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Protein replacement startups are coming for food additives as Shiru launches from Y Combinator

By Jonathan Shieber

Shiru, a new company that’s launching from the latest batch of Y Combinator-backed startups, is joining the ranks of the businesses angling for a spot at the vanguard of the new food technology revolution.

The company was founded by Jasmin Hume, the former director of food chemistry at Just (the company formerly known as Hampton Creek) and takes its name from a homophone of the Chinese shi rou (which Hume has roughly translated to an examination of meat). At Just, Hume was working with a team that was fractionating plants to look at their physical properties to identify what products could be made from the various proteins and chemicals researchers found in the plants.

Shiru, by contrast, is using computational biology to find the ideal proteins for specific applications in the food industry.

The company’s looking at what proteins are best for creating certain kinds of qualities that are used in food additives, things like viscosity building, solubility, foam stability, emulsification, and biding, according to Hume.

In some ways, Hume’s approach looks similar to the early product roadmap for Geltor, a company backed by SOSV and IndieBio that was also looking to make functional proteins. The company, which has raised over $18 million to date, shifted its attention to proteins for the beauty industry and cosmetics instead of food — potentially leaving an opening for Shiru to exploit.

 Still in its early days, Shiru doesn’t have a product nailed down yet, but the company the science the company is exploring is increasingly well understood, and Hume says it’s looking at several different genetically engineered feedstocks — from yeasts to undisclosed strains of bacteria and fungi to make its proteins. 

“We use the power of molecular design and machine learning to identify protein structures that are more functional than existing alternatives,” says Hume. “The proteins that we are screening for are inspired by nature.”

Hume’s path to founding Shiru involves quite the pedigree. Before Just, she received her doctorate in materials chemistry from New York University, and she’d spent a stretch as a summer associate at the New York-based frontier technology-focused investment firm Lux Capital.

Hume expects to begin pilot production of initial proteins later this year and be producing small but repeatable quantities by the end of 2020.

The company hasn’t raised any outside capital before Y Combinator and is currently in the process of raising a round, Hume said.

Birth control delivery startup Nurx approaches $300M valuation

By Kate Clark

Nurx, citing 200,000 current patients and a monthly growth rate as high as 20%, has raised $32 million in Series C equity funding in a round co-led by existing investors Kleiner Perkins and Union Square Ventures. The company has also secured $20 million in debt financing, bringing total new capital to $52 million.

The San Francisco-based digital health startup, which seeks to make birth control more accessible and affordable by shipping it direct to consumers, has raised more than $90 million in debt and equity funding to date, with the latest infusion bringing its valuation to nearly $300 million, according to stock authorization filings uncovered by PitchBook. Nurx declined to comment on its valuation.

The goal, Nurx chief executive officer Varsha Rao explains, is to become a telehealth platform focused on all sensitive health needs.

“We see there is a need to help people that may have issues that often carry stigma and judgment by providing a streamlined platform,” Rao tells TechCrunch. “What the company is doing in terms of providing more accessibility from a physical and economic perspective to critical health services is very inspiring for me.”

The fresh bout of funding comes four months after a scathing New York Times report highlighted irresponsible practices at the company, including reshipping returned medications and attempting to revise medical policy on birth control for women over the age of 35.

Nurx’s Rao, who joined from Clover Health just one week before the article was published, says she feels good about how the company has scaled: “I want to make it clear, patient safety was never at risk even then; having said that, we are super committed to always investing in compliance and patient safety and all of the things that are important.”

The business plans to use the funding to double its engineering team and launch additional “sensitive” healthcare services, of which Rao declined to further outline. In addition to shipping birth control D2C, including the pill, shot, ring and patch, Nurx provides emergency contraception, STI and HPV testing and screening kits, and PrEP medication, the once-daily pill that reduces the risk of getting HIV.

The company added STI testing kits to its line up last month and has since performed tests for 1,000 patients, Nurx says.

Nurx’s service is currently live in 26 states and Washington, D.C. The company plans to be accessible to 90% of the U.S. population by the end of the year, with additional launches, including the state of Nebraska, expected this month.

A graduate of Y Combinator, Nurx investors also include Reproductive Health Investors Alliance, Dreamers VC, Lowercase Capital and debt and equity provider Triple Point Capital.

Artificial intelligence can contribute to a safer world

By Jonathan Shieber
Matt Ocko Contributor
Matt Ocko is co-Managing Partner and co-founder of DCVC (Data Collective).
Alan Cohen Contributor
Alan Cohen is an operating partner at DCVC.

We all see the headlines nearly every day. A drone disrupting the airspace in one of the world’s busiest airports, putting aircraft at risk (and inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of passengers) or attacks on critical infrastructure. Or a shooting in a place of worship, a school, a courthouse. Whether primitive (gunpowder) or cutting-edge (unmanned aerial vehicles) in the wrong hands, technology can empower bad actors and put our society at risk, creating a sense of helplessness and frustration.

Current approaches to protecting our public venues are not up to the task, and, frankly appear to meet Einstein’s definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” It is time to look past traditional defense technologies and see if newer approaches can tilt the pendulum back in the defender’s favor. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can play a critical role here, helping to identify, classify and promulgate counteractions on potential threats faster than any security personnel.

Using technology to prevent violence, specifically by searching for concealed weapons has a long history. Alexander Graham Bell invented the first metal detector in 1881 in an unsuccessful attempt to locate the fatal slug as President James Garfield lay dying of an assassin’s bullet. The first commercial metal detectors were developed in the 1960s. Most of us are familiar with their use in airports, courthouses and other public venues to screen for guns, knives and bombs.

However, metal detectors are slow and full of false positives – they cannot distinguish between a Smith & Wesson and an iPhone. It is not enough to simply identify a piece of metal; it is critical to determine whether it is a threat. Thus, the physical security industry has developed newer approaches, including full-body scanners – which are now deployed on a limited basis. While effective to a point, the systems in use today all have significant drawbacks. One is speed. Full body scanners, for example, can process only about 250 people per hour, not much faster than a metal detector. While that might be okay for low volume courthouses, it’s a significant problem for larger venues like a sporting arena.

Image via Getty Images

Fortunately, new AI technologies are enabling major advances in physical security capabilities. These new systems not only deploy advanced sensors to screen for guns, knives and bombs, they get smarter with each screen, creating an increasingly large database of known and emerging threats while segmenting off alarms for common, non-threatening objects (keys, change, iPads, etc.)

As part of a new industrial revolution in physical security, engineers have developed a welcomed approach to expediting security screenings for threats through machine learning algorithms, facial recognition, and advanced millimeter wave and other RF sensors to non-intrusively screen people as they walk through scanning devices. It’s like walking through sensors at the door at Nordstrom, the opposite of the prison-like experience of metal detectors with which we are all too familiar. These systems produce an analysis of what someone may be carrying in about a hundredth of a second, far faster than full body scanners. What’s more, people do not need to empty their pockets during the process, further adding speed. Even so, these solutions can screen for firearms, explosives, suicide vests or belts at a rate of about 900 people per hour through one lane.

Using AI, advanced screening systems enable people to walk through quickly and provide an automated decision but without creating a bottleneck. This volume greatly improves traffic flow while also improving the accuracy of detection and makes this technology suitable for additional facilities such as stadiums and other public venues such as Lincoln Center in New York City and the Oakland airport.

Apollo Shield’s anti-drone system.

So much for the land, what about the air?   Increasingly drones are being used as weapons. Famously, this was seen in a drone attack last year against Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. An airport drone incident drew widespread attention when a drone shut down Gatwick Airport in late 2018 inconveniency stranded tens of thousands of people.

People are rightly concerned about how easy it is to get a gun. Drones are also easy to acquire and operate, and quite difficult to monitor and to defend against. AI is now being deployed to prevent drone attacks, whether at airports, stadiums, or critical infrastructure. For example, new AI-powered radar technology is being used to detect, classify, monitor and safely capture drones identified as dangerous.

Additionally, these systems use can rapidly develop a map of the airspace and effectively create a security “dome” around specific venues or areas. These systems have an integration component to coordinate with on-the-ground security teams and first responders. Some even have a capture drone to incarcerate a suspicious drone. When a threatening drone is detected and classified by the system as dangerous, the capture drone is dispatched and nets the invading drone. The hunter then tows the targeted drone to a safe zone for the threat to be evaluated and if needed, destroyed.

While there is much dialogue about the potential risk of AI affecting our society, there is also a positive side to these technologies. Coupled with our best physical security approaches, AI can help prevent violent incidents.

