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Apple’s dangerous path

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review.

Last week, we dove into the truly bizarre machinations of the NFT market. This week, we’re talking about something that’s a little bit more impactful on the current state of the web — Apple’s NeuralHash kerfuffle.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny


the big thing

In the past month, Apple did something it generally has done an exceptional job avoiding — the company made what seemed to be an entirely unforced error.

In early August — seemingly out of nowhere** — the company announced that by the end of the year they would be rolling out a technology called NeuralHash that actively scanned the libraries of all iCloud Photos users, seeking out image hashes that matched known images of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). For obvious reasons, the on-device scanning could not be opted out of.

This announcement was not coordinated with other major consumer tech giants, Apple pushed forward on the announcement alone.

Researchers and advocacy groups had almost unilaterally negative feedback for the effort, raising concerns that this could create new abuse channels for actors like governments to detect on-device information that they regarded as objectionable. As my colleague Zach noted in a recent story, “The Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week it had amassed more than 25,000 signatures from consumers. On top of that, close to 100 policy and rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also called on Apple to abandon plans to roll out the technology.”

(The announcement also reportedly generated some controversy inside of Apple.)

The issue — of course — wasn’t that Apple was looking at find ways that prevented the proliferation of CSAM while making as few device security concessions as possible. The issue was that Apple was unilaterally making a massive choice that would affect billions of customers (while likely pushing competitors towards similar solutions), and was doing so without external public input about possible ramifications or necessary safeguards.

A long story short, over the past month researchers discovered Apple’s NeuralHash wasn’t as air tight as hoped and the company announced Friday that it was delaying the rollout “to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.”

Having spent several years in the tech media, I will say that the only reason to release news on a Friday morning ahead of a long weekend is to ensure that the announcement is read and seen by as few people as possible, and it’s clear why they’d want that. It’s a major embarrassment for Apple, and as with any delayed rollout like this, it’s a sign that their internal teams weren’t adequately prepared and lacked the ideological diversity to gauge the scope of the issue that they were tackling. This isn’t really a dig at Apple’s team building this so much as it’s a dig on Apple trying to solve a problem like this inside the Apple Park vacuum while adhering to its annual iOS release schedule.

illustration of key over cloud icon

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch /

Apple is increasingly looking to make privacy a key selling point for the iOS ecosystem, and as a result of this productization, has pushed development of privacy-centric features towards the same secrecy its surface-level design changes command. In June, Apple announced iCloud+ and raised some eyebrows when they shared that certain new privacy-centric features would only be available to iPhone users who paid for additional subscription services.

You obviously can’t tap public opinion for every product update, but perhaps wide-ranging and trail-blazing security and privacy features should be treated a bit differently than the average product update. Apple’s lack of engagement with research and advocacy groups on NeuralHash was pretty egregious and certainly raises some questions about whether the company fully respects how the choices they make for iOS affect the broader internet.

Delaying the feature’s rollout is a good thing, but let’s all hope they take that time to reflect more broadly as well.

** Though the announcement was a surprise to many, Apple’s development of this feature wasn’t coming completely out of nowhere. Those at the top of Apple likely felt that the winds of global tech regulation might be shifting towards outright bans of some methods of encryption in some of its biggest markets.

Back in October of 2020, then United States AG Bill Barr joined representatives from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India and Japan in signing a letter raising major concerns about how implementations of encryption tech posed “significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children.” The letter effectively called on tech industry companies to get creative in how they tackled this problem.


other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

LinkedIn kills Stories
You may be shocked to hear that LinkedIn even had a Stories-like product on their platform, but if you did already know that they were testing Stories, you likely won’t be so surprised to hear that the test didn’t pan out too well. The company announced this week that they’ll be suspending the feature at the end of the month. RIP.

FAA grounds Virgin Galactic over questions about Branson flight
While all appeared to go swimmingly for Richard Branson’s trip to space last month, the FAA has some questions regarding why the flight seemed to unexpectedly veer so far off the cleared route. The FAA is preventing the company from further launches until they find out what the deal is.

Apple buys a classical music streaming service
While Spotify makes news every month or two for spending a massive amount acquiring a popular podcast, Apple seems to have eyes on a different market for Apple Music, announcing this week that they’re bringing the classical music streaming service Primephonic onto the Apple Music team.

TikTok parent company buys a VR startup
It isn’t a huge secret that ByteDance and Facebook have been trying to copy each other’s success at times, but many probably weren’t expecting TikTok’s parent company to wander into the virtual reality game. The Chinese company bought the startup Pico which makes consumer VR headsets for China and enterprise VR products for North American customers.

Twitter tests an anti-abuse ‘Safety Mode’
The same features that make Twitter an incredibly cool product for some users can also make the experience awful for others, a realization that Twitter has seemingly been very slow to make. Their latest solution is more individual user controls, which Twitter is testing out with a new “safety mode” which pairs algorithmic intelligence with new user inputs.


extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

Our favorite startups from YC’s Demo Day, Part 1 
“Y Combinator kicked off its fourth-ever virtual Demo Day today, revealing the first half of its nearly 400-company batch. The presentation, YC’s biggest yet, offers a snapshot into where innovation is heading, from not-so-simple seaweed to a Clearco for creators….”

…Part 2
“…Yesterday, the TechCrunch team covered the first half of this batch, as well as the startups with one-minute pitches that stood out to us. We even podcasted about it! Today, we’re doing it all over again. Here’s our full list of all startups that presented on the record today, and below, you’ll find our votes for the best Y Combinator pitches of Day Two. The ones that, as people who sift through a few hundred pitches a day, made us go ‘oh wait, what’s this?’

All the reasons why you should launch a credit card
“… if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users….”


Thanks for reading, and again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny

Lucas Matney

The cocktail party problem: Why voice tech isn’t truly useful yet

By Ram Iyer
Ken Sutton Contributor
Ken Sutton is CEO and co-founder of Yobe, a software company that uses edge-based AI to unlock the potential of voice technologies for modern brands.

On average, men and women speak roughly 15,000 words per day. We call our friends and family, log into Zoom for meetings with our colleagues, discuss our days with our loved ones, or if you’re like me, you argue with the ref about a bad call they made in the playoffs.

Hospitality, travel, IoT and the auto industry are all on the cusp of leveling-up voice assistant adoption and the monetization of voice. The global voice and speech recognition market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 17.2% from 2019 to reach $26.8 billion by 2025, according to Meticulous Research. Companies like Amazon and Apple will accelerate this growth as they leverage ambient computing capabilities, which will continue to push voice interfaces forward as a primary interface.

As voice technologies become ubiquitous, companies are turning their focus to the value of the data latent in these new channels. Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Nuance is not just about achieving better NLP or voice assistant technology, it’s also about the trove of healthcare data that the conversational AI has collected.

Our voice technologies have not been engineered to confront the messiness of the real world or the cacophony of our actual lives.

Google has monetized every click of your mouse, and the same thing is now happening with voice. Advertisers have found that speak-through conversion rates are higher than click-through conversation rates. Brands need to begin developing voice strategies to reach customers — or risk being left behind.

Voice tech adoption was already on the rise, but with most of the world under lockdown protocol during the COVID-19 pandemic, adoption is set to skyrocket. Nearly 40% of internet users in the U.S. use smart speakers at least monthly in 2020, according to Insider Intelligence.

Yet, there are several fundamental technology barriers keeping us from reaching the full potential of the technology.

The steep climb to commercializing voice

By the end of 2020, worldwide shipments of wearable devices rose 27.2% to 153.5 million from a year earlier, but despite all the progress made in voice technologies and their integration in a plethora of end-user devices, they are still largely limited to simple tasks. That is finally starting to change as consumers demand more from these interactions, and voice becomes a more essential interface.

In 2018, in-car shoppers spent $230 billion to order food, coffee, groceries or items to pick up at a store. The auto industry is one of the earliest adopters of voice AI, but in order to really capture voice technology’s true potential, it needs to become a more seamless, truly hands-free experience. Ambient car noise still muddies the signal enough that it keeps users tethered to using their phones.

Customer experience startup Clootrack raises $4M, helps brands see through their customers’ eyes

By Christine Hall

Getting inside the mind of customers is a challenge as behaviors and demands shift, but Clootrack believes it has cracked the code in helping brands figure out how to do that.

It announced $4 million in Series A funding, led by Inventus Capital India, and included existing investors Unicorn India Ventures, IAN Fund and Salamander Excubator Angel Fund, as well as individual investment from Jiffy.ai CEO Babu Sivadasan. In total, the company raised $4.6 million, co-founder Shameel Abdulla told TechCrunch.

Clootrack is a real-time customer experience analytics platform that helps brands understand why customers stay or churn. Shameel Abdulla and Subbakrishna Rao, who both come from IT backgrounds, founded the company in 2017 after meeting years prior at Jiffstore, Abdulla’s second company that was acquired in 2015.

