and it might even seem like there are more WeWorks than office buildings.

Consider this an ongoing discussion about Urban Tech, its intersection with regulation, issues of public service, and other complexities that people have full PHDs on. I’m just a bitter, born-and-bred New Yorker trying to figure out why I’ve been stuck in between subway stops for the last 15 minutes, so please reach out with your take on any of these thoughts: @Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com.

Co-working has permeated cities around the world at an astronomical rate. The rise has been so remarkable that even the headline-dominating SoftBank seems willing to bet the success of its colossal Vision Fund on the shift continuing, having poured billions into WeWork – including a recent $4.4 billion top-up that saw the co-working king’s valuation spike to $45 billion.

And there are no signs of the trend slowing down. With growing frequency, new startups are popping up across cities looking to turn under-utilized brick-and-mortar or commercial space into low-cost co-working options.

It’s a strategy spreading through every type of business from retail – where companies like Workbar have helped retailers offer up portions of their stores – to more niche verticals like parking lots – where companies like Campsyte are transforming empty lots into spaces for outdoor co-working and corporate off-sites. Restaurants and bars might even prove most popular for co-working, with startups like Spacious and KettleSpace turning restaurants that are closed during the day into private co-working space during their off-hours.

Before you know it, a startup will be strapping an Aeron chair to the top of a telephone pole and calling it “WirelessWorking”.

But is there a limit to how far co-working can go? Are all of the storefronts, restaurants and open spaces that line city streets going to be filled with MacBooks, cappuccinos and Moleskine notebooks? That might be too tall a task, even for the movement taking over skyscrapers.

The co-working of everything

Photo: Vasyl Dolmatov / iStock via Getty Images

So why is everyone trying to turn your favorite neighborhood dinner spot into a part-time WeWork in the first place? Co-working offers a particularly compelling use case for under-utilized space.

First, co-working falls under the same general commercial zoning categories as most independent businesses and very little additional infrastructure – outside of a few extra power outlets and some decent WiFi – is required to turn a space into an effective replacement for the often crowded and distracting coffee shops used by price-sensitive, lean, remote, or nomadic workers that make up a growing portion of the workforce.

Thus, businesses can list their space at little-to-no cost, without having to deal with structural layout changes that are more likely to arise when dealing with pop-up solutions or event rentals.

On the supply side, these co-working networks don’t have to purchase leases or make capital improvements to convert each space, and so they’re able to offer more square footage per member at a much lower rate than traditional co-working spaces. Spacious, for example, charges a monthly membership fee of $99-$129 dollars for access to its network of vetted restaurants, which is cheap compared to a WeWork desk, which can cost anywhere from $300-$800 per month in New York City.

Customers realize more affordable co-working alternatives, while tight-margin businesses facing increasing rents for under-utilized property are able to pool resources into a network and access a completely new revenue stream at very little cost. The value proposition is proving to be seriously convincing in initial cities – Spacious told the New York Times, that so many restaurants were applying to join the network on their own volition that only five percent of total applicants were ultimately getting accepted.

Basically, the business model here checks a lot of the boxes for successful marketplaces: Acquisition and transaction friction is low for both customers and suppliers, with both seeing real value that didn’t exist previously. Unit economics seem strong, and vetting on both sides of the market creates trust and community. Finally, there’s an observable network effect whereby suppliers benefit from higher occupancy as more customers join the network, while customers benefit from added flexibility as more locations join the network.

… Or just the co-working of some things

Photo: Caiaimage / Robert Daly via Getty Images

So is this the way of the future? The strategy is really compelling, with a creative solution that offers tremendous value to businesses and workers in major cities. But concerns around the scalability of demand make it difficult to picture this phenomenon becoming ubiquitous across cities or something that reaches the scale of a WeWork or large conventional co-working player.

All these companies seem to be competing for a similar demographic, not only with one another, but also with coffee shops, free workspaces, and other flexible co-working options like Croissant, which provides members with access to unused desks and offices in traditional co-working spaces. Like Spacious and KettleSpace, the spaces on Croissant own the property leases and are already built for co-working, so Croissant can still offer comparatively attractive rates.

The offer seems most compelling for someone that is able to work without a stable location and without the amenities offered in traditional co-working or office spaces, and is also price sensitive enough where they would trade those benefits for a lower price. Yet at the same time, they can’t be too price sensitive, where they would prefer working out of free – or close to free – coffee shops instead of paying a monthly membership fee to avoid the frictions that can come with them.

