In recent years, the U.S. has seen more renters than at any point since at least 1965, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau housing data.
Competition for renters is fierce and property managers are turning to technology to get a leg up.
To meet that demand, Seattle-based Knock – one startup that has developed tools to give property management companies a competitive edge – has raised $20 million in a growth funding round led by Fifth Wall Ventures.
Existing backers Madrona Venture Group, Lead Edge Capital, Second Avenue Partners and Seven Peaks Ventures also participated in the financing, which brings the company’s total capital raised to $47 million.
Demetri Themelis and Tom Petry co-founded Knock in 2014 after renting “in super competitive markets” such as New York City, San Francisco and Seattle.
“After meeting with property management companies, it was eye-opening to learn about the total gap across their tech stacks,” Themelis recalled.
Knock’s goal is to provide CRM tools to modernize front office operations for these companies so they can do things like offer virtual tours and communicate with renters via text, email or social media from “a single conversation screen.” For renters, it offers an easier way to communicate and engage with landlords.
“Apartment buildings, like almost every customer-driven business, compete with each other by attracting, converting and retaining customers,” Themelis said. “For property management companies, these customers are renters.”
The startup — which operates as a SaaS business — has seen an uptick in growth, quadrupling its revenue over the past two years. Its software is used by hundreds of the largest property management companies across the United States and Canada and has more than 1.5 million apartment units using the platform. Starwood Capital Group, ZRS, FPI and Cushman & Wakefield (formerly Pinnacle) are among its users.
As Petry explains it, Knock serves as the sales inbox (chat, SMS, phone, email), sales calendar and CRM systems, all in one.
“We also automate certain sales tasks like outreach and appointment scheduling, while also surfacing which sales opportunities need the most attention at any given time, for both new leases as well as renewals,” he said.
Image Credit: Knock
The company, Themelis said, was well-prepared for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our software supports property management companies, which operate high-density apartment buildings that people live and work in,” he told TechCrunch. “You can’t just ‘shut them down,’ which has made multifamily resilient and even grow in comparison to retail and industrial real estate.”
For example, when lockdowns went into effect, in-person property tours declined by an estimated 80% in a matter of weeks.
Knock did things like help property managers transition to a centralized and remote leasing model so remote agents could work across a large portfolio of properties rather than in a single on-site leasing office, noted Petry.
It also helped them adopt self-guided, virtual and live video-based leasing tools, so prospective renters could tour properties in person on their own or virtually.
“This transformation and modernization became a huge tailwind for our business in 2020,” Petry said. “Not only did we have a record year in terms of new customers, revenue growth and revenue retention, but our customers outperformed market averages for occupancy and rent growth as well.”
Looking ahead, the company says it will be using its new capital to (naturally!) hire across product, engineering, sales, marketing, customer success, finance and human resources divisions. It expects to grow headcount by 40% to 50% before year-end. It also plans to expand its product portfolio to include AI communications, fraud prevention, applicant screening and leasing, and intelligent forecasting.
Fifth Wall partner Vik Chawla, who is joining Knock’s board of directors, pointed out that the macroeconomic environment is driving institutional capital into multifamily real estate at an accelerated pace. This makes Knock’s offering even more timely in its importance, in the firm’s view.
The startup, he believes, outshines its competitors in terms of quality of product, technical prowess and functionality.
“The Knock team has accomplished so much in just a short period of time by attracting very high quality product design and engineering talent to ameliorate a nuanced pain point in the tenant acquisition process,” Chawla told TechCrunch.
In terms of fitting with its investment thesis, Chawla said companies like Knock can both benefit from Fifth Wall’s global corporate strategic partners “and simultaneously serve as a key offering which we can share with real estate industry leaders in different countries as a potential solution for their local markets.”
With offline events now firmly moved to online for the foreseeable future, startups in the networking space had to pivot fast in the face of the pandemic. One of those was Grip, previously better known as a networking app for physical conferences (including TechCrunch Disrupt, at one point). Since last year, Grip moved into an “omnichannel” experience, combining various event types across virtual, hybrid and live. That strategy appears to have paid off as it has now raised a $13 million Series A funding round, taking its total amount raised to $14.5 million.
The round was led by London-based growth equity fund Kennet Partners. The raise is reflective of the boom in online events, which saw London-based startup Hopin raise a $40 million Series A last year. Founded in 2016, Grip counts some large event organizers as clients, including Reed Exhibitions and Messe Frankfurt.
In a statement, Tim Groot, CEO and founder of Grip, said: “Our mission is to empower organizers to bring professionals together to advance industries. This funding round is going to enable us to take the experience to a new level, leveraging our extensive industry-leading platform, offering unique value for Virtual, Hybrid and In-Person events.”
He said they would now be investing heavily in the product and looking to global expansion.
So why is it that Grip seems to have pulled away from pack in this way?
Groot told me: “We took a slightly different approach in that we managed to work in a plug-and-play method alongside other platforms. So grip gets used as a standalone virtual event platform by lots of these organizers. So they might use Hopin for the conference but Grip for the networking. So maybe we managed to get more traction that way, over the course of 2020.”
In 2020, following the pivot to virtual events, Grip hosted more than 100 events a month and was used by 1.5 million people. As a result, the company says revenue grew almost 4x in 2020, and this year it expects to do over 10,000 events on its platform, with more than 5 million participants.
Grips AI-powered algorithms mean attendees get more personalized matchmaking recommendations based on their interests, including pre-event meeting scheduling. For exhibitors, the software captures business leads and provides post-event analytics.
People can be added to meetings to have group conversations and the startup is also working on a topic-based “speed networking” functionality to hold instant three-minute conversations.
Grip integrates with various streaming platforms such as Vimeo, YouTube, Zoom, BlueJeans and others, unlike “full-service” platforms such as Hopin or Bizzabo.
Hillel Zidel, partner at Kennet and Grip board member, added: “Grip’s ability to organize virtual events with a key focus on networking has meant that the company has seen tremendous growth over the last year. Event organizers and their clients have been able to remain connected with their customers despite the constraints on in-person events. As live events resume in the future, Grip is extremely well-positioned to continue to assist event organizers through the provision of software solutions supporting live, virtual and hybrid events.”
Brent Hoberman, co-founder of Founders Factory and a previous investor, said: “Grip was born out of a need we saw in running events at Founders Forum — how do you use smart technology to catalyze the most relevant and valuable connections between your guests?”
French startup Lengow has a new landlord as Marlin Equity Partners has acquired a majority stake in the company. Lengow operates a softare-as-a-service platform to optimize e-commerce listings. Terms of the deal are undisclosed.
In particular, many sellers now list their items on multiple e-commerce websites at once. For instance, a company could have its own e-commerce website and also sell products on Amazon, eBay, etc. And you may have noticed the same third-party sellers on different marketplaces.
