Xage now supports hierarchical blockchains for complex implementations

Xage is working with utilities, energy companies and manufacturers to secure their massive systems, and today it announced some significant updates to deal with the scale and complexity of these customers’ requirements including a new hierarchical blockchain.

Xage enables customers to set security policy, then enforce that policy on the blockchain. Company CEO Duncan Greatwood says as customers deploy his company’s solutions more widely, it has created a set of problems around scaling that they had to address inside the product including the use of blockchain.

As you have multiple sites involved in a system, there needed to be a way for these individual entities to operate whether they are connected to the main system or not. The answer was to provide each site with its own local blockchain, then have a global blockchain that acts as the ultimate enforcer of the rules once the systems reconnected.

“What we’ve done is by creating independent blockchains for each location, you can continue to write even if you are separated or the latency is too high for a global write. But when the reconnect happens with the global system, we replay the writes into the global blockchain,” Greatwood explained.

While classical blockchain doesn’t allow these kinds of separations, Xage felt it was necessary to deal with its particular kind of use case. When there is a separation a resynchronization happens where the global blockchain checks the local chains for any kinds of changes, and if they are not consistent with the global rules, it will overwrite those entries.

Greatwood says these changes can be malicious if someone managed to take over a node or they could be non-malicious such as a password change that wasn’t communicated to the global chain until it reconnected. Whatever the reason, the global blockchain has this power to fix the record when it’s required.

Another issue that has come up for Xage customers is the idea that majority rules on a blockchain, but that’s not always a good idea when you have multiple entities working together. As Greatwood explains, if one entity has 600 nodes and the other has 400, the larger entity can always enforce its rules on the smaller one. To fix that, they have created what they are calling a super majority.

“The supermajority allows us to impose impose rules such as, after you have the majority of 600 nodes, you also have to have the majority of the 400 nodes. Obviously, that will give you an overall majority. But the important point is that the company with 400 nodes is protected now because the write to the ledger account can’t happen unless a majority of the 400 node customer also agrees and participates in the write,” Greatwood explained.

Finally, the company also announced scaling improvements, which reduce computing requirements to run Xage by 10x, according to the company.


By Ron Miller

Osano makes business risk and compliance (somewhat) sexy again

A new startup is clearing the way for other companies to better monitor and manage their risk and compliance with privacy laws.

Osano, an Austin, Texas-based startup, bills itself as a privacy platform startup, which uses a software-as-a-service solution to give businesses real-time visibility into their current privacy and compliance posture. On one hand, that helps startups and enterprises large and small insight into whether or not they’re complying with global or state privacy laws, and manage risk factors associated with their business such as when partner or vendor privacy policies change.

The company launched its privacy platform at Disrupt SF on the Startup Battlefield stage.

Risk and compliance is typically a fusty, boring and frankly unsexy topic. But with ever-changing legal landscapes and constantly moving requirements, it’s hard to keep up. Although Europe’s GDPR has been around for a year, it’s still causing headaches. And stateside, the California Consumer Privacy Act is about to kick in and it is terrifying large companies for fear they can’t comply with it.

Osano mixes tech with its legal chops to help companies, particularly smaller startups without their own legal support, to provide a one-stop shop for businesses to get insight, advice and guidance.

“We believe that any time a company does a better job with transparency and data protection, we think that’s a really good thing for the internet,” the company’s founder Arlo Gilbert told TechCrunch.

Gilbert, along with his co-founder and chief technology officer Scott Hertel, have built their company’s software-as-a-service solution with several components in mind, including maintaining its scorecard of 6,000 vendors and their privacy practices to objectively grade how a company fares, as well as monitoring vendor privacy policies to spot changes as soon as they are made.

One of its standout features is allowing its corporate customers to comply with dozens of privacy laws across the world with a single line of code.

You’ve seen them before: The “consent” popups that ask (or demand) you to allow cookies or you can’t come in. Osano’s consent management lets companies install a dynamic consent management in just five minutes, which delivers the right consent message to the right people in the best language. Using the blockchain, the company says it can record and provide searchable and cryptographically verifiable proof-of-consent in the event of a person’s data access request.

“There are 40 countries with cookie and data privacy laws that require consent,” said Gilbert. “Each of them has nuances about what they consider to be consent: what you have to tell them; what you have to offer them; when you have to do it.”

Osano also has an office in Dublin, Ireland, allowing its corporate customers to say it has a physical representative in the European Union — a requirement for companies that have to comply with GDPR.

And, for corporate customers with questions, they can dial-an-expert from Osano’s outsourced and freelance team of attorneys and privacy experts to help break down complex questions into bitesize answers.

Or as Gilbert calls it, “Uber, but for lawyers.”

The concept seems novel but it’s not restricted to GDPR or California’s upcoming law. The company says it monitors international, federal and state legislatures for new laws and changes to existing privacy legislation to alert customers of upcoming changes and requirements that might affect their business.

In other words, plug in a new law or two and Osano’s customers are as good as covered.

Osano is still in its pre-seed stage. But while the company is focusing on its product, it’s not thinking too much about money.