And it seems unclear whether the problem or solution is as poignant outside of high-density cities – let alone outside of high-density areas of high-density cities.

Without density, is the competition for space or traffic in coffee shops and free workspaces still high enough where it’s worth paying a membership fee for? Would the desire for a private working environment, or for a working community, be enough to incentivize membership alone? And in less-dense and more-sprawl oriented cities, members could also face the risk of having to travel significant distances if space isn’t available in nearby locations.

While the emerging workforce is trending towards more remote, agile and nomadic workers that can do more with less, it’s less certain how many will actually fit the profile that opts out of both more costly but stable traditional workspaces, as well as potentially frustrating but free alternatives. And if the lack of density does prove to be an issue, how many of those workers will live in hyper-dense areas, especially if they are price-sensitive and can work and live anywhere?

To be clear, I’m not saying the companies won’t see significant growth – in fact, I think they will. But will the trend of monetizing unused space through co-working come to permeate cities everywhere and do so with meaningful occupancy? Maybe not. That said, there is still a sizable and growing demographic that need these solutions and the value proposition is significant in many major urban areas.

The companies are creating real value, creating more efficient use of wasted space, and fixing a supply-demand issue. And the cultural value of even modestly helping independent businesses keep the lights on seems to outweigh the cultural “damage” some may fear in turning them into part-time co-working spaces.

And lastly, some reading while in transit:

Dec
08
2018
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Why you need a supercomputer to build a house

When the hell did building a house become so complicated?

Don’t let the folks on HGTV fool you. The process of building a home nowadays is incredibly painful. Just applying for the necessary permits can be a soul-crushing undertaking that’ll have you running around the city, filling out useless forms, and waiting in motionless lines under fluorescent lights at City Hall wondering whether you should have just moved back in with your parents.

Consider this an ongoing discussion about Urban Tech, its intersection with regulation, issues of public service, and other complexities that people have full PHDs on. I’m just a bitter, born-and-bred New Yorker trying to figure out why I’ve been stuck in between subway stops for the last 15 minutes, so please reach out with your take on any of these thoughts: @Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com.

And to actually get approval for those permits, your future home will have to satisfy a set of conditions that is a factorial of complex and conflicting federal, state and city building codes, separate sets of fire and energy requirements, and quasi-legal construction standards set by various independent agencies.

It wasn’t always this hard – remember when you’d hear people say “my grandparents built this house with their bare hands?” These proliferating rules have been among the main causes of the rapidly rising cost of housing in America and other developed nations. The good news is that a new generation of startups is identifying and simplifying these thickets of rules, and the future of housing may be determined as much by machine learning as woodworking.

When directions become deterrents

Photo by Bill Oxford via Getty Images

Cities once solely created the building codes that dictate the requirements for almost every aspect of a building’s design, and they structured those guidelines based on local terrain, climates and risks. Over time, townships, states, federally-recognized organizations and independent groups that sprouted from the insurance industry further created their own “model” building codes.

The complexity starts here. The federal codes and independent agency standards are optional for states, who have their own codes which are optional for cities, who have their own codes that are often inconsistent with the state’s and are optional for individual townships. Thus, local building codes are these ever-changing and constantly-swelling mutant books made up of whichever aspects of these different codes local governments choose to mix together. For instance, New York City’s building code is made up of five sections, 76 chapters and 35 appendices, alongside a separate set of 67 updates (The 2014 edition is available as a book for $155, and it makes a great gift for someone you never want to talk to again).

In short: what a shit show.

Because of the hyper-localized and overlapping nature of building codes, a home in one location can be subject to a completely different set of requirements than one elsewhere. So it’s really freaking difficult to even understand what you’re allowed to build, the conditions you need to satisfy, and how to best meet those conditions.

There are certain levels of complexity in housing codes that are hard to avoid. The structural integrity of a home is dependent on everything from walls to erosion and wind-flow. There are countless types of material and technology used in buildings, all of which are constantly evolving.

Thus, each thousand-page codebook from the various federal, state, city, township and independent agencies – all dictating interconnecting, location and structure-dependent needs – lead to an incredibly expansive decision tree that requires an endless set of simulations to fully understand all the options you have to reach compliance, and their respective cost-effectiveness and efficiency.