Manually listing items across multiple e-commerce platforms would be extremely tedious. Behind the scenes, Lengow tries to automate as many steps as possible. First, you can import your products by connecting Lengow with your product information management system (PIM) or your e-commerce back end — it can run on Akeneo, Shopify, Magento, WooCommerce, etc.
You can then publish your products on multiple sales channels at once. It can be a marketplace, a price comparison website, a social network or an adtech platform. Examples include Amazon, Google Shopping, Criteo, Instagram, etc.
Lengow also helps you track orders, create rules when you’re running low on stock and manage your advertising strategy. Essentially, it’s the glue that makes all the moving parts of e-commerce stick together. There are 4,600 merchants using Lengow globally.
Marlin describes the deal as a growth investment. The firm plans to increase the value of Lengow in the coming years as it hasn’t reached its full potential yet. “We are looking forward to leveraging our operational and financial resources to support Lengow’s growth trajectory and continued international expansion,” Marlin principal Roland Pezzutto said in a statement.
About a decade ago, I remember having a conversation with a friend about big data. At the time, we both agreed that it was the purview of large companies like Facebook, Yahoo and Google, and not something most companies would have to worry about.
As it turned out, we were both wrong. Within a short time, everyone would be dealing with big data. In fact, it turns out that huge amounts of data are the fuel of machine learning applications, something my friend and I didn’t foresee.
Frameworks were already emerging like Hadoop and Spark and concepts like the data warehouses were evolving. This was fine when it involved structured data like credit card info, but data warehouses weren’t designed for unstructured data you needed to build machine learning algorithms, and the concept of the data lake developed as a way to take unprocessed data and store until needed. It wasn’t sitting neatly in shelves in warehouses all labeled and organized, it was more amorphous and raw.
Over time, this idea caught the attention of the cloud vendors like Amazon, Microsoft and Google. What’s more, it caught the attention of investors as companies like Snowflake and Databricks built substantial companies on the data lake concept.
Even as that was happening startup founders began to identify other adjacent problems to attack like moving data into the data lake, cleaning it, processing it and funneling to applications and algorithms that could actually make use of that data. As this was happening, data science advanced outside of academia and became more mainstream inside businesses.
At that point there was a whole new modern ecosystem and when something like that happens, ideas develop, companies are built and investors come. We spoke to nine investors about the data lake idea and why they are so intrigued by it, the role of the cloud companies in this space, how an investor finds new companies in a maturing market and where the opportunities and challenges are in this lucrative area.
To learn about all of this, we queried the following investors:
Caryn Marooney: The data market is very large, driven by the opportunity to unlock value through digital transformation. Both the data lake and data warehouse architectures will be important over the long term because they solve different needs.
For established companies (think big banks, large brands) with significant existing data infrastructure, moving all their data to a data warehouse can be expensive and time consuming. For these companies, the data lake can be a good solution because it enables optionality and federated queries across data sources.
Dharmesh Thakker: Databricks (which Battery has invested in) and Snowflake have certainly become household names in the data lake and warehouse markets, respectively. But technical requirements and business needs are constantly shifting in these markets — and it’s important for both companies to continue to invest aggressively to maintain a competitive edge. They will have to keep innovating to continue to succeed.
Regardless of how this plays out, we feel excited about the ecosystem that’s emerging around these players (and others) given the massive data sprawl that’s occurring across cloud and on-premise workloads, and around a variety of data-storage vendors. We think there is a significant opportunity for vendors to continue to emerge as “unification layers” between data sources and different types of end users (including data scientists, data engineers, business analysts and others) in the form of integration middleware (cloud ELT vendors); real-time streaming and analytics; data governance and management; data security; and data monitoring. These markets shouldn’t be underestimated.
Casey Aylward: There are a handful of big opportunities in the data lake space even with many established cloud infrastructure players in the space:
In an unprecedented work environment defined by distributed teams and virtual-only communication, two co-founders think their 2018 bet reigns truer than ever: mentors need mentorship, too.
Christine Tao and Lori Mazan, the brains behind Sounding Board, want to train any leader within an organization to be a better leader. The San Francisco startup connects anyone from first-time managers to C-suite executives with coaches through a marketplace.
Revenue has doubled or tripled every year since 2016, which the company says hovers in the “multi-millions” range. But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Sounding Board has seen demand for its platform grow even more. Quarterly bookings have increased 3.4 times from Q2 2020, and in the last five months, monthly revenue has doubled.
On the heels of this growth, the co-founders say that Sounding Board’s next step as a startup is to grow beyond coaching services and into a platform that can show leaders how those newfound skills are impacting business development. The new product is meant to serve as a hub and roadmap where a participant and coach can track insights, progress and behaviors.
Within the platform, a user can schedule sessions with a coach, get matched to someone, as well as look at resources and complete tasks assigned to them. Beyond that, there is a feature that allows the coach and the manager to measure goals on an ongoing basis, similar to OKR-related software.
“The content is great, but unless you can apply that content, it’s not very useful,” Mazan said. “So this coaching is a way to help people apply the insights and the learning they’ve gotten from some kind of content and really utilize that in the workplace.”
The new product takes the monthly in-person summit that your organization used to call executive coaching and turns it into a living, breathing part of a manager’s workflow.
Beyond helping its users have a better temperature check on their progress, the product will help Sounding Board scale its services. Now any tutor on Sounding Board has more ways into a user’s mind and workflow, so every call isn’t synchronous and can be managed more evenly.
The co-founders see their long-term differentiation living in this feature. Anyone can create a marketplace, but it takes seamless, easy-to-use tech to track the effectiveness of what happens post-coaching.
Tao admits that the startup isn’t for everyone. Sounding Board has seen early adoption around enterprise companies that are in a late-stage, hyper-growth mindset heading toward an IPO. That level of maturity is a sweet spot for a third-party such as them to come in and scale leaders across teams. Customers include VMware, Uber, Plaid, Chime and Dropbox.
That said, within organizations, 60% of Sounding Board’s users are first-time managers, 30% are middle-tier and 10% are C-suite. The co-founders think these numbers indicate a broader demand for mentorship beyond what their competitors offer, which often sticks to C-suite life coach territory or stress management.
“Everyone is starting to realize that we’re going to have to offer coaching broader than just in the C-suite, and sometimes they don’t really know what that means,” said Mazan.
The realization, along with COVID-19 tailwinds, has helped Sounding Board attract new millions in venture capital. The startup tells TechCrunch that it has raised a $13.1 million Series A led by Canaan Partners. Other investors include Correlation Ventures, Bloomberg Beta, Precursor Ventures, as well as Degreed founder David Blake and Kevin Johnson, the former CEO of Udemy.
Lucile Cornet has been appointed Partner with Eight Roads Ventures Europe, a firm focusing on startups in Europe and Israel. Cornet is its first female Partner. Eight Roads is backed by Fidelity and has over $6 billion assets under management globally.
