Getting even the most well-organized team to agree on anything can be hard. Tel Aviv’s Ment.io, formerly known as Epistema, wants to make this process easier by applying smart design and a dose of machine learning to streamline the decision-making process.
Like with so many Israeli startups, Ment.io’s co-founders Joab Rosenberg and Tzvika Katzenelson got their start in Israel’s intelligence service. Indeed, Rosenberg spent 25 years in the intelligence service, where his final role was that of the deputy head analyst. “Our story starts from there, because we had the responsibility of gathering the knowledge of a thousand analysts, surrounded by tens of thousands of collection unit soldiers,” Katzenelson, who is Ment.io’s CRO, told me. He noted that the army had turned decision making into a form of art. But when the founders started looking at the tech industry, they found a very different approach to decision making — and one that they thought needed to change.
If there’s one thing the software industry has, it’s data and analytics. These days, the obvious thing to do with all of that information is to build machine learning models, but Katzenelson (rightly) argues that these models are essentially black boxes. “Data does not speak for itself. Correlations that you may find in the data are certainly not causations,” he said. “Every time you send analysts into the data, they will come up with some patterns that may mislead you.”
So Ment.io is trying to take a very different approach. It uses data and machine learning, but it starts with questions and people. The service actually measures the level of expertise and credibility every team member has around a given topic. “One of the crazy things we’re doing is that for every person, we’re creating their cognitive matrix. We’re able to tell you within the context of your organization how believable you are, how balanced you are, how clearly you are being perceived by your counterparts, because we are gathering all of your clarification requests and every time a person challenges you with something.”
At its core, Ment.io is basically an internal Q&A service. Anybody can pose questions and anybody can answer them with any data source or supporting argument they may have.
“We’re doing structuring,” Katzenelson explained. “And that’s basically our philosophy: knowledge is just arguments and counterarguments. And the more structure you can put in place, the more logic you can apply.”
In a sense, the company is doing this because natural language processing (NLP) technology isn’t yet able to understand the nuances of a discussion.If you’re anything like me, though, the last thing you want is to have to use yet another SaaS product at work. The Ment.io team is quite aware of that and has built a deep integration with Slack already and is about to launch support for Microsoft Teams in the next few days, which doesn’t come as a surprise, given that the team has participated in the Microsoft ScaleUp accelerator program.
The overall idea here, Katzenelson explained, is to provide a kind of intelligence layer on top of tools like Slack and Teams that can capture a lot of the institutional knowledge that is now often shared in relatively ephemeral chats.
Ment.io is the first Israeli company to raise funding from Peter Thiel’s late-stage fund, as well as from the Slack Fund, which surely creates some interesting friction, given the company’s involvement with both Slack and Microsoft, but Katzenelson argues that this is not actually a problem.
Microsoft is also a current Ment.io customer, together with the likes of Intel, Citibank and Fiverr.
Imagine a growing Israeli startup whose product is deepfake videos that are based on artificial intelligence and appear to be utterly authentic. The company’s marketing efforts, according to its website, are conducted by two departments — “consulting for corporations” and “consulting for governments and politicians.” In addition, “the company helps its customers uncover their opponents’ weak spots and make them go viral.”
Finally, imagine that the company describes its employees as “highly experienced men and women, graduates of elite units of the IDF intelligence branch and Israeli government intelligence agencies,” and that its technology is based on developments by these same security agencies. On top of all of this, of course its board of directors includes former heads of Mossad and the Israeli General Security Service (Shin Bet), as well as retired senior army officers.
When you are done imagining this, it’s time to think about the private intelligence firm Black Cube. Various investigative reports published recently in the media in Israel and abroad paint a troubling picture — not because the company is violating the law, but because of its lack of ethics and internal moral code.
According to these reports, Black Cube does not work only for giant corporations that want to dig up incriminating information about their competitors, it also has contracts with foreign governments that seek to repress political opponents. It not only helps governments find those who are evading their financial obligations, but also to harass women who complain about crimes of sexual violence. Not only does it identify those who defame rival businesses, but it also frightens off regulators and watchdogs, human rights activists and journalists.
Black Cube, of course, is not alone in this. Have you ever heard of NSO, whose flagship product, Pegasus, can turn any cellphone into a mobile spying device? Or Glassbox and its product line? The list of such companies is long, and most of them are all but unknown. All of them are based on exploiting the skills, technology and professional culture created in the Israeli security establishment.
