Extra Crunch roundup: influencer marketing 101, spotting future unicorns, Apple AirTags teardown

With the right message, even a small startup can connect with established and emerging stars on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube who will promote your products and services — as long as your marketing team understands the influencer marketplace.

Creators have a wide variety of brands and revenue channels to choose from, but marketers who understand how to court these influencers can make inroads no matter the size of their budget. Although brand partnerships are still the top source of revenue for creators, many are starting to diversify.

If you’re in charge of marketing at an early-stage startup, this post explains how to connect with an influencer who authentically resonates with your brand and covers the basics of setting up a revenue-share structure that works for everyone.


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Our upcoming TC Early Stage event is devoted to marketing and fundraising, so expect to see more articles than usual about growth marketing in the near future.

We also ran a post this week with tips for making the first marketing hire, and Managing Editor Eric Eldon spoke to growth leader Susan Su to get her thoughts about building remote marketing teams.

We’re off today to celebrate the Juneteenth holiday in the United States. I hope you have a safe and relaxing weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

As the economy reopens, startups are uniquely positioned to recruit talent

Little Fish in Form of Big Fish meeting a fish.

Image Credits: ballyscanlon (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The pandemic forced a reckoning about the way we work — and whether we want to keep working in the same way, with the same people, for the same company — and many are looking for something different on the other side.

Art Zeile, the CEO of DHI Group, notes this means it’s a great time for startups to recruit talent.

“While all startups are certainly not focused on being disruptive, they often rely on cutting-edge technology and processes to give their customers something truly new,” Zeile writes. “Many are trying to change the pattern in their particular industry. So, by definition, they generally have a really interesting mission or purpose that may be more appealing to tech professionals.”

Here are four considerations for high-growth company founders building their post-pandemic team.

Refraction AI’s Matthew Johnson-Roberson on finding the middle path to robotic delivery

Matthew Johnson-roberson

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

“Refraction AI calls itself the Goldilocks of robotic delivery,” Rebecca Bellan writes. “The Ann Arbor-based company … was founded by two University of Michigan professors who think delivery via full-size autonomous vehicles (AV) is not nearly as close as many promise, and sidewalk delivery comes with too many hassles and not enough payoff.

“Their ‘just right’ solution? Find a middle path, or rather, a bike path.”

Rebecca sat down with the company’s CEO to discuss his motivation to make “something that is useful to the general public.”

How to identify unicorn founders when they’re still early-stage

Image Credits: RichVintage (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

What are investors looking for?

Founders often tie themselves in knots as they try to project qualities they hope investors are seeking. In reality, few entrepreneurs have the acting skills required to convince someone that they’re patient, dedicated or hard working.

Johan Brenner, general partner at Creandum, was an early backer of Klarna, Spotify and several other European startups. Over the last two decades, he’s identified five key traits shared by people who create billion-dollar companies.

“A true unicorn founder doesn’t need to have all of those capabilities on day one,” Brenner, writes “but they should already be thinking big while executing small and demonstrating that they understand how to scale a company.”

Founders Ben Schippers and Evette Ellis are riding the EV sales wave

disrupt mobility roundup

Image Credits: TechCrunch

EV sales are driving demand for services and startups that fulfill the new needs of drivers, charging station operators and others.
Evette Ellis and Ben Schippers took to the main stage at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 to share how their companies capitalized on the new opportunities presented by the electric transportation revolution.

Scale AI CEO Alex Wang weighs in on software bugs and what will make AV tech good enough

Image Credits: Alexandr Wang

Scale co-founder and CEO Alex Wang joined us at TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility 2021 to discuss his company’s role in the autonomous driving industry and how it’s changed in the five years since its founding.

Scale helps large and small AV players establish reliable “ground truth” through data annotation and management, and along the way, the standards for what that means have shifted as the industry matures.

Even if two algorithms in autonomous driving might be created more or less equal, their real-world performance could vary dramatically based on what they’re consuming in terms of input data. That’s where Scale’s value prop to the industry starts, and Wang explains why.

Edtech investors are flocking to SaaS guidance counselors

Image Credits: Getty Images / Vertigo3d

The prevailing post-pandemic edtech narrative, which predicted higher ed would be DOA as soon as everyone got their vaccine and took off for a gap year, might not be quite true.

Natasha Mascarenhas explores a new crop of edtech SaaS startups that function like guidance counselors, helping students with everything from study-abroad opportunities to swiping right on a captivating college (really!).

“Startups that help students navigate institutional bureaucracy so they can get more value out of their educational experience may become a growing focus for investors as consumer demand for virtual personalized learning increases,” she writes.

Dear Sophie: Is it possible to expand our startup in the US?

lone figure at entrance to maze hedge that has an American flag at the center

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Dear Sophie,

My co-founders and I launched a software startup in Iran a few years ago, and I’m happy to say it’s now thriving. We’d like to expand our company in California.

Now that President Joe Biden has eliminated the Muslim ban, is it possible to do that? Is the pandemic still standing in the way? Do you have any suggestions?

— Talented in Tehran

Companies should utilize real-time compensation data to ensure equal pay

Two women observing data to represent collecting data to ensure pay equity.

Image Credits: Rudzhan Nagiev (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Chris Jackson, the vice president of client development at CompTrak, writes in a guest column that having a conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and “agreeing on the need for equality doesn’t mean it will be achieved on an organizational scale.”

He lays out a data-driven proposal that brings in everyone from directors to HR to the talent acquisition team to get companies closer to actual equity — not just talking about it.

Investors Clara Brenner, Quin Garcia and Rachel Holt on SPACs, micromobility and how COVID-19 shaped VC

tc sessions mobility speaker_investorpanel-1

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Few people are more closely tapped into the innovations in the transportation space than investors.

They’re paying close attention to what startups and tech companies are doing to develop and commercialize autonomous vehicle technology, electrification, micromobility, robotics and so much more.

For TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, we talked to three VCs about everything from the pandemic to the most overlooked opportunities within the transportation space.

Experts from Ford, Toyota and Hyundai outline why automakers are pouring money into robotics

disrupt mobility roundup

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Automakers’ interest in robotics is not a new phenomenon, of course: Robots and automation have long played a role in manufacturing and are both clearly central to their push into AVs.

But recently, many companies are going even deeper into the field, with plans to be involved in the wide spectrum of categories that robotics touch.

At TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, we spoke to a trio of experts at three major automakers about their companies’ unique approaches to robotics.

Apple AirTags UX teardown: The trade-off between privacy and user experience

Image Credits: James D. Morgan/Getty Images

Apple’s location devices — called AirTags — have been out for more than a month now. The initial impressions were good, but as we concluded back in April: “It will be interesting to see these play out once AirTags are out getting lost in the wild.”

That’s exactly what our resident UX analyst, Peter Ramsey, has been doing for the last month — intentionally losing AirTags to test their user experience at the limits.

This Extra Crunch exclusive helps bridge the gap between Apple’s mistakes and how you can make meaningful changes to your product’s UX.

 

How to launch a successful RPA initiative

3D illustration of robot humanoid reading book in concept of future artificial intelligence and 4th fourth industrial revolution . (3D illustration of robot humanoid reading book in concept of future artificial intelligence and 4th fourth industrial r

Image Credits: NanoStockk (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Robotic process automation (RPA) is no longer in the early-adopter phase.

Though it requires buy-in from across the organization, contributor Kevin Buckley writes, it’s time to gather everyone around and get to work.

“Automating just basic workflow processes has resulted in such tremendous efficiency improvements and cost savings that businesses are adapting automation at scale and across the enterprise,” he writes.

Long story short: “Adapting business automation for the enterprise should be approached as a business solution that happens to require some technical support.”

Mobility startups can be equitable, accessible and profitable

tc sessions

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Mobility should be a right, but too often it’s a privilege. Can startups provide the technology and the systems necessary to help correct this injustice?

At  our TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 event, we sat down with Revel CEO and co-founder Frank Reig, Remix CEO and co-founder Tiffany Chu, and community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler to discuss how mobility companies should think about equity, why incorporating it from the get-go will save money in the long run, and how they can partner with cities to expand accessible and sustainable mobility.

CEO Shishir Mehrotra and investor S. Somasegar reveal what sings in Coda’s pitch doc

Image Credits: Carlin Ma / Madrona Venture Group/Brian Smale

Coda CEO Shishir Mehrotra and Madrona partner S. Somasegar joined Extra Crunch Live to go through Coda’s pitch doc (not deck. Doc) and stuck around for the ECL Pitch-off, where founders in the audience come “onstage” to pitch their products to our guests.

Extra Crunch Live takes place every Wednesday at 3 p.m. EDT/noon PDT. Anyone can hang out during the episode (which includes networking with other attendees), but access to past episodes is reserved exclusively for Extra Crunch members. Join here.

#artificial-intelligence, #coda, #diversity, #ec-techcrunch-tc-mobility, #education, #entrepreneurship, #eric-eldon, #extra-crunch-roundup, #jackson, #juneteenth, #klarna, #private-equity, #rachel-holt, #rpa, #scale-ai, #shishir-mehrotra, #startups, #susan-su, #tc, #transportation, #venture-capital

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UK’s ICO warns over ‘big data’ surveillance threat of live facial recognition in public

The UK’s chief data protection regulator has warned over reckless and inappropriate use of live facial recognition (LFR) in public places.

Publishing an opinion today on the use of this biometric surveillance in public — to set out what is dubbed as the “rules of engagement” — the information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, also noted that a number of investigations already undertaken by her office into planned applications of the tech have found problems in all cases.

“I am deeply concerned about the potential for live facial recognition (LFR) technology to be used inappropriately, excessively or even recklessly. When sensitive personal data is collected on a mass scale without people’s knowledge, choice or control, the impacts could be significant,” she warned in a blog post.

“Uses we’ve seen included addressing public safety concerns and creating biometric profiles to target people with personalised advertising.

“It is telling that none of the organisations involved in our completed investigations were able to fully justify the processing and, of those systems that went live, none were fully compliant with the requirements of data protection law. All of the organisations chose to stop, or not proceed with, the use of LFR.”

“Unlike CCTV, LFR and its algorithms can automatically identify who you are and infer sensitive details about you. It can be used to instantly profile you to serve up personalised adverts or match your image against known shoplifters as you do your weekly grocery shop,” Denham added.