Sperm storage startups are raising millions

By Kate Clark

A number of startups are bringing technology and innovation to the fertility industry, with a growing few focused specifically on male fertility.

“Society at large doesn’t understand the subject of fertility,” Tom Smith, the co-founder and chief executive officer of men’s sperm storage startup Dadi tells TechCrunch. “People see it as a female issue.”

Dadi has raised a $5 million seed extension led by The Chernin Group, a private equity fund that typically invests in media, with existing investors including London seed-fund Firstminute Capital and New York’s Third Kind Venture Capital also participating. The company, which sends at-home fertility tests and sperm storage kits, closed a $2 million seed round earlier this year.

Dadi’s funding event comes shortly after another men’s fertility business, Legacy, raised a $1.5 million round for its sperm testing and freezing service. Both companies hope to leverage venture capital funding to become the dominant men’s fertility brand.

Bain Capital Ventures -backed Legacy, which won TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield competition at Disrupt Berlin 2018, allows men to get their sperm tested and frozen without visiting a clinic or meeting with a doctor. Founder and chief executive officer Khaled Kteily said the company, which is based out of the Harvard Innovation Labs in Boston, planned to use the capital to expand its sperm analysis and cryogenic storage services.

040319 AG WaPo Legacy Sperm Freezing 0016

Sarah Steinle, head of marketing, Khaled Kteily, founder and CEO, and Daniel Madero, head of clinic partnerships at Legacy .

Like many startups today, Dadi and Legacy are capitalizing on the direct-to-consumer business model to educate men about their fertility. Customers of both Dadi and Legacy simply order a DIY sperm collection kit online, collect a sperm sample and send it back to the company for a full fertility report. Both companies offer sperm storage services too. Dadi charges a total of $199.98 for its sperm testing kit and one year of sperm storage, while Legacy asks for $350 for clinical fertility analysis and lifestyle recommendations. To store your sperm in Legacy’s cryogenic storage facilities, it’s an additional $20 per month.

One in six couples struggles to get pregnant after one year of trying. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, one-third of the infertility cases amongst those couples are caused by fertility problems in men, another one-third of issues are connected to women and the remaining cases are a result of a combination of male and female fertility issues. By making sperm storage more accessible, startups hope to encourage a conversation around family planning and fertility among young men.

“Men also have a biological clock,” Smith said. “From your late 20s and onward, your overall sperm count absolutely declines and, more importantly, the number of mutations that can be passed on to that potential child grows.”

Dadi, a New York-based company, plans to use its latest bout of funding to continue developing a number of yet-to-be-announced products, as well as offer new support services to customers who’ve taken Dadi’s fertility tests: “If we are going to live up to our overall objective of being this encompassing business helping men through the fertility stack, the next step for us is investing in next-step support,” Smith explains.

Dadi’s founding team lacks experience in the healthcare sector, which is likely to pose problems as the company expands and forges partnerships in the greater healthcare field. Smith previously led a custom emoji business, Imoji, which was acquired by Giphy in 2017. Dadi co-founder Mackey Saturday, for his part, was previously a graphic designer responsible for creating Instagram’s logo.

Aiming to make up for its lack of expertise, Dadi has formed a Science and Technology Advisory Board with participation from Dr. Michael Eisenberg, associate professor of urology at Stanford’s Medical Center, and Dr. Jacques Cohen, the laboratory director at ART Institute of Washington at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Legacy’s Kteily previously worked as a consultant focused on health & life sciences before serving as a senior manager at the World Economic Forum. Daniel Madero and Sarah Steinle, also Legacy co-founders, previously worked at Medifertil, a Colombian fertility clinic, and Extend Fertility, respectively.

In addition to Dadi and Legacy, other companies close to the space have recently secured notable investments including Hims, the provider of direct-to-consumer erectile dysfunction (ED) and hair loss medication, which raised a $100 million this year. Another seller of ED meds, Ro, has raised a total of $91 million. And Manual, an educational portal and treatment platform for men’s issues, raised a £5 million seed round in January from Felix Capital, Cherry Ventures and Cassius Capital.

AT&T rolls out (limited) 5G in (parts of) New York City

By Brian Heater

Both Verizon and Sprint have been promising 5G coverage in the nation’s largest city for some time now. AT&T this morning, however, said it’s starting to do just that. The U.S.’s largest carrier by subscribers announced limited availability of 5G coverage in New York City.

The typical not-so-fine print applies to the news this morning. The service will be limited to business users at launch — and only available in a select number of areas. In other words, don’t go running out and buying a 5G phone just yet, if you’re an AT&T customer in the five boroughs.

On the plus side, 5G+ is the real deal, unlike the deceptively named 5GE that came before it. And AT&T’s being reasonably transparent about the limited nature of the roll out.

“As a densely-populated, global business and entertainment hub, New York City stands to benefit greatly from having access to 5G, and we’ve been eager to introduce the service here,” AT&T’s New York President Amy Kramer said in a release. “While our initial availability in NYC is a limited introduction at launch, we’re committed to working closely with the City to extend coverage to more neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs.”

Per CNET, the rollout is limited to a small section of Manhattan for the time being, including, “near and around East Village, Greenwich Village and Gramercy Park.” Business users can access the service using Samsung’s Galaxy S10 5G on the carrier’s Business Unlimited Preferred plan.

Nyca Partners raises $210M to invest in fintech startups

By Kate Clark

Nyca Partners, a firm with investments in financial technology businesses including PayRange, Trellis, Affirm and Acorns, has collected another $210 million for its third venture capital fund.

Located in New York, Nyca’s debut fund closed on $31 million in 2014. Its second fund, a similarly focused fintech effort, raised $125 million in 2017.

Venture capital investment in fintech is poised to reach new heights in 2019, according to PitchBook. So far this year, investors have bet $8.6 billion on U.S.-based fintech upstarts. Last year, investment in the space reached an all-time high of more than $12 billion, with Robinhood, Coinbase and Plaid all raising multi-hundred-million-dollar rounds.

“Much has changed since we launched Nyca,” the firm wrote in a blog post announcing the fund. “In 2014 the fintech landscape was still a relatively small community of investors and several hundred companies, dominated by credit and payments strategies, and incipient crypto enthusiasts. Most regulators around the world were generally uninformed about the dramatic changes taking place in financial technology and with it the potential impact on banking, investing and insurance practices. In mid-2019, we estimate there are fifteen thousand funded fintech start-ups. Some have become very large companies extremely quickly, and entrepreneurs are creating new models and ideas with breathtaking speed.”

Nyca managing partner Hans Morris has a long history in the financial space. Most recently, he was managing director at General Atlantic; before that, he served as president of Visa and spent nearly three decades at Citigroup in roles including chief financial officer and head of finance.

The firm is also led by Ravi Mohan, partner and chief operating officer, who spent 25 years at Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase .

As part of the new fundraise, Nyca has promoted David Sica to partner. Prior to joining Nyca, Sica was a director at Visa.

Nyca announces its new fund just days after Oak HC/FT, another fintech-focused fund, raised $800 million to invest in the space.

Don’t miss this epic Twitter fight between the IAB’s CEO and actual publishers

By Natasha Lomas

Grab popcorn. As Internet fights go this one deserves your full attention — because the fight is over your attention. Your eyeballs and the creepy ads that trade data on you to try to swivel ’em.

A Clockwork Orange Eyes GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

In the blue corner, the Internet Advertising Association’s CEO, Randall Rothenberg, who has been taking to Twitter increasingly loudly in recent days to savage Europe’s privacy framework, the GDPR, and bleat dire warnings about California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) — including amplifying studies he claims show “the negative impact” on publishers.

Exhibit A, tweeted August 1:

More on the negative impact of #GDPR on publishers (and more reasons @iab is trying to fix #CCPA so publishers, brands, & retailers don’t get killed). https://t.co/BWtGNYGTJq

Randall Rothenberg (@r2rothenberg) July 31, 2019

NB: The IAB is a mixed membership industry organization which combines advertisers, brands, publishers, data brokers* and adtech platform tech giants — including the dominant adtech duopoly, Google and Facebook, who take home ~60% of digital ad spend. The only entity capable of putting a dent in the duopoly, Amazon, is also in the club. Its membership reflects the sprawling interests attached to the online ad industry, and, well, the personal data that currently feeds it (your eyeballs again!), although some members clearly have pots more money to spend on lobbying against digital privacy regs than others.

In a what now looks to have been deleted tweet last month Rothenberg publicly professed himself proud to have Facebook as a member of his ‘publisher defence’ club. Though, admittedly, per the above tweet, he’s also worried about brands and retailers getting “killed”. He doesn’t need to worry about Google and Facebook’s demise because that would just be ridiculous.

