Mar
26
2021
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No code, workflow and RPA line up for their automation moment

We’ve seen a lot of trend lines moving throughout 2020 and into 2021 around automation, workflow, robotic process automation (RPA) and the movement to low-code and no-code application building. While all of these technologies can work on their own, they are deeply connected and we are starting to see some movement toward bringing them together.

While the definition of process automation is open to interpretation, and could include things like industrial automation, Statista estimates that the process automation market could be worth $74 billion in 2021. Those are numbers that are going to get the attention of both investors and enterprise software executives.

Just this week, Berlin-based Camunda announced a $98 million Series B to help act as a layer to orchestrate the flow of data between RPA bots, microservices and human employees. Meanwhile, UIPath, the pure-play RPA startup that’s going to IPO any minute now, acquired Cloud Elements, giving it a way to move beyond RPA into API automation.

Not enough proof for you? How about ServiceNow announcing this week that it is buying Indian startup Intellibot to give it — you guessed it — RPA capabilities. That acquisition is part of a broader strategy by the company to move into full-scale workflow and automation, which it discussed just a couple of weeks ago.

Meanwhile, at the end of last year, SAP bought a different Berlin process automation startup, Signavio, for $1.2 billion after announcing new automated workflow tools and an RPA tool at the beginning of December. Microsoft is in on it too, having acquired process automation startup Softmotive last May, which it then combined with its own automation tool PowerAutomate.

What we have here is a frothy mix of startups and large companies racing to provide a comprehensive spectrum of workflow automation tools to empower companies to spin up workflows quickly and move work involving both human and machine labor through an organization.

The result is hot startups getting prodigious funding, while other startups are exiting via acquisition to these larger companies looking to buy instead of build to gain a quick foothold in this market.

Cathy Tornbohm, Distinguished Research vice president at Gartner, says part of the reason for the rapidly growing interest is that these companies have stayed on the sidelines up until now, but they see an opportunity and are using their checkbooks to play catch-up.

“IBM, SAP, Pega, Appian, Microsoft, ServiceNow all bought into the RPA market because for years they didn’t focus on how data got into their systems when operating between organizations or without a human. [Instead] they focused more on what happens inside the client’s organization. The drive to be digitally more efficient necessitates optimizing data ingestion and data flows,” Tornbohm told me.

For all the bluster from the big vendors, they do not control the pure-play RPA market. In fact, Gartner found that the top three players in this space are UIPath, Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism.

But Tornbohm says that, even as the traditional enterprise vendors try to push their way into the space, these pure-play companies are not sitting still. They are expanding beyond their RPA roots into the broader automation space, which could explain why UIPath came up from its pre-IPO quiet period to make the Cloud Elements announcement this week.

Dharmesh Thakker, managing partner at Battery Ventures, agrees with Tornbohm, saying that the shift to the cloud, accelerated by COVID-19, has led to an expansion of what RPA vendors are doing.

“RPA has traditionally focused on automation-UI flow and user steps, but we believe a full automation suite requires that ability to automate processes across the stack. For larger companies, we see their interest in the category as a way to take action on data within their systems. And for standalone RPA vendors, we see this as validation of the category and an invitation to expand their offerings to other pillars of automation,” Thakker said.

The activity we have seen across the automation and workflow space over the last year could be just the beginning of what Thakker and Tornbohm are describing, as companies of all sizes fight to become the automation stack of choice in the coming years.


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Sep
28
2020
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Skydio partners with EagleView for autonomous residential roof inspections via drone

Skydio only just recently announced its expansion into the enterprise and commercial market with hardware and software tools for its autonomous drone technology, and now it’s taking the lid off a brand new big partnership with one commercial partner. Skydio will work with EagleView to deploy automated residential roof inspections using Skydio drones, with service initially provide via EagleView’s Assess product, launching first in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area of Texas.

The plan is to expand coverage to additional metro areas starting next year, and then broaden to rural customers as well. The partners will use AI-based analysis, paired with Skydio’s high-resolution, precision imaging to provide roofing status information to insurance companies, claims adjustment companies and government agencies, providing a new level of quality and accuracy for property inspections that don’t even require an in-person roof inspection component.

Skydio announced its enterprise product expansion in July, alongside a new $100 million funding round. The startup, which has already delivered two generations of its groundbreaking fully autonomous consumer drone, also debuted the X2, a commercial drone that includes additional features like a thermal imaging camera. It’s also offering a suite of “enterprise skills,” software features that can provide its partners with automated workflows and AI analysis and processing, including a House Scan feature for residential roof inspection, which is core to this new partnership.

