Apr
30
2021
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The health data transparency movement is birthing a new generation of startups

In the early 2000s, Jeff Bezos gave a seminal TED Talk titled “The Electricity Metaphor for the Web’s Future.” In it, he argued that the internet will enable innovation on the same scale that electricity did.

We are at a similar inflection point in healthcare, with the recent movement toward data transparency birthing a new generation of innovation and startups.

Those who follow the space closely may have noticed that there are twin struggles taking place: a push for more transparency on provider and payer data, including anonymous patient data, and another for strict privacy protection for personal patient data. What’s the main difference?

This sector is still somewhat nascent — we are in the first wave of innovation, with much more to come.

Anonymized data is much more freely available, while personal data is being locked even tighter (as it should be) due to regulations like GDPR, CCPA and their equivalents around the world.

The former trend is enabling a host of new vendors and services that will ultimately make healthcare better and more transparent for all of us.

These new companies could not have existed five years ago. The Affordable Care Act was the first step toward making anonymized data more available. It required healthcare institutions (such as hospitals and healthcare systems) to publish data on costs and outcomes. This included the release of detailed data on providers.

Later legislation required biotech and pharma companies to disclose monies paid to research partners. And every physician in the U.S. is now required to be in the National Practitioner Identifier (NPI), a comprehensive public database of providers.

All of this allowed the creation of new types of companies that give both patients and providers more control over their data. Here are some key examples of how.

Allowing patients to access all their own health data in one place

This is a key capability of patients’ newly found access to health data. Think of how often, as a patient, providers aren’t aware of treatment or a test you’ve had elsewhere. Often you end up repeating a test because a provider doesn’t have a record of a test conducted elsewhere.

Apr
29
2021
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Healthcare is the next wave of data liberation

Why can we see all our bank, credit card and brokerage data on our phones instantaneously in one app, yet walk into a doctor’s office blind to our healthcare records, diagnoses and prescriptions? Our health status should be as accessible as our checking account balance.

The liberation of financial data enabled by startups like Plaid is beginning to happen with healthcare data, which will have an even more profound impact on society; it will save and extend lives. This accessibility is quickly approaching.

As early investors in Quovo and PatientPing, two pioneering companies in financial and healthcare data, respectively, it’s evident to us the winners of the healthcare data transformation will look different than they did with financial data, even as we head toward a similar end state.

For over a decade, government agencies and consumers have pushed for this liberation.

This push for greater data liquidity coincides with demand from consumers for better information about cost and quality.

In 2009, the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH) gave the first big industry push, catalyzing a wave of digitization through electronic health records (EHR). Today, over 98% of medical records are digitized. This market is dominated by multibillion?dollar vendors like Epic, Cerner and Allscripts, which control 70% of patient records. However, these giant vendors have yet to make these records easily accessible.

A second wave of regulation has begun to address the problem of trapped data to make EHRs more interoperable and valuable. Agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services have mandated data sharing among payers and providers using a common standard, the Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) protocol.

Image Credits: F-Prime Capital

This push for greater data liquidity coincides with demand from consumers for better information about cost and quality. Employers have been steadily shifting a greater share of healthcare expenses to consumers through high-deductible health plans — from 30% in 2012 to 51% in 2018. As consumers pay for more of the costs, they care more about the value of different health options, yet are unable to make those decisions without real-time access to cost and clinical data.

Image Credits: F-Prime Capital

Tech startups have an opportunity to ease the transmission of healthcare data and address the push of regulation and consumer demands. The lessons from fintech make it tempting to assume that a Plaid for healthcare data would be enough to address all of the challenges within healthcare, but it is not the right model. Plaid’s aggregator model benefited from a relatively high concentration of banks, a limited number of data types and low barriers to data access.

By contrast, healthcare data is scattered across tens of thousands of healthcare providers, stored in multiple data formats and systems per provider, and is rarely accessed by patients directly. Many people log into their bank apps frequently, but few log into their healthcare provider portals, if they even know one exists.

