Apr
03
2020
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In the wake of COVID-19, UK puts up £20M in grants to develop resilience tech for critical industries

Most of the world — despite the canaries in the coal mine — was unprepared to cope with the coronavirus outbreak that’s now besieging us. Now, work is starting to get underway both to help manage what is going on now and better prepare us in the future. In the latest development, the UK government today announced that it will issue £20 million ($24.5 million) in grants of up to £50,000 each to startups and other businesses that are developing tools to improve resilience for critical industries — in other words, those that need to keep moving when something cataclysmic like a pandemic hits.

You can start your application here. Unlike a lot of other government efforts, this one is aimed at a quick start: you need to be ready to kick of your project using the grant no later than June 2020, but earlier is okay, too.

Awarded through Innovate UK, which part of UK Research and Innovation (itself a division of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), the grants will be available to businesses of any size as long as they are UK-registered, and aim to cover a wide swathe of industries that form the core fabric of how society and the economy can continue to operate.

“The Covid-19 situation is not just a health emergency, but also one that effects the economy and society. With that in mind, Innovate UK has launched this rapid response competition today seeking smart ideas from innovators,” said Dr Ian Campbell Executive Chair, Innovate UK, in a statement. “These could be proposals to help the distribution of goods, educate children remotely, keep families digitally connected and even new ideas to stream music and entertainment. The UK needs a great national effort and Innovate UK is helping by unleashing the power of innovation for people and businesses in need.”

These include not just what are typically considered “critical” industries like healthcare and food production and distribution, but also those that are less tangible but equally important in keeping society running smoothly, like entertainment and wellbeing services:

  • community support services
  • couriers and delivery (rural and/or city based)
  • education and culture
  • entertainment (live entertainment, music, etc.)
  • financial services
  • food manufacture and processing
  • healthcare
  • hospitality
  • personal protection equipment
  • remote working
  • retail
  • social care
  • sport and recreation
  • transport
  • wellbeing

The idea is to introduce new technologies and processes that will support existing businesses and organizations, not use the funding to build new startups from scratch. Those getting the funding could already be businesses in these categories, or building tools to help companies that fall under these themes.

The grants were announced at a time where we are seeing a huge surge of companies step up to the challenge of helping communities and countries cope with COVID-19. That’s included not only those that already made medical supplies increase production, but a number of other businesses step in and try to help where they can, or recalibrate what they normally do to make their factories or other assets more useful. (For example, in the UK, Rolls Royce, Airbus and the Formula 1 team are all working on ventilators and other hospital equipment, a model of industry retooling that has been seen in many other countries, too.)

That trend is what helped to inspire this newest wave of non-equity grants.

“The response of researchers and businesses to the coronavirus outbreak have been remarkable,” said Science Minister Amanda Solloway in a statement. “This new investment will support the development of technologies that can help industries, communities and individuals adapt to new ways of working when situations like this, and other incidents, arise.”

The remit here is intentionally open-ended but will likely be shaped by some of the shortcomings and cracks that have been appearing in recent weeks while systems get severely stress-tested.

So, unsurprisingly, the sample innovations that UK Innovate cites appear to directly relate to that. They include things like technology to help respond to spikes in online consumer demand — every grocery service in the online and physical world has been overwhelmed by customer traffic, leading to sites crashing, people leaving stores disappointed at what they cannot find, and general panic. Or services for families to connect with and remotely monitor vulnerable relatives: while Zoom and the rest have seen huge surges in traffic, there are still too many people on the other side of the digital divide who cannot access or use these. And better education tools: again, there are thousands of edtech companies in the world, but in the UK at least, I wouldn’t say that the educational authorities had done even a small degree of disaster planning, leaving individual schools to scramble and figure out ways to keep teaching remotely that works for everyone (again not always easy with digital divides, safeguarding and other issues).

None of this can cure coronavirus or stop another pandemic from happening — there are plenty of others that are working very squarely on that now, too — but these are equally critical to get right to make sure that a health disaster doesn’t extend into a more permanent economic or societal one.

More information and applications are here.

Apr
02
2020
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Collibra nabs another $112.5M at a $2.3B valuation for its big data management platform

GDPR and other data protection and privacy regulations — as well as a significant (and growing) number of data breaches and exposées of companies’ privacy policies — have put a spotlight on not just the vast troves of data that businesses and other organizations hold on us, but also how they handle it. Today, one of the companies helping them cope with that data in a better and legal way is announcing a huge round of funding to continue that work. Collibra, which provides tools to manage, warehouse, store and analyse data troves, is today announcing that it has raised $112.5 million in funding, at a post-money valuation of $2.3 billion.

