DREAMTECH NEWS

Google expands its Cloud Platform region in the Netherlands

Google today announced that it has expanded its recently launched Cloud Platform region in the Netherlands with an additional zone. The investment, which is worth a reported 500 million euros, expands the existing Netherlands region from two to three regions. With this, all the four central European Google Cloud Platform zones now feature three zones […]

March 16, 2018

With great tech success, comes even greater responsibility

As we watch major tech platforms evolve over time, it’s clear that companies like Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon (among others) have created businesses that are having a huge impact on humanity — sometimes positive and other times not so much. That suggests that these platforms have to understand how people are using them and […]

March 16, 2018

With great tech success, comes even greater responsibly

As we watch major tech platforms evolve over time, it’s clear that companies like Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon (among others) have created businesses that are having a huge impact on humanity — sometimes positive and other times not so much. That suggests that these platforms have to understand how people are using them and […]

March 16, 2018

Strix Leviathan raises $1.625M for its enterprise crypto trading platform

Seattle-based Strix Leviathan, an enterprise trading and management platform for crypto assets founded by startup vet Jesse Proudman, today announced that it has raised a $1.625 million seed round led by Joe Montana’s Liquid 2 Ventures (yes, that Joe Montana). Other investors include Founders’ Co-op, Future\Perfect Ventures and 9Mile Labs, as well as angel investors like Chris […]

March 15, 2018

Airtable raises $52M to give non-coders tools to build complex software

A massive company probably has plenty of engineers on staff and the resources to build a complex backbone of interconnected information that can contain tons of data and make acting on it easy — but for smaller companies, and for those that aren’t technical, those tools aren’t very accessible. That’s what convinced Howie Liu to […]

March 15, 2018

TypingDNA launches Chrome extension that verifies your identity based on typing

TypingDNA has a new approach to verifying your identity based on how you type. The startup, which is part of the current class at Techstars NYC, is pitching this as an alternative to two-factor authentication — namely, the security feature that sends unique codes to a separate device (usually your phone) to make sure someone […]

March 15, 2018

Google expands its Cloud Platform region in the Netherlands

Google today announced that it has expanded its recently launched Cloud Platform region in the Netherlands with an additional zone. The investment, which is worth a reported 500 million euros, expands the existing Netherlands region from two to three regions. With this, all the four central European Google Cloud Platform zones now feature three zones (which are akin to what AWS would call “availability zones”) that allow developers to build highly available services across multiple data centers.

Google typically aims to have a least three zones in every region, so today’s announcement to expand its region in the Dutch province of Groningen doesn’t come as a major surprise.

With this move, Google is also making Cloud SpannerCloud BigtableManaged Instance Groups, and Cloud SQL available in the region.

Over the course of the last two years, Google has worked hard to expand its global data center footprint. While it still can’t compete with the likes of AWS and Azure, which currently offers more regions than any of its competitors, the company now has enough of a presence to be competitive in most markets.

In the near future, Google also plans to open regions in Los Angeles, Finland, Osaka and Hong Kong. The major blank spots on its current map remain Africa, China (for rather obvious reasons) and Eastern Europe, including Russia.

Cloud security startup Zscaler opens at $27.50, a pop of 72% on Nasdaq, raising $192M in its IPO

The first big tech IPO of the year has opened with a bang. Zscaler, a security startup that confidentially filed for an IPO last year, started trading this morning as ZS on Nasdaq at a price of $27.50/share. This was a pop of 71.9  percent on its opening price of $16, and speaks to a bullish moment for security startups and potentially public listings for tech companies in general.

That could bode well for Dropbox, Spotify and others that are planning or considering public listings in the coming weeks and months.

We’ll continue to monitor the price as the day continues to see how the stock does, and also hear from the company itself.

Initially, Zscaler had expected to sell 10 million shares at a range between $10 and $12 per share, but interest led the company to expand that to 12 million shares at a $13-15 range, which then moved up to $16 and Zscaler last night raising $192 million giving it a valuation of over $1.9 billion — a sign of strong interest in the investor community that it’s now hoping will follow through in its debut and beyond.

Zscaler is a specialist in an area called software-defined perimeter (SDP) services, which allow enterprises and other organizations to better control how they allow employees to access apps and specific services within their IT networks: the idea is that rather than giving access to the full network, employees are authenticated just for the apps that they specifically need for their work.

SDP architectures have become increasingly popular in recent years as a way of better mitigating security threats in networks where employees are using a variety of devices, including their own private mobile phones, to access data and apps in corporate networks and in the cloud — both of which have become routes for malicious hackers to breach systems.

