May
12
2020
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Microsoft partners with Redis Labs to improve its Azure Cache for Redis

For a few years now, Microsoft has offered Azure Cache for Redis, a fully managed caching solution built on top of the open-source Redis project. Today, it is expanding this service by adding Redis Enterprise, Redis Lab’s commercial offering, to its platform. It’s doing so in partnership with Redis Labs and while Microsoft will offer some basic support for the service, Redis Labs will handle most of the software support itself.

Julia Liuson, Microsoft’s corporate VP of its developer tools division, told me that the company wants to be seen as a partner to open-source companies like Redis Labs, which was among the first companies to change its license to prevent cloud vendors from commercializing and repackaging their free code without contributing back to the community. Last year, Redis Labs partnered with Google Cloud to bring its own fully managed service to its platform and so maybe it’s no surprise that we are now seeing Microsoft make a similar move.

Liuson tells me that with this new tier for Azure Cache for Redis, users will get a single bill and native Azure management, as well as the option to deploy natively on SSD flash storage. The native Azure integration should also make it easier for developers on Azure to integrate Redis Enterprise into their applications.

It’s also worth noting that Microsoft will support Redis Labs’ own Redis modules, including RediSearch, a Redis-powered search engine, as well as RedisBloom and RedisTimeSeries, which provide support for new datatypes in Redis.

“For years, developers have utilized the speed and throughput of Redis to produce unbeatable responsiveness and scale in their applications,” says Liuson. “We’ve seen tremendous adoption of Azure Cache for Redis, our managed solution built on open source Redis, as Azure customers have leveraged Redis performance as a distributed cache, session store, and message broker. The incorporation of the Redis Labs Redis Enterprise technology extends the range of use cases in which developers can utilize Redis, while providing enhanced operational resiliency and security.”

May
04
2020
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Decrypted: Chegg’s third time unlucky, Okta’s new CSO, Rapid7 beefs up cloud security

Ransomware is getting sneakier and smarter.

The latest example comes from ExecuPharm, a little-known but major outsourced pharmaceutical company that confirmed it was hit by a new type of ransomware last month. The incursion not only encrypted the company’s network and files, hackers also exfiltrated vast amounts of data from the network. The company was handed a two-for-one threat: pay the ransom and get your files back or don’t pay and the hackers will post the files to the internet.

This new tactic is shifting how organizations think of ransomware attacks: it’s no longer just a data-recovery mission; it’s also now a data breach. Now companies are torn between taking the FBI’s advice of not paying the ransom or the fear their intellectual property (or other sensitive internal files) are published online.

Because millions are now working from home, the surface area for attackers to get in is far greater than it was, making the threat of ransomware higher than ever before.

That’s just one of the stories from the week. Here’s what else you need to know.


THE BIG PICTURE

Chegg hacked for the third time in three years

Education giant Chegg confirmed its third data breach in as many years. The latest break-in affected past and present staff after a hacker made off with 700 names and Social Security numbers. It’s a drop in the ocean when compared to the 40 million records stolen in 2018 and an undisclosed number of passwords taken in a breach at Thinkful, which Chegg had just acquired in 2019.

Those 700 names account for about half of its 1,400 full-time employees, per a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. But Chegg’s refusal to disclose further details about the breach — beyond a state-mandated notice to the California attorney general’s office — makes it tough to know exactly went wrong this time.

Nov
04
2019
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Microsoft’s Chromium-based Edge browser gets new privacy features, will be generally available January 15

Microsoft today announced that its Chromium-based Edge browser will be generally available on January 15 and that the release candidate for Windows and macOS is now available for download (and that it features a new icon).

The development of the new Edge has progressed pretty rapidly and the latest build has been very stable, even as Microsoft started building more differentiated features like Collections into its more experimental builds.

With today’s release, Microsoft also is announcing new privacy features. The marquee feature here is probably the new InPrivate browsing mode that now, in combination with Bing, will keep your online searches and identities private. InPrivate, as the name implies, already deleted any information about your browsing session on your local machine when you closed the window. But now, when you search with Bing, Microsoft’s search engine you’ve probably forgotten about, your search history on Bing and any personally identifiable data will also not be saved or associated back to you.

By default, Edge will also now enable tracking prevention. “One of the things that’s hard on the web is how to balance the desire for privacy and the protection of your data — and yet you still want the web to be personalized,” said Yusuf Mehdi, the corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Modern Life, Search and Devices Group, in a pre-recorded briefing ahead of today’s announcement. “The problem today is, nobody has really nailed it. You’ve got some good companies doing some really innovative work to try and have super-strict privacy controls. The problem is, they break the web. And then you’ve got other ones who say, ‘hey, don’t worry about it, we’re just going to make it all work for you.’ But in the background, your data is getting tracked.” Mehdi, of course, thinks that Microsoft’s approach is the better one here — and more balanced.

