Apr
17
2019
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The Exit: an AI startup’s McPivot

Five years ago, Dynamic Yield was courting an investment from The New York Times as it looked to shift how publishers paywalled their content. Last month, Chicago-based fast food king McDonald’s bought the Israeli company for $300 million, a source told TechCrunch, with the purpose of rethinking how people order drive-thru chicken nuggets.

The pivot from courting the grey lady to the golden arches isn’t as drastic as it sounds. In a lot of ways, it’s the result of the company learning to say “no” to certain customers. At least, that’s what Bessemer’s Adam Fisher tells us.

The Exit is a new series at TechCrunch. It’s an exit interview of sorts with a VC who was in the right place at the right time but made the right call on an investment that paid off. 

Fisher

Fisher was Dynamic Yield founder Liad Agmon’s first call when he started looking for funds from institutional investors. Bessemer bankrolled the bulk of a $1.7 million funding round which valued the startup at $5 million pre-money back in 2013. The firm ended up putting about $15 million into Dynamic Yield, which raised ~$85 million in total from backers including Marker Capital, Union Tech Ventures, Baidu and The New York Times.

Fisher and I chatted at length about the company’s challenging rise and how Israel’s tech scene is still being underestimated. Fisher has 11 years at Bessemer under his belt and 14 exits including Wix, Intucell, Ravello and Leaba.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


Saying “No”

Lucas Matney: So, right off the bat, how exactly did this tool initially built for publishers end up becoming something that McDonalds wanted?

Adam Fisher: I mean, the story of Dynamic Yield is unique. Liad, the founder and CEO, he was an entrepreneur in residence in our Herzliya office back in 2011. I’d identified him earlier from his previous company, and I just said, ‘Well, that’s the kind of guy I’d love to work with.’ I didn’t like his previous company, but there was something about his charisma, his technology background, his youth, which I just felt like “Wow, he’s going to do something interesting.” And so when he sold his previous company, coincidentally to another Chicago based company called Sears, I invited him and I think he found it very flattering, so he joined us as an EIR.

And really only at the very end of his residence did he come up with this idea that would become Dynamic Yield. He came about it very much focused on the problem he saw with publishers being outwitted by ad buyers. He felt like all the big publishers really didn’t understand their digital businesses, didn’t understand their users, didn’t understand how performance ad buying was working, and he began to build a product that could dynamically optimize a publisher’s website to maximize revenue, hence the yield … the dynamic yield.

But very quickly, we told him, ‘That’s interesting, but we’re not sure how big that market is. And, you know it’s not always great to sell to those kind of weak customers. Sometimes they’re weak for a reason.’

Mar
24
2019
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Alibaba acquires Israeli startup Infinity Augmented Reality

Infinity Augmented Reality, an Israeli startup, has been acquired by Alibaba, the companies announced this weekend. The deal’s terms were not disclosed. Alibaba and InfinityAR have had a strategic partnership since 2016, when Alibaba Group led InfinityAR’s Series C. Since then, the two have collaborated on augmented reality, computer vision and artificial intelligence projects.

Founded in 2013, the startup’s augmented glasses platform enables developers in a wide range of industries (retail, gaming, medical, etc.) to integrate AR into their apps. InfinityAR’s products include software for ODMs and OEMs and a SDK plug-in for 3D engines.

Alibaba’s foray into virtual reality started three years ago, when it invested in Magic Leap and then announced a new research lab in China to develop ways of incorporating virtual reality into its e-commerce platform.

InfinityAR’s research and development team will begin working out of Alibaba’s Israel Machine Laboratory, part of Alibaba DAMO Academy, the R&D initiative into which it is pouring $15 billion with the goal of eventually serving two billion customers and creating 100 million jobs by 2036. DAMO Academy collaborates with universities around the world, and Alibaba’s Israel Machine Laboratory has a partnership with Tel Aviv University focused on video analysis and machine learning.

In a press statement, the laboratory’s head, Lihi Zelnik-Manor, said “Alibaba is delighted to be working with InfinityAR as one team after three years of partnership. The talented team brings unique knowhow in sensor fusion, computer vision and navigation technologies. We look forward to exploring these leading technologies and offering additional benefits to customers, partners and developers.”

