Aug
21
2018
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Talla builds a smarter customer knowledge base

Talla is taking aim at the customer service industry with its latest release, an AI-infused knowledge base. Today, the company released version 2.0 of the Talla Intelligent Knowledge Base.

The company also announced that Paula Long, most recently CEO at Data Gravity, has joined the company as SVP of engineering.

This tool combines customer content with automation, chatbots and machine learning. It’s designed to help teams who work directly with customers get at the information they need faster and the machine learning element should allow it to improve over time.

You can deploy the product as a widget on your website to give customers direct access to the information, but Rob May, company founder and CEO says the most common use case involves helping sales, customer service and customer success teams get access to the most relevant and current information, whether that’s maintenance or pricing.

The information can get into the knowledge base in several ways. First of all you can enter elements like product pages and FAQs directly in the Talla product as with any knowledge base. Secondly if an employee asks a question and there isn’t an adequate answer, it exposes the gaps in information.

Talla Knowledge Base gap list. Screenshot: Talla

“It really shows you the unknown unknowns in your business. What are the questions people are asking that you didn’t realize you don’t have content for or you don’t have answers for. And so that allows you to write new content and better content,” May explained.

Finally, the company can import information into the knowledge base from Salesforce, ServiceNow, Jira or wherever it happens to live, and that can be added to a new page or incorporated into existing page as appropriate.

Employees interact with the system by asking a bot questions and it supplies the answers if one exists. It works with Slack, Microsoft Teams or Talla Chat.

Talla bot in action in Talla Chat. Screenshot: Talla

Customer service remains a major pain point for many companies. It is the direct link to customers when they are having issues. A single bad experience can taint a person’s view of a brand, and chances are when a customer is unhappy they let their friends know on social media, making an isolated incident much bigger. Having quicker access to more accurate information could help limit negative experiences.

Today’s announcement builds on an earlier version of the product that took aim at IT help desks. Talla found customers kept asking for a solution that provided similar functionality with customer-facing information and they have tuned it for that.

May launched Talla in 2015 after selling his former startup Backupify to Datto in 2014. The company, which is based near Boston, has raised $12.3 million.

Aug
21
2018
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Foundries.io promises standardized open source IoT device security

IoT devices currently lack a standard way of applying security. It leaves consumers, whether business or individuals, left to wonder if their devices are secure and up-to-date. Foundries.io, a company that launched today, wants to change that by offering a standard way to secure devices and deliver updates over the air.

“Our mission is solving the problem of IoT and embedded space where there is no standardized core platform like Android for phones,” Foundries.io CEO George Grey explained.

What Foundries has created is an open and secure solution that saves everyone from creating their own and reinventing the wheel every time. Grey says Foundries’ approach is not only secure, it provides a long-term solution to the device update problem by providing a way to deliver updates over the air in an automated manner on any device from tiny sensors to smart thermostats to autonomous cars.

He says this approach will allow manufacturers to apply security patches in a similar way that Apple applies regular updates to iOS. “Manufacturers can continuously make sure their devices can be updated with the latest software to fix security flaws or Zero Day flaws,” he said.

The company offers two solutions, depending on the size and complexity of your device. The Zephyr RTOS microPlatform is designed for smaller, less complex devices. For those that are more complex, Foundries offers a version of Linux called the Linux OE microPlatform.

Diagram: Foundries.io

Grey claims that these platforms free manufacturers to build secure devices without having to hire a team of security experts. But he says the real beauty of the product is that the more people who use it, the more secure it will get, as more and more test it against their products in a virtuous cycle.

You may be wondering how they can make money in this model, but they do it by charging a flat fee of $10,000 per year for Zephyr RTOS and $25,000 per year for Linux OE. These are one-time prices and apply by the product, regardless of how many units get sold and there is no lock-in, according to Grey. Companies are free to back out any time. “If you want to stop subscribing you take over maintenance and you still have access to everything up to the point,. You just have to arrange maintenance yourself,” he said.

There is also a hobbyist and education package for $10 a month.

The company spun off from research at Linaro, an organization that promotes development on top of ARM chips.

To be successful, Foundries.io needs to build a broad community of manufacturers. Today’s launch is the first step in that journey. If it eventually takes off, it has the potential to provide a consistent way of securing and updating IoT devices, a move which would certainly be welcome.