The funding — a Series F, from the looks of it — represents a big bump for the startup, which last year raised $100 million at a valuation of just over $1 billion. This latest round was co-led by ICONIQ Capital, Index Ventures, and Durable Capital Partners LP, with previous investors CapitalG (Google’s growth fund), Battery Ventures, and Dawn Capital also participating.

Collibra was originally a spin-out from Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, Belgium and today it works with some 450 enterprises and other large organizations. Customers include Adobe, Verizon (which owns TechCrunch), insurers AXA and a number of healthcare providers. Its products cover a range of services focused around company data, including tools to help customers comply with local data protection policies and store it securely, and tools (and plug-ins) to run analytics and more.

These are all features and products that have long had a place in enterprise big data IT, but they have become increasingly more used and in-demand both as data policies have expanded, as security has become more of an issue, and as the prospects of what can be discovered through big data analytics have become more advanced.

With that growth, many companies have realised that they are not in a position to use and store their data in the best possible way, and that is where companies like Collibra step in.

“Most large organizations are in data chaos,” Felix Van de Maele, co-founder and CEO, previously told us. “We help them understand what data they have, where they store it and [understand] whether they are allowed to use it.”

As you would expect with a big IT trend, Collibra is not the only company chasing this opportunity. Competitors include Informatica, IBM, Talend, and Egnyte, among a number of others, but the market position of Collibra, and its advanced technology, is what has continued to impress investors.

“Durable Capital Partners invests in innovative companies that have significant potential to shape growing industries and build larger companies,” said Henry Ellenbogen, founder and chief investment officer for Durable Capital Partners LP, in a statement (Ellenbogen is formerly an investment manager a T. Rowe Price, and this is his first investment in Collibra under Durable). “We believe Collibra is a leader in the Data Intelligence category, a space that could have a tremendous impact on global business operations and a space that we expect will continue to grow as data becomes an increasingly critical asset.”

“We have a high degree of conviction in Collibra and the importance of the company’s mission to help organizations benefit from their data,” added Matt Jacobson, general partner at ICONIQ Capital and Collibra board member, in his own statement. “There is an increasing urgency for enterprises to harness their data for strategic business decisions. Collibra empowers organizations to use their data to make critical business decisions, especially in uncertain business environments.”

Mar
26
2020
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Kaizo raises $3M for its AI-based tools to improve customer service support teams

CRM has for years been primarily a story of software to manage customer contacts, data to help agents do their jobs, and tools to manage incoming requests and outreach strategies. Now to add to that we’re starting to see a new theme: apps to help agents track how they work and to work better.

Today comes the latest startup in that category, a Dutch company called Kaizo, which uses AI and gamification to provide feedback on agents’ work, tips on what to do differently, and tools to set and work to goals — all of which can be used remotely, in the cloud. Today, it is announcing $3 million in a seed round of funding co-led by Gradient — Google’s AI venture fund — and French VC Partech. 

And along with the seed round, Kaizo (which rebranded last week from its former name, Ticketless) is announcing that Christoph Auer-Welsbach, a former partner at IBM Ventures, is joining the company as a co-founder, alongside founder Dominik Blattner. 

Although this is just a seed round, it’s coming after a period of strong growth for the company. Kaizo has already 500 companies including Truecaller, SimpleSurance, Miro, CreditRepairCloud, Justpark, Festicket and Nmbrs are using its software, covering “thousands” of customer support agents, which use a mixture of free and paid tools that integrate with established CRM software from the likes of Salesforce, Zendesk and more.

Customer service, and the idea of gamifying it to motivate employees, might feel like the last thing on people’s minds at the moment, but it is actually timely and relevant to our current state in responding to and living with the coronavirus.

People are spending much more time at home, and are turning to the internet and remote services to get what they need, and in many cases are finding that their best-laid plans are now in freefall. Both of these are driving a lot of traffic to sites and primarily customer support centers, which are getting overwhelmed with people reaching out for help.

And that’s before you consider how customer support teams might be impacted by coronavirus and the many mandates we’ve had to stay away from work, and the stresses they may be under.

“In our current social climate, customer support is an integral part of a company’s stability and growth that has embraced remote work to meet the demands of a globalized customer-base,” said Dominik Blattner, founder of Kaizo, in a statement. “With the rise of support teams utilizing a digital workplace, providing standards to measure an agent’s performance has never been more important. KPIs provide these standards, quantifying the success, achievement and contribution of each team member.”

On a more general level, Kaizo is also changing the conversation around how to improve one’s productivity. There has been a larger push for “quantified self” platforms, which has very much played out both in workplaces and in our personal lives, but a lot of services to track performance have focused on both managers and employees leaning in with a lot of input. That means if they don’t set aside the time to do that, the platforms never quite work the way they should.

This is where the AI element of Kaizo plays a key role, by taking on the need to proactively report into a system.