Jul
17
2019
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AlphaSense, a search engine for analysis and business intel, raises $50M led by Innovation Endeavors

Google and its flagship search portal opened the door to the possibilities of how to build a business empire on the back of organising and navigating the world’s information, as found on the internet. Now, a startup that’s built a search engine tailored to the needs of enterprises and their own quests for information has raised a round of funding to see if it can do the same for the B2B world.

AlphaSense, which provides a way for companies to quickly amass market intelligence around specific trends, industries and more to help them make business decisions, has closed a $50 million round of funding, a Series B that it’s planning to use to continue enhancing its product and expanding to more verticals.

The company counts some 1,000 clients on its books, with a heavy emphasis on investment banks and related financial services companies. That’s in part because of how the company got its start: Finnish co-founder and CEO Jaakko (Jack) Kokko had been an analyst at Morgan Stanley in a past life and understood the labor and time pain points of doing market research, and decided to build a platform to help shorten a good part of the information-gathering process.

“My experience as an analyst on Wall Street showed me just how fragmented information really was,” he said in an interview, citing as one example how complex sites like those of the FDA are not easy to navigate to look for new information and updates — the kind of thing that a computer would be much more adept at monitoring and flagging. “Even with the best tools and services, it still was really hard to manually get the work done, in part because of market volatility and the many factors that cause it. We can now do that with orders of magnitude more efficiency. Firms can now gather information in minutes that would have taken an hour. AlphaSense does the work of the best single analyst, or even a team of them.”

(Indeed, the “alpha” of AlphaSense appears to be a reference to finance: it’s a term that refers to the ability of a trader or portfolio manager to beat the typical market return.)

The lead investor in this round is very notable and says something about the company’s ambitions. It’s Innovation Endeavors, the VC firm backed by Eric Schmidt, who had been the CEO of none other than Google (the pace-setter and pioneer of the search-as-business model) for a decade, and then stayed on as chairman and ultimately board member of Google and then Alphabet (its later holding company) until just last June.

Schmidt presided over Google at what you could argue was its most important time, gaining speed and scale and transitioning from an academic idea into a full-fledged, huge public business whose flagship product has now entered the lexicon as a verb and (through search and other services like Android and YouTube) is a mainstay of how the vast majority of the world uses the web today. As such, he is good at spotting opportunities and gaps in the market, and while enterprise-based needs will never be as prominent as those of mass-market consumers, they can be just as lucrative.

“Information is the currency of business today, but data is overwhelming and fragmented, making it difficult for business professionals to find the right insights to drive key business decisions,” he said in a statement. “We were impressed by the way AlphaSense solves this with its AI and search technology, allowing businesses to proceed with the confidence that they have the right information driving their strategy.”

This brings the total raised by AlphaSense to $90 million, with other investors in this round including Soros Fund Management LLC and other unnamed existing investors. Previous backers had included Tom Glocer (the former Reuters CEO who himself is working on his own fintech startup, a security firm called BlueVoyant), the MassChallenge incubator, Tribeca Venture Partners and others. Kokko said AlphaSense is not disclosing its valuation at this point. (I’m guessing though that it’s definitely on the up.)

There have been others that have worked to try to tackle the idea of providing more targeted, and business-focused, search portals, from the likes of Wolfram Alpha (another alpha!) through to Lexis Nexis and others like Bloomberg’s terminals, FactSet, Business Quant and many more.

One interesting aspect of AlphaSense is how it’s both focused on pulling in requests as well as set up to push information to its users based on previous search parameters. Currently these are set up to only provide information, but over time, there is a clear opportunity to build services to let the engines take on some of the actions based on that information, such as adjusting asking prices for sales and other transactions.

“There are all kinds of things we could do,” said Kokko. “This is a massive untapped opportunity. But we’re not taking the human out of the loop, ever. Humans are the right ones to be making final decisions, and we’re just about helping them make those faster.”

May
30
2019
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The Slack origin story

Let’s rewind a decade. It’s 2009. Vancouver, Canada.

Stewart Butterfield, known already for his part in building Flickr, a photo-sharing service acquired by Yahoo in 2005, decided to try his hand — again — at building a game. Flickr had been a failed attempt at a game called Game Neverending followed by a big pivot. This time, Butterfield would make it work.