So homebuilders are often forced to turn to costly consultants or settle on designs that satisfy code but aren’t cost-efficient. And if construction issues cause you to fall short of the outcomes you expected, you could face hefty fines, delays or gigantic cost overruns from redesigns and rebuilds. All these costs flow through the lifecycle of a building, ultimately impacting affordability and access for homeowners and renters.

Startups are helping people crack the code

Photo by Caiaimage/Rafal Rodzoch via Getty Images

Strap on your hard hat – there may be hope for your dream home after all.

The friction, inefficiencies, and pure agony caused by our increasingly convoluted building codes have given rise to a growing set of companies that are helping people make sense of the home-building process by incorporating regulations directly into their software.

Using machine learning, their platforms run advanced scenario-analysis around interweaving building codes and inter-dependent structural variables, allowing users to create compliant designs and regulatory-informed decisions without having to ever encounter the regulations themselves.

For example, the prefab housing startup Cover is helping people figure out what kind of backyard homes they can design and build on their properties based on local zoning and permitting regulations.

Some startups are trying to provide similar services to developers of larger scale buildings as well. Just this past week, I covered the seed round for a startup called Cove.Tool, which analyzes local building energy codes – based on location and project-level characteristics specified by the developer – and spits out the most cost-effective and energy-efficient resource mix that can be built to hit local energy requirements.

And startups aren’t just simplifying the regulatory pains of the housing process through building codes. Envelope is helping developers make sense of our equally tortuous zoning codes, while Cover and companies like Camino are helping steer home and business-owners through arduous and analog permitting processes.

Look, I’m not saying codes are bad. In fact, I think building codes are good and necessary – no one wants to live in a home that might cave in on itself the next time it snows. But I still can’t help but ask myself why the hell does it take AI to figure out how to build a house? Why do we have building codes that take a supercomputer to figure out?

Ultimately, it would probably help to have more standardized building codes that we actually clean-up from time-to-time. More regional standardization would greatly reduce the number of conditional branches that exist. And if there was one set of accepted overarching codes that could still set precise requirements for all components of a building, there would still only be one path of regulations to follow, greatly reducing the knowledge and analysis necessary to efficiently build a home.

But housing’s inherent ties to geography make standardization unlikely. Each region has different land conditions, climates, priorities and political motivations that cause governments to want their own set of rules.

Instead, governments seem to be fine with sidestepping the issues caused by hyper-regional building codes and leaving it up to startups to help people wade through the ridiculousness that paves the home-building process, in the same way Concur aids employee with infuriating corporate expensing policies.

For now, we can count on startups that are unlocking value and making housing more accessible, simpler and cheaper just by making the rules easier to understand. And maybe one day my grandkids can tell their friends how their grandpa built his house with his own supercomputer.

And lastly, some reading while in transit:

Dec
04
2018
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Cove.Tool wants to solve climate change one efficient building at a time

As the fight against climate change heats up, Cove.Tool is looking to help tackle carbon emissions one building at a time.

The Atlanta-based startup provides an automated big-data platform that helps architects, engineers and contractors identify the most cost-effective ways to make buildings compliant with energy efficiency requirements. After raising an initial round earlier this year, the company completed the final close of a $750,000 seed round. Since the initial announcement of the round earlier this month, Urban Us, the early-stage fund focused on companies transforming city life, has joined the syndicate comprised of Tech Square Labs and Knoll Ventures.

Helping firms navigate a growing suite of energy standards and options

Cove.Tool software allows building designers and managers to plug in a variety of building conditions, energy options, and zoning specifications to get to the most cost-effective method of hitting building energy efficiency requirements (Cove.Tool Press Image / Cove.Tool / https://covetool.com).

In the US, the buildings we live and work in contribute more carbon emissions than any other sector. Governments across the country are now looking to improve energy consumption habits by implementing new building codes that set higher energy efficiency requirements for buildings. 

However, figuring out the best ways to meet changing energy standards has become an increasingly difficult task for designers. For one, buildings are subject to differing federal, state and city codes that are all frequently updated and overlaid on one another. Therefore, the specific efficiency requirements for a building can be hard to understand, geographically unique and immensely variable from project to project.