Nov
14
2018
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SAM nabs $12M for cybersecurity aimed at home routers and devices connected to them

A wave of security startups have built solutions for enterprises that are meeting the challenges of “consumerization”, where IT organizations are tasked with securing a range of devices and apps — some brought in by employees, not issued by IT — that are on the organization’s networks. Today, a startup based out of Israel that is taking a similar approach, but aimed at consumers and the plethora of devices now connected to their home networks, is announcing a round of funding. SAM — which provides a system administered by way of a home or small office/home office internet router to monitor connected devices for suspicious activity — has raised a $12 million in funding.

The Series A includes interesting strategic investors. Led by Intel Capital, the round also includes participation from home security giant ADT, NightDragon (a cybersecurity-focused VC founded by Dave DeWalt, the former CEO of FireEye and McAfee) and Blumberg Capital.

Intel is already integrating SAM’s tech into its hardware, and ADT is evaluating how it can do so right now, said Sivan Rauscher, the CEO who first cut her teeth working on cybersecurity in the Israeli army before co-founding SAM with CTO Eilon Lotem and Vice Chairman Shmuel Chafets.

Prior to this round, SAM first emerged from stealth in February 2018 with $4 million from backers that included Team8, the well-supported VC-company incubator, whose co-founders Nadav Zafir, Israel Grimberg, and Liran Grinberg now also serve as advisors to the startup.

One of the reasons for following that up relatively quickly with more funding is because SAM has already signed some deals and it’s making its way into the market. Rauscher said that the first services using the startup’s tech will go live in Germany, Belgium and UK soon. (She declined to name the telcos that will roll it out, since “they want to keep the element of surprise,” she said.) It’s also already deployed across some 4 million devices by way of Israeli carrier Bezeq.

The company is notable because in the world of cybersecurity, many of the most talented people and companies are focused on targeting the enterprise market. In a way, that is not a surprise, since these typically are larger and more complex networks, and a larger amount of data is more immediately at stake.

(And you could argue that in fact this is also an enterprise play, since SAM is working with telcos to provide services to consumers: “We have an agenda to protect the end user but also the carrier as well,” Rauscher said.)

SAM is coming into the market at a key time.

Home networks are increasingly including a range of devices — not just phones, laptops and tablets; but set-top boxes, home security systems, lighting and fire detection, home ‘hubs’, connected appliances and more. Gartner estimates more than 7 billion connected devices in the consumer market for this year, with that number rising to 12.9 billion by 2020.

But perhaps an even bigger urgency is that home routers — which Rauscher describes as “low-hanging fruit” — have increasingly become a target for malicious hackers. A report from Akamai earlier this year estimated that 65,000 home routers have been accessed by hackers; the US and UK governments have further issued warnings that Russian hackers are lying in wait, using compromised routers to lay out long-term cyber warfare operations.

In that context, while the concept of securing a home router might not sound like as lucrative a target on its own compared to multi-million-dollar enterprise contracts (and the billions of dollars and thousands of data points that are at stake), the wider problem is clearly one that is ripe for addressing.

In a nutshell, Rauscher — also, I should add, notable for being one of a handful of female founders in the world of cybersecurity — says that what SAM does is operate by way of the router, but by identifying and providing security wrappers for every device that connects with the router.

“Our software is agnostic to any home router,” she said, adding that once you secure the router, “you secure everything in the network.” The essence of what SAM does is search out suspicious links into and coming out of these devices, and when it detects them, they are blocked, essentially taking the role of an IT department or presenting an enterprise-style deployment designed to work in the home.

“We were impressed with SAM’s technology and level of security for the home network, which is a critical part of building out the future of 5G,” said Dave Flanagan, vice president of Intel Corp. and group managing director of Intel Capital. “Unlike existing solutions, which necessitate buying a new gateway or replacing it with a secure gateway, SAM’s solution provides end-users security, without them needing to do anything. And for telecommunications companies and ISPs, its AI and machine learning capabilities monitor behavior on the network to detect unusual activity and prevent attacks. With the global market for smart home technology predicted to hit $100 billion by 2020, Intel and its partners know security is essential.”