Clootrack team. Image Credits: Clootrack

Business-to-consumer and consumer brands often use customer satisfaction metrics like Net Promoter Score to understand the customer experience, but Abdulla said current methods don’t provide the “why” of those experiences and are slow, expensive and error-prone.

“The number of channels has increased, which means customers are talking to you, expressing their feedback and what they think in multiple places,” he added. “Word of mouth has gone digital, and you basically have to master the art of selling online.”

Clootrack turns the customer experience data from all of those first-party and third-party touchpoints — website feedback, chat bots, etc. — into granular, qualitative insights that give brands a look at drivers of the experience in hours rather than months so that they can stay on top of fast-moving trends.

Abdulla points to data that show a customer’s biggest driver of brand switch is the experience they receive. And, that if brands can reduce churns by 5%, they could be looking at an increase in profits of between 25% and 95%.

Most of the new funding will go to product development so that all data aggregations are gathered from all possible touchpoints. His ultimate goal is to be “the single platform for B2C firms.”

The company is currently working with over 150 customers in the areas of retail, direct-to-consumer, banking, automotive, travel and mobile app-based services. It is growing nine times year over year in revenue. It is mainly operating in India, but Clootrack is also onboarding companies in the U.S. and Europe.

Parag Dhol, managing director of Inventus, said he has known Abdulla for over five years. He had looked at one of Abdulla’s companies for investment, but had decided against it due to his firm being a Series A investor.

Dhol said market research needs an overhaul in India, where this type of technology is lagging behind the U.S.

“Clootrack has a very complementary team with Shameel being a complete CEO in terms of being a sales guy and serial entrepreneur who has learned his lessons, and Subbu, who is good at technology,” he added. “As CMOs realize the value in their unstructured data inside of their own database of the customer reviews and move to real-time feedback, these guys could make a serious dent in the space.”

 

Box, Zoom chief product officers discuss how the changing workplace drove their latest collaboration

By Christine Hall

If the past 18 months is any indication, the nature of the workplace is changing. And while Box and Zoom already have integrations together, it makes sense for them to continue to work more closely.

Their newest collaboration is the Box app for Zoom, a new type of in-product integration that allows users to bring apps into a Zoom meeting to provide the full Box experience.

While in Zoom, users can securely and directly access Box to browse, preview and share files from Zoom — even if they are not taking part in an active meeting. This new feature follows a Zoom integration Box launched last year with its “Recommended Apps” section that enables access to Zoom from Box so that workflows aren’t disrupted.

The companies’ chief product officers, Diego Dugatkin with Box and Oded Gal with Zoom, discussed with TechCrunch why seamless partnerships like these are a solution for the changing workplace.

With digitization happening everywhere, an integration of “best-in-breed” products for collaboration is essential, Dugatkin said. Not only that, people don’t want to be moving from app to app, instead wanting to stay in one environment.

“It’s access to content while never having to leave the Zoom platform,” he added.

It’s also access to content and contacts in different situations. When everyone was in an office, meeting at a moment’s notice internally was not a challenge. Now, more people are understanding the value of flexibility, and both Gal and Dugatkin expect that spending some time at home and some time in the office will not change anytime soon.

As a result, across the spectrum of a company, there is an increasing need for allowing and even empowering people to work from anywhere, Dugatkin said. That then leads to a conversation about sharing documents in a secure way for companies, which this collaboration enables.

The new Box and Zoom integration enables meeting in a hybrid workplace: chat, video, audio, computers or mobile devices, and also being able to access content from all of those methods, Gal said.

“Companies need to be dynamic as people make the decision of how they want to work,” he added. “The digital world is providing that flexibility.”

This long-term partnership is just scratching the surface of the continuous improvement the companies have planned, Dugatkin said.

Dugatkin and Gal expect to continue offering seamless integration before, during and after meetings: utilizing Box’s cloud storage, while also offering the ability for offline communication between people so that they can keep the workflow going.

“As Diego said about digitization, we are seeing continuous collaboration enhanced with the communication aspect of meetings day in and day out,” Gal added. “Being able to connect between asynchronous and synchronous with Zoom is addressing the future of work and how it is shaping where we go in the future.”

Explosion snags $6M on $120M valuation to expand machine learning platform

By Ron Miller

Explosion, a company that has combined an open source machine learning library with a set of commercial developer tools, announced a $6 million Series A today on a $120 million valuation. The round was led by SignalFire, and the company reported that today’s investment represents 5% of its value.

Oana Olteanu from SignalFire will be joining the board under the terms of the deal, which includes warrants of $12 million in additional investment at the same price.

“Fundamentally, Explosion is a software company and we build developer tools for AI and machine learning and natural language processing. So our goal is to make developers more productive and more focused on their natural language processing, so basically understanding large volumes of text, and training machine learning models to help with that and automate some processes,” company co-founder and CEO Ines Montani told me.

The company started in 2016 when Montani met her co-founder, Matthew Honnibal in Berlin where he was working on the spaCy open source machine learning library. Since then, that open source project has been downloaded over 40 million times.

In 2017, they added Prodigy, a commercial product for generating data for the machine learning model. “Machine learning is code plus data, so to really get the most out of the technologies you almost always want to train your models and build custom systems because what’s really most valuable are problems that are super specific to you and your business and what you’re trying to find out, and so we saw that the area of creating training data, training these machine learning models, was something that people didn’t pay very much attention to at all,” she said.

The next step is a product called Prodigy Teams, which is a big reason the company is taking on this investment. “Prodigy Teams  is [a hosted service that] adds user management and collaboration features to Prodigy, and you can run it in the cloud without compromising on what people love most about Prodigy, which is the data privacy, so no data ever needs to get seen by our servers,” she said. They do this by letting the data sit on the customer’s private cluster in a private cloud, and then use Prodigy Team’s management features in the public cloud service.

Today, they have 500 customers using Prodigy including Microsoft and Bayer in addition to the huge community of millions of open source users. They’ve built all this with just 17 people, even as they continue to slowly add employees, expecting to reach 20 by the end of the year.

She believes if you’re thinking too much about diversity in your hiring process, you probably have a problem already. “If you go into hiring and you’re thinking like, oh, how can I make sure that the way I’m hiring is diverse, I think that already shows that there’s maybe a problem,” she said.

“If you have a company, and it’s 50 dudes in their 20s, it’s not surprising that you might have problems attracting people who are not white dudes in their 20s. But in our case, our strategy is to hire good people and good people are often very diverse people, and again if you play by the [startup] playbook, you could be limited in a lot of other ways.”

She said that they have never seen themselves as a traditional startup following some conventional playbook. “We didn’t raise any investment money [until now]. We grew the team organically, and we focused on being profitable and independent [before we got outside investment],” she said.

But more than the money, Montani says that they needed to find an investor that would understand and support the open source side of the business, even while they got capital to expand all parts of the company. “Open source is a community of users, customers and employees. They are real people, and [they are not] pawns in [some] startup game, and it’s not a game. It’s real, and these are real people,” she said.

“They deserve more than just my eyeballs and grand promises. […] And so it’s very important that even if we’re selling a small stake in our company for some capital [to build our next] product [that open source remains at] the core of our company and that’s something we don’t want to compromise on,” Montani said.

YouTravel.Me packs up $1M to match travelers with curated small group adventures

By Christine Hall

YouTravel.Me is the latest startup to grab some venture capital dollars as the travel industry gets back on its feet amid the global pandemic.

Over the past month, we’ve seen companies like Thatch raise $3 million for its platform aimed at travel creators, travel tech company Hopper bring in $175 million, Wheel the World grab $2 million for its disability-friendly vacation planner, Elude raise $2.1 million to bring spontaneous travel back to a hard-hit industry and Wanderlog bag $1.5 million for its free travel itinerary platform.

Today YouTravel.Me joins them after raising $1 million to continue developing its online platform designed for matching like-minded travelers to small-group adventures organized by travel experts. Starta VC led the round and was joined by Liqvest.com, Mission Gate and a group of individual investors like Bas Godska, general partner at Acrobator Ventures.

Olga Bortnikova, her husband Ivan Bortnikov and Evan Mikheev founded the company in Europe three years ago. The idea for the company came to Bortnikova and Bortnikov when a trip to China went awry after a tour operator sold them a package where excursions turned out to be trips to souvenir shops. One delayed flight and other mishaps along the way, and the pair went looking for better travel experiences and a way to share them with others. When they couldn’t find what they were looking for, they decided to create it themselves.

“It’s hard for adults to make friends, but when you are on a two-week trip with just 15 people in a group, you form a deep connection, share the same language and experiences,” Bortnikova told TechCrunch. “That’s our secret sauce — we want to make a connection.”

Much like a dating app, the YouTravel.Me’s algorithms connect travelers to trips and getaways based on their interests, values and past experiences. Matched individuals can connect with each via chat or voice, work with a travel expert and complete their reservations. They also have a BeGuide offering for travel experts to do research and create itineraries.

