Linear takes $4.2M led by Sequoia to build a better bug tracker and more

Software will eat the world, as the saying goes, but in doing so, some developers are likely to get a little indigestion. That is to say, building products requires working with disparate and distributed teams, and while developers may have an ever-growing array of algorithms, APIs and technology at their disposal to do this, ironically the platforms to track it all haven’t evolved with the times. Now three developers have taken their own experience of that disconnect to create a new kind of platform, Linear, which they believe addresses the needs of software developers better by being faster and more intuitive. It’s bug tracking you actually want to use.

Today, Linear is announcing a seed round of $4.2 million led by Sequoia, with participation also from Index Ventures and a number of investors, startup founders and others that will also advise Linear as it grows. They include Dylan Field (Founder and CEO, Figma), Emily Choi (COO, Coinbase), Charlie Cheever (Co-Founder of Expo & Quora), Gustaf Alströmer (Partner, Y Combinator), Tikhon Berstram (Co-Founder, Parse), Larry Gadea (CEO, Envoy), Jude Gomila (CEO, Golden), James Smith (CEO, Bugsnag), Fred Stevens-Smith (CEO, Rainforest), Bobby Goodlatte, Marc McGabe, Julia DeWahl and others.

Cofounders Karri Saarinen, Tuomas Artman, and Jori Lallo — all Finnish but now based in the Bay Area — know something first-hand about software development and the trials and tribulations of working with disparate and distributed teams. Saarinen was previously the principal designer of Airbnb, as well as the first designer of Coinbase; Artman had been staff engineer and architect at Uber; and Lallo also had been at Coinbase as a senior engineer building its API and front end.

“When we worked at many startups and growth companies we felt that the tools weren’t matching the way we’re thinking or operating,” Saarinen said in an email interview. “It also seemed that no-one had took a fresh look at this as a design problem. We believe there is a much better, modern workflow waiting to be discovered. We believe creators should focus on the work they create, not tracking or reporting what they are doing. Managers should spend their time prioritizing and giving direction, not bugging their teams for updates. Running the process shouldn’t sap your team’s energy and come in the way of creating.”

Linear cofounders (from left): KarriSaarinen, Jori Lallo, and Tuomas Artma

All of that translates to, first and foremost, speed and a platform whose main purpose is to help you work faster. “While some say speed is not really a feature, we believe it’s the core foundation for tools you use daily,” Saarinen noted.

A ⌘K command calls up a menu of shortcuts to edit an issue’s status, assign a task, and more so that everything can be handled with keyboard shortcuts. Pages load quickly and synchronise in real time (and search updates alongside that). Users can work offline if they need to. And of course there is also a dark mode for night owls.

The platform is still very much in its early stages. It currently has three integrations based on some of the most common tools used by developers — GitHub (where you can link Pull Requests and close Linear issues on merge), Figma designs (where you can get image previews and embeds of Figma designs), and Slack (you can create issues from Slack and then get notifications on updates). There are plans to add more over time.

We started solving the problem from the end-user perspective, the contributor, like an engineer or a designer and starting to address things that are important for them, can help them and their teams,” Saarinen said. “We aim to also bring clarity for the teams by making the concepts simple, clear but powerful. For example, instead of talking about epics, we have Projects that help track larger feature work or tracks of work.”

Indeed, speed is not the only aim with Linear. Saarinen also said another area they hope to address is general work practices, with a take that seems to echo a turn away from time spent on manual management and more focus on automating that process.

“Right now at many companies you have to manually move things around, schedule sprints, and all kinds of other minor things,” he said. “We think that next generation tools should have built in automated workflows that help teams and companies operate much more effectively. Teams shouldn’t spend a third or more of their time a week just for running the process.”

The last objective Linear is hoping to tackle is one that we’re often sorely lacking in the wider world, too: context.

“Companies are setting their high-level goals, roadmaps and teams work on projects,” he said. “Often leadership doesn’t have good visibility into what is actually happening and how projects are tracking. Teams and contributors don’t always have the context or understanding of why they are working on the things, since you cannot follow the chain from your task to the company goal. We think that there are ways to build Linear to be a real-time picture of what is happening in the company when it comes to building products, and give the necessary context to everyone.”

Linear is a late entrant in a world filled with collaboration apps, and specifically workflow and collaboration apps targeting the developer community. These include not just Slack and GitHub, but Atlassian’s Trello and Jira, as well as Asana, Basecamp and many more.

Saarinen would not be drawn out on which of these (or others) that it sees as direct competition, noting that none are addressing developer issues of speed, ease of use and context as well as Linear is.

“There are many tools in the market and many companies are talking about making ‘work better,’” he said. “And while there are many issue tracking and project management tools, they are not supporting the workflow of the individual and team. A lot of the value these tools sell is around tracking work that happens, not actually helping people to be more effective. Since our focus is on the individual contributor and intelligent integration with their workflow, we can support them better and as a side effect makes the information in the system more up to date.”

Stephanie Zhan, the partner at Sequoia whose speciality is seed and Series A investments and who has led this round, said that Linear first came on her radar when it first launched its private beta (it’s still in private beta and has been running a waitlist to bring on new users. In that time it’s picked up hundreds of companies, including Pitch, Render, Albert, Curology, Spoke, Compound and YC startups including Middesk, Catch and Visly). The company had also been flagged by one of Sequoia’s Scouts, who invested earlier this year

Sequoia Logo Natalie Miyake

Although Linear is based out of San Francisco, it’s interesting that the three founders’ roots are in Finland (with Saarinen in Helsinki this week to speak at the Slush event), and brings up an emerging trend of Silicon Valley VCs looking at founders from further afield than just their own back yard.

“The interesting thing about Linear is that as they’re building a software company around the future of work, they’re also building a remote and distributed team themselves,” Zahn said. The company currently has only four employees.

In that vein, we (and others, it seems) had heard that Sequoia — which today invests in several Europe-based startups, including Tessian, Graphcore, Klarna, Tourlane, Evervault  and CEGX — has been considering establishing a more permanent presence in this part of the world, specifically in London.

Sources familiar with the firm, however, tell us that while it has been sounding out VCs at other firms, saying a London office is on the horizon might be premature, as there are as yet no plans to set up shop here. However, with more companies and European founders entering its portfolio, and as more conversations with VCs turn into decisions to make the leap to help Sequoia source more startups, we could see this strategy turning around quickly.


By Ingrid Lunden

Celonis, a leader in big data process mining for enterprises, nabs $290M on a $2.5B valuation

More than $1 trillion is spent by enterprises annually on “digital transformation” — the investments that organizations make to update their IT systems to get more out of them and reduce costs — and today one of the bigger startups that’s built a platform to help get the ball rolling is announcing a huge round of funding.