Cornet will be focusing on the software and fintech sectors and previously led a number of investments for the firm, having risen from Associate to Partner within five years. It’s an out of the ordinary career trajectory when VC is notorious for having a ‘no succession’ culture, unless partners effectively buy into funds.
Cornet commented: “I am hugely optimistic about what is to come for European technology entrepreneurs. We are seeing more and more amazing founders and innovative businesses across the whole European region with ambitions and abilities to become global champions, and I look forward to helping them scale up.”
Speaking with TechCrunch, Cornet added: “I feel so, so fortunate because I think we’ve been living during a once in a lifetime transformation in general in tech and also in Europe. To build some of those companies, and just be part of the ecosystem has been fantastic. I know how much more exciting things are going to be in the next couple of years.”
Cornet previously led investments into Spendesk, the Paris-based spend management platform; Thinksurance, the Frankfurt-based B2B insurtech; and Compte-Nickel, one of the first European neobanks which was successfully acquired by BNP Paribas in 2017. She also sits on the boards of VIU Eyewear, OTA Insight and Fuse Universal.
France-born Cornet’s previous career includes investment banking, Summit Partners, and she joined Eight Roads Ventures in 2015. She was a ‘rising star’ at the GP Bullhound Investor of the Year Awards 2020.
Commenting, Davor Hebel, managing partner at Eight Roads Ventures Europe, said: “We are delighted with Lucile’s success so far at Eight Roads. She has made a huge impact in Europe and globally since joining the firm. She has a tremendous work ethic and drive… identifying the best European companies and helping them scale into global winners. Her promotion also speaks to our desire to continue to develop our best investment talent and promote from within.”
Speaking to me in an interview Hebel added: “We always believed in a slightly different approach and we say when we hire people, even from the start, we want them to have judgment, and we want them to have that presence when they meet entrepreneurs. So it was always part of the model for us to say, we might not hire many people, but we really want them to have the potential to grow and stay with us and have the path and the potential to do so.”
In 2020, Eight Roads Ventures Europe invested in Cazoo, Otrium, Spendesk, Odaseva and most recently Tibber, completed eight follow-on investments and exited Rimilia. The firm also saw its portfolio company AppsFlyer reach a $2 billion valuation.
Podchaser, a startup building what it calls “IMDB for podcasts,” recently announced that it has raised $4 million in a funding round led by Greycroft.
In other words, it’s a site where — similar to the Amazon-owned Internet Movie Database — users can look up who’s appeared in which podcasts, rate and review those podcasts and add them to lists. In fact, CEO Bradley Davis told me that the startup’s “vibrant, exciting community of podcast nerds” have already created 8.5 million podcast credits in the database.
Davis said this is something he simply wanted to exist and was, in fact, convinced that it had to exist already. When he realized that it didn’t, he posted on Reddit asking whether anyone was willing to build the company with him — which is how he connected with his eventual co-founder and CTO Ben Slinger in Australia. (Podchaser is a fully distributed company, with Davis currently based in Oklahoma City.)
To be clear, Davis doesn’t think podcast nerds are the only ones taking advantage of the listings. Instead, he suggested that it’s useful for anyone looking to learn more about podcasts and discover new ones, with Podchaser’s monthly active users quintupling over the past year.
For example, he said that one of the most popular pages is politician Pete Buttigieg’s profile, where visitors don’t just learn about Buttigieg’s own podcast but see others on which he’s appeared. (You can also use Podchaser to learn more about TechCrunch’s Equity, Mixtape and Original Content podcasts, though those profiles could stand to be filled out a bit more.)
There has been endless discussion about how to fix podcast discovery, and while Davis isn’t claiming that Podchaser will solve it wholesale, he thinks it can be part of the solution — not just through its own database, but through the broader Podcast Taxonomy project that it’s organizing.
“I think if we are successful at standardizing a lot fo the terminology, and if we do an analysis of all podcasts, of how popular they are, that [will help many listeners] to cull and find the good stuff,” he said.
Podchaser plans to add new features that will further encourage user contributions, like a gamification system and a discussion system.
While the consumer site is free, the startup recently launched a paid product called Podchaser Pro, which provides reach and demographic data across 1.8 million podcasts. It also monetizes by providing podcast players with access to its credits through an API.
Davis said the startup was “lucky” that it decided to build a database that’s “agnostic” from any specific podcast player.
“So we had a lot of latitude to work with those platforms, we integrate with many of those platforms and you’re going to see a lot of our credits showing up [in podcast players],” he said.
In addition to Greycroft, Advancit Capital, LightShed Ventures, Powerhouse Capital, High Alpha, Hyde Park Venture Partners and Poplar Ventures also participated in the round, as did TrendKite founder A.J. Bruno, Ad Results Media CEO Marshall Williams and Shamrock Capital Partner Mike LaSalle.
“Even in the face of a pandemic, the podcast market continues to grow at a breakneck pace,” said Greycroft co-founder and chairman Alan Patricof in a statement. “The demand from consumers and brands is insatiable. Podchaser’s data and discovery tools are crucial to taking podcasting to new heights.”
Many VCs historically avoided placing bets on hit-driven mobile gaming content in favor of clearer platform opportunities, but as more success stories pop up, the economics overturned conventional wisdom with new business models. As more accessible infrastructure allowed young studios to become more ambitious, venture money began pouring into the gaming ecosystem.
After tackling topics including how investors are looking at opportunities in social gaming, infrastructure bets and the moonshots of AR/VR, I asked a group of VCs about their approach to mobile content investing and whether new platforms were changing perspectives about opportunities in mobile-first and desktop-first experiences.
While desktop gaming has evolved dramatically in the past few years as new business models and platforms take hold, to some degree, mobile has been hampered. Investors I chatted with openly worried that some of mobile’s opportunities were being hamstrung by Apple’s App Store.
“We are definitely fearful of Apple’s ability to completely disrupt/affect the growth of a game,” Bessemer’s Ethan Kurzweil and Sakib Dadi told TechCrunch. “We do not foresee that changing any time in the near future despite the outcry from companies such as Epic and others.”
All the while, another central focus seems to be the ever-evolving push toward cross-platform gaming, which is getting further bolstered by new technologies. One area of interest for investors: migrating the ambition of desktop titles to mobile and finding ways to build cross-platform experiences that feel fulfilling on devices that are so differently abled performance-wise.
Madrona’s Hope Cochran, who previously served as CFO of Candy Crush maker King, said mobile still has plenty of untapped opportunities. “When you have a AAA game, bringing it to mobile is challenging and yet it opens up an entire universe of scale.”
Responses have been edited for length and clarity. We spoke with:
Does it ever get any easier to bet on a gaming content play? What do you look for?