Since 2018, CEO Bortnikova said that YouTravel.Me has become the top travel marketplace in Eastern Europe, amassing over 15,900 tours in 130 countries and attracting over 10,000 travelers and 4,200 travel experts to the platform. It was starting to branch out to international sales in 2020 when the global pandemic hit.

“Sales and tourism crashed down, and we didn’t know what to do,” she said. “We found that we have more than 4,000 travel experts on our site and they feel lonely because the pandemic was a test of the industry. We understood that and built a community and educational product for them on how to build and scale their business.”

After a McKinsey study showed that adventure travel was recovering faster than other sectors of the industry, the founders decided to go after that market, becoming part of 500 Startups at the end of 2020. As a result, YouTravel.Me doubled its revenue while still a bootstrapped company, but wanted to enter the North American market.

The new funding will be deployed into marketing in the U.S., hiring and attracting more travel experts, technology and product development and increasing gross merchandise value to $2.7 million per month by the end of 2021, Bortnikov said. The goal is to grow the number of trips to 20,000 and its travel experts to 6,000 by the beginning of next year.

Godska, also an angel investor, learned about YouTravel.Me from a mutual friend. It happened that it was the same time that he was vacationing in Sri Lanka where he was one of very few tourists. Godska was previously involved in online travel before as part of Orbitz in Europe and in Russia selling tour packages before setting up a venture capital fund.

“I was sitting there in the jungle with a bad internet connection, and it sparked my interest,” he said. “When I spoke with them, I felt the innovation and this bright vibe of how they are doing this. It instantly attracted me to help support them. The whole curated thing is a very interesting move. Independent travelers that want to travel in groups are not touched much by the traditional sector.”

 

Pixalate tunes into $18.1M for fraud prevention in television, mobile advertising

By Christine Hall

Pixalate raised $18.1 million in growth capital for its fraud protection, privacy and compliance analytics platform that monitors connected television and mobile advertising.

Western Technology Investment and Javelin Venture Partners led the latest funding round, which brings Pixalate’s total funding to $22.7 million to date. This includes a $4.6 million Series A round raised back in 2014, Jalal Nasir, founder and CEO of Pixalate, told TechCrunch.

The company, with offices in Palo Alto and London, analyzes over 5 million apps across five app stores and more 2 billion IP addresses across 300 million connected television devices to detect and report fraudulent advertising activity for its customers. In fact, there are over 40 types of invalid traffic, Nasir said.

Nasir grew up going to livestock shows with his grandfather and learned how to spot defects in animals, and he has carried that kind of insight to Pixalate, which can detect the difference between real and fake users of content and if fraudulent ads are being stacked or hidden behind real advertising that zaps smartphone batteries or siphons internet usage and even ad revenue.

Digital advertising is big business. Nasir cited Association of National Advertisers research that estimated $200 billion will be spent globally in digital advertising this year. This is up from $10 billion a year prior to 2010. Meanwhile, estimated ad fraud will cost the industry $35 billion, he added.

“Advertisers are paying a premium to be in front of the right audience, based on consumption data,” Nasir said. “Unfortunately, that data may not be authorized by the user or it is being transmitted without their consent.”

While many of Pixalate’s competitors focus on first-party risks, the company is taking a third-party approach, mainly due to people spending so much time on their devices. Some of the insights the company has found include that 16% of Apple’s apps don’t have privacy policies in place, while that number is 22% in Google’s app store. More crime and more government regulations around privacy mean that advertisers are demanding more answers, he said.

The new funding will go toward adding more privacy and data features to its product, doubling the sales and customer teams and expanding its office in London, while also opening a new office in Singapore.

The company grew 1,200% in revenue since 2014 and is gathering over 2 terabytes of data per month. In addition to the five app stores Pixalate is already monitoring, Nasir intends to add some of the China-based stores like Tencent and Baidu.

Noah Doyle, managing director at Javelin Venture Partners, is also monitoring the digital advertising ecosystem and said with networks growing, every linkage point exposes a place in an app where bad actors can come in, which was inaccessible in the past, and advertisers need a way to protect that.

“Jalal and Amin (Bandeali) have insight from where the fraud could take place and created a unique way to solve this large problem,” Doyle added. “We were impressed by their insight and vision to create an analytical approach to capturing every data point in a series of transactions —  more data than other players in the industry — for comprehensive visibility to help advertisers and marketers maintain quality in their advertising.”

 

Goodcall picks up $4M, Yelp partnership to answer merchant inbound calls

By Christine Hall

Even without staffing shortages, local merchants have difficulty answering calls while all hands are busy, and Goodcall wants to alleviate some of that burden from America’s 30 million small businesses.

Goodcall’s free cloud-based conversational platform leverages artificial intelligence to manage incoming phone calls and boost customer service for businesses of all sizes. Former Google executive Bob Summers left Google back in January, where he was working on Area 120 — an internal incubator program for experimental projects — to start Goodcall after recognizing the call problem, noting that in fact 60% of the calls that come into merchants go unanswered.

“It’s frustrating for you and for the person calling,” Summers told TechCrunch. “Every missed call is a lost opportunity.”

Goodcall announced its launch Wednesday with $4 million in seed funding led by strategic investors Neo, Foothill Ventures, Merus Capital, Xoogler Ventures, Verissimo Ventures and VSC Ventures, as well as angel investors including Harry Hurst, founder and co-CEO of Pipe.com, and Zillow co-founder Spencer Rascoff.

Goodcall mobile agent. Image Credits: Goodcall

Restaurants, shops and merchants can set up on Goodcall in a matter of minutes and even establish a local phone number to free up an owner’s mobile number from becoming the business’ main line. The service is initially deployed in English and the company has plans to operate in Spanish, French and Hindi by 2022.

Merchants can choose from six different assistant voices and monitor the call logs and what the calls were about. Goodcall can also capture consumer sentiment, Summers said.

The company offers three options, including its freemium service for solopreneurs and business owners, which includes up to 500 minutes per month of Goodcall services for a single phone line. Up to five additional locations and five staff members costs $19 per month for the Pro level, or the Premium level provides unlimited locations and staff for $49 per month.

During the company’s beta period, Goodcall was processing several thousands of calls per month. The new funding will be used to continue to offer the free service, hire engineers and continue product development.

In addition to the funding round, Goodcall is unveiling a partnership with Yelp to tap into its database of local businesses so that those owners and managers can easily deploy Goodcall. Yelp data shows that more than 500,000 businesses opened during the pandemic. The company pulls in from Yelp a merchant’s open hours, location, if they offer Wi-Fi and even their COVID policy.

“We are partnering with Yelp, which has the best data on small businesses, and other large distribution channels to get our product to market,” Summers said. “We are bringing technology into an industry that hasn’t innovated since the 1980s and democratizing conversational AI for small businesses that are the main driver of job creation, and we want to help them grow.”

 

Insurify, a ‘virtual insurance agent,’ raises $100M Series B

By Mary Ann Azevedo

How many of us have not switched insurance carriers because we don’t want to deal with the hassle of comparison shopping?

A lot, I’d bet.

Today, Insurify, a startup that wants to help people make it easier to get better rates on home, auto and life insurance, announced that it has closed $100 million in an “oversubscribed” Series B funding round led by Motive Partners.

Existing backers Viola FinTech, MassMutual Ventures, Nationwide, Hearst Ventures and Moneta VC also put money in the round, as well as new investors Viola Growth and Fort Ross Ventures. With the new financing, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Insurify has now raised a total of $128 million since its 2013 inception. The company declined to disclose the valuation at which the money was raised.

Since we last covered Insurify, the startup has seen some impressive growth. For example, it has seen its new and recurring revenue increase by “6x” since it closed its Series A funding in the 2019 fourth quarter. Over the last three years, Insurify has achieved a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 151%, according to co-founder and CEO Snejina Zacharia. It has also seen consistent “2.5x” year-over-year revenue growth, she said.

Insurify has built a machine learning-based virtual insurance agent that integrates with more than 100 carriers to digitize — and personalize — the insurance shopping experience. There are others in the insurtech space, but none that we know of currently tackling home, auto and life insurance. For example, Jerry, which has raised capital twice this year, is focused mostly on auto insurance, although it does have a home product. The Zebra, which became a unicorn this year, started out as a site for people looking for auto insurance via its real-time quote comparison tool. Over time, it has also evolved to offer homeowners insurance with the goal of eventually branching out into renters and life insurance. But it too is mostly focused on auto.

Zacharia said that since Insurify’s Series A funding, it has expanded its home insurance marketplace, deepened its carrier integrations to provide users an “instant” purchase experience and launched its first two embedded insurance products through partnerships with Toyota Insurance Management Solutions and Nationwide (the latter of which also participated in the Series B funding round).

Image Credits: Insurify

Last year, when ShyScanner had to lay off staff, Insurify scooped up much of its engineering team and established an office in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Zacharia, a former Gartner executive, was inspired to start the company after she was involved in a minor car accident while getting her MBA at MIT. The accident led to a spike in her insurance premium and Zacharia was frustrated by the “complex and cumbersome” experience of car insurance shopping. She teamed up with CTO Tod Kiryazov to build Insurify, which the pair describe as a virtual insurance agent that offers real-time quotes.