“We’re planning to kind of go the binary outcome — go big or go home,” said Gilbert, with his eye on the small- to medium-sized enterprise. “It’s greenfield right now. There’s really nobody doing what we’re doing.”

The plan is to take on enough funding to own the market, and then focus on turning a profit. So much so, Gilbert said, that the company is registered as a B Corporation, a more socially conscious and less profit-driven approach of corporate structure, allowing it to generate profits while maintaining its social vision.

The company’s idea is strong; its corporate structure seems mindful. But is it enough of an enticement for fellow startups and small businesses? It’s either dominate the market or bust, and only time will tell.


By Zack Whittaker

Battlefield vets StrongSalt (formerly OverNest) announces $3M seed round

StrongSalt, then known as OverNest, appeared at the TechCrunch Disrupt NYC Battlefield in 2016, and announced product for searching encrypted code, which remains unusual to this day. Today, the company announced a $3 million seed round led by Valley Capital Partners.

StrongSalt founder and CEO Ed Yu, says encryption remains a difficult proposition, and that when you look at the majority of breaches, encryption wasn’t used. He said that his company wants to simplify adding encryption to applications, and came up with a new service to let developers add encryption in the form of an API. “We decided to come up with what we call an API platform. It’s like infrastructure that allows you to integrate our solution into any existing or any new applications,” he said.

The company’s original idea was to create a product to search encrypted code, but Yu says the tech has much more utility as an API that’s applicable across applications, and that’s why they decided to package it as a service. It’s not unlike Twilio for communications or Stripe for payments, except in this case you can build in searchable encryption.

The searchable part is actually a pretty big deal because, as Yu points out, when you encrypt data it is no longer searchable. “If you encrypt all your data, you cannot search within it, and if you cannot search within it, you cannot find the data you’re looking for, and obviously you can’t really use the data. So we actually solved that problem,” he said.

Developers can add searchable encryption as part of their applications. For customers already using a commercial product, the company’s API actually integrates with popular services, enabling customers to encrypt the data stored there, while keeping it searchable.

“We will offer a storage API on top of Box, AWS S3, Google cloud, Azure — depending on what the customer has or wants. If the customer already has AWS S3 storage, for example, then when they use our API, and after encrypting the data, it will be stored in their AWS repository,” Yu explained.

For those companies who don’t have a storage service, the company is offering one. What’s more, they are using the blockchain to provide a mechanism for the sharing, auditing and managing encrypted data. “We also use the blockchain for sharing data by recording the authorization by the sender, so the receiver can retrieve the information needed to reconstruct the keys in order to retrieve the data. This simplifies key management in the case of sharing and ensures auditability and revocability of the sharing by the sender,” Yu said.

If you’re wondering how the company has been surviving since 2016, while only getting its seed round today, it had a couple of small seed rounds prior to this, and a contract with the US Department of Defense, which replaced the need for substantial earlier funding.

“The DOD was looking for a solution to have secure communication between between computers, and they needed to have a way to securely store data, and so we were providing a solution for them,” he said. In fact, this work was what led them to build the commercial API platform they are offering today.

The company, which was founded in 2015, currently has 12 employees spread across the globe.


By Ron Miller

Kadena brings free private blockchain service to Azure Marketplace

The hype around blockchain seems to have cooled a bit, but companies like Kadena have been working on enterprise-grade solutions for some time, and continue to push the technology forward. Today, the startup announced that Kadena Scalable Permissioned Blockchain on Azure is available for free in the Azure Marketplace.

Kadena co-founder and CEO Will Martino says today’s announcement builds on the success of last year’s similar endeavor involving AWS. “Our private chain is designed for enterprise use. It’s designed for being high performance is designed for integrating with traditional back ends. And by bringing that chain to AWS marketplace, and now to Microsoft Azure, we are servicing almost all of the enterprise blockchain market that takes place in the cloud,” Martino told TechCrunch.

The free product enables companies to get comfortable with the technology and build a Proof of Concept (PoC) without making a significant investment in the tooling. The free tool provides 2000 transactions a second across 4 nodes. Once companies figure this out and want to scale, that’s when the company begins making money, but Martino recognizes that the technology is still immature and companies need to get comfortable with it, and that’s what the free versions on the cloud platforms like Azure are encouraging.

Martino says Kadena favors a hybrid approach to enterprise blockchain that combines public and private chains, and in his view, gives customers the best of both worlds. “You can run a smart contract on our public chain Web protocol that will be launching on October 30th, and that smart contract can be linked to a cluster of private permission chain nodes that are running the other half of the application. This allows you to have all of the market access and openness and transparency and ownerlessness of a public network, while also having the control and the security that you find in a private network,” he said.

Martino and co-founder Stuart Popejoy both worked at JPMorgan on early blockchain projects, but left to start Kadena in 2016. The company has raised $14.9 million to date.


By Ron Miller

India’s Reliance Jio inks deal with Microsoft to expand Office 365, Azure to more businesses; unveils broadband, blockchain, and IoT platforms

India’s Reliance Jio, which has disrupted the telecom and features phone businesses in India in less than three years of existence, is now ready to aggressively foray into many more businesses with the help of global giants including Microsoft.