Apr
25
2018
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Allegro.AI nabs $11M for ‘deep learning as a service’, for businesses to build computer vision products

Artificial intelligence and the application of it across nearly every aspect of our lives is shaping up to be one of the major step changes of our modern society. Today, a startup that wants to help other companies capitalise on AI’s advances is announcing funding and emerging from stealth mode.

Allegro.AI, which has built a deep learning platform that companies can use to build and train computer-vision-based technologies — from self-driving car systems through to security, medical and any other services that require a system to read and parse visual data — is today announcing that it has raised $11 million in funding, as it prepares for a full-scale launch of its commercial services later this year after running pilots and working with early users in a closed beta.

The round may not be huge by today’s startup standards, but the presence of strategic investors speaks to the interest that the startup has sparked and the gap in the market for what it is offering. It includes MizMaa Ventures — a Chinese fund that is focused on investing in Israeli startups, along with participation from Robert Bosch Venture Capital GmbH (RBVC), Samsung Catalyst Fund and Israeli fund Dynamic Loop Capital. Other investors (the $11 million actually covers more than one round) are not being disclosed.

Nir Bar-Lev, the CEO and cofounder (Moses Guttmann, another cofounder, is the company’s CTO; and the third cofounder, Gil Westrich, is the VP of R&D), started Allegro.AI first as Seematics in 2016 after he left Google, where he had worked in various senior roles for over 10 years. It was partly that experience that led him to the idea that with the rise of AI, there would be an opportunity for companies that could build a platform to help other less AI-savvy companies build AI-based products.

“We’re addressing a gap in the industry,” he said in an interview. Although there are a number of services, for example Rekognition from Amazon’s AWS, which allow a developer to ping a database by way of an API to provide analytics and some identification of a video or image, these are relatively basic and couldn’t be used to build and “teach” full-scale navigation systems, for example.

“An ecosystem doesn’t exist for anything deep-learning based.” Every company that wants to build something would have to invest 80-90 percent of their total R&D resources on infrastructure, before getting to the many other apsects of building a product, he said, which might also include the hardware and applications themselves. “We’re providing this so that the companies don’t need to build it.”

Instead, the research scientists that will buy in the Allegro.AI platform — it’s not intended for non-technical users (not now at least) — can concentrate on overseeing projects and considering strategic applications and other aspects of the projects. He says that currently, its direct target customers are tech companies and others that rely heavily on tech, “but are not the Googles and Amazons of the world.”

Indeed, companies like Google, AWS, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook have all made major inroads into AI, and in one way or another each has a strong interest in enterprise services and may already be hosting a lot of data in their clouds. But Bar-Lev believes that companies ultimately will be wary to work with them on large-scale AI projects:

“A lot of the data that’s already on their cloud is data from before the AI revolution, before companies realized that the asset today is data,” he said. “If it’s there, it’s there and a lot of it is transactional and relational data.

“But what’s not there is all the signal-based data, all of the data coming from computer vision. That is not on these clouds. We haven’t spoken to a single automotive who is sharing that with these cloud providers. They are not even sharing it with their OEMs. I’ve worked at Google, and I know how companies are afraid of them. These companies are terrified of tech companies like Amazon and so on eating them up, so if they can now stop and control their assets they will do that.”

Customers have the option of working with Allegro either as a cloud or on-premise product, or a combination of the two, and this brings up the third reason that Allegro believes it has a strong opportunity. The quantity of data that is collected for image-based neural networks is massive, and in some regards it’s not practical to rely on cloud systems to process that. Allegro’s emphasis is on building computing at the edge to work with the data more efficiently, which is one of the reasons investors were also interested.

“AI and machine learning will transform the way we interact with all the devices in our lives, by enabling them to process what they’re seeing in real time,” said David Goldschmidt, VP and MD at Samsung Catalyst Fund, in a statement. “By advancing deep learning at the edge, Allegro.AI will help companies in a diverse range of fields—from robotics to mobility—develop devices that are more intelligent, robust, and responsive to their environment. We’re particularly excited about this investment because, like Samsung, Allegro.AI is committed not just to developing this foundational technology, but also to building the open, collaborative ecosystem that is necessary to bring it to consumers in a meaningful way.”