Aug
21
2018
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Semmle, startup that makes code searchable, hauls in $21M Series B

Semmle, a startup that originally spun out of research at Oxford, announced a $21 million Series B investment today led by Accel Partners. It marked the second time Accel has led an investment in the company.

Work-Bench also participated in the round. Today’s investment brings the total to $31 million.

Semmle has warranted this kind of interest by taking a unique approach to finding vulnerabilities in code. “The key idea behind our technology is to treat code as data and treat analysis problems as simple queries against a database. What this allows you to do is very easily encode domain expertise, security expertise or any other kinds of specialist knowledge in such a way it can be easily and automatically applied to large amounts of code,” Pavel Avgustinov, Semmle co-founder and VP of platform engineering told TechCrunch.

Screenshot: Semmle

Once you create the right query, you can continuously run it against your code to prevent the same mistakes from entering the code base on subsequent builds. The key here is building the queries and the company has a couple of ways to deal with that.

They can work with customers to help them create queries, although in the long run that is not a sustainable way of working. Instead, they share queries, and encourage customers to share them with the community.

“What we find is that the great tech companies we work with have the best security teams in the world, and they are giving back what they created on the Semmle platform with other users in an open source fashion. There is a GitHub repository where we publish queries, but Microsoft and Google are doing the same thing,” Oege de Moor, company CEO and co-founder explained.

In fact, the Semmle solution is freely available to open source programmers to use with their applications, and the company currently analyzes every commit of almost 80,000 open source projects. Open source developers can run shared queries against their code or create their own.

They also have a paid version with customers like Microsoft, Google, Credit Suisse, NASA and Nasdaq. They have relied mostly on these strategic partners up until now. With today’s investment they plan to build out their sales and marketing departments to expand their customer base into a wider enterprise market.

The company spun out of research at Oxford University in 2006. They are now based in San Francisco with 60 employees, a number that should go up with this investment. They received an $8 million Series A in 2014 and $2 million seed round in 2011.

Aug
17
2018
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Incentivai launches to simulate how hackers break blockchains

Cryptocurrency projects can crash and burn if developers don’t predict how humans will abuse their blockchains. Once a decentralized digital economy is released into the wild and the coins start to fly, it’s tough to implement fixes to the smart contracts that govern them. That’s why Incentivai is coming out of stealth today with its artificial intelligence simulations that test not just for security holes, but for how greedy or illogical humans can crater a blockchain community. Crypto developers can use Incentivai’s service to fix their systems before they go live.

“There are many ways to check the code of a smart contract, but there’s no way to make sure the economy you’ve created works as expected,” says Incentivai’s solo founder Piotr Grudzie?. “I came up with the idea to build a simulation with machine learning agents that behave like humans so you can look into the future and see what your system is likely to behave like.”

Incentivai will graduate from Y Combinator next week and already has a few customers. They can either pay Incentivai to audit their project and produce a report, or they can host the AI simulation tool like a software-as-a-service. The first deployments of blockchains it’s checked will go out in a few months, and the startup has released some case studies to prove its worth.

“People do theoretical work or logic to prove that under certain conditions, this is the optimal strategy for the user. But users are not rational. There’s lots of unpredictable behavior that’s difficult to model,” Grudzie? explains. Incentivai explores those illogical trading strategies so developers don’t have to tear out their hair trying to imagine them.

Protecting crypto from the human x-factor

There’s no rewind button in the blockchain world. The immutable and irreversible qualities of this decentralized technology prevent inventors from meddling with it once in use, for better or worse. If developers don’t foresee how users could make false claims and bribe others to approve them, or take other actions to screw over the system, they might not be able to thwart the attack. But given the right open-ended incentives (hence the startup’s name), AI agents will try everything they can to earn the most money, exposing the conceptual flaws in the project’s architecture.

“The strategy is the same as what DeepMind does with AlphaGo, testing different strategies,” Grudzie? explains. He developed his AI chops earning a masters at Cambridge before working on natural language processing research for Microsoft.

Here’s how Incentivai works. First a developer writes the smart contracts they want to test for a product like selling insurance on the blockchain. Incentivai tells its AI agents what to optimize for and lays out all the possible actions they could take. The agents can have different identities, like a hacker trying to grab as much money as they can, a faker filing false claims or a speculator that cares about maximizing coin price while ignoring its functionality.