“We decided to build the most trusted virtual insurance agent in the industry that allows for customers to easily search, compare and buy fully digitally — directly from their mobile phone, or desktop, and really get a very smart, personalized experience based on their unique preferences,” Zacharia told TechCrunch. “We leverage artificial intelligence to be able to make recommendations on both coverage as well as carrier selection.”

Notably, Insurify is also a fully licensed agent that takes over the fulfillment and servicing of the policies. Since the company is mostly working as an insurance agent, it gets paid new and renewed commission. So while it’s not a SaaS business, its embedded insurance offerings have SaaS-like monetization.

“Our goal is to provide an experience for the end consumer that allows them to service and manage all of their policies in one place, digitally,” Zacharia said. “We think that the data recommendations that the platform provides can really remove most of the friction that currently exists in the shopping experience.”

Insurify plans to use its fresh capital to continue to expand its operations and accelerate its growth plans. It also, naturally, wants to add to its 125-person team.

“We want to build into our API integrations so customers can receive real-time direct quotes with better personalization and a more tailored experience,” Kiryazov said. “We also want to identify more embedded insurance opportunities and expand the product functionality.”

The company also down the line wants to expand into other verticals such as pet insurance, for example.

Insurify intends to use the money in part to build brand awareness, potentially through TV advertising.

“Almost half of our revenue comes from self-directed traffic,” Zacharia said. “So we want to explore more inorganic growth.”

James “Jim” O’Neill, founding partner at Motive Partners and partner Andy Rear point out that online purchasing now accounts for almost all of the growth in U.S. auto insurance. 

“The lesson from other markets which have been through this transition is that customers prefer choice, presented as a simple menu of products and prices from different insurers, and a straightforward online purchasing process,” they wrote via email. “The U.S. auto market is huge: even a slow transition to online means a massive opportunity for Insurify.”

In conducting their due diligence, the pair said they were impressed with how the startup is building a business model “that works for customers, insurers and white-label partners.”

Harel Beit-On, founder and general partner at Viola Growth, believes that the quantum leap in e-commerce due to COVID-19 will completely transform the buying experience in almost every sector, including insurance.

“It is time to bring the frictionless purchasing experience that customers expect to the insurance space as well,” she said. “Following our fintech fund’s recent investment in the company, we watched Insurify’s immense growth, excellent execution with customer acquisition and building a brand consumers trust.”

Skit raises $23M Series B round led by WestBridge Capital to accelerate its growth

By Kate Park

“Traditional voice-based call center service is difficult and costly. This is where artificial intelligence and voice technology have presented an opportunity for enterprises to overcome the challenges of scale and engagement at their customer contact centers,” co-founder and CEO Skit Sourabh Gupta told TechCrunch.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented increase in call volumes at bank call centers as customers tried to manage their portfolios amid the chaos of work from home policy and financial instability, Gupta said. And that presented an opportunity for companies like Skit.

“Customers have a natural tendency to prefer voice call support over other self-service channels and this has led to the increase in pressure on the traditional interactive voice responses (IVR) systems and support agents to respond to all incoming queries,” he said.

Bengaluru-based artificial intelligence SaaS voice automation company Skit, formerly known as Vernacular.ai, developed its AI-based voice automation platform VIVA, short for Vernacular Intelligent Voice Assistant, which enables corporations to automate 90% of their call center operations powered by Natural Language Understanding (NLU) technology.  Its product VIVA covers more than 16 languages and 160 dialects.

Skit announced today it has closed $23 million Series B round to accelerate its growth in domestic and global markets including the US and South East Asia and enhance its voice automation platform.

The company was founded in 2016 by two co-founders, Indian Institute of Technology alumni, Roorkee alumnus, Sourabh Gupta and Akshay Deshraj.

The latest funding was led by WestBridge Capital along with existing investors Kalaari Capital and Exfinity Ventures, IAN Fund, LetsVenture and Sense AI. Angel investors including Prophetic Ventures’ Aaryaman Vir Shah also participated the round. The Series B round brings Skit’s total funding to $30 million.

Skit will use the fresh funding for sales, marketing, further R&D to strengthen its personalized solutions and voice products, as well as its global expansion.

“We want to double down and scale operations in both Indian and global markets. We are also planning on increasing our employee headcount. Through our new headquarters in New York, we want to build a strong customer base in North America by our product available to US enterprises,” Gupta told TechCrunch.

The company said it has quadrupled its amount of revenue and numbers of customers in 2020-2021 since its previous fundraising, $5.1 million Series A, in May 2020. Its average order book has also been growing in CAGR 200-300% every year, Gupta added. It currently has 150 employees.

Skit recently expanded into the US and South East Asia market.

“We noticed that there (South East Asia) is a high potential market for the adoption of conversational AI. Most importantly, these markets are home to a multitude of languages and dialects,” Gupta said in an exclusive interview with TechCrunch.

Given that language and hyper-personalization are Skit’s strongest suit, the company is witnessing increase adoption in South East Asia market, where is easier for the company to expand with similar demographics and business challenges as in India, Gupta explained.

It also opened headquarters in NYC, “It is a mature market, ahead in technology adoption with a level-playing for strong competition,” he said.

Venture advisor at WestBridge Capital Sashi Reddi said in a statement: “Skit’s success in helping India’s largest companies, positions them well to enter the US market where there is a massive need for voice AI solutions.”

The global contact center market size is expected to increase steadily and reach $496 billion by 2027. Skit will potentially address the $300 billion voice customer service market with its voice AI platform VIVA, Gupta said.

Its B2B and B2C clients are in diverse industries including banking, insurance, finance, securities, non-banking finance companies, travels, logistics, food & beverage, e-commerce. It has more than 25 B2B clients including Axis Bank, Hathway, Porter and Barbeque Nation, according to Gupta.

Call centers are traditionally places where there are high costs and high attrition rates, and for the end-users the traditional interactive voice responses (IVRs) and the wait times are irritating. There were longer than usual wait-times, call drops and going through extensive IVR menus and frequent agent transfers which increase customer frustration.

With over 10 million hour of training data, Skit’s VIVA replicates human-like conversation and understands speaker’s intent and can translate other unique speech characteristics that enable more efficient query resolutions, Gupta said.

Skit has been listed in Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia start-ups 2021.

PayEm comes out of stealth with $27M and its answer to the expense report

By Christine Hall

Itamar Jobani was a software developer working for a medical company and “hated that time of the month” when he had to use the company’s chosen reimbursement tool.

“It was full of friction and as part of the company’s wellness team, I felt an urge to take care of the employee experience and find a better tool,” Jobani told TechCrunch. “I looked for something, but didn’t find it, so I tried to build it myself.”

What resulted was PayEm, an Israeli company he founded with Omer Rimoch in 2019 to be a spend and procurement platform for high-growth and multinational organizations. Today, it announced $27 million in funding that includes $7 million in seed funding, led by Pitango First and NFX, with participation by LocalGlobe and Fresh Fund, as well as $20 million in Series A funding led by Glilot+.

The company’s technology automates the reimbursement, procurement, accounts payable and credit card workflows to manage all of the requests and invoices, while also creating bills and sending payments to over 200 territories in 130 currencies.

It gives company finance teams a real-time look at what items employees are asking for funds to buy, and what is actually being spent. For example, teams can submit a request and go through an approval flow that can be customized with purchasing codes tied to a description of the transaction. At the same time, all transactions are continuously reconciled versus having to spend hours at the end of the month going through paperwork.

“Organizations are running in a more democratized way with teams buying things on behalf of the organization,” Jobani said. “We built a platform to cater to those needs, so it’s like a disbursement platform instead of a finance team always being in charge.”

The global B2B payments market is valued at $120 trillion annually and is expected to reach $200 trillion by 2028, according to payment industry newsletter Nilson Report. PayEm is among many B2B payments startups attracting venture capital — for example, last month, Nium announced a $200 million in Series D funding at a $1 billion valuation. Paystand raised $50 million in Series C funding to make B2B payments cashless, while Dwolla raised $21 million for its API that allows companies to build and facilitate fast payments.

Meanwhile, PayEm itself saw accelerated growth in the second quarter of 2021, including increasing its transaction volume by four times over the previous quarter and generating millions of dollars in revenue. It now boasts a list of hundreds of customers like Fiverr, JFrog and Next Insurance. It also launched new features like the ability to create corporate cards.

The company, which also has an office in New York, has 40 employees currently, and the new funds will enable the company to triple its headcount, focusing on hiring in the United States, and to bring additional features and payment capabilities to market.

“Each person can have a budget and a time frame for making the purchase, while accounting still feels in control,” Jobani added. “Everyone now has the full context and the right budget line item.”