Now, in the — I wish I could call it ‘red top’ corner, except these newspaper guys are anything but tabloid — we find premium publishers biting back at Rothenberg’s attempts to trash-talk online privacy legislation.

Here’s the New York Times‘ data governance & privacy guy, Robin Berjon, demolishing Rothenberg via the exquisite medium of quote-tweet

One of the primary reasons we need the #GDPR and #CCPA (and more) today is because the @iab, under @r2rothenberg's leadership, has been given 20 years to self-regulate and has used the time to do [checks notes] nothing whatsoever.https://t.co/hBS9d671LU

— Robin Berjon (@robinberjon) August 1, 2019

I’m going to quote Berjon in full because every single tweet packs a beautifully articulated punch:

  • One of the primary reasons we need the #GDPR and #CCPA (and more) today is because the @iab, under @r2rothenberg’s leadership, has been given 20 years to self-regulate and has used the time to do [checks notes] nothing whatsoever.
  • I have spent much of my adult life working in self-regulatory environments. They are never perfect, but when they work they really deliver.
  • #Adtech had a chance to self-reg when the FTC asked them to — from which we got the joke known as AdChoices.
  • They got a second major chance with DNT. But the notion of a level playing field between #adtech and consumers didn’t work for them so they did everything to prevent it from existing.
  • At some point it became evident that the @iab lacked the vision and leadership to shepherd the industry towards healthy, sustainable behaviour. That’s when regulation became unavoidable. No one has done as much as the @iab has to bring about strong privacy regulation.
  • And to make things funnier the article that @r2rothenberg was citing as supporting his view is… calling for stronger enforcement of the #GDPR.
  • If that’s not a metaphor for where the @iab’s at, I don’t know what is.

Next time Facebook talks about how it can self-regulate its access to data I suggest you cc that entire thread.

Also chipping in on Twitter to champion Berjon’s view about the IAB’s leadership vacuum in cleaning up the creepy online ad complex, is Aram Zucker-Scharff, aka the ad engineering director at — checks notes — The Washington Post.

His punch is more of a jab — but one that’s no less painful for the IAB’s current leadership.

“I say this rarely, but this is a must read,” he writes, in a quote tweet pointing to Berjon’s entire thread.

I say this rarely, but this is a must read, Thread: https://t.co/FxKmT9bp7r

— Aram Zucker-Scharff (@Chronotope) August 2, 2019

Another top tier publisher’s commercial chief also told us in confidence that they “totally agree with Robin” — although they didn’t want to go on the record today.

In an interesting twist to this ‘mixed member online ad industry association vs people who work with ads and data at actual publishers’ slugfest, Rothenberg replied to Berjon’s thread, literally thanking him for the absolute battering.

Yes, thank you – that’s exactly where we’re at & why these pieces are important!” he tweeted, presumably still dazed and confused from all the body blows he’d just taken. “@iab supports the competitiveness of the hundreds of small publishers, retailers, and brands in our global membership. We appreciate the recognition and your explorations,@robinberjon.”

Yes, thank you – that’s exactly where we’re at & why these pieces are important! @iab supports the competitiveness of the hundreds of small publishers, retailers, and brands in our global membership. We appreciate the recognition and your explorations, @robinberjon & @Bershidsky https://t.co/WDxrWIyHXd

— Randall Rothenberg (@r2rothenberg) August 2, 2019

Rothenberg also took the time to thank Bloomberg columnist, Leonid Bershidsky, who’d chipped into the thread to point out that the article Rothenberg had furiously retweeted actually says the GDPR “should be enforced more rigorously against big companies, not that the GDPR itself is bad or wrong”.

Who is Bershidsky? Er, just the author of the article Rothenberg tried to nega-spin. So… uh… owned.

May I point out that the piece that's cited here (mine) says the GDPR should be enforced more rigorously against big companies, not that the GDPR itself is bad or wrong?

— Leonid Bershidsky (@Bershidsky) August 1, 2019

But there’s more! Berjon tweeted a response to Rothenberg’s thanks for what the latter tortuously referred to as “your explorations” — I mean, the mind just boggles as to what he was thinking to come up with that euphemism — thanking him for reversing his position on GDPR, and for reversing his prior leadership vacuum on supporting robustly enforced online privacy laws. 

It’s great to hear that you’re now supporting strong GDPR enforcement,” he writes. “It’s indeed what most helps the smaller players. A good next step to this conversation would be an @iab statement asking to transpose the GDPR to US federal law. Want to start drafting something?”

It's great to hear that you're now supporting strong GDPR enforcement. It's indeed what most helps the smaller players. A good next step to this conversation would be an @iab statement asking to transpose the GDPR to US federal law. Want to start drafting something?

— Robin Berjon (@robinberjon) August 2, 2019

We’ve asked the IAB if, in light of Rothenberg’s tweet, it now wishes to share a public statement in support of transposing the GDPR into US law. We’ll be sure to update this post if it says anything at all.

We’ve also screengrabbed the vinegar strokes of this epic fight — as an insurance policy against any further instances of the IAB hitting the tweet delete button. (Plus, I mean, you might want to print it out and get it framed.)

Screenshot 2019 08 02 at 18.48.08

Some light related reading can be found here:

Dasha AI is calling so you don’t have to

By Natasha Lomas

While you’d be hard-pressed to find any startup not brimming with confidence over the disruptive idea they’re chasing, it’s not often you come across a young company as calmly convinced it’s engineering the future as Dasha AI.

The team is building a platform for designing human-like voice interactions to automate business processes. Put simply, it’s using AI to make machine voices a whole lot less robotic.

“What we definitely know is this will definitely happen,” says CEO and co-founder Vladislav Chernyshov. “Sooner or later the conversational AI/voice AI will replace people everywhere where the technology will allow. And it’s better for us to be the first mover than the last in this field.”

“In 2018 in the US alone there were 30 million people doing some kind of repetitive tasks over the phone. We can automate these jobs now or we are going to be able to automate it in two years,” he goes on. “If you multiple it with Europe and the massive call centers in India, Pakistan and the Philippines you will probably have something like close to 120M people worldwide… and they are all subject for disruption, potentially.”

The New York based startup has been operating in relative stealth up to now. But it’s breaking cover to talk to TechCrunch — announcing a $2M seed round, led by RTP Ventures and RTP Global: An early stage investor that’s backed the likes of Datadog and RingCentral. RTP’s venture arm, also based in NY, writes on its website that it prefers engineer-founded companies — that “solve big problems with technology”. “We like technology, not gimmicks,” the fund warns with added emphasis.

Dasha’s core tech right now includes what Chernyshov describes as “a human-level, voice-first conversation modelling engine”; a hybrid text-to-speech engine which he says enables it to model speech disfluencies (aka, the ums and ahs, pitch changes etc that characterize human chatter); plus “a fast and accurate” real-time voice activity detection algorithm which detects speech in under 100 milliseconds, meaning the AI can turn-take and handle interruptions in the conversation flow. The platform can also detect a caller’s gender — a feature that can be useful for healthcare use-cases, for example.

Another component Chernyshov flags is “an end-to-end pipeline for semi-supervised learning” — so it can retrain the models in real time “and fix mistakes as they go” — until Dasha hits the claimed “human-level” conversational capability for each business process niche. (To be clear, the AI cannot adapt its speech to an interlocutor in real-time — as human speakers naturally shift their accents closer to bridge any dialect gap — but Chernyshov suggests it’s on the roadmap.)

“For instance, we can start with 70% correct conversations and then gradually improve the model up to say 95% of correct conversations,” he says of the learning element, though he admits there are a lot of variables that can impact error rates — not least the call environment itself. Even cutting edge AI is going to struggle with a bad line.

The platform also has an open API so customers can plug the conversation AI into their existing systems — be it telephony, Salesforce software or a developer environment, such as Microsoft Visual Studio.

Currently they’re focused on English, though Chernyshov says the architecture is “basically language agnostic” — but does requires “a big amount of data”.

The next step will be to open up the dev platform to enterprise customers, beyond the initial 20 beta testers, which include companies in the banking, healthcare and insurance sectors — with a release slated for later this year or Q1 2020.

Test use-cases so far include banks using the conversation engine for brand loyalty management to run customer satisfaction surveys that can turnaround negative feedback by fast-tracking a response to a bad rating — by providing (human) customer support agents with an automated categorization of the complaint so they can follow up more quickly. “This usually leads to a wow effect,” says Chernyshov.

