AI-driven voice assistant PolyAI raises $14M round led by Khosla Ventures

“Conversational AI” startup PolyAI, based out of London, has raised $14 million in a funding round led by Silicon Valley’s Khosla Ventures, with participation from existing investors (Point72 Ventures, Amadeus Capital, Sands Capital Ventures, Passion Capital and Entrepreneur First). This follows their $12m Series A, and will provide resources for further US expansion beyond its existing US team. The startup has now raised $28m to date.

PolyAI builds and deploys voice assistants for automating customer services, which, claims the startup, sound like real humans. This helps companies get an infinite and cheaper supply of their best human voice operators, which reduces customer waiting times, and increases customer satisfaction and retention, says the company.

Co-founder Dr Nikola Mrkšić said: “The technical term for our technology is ‘multi-turn conversational AI’, but all the caller has to do is talk to it, like they would to a human. Compared to existing call centers, our assistants can boost customer satisfaction (CSAT) scores by up to 40% and reduce handling times by up to five minutes.”

“We build these systems very quickly (relative to the competition) — we get experiences like these up and running in 2-4 weeks thanks to our transformer-based language understanding models and the underlying dialog management platform,” he added.

In a statement, Vinod Khosla said: “PolyAI is one of the first AI companies using the newest generation of large pre-trained deep learning models (akin to BERT and GPT-3) in a real-world enterprise product. This means they can deploy automated AI agents in as little as two weeks, where incumbent providers of voice assistants would take up to six months to deploy an older version of this technology.”

A spinout from the University of Cambridge, PolyAI says it is is effectively ’pushing at an open door’ as the pandemic has led to staffing shortages in call centers, driving more companies to deploy smart voice assistants, which appear not to have been replaced chatbots at all, as consumer generally prefer to speak than type.

“We were expecting the system to handle 40% of calls, but at launch it handled 80%, and within two weeks it was up to 87%,” said Brian Jeppesen of Landry’s Golden Nugget Hotels & Casinos. “Callers think the AI agent is human”, Jeppesen continued, “which is great because the voice assistant never has a bad day, and is on 24/7. I wish I could hire more agents like that!”

Competitors include Nuance (recently acquired by Microsoft), IPSoft, Interactions, SmartAction, and Replicant. But PolyAI says its voice assistant can be turned live more quickly, in more languages, and charges on a per-minute basis.

Founded by Nikola Mrkšić (CEO), Tsung-Hsien Wen (CTO), Pei-Hao Su (Engineering Director), the three met while doing PhDs with Professor Steve Young, a leader in spoken dialog systems who pioneered many technologies that underpin voice assistants like Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa.

Recent PolyAI clients include Landry’s Entertainment, Greene King, Starling Bank, and Viasat. 

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Real-time database platform SingleStore raises $80M more, now at a $940M valuation

Organizations are swimming in data these days, and so solutions to help manage and use that data in more efficient ways will continue to see a lot of attention and business. In the latest development, SingleStore — which provides a platform to enterprises to help them integrate, monitor and query their data as a single entity, regardless of whether that data is stored in multiple repositories — is announcing another $80 million in funding, money that it will be using to continue investing in its platform, hiring more talent and overall business expansion. Sources close to the company tell us that the company’s valuation has grown to $940 million.

The round, a Series F, is being led by Insight Partners, with new investor Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and previous backers Khosla Ventures, Dell Capital, Rev IV, Glynn Capital, and GV (formerly Google Ventures) also participating. The startup has to date raised $264 million, including most recently an $80 million Series E as recently as last December, just on the heels of rebranding from MemSQL.

The fact that there are three major strategic investors in this Series F — HPE, Dell and Google — may say something about the traction that SingleStore is seeing, but so too do its numbers: 300%+ increase in new customer acquisition for its cloud service and 150%+ year-over-year growth in cloud

Raj Verma, SingleStore’s CEO, said in an interview that its cloud revenues have grown by 150% year over year and now account for some 40% of all revenues (up from 10% a year ago). New customer numbers, meanwhile, have grown by over 300%.