“In future, there’s the potential to overlay CCTV cameras with LFR, and even to combine it with social media data or other ‘big data’ systems — LFR is supercharged CCTV.”

The use of biometric technologies to identify individuals remotely sparks major human rights concerns, including around privacy and the risk of discrimination.

Across Europe there are campaigns — such as Reclaim your Face — calling for a ban on biometric mass surveillance.

In another targeted action, back in May, Privacy International and others filed legal challenges at the controversial US facial recognition company, Clearview AI, seeking to stop it from operating in Europe altogether. (Some regional police forces have been tapping in — including in Sweden where the force was fined by the national DPA earlier this year for unlawful use of the tech.)

But while there’s major public opposition to biometric surveillance in Europe, the region’s lawmakers have so far — at best — been fiddling around the edges of the controversial issue.

A pan-EU regulation the European Commission presented in April, which proposes a risk-based framework for applications of artificial intelligence, included only a partial prohibition on law enforcement’s use of biometric surveillance in public places — with wide ranging exemptions that have drawn plenty of criticism.

There have also been calls for a total ban on the use of technologies like live facial recognition in public from MEPs across the political spectrum. The EU’s chief data protection supervisor has also urged lawmakers to at least temporarily ban the use of biometric surveillance in public.

The EU’s planned AI Regulation won’t apply in the UK, in any case, as the country is now outside the bloc. And it remains to be seen whether the UK government will seek to weaken the national data protection regime.

A recent report it commissioned to examine how the UK could revise its regulatory regime, post-Brexit, has — for example — suggested replacing the UK GDPR with a new “UK framework” — proposing changes to “free up data for innovation and in the public interest”, as it puts it, and advocating for revisions for AI and “growth sectors”. So whether the UK’s data protection regime will be put to the torch in a post-Brexit bonfire of ‘red tape’ is a key concern for rights watchers.

(The Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform report advocates, for example, for the complete removal of Article 22 of the GDPR — which gives people rights not to be subject to decisions based solely on automated processing — suggesting it be replaced with “a focus” on “whether automated profiling meets a legitimate or public interest test”, with guidance on that envisaged as coming from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). But it should also be noted that the government is in the process of hiring Denham’s successor; and the digital minister has said he wants her replacement to take “a bold new approach” that “no longer sees data as a threat, but as the great opportunity of our time”. So, er, bye-bye fairness, accountability and transparency then?)

For now, those seeking to implement LFR in the UK must comply with provisions in the UK’s Data Protection Act 2018 and the UK General Data Protection Regulation (aka, its implementation of the EU GDPR which was transposed into national law before Brexit), per the ICO opinion, including data protection principles set out in UK GDPR Article 5, including lawfulness, fairness, transparency, purpose limitation, data minimisation, storage limitation, security and accountability.

Controllers must also enable individuals to exercise their rights, the opinion also said.

“Organisations will need to demonstrate high standards of governance and accountability from the outset, including being able to justify that the use of LFR is fair, necessary and proportionate in each specific context in which it is deployed. They need to demonstrate that less intrusive techniques won’t work,” wrote Denham. “These are important standards that require robust assessment.

“Organisations will also need to understand and assess the risks of using a potentially intrusive technology and its impact on people’s privacy and their lives. For example, how issues around accuracy and bias could lead to misidentification and the damage or detriment that comes with that.”

The timing of the publication of the ICO’s opinion on LFR is interesting in light of wider concerns about the direction of UK travel on data protection and privacy.

If, for example, the government intends to recruit a new, ‘more pliant’ information commissioner — who will happily rip up the rulebook on data protection and AI, including in areas like biometric surveillance — it will at least be rather awkward for them to do so with an opinion from the prior commissioner on the public record that details the dangers of reckless and inappropriate use of LFR.

Certainly, the next information commissioner won’t be able to say they weren’t given clear warning that biometric data is particularly sensitive — and can be used to estimate or infer other characteristics, such as their age, sex, gender or ethnicity.

Or that ‘Great British’ courts have previously concluded that “like fingerprints and DNA [a facial biometric template] is information of an ‘intrinsically private’ character”, as the ICO opinion notes, while underlining that LFR can cause this super sensitive data to be harvested without the person in question even being aware it’s happening. 

Denham’s opinion also hammers hard on the point about the need for public trust and confidence for any technology to succeed, warning that: “The public must have confidence that its use is lawful, fair, transparent and meets the other standards set out in data protection legislation.”

The ICO has previously published an Opinion into the use of LFR by police forces — which she said also sets “a high threshold for its use”. (And a few UK police forces — including the Met in London — have been among the early adopters of facial recognition technology, which has in turn led some into legal hot water on issues like bias.)

Disappointingly, though, for human rights advocates, the ICO opinion shies away from recommending a total ban on the use of biometric surveillance in public by private companies or public organizations — with the commissioner arguing that while there are risks with use of the technology there could also be instances where it has high utility (such as in the search for a missing child).

“It is not my role to endorse or ban a technology but, while this technology is developing and not widely deployed, we have an opportunity to ensure it does not expand without due regard for data protection,” she wrote, saying instead that in her view “data protection and people’s privacy must be at the heart of any decisions to deploy LFR”.

Denham added that (current) UK law “sets a high bar to justify the use of LFR and its algorithms in places where we shop, socialise or gather”.

“With any new technology, building public trust and confidence in the way people’s information is used is crucial so the benefits derived from the technology can be fully realised,” she reiterated, noting how a lack of trust in the US has led to some cities banning the use of LFR in certain contexts and led to some companies pausing services until rules are clearer.

“Without trust, the benefits the technology may offer are lost,” she also warned.

There is one red line that the UK government may be forgetting in its unseemly haste to (potentially) gut the UK’s data protection regime in the name of specious ‘innovation’. Because if it tries to, er, ‘liberate’ national data protection rules from core EU principles (of lawfulness, fairness, proportionality, transparency, accountability and so on) — it risks falling out of regulatory alignment with the EU, which would then force the European Commission to tear up a EU-UK data adequacy arrangement (on which the ink is still drying).

The UK having a data adequacy agreement from the EU is dependent on the UK having essentially equivalent protections for people’s data. Without this coveted data adequacy status UK companies will immediately face far greater legal hurdles to processing the data of EU citizens (as the US now does, in the wake of the demise of Safe Harbor and Privacy Shield). There could even be situations where EU data protection agencies order EU-UK data flows to be suspended altogether…

Obviously such a scenario would be terrible for UK business and ‘innovation’ — even before you consider the wider issue of public trust in technologies and whether the Great British public itself wants to have its privacy rights torched.

Given all this, you really have to wonder whether anyone inside the UK government has thought this ‘regulatory reform’ stuff through. For now, the ICO is at least still capable of thinking for them.

 

#artificial-intelligence, #biometrics, #clearview-ai, #data-protection, #data-protection-law, #elizabeth-denham, #europe, #european-commission, #european-union, #facial-recognition, #general-data-protection-regulation, #information-commissioners-office, #law-enforcement, #privacy, #privacy-international, #safe-harbor, #surveillance, #tc, #uk-government, #united-kingdom

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KeepTruckin raises $190 million to invest in AI products, double R&D team to 700

KeepTruckin, a hardware and software developer that helps trucking fleets manage vehicle, cargo and driver safety, has just raised $190 million in a Series E funding round, which puts the company’s valuation at $2 billion, according to CEO Shoaib Makani. 

G2 Venture Partners, which just raised a $500 million fund to help modernize existing industries, participated in the round, alongside existing backers like Greenoaks Capital, Index Ventures, IVP and Scale Venture Partners, which is managed by BlackRock. 

KeepTruckin intends to invest its new capital back into its AI-powered products like its GPS tracking, ELD compliance and dispatch and workflow, but it’s specifically interested in improving its smart dashcam, which instantly detects unsafe driving behaviors like cell phone distraction and close following and alerts the drivers in real time, according to Makani. 

The company says Usher Transport, one of its clients, says it has seen a 32% annual reduction in accidents after implementing the Smart Dashcam, DRIVE risk score and Safety Hub, products that the company offers to increase safety.

“KeepTruckin’s special sauce is that we can build complex models (that other edge cameras can’t yet run) and make it run on the edge with low-power, low-memory and low-bandwidth constraints,” Makani told TechCrunch. “We have developed in-house IPs to solve this problem at different environmental conditions such as low-light, extreme weather, occluded subject and distortions.”

This kind of accuracy requires billions of ground truth data points that are trained and tested on KeepTruckin’s in-house machine learning platform, a process that is very resource-intensive. The platform includes smart annotation capabilities to automatically label the different data points so the neural network can play with millions of potential situations, achieving similar performance to the edge device that’s in the field with real-world environmental conditions, according to Makani.

A 2020 McKinsey study predicted the freight industry is not likely to see the kind of YOY growth it saw last year, which was 30% up from 2019, but noted that some industries would increase at higher rates than others. For example, commodities related to e-commerce and agricultural and food products will be the first to return to growth, whereas electronics and automotive might increase at a slower rate due to declining consumer demand for nonessentials. 

Since the pandemic, the company said it experienced 70% annualized growth, in large part due to expansion into new markets like construction, oil and gas, food and beverage, field services, moving and storage and agriculture. KeepTruckin expects this demand to increase and intends to use the fresh funds to scale rapidly and recruit more talent that will help progress its AI systems, doubling its R&D team to 700 people globally with a focus on engineering, machine vision, data science and other AI areas, says Makani. 

“We think packaging these products into operator-friendly user interfaces for people who are not deeply technical is critical, so front-end and full-stack engineers with experience building incredibly intuitive mobile and web applications are also high priority,” said Makani. 

Much of KeepTruckin’s tech will eventually power autonomous vehicles to make roads safer, says Makani, something that’s also becoming increasingly relevant as the demand for trucking continues to outpace supply of drivers.

Level 4 and eventually level 5 autonomy will come to the trucking industry, but we are still many years away from broad deployment,” he said. “Our AI-powered dashcam is making drivers safer and helping prevent accidents today. While the promise of autonomy is real, we are working hard to help companies realize the value of this technology now.”