There is nothing new about former members of the Israeli defense and security agencies selling weapons and military know-how. But what has been added in recent years is the technology twist. Former high-ranking security officials and intelligence operatives, including from the renowned 8200 unit, strike out on their own. Some of them find employment in firms that break new ground, improve the world and better society; but others, in their greed, are willing to sell spyware and offensive cyber-weapons to dictators in Africa who need them to stamp out criticism and revolts.
This is also not a situation unique to Israel. Veterans of western security agencies worldwide face similar dilemmas once they retire from their careers in public service and seek their next professional challenges. The startup nation however, is based, to a large extent, on veterans of Israel’s high-tech units in the defense establishment. While this association certainly does bring honor, prestige, revenue and jobs to the Israeli economy, two issues resulting from this relationship need to be considered.
Technology can make the world a better place — or much worse.
The first relates to ethics. If anything is clear today in the world of technology, it is the need to include ethical concerns when developing, distributing, implementing and using technology. This is all the more important because in many domains there is no regulation or legislation to provide a clear definition of what may and may not be done. There is nothing intrinsic to technology that requires that it pursue only good ends. The mission of our generation is to ensure that technology works for our benefit and that it can help realize social ideals. The goal of these new technologies should not be to replicate power structures or other evils of the past.
Startup nation should focus on fighting crime and improving autonomous vehicles and healthcare advancements. It shouldn’t be running extremist groups on Facebook, setting up “bot farms” and fakes, selling attackware and spyware, infringing on privacy and producing deepfake videos.
The second issue is the lack of transparency. The combination of individuals and companies that have worked for, and sometimes still work with, the security establishment frequently takes place behind a thick screen of concealment. These entities often evade answering challenging questions that result from the Israeli Freedom of Information law and even recourse to the military censor — a unique Israeli institution — to avoid such inquires.
How can we know when the government permits to be sold, and to whom, technologies that were developed by the private sector but that have security implications? How can we know who intervenes when a foreign country in Europe arrests spies sent by a commercial firm, or when a Gulf state is targeted by an Israeli high-tech company? How can we know when the companies are serving the national interest, and their own bottom line — and who gets to decide this, anyway? And what is the impact on the defense establishment itself with the migration of its stars directly from national service to high tech? What effect does this have on the state’s decision-making process about which technologies to invest in, whom it trains and what it purchases?
Israel, and its tech business community, must carefully consider the negative ramifications of excelling in technology while disregarding moral and ethical questions. The “startup nation” must conduct extensive discussions on the crossroads between ethics and technology so as to endow the next generation with the strong moral compass necessary to navigate in this new world. The unanswered question at hand is how Israel, and similar western democracies, can grapple with the growing phenomenon of technological entities whose sole purpose is profit without any qualms about the moral implications of their products and services.
At the beginning of 2019, Techstars Mobility turned into Techstars Detroit. At the time of the announcement, Managing Director Ted Serbinski penned “the word mobility was becoming too limiting. We knew we needed to reach a broader audience of entrepreneurs who may not label themselves as mobility but are great candidates for the program.”
I always called it Techstars Detroit anyway.
With Techstars Detroit, the program is looking for startups transforming the intersection of the physical and digital worlds that can leverage the strengths of Detroit to succeed. It’s a mouthful, but makes sense. Mobility is baked into Detroit, but Detroit is more than mobility.
Today the program took the wraps off the first class of startups under the new direction.
Techstars has operated in Detroit since 2015 and has been a critical partner in helping the city rebuild. Since its launch, Serbinski and the Techstars Mobility (now Detroit) mentors have helped bring talented engineers and founders to the city.
Serbinski summed up Detroit nicely for me, saying, “No longer is Detroit telling the world how to move. The world is telling Detroit how it wants to move.” He added the incoming class represents the new Detroit, with 60% international and 40% female founders.
Airspace Link (Detroit, MI)
Providing highways in the sky for safer drone operations.
Alpha Drive (New York, NY)
Platform for the validation of autonomous vehicle AI.
Le Car (Novi, MI)
An AI-powered personal car concierge that matches you to your perfect vehicle fit.
Octane (Fremont, CA)
Octane is a mobile app that connects car enthusiasts to automotive events and to each other out on the road.
PPAP Manager (Chihuahua, Mexico)
A platform to streamline the approval of packets of documents required in the automotive industry, known as PPAP, to validate production parts.
Ruksack (Toronto, Canada)
Connecting travelers with local travel experts to help them plan a perfect trip.
Soundtrack AI (Tel Aviv, Israel)
Acoustics-based and AI-enabled Predictive Maintenance Platform.