Ultimately, he believes there will be two or three major AI platforms globally providing businesses with an automated, customizable conversational layer — sweeping away the patchwork of chatbots currently filling in the gap. And of course Dasha intends their ‘Digital Assistant Super Human Alike’ to be one of those few.

“There is clearly no platform [yet],” he says. “Five years from now this will sound very weird that all companies now are trying to build something. Because in five years it will be obvious — why do you need all this stuff? Just take Dasha and build what you want.”

“This reminds me of the situation in the 1980s when it was obvious that the personal computers are here to stay because they give you an unfair competitive advantage,” he continues. “All large enterprise customers all over the world… were building their own operating systems, they were writing software from scratch, constantly reinventing the wheel just in order to be able to create this spreadsheet for their accountants.

“And then Microsoft with MS-DOS came in… and everything else is history.”

That’s not all they’re building, either. Dasha’s seed financing will be put towards launching a consumer-facing product atop its b2b platform to automate the screening of recorded message robocalls. So, basically, they’re building a robot assistant that can talk to — and put off — other machines on humans’ behalf.

Which does kind of suggest the AI-fuelled future will entail an awful lot of robots talking to each other… 🤖🤖🤖

Chernyshov says this b2c call screening app will most likely be free. But then if your core tech looks set to massively accelerate a non-human caller phenomenon that many consumers already see as a terrible plague on their time and mind then providing free relief — in the form of a counter AI — seems the very least you should do.

Not that Dasha can be accused of causing the robocaller plague, of course. Recorded messages hooked up to call systems have been spamming people with unsolicited calls for far longer than the startup has existed.

Dasha’s PR notes Americans were hit with 26.3BN robocalls in 2018 alone — up “a whopping” 46% on 2017.

Its conversation engine, meanwhile, has only made some 3M calls to date, clocking its first call with a human in January 2017. But the goal from here on in is to scale fast. “We plan to aggressively grow the company and the technology so we can continue to provide the best voice conversational AI to a market which we estimate to exceed $30BN worldwide,” runs a line from its PR.

After the developer platform launch, Chernyshov says the next step will be to open up access to business process owners by letting them automate existing call workflows without needing to be able to code (they’ll just need an analytic grasp of the process, he says).

Later — pegged for 2022 on the current roadmap — will be the launch of “the platform with zero learning curve”, as he puts it. “You will teach Dasha new models just like typing in a natural language and teaching it like you can teach any new team member on your team,” he explains. “Adding a new case will actually look like a word editor — when you’re just describing how you want this AI to work.”

His prediction is that a majority — circa 60% — of all major cases that business face — “like dispatching, like probably upsales, cross sales, some kind of support etc, all those cases” — will be able to be automated “just like typing in a natural language”.

So if Dasha’s AI-fuelled vision of voice-based business process automation come to fruition then humans getting orders of magnitude more calls from machines looks inevitable — as machine learning supercharges artificial speech by making it sound slicker, act smarter and seem, well, almost human.

But perhaps a savvier generation of voice AIs will also help manage the ‘robocaller’ plague by offering advanced call screening? And as non-human voice tech marches on from dumb recorded messages to chatbot-style AIs running on scripted rails to — as Dasha pitches it — fully responsive, emoting, even emotion-sensitive conversation engines that can slip right under the human radar maybe the robocaller problem will eat itself? I mean, if you didn’t even realize you were talking to a robot how are you going to get annoyed about it?

Dasha claims 96.3% of the people who talk to its AI “think it’s human”, though it’s not clear what sample size the claim is based on. (To my ear there are definite ‘tells’ in the current demos on its website. But in a cold-call scenario it’s not hard to imagine the AI passing, if someone’s not paying much attention.)

The alternative scenario, in a future infested with unsolicited machine calls, is that all smartphone OSes add kill switches, such as the one in iOS 13 — which lets people silence calls from unknown numbers.

And/or more humans simply never pick up phone calls unless they know who’s on the end of the line.

So it’s really doubly savvy of Dasha to create an AI capable of managing robot calls — meaning it’s building its own fallback — a piece of software willing to chat to its AI in future, even if actual humans refuse.

Dasha’s robocall screener app, which is slated for release in early 2020, will also be spammer-agnostic — in that it’ll be able to handle and divert human salespeople too, as well as robots. After all, a spammer is a spammer.

“Probably it is the time for somebody to step in and ‘don’t be evil’,” says Chernyshov, echoing Google’s old motto, albeit perhaps not entirely reassuringly given the phrase’s lapsed history — as we talk about the team’s approach to ecosystem development and how machine-to-machine chat might overtake human voice calls.

“At some point in the future we will be talking to various robots much more than we probably talk to each other — because you will have some kind of human-like robots at your house,” he predicts. “Your doctor, gardener, warehouse worker, they all will be robots at some point.”

The logic at work here is that if resistance to an AI-powered Cambrian Explosion of machine speech is futile, it’s better to be at the cutting edge, building the most human-like robots — and making the robots at least sound like they care.

Dasha’s conversational quirks certainly can’t be called a gimmick. Even if the team’s close attention to mimicking the vocal flourishes of human speech — the disfluencies, the ums and ahs, the pitch and tonal changes for emphasis and emotion — might seem so at first airing.

In one of the demos on its website you can hear a clip of a very chipper-sounding male voice, who identifies himself as “John from Acme Dental”, taking an appointment call from a female (human), and smoothly dealing with multiple interruptions and time/date changes as she changes her mind. Before, finally, dealing with a flat cancelation.

A human receptionist might well have got mad that the caller essentially just wasted their time. Not John, though. Oh no. He ends the call as cheerily as he began, signing off with an emphatic: “Thank you! And have a really nice day. Bye!”

If the ultimate goal is Turing Test levels of realism in artificial speech — i.e. a conversation engine so human-like it can pass as human to a human ear — you do have to be able to reproduce, with precision timing, the verbal baggage that’s wrapped around everything humans say to each other.

This tonal layer does essential emotional labor in the business of communication, shading and highlighting words in a way that can adapt or even entirely transform their meaning. It’s an integral part of how we communicate. And thus a common stumbling block for robots.

So if the mission is to power a revolution in artificial speech that humans won’t hate and reject then engineering full spectrum nuance is just as important a piece of work as having an amazing speech recognition engine. A chatbot that can’t do all that is really the gimmick.

Chernyshov claims Dasha’s conversation engine is “at least several times better and more complex than [Google] Dialogflow, [Amazon] Lex, [Microsoft] Luis or [IBM] Watson”, dropping a laundry list of rival speech engines into the conversation.

He argues none are on a par with what Dasha is being designed to do.

The difference is the “voice-first modelling engine”. “All those [rival engines] were built from scratch with a focus on chatbots — on text,” he says, couching modelling voice conversation “on a human level” as much more complex than the more limited chatbot-approach — and hence what makes Dasha special and superior.

“Imagination is the limit. What we are trying to build is an ultimate voice conversation AI platform so you can model any kind of voice interaction between two or more human beings.”

Google did demo its own stuttering voice AI — Duplex — last year, when it also took flak for a public demo in which it appeared not to have told restaurant staff up front they were going to be talking to a robot.

Chernyshov isn’t worried about Duplex, though, saying it’s a product, not a platform.

“Google recently tried to headhunt one of our developers,” he adds, pausing for effect. “But they failed.”

He says Dasha’s engineering staff make up more than half (28) its total headcount (48), and include two doctorates of science; three PhDs; five PhD students; and ten masters of science in computer science.

It has an R&D office in Russian which Chernyshov says helps makes the funding go further.

“More than 16 people, including myself, are ACM ICPC finalists or semi finalists,” he adds — likening the competition to “an Olympic game but for programmers”. A recent hire — chief research scientist, Dr Alexander Dyakonov — is both a doctor of science professor and former Kaggle No.1 GrandMaster in machine learning. So with in-house AI talent like that you can see why Google, uh, came calling…

Dasha

 

But why not have Dasha ID itself as a robot by default? On that Chernyshov says the platform is flexible — which means disclosure can be added. But in markets where it isn’t a legal requirement the door is being left open for ‘John’ to slip cheerily by. Bladerunner here we come.

The team’s driving conviction is that emphasis on modelling human-like speech will, down the line, allow their AI to deliver universally fluid and natural machine-human speech interactions which in turn open up all sorts of expansive and powerful possibilities for embeddable next-gen voice interfaces. Ones that are much more interesting than the current crop of gadget talkies.