HIPPA regulations and strict patient consent requirements also meaningfully increase friction to data access and sharing. Financial data serves mostly one-to-one use cases, while healthcare data is a many-to-many problem. A single patient’s data is spread across many doctors and facilities and is needed by just as many for care coordination.

Because of this landscape, winning healthcare technology companies will need to build around four propositions:

Apr
27
2021
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Vista Equity takes minority stake in Canada’s Vena with $242M investment

Vena, a Canadian company focused on the Corporate Performance Management (CPM) software space, has raised $242 million in Series C funding from Vista Equity Partners.

As part of the financing, Vista Equity is taking a minority stake in the company. The round follows $25 million in financing from CIBC Innovation Banking last September, and brings Vena’s total raised since its 2011 inception to over $363 million.

Vena declined to provide any financial metrics or the valuation at which the new capital was raised, saying only that its “consistent growth and…strong customer retention and satisfaction metrics created real demand” as it considered raising its C round.

The company was originally founded as a B2B provider of planning, budgeting and forecasting software. Over time, it’s evolved into what it describes as a “fully cloud-native, corporate performance management platform” that aims to empower finance, operations and business leaders to “Plan to Growtheir businesses. Its customers hail from a variety of industries, including banking, SaaS, manufacturing, healthcare, insurance and higher education. Among its over 900 customers are the Kansas City Chiefs, Coca-Cola Consolidated, World Vision International and ELF Cosmetics.

Vena CEO Hunter Madeley told TechCrunch the latest raise is “mostly an acceleration story for Vena, rather than charting new paths.”

The company plans to use its new funds to build out and enable its go-to-market efforts as well as invest in its product development roadmap. It’s not really looking to enter new markets, considering it’s seeing what it describes as “tremendous demand” in the markets it currently serves directly and through its partner network.

“While we support customers across the globe, we’ll stay focused on growing our North American, U.K. and European business in the near term,” Madeley said.

Vena says it leverages the “flexibility and familiarity” of an Excel interface within its “secure” Complete Planning platform. That platform, it adds, brings people, processes and systems into a single source solution to help organizations automate and streamline finance-led processes, accelerate complex business processes and “connect the dots between departments and plan with the power of unified data.”            

Early backers JMI Equity and Centana Growth Partners will remain active, partnering with Vista “to help support Vena’s continued momentum,” the company said. As part of the raise, Vista Equity Managing Director Kim Eaton and Marc Teillon, senior managing director and co-head of Vista’s Foundation Fund, will join the company’s board.

“The pandemic has emphasized the need for agile financial planning processes as companies respond to quickly-changing market conditions, and Vena is uniquely positioned to help businesses address the challenges required to scale their processes through this pandemic and beyond,” said Eaton in a written statement. 

Vena currently has more than 450 employees across the U.S., Canada and the U.K., up from 393 last year at this time.

Mar
23
2021
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Ghana’s Redbird raises $1.5M seed to expand access to rapid medical testing in sub-Saharan Africa

For patients and healthcare professionals to properly track and manage illnesses especially chronic ones, healthcare needs to be decentralized. It also needs to be more convenient, with a patient’s health information able to follow them wherever they go.

Redbird, a Ghanaian healthtech startup that allows easy access to convenient testing and ensures that doctors and patients can view the details of those test results at any time, announced today that it has raised a $1.5 million seed investment.  

Investors who participated in the round include Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Newton Partners (via the Imperial Venture Fund), and Founders Factory Africa. This brings the company’s total amount raised to date to $2.5 million.

The healthtech company was launched in 2018 by Patrick Beattie, Andrew Quao and Edward Grandstaff. As a founding scientist at a medical diagnostics startup in Boston, Beattie’s job was to develop new rapid diagnostic tests. During his time at Accra in 2016, he met Quao, a trained pharmacist in Ghana at a hackathon whereupon talking found out that their interests in medical testing overlapped.