#artificial-intelligence, #g2-venture-partners, #keeptruckin, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #transportation, #trucking

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Anduril raises $450M as the defense tech company’s valuation soars to $4.6B

The AI-powered defense company founded by tech iconoclast Palmer Luckey has landed a $450 million round of investment that values the startup at $4.6 billion just four years in.

In April, reports suggested that the company was on the hunt for fresh investment and headed for a valuation between four and five billion, up from $1.9 billion in July 2020.

The new Series D round was led by angel investor and serial entrepreneur Elad Gil, a former Twitter VP and Googler with a track record of investments in companies with exponential growth. Andreessen Horowitz, Founders Fund, 8VC, General Catalyst, Lux Capital, Valor Equity Partners and D1 Capital Partners also participated in the round.

“Just as old incumbent institutions with little to no organizational renewal impacted our ability to respond to COVID, the defense industry has undergone significant consolidation over the last 30 years,” Gil wrote in a blog post on the investment. “There has not been a new defense technology company of any scale to directly challenge these incumbents in many decades…”

Anduril launched quietly in 2017 but grew quickly, picking up contracts with Customs and Border Protection and the Marine Corps during the Trump administration. Luckey, the young high-flying founder who sold Oculus to Facebook before being booted from the company, emerged as one of President Trump’s most prominent boosters in the generally Trump-averse tech industry.

The company makes defense hardware, including long-flying drones and surveillance towers that connect to a shared software platform it calls Lattice. The technology can be used to secure military bases, monitor borders and even knock enemy drones out of the sky, in the case of Anduril’s counter-UAS tech known as “Anvil.”

Anduril co-founder and CEO Brian Schimpf describes the company’s mission as one of “transformation,” pairing relatively affordable hardware with sensor fusion and machine learning technologies through a contract partner more nimble than established giants in the defense sector.

“This new round of funding reflects our confidence that the Department of Defense sees the same problems we do, and is serious about deploying emerging technologies at scale across land, sea, air, and space domains,” Schimpf said.

The company set its sights on work with the Department of Defense from its earliest days and last year was one of 50 vendors tapped by the DoD to test tech for the Air Force’s own piece of the Joint All-Domain Command & Control (JADC2) project, which seeks to build a smart warfare platform to connect all service members, devices and vehicles that power the U.S. military.

The company’s work with U.S. Customs and Border Protection also matured from a pilot into a program of record last year. Anduril supplies the agency with connected surveillance towers capable of autonomously monitoring stretches of the U.S. border.

In April, Anduril acquired Area-I, a company known for small drones that can be launched from a larger aircraft. Area-I counted the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and NASA among its customers, relationships that likely sweetened the deal.

#air-force, #andreessen-horowitz, #anduril, #artificial-intelligence, #brian-schimpf, #d1-capital-partners, #department-of-defense, #elad-gil, #founders-fund, #general-catalyst, #government, #lattice, #lux-capital, #palmer-luckey, #science-and-technology, #tc, #technology, #trump-administration, #valor-equity-partners, #vp

0

Deep reinforcement learning will transform manufacturing as we know it

If you walk down the street shouting out the names of every object you see — garbage truck! bicyclist! sycamore tree! — most people would not conclude you are smart. But if you go through an obstacle course, and you show them how to navigate a series of challenges to get to the end unscathed, they would.

Most machine learning algorithms are shouting names in the street. They perform perceptive tasks that a person can do in under a second. But another kind of AI — deep reinforcement learning — is strategic. It learns how to take a series of actions in order to reach a goal. That’s powerful and smart — and it’s going to change a lot of industries.

Two industries on the cusp of AI transformations are manufacturing and supply chain. The ways we make and ship stuff are heavily dependent on groups of machines working together, and the efficiency and resiliency of those machines are the foundation of our economy and society. Without them, we can’t buy the basics we need to live and work.

Startups like Covariant, Ocado’s Kindred and Bright Machines are using machine learning and reinforcement learning to change how machines are controlled in factories and warehouses, solving inordinately difficult challenges such as getting robots to detect and pick up objects of various sizes and shapes out of bins, among others. They are attacking enormous markets: The industrial control and automation market was worth $152 billion last year, while logistics automation was valued at more than $50 billion.

Deep reinforcement learning consistently produces results that other machine learning and optimization tools are incapable of.

As a technologist, you need a lot of things to make deep reinforcement learning work. The first piece to think about is how you will get your deep reinforcement learning agent to practice the skills you want it to acquire. There are only two ways — with real data or through simulations. Each approach has its own challenge: Data must be collected and cleaned, while simulations must be built and validated.

Some examples will illustrate what this means. In 2016, GoogleX advertised its robotic “arm farms” — spaces filled with robot arms that were learning to grasp items and teach others how to do the same — which was one early way for a reinforcement learning algorithm to practice its moves in a real environment and measure the success of its actions. That feedback loop is necessary for a goal-oriented algorithm to learn: It must make sequential decisions and see where they lead.

In many situations, it is not feasible to build the physical environment where a reinforcement learning algorithm can learn. Let’s say you want to test different strategies for routing a fleet of thousands of trucks moving goods from many factories to many retail outlets. It would be very expensive to test all possible strategies, and those tests would not just cost money to run, but the failed runs would lead to many unhappy customers.

For many large systems, the only possible way to find the best action path is with simulation. In those situations, you must create a digital model of the physical system you want to understand in order to generate the data reinforcement learning needs. These models are called, alternately, digital twins, simulations and reinforcement-learning environments. They all essentially mean the same thing in manufacturing and supply chain applications.

Recreating any physical system requires domain experts who understand how the system works. This can be a problem for systems as small as a single fulfillment center for the simple reason that the people who built those systems may have left or died, and their successors have learned how to operate but not reconstruct them.

Many simulation software tools offer low-code interfaces that enable domain experts to create digital models of those physical systems. This is important, because domain expertise and software engineering skills often cannot be found in the same person.

Why would you go through all this trouble for a single algorithm? Because deep reinforcement learning consistently produces results that other machine learning and optimization tools are incapable of. DeepMind used it, of course, to beat the world champion of the board game of Go. Reinforcement learning was part of the algorithms that were integral to achieving breakthrough results with chess, protein folding and Atari games. Likewise, OpenAI trained deep reinforcement learning to beat the best human teams at Dota 2.

Just like deep artificial neural networks began to find business applications in the mid-2010s, after Geoffrey Hinton was hired by Google and Yann LeCun by Facebook, so too, deep reinforcement learning will have an increasing impact on industries. It will lead to quantum improvements in robotic automation and system control on the same order as we saw with Go. It will be the best we have, and by a long shot.

The consequence of those gains will be immense increases in efficiency and cost savings in manufacturing products and operating supply chains, leading to decreases in carbon emissions and worksite accidents. And, to be clear, the chokepoints and challenges of the physical world are all around us. Just in the last year, our societies have been hit by multiple supply chain disruptions due to COVID, lockdowns, the Suez Canal debacle and extreme weather events.

Zooming in on COVID, even after the vaccine was developed and approved, many countries have had trouble producing it and distributing it quickly. These are manufacturing and supply chain problems that involve situations we could not prepare for with historical data. They required simulations to predict what would happen, as well as how we could best address crises when they do occur, as Michael Lewis illustrated in his recent book “The Premonition.”

It is precisely this combination of constraints and novel challenges that take place in factories and supply chains that reinforcement learning and simulation can help us solve more quickly. And we are sure to face more of them in the future.

#artificial-intelligence, #column, #machine-learning, #manufacturing, #opinion, #reinforcement-learning, #simulation, #supply-chain, #tc

0

Insurtech AI startup Akur8 closes $30M Series B

Automating insurance claims is a big business, and the world of AI is coming at it ‘full pelt’. The latest is Akur8, an insurtech automating insurance platform whose ‘Transparent AI’ product is trying to eat into the incumbent large business of Willis Towers watson, among others.

It’s now closed a Series B funding round of $30m led by an undisclosed investor. This brings its total funding to $42m. The round is to support international expansion.

Akur8 is used by actuaries and pricing teams to make faster decisions about insurance claims.

Customers include AXA, Generali, and Munich Re, specialty insurers Canopius and Tokio Marine Kiln, insurtechs Wakam and wefox, as well as mutualistic player Matmut.

Samuel Falmagne, co-founder and CEO of Akur8 commented: “We are happy to announce the closing of our Series B funding round and are grateful for the support we have seen from our investors. This latest milestone will enable us to accelerate the transformation of insurance pricing even further, fuel our international expansion in the US and APAC, and equip P&C and health carriers with a state-of-the-art, integrated pricing solution that we have been building and refining tirelessly.”

Julien Creuzé, Partner at BlackFin Capital Partners Said: “The BlackFin team is thrilled to see Akur8 continue to spread its wings and deploy its next-generation pricing platform across insurance carriers worldwide. We have built a great relationship with the Akur8 management team and it’s a pleasure to welcome new investors and continue this journey with them.”

#akur8, #artificial-intelligence, #axa, #blackfin-capital-partners, #europe, #finance, #financial-services, #insurance, #munich-re, #partner, #tc, #united-states

0

SoftBank Vision Fund 2 leads $140M funding in Vishal Sikka’s Vianai

Vianai Systems, an AI startup founded by former chief executive of Indian IT services giant Infosys, said on Wednesday it has raised $140 million in a round led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2.

The two-year-old startup said a number of industry luminaries also participated in the new round, which brings its total to-date raise to at least $190 million. The startup raised $50 million in its Seed financing round, but there’s no word on the size of its Series A round.

Details about what exactly the Palo Alto-headquartered startup does is unclear. In a press statement, Dr. Vishal Sikka said the startup is building a “better AI platform, one that puts human judgment at the center of systems that bring vast AI capabilities to amplify human potential.” Sikka, 54, resigned from the top role at Infosys in 2017 after months of acrimony between the board and a cohort of founders.

Vianai helps its customers amplify the transformation potential within their organizations using a variety of advanced AI and ML tools with a distinct approach in how it thoughtfully brings together humans with technology. This human-centered approach differentiates Vianai from other platform and product companies and enables its customers to fulfill AI’s true promise,” the startup said.

The startup claims it has already amassed many of the world’s largest and most respected businesses including insurance giant Munich Re as its customers.