SDP services are being adopted by the likes of Google, and are being built by a number of other tech companies, both those that are looking to provide more value-added services around existing cloud or other IT offerings, and those that are already playing in the area of security, including Cisco, Check Point Software, EMC, Fortinet, Intel, Juniper Networks, Palo Alto Networks, Symantec (which has been involved in IP lawsuits with Zscaler) and more — which speaks both of the opportunity and challenge in the market for Zscaler. Estimates of the value of the market range from $7.8 billion to $11 billion by 2023.

With great tech success, comes even greater responsibility

As we watch major tech platforms evolve over time, it’s clear that companies like Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon (among others) have created businesses that are having a huge impact on humanity — sometimes positive and other times not so much.

That suggests that these platforms have to understand how people are using them and when they are trying to manipulate them or use them for nefarious purposes — or the companies themselves are. We can apply that same responsibility filter to individual technologies like artificial intelligence and indeed any advanced technologies and the impact they could possibly have on society over time.

This was a running theme this week at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.

The AI debate rages on

While the platform plays are clearly on the front lines of this discussion, tech icon Elon Musk repeated his concerns about AI running amok in a Q&A at South by Southwest. He worries that it won’t be long before we graduate from the narrow (and not terribly smart) AI we have today to a more generalized AI. He is particularly concerned that a strong AI could develop and evolve over time to the point it eventually matches the intellectual capabilities of humans. Of course, as TechCrunch’s Jon Shieber wrote, Musk sees his stable of companies as a kind of hedge against such a possible apocalypse.

Elon Musk with Jonathan Nolan at South by Southwest 2018. Photo: Getty Images/Chris Saucedo

“Narrow AI is not a species-level risk. It will result in dislocation… lost jobs… better weaponry and that sort of thing. It is not a fundamental, species-level risk, but digital super-intelligence is,” he told the South by Southwest audience.

He went so far as to suggest it could be more of a threat than nuclear warheads in terms of the kind of impact it could have on humanity.

Taking responsibility

Whether you agree with that assessment or not, or even if you think he is being somewhat self-serving with his warnings to promote his companies, he could be touching upon something important about corporate responsibility around the technology that startups and established companies alike are should heed.

It was certainly on the mind of Apple’s Eddy Cue, who was interviewed on stage at SXSW by CNN’s Dylan Byers this week. “Tech is a great thing and makes humans more capable, but in of itself is not for good. People who make it, have to make it for good,” Cue said.

We can be sure that Twitter’s creators never imagined a world where bots would be launched to influence an election when they created the company more than a decade ago. Over time though, it becomes crystal clear that Twitter, and indeed all large platforms, can be used for a variety of motivations, and the platforms have to react when they think there are certain parties who are using their networks to manipulate parts of the populace.

Apple’s Eddie Cue speaking at South by Southwest 2018. Photo: Ron Miller

Cue dodged any of Byers’ questions about competing platforms, saying he could only speak to what Apple was doing because he didn’t have an inside view of companies like Facebook and Google (which he didn’t ever actually mention by name). “I think our company is different than what you’re talking about. Our customers’ privacy is of utmost importance to us,” he said. That includes, he said, limiting the amount of data they collect because they are not worrying about having enough to serve more meaningful ads. “We don’t care where you shop or what you buy,” he added.

Andy O’Connell from Facebook’s Global Policy Development team, speaking on a panel on the challenges of using AI to filter “fake news” said, that Facebook recognizes it can and should play a role if it sees people manipulating the platform. “This is a whole society issue, but there are technical things we are doing and things we can invest in [to help lessen the impact of fake news],” he said. He added that Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has expressed it as challenge to the company to make the platform more secure and that includes reducing the amount of false or misleading news that makes it onto the platform.

Recognizing tech’s limitations

As O’Connell put forth, this is not just a Facebook problem or a general technology problem. It’s a social problem and society as a whole needs to address it. Sometimes tech can help, but, we can’t always look to tech to solve every problem. The trouble is that we can never really anticipate how a given piece of technology will behave or how people use it once we put it out there.

Photo: Ron Miller

All of this suggests that none of these problems, some of which we never could have never have even imagined, are easy to solve. For every action and reaction, there can be another set of unintended consequences, even with the best of intentions.

But it’s up to the companies who are developing the tech to recognize the responsibility that comes with great economic success or simply the impact of whatever they are creating could have on society. “Everyone has a responsibility [to draw clear lines]. It is something we do and how we want to run our company. In today’s world people have to take responsibility and we intend to do that,” Cue said.