“This is how we’re distinct,” Auer-Welsbach said in an interview. “Normally KPIs are top-down. They are about people setting goals and then reporting they’ve done something. This is a bottom-up approach. We’re not trying to change employees’ behaviour. We plug into whatever environment they are using, and then our tool monitors. The employee doesn’t have to report or measure anything. We track clicks on the CRM, ticketing, and more, and we analyse all that.” He notes that Kaizo is looking at up to 50 datapoints in its analysis.

“We’re excited about Kaizo’s novel approach to applying AI to existing ticket data from platforms like Zendesk and Salesforce to optimize the customer support workflow,” said Darian Shirazi, General Partner at Gradient Ventures, in a statement. “Using machine learning, Kaizo understands which behaviors in customer service tickets lead to better outcomes for customers and then guides agents to replicate that using ongoing game mechanics. Customer support and service platforms today are failing to leverage data in the right way to make the life of agents easier and more effective. The demand Kaizo has seen since they launched on the Zendesk Marketplace shows agents have been waiting for such a solution for some time.”

Kaizo is not the only startup to have identified the area of building new services to improve the performance of customer support teams. Assembled earlier this month also raised $3.1 million led by Stripe for what it describes as the “operating system” for customer support.

Mar
10
2020
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MessageBird launches Inbox.ai to disrupt the customer service market

MessageBird, the Amsterdam-headquartered cloud communications platform backed by Accel in the U.S. and Europe’s Atomico, is unveiling another new product today, this time taking aim at the $350 billion customer service market.

Dubbed Inbox.ai and positioned as “Slack for external communications,” the new product — which is to be offered largely for free — enables customers to communicate with businesses via practically any channel of their choosing. This includes WhatsApp, SMS, Voice, Messenger, Instagram, WeChat, Apple Business Chat, RCS, Line and Telegram — in a bid to meet customers on their own digital, “messaging-first” turf. In terms of message content, at launch there is already support for text, images, video, geolocation and more.

And perhaps crucially, regardless of channel, incoming messages and customer conversations are presented in a single thread for easy ticketing and collaboration amongst support agents. There’s some built in intelligence, too, with “AI” promising to analyse keywords and anticipate customer needs, including providing a list of suggested replies. Agents can also drag and drop components to create auto-replies, and there’s support for things like automated NPS surveys, or rules for message routing.

As you’d expect from a company that has primarily targeted developers, Inbox.ai leverages webhooks for integration with various third-party tools used by enterprises and also comes pre-loaded with support for Shopify, Slack, Salesforce, Jira, and more. This includes the ability to have content created within Inbox.ai synced with other software used by a company for its various communication, sales and other business processes — even if over time, and for some companies, Inbox.ai may become all they need.

In a video call with MessageBird founder and CEO Robert Vis, he gave me a personal demo of Inbox.ai, including showing how quick the on-boarding process can be for a new business but also for a new customer. He had me WhatsApp a company’s support number and I could instantly see my message show up within the software and was able to send a photo to help with my request and receive other rich media in return.

Vis explained that the impetus for the new offering was his own frustration with customer support from companies in general, who, he says, haven’t adapted to the new world where customers expect to have their issues solved digitally and where it is no longer acceptable to queue for hours on hold or wait 24 hours or more for an email reply.

He says that a quick back of a napkin calculation suggests that, at the age of 35, he has already spent 2 weeks of his life on hold. He also said Inbox.ai wants to solve the continuity of support problem that typically sees customers having to re-explain their issue each time they are handed off to a different support agent or department.

“From a MessageBird perspective, we built these APIs and people [already] have the possibility to build these experiences, so why am I not living in this world?” Vis says rhetorically, after recalling a recent bad experience with his mobile telephone service provider. “I want to live in a world where I can text and have my problems easily solved… What I don’t want is for them to drop me a note into my email and then have to call them”.

So, rather than simply providing developer hooks and carrying out the infrastructure heavy-lifting, MessageBird is betting on its first user-facing product, which, I’m told, raised a few eyebrows amongst the board.

To that end, Vis told me that Inbox.ai was developed by the MessageBird team in 12 months and followed extensive research with customers, support agents and managers. Prior to launch, the software has been tested and is currently used by, HelloFresh and Deliveroo in Europe, Zilingo in Asia, and Join Buggy and Tix Telecom in Latin America.

Challenged on why nobody has really cracked this problem so far, despite a number of attempts to create a single source of customer support “truth,” Vis told me “everybody is talking about it but nobody is doing it”. That’s because you need to understand and then solve three related and difficult problems.

The first is ingesting data from all the various communication channels, for which MessageBird has previous form. The second is “experience generation”: the ability for support agents to easily communicate via rich experiences, such as images, videos, geolocation, tracking codes, discounts etc. That’s something most companies don’t have the developer resources to create, argues Vis. And thirdly is the UI, which has to allow agents to communicate and track tickets seamlessly across channels in a way that is agnostic to where those messages originate from.

