May
08
2020
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Microsoft and AWS exchange poisoned pen blog posts in latest Pentagon JEDI contract spat

Microsoft and Amazon are at it again as the fight for the Defense Department JEDI contract continues. In a recent series of increasingly acerbic pronouncements, the two companies continue their ongoing spat over the $10 billion, decade-long JEDI contract spoils.

As you may recall (or not), last fall in a surprise move, the DoD selected Microsoft as the winning vendor in the JEDI winner-take-all cloud infrastructure sweepstakes. The presumed winner was always AWS, but when the answer finally came down, it was not them.

To make a very long story short, AWS took exception to the decision and went to court to fight it. Later it was granted a stay of JEDI activities between Microsoft and the DoD, which as you can imagine did not please Microsoft . Since then, the two companies have been battling in PR pronouncements and blog posts trying to get the upper hand in the war for public opinion.

That fight took a hard turn this week when the two companies really went at it in dueling blog posts after Amazon filed its latest protest.

First there was Microsoft with PR exec Frank Shaw taking exception to AWS’s machinations, claiming the company just wants a do-over:

This latest filing – filed with the DoD this time – is another example of Amazon trying to bog down JEDI in complaints, litigation and other delays designed to force a do-over to rescue its failed bid.

Amazon’s Drew Herdner countered in a blog post published this morning:

Recently, Microsoft has published multiple self-righteous and pontificating blog posts that amount to nothing more than misleading noise intended to distract those following the protest.

The bottom line is that Microsoft believes it won the contract fair and square with a more competitive bid, while Amazon believes it should have won on technical superiority, and that there was political interference from the president because he doesn’t like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post.

If you’ve been following this story from the beginning (as I have), you know it has taken a series of twists and turns. It’s had lawsuits, complaints, drama and intrigue. The president has inserted himself into it, too. There have been accusations of conflicts of interest. There have been investigations, lawsuits and more investigations.

Government procurement tends to be pretty bland, but from the start when the DoD chose to use the cutesy Star Wars-driven acronym for this project, it has been anything but. Now it’s come down to two of the world’s largest tech companies exchanging angry blog posts. Sooner or later this is going to end right?

May
07
2020
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Health APIs usher in the patient revolution we have been waiting for

If you’ve ever been stuck using a health provider’s clunky online patient portal or had to make multiple calls to transfer medical records, you know how difficult it is to access your health data.

In an era when control over personal data is more important than ever before, the healthcare industry has notably lagged behind — but that’s about to change. This past month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published two final rules around patient data access and interoperability that will require providers and payers to create APIs that can be used by third-party applications to let patients access their health data.

This means you will soon have consumer apps that will plug into your clinic’s health records and make them viewable to you on your smartphone.

Critics of the new rulings have voiced privacy concerns over patient health data leaving internal electronic health record (EHR) systems and being surfaced to the front lines of smartphone apps. Vendors such as Epic and many health providers have publicly opposed the HHS rulings, while others, such as Cerner, have been supportive.

While that debate has been heated, the new HHS rulings represent a final decision that follows initial rules proposed a year ago. It’s a multi-year win for advocates of greater data access and control by patients.

The scope of what this could lead to — more control over your health records, and apps on top of it — is immense. Apple has been making progress with its Health Records app for some time now, and other technology companies, including Microsoft and Amazon, have undertaken healthcare initiatives with both new apps and cloud services.

It’s not just big tech that is getting in on the action: startups are emerging as well, such as Commure and Particle Health, which help developers work with patient health data. The unlocking of patient health data could be as influential as the unlocking of banking data by Plaid, which powered the growth of multiple fintech startups, including Robinhood, Venmo and Betterment.

What’s clear is that the HHS rulings are here to stay. In fact, many of the provisions require providers and payers to provide partial data access within the next 6-12 months. With this new market opening up, though, it’s time for more health entrepreneurs to take a deeper look at what patient data may offer in terms of clinical and consumer innovation.