Sanas aims to convert one accent to another in real time for smoother customer service calls

By Devin Coldewey

In the customer service industry, your accent dictates many aspects of your job. It shouldn’t be the case that there’s a “better” or “worse” accent, but in today’s global economy (though who knows about tomorrow’s) it’s valuable to sound American or British. While many undergo accent neutralization training, Sanas is a startup with another approach (and a $5.5 million seed round): using speech recognition and synthesis to change the speaker’s accent in near real time.

The company has trained a machine learning algorithm to quickly and locally (that is, without using the cloud) recognize a person’s speech on one end and, on the other, output the same words with an accent chosen from a list or automatically detected from the other person’s speech.

Screenshot of the Sanas desktop application.

Image Credits: Sanas.ai

It slots right into the OS’s sound stack so it works out of the box with pretty much any audio or video calling tool. Right now the company is operating a pilot program with thousands of people in locations from the U.S. and U.K. to the Philippines, India, Latin America and others. Accents supported will include American, Spanish, British, Indian, Filipino and Australian by the end of the year.

To tell the truth, the idea of Sanas kind of bothered me at first. It felt like a concession to bigoted people who consider their accent superior and think others below them. Tech will fix it … by accommodating the bigots. Great!

But while I still have a little bit of that feeling, I can see there’s more to it than this. Fundamentally speaking, it is easier to understand someone when they speak in an accent similar to your own. But customer service and tech support is a huge industry and one primarily performed by people outside the countries where the customers are. This basic disconnect can be remedied in a way that puts the onus of responsibility on the entry-level worker, or one that puts it on technology. Either way the difficulty of making oneself understood remains and must be addressed — an automated system just lets it be done more easily and allows more people to do their job.

It’s not magic — as you can tell in this clip, the character and cadence of the person’s voice is only partly retained and the result is considerably more artificial sounding:

But the technology is improving and like any speech engine, the more it’s used, the better it gets. And for someone not used to the original speaker’s accent, the American-accented version may very well be more easily understood. For the person in the support role, this likely means better outcomes for their calls — everyone wins. Sanas told me that the pilots are just starting so there are no numbers available from this deployment yet, but testing has suggested a considerable reduction of error rates and increase in call efficiency.

It’s good enough at any rate to attract a $5.5 million seed round, with participation from Human Capital, General Catalyst, Quiet Capital and DN Capital.

“Sanas is striving to make communication easy and free from friction, so people can speak confidently and understand each other, wherever they are and whoever they are trying to communicate with,” CEO Maxim Serebryakov said in the press release announcing the funding. It’s hard to disagree with that mission.

While the cultural and ethical questions of accents and power differentials are unlikely to ever go away, Sanas is trying something new that may be a powerful tool for the many people who must communicate professionally and find their speech patterns are an obstacle to that. It’s an approach worth exploring and discussing even if in a perfect world we would simply understand one another better.

Olsam raises $165M to buy up and scale consumer and B2B Amazon Marketplace sellers

By Ingrid Lunden

On the heels of Heroes announcing a $200 million raise earlier today, to double down on buying and scaling third-party Amazon Marketplace sellers, another startup out of London aiming to do the same is announcing some significant funding of its own. Olsam, a roll-up play that is buying up both consumer and B2B merchants selling on Amazon by way of Amazon’s FBA fulfillment program, has closed $165 million — a combination of equity and debt that it will be using to fuel its M&A strategy, as well as continue building out its tech platform and to hire more talent.

Apeiron Investment Group — an investment firm started by German entrepreneur Christian Angermayer (known first for biopharmaceuticals, then investing and crypto, including playing a role in SoftBank investing in Wirecard) — led the Series A equity round, with Elevat3 Capital (another Angermayer firm that has a strategic partnership with Founders Fund and Peter Thiel) also participating. North Wall Capital was behind the debt portion of the deal. We have asked and Olsam is only disclosing the full amount raised, not the amount that was raised in equity versus debt. Valuation is also not being disclosed.

Being an Amazon roll-up startup from London that happens to be announcing a fundraise today is not the only thing that Olsam has in common with Heroes. Like Heroes, Olsam is also founded by brothers.

Sam Horbye previously spent years working at Amazon, including building and managing the company’s Business Marketplace (the B2B version of the consumer Marketplace); while co-founder Ollie Horbye had years of experience in strategic consulting and financial services.

Between them, they had also built and sold previous marketplace businesses, and they believe that this collective experience gives Olsam — a portmanteau of their names, “Ollie” and “Sam” — a leg up when it comes to building relationships with merchants; identifying quality products (versus the vast seas of search results that often feel like they are selling the same inexpensive junk as each other); and understanding merchants’ challenges and opportunities, and building relationships with Amazon and understanding how the merchant ecosystem fits into the e-commerce giant’s wider strategy.

Olsam is also taking a slightly different approach when it comes to target companies, by focusing not just on the usual consumer play, but also on merchants selling to businesses. B2B selling is currently one of the fastest-growing segments in Amazon’s Marketplace, and it is also one of the more overlooked by consumers.”It’s flying under the radar,” Ollie said.

“The B2B opportunity is very exciting,” Sam added. “A growing number of merchants are selling office supplies or more random products to the B2B customer.”

Estimates vary when it comes to how many merchants there are selling on Amazon’s Marketplace globally, ranging anywhere from 6 million to nearly 10 million. Altogether those merchants generated $300 million in sales (gross merchandise value), and its growing by 50% each year at the moment.

And consolidating sellers — in order to achieve better economies of scale around supply chains, marketing tools and analytics, and more — is also big business. Olsam estimates that some $7 billion has been spent cumulatively on acquiring these businesses, and there are more out there: Olsam estimates that there are some 3,000 businesses in the UK alone making more than $1 million each in sales on Amazon’s platform.

(And to be clear, there are a number of other roll-up startups beyond Heroes also eyeing up that opportunity. Raising hundreds of millions of dollars in aggregate,  others have made moves this year include Suma Brands ($150 million); Elevate Brands ($250 million); Perch ($775 million); factory14 ($200 million); Thrasio (currently probably the biggest of them all in terms of reach and money raised and ambitions), HeydayThe Razor GroupBrandedSellerXBerlin Brands Group (X2), Benitago, Latin America’s Valoreo and Rainforest and Una Brands out of Asia.)

“The senior team behind Olsam is what makes this business truly unique,” said Angermayer in a statement. “Having all been successful in building and selling their own brands within the market and having worked for Amazon in their marketplace team – their understanding of this space is exceptional.”

Kai-Fu Lee and Chen Qiufan will share their vision of our AI-powered future at Disrupt

By Devin Coldewey

We’ve had visionary investors onstage before, and we’ve had science fiction authors onstage — but never at the same time, let alone a pair who collaborated on a unique book of stories and essays that make an optimistic prediction of our AI-infused future. Sinovation founder Kai-Fu Lee and author of “Waste Tide” and others Chen Qiufan will join us at Disrupt (September 21-23) for a discussion of the fiction and fact of today’s hottest technology.

Lee, born in Taiwan, attended CMU and obtained a PhD in computer science, working initially on speech recognition before working for Apple, SGI and Microsoft, then establishing Google China as its president. His research and investment company, Sinovation (originally Innovation Works) has been his focus since its founding in 2009, and he has grown to become a leading mind and influential figure in AI.

When we last spoke with Lee, at Disrupt SF 2018, he emphasized that China was catching up to the U.S. on AI research, and had surpassed it in some ways. And certainly his own investments have contributed to that. Since then, as someone who thinks frequently about what the future holds, he has found a kindred spirit in Chen Qiufan.

Qiufan is a Chinese author whose 2013 novel “Waste Tide” propelled him to literary fame, though like many authors, that wasn’t enough to make him quit his day job until a few years later (Wired only just ran a profile on him). But by that time he had attracted the attention of Lee, who proposed a novel project: a collaborative book where the two would put their heads together to create a fictitious future informed by fact and realistic extrapolation.

The result is “AI 2041”: 10 stories by Qiufan set in the titular year, all over the world, with people from all walks of life encountering AI in the many ways that the authors speculate it may come to shape society over the next two decades. Each is followed by an explanatory essay by Lee that goes into the technical aspects and why they might lead to that future.

I’ll be posting a full review of the book ahead of the event, but I can certainly say that it’s unlike any collection I’ve read before. Each story is independent but takes place in something like a shared world, and each illustrates a potential application, conflict or change in thinking that AI could lead to. And, importantly, the AI is recognizable as descended directly from existing technologies.

For instance, one story concerns a talented deepfake creator working out of Lagos, one who knows the ins and outs of generative adversarial networks, image inspection, media pathways and so on. He’s tasked with creating a video of a long-dead celebrity that fools not just people watching it but the hosting service’s automated scanners, the government’s facial recognition algorithms and all the rest — but he begins to suspect there’s an unsavory motive behind it all (I won’t spoil the rest).

What follows the story is Lee’s essay on GANs, facial recognition and deepfakes that explains the concepts in an understandable but not patronizing way, then explores the risks and benefits in a non-narrative way. It helps ground the stories as real possibilities, not just imagined situations.