Its investors include Jim Davidson (co-founder of Silver Lake), Henry Kravis and George Roberts (co-founders of KKR), and Jerry Yang (founding partner of AME and co-founder of Yahoo). Dr. Fei-Fei Li (co-director of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI), has joined Vianai Systems’ advisory board.

“With the AI revolution underway, we believe Vianai’s human-centered AI platform and products provide global enterprises with operational and customer intelligence to make better business decisions,” said Deep Nishar, Senior Managing Partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement. “We are pleased to partner with Dr. Sikka and the Vianai team to support their ambition to fulfill AI’s promise to drive fundamental digital transformations.”

#artificial-intelligence, #funding, #softbank, #softbank-vision-fund-2, #vishal-sikka

0

Facebook rolls out new tools for Group admins, including automated moderation aids

Facebook today introduced a new set of tools aimed at helping Facebook Group administrators get a better handle on their online communities and, potentially, help keep conversations from going off the rails. Among the more interesting new tools is a machine learning-powered feature that alerts admins to potentially unhealthy conversations taking place in their group. Another lets the admin slow down the pace of a heated conversation, by limiting how often group members can post.

Facebook Groups are today are significant reason why people continue to use the social network. Today, there are “tens of millions” of groups, that are managed by over 70 million active admins and moderators worldwide, Facebook says.

The company for years has been working to roll out better tools for these group owners, who often get overwhelmed by the administrative responsibilities that come with running an online community at scale. As a result, many admins give up the job and leave groups to run somewhat unmanaged — thus allowing them to turn into breeding grounds for misinformation, spam and abuse.

Facebook last fall tried to address this problem by rolling out new group policies to crack down on groups without an active admin, among other things. Of course, the company’s preference would be to keep groups running and growing by making them easier to operate.

That’s where today’s new set of features come in.

A new dashboard called Admin Home will centralize admin tools, settings and features in one place, as well as present “pro tips” that suggest other helpful tools tailored to the group’s needs.

Image Credits: Facebook

Another new Admin Assist feature will allow admins to automatically moderate comments in their groups by setting up criteria that can restrict comments and posts more proactively, instead of forcing admins to go back after the fact and delete them, which can be problematic — especially after a discussion has been underway and members are invested in the conversation.

For example, admins can now restrict people from posting if they haven’t had a Facebook account for very long or if they had recently violated the group’s rules. Admins can also automatically decline posts that contain specific promotional content (perhaps MLM links! Hooray!) and then share feedback with the author of the post automatically about why those posts aren’t allowed.

Admins can also take advantage of suggested preset criteria from Facebook to help with limiting spam and managing conflict.

Image Credits: Facebook

One notable update is a new moderation alert type dubbed “conflict alerts.” This feature, currently in testing, will notify admins when a potentially contentious or unhealthy conversation is taking place in the group, Facebook says. This would allow an admin to quickly take an action — like turning off comments, limiting who could comment, removing a post, or however else they would want to approach the situation.

Conflict alerts are powered by machine learning, Facebook explains. Its machine learning model looks at multiple signals, including reply time and comment volume to determine if engagement between users has or might lead to negative interactions, the company says.

This is sort of like an automated expansion on the Keyword Alerts feature many admins already use to look for certain topics that lead to contentious conversations.

Image Credits: Facebook

A related feature, also new, would allow admins to also limit how often specific members could comment, or how often comments could be added to posts admins select.

When enabled, members can leave 1 comment every 5 minutes. The idea here is that forcing users to pause and consider their words amid a heated debate could lead to more civilized conversations. We’ve seen this concept enacted on other social networks, as well — such as with Twitter’s nudges to read articles before retweeting, or those that flag potentially harmful replies, giving you a chance to re-edit your post.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook, however, has largely embraced engagement on its platform, even when it’s not leading to positive interactions or experiences. Though small, this particular feature is an admission that building a healthy online community means sometimes people shouldn’t be able to immediately react and comment with whatever thought first popped into their head.

Additionally, Facebook is testing tools that allow admins to temporarily limit activity from certain group members.

If used, admins will be able to determine how many posts (between 1 and 9 posts) per day a given member may share, and for how long that limit should be in effect for (every 12 hours, 24 hours, 3 days, 7 days, 14 days, or 28 days). Admins will also be able to determine how many comments (between 1 and 30 comments, in 5 comment increments) per hour a given member may share, and for how long that limit should be in effect (also every 12 hours, 24 hours, 3 days, 7 days, 14 days, or 28 days).

Along these same lines of building healthier communities, a new member summary feature will give admins an overview of each member’s activity on their group, allowing them to see how many times they’ve posted and commented, have had posts removed, or have been muted.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook doesn’t say how admins are to use this new tool, but one could imagine admins taking advantage of the detailed summary to do the occasional cleanup of their member base by removing bad actors who continually disrupt discussions. They could also use it to locate and elevate regulator contributors without violations to moderator roles, perhaps.

Admins will also be able to tag their group rules in comment sections, disallow certain post types (e.g. Polls or Events), and submit an appeal to Facebook to re-review decisions related to group violations, if in error.

Image Credits: Facebook

Of particular interest, though a bit buried amid the slew of other news, is the return of Chats, which was previously announced.

Facebook had abruptly removed Chat functionality back in 2019, possibly due to spam, some had speculated. (Facebook said it was product infrastructure.) As before, Chats can have up to 250 people, including active members and those who opted into notifications from the chats. Once this limit is reached, other members will not be able to engage with that specific chat room until existing active participants either leave the chat or opt out of notifications.

Now, Facebook group members can start, find and engage in Chats with others within Facebook Groups instead of using Messenger. Admins and moderators can also have their own chats.

Notably, this change follows on the heels of growth from messaging-based social networks, like IRL, a new unicorn (due to its $1.17B valuation), as well as the growth seen by other messaging apps, like Telegram, Signal and other alternative social networks.

Image Credits: Facebook

Along with this large set of new features, Facebook also made changes to some existing features, based on feedback from admins.

It’s now testing pinned comments and introduced a new “admin announcement” post type that notifies group members of the important news (if notifications are being received for that group).

Plus, admins will be able to share feedback when they decline group members.

Image Credits: Facebook

The changes are rolling out across Facebook Groups globally in the coming weeks.

#artificial-intelligence, #facebook, #facebook-groups, #machine-learning, #moderation, #online-communities, #online-community, #social, #social-media, #social-network, #social-networks, #tc

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Hybrid events platform Brella raises $10M Series A led by Connected Capital

Hybrid event platform Brella has raised a $10M Series A funding round led by Connected Capital. Normally used as an offline networking app, Brella pivoted from live events into a virtual event platform after the pandemic hit. The company counts Informa, Marcus Evans, Questex and IQPC as customers

Markus Kauppinen, CEO and Founder of Brella said the company is moving towards ‘immersive hybrid events that contain both live and virtual components’ as the world opens up post-COVID.

Kauppinen said: “Unlike many of our competitors, Brella is squarely focused on capturing the essence of live business events and translating them into an intuitive digital format. We aren’t in the business of impressing event organizers with needlessly long feature-lists: Instead, we provide them with a lean, beautifully designed platform that supercharges the attendee experience using fantastic UX and AI-smart networking.”

The new Brella product is about community building, attendee grouping, and unified analytics for virtual and live audiences, he said.

Mathijs Robbens, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Connected Capital commented: “Brella’s approach to tackling the problems surrounding the event experience has been a breath of fresh air, especially during these uncertain times. The growth of the company, their agility and ability to turn the most insurmountable challenges into new opportunities is truly exceptional — we are thrilled to be a part of their next act as they strive to help the event industry embrace technology in the long-term.”

#articles, #artificial-intelligence, #europe, #events, #tc, #time

0

Trigo bags $10M for computer-vision based checkout tech to rival Amazon’s ‘Just Walk Out’

While Amazon continues to expand its self-service, computer-vision-based grocery checkout technology by bringing it to bigger stores, an AI startup out of Israel that’s built something to rival it has picked up funding and a new strategic investor as a customer.

Trigo, which has produced a computer vision system that includes both camera hardware and encrypted, privacy-compliant software to enable “grab and go” shopping — where customers can pick up items that get automatically detected and billed before they leave the store — has bagged $10 million in funding from German supermarket chain REWE Group and Viola Growth.

The exact amount of the investment was not being disclosed (perhaps because $10 million, in these crazy times, suddenly sounds like a modest amount?), but Pitchbook notes that Trigo had up to now raised $87 million, and Trigo has confirmed that it has now raised “over $100 million,” including a Series A in 2019, and a Series B of $60 million that it raised in December of last year. The company has confirmed that the amount raised is $10 million today, and $104 million in total.

The company is not disclosing its valuation. We have asked and will update as we learn more.

“Trigo is immensely proud and honored to be deepening its strategic partnership with REWE Group, one of Europe’s biggest and most innovative grocery retailers,” said Michael Gabay, Trigo co-founder and CEO, in a statement. “REWE have placed their trust in Trigo’s privacy-by-design architecture, and we look forward to bringing this exciting technology to German grocery shoppers. We are also looking forward to working with Viola Growth, an iconic investment firm backing some of Israel’s top startups.”

The REWE investment is part of a bigger partnership between the two companies, which will begin with a new “grab and go” REWE store in Cologne. REWE has 3,700 stores across Germany, so there is a lot of scope there for expansion. REWE is Trigo’s second strategic investor: Tesco has also backed the startup and has been trialling its technology in the U.K.. Trigo’s also being used by Shufersal, a grocery chain in Israel.

REWE’s investment comes amid a spate of tech engagements by the grocery giant, which recently also announced a partnership with Flink, a new grocery delivery startup out of Germany that recently raised a big round of funding to expand. It’s also working with Yamo, a healthy eating startup; and Whisk, an AI powered buy-to-cook startup.

“With today’s rapid technological developments, it is crucial to find the right partners,” said Christoph Eltze, Executive Board Member Digital, Customer & Analytics REWE Group. “REWE Group is investing in its strategic partnership with Trigo, who we believe is one of the leading companies in computer vision technologies for smart stores.”

More generally, consumer habits are changing, fast. Whether we are talking about the average family, or the average individual, people are simply not shopping, cooking and eating in the same way that they were even 10 years ago, let alone 20 or 30 years ago.