This is where you could raid sci-fi/pop culture for inspiration. Such as Kitt, the dryly witty talking car from the 1980s TV series Knight Rider. Or, to throw in a British TV reference, Holly the self-depreciating yet sardonic human-faced computer in Red Dwarf. (Or indeed Kryten the guilt-ridden android butler.) Chernyshov’s suggestion is to imagine Dasha embedded in a Boston Dynamics robot. But surely no one wants to hear those crawling nightmares scream…

Dasha’s five-year+ roadmap includes the eyebrow-raising ambition to evolve the technology to achieve “a general conversational AI”. “This is a science fiction at this point. It’s a general conversational AI, and only at this point you will be able to pass the whole Turing Test,” he says of that aim.

“Because we have a human level speech recognition, we have human level speech synthesis, we have generative non-rule based behavior, and this is all the parts of this general conversational AI. And I think that we can we can — and scientific society — we can achieve this together in like 2024 or something like that.

“Then the next step, in 2025, this is like autonomous AI — embeddable in any device or a robot. And hopefully by 2025 these devices will be available on the market.”

Of course the team is still dreaming distance away from that AI wonderland/dystopia (depending on your perspective) — even if it’s date-stamped on the roadmap.

But if a conversational engine ends up in command of the full range of human speech — quirks, quibbles and all — then designing a voice AI may come to be thought of as akin to designing a TV character or cartoon personality. So very far from what we currently associate with the word ‘robotic’. (And wouldn’t it be funny if the term ‘robotic’ came to mean ‘hyper entertaining’ or even ‘especially empathetic’ thanks to advances in AI.)

Let’s not get carried away though.

In the meanwhile, there are ‘uncanny valley’ pitfalls of speech disconnect to navigate if the tone being (artificially) struck hits a false note. (And, on that front, if you didn’t know ‘John from Acme Dental’ was a robot you’d be forgiven for misreading his chipper sign off to a total time waster as pure sarcasm. But an AI can’t appreciate irony. Not yet anyway.)

Nor can robots appreciate the difference between ethical and unethical verbal communication they’re being instructed to carry out. Sales calls can easily cross the line into spam. And what about even more dystopic uses for a conversation engine that’s so slick it can convince the vast majority of people it’s human — like fraud, identity theft, even election interference… the potential misuses could be terrible and scale endlessly.

Although if you straight out ask Dasha whether it’s a robot Chernyshov says it has been programmed to confess to being artificial. So it won’t tell you a barefaced lie.

Dasha

How will the team prevent problematic uses of such a powerful technology?

“We have an ethics framework and when we will be releasing the platform we will implement a real-time monitoring system that will monitor potential abuse or scams, and also it will ensure people are not being called too often,” he says. “This is very important. That we understand that this kind of technology can be potentially probably dangerous.”

“At the first stage we are not going to release it to all the public. We are going to release it in a closed alpha or beta. And we will be curating the companies that are going in to explore all the possible problems and prevent them from being massive problems,” he adds. “Our machine learning team are developing those algorithms for detecting abuse, spam and other use cases that we would like to prevent.”

There’s also the issue of verbal ‘deepfakes’ to consider. Especially as Chernyshov suggests the platform will, in time, support cloning a voiceprint for use in the conversation — opening the door to making fake calls in someone else’s voice. Which sounds like a dream come true for scammers of all stripes. Or a way to really supercharge your top performing salesperson.

Safe to say, the counter technologies — and thoughtful regulation — are going to be very important.

There’s little doubt that AI will be regulated. In Europe policymakers have tasked themselves with coming up with a framework for ethical AI. And in the coming years policymakers in many countries will be trying to figure out how to put guardrails on a technology class that, in the consumer sphere, has already demonstrated its wrecking-ball potential — with the automated acceleration of spam, misinformation and political disinformation on social media platforms.

“We have to understand that at some point this kind of technologies will be definitely regulated by the state all over the world. And we as a platform we must comply with all of these requirements,” agrees Chernyshov, suggesting machine learning will also be able to identify whether a speaker is human or not — and that an official caller status could be baked into a telephony protocol so people aren’t left in the dark on the ‘bot or not’ question. 

“It should be human-friendly. Don’t be evil, right?”

Asked whether he considers what will happen to the people working in call centers whose jobs will be disrupted by AI, Chernyshov is quick with the stock answer — that new technologies create jobs too, saying that’s been true right throughout human history. Though he concedes there may be a lag — while the old world catches up to the new.

Time and tide wait for no human, even when the change sounds increasingly like we do.

Direct-to-consumer lingerie brand Lively acquired for $85M

By Kate Clark

Lively, a lingerie business founded and led by former Victoria’s Secret executive Michelle Cordeiro Grant, has sold to intimate apparel brand Wacoal for $85 million.

The deal includes up to an additional $55 million in performance-based payouts.

Lively, headquartered in New York, had raised $15 million in venture capital funding, including a $6.5 million Series A investment from GGV Capital, NF Ventures and former Nautica CEO Harvey Sanders announced late last year. The Series valued the startup at $101 million, according to PitchBook.

The deal brings Wacoal’s parent company, Wacoal International Corporation, a team of highly-skilled e-commerce marketers, who’ve successfully managed to tap into the millennial customer sect.

Lively, founded in 2016, sells bras and intimates online and in two brick-and-mortar locations in Chicago and New York. It competes with a number of other direct-to-consumer lingerie and activewear upstarts, including ThirdLove, AdoreMe, TomboyX and Outdoor Voices .

“We built Lively to inspire women to live life passionately, purposefully, and confidently,” Grant wrote in a statement. “We invest in our community and customers to empower them to celebrate their individuality and enable them with products to look and feel their best. Wacoal’s core values have a beautiful synergy with Lively’s, enabling us to come together, not just to take market share, but to also create market share.”

Catalyst raises $15M from Accel to transform data-driven customer success

By Danny Crichton

Managing your customers has changed a lot in the past decade. Out are the steak dinners and ballgame tickets to get a sense of a contract’s chance at renewal, and in are churn analysis and a whole bunch of data science to learn whether a customer and their users like or love your product. That customer experience revolution has been critical to the success of SaaS products, but it can remain wickedly hard to centralize all the data needed to drive top performance in a customer success organization.

That’s where Catalyst comes in. The company, founded in New York City in 2017 and launched April last year, wants to centralize all of your disparate data sources on your customers into one easy-to-digest tool to learn how to approach each of them individually to optimize for the best experience.

The company’s early success has attracted more top investors. It announced today that it has raised a $15 million Series A led by Vas Natarajan of Accel, who previously backed enterprise companies like Frame.io, Segment, InVision, and Blameless. The company had previously raised $3 million from NYC enterprise-focused Work-Bench and $2.4 million from True Ventures. Both firms participated in this new round.

Catalyst CEO Edward Chiu told me that Accel was attractive because of the firm’s recent high-profile success in the enterprise space, including IPOs like Slack, PagerDuty, and CrowdStrike.

When we last spoke with Catalyst a year and a half ago, the firm had just raised its first seed round and was just the company’s co-founders — brothers Edward and Kevin Chiu — and a smattering of employees. Now, the company has 19 employees and is targeting 40 employees by the end of the year.

Team Photo

In that time, the product has continued to evolve as it has worked with its customers. One major feature of Catalyst’s product is a “health score” that determines whether a customer is likely to grow or churn in the coming months based on ingested data around usage. CEO Chiu said that “we’ve gotten our health score to be very very accurate” and “we have the ability to take automated action based on that health score.” Today, the company offers “prefect sync” with Salesforce, Mixpanel, Zendesk, among other services, and will continue to make investments in new integrations.

One high priority for the company has been increasing the speed of integration when a new customer signs up for Catalyst. Chiu said that new customers can be onboarded in minutes, and they can use the platform’s formula builder to define the exact nuances of their health score for their specific customers. “We mold to your use case,” he said.

One lesson the company has learned is that as success teams increasingly become critical to the lifeblood of companies, other parts of the organization and senior executives are working together to improve their customer’s experiences. Chiu told me that the startup often starts with onboarding a customer success team, only to later find that C-suite and other team leads have also joined and are also interacting together on the platform.

An interesting dynamic for the company is that it does its own customer success on its customer success platform. “We are our own best customer,” Chiu said. “We login every day to see the health of our customers… our product managers login to Catalyst every day to read product feedback.”

Since the last time we checked in, the company has added a slew of senior execs, including Cliff Kim as head of product, Danny Han as head of engineering, and Jessica Marucci as head of people, with whom the two Chius had worked together at cloud infrastructure startup DigitalOcean.