Celonis, a leader in the area of process mining — which tracks data produced by a company’s software, as well as how the software works, in order to provide guidance on what a company could and should do to improve it — has raised $290 million in a Series C round of funding, giving the startup a post-money valuation of $2.5 billion.

Celonis was founded in 2011 in Munich — an industrial and economic center in Germany that you could say is a veritable petri dish when it comes to large business in need of digital transformation — and has been cash-flow positive from the start. In fact, Celonis waited until it was nearly six years old to take its first outside funding (prior to this Series C it had picked up less than $80 million, see here and here).

The size and timing of this latest equity injection is due to seizing the moment, and tapping networks of people to do so. It has already been growing at a triple-digit rate, with customers like Siemens, Cisco, L’Oreal, Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone among them. 

“Our tech has become its own category with a lot of successful customers,” Bastian Nominacher, the co-CEO who co-founded the company with Alexander Rinke and Martin Klenk, said in an interview. “It’s a key driver for sustainable business operations, and we felt that we needed to have the right network of people to keep momentum in this market.”

To that end, this latest round’s participants lines up with the company’s strategic goals. It is being led by Arena Holdings — an investment firm led by Feroz Dewan — with Ryan Smith, co-founder and CEO of Qualtrics; and Tooey Courtemanche, founder and CEO of Procore, also included, alongside previous investors 83North and Accel.

Celonis said Smith will be a special advisor, working alongside another strategic board member, Hybris founder Carsten Thoma. Dewan, meanwhile, used to run hedge funds for Tiger Global (among other roles) and currently sits on the board of directors of Kraft Heinz.

“Celonis is the clear market leader in a category with open-ended potential. It has demonstrated an enviable record of growth and value creation for its customers and partners,” said Dewan in a statement. “Celonis helps companies capitalise on two inexorable trends that cut across geography and industry: the use of data to enable faster, better decision-making and the desire for all businesses to operate at their full potential.”

The core of Celonis’ offering is to provide process mining around an organizations’ IT systems. Nominacher said that this could include anything from 5 to over 100 different pieces of software, with the main idea being that Celonis’s platform monitors a company’s whole solar system of apps, so to speak, in order to produce its insights — providing and “X-ray” view of the situation, in the words of Rinke.

Those insights, in turn, are used either by the company itself, or by consultants engaged by the organization, to make further suggestions, whether that’s to implement something like robotic process automation (RPA) to speed up a specific process, or use a different piece of software to crunch data better, or reconfigure how staff is deployed, and so on. This is not a one-off thing: the idea is continuous monitoring to pick up new patterns or problems.

In recent times, the company has started to expand the system into a wider set of use cases, by providing tools to monitor operations and customer experience, and to apply its process mining engine to a wider set of company sizes beyond large enterprises, and by bringing in more AI to its basic techniques.

Interestingly, Nominacher said that there are currently no plans to, say, extend into RPA or other “fixing” tools itself, pointing to a kind of laser strategy that is likely part of what has helped it grow so well up to now.

“It’s important to focus on the relevant parts of what you provide,” he said. “We one layer, one that can give the right guidance.”


By Ingrid Lunden

Google makes converting VMs to containers easier with the GA of Migrate for Anthos

At its Cloud Next event in London, Google today announced a number of product updates around its managed Anthos platform, as well as Apigee and its Cloud Code tools for building modern applications that can then be deployed to Google Cloud or any Kubernetes cluster.

Anthos is one of the most important recent launches for Google, as it expands the company’s reach outside of Google Cloud and into its customers’ data centers and, increasingly, edge deployments. At today’s event, the company announced that it is taking Anthos Migrate out of beta and into general availability. The overall idea behind Migrate is that it allows enterprises to take their existing, VM-based workloads and convert them into containers. Those machines could come from on-prem environments, AWS, Azure or Google’s Compute Engine, and — once converted — can then run in Anthos GKE, the Kubernetes service that’s part of the platform.

“That really helps customers think about a leapfrog strategy, where they can maintain the existing VMs but benefit from the operational model of Kubernetes,” Google VP of product management Jennifer Lin told me. “So even though you may not get all of the benefits of a cloud-native container day one, what you do get is consistency in the operational paradigm.”

As for Anthos itself, Lin tells me that Google is seeing some good momentum. The company is highlighting a number of customers at today’s event, including Germany’s Kaeser Kompressoren and Turkey’s Denizbank.

Lin noted that a lot of financial institutions are interested in Anthos. “A lot of the need to do data-driven applications, that’s where Kubernetes has really hit that sweet spot because now you have a number of distributed datasets and you need to put a web or mobile front end on [them],” she explained. “You can’t do it as a monolithic app, you really do need to tap into a number of datasets — you need to do real-time analytics and then present it through a web or mobile front end. This really is a sweet spot for us.”

Also new today is the general availability of Cloud Code, Google’s set of extensions for IDEs like Visual Studio Code and IntelliJ that helps developers build, deploy and debug their cloud-native applications more quickly. The idea, here, of course, is to remove friction from building containers and deploying them to Kubernetes.

In addition, Apigee hybrid is now also generally available. This tool makes it easier for developers and operators to manage their APIs across hybrid and multi-cloud environments, a challenge that is becoming increasingly common for enterprises. This makes it easier to deploy Apigee’s API runtimes in hybrid environments and still get the benefits of Apigees monitoring and analytics tools in the cloud. Apigee hybrid, of course, can also be deployed to Anthos.


By Frederic Lardinois

SocialRank sells biz to Trufan, pivots to a mobile LinkedIn

What do you do when your startup idea doesn’t prove big enough? Run it as a scrawny but profitable lifestyle business? Or sell it to a competitor and take another swing at the fences? Social audience analytics and ad targeting startup SocialRank chose the latter and is going for glory.

Today, SocialRank announced it’s sold its business, brand, assets, and customers to influencer marketing campaign composer and distributor Trufan which will run it as a standalone product. But SocialRank’s team isn’t joining up. Instead, the full six-person staff is sticking together to work on a mobile-first professional social network called Upstream aiming to nip at LinkedIn.

SocialRank co-founder and CEO Alex Taub

Started in 2014 amidst a flurry of marketing analytics tools, SocialRank had raised $2.1 million from Rainfall Ventures and others before hitting profitability in 2017. But as the business plateaued, the team saw potential to use data science about people’s identity to get them better jobs.

“A few months ago we decided to start building a new product (what has become Upstream). And when we came to the conclusion to go all-in on Upstream, we knew we couldn’t run two businesses at the same time” SocialRank co-founder and CEO Alex Taub tells me. “We decided then to run a bit of a process. We ended up with a few offers but ultimately felt like Trufan was the best one to continue the business into the future.”

