Oct
28
2020
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MachEye raises $4.6M for its business intelligence platform

We’ve seen our fair share of business intelligence (BI) platforms that aim to make data analysis accessible to everybody in a company. Most of them are still fairly complicated, no matter what their marketing copy says. MachEye, which is launching its AI-powered BI platform today, is offering a new twist on this genre. In addition to its official launch, the company also today announced a previously unreported $4.6 seed funding round led by Canaan Partners with participation from WestWave Capital.

MachEye is not just what its founder and CEO Ramesh Panuganty calls a “low-prep, no-prep” BI platform, but it uses natural language processing to allow anybody to query data using natural language — and it can then automatically generate interactive data stories on the fly that put the answer into context. That’s quite a different approach from its more dashboard-centric competition.

Image Credits: MachEye

“I have seen the business intelligence problems in the past,” Panuganty said. “And I saw that Traditional BI, even though it has existed for 30 or 40 years, had this paradigm of ‘what you ask is what you get.’ So the business user asks for something, either in an email, on the phone or in person, and then he gets an answer to that question back. That essentially has these challenges of being dependent on the experts and there is a time that is lost to get the answers — and then there’s a lack of exploratory capabilities for the business user. and the bigger problem is that they don’t know what they don’t know.”

Panuganty’s background includes time at Sun Microsystems and Bell Labs, working on their operating systems before becoming an entrepreneur. He built three companies over the last 12 years or so. The first was a cloud management platform, Cloud360, which was acquired by Cognizant. The second was analytics company Drastin, which got acquired by Splunk in 2017, and the third was the AI-driven educational platform SelectQ, which Thinkster acquired this April. He also holds 15 patents related to machine learning, analytics and natural language processing.

Given that track record, it’s probably no surprise why VCs wanted to invest in his new startup, too. Panuganty tells me that when he met with Canaan Partners, he wasn’t really looking for an investment. He had already talked to the team while building SelectQ, but Canaan never got to make an investment because the company got acquired before it needed to raise more funding. But after an informal meeting that ended up lasting most of the day, he received an offer the next morning.

MachEye’s approach is definitely unique. “Generating audio-visuals on enterprise data, we are probably the only company that does it,” Panuganty said. But it’s important to note that it also offers all of the usual trappings of a BI service. If you really want dashboards, you can build those, and developers can use the company’s APIs to use their data elsewhere, too. The service can pull in data from most of the standard databases and data warehousing services, including AWS Redshift, Azure Synapse, Google BigQuery, Snowflake and Oracle. The company promises that it only takes 30 minutes from connecting a data source to being able to ask questions about that data.

Interestingly, MachEye’s pricing plan is per seat and doesn’t limit how much data you can query. There’s a free plan, but without the natural search and query capabilities, an $18/month/user plan that adds those capabilities and additional search features, but it takes the enterprise plan to get the audio narrations and other advanced features. The team is able to use this pricing model because it is able to quickly spin up the container infrastructure to answer a query and then immediately shut it down again — all within about two minutes.

Oct
08
2020
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Headroom, which uses AI to supercharge videoconferencing, raises $5M

Videoconferencing has become a cornerstone of how many of us work these days — so much so that one leading service, Zoom, has graduated into verb status because of how much it’s getting used.

But does that mean videoconferencing works as well as it should? Today, a new startup called Headroom is coming out of stealth, tapping into a battery of AI tools — computer vision, natural language processing and more — on the belief that the answer to that question is a clear — no bad Wi-Fi interruption here — “no.”

Headroom not only hosts videoconferences, but then provides transcripts, summaries with highlights, gesture recognition, optimised video quality and more, and today it’s announcing that it has raised a seed round of $5 million as it gears up to launch its freemium service into the world.

You can sign up to the waitlist to pilot it, and get other updates here.

The funding is coming from Anna Patterson of Gradient Ventures (Google’s AI venture fund); Evan Nisselson of LDV Capital (a specialist VC backing companies building visual technologies); Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, now of AME Cloud Ventures; Ash Patel of Morado Ventures; Anthony Goldbloom, the co-founder and CEO of Kaggle.com; and Serge Belongie, Cornell Tech associate dean and professor of Computer Vision and Machine Learning.