It’s got to be more than lip service though. It requires thought and care and reacting when things do run amok, while continually assessing the impact of every decision.

Equity podcast: Theranos’s reckoning, BroadQualm’s stunning conclusion and Lyft’s platform ambitions

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week Katie Roof and I were joined by Mayfield Fund’s Navin Chaddha, an investor with early connections with Lyft to talk about, well, Lyft — as well as two bombshell news events in the form of an SEC fine for Theranos and Broadcom’s hostile takeover efforts for Qualcomm hitting the brakes. Alex Wilhelm was not present this week but will join us again soon (we assume he was tending to his Slayer shirt collection).

Starting off with Lyft, there was quite a bit of activity for Uber’s biggest competitor in North America. The ride-sharing startup (can we still call it a startup?) said it would be partnering with Magna to “co-develop” an autonomous driving system. Chaddha talks a bit about how Lyft’s ambitions aren’t to be a vertical business like Uber, but serve as a platform for anyone to plug into. We’ve definitely seen this play out before — just look at what happened with Apple (the closed platform) and Android (the open platform). We dive in to see if Lyft’s ambitions are actually going to pan out as planned. Also, it got $200 million out of the deal.

Next up is Theranos, where the SEC investigation finally came to a head with founder Elizabeth Holmes and former president Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani were formally charged by the SEC for fraud. The SEC says the two raised more than $700 million from investors through an “elaborate, years-long fraud in which they exaggerated or made false statements about the company’s technology, business, and financial performance.” You can find the full story by TechCrunch’s Connie Loizos here, and we got a chance to dig into the implications of what it might mean for how investors scope out potential founders going forward. (Hint: Chaddha says they need to be more careful.)

Finally, BroadQualm is over. After months of hand-wringing over whether or not Broadcom would buy — and then commit a hostile takeover — of the U.S. semiconductor giant, the Trump administration blocked the deal. A cascading series of events associated with the CFIUS, a government body, got it to the point where Broadcom’s aggressive dealmaker Hock Tan dropped plans to go after Qualcomm altogether. The largest deal of all time in tech will, indeed, not be happening (for now), and it has potentially pretty big implications for M&A going forward.

That’s all for this week, we’ll catch you guys next week. Happy March Madness, and may fortune favor* your brackets.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercast, Pocketcast, Downcast and all the casts.

assuming you have Duke losing before the elite 8.

With great tech success, comes even greater responsibly

As we watch major tech platforms evolve over time, it’s clear that companies like Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon (among others) have created businesses that are having a huge impact on humanity — sometimes positive and other times not so much.

That suggests that these platforms have to understand how people are using them and when they are trying to manipulate them or use them for nefarious purposes — or the companies themselves are. We can apply that same responsibility filter to individual technologies like artificial intelligence and indeed any advanced technologies and the impact they could possibly have on society over time.

This was a running theme this week at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.

The AI debate rages on

While the platform plays are clearly on the front lines of this discussion, tech icon Elon Musk repeated his concerns about AI running amok in a Q&A at South by Southwest. He worries that it won’t be long before we graduate from the narrow (and not terribly smart) AI we have today to a more generalized AI. He is particularly concerned that a strong AI could develop and evolve over time to the point it eventually matches the intellectual capabilities of humans. Of course, as TechCrunch’s Jon Shieber wrote, Musk sees his stable of companies as a kind of hedge against such a possible apocalypse.

Elon Musk with Jonathan Nolan at South by Southwest 2018. Photo: Getty Images/Chris Saucedo

“Narrow AI is not a species-level risk. It will result in dislocation… lost jobs… better weaponry and that sort of thing. It is not a fundamental, species-level risk, but digital super-intelligence is,” he told the South by Southwest audience.

He went so far as to suggest it could be more of a threat than nuclear warheads in terms of the kind of impact it could have on humanity.

Taking responsibility

Whether you agree with that assessment or not, or even if you think he is being somewhat self-serving with his warnings to promote his companies, he could be touching upon something important about corporate responsibility around the technology that startups and established companies alike are should heed.

It was certainly on the mind of Apple’s Eddy Cue, who was interviewed on stage at SXSW by CNN’s Dylan Byers this week. “Tech is a great thing and makes humans more capable, but in of itself is not for good. People who make it, have to make it for good,” Cue said.

We can be sure that Twitter’s creators never imagined a world where bots would be launched to influence an election when they created the company more than a decade ago. Over time though, it becomes crystal clear that Twitter, and indeed all large platforms, can be used for a variety of motivations, and the platforms have to react when they think there are certain parties who are using their networks to manipulate parts of the populace.