“I think this is a new category, I think this is where things converge together,” adds the MessageBird CEO. “We compete with a lot of tools but we’re not any of them. We’re how we think in five years every tool is going to be”.

Mar
01
2020
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Thought Machine nabs $83M for a cloud-based platform that powers banking services

The world of consumer banking has seen a massive shift in the last ten years. Gone are the days where you could open an account, take out a loan, or discuss changing the terms of your banking only by visiting a physical branch. Now, you can do all this and more with a few quick taps on your phone screen — a shift that has accelerated with customers expecting and demanding even faster and more responsive banking services.

As one mark of that switch, today a startup called Thought Machine, which has built cloud-based technology that powers this new generation of services on behalf of both old and new banks, is announcing some significant funding — $83 million — a Series B that the company plans to use to continue investing in its platform and growing its customer base.

To date, Thought Machine’s customers are primarily in Europe and Asia — they include large, legacy outfits like Standard Chartered, Lloyds Banking Group, and Sweden’s SEB through to “challenger” (AKA neo-) banks like Atom Bank. Some of this financing will go towards boosting the startup’s activities in the US, including opening an office in the country later this year and moving ahead with commercial deals.

The funding is being led by Draper Esprit, with participation also from existing investors Lloyds Banking Group, IQ Capital, Backed and Playfair.

Thought Machine, which started in 2014 and now employs 300, is not disclosing its valuation but Paul Taylor, the CEO and founder, noted that the market cap is currently “increasing healthily.” In its last round, according to PitchBook estimates, the company was valued at around $143 million, which, at this stage of funding, puts this latest round potentially in the range of between $220 million and $320 million.

Thought Machine is not yet profitable, mainly because it is in growth mode, said Taylor. Of note, the startup has been through one major bankruptcy restructuring, although it appears that this was mainly for organisational purposes: all assets, employees and customers from one business controlled by Taylor were acquired by another.

Thought Machine’s primary product and technology is called Vault, a platform that contains a range of banking services: checking accounts, savings accounts, loans, credit cards and mortgages. Thought Machine does not sell directly to consumers, but sells by way of a B2B2C model.

The services are provisioned by way of smart contracts, which allows Thought Machine and its banking customers to personalise, vary and segment the terms for each bank — and potentially for each customer of the bank.

Food for Thought (Machine)

It’s a little odd to think that there is an active market for banking services that are not built and owned by the banks themselves. After all, aren’t these the core of what banks are supposed to do?

But one way to think about it is in the context of eating out. Restaurants’ kitchens will often make in-house what they sell and serve. But in some cases, when it makes sense, even the best places will buy in (and subsequently sell) food that was crafted elsewhere. For example, a restaurant will re-sell cheese or charcuterie, and the wine is likely to come from somewhere else, too.

The same is the case for banks, whose “Crown Jewels” are in fact not the mechanics of their banking services, but their customer service, their customer lists, and their deposits. Better banking services (which may not have been built “in-house”) are key to growing these other three.

“There are all sorts of banks, and they are all trying to find niches,” said Taylor. Indeed, the startup is not the only one chasing that business. Others include Mambu, Temenos and Italy’s Edera.

In the case of the legacy banks that work with the startup, the idea is that these behemoths can migrate into the next generation of consumer banking services and banking infrastructure by cherry-picking services from the VaultOS platform.

“Banks have not kept up and are marooned on their own tech, and as each year goes by, it comes more problematic,” noted Taylor.

In the case of neobanks, Thought Machine’s pitch is that it has already built the rails to run a banking service, so a startup — “new challengers like Monzo and Revolut that are creating quite a lot of disruption in the market” (and are growing very quickly as a result) — can integrate into these to get off the ground more quickly and handle scaling with less complexity (and lower costs).

Money talks

Taylor was new to fintech when he founded Thought Machine, but he has a notable track record in the world of tech that you could argue played a big role in his subsequent foray into banking.

Formerly an academic specialising in linguistics and engineering, his first startup, Rhetorical Systems, commercialised some of his early speech-to-text research and was later sold to Nuance in 2004.

His second entrepreneurial effort, Phonetic Arts, was another speech startup, aimed at tech that could be used in gaming interactions. In 2010, Google approached the startup to see if it wanted to work on a new speech-to-text service it was building. It ended up acquiring Phonetic Arts, and Taylor took on the role of building and launching Google Now, with that voice tech eventually making its way to Google Maps, accessibility services, the Google Assistant and other places where you speech-based interaction makes an appearance in Google products.

While he was working for years in the field, the step changes that really accelerated voice recognition and speech technology, Taylor said, were the rapid increases in computing power and data networks that “took us over the edge” in terms of what a machine could do, specifically in the cloud.

