Apr
13
2021
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SambaNova raises $676M at a $5.1B valuation to double down on cloud-based AI software for enterprises

Artificial intelligence technology holds a huge amount of promise for enterprises — as a tool to process and understand their data more efficiently; as a way to leapfrog into new kinds of services and products; and as a critical stepping stone into whatever the future might hold for their businesses. But the problem for many enterprises is that they are not tech businesses at their core, so bringing on and using AI will typically involve a lot of heavy lifting. Today, one of the startups building AI services is announcing a big round of funding to help bridge that gap.

SambaNova — a startup building AI hardware and integrated systems that run on it that only officially came out of three years in stealth last December — is announcing a huge round of funding today to take its business out into the world. The company has closed on $676 million in financing, a Series D that co-founder and CEO Rodrigo Liang has confirmed values the company at $5.1 billion.

The round is being led by SoftBank, which is making the investment via Vision Fund 2. Temasek and the government of Singapore Investment Corp. (GIC), both new investors, are also participating, along with previous backers BlackRock, Intel Capital, GV (formerly Google Ventures), Walden International and WRVI, among other unnamed investors. (Sidenote: BlackRock and Temasek separately kicked off an investment partnership yesterday, although it’s not clear if this falls into that remit.)

Co-founded by two Stanford professors, Kunle Olukotun and Chris Ré, and Liang, who had been an engineering executive at Oracle, SambaNova has been around since 2017 and has raised more than $1 billion to date — both to build out its AI-focused hardware, which it calls DataScale, and to build out the system that runs on it. (The “Samba” in the name is a reference to Liang’s Brazilian heritage, he said, but also the Latino music and dance that speaks of constant movement and shifting, not unlike the journey AI data regularly needs to take that makes it too complicated and too intensive to run on more traditional systems.)

SambaNova on one level competes for enterprise business against companies like Nvidia, Cerebras Systems and Graphcore — another startup in the space which earlier this year also raised a significant round. However, SambaNova has also taken a slightly different approach to the AI challenge.

In December, the startup launched Dataflow-as-a-Service as an on-demand, subscription-based way for enterprises to tap into SambaNova’s AI system, with the focus just on the applications that run on it, without needing to focus on maintaining those systems themselves. It’s the latter that SambaNova will be focusing on selling and delivering with this latest tranche of funding, Liang said.

SambaNova’s opportunity, Liang believes, lies in selling software-based AI systems to enterprises that are keen to adopt more AI into their business, but might lack the talent and other resources to do so if it requires running and maintaining large systems.

“The market right now has a lot of interest in AI. They are finding they have to transition to this way of competing, and it’s no longer acceptable not to be considering it,” said Liang in an interview.

The problem, he said, is that most AI companies “want to talk chips,” yet many would-be customers will lack the teams and appetite to essentially become technology companies to run those services. “Rather than you coming in and thinking about how to hire scientists and hire and then deploy an AI service, you can now subscribe, and bring in that technology overnight. We’re very proud that our technology is pushing the envelope on cases in the industry.”

To be clear, a company will still need data scientists, just not the same number, and specifically not the same number dedicating their time to maintaining systems, updating code and other more incremental work that comes managing an end-to-end process.

SambaNova has not disclosed many customers so far in the work that it has done — the two reference names it provided to me are both research labs, the Argonne National Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — but Liang noted some typical use cases.

One was in imaging, such as in the healthcare industry, where the company’s technology is being used to help train systems based on high-resolution imagery, along with other healthcare-related work. The coincidentally-named Corona supercomputer at the Livermore Lab (it was named after the 2014 lunar eclipse, not the dark cloud of a pandemic that we’re currently living through) is using SambaNova’s technology to help run calculations related to some COVID-19 therapeutic and antiviral compound research, Marshall Choy, the company’s VP of product, told me.

Another set of applications involves building systems around custom language models, for example in specific industries like finance, to process data quicker. And a third is in recommendation algorithms, something that appears in most digital services and frankly could always do to work a little better than it does today. I’m guessing that in the coming months it will release more information about where and who is using its technology.

Liang also would not comment on whether Google and Intel were specifically tapping SambaNova as a partner in their own AI services, but he didn’t rule out the prospect of partnering to go to market. Indeed, both have strong enterprise businesses that span well beyond technology companies, and so working with a third party that is helping to make even their own AI cores more accessible could be an interesting prospect, and SambaNova’s DataScale (and the Dataflow-as-a-Service system) both work using input from frameworks like PyTorch and TensorFlow, so there is a level of integration already there.

“We’re quite comfortable in collaborating with others in this space,” Liang said. “We think the market will be large and will start segmenting. The opportunity for us is in being able to take hold of some of the hardest problems in a much simpler way on their behalf. That is a very valuable proposition.”

The promise of creating a more accessible AI for businesses is one that has eluded quite a few companies to date, so the prospect of finally cracking that nut is one that appeals to investors.

“SambaNova has created a leading systems architecture that is flexible, efficient and scalable. This provides a holistic software and hardware solution for customers and alleviates the additional complexity driven by single technology component solutions,” said Deep Nishar, senior managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement. “We are excited to partner with Rodrigo and the SambaNova team to support their mission of bringing advanced AI solutions to organizations globally.”

Oct
08
2020
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Grid AI raises $18.6M Series A to help AI researchers and engineers bring their models to production

Grid AI, a startup founded by the inventor of the popular open-source PyTorch Lightning project, William Falcon, that aims to help machine learning engineers work more efficiently, today announced that it has raised an $18.6 million Series A funding round, which closed earlier this summer. The round was led by Index Ventures, with participation from Bain Capital Ventures and firstminute. 