Beattie says to TechCrunch that while he saw many exciting new tests in development in the US, he didn’t see the same in Ghana. Quao, who is familiar with how Ghanaians use pharmacies as their primary healthcare point, felt perturbed that these pharmacies weren’t doing more than transactional purchases.

They both settled that pharmacies in Ghana needed to imbibe the world of medical testing. Although both didn’t have a tech background, they realized technology was necessary to execute this. So, they enlisted the help of Grandstaff to be CTO of Redbird while Beattie and Quao became CEO and COO, respectively.

L-R: Patrick Beattie (CEO), Andrew Quao (COO), and Edward Grandstaff (CTO)

Redbird enables pharmacies in Ghana to add rapid diagnostic testing for 10 different health conditions to their pharmacy services. These tests include anaemia, blood sugar, blood pressure, BMI, cholesterol, Hepatitis B, malaria, typhoid, prostate cancer screening, and pregnancy.  

Also, Redbird provides pharmacies with the necessary equipment, supplies and software to make this possible. The software —  Redbird Health Monitoring — is networked across all partner pharmacies and enables patients to build medical testing records after going through 5-minute medical tests offered through these pharmacies.

Rather than employing a SaaS model that Beattie says is not well appreciated by its customers, Redbird’s revenue model is based on the supply of disposable test strips.

“Pharmacies who partner with Redbird gain access to the software and all the ways Redbird supports our partners for free as long as they purchase the consumables through us. This aligns our revenue with their success, which is aligned with patient usage,” said the CEO.

This model is being used with over over 360 pharmacies in Ghana, mainly in Accra and Kumasi. It was half this number in 2019 which Redbird has since doubled despite the pandemic. These pharmacies have recorded over 125,000 tests in the past three years from more than 35,000 patients registered on the platform.

Redbird will use the seed investment to grow its operations within Ghana and expand to new markets that remain undisclosed.

In 2018, Redbird participated in the Alchemist Accelerator just a few months before launch. It was the second African startup after fellow Ghanaian healthtech startup mPharma to take part in the six-month-long program. The company also got into Founders Factory Africa last year April.

According to Beattie, most of the disease burden Africans might experience in the future will be chronic diseases. For instance, diabetes is projected to grow by 156% over the next 25 years. This is why he sees decentralized, digitized healthcare as the next leapfrog opportunity for sub-Saharan Africa.

“Chronic disease is exploding and with it, patients require much more frequent interaction with the healthcare system. The burden of chronic disease will make a health system that is highly centralized impossible,” he said.Like previous leapfrog events, this momentum is happening all over the world, not just in Africa. Still, the state of the current infrastructure means that healthcare systems here will be forced to innovate and adapt before health systems elsewhere are forced to, and therein lies the opportunity,” he said.

But while the promise of technology and data is exciting, it’s important to realize that healthtech only provides value if it matches patient behaviors and preferences. It doesn’t really matter what amazing improvements you can realize with data if you can’t build the data asset and offer a service that patients actually value.

Beattie knows this all too well and says Redbird respects these preferences. For him, the next course of action will be to play a larger role in the world’s developing ecosystem where healthcare systems build decentralised networks and move closer to the average patient.

This decentralised approach is what attracted U.S. and South African early-stage VC firm Newtown Partners to cut a check. Speaking on behalf of the firm, Llew Claasen, the managing partner, had this to say.

“We’re excited about Redbird’s decentralised business model that enables rapid diagnostic testing at the point of primary care in local community pharmacies. Redbird’s digital health record platform has the potential to drive significant value to the broader healthcare value chain and is a vital step toward improving healthcare outcomes in Africa. We look forward to supporting the team as they prove out their  business model and scale across the African continent.”


Early Stage is the premier ‘how-to’ event for startup entrepreneurs and investors. You’ll hear first-hand how some of the most successful founders and VCs build their businesses, raise money and manage their portfolios. We’ll cover every aspect of company-building: Fundraising, recruiting, sales, product market fit, PR, marketing and brand building. Each session also has audience participation built-in – there’s ample time included for audience questions and discussion. Use code “TCARTICLE” at checkout to get 20 percent off tickets right here.