The move lets SocialRank avoid stranding its existing customers like the NFL, Netflix, and Samsung that rely on its audience segmentation software. Instead, they’ll continue to be supported by Trufan where Taub and fellow co-founder Michael Schonfeld will become advisors.

“While we built a sustainable business, we essentially knew that if we wanted to go real big, we would need to go to the drawing board” Taub explains.

SocialRank

Two-year-old Trufan has raised $1.8 million Canadian from Round13 Capital, local Toronto startup Clearbanc’s founders, and several NBA players. Trufan helps brands like Western Union and Kay Jewellers design marketing initiatives that engage their customer communities through social media. It’s raising an extra $400,000 USD in venture debt from Round13 to finance the acquisition, which should make Trufan cash-flow positive by the end of the year.

Why isn’t the SocialRank team going along for the ride? Taub said LinkedIn was leaving too much opportunity on the table. While it’s good for putting resumes online and searching for people, “All the social stuff are sort of bolt-ons that came after Facebook and Twitter arrived. People forget but LinkedIn is the oldest active social network out there”, Taub tells me, meaning it’s a bit outdated.

Trufan’s team

Rather than attack head-on, the newly forged Upstream plans to pick the Microsoft-owned professional network apart with better approaches to certain features. “I love the idea of ‘the unbundling of LinkedIn’, ala what’s been happening with Craigslist for the past few years” says Taub. “The first foundational piece we are building is a social professional network around giving and getting help. We’ll also be focused on the unbundling of the groups aspect of LinkedIn.”

Taub concludes that entrepreneurs can shackle themselves to impossible goals if they take too much venture capital for the wrong business. As we’ve seen with SoftBank, investors demand huge returns that can require pursuing risky and unsustainable expansion strategies.

“We realized that SocialRank had potential to be a few hundred million dollar in revenue business but venture growth wasn’t exactly the model for it” Taub says. “You need the potential of billions in revenue and a steep growth curve.” A professional network for the smartphone age has that kind of addressable market. And the team might feel better getting out of bed each day knowing they’re unlocking career paths for people instead of just getting them to click ads.


By Josh Constine

The Cerebras CS-1 computes deep learning AI problems by being bigger, bigger, and bigger than any other chip

Deep learning is all the rage these days in enterprise circles, and it isn’t hard to understand why. Whether it is optimizing ad spend, finding new drugs to cure cancer, or just offering better, more intelligent products to customers, machine learning — and particularly deep learning models — have the potential to massively improve a range of products and applications.

The key word though is ‘potential.’ While we have heard oodles of words sprayed across enterprise conferences the last few years about deep learning, there remain huge roadblocks to making these techniques widely available. Deep learning models are highly networked, with dense graphs of nodes that don’t “fit” well with the traditional ways computers process information. Plus, holding all of the information required for a deep learning model can take petabytes of storage and racks upon racks of processors in order to be usable.

There are lots of approaches underway right now to solve this next-generation compute problem, and Cerebras has to be among the most interesting.

As we talked about in August with the announcement of the company’s “Wafer Scale Engine” — the world’s largest silicon chip according to the company — Cerebras’ theory is that the way forward for deep learning is to essentially just get the entire machine learning model to fit on one massive chip. And so the company aimed to go big — really big.

Today, the company announced the launch of its end-user compute product, the Cerebras CS-1, and also announced its first customer of Argonne National Laboratory.

The CS-1 is a “complete solution” product designed to be added to a data center to handle AI workflows. It includes the Wafer Scale Engine (or WSE, i.e. the actual processing core) plus all the cooling, networking, storage, and other equipment required to operate and integrate the processor into the data center. It’s 26.25 inches tall (15 rack units), and includes 400,000 processing cores, 18 gigabytes of on-chip memory, 9 petabytes per second of on-die memory bandwidth, 12 gigabit ethernet connections to move data in and out of the CS-1 system, and sucks just 20 kilowatts of power.

A cross-section look at the CS-1. Photo via Cerebras

Cerebras claims that the CS-1 delivers the performance of more than 1,000 leading GPUs combined — a claim that TechCrunch hasn’t verified, although we are intently waiting for industry-standard benchmarks in the coming months when testers get their hands on these units.

In addition to the hardware itself, Cerebras also announced the release of a comprehensive software platform that allows developers to use popular ML libraries like TensorFlow and PyTorch to integrate their AI workflows with the CS-1 system.

In designing the system, CEO and co-founder Andrew Feldman said that “We’ve talked to more than 100 customers over the past year and a bit,“ in order to determine the needs for a new AI system and the software layer that should go on top of it. “What we’ve learned over the years is that you want to meet the software community where they are rather than asking them to move to you.”

I asked Feldman why the company was rebuilding so much of the hardware to power their system, rather than using already existing components. “If you were to build a Ferrari engine and put it in a Toyota, you cannot make a race car,” Feldman analogized. “Putting fast chips in Dell or [other] servers does not make fast compute. What it does is it moves the bottleneck.” Feldman explained that the CS-1 was meant to take the underlying WSE chip and give it the infrastructure required to allow it to perform to its full capability.

A diagram of the Cerebras CS-1 cooling system. Photo via Cerebras.

That infrastructure includes a high-performance water cooling system to keep this massive chip and platform operating at the right temperatures. I asked Feldman why Cerebras chose water, given that water cooling has traditionally been complicated in the data center. He said, “We looked at other technologies — freon. We looked at immersive solutions, we looked at phase-change solutions. And what we found was that water is extraordinary at moving heat.”

A side view of the CS-1 with its water and air cooling systems visible. Photo via Cerebras.

Why then make such a massive chip, which as we discussed back in August, has huge engineering requirements to operate compared to smaller chips that have better yield from wafers. Feldman said that “ it massively reduces communication time by using locality.”

In computer science, locality is placing data and compute in the right places within, let’s say a cloud, that minimizes delays and processing friction. By having a chip that can theoretically host an entire ML model on it, there’s no need for data to flow through multiple storage clusters or ethernet cables — everything that the chip needs to work with is available almost immediately.

According to a statement from Cerebras and Argonne National Laboratory, Cerebras is helping to power research in “cancer, traumatic brain injury and many other areas important to society today” at the lab. Feldman said that “It was very satisfying that right away customers were using this for things that are important and not for 17-year-old girls to find each other on Instagram or some shit like that.”

(Of course, one hopes that cancer research pays as well as influencer marketing when it comes to the value of deep learning models).