Architects, engineers and contractors also have more options for managing energy consumption than ever before – equipped with tools like connected devices, real-time energy-management software and more-affordable renewable energy resources. And the effectiveness and cost of each resource are also impacted by variables distinct to each project and each location, such as local conditions, resource placement, and factors as specific as the amount of shade a building sees.

With designers and contractors facing countless resource combinations and weightings, Cove.Tool looks to make it easier to identify and implement the most cost-effective and efficient resource bundles that can be used to hit a building’s energy efficiency requirements.

Cove.Tool users begin by specifying a variety of project-specific inputs, which can include a vast amount of extremely granular detail around a building’s use, location, dimensions or otherwise. The software runs the inputs through a set of parametric energy models before spitting out the optimal resource combination under the set parameters.

For example, if a project is located on a site with heavy wind flow in a cold city, the platform might tell you to increase window size and spend on energy efficient wall installations, while reducing spending on HVAC systems. Along with its recommendations, Cove.Tool provides in-depth but fairly easy-to-understand graphical analyses that illustrate various aspects of a building’s energy performance under different scenarios and sensitivities.

Cove.Tool users can input granular project-specifics, such as shading from particular beams and facades, to get precise analyses around a building’s energy performance under different scenarios and sensitivities.

Democratizing building energy modeling

Traditionally, the design process for a building’s energy system can be quite painful for architecture and engineering firms.

An architect would send initial building designs to engineers, who then test out a variety of energy system scenarios over the course a few weeks. By the time the engineers are able to come back with an analysis, the architects have often made significant design changes, which then gets sent back to the engineers, forcing the energy plan to constantly be 1-to-3 months behind the rest of the building. This process can not only lead to less-efficient and more-expensive energy infrastructure, but the hectic back-and-forth can lead to longer project timelines, unexpected construction issues, delays and budget overruns.

Cove.Tool effectively looks to automate the process of “energy modeling.” The energy modeling looks to ease the pains of energy design in the same ways Building Information Modeling (BIM) has transformed architectural design and construction. Just as BIM creates predictive digital simulations that test all the design attributes of a project, energy modeling uses building specs, environmental conditions, and various other parameters to simulate a building’s energy efficiency, costs and footprint.

By using energy modeling, developers can optimize the design of the building’s energy system, adjust plans in real-time, and more effectively manage the construction of a building’s energy infrastructure. However, the expertise needed for energy modeling falls outside the comfort zones of many firms, who often have to outsource the task to expensive consultants.

The frustrations of energy system design and the complexities of energy modeling are ones the Cove.Tool team knows well. Patrick Chopson and Sandeep Ajuha, two of the company’s three co-founders, are former architects that worked as energy modeling consultants when they first began building out the Cove.Tool software.

After seeing their clients’ initial excitement over the ability to quickly analyze millions of combinations and instantly identify the ones that produce cost and energy savings, Patrick and Sandeep teamed up with CTO Daniel Chopson and focused full-time on building out a comprehensive automated solution that would allow firms to run energy modeling analysis without costly consultants, more quickly, and through an interface that would be easy enough for an architectural intern to use.

So far there seems to be serious demand for the product, with the company already boasting an impressive roster of customers that includes several of the country’s largest architecture firms, such as HGA, HKS and Cooper Carry. And the platform has delivered compelling results – for example, one residential developer was able to identify energy solutions that cost $2 million less than the building’s original model. With the funds from its seed round, Cove.Tool plans further enhance its sales effort while continuing to develop additional features for the platform.

Changing decision-making and fighting climate change

The value proposition Cove.Tool hopes to offer is clear – the company wants to make it easier, faster and cheaper for firms to use innovative design processes that help identify the most cost-effective and energy-efficient solutions for their buildings, all while reducing the risks of redesign, delay and budget overruns.

Longer-term, the company hopes that it can help the building industry move towards more innovative project processes and more informed decision-making while making a serious dent in the fight against emissions.

“We want to change the way decisions are made. We want decisions to move away from being just intuition to become more data-driven.” The co-founders told TechCrunch.

“Ultimately we want to help stop climate change one building at a time. Stopping climate change is such a huge undertaking but if we can change the behavior of buildings it can be a bit easier. Architects and engineers are working hard but they need help and we need to change.”