Moving forward, Chiu expects to invest further in data analysis and engineering. “One of the most unique things about us is that we are collecting so much unique data: usage patterns, [customer] spend fluctuations, [customer] health scores,” Chiu said. “It would be a hugely missed opportunity not to analyze that data and work on churn.”

Real estate platform Compass raises another $370M on a $6.4B valuation en route to an IPO

By Ingrid Lunden

The real estate market regularly goes through ups and downs, but today comes big news for a startup in the space that has built a platform that it believes can help all players in it — buyers, sellers, and those who help with the buying and selling — no matter what stage of the cycle we happen to be in.

Compass — a company that has built a three-sided marketplace for the industry, along with a wide set of algorithms to help make it work — has raised a $370 million round of funding, money that it plans to use to continue expanding to more markets, as well as for more tech and product development. Sources tell me that it’s also now eyeing up an IPO, likely sometime in the next 24 months.

“From day one we knew, when we had just a small amount of people at the company, we had a very clear focus,” co-founder and chairman Ori Allon said in an interview. “We wanted to bring more tech and data and transparency to real estate, and i think it’s paid off.”

Based out of New York, Compass earlier this year established an engineering hub in Seattle run by the former CTO of AI for Microsoft, Joseph Sirosh . It’s continuing to hire there and elsewhere (alongside also making acqui-hires for talent).

The Series G funding — which brings the total raised by Compass to $1.5 billion — is coming in at a $6.4 billion valuation, a huge uptick for the company compared to its $4.4 billion valuation less than a year ago. Part of the reason for that has been the company’s massive growth: in the last quarter, its revenues were up 250% compared to Q2 2018.

The investor list for this latest round includes previous investors Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB), Dragoneer Investment Group, and SoftBank Vision Fund. Other backers since it was first founded in 2012 have included Founders Fund, the Qatar Investment Authority (a construction and real estate giant), Fidelity and others.

Compass

The company was co-founded by Ori Allon and Robert Reffkin — respectively the chairman and CEO, pictured here on the right and left of COO Maelle Gavet. The company first caught my eye because of Allon. An engineer by training, he has a string of notable prior successes in the field of search to his name (his two previous startups were sold to Google and Twitter, which used them as the basis of large areas of their search and discovery algorithms).

In this latest entrepreneurial foray, Allon’s vision of using machine learning algorithms to improve decisions that humans make has been tailored to the specific vertical of real estate.

The platform is not a mere marketplace to connect buyers to real estate agents to sellers, but an engine that helps figure out pricing, timing for sales, how to stage homes (and more recently how to improve them with actual building work by way of Compass Concierge) to get the best prices and best sales.

It also helps real estate agents manage their time and their customers (by way of an acquisition it made of CRM platform Contactually earlier this year). Starting with high-end homes for private individuals, Compass has expanded to commercial real estate and a much wider set of price brackets.

There is a wide opportunity for vertical search businesses at the moment. People want more accurate and targeted information to make purchasing decisions; and companies that are in the business of providing information (and selling things) are keen for better platforms to bring in online visitors and increase their conversions.

I understand that this has led to Compass getting approached for acquisitions, but that is not in the blueprint for this real estate startup: the longer term plan will be to take the company public, likely in the next 24 months.

“It has been incredible to see the growth of our Product & Engineering team, including the addition of Joseph Sirosh as CTO,” said Compass Founder & Executive Chairman Ori Allon, in a statement. “We are excited to partner with new investors, and deepen our relationship with our existing partners to accelerate our growth and further our technology advancements.”

The Knight Foundation launches $750,000 initiative for immersive technology for the arts

By Jonathan Shieber

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is looking for pitches on how to enhance and augment traditional creative arts through immersive technologies.

Through a partnership with Microsoft the foundation is offering a share of a $750,00 pool of cash and the option of technical support from Microsoft, including mentoring in mixed-reality technologies and access to the company’s suite of mixed reality technologies.

“We’ve seen how immersive technologies can reach new audiences and engage existing audiences in new ways,” said Chris Barr, director for arts and technology innovation at Knight Foundation, in a statement. “But arts institutions need more knowledge to move beyond just experimenting with these technologies to becoming proficient in leveraging their full potential.”

Specifically, the foundation is looking for projects that will help engage new audiences; build new service models; expand access beyond the walls of arts institutions; and provide means to distribute immersive experiences to multiple locations, the foundation said in a statement.

“When done right, life-changing experiences can happen at the intersection of arts and technology,” said Victoria Rogers, Knight Foundation vice president for arts. “Our goal through this call is to help cultural institutions develop informed and refined practices for using new technologies, equipping them to better navigate and thrive in the digital age.”

Launched at the Gray Area Festival in San Francisco, the new initiative is part of the Foundation’s art and technology focus, which the organization said is designed to help arts institutions better meet changing audience expectations. Last year, the foundation invested $600,000 in twelve projects focused on using technology to help people engage with the arts.

“We’re incredibly excited to support this open call for ways in which technology can help art institutions engage new audiences,” says Mira Lane, Partner Director Ethics & Society at Microsoft. “We strongly believe that immersive technology can enhance the ability for richer experiences, deeper storytelling, and broader engagement.”

Here are the winners from the first $600,000 pool:

  • ArtsESP – Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts

Project lead: Nicole Keating | Miami | @ArshtCenter

Developing forecasting software that enables cultural institutions to make data-centered decisions in planning their seasons and events.

  • Exploring the Gallery Through Voice – Alley Interactive

Project lead: Tim Schwartz | New York | @alleyco@cooperhewitt@SinaBahram

Exploring how conversational interfaces, like Amazon Alexa, can provide remote audiences with access to an exhibition experience at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

  • The Bass in VR – The Bass

Project lead: T.J. Black | Miami Beach | @TheBassMoA

Using 360-degree photography technology to capture and share the exhibit experience in an engaging, virtual way for remote audiences.

  • AR Enhanced Audio Tour – Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Project lead: Shane Richey | Bentonville, Arkansas | @crystalbridges

Developing mobile software to deliver immersive audio-only stories that museum visitors would experience when walking up to art for a closer look.

  • Smart Label Initiative – Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

Project lead: Brian Kirschensteiner | East Lansing, Michigan | @msubroad

Creating a system of smart labels that combine ultra-thin touch displays and microcomputers to deliver interactive informational content about artwork to audiences.

  • Improving Arts Accessibility through Augmented Reality Technology – Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, in collaboration with People’s Light

Project lead: Lisa Sonnenborn | Philadelphia | @TempleUniv,@IODTempleU@peopleslight 

Making theater and performance art more accessible for the deaf, hard of hearing and non-English speaking communities by integrating augmented reality smart glasses with an open access smart captioning system to accompany live works.

  • ConcertCue – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology

Project lead: Eran Egozy | Cambridge, Massachusetts | @EEgozy,@MIT,@ArtsatMIT@MIT_SHASS

Developing a mobile app for classical music audiences that receives real-time program notes at precisely-timed moments of a live musical performance.

  • Civic Portal – Monument Lab

Project lead: Paul Farber and Ken Lum | Philadelphia | @monument_lab@PennDesign@SachsArtsPhilly@paul_farber

Encouraging public input on new forms of historical monuments through a digital tool that allows users to identify locations, topics and create designs for potential public art and monuments in our cities.

  • Who’s Coming? – The Museum of Art and History at the McPherson Center

Project lead: Nina Simon | Santa Cruz, California | @santacruzmah@OFBYFOR_ALL

Prototyping a tool in the form of a smartphone/tablet app for cultural institutions to capture visitor demographic data, increasing knowledge on who is and who is not participating in programs.

  • Feedback Loop – Newport Art Museum, in collaboration with Work-Shop Design Studio

Project lead: Norah Diedrich | Newport, Rhode Island | @NewportArtMuse

Enabling audiences to share immediate feedback and reflections on art by designing hardware and software to test recording and sharing of audience thoughts.

  • The Traveling Stanzas Listening Wall – Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University Foundation

Project lead: David Hassler | Kent, Ohio | @DavidWickPoetry,@WickPoetry,@KentState@travelingstanza

Producing touchscreen installations in public locations that allow users to create and share poetry by reflecting on and responding to historical documents, oral histories, and multimedia stories about current events and community issues.

  • Wiki Art Depiction Explorer – Wikimedia District of Columbia, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution

Project lead: Andrew Lih | Washington, District of Columbia | @wikimedia@fuzheado

Using crowdsourcing methods to improve Wikipedia descriptions of artworks in major collections so people can better access and understand art virtually.

How parking app SpotHero is preparing for an era of driverless cars

By Kirsten Korosec

On-demand parking app SpotHero wants to be ready for the day when autonomous vehicles are ubiquitous. Its strategy: target the human-driven car-sharing fleets today.