The incredible complexity of today’s patient data systems

Apr
03
2020
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In the wake of COVID-19, UK puts up £20M in grants to develop resilience tech for critical industries

Most of the world — despite the canaries in the coal mine — was unprepared to cope with the coronavirus outbreak that’s now besieging us. Now, work is starting to get underway both to help manage what is going on now and better prepare us in the future. In the latest development, the UK government today announced that it will issue £20 million ($24.5 million) in grants of up to £50,000 each to startups and other businesses that are developing tools to improve resilience for critical industries — in other words, those that need to keep moving when something cataclysmic like a pandemic hits.

You can start your application here. Unlike a lot of other government efforts, this one is aimed at a quick start: you need to be ready to kick of your project using the grant no later than June 2020, but earlier is okay, too.

Awarded through Innovate UK, which part of UK Research and Innovation (itself a division of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), the grants will be available to businesses of any size as long as they are UK-registered, and aim to cover a wide swathe of industries that form the core fabric of how society and the economy can continue to operate.

“The Covid-19 situation is not just a health emergency, but also one that effects the economy and society. With that in mind, Innovate UK has launched this rapid response competition today seeking smart ideas from innovators,” said Dr Ian Campbell Executive Chair, Innovate UK, in a statement. “These could be proposals to help the distribution of goods, educate children remotely, keep families digitally connected and even new ideas to stream music and entertainment. The UK needs a great national effort and Innovate UK is helping by unleashing the power of innovation for people and businesses in need.”

These include not just what are typically considered “critical” industries like healthcare and food production and distribution, but also those that are less tangible but equally important in keeping society running smoothly, like entertainment and wellbeing services:

  • community support services
  • couriers and delivery (rural and/or city based)
  • education and culture
  • entertainment (live entertainment, music, etc.)
  • financial services
  • food manufacture and processing
  • healthcare
  • hospitality
  • personal protection equipment
  • remote working
  • retail
  • social care
  • sport and recreation
  • transport
  • wellbeing

The idea is to introduce new technologies and processes that will support existing businesses and organizations, not use the funding to build new startups from scratch. Those getting the funding could already be businesses in these categories, or building tools to help companies that fall under these themes.

The grants were announced at a time where we are seeing a huge surge of companies step up to the challenge of helping communities and countries cope with COVID-19. That’s included not only those that already made medical supplies increase production, but a number of other businesses step in and try to help where they can, or recalibrate what they normally do to make their factories or other assets more useful. (For example, in the UK, Rolls Royce, Airbus and the Formula 1 team are all working on ventilators and other hospital equipment, a model of industry retooling that has been seen in many other countries, too.)

That trend is what helped to inspire this newest wave of non-equity grants.

“The response of researchers and businesses to the coronavirus outbreak have been remarkable,” said Science Minister Amanda Solloway in a statement. “This new investment will support the development of technologies that can help industries, communities and individuals adapt to new ways of working when situations like this, and other incidents, arise.”

The remit here is intentionally open-ended but will likely be shaped by some of the shortcomings and cracks that have been appearing in recent weeks while systems get severely stress-tested.

So, unsurprisingly, the sample innovations that UK Innovate cites appear to directly relate to that. They include things like technology to help respond to spikes in online consumer demand — every grocery service in the online and physical world has been overwhelmed by customer traffic, leading to sites crashing, people leaving stores disappointed at what they cannot find, and general panic. Or services for families to connect with and remotely monitor vulnerable relatives: while Zoom and the rest have seen huge surges in traffic, there are still too many people on the other side of the digital divide who cannot access or use these. And better education tools: again, there are thousands of edtech companies in the world, but in the UK at least, I wouldn’t say that the educational authorities had done even a small degree of disaster planning, leaving individual schools to scramble and figure out ways to keep teaching remotely that works for everyone (again not always easy with digital divides, safeguarding and other issues).

None of this can cure coronavirus or stop another pandemic from happening — there are plenty of others that are working very squarely on that now, too — but these are equally critical to get right to make sure that a health disaster doesn’t extend into a more permanent economic or societal one.

More information and applications are here.

Mar
13
2020
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Pentagon asks court for time to reconsider JEDI award to Microsoft

The JEDI contract award process might never be done. Following legal challenges from Amazon after the Pentagon’s massive, $10 billion cloud contract was awarded to Microsoft in October, the Pentagon indicated in court documents last night that it wishes to reconsider the award.

It’s just the latest plot twist in an epic government procurement saga.