Hope Cochran: I feel like there are a couple different sectors in gaming. There’s the actual studios that are developing games and they have several approaches. Are they developing a brand new game, are they reimagining a game from 25 years ago and reskinning it, which is a big trend right now, or are they taking IP that is really trendy right now and trying to create a game around it? There are different ways to predict which ones of those might make it, but then there’s also the infrastructure behind gaming and then there’s also identifying trends and which games or studios are embracing those. Those are some of the ways I try to parse it out and figure out which ones I think are going to rise to the top of the list.
Daniel Li: There’s this single-player narrative versus multiplayer metaverse and I think people are more comfortable on the metaverse stuff because if you’re building a social network and seeing good early traction, those things don’t typically just disappear. Then if you are betting more on individual studios producing games, I think the other thing is we’re seeing more and more VCs pop up that are just totally games-focused or devoting a portion of the portfolio to games. And for them it’s okay to have a hits-driven portfolio.
There seems to be more innovation happening on PC/console in terms of business models and distribution, do you think mobile feels less experimental these days? Why or why not?
Hope Cochran: Mobile is still trying to push the technology forward, the important element of being cross-platform is difficult. When you have a AAA game, bringing it to mobile is challenging and yet it opens up an entire universe of scale. The metrics are also very different for mobile though.
Daniel Li: It seems like the big monetization innovation that has happened over the last couple of years has been the “battle pass” type of subscription where you can unlock more content by playing. Obviously that’s gone over to mobile, but it doesn’t feel like mobile has had some sort of new monetization unlock. The other thing that’s happened on desktop is the success of the “pay $10 or $20 or $20 for this indie game” type of thing, and it feels like that’s not going to happen on mobile because of the price points that people are used to paying.
Citrix, which is best known for its digital workspaces, sees this as a good match, especially at a time where employees have been forced to work from home because of the pandemic. By combining the two companies, it produces a powerful combination, one that didn’t escape Citrix CEO and president David Henshall
“Together, Citrix and Wrike will deliver the solutions needed to power a cloud-delivered digital workspace experience that enables teams to securely access the resources and tools they need to collaborate and get work done in the most efficient and effective way possible across any channel, device or location,” Henshall said in a statement.
Andrew Filev, founder and CEO at Wrike, who has managed the company through these multiple changes and remains at the helm, believes his company has landed in a good spot with the Citrix purchase.
“First, as part of the Citrix family we will be able to scale our product and accelerate our roadmap to deliver capabilities that will help our customers get more from their Wrike investment. We have always listened to our customers and have built our product based on their feedback — now we will be able to do more of that, faster.,” Filev wrote in a company blog post announcing the deal, stating a typical argument from CEOs of acquired companies.
The startup reports $140 million ARR, growing at 30% annually, so that comes out to approximately 16x its present-day revenue, which is the price companies are generally paying for acquisitions these days. However, as Wrike expects to reach $180 million to $190 million in ARR this year, the company’s sale price could look like a bargain in a few years’ time if the projections come to pass.
The price was not revealed in the 2018 sale, but it surely feels like a big win for Vista. Consider that Wrike has previously raised just $26 million.
When a system outage happens, chaos can ensue as the team tries to figure out what’s happening and how to fix it. StackPulse, a new startup that wants to help developers manage these crisis situations more efficiently, emerged from stealth today with a $28 million investment.
The round actually breaks down to a previously unannounced $8 million seed investment and a new $20 million Series A. GGV led the A round, while Bessemer Venture Partners led the seed and also participated in the A. Glenn Solomon at GGV and Amit Karp at Bessemer will join the StackPulse board.
Nobody is immune to these outages. We’ve seen incidents from companies as varied as Amazon and Slack in recent months. The biggest companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon employ site reliability engineers and build customized platforms to help remediate these kinds of situations. StackPulse hopes to put this kind of capability within reach of companies, whose only defense is the on-call developers.
Company co-founder and CEO Ofer Smadari says that in the midst of a crisis with signals coming at you from Slack and PagerDuty and other sources, it’s hard to figure out what’s happening. StackPulse is designed to help sort out the details to get you back to equilibrium as quickly as possible.
First off, it helps identify the severity of the incident. Is it a false alarm or something that requires your team’s immediate attention or something that can be put off for a later maintenance cycle. If there is something going wrong that needs to be fixed right now, StackPulse can not only identify the source of the problem, but also help fix it automatically, Smadari explained.
After the incident has been resolved, it can also help with a post mortem to figure out what exactly went wrong by pulling in all of the alert communications and incident data into the platform.
As the company emerges from stealth, it has some early customers and 35 employees based in Portland, Oregon and Tel Aviv. Smadari says that he hopes to have 100 employees by the end of this year. As he builds the organization, he is thinking about how to build a diverse team for a diverse customer base. He believes that people with diverse backgrounds build a better product. He adds that diversity is a top level goal for the company, which already has an HR leader in place to help.
Glenn Solomon from GGV, who will be joining the company board, saw a strong founding team solving a big problem for companies and wanted to invest. “When they described the vision for the product they wanted to build, it made sense to us,” he said.
Customers are impatient with down time and Solomon sees developers on the front line trying to solve these issues. “Performance is more important than ever. When there is downtime, it’s damaging to companies,” he said. He believes StackPulse can help.
LatticeFlow, an AI startup that was spun out of ETH Zurich in 2020, today announced that it has raised a $2.8 million seed funding round led by Swiss deep-tech fund btov and Global Founders Capital, which previously backed the likes of Revolut, Slack and Zalando.
The general idea behind LatticeFlow is to build tools that help AI teams build and deploy AI models that are safe, reliable and trustworthy. The problem today, the team argues, is that models get very good at finding the right statistical patterns to hit a given benchmark. That makes them inflexible, though, since these models were optimized for accuracy in a lab setting, not for robustness in the real world.
“One of the most commonly used paradigms for evaluating machine learning models is just aggregate metrics, like accuracy. And, of course, this is a super coarse representation of how good a model really is,” Pavol Bielik, the company’s CTO explained. “What we want to do is, we provide systematic ways of monitoring models, assessing their reliability across different relevant data slices and then also provide tools for improving these models.”
Building these kinds of models that are more flexible yet still provide robust results will take a new arsenal of tools, though, as well as the right team with deep expertise in these areas. Clearly, though, this is a founding team with the right background. In addition to CTO Bielik, the founding team includes Petar Tsankov, the company’s CEO and former senior researcher and lecturer at ETH Zurich, as well as ETH professors Martin Vechev, who leads the Secure, Reliable and Intelligence Systems lab at ETH, and Andreas Krause, who leads ETH’s Learning & Adaptive Systems lab. Tsankov’s last startup, DeepCode, was acquired by cybersecurity firm Snyk in 2020.
It’s also worth noting that Vechev, who previously co-founded ETH spin-off ChainSecurity, and his group at ETH previously developed ERAN, a verifier for large deep learning models with millions of parameters, that last year won the first competition for certifying deep neural networks. While the team was already looking at creating a company before winning this competition, Vechev noted that gave the team the confirmation that it was on the right path.