The Chicago-based company, which has operations in San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C. and Seattle, has launched a new service dubbed SpotHero for Fleets that targets shared mobility and on-demand services.

The service aims to be a one-stop shop for car-sharing and commercial fleets to handle all that goes into ensuring there is access and the right number of designated parking areas on any given day within SpotHero’s large network of 6,500 garages across 300 cities.

That means everything from managing the relationships between garage owners and the fleet companies to proper signage so car-sharing customers can find the vehicles, as well as flexible plans that account for seasonal demands on businesses.

Under the new service, customers are able to source and secure parking inventory in high-traffic areas across multiple cities and pay per use across multiple parking facilities on one invoice to streamline payments. 

The service also aims to solve the crux of accessing commercial garages, Elan Mosbacher, SpotHero’s head of strategy and operations, said in a recent interview.

“How does a car get in and out of the garage when the driver driving that car isn’t necessarily the one paying for the parking?,” Mosbacher asked rhetorically. The service provides access to gated parking facilities to provide more pickup and drop-off points for shared cars.

The company’s core competency — its bread and butter since launching in 2011 — has been directed at connecting everyday drivers to parking spots in thousands of garages across North America.

That focus has expanded in the past eight years, with the company adding other services as urban density has increased and on-street parking has become more jumbled and confused thanks to an increase in traffic, ride-hailing and on-demand delivery services that take up valuable curb space.

“Our platform has evolved as more trends emerge around everything from connected cars to urban mobility apps to fleets to autonomous vehicles more and more companies are reaching out to us about how to leverage our network and our API to service parking from their interface to their audience of drivers,” said Mosbacher.

For instance, just last month, SpotHero announced it was integrating Waze, the navigation app owned by Google, into its app to help customers find the best and most direct route to their pre-booked parking spot. The company has also partnered with Moovit as well as expanded into the corporate world with firms such as the Associated Press, Caterpillar and US Cellular.

SpotHero could continue to scale up with this consumer-focused business model. However, the company saw two overlapping opportunities that center around car-sharing fleets.

In the past year, SpotHero has been approached by a number of autonomous vehicles companies acknowledging that one day they’re going to have to solve parking, Mosbacher said. But these companies aren’t even ready to launch pilot programs.

The company realized there was a use case and an opportunity today for human-driven car-sharing fleets.

“What we’re doing now is leveraging our network of services, hardware and software to solve a number of business problems around car-sharing fleets we the hope that the technology, infrastructure improves and accelerates to a point when autonomous vehicles are capable of parking using our network,” Mosbacher said.

That opportunity is poised to get a lot wider in the next decade. Deloitte predicts that by 2030 shared vehicles will overtake personally owned vehicles in urban areas. As car-share fleets grow, companies are increasingly tasked with solving for complex parking needs at scale, according to SpotHero.

The company has signed on car-sharing companies and other commercial fleets, although it’s not naming them yet.

The business of parking — and its potential to tap fleets of human-driven and someday even driverless vehicles — has attracted venture funds. SpotHero has raised $67.6 million to date.

And there’s good reason investors and parking app companies like SpotHero are jumping in to “solve parking.” A study by Inrix released in 2017 found that, on average, U.S. drivers spend 17 hours per year searching for parking at a cost of $345 per driver in wasted time, fuel and emissions.

Senate Intelligence Committee releases first volume of its investigation into Russian election hacking

By Jonathan Shieber

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence today released the first volume of its bipartisan investigation into Russia’s attempts to interfere with the 2016 U.S. elections.

Helmed by Select Committee Chairman Richard Burr, the Republican from North Carolina, and Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner, who serves as Vice Chairman, the committee’s report Russian Efforts Against Election Infrastructure,” details the unclassified summary findings on election security. 

Through two and a half years the committee has held 15 open hearings, interviewed over 200 witnesses, and reviewed nearly 400,000 documents, according to a statement and will be publishing other volumes from its investigation over the next year. 

“In 2016, the U.S. was unprepared at all levels of government for a concerted attack from a determined foreign adversary on our election infrastructure. Since then, we have learned much more about the nature of Russia’s cyber activities and better understand the real and urgent threat they pose,” Committee Chairman Burr said in a statement. “The Department of Homeland Security and state and local elections officials have dramatically changed how they approach election security, working together to bridge gaps in information sharing and shore up vulnerabilities.”

Both Sen. Burr and Sen. Warner said that additional steps still needed to be taken.

“[There’s] still much more we can and must do to protect our elections. I hope the bipartisan findings and recommendations outlined in this report will underscore to the White House and all of our colleagues, regardless of political party, that this threat remains urgent, and we have a responsibility to defend our democracy against it.”

Among the Committee’s findings were that Russian hackers exploited the seams between federal and state authorities. State election officials, the report found were not sufficiently warned or prepared to handle an attack from a state actor.

The warnings that were provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security weren’t detailed enough nor did they contain enough relevant information that would have encouraged the states to take threats more seriously, the report indicated.

 More work still needs to be done, according to the Committee. DHS needs to coordinate its efforts with state officials much more closely. But states need to do more as well to ensure that new voting machines have a voter-verified paper trail. 

So does Congress. The committee report underscores that Congress need to evaluate the results of the $380 million in state security grants which were issued under the Help America Vote Act and ensure that additional funding is available to address any security gaps in voting systems and technologies around the U.S.

Finally, the U.S. needs to create more appropriate deterrence mechanisms to enable the country to respond effectively to cyber attacks on elections.

The Committee’s support for greater spending on election security and refining electoral policy to ensure safe and secure access to the ballot, comes as Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has blocked two election security measures that were attempting to come before the Senate floor for a vote.

New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, tried to get consent to pass a House bill that requires the use of paper ballots and included new funding for the Election Assistance Commission.

In a statement explaining his rejection of the Bill, McConnell told The Hill, “Clearly this request is not a serious effort to make a law. Clearly something so partisan that it only received one single solitary Republican vote in the House is not going to travel through the Senate by unanimous consent.”

McConnell also rejected a consent motion to pass legislation that would require that candidates, campaign officials, and family members to reach out to the FBI if they received offers of assistance from foreign governments.

Location-based virtual reality goes to the mall as The Void plans a rollout in 25 more locations

By Jonathan Shieber

The Void, a developer of immersive virtual reality entertainment centers, is partnering with the multinational, multihyphenate mall developer Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield to build 25 new locations around the world.

Location-based virtual reality has become the default gateway into the consumer market for virtual reality headsets, given that adoption of the consumer wearable device hasn’t been all that robust.

Utah-based The Void has some big intellectual property behind its immersive experiences, including ‘Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire’ from Lucasfilm; Walt Disney Animation’s ‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’; and ‘Ghostbusters: Dimension.’

Through the partnership with Westfield in the U.S., the company intends to launch pop-ups at the Westfield World Trade Center in New York,  the Westfield San Francisco Centre, Westfield Santa Anita on the outskirts of Pasadena and Westfield UTC in San Diego. The Void notes that all of those locations will become permanent going forward.

The companies also intend to take the show on the road with openings planned for Paris, London, Amsterdam, Chicago, Copenhagen, Oberhausen, San Jose, Calif., Stockholm and Vienna.

This partnership between the two companies reflects some harsh realities for both businesses. For virtual reality it’s the limited home adoption of headset entertainment, and for shopping malls, it’s the rise of e-commerce and the conversion of these public spaces from shopping destinations to broader entertainment hubs.

It’s a fact that Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield chief executive Christophe Cuvillier acknowledged in a statement about the partnership. “Over the past years, our industry has evolved dramatically. In a connected world, shopping is not enough anymore,” Cuvillier said in a statement. “Today, our customers expect to be entertained and brought together to share memorable, engaging sensory experiences.”

Techstars Detroit announces first class after major refocus

By Matt Burns

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.

ICE mined driver’s license photos for facial recognition

By Zack Whittaker

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are using facial recognition software to trawl through millions of driver’s license photos provided by 21 states to search and find suspects.

News broke over the weekend that the FBI and immigration officials access images — often without obtaining a search warrant or court order — in order to identify criminal suspects but also witnesses, victims and innocent bystanders. In some cases agents would simply email the state department of motor vehicles for assistance.

But Congress nor state lawmakers ever authorized the access or the searches. A bipartisan group of congresspeople have criticized the use of facial recognition as dangerous to citizens’ right to privacy.

Several states, like New York, and the District of Columbia, allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, with other states — like Florida and Texas — working to introduce similar laws.