With both Qiufan and Lee onstage (virtually this time), the discussion of the book and the issues it brings up should be a lively one — not least because it will be moderated by yours truly. But to catch this session, you’ll need to grab a pass to attend Disrupt happening September 21-23. Get yours today for less than $100 for a limited time!

Korean 3D spatial data tool startup Urbanbase closes $11.1M Series B+ round

By Kate Park

Urbanbase, a Seoul-based company that develops a 3D spatial data platform for interior planning and design, announced today it has raised $11.1 million (13 billion won) in a Series B+ round as it scales up.

This round of funding was led by Hanwha Hotel & Resort, which is a subsidiary of South Korean conglomerate Hanwha Corporation.

Urbanbase, founded in 2013 by chief executive officer and a former architect Jinu Ha, has now raised $20 million (approximately 23 billion won) in total.

Existing investors did not join this round. The company had raised Series A funding of $1.8 million and an additional $1.2 million in 2017 and its first Series B round in April 2020, from backers that included South Korea-based Shinsegae Information & Communication, Woomi Construction, SL Investment, KDB Capital, Shinhan Capital, Enlight Ventures, CKD Venture Capital, and Breeze Investment, Ha said.

The latest funding will be used for enhancing its B2B SaaS, investing in R&D for advanced virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and 3D tools, which are considered core technologies of metaverse that is its new business Urbanbase plans to enter, according to Ha. Global metaverse market size is projected to increase $280 billion by 2025 from $30.7 billion in 2021, based on Strategy Analytics’ report.

Companies that focus on opportunities in the so-called “metaverse” have been growing as part of a next-generation approach to building viable business models in areas like virtual and augmented reality, and all the hardware and software and new tech that are being built for them. Big tech corporations, ranging from Facebook, Intel to Microsoft, are targeting to move in the area. Apple also waded into the area of virtual reality, working on developing a high-end VR headset.

Urbanbase also plans to upgrade its home interior software platform, Urbanbase Studio, that has functions to transform 2D indoor space images into 3D displays via Urbanbase’s patented algorithm, visualize interior products in augmented reality and analyze spatial images based on the AI technology.

Urbanbase claims 50,000 monthly active users with 70,000 registered B2C users. The company has about 50 B2B customers.

“Most of our B2B clients are large conglomerates in South Korea and Japan, for example, LG Electronics, Japan-based Mitsubishi Real Estate Service, Nitori Holdings, Dentsu Group and SoftBank, but we would like to extend our B2B clients base to small, midsized companies and bring more B2C users after closing the Series B+ funding,” Ha mentioned.

Urbanbase is seeking an acquisition target in prop-tech and construction technology sectors, Ha told TechCrunch. Urbanbase currently focuses on developing the interior tools for apartment buildings because about 70-80 percent of total households in South Korea and Japan live in apartments, Ha said, adding that it will diversify its portfolio by acquiring a startup that covers different types of residence.

It currently operates the platform in Korean and Japanese, but it will add English language service prior to entering in Singapore in the end of 2021, Ha said.

Data scientists: don’t be afraid to explore new avenues

By Ram Iyer
Ilyes Kacher Contributor
Ilyes Kacher is a data scientist at autoRetouch, an AI-powered platform for bulk-editing product images online.

I’m a native French data scientist who cut his teeth as a research engineer in computer vision in Japan and later in my home country. Yet I’m writing from an unlikely computer vision hub: Stuttgart, Germany.

But I’m not working on German car technology, as one would expect. Instead, I found an incredible opportunity mid-pandemic in one of the most unexpected places: An ecommerce-focused, AI-driven, image-editing startup in Stuttgart focused on automating the digital imaging process across all retail products.

My experience in Japan taught me the difficulty of moving to a foreign country for work. In Japan, having a point of entry with a professional network can often be necessary. However, Europe has an advantage here thanks to its many accessible cities. Cities like Paris, London, and Berlin often offer diverse job opportunities while being known as hubs for some specialties.

While there has been an uptick in fully remote jobs thanks to the pandemic, extending the scope of your job search will provide more opportunities that match your interest.

Search for value in unlikely places, like retail

I’m working at the technology spin-off of a luxury retailer, applying my expertise to product images. Approaching it from a data scientist’s point of view, I immediately recognized the value of a novel application for a very large and established industry like retail.

Europe has some of the most storied retail brands in the world — especially for apparel and footwear. That rich experience provides an opportunity to work with billions of products and trillions of dollars in revenue that imaging technology can be applied to. The advantage of retail companies is a constant flow of images to process that provides a playing ground to generate revenue and possibly make an AI company profitable.

Another potential avenue to explore are independent divisions typically within an R&D department. I found a significant number of AI startups working on a segment that isn’t profitable, simply due to the cost of research and the resulting revenue from very niche clients.

Companies with data are companies with revenue potential

I was particularly attracted to this startup because of the potential access to data. Data by itself is quite expensive and a number of companies end up working with a finite set. Look for companies that directly engage at the B2B or B2C level, especially retail or digital platforms that affect front-end user interface.

Leveraging such customer engagement data benefits everyone. You can apply it towards further research and development on other solutions within the category, and your company can then work with other verticals on solving their pain points.

It also means there’s massive potential for revenue gains the more cross-segments of an audience the brand affects. My advice is to look for companies with data already stored in a manageable system for easy access. Such a system will be beneficial for research and development.

The challenge is that many companies haven’t yet introduced such a system, or they don’t have someone with the skills to properly utilize it. If you finding a company isn’t willing to share deep insights during the courtship process or they haven’t implemented it, look at the opportunity to introduce such data-focused offerings.

In Europe, the best bets involve creating automation processes

I have a sweet spot for early-stage companies that give you the opportunity to create processes and core systems. The company I work for was still in its early days when I started, and it was working towards creating scalable technology for a specific industry. The questions that the team was tasked with solving were already being solved, but there were numerous processes that still had to be put into place to solve a myriad of other issues.

Our year-long efforts to automate bulk image editing taught me that as long as the AI you’re building learns to run independently across multiple variables simultaneously (multiple images and workflows), you’re developing a technology that does what established brands haven’t been able to do. In Europe, there are very few companies doing this and they are hungry for talent who can.

So don’t be afraid of a little culture shock and take the leap.

Zendesk acquires AI automation startup Cleverly to advance customer service

By Sean Michael Kerner

Zendesk is looking to grow its customer service capabilities, and today it announced the acquisition of early-stage artificial intelligence startup Cleverly.

Financial terms of the deal are not being publicly disclosed at this time and Cleverly has not been entirely public about the size of its funding. Founded in 2019, Cleverly is based in Lisbon, Portugal and, according to its site, has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. 

The startup was also listed by TechCrunch in an article earlier this year looking at the startup scene in Lisbon as being one of the most exciting deep tech companies in the region, according to Stephan Morais, partner at Indico Capital Partners.

Cleverly’s product platform provides a series of artificial intelligence-powered capabilities, including a triage function to automatically tag incoming service requests to help categorize workflow. The startup also has what it refers to as AI-powered human augmentation with its agent assist capability that aims to help customer service agents provide the right answers to inquiries. The company’s technology already integrates with Zendesk, as well as with Salesforce.

As to why Zendesk is acquiring Cleverly, Shawna Wolverton, EVP of product at Zendesk, noted in an email to TechCrunch that the two companies have a similar vision for the future of customer service. 

“Cleverly and Zendesk want to democratize AI, so companies can create practical applications that make it possible for businesses to get started with AI right out of the box — without a team of data scientists required,” she said. 

Wolverton added that AI has the ability to help customer experience teams deliver great customer service. She expects that the next generation of great customer experiences will be created by intelligent software, enabling humans and AI working closely together to deliver this at scale.

Wolverton noted that her company will be welcoming all of Cleverly’s team to Zendesk beginning August 30, including founders Christina Fonseca as VP of Product and Pedro Coelho as principal engineering lead, Machine Learning.

Zendesk already has a series of AI-enabled capabilities that can help organizations automate customer conversations, boost agent productivity and increase operational efficiency, including the Answer Bot, which is a chatbot for customer interactions providing answers pulled from Zendesk’s knowledge base. Zendesk’s Content Cues AI-powered feature in turn helps to automatically review support tickets and also can identify areas where content in a company’s help center can be updated to be more useful to users.

“With Cleverly, we will deliver a range of capabilities that automate key insights, further reduce manual tasks and improve workflows, and overall lead to happier, more productive support teams,” Wolverton said. “We will have more news to share on that front once the team is up and running.

Zendesk’s business has been growing in 2021 overall, reporting second-quarter fiscal 2021 revenue of $318.2 million for a 29% year-over-year gain.

 

Israel’s maturing fintech ecosystem may soon create global disruptors

By Annie Siebert
Adi Levanon Contributor
Adi Levanon has been an early-stage VC for nearly a decade, with a strong focus on fintech investments since 2015, both in the U.S. and Israel. Currently, she is the Tel Aviv-based investor at Flint Capital.