Teporto (Tel Aviv, Israel)
Teporto is enabling a new commute modality with its one-click smart platform for transportation companies that seamlessly adapts commuter service to commuters’ needs.
Unlimited Engineering (Barcelona, Spain)
Unlimited develops modular Light Electric Vehicles as a fun, cheap and convenient solution to last-mile trips that are overserved by cars and public transportation.
Zown (Toronto, Canada)
Open up your real estate property to the new mobility marketplace.
YL Ventures, a 12-year-old, Mill Valley, Ca-based, seed-stage venture firm that invests narrowly in Israeli cybersecurity startups, just closed its fourth fund with $120 million in capital commitments, bringing the total capital it now manages to $260 million.
It’s an interesting firm in numerous ways that set it apart from many of its similar-size peers. Most meaningfully, though it backs founders at the earliest stages, it doesn’t spread its bets as do many seed-stage outfits, instead funding just two to three teams each year. That means it will spread its newest fund across an estimated 10 companies.
It’s a concentrated approach, and one that seems very much to be working. YL Ventures was the biggest shareholder in the container security startup Twistlock, for example, which sold to Palo Alto Networks last month for $410 million. Twistlock had raised $63 million altogether. YL Ventures wrote the company a $2 million check to start, then invested another $10 million over its four-year run as an independent company.
YL Ventures was also the biggest outside shareholder in Hexadite, an Israeli startup that used AI to identify and protect against attacks and that sold two years ago to Microsoft for a reported $100 million.
A more recent bet is on Orca Security, an Israeli startup led by two former Check Point Security executives that’s trying to solve the problem of securing applications in the cloud without an agent. Orca recently announced a $6.5 million seed round led by YL Ventures; what wasn’t reported at the time was just how much YL Ventures invested: $6.1 million.
Worth noting: almost all of founders in YL Ventures’s portfolio have not only served in the Israel Defense Forces but specifically within its 8200 Unit, an elite part of the organization that has become the training ground for some of the buzziest cybersecurity companies in the world. It reportedly accepts less than 1 out of every 100 high school graduates; venture firms with a cybersecurity focus then try and cherry-pick among these when their service is completed.
We talked with firm founder Yoav Leitersdorf recently about his 12-person firm, which is funded by family offices and ultra-high-net-worth individuals from largely the U.S., Europe, and São Paulo, Brazil, he says — relationships he says he can trace back to a handful of relationships struck in 2007. (As a serial entrepreneur who was ready at the time to try his hand at investing, Leitersdorf says he “went to some people I knew for capital, and they introduced me to their friends.”)
Leitersdorf also has demonstrated a penchant for networking in another way, too. To help vet teams that interest YL Ventures, the firm has formed a venture advisory board that’s comprised of more than 50 security pros from heavyweight companies, including Andy Ellis, who is the CSO of Akamai; Adam Ely, who is the Deputy CISO of Walmart; Netflix’s Director of Security, Brooks Evans; Rob Guertsen, the Deputy Information Security Officer at Nike; and Spotify’s head of security, David Hannigan.
Not only does this network get a look at what’s brewing in Israel, but they help steer YL Ventures to the startups that most directly address their own pain points.
They can also be helpful in getting Israeli entrepreneurs to cross over from Israel into the U.S., which is also very much a part of YL Ventures’s strategy. As Leitersdorf explains it, the “companies originate in Israel, but within a year, the CEO and some of the management team move to the U.S. and we help them build sales and market and hand all their follow-on funding.” This oftentimes includes introductions to frequent syndicate partners like Bessemer Venture Partners, USVP, and ICONIQ Capital.
We asked Leitersdorf what — beyond experience in the IDF, beyond the feedback of its advisory board members — YL Ventures looks for in a promising startup and he says, unsurprisingly, the team, but more specifically, their experience.
“Most of our founders have spent five to 10 years in the industry already,” he says, including at Microsoft or the network security company RSA or at Check Point, the Israel-based software giant. “They’re fairly mature, with the average age in the late 30s.” They also address a space that YL Ventures cares deeply about based on what its venture advisors tell the firm is a huge need.
“Then, when a team comes through, we try to steer them into those areas.”
YL Ventures closed its first fund in 2007 with $17.2 million, its second in 2013 with $41.5 million, and its third with $75 million in 2017.
Leitersdorf leads the firm from the U.S., alongside another partner, John Brennan. the firm also has an office in Tel Aviv headed by partner Ofer Schreiber.
PayU, the Naspers-owned fintech firm that specializes in emerging markets, is broadening its global reach into Southeast Asia after it announced a deal to buy a majority stake in Singapore-based Red Dot Payment.