Cerebras itself has grown rapidly, reaching 181 engineers today according to the company. Feldman says that the company is hands down on customer sales and additional product development.

It has certainly been a busy time for startups in the next-generation artificial intelligence workflow space. Graphcore just announced this weekend that it was being installed in Microsoft’s Azure cloud, while I covered the funding of NUVIA, a startup led by the former lead chip designers from Apple who hope to apply their mobile backgrounds to solve the extreme power requirements these AI chips force on data centers.

Expect ever more announcements and activity in this space as deep learning continues to find new adherents in the enterprise.


By Danny Crichton

Salesforce announces it’s moving Marketing Cloud to Microsoft Azure

In the world of enterprise software, there are often strange bedfellows. Just yesterday, Salesforce announced a significant partnership with AWS around the Cloud Information Model. This morning, it announced it was moving its Marketing Cloud to Microsoft Azure. That’s the way that enterprise partnerships shimmy and shake sometimes.

The companies also announced they were partnering around Microsoft Teams, integrating Teams with Salesforce Sales Cloud and Service Cloud.

Salesforce plans to move Marketing Cloud, which has been running in its own data centers, to Microsoft Azure in the coming months, although the exact migration plan timeline is not clear yet. This is a big deal for Microsoft, which competes fiercely with AWS for customers. AWS is the clear market leader in the space, but Microsoft has been a strong second for some time now, and bringing Salesforce on board as a customer is certainly a quality reference for the company.

Brent Leary, founder at CRM Essentials, who has been watching the market for many years, says the partnership says a lot about Microsoft’s approach to business today, and that it’s willing to partner broadly to achieve its goals. “I think the bigger news is that Salesforce chose to go deeper with Microsoft over Amazon, and that Microsoft doesn’t fear strengthening Salesforce at the potential expense of Dynamics 365 (its CRM tool), mainly because their biggest growth driver is Azure,” Leary told TechCrunch.

Microsoft and Salesforce have always had a complex relationship. In the Steve Ballmer era, they traded dueling lawsuits over their CRM products. Later, Satya Nadella kindled a friendship of sorts by appearing at Dreamforce in 2015. The relationship has ebbed and flowed since, but with this announcement, it appears the frenemies are closer to friends than enemies again.

Let’s not forget though, that it was just yesterday that Salesforce announced a partnership with AWS around the Cloud Information Model, one that competes directly with a different partnership between Adobe, Microsoft and SAP; or that just last year AWS announced a significant partnership with AWS around data integration.

These kinds of conflicting deals are confusing, but they show that in today’s connected cloud world, that companies who will compete hard with one another in one part of the market, may still be willing to partner in other parts when it makes sense for both parties and for customers. That appears to be the case with today’s announcement from these companies.


By Ron Miller

Messaging app Wire confirms $8.2M raise, responds to privacy concerns after moving holding company to the US

Big changes are afoot for Wire, an enterprise-focused end-to-end encrypted messaging app and service that advertises itself as “the most secure collaboration platform”. In February, Wire quietly raised $8.2 million from Morpheus Ventures and others, we’ve confirmed — the first funding amount it has ever disclosed — and alongside that external financing, it moved its holding company in the same month to the US from Luxembourg, a switch that Wire’s CEO Morten Brogger described in an interview as “simple and pragmatic.”

He also said that Wire is planning to introduce a freemium tier to its existing consumer service — which itself has half a million users — while working on a larger round of funding to fuel more growth of its enterprise business — a key reason for moving to the US, he added: There is more money to be raised there.

“We knew we needed this funding and additional to support continued growth. We made the decision that at some point in time it will be easier to get funding in North America, where there’s six times the amount of venture capital,” he said.

While Wire has moved its holding company to the US, it is keeping the rest of its operations as is. Customers are licensed and serviced from Wire Switzerland; the software development team is in Berlin, Germany; and hosting remains in Europe.

The news of Wire’s US move and the basics of its February funding — sans value, date or backers — came out this week via a blog post that raises questions about whether a company that trades on the idea of data privacy should itself be more transparent about its activities.

The changes to Wire’s financing and legal structure had not been communicated to users until news started to leak out, which brings up questions not just about transparency, but about how secure Wire’s privacy policy will play out, given the company’s ownership now being on US soil.

It was an issue picked up and amplified by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden . Via Twitter, he described the move to the US as “not appropriate for a company claiming to provide a secure messenger — claims a large number of human rights defenders relied on.”

The key question is whether Wire’s shift to the US puts users’ data at risk — a question that Brogger claims is straightforward to answer: “We are in Switzerland, which has the best privacy laws in the world” — it’s subject to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation framework (GDPR) on top of its own local laws — “and Wire now belongs to a new group holding, but there no change in control.” 

In its blog post published in the wake of blowback from privacy advocates, Wire also claims it “stands by its mission to best protect communication data with state-of-the-art technology and practice” — listing several items in its defence:

  • All source code has been and will be available for inspection on GitHub (github.com/wireapp).
  • All communication through Wire is secured with end-to-end encryption — messages, conference calls, files. The decryption keys are only stored on user devices, not on our servers. It also gives companies the option to deploy their own instances of Wire in their own data centers.
  • Wire has started working on a federated protocol to connect on-premise installations and make messaging and collaboration more ubiquitous.
  • Wire believes that data protection is best achieved through state-of-the-art encryption and continues to innovate in that space with Messaging Layer Security (MLS).

But where data privacy and US law are concerned, it’s complicated. Snowden famously leaked scores of classified documents disclosing the extent of US government mass surveillance programs in 2013, including how data-harvesting was embedded in US-based messaging and technology platforms.

Six years on, the political and legal ramifications of that disclosure are still playing out — with a key judgement pending from Europe’s top court which could yet unseat the current data transfer arrangement between the EU and the US.

Privacy versus security

Wire launched at a time when interest in messaging apps was at a high watermark. The company made its debut in the middle of February 2014, and it was only one week later that Facebook acquired WhatsApp for the princely sum of $19 billion. We described Wire’s primary selling point at the time as a “reimagining of how a communications tool like Skype should operate had it been built today” rather than in in 2003.

That meant encryption and privacy protection, but also better audio tools and file compression and more. It was  a pitch that seemed especially compelling considering the background of the company. Skype co-founder Janus Friis and funds connected to him were the startup’s first backers (and they remain the largest shareholders); Wire was co-founded in by Skype alums Jonathan Christensen and Alan Duric (no longer with the company); and even new investor Morpheus has Skype roots.

Even with the Skype pedigree, the strategy faced a big challenge.

“The consumer messaging market is lost to the Facebooks of the world, which dominate it,” Brogger said today. “However, we made a clear insight, which is the core strength of Wire: security and privacy.”