Documents obtained by a public records request and seen by both The Washington Post and The New York Times reveal the scope of the privacy infraction. Utah alone saw close to 2,000 facial recognition searches from law enforcement agencies in the two years between 2015 and 2017.

Facial recognition remains controversial, not least because it’s been accused of racial bias and plagued with inaccuracies. The FBI’s facial recognition database contains more than 640 million images but a government watchdog reported that the agency has “not taken sufficient action to help ensure accuracy” of its system.

Earlier this year documents revealed 9,000 ICE agents have access to a massive license plate database, containing six billion vehicle detections. The database also includes a “hot list” of more than 1,100 license plates of subjects of interest, which triggers an alert every time the plates are picked up by a license plate reader.

The U.S. has thousands of automatic license plate readers (ALPR) across the country.

Songtrust adds another 55,000 artists to its rights management service

By Jonathan Shieber

Over the past year, Songtrust has added another 55,000 artists to its rights management service.

The company, a subsidiary of Downtown Music Publishing, a publishing and rights management firm that manages rights for artists such as John Lennon, One Direction and Santigold, now has 205,000 artists on its roster and has 2 million songs it tracks.

The company has also opened three offices in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Nashville to complement existing locations in New York, London and Amsterdam.

The company’s growth follows that of a music industry that continues to enjoy a renaissance (at least in terms of dollars spent).

The global recorded music market grew 9.7% in 2018 to $19.1 billion, according to data from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (which has been tracking the industry since the days when the dominant technology was the record player).

Much of that growth is now coming from streaming, the IFPI reports, with streaming revenues growing 34% year over year and accounting for 47% of total revenue thanks to paid subscription services. There were 255 million users of paid services by the end of 2018 — and Songtrust can attribute much of its growth to the opacity in how that money makes its way back to artists.

Increasingly, those artists are having to track their performance in international markets as well. Latin America continues to be the fastest gorwing region for music consumption, followed by Asia and Australasia. Most of that growth is due to K-Pop, since South Korea accounts for 17.9% growth in money spent alone.

All of this movement shows no sign of abating, according to the bankers that track these kinds of things. Goldman Sachs recently projected that the industry could grow to over $130 billion in revenue over the next decade.

 

 

Lifestyle goods resale marketplace StockX raises $110M, pushing valuation past $1B

By Darrell Etherington

Detroit-based StockX, which provides a way for people to resell luxury and lifestyle goods including streetwear, bags, watches and shoes, is now valued at over $1 billion based on its most recent raise of $110 million, just revealed by the New York Times. Alongside the raise, StockX is bringing on a new CEO – ecommerce vet and former eBay SVP Scott Cutler.

Cutler replaces co-founder Josh Luber at the helm of the company, but he’ll continue to be the “public face” of the company according to the NYT, which is not unusual for a founder-led company when it brings on more traditionally experienced executives to steer the startup through periods of aggressive growth and business maturation.

StockX’s success rode the sneaker culture boom of the past half-decade or so, as the startup first focused exclusively on acting as a resale source for shoes with high levels of hype. Their unique value prop, for consumers, was offering a verification service so that you knew when you were buying (often at a premium, and often so-called ‘deadstock’ or stuff that’s new in condition but not available through typical consumer sales channels) was the real deal.

The company expanded from there into new categories, first with watches, then handbags, and most recently streetwear – all categories where high potential for fraud mean that consumers are willing to pay more for some assurance of authenticity.

Also unique to StockX is its treatment of the marketplace as analogous to a public stock exchange, with shoe releases, watch, bag and clothing SKUs replacing companies as the trade commodity. The app for StockX displays charts trending value and features bids and calls, making it similar in concept to another company where new CEO Cutler has experience – the NYSE.

With this funding, the company will focus on growing its international business and also do more with selling new products, which it has done on occasion for select releases, but which hasn’t been a primary focus of its business to date.

With a portfolio including Acorns, Sweetgreen and Ro Health, Torch Capital raises $60M for its first fund

By Jonathan Shieber

Jonathan Keidan, the founder of Torch Capital, had already built a portfolio that included Acorns, Compass, Digital Ocean and Sweetgreen, before he raised single dollar for his inaugural venture capital fund, which just closed with $60 million.

Keidan, a consummate networker who began his professional career as a manager working with acts like The Nappy Roots, The Getaway People and a young John Legend, just managed to be in the right place at the right time, he says (thanks, in part, to his gift for gab).

The final close for Torch Capital’s first fund is just the beginning for Torch, which is angling to be one of the premiere firms for early stage consumer internet and consumer facing enterprise software.

The firm began raising its first fund in October 2017 and held a $40 million first close just about one year ago. Keidan and his partners had targeted $50 million for his first investment vehicle, but wound up hitting the hard cap of $60 million, in part due to high demand from the New York-based entrepreneurs that Keidan considers his peers.

In addition to backers like the George Kaiser Family Foundation and billionaire Hong Kong fashion mogul Silas Chou, Keidan was able to tap startup founders like Jennifer Fleiss, the co-founder of Rent the Runway; Casper co-founders Philip Krim and Neil Parikh; and Bryan Goldberg, the founder of Bleacher Report and owner of Bustle Media Group (which includes Gawker, Bustle, Elite Daily, Mic, The Outline, and The Zoe Report, which collectively form Bustle Digital Group).

“Because I’ve taken a more startup approach i was recruiting raising money and doing deals at the same time,” says Keidan. 

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A sampling of Torch Capital’s portfolio investments

Along with partners Sam Jones, a former London-based investment banker; Katie Reiner, an investor at the data-driven growth fund, Lead Edge Capital; Curtis Chang, a technology-focused investment banker from HSBC’ and Chantal Haldorsen, a serial startup executive; Keidan has certainly done deals.

He started investing as an angel while still working at his own media company InsideHook, and began forming special purpose vehicles for larger investments as soon as he departed, about three years ago.

For the first year-and-a-half, Jones and Keidan worked on the SPVS, which allowed them to put together a portfolio that included Acorns, Compass, Digital Ocean and Sweetgreen — as well as startups like ZocDoc and the ketchup brand, Sir Kensington’s.

Since launching the fund, Keidan and his partners did 15 investments in the first year — including investments into . the consumer-focused Ro Health, which sells erectile dysfunction medication, supplements for hair growth, and more recently menopausal products for women.

Torch Capital has also backed the fintech company, Harness Wealth, sustainable cashmere manufacturer and retailer, Naadam; and Splendid Spoon, a vegan breakfast and lunch prepared food provider akin to Daily Harvest.

Keidan’s interest in investment stems from his experience in the music industry. It was a time when Spotify was just beginning to emerge and Napster had already shaken up the market. The creation of digital platforms enabled artists to connect more directly with the consumer in a way that traditional companies couldn’t understand.

Instead of embracing the technology labels and artists fought it, and the writing on the wall (that the labels and artists would lose) became clear… at least for Keidan. 

Following some advice from mentors including the super-producer and music mogul, Quincy Jones, Keidan went to business school. He graduated from Columbia in 2007 with an MBA and then did what all former music managers do after their MBA training — he joined McKinsey as a consultant. The stint at McKinsey led Keidan to Jack Welch’s online education venture and from there, Keidan started InsideHook.

Keidan grew the company to over 2 million subscribers in the five years since he helped launch the business in 2012. From that perch he saw the rise of direct to consumer startups and began making angel investments. His first was ZocDoc, his second, Sir Kensingtons (which sold to Unilever) and his third was the real estate investment platform, Compass.

That track record was enough to convince Chou, the Hong Kong billionaire that turned around Tommy Hilfiger and built Michael Kors into a multi-billion dollar powerhouse in the world of ready to wear fashion.

Like the rest of the venture industry, Keidan sees the technology tools that have transformed much of business are now remaking the ease and reach of building direct to consumer brands. Unlike most, Keidan has spent time working on the ground up to develop brands (artists and songwriting talent in the music business).

Everything that Torch Capital invests in has at least one eye on an end consumer, whether that’s direct consumer investments like Ro, Sweetgreen or the business surveying startup, Perksy.

Torch invests between $500,000 and $1 million in seed deals and will invest anywhere between $1 million to $3 million in Series A deals, according to Keidan.

“What makes a consumer company successful at scale is very different than enterprise software or consumer internet deals,” said Keidan. “VCs were having trouble getting their heads around this… [their companies] were overvalued too early… and when they couldn’t meet those goals they were doing things that were detrimental to the brand.”

Keidan thinks he has a better approach.

“Between InsideHook and watching companies grow and my own investments i’d seen the nuances of what it takes to get to scale,” he said.

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