Apple’s Eddie Cue speaking at South by Southwest 2018. Photo: Ron Miller

Cue dodged any of Byers’ questions about competing platforms, saying he could only speak to what Apple was doing because he didn’t have an inside view of companies like Facebook and Google (which he didn’t ever actually mention by name). “I think our company is different than what you’re talking about. Our customers’ privacy is of utmost importance to us,” he said. That includes, he said, limiting the amount of data they collect because they are not worrying about having enough to serve more meaningful ads. “We don’t care where you shop or what you buy,” he added.

Andy O’Connell from Facebook’s Global Policy Development team, speaking on a panel on the challenges of using AI to filter “fake news” said, that Facebook recognizes it can and should play a role if it sees people manipulating the platform. “This is a whole society issue, but there are technical things we are doing and things we can invest in [to help lessen the impact of fake news],” he said. He added that Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has expressed it as challenge to the company to make the platform more secure and that includes reducing the amount of false or misleading news that makes it onto the platform.

Recognizing tech’s limitations

As O’Connell put forth, this is not just a Facebook problem or a general technology problem. It’s a social problem and society as a whole needs to address it. Sometimes tech can help, but, we can’t always look to tech to solve every problem. The trouble is that we can never really anticipate how a given piece of technology will behave or how people use it once we put it out there.

Photo: Ron Miller

All of this suggests that none of these problems, some of which we never could have never have even imagined, are easy to solve. For every action and reaction, there can be another set of unintended consequences, even with the best of intentions.

But it’s up to the companies who are developing the tech to recognize the responsibility that comes with great economic success or simply the impact of whatever they are creating could have on society. “Everyone has a responsibility [to draw clear lines]. It is something we do and how we want to run our company. In today’s world people have to take responsibility and we intend to do that,” Cue said.

It’s got to be more than lip service though. It requires thought and care and reacting when things do run amok, while continually assessing the impact of every decision.

Hootsuite nabs $50M in growth capital for its social media management platform, passes 16M customers

Over the last several years, social media has become a critical and central way for businesses to communicate, and market to, their customers. Now, one of the startups that helped spearhead this trend has raised a round of growth funding to expand its horizons. Hootsuite, the Vacouver-based social media management company that counts some 16 million businesses as customers, said today that it has raised $50 million in growth capital — specifically through a credit financing agreement — from CIBC Innovation Banking.

We asked Ryan Holmes, the co-founder and CEO, for details about its valuation and funding, and said that it will be used for more acquisitions in the near future, and with it the valuation is unchanged.

“We opted for to go with non-dilutive credit at this point and found a great partner and terms in CIBC,” he wrote in an email. “The company is cash flow positive and the facility will primarily be reserved for M&A purposes. There is no associated valuation, however our latest 409a is up from last year and growth is very strong.”

Notably, the last time Hootsuite raised money — way back in 2014 — the company was already valued at $1 billion. For some context, at the time it had 10 million businesses as customers, and today it has 16 million including what it says is 80 percent of the Fortune 1000, so it’s likely that its valuation has grown as well.

“This financing is a testament to the strong fundamentals behind Hootsuite and our ongoing commitment to innovation and growth as the clear leader in social media management,” said Greg Twinney, CFO of Hootsuite, in a statement. “The additional capital will help us scale even faster to bring the most innovative products and partnerships to market globally and help our customers strategically build their brands, businesses and customer relationships with social.”

The funding, according to the release, will also be used to expand its business in Asia Pacific, Europe and Latin America. It also plans to add in more tools to serve the needs of specific verticals like financial services, government and healthcare.

You may not know the name Hootsuite but you might recognise its mascot — an owl — and more specifically its corresponding shortened link — it starts with ‘ow.ly’ — that is used a lot on Twitter, the social network that gave Hootsuite its first customers and ubiquity.

Things have moved along quite a bit since those early days, when Hootsuite first started as a side project for Holmes, who himself was running a marketing and advertising agency when he started it.

Social media is now the fastest-growing category for marketing spend — partly because of the popularity of social networking services like Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter; and partly because “eyeballs” can be better tracked and quantified on these networks over more legacy channels like print and outdoor ads. At the same time, presenting yourself as a business on a social network is getting harder and harder. Sites like Facebook are focused on trying to improve engagement, and that is leading it to rethink how it shares and emphasizes posts that are not organically created by normal people. On the other side, we’re seeing a new wave of privacy and data protection regulation come in that will change how data can be used across and within these sites.

All of this means that Hootsuite, and others that it competes with, need to get a lot smarter about what it offers to its customers, and how it offers it.