To make his dreams a reality, he joined forces with Flickr’s original chief software architect Cal Henderson, as well as former Flickr employees Eric Costello and Serguei Mourachov, who like himself, had served some time at Yahoo after the acquisition. Together, they would build Tiny Speck, the company behind an artful, non-combat massively multiplayer online game.

Years later, Butterfield would pull off a pivot more massive than his last. Slack, born from the ashes of his fantastical game, would lead a shift toward online productivity tools that fundamentally change the way people work.

Glitch is born

In mid-2009, former TechCrunch reporter-turned-venture-capitalist M.G. Siegler wrote one of the first stories on Butterfield’s mysterious startup plans.

“So what is Tiny Speck all about?” Siegler wrote. “That is still not entirely clear. The word on the street has been that it’s some kind of new social gaming endeavor, but all they’ll say on the site is ‘we are working on something huge and fun and we need help.’”

Siegler would go on to invest in Slack as a general partner at GV, the venture capital arm of Alphabet .

“Clearly this is a creative project,” Siegler added. “It almost sounds like they’re making an animated movie. As awesome as that would be, with people like Henderson on board, you can bet there’s impressive engineering going on to turn this all into a game of some sort (if that is in fact what this is all about).”

After months of speculation, Tiny Speck unveiled its project: Glitch, an online game set inside the brains of 11 giants. It would be free with in-game purchases available and eventually, a paid subscription for power users.

Mar
19
2019
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The top 10 startups from Y Combinator W19 Demo Day 1

Electric-vehicle chargers, heads-up displays for soldiers and the Costco of weed were some of our favorites from prestigious startup accelerator Y Combinator’s Winter 2019 Demo Day 1. If you want to take the pulse of Silicon Valley, YC is the place to be. But with more than 200 startups presenting across two stages and two days, it’s tough to keep track.

You can check out our write-ups of all 85 startups that launched on Demo Day 1, and come back later for our full index and picks from Day 2. But now, based on feedback from top investors and TechCrunch’s team, here’s our selection of the top 10 companies from the first half of this Y Combinator batch, and why we picked each.

Ravn

Looking around corners is one of the most dangerous parts of war for infantry. Ravn builds heads-up displays that let soldiers and law enforcement see around corners thanks to cameras on their gun, drones or elsewhere. The ability to see the enemy while still being behind cover saves lives, and Ravn already has $490,000 in Navy and Air Force contracts. With a CEO who was a Navy Seal who went on to study computer science, plus experts in augmented reality and selling hardware to the Department of Defense, Ravn could deliver the inevitable future of soldier heads-up displays.

Why we picked Ravn: The AR battlefield is inevitable, but right now Microsoft’s HoloLens team is focused on providing mid-fight information, like how many bullets a soldier has in their clip and where their squad mates are. Ravn’s tech was built by a guy who watched the tragic consequences of getting into those shootouts. He wants to help soldiers avoid or win these battles before they get dangerous, and his team includes an expert in selling hardened tech to the U.S. government.

Middesk

It’s difficult to know if a business’ partners have paid their taxes, filed for bankruptcy or are involved in lawsuits. That leads businesses to write off $120 billion a year in uncollectable bad debt. Middesk does due diligence to sort out good businesses from the bad to provide assurance for B2B deals, loans, investments, acquisitions and more. By giving clients the confidence that they’ll be paid, Middesk could insert itself into a wide array of transactions.

Why we picked Middesk: It’s building the trust layer for the business world that could weave its way into practically every deal. More data means making fewer stupid decisions, and Middesk could put an end to putting faith in questionable partners.

Convictional

Convictional helps direct-to-consumer companies approach larger retailers more simply. It takes a lot of time for a supplier to build a relationship with a retailer and start selling their products. Convictional wants to speed things up by building a B2B self-service commerce platform that allows retailers to easily approach brands and make orders.

Why we picked Convictional: There’s been an explosion of D2C businesses selling everything from suitcases to shaving kits. But to drive exposure and scale, they need retail partners who’re eager not to be cut out of this growing commerce segment. Playing middleman could put Convictional in a lucrative position, while also making it a nexus of valuable shopping data.

Dyneti Technologies

Dyneti has invented a credit card scanner SDK that uses a smartphone’s camera to help prevent fraud by more than 50 percent and improve conversion for businesses by 5 percent. The business was started by a pair of former Uber employees, including CEO Julia Zheng, who launched the fraud analytics teams for Account Security and UberEATS. Dyneti’s service is powered by deep learning and works on any card format. In the two months since it launched, the company has signed contracts with Rappi, Gametime and others.

Why we picked Dyneti: Cybersecurity threats are growing and evolving, yet underequipped businesses are eager to do more business online. Dyneti is one of those fundamental B2B businesses that feels like Stripe — capable of bringing simplicity and trust to a complex problem so companies can focus on their product.