Oct
26
2018
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Microsoft has no problem taking the $10B JEDI cloud contract if it wins

The Pentagon’s $10 billion JEDI cloud contract bidding process has drawn a lot of attention. Earlier this month, Google withdrew, claiming ethical considerations. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos responded in an interview at Wired25 that he thinks that it’s a mistake for big tech companies to turn their back on the U.S. military. Microsoft president Brad Smith agrees.

In a blog post today, he made clear that Microsoft intends to be a bidder in government/military contracts, even if some Microsoft employees have a problem with it. While acknowledging the ethical considerations of today’s most advanced technologies like artificial intelligence, and the ways they could be abused, he explicitly stated that Microsoft will continue to work with the government and the military.

“First, we believe in the strong defense of the United States and we want the people who defend it to have access to the nation’s best technology, including from Microsoft,” Smith wrote in the blog post.

To that end, the company wants to win that JEDI cloud contract, something it has acknowledged from the start, even while criticizing the winner-take-all nature of the deal. In the blog post, Smith cited the JEDI contract as an example of the company’s desire to work closely with the U.S. government.

“Recently Microsoft bid on an important defense project. It’s the DOD’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure cloud project – or “JEDI” – which will re-engineer the Defense Department’s end-to-end IT infrastructure, from the Pentagon to field-level support of the country’s servicemen and women. The contract has not been awarded but it’s an example of the kind of work we are committed to doing,” he wrote.

He went on, much like Bezos, to wrap his company’s philosophy in patriotic rhetoric, rather than about winning lucrative contracts. “We want the people of this country and especially the people who serve this country to know that we at Microsoft have their backs. They will have access to the best technology that we create,” Smith wrote.

Microsoft president Brad Smith. Photo: Riccardo Savi/Getty Images

Throughout the piece, Smith continued to walk a fine line between patriotic duty to support the U.S. military, while carefully conceding that there will be different opinions in a large and diverse company population (some of whom aren’t U.S. citizens). Ultimately, he believes that it’s critical that tech companies be included in the conversation when the government uses advanced technologies.

“But we can’t expect these new developments to be addressed wisely if the people in the tech sector who know the most about technology withdraw from the conversation,” Smith wrote.

Like Bezos, he made it clear that the company leadership is going to continue to pursue contracts like JEDI, whether it’s out of a sense of duty or economic practicality or a little of both — whether employees agree or not.

Oct
15
2018
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Jeff Bezos is just fine taking the Pentagon’s $10B JEDI cloud contract

Some tech companies might have a problem taking money from the Department of Defense, but Amazon isn’t one of them, as CEO Jeff Bezos made clear today at the Wired25 conference. Just last week, Google pulled out of the running for the Pentagon’s $10 billion, 10-year JEDI cloud contract, but Bezos suggested that he was happy to take the government’s money.

Bezos has been surprisingly quiet about the contract up until now, but his company has certainly attracted plenty of attention from the companies competing for the JEDI deal. Just last week IBM filed a formal protest with the Government Accountability Office claiming that the contract was stacked in favor one vendor. And while it didn’t name it directly, the clear implication was that company was the one owned by Bezos.

Last summer Oracle also filed a protest and also complained that they believed the government had set up the contract to favor Amazon, a charge spokesperson Heather Babb denied. “The JEDI Cloud final RFP reflects the unique and critical needs of DOD, employing the best practices of competitive pricing and security. No vendors have been pre-selected,” she said last month.

While competitors are clearly worried about Amazon, which has a substantial lead in the cloud infrastructure market, the company itself has kept quiet on the deal until now. Bezos set his company’s support in patriotic terms and one of leadership.

“Sometimes one of the jobs of the senior leadership team is to make the right decision, even when it’s unpopular. And if if big tech companies are going to turn their back on the US Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble,” he said.

“I know everyone is conflicted about the current politics in this country, but this country is a gem,” he added.

While Google tried to frame its decision as taking a principled stand against misuse of technology by the government, Bezos chose another tack, stating that all technology can be used for good or ill. “Technologies are always two-sided. You know there are ways they can be misused as well as used, and this isn’t new,” Bezos told Wired25.

He’s not wrong of course, but it’s hard not to look at the size of the contract and see it as purely a business decision on his part. Amazon is as hot for that $10 billion contract as any of its competitors. What’s different in this talk is that Bezos made it sound like a purely patriotic decision, rather than economic one.