Naspers is best known for its payments and fintech business in markets like India, Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe, but now it will enter Southeast Asia, a market with more than 600 million consumers and rapidly rising internet access.
PayU plans to tap that potential through Red Dot, an eight-year-old startup founded by finance veterans that offers services that include a payment gateway, e-commerce storefronts and online invoicing across Southeast Asia. PayU said it has acquired “a majority stake” in the business. It did not specify the exact size but it did disclose that the deal values Red Dot at $65 million.
It isn’t clear exactly how much Red Dot had raised from investors overall — its Series B was $5.2 million but the value of prior rounds were not disclosed — but its backers include Japan’s GMO, Wavemaker, Skype co-founder Toivo Annus and MDI Ventures. The company said “the majority” of its investors exited through this transaction, but some stakeholders — including CEO Randy Tan — are keeping shares with a view to a later buyout in full.
That’s important for PayU, according to CEO Laurent le Moal, who stressed that the company believes in retaining teams and empowering them through acquisitions, rather than simply buying an asset.
“We have to strike the balance between a solid majority [acquisition] and an opportunity” for founders, he told TechCrunch in an interview.
PayU plans to put “real investment” into the startup, whilst also integrating its services into its “Hub” of services and tech, a stack that is shared with its mesh of global business and was built from its acquisition of Israel’s Zooz. PayU’s India business alone is estimated to be worth $2.5 billion, but its overall business is hard to value, but more details will emerge of its global business as Naspers lists select entities through an IPO in Europe.
Back to the deal, Tan called it “a marriage made in heaven,” and he also revealed that Red Dot had turned down recent investment and acquisition offers from three other suitors.
“They [PayU] operate globally and have over 300,000 merchants, including Facebook, Google and the kind of clients we aspire to win,” he said.
So why Southeast Asia, and why now?
“We want to build the number one payments company for high-growth markets,” le Moal said. “If you look at what the top 10 economies will be in 2030, half are in Southeast Asia and the rest are growth markets we are already in.”
“We are number one in India, in the biggest markets in Africa, the fastest-growing part of Europe and Latin America, but we have no presence in Southeast Asia,” he continued. “It’s fundamental… you want to go where the consumer growth is.”
That’s supported by a report from Google and Temasek that was issued last year and forecasts that the region’s online spending will more than triple by 2025 to reach $240 billion annually.
The initial focus post-deal is to supercharge the Red Dot business through shared tech, networks and expertise, but, further down the line, le Moal has a vision of going deeper into fintech and financial services to offer products such as consumer credit, as it has done in India.
Such a product launch isn’t likely to happen for another 12 months at least, the PayU CEO said. Before then, there will be a focus on growing Red Dot’s cross-border trade business and developing synergy with its business in other markets, especially India.
PayU CEO Laurent le Moal said the company is looking to dominate high-growth markets in Southeast Asia following its acquisition of Red Dot Payment
Le Moal hinted also that PayU has ambitions to be in Japan and Korea, although he conceded that the exact strategy — which could include organic growth — is still to be defined. We can certainly expect to see an uptick from the company in Southeast Asia and the wider Asian continent.
“There will be an acceleration of investment and M&A,” le Moal said. “It’s just the beginning for us as PayU and Naspers in the region.”
Like many good ideas, CrowdStrike, a seller of subscription-based software that protects companies from breaches, began as a few notes scribbled on a napkin in a hotel lobby.
The idea was to leverage new technology to create an endpoint protection platform powered by artificial intelligence that would blow incumbent solutions out of the water. McAfee, Palo Alto Networks and Symantec, long-time leaders in the space, had been too slow to embrace new technologies and companies were suffering, the CrowdStrike founding team surmised.
Co-founders George Kurtz and Dmitri Alperovitch, a pair of former McAfee executives, weren’t strangers to legacy cybersecurity tools. McAfee had for years been a dominant player in endpoint protection and antivirus. At least, until the emergence of cloud computing.
Since 2012, CrowdStrike’s Falcon Endpoint Protection platform has been pushing those incumbents into a new era of endpoint protection. By helping enterprises across the globe battle increasingly complex attack scenarios more efficiently, CrowdStrike, as well as other fast-growing cybersecurity upstarts, has redefined company security standards much like Salesforce redefined how companies communicate with customers.
“I think we had the foresight that [CrowdStrike] was going to be a foundational element for security,” CrowdStrike chief executive officer George Kurtz told TechCrunch this morning. The full conversation can be read further below.
CrowdStrike co-founder and CEO George Kurtz.