Sep
16
2020
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ServiceNow updates its workflow automation platform

ServiceNow today announced the latest release of its workflow automation platform. With this, the company is emphasizing a number of new solutions for specific verticals, including for telcos and financial services organizations. This focus on verticals extends the company’s previous efforts to branch out beyond the core IT management capabilities that defined its business during its early years. The company is also adding new features for making companies more resilient in the face of crises, as well as new machine learning-based tools.

Dubbed the “Paris” release, this update also marks one of the first major releases for the company since former SAP CEO Bill McDermott became its president and CEO last November.

“We are in the business of operating on purpose,” McDermott said. “And that purpose is to make the world of work work better for people. And frankly, it’s all about people. That’s all CEOs talk about all around the world. This COVID environment has put the focus on people. In today’s world, how do you get people to achieve missions across the enterprise? […] Businesses are changing how they run to drive customer loyalty and employee engagement.”

He argues that at this point, “technology is no longer supporting the business, technology is the business,” but at the same time, the majority of companies aren’t prepared to meet whatever digital disruption comes their way. ServiceNow, of course, wants to position itself as the platform that can help these businesses.

“We are very fortunate at ServiceNow,” CJ Desai, ServiceNow’s chief product officer, said. “We are the critical platform for digital transformation, as our customers are thinking about transforming their companies.”

As far as the actual product updates, ServiceNow is launching a total of six new products. These include new business continuity management features with automated business impact analysis and tools for continuity plan development, as well as new hardware asset management for IT teams and legal service delivery for legal operations teams.

Image Credits: ServiceNow

With specialized solutions for financial services and telco users, the company is also now bringing together some of its existing solutions with more specialized services for these customers. As ServiceNow’s Dave Wright noted, this goes well beyond just putting together existing blocks.

“The first element is actually getting familiar with the business,” he explained. “So the technology, actually building the product, isn’t that hard. That’s relatively quick. But the uniqueness when you look at all of these workflows, it’s the connection of the operations to the customer service side. Telco is a great example. You’ve got the telco network operations side, making sure that all the operational equipment is active. And then you’ve got the business service side with customer service management, looking at how the customers are getting service. Now, the interesting thing is, because we’ve got both things sitting on one platform, we can link those together really easily.”

Image Credits: ServiceNow

On the machine learning side, ServiceNow made six acquisitions in the area in the last four years, Wright noted — and that is now starting to pay off. Specifically, the company is launching its new predictive intelligence workbench with this release. This new service makes it easier for process owners to detect issues, while also suggesting relevant tasks and content to agents, for example, and prioritizing incoming requests automatically. Using unsupervised learning, the system can also identify other kinds of patterns and with a number of pre-built templates, users can build their own solutions, too.

“The ServiceNow advantage has always been one architecture, one data model and one born-in-the-cloud platform that delivers workflows companies need and great experiences employees and customers expect,” said Desai. “The Now Platform Paris release provides smart experiences powered by AI, resilient operations, and the ability to optimize spend. Together, they will provide businesses with the agility they need to help them thrive in the COVID economy.”

Aug
05
2020
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PandaDoc announces second Series B extension worth $30M

PandaDoc, the startup that provides a fully digital sales document workflow from proposal to electronic signature to collecting payment, announced a $30 million Series B extension today, making it the second such extension the company has taken since taking its original $15 million Series B in 2017. The total for the three B investments is $50 million.

Company co-founder and CEO Mikita Mikado says that he took this approach — taking the original money in 2017, then $5 million last year along with the money announced today — because it made more sense financially for the company than taking a huge chunk of money all at once.

“Basically when we do little chunks of cash frequently, [we found that] you dilute yourself less,” Mikado told TechCrunch. He said that they’ve grown comfortable with this approach because the business became more predictable once it passed 10,000 customers. In fact today it has 20,000.

“With a high-velocity in-bound sales model, you can predict what’s going to happen next month or [say] six months out. So you kind of have this luxury of raising as much money as you need when you need it, minimizing dilution just like public companies do,” he said.

While he wouldn’t discuss specifics in terms of valuations, he did say that the B1 had 2x the valuation of the original B round and the B2 had double the valuation of the B1.

For this round, One Peak led the investment, with participation from Microsoft’s Venture Fund (M12), Savano Capital Partners, Rembrandt Venture Partners and EBRD Venture Capital Investment Programme.

Part of the company’s growth strategy is using their eSignature tool to move people to the platform. They made that tool free in March just as the pandemic was hitting hard in the U.S., and it has proven to be what Mikado called “a lead magnet” to get more people familiar with the company.