Here’s what we know. The Pentagon filing is based on Amazon’s complaints about the technical part of the deal only. Amazon has said that it believes political interference influenced the awarding of the contract. However, the cloud computing giant also believes it beat Microsoft on the technical merits in a majority of instances required in the request for proposals issued by the Pentagon.

In fact, sources told TechCrunch, “AWS’s protest identified evaluation errors, clear deficiencies and unmistakable bias in six of the eight evaluation factors.”

Obviously Amazon was happy to hear this news. “We are pleased that the DoD has acknowledged ‘substantial and legitimate’ issues that affected the JEDI award decision, and that corrective action is necessary,” a spokesperson stated.

“We look forward to complete, fair, and effective corrective action that fully insulates the re-evaluation from political influence and corrects the many issues affecting the initial flawed award.”

As would expect, Microsoft thinks that the DoD made the correct choice, and believes the review will bear that out. “Over two years, the DoD reviewed dozens of factors and sub factors and found Microsoft equal or superior to AWS on every factor. We remain confident that Microsoft’s proposal was technologically superior, continues to offer the best value, and is the right choice for the DoD,” Microsoft VP of communications Frank Shaw said.

The court granted the Pentagon 120 days to review the results again, but indicated it could take longer. In the meantime, the project is at a standstill.

On Friday, the court issued a ruling that Amazon was likely to succeed on its complaint on merit, and that could have been the impetus of this latest action by the Pentagon.

While the political influence piece might not be overtly part of this filing, it does lurk in the background. The president has made it clear that he doesn’t like Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post. As we wrote last year:

Amazon, for instance, could point to Jim Mattis’ book where he wrote that the president told the then Defense Secretary to “screw Bezos out of that $10 billion contract.” Mattis says he refused, saying he would go by the book, but it certainly leaves the door open to a conflict question.

As we previously reported, AWS CEO Andy Jassy stated at a press event at AWS re:Invent in December that the company believed there was political bias at play in the decision-making process.

“What I would say is that it’s fairly obvious that we feel pretty strongly that it was not adjudicated fairly,” he said. He added, “I think that we ended up with a situation where there was political interference. When you have a sitting president, who has shared openly his disdain for a company, and the leader of that company, it makes it really difficult for government agencies, including the DoD, to make objective decisions without fear of reprisal.”

The story has been updated with a comment from Microsoft. We have requested comment from DoD and will update the story should they respond.

Feb
25
2020
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CircleCI-AWS GovCloud partnership aims to bring modern development to US government

Much like private businesses, the United States government is in the process of moving workloads to the cloud, and facing a similar set of challenges. Today, CircleCI, the continuous delivery developer service, announced a partnership with AWS GovCloud to help federal government entities using AWS’s government platform to modernize their applications development workflows.

“What this means is that it allows us to run our server offering, which is our on-prem offering, and our government customers can run that on dedicated pure cloud resource [on AWS GovCloud],” CircleCI CEO Jim Rose told TechCrunch.

GovCloud is a dedicated, single tenant cloud platform that lets government entities build FedRAMP-compliant secure cloud solutions (other cloud vendors have similar offerings). FedRAMP is a set of government cloud security standards every cloud vendor has to meet to work with the federal government

CircleCI builds modern continuous delivery/continuous integration (CI/CD) pipelines for development teams pushing changes to the application in a rapid change cycle.

“What GovCloud allows us to do is now provide that same level of security and service for government customers that wanted us to do so in an on prem environment in a dedicated single tenant environment [in the cloud],” Rose explained.

While there are a number of steps involved in building cloud applications, Rose said they are sticking to their core strength around building continuous delivery pipelines. As he says, if you have a legacy mainframe application that changes once every year or two, using CircleCI wouldn’t make sense, but as you begin to modernize, that’s where his company could help.

“[CircleCi comes into play] when you get into more modern cloud applications that are changing in some cases hundreds of times a day, and the sources of change for those applications is getting really diverse and managing that is becoming more complex,” Rose said.

This partnership could involve working directly with an agency, as it has done with the Small Business Administration (SBA), or it might involve a systems integrator, or even AWS, inviting them to be part of a larger RFP.