“We want to solve the main AI problem, which is making AI usable. This is the overarching goal,” Vechev told me. “[…] I don’t think you can actually found the company just purely based on the certification work. I think the kinds of skills that people have in the company, my group, Andreas [Krause]’s group, they all complement each other and cover a huge space, which I think is very, very unique. I don’t know of other companies who have covered this range of skills in these pressing points and have done groundbreaking work before.”
LatticeWorks already has a set of pilot customers who are trialing its tools. These include Swiss railways (SBB), which is using it to build a tool for automatic rail inspections, Germany’s Federal Cyber Security Bureau and the U.S. Army. The team is also working with other large enterprises that are using its tools to improve their computer vision models.
“Machine Learning (ML) is one of the core topics at SBB, as we see a huge potential in its application for an improved, intelligent and automated monitoring of our railway infrastructure,” said Dr. Ilir Fetai and Andre Roger, the leads of SBB’s AI team. “The project on robust and reliable AI with LatticeFlow, ETH, and Siemens has a crucial role in enabling us to fully exploit the advantages of using ML.”
For now, LatticeFlow remains in early access. The team plans to use the funding to accelerate its product development and bring on new customers. The team also plans to build out a presence in the U.S. in the near future.
K Health, the virtual healthcare provider that uses machine learning to lower the cost of care by providing the bulk of the company’s health assessments, is launching new tools for childcare on the heels of raising cash that values the company at $1.5 billion.
The $132 million round raised in December will help the company expand and help pay for upgrades including an integration with most electronic health records — an integration that’s expected by the second quarter.
Throughout 2020 K Health has leveraged its position operating at the intersection of machine learning and consumer healthcare to raised $222 million in a single year.
This appetite from investors shows how large the opportunity is in consumer healthcare as companies look to use technology to make care more affordable.
For K Health, that means a monthly subscription to its service of $9 for unlimited access to the service and physicians on the platform, as well as a $19 per-month virtual mental health offering and a $19 fee for a one-time urgent care consultation.
To patients and investors the pitch is that the data K Health has managed to acquire through partnerships with organizations like the Israel health maintenance organization Maccabi Healthcare Services, which gave up decades of anonymized data on patients and health outcomes to train K Health’s predictive algorithm, can assess patients and aid the in diagnoses for the company’s doctors.
In theory that means the company’s service essentially acts as a virtual primary care physician, holding a wealth of patient information that, when taken together, might be able to spot underlying medical conditions faster or provide a more holistic view into patient care.
For pharmaceutical companies that could mean insights into population health that could be potentially profitable avenues for drug discovery.
In practice, patients get what they pay for.
The company’s mental health offering uses medical doctors who are not licensed psychiatrists to perform their evaluations and assessments, according to one provider on the platform, which can lead to interactions with untrained physicians that can cause more harm than good.
While company chief executive Allon Bloch is likely correct in his assessment that most services can be performed remotely (Bloch puts the figure at 90%), they should be performed remotely by professionals who have the necessary training.
There are limits to how much heavy lifting an algorithm or a generalist should do when it comes to healthcare, and it appears that K Health wants to push those limits.
“Drug referrals, acute issues, prevention issues, most of those can be done remotely,” Bloch said. “There’s an opportunity to do much better and potentially cheaper.
K Health has already seen hundreds of thousands of patients either through its urgent care offering or its subscription service and generated tens of millions in revenue in 2020, according to Bloch. He declined to disclose how many patients used the urgent care service vs. the monthly subscription offering.
Telemedicine companies, like other companies providing services remotely, have thrived during the pandemic. Teladoc and Amwell, two of the early pioneers in virtual medicine have seen their share prices soar. Companies like Hims, that provide prescriptions for elective conditions that aren’t necessarily covered by health, special purpose acquisition companies at valuations of $1.6 billion.
Backing K Health are a group of investors led by GGV Capital and Valor Equity Partners. Kaiser Permanente’s pension fund and the investment offices of the owners of 3G Capital (the Brazilian investment firm that owns Burger King and Kraft Heinz), along with 14W, Max Ventures, Pico Partners, Marcy Venture Partners, Primary Venture Partners and BoxGroup, also participated in the round.
Organizations working with the company include Maccabi Healthcare; the Mayo Clinic, which is investigating virtual care models with the company; and Anthem, which has white labeled the K Health service and provides it to some of the insurer’s millions of members.
Emergency services continue to be a major force when it comes to coping with the COVID-19 health pandemic, and today a company that is building technology to help them run better is announcing a round of funding to continue expanding its business.
Carbyne — an Israeli startup that has built a cloud-based platform aimed at emergency services to help them pinpoint more complete information about the people who are calling in, and to provide additional telemedicine services to start responding faster — has picked up $25 million.
The plan will be to take the service — which was already seeing strong growth before the pandemic — to the next level in terms of the technology it is building and the markets and organizations it is serving.
“Carbyne was not founded last year: we were already pushing cloud services and video and location to 911 for quite a while and had served 250 million people before the pandemic,” said Amir Elichai, the CEO, in an interview. “But cloud solutions for emergency services went from nice-to-have to must-have with COVID.”
The company has partnerships with public health providers as well as with groups like CentralSquare and Global Medical Response (GMR), and says that in the U.S. it is on target to cover some 90% of the market.
The Series B1 is being led by Hanaco Ventures and ELSTED Capital Partners, with former CIA Director General David Petraeus, Founders Fund, FinTLV, and other past investors also participating.
The fact that this is a B1 round points to more funding on the way for the company in coming months. In any case, the $25 million is more than the company had planned to raise.
“The plan was to raise $15 million in 2020. After Covid started I decided we didn’t want to let anyone go, but we didn’t know what the situation would be. So we cut salaries instead across the board,” said Elichai. “But then we started to double revenues starting in Q2, and then in Q3 and Q4 grew 160%. It was straightforward to raise this money.”
The funding is coming on the heels of very strong growth for the company, in particular in the last year.
Carbyne’s services now cover about 400 million people, with a new implementation launching every 10 days since March of last year.
Elichai, who co-founded the company with Alex Dizengoff (CTO) and Yony Yatsun (engineering lead), said in an interview that in the last nine months, Carbyne has provided some 155 million location points to emergency medical services teams. Newer products are also growing. The services for EMS teams to provide help remotely have racked up 1.3 million minutes of video in that time, he said.
From what we understand, the funding puts Carbyne’s valuation at “over $100 million.” Although Elichai declined to give a specific figure, for some context, the company was valued at “around” $100 million when it last raised in 2018, a $15 million round that marked the first time that Founders Fund had invested in an Israeli startup.
The growth of the last year, and the ongoing demands on the business, point to that “over” being strong. Indeed, since its last round, the world at large, and the startup itself, have undergone some significant changes.