That, combined with trend around the consumerization of IT that’s brought new tools to business users, is what led Wire to the enterprise market in 2017.

But fast forward to today, and it seems that even as security and privacy are two sides of the same coin, it may not be so simple when deciding what to optimise in terms of features and future development, which is part of the question now and what critics are concerned with.

“Wire was always for profit and planned to follow the typical venture backed route of raising rounds to accelerate growth,” one source familiar with the company told us. “However, it took time to find its niche (B2B, enterprise secure comms).

“It needed money to keep the operations going and growing. [But] the new CEO, who joined late 2017, didn’t really care about the free users, and the way I read it now, the transformation is complete: ‘If Wire works for you, fine, but we don’t really care about what you think about our ownership or funding structure as our corporate clients care about security, not about privacy.’”

And that is the message you get from Brogger, too, who describes individual consumers as “not part of our strategy”, but also not entirely removed from it, either, as the focus shifts to enterprises and their security needs.

Brogger said there are still half a million individuals on the platform, and they will come up with ways to continue to serve them under the same privacy policies and with the same kind of service as the enterprise users. “We want to give them all the same features with no limits,” he added. “We are looking to switch it into a freemium model.”

On the other side, “We are having a lot of inbound requests on how Wire can replace Skype for Business,” he said. “We are the only one who can do that with our level of security. It’s become a very interesting journey and we are super excited.”

Part of the company’s push into enterprise has also seen it make a number of hires. This has included bringing in two former Huddle C-suite execs, Brogger as CEO and Rasmus Holst as chief revenue officer — a bench that Wire expanded this week with three new hires from three other B2B businesses: a VP of EMEA sales from New Relic, a VP of finance from Contentful; and a VP of Americas sales from Xeebi.

Such growth comes with a price-tag attached to it, clearly. Which is why Wire is opening itself to more funding and more exposure in the US, but also more scrutiny and questions from those who counted on its services before the change.

Brogger said inbound interest has been strong and he expects the startup’s next round to close in the next two to three months.


By Ingrid Lunden

Atlassian expands Jira Service Desk beyond IT teams

Atlassian today announced a set of new templates and workflows for Jira Service Desk that were purpose-built for HR, legal and facilities teams. Service Desk started six years ago as a version of Jira that was mostly meant for IT departments. Atlassian, however, found that other teams inside the companies that adopted it started to use it as well, including various teams at Twitter and Airbnb, for example. With today’s update, it’s now making it easier for these teams, at least in legal, HR and facilities, to get started with Jira Service Desk without having to customize the product themselves.

“Over the last six years, one of the observations that we’ve made was that we need to provide really good services — the idea that we can provide great services to employees is really something that is really on the rise,” said Edwin Wong, the head of the company’s IT products. “I think in the past, maybe we were a bit more forgiving in terms of what employees expected from services departments. But today you’re just so used to great experiences in your consumer life and when you come to work, you expect the same.”

But lots of service teams, he argues, didn’t have the tools to provide this experience, yet they were looking for tools to streamline their workflows (think onboarding for HR teams, for example) and to move from manual processes to something more automated and modern. Jira was already flexible enough to allow them to do this, but the new set of templates now codifies these processes for them.

Wong stressed this isn’t just about tracking but also managing work across teams and providing them a more centralized hub for information. “One of the big challenges that we’ve seen from many of the customers that we’ve spoken to is the challenge of just figuring out where to go when you want something,” he said. “When I have a new employee, where do I go to ask for a new laptop? Is that the same process as telling my facilities teams that perhaps there is an issue with a bathroom?”

Atlassian is starting with these three templates because that’s where it saw the most immediate need. Over time, I’m sure we’ll see the company get into other verticals as well.


By Frederic Lardinois

Mirantis acquires Docker Enterprise

Mirantis today announced that it has acquired Docker’s Enterprise business and team. Docker Enterprise was very much the heart of Docker’s product lineup, so this sale leaves Docker as a shell of its former, high-flying unicorn self. Docker itself, which installed a new CEO earlier this year, says it will continue to focus on tools that will advance developers’ workflows. Mirantis will keep the Docker Enterprise brand alive, though, which will surely not create any confusion.

With this deal, Mirantis is acquiring Docker Enterprise Technology Platform and all associated IP: Docker Enterprise Engine, Docker Trusted Registry, Docker Unified Control Plane and Docker CLI. It will also inherit all Docker Enterprise customers and contracts, as well as its strategic technology alliances and partner programs. Docker and Mirantis say they will both continue to work on the Docker platform’s open-source pieces.

The companies did not disclose the price of the acquisition, but it’s surely nowhere near Docker’s valuation during any of its last funding rounds. Indeed, it’s no secret that Docker’s fortunes changed quite a bit over the years, from leading the container revolution to becoming somewhat of an afterthought after Google open-sourced Kubernetes and the rest of the industry coalesced around it. It still had a healthy enterprise business, though, with plenty of large customers among the large enterprises. The company says about a third of Fortune 100 and a fifth of Global 500 companies use Docker Enterprise, which is a statistic most companies would love to be able to highlight — and which makes this sale a bit puzzling from Docker’s side, unless the company assumed that few of these customers were going to continue to bet on its technology.

Update: for reasons only known to Docker’s communications team, we weren’t told about this beforehand, but the company also today announced that it has raised a $35 million funding round from Benchmark. This doesn’t change the overall gist of the story below, but it does highlight the company’s new direction.

Here is what Docker itself had to say. “Docker is ushering in a new era with a return to our roots by focusing on advancing developers’ workflows when building, sharing and running modern applications. As part of this refocus, Mirantis announced it has acquired the Docker Enterprise platform business,” Docker said in a statement when asked about this change. “Moving forward, we will expand Docker Desktop and Docker Hub’s roles in the developer workflow for modern apps. Specifically, we are investing in expanding our cloud services to enable developers to quickly discover technologies for use when building applications, to easily share these apps with teammates and the community, and to run apps frictionlessly on any Kubernetes endpoint, whether locally or in the cloud.”

Mirantis itself, too, went through its ups and downs. While it started as a well-funded OpenStack distribution, today’s Mirantis focuses on offering a Kubernetes-centric on-premises cloud platform and application delivery. As the company’s CEO Adrian Ionel told me ahead of today’s announcement, today is possibly the most important day for the company.

So what will Mirantis do with Docker Enterprise? “Docker Enterprise is absolutely aligned and an accelerator of the direction that we were already on,” Ionel told me. “We were very much moving towards Kubernetes and containers aimed at multi-cloud and hybrid and edge use cases, with these goals to deliver a consistent experience to developers on any infrastructure anywhere — public clouds, hybrid clouds, multi-cloud and edge use cases — and make it very easy, on-demand, and remove any operational concerns or burdens for developers or infrastructure owners.”