“Even with its vast local talent, it seems Israel still has many hurdles to overcome in order to become a global fintech hub. [ … ] Having that said, I don’t believe any of these obstacles will prevent Israel from generating disruptive global fintech startups that will become game-changing businesses.”

I wrote that back in 2018, when I was determined to answer whether Israel had the potential to become a global fintech hub. Suffice to say, this prediction from three years ago has become a reality.

In 2019, Israeli fintech startups raised over $1.8 billion; in 2020, they were said to have raised $1.48 billion despite the pandemic. Just in the first quarter of 2021, Israeli fintech startups raised $1.1 billion, according to IVC Research Center and Meitar Law Offices.

It’s then no surprise that Israel now boasts over a dozen fintech unicorns in sectors such as payments, insurtech, lending, banking and more, some of which reached the desired status just in the beginning of 2021 —  like Melio and Papaya Global, which raised $110 million and $100 million, respectively.

Over the years I’ve been fortunate to invest (both as a venture capitalist and personally) in successful early-stage fintech companies in the U.S., Israel and emerging markets  —  Alloy, Eave, MoneyLion, Migo, Unit, AcroCharge and more.

The major shifts and growth of fintech globally over these years has been largely due to advanced AI-based technologies, heightened regulatory scrutiny, a more innovative and adaptive approach among financial institutions to build partnerships with fintechs, and, of course, the COVID pandemic, which forced consumers to transact digitally.

The pandemic pushed fintechs to become essential for business survival, acting as the main contributor of the rapid migration to digital payments.

So what is it about Israeli-founded fintech startups that stand out from their scaling neighbors across the pond? Israeli founders first and foremost have brought to the table a distinct perspective and understanding of where the gaps exist within their respective focus industries —  whether it was Hippo and Lemonade in the world of property and casualty insurance, Rapyd and Melio in the world of business-to-business payments, or Earnix and Personetics in the world of banking data and analytics.

This is even more compelling given that many of these Israeli founders did not grow within financial services, but rather recognized those gaps, built their know-how around the industry (in some cases by hiring or partnering with industry experts and advisers during their ideation phase, strengthening their knowledge and validation), then sought to build more innovative and customer-focused solutions than most financial institutions can offer.

Having this in mind, it is becoming clearer that the Israeli fintech industry has slowly transitioned into a mature ecosystem with a combination of local talent, which now has expertise from a multitude of local fintechs that have scaled to success; a more global network of banking and insurance partners that have recognized the Israeli fintech disruptors; and the smart fintech -focused venture capital to go along with it. It’s a combination that will continue to set up Israeli fintech founders for success.

In addition, a major contributor to the fintech industry comes from the technological side. It is never enough to reach unicorn status with just the tech on the back end.

What most likely differentiates Israeli fintech from other ecosystems is the strong technological barriers and infrastructure built from the ground up, which then, of course, leads to the ability to be more customized, compliant, secured, etc. If I had to bet on where I believe Israeli fintech startups could become market leaders, I’d go with the following.

Voice-based transactions

Voice technologies have come a long way over the years; where once you knew you were talking to a robot, now financial institutions and applications offer a fully automated experience that sounds and feels just like a company employee.

Israel has shown growing success in the world of voice tech, with companies like Gong.io providing insights for remote sales teams; Bonobo (acquired by Salesforce) offering insights from customer support calls, texts and other interactions; and Voca.ai (acquired by Snapchat) offering an automated support agent to replace the huge costs of maintaining call centers.

Job offer management platform Compa emerges from stealth with $3.9M

By Christine Hall

If you haven’t noticed yet, the hiring market is a hot one — and getting more complicated as enterprise talent acquisition leaders face technology gaps while assessing candidates. This leads to difficulty in determining compensation.

Enter Compa. The offer management platform provides “deal desk” software for recruiters to more easily manage their compensation strategies to create and communicate offers that are easy to understand and are unbiased.

Charlie Franklin, co-founder and CEO of Compa, told TechCrunch it was frustrating to lose a candidate at the compensation stage, so the company created its software to reduce the challenge of relying on crowdsourcing data or surveys to compare pay.

“Recruiters often lack the data and tools to figure out how much to pay people and communicate that effectively,” Franklin told TechCrunch. “We see talent acquisitions teams like a sales team. If you think of it from that perspective, they need to close a candidate, but to ask the recruiter to operate off of a spreadsheet slows that process down.”

Compa co-founders, from left, Charlie Franklin, Joe Malandruccolo and Taylor Cone. Image Credits: Compa

With Compa, recruiters can input pay expectations and compare recent offers and collaborate with other team members and hiring managers to reach pay consensus quicker. The software automates all of the market intelligence in real time and provides insights about compensation across similar industries and organizations.

The company, based in both California and Massachusetts, emerged from stealth Thursday with $3.9 million in seed funding led by Base10 Partners. Participation in the round also came from Crosscut Ventures and Acadian Ventures, as well as a group of strategic angel investors including 2.12 Angels, Oyster HR CEO Tony Jamous and Scout RFP co-founders Stan Garber and Alex Yakubovich.

Jamison Hill, partner at Base10 Partners, said via email his firm was doing research in the ESG “megatrend,” particularly looking for startups focused on compensation management, when it came across Compa.

He was attracted to the founders’ “clarity and conviction” on the company’s vision, their understanding of the pay gap in the market, how Compa’s solution would “create a new wave of smarter, more-data driven recruiting teams” and how it was enabling employers to use compensation and a positive offer management approach to differentiate itself from competitors.

“They deeply understand the nuances that come with enterprise-level HR teams and bring that expertise to every aspect of Compa’s product offering, which is why we believe Compa can emerge as a leader in this trend and chose to partner with this very special team,” Hill added.

Franklin, who previously led human resources M&A at Workday, founded Compa last year with  Joe Malandruccolo, who was on the engineering side at Facebook and Oculus, and Taylor Cone, who has done innovation consulting for organizations like Stanford University.

The company was bootstrapped prior to going after the seed round and will use the capital to expand the team and create additional products that fit into its mission of “making compensation fair and competitive for everyone,” Franklin said.

Going forward, he adds that job offers and compensation need to catch up to how quickly the world is changing. As more people work remotely and companies want to attract a diverse workforce, compensation will be an important factor.

“This is a long-term trend we are seeing in HR — compensation becoming more transparent — not just a spreadsheet shared internally, but a transition from secretive to open and accountable, Franklin said. “Technology is catching up to that, and we have the ability to produce outcomes that drive differences in pay.”

 

Google confirms it’s pulling the plug on Streams, its UK clinician support app

By Natasha Lomas

Google is infamous for spinning up products and killing them off, often in very short order. It’s an annoying enough habit when it’s stuff like messaging apps and games. But the tech giant’s ambitions stretch into many domains that touch human lives these days. Including, most directly, healthcare. And — it turns out — so does Google’s tendency to kill off products that its PR has previously touted as ‘life saving’.

To wit: Following a recent reconfiguration of Google’s health efforts — reported earlier by Business Insider — the tech giant confirmed to TechCrunch that it is decommissioning its clinician support app, Streams.

The app, which Google Health PR bills as a “mobile medical device”, was developed back in 2015 by DeepMind, an AI division of Google — and has been used by the UK’s National Health Service in the years since, with a number of Trusts inking deals with DeepMind Health to roll out Streams to their clinicians.

At the time of writing, one NHS Trust — London’s Royal Free — is still using the app in its hospitals.

But, presumably, not for too much longer since Google is in the process of taking Streams out back to be shot and tossed into its deadpool — alongside the likes of its ill-fated social network, Google+, and Internet ballon company Loon, to name just two of a frankly endless list of now defunct Alphabet/Google products.

Other NHS Trusts we contacted which had previously rolled out Streams told us they have already stopped using the app.

University College London NHS Trust confirmed to TechCrunch that it severed ties with Google Health earlier this year.

“Our agreement with Google Health (initially DeepMind) came to an end in March 2021 as originally planned. Google Health deleted all the data it held at the end of the [Streams] project,” a UCL NHS Trust spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust also told us it stopped using Streams this summer (in July) — and said patient data is in the process of being deleted.

“Following the decommissioning of Streams at the Trust earlier this summer, data that has been processed by Google Health to provide the service to the Trust will be deleted and the agreement has been terminated,” a spokesperson said.

“As per the data sharing agreement, any patient data that has been processed by Google Health to provide the service will be deleted. The deletion process is started once the agreement has been terminated,” they added, saying the contractual timeframe for Google deleting patient data is six months.

Another Trust, Taunton & Somerset, also confirmed its involvement with Streams had already ended. 

The Streams deals DeepMind inked with NHS Trusts were for five years so these contracts were likely approaching the end of their terms, anyway.