And those are the same forces, in fact, that led to consumers being able to run our banking services from smartphone apps, and for us to want and expect more personalised services overall. Taylor’s move into building and offering a platform-based service to address the need for multiple third-party banking services follows from that, and also is the natural heir to the platform model you could argue Google and other tech companies have perfected over the years.

Draper Esprit has to date built up a strong portfolio of fintech startups that includes Revolut, N26, TransferWise and Freetrade. Thought Machine’s platform approach is an obvious complement to that list. (Taylor did not disclose if any of those companies are already customers of Thought Machine’s, but if they are not, this investment could be a good way of building inroads.)

“We are delighted to be partnering with Thought Machine in this phase of their growth,” said Vinoth Jayakumar, Investment Director, Draper Esprit, in a statement. “Our investments in Revolut and N26 demonstrate how banking is undergoing a once in a generation transformation in the technology it uses and the benefit it confers to the customers of the bank. We continue to invest in our thesis of the technology layer that forms the backbone of banking. Thought Machine stands out by way of the strength of its engineering capability, and is unique in being the only company in the banking technology space that has developed a platform capable of hosting and migrating international Tier 1 banks. This allows innovative banks to expand beyond digital retail propositions to being able to run every function and type of financial transaction in the cloud.”

“We first backed Thought Machine at seed stage in 2016 and have seen it grow from a startup to a 300-person strong global scale-up with a global customer base and potential to become one of the most valuable European fintech companies,” said Max Bautin, Founding Partner of IQ Capital, in a statement. “I am delighted to continue to support Paul and the team on this journey, with an additional £15 million investment from our £100 million Growth Fund, aimed at our venture portfolio outperformers.”

Feb
27
2020
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London-based Gyana raises $3.9M for a no-code approach to data science

Coding and other computer science expertise remain some of the more important skills that a person can have in the working world today, but in the last few years, we have also seen a big rise in a new generation of tools providing an alternative way of reaping the fruits of technology: “no-code” software, which lets anyone — technical or non-technical — build apps, games, AI-based chatbots, and other products that used to be the exclusive terrain of engineers and computer scientists.

Today, one of the newer startups in the category — London-based Gyana, which lets non-technical people run data science analytics on any structured dataset — is announcing a round of £3 million to fuel its next stage of growth.

Led by U.K. firm Fuel Ventures, other investors in this round include Biz Stone of Twitter, Green Shores Capital and U+I , and it brings the total raised by the startup to $6.8 million since being founded in 2015.

Gyana (Sanskrit for “knowledge”) was co-founded by Joyeeta Das and David Kell, who were both pursuing post-graduate degrees at Oxford: Das, a former engineer, was getting an MBA, and Kell was doing a Ph. D. in physics.

Das said the idea of building this tool came out of the fact that the pair could see a big disconnect emerging not just in their studies, but also in the world at large — not so much a digital divide, as a digital light year in terms of the distance between the groups of who and who doesn’t know how to work in the realm of data science.

“Everyone talks about using data to inform decision making, and the world becoming data-driven, but actually that proposition is available to less than one percent of the world,” she said.

Out of that, the pair decided to work on building a platform that Das describes as a way to empower “citizen data scientists,” by letting users upload any structured data set (for example, a .CSV file) and running a series of queries on it to be able to visualise trends and other insights more easily.

While the longer term goal may be for any person to be able to produce an analytical insight out of a long list of numbers, the more practical and immediate application has been in enterprise services and building tools for non-technical knowledge workers to make better, data-driven decisions.

To prove out its software, the startup first built an app based on the platform that it calls Neera (Sanskrit for “water”), which specifically parses footfall and other “human movement” metrics, useful for applications in retail, real estate and civic planning — for example to determine well certain retail locations are performing, footfall in popular locations, decisions on where to place or remove stores, or how to price a piece of property.

Starting out with the aim of mid-market and smaller companies — those most likely not to have in-house data scientists to meet their business needs — startup has already picked up a series of customers that are actually quite a lot bigger than that. They include Vodafone, Barclays, EY, Pret a Manger, Knight Frank and the UK Ministry of Defense. It says it has some £1 million in contracts with these firms currently.

That, in turn, has served as the trigger to raise this latest round of funding and to launch Vayu (Sanskrit for “air”) — a more general purpose app that covers a wider set of parameters that can be applied to a dataset. So far, it has been adopted by academic researchers, financial services employees, and others that use analysis in their work, Das said.

With both Vayu and Neera, the aim — refreshingly — is to make the whole experience as privacy-friendly as possible, Das noted. Currently, you download an app if you want to use Gyana, and you keep your data local as you work on it. Gyana has no “anonymization” and no retention of data in its processes, except things like analytics around where your cursor hovers, so that Gyana knows how it can improve its product.