Mirantis previously had about 450 employees. With this acquisition, it gains another 300 former Docker employees that it needs to integrate into its organization. Docker’s field marketing and sales teams will remain separate for some time, though, Ionel said, before they will be integrated. “Our most important goal is to create no disruptions for customers,” he noted. “So we’ll maintain an excellent customer experience, while at the same time bringing the teams together.”

This also means that for current Docker Enterprise customers, nothing will change in the near future. Mirantis says that it will accelerate the development of the product and merge its Kubernetes and lifecycle management technology into it. Over time, it will also offer a managed services solutions for Docker Enterprise.

While there is already some overlap between Mirantis’ and Docker Enterprise’s customer base, Mirantis will pick up about 700 new enterprise customers with this acquisition.

With this, Ionel argues, Mirantis is positioned to go up against large players like VMware and IBM/Red Hat. “We are the one real cloud-native player with meaningful scale to provide an alternative to them without lock-in into a legacy or existing technology stack.”

While this is clearly a day the Mirantis team is celebrating, it’s hard not to look at this as the end of an era for Docker, too. The company says it will share more about its future plans today, but didn’t make any spokespeople available ahead of this announcement.


By Frederic Lardinois

Work collaboration startup Notion Labs cozies up to Silicon Valley’s top accelerators

Startups building work software for other startups have been a huge focus of investment in Silicon Valley as eager VCs hope to grab a piece of the next Slack. Notion Labs, a profitable work tools startup that recently hit a reported $800 million valuation, isn’t making it easy for VC firms to give them money, but they are partnering with some of them alongside top accelerators like Y Combinator in an effort to become another household name in work software.

Notion has north of 1 million users and has attracted thousands of young startups to its platform, which combines notes, wikis and databases into a versatile tool that can help small teams cut down on the number of enterprise software subscriptions they’re paying for. Notion charges startups $8 per employee (when billed annually) to use the service.

Over half of the startups from Y Combinator’s most recent batch are Notion customers, the company tells TechCrunch, and the startup seems intent to accelerate their adoption among small teams. They have approached and partnered with dozens of accelerators around the globe including Y Combinator, 500 Startups and TechStars to bring their portfolio startups onto Notion’s platform, offering admitted startups $1,000 in free services each.

The new program is part of the company’s efforts to embed their platform as an “operating system” for startups early-on and then scale as their customers do.

“I think we find ourselves in a really interesting spot where I think YC startups know about us and start with it,” COO Akshay Kothari says. “Our goal with the new program is getting to the point where if you’re a new company, you don’t even think about it, you just start with Notion.”

Notion COO Akshay Kothari

Notion COO Akshay Kothari

Kothari says their platform seems to work best for startups in the sub-50 and sub-100 employee range, but they do have larger customers like UK banking startup Monzo which has organized their 1,300+ employees around the platform. Notion itself is unsurprisingly a power user of its product, running everything but internal and external communications on its own software.

The company offers a couple pricing tiers depending on size, but individuals can also use the software for $5 per month, something that Kothari believes offers it advantages over other tools in driving adoption inside companies. “There are a lot of similarities between us and the early stages of Slack in terms of engineering and product design people loving it, tech and media loving it, but one unique thing about us is that you can use Notion alone. Slack alone would be a bit lonely.”

The company is pitching customers a vision of consolidated workplace services that are built so end-users can customize them to their needs. Notion’s pitch contrasts pretty heavily with the overarching enterprise SaaS trends which has seen a wealth of specialized software tools hitting the market.

Notion is working on tools to help it court larger enterprise customers as well, including offline access, better permission systems and an API that can help developers connect their services to the platform. Notion has been iterating its product rather quickly for a company that has 9 engineers and no PMs, but Kothari says that they don’t believe piling more money or doubling employees is going to be the key to scaling more quickly.

“We definitely want to create a large company, a company that could eventually go public or whatever is the right — you know it’s too early for a lot of that stuff. Our preference is to stay small,” he says. “[Notion] doesn’t have a board, it doesn’t have a whole lot of external voices, pretty much everyone in this office decides what we’re doing next.”

Notion has raised millions in funding from investors like First Round Capital, Ron and Ronny Conway, Elad Gill and most recently Daniel Gross. The Information‘s Amir Efrati reported earlier this year that Notion had raised a $10 million “angel round” at an $800 million valuation. The round was less about raising more cash than it was about closing convertible notes, Korthari tells TechCrunch, noting that Notion has been profitable for the last 12-18 months.

“I guess we were profitable before profitability became cool. I think profitability helps you to control destiny a lot better because you’re not out fundraising every year or 18 months,” Kothari says. “Interestingly now, I think it’s cool to be profitable again. When I joined Notion I would tell VCs or investors ‘Oh, we’re profitable,’ and they would be like ‘Oh, so you’re building a lifestyle company.’”

Kothari himself was an investor that dumped money into Notion founders Ivan Zhao and Simon Last’s idea to create a platform that would help non-engineers build software. That was 6 years ago after Kothari sold his previous startup to LinkedIn, he joined about a year ago as COO.

Some VCs may have been skeptical early-on, but the story of Notion over the past year has been VCs fighting to score a spot on their cap table. In January, The New York Times‘s Erin Griffith reported that VCs had “dug up Notion’s office address and sent its founders cookie dough, dog treats and physical letters” to court their interest. The unrequited VC yearning has earned Notion the reputation for being venture averse, something Kothari pushed back on a few times.

“So, again, for the record, we don’t hate venture capitalists.”


By Lucas Matney

Lawyers hate timekeeping. Ping raises $13M to fix it with AI

Counting billable time in six minute increments is the most annoying part of being a lawyer. It’s a distracting waste. It leads law firms to conservatively under-bill. And it leaves lawyers stuck manually filling out timesheets after a long day when they want to go home to their families.

Life is already short, as Ping CEO and co-founder Ryan Alshak knows too well. The former lawyer spent years caring for his mother as she battled a brain tumor before her passing. “One minute laughing with her was worth a million doing anything else” he tells me. “I became obsessed with the idea that we spend too much of our lives on things we have no need to do — especially at work.”

That’s motivated him as he’s built his startup Ping, which uses artificial intelligence to automatically track lawyers’ work and fill out timesheets for them. There’s a massive opportunity to eliminate a core cause of burnout, lift law firm revenue by around 10%, and give them fresh insights into labor allocation.