Once they do that he says, they start to look at the broader set of tools and they can become paying customers. “This launch helped us validate that businesses need a broader workflow solution. Businesses used to think of the eSignature as the Holy Grail in getting a deal done. Now they are realizing that eSignature is just a moment in time. The full value is what happens before, during and after the eSignature in order to get deals done,” Mikado said.

The company currently has 334 employees with plans to hit 380 by year’s end and is aiming for 470 by next year. With the office in San Francisco, Belarus and Manila, it has geographic diversity built in, but Mikado says it’s something they are still working at and includes anti-bias programs and training and leadership programs to give more people a chance to be hired or promoted into management.

When it came to shutting down offices and working from home, Mikado admits it was a challenge, especially as some of the geographies they operate in might not have access to a good internet connection at home or face other challenges, but overall he says it has worked out in terms of maintaining productivity across the company. And he points out being geographically diverse, they have had to deal with online communications for some time.

May
06
2020
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Enterprise companies find MLOps critical for reliability and performance

Enterprise startups UIPath and Scale have drawn huge attention in recent years from companies looking to automate workflows, from RPA (robotic process automation) to data labeling.

What’s been overlooked in the wake of such workflow-specific tools has been the base class of products that enterprises are using to build the core of their machine learning (ML) workflows, and the shift in focus toward automating the deployment and governance aspects of the ML workflow.

That’s where MLOps comes in, and its popularity has been fueled by the rise of core ML workflow platforms such as Boston-based DataRobot. The company has raised more than $430 million and reached a $1 billion valuation this past fall serving this very need for enterprise customers. DataRobot’s vision has been simple: enabling a range of users within enterprises, from business and IT users to data scientists, to gather data and build, test and deploy ML models quickly.

Founded in 2012, the company has quietly amassed a customer base that boasts more than a third of the Fortune 50, with triple-digit yearly growth since 2015. DataRobot’s top four industries include finance, retail, healthcare and insurance; its customers have deployed over 1.7 billion models through DataRobot’s platform. The company is not alone, with competitors like H20.ai, which raised a $72.5 million Series D led by Goldman Sachs last August, offering a similar platform.

Why the excitement? As artificial intelligence pushed into the enterprise, the first step was to go from data to a working ML model, which started with data scientists doing this manually, but today is increasingly automated and has become known as “auto ML.” An auto-ML platform like DataRobot’s can let an enterprise user quickly auto-select features based on their data and auto-generate a number of models to see which ones work best.

As auto ML became more popular, improving the deployment phase of the ML workflow has become critical for reliability and performance — and so enters MLOps. It’s quite similar to the way that DevOps has improved the deployment of source code for applications. Companies such as DataRobot and H20.ai, along with other startups and the major cloud providers, are intensifying their efforts on providing MLOps solutions for customers.

We sat down with DataRobot’s team to understand how their platform has been helping enterprises build auto-ML workflows, what MLOps is all about and what’s been driving customers to adopt MLOps practices now.

The rise of MLOps

Jan
15
2019
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Smartsheet acquires Slope to help creatives collaborate

Smartsheet, the project management and collaboration tool that went public last April, announced the acquisition of Seattle-based TernPro, Inc., makers of Slope, a collaboration tool designed for sharing creative assets.

The companies did not share the acquisition price.

Bringing Slope into the fold will enable Smartsheet users to share assets like video and photos natively inside the application, and also brings the ability to annotate, comment or approve these assets. Smartsheet sees this native integration through a broad enterprise lens. It might be HR sharing training videos, marketing sharing product photos or construction company employees inspecting a site and sharing photos of a code violation, complete with annotations to point out the problem.

Alan Lepofsky, an analyst at Constellation Research who specializes in collaboration tools in the enterprise, sees this as a significant enhancement to the product. “Smartsheet’s focus is on being more than just project management, but instead helping coordinate end-to-end business processes. Slope is going to allow content to become more of a native part of those processes, rather than people having to switch context to another tool,” he explained.

That last point is particularly important, as today’s collaboration tools, whether Slack or Microsoft Teams or any other similar tool, have been working hard to provide that kind of integration to keep people focused on the task at hand without having to switch applications.

Mike Gotta, a longtime analyst at Gartner, says collaboration that happens within the flow of work can help make employees more productive, but being able to build specific use cases is even more critical. “The collaboration space remains open for innovation and new ways to addressing old challenges. For organizations though, the trick is how to create a collaboration portfolio that balances broad-based foundational investments with the more domain-specific or situational scenarios they might have where this type of use-case driven collaboration can make more sense,” Gotta told TechCrunch.

That is precisely what Smartsheet is trying to achieve with this purchase, giving them the ability to incorporate workflows involving creative assets, whether that’s including all of the documents required to onboard a new employee or a training workflow that includes learning objectives, lesson plans, photos, videos and so forth.