“There are always ways to reverse engineer these things,” Das said of anonymization. “We just wanted to make sure that we are not accidentally creating a situation where, despite learning from anaonyised materials, you can’t reverse engineer what people are analysing. We are just not convinced.”

While there is something commendable about building and shipping a tool with a lot of potential to it, Gyana runs the risk of facing what I think of as the “water, water everywhere” problem. Sometimes if a person really has no experience or specific aim, it can be hard to think of how to get started when you can do anything. Das said they have also identified this, and so while currently Gyana already offers some tutorials and helper tools within the app to nudge the user along, the plan is to eventually bring in a large variety of datasets for people to get started with, and also to develop a more intuitive way to “read” the basics of the files in order to figure out what kinds of data inquiries a person is most likely to want to make.

The rise of “no-code” software has been a swift one in the world of tech spanning the proliferation of startups, big acquisitions, and large funding rounds. Companies like Airtable and DashDash are aimed at building analytics leaning on interfaces that follow the basic design of a spreadsheet; AppSheet, which is a no-code mobile app building platform, was recently acquired by Google; and Roblox (for building games without needing to code) and Uncorq (for app development) have both raised significant funding just this week. In the area of no-code data analytics and visualisation, there are biggies like Tableau, as well as Trifacta, RapidMiner and more.

Gartner predicts that by 2024, some 65% of all app development will be made on low- or no-code platforms, and Forrester estimates that the no- and low-code market will be worth some $10 billion this year, rising to $21.2 billion by 2024.

That represents a big business opportunity for the likes of Gyana, which has been unique in using the no-code approach specifically to tackle the area of data science.

However, in the spirit of citizen data scientists, the intention is to keep a consumer version of the apps free to use as it works on signing up enterprise users with more enhanced paid products, which will be priced on an annual license basis (currently clients are paying between $6,000 and $12,000 depending on usage, she said).

“We want to do free for as long as we can,” Das said, both in relation to the data tools and the datasets that it will offer to users. “The biggest value add is not about accessing premium data that is hard to get. We are not a data marketplace but we want to provide data that makes sense to access,” adding that even with business users, “we’d like you to do 90% of what you want to do without paying for anything.”

Feb
25
2020
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Stonly grabs $3.5 million to make customer support more interactive

Stonly is building a service for customer support teams so that they can share step-by-step guides to solve the most common issues users have. The startup just raised a $3.5 million funding round led by Accel with business angels also participating, such as Eventbrite CTO Renaud Visage and PeopleDoc founders Jonathan Benhamou and Clément Buyse.

The startup isn’t building a chatbot for customer support — chatbots usually don’t understand what you mean and you end up contacting customer support anyway. Stonly believes that scripted guides with multiple questions work much better than both chatbots and intimidating knowledge bases.

But the company is well aware that it isn’t going to replace Zendesk or Intercom overnight. That’s why a Stonly guide is a module that you can embed in your existing tools. The startup currently supports Intercom, Zendesk, Freshdesk and Front.

This way, if somebody contacts you on Front or Intercom, you can reply with a Stonly guide to help your users solve their own issues (at least if it’s a common issue). Stonly is also launching its own more traditional knowledge base powered by Stonly guides so that your client can access common questions through a chat widget.

Putting together a Stonly guide doesn’t require any technical skills. After defining the steps, you can write text, add images, videos and buttons in a web interface. Stonly also supports translations.

And it’s been working well for the startup’s first clients. For instance, Dashlane noticed a 25% decrease in opened tickets for their most frequent issues after using Stonly. Other clients include Devialet, Happn and Calendly.

With today’s funding round, the startup is expanding to the U.S. with a new office in New York and David Rostan, VP of Sales and Marketing at Calendly, is joining as head of revenue.

Feb
05
2020
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Aiven raises $40M to democratize access to open-source projects through managed cloud services

The growing ubiquity of open-source software has been a big theme in the evolution of enterprise IT. But behind that facade of popularity lies another kind of truth: Companies may be interested in using more open-source technology, but because there is a learning curve with taking on an open-source project, not all of them have the time, money and expertise to adopt it. Today, a startup out of Finland that has built a platform specifically to target that group of users is announcing a big round of funding, underscoring not just demand for its products, but its growth to date.

Aiven — which provides managed, cloud-based services designed to make it easier for businesses to build services on top of open-source projects — is today announcing that it has raised $40 million in funding, a Series B being led by IVP (itself a major player in enterprise software, backing an illustrious list that includes Slack, Dropbox, Datadog, GitHub and HashiCorp).

Previous investors Earlybird VC, Lifeline Ventures and the family offices of Risto Siilasmaa (chairman of Nokia), and Olivier Pomel (founder of Datadog), also participated. The deal brings the total raised by Aiven to $50 million.