And so like many others in the very established brick-and-mortar grocery business, REWE — founded in 1927 — is hoping to tie up with some of the more interesting innovators to better keep ahead in the game.

“I don’t actually think people really want grocery e-commerce,” Ran Peled, Trigo’s VP of marketing, told me back in 2019. “They do that because the supermarket experience has become worse with the years. We are very much committed to helping brick and mortar stores return to the time of a few decades ago, when it was fun to go to the supermarket. What would happen if a store could have an entirely new OS that is based on computer vision?”

It will be interesting to see how widely used and “fun” smart checkout services will become in that context, and whether it will be a winner-takes-all market, or whether we’ll see a proliferation of others emerge to provide similar tools.

In addition to Amazon and Trigo, there is also Standard Cognition, which earlier this year raised money at a $1 billion valuation, among others and other approaches. One thing that more competition could mean is also more competitive pricing for systems that otherwise could prove costly to implement and run except for in the busiest locations.

There is also a bigger question over what the optimal size will be for cashierless, grab-and-go technology. Trigo cites data from Juniper Research that forecasts $400 billion in smart checkout transactions annually by 2025, but it seems that the focus in that market will likely be, in Juniper’s view, on smaller grocery and convenience stores rather than the cavernous cathedrals to consumerism that many of these chains operate. In that category, the market size is 500,000 stores globally, 120,000 of them in Europe.

#ai, #artificial-intelligence, #computer-vision, #europe, #food, #funding, #grocery, #trigo

0

Scale AI CEO Alex Wang weighs in on software bugs and what will make AV tech good enough

Scale co-founder and CEO Alex Wang joined us at TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility 2021 this week to discuss his company’s role in the autonomous driving industry and how it’s changed in the five years since its founding. Scale helps large and small AV players establish reliable “ground truth” through data annotation and management, and along the way, the standards for what that means have shifted as the industry matures.

Good data is the “good bones” of autonomous driving systems

Even if two algorithms in autonomous driving might be created more or less equal, their real-world performance could vary dramatically based on what they’re consuming in terms of input data. That’s where Scale’s value prop to the industry starts, and Wang explains why:

If you think about a traditional software system, the thing that will separate a good software system from a bad software system is the code, the quality of the code. For an AI system, which all of these self-driving vehicles or autonomous vehicles are, it’s the data that really separates an amazing algorithm from a bad algorithm. And so one thing we saw was that being one of the stewards and shepherds of high-quality data was going to be incredibly important for the industry, and that’s what’s played out. We work with many of the great companies in the space, from Aurora to Nuro to Toyota to General Motors, and our work with all of them is ensuring that they have really a solid data foundation, so they can build the rest of their stacks on top of it. (Time stamp: 06:24)

#adas, #alex-wang, #alexandr-wang, #artificial-intelligence, #automotive, #autonomous-vehicles, #av, #cybernetics, #ec-techcrunch-tc-mobility, #electric-vehicles, #mobility-2021, #nuro, #robotics, #scale-ai, #self-driving-car, #tc, #transportation

0

Extra Crunch roundup: TC Mobility recaps, Nubank EC-1, farewell to browser cookies

What, exactly, are investors looking for?

Early-stage founders, usually first-timers, often tie themselves in knots as they try to project the qualities they hope investors are seeking. In reality, few entrepreneurs have the acting skills required to convince someone that they’re patient, dedicated or hard-working.

Johan Brenner, general partner at Creandum, was an early backer of Klarna, Spotify and several other European startups. Over the last two decades, he’s identified five key traits shared by people who create billion-dollar companies.


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“A true unicorn founder doesn’t need to have all of those capabilities on Day One,” says Brenner, “but they should already be thinking big while executing small and demonstrating that they understand how to scale a company.”

Drawing from observations gleaned from working with founders like Spotify’s Daniel Ek, Sebastian Siemiatkowski from Klarna, and iZettle’s Jacob de Geer and Magnus Nilsson, Brenner explains where “VC FOMO” comes from and how it drives dealmaking.

We’re running a series of posts that recap conversations from last week’s virtual TC Mobility conference, including an interview with Refraction AI’s Matthew Johnson, a look at how autonomous delivery startups are navigating the regulatory and competitive landscape, and much more. There are many more recaps to come; click here to find them all.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch!

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

How contrarian hires and a pitch deck started Nubank’s $30 billion fintech empire

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Founded in 2013 and based in São Paulo, Brazil, Nubank serves more than 34 million customers, making it Latin America’s largest neobank.

Reporter Marcella McCarthy spoke to CEO David Velez to learn about his efforts to connect with consumers and overcome entrenched opposition from established players who were friendly with regulators.

In the first of a series of stories for Nubank’s EC-1, she interviewed Velez about his early fundraising efforts. For a balanced perspective, she also spoke to early Nubank investors at Sequoia and Kaszek Ventures, Latin America’s largest venture fund, to find out why they funded the startup while it was still pre-product.

“There are people you come across in life that within the first hour of meeting with them, you know you want to work with them,” said Doug Leone, a global managing partner at Sequoia who’d recruited Velez after he graduated from grad school at Stanford.

Marcella also interviewed members of Nubank’s founding team to better understand why they decided to take a chance on a startup that faced such long odds of success.

“I left banking to make a fifth of my salary, and back then, about $5,000 in equity,” said Vitor Olivier, Nubank’s VP of operations and platforms.

“Financially, it didn’t really make sense, so I really had to believe that it was really going to work, and that it would be big.”

Despite flat growth, ride-hailing colossus Didi’s US IPO could reach $70B

Image Credits: Didi

In his last dispatch before a week’s vacation, Alex Wilhelm waded through the numbers in Didi’s SEC filing. The big takeaways?

“While Didi managed an impressive GTV recovery in China, its aggregate numbers are flatter, and recent quarterly trends are not incredibly attractive,” he writes.

However, “Didi is not as unprofitable as we might have anticipated. That’s a nice surprise. But the company’s regular business has never made money, and it’s losing more lately than historically, which is also pretty rough.”

What’s driving the rise of robotaxis in China with AutoX, Momenta and WeRide

AutoX, Momenta and WeRide took the stage at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 to discuss the state of robotaxi startups in China and their relationships with local governments in the country.

They also talked about overseas expansion — a common trajectory for China’s top autonomous vehicle startups — and shed light on the challenges and opportunities for foreign AV companies eyeing the massive Chinese market.

The air taxi market prepares to take flight

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

“As in any disruptive industry, the forecast may be cloudier than the rosy picture painted by passionate founders and investors,” Aria Alamalhodaei writes. “A quick peek at comments and posts on LinkedIn reveals squabbles among industry insiders and analysts about when this emerging technology will truly take off and which companies will come out ahead.”

But while some electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) companies have no revenue yet to speak of — and may not for the foreseeable future — valuations are skyrocketing.

“Electric air mobility is gaining elevation,” she writes. “But there’s going to be some turbulence ahead.”

The demise of browser cookies could create a Golden Age of digital marketing

Though some may say the doomsday clock is ticking toward catastrophe for digital marketing, Apple’s iOS 14.5 update, which does away with automatic opt-ins for data collection, and Google’s plan to phase out third-party cookies do not signal a death knell for digital advertisers.

“With a few changes to short-term strategy — and a longer-term plan that takes into account the fact that people are awakening to the value of their online data — advertisers can form a new type of relationship with consumers,” Permission.io CTO Hunter Jensen writes in a guest column. “It can be built upon trust and open exchange of value.”

If offered the right incentives, Jensen predicts, “consumers will happily consent to data collection because advertisers will be offering them something they value in return.”

How autonomous delivery startups are navigating policy, partnerships and post-pandemic operations

Nuro second gen R2 delivery vehicle

Image Credits: Nuro

We kicked off this year’s TC Sessions: Mobility with a talk featuring three leading players in the field of autonomous delivery. Gatik co-founder and chief engineer Apeksha Kumavat, Nuro head of operations Amy Jones Satrom, and Starship Technologies co-founder and CTO Ahti Heinla joined us to discuss their companies’ unique approaches to the category.

The trio discussed government regulation on autonomous driving, partnerships with big corporations like Walmart and Domino’s, and the ongoing impact the pandemic has had on interest in the space.

Waabi’s Raquel Urtasun explains why it was the right time to launch an AV technology startup

Image Credits: Waabi via Natalia Dola

Raquel Urtasun, the former chief scientist at Uber ATG, is the founder and CEO of Waabi, an autonomous vehicle startup that came out of stealth mode last week. The Toronto-based company, which will focus on trucking, raised an impressive $83.5 million in a Series A round led by Khosla Ventures.

Urtasun joined Mobility 2021 to talk about her new venture, the challenges facing the self-driving vehicle industry and how her approach to AI can be used to advance the commercialization of AVs.

#artificial-intelligence, #av, #didi, #ec-techcrunch-tc-mobility, #entrepreneurship, #extra-crunch-roundup, #finance, #fintech, #klarna, #nubank, #robotaxi, #spotify, #startups, #tc, #transportation, #venture-capital

0

Solar concentration startup Heliogen basks in $108M of new funding

Sunlight is a great source of energy, but it rarely gets hot enough to fry an egg, let alone melt steel. Heliogen aims to change that with its high-tech concentrated solar technique, and has raised more than a hundred million dollars to test its 1,000-degree solar furnace to a few game mines and refineries.

We covered Heliogen when it first made its debut in 2019, and the details in that article still get at the core of the company’s tech. Computer vision techniques are used to carefully control a large set of mirrors, which reflect and concentrate the sun’s light to the extent that it can reach in excess of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, almost twice what previous solar concentrators could do. “It’s like a death ray,” founder Bill Gross explained then.

That lets the system replace fossil fuels and other legacy systems in many applications where such temperatures are required, for example mining and smelting operations. By using a Heliogen concentrator, they could run on sunlight during much of the day and only rely on other sources at night, potentially halving their fuel expenditure and consequently both saving money and stepping toward a greener future.

Both goals hint at why utilities and a major mining and steel-making company are now investors. Heliogen raised a $25M A-2, led by Prime Movers Lab, but soon also pulled together a much larger “bridge extension round” in their terminology of $83M that brought in the miner ArcelorMittal, Edison International, Ocgrow Ventures, A.T. Gekko, and more.