Starting as a modest tool that plugged into Twitter, Hootsuite itself now integrates with just about all of the major social platforms, most recently finally adding Instagram earlier this month. Its customers use a dashboard to both monitor a variety of social media platforms to track how their companies are being discussed, and also to send out messages to the world. And they now use that dashboard and Hootsuite for a growing array of other purposes, from placing ads to content marketing to analytics across an increasing number of platforms — a range of services that Hootsuite has developed both in-house and by way of acquisition.

One challenge that Hootsuite has had over the years has been the company’s focus on the freemium model, and how to convert its initially non-paying users into paying tiers with more premium offerings. Some of that expansion into new services appears to have helped tip the balance.

“In the past year, Hootsuite has seen tremendous growth from acquisitions like AdEspresso, to strategic partnerships with market leaders such as Adobe, to recognitions such as being named a leader in the Forrester Wave and G2 Crowd,” said Holmes in a statement. “This financing allows Hootsuite in continuing to create strong value for customers looking to unlock the power of social.”

Another challenge has been the fundamental fact that Hootsuite relies on third parties to essentially “complete” its offering: Hootsuite offers analytics and tools for marketing, but still needs to connect into social networks and their data pools in order to do that.

This makes the company somewhat dependent on the whims of those third parties. So, for example, if Twitter decides to either increase the fees it charges to Hootsuite, or tries to offer its own analytics and thereby cuts off some of Hootsuite’s access, this impacts the company.

One solution to this is to continue to integrate as many other platforms as possible, to create a position where its stronger because of the sum of its parts. Unsurprisingly, Hootsuite also says that some of the funding will be used to increase its partnerships and integrations.

More generally, we are seeing a trend of consolidation in the area of social media management, as several smaller, and more focused solutions are brought together under one umbrella to improve economies of scale, and also to build out that “hub” strategy, becoming more indispensable, by virtue of providing so much utility in one place.

As part of that trend, we’ve seen two of Hootsuite’s rivals, Sprinklr and Falcon.io (not an owl but another bird of prey), also grow by way of a spate of acquisitions.

The red-hot AI hardware space gets even hotter with $56M for a startup called SambaNova Systems

Another massive financing round for an AI chip company is coming in today, this time for SambaNova Systems — a startup founded by a pair of Stanford professors and a longtime chip company executive — to build out the next generation of hardware to supercharge AI-centric operations.

SambaNova joins an already quite large class of startups looking to attack the problem of making AI operations much more efficient and faster by rethinking the actual substrate where the computations happen. While the GPU has become increasingly popular among developers for its ability to handle the kinds of lightweight mathematics in very speedy fashion necessary for AI operations. Startups like SambaNova look to create a new platform from scratch, all the way down to the hardware, that is optimized exactly for those operations. The hope is that by doing that, it will be able to outclass a GPU in terms of speed, power usage, and even potentially the actual size of the chip. SambaNova today said it has raised a massive $56 million series A financing round led by GV, with participation from Redline Capital and Atlantic Bridge Ventures.

SambaNova is the product of technology from Kunle Olukotun and Chris Ré, two professors at Stanford, and led by former SVP of development Rodrigo Liang, who was also a VP at Sun for almost 8 years. When looking at the landscape, the team at SambaNova looked to work their way backwards, first identifying what operations need to happen more efficiently and then figuring out what kind of hardware needs to be in place in order to make that happen. That boils down to a lot of calculations stemming from a field of mathematics called linear algebra done very, very quickly, but it’s something that existing CPUs aren’t exactly tuned to do. And a common criticism from most of the founders in this space is that Nvidia GPUs, while much more powerful than CPUs when it comes to these operations, are still ripe for disruption.

“You’ve got these huge [computational] demands, but you have the slowing down of Moore’s law,” Olukotun said. “The question is, how do you meet these demands while Moore’s law slows. Fundamentally you have to develop computing that’s more efficient. If you look at the current approaches to improve these applications based on multiple big cores or many small, or even FPGA or GPU, we fundamentally don’t think you can get to the efficiencies you need. You need an approach that’s different in the algorithms you use and the underlying hardware that’s also required. You need a combination of the two in order to achieve the performance and flexibility levels you need in order to move forward.”

While a $56 million funding round for a series A might sound massive, it’s becoming a pretty standard number for startups looking to attack this space, which has an opportunity to beat massive chipmakers and create a new generation of hardware that will be omnipresent among any device that is built around artificial intelligence — whether that’s a chip sitting on an autonomous vehicle doing rapid image processing to potentially even a server within a healthcare organization training models for complex medical problems. Graphcore, another chip startup, got $50 million in funding from Sequoia Capital, while Cerebras Systems also received significant funding from Benchmark Capital.