Rose says he realizes that working with the government can sometimes be controversial. Companies from Chef to Salesforce to Google have run afoul with employees who don’t want to work with certain agencies like DoD or ICE. He says his company has tended to focus on areas where agencies are looking to improve citizen interactions and steered away from other areas.

“From our perspective, given that we’re not super involved in a lot of those areas, but we want to get in front of it, both commercially, as well as on the government side, and determine what falls within the fence line and what’s outside of it,” he said.

Feb
13
2020
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Judge temporarily halts work on JEDI contract until court can hear AWS protest

A sealed order from a judge today has halted the $10 billion, decade-long JEDI project in its tracks until AWS’s protest of the contract award to Microsoft can be heard by the court.

The order signed by Judge Patricia E. Campbell-Smith of the U.S. Court Federal Claims stated:

The United States, by and through the Department of Defense, its officers, agents, and employees, is hereby PRELIMINARILY ENJOINED from proceeding with contract activities under Contract No. HQ0034-20-D-0001, which was awarded under Solicitation No. HQ0034-18-R-0077, until further order of the court.

The judge was not taking this lightly, adding that Amazon would have to put up $42 million bond to cover costs should it prove that the motion was filed wrongfully. Given Amazon’s value as of today is $1.08 trillion, they can probably afford to put up the money, but they must provide it by February 20th, and the court gets to hold the funds until a final determination has been made.

At the end of last month, Amazon filed a motion to stop work on the project until the court could rule on its protest. It is worth noting that in protests of this sort, it is not unusual to stop work until a final decision on the award can be made.

This is all part of an ongoing drama that has gone on for a couple of years since the DoD put this out to bid. After much wrangling, the DoD awarded the contract to Microsoft at the end of October. Amazon filed suit in November, claiming that the president had unduly influenced the process.

As we reported in December, at a press conference at AWS re:Invent, the cloud arm’s annual customer conference, AWS CEO Andy Jassy made clear the company thought the president had unfairly influenced the procurement process:

“I would say is that it’s fairly obvious that we feel pretty strongly that it was not adjudicated fairly,” he said. He added, “I think that we ended up with a situation where there was political interference. When you have a sitting president, who has shared openly his disdain for a company, and the leader of that company, it makes it really difficult for government agencies, including the DoD, to make objective decisions without fear of reprisal.”

Earlier this week, the company filed paperwork to depose the president and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

The entire statement from the court today halting the JEDI project:

**SEALED**OPINION AND ORDER granting [130] Motion for Preliminary Injunction, filed by plaintiff. The United States, by and through the Department of Defense, its officers, agents, and employees, is hereby PRELIMINARILY ENJOINED from proceeding with contract activities under Contract No. HQ0034-20-D-0001, which was awarded under Solicitation No. HQ0034-18-R-0077, until further order of the court.

Pursuant to RCFC 65(c), plaintiff is directed to PROVIDE security in the amount of $42 million for the payment of such costs and damages as may be incurred or suffered in the event that future proceedings prove that this injunction was issued wrongfully.

As such, on or before 2/20/2020, plaintiff is directed to FILE a notice of filing on the docket in this matter indicating the form of security obtained, and plaintiff shall PROVIDE the original certification of security to the clerk of court. The clerk shall HOLD the security until this case is closed.

On or before 2/27/2020, the parties are directed to CONFER and FILE a notice of filing attaching a proposed redacted version of this opinion, with any competition-sensitive or otherwise protectable information blacked out. Signed by Judge Patricia E. Campbell-Smith.

Feb
05
2020
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Calling all cosmic startups — pitch at TechCrunch’s space event in LA

Founders — it’s time to shoot for the stars. For the first time ever, TechCrunch is hosting TC Sessions: Space 2020 on June 25th in Los Angeles. But that’s not all, because on June 24th, TechCrunch will host a Pitch Night exclusively for early-stage space startups.

Yep, that’s right. On top of a packed programming day with fireside chats, breakout sessions and Q&As featuring the top experts and game changers in space, TechCrunch will select 10 startups focused on any aspect of space — whether you’re launching rockets, building the next big satellite constellation, translating space-based data into usable insights or even building a colony on the Moon. If your company is all about the new space startup race, and you are early stage, please apply. 