Allegro.AI is not the first company with hopes of providing AI and deep learning as a service to the enterprise world: Element.AI out of Canada is another startup that is being built on the premise that most companies know they will need to consider how to use AI in their businesses, but lack the in-house expertise or budget (or both) to do that. Until the wider field matures and AI know-how becomes something anyone can buy off-the-shelf, it’s going to present an interesting opportunity for the likes of Allegro and others to step in.

 

 

 

Mar
06
2018
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Intelligo is using AI to make background checks relevant again

To realize that the background check industry needs an overhaul look no further than the backlog of 700,000 background checks faced by the federal agency that handles all background checks for sensitive government positions. This backlog has essentially rendered background checks useless, as many agencies are able to give security clearances on a temporary basis before a background check is even started.

Intelligo is an Israeli company trying to make background checks relevant again by using AI and machine learning to not only speed up and automate the process, but also run more thorough checks.

Launching out of beta today, the company has raised $6.8M to date – a seed round of $1.1M and a Series A of $5.7M. They boast investors like Eileen Murray (Co-CEO of Bridgewater Associates) and advisors like the former director of the NSA Michael McConnell and former Managing Director of the Israel Ministry of Defense Pinhas Buchris.

Currently most serious background checks are done manually. This means that when an analyst creating a report comes across a new data source they need to decide if it’s worth taking the time to parse it and add it to the report. Consequently, many important sources like social media pages and news sites are left out of reports. It also means that background checks can take up to a week or longer, which is frustrating for the company and applicant.

Alternatively, Intelligo’s solution is primarily driven by an automated machine learning platform that can indiscriminately look at all thousands of data sources without concern for how much manual labor it will take. Reports are also provided in a user-friendly interactive dashboard, which is a stark contrast to the dozens of typed pages that an old-school background check will be.

Automating the process also dramatically costs down on cost – Intelligo says their prices are half of the average market price, which is allowing small and midsize businesses to now get the benefit of a high-level background check that typically would only be used by a larger corporation.

The startup also offers an ongoing monitoring product designed for the investment world. Funds often want the ability to monitor their portfolio companies and management teams even after the initial due diligence process, and by using an automated platform Intelligo can let let funds know of management issues long before a human would find the source of the issue.

Mar
06
2018
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Intelligo is using AI to make background checks relevant again

 To realize that the background check industry needs an overhaul look no further than the backlog of 700,000 background checks faced by the federal agency that handles all background checks for sensitive government positions. This backlog has essentially rendered background checks useless, as many agencies are able to give security clearances on a temporary basis before a background check is… Read More

Apr
05
2017
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83North closes $250M fourth fund focused on European, Israeli startups

 European VC firm 83North (formerly Greylock IL), which since 2008 has focused on backing startups in Europe and Israel, has closed its fourth fund — taking $250M in a raise that it says was both oversubscribed and its largest to date, and bringing its total capital under management to $800M. Read More

Mar
27
2017
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Airobotics scores authorization to fly autonomous drones in Israel

 A startup based in Petah Tikva, Israel, Airobotics, has scored the right to fly drones autonomously for business purposes in Israel. The Civil Aviation Authority of Israel (CAAI) was the first in the world to authorize commercial, fully unmanned drone flights in their nation’s airspace. Read More

Jan
24
2017
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Secret Double Octopus nabs $6M for a stronger, easier alternative to regular 2FA

8093376393_713fb93477_k Israel is home to around 450 active startups in the field of cybersecurity, according to a recent report in Reuters. Now, the one with perhaps the most distinctive name of them all is announcing some funding for a novel approach to authentication. Secret Double Octopus — which borrows a concept from the world of nuclear launch codes to build extra-secure, but simple, keyless… Read More

Nov
30
2016
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Genesis Partners spins out $50 million fund, F2 Capital, to back early-stage startups in Israel

Tel Aviv Skyline Three members of the senior investing team at Genesis Partners, a major Israeli venture firm, are stepping out with a new, early-stage fund of their own called F2 Capital. For the unfamiliar, Genesis Partners’ portfolio companies have been acquired by the likes of Apple, IBM, Microsoft and Sapiens over the past decade, and have gone public on the Nasdaq exchange in the U.S. as well.… Read More

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