Contract extensions would have had to be agreed by both parties. And Google’s decision to decommission Streams may be factoring in a lack of enthusiasm from involved Trusts to continue using the software — although if that’s the case it may, in turn, be a reflection of Trusts’ perceptions of Google’s weak commitment to the project.

Neither side is saying much publicly.

But as far as we’re aware the Royal Free is the only NHS Trust still using the clinician support app as Google prepares to cut off Stream’s life support.

No more Streams?

The Streams story has plenty of wrinkles, to put it politely.

For one thing, despite being developed by Google’s AI division — and despite DeepMind founder Mustafa Suleyman saying the goal for the project was to find ways to integrate AI into Streams so the app could generate predictive healthcare alerts — it doesn’t involve any artificial intelligence.

An algorithm in Streams alerts doctors to the risk of a patient developing acute kidney injury but relies on an existing AKI (acute kidney injury) algorithm developed by the NHS. So Streams essentially digitized and mobilized existing practice.

As a result, it always looked odd that an AI division of an adtech giant would be so interested in building, provisioning and supporting clinician support software over the long term. But then — as it panned out — neither DeepMind nor Google were in it for the long haul at the patient’s bedside.

DeepMind and the NHS Trust it worked with to develop Streams (the aforementioned Royal Free) started out with wider ambitions for their partnership — as detailed in an early 2016 memo we reported on, which set out a five year plan to bring AI to healthcare. Plus, as we noted above, Suleyman keep up the push for years — writing later in 2019 that: “Streams doesn’t use artificial intelligence at the moment, but the team now intends to find ways to safely integrate predictive AI models into Streams in order to provide clinicians with intelligent insights into patient deterioration.”

A key misstep for the project emerged in 2017 — through press reporting of a data scandal, as details of the full scope of the Royal Free-DeepMind data-sharing partnership were published by New Scientist (which used a freedom of information request to obtain contracts the pair had not made public).

The UK’s data protection watchdog went on to find that the Royal Free had not had a valid legal basis when it passed information on millions of patients’ to DeepMind during the development phase of Streams.

Which perhaps explains DeepMind’s eventually cooling ardour for a project it had initially thought — with the help of a willing NHS partner — would provide it with free and easy access to a rich supply of patient data for it to train up healthcare AIs which it would then be, seemingly, perfectly positioned to sell back into the self same service in future years. Price tbc.

No one involved in that thought had properly studied the detail of UK healthcare data regulation, clearly.

Or — most importantly — bothered to considered fundamental patient expectations about their private information.

So it was not actually surprising when, in 2018, DeepMind announced that it was stepping away from Streams — handing the app (and all its data) to Google Health — Google’s internal health-focused division — which went on to complete its takeover of DeepMind Health in 2019. (Although it was still shocking, as we opined at the time.)

It was Google Health that Suleyman suggested would be carrying forward the work to bake AI into Streams, writing at the time of the takeover that: “The combined experience, infrastructure and expertise of DeepMind Health teams alongside Google’s will help us continue to develop mobile tools that can support more clinicians, address critical patient safety issues and could, we hope, save thousands of lives globally.”

A particular irony attached to the Google Health takeover bit of the Streams saga is the fact that DeepMind had, when under fire over its intentions toward patient data, claimed people’s medical information would never be touched by its adtech parent.

Until of course it went on it hand the whole project off to Google — and then lauded the transfer as great news for clinicians and patients!

Google’s takeover of Streams meant NHS Trusts that wanted to continue using the app had to ink new contracts directly with Google Health. And all those who had rolled out the app did so. It’s not like they had much choice if they did want to continue.

Again, jump forward a couple of years and it’s Google Health now suddenly facing a major reorg — with Streams in the frame for the chop as part of Google’s perpetually reconfiguring project priorities.

It is quite the ignominious ending to an already infamous project.

DeepMind’s involvement with the NHS had previously been seized upon by the UK government — with former health secretary, Matt Hancock, trumpeting an AI research partnership between the company and Moorfield’s Eye Hospital as an exemplar of the kind of data-driven innovation he suggested would transform healthcare service provision in the UK.

Luckily for Hancock he didn’t pick Streams as his example of great “healthtech” innovation. (Moorfields confirmed to us that its research-focused partnership with Google Health is continuing.)

The hard lesson here appears to be don’t bet the nation’s health on an adtech giant that plays fast and loose with people’s data and doesn’t think twice about pulling the plug on digital medical devices as internal politics dictate another chair-shuffling reorg.

Patient data privacy advocacy group, MedConfidential — a key force in warning over the scope of the Royal Free’s DeepMind data-sharing deal — urged Google to ditch the spin and come clean about the Streams cock-up, once and for all.

“Streams is the Windows Vista of Google — a legacy it hopes to forget,” MedConfidential’s Sam Smith told us. “The NHS relies on trustworthy suppliers, but companies that move on after breaking things create legacy problems for the NHS, as we saw with wannacry. Google should admit the decision, delete the data, and learn that experimenting on patients is regulated for a reason.”

Questions over Royal Free’s ongoing app use

Despite the Information Commissioner’s Office’s 2017 finding that the Royal Free’s original data-sharing deal with DeepMind was improper, it’s notable that the London Trust stuck with Streams — continuing to pass data to DeepMind.

The original patient data-set that was shared with DeepMind without a valid legal basis was never ordered to be deleted. Nor — presumably has it since been deleted. Hence the call for Google to delete the data now.

Ironically the improperly acquired data should (in theory) finally get deleted — once contractual timeframes for any final back-up purges elapse — but only because it’s Google itself planning to switch off Streams.

The Royal Free confirmed to us that it is still using Streams, even as Google spins the dial on its commercial priorities for the umpteenth time and decides it’s not interested in this particular bit of clinician support, after all.

We put a number of questions to the Trust — including about the deletion of patient data — none of which it responded to.

Instead, two days later, it sent us this one-line statement which raises plenty more questions — saying only that: “The Streams app has not been decommissioned for the Royal Free London and our clinicians continue to use it for the benefit of patients in our hospitals.”

It is not clear how long the Trust will be able to use an app Google is decommissioning. Nor how wise that might be for patient safety — such as if the app won’t get necessary security updates, for example.

We’ve also asked Google how long it will continue to support the Royal Free’s usage — and when it plans to finally switch off the service. As well as which internal group will be responsible for any SLA requests coming from the Royal Free as the Trust continues to use software Google Health is decommissioning — and will update this report with any response. (Earlier a Google spokeswoman told us the Royal Free would continue to use Streams for the ‘near future’ — but she did not offer a specific end date.)

In press reports this month on the Google Health reorg — covering an internal memo first obtained by Business Insider —  teams working on various Google health projects were reported to be being split up to other areas, including some set to report into Google’s search and AI teams.

So which Google group will take over responsibility for the handling of the SLA with the Royal Free, as a result of the Google Health reshuffle, is an interesting question.

In earlier comments, Google’s spokeswoman told us the new structure for its reconfigured health efforts — which are still being badged ‘Google Health’ — will encompass all its work in health and wellness, including Fitbit, as well as AI health research, Google Cloud and more.

On Streams specifically, she said the app hasn’t made the cut because when Google assimilated DeepMind Health it decided to focus its efforts on another digital offering for clinicians — called Care Studio — which it’s currently piloting with two US health systems (namely: Ascension & Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center). 

And anyone who’s ever tried to use a Google messaging app will surely have strong feelings of déjà vu on reading that…

DeepMind’s co-founder, meanwhile, appears to have remained blissfully ignorant of Google’s intentions to ditch Streams in favor of Care Studio — tweeting back in 2019 as Google completed the takeover of DeepMind Health that he had been “proud to be part of this journey”, and also touting “huge progress delivered already, and so much more to come for this incredible team”.

In the end, Streams isn’t being ‘supercharged’ (or levelled up to use current faddish political parlance) with AI — as his 2019 blog post had envisaged — Google is simply taking it out of service. Like it did with Reader or Allo or Tango or Google Play Music, or…. well, the list goes on.

Suleyman’s own story contains some wrinkles, too.

He is no longer at DeepMind but has himself been ‘folded into’ Google — joining as a VP of artificial intelligence policy, after initially being placed on an extended leave of absence from DeepMind.

In January, allegations that he had bullied staff were reported by the WSJ. And then, earlier this month, Business Insider expanded on that — reporting follow up allegations that there had been confidential settlements between DeepMind and former employees who had worked under Suleyman and complained about his conduct (although DeepMind denied any knowledge of such settlements).

In a statement to Business Insider, Suleyman apologized for his past behavior — and said that in 2019 he had “accepted feedback that, as a co-founder at DeepMind, I drove people too hard and at times my management style was not constructive”, adding that he had taken time out to start working with a coach and that that process had helped him “reflect, grow and learn personally and professionally”.

We asked Google if Suleyman would like to comment on the demise of Streams — and on his employer’s decision to kill the project — given his high hopes for the project and all the years of work he put into the health push. But the company did not engage with that request.

We also offered Suleyman the chance to comment directly. We’ll update this story if he responds.

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