Step 1: Apply to pitch by May 15th. TechCrunch’s editorial team will review all applications and select 10 companies. Founders will be notified by June 7th.  

You’ll pitch your startup at a private event in front of TechCrunch editors, main-stage speakers and industry experts. Our panel of judges will select five finalists to pitch onstage at TC Sessions: Space. 

You will be pitching your startup to the most prestigious, influential and expert industry leaders, and you’ll get video coverage on TechCrunch, too! And the final perk? Each of the 10 startup teams selected for the Pitch Night will be given two free tickets to attend TC Sessions: Space 2020. Shoot your shot — apply here.

Even if you’re not necessarily interested in pitching, grab your ticket for a front-row seat to this event for the early-bird price of $349. If you are interested in bringing a group of five or more from your company, you’ll get an automatic 20% discount. We even have discounts for the government/military, nonprofit/NGOs and students currently attending university. Grab your tickets at these reduced rates before prices increase.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Space 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Nov
14
2019
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AWS confirms reports it will challenge JEDI contract award to Microsoft

Surely just about everyone was surprised when the Department of Defense last month named Microsoft as the winner of the decade-long, $10 billion JEDI cloud contract — none more so than Amazon, the company everyone assumed all along would be the winner. Today the company confirmed earlier reports that it was challenging the contract award in the Court of Federal Claims.

The Federal Times broke this story.

In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson suggested that there was possible bias and issues in the selection process. “AWS is uniquely experienced and qualified to provide the critical technology the U.S. military needs, and remains committed to supporting the DoD’s modernization efforts. We also believe it’s critical for our country that the government and its elected leaders administer procurements objectively and in a manner that is free from political influence.

“Numerous aspects of the JEDI evaluation process contained clear deficiencies, errors, and unmistakable bias — and it’s important that these matters be examined and rectified,” an Amazon spokesperson told TechCrunch.

It’s certainly worth noting that the president has not hidden his disdain for Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos, who also is owner of The Washington Post newspaper. As I wrote in Even after Microsoft wins, JEDI saga could drag on:

Amazon, for instance, could point to Jim Mattis’ book where he wrote that the president told the then Defense Secretary to “screw Bezos out of that $10 billion contract.” Mattis says he refused, saying he would go by the book, but it certainly leaves the door open to a conflict question.

Oracle also filed a number of protests throughout the process, including one with the Government Accountability Office that was later rejected. It also went to court and the case was dismissed. All of the protests claimed that the process favored Amazon. The end result proved it didn’t.

The president interjected himself in the decision process in August, asking the defense secretary, Mark T. Esper, to investigate once again if the procurement process somehow favored Amazon, and the week the contract was awarded, the White House canceled its subscription to The Washington Post.

In October, the decision finally came and the DOD chose Microsoft . Now Amazon is filing a challenge in federal Court, and the JEDI saga really ain’t over until it’s over.

 

Oct
28
2019
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Even after Microsoft wins, JEDI saga could drag on

The DoD JEDI contract saga came to a thrilling conclusion on Friday afternoon, appropriately enough, with one final plot twist. The presumptive favorite, Amazon, did not win, stunning many, including likely the company itself. In the end, Microsoft took home the $10 billion prize.

This contract was filled with drama from the beginning, given the amount of money involved, the length of the contract, the winner-take-all nature of the deal — and the politics. We can’t forget the politics. This was Washington after all, and Jeff Bezos does own The Washington Post.

Then there was Oracle’s fury throughout the procurement process. The president got involved in August. The current defense secretary recused himself on Wednesday, two days before the decision came down. It was all just so much drama, even the final decision itself, handed down late Friday afternoon — but it’s unclear if this is the end or just another twist in this ongoing tale.

Some perspective on $10 billion

Before we get too crazy about Microsoft getting a $10 billion, 10-year contract, consider that Amazon earned $9 billion last quarter alone in cloud revenue. Microsoft reported $33 billion last quarter in total revenue. It reported around $11 billion in cloud revenue. Synergy Research pegs the current cloud infrastructure market at well over $100 billion annually (and growing).

What we have here is a contract that’s worth a billion a year. What’s more, it’s possible it might not even be worth that much if the government uses one of its out clauses. The deal is actually initially guaranteed for just two years. Then there are a couple of three-year options, with a final two-year option at the end if it gets that far.