The Pentagon’s JEDI contract could have a value of up to $10 billion with a maximum length of 10 years. The contract is framed as a two year deal with two three-year options and a final one for two years. The DOD can opt out before exercising any of the options.

Bidding for the contract closed last Friday. The DOD is expected to choose the winning vendor next April.

Oct
12
2018
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IBM files formal JEDI protest a day before bidding process closes

IBM announced yesterday that it has filed a formal protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office over the structure of the Pentagon’s winner-take-all $10 billion, 10-year JEDI cloud contract. The protest came just a day before the bidding process is scheduled to close. As IBM put it in a blog post, they took issues with the single vendor approach. They are certainly not alone.

Just about every vendor short of Amazon, which has remained mostly quiet, has been complaining about this strategy. IBM certainly faces a tough fight going up against Amazon and Microsoft.

IBM doesn’t disguise the fact that it thinks the contract has been written for Amazon to win and they believe the one-vendor approach simply doesn’t make sense. “No business in the world would build a cloud the way JEDI would and then lock in to it for a decade. JEDI turns its back on the preferences of Congress and the administration, is a bad use of taxpayer dollars and was written with just one company in mind.” IBM wrote in the blog post explaining why it was protesting the deal before a decision was made or the bidding was even closed.

For the record, DOD spokesperson Heather Babb told TechCrunch last month that the bidding is open and no vendor is favored. “The JEDI Cloud final RFP reflects the unique and critical needs of DOD, employing the best practices of competitive pricing and security. No vendors have been pre-selected,” she said.

Much like Oracle, which filed a protest of its own back in August, IBM is a traditional vendor that was late to the cloud. It began a journey to build a cloud business in 2013 when it purchased Infrastructure as a Service vendor SoftLayer and has been using its checkbook to buy software services to add on top of SoftLayer ever since. IBM has concentrated on building cloud services around AI, security, big data, blockchain and other emerging technologies.

Both IBM and Oracle have a problem with the one-vendor approach, especially one that locks in the government for a 10-year period. It’s worth pointing out that the contract actually is an initial two-year deal with two additional three year options and a final two year option. The DOD has left open the possibility this might not go the entire 10 years.

It’s also worth putting the contract in perspective. While 10 years and $10 billion is nothing to sneeze at, neither is it as market altering as it might appear, not when some are predicting the cloud will be $100 billion a year market very soon.

IBM uses the blog post as a kind of sales pitch as to why it’s a good choice, while at the same time pointing out the flaws in the single vendor approach and complaining that it’s geared toward a single unnamed vendor that we all know is Amazon.

The bidding process closes today, and unless something changes as a result of these protests, the winner will be selected next April

Oct
09
2018
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Microsoft shows off government cloud services with JEDI due date imminent

Just a day after Google decided to drop out of the Pentagon’s massive $10 billion, 10-year JEDI cloud contract bidding, Microsoft announced increased support services for government clients. In a long blog post, the company laid out its government focused cloud services.

While today’s announcement is not directly related to JEDI per se, the timing is interesting just three days ahead of the October 12th deadline for submitting RFPs. Today’s announcement is about showing just how comprehensive the company’s government-specific cloud services are.

In a blog post, Microsoft corporate vice president for Azure, Julia White made it clear the company was focusing hard on the government business. “In the past six months we have added over 40 services and features to Azure Government, as well as publishing a new roadmap for the Azure Government regions providing ongoing transparency into our upcoming releases,” she wrote.

“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. In addition, we are adding new options for buying and onboarding cloud services to make it easier to move to the cloud. Finally, we are bringing an array of new hybrid and edge capabilities to government to ensure that government customers have full access to the technology of the intelligent edge and intelligent cloud era,” White added.

While much of the post was around the value proposition of Azure in general such as security, identity, artificial intelligence and edge data processing services, there were a slew of items aimed specifically at the government clients.

For starters, the company is increasing its FedRAMP compliance, a series of regulations designed to ensure vendors deliver cloud services securely to federal government customers. Specifically Microsoft is moving from FedRAMP moderate to high ratings on 50 services.

“By taking the broadest regulatory compliance approach in the industry, we’re making commercial innovation more accessible and easier for government to adopt,” White wrote.