Falcon co-founded the company with Luis Capelo, who was previously the head of machine learning at Glossier. Unsurprisingly, the idea here is to take PyTorch Lightning, which launched about a year ago, and turn that into the core of Grid’s service. The main idea behind Lightning is to decouple the data science from the engineering.

The time argues that a few years ago, when data scientists tried to get started with deep learning, they didn’t always have the right expertise and it was hard for them to get everything right.

“Now the industry has an unhealthy aversion to deep learning because of this,” Falcon noted. “Lightning and Grid embed all those tricks into the workflow so you no longer need to be a PhD in AI nor [have] the resources of the major AI companies to get these things to work. This makes the opportunity cost of putting a simple model against a sophisticated neural network a few hours’ worth of effort instead of the months it used to take. When you use Lightning and Grid it’s hard to make mistakes. It’s like if you take a bad photo with your phone but we are the phone and make that photo look super professional AND teach you how to get there on your own.”

As Falcon noted, Grid is meant to help data scientists and other ML professionals “scale to match the workloads required for enterprise use cases.” Lightning itself can get them partially there, but Grid is meant to provide all of the services its users need to scale up their models to solve real-world problems.

What exactly that looks like isn’t quite clear yet, though. “Imagine you can find any GitHub repository out there. You get a local copy on your laptop and without making any code changes you spin up 400 GPUs on AWS — all from your laptop using either a web app or command-line-interface. That’s the Lightning “magic” applied to training and building models at scale,” Falcon said. “It is what we are already known for and has proven to be such a successful paradigm shift that all the other frameworks like Keras or TensorFlow, and companies have taken notice and have started to modify what they do to try to match what we do.”

The service is now in private beta.

With this new funding, Grid, which currently has 25 employees, plans to expand its team and strengthen its corporate offering via both Grid AI and through the open-source project. Falcon tells me that he aims to build a diverse team, not in the least because he himself is an immigrant, born in Venezuela, and a U.S. military veteran.

“I have first-hand knowledge of the extent that unethical AI can have,” he said. “As a result, we have approached hiring our current 25 employees across many backgrounds and experiences. We might be the first AI company that is not all the same Silicon Valley prototype tech-bro.”

“Lightning’s open-source traction piqued my interest when I first learned about it a year ago,” Index Ventures’ Sarah Cannon told me. “So intrigued in fact I remember rushing into a closet in Helsinki while at a conference to have the privacy needed to hear exactly what Will and Luis had built. I promptly called my colleague Bryan Offutt who met Will and Luis in SF and was impressed by the ‘elegance’ of their code. We swiftly decided to participate in their seed round, days later. We feel very privileged to be part of Grid’s journey. After investing in seed, we spent a significant amount with the team, and the more time we spent with them the more conviction we developed. Less than a year later and pre-launch, we knew we wanted to lead their Series A.”

Apr
21
2020
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AWS and Facebook launch an open-source model server for PyTorch

AWS and Facebook today announced two new open-source projects around PyTorch, the popular open-source machine learning framework. The first of these is TorchServe, a model-serving framework for PyTorch that will make it easier for developers to put their models into production. The other is TorchElastic, a library that makes it easier for developers to build fault-tolerant training jobs on Kubernetes clusters, including AWS’s EC2 spot instances and Elastic Kubernetes Service.

In many ways, the two companies are taking what they have learned from running their own machine learning systems at scale and are putting this into the project. For AWS, that’s mostly SageMaker, the company’s machine learning platform, but as Bratin Saha, AWS VP and GM for Machine Learning Services, told me, the work on PyTorch was mostly motivated by requests from the community. And while there are obviously other model servers like TensorFlow Serving and the Multi Model Server available today, Saha argues that it would be hard to optimize those for PyTorch.

“If we tried to take some other model server, we would not be able to quote optimize it as much, as well as create it within the nuances of how PyTorch developers like to see this,” he said. AWS has lots of experience in running its own model servers for SageMaker that can handle multiple frameworks, but the community was asking for a model server that was tailored toward how they work. That also meant adapting the server’s API to what PyTorch developers expect from their framework of choice, for example.

As Saha told me, the server that AWS and Facebook are now launching as open source is similar to what AWS is using internally. “It’s quite close,” he said. “We actually started with what we had internally for one of our model servers and then put it out to the community, worked closely with Facebook, to iterate and get feedback — and then modified it so it’s quite close.”

Bill Jia, Facebook’s VP of AI Infrastructure, also told me, he’s very happy about how his team and the community has pushed PyTorch forward in recent years. “If you look at the entire industry community — a large number of researchers and enterprise users are using AWS,” he said. “And then we figured out if we can collaborate with AWS and push PyTorch together, then Facebook and AWS can get a lot of benefits, but more so, all the users can get a lot of benefits from PyTorch. That’s our reason for why we wanted to collaborate with AWS.”

As for TorchElastic, the focus here is on allowing developers to create training systems that can work on large distributed Kubernetes clusters where you might want to use cheaper spot instances. Those are preemptible, though, so your system has to be able to handle that, while traditionally, machine learning training frameworks often expect a system where the number of instances stays the same throughout the process. That, too, is something AWS originally built for SageMaker. There, it’s fully managed by AWS, though, so developers never have to think about it. For developers who want more control over their dynamic training systems or to stay very close to the metal, TorchElastic now allows them to recreate this experience on their own Kubernetes clusters.

AWS has a bit of a reputation when it comes to open source and its engagement with the open-source community. In this case, though, it’s nice to see AWS lead the way to bring some of its own work on building model servers, for example, to the PyTorch community. In the machine learning ecosystem, that’s very much expected, and Saha stressed that AWS has long engaged with the community as one of the main contributors to MXNet and through its contributions to projects like Jupyter, TensorFlow and libraries like NumPy.

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