Mar
17
2021
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Amazon will expand its Amazon Care on-demand healthcare offering U.S.-wide this summer

Amazon is apparently pleased with how its Amazon Care pilot in Seattle has gone, since it announced this morning that it will be expanding the offering across the U.S. this summer, and opening it up to companies of all sizes, in addition to its own employees. The Amazon Care model combines on-demand and in-person care, and is meant as a solution from the search giant to address shortfalls in current offering for employer-sponsored healthcare offerings.

In a blog post announcing the expansion, Amazon touted the speed of access to care made possible for its employees and their families via the remote, chat and video-based features of Amazon Care. These are facilitated via a dedicated Amazon Care app, which provides direct, live chats via a nurse or doctor. Issues that then require in-person care is then handled via a house call, so a medical professional is actually sent to your home to take care of things like administering blood tests or doing a chest exam, and prescriptions are delivered to your door as well.

The expansion is being handled differently across both in-person and remote variants of care; remote services will be available starting this summer to both Amazon’s own employees, as well as other companies who sign on as customers, starting this summer. The in-person side will be rolling out more slowly, starting with availability in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and “other cities in the coming months” according to the company.

As of today, Amazon Care is expanding in its home state of Washington to begin serving other companies. The idea is that others will sing on to make Amazon Care part of its overall benefits package for employees. Amazon is touting the speed advantages of testing services, including results delivery, for things including COVID-19 as a major strength of the service.

The Amazon Care model has a surprisingly Amazon twist, too – when using the in-person care option, the app will provide an updating ETA for when to expect your physician or medical technician, which is eerily similar to how its primary app treats package delivery.

While the Amazon Care pilot in Washington only launched a year-and-a-half ago, the company has had its collective mind set on upending the corporate healthcare industry for some time now. It announced a partnership with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan back at the very beginning of 2018 to form a joint venture specifically to address the gaps they saw in the private corporate healthcare provider market.

That deep pocketed all-star team ended up officially disbanding at the outset of this year, after having done a whole lot of not very much in the three years in between. One of the stated reasons that Amazon and its partners gave for unpartnering was that each had made a lot of progress on its own in addressing the problems it had faced anyway. While Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan’s work in that regard might be less obvious, Amazon was clearly referring to Amazon Care.

It’s not unusual for large tech companies with lots of cash on the balance sheet and a need to attract and retain top-flight talent to spin up their own healthcare benefits for their workforces. Apple and Google both have their own on-campus wellness centers staffed by medical professionals, for instance. But Amazon’s ambitious have clearly exceeded those of its peers, and it looks intent on making a business line out of the work it did to improve its own employee care services — a strategy that isn’t too dissimilar from what happened with AWS, by the way.

May
26
2020
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Scandit raises $80M as COVID-19 drives demand for contactless deliveries

Enterprise barcode scanner company Scandit has closed an $80 million Series C round, led by Silicon Valley VC firm G2VP. Atomico, GV, Kreos, NGP Capital, Salesforce Ventures and Swisscom Ventures also participated in the round — which brings its total raised to date to $123M.

The Zurich-based firm offers a platform that combines computer vision and machine learning tech with barcode scanning, text recognition (OCR), object recognition and augmented reality which is designed for any camera-equipped smart device — from smartphones to drones, wearables (e.g. AR glasses for warehouse workers) and even robots.

Use-cases include mobile apps or websites for mobile shopping; self checkout; inventory management; proof of delivery; asset tracking and maintenance — including in healthcare where its tech can be used to power the scanning of patient IDs, samples, medication and supplies.

It bills its software as “unmatched” in terms of speed and accuracy, as well as the ability to scan in bad light; at any angle; and with damaged labels. Target industries include retail, healthcare, industrial/manufacturing, travel, transport & logistics and more.