“The flywheel is now turning around,” Verma said. “We didn’t need this money. We’ve barely touched our Series E. But I think there has been a general sentiment among our board and management that we are now ready for the prime time. We think SingleStore is one of the best kept secrets in the database market. Now we want to aggressively be an option for people looking for a platform for intensive data applications or if they want to consolidate databases to 1 from 3, 5 or 7 repositories. We are where the world is going: real-time insights.”

With database management and the need for more efficient and cost-effective tools to manage that becoming an ever-growing priority — one that definitely got a fillip in the last 18 months with Covid-19 pushing people into more remote working environments. That means SingleStore is not without competitors, with others in the same space including Amazon, Microsoft, Snowflake, PostgreSQL, MySQL, Redis and more. Others like Firebolt are tackling the challenges of handing large, disparate data repositories from another angle. (Some of these, I should point out, are also partners: SingleStore works with data stored on AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform, and Red Hat, and Verma describes those who do compute work as “not database companies; they are using their database capabilities for consumption for cloud compute.”)

But the company has carved a place for itself with enterprises and has thousands now on its books, including GE, IEX Cloud, Go Guardian, Palo Alto Networks, EOG Resources, and SiriusXM + Pandora.

“SingleStore’s first-of-a-kind cloud database is unmatched in speed, scale, and simplicity by anything in the market,” said Lonne Jaffe, managing director at Insight Partners, in a statement. “SingleStore’s differentiated technology allows customers to unify real-time transactions and analytics in a single database.” Vinod Khosla from Khosla Ventures added that “SingleStore is able to reduce data sprawl, run anywhere, and run faster with a single database, replacing legacy databases with the modern cloud.”

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Mainspring Energy launches its flexible fuel generator with a $150 million NextEra Energy contract

Mainspring Energy, the developer of a new generator technology that use fuels like biogas and hydrogen, has unveiled its Mainspring Linear Generator, with a $150 million contract with NextEra Energy Resources.

The company’s technology represents a significant step in the transition to a zero-carbon power grid given its ability to shift between traditional natural gas sources and alternative fuel sources like biogas and hydrogen.

So far, the company’s generators are under contract with a national supermarket chain that’s using the company’s tech at 30 of its grocery stores. The company began shipping pilot units in June and will begin commerical statements in mid-2021 according to a statement.

The company’s tech was initially developed at a thermodynamics lab in Stanford University where co-founders Shannon Miller, Matt Svrcek and Adam Simpson were working. Its design enables the rollout of generators that can replace traditional diesel and be used to improve the resilience of industrial sites against natural disasters.

Their linear generator, which the company said differs from engines, microturbines, and fuel cells, is a device that converts motion along a straight line into electricity using heat or chemical energy. In Mainspring’s case, a low temperature reaction of air and fuel drives magnets through copper coils to produce electricity.

It’s the combination of the design and control software developed by the company that allows its equipment to produce high-efficiency, dispatchable power, without the nitrogen oxide emissions associated with other generators, the company said.

The technology caught the eye of investors like Bill Gates and Vinod Khosla’s eponymous investment firm Khosla Ventures, along with some oil and gas companies like Equinor and utilities like American Electric Power. To date, Mainspring, which used to go by the name Etagen, has raised well over $80 million in financing.

In its approach to energy generation without the need for more complex mechanical systems or catalysts, Mainspring is akin to other startups like the Robert Downey Jr. and Bill Gates-backed Turntide Technologies that are trying to provide more elegant, software enabled solutions to motors and generator technologies.

Mainspring’s generators achieve their low capital and maintenance costs through use of standard materials, only two moving parts, and an innovative air bearing system that eliminates the need for oil, the company said. It operates without the use of complex mechanical systems or expensive catalysts.