The money will be used both to continue development of the “Sunlight Refinery,” as Heliogen calls it, and deploy some actual on-site installations that would work in real production workflows at scale. “We are constantly making design and cost improvements to increase efficiency and decrease costs,” a representative of the company told me.

One of those pilot sites will be in Boron, CA, where Rio Tinto operates a borates mine and will include Heliogen’s tech as part of its usual on-site processes, according to an MOU signed in March. Another MOU with ArcelorMittal will “evaluate the potential of Heliogen’s products in several of ArcelorMittal’s steel plants.” Facilities are planned in the U.S., MENA, and Asia Pacific areas.

Beyond mining and smelting, the technique could be used to generate hydrogen in a zero-carbon way. That would be a big step towards building a working hydrogen infrastructure for next-generation fuel supply, since current methods make it difficult to do without relying on fossil fuels in the first place. And no doubt there are other industrial processes that could benefit from a free and zero-carbon source of high heat.

“We’re being granted the resources to do more projects that address the most carbon-intensive human activities and work toward our goals of lowering the price and emissions of energy for everyone on the planet,” Gross said in a release announcing the round(s). “We thank all of our investors for enabling us to pursue our mission and offer the world technology that will allow it to achieve a post-carbon economy.”

#artificial-intelligence, #funding, #fundings-exits, #greentech, #heliogen, #recent-funding, #solar, #startups

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Elisity raises $26M Series A to scale its AI cybersecurity platform

Elisity, a self-styled innovator that provides behavior-based enterprise cybersecurity, has raised $26 million in Series A funding.

The funding round was co-led by Two Bear Capital and AllegisCyber Capital, the latter of which has invested in a number of cybersecurity startups including Panaseer, with previous seed investor Atlantic Bridge also participating.

Elisity, which is led by industry veterans from Cisco, Qualys, and Viptela, says the funding will help it meet growing enterprise demand for its cloud-delivered Cognitive Trust platform, which it claims is the only platform intelligent enough to understand how assets and people connect beyond corporate perimeters.

The platform looks to help organizations transition from legacy access approaches to zero trust, a security model based on maintaining strict access controls and not trusting anyone — even employees — by default, across their entire digital footprint. This enables organizations to adopt a ‘work-from-anywhere’ model, according to the company, which notes that most companies today continue to rely on security and policies based on physical location or low-level networking constructs, such as VLAN, IP and MAC addresses, and VPNs.

Cognitive Trust, the company claims, can analyze the uniquely identify and context of people, apps and devices, including Internet of Things (IoT) and operational technology (OT), wherever they’re working. The company says its AI-driven behavioral intelligence, the platform can also continuously assess risk and instantly optimize access, connectivity and protection policies.

“CISOs are facing ever increasing attack surfaces caused by the shift to remote work, reliance on cloud-based services (and often multi-cloud), and the convergence of IT/OT networks,” said Mike Goguen, founder and managing partner at Two Bear Capital. “Elisity addresses all of these problems by not only enacting a zero trust model, but by doing so at the edge and within the behavioral context of each interaction. We are excited to partner with the CEO, James Winebrenner, and his team as they expand the reach of their revolutionary approach to enterprise security.”

Founded in 2018, Elisity — whose competitors include the likes of Vectra AI and Lastline closed a $7.5 million seed round in August that same year, led by Atlantic Bridge. With its seed round, Elisity began scaling its engineering, sales and marketing teams to ramp up ahead of the platform’s launch. 

Now it’s looking to scale in order to meet growing enterprise demand, which comes as many organizations move to a hybrid working model and seek the tools to help them secure distributed workforces. 

“When the security perimeter is no longer the network, we see an incredible opportunity to evolve the way enterprises connect and protect their people and their assets, moving away from strict network constructs to identity and context as the basis for secure access,” said Winebrenner. 

“With Elisity, customers can dispense with the complexity, cost and protracted timeline enterprises usually encounter. We can onboard a new customer in as little as 45 minutes, rather than months or years, moving them to an identity-based access policy, and expanding to their cloud and on-prem[ise] footprints over time without having to rip and replace existing identity providers and network infrastructure investments. We do this without making tradeoffs between productivity for employees and the network security posture.”

Elisity, which is based in California, currently employs around 30 staff. However, it currently has no women in its leadership team, nor on its board of directors. 

#allegiscyber-capital, #artificial-intelligence, #california, #ceo, #cisco, #cloud-computing, #cloud-infrastructure, #computer-security, #computing, #funding, #lastline, #managing-partner, #operational-technology, #qualys, #security, #technology, #viptela

0

Australian ID verification startup OCR Labs raises $15M Series A to expand into UK/Turkey/Europe

With the gig economy came the need for ID verification, thus startups like OnFido (raised $188.8 million) appeared, alongside several others. But this sector is by no means ‘done’ yet.

Now, OCR Labs, which emerged from Australia, has announced a €12.5M / $15 million Series A funding round led by Turkish investors Oyak Group, to expand its services and team to the UK, Turkey and Europe. Halkin Ventures invested in its seed round. The startup specializes in digital ID verification, customer onboarding, identity fraud, and regulatory compliance.

OCR Labs, founded in 2018 by Daniel Aiello and Matthew Adams, says its technology uses “five proprietary technologies in one solution, including identity document optical character recognition (OCR), document fraud assessment, liveness detection, video fraud assessment, and face matching”. This supports AML and KYC regulations.

Daniel Aiello, Co-Founder, and CPO of OCR Labs, commented, “The need for digital verification is growing exponentially. This past year we’ve seen more demand from new sectors as they try to navigate the pandemic and an inability to operate in person…No one wants to spend hours trying to prove who they are, whether it’s for a job or for a bank account, and we also want to know we’re protected against identity theft and fraud. Digital ID verification has a key role to play, but this year we’ve also seen the limitations if hybrid models are used. People are a barrier and a risk, but fully automated technology can have a huge impact on many industries and privacy. OCR Labs is built to be secure, frictionless and fast, and capable of recognizing ID documents the world over.”

OCR Labs is used by recruitment business REED in the UK. Russ Cohn, an early member of the Google UK leadership team, has been appointed OCR’s General Manager of International Operations, based out of London.

Cohn commented: “The technology that Matt and Dan have created is completely automated, so it doesn’t rely on any humans behind the scenes. That’s very key at the moment. We’ve seen how COVID has impacted having that hybrid solution, so automation increases the speed and delivery of the technology to our users… A lot of competitors outsource and use different vendors to put together a solution.”

#artificial-intelligence, #australia, #co-founder, #computing, #europe, #london, #matt, #onfido, #optical-character-recognition, #tc, #turkey, #united-kingdom, #verification

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Waabi’s Raquel Urtasun explains why it was the right time to launch an AV technology startup

Raquel Urtasun, the former chief scientist at Uber ATG, is the founder and CEO of Waabi, an autonomous vehicle startup that came out of stealth mode last week. The Toronto-based company, which will focus on trucking, raised an impressive $83.5 million in a Series A round led by Khosla Ventures. 

Urtasun joined Mobility 2021 to talk about her new venture, the challenges facing the self-driving vehicle industry and how her approach to AI can be used to advance the commercialization of AVs.


Why did Urtasun decide to found her own company?

Urtasun, who is considered a pioneer in AI, led the R&D efforts as a chief scientist at Uber ATG, which was acquired by Aurora in December. Six months later, we have Waabi. The company’s mission is to take an AI-first approach to solving self-driving technology. 

I left Uber a little bit over three months ago to start this new company, Waabi, with the idea of having a different way of solving self-driving. This is a combination of my 20-year career in AI as well as more than 10 years in self-driving. Thinking about a new company was something that was always in my head. And the more that I was in the industry, the more that I started thinking about going away from the traditional approach and trying to have a diverse view of how to solve self-driving was actually the way to go. So that’s why I decided to do this company. (Timestamp: 1:21)

#adas, #artificial-intelligence, #aurora-innovation, #autonomous-driving, #mobility-2021, #raquel-urtasun, #self-driving-vehicles, #tc, #transportation, #uber, #waabi

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Fraud protection startup nSure AI raises $6.8M in seed funding

Fraud protection startup nSure AI has raised $6.8 million in seed funding, led by DisruptiveAI, Phoenix Insurance, AXA-backed venture builder Kamet, Moneta Seeds and private investors.

The round will help the company bolster the predictive AI and machine learning algorithms that power nSure AI’s “first of its kind” fraud protection platform. Prior to this round, the company received $550,000 in pre-seed funding from Kamet in March 2019.

The Tel Aviv-headquartered startup, which currently has 16 employees, provides fraud detection for high-risk digital goods, such as electronic gift cards, airline tickets, software, and games. While most fraud detection tools analyze each online transaction in an attempt to decide which purchases to approve and decline, nSure AI’s risk engine leverages deep learning techniques to accurately identify fraudulent transactions.

nSure AI, which is backed by insurance company AXA, said it has a 98% approval rating on average for purchases, compared to an industry average of 80%, allowing retailers to recapture nearly $100 billion a year in revenue lost by declining legitimate customers. The company is so confident in its technology that it will accept liability for any fraudulent transaction allowed by the platform.

nSure AI’s founders Alex Zeltcer and Ziv Isaiah started the company after experiencing the unique challenges faced by retailers of digital assets. The first week of their online gift card business found that 40% of sales were fraudulent, resulting in chargebacks. The founders began to develop their own platform for supporting the sale of high-risk digital goods after no other fraud detection service met their needs.

Alex Zeltcer, co-founder and chief executive, said the investment “enables us to register thousands of new merchants, who can feel confident selling higher-risk digital goods, without accepting fraud as a part of business.”

nSure AI, which currently monitors and manages millions of transactions every month, has approved close to $1 billion in volume since going live in 2019.

#articles, #artificial-intelligence, #axa, #crime, #crimes, #fraud, #fraud-detection, #funding, #insurance, #merchant-services, #online-shopping, #security, #tel-aviv

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Enterprise AI platform Dataiku launches managed service for smaller companies

Dataiku is going downstream with a new product today called Dataiku Online. As the name suggests, Dataiku Online is a fully managed version of Dataiku. It lets you take advantage of the data science platform without going through a complicated setup process that involves a system administrator and your own infrastructure.