AmpUp

The “Airbnb for electric-vehicle chargers,” ampUp is preparing for a world in which the majority of us drive EVs — it operates a mobile app that connects a network of thousands of EV chargers and drivers. Using the app, an electric-vehicle owner can quickly identify an available and compatible charger, and EV charger owners can earn cash sharing their charger at their own price and their own schedule. The service is currently live in the Bay Area.

Why we picked ampUp: Electric vehicles are inevitable, but reliable charging is one of the leading fears dissuading people from buying. Rather than build out some massive owned network of chargers that will never match the distributed gas station network, ampUp could put an EV charger anywhere there’s someone looking to make a few bucks.

Flockjay

Flockjay operates an online sales academy that teaches job seekers from underrepresented backgrounds the skills and training they need to pursue a career in tech sales. The 12-week bootcamp offers trainees coaching and mentorship. The company has launched its debut cohort with 17 students, 100 percent of whom are already in job interviews and 40 percent of whom have already secured new careers in the tech industry.

Why we picked Flockjay: Unlike coding bootcamps that can require intense prerequisites, killer salespeople can be molded from anyone with hustle. Those from underrepresented backgrounds already know how to expertly sell themselves to attain opportunities others take for granted. Flockjay could provide economic mobility at a crucial juncture when job security is shaky.

Deel

Twenty million international contractors work with U.S. companies, but it’s difficult to onboard and train them. Deel handles the contracts, payments and taxes in one interface to eliminate paperwork and wasted time. Deel charges businesses $10 per contractor per month and a 1 percent fee on payouts, which earns it an average of $560 per contractor per year.

Why we picked Deel: The destigmatization of remote work is opening new recruiting opportunities abroad for U.S. businesses. But unless teams can properly integrate these distant staffers, the cost savings of hiring overseas are negated. As the globalization megatrend continues, businesses will need better HR tools.

Glide

There has been a pretty major trend toward services that make it easier to build web pages or mobile apps. Glide lets customers easily create well-designed mobile apps from Google Sheets pages. This not only makes it easy to build the pages, but simplifies the skills needed to keep information updated on the site.

Why we picked Glide: While desktop website makers is a brutally competitive market, it’s still not easy to make a mobile site if you’re not a coder. Rather than starting from a visual layout tool with which many people would still be unfamiliar, Glide starts with a spreadsheet that almost everyone has used. And as the web begins to feel less personal with all the brands and influencers, Glide could help people make bespoke apps that put intimacy and personality first.

Docucharm

The platform, co-founded by former Uber product manager Minh Tri Pham, turns documents into structured data a computer can understand to accurately automate document processing workflows and take away the need for human data entry. Docucharm’s API can understand various forms of documents (like paystubs, for example) and will extract the necessary information without error. Its customers include tax prep company Tributi and lending business Aspire.

Why we picked Docucharm: Paying high-priced, high-skilled workers to do data entry is a huge waste. And optical character recognition like Docucharm’s will unlock new types of businesses based on data extraction. This startup could be the AI layer underneath it all.

Flower Co

Flower Co provides memberships for cheaper weed sales and delivery. Most dispensaries cater to high-end customers and newbies that want expensive products and tons of hand-holding. In contrast, Flower Co caters to long-time marijuana enthusiasts who want huge quantities at low prices. They’re currently selling $200.000 in marijuana per month to 700 members. They charge $100 a year for membership, and take 10 percent on product sales.

Why we picked Flower Co: Marijuana is the next gold rush, a once-in-a-generation land-grab opportunity. Yet most marijuana merchants have focused on hyper-discerning high-end customers despite the long-standing popularity of smoking big blunts of cheap weed with a bunch of friends. For those who want to make cannabis consumption a lifestyle, and there will be plenty, Flower Co could become their wholesaler.

Honorable Mentions

Atomic Alchemy – Filling the shortage of nuclear medicine

Yourchoice – Omni-gender non-hormonal birth control

Prometheus – Turning CO2 into gas

Lumos – Medical search engine for doctors

Heart Aerospace – Regional electric planes

Boundary Layer Technologies – Super-fast container ships

Additional reporting by Kate Clark, Greg Kumparak and Lucas Matney

Dec
14
2016
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Omnity search engine finds documents relevant to yours — regardless of language

omnity_pic With the amount of published research, patents, white papers and other written knowledge out there, it’s hard to be even reasonably sure you’re aware of the goings-on around a certain topic or field. Omnity is a search engine made to make it easier by extracting the gist of documents you give it and finding related ones from a library of millions — and now supports over a… Read More

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