The latest funding injection follows a $30M Series B round back in 2018. Since then Scandit says it’s tripled recurring revenues, more than doubling the number of blue-chip enterprise customers, and doubling the size of its global team.

Global customers for its tech include the likes of 7-Eleven, Alaska Airlines, Carrefour, DPD, FedEx, Instacart, Johns Hopkins Hospital, La Poste, Levi Strauss & Co, Mount Sinai Hospital and Toyota — with the company touting “tens of billions of scans” per year on 100+ million active devices at this stage of its business.

It says the new funding will go on further pressing on the gas to grow in new markets, including APAC and Latin America, as well as building out its footprint and ops in North America and Europe. Also on the slate: Funding more R&D to devise new ways for enterprises to transform their core business processes using computer vision and AR.

The need for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic has also accelerated demand for mobile computer vision on personal smart devices, according to Scandit, which says customers are looking for ways to enable more contactless interactions.

Another demand spike it’s seeing is coming from the pandemic-related boom in ‘Click & Collect’ retail and “millions” of extra home deliveries — something its tech is well positioned to cater to because its scanning apps support BYOD (bring your own device), rather than requiring proprietary hardware.

“COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the need for rapid digital transformation in these uncertain times, and the need to blend the physical and digital plays a crucial role,” said CEO Samuel Mueller in a statement. “Our new funding makes it possible for us to help even more enterprises to quickly adapt to the new demand for ‘contactless business’, and be better positioned to succeed, whatever the new normal is.”

Also commenting on the funding in a supporting statement, Ben Kortlang, general partner at G2VP, added: “Scandit’s platform puts an enterprise-grade scanning solution in the pocket of every employee and customer without requiring legacy hardware. This bridge between the physical and digital worlds will be increasingly critical as the world accelerates its shift to online purchasing and delivery, distributed supply chains and cashierless retail.”

Jan
29
2020
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Greylock’s Reid Hoffman and Sarah Guo to talk fundraising at Early Stage SF 2020

Early Stage SF is around the corner, on April 28 in San Francisco, and we are more than excited for this brand new event. The intimate gathering of founders, VCs, operators and tech industry experts is all about giving founders the tools they need to find success, no matter the challenge ahead of them.

Struggling to understand the legal aspects of running a company, like negotiating cap tables or hiring international talent? We’ve got breakout sessions for that. Wondering how to go about fundraising, from getting your first yes to identifying the right investors to planning the timeline for your fundraise sprint? We’ve got breakout sessions for that. Growth marketing? PR/Media? Building a tech stack? Recruiting?

We. Got. You.

Hoffman + Guo

Today, we’re very proud to announce one of our few Main Stage sessions that will be open to all attendees. Reid Hoffman and Sarah Guo will join us for a conversation around “How To Raise Your Series A.”

Reid Hoffman is a legendary entrepreneur and investor in Silicon Valley. He was an Executive VP and founding board member at PayPal before going on to co-found LinkedIn in 2003. He led the company to profitability as CEO before joining Greylock in 2009. He serves on the boards of Airbnb, Apollo Fusion, Aurora, Coda, Convoy, Entrepreneur First, Microsoft, Nauto and Xapo, among others. He’s also an accomplished author, with books like “Blitzscaling,” “The Startup of You” and “The Alliance.”

Sarah Guo has a wealth of experience in the tech world. She started her career in high school at a tech firm founded by her parents, called Casa Systems. She then joined Goldman Sachs, where she invested in growth-stage tech startups such as Zynga and Dropbox, and advised both pre-IPO companies (Workday) and publicly traded firms (Zynga, Netflix and Nvidia). She joined Greylock Partners in 2013 and led the firm’s investment in Cleo, Demisto, Sqreen and Utmost. She has a particular focus on B2B applications, as well as infrastructure, cybersecurity, collaboration tools, AI and healthcare.