Olukotun and Liang wouldn’t go into the specifics of the architecture, but they are looking to redo the operational hardware to optimize for the AI-centric frameworks that have become increasingly popular in fields like image and speech recognition. At its core, that involves a lot of rethinking of how interaction with memory occurs and what happens with heat dissipation for the hardware, among other complex problems. Apple, Google with its TPU, and reportedly Amazon have taken an intense interest in this space to design their own hardware that’s optimized for products like Siri or Alexa, which makes sense because dropping that latency to as close to zero as possible with as much accuracy in the end improves the user experience. A great user experience leads to more lock-in for those platforms, and while the larger players may end up making their own hardware, GV’s Dave Munichiello — who is joining the company’s board — says this is basically a validation that everyone else is going to need the technology soon enough.

“Large companies see a need for specialized hardware and infrastructure,” he said. “AI and large-scale data analytics are so essential to providing services the largest companies provide that they’re willing to invest in their own infrastructure, and that tells us more more investment is coming. What Amazon and Google and Microsoft and Apple are doing today will be what the rest of the Fortune 100 are investing in in 5 years. I think it just creates a really interesting market and an opportunity to sell a unique product. It just means the market is really large, if you believe in your company’s technical differentiation, you welcome competition.”

There is certainly going to be a lot of competition in this area, and not just from those startups. While SambaNova wants to create a true platform, there are a lot of different interpretations of where it should go — such as whether it should be two separate pieces of hardware that handle either inference or machine training. Intel, too, is betting on an array of products, as well as a technology called Field Programmable Gate Arrays (or FPGA), which would allow for a more modular approach in building hardware specified for AI and are designed to be flexible and change over time. Both Munichiello’s and Olukotun’s arguments are that these require developers who have a special expertise of FPGA, which a sort of niche-within-a-niche that most organizations will probably not have readily available.

Nvidia has been a massive benefactor in the explosion of AI systems, but it clearly exposed a ton of interest in investing in a new breed of silicon. There’s certainly an argument for developer lock-in on Nvidia’s platforms like Cuda. But there are a lot of new frameworks, like TensorFlow, that are creating a layer of abstraction that are increasingly popular with developers. That, too represents an opportunity for both SambaNova and other startups, who can just work to plug into those popular frameworks, Olukotun said. Cerebras Systems CEO Andrew Feldman actually also addressed some of this on stage at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference last month.

“Nvidia has spent a long time building an ecosystem around their GPUs, and for the most part, with the combination of TensorFlow, Google has killed most of its value,” Feldman said at the conference. “What TensorFlow does is, it says to researchers and AI professionals, you don’t have to get into the guts of the hardware. You can write at the upper layers and you can write in Python, you can use scripts, you don’t have to worry about what’s happening underneath. Then you can compile it very simply and directly to a CPU, TPU, GPU, to many different hardwares, including ours. If in order to do work you have to be the type of engineer that can do hand-tuned assembly or can live deep in the guts of hardware there will be no adoption… We’ll just take in their TensorFlow, we don’t have to worry about anything else.”

(As an aside, I was once told that Cuda and those other lower-level platforms are really used by AI wonks like Yann LeCun building weird AI stuff in the corners of the Internet.)

There are, also, two big question marks for SambaNova: first, it’s very new, having started in just November while many of these efforts for both startups and larger companies have been years in the making. Munichiello’s answer to this is that the development for those technologies did, indeed, begin a while ago — and that’s not a terrible thing as SambaNova just gets started in the current generation of AI needs. And the second, among some in the valley, is that most of the industry just might not need hardware that’s does these operations in a blazing fast manner. The latter, you might argue, could just be alleviated by the fact that so many of these companies are getting so much funding, with some already reaching close to billion-dollar valuations.

But, in the end, you can now add SambaNova to the list of AI startups that have raised enormous rounds of funding — one that stretches out to include a myriad of companies around the world like Graphcore and Cerebras Systems, as well as a lot of reported activity out of China with companies like Cambricon Technology and Horizon Robotics. This effort does, indeed, require significant investment not only because it’s hardware at its base, but it has to actually convince customers to deploy that hardware and start tapping the platforms it creates, which supporting existing frameworks hopefully alleviates.