If you’re not familiar with Dataiku, the platform lets you turn raw data into advanced analytics, run some data visualization tasks, create data-backed dashboards and train machine learning models. In particular, Dataiku can be used by data scientists, but also business analysts and less technical people.

The company has been mostly focused on big enterprise clients. Right now, Dataiku has more than 400 customers, such as Unilever, Schlumberger, GE, BNP Paribas, Cisco, Merck and NXP Semiconductors.

There are two ways to use Dataiku. You can install the software solution on your own, own-premise servers. You can also run it on a cloud instance. With Dataiku Online, the startup offers a third option and takes care of setup and infrastructure for you.

“Customers using Dataiku Online get all the same features that our on-premises and cloud instances provide, so everything from data preparation and visualization to advanced data analytics and machine learning capabilities,” co-founder and CEO Florian Douetteau said. “We’re really focused on getting startups and SMBs on the platform — there’s a perception that small or early-stage companies don’t have the resources or technical expertise to get value from AI projects, but that’s simply not true. Even small teams that lack data scientists or specialty ML engineers can use our platform to do a lot of the technical heavy lifting, so they can focus on actually operationalizing AI in their business.”

Customers using Dataiku Online can take advantage of Dataiku’s pre-built connectors. For instance, you can connect your Dataiku instance with a cloud data warehouse, such as Snowflake Data Cloud, Amazon Redshift and Google BigQuery. You can also connect to a SQL database (MySQL, PostgreSQL…), or you can just run it on CSV files stored on Amazon S3.

And if you’re just getting started and you have to work on data ingestion, Dataiku works well with popular data ingestion services. “A typical stack for our Dataiku Online Customers involves leveraging data ingestion tools like FiveTran, Stitch or Alooma, that sync to a cloud data warehouse like Google BigQuery, Amazon Redshift or Snowflake. Dataiku fits nicely within their modern data stacks,” Douetteau said.

Dataiku Online is a nice offering to get started with Dataiku. High-growth startups might start with Dataiku Online as they tend to be short on staff and want to be up and running as quickly as possible. But as you become bigger, you could imagine switching to a cloud or on-premise installation of Dataiku. Employees can keep using the same platform as the company scales.

#ai, #analytics, #artificial-intelligence, #data, #dataiku, #developer, #enterprise-ai, #machine-learning, #startups, #tc

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The rise of robotaxis in China

AutoX, Momenta and WeRide took the stage at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 to discuss the state of robotaxi startups in China and their relationships with local governments in the country.

They also talked about overseas expansion — a common trajectory for China’s top autonomous vehicle startups — and shed light on the challenges and opportunities for foreign AV companies eyeing the massive Chinese market.


Enterprising governments

Worldwide, regulations play a great role in the development of autonomous vehicles. In China, policymaking for autonomous driving is driven from the bottom up rather than a top-down effort by the central government, observed executives from the three Chinese robotaxi startups.

Huan Sun, Europe general manager at Momenta, which is backed by the government of Suzhou, a city near Shanghai, said her company had a “very good experience” working with the municipal governments across multiple cities.

In China, each local government is incentivized to really act like entrepreneurs like us. They are very progressive in developing the local economy… What we feel is that autonomous driving technology can greatly improve and upgrade the [local governments’] economic structure. (Time stamp: 02:56)

Shenzhen, a special economic zone with considerable lawmaking autonomy, is just as progressive in propelling autonomous driving forward, said Jewel Li, chief operation officer at AutoX, which is based in the southern city.

#adas, #aptiv, #artificial-intelligence, #automotive, #av, #china, #early-stage-2021, #ec-mobility-hardware, #ec-techcrunch-mobility, #ev, #robotaxi, #saic, #self-driving-cars, #tc, #techcrunch-mobility-event-2021, #transportation, #waymo

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Sam Altman on the A.I. Revolution, Trillionaires and the Future of Political Power

Will A.I. give us the lives of leisure we long for — or usher in a feudal dystopia? It depends.

#artificial-intelligence, #google-inc

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Atomic-backed Jumpcut uses data to advance diversity in film

Jumpcut founder Kartik Hosanagar is a professor at the Wharton School, but about ten years ago, he spent his summer in an unlikely way: he wrote a screenplay. Set in India, his script garnered some interest from producers, but no one took the plunge to fund a film by a first-time Indian director.

Now, films featuring diverse casts are gaining traction – this year, Chloé Zhao became the first woman of color, and only the second woman ever, to win the Academy Award for Best Director. At the previous ceremony, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” became the first non-English language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Still, according to a recent report from McKinsey & Company, Hollywood leaves $10 billion on the table each year due to the industry’s lack of diversity.

“How do you make a bet on underrepresented voices or underrepresented stories?” asked Hosanagar. “While there’s awareness, there’s no action, because nobody knows how to do it. So that’s what got me into Jumpcut. It’s this rare company where 20 years of my work on data science and entrepreneurship meets with who I am outside of my work.”

At Wharton, Hosanagar is the Faculty Lead for the AI for Business program. He was a founder of Yodle, which was acquired by web.com for $340 million in 2016. But for this next venture, he wanted to tackle Hollywood’s homogeneity hands-on by using his experience with data science to de-risk media projects from underrepresented creators.

“The vision is to create a more inclusive era of global content creation,” he said to TechCrunch.

Hosanagar started working on Jumpcut in 2019, but today, the Atomic-backed company launches out of stealth as the first data science-driven studio working to elevate underrepresented voices in film. Already the studio has 12 TV and film projects in the works with partners like 36-time Academy Award nominee Lawrence Bender (“Pulp Fiction,” “Good Will Hunting”), Emmy Award-winning producer Shelby Stone (“Bessie,” “The Chi”), and showrunner Scott Rosenbaum (“Chuck,” “The Shield”).

Jumpcut models itself after Y-Combinator in its approach, pairing emerging talent with buyers and producers. First, Jumpcut uses an algorithm to scan hundreds of thousands of videos from platforms like YouTube, Reddit, and Wattpad to find promising talent. The algorithm narrows down the extensive field to locate creators who are consistently finding new audiences and increasing their engagement. Then, the Jumpcut team – including advisors and veterans from Netflix, Buzzfeed, CBS, Sony, and WarnerMedia – identifies who to connect with.

In one example of the algorithm’s success, Hosanagar pointed to Anna Hopkins, an actress who has appeared on shows like “The Expanse” and “Shadowhunters.” Though Hopkins has found some success in front of the camera, she also wants to write.

“We discovered some of her short films, and the algorithm identified it because people had strong emotional reactions in the comments, like, ‘heartwarming but in a positive way,’ or ‘give me a tissue,’” Hosanagar explained. Since Hopkins isn’t publicly known as a writer, she assumed that Jumpcut found her through a television network she had pitched a script to, but that wasn’t the case. “We said, ‘no, our algorithms found you.’”

Once a creator is identified by Jumpcut, they can A/B test their ideas with audiences of over 100,000 potential viewers, which helps the company prove to funders through data science that these ideas can sell.

“The idea there is that we don’t wait for creators to get discovered by the traditional Hollywood agencies, because that requires the creators to have access to the top agents, and that again brings you back to the old boys club,” Hosanagar said. “We’re automating a lot of that process and discovering these people who are creating great stories that are resonating with audiences, not waiting for some Hollywood agency to discover them.”

Once the creators have an idea that tests well with a wide audience, they’re invited to Jumpcut Collective, an incubator program that helps artists develop an idea from a concept to a pitch in 6 weeks. Then, Jumpcut helps match projects with producing partners and buyers.

So far, Jumpcut has hosted three incubator programs. Out of the twelve Jumpcut projects currently underway, Hosanagar says that nine or ten of them came out of the incubator. One project, for example, is now being developed in partnership with Disney’s Asia Pacific Division.

Jumpcut isn’t disclosing the amount raised in this round of seed funding, but confirms that Atomic is the only investor in their seed round.

Hosanagar is joined on the project by Dilip Rajan, his former student and a former product manager at BuzzFeed, and Winnie Kemp, a former SVP of Originals at Super Deluxe and CBS. There, she developed and executive produced “Chambers,” the first show with a Native American lead, and “This Close,” the first show with deaf creators and cast. Most of their funding will go toward payroll, which includes engineers, data scientists, and product managers on the product side of the company, as well as development executives on the creative side, who run the incubator.

#actress, #advisors, #artificial-intelligence, #atomic, #buzzfeed, #chuck, #director, #disney, #executive, #founder, #funding, #hollywood, #india, #jumpcut, #media, #netflix, #producer, #product-manager, #sony, #startups, #svp, #tc, #warnermedia, #wattpad, #writer, #youtube

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Money Minx aims to build a ‘Personal Finance’ OS for the everyday investor

New regulations are making it easier to invest in alternative assets via crowdfunding, and the recent explosion of crypto and NFTs means that investors are more diversified than ever. 

Keeping up with such a variety of investments may prove difficult to those who want to handle managing their investment portfolios on their own. Money Minx, a new San Diego-based startup co-founded by husband and wife team Hussein and Jessica Yahfoufi, wants to help with that.

Put simply, Money Minx aims to build a “Personal Finance OS” for every household. The platform is designed to help people track all of their investments — yes, including crypto and NFTs — in one place, in whatever currency. The company claims that its AI can also go a step further, and help people spot opportunities in their portfolio as well as catch potential risks.

“We built Money Minx to help people cover all their bases, better understand their personal balance sheet and grow their net worth,” Hussein said. “No financial advisor needed.”

Money Minx also aims to provide people with easy-to-use tools to create dashboards and reports. In its “soft launch” phase, the startup has been growing rapidly — from $15 million in assets tracked at the end of March to $107 million by mid-May. Its user base is growing by 40% month over month.

As many founders do, Hussein says he and Jessica developed the platform to meet a need of their own.

“We built this because we needed it as ‘do it yourself investors,’ said Hussein, who previously started crowdfunding site appsplit and works as a CTO at a San Diego-based fintech company. “I didn’t want to hire a financial advisor and spend 1% of my portfolio every year for them to tell me what to do. So I started to do it on my own on a spreadsheet and then started building this tool last year.”