It’s an interesting group of backers, but that might be because the founders themselves have a pretty illustrious background with years of experience using some of the most cutting-edge visual technologies to build other consumer and enterprise services.

Julian Green — a British transplant — was most recently at Google, where he ran the company’s computer vision products, including the Cloud Vision API that was launched under his watch. He came to Google by way of its acquisition of his previous startup Jetpac, which used deep learning and other AI tools to analyze photos to make travel recommendations. In a previous life, he was one of the co-founders of Houzz, another kind of platform that hinges on visual interactivity.

Russian-born Andrew Rabinovich, meanwhile, spent the last five years at Magic Leap, where he was the head of AI, and before that, the director of deep learning and the head of engineering. Before that, he too was at Google, as a software engineer specializing in computer vision and machine learning.

You might think that leaving their jobs to build an improved videoconferencing service was an opportunistic move, given the huge surge of use that the medium has had this year. Green, however, tells me that they came up with the idea and started building it at the end of 2019, when the term “COVID-19” didn’t even exist.

“But it certainly has made this a more interesting area,” he quipped, adding that it did make raising money significantly easier, too. (The round closed in July, he said.)

Given that Magic Leap had long been in limbo — AR and VR have proven to be incredibly tough to build businesses around, especially in the short to medium-term, even for a startup with hundreds of millions of dollars in VC backing — and could have probably used some more interesting ideas to pivot to; and that Google is Google, with everything tech having an endpoint in Mountain View, it’s also curious that the pair decided to strike out on their own to build Headroom rather than pitch building the tech at their respective previous employers.

Green said the reasons were two-fold. The first has to do with the efficiency of building something when you are small. “I enjoy moving at startup speed,” he said.

And the second has to do with the challenges of building things on legacy platforms versus fresh, from the ground up.

“Google can do anything it wants,” he replied when I asked why he didn’t think of bringing these ideas to the team working on Meet (or Hangouts if you’re a non-business user). “But to run real-time AI on video conferencing, you need to build for that from the start. We started with that assumption,” he said.

All the same, the reasons why Headroom are interesting are also likely going to be the ones that will pose big challenges for it. The new ubiquity (and our present lives working at home) might make us more open to using video calling, but for better or worse, we’re all also now pretty used to what we already use. And for many companies, they’ve now paid up as premium users to one service or another, so they may be reluctant to try out new and less-tested platforms.

But as we’ve seen in tech so many times, sometimes it pays to be a late mover, and the early movers are not always the winners.

The first iteration of Headroom will include features that will automatically take transcripts of the whole conversation, with the ability to use the video replay to edit the transcript if something has gone awry; offer a summary of the key points that are made during the call; and identify gestures to help shift the conversation.

And Green tells me that they are already also working on features that will be added into future iterations. When the videoconference uses supplementary presentation materials, those can also be processed by the engine for highlights and transcription too.

And another feature will optimize the pixels that you see for much better video quality, which should come in especially handy when you or the person/people you are talking to are on poor connections.

“You can understand where and what the pixels are in a video conference and send the right ones,” he explained. “Most of what you see of me and my background is not changing, so those don’t need to be sent all the time.”

All of this taps into some of the more interesting aspects of sophisticated computer vision and natural language algorithms. Creating a summary, for example, relies on technology that is able to suss out not just what you are saying, but what are the most important parts of what you or someone else is saying.

And if you’ve ever been on a videocall and found it hard to make it clear you’ve wanted to say something, without straight-out interrupting the speaker, you’ll understand why gestures might be very useful.

But they can also come in handy if a speaker wants to know if he or she is losing the attention of the audience: The same tech that Headroom is using to detect gestures for people keen to speak up can also be used to detect when they are getting bored or annoyed and pass that information on to the person doing the talking.

“It’s about helping with EQ,” he said, with what I’m sure was a little bit of his tongue in his cheek, but then again we were on a Google Meet, and I may have misread that.

And that brings us to why Headroom is tapping into an interesting opportunity. At their best, when they work, tools like these not only supercharge videoconferences, but they have the potential to solve some of the problems you may have come up against in face-to-face meetings, too. Building software that actually might be better than the “real thing” is one way of making sure that it can have staying power beyond the demands of our current circumstances (which hopefully won’t be permanent circumstances).