Oskari Saarenmaa, the CEO of Aiven who co-founded the company with Hannu Valtonen, Heikki Nousiainen and Mika Eloranta, said in an interview that the company is not disclosing its valuation at this time, but it comes in the wake of some big growth for the company.

It now has 500 companies as customers, including Atlassian, Comcast, OVO Energy and Toyota, and over the previous two years it doubled headcount and tripled its revenues.

“We are on track to do better than that this year,” Saarenmaa added.

It’s a surprising list, given the size of some of those companies. Indeed, Saarenmaa even said that originally he and the co-founders — who got the idea for the startup by first building such implementations for previous employers, which included Nokia and F-Secure — envisioned much smaller organisations using Aiven.

But in truth, the actual uptake speaks not just to the learning curve of open-source projects, but to the fact that even if you do have the talent to work with these, it makes more sense to apply that talent elsewhere and use implementations that have been tried and tested.

The company today provides services on top of eight different open-source projects — Apache Kafka, PostgreSQL, MySQL, Elasticsearch, Cassandra, Redis, InfluxDB and Grafana — which cover a variety of basic functions, from data streams to search and the handling of a variety of functions that involve ordering and managing vast quantities of data. It works across big public clouds, including Google, Azure, AWS, Digital Ocean and more.

The company is running two other open-source technologies in beta — M3 and Flink — which will also soon be added on general release, and the plan will be to add a few more over time, but only a few.

“We may want to have something to help with analytics and data visualisation,” Saarenmaa said, “but we’re not looking to become a collection of different open-source databases. We want to provide the most interesting and best to our customers. The idea is that we are future-proofing. If there is an interesting technology that comes up and starts to be adopted, our users can trust it will be available on Aiven.”

He says that today the company does not — and has no plans to — position itself as a system integrator or consultancy around open-source technologies. The work that it does do with customers, he said, is free and tends to be part of its pre- and after-sales care.

One primary use of the funding will be to expand its on-the-ground offices in different geographies — Aiven has offices in Helsinki, Berlin and Sydney today — with a specific focus on the U.S., in order to be closer to customers to continue to do precisely that.

But sometimes the mountain comes to Mohamed, so to speak. Saarenmaa said that he was first introduced to IVP at Slush, an annual tech conference in Helsinki held in November, and the deal came about quickly after that introduction.

“The increasing adoption of open-source infrastructure software and public cloud usage are among the incredibly powerful trends in enterprise technology and Aiven is making it possible for customers of all sizes to benefit from the advantages of open source infrastructure,” Eric Liaw, a general partner at IVP, said in a statement.

“In addition to their market potential and explosive yet capital-efficient growth, we were most impressed to hear from customer after customer that ‘Aiven just works.’ The overwhelmingly positive feedback from customers is a testament to their hiring practices and the strong engineering team they have built. We’re thrilled to partner with Aiven’s team and help them build their vision of a single open-source data cloud that serves the needs of customers of all sizes.”

Liaw is joining the board with this round.

Feb
04
2020
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Nomagic, a startup out of Poland, picks up $8.6M for its pick-and-place warehouse robots

Factories and warehouses have been two of the biggest markets for robots in the last several years, with machines taking on mundane, if limited, processes to speed up work and free up humans to do other, more complex tasks. Now, a startup out of Poland that is widening the scope of what those robots can do is announcing funding, a sign not just of how robotic technology has been evolving, but of the growing demand for more automation, specifically in the world of logistics and fulfilment.

Nomagic, which has developed way for a robotic arm to identify an item from an unordered selection, pick it up and then pack it into a box, is today announcing that it has raised $8.6 million in funding, one of the largest-ever seed rounds for a Polish startup. Co-led by Khosla Ventures and Hoxton Ventures, the round also included participation from DN Capital, Capnamic Ventures and Manta Ray, all previous backers of Nomagic.

There are a number of robotic arms on the market today that can be programmed to pick up and deposit items from Point A to Point B. But we are only starting to see a new wave of companies focus on bringing these to fulfilment environments because of the limitations of those arms: they can only work when the items are already “ordered” in a predictable way, such as on an assembly line, which has mean that fulfilment of, for example, online orders is usually carried out by humans.

Nomagic has incorporated a new degree of computer vision, machine learning and other AI-based technologies to  elevate the capabilities of those robotic arm. Robots powered by its tech can successfully select items from an “unstructured” group of objects — that is, not an assembly line, but potentially another box — before picking it up and placing it elsewhere.