“The challenge you see is that the industry, over the last ten years, has underinvested in semiconductor design,” Liang said. “If you look at the innovations at the startup level all the way through big companies, we really haven’t pushed the envelope on semiconductor design. It was very expensive and the returns were not quite as good. Here we are, suddenly you have a need for semiconductor design, and to do low-power design requires a different skillset. If you look at this transition to intelligent software, it’s one of the biggest transitions we’ve seen in this industry in a long time. You’re not accelerating old software, you want to create that platform that’s flexible enough [to optimize these operations] — and you want to think about all the pieces. It’s not just about machine learning.”

Strix Leviathan raises $1.625M for its enterprise crypto trading platform

Seattle-based Strix Leviathan, an enterprise trading and management platform for crypto assets founded by startup vet Jesse Proudman, today announced that it has raised a $1.625 million seed round led by Joe Montana’s Liquid 2 Ventures (yes, that Joe Montana). Other investors include Founders’ Co-op, Future\Perfect Ventures and 9Mile Labs, as well as angel investors like Chris McCoy, Doug Baldwin Jr., Kirby Winfield and Steve Hall.

Prior to founding Strix Leviathan, Proudman was the founder and CEO of Blue Box, a cloud computing startup that was acquired by IBM in 2015. With this new startup, Proudman’s moving into a somewhat different space, but as he told me when the company first launched, he believes the state of crypto is similar to the state of the Internet when he launched his first startup in 1997.

Given his experience in the enterprise world, it’s maybe no surprise that Proudman opted to take an enterprise approach to crypto, too. “Many Institutional investors have struggled to figure out the best path of entry into cryptocurrency markets due to the inherent complexities of the space,” he said. “We’re squarely focused on solving trading and management of cryptocurrencies for these institutions and enterprises. Considering the thousands of individual trading pairs, the plethora of exchanges and the immaturity of cryptocurrency markets, these investors desperately need a platform to simplify their trading initiatives. The markets are ready for an offering like ours and we’re excited to bring it to them.”

To do this, the Strix Leviathan team is building three core features: a data ingestion engine for pulling in relevant data across a variety of sources, algorithmic trading strategies based on this data that others can license, and an order gateway that allows the service to execute trades across many of the popular crypto exchanges.

“I’ve seen the birth of PCs, the internet and mobile,” said Liquid 2 Ventures’ Joe Montana in a statement today. “It’s early, but I think crypto may be the next revolution. Unfortunately, it’s also full of scams. Right now the key is to find the right team that is doing something new and to trust them. We’ve known Jesse for years. He’s proven himself to be trustworthy and adaptive in fast paced markets. Strix should be huge.”

 

Airtable raises $52M to give non-coders tools to build complex software

A massive company probably has plenty of engineers on staff and the resources to build a complex backbone of interconnected information that can contain tons of data and make acting on it easy — but for smaller companies, and for those that aren’t technical, those tools aren’t very accessible.

That’s what convinced Howie Liu to create Airtable, a startup that looks to turn what seems like just a normal spreadsheet into a robust database tool, hiding the complexity of what’s happening in the background while those without any programming experience create intricate systems to get their work done. Today, they’re trying to take that one step further with a new tool called Blocks, a set of mix-and-match operations like SMS and integrating maps that users can just drop into their systems. Think of it as a way to give a small business owner with a non-technical background to meticulously track all the performance activity across, say, a network of food trucks by just entering a bunch of dollar values and dropping in one of these tools.

“We really want to take this power you have in software creation and ‘consumerize’ that into a form anyone can use,” Liu said. “At the same time, from a business standpoint, we saw this bigger opportunity underneath the low-code app platforms in general. Those platforms solve the needs of heavyweight expensive use cases where you have a budget and have a lot of time. I would position Airtable making a leap toward a graphical user interface, versus a lot of products that are admin driven.”

Liu said the company has raised an additional $52 million in financing in a round led by CRV and Caffeinated Capital, with participation from Freestyle Ventures and Slow Ventures. All this is going toward a way to build a system that is trying to abstract out even the process of programming itself, though there’s always going to be some limited scope as to how custom of a system you can actually make with what amounts to a set of logic operation legos. That being said, the goal here is to boil down all of the most common sets of operations with the long tail left to the average programmers (and larger enterprises often have these kinds of highly-customized needs).

All this is coming at a time when businesses are increasingly chasing the long tail of small- to medium-sized businesses, the ones that aren’t really on the grid but represent a massive market opportunity. Those businesses also probably don’t have the kinds of resources to hire engineers while companies like Google or Facebook are camping out on college campuses looking to snap up students graduating with technical majors. That’s part of the reason why Excel had become so popular trying to abstract out a lot of complex operations necessary to run a business, but at the same time, Liu said that kind of philosophy should be able to be taken a step further.