Mar
25
2020
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Espressive lands $30M Series B to build better help chatbots

Espressive, a four-year-old startup from former ServiceNow employees, is working to build a better chatbot to reduce calls to company help desks. Today, the company announced a $30 million Series B investment.

Insight Partners led the round with help from Series A lead investor General Catalyst along with Wing Venture Capital. Under the terms of today’s agreement, Insight founder and managing director Jeff Horing will be joining the Espressive Board. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $53 million, according to the company.

Company founder and CEO Pat Calhoun says that when he was at ServiceNow he observed that, in many companies, employees often got frustrated looking for answers to basic questions. That resulted in a call to a Help Desk requiring human intervention to answer the question.

He believed that there was a way to automate this with AI-driven chatbots, and he founded Espressive to develop a solution. “Our job is to help employees get immediate answers to their questions or solutions or resolutions to their issues, so that they can get back to work,” he said.

They do that by providing a very narrowly focused natural language processing (NLP) engine to understand the question and find answers quickly, while using machine learning to improve on those answers over time.

“We’re not trying to solve every problem that NLP can address. We’re going after a very specific set of use cases which is really around employee language, and as a result, we’ve really tuned our engine to have the highest accuracy possible in the industry,” Calhoun told TechCrunch.

He says what they’ve done to increase accuracy is combine the NLP with image recognition technology. “What we’ve done is we’ve built our NLP engine on top of some image recognition architecture that’s really designed for a high degree of accuracy and essentially breaks down the phrase to understand the true meaning behind the phrase,” he said.

The solution is designed to provide a single immediate answer. If, for some reason, it can’t understand a request, it will open a help ticket automatically and route it to a human to resolve, but they try to keep that to a minimum. He says that when they deploy their solution, they tune it to the individual customers’ buzzwords and terminology.

So far they have been able to reduce help desk calls by 40% to 60% across customers with around 85% employee participation, which shows that they are using the tool and it’s providing the answers they need. In fact, the product understands 750 million employee phrases out of the box.

The company was founded in 2016. It currently has 65 employees and 35 customers, but with the new funding, both of those numbers should increase.

Dec
13
2018
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Chorus.ai rings up $33M for its platform that analyses sales calls to close more deals

Chorus.ai, a service that listens to sales calls in real time, and then transcribes and analyses them to give helpful tips to the salesperson, has raised $33 million to double down on the current demand for more AI-based tools in the enterprise.

The Series B is being led by Georgian Partners, with participation also from Redpoint Ventures and Emergence Capital, previous investors that backed Israeli-founded, SF-based Chorus.ai in its $16 million Series A two years ago.

In the gap between then and now, the startup has seen strong growth, listening in to some 5 million calls, and performing hundreds of thousands of hours of transcriptions for around 200 customers, including Adobe, Zoom, and Outreach (among others that it will not name).

Micha Breakstone, the co-founder (who has a pretty long history in conversational AI, heading up R&D at Ginger Software and then Intel after it acquired the startup; and before that building the tech that eventually became Summly and got acquired by Yahoo, among other roles), says that while the platform gives information and updates to salespeople in real time, much of the focus today is on providing information to users post-conversation, based on both audio and video calls.

One of its big areas is “smart themes” — patterns and rules Chorus has learned through all those calls. For example, it has identified what kind of language the most successful sales people are using and in turn prompts those who are less successful to use it more. Two general tips Breakstone told me about: using more collaborative terms like we and us; and giving more backstory to clients, although there will be more specific themes and approaches based on Chorus’s specific customers and products.

“I’d say we are super attuned to our customers and what they need and want,” Breakstone said. Which makes sense given the whole premise of Chorus.

It also creates smart “playlists” for managers who will almost certainly never have the time to review hundreds of hours of calls but might want to hear instructive highlights or ‘red alert’ moments where a more senior person might need to step in to save or close a deal.