2018 and whatever dramas we were experiencing back then now feel like a distant, almost halcyon?, past when compared to some of the crises of the moment. One in particular, the coronavirus pandemic, has a direct connection to Carbyne.
Covid-19, the illness the results from the virus, has proven to be a pernicious and dogged ailment, often hitting people with its most dire and serious symptoms — the inability to breathe and organ failure — just when they start to think that they might be recovering. (Of course, that’s not the case for everyone, thankfully, but still it happens much too often to ignore.)
That has put a huge strain on emergency response services, from those that are fielding initial callouts, through to those making first contact with patients, and those at the hospitals bringing in and caring for the most serious cases. In many cases, those working these services have been stretched to overcapacity. The situation in many cities is nothing short of dire.
Carbyne’s technology has come into its own as a way not just to help those people do their jobs better by providing them with more data, but by becoming a means to those services channelling data back to those people calling in.
In the last couple of years, the startup has undergone some significant shifts in how it delivers its services.
When I covered the startup’s last funding round in 2018, for example, it provided some services directly to EMS organizations, but mainly it needed users to install an app, or provide that technology through another app, in order to work.
Now, Elichai says that the company has integrated some location services from companies like Google to remove the need to use an app to connect users to its platform.
Similarly, the startup has taken a strong lead in how it collaborates with municipalities not just to provide services to make their operations more efficient, but to help offset them getting overwhelmed.
A project in that vein was a recent undertaking in New Orleans, which Elichai said played a part in helping the city from really buckling under and managing the Covid-19 outbreak. More on that here:
Longer term, in countries like the US and elsewhere, there is a strong argument to be made for a lot of legacy services in 911-style emergency response finally getting the updates they have needed for years.
Specifically, earlier this month, a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill approved in Congress earmarks $12 billion in funding for next-generation 911 deployments.
Carbyne believes that by 2023, it will be serving some 1.5 billion people, and it’s moves like this in the U.S. that point to why that might not be so far-fetched, Covid-19 or not.
“The ability to create transparent emergency communications between citizens, emergency call centers, first responders, and state and local government entities will prove of enormous importance as it is integrated into emergency response systems and will certainly save lives and improve outcomes,” said General Petraeus in a statement. “What Carbyne provides will dramatically enhance communications in the moments that matter most.”
We last polled our network of investors on the topic of gaming infrastructure startups back in May just as it was becoming clear what pandemic opportunities were in store for gaming startups.
Accel’s Amit Kumar told us at the time that “social and interactivity layers spanning across these games” were poised to be the big winners, highlighting his firm’s investments in startups like Discord and Mayhem. In December, Discord announced it was raising at a valuation of $7 billion and this month Pokémon Go creator Niantic announced it was buying Mayhem.
Following my story this week digging into investor sentiment around evolved opportunities in social gaming, I dug into gaming tools and rising platforms and pinged a handful of VCs to hear their thoughts on that market.
The broader market moves of the past several months have defied expectations with startups in the gaming world picking up substantial steam as well. This week, Roblox announced it had raised at a $29.5 billion valuation — up from $4 billion in February of last year. Game makers across the board, including Roblox, have been acquiring gaming infrastructure startups as of late.
I talked to investors about what they wanted to see more of in the space.
“We’d love to see more innovation around gaming infrastructure, which has the potential to democratize game development and allow clever indies to compete with Riot and Epic,” Bessemer’s Ethan Kurzweil and Sakib Dadi told TechCrunch.
They highlighted numerous areas for new opportunity including specialized engines, next-gen content creation platforms, and tools to port desktop experiences to mobile. The VCs we chatted with were also intrigued by latent opportunities presented by major platforms’ adopting of cloud gaming tech. The overall trend was one promoting accessibility, a desire to provide more casual experiences for platforms that may have typically catered to “hardcore” audiences.
It was also apparent from conversations that Roblox is significantly shaping investor attitudes toward the potential growth opportunities and pitfalls in the entire gaming industry, with VCs who didn’t get in on Roblox eager to dissect its success and bet on an adjacent player or one that could follow a similar recipe for success.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity. We spoke with:
Cloud game-streaming networks are exciting but don’t seem like a sure bet quite yet, how do you feel about them?
DL: I think the real story behind cloud gaming is “play anywhere” and the cross-platform nature of it. Gaming is just different than Netflix, it’s not like you want to have an endless library of content. When I’m playing a game, I want to play Overwatch all the time and I don’t need to have access to 1,000 other games. I think the approach that the cloud companies have taken has been more around the thinking of, what do we have and what can we build for gamers with it? More so than what do gamers want and what can we give them? It’s definitely trended toward that direction with things like giving away two free games per month, but really I think the thing that will be exciting in the longer term for cloud gaming is to play your game anywhere and play with your friends anywhere.
If users embrace desktop-class cloud gaming on mobile and there’s a broader cross-platform unification, does that spell trouble for today’s mobile gaming industry?
DL: The audiences between a Candy Crush and a Warzone are probably a little different, though I like to play both. So maybe it gets into eating some people’s lunch but I don’t think it’s anything where the number one problem for a Candy Crush is people hopping over to play desktop Call of Duty.
Are there any clear infrastructure gaps where you’d like to see new startups rise up and fill the void?
DL: Honestly just tools for building games, like next-gen Roblox Studio, next-gen Unity and Unreal type stuff — I’ve seen a couple interesting companies there. I think we’ve seen a few smaller companies focused on making sure that a network is safe for children, but I feel like a lot of the infrastructure stuff is really driven by what type of new content is coming out. So as the social games became really popular, securing that and making sure that the chats were safe became really important.
HC: I would love to see something built for helping games that were created for the triple-A environment to port over better to mobile environments. Every time I work with a gaming company on that, they seem to have to rebuild the game so it’d be really interesting to see something like that really helps them adopt to the mobile form.
Jumbotail, an online wholesale marketplace for grocery and food items, said on Friday it has raised an additional $14.2 million as the Bangalore-based startup chases the opportunity to digitize neighborhood stores in the world’s second-largest internet market.
The five-year-old startup said the new tranche of its Series B financing round was led by VII Ventures, with participation from Nutresa, Veronorte, Jumbofund, Klinkert Investment Trust, Peter Crosby Trust, Nexus Venture Partners, and Discovery Ventures.
The startup told TechCrunch that the new tranche concludes its Series B round, which it kickstarted in 2019 with a tranche of $12.7 million. It ended up raising about $44 million in the Series B round (including Friday’s tranche), and to date has amassed about $54 million in equity investment, the startup told the publication.
Jumbotail said it serves over 30,000 neighborhood stores (popularly known in India as kiranas) in the country. In addition to its business-to-business marketplace, the startup also provides working capital to neighborhood stores through partnerships with financial institutions.