The company also touted its ability to spin up and spin down in response to conditions on the energy grid, which means that it can pair well with solar power or battery storage.

“One of our customers’ key drivers, in addition to carbon savings, is to save cost from their current grid prices,” said Miller, in a statement. “Our products can provide substantial savings to commercial customers on their electricity costs with a typical Energy Services Agreement. In this energy-as-a-service scenario, customers pay nothing up front and realize annual savings starting in the first year.”

Mainspring’s first commercial product is designed for a rated output of 250 kW and packaged in a standard 8′ x 20′ container, according to a statement. Those packages integrate two of the company’s125 kW linear generator cores, working in tandem, and combines UL-listed grid-tie inverters and auxiliaries into a turn-key package, the company said. Future configurations will provide higher power output to serve industrial businesses, data centers, hospitals, smart cities, and utility grid-level applications.

“Many commercial and industrial customers as well as utilities want clean, reliable power generation, with the capability to switch to 100% renewable fuels like biogas and hydrogen as they become available,” said NextEra Energy Resources President and CEO John Ketchum, in a statement. “Mainspring is able to integrate clean onsite generation with both renewables and the grid and we’re pleased to support bringing this innovative product to market.” 

#alternative-energy, #american-electric-power, #articles, #bill-gates, #biogas, #electrical-grid, #electricity, #energy, #energy-storage, #fuel-cells, #khosla-ventures, #oil, #oil-and-gas, #renewable-energy, #solar-power, #stanford-university, #tc, #turntide-technologies, #vinod-khosla

Khosla Ventures seeks $1.1 billion for its latest fund

Khosla Ventures, the eponymous venture firm helmed by longtime Silicon Valley rainmaker, Vinod Khosla, is raising  $1.1 billion for its latest venture fund, according to documents from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The filing was first spotted by Ari Levy over at CNBC.

Khosla, whose investing career began at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (back when it was still called Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers) is rightly famous for a number of bets on enterprise software companies and was a richly rewarded co-founder of Sun Microsystems before venturing into the world of venture capital.

Like his former partner, John Doerr, Khosla also went all-in on renewable energy and sustainability both at Kleiner Perkins and then later at his own fund, which he reportedly launched with several hundreds of millions of dollars from his personal fortune.

Over the years Khosla Ventures has placed bets and scored big wins across a wide range of industries including cybersecurity (with the over $1 billion acquisition of portfolio company Cylance), sustainability (with the Climate Corp. acquisition), and healthcare (through the public offering of Editas).

And the current portfolio should also have some big exits with a roster that includes: the unicorn lending company, Affirm; the nuclear fusion technology developer, Commonwealth Fusion Systems (maybe not a winner, but so so so cool); delivery company, DoorDash; the meat replacement maker, Impossible Foods; grocery delivery service, Instacart; security technology developer, Okta; the health insurance provider, Oscar; and the payment companies Square and Stripe .

That’s quite a string of unicorn (and would-be unicorn) investments. And it speaks to the breadth of the firm’s interests that run the gamut from healthcare to fintech to sustainability and the future of food.

Khosla will likely benefit from the surge of interest in investments that adhere to new environmental, social responsibility and corporate governance standards.

There are billions of dollars that are looking for a home that can invest along those criteria, and for the last 16 years or so, that’s exactly what Khosla Ventures has been doing.

#affirm, #cylance, #doordash, #impossible-foods, #instacart, #john-doerr, #khosla-ventures, #kleiner-perkins, #okta, #oscar, #stripe, #sun-microsystems, #tc, #vinod-khosla

Motif Foodworks preps commercial production for its first ingredient, improving the flavor of beef substitutes

Motif Foodworks, the Ginkgo Bioworks spinout focused on developing new plant-based flavorings and food ingredients, is readying commercial scale production of its first product an ingredient to improve the flavor of beef substitutes.

The expansion of Motif’s manufacturing capacity presages the commercial availability of its new flavoring, which should be on folded into consumer products by the fourth quarter of 2021, according to Motif chief executive Jonathan McIntyre.