Incentivai then tweaks these agents to make them more or less risk averse, or care more or less about whether they disrupt the blockchain system in its totality. The startup monitors the agents and pulls out insights about how to change the system.

For example, Incentivai might learn that uneven token distribution leads to pump and dump schemes, so the developer should more evenly divide tokens and give fewer to early users. Or it might find that an insurance product where users vote on what claims should be approved needs to increase its bond price that voters pay for verifying a false claim so that it’s not profitable for voters to take bribes from fraudsters.

Grudzie? has done some predictions about his own startup too. He thinks that if the use of decentralized apps rises, there will be a lot of startups trying to copy his approach to security services. He says there are already some doing token engineering audits, incentive design and consultancy, but he hasn’t seen anyone else with a functional simulation product that’s produced case studies. “As the industry matures, I think we’ll see more and more complex economic systems that need this.”

Aug
17
2018
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Klarity uses AI to strip drudgery from contract review

Klarity, a member of the Y Combinator 2018 Summer class, wants to automate much of the contract review process by applying artificial intelligence, specifically natural language processing.

Company co-founder and CEO Andrew Antos has experienced the pain of contract reviews first hand. After graduating from Harvard Law, he landed a job spending 16 hours a day reviewing contract language, a process he called mind-numbing. He figured there had to be a way to put technology to bear on the problem and Klarity was born.

“A lot of companies are employing internal or external lawyers because their customers, vendors or suppliers are sending them a contract to sign,” Antos explained They have to get somebody to read it, understand it and figure out whether it’s something that they can sign or if it requires specific changes.

You may think that this kind of work would be difficult to automate, but Antos said that  contracts have fairly standard language and most companies use ‘playbooks.’ “Think of the playbook as a checklist for NDAs, sales agreements and vendor agreements — what they are looking for and specific preferences on what they agree to or what needs to be changed,” Antos explained.

Klarity is a subscription cloud service that checks contracts in Microsoft Word documents using NLP. It makes suggestions when it sees something that doesn’t match up with the playbook checklist. The product then generates a document, and a human lawyer reviews and signs off on the suggested changes, reducing the review time from an hour or more to 10 or 15 minutes.

Screenshot: Klarity

They launched the first iteration of the product last year and have 14 companies using it with 4 paying customers so far including one of the world’s largest private equity funds. These companies signed on because they have to process huge numbers of contracts. Klarity is helping them save time and money, while applying their preferences in a consistent fashion, something that a human reviewer can have trouble doing.

He acknowledges the solution could be taking away work from human lawyers, something they think about quite a bit. Ultimately though, they believe that contract reviewing is so tedious, it is freeing up lawyers for work that requires a greater level of intellectual rigor and creativity.

Antos met his co-founder and CTO, Nischal Nadhamuni, at an MIT entrepreneurship class in 2016 and the two became fast friends. In fact, he says that they pretty much decided to start a company the first day. “We spent 3 hours walking around Cambridge and decided to work together to solve this real problem people are having.”

They applied to Y Combinator two other times before being accepted in this summer’s cohort. The third time was the charm. He says the primary value of being in YC is the community and friendships they have formed and the help they have had in refining their approach.

“It’s like having a constant mirror that helps you realize any mistakes or any suboptimal things in your business on a high speed basis,” he said.

Aug
15
2018
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Twistlock snares $33 million Series C investment to secure cloud native environments

As the world shifts to a cloud native approach, the way you secure applications as they get deployed is changing too. Twistlock, a company built from the ground up to secure cloud native environments, announced a $33 million Series C round today led by Iconiq Capital.

Previous investors YL Ventures, TenEleven, Rally Ventures, Polaris Partners and Dell Technologies Capital also participated in the round. The company reports it has received a total of $63 million in venture investment to date.

Twistlock is solving a hard problem around securing containers and serverless, which are by their nature ephemeral. They can live for fractions of seconds making it hard track problems when they happen. According to company CEO and co-founder Ben Bernstein, his company came out of the gate building a security product designed to protect a cloud-native environment with the understanding that while containers and serverless computing may be ephemeral, they are still exploitable.

“It’s not about how long they live, but about the fact that the way they live is more predictable than a traditional computer, which could be running for a very long time and might have humans actually using it,” Bernstein said.