Ping co-founder and CEO Ryan Alshak. Image Credit: Margot Duane

That’s why today Ping is announcing a $13.2 million Series A led by Upfront Ventures, along with BoxGroup, First Round, Initialized, and Ulu Ventures. Adding to Ping’s quiet $3.7 million seed led by First Round last year, the startup will spend the cash to scale up enterprise distribution and become the new timekeeping standard.

I was a corporate litigator at Manatt Phelps down in LA and joke that I was voted the world’s worst timekeeper” Alshak tells me. “I could either get better at doing something I dreaded or I could try and build technology that did it for me.”

The promise of eliminating the hassle could make any lawyer who hears about Ping an advocate for the firm buying the startup’s software, like how Dropbox grew as workers demanded easier file sharing. “I’ve experienced first-hand the grind of filling out timesheets” writes Initialized partner and former attorney Alda Leu Dennis. “Ping takes away the drudgery of manual timekeeping and gives lawyers back all those precious hours.”

Traditionally, lawyers have to keep track of their time by themselves down to the tenth of an hour — reviewing documents for the Johnson case, preparing a motion to dismiss for the Lee case, a client phone call for Sriram case. There are timesheets built into legal software suites like MyCase, legal billing software like Timesolv, and one-off tools like Time Miner and iTimeKeep. They typically offer timers that lawyers can manually start and stop on different devices, with some providing tracking of scheduled appointments, call and text logging, and integration with billing systems.

Ping goes a big step further. It uses AI and machine learning to figure out whether an activity is billable, for which client, a description of the activity, and its codification beyond just how long it lasted. Instead of merely filling in the minutes, it completes all the logs automatically with entries like “Writing up a deposition – Jenkins Case – 18 minutes”. Then it presents the timesheet to the user for review before the send it to billing.

The big challenge now for Alshak and the team he’s assembled is to grow up. They need to go from cat-in-sunglasses logo Ping to mature wordmark Ping.  “We have to graduate from being a startup to being an enterprise software company” the CEO tells meThat means learning to sell to C-suites and IT teams, rather than just build solid product. In the relationship-driven world of law, that’s a very different skill set. Ping will have to convince clients it’s worth switching to not just for the time savings and revenue boost, but for deep data on how they could run a more efficient firm.

Along the way, Ping has to avoid any embarrassing data breaches or concerns about how its scanning technology could violate attorney-client privilege. If it can win this lucrative first business in legal, it could barge into the consulting and accounting verticals next to grow truly huge.

With eager customers, a massive market, a weak status quo, and a driven founder, Ping just needs to avoid getting in over its heads with all its new cash. Spent well, the startup could leap ahead of the less tech-savvy competition.

Alshak seems determined to get it right. “We have an opportunity to build a company that gives people back their most valuable resource — time — to spend more time with their loved ones because they spent less time working” he tells me. “My mom will live forever because she taught me the value of time. I am deeply motivated to build something that lasts . . . and do so in her name.”


By Josh Constine

Loop Returns picks up $10 million in Series A led by FirstMark Capital

Loop Returns, the startup that helps brands handle returns from online purchases, has today announced the close of a $10 million Series A funding round led by FirstMark Capital. Lerer Hippeau and Ridge Ventures also participated in the round.

Loop started when Jonathan Poma, a cofounder and COO and President, was working at an agency and consulting with a big Shopify brand on how to improve their system for returns and exchanges. After partnering with long-time friend Corbett Morgan Loop Returns was born.

Loop sits on top of Shopify to handle all of a brand’s returns. It first asks the customer if they’d like a different size in the item they bought, quickly managing an exchange. It then asks if the customer would prefer to exchange for a new item altogether, depositing the credit in that person’s account in real time so they can shop for something new immediately.

If an exchange isn’t in the cards, Loop will ask the customer if they’d prefer credit with this brand over a straight-up refund.

The goal, according to Poma and Morgan, is to turn the point of return into a moment where brands can create a life-loyal customer when handled quickly and properly.

The more we shop online, the more brands extend themselves financially, and returns are a big part of that. Returns account for 20 to 30 percent of ecommerce sales, which can become a terrible financial burden on a growing direct-to-consumer brand. And what’s more, the cost of acquiring those users in the first place also goes down the drain.

Loop Returns hopes to keep that customer in the fold by giving them post-purchase options that are more sticky and more lucrative for the brand than a refund.

The company thinks of it as Connection Infrastructure. Most brands already have a customer acquisition architecture, and Shopify and Amazon are ahead when it comes to the infrastructure around customer convenience. But the ties that bind customers to brands haven’t been optimized for the many D2C brands out there looking to make an impact.

“The big problem we’re trying to solve long term is connection infrastructure,” said Morgan. “Why does this brand matter? Why does it mean something to me? Why does the product matter? We want to enforce more mindfulness and meaning into buying.”

Of course, a more mindful shopper doesn’t yield as many returns. Poma and Morgan admit that the goal of their software is to minimize returns, the very reason for the software’s existence. After all, return volume is one of a handful of variables that help Loop Returns determine what it will charge its brand clients.

But the team is thinking about other layers of the connection infrastructure, with plans to launch a product in 2020 that also focuses on the connection point after purchase. Poma and Morgan believe, with an almost religious reverence, that the brands themselves will help lead shoppers and infrastructure providers to a better, more connected shopping experience.

“Brands are the torch bearers,” said Poma. “They will lead us to a more enlightened era of how we think about buying. Empowerment of the brand will lead us to a better consumerism.”

The cofounders stayed mum on any specific plans for the 2020 product, but did say they will use the funding to expand operations and further build out its current and future products.

Of course, Loop is playing in a crowded space. Not only are there other players thinking about post-purchase connection, but Shopify has itself built out tools to help with exchanges and returns, and even acquired Return Magic, a similar service, in the summer of 2018.

That said, Loop Returns believes that there is a long way to go as it builds the ‘connection infrastructure’ and that one clear path forward is actual personalization. With data from returns and exchanges, Loop Returns is relatively well positioned to take on personalization in a meaningful way.

For now, Loop Returns has more than 200 customers and has handled more than 2 million returns, working with brands like Brooklinen, AllBirds, PuraVida and more.


By Jordan Crook

Salesforce Ventures invested $300M in Automattic while Salesforce was building a CMS

In September, Salesforce Ventures, the venture of arm of Salesforce, announced a hefty $300 million investment in Automattic, the company behind WordPress, the ubiquitous content management system (CMS). At the same time, the company was putting the finishing touches on Salesforce CMS, an in-house project it released last week.

The question is, why did it choose to do both?