The DOD recognized that with the unique nature of this contract, going with a single vendor, it wanted to keep its options open should the tech world shift suddenly under its feet. It didn’t want to be inextricably tied to one company for a decade if that company was suddenly disrupted by someone else. Given the shifting sands of technology, that part of the strategy was a wise one.

Where the value lies

If the value of this deal was not the contract itself, it begs the question, why did everyone want it so badly? The $10 billion JEDI deal was simply a point of entree. If you could modernize the DoD’s infrastructure, the argument goes, chances are you could do the same for other areas of the government. It could open the door for Microsoft for a much more lucrative government cloud business.

But it’s not as though Microsoft didn’t already have a lucrative cloud business. In 2016, for example, the company signed a deal worth almost a billion dollars to help move the entire department to Windows 10. Amazon too, has had its share of government contracts, famously landing the $600 million to build the CIA’s private cloud.

But given all the attention to this deal, it always felt a little different from your standard government contract. Just the fact the DoD used a Star Wars reference for the project acronym drew more attention to the project from the start. Therefore, there was some prestige for the winner of this deal, and Microsoft gets bragging rights this morning, while Amazon is left to ponder what the heck happened. As for other companies like Oracle, who knows how they’re feeling about this outcome.

Hell hath no fury like Oracle scorned

Ah yes, Oracle; this tale would not be complete without discussing the rage of Oracle throughout the JEDI RFP process. Even before the RFP process started, they were complaining about the procurement process. Co-CEO Safra Catz had dinner with the president to complain that the contract process wasn’t fair (not fair!). Then it tried complaining to the Government Accountability Office. They found no issue with the process.

They went to court. The judge dismissed their claims that involved both the procurement process and that a former Amazon employee, who was hired by the DoD, was involved in the process of creating the RFP. They claimed that the former employee was proof that the deal was tilted toward Amazon. The judge disagreed and dismissed their complaints.

What Oracle could never admit was that it simply didn’t have the same cloud chops as Microsoft and Amazon, the two finalists. It couldn’t be that they were late to the cloud or had a fraction of the market share that Amazon and Microsoft had. It had to be the process or that someone was boxing them out.

What Microsoft brings to the table

Outside of the politics of this decision (which we will get to shortly), Microsoft brought to the table some experience and tooling that certainly gave it some advantage in the selection process. Until we see the reasons for the selections, it’s hard to know exactly why the DoD chose Microsoft, but we know a few things.

First of all there are the existing contracts with the DoD, including the aforementioned Windows 10 contract and a five-year $1.76 billion contract with DoD Intelligence to provide “innovative enterprise services” to the DoD.

Then there is Azure Stack, a portable private cloud stack that the military could stand up anywhere. It could have great utility for missions in the field when communicating with a cloud server could be problematic.

Fool if you think it’s over

So that’s that right? The decision has been made and it’s time to move on. Amazon will go home and lick its wounds. Microsoft gets bragging rights and we’re good. Actually, this might not be where it ends at all.

Amazon, for instance, could point to Jim Mattis’ book where he wrote that the president told the then Defense Secretary to “screw Bezos out of that $10 billion contract.” Mattis says he refused, saying he would go by the book, but it certainly leaves the door open to a conflict question.

It’s also worth pointing out that Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post and the president isn’t exactly in love with that particular publication. In fact, this week, the White House canceled its subscription and encouraged other government agencies to do so as well.

Then there is the matter of current Defense Secretary Mark Espers suddenly recusing himself last Wednesday afternoon based on a minor point that one of his adult children works at IBM (in a non-cloud consulting job). He claimed he wanted to remove any hint of conflict of interest, but at this point in the process, it was down to Microsoft and Amazon. IBM wasn’t even involved.

If Amazon wanted to protest this decision, it seems it would have much more solid ground to do so than Oracle ever had. An Amazon spokesperson would only say that the company “was keeping its options open.”

The bottom line is a decision has been made, at least for now, but this process has been rife with controversy from the start, just by the design of the project, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Amazon take some protest action of its own. It seems oddly appropriate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2019 10 11 at 13.26.33

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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