There are currently what seems like dozens of startups and larger businesses that are currently tackling the opportunity to provide “conversational intelligence” to sales teams, using advances in natural language processing, voice recognition, machine learning and big data to help turn every sales person into a Jerry Maguire (yes, I know he’s an agent, but still, he needs to close deals, and he’s a salesman). They include TalkIQ (which has now been acquired by Dialpad), People.AI, Gong, Voicera, VoiceOps, and I’m pulling from a long list.

“We were among the very first to start this, no one knew what conversational intelligence was before us,” Breakstone says. He describes most of what was out in the market at the time as “Nineties technology” and adds that “our tech is superior because we built it in the correct way from the ground up, with nothing sent to a third party.”

He says that this is one reason why the company has negative churn — it essentially wins customers and hasn’t lost any. And having the tech all in-house not only means the platform is smarter and more accurate, but that helps with compliance around regulations like GDPR, which also has been a boost to its business. It’s also scored well on metrics around reps hitting targets better with its tools (the company claims its products lead to 50 percent greater quota attainment and ‘ramp time’ up by 30 percent for new sales people who use it).

Chorus.ai has helped us become a smarter sales organization as we’ve scaled. We have visibility into our sales conversations and what is working across all of our offices”, said Greg Holmes, Head of Sales for Zoom Video Communications, in a statement. “We’ve seen a drastic reduction in new hire ramp times and higher sales productivity with even more reps hitting quota. Chorus.ai is a game changer.”

Chorus has raised $55 million to date and Breakstone said he would not disclose its valuation — despite my best attempts to use some of those sales tips to winkle the information out of him. But I understand it to be “significantly higher” than in its last round, and definitely in the hundreds of millions.

As a point of reference, after its Series A two years ago, it was only valued at around $33 million post-money according to PitchBook.

“Maintaining high-quality sales conversations as you scale a sales organization is hard for many companies, but key to delivering predictable revenue growth. Chorus.ai’s Conversation Intelligence platform solves that challenge with a market-leading solution that is easy-to-use and delivers best-in-class results.” said Simon Chong, Managing Partner at Georgian Partners, in a statement. (Chong is joining the board with this round.) “Chorus.ai works with some of the best sales teams in the world and they love the product. We are very excited to partner with Chorus.ai on their next phase of growth as they help world class sales teams reach higher quota attainment and efficiency.”

Oct
24
2017
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LinkedIn boosts its messaging with smart replies, pre-written, AI based interactions

 LinkedIn — the Microsoft-owned platform for those who want to network with professional contacts and advance their own careers — has been in the middle of a long-term makeover of its social tools, as it looks to drive more usage. Today comes the latest chapter in that story: the site is unveiling a new smart reply feature in its messaging app, which gives users prompts with… Read More

Aug
09
2017
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Tableau acquires ClearGraph, a startup that lets you analyze your data using natural language

 Business intelligence and analytics firm Tableau today announced that it has acquired ClearGraph, a service that lets you query and visualize large amounts of business date through natural language queries (think “this week’s transactions over $500”). Tableau expects to integrate this technology with its own products as it looks to make it easier for its users to use… Read More

Jul
20
2017
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Freshdesk owner Freshworks acquires Joe Hukum as it plans a move into chatbots

 After raising $55 million last year to build its business beyond its existing help desk services, today Freshworks (the parent company of Freshdesk) has made an acquisition to help it fill out that strategy. The company has acquired Joe Hukum, a startup out of India that offers a platform for businesses to build their own chatbots. I’ve asked, but the companies are not revealing any terms… Read More

May
02
2017
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Facebook’s fastText library is now optimized for mobile

 This morning Facebook’s AI Research (FAIR) lab released an update to fastText, its super-speedy open-source text classification library. When it was initially released, fastText shipped with pre-trained word vectors for 90 languages, but today it’s getting a boost to 294 languages. The release also brings enhancements to reduce model size and ultimately memory demand. Read More

Apr
12
2017
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VoiceOps launches to put insights in the hands of managers coaching sales reps

 The enterprise voice space grows hotter today as VoiceOps announces its seed round with participation from Accel, Founders Fund and Lowercase Capital. The YC-backed startup aims to support sales teams by offering managers clear insights into what tactics are being used on the front lines. Founders, Daria Evdokimova, Ethan Barhydt and Nate Becker designed a machine learning-powered system… Read More

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