In addition, Microsoft announced it’s expanding Azure Secret Regions, a solution designed specifically for dealing with highly classified information in the cloud. This one appears to take direct aim at JEDI. “We are making major progress in delivering this cloud designed to meet the regulatory and compliance requirements of the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community. Today, we are announcing these newest regions will be available by the end of the first quarter of 2019. In addition, to meet the growing demand and requirements of the U.S. Government, we are confirming our intent to deliver Azure Government services to meet the highest classification requirements, with capabilities for handling Top Secret U.S. classified data,” White wrote.

The company’s announcements, which included many other pieces that have been previously announced, is clearly designed to show off its government chops at a time where a major government contract is up for grabs. The company announced Azure Stack for Government in August, another piece mentioned in this blog post.

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
15
2018
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Why the Pentagon’s $10 billion JEDI deal has cloud companies going nuts

By now you’ve probably heard of the Defense Department’s massive winner-take-all $10 billion cloud contract dubbed the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (or JEDI for short).
Star Wars references aside, this contract is huge, even by government standards.The Pentagon would like a single cloud vendor to build out its enterprise cloud, believing rightly or wrongly that this is the best approach to maintain focus and control of their cloud strategy.

Department of Defense (DOD) spokesperson Heather Babb tells TechCrunch the department sees a lot of upside by going this route. “Single award is advantageous because, among other things, it improves security, improves data accessibility and simplifies the Department’s ability to adopt and use cloud services,” she said.

Whatever company they choose to fill this contract, this is about modernizing their computing infrastructure and their combat forces for a world of IoT, artificial intelligence and big data analysis, while consolidating some of their older infrastructure. “The DOD Cloud Initiative is part of a much larger effort to modernize the Department’s information technology enterprise. The foundation of this effort is rationalizing the number of networks, data centers and clouds that currently exist in the Department,” Babb said.

Setting the stage

It’s possible that whoever wins this DOD contract could have a leg up on other similar projects in the government. After all it’s not easy to pass muster around security and reliability with the military and if one company can prove that they are capable in this regard, they could be set up well beyond this one deal.

As Babb explains it though, it’s really about figuring out the cloud long-term. “JEDI Cloud is a pathfinder effort to help DOD learn how to put in place an enterprise cloud solution and a critical first step that enables data-driven decision making and allows DOD to take full advantage of applications and data resources,” she said.

Photo: Mischa Keijser for Getty Images

The single vendor component, however, could explain why the various cloud vendors who are bidding, have lost their minds a bit over it — everyone except Amazon, that is, which has been mostly silent, happy apparently to let the process play out.

The belief amongst the various other players, is that Amazon is in the driver’s seat for this bid, possibly because they delivered a $600 million cloud contract for the government in 2013, standing up a private cloud for the CIA. It was a big deal back in the day on a couple of levels. First of all, it was the first large-scale example of an intelligence agency using a public cloud provider. And of course the amount of money was pretty impressive for the time, not $10 billion impressive, but a nice contract.

For what it’s worth, Babb dismisses such talk, saying that the process is open and no vendor has an advantage. “The JEDI Cloud final RFP reflects the unique and critical needs of DOD, employing the best practices of competitive pricing and security. No vendors have been pre-selected,” she said.

Complaining loudly

As the Pentagon moves toward selecting its primary cloud vendor for the next decade, Oracle in particular has been complaining to anyone who will listen that Amazon has an unfair advantage in the deal, going so far as to file a formal complaint last month, even before bids were in and long before the Pentagon made its choice.

Photo: mrdoomits for Getty Images (cropped)

Somewhat ironically, given their own past business model, Oracle complained among other things that the deal would lock the department into a single platform over the long term. They also questioned whether the bidding process adhered to procurement regulations for this kind of deal, according to a report in the Washington Post. In April, Bloomberg reported that co-CEO Safra Catz complained directly to the president that the deal was tailor made for Amazon.

Microsoft hasn’t been happy about the one-vendor idea either, pointing out that by limiting itself to a single vendor, the Pentagon could be missing out on innovation from the other companies in the back and forth world of the cloud market, especially when we’re talking about a contract that stretches out for so long.

As Microsoft’s Leigh Madden told TechCrunch in April, the company is prepared to compete, but doesn’t necessarily see a single vendor approach as the best way to go. “If the DOD goes with a single award path, we are in it to win, but having said that, it’s counter to what we are seeing across the globe where 80 percent of customers are adopting a multi-cloud solution,” he said at the time.