Screenshot: Twistlock

As companies move to a cloud native environment using Dockerized containers and managing them with Kubernetes and other tools, they create a highly automated system to deal with the deployment volume. While automation simplifies deployment, it can also leave companies vulnerable to host of issues. For example, if a malicious actor were to get control of the process via a code injection attack, they could cause a lot of problems without anyone knowing about it.

Twistlock is built to help prevent that, while also helping customers recognize when an exploit happens and performing forensic analysis to figure out how it happened.

It’s not a traditional Software as a Service as we’ve come to think of it. Instead, it is a service that gets installed on whatever public or private cloud that the customer is using. So far, they count just over 200 customers including Walgreens and Aetna and a slew of other companies you would definitely recognize, but they couldn’t name publicly.

The company, which was founded in 2015, is based in Portland, Oregon with their R&D arm in Israel. They currently have 80 employees. Bernstein said from a competitive standpoint, the traditional security vendors are having trouble reacting to cloud native, and while he sees some startups working at it, he believes his company has the most mature offering, at least for now.

“We don’t have a lot of competition right now, but as we start progressing we will see more,” he said. He plans to use the money they receive today to help expand their marketing and sales arm to continue growing their customer base, but also engineering to stay ahead of that competition as the cloud-native security market continues to develop.

Aug
15
2018
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To fight the scourge of open offices, ROOM sells rooms

Noisy open offices don’t foster collaboration, they kill it, according to a Harvard study that found the less-private floor plan led to a 73 percent drop in face-to-face interaction between employees and a rise in emailing. The problem is plenty of young companies and big corporations have already bought into the open office fad. But a new startup called ROOM is building a prefabricated, self-assembled solution. It’s the IKEA of office phone booths.

The $3,495 ROOM One is a sound-proofed, ventilated, powered booth that can be built in new or existing offices to give employees a place to take a video call or get some uninterrupted time to focus on work. For comparison, ROOM co-founder Morten Meisner-Jensen says, “Most phone booths are $8,000 to $12,000. The cheapest competitor to us is $6,000 — almost twice as much.” Though booths start at $4,500 from TalkBox and $3,995 from Zenbooth, they tack on $1,250 and $1,650 for shipping, while ROOM ships for free. They’re all dividing the market of dividing offices.

The idea might seem simple, but the booths could save businesses a ton of money on lost productivity, recruitment and retention if it keeps employees from going crazy amidst sales call cacophony. Less than a year after launch, ROOM has hit a $10 million revenue run rate thanks to 200 clients ranging from startups to Salesforce, Nike, NASA and JP Morgan. That’s attracted a $2 million seed round from Slow Ventures that adds to angel funding from Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen. “I am really excited about it since it is probably the largest revenue-generating company Slow has seen at the time of our initial Seed stage investment,” says partner Kevin Colleran.

“It’s not called ROOM because we build rooms,” Meisner-Jensen tells me. “It’s called ROOM because we want to make room for people, make room for privacy and make room for a better work environment.”

Phone booths, not sweatboxes

You might be asking yourself, enterprising reader, why you couldn’t just go to Home Depot, buy some supplies and build your own in-office phone booth for way less than $3,500. Well, ROOM’s co-founders tried that. The result was… moist.

Meisner-Jensen has design experience from the Danish digital agency Revolt that he started before co-founding digital book service Mofibo and selling it to Storytel. “In my old job we had to go outside and take the call, and I’m from Copenhagen, so that’s a pretty cold experience half the year.” His co-founder Brian Chen started Y Combinator-backed smart suitcase company Bluesmart, where he was VP of operations. They figured they could attack the office layout issue with hammers and saws. I mean, they do look like superhero alter-egos.

Room co-founders (from left): Brian Chen and Morten Meisner-Jensen

“To combat the issues I myself would personally encounter with open offices, as well as colleagues, we tried to build a private ‘phone booth’ ourselves,” says Meisner-Jensen. “We didn’t quite understand the specifics of air ventilation or acoustics at the time, so the booth got quite warm — warm enough that we coined it ‘the sweatbox.’ ”

With ROOM, they got serious about the product. The 10-square-foot ROOM One booth ships flat and can be assembled in less than 30 minutes by two people with a hex wrench. All it needs is an outlet to power its light and ventilation fan. Each is built from 1088 recycled plastic bottles for noise cancelling, so you’re not supposed to hear anything from outside. The box is 100 percent recyclable, plus it can be torn down and rebuilt if your startup implodes and you’re being evicted from your office.