One reason could be that WordPress isn’t just well-liked; it’s also the world’s most popular content management system, running 34 percent of the world’s 10 billion websites — including this one — according to the company. With Automattic valued at $3 billion, that gives Salesforce Ventures a 10 percent stake.

Given the substantial investment, you wouldn’t have been irrational to at least consider the idea that Salesforce may have had its eye on this company as an acquisition target. In fact, at the time of the funding, Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg told TechCrunch’s Romain Dillet that there could be some partnerships and integrations with Salesforce in the future.

Now we have a Salesforce CMS, and a potential partnership with one of the world’s largest web content management (WCM) tools, and it’s possible that the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.


By Ron Miller

Alpaca nabs $6M for stocks API so anyone can build a Robinhood

Stock trading app Robinhood is valued at $7.6 billion, but it only operates in the US. Freshly-funded fintech startup Alpaca does the dirty work so developers worldwide can launch their own competitors to that investing unicorn. Like the Stripe of stocks, Alpaca’s API handles the banking, security, and regulatory complexity, allowing other startups to quickly build brokerage apps on top for free. It’s already crossed $1 billion in transaction within a year of launch.

The potential to power the backend of a new generation of fintech apps has attracted a $6 million Series A round for Alpaca led by Spark Capital . Instead of charging developers, Alpaca earns its money through payment for order flow, interest on cash deposits, and margin lending much like Robinhood.

“I want to make sure that people even outside the US have access” to a way of building wealth that’s historically only “available to rich people” Alpaca co-founder and CEO Yoshi Yokokawa tells me.

Alpaca co-founder and CEO Yoshi Yokokawa

Hailing from Japan, Yokokawa followed his friends into the investment banking industry where he worked at Lehman Brothers until its collapse. After his grandmother got sick, he moved into day-trading for three years and realized “all the broker dealer business tools were pretty bad”. But when he heard of Robinhood in 2013 and saw it actually catering to users’ needs, he thought “I need to be involved in this new transformation” of fintech.

Yokokawa ended up first building a business selling deep learning AI to banks and trading firms in the foreign exchange market. Watching clients struggle to quickly integrate new technology revealed the lack of available developer tools. By 2017, he was pivoting the business and applying for FINRA approval. Alpaca launched in late 2018, letting developers paste in code to let their users buy and sell securities.

Now international developers and small hedge funds are building atop the Alpaca API so they don’t have to reinvent the underlying infrastructure themselves right away. Alpaca works with clearing broker NTC, and then marks up margin trading while earning interest and payment for order flow. It also offers products like AlpacaForecast with short-term predictions of stock prices, AlpacaRadar for detecting price swings, and its MarketStore financial database server.

AlpacaForecast

The $6 million from Spark Capital, Social Leverage, Portag3, Fathom Capital, and Zillionize adds to $5.8 million in previous funding from investors including Y Combinator. The startup plans to spend the cash on hiring up to handle partnerships with bigger businesses, supporting its developer community, and ensuring compliance.

One major question is whether fintech businesses that start to grow atop Alpaca and drive its revenues will try to declare independence and later invest in their own technology stack. There’s the additional risk of a security breach that might scare away clients.

Alpaca’s top competitor Interactive Brokers offers trading APIs but other services as well that distract it from fostering a robust developer community, Yokokawa tells me. Alpaca focuses on providing great documentation, open source contribution, and SDKs in different languages that make it more developer-friendly. It will also have to watch out for other fintech services startups like DriveWealth and well-funded Galileo.

There’s a big opportunity to capitalize on the race to integrate stock trading into other finance apps to drive stickiness since it’s a consistent voluntary behavior rather than a chore or something only done a few times a year. Lender Sofi and point-of-sale system Square both recently became broker dealers as well, and Yokokawa predicts more and more apps will push into the space.

Why would we need so many stock trading apps? “Every single person is involved with money so the market is huge. Instead of one-player takes all, there will be different players that can all do well” Yokokawa tells me. “Like banks and investment banks co-exist, it will never be that Bank Of America takes 80% of the pie. I think differentiation will be on customer acquisition, and operations management efficiency.”

The co-founder’s biggest concern is keeping up with all the new opportunities in financial services, from cash management and cryptocurrency that Robinhood already deals in, to security token offerings, and fractional investing. Yokokawa says “I need to make sure I’m on top of everything and that we’re executing with the right timing so we don’t lose.”

The CEO hopes that Alpaca will one day power broader access to the US stock market back in Japan, noting that if a modern nation still lags behind in fintech, the rest of world surely fares even worse. “I want to connect this asset class to as many people as possible on the earth.”


By Josh Constine

How Microsoft is trying to become more innovative

Microsoft Research is a globally distributed playground for people interested in solving fundamental science problems.

These projects often focus on machine learning and artificial intelligence, and since Microsoft is on a mission to infuse all of its products with more AI smarts, it’s no surprise that it’s also seeking ways to integrate Microsoft Research’s innovations into the rest of the company.

Across the board, the company is trying to find ways to become more innovative, especially around its work in AI, and it’s putting processes in place to do so. Microsoft is unusually open about this process, too, and actually made it somewhat of a focus this week at Ignite, a yearly conference that typically focuses more on technical IT management topics.

At Ignite, Microsoft will for the first time present these projects externally at a dedicated keynote. That feels similar to what Google used to do with its ATAP group at its I/O events and is obviously meant to showcase the cutting-edge innovation that happens inside of Microsoft (outside of making Excel smarter).

To manage its AI innovation efforts, Microsoft created the Microsoft AI group led by VP Mitra Azizirad, who’s tasked with establishing thought leadership in this space internally and externally, and helping the company itself innovate faster (Microsoft’s AI for Good projects also fall under this group’s purview). I sat down with Azizirad to get a better idea of what her team is doing and how she approaches getting companies to innovate around AI and bring research projects out of the lab.

“We began to put together a narrative for the company of what it really means to be in an AI-driven world and what we look at from a differentiated perspective,” Azizirad said. “What we’ve done in this area is something that has resonated and landed well. And now we’re including AI, but we’re expanding beyond it to other paradigm shifts like human-machine interaction, future of computing and digital responsibility, as more than just a set of principles and practices but an area of innovation in and of itself.”

Currently, Microsoft is doing a very good job at talking and thinking about horizon one opportunities, as well as horizon three projects that are still years out, she said. “Horizon two, we need to get better at, and that’s what we’re doing.”

It’s worth stressing that Microsoft AI, which launched about two years ago, marks the first time there’s a business, marketing and product management team associated with Microsoft Research, so the team does get a lot of insights into upcoming technologies. Just in the last couple of years, Microsoft has published more than 6,000 research papers on AI, some of which clearly have a future in the company’s products.


By Frederic Lardinois