Kacper Nowicki, the ex-Googler CEO of Nomagic who co-founded the company with Marek Cygan (an academic) and Tristan d’Orgeval (formerly of Climate Corporation), noted that while there has been some work on the problem of unstructured objects and industrial robots — in the US, there are some live implementations taking shape, with one, Covariant, recently exiting stealth mode — it has been mostly a “missing piece” in terms of the innovation that has been done to make logistics and fulfilment more efficient.

That is to say, there has been little in the way of bigger commercial roll outs of the technology, creating an opportunity in what is a huge market: fulfilment services are projected to be a $56 billion market by 2021 (currently the US is the biggest single region, estimated at between $13.5 billion and $15.5 billion).

“If every product were a tablet or phone, you could automate a regular robotic arm to pick and pack,” Nowicki said. “But if you have something else, say something in plastic, or a really huge diversity of products, then that is where the problems come in.”

Nowicki was a longtime Googler who moved from Silicon Valley back to Poland to build the company’s first engineering team in the country. In his years at Google, Nowicki worked in areas including Google Cloud and search, but also saw the AI developments underway at Google’s DeepMind subsidiary, and decided he wanted to tackle a new problem for his next challenge.

His interest underscores what has been something of a fork in artificial intelligence in recent years. While some of the earliest implementations of the principles of AI were indeed on robots, these days a lot of robotic hardware seems clunky and even outmoded, while much more of the focus of AI has shifted to software and “non-physical” systems aimed at replicating and improving upon human thought. Even the word “robot” is now just as likely to be seen in the phrase “robotic process automation”, which in fact has nothing to do with physical robots, but software.

“A lot of AI applications are not that appealing,” Nowicki simply noted (indeed, while Nowicki didn’t spell it out, DeepMind in particular has faced a lot of controversy over its own work in areas like healthcare). “But improvements in existing robotics systems by applying machine learning and computer vision so that they can operate in unstructured environments caught my attention. There has been so little automation actually in physical systems, and I believe it’s a place where we still will see a lot of change.”

Interestingly, while the company is focusing on hardware, it’s not actually building hardware per se, but is working on software that can run on the most popular robotic arms in the market today to make them “smarter”.

“We believe that most of the intellectual property in in AI is in the software stack, not the hardware,” said Orgeval. “We look at it as a mechatronics problem, but even there, we believe that this is mainly a software problem.”

Having Khosla as a backer is notable given that a very large part of the VC’s prolific investing has been in North America up to now. Nowicki said he had a connection to the firm by way of his time in the Bay Area, where before Google, Vinod Khosla backed a startup of his (which went bust in one of the dot-com downturns).

While there is an opportunity for Nomagic to take its idea global, for now Khosla’s interested because of the a closer opportunity at home, where Nomagic is already working with third-party logistics and fulfilment providers, as well as retailers like Cdiscount, a French Amazon-style, soup-to-nuts online marketplace.

“The Nomagic team has made significant strides since its founding in 2017,” says Sven Strohband, Managing Director of Khosla Ventures, in a statement. “There’s a massive opportunity within the European market for warehouse robotics and automation, and NoMagic is well-positioned to capture some of that market share.”

Jan
22
2020
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TriggerMesh scores $3M seed from Index and Crane to help enterprises embrace ‘serverless’

TriggerMesh, a startup building on top of the open-source Kubernetes software to help enterprises go “serverless” across apps running in the cloud and traditional data centers, has raised $3 million in seed funding.

The round is led by Index Ventures and Crane Venture Partners. TriggerMesh says the investment will be used to scale the company and grow its development team in order to offer what it bills as the industry’s first “cloud native integration platform for the serverless era.”

Founded by two prominent names in the open-source community — Sebastien Goasguen (CEO) and Mark Hinkle (CMO), based in Geneva and North Carolina, respectively — TriggerMesh’s platform will enable organizations to build enterprise-grade applications that span multiple cloud and data center environments, therefore helping to address what the startup says is a growing pain point as serverless architectures become more prevalent.

TriggerMesh’s platform and serverless cloud bus is said to facilitate “application flow orchestration” to consume events from any data center application or cloud event source and trigger serverless functions.

“As cloud-native applications use a greater number of serverless offerings in the cloud, TriggerMesh provides a declarative API and a set of tools to define event flows and functions that compose modern applications,” explains the company.

One feature TriggerMesh is specifically talking up and very relevant to legacy enterprises is its integration functionality with on-premise software. Via its wares, it says it is easy to connect SaaS, serverless cloud offerings and on-premises applications to provide scalable cloud-native applications at a low cost and quickly.

“There are huge numbers of disconnected applications that are unable to fully benefit from cloud computing and increased network connectivity,” noted Scott Sage, co-founder and partner at Crane Venture Partners, in a statement. “Most companies have some combination of cloud and on-premises applications and with more applications around, often from different vendors, the need for integration has never been greater. We see TriggerMesh’s solution as the ideal fit for this need which made them a compelling investment.”

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