The ROOM One features a bar-height desk with outlets and a magnetic bulletin board behind it, though you’ll have to provide your own stool. It’s actually designed not to be so comfy that you end up napping inside, which doesn’t seem like it’d be a problem with this somewhat cramped spot. “To solve the problem with noise at scale you want to provide people with space to take a call but not camp out all day,” Meisner-Jensen notes.

Booths by Zenbooth, Cubicall and TalkBox (from left)

A place to get into flow

Couldn’t office managers just buy noise-cancelling headphones for everyone? “It feels claustrophobic to me,” he laughs, but then outlines why a new workplace trend requires more than headphones. “People are doing video calls and virtual meetings much, much more. You can’t have all these people walking by you and looking at your screen. [A booth is] also giving you your own space to do your own work, which I don’t think you’d get from a pair of Bose. I think it has to be a physical space.”

But with plenty of companies able to construct physical spaces, it will be a challenge for ROOM to convey the subtleties of its build quality that warrant its price. “The biggest risk for ROOM right now are copycats,” Meisner-Jensen admits. “Someone entering our space claiming to do what we’re doing better but cheaper.” Alternatively, ROOM could lock in customers by offering a range of office furniture products. The co-founder hinted at future products, saying ROOM is already receiving demand for bigger multi-person prefab conference rooms and creative room divider solutions.

The importance of privacy goes beyond improved productivity when workers are alone. If they’re exhausted from overstimulation in a chaotic open office, they’ll have less energy for purposeful collaboration when the time comes. The bustle could also make them reluctant to socialize in off-hours, which could lead them to burn out and change jobs faster. Tech companies in particular are in a constant war for talent, and ROOM Ones could be perceived as a bigger perk than free snacks or a ping-pong table that only makes the office louder.

“I don’t think the solution is to go back to a world of cubicles and corner offices,” Meisner-Jensen concludes. It could take another decade for office architects to correct the overenthusiasm for open offices despite the research suggesting their harm. For now, ROOM’s co-founder is concentrating on “solving the issue of noise at scale” by asking, “How do we make the current workspaces work in the best way possible?”

Aug
09
2018
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Blissfully grabs $3.5 million seed investment to help companies get their SaaS in gear

Blissfully, a New York City startup that helps companies understand their SaaS usage inside their organizations, announced it has received a $3.5 million seed round.

The investment was led by Hummer Winblad Venture Partners. Hubspot, Founder Collective, and several unnamed pre-seed investors also participated. They got a $1.5 million pre-seed investment, bringing the total so far to $5 million, according the company.

Company co-founder and CEO Ariel Diaz says Blissfully actually helped him and his co-founder solve a problem they were having tracking the SaaS usage at their previous startups. Like many companies, they were using spreadsheets to track this information and they found it was untenable as the company grew beyond 30 or 40 people. They figured there had to be a better way, so they built one.

Their product is much more than simply a database of the SaaS products in use inside an organization. It can integrate with existing company systems like single sign-on tools such as Okta and OneLogIn, financial reporting systems and G Suite login information. “We are trying to automate as much of the data collection as possible to discover what you’re using, who’s using it and how much you are spending,” he said.

Blissfully SaaS report. Screenshot: Blissfully

Their scans often turn up products customers thought they had canceled or those that IT had asked employees to stop using. More than finding Shadow IT, the product also gives insight to overall SaaS spend, which many companies have trouble getting a grip on. They can find most usage with a scan. Some data such as customized contract information may have to be manually entered into the system, he says.

Hubspot CEO Brian Halligan, whose company is one of the investors in this round, sees a growing need for this kind of tool. “The widespread growth of SaaS across companies of all sizes is a leading indicator of the market need for Blissfully. As business’ investments in SaaS increase, they lose visibility into issues ranging from spending to security,” Halligan said in a statement.

The company offers a freemium and pay model and is available in the G Suite Marketplace. If you go for the free version, you can scan your systems for SaaS usage, but if you want to do more complex integrations with company systems, you have to pay. They currently have 10 employees and 500 customers with a mix of paying and free.