The format for Hoffman and Guo’s Main Stage chat will be familiar to folks who have followed the investors. It will be an updated, in-person combination of Hoffman’s famously annotated LinkedIn Series B pitch deck that led to Greylock’s investment, and Sarah Guo’s in-depth breakdown of what she looks for in a pitch.

They’ll lay out a number of universally applicable lessons that folks seeking Series A funding can learn from, tackling each from their own unique perspectives. Hoffman has years of experience in consumer-focused companies, with a special expertise in network effects. Guo is one of the top minds when it comes to investment in enterprise software.

We’re absolutely thrilled about this conversation, and to be honest, the entire Early Stage agenda.

How it works

Here’s how it all works:

There will be about 50+ breakout sessions at the event, and attendees will have an opportunity to attend at least seven. The sessions will cover all the core topics confronting early-stage founders — up through Series A — as they build a company, from raising capital to building a team to growth. Each breakout session will be led by notables in the startup world.

Don’t worry about missing a breakout session, because transcripts from each will be available to show attendees. And most of the folks leading the breakout sessions have agreed to hang at the show for at least half the day and participate in CrunchMatch, TechCrunch’s app to connect founders and investors based on shared interests.

Here’s the fine print. Each of the 50+ breakout sessions is limited to around 100 attendees. We expect a lot more attendees, of course, so signups for each session are on a first-come, first-serve basis. Buy your ticket today and you can sign up for the breakouts that we’ve announced. Pass holders will also receive 24-hour advance notice before we announce the next batch. (And yes, you can “drop” a breakout session in favor of a new one, in the event there is a schedule conflict.)

Grab yourself a ticket and start registering for sessions right here. Interested sponsors can hit up the team here.


Jan
21
2020
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Google Cloud lands Lufthansa Group and Sabre as new customers

Google’s strategy for bringing new customers to its cloud is to focus on the enterprise and specific verticals like healthcare, energy, financial service and retail, among others. Its healthcare efforts recently experienced a bit of a setback, with Epic now telling its customers that it is not moving forward with its plans to support Google Cloud, but in return, Google now got to announce two new customers in the travel business: Lufthansa Group, the world’s largest airline group by revenue, and Sabre, a company that provides backend services to airlines, hotels and travel aggregators.

For Sabre, Google Cloud is now the preferred cloud provider. Like a lot of companies in the travel (and especially the airline) industry, Sabre runs plenty of legacy systems and is currently in the process of modernizing its infrastructure. To do so, it has now entered a 10-year strategic partnership with Google “to improve operational agility while developing new services and creating a new marketplace for its airline,  hospitality and travel agency customers.” The promise, here, too, is that these new technologies will allow the company to offer new travel tools for its customers.

When you hear about airline systems going down, it’s often Sabre’s fault, so just being able to avoid that would already bring a lot of value to its customers.

“At Google we build tools to help others, so a big part of our mission is helping other companies realize theirs. We’re so glad that Sabre has chosen to work with us to further their mission of building the future of travel,” said Google CEO Sundar Pichai . “Travelers seek convenience, choice and value. Our capabilities in AI and cloud computing will help Sabre deliver more of what consumers want.”

The same holds true for Google’s deal with Lufthansa Group, which includes German flag carrier Lufthansa itself, but also subsidiaries like Austrian, Swiss, Eurowings and Brussels Airlines, as well as a number of technical and logistics companies that provide services to various airlines.

“By combining Google Cloud’s technology with Lufthansa Group’s operational expertise, we are driving the digitization of our operation even further,” said Dr. Detlef Kayser, member of the executive board of the Lufthansa Group. “This will enable us to identify possible flight irregularities even earlier and implement countermeasures at an early stage.”

Lufthansa Group has selected Google as a strategic partner to “optimized its operations performance.” A team from Google will work directly with Lufthansa to bring this project to life. The idea here is to use Google Cloud to build tools that help the company run its operations as smoothly as possible and to provide recommendations when things go awry due to bad weather, airspace congestion or a strike (which seems to happen rather regularly at Lufthansa these days).

Delta recently launched a similar platform to help its employees.