“If you look at cloud, you have Amazon’s [cloud infrastructure] EC2, which abstracted the hardware level and you can build on existing machine intelligence,” Liu said. “Then, you get the OS level and up. Containers, Heroku, and other tools have extracted away the operation level complexity. But you have to write the app and modal logic. Our goal is to go a big leap forward on top of that and abstract out the app code layer. You should be able to directly use our interface, and blocks, all these plug and play lego pieces that give you more dynamic functionality — whether a map view or an integration with Twilio.”

And, really, all these platforms like Twilio have tried to make themselves pretty friendly to coding beginners as-is. Twilio has a lot of really good documentation for first-time developers to learn to use their platforms. But Airtable hopes to serve as a way to interconnect all these things in a complex web, creating a relational database behind the scenes that users can operate on in a more simplistic matter that’s still accurate, fast, and reliable.

“Obviously MySQL is great if you want to use code or custom SQL queries to interface with the data,” Liu said. “But, ultimately, you’d never as a business end user consider using literally a terminal-based SQL prompt as the primary interface to and from your data. Certainly you wouldn’t put that on your designs. Clearly you would want some interface on top of the SQL level database. We basically expose the full value of a relational database like Postgres to the end user, but we also give them something equally but more important: the interface on the top that makes the data immediately visible.”

There’s been a lot of activity trying to rethink these sort of fundamental formats that the average user is used to, but are ripe for more flexibility. Coda, a startup trying to rethink the notion behind a word document, raised $60 million, and all this points towards moves to try to create a more robust toolkit for non-technical users. That also means that it’s going to be an increasingly hot space, and especially look like an opportunity for companies that are already looking to host these kinds of services online like Amazon or Microsoft and have the buy-in from those businesses.

Liu, too, said that the goal of the company was to go after all potential business cases right away by creating a what-you-see-is-what-you-get one size fits all platform — which is usually called a horizontal approach. That’s often a very risky move, and it’s probably the biggest question mark for the company as there’s an opportunity for some other startups or companies to come in and grab niches of that whole pie in specific areas (like, say, a custom GUI programming interface for healthcare). But Liu said the opportunity for Airtable was to go horizontal from day one.

“There’s this assumption that software has to involve literally writing code,” Liu said. “It’s sort of a difficult thing to extricate ourselves from because we have built so much with writing code. But when you think about what goes into a useful application, especially in the business-to-business internal tools in a company use case which forms the bulk of software that’s consumed in terms of lines of code written, most of them are primarily a relational database model, and the relational database aspect of it is not an arbitrary format.

TypingDNA launches Chrome extension that verifies your identity based on typing

TypingDNA has a new approach to verifying your identity based on how you type.

The startup, which is part of the current class at Techstars NYC, is pitching this as an alternative to two-factor authentication — namely, the security feature that sends unique codes to a separate device (usually your phone) to make sure someone else isn’t logging in with your password.

The problem with two factor? TypingDNA Raul Popa put it simply: “It’s a bad user experience … Nobody wants to use a different device.” (I know that TechCrunch writers have had two-factor issues of their own, like when they’re trying to log in on an airplane and can’t connect their phone.)

So TypingDNA allows users to verify their identity without having to whip out their phone. Instead, they just enter their name and password into a window, then TypingDNA will analyze their typing and confirm that it’s really them.

TypingDNA Authenticator - Animation

The startup’s business model revolves around working with partners to incorporate the technology, but it’s also launching a free Chrome extension that works as an alternative to two-factor authentication on a wide range of services, including Amazon Web Services, Coinbase and Gmail.

Popa said TypingDNA measures two key aspects of your typing: How long it takes you to reach a key and how long you keep the key pressed down. Apparently these patterns are unique; Popa showed me that the system could tell the difference between his typing and mine, and you can test it out for yourself on the TypingDNA website.

He also said that the company can adjust the strictness of the system, getting the rate of false positives as low as 0.1 percent. In the case of the Chrome authenticator, Popa said, “We minimize the false acceptance rate” — so you might get rejected if you’re typing in an unusual position, or if there’s some other reason you’re typing slower or faster than usual. But in that case, the authenticator will just ask you to try again.

And again, you can use the Chrome extension on a variety of sites. Most two-factor options include confirming a device using a QR code, which TypingDNA can grab. The two-factor codes are then sent to the TypingDNA extension (the codes are stored locally on your computer, not the company’s servers), and they’re revealed once you’ve verified your identity with the aforementioned typing.

You can visit TypingDNA to learn more and download the extension.