One interesting aspect of the Blissfully tool is that it is built entirely using Serverless architecture on AWS Lambda.

Aug
07
2018
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InVision hires former Twitter VP of Design Mike Davidson

InVision continues its slow march toward design world domination, today announcing the hire of Mike Davidson who will take over as Head of Partnerships and Community.

Davidson was previously the VP of Design at Twitter, where he built a 100-person team that was responsible for every aspect of Twitter’s user experience and branding, including web, mobile web, native apps and business tools.

Before Twitter, Davidson worked at ESPN/Disney until 2005, when he founded NewsVine, which was purchased by NBCNews in 2007. Davidson then took on a vice president roll for five years before starting at Twitter.

At InVision, Davidson will oversee partnerships, product integrations, strategic acquisitions and community building. This includes leading InVision’s Design Leadership Forum, which hosts private events for design leaders from big companies like Facebook, Google, Lyft, Disney, etc. Davidson will also work with the new Design Transformation team at InVision to help create educational experiences for InVision’s customers.

Davidson says he plans to spend the next 30 to 60 days talking as little as possible, and listening to the feedback he hears from his team around what can be improved.

“InVision has a seamless workflow that includes everyone in the company in the design process,” said Davidson. “If there’s one goal I’d like to realize, it’s that. Design is a team sport these days, which wasn’t the case 10 or 20 years ago.”

In Davidson’s own words, the position at InVision is “less about business to business and more about designer to designer.” Davidson will be meeting predominantly with the design teams from various companies to discuss not only how InVision can help them build better experiences, but how InVision can incorporate those design teams’ personalities into the product.

InVision was built on the premise that the screen is the most important place in the world, considering that every brand and company is now building digital experiences across the web and through mobile applications. CEO Clark Valberg hopes to turn InVision into the Salesforce of design, and partnerships, acquisitions and product integrations are absolutely vital to that.

“We couldn’t be more excited to have an authentic leader like Mike step into this role to help us further build out our design community — which is as important to us as our product — and to help drive design maturity inside of every organization,” said Valberg. “Digital product design is shaping every industry in the world, and as the leader in the space, we see it as our responsibility to support and foster community and advanced education.”

Aug
07
2018
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Evolute debuts enterprise container migration and management platform

Evolute, a 3-year old startup out of Mountain View, officially launched the Evolute platform today with the goal of helping large organizations migrate applications to containers and manage those containers at scale.

Evolute founder and CEO Kristopher Francisco says he wants to give all Fortune 500 companies access to the same technology that big companies like Apple and Google enjoy because of their size and scale.

“We’re really focused on enabling enterprise companies to do two things really well. The first thing is to be able to systematically move into the container technology. And the second thing is to be able to run operationally at scale with existing and new applications that they’re creating in their enterprise environment,” Francisco explained.

While there are a number of sophisticated competing technologies out there, he says that his company has come up with some serious differentiators. For starters, getting legacy tech into containers has proven a time-consuming and challenging process. In fact, he says manually moving a legacy app and all its dependencies to a container has typically taken 3-6 months per application.

He claims his company has reduced that process to minutes, putting containerization within reach of just about any large organization that wants to move their existing applications to container technology, while reducing the total ramp-up time to convert a portfolio of existing applications from years to a couple of weeks.

Evolute management console. Screenshot: Evolute

The second part of the equation is managing the containers, and Francisco acknowledges that there are other platforms out there for running containers in production including Kubernetes, the open source container orchestration tool, but he says his company’s ability to manage containers at scale separates him from the pack.

“In the enterprise, the reason that you see the [containerization] adoption numbers being so low is partially because of the scale challenge they face. In the Evolute platform, we actually provide them the native networking, security and management capabilities to be able to run at scale,” he said.

The company also announced that it been invited to join the Chevron Technology Ventures’ Catalyst Program, which provides support for early stage companies like Evolute. This could help push Evolute to business units inside Chevron looking to move into containerization technology and be big boost for the startup.

The company has been around in since 2015 and boasts several other Fortune 500 companies beyond Chevron as customers, although it is not in a position to name them publicly just yet. The company has 5 full time employees and has raised $500,000 in seed money across two rounds, according to data on Crunchbase.

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