Smartsheet, which launched in 2005, raised more than $113 million before going public last April. The company’s stock price has held up, gaining ground in a volatile stock market. It sits above its launch price of $19.50, closing at $25.24 yesterday.

Slope was founded in 2014 and has raised $1.4 million, according to Crunchbase data. Customers include Microsoft, CBS Sports and the Oakland Athletics baseball team. The company’s employees, including co-founders Dan Bloom and Brian Boschè, have already joined Smartsheet.

Dec
10
2018
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Trello acquires Butler to add power of automation

Trello, the organizational tool owned by Atlassian, announced an acquisition of its very own this morning when it bought Butler for an undisclosed amount.

What Butler brings to Trello is the power of automation, stringing together a bunch of commands to make something complex happen automatically. As Trello’s Michael Pryor pointed out in a blog post announcing the acquisition, we are used to tools like IFTTT, Zapier and Apple Shortcuts, and this will bring a similar type of functionality directly into Trello.

Screenshot: Trello

“Over the years, teams have discovered that by automating processes on Trello boards with the Butler Power-Up, they could spend more time on important tasks and be more productive. Butler helps teams codify business rules and processes, taking something that might take ten steps to accomplish and automating it into one click,” Pryor wrote.

This means that Trello can be more than a static organizational tool. Instead, it can move into the realm of light-weight business process automation. For example, this could allow you to move an item from your To Do board to your Doing board automatically based on dates, or to share tasks with appropriate teams as a project moves through its life cycle, saving a bunch of manual steps that tend to add up.

The company indicated that it will be incorporating the Alfred’s capabilities directly into Trello in the coming months. It will make it available to all levels of users, including the free tier, but they promise more advanced functionality for Business and Enterprise customers when the integration is complete. Pryor also suggested that more automation could be coming to Trello. “Butler is Trello’s first step down this road, enabling every user to automate pieces of their Trello workflow to save time, stay organized and get more done.”

Atlassian bought Trello in 2017 for $425 million, but this acquisition indicates it is functioning quasi-independently as part of the Atlassian family.

Nov
08
2018
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Abbyy looks to RPA to breathe new life into scanning and workflow

Abbyy has been around for a long time helping companies with scanning and workflow tools, but like many older vendors it has been looking for ways to extend its traditional business model. One way to do that is by teaming up with robotics process automation companies like UIPath. Today, the company announced it has launched the Abbyy FlexiCapture Connector in the UiPath Go! App store.

Bruce Orcutt, senior vice president for product marketing at Abbyy, says the connector provides the ability to pull content into UIPath or to take Abbyy content and push it to another part of the automated workflow in UIPath.

UIPath is on a tear these days. Just two months ago, it scored a $225 million Series C investment on a $3 billion valuation. It was able to grow from $1 million to $100 million in annual recurring revenue in just 21 months. As I wrote at the time of the funding, “[UIPath] allows companies to bring a level of automation to legacy processes like accounts payable, employee onboarding, procurement and reconciliation without actually having to replace legacy systems.”

Orcutt sees a natural connection to his company’s workflow roots, bringing it into a more modern context. “RPA simplifies the user experience. Abbyy brings content and context,” he told TechCrunch. He says that while they are still doing OCR to scrape unstructured content, it can do this in fully automated digital process and UIPath can take that content and move it through other parts of an automated workflow.

For Abbyy, UIPath is a big partner, but it’s part of a broader strategy to expand the company’s capabilities to RPA. He says they are working with a variety of RPA vendors beyond UIPath and also with systems integrators as they look to breathe new life into the company’s brand and products.

Orcutt says this is part of a significant focus and investment on the part of the company. RPA is clearly a natural fit for Abbyy, but he wasn’t willing to speculate on any deeper partnership. “We’re focusing on what we can do the best we can, and they can focus on merits of their platform. Abbyy can complement those capabilities.”

Jul
19
2017
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Clara Labs nabs $7M Series A as it positions its AI assistant to meet the needs of enterprise teams

 Clara Labs is announcing a $7 million Series A led by Basis Set Ventures. Slack Fund also joined in the round, alongside existing investors Sequoia and First Round. The startup will be looking to further differentiate within the crowded field of email-centric personal assistants by building in features and integrations to address the needs of enterprise teams. Read More

Jul
11
2017
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Abstract launches as the versioning system of record for design

 Sales teams have Salesforce. Engineers have GitHub. But designers have always had slim pickings. Abstract, launching today, is a workflow platform and system of record built for designers to solve the debilitating frustrations of the design process. The company is targeting Sketch users out of the gate, with ambitions to accommodate the whole gamut of visual file types. Read More

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