“We’re making the product at pilot scale and we’re happy with the pilotization and now we’re scaling up to do large scales in formula development and characterization and talking to contract manufacturers about getting the product put in,” McIntyre said.

There’s a second product under development that’s focused on nutritional attributes for applications in sports nutrition and nutritional supplements, McIntyre said.

In all, Motif has nine ingredients under development with academic partners that will soon be coming to market.

“The first wave of those [ingredients] is targeted at plant-based meats,” McIntyre said. “Ground beef is the first one and the thing that you usually validate in.”

As the industry matures, there’s a growing sense among the lab grown meat and plant-based meat substitute manufacturers that the process isn’t as simple as just coming up with novel proteins to replicate the bloody taste of meats (like plant-based heme). Instead there’re going to be an array of ingredients and proteins that need to be identified and developed to replicate the fibrous textures and fats that make meat taste like meat.

It’s not just the muscle meat, what is critical is getting the flavor attributes and the other tissue attributes. When you get a steak and you see the marbleizing. That marbleizing creates a relationship between the protein fibers and the fat… has a lot to do with taste… that does not occur in a plant based product. Even when you cook a plant based burger next to a beef burger you see the fat behavior differently.”

So Motif is working on new ways to make that connective tissue using plant-based substitutes. It’s part of the company’s mission to be the plant-based ingredient company that can replace the chemicals and animal byproducts currently used to add texture and flavor to a whole range of food products.

“The technology is a plant-based set of ingredients that have been transformed to have properties that have connective tissue,” McIntyre said. “We don’t lock in to just one technology. We lock into what is the issue that is going to taste better. We have been building as strong as a food science, food application, culinology approach as we have protein science. Those ingredients are in the late analysis stage.. Where we’ll be making tens of kilos of material and getting those in front of consumers quickly.”

Looking ahead McIntyre said that Motif Foodworks is looking to create what he called new “food forms”. The idea, McIntyre said is to start making foods that have their own unique flavor profiles and ingredients that won’t necessarily need to be compared to an animal substitute.

“If you’re figuring out a way to make the plant-based option taste better, can you do other food forms that may not suffer by comparison to a burger?” McIntry said. “We want to show the plant-based food world it’s not about replacements.”

This is the next step in the evolution of a company that’s not yet two years old.

Motif spun out of Ginkgo Bioworks in February 2019 with a $90 million investment from Fonterra, the New Zealand-based multinational dairy company; the global food processing and trading firm Louis Dreyfus Co.; and Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the climate focused investment fund financed by a global gaggle of billionaires including Marc Benioff, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Reid Hoffman, John Doerr, Vinod Khosla, Jack Ma, Neil Shen, Masayoshi Son, and Meg Whitman.

Motif isn’t just focused on making new ingredients and alternatives to traditional meat-based products. The company is also looking at ways to make existing food healthier with novel ingredients.

 

“That fortification game has been played a lot. We need to figure out how to get more servings of fruits and vegetables to consumers,” said McIntyre. “It could be that our list of ingredients could be more expansive to include not just plant protein.. It might be having two servings of vegetables combined with all of that in a great new food.”

#bill-gates, #breakthrough-energy-ventures, #chemicals, #consumer-products, #food, #food-science, #jack-ma, #jeff-bezos, #john-doerr, #marc-benioff, #masayoshi-son, #meg-whitman, #michael-bloomberg, #motif, #new-zealand, #reid-hoffman, #richard-branson, #tc, #vinod-khosla

With former Misfit founder Sonny Vu at the helm, Arevo raises $25 million for its 3D printing tech

Sonny Vu, the former founder and chief executive of the wearable technology company, Misfit, has had a busy summer since he was named the new chief executive of 3D printing technology company, Arevo.