Nov
14
2019
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Eigen nabs $37M to help banks and others parse huge documents using natural language and ‘small data’

One of the bigger trends in enterprise software has been the emergence of startups building tools to make the benefits of artificial intelligence technology more accessible to non-tech companies. Today, one that has built a platform to apply the power of machine learning and natural language processing to massive documents of unstructured data has closed a round of funding as it finds strong demand for its approach.

Eigen Technologies, a London-based startup whose machine learning engine helps banks and other businesses that need to extract information and insights from large and complex documents like contracts, is today announcing that it has raised $37 million in funding, a Series B that values the company at around $150 million – $180 million.

The round was led by Lakestar and Dawn Capital, with Temasek and Goldman Sachs Growth Equity (which co-led its Series A) also participating. Eigen has now raised $55 million in total.

Eigen today is working primarily in the financial sector — its offices are smack in the middle of The City, London’s financial center — but the plan is to use the funding to continue expanding the scope of the platform to cover other verticals such as insurance and healthcare, two other big areas that deal in large, wordy documentation that is often inconsistent in how its presented, full of essential fine print, and typically a strain on an organisation’s resources to be handled correctly — and is often a disaster if it is not.

The focus up to now on banks and other financial businesses has had a lot of traction. It says its customer base now includes 25% of the world’s G-SIB institutions (that is, the world’s biggest banks), along with others that work closely with them, like Allen & Overy and Deloitte. Since June 2018 (when it closed its Series A round), Eigen has seen recurring revenues grow sixfold with headcount — mostly data scientists and engineers — double. While Eigen doesn’t disclose specific financials, you can see the growth direction that contributed to the company’s valuation.

The basic idea behind Eigen is that it focuses what co-founder and CEO Lewis Liu describes as “small data.” The company has devised a way to “teach” an AI to read a specific kind of document — say, a loan contract — by looking at a couple of examples and training on these. The whole process is relatively easy to do for a non-technical person: you figure out what you want to look for and analyse, find the examples using basic search in two or three documents and create the template, which can then be used across hundreds or thousands of the same kind of documents (in this case, a loan contract).

Eigen’s work is notable for two reasons. First, typically machine learning and training and AI requires hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of examples to “teach” a system before it can make decisions that you hope will mimic those of a human. Eigen requires a couple of examples (hence the “small data” approach).

Second, an industry like finance has many pieces of sensitive data (either because it’s personal data, or because it’s proprietary to a company and its business), and so there is an ongoing issue of working with AI companies that want to “anonymise” and ingest that data. Companies simply don’t want to do that. Eigen’s system essentially only works on what a company provides, and that stays with the company.

Eigen was founded in 2014 by Dr. Lewis Z. Liu (CEO) and Jonathan Feuer (a managing partner at CVC Capital Partners, who is the company’s chairman), but its earliest origins go back 15 years earlier, when Liu — a first-generation immigrant who grew up in the U.S. — was working as a “data-entry monkey” (his words) at a tire manufacturing plant in New Jersey, where he lived, ahead of starting university at Harvard.

A natural computing whiz who found himself building his own games when his parents refused to buy him a games console, he figured out that the many pages of printouts he was reading and re-entering into a different computing system could be sped up with a computer program linking up the two. “I put myself out of a job,” he joked.

His educational life epitomises the kind of lateral thinking that often produces the most interesting ideas. Liu went on to Harvard to study not computer science, but physics and art. Doing a double major required working on a thesis that merged the two disciplines together, and Liu built “electrodynamic equations that composed graphical structures on the fly” — basically generating art using algorithms — which he then turned into a “Turing test” to see if people could detect pixelated actual work with that of his program. Distill this, and Liu was still thinking about patterns in analog material that could be re-created using math.

Then came years at McKinsey in London (how he arrived on these shores) during the financial crisis where the results of people either intentionally or mistakenly overlooking crucial text-based data produced stark and catastrophic results. “I would say the problem that we eventually started to solve for at Eigen became tangible,” Liu said.