The startup, which has built its own supply chain network to enable last-mile delivery, also supplies these stores with point-of-sale devices so that they can easily get access to a much wider selection of catalog and have the new inventory shipped to them within two days. It also integrates these stores with hyperlocal delivery startups such as Dunzo and Swiggy to help mom and pop shops further expand their customer base.
Ashish Jhina, co-founder of Jumbotail, said he believes the startup has reached an inflection point in its growth and is now ready for its next chapter, which includes hiring top talent and expanding to more regions in the country, especially in several cities in South India.
“We are seeing tremendous interest from investors across the globe who are drawn to our highly scalable and operationally profitable business model, built on the industry’s best technology and customer NPS,” said Jhina, who previously served in Indian army and then worked at e-commerce firms eBay and Flipkart.
At a recent virtual conference, Jhina said that the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted New Delhi to order a nationwide lockdown and put restrictions on e-commerce firms, has illustrated just how crucial neighborhood stores are in people’s lives. And for all the ills that the virus has wrought to the world, it did help accelerate the adoption of technology among these stores.
A number of food brands whose products neighborhood stores sell today are not standardized, which poses a question about their quality. To fill this gap, Jumbotail runs its own private label portfolio and Jhina said the startup will deploy part of the fresh fund to broaden this catalog. Having private label also allows Jumbotail to ensure that its retail partners can get the supply of items throughout the year — and of course, it also helps the startup, which has been operationally profitable for nearly three quarters, improve its margin.
There are more than 30 million neighborhood stores in India that dot across the thousands of cities and towns in the country. These small businesses have been around for decades and survived — and even thrived — despite e-commerce giants pouring billions of dollars in India to change how people shop. In recent years, scores of startups — and giants — in India have begun to explore ways to work with these neighborhood stores.
One of them is India’s largest retail chain Reliance Retail, which serves more than 3.5 million customers each week through its nearly 10,000 physical stores in more than 6,500 cities and towns in the country. In late 2019, it entered the e-commerce space with JioMart through a joint venture with sister subsidiary telecom giant Jio Platforms. By mid last year, JioMart had expanded to over 200 Indian cities and towns — though currently its reach within those cities and customer service leave a lot to be desired.
Reliance Retail also maintains a partnership with Facebook for WhatsApp integration. Facebook, which invested $5.7 billion in Jio Platforms last year, has said that it will explore various ways to work with Reliance to digitize the nation’s mom and pop stores, as well as other small- and medium-sized businesses.
For JioMart, Reliance Retail is working with neighborhood shops, giving them a digital point-of-sale machine to make it easier for them to accept money electronically. It is also allowing these shops to buy their inventory from Reliance Retail, and then use their physical presence as delivery points. At present, the platform is largely focused on grocery delivery. In a recent report to clients, Goldman Sachs analysts estimated that Reliance could become the largest player in online grocery within three years.
Like many startups, Atlanta-based Voxie was created to solve a problem that founder and CEO Bogdan Constantin faced himself.
In Constantin’s case, this was at his previous tuxedo rental startup Menguin (ultimately acquired by Generation Tux), where he said he had to market a product with a six-to-nine month sales cycle, as customers were usually weighing different options for their weddings.
Email marketing, Constantin said, would result “worse and worse” open rates over time. So one day, he decided to just try texting everyone who signed up, introducing himself as “your personal stylist here at Menguin.” Not surprisingly, he got a lot more responses.
The challenge, of course, is having those kinds of text conversations across a large customer base. And that’s why Voxie — which is announcing that it has raised $6.7 million in Series A funding — offers tools to help businesses automate and manage that process.
Constantin claimed that compared to other text marketing tools, messages sent via Voxie feel like a real, personalized conversation — even though 80% to 90% are actually automated, with the rest of the messages written by people. Plus, Voxie will allow businesses to send their messages from a normal 10-digit phone number (rather than the more common five-digit numbers used for marketing).
Image Credits: Voxie
Voxie was initially built for large enterprise customers, but Constantin said that during the pandemic, the company built a lower-cost version that is now being used by “a lot of retail, restaurant franchise brands, main street brands that are struggling right now.”
He added, “We’re working with brands that have hundreds of locations all over the country that needed a better way to engage their customers — to ask their names, ask how many kids they have and store that information at the individual profile level.”
Current Voxie customers include LG, Danone, Massage Heights and Buff City Soap.
The funding, meanwhile, was led by Noro-Moseley Partners, with participation from Circadian Ventures and Engage Ventures, as well as Atlanta entrepreneurs Wain Kellum, Andy Powell, David Cummings and Fred Castellucci.
“Voxie leads the market as the only platform that allows brands to have personalized conversations with customers at scale, which we believe will be key for its target customers to succeed in a post-COVID world,” said Noro-Moseley’s John Ale in a statement. “Businesses love Voxie as they see meaningful revenue uplift quickly and the personalization of the content means customers find the messages useful and highly relevant to their needs.”
Next, Constantin said the company will launch “reply to buy” functionality, allowing customers to place orders directly from their text conversations. And while Voxie is currently focused on SMS messaging, he claimed its vision is broader: “We want to deliver the right message at the right time via the right medium.”
The popular news app News Break is announcing that it has raised $115 million in new funding.
The press release claims this round makes News Break “one of the first new unicorns of 2021,” but the startup declined to disclose its actual valuation.
Founder and CEO Jeff Zheng said that when he started the company in 2015, the goal was to differentiate itself from other news aggregation apps by focusing on local news, and to “help or empower these local content creators.”
To be clear, you can find similar stories in News Break that you’d see in other news apps (there’s a whole section for coronavirus news, for example, and this morning you’ll see plenty of headlines about yesterday’s violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol), but you’ll also see plenty stories that are highlighted specifically based on your location.
“Technology is interweaving with every aspect of the company — in how we empower local publishers and local journalists to generate content more effectively and to reach an online audience more effectively,” Zheng said. “We have AI tools to help provide all these relevant articles … We have location profiles and what you’re most interested in, which we basically match against the content.”
Image Credits: News Break
The local focus may be increasingly valuable given the broader economic challenges facing the local news business — as Zheng put it, there’s “strong user demand” for local news but “weak supply.” And the strategy seems to have paid off for News Break so far, with the app reaching the top spot in the News category of the Apple’s U.S. App Store multiple times (it’s currently ranked number four), and in Google Play as well. The startup says it’s currently reaching 12 million daily active users.
Zheng said that while News Break already shares ad revenue with publishers, he’s hopeful that the value it provides those publishers will only grow over time: “We want to give as much money back to the creators as possible.”
When I suggested that publishers and journalists may be leery about relying too much on a third-party platform to reach their audience, Zheng argued that News Break’s incentives are very different from the big internet and social media platforms.
“We are local-centric,” he said.”If local publishers are struggling, if the newspapers are diminishing every year, then sooner or later we are out of business.”