He has a valid point, but the Pentagon seems hell bent on going forward with the single vendor idea, even though the cloud offers much greater interoperability than proprietary stacks of the 1990s (for which Oracle and Microsoft were prime examples at the time).

Microsoft has its own large DOD contract in place for almost a billion dollars, although this deal from 2016 was for Windows 10 and related hardware for DOD employees, rather than a pure cloud contract like Amazon has with the CIA.

It also recently released Azure Stack for government, a product that lets government customers install a private version of Azure with all the same tools and technologies you find in the public version, and could prove attractive as part of its JEDI bid.

Cloud market dynamics

It’s also possible that the fact that Amazon controls the largest chunk of the cloud infrastructure market, might play here at some level. While Microsoft has been coming fast, it’s still about a third of Amazon in terms of market size, as Synergy Research’s Q42017 data clearly shows.

The market hasn’t shifted dramatically since this data came out. While market share alone wouldn’t be a deciding factor, Amazon came to market first and it is much bigger in terms of market than the next four combined, according to Synergy. That could explain why the other players are lobbying so hard and seeing Amazon as the biggest threat here, because it’s probably the biggest threat in almost every deal where they come up against each other, due to its sheer size.

Consider also that Oracle, which seems to be complaining the loudest, was rather late to the cloud after years of dismissing it. They could see JEDI as a chance to establish a foothold in government that they could use to build out their cloud business in the private sector too.

10 years might not be 10 years

It’s worth pointing out that the actual deal has the complexity and opt-out clauses of a sports contract with just an initial two-year deal guaranteed. A couple of three-year options follow, with a final two-year option closing things out. The idea being, that if this turns out to be a bad idea, the Pentagon has various points where they can back out.

Photo: Henrik Sorensen for Getty Images (cropped)

In spite of the winner-take-all approach of JEDI, Babb indicated that the agency will continue to work with multiple cloud vendors no matter what happens. “DOD has and will continue to operate multiple clouds and the JEDI Cloud will be a key component of the department’s overall cloud strategy. The scale of our missions will require DOD to have multiple clouds from multiple vendors,” she said.

The DOD accepted final bids in August, then extended the deadline for Requests for Proposal to October 9th. Unless the deadline gets extended again, we’re probably going to finally hear who the lucky company is sometime in the coming weeks, and chances are there is going to be lot of whining and continued maneuvering from the losers when that happens.

Aug
13
2018
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Microsoft stands up Azure Stack for government as JEDI contract looms

Microsoft announced today that it’s released Azure Stack for Azure Government at a time when it’s battling rivals at Amazon and other cloud companies for the massive winner-take-all $10 billion Pentagon cloud contract known as JEDI.

Azure Stack provides customers with a similar set of cloud services that they would get in the public cloud, but inside the cozy confines of the customer data center. For Azure cloud customers who are looking to manage across public and private environments, often referred to as a hybrid approach, it gives a common look and feel across both public and private.

“As a cornerstone of Microsoft’s hybrid cloud approach, consistency means government customers get the same infrastructure and services with Azure Stack as they do with Azure — the same APIs, DevOps tools, portal, and more,”Natalia Mackevicius, Program Director, Microsoft Azure Stack wrote in a blog post announcing the new program.

In addition, the company announced it had passed a third-party FedRamp certification. FedRamp is a government program that provides a standardized way for government procurement officials to assess cloud security.

“Azure Stack for Azure Government directly addresses many other significant challenges our top federal government customers face. This includes tough regulatory, connectivity and latency requirements,” Mackevicius, wrote in a blog post announcement.

While this product is geared for any government customer, this news could certainly be appealing to the Pentagon, which is looking for one vendor to rule them in its latest mega cloud RFP. While Microsoft wouldn’t comment on JEDI specifically because it’s in the midst of answering that RFP, the timing can’t be a coincidence.

Microsoft, along with other competitors including Oracle and IBM, have been complaining bitterly that the one-vendor contract process unfairly favors Amazon. These companies have recommended that the Pentagon go with a multi-vendor approach to prevent lock-in and take advantage of innovation across sellers. The complaints so far has fallen on deaf ears at the Pentagon.

Regardless, Microsoft is still battling hard for the massive contract and today’s release certainly bolsters their approach as they continue to fight to win the JEDI deal — and other government business.

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