Then came a physics PhD at Oxford where Liu worked on X-ray lasers that could be used to decrease the complexity and cost of making microchips, cancer treatments and other applications.

While Eigen doesn’t actually use lasers, some of the mathematical equations that Liu came up with for these have also become a part of Eigen’s approach.

“The whole idea [for my PhD] was, ‘how do we make this cheaper and more scalable?,’ ” he said. “We built a new class of X-ray laser apparatus, and we realised the same equations could be used in pattern matching algorithms, specifically around sequential patterns. And out of that, and my existing corporate relationships, that’s how Eigen started.”

Five years on, Eigen has added a lot more into the platform beyond what came from Liu’s original ideas. There are more data scientists and engineers building the engine around the basic idea, and customising it to work with more sectors beyond finance. 

There are a number of AI companies building tools for non-technical business end-users, and one of the areas that comes close to what Eigen is doing is robotic process automation, or RPA. Liu notes that while this is an important area, it’s more about reading forms more readily and providing insights to those. The focus of Eigen is more on unstructured data, and the ability to parse it quickly and securely using just a few samples.

Liu points to companies like IBM (with Watson) as general competitors, while startups like Luminance is another taking a similar approach to Eigen by addressing the issue of parsing unstructured data in a specific sector (in its case, currently, the legal profession).

Stephen Nundy, a partner and the CTO of Lakestar, said that he first came into contact with Eigen when he was at Goldman Sachs, where he was a managing director overseeing technology, and the bank engaged it for work.

“To see what these guys can deliver, it’s to be applauded,” he said. “They’re not just picking out names and addresses. We’re talking deep, semantic understanding. Other vendors are trying to be everything to everybody, but Eigen has found market fit in financial services use cases, and it stands up against the competition. You can see when a winner is breaking away from the pack and it’s a great signal for the future.”

Aug
29
2018
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Storage provider Cloudian raises $94M

Cloudian, a company that specializes in helping businesses store petabytes of data, today announced that it has raised a $94 million Series E funding round. Investors in this round, which is one of the largest we have seen for a storage vendor, include Digital Alpha, Fidelity Eight Roads, Goldman Sachs, INCJ, JPIC (Japan Post Investment Corporation), NTT DOCOMO Ventures and WS Investments. This round includes a $25 million investment from Digital Alpha, which was first announced earlier this year.

With this, the seven-year-old company has now raised a total of $174 million.

As the company told me, it now has about 160 employees and 240 enterprise customers. Cloudian has found its sweet spot in managing the large video archives of entertainment companies, but its customers also include healthcare companies, automobile manufacturers and Formula One teams.

What’s important to stress here is that Cloudian’s focus is on on-premise storage, not cloud storage, though it does offer support for multi-cloud data management, as well. “Data tends to be most effectively used close to where it is created and close to where it’s being used,” Cloudian VP of worldwide sales Jon Ash told me. “That’s because of latency, because of network traffic. You can almost always get better performance, better control over your data if it is being stored close to where it’s being used.” He also noted that it’s often costly and complex to move that data elsewhere, especially when you’re talking about the large amounts of information that Cloudian’s customers need to manage.

Unsurprisingly, companies that have this much data now want to use it for machine learning, too, so Cloudian is starting to get into this space, as well. As Cloudian CEO and co-founder Michael Tso also told me, companies are now aware that the data they pull in, whether from IoT sensors, cameras or medical imaging devices, will only become more valuable over time as they try to train their models. If they decide to throw the data away, they run the risk of having nothing with which to train their models.

Cloudian plans to use the new funding to expand its global sales and marketing efforts and increase its engineering team. “We have to invest in engineering and our core technology, as well,” Tso noted. “We have to innovate in new areas like AI.”

As Ash also stressed, Cloudian’s business is really data management — not just storage. “Data is coming from everywhere and it’s going everywhere,” he said. “The old-school storage platforms that were siloed just don’t work anywhere.”

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