Vu’s new startup brought on a new executive management team, launched a crowdfunding campaign for its 3D printed Superstrata bicycle and is now announcing the close of a $25 million financing round to support the growth of its business.

It’d be a lot for anyone to take on even if it didn’t happen in the middle of global pandemic. But Vu, a serial entrepreneur whose last business went head-to-head with Apple before it was acquired by Fossil for $260 million, doesn’t shy away from challenges.

Vu was first introduced to Arevo in 2019 and was initially going to come on as an advisor to the company. Since the acquisition of Misfit he had been investing from Alabaster, his personal investment vehicle. First introduced by Vinod Khosla, an investor in the business, Vu quickly moved from being an advisor to an executive at the helm of the business and an investor providing bridge financing until the company could close its latest round.

Vu had initially intended to start his own business, but was drawn to Arevo’s potential. “3D printing is about making things slowly and in small quantities. With Arevo’s technology you can make big things quite fast,” Vu said in an interview.

Several companies are attempting to take 3D printing into heavy industry and large scale manufacturing. Relativity raised $140 million in its most recent financing to make rockets using 3D printers, Velo3D is a supplier of 3D printers to SpaceX, and now Arevo has $34 million for its efforts to scale 3d printers. Of course all of these investments pale in comparison to the whopping $438 million that Desktop Metal has raised for its 3D printing tech.

“Arevo is a compelling opportunity for us as it combines our three main investment foci: consumer internet, enterprise, and smart tech. We see fantastic potential in this market, and have backed Sonny before at Misfit,” said Hans Tung, in a statement. “Arevo is led by an experienced team with solid technological foundation and 3D printing manufacturing know-how at scale – to offer breakthrough products at competitive prices.”

Arevo already has a successful proof of concept with its Superstrata bicycle and manufacturing facilities in Vietnam that are intended to prove that the company’s technology will work as expected.

“We’re making this bike to make a point that we can make complex shapes at a pretty large scale,” Vu said. Unlike other companies that sell their printers to manufacturers, Arevo intends to sell parts. That’s because the printers are a pretty hefty ticket for anyone to buy. At $1 million to $1.4 million, it’s a big ask for a company to acquire if it wants to start using 3D printing.

On top of that cost, Vu said candidly that the company’s Achilles heel was the post-manufacturing treatment process required to finish the pieces. And while Arevo already counts automotive and aerospace companies as customers (including Airbus, which previously invested in the business), Vu wants to bring this to consumers. “We’ve had tennis racquet companies, golf clubs, surfboards,” approach Arevo about using the company’s technology, Vu says.

“We can do about two frames per day per machine,” Vu says of the latest production rates. “And coming up with our next gen system we can do about six frames per day.”

The ascension of Vu to the chief executive position and the new capital infusion marks the latest chapter for Arevo which is on its third chief executive since it was founded. Two years ago, Jim Miller, a former Amazon and Google executive, was brought on board to take the reins at the company. Miller’s appointment coincided with a $12.5 million investment round led by Asahi Glass, with Sumitomo Corp., Leslie Ventures and Khosla Ventures participating. Miller was involved with collaborating with Studio West on the design of its Superstrata bike.

Now, Defy Partners and GGV Capital are joining to lead the company’s Series B round with participation from Khosla Ventures, Alabaster and others. Brian Shin, a scout with Defy Ventures is joining the board which now counts Bruce Armstrong, from Khosla Ventures, and Hemant Bheda, Arevo’s co-founder as directors (along with Vu).

“Arevo’s new platform enables fabrication of high strength, low weight carbon fiber parts, currently not possible with today’s standard techniques,” said Trae Vassallo, founding partner at Defy. “We are thrilled to be working with the team to help scale up this incredibly impactful technology.”

#airbus, #amazon, #arevo, #defy-ventures, #desktop-metal, #fossil, #ggv-capital, #google, #hans-tung, #khosla-ventures, #sonny-vu, #spacex, #tc, #trae-vassallo, #velo3d, #vinod-khosla