And while we’ve noted in the past that News Break has Chinese roots — Zheng previously led Yahoo Labs in Beijing and was also founding CEO at Chinese news startup Yidian Zixun, plus the startup has team members in Beijing and Shanghai — Zheng emphasized that that this is a “U.S. high tech company incorporated in Delaware, headquartered in Mountain View,” with the majority of its workforce in the United State and a focus on the U.S. market. The distinction could become important if News Break continues to grow, given the U.S. government’s current attempts to ban Chinese companies.
In a statement, Francisco Partners Principal Alan Ni said:
News Break’s breakout multi-year successes in the local news space is what first brought them to our attention. We are inspired by their mission and extremely impressed by the work they have done to bring local-news distribution into the 21st Century through cutting-edge machine learning and media savvy. We are thrilled to be partnering with News Break’s talented leadership team as they continue to drive local news innovations while also rapidly expanding their business into adjacent local verticals beyond news.
Hinge Health, the San Francisco-based company that offers a digital solution to treat chronic musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions — such as back and joint pain — has closed a $310 million in Series D funding, according to sources.
The round is led by Coatue and Tiger Global, and values 2015-founded Hinge at $3 billion post-money, people familiar with the investment tell me. It comes off the back of a 300% increase in revenue in 2020, with investors told to expect revenue to nearly triple again in 2021 based on the company’s booked pipeline.
I also understand that Hinge’s founders — Daniel Perez and Gabriel Mecklenburg — retain voting control of the board. I’ve reached out to CEO Perez for comment and will update this post should I hear back.
Hinge’s existing investors include Bessemer Venture Partners, which backed the company’s $90 million Series C round in February, along with Lead Edge Capital, Insight Partners (which led the Series B), Atomico (which led the Series A), 11.2 Capital, Quadrille Capital and Heuristic Capital.
Originally based in London, Hinge Health primarily sells into U.S. employers and health plans, billing itself as a digital healthcare solution for chronic MSK conditions. The platform combines wearable sensors, an app and health coaching to remotely deliver physical therapy and behavioral health.
The basic premise is that there is plenty of existing research to show how best to treat chronic MSK disorders, but existing healthcare systems aren’t up to the task due to funding pressures and for other systematic reasons. The result is an over tendency to use opioid-based painkillers or surgery, with poor results and often at even greater cost. Hinge wants to reverse this through the use of technology and better data, with a focus on improving treatment adherence.
Meanwhile, Hinge’s jump in valuation is significant. According to sources, the company’s February round produced a valuation of around $420 million, so the new valuation is more than a 6x increase.
Pokémon GO creator Niantic has acquired a small SF gaming startup building a league and tournament organization platform to help gamers create their own communities around popular titles.
Mayhem was in Y Combinator’s winter 2018 batch and went onto raise $5.7 million in funding according to Crunchbase. Other backers include Accel, which led the startup’s Series A in 2018, Afore Capital and NextGen Venture Partners.
The startup’s focus has shifted quite a bit since its initial YC debut, when it announced a service called Visor that would analyze video of esports gameplay and coach users on how they could improve their performance. The company has seemed to shift its focus wholly to community tools to help gamers find matches and organize tournaments for games like Overwatch on its platform.
Terms of the acquisition weren’t disclosed by Niantic .
The “majority” of Mayhem’s team will be joining Niantic with the startup’s CEO Ivan Zhou landing in the company’s Social Platform Product team while the rest of the team joins Platform Engineering.
In a statement, Niantic asserts that the acquisition “reinforces our commitment to real-world social as the centerpiece of our mission.”
Most of Niantic’s acquisitions of late have focused on augmented reality backend technologies so it’s interesting to see them buying tech that focuses on community organization.
Pokémon GO continues to be Niantic’s cash cow though the company hasn’t seen the same levels of viral success with subsequent releases where organic growth hasn’t been quite as easy to come by. Buying a startup building community tools suggests the company is ready to bring in some outside tech to push their own efforts forward as they strive to create a broader platform for their AR ambitions and more standalone hits of their own.
If the portfolio of a corporate venture capital firm can be taken as a signal for the strategic priorities of their parent companies, then National Grid has high hopes for automation as the future of the utility industry.
The heavy emphasis on automation and machine learning from one of the nation’s largest privately held utilities with a customer base numbering around 20 million people is significant. And a sign of where the industry could be going.
Since its launch, National Grid’s venture firm, National Grid Partners, has invested in 16 startups that featured machine learning at the core of their pitch. Most recently, the company backed AI Dash, which uses machine learning algorithms to analyze satellite images and infer the encroachment of vegetation on National Grid power lines to avoid outages.
Another recent investment, Aperio, uses data from sensors monitoring critical infrastructure to predict loss of data quality from degradation or cyberattacks.
Indeed, of the $175 million in investments the firm has made, roughly $135 million has been committed to companies leveraging machine learning for their services.
“AI will be critical for the energy industry to achieve aggressive decarbonization and decentralization goals,” said Lisa Lambert, the chief technology and innovation officer at National Grid and the founder and president of National Grid Partners.
National Grid started the year off slowly because of the COVID-19 epidemic, but the pace of its investments picked up and the company is on track to hit its investment targets for the year, Lambert said.
Modernization is critical for an industry that still mostly runs on spreadsheets and collective knowledge that has locked in an aging employee base, with no contingency plans in the event of retirement, Lambert said. It’s that situation that’s compelling National Grid and other utilities to automate more of their business.
“Most companies in the utility sector are trying to automate now for efficiency reasons and cost reasons. Today, most companies have everything written down in manuals; as an industry, we basically still run our networks off spreadsheets, and the skills and experience of the people who run the networks. So we’ve got serious issues if those people retire. Automating [and] digitizing is top of mind for all the utilities we’ve talked to in the Next Grid Alliance.
To date, a lot of the automation work that’s been done has been around basic automation of business processes. But there are new capabilities on the horizon that will push the automation of different activities up the value chain, Lambert said.
“ ML is the next level — predictive maintenance of your assets, delivering for the customer. Uniphore, for example: you’re learning from every interaction you have with your customer, incorporating that into the algorithm, and the next time you meet a customer, you’re going to do better. So that’s the next generation,” Lambert said. “Once everything is digital, you’re learning from those engagements — whether engaging an asset or a human being.”
Lambert sees another source of demand for new machine learning tech in the need for utilities to rapidly decarbonize. The move away from fossil fuels will necessitate entirely new ways of operating and managing a power grid. One where humans are less likely to be in the loop.
“In the next five years, utilities have to get automation and analytics right if they’re going to have any chance at a net-zero world — you’re going to need to run those assets differently,” said Lambert. “Windmills and solar panels are not [part of] traditional distribution networks. A lot of traditional engineers probably don’t think about the need to innovate, because they’re building out the engineering technology that was relevant when assets were built decades ago — whereas all these renewable assets have been built in the era of OT/IT.”