Hussein talked to other investors and realized that many were also managing their own finances and had also moved into investing outside the stock market.

Image Credits: Money Minx co-founders Jessica and Hussein Yahfoufi / Money Minx

“Everyday investors are preferring to invest more in crowdfunding sites and alternative assets than the traditional stock market,” he said. 

This shift has created a gap in the market for an easy way to track investments across multiple platforms, the Yahfoufis believe. 

Money Minx operates as a SaaS business and charges a monthly subscription fee across three different plans ranging from $10 to $30 a month. Looking ahead, Hussein is considering building out a white-glove service.

Although Money Minx has been approached by interested VCs, Hussein says the company prefers to stay bootstrapped — for now.

Indeed, VCs are pouring money into the space. Just last week, personal finance startup Truebill announced it had raised a $45 million Series D funding round led by Accel.

#apps, #artificial-intelligence, #crowdfunding, #crypto-economy, #cryptocurrency, #entrepreneurship, #finance, #financial-advisor, #fintech, #money, #money-minx, #saas, #san-diego, #startup, #startup-company, #startups, #tc, #truebill

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Slintel scores $20M Series A as buyer intelligence tool gains traction

One clear outcome of the pandemic was pushing more people to do their shopping online, and that was as true for B2B as it was for B2C. Knowing which of your B2B customers are most likely to convert puts any sales team ahead of the game. Slintel, a startup providing that kind of data, announced a $20 million Series A today.

The company has attracted some big-name investors with GGV leading the round and Accel, Sequoia and Stellaris also participating. The investment brings the total raised to over $24 million including a $4.2 million seed round from last November.

That’s a quick turnaround from seed to A, and company founder and CEO Deepak Anchala, says that while he had plenty of runway left from the seed round, the demand was such that it seemed prudent to take the A money sooner than he had planned. “So we had enough cash in the bank, but investors came to us and we got a pretty good valuation compared to the previous round, so we decided to take it and use that money to go faster,” Anchala said.

Certainly the market dynamics were working in Slintel’s favor. Without giving revenue details, Anchala said that revenue grew 5x last year in the middle of the worst of the pandemic. He says that meant buyers were spending less time with sales and marketing folks to understand products and more time online researching on their own.

“So what Slintel does as a product is we mine buyer insights. We understand where the buyers are in their journey, what their pain points are, what products they use, what they need and when they need it. So we understand all of this to create a 360 degree view of the buyer that you provide these insights to sales and marketing teams to help them sell better,” he said.

After growing at such a rapid clip last year, the company expected more modest growth this year at perhaps 3x, but with the added investment, he expects to grow faster again. “With the funding we’re actually looking at much bigger numbers. We’re looking at 5x in our revenue this year, and also trying for 4x revenue next year.”

He says that the money gives him the opportunity to improve the product and put more investment into marketing, which he believes will contribute to additional sales. Since the round closed 6 weeks ago, he says that he has increased his advertising budget and is also hopes to attract customers via SEO, free tools on the company website and events.

The company had 45 employees at the time of its seed round in November and has more than doubled that number in the interim to 100 spread out across 10 cities. He expects to double again by this time next year as the company is growing quickly. As a global company with some employees in India and some in the U.S., he intends to be remote first even after offices begin to reopen in different areas. He says that he plans to have company gatherings each quarter to let people gather in person on occasion.

#artificial-intelligence, #b2b, #enterprise, #funding, #ggv, #recent-funding, #sales, #slintel, #startups, #tc

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Nexford University lands $10.8M pre-Series A to scale its flexible remote learning platform

Two profound problems face the higher education sector globally — affordability and relevance. Whether you live in Africa, Europe, or the U.S., a major reason why people don’t go to university or college or even drop out because they cannot afford tuition fees. On the other hand, relevance shows the huge gap between what traditional universities teach and what global employers actually look for. It’s not a secret that universities focus a bit too much on theory.

Over the past few years, there has been the emergence of a number of alternative credential providers trying to provide students with the necessary skills to earn and make a living. Nexford University is one of such platforms, and today, it has a closed $10.8 million pre-Series A funding round.

Dubai-based VC Global Ventures led the new round. Other investors include Future Africa’s new thematic fund (focused on education), angel investors, and family offices. Unnamed VCs from 10 countries, including the U.S., U.K., France, Dubai, Switzerland, Qatar, Nigeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, also took part.

To date, Nexford has raised $15.3 million, following the first tranche of $4.5 million in seed funding raised two years ago.

Fadl Al Tarzi launched Nexford University in 2019. The tech-enabled university is filling affordability and relevance gaps by providing access to quality and affordable education.

“That way, you get the best of both worlds,” CEO Al Tarzi said to TechCrunch. “You get practical skills that you can put to work immediately or for your future career while actively keeping a job. So the whole experience is designed as a learning as a service model.”

Nexford Unversity lets students study at their own pace. Once they apply and get admitted into either a degree program or a course program, they choose how fast or slow they want the program to be.

Nexford University

Fadl Al Tarzi (CEO, Nexford University)

The CEO says whatever students learn on the platform is directly applicable to their jobs. Currently, Nexford offers undergraduate degrees in business administration; 360° marketing; AI & automation; building a tech startup; business analytics; business in emerging markets; digital transformation; e-commerce; and product management. Its graduate degrees are business administration, advanced AI, e-commerce, hyperconnectivity, sustainability, and world business.

Nexford’s tuition structure is very different from traditional universities because it’s modelled monthly. Its accredited degrees cost between $3,000 to $4,000 paid in monthly instalments. In Nigeria, for instance, an MBA costs about $160 a month, while a bachelor degree costs $80 a month. But the catch for the monthly instalment structure means the faster a learner graduates, the less they pay.

What’s it like learning with Nexford University?

Nexford University doesn’t offer standardized and theoretical tests or assignments as most traditional universities do. Al Tarzi says the company employs what he calls a competency-based education model where students prove mastery by working on practical projects.

For instance, a student working on an accounting course will most likely need to create a P&L statement, analyze balance sheets and identify where the error is to correct it. The platform then gives the student different scenarios showing companies with different revenues and expense levels. The task? To analyse and extract certain ratios to help make sense of which company is profitable and the other unit economics involved.

Though Nexford plays in the edtech space, Al Tarzi doesn’t think the company is an edtech company. As a licensed and accredited online university, Nexford has a huge amount of automation across the organization and provides students with support from faculty and career advisors.

After offering degrees, Nexford puts on its placement hats by fixing its graduates with partner employers.

There’s a big shortage of jobs in Nigeria, and despite the high unemployment, it’s actually difficult to find extremely qualified entry-level graduates. So Nexford has carried out several partnerships where employers sponsor their employees or soon-to-be employees for upskilling and rescaling purposes.

An illustration is with Sterling Bank, a local bank in the country. Most Nigerian banks have yearly routines where they hire graduates and put them on weeks-long training programs. Sterling Bank employs any candidate it feels did great after the capital intensive (eight weeks in most cases) programs.

So what Nexford has done is to partner with Sterling to fund the tuition for high school leavers. When these students go through Nexford’s programs for the first year, they begin to get part-time placements at Sterling. Upon graduation, they get a job in the bank.

“That saves Sterling the training cost and our tuition fee is almost equal to the training that they provided for students. Also, students start paying back once they get placed, so it’s a win-win.”

Nexford University has learners from 70 countries, with Nigeria its biggest market yet. Nexford also has blue-chip partnerships with Microsoft, LinkedIn Learning, and IBM to provide access to tools, courses and programmes to improve the learning experience.

One of the major gains of this learning experience is how it prepares people for remote jobs. Nexford is bullish on its virtual skills grid, where people will get jobs remotely regardless of their location on the platform.

“Across Sub Saharan Africa by the year 2026, there’s gonna be a shortage of about 100 million university seats as a result of huge growth in youth population not met by growth and supply. Even if you want to build universities fast, you wouldn’t be able to meet the demand. And that spirals down to the job market. We don’t think the local economy will produce enough jobs in Nigeria, for instance. But we want to enable people to get remote jobs across the world and not necessarily have to migrate.” 

Last year, Nexford’s revenues grew by 300%. This year, the company hopes to triple the size of its enrollment from last year, the CEO said.

Nexford is big on designing students’ curriculum based on analysis of what their employer needs. Al Tarzi tells me that the company always follow the Big Data approach, asking themselves, “how do we find out what employers worldwide are looking for and keep our curriculum alive and relevant?”

“We develop proprietary technology that enables us to analyze job vacancies as well as several other data sources; use AI to understand how those data sets and build a curriculum based on those findings. So, in short, we start with the end in mind,” he answers.

The company is keen on improving its technology regardless. It wants to analyse skills more accurately and automate more functions to enhance user experience. That’s what the funding will be used for in addition to fuelling its regional expansion plans (particularly in Asia) and investing in growth and product development. Per the latter, the online university says it will be launching partner programs with more employers globally to facilitate both placement and upskilling and rescaling. 

Merging both worlds of tech and the traditional university model is no easy feat. The former is about efficiency, user-centricity, product, among others. The latter embodies rigidity and continues to lag behind fast-paced innovation. And while there’s been a boom in edtech, most startups try to circumvent the industry’s bureaucracy by launching an app or a MOOC. Nexford’s model of running a degree-granting, licensed, accredited, and regulated university is more challenging but in it lies so much opportunity.

Iyin Aboyeji, Future Africa general partner CEO, understands this. It’s one reason why the company is the first investment out of Future Africa’s soon-to-be-launched fund focused on the future of learning and why he believes the company is a game-changer for higher education in Africa.

“During the pandemic, while many universities in Nigeria were shut down due to labour disputes, Nexford was already delivering an innovative and affordable new model of online higher education designed for a skills-based economy.”  

For general partner at Global Ventures Noor Sweid, Nexford University is redressing the mismatch between the supply of talent and the demands of today’s digital economy. “We are thrilled to partner with Fadl and the Nexford team on their journey toward expanding access to universal quality higher education in emerging markets,” she said.

#africa, #artificial-intelligence, #asia, #education, #europe, #funding, #future-africa, #higher-education, #ibm, #massive-open-online-course, #microsoft, #nexford-university, #nigeria, #online-learning, #product-management, #saudi-arabia, #tc, #tech-startup, #united-states, #university

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