The subsidiary of India’s largest industrial house Reliance Industries today announced that it will commercially launch its optical fiber broadband business next month, an IoT platform on January 1, 2020, and “one of the world’s biggest blockchain networks” in the next 12 months.

The broadband service, called Jio Giga Fiber, is aimed at individual customers, small and medium sized businesses, as well as enterprises, Mukhesh Ambani, Chairman and Managing Director of Reliance Industries, said at a shareholders meeting Monday. The service, which will be available to consumers starting September 5, will offer free voice calls, high-speed internet and start at Rs 700 per month.

The company also announced a 10-year partnership with Microsoft to leverage the Redmond giant’s Azure, Microsoft 365, and Microsoft AI platforms to launch new cloud datacenters in India to ensure “more of Jio’s customers can access the tools and platforms they need to build their own digital capability,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a video appearance Monday.

“At Microsoft, our mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. Core to this mission is deep partnerships, like the one we are announcing today with Reliance Jio. Our ambition is to help millions of organizations across India thrive and grow in the era of rapid technological change… Together, we will offer a comprehensive technology solution, from compute to storage, to connectivity and productivity for small and medium-sized businesses everywhere in the country,” he added.

As part of the partnership, Nadella said, Jio and Microsoft will jointly offer Office 365 to more organizations in India, and also bring Azure Cognitive Services to more devices and in many Indian languages to businesses in the country. The solutions will be “accessible” to reach as many people and organizations in India as possible, he added.

Ambani also said Jio is working on a “digital stack” to create a new commerce partnership platform in India to reach tens of millions of merchants, consumers, and producers.

More to follow…


By Manish Singh

Dust Identity secures $10M Series A to identify objects with diamond dust

The idea behind Dust Identity was originally born in an MIT lab where students developed a system of uniquely identifying objects using diamond dust. Since then, the startup has been working to create a commercial application for the advanced technology, and today it announced a $10 million Series A round led by Kleiner Perkins, which also led its $2.3 million seed round last year.

Airbus Ventures and Lockheed Martin Ventures, New Science Ventures, Angular Ventures and Castle Island Ventures also participated in the round. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $12.3 million.

The company has an unusual idea of applying a thin layer of diamond dust to an object with the goal of proving that object has not been tampered with. While using diamond dust may sound expensive, the company told TechCrunch last year at the time of its seed round funding that it uses low-cost industrial diamond waste, rather than the expensive variety you find in jewelry stores.

As CEO and co-founder Ophir Gaathon told TechCrunch last year, “Once the diamonds fall on the surface of a polymer epoxy, and that polymer cures, the diamonds are fixed in their position, fixed in their orientation, and it’s actually the orientation of those diamonds that we developed a technology that allows us to read those angles very quickly.”

Ilya Fushman, who is leading the investment for Kleiner, says the company is offering a unique approach to identity and security for objects. “At a time when there is a growing trust gap between manufacturers and suppliers, Dust Identity’s diamond particle tag provides a better solution for product authentication and supply chain security than existing technologies,” he said in a statement.

The presence of strategic investors Airbus and Lockheed Martin shows that big industrial companies see a need for advanced technology like this in the supply chain. It’s worth noting that the company partnered with enterprise computing giant SAP last year to provide a blockchain interface for physical objects, where they store the Dust Identity identifier on the blockchain. Although, the startup has a relationship with SAP, it remains blockchain agnostic, according to a company spokesperson.

While it’s still early days for the company, it has attracted the attention from a broad range of investors and intends to use the funding to continue building and expanding the product in the coming year. To this point, it has implemented pilot programs and early deployments across a range of industries including automotive, luxury goods, cosmetics and oil, gas and utilities


By Ron Miller

Visa funds $40M for no-password crypto vault Anchorage

Visa and Andreessen Horowitz are betting even bigger on cryptocurrency, funding a big round for fellow Facebook Libra Association member Anchorage’s omnimetric blockchain security system. Instead of using passwords that can be stolen, Anchorage requires cryptocurrency withdrawals to be approved by a client’s other employees. Then the company uses both human and AI review of biometrics and more to validate transactions before they’re executed, while offering end-to-end insurance coverage.

This new-age approach to cryptocurrency protection has attracted a $40 million Series B for Anchorage led by Blockchain Capital and joined by Visa and Andreessen Horowitz. The round adds to Anchorage’s $17 million Series A that Andreessen led just six months ago, demonstrating extraordinary momentum for the security startup.

As a custodian, our work is focused on building financial plumbing that other companies depend on for their operations to run smoothly. In this regard we have always looked at Visa as a model” Anchorage co-founder and president Diogo Mónica tells me.

“Visa was ‘fintech’ before the term existed, and has always been on the vanguard of financial infrastructure. Visa’s investment in Anchorage is helpful not only to our company but to our industry, as a validation of the entire ecosystem and a recognition that crypto will play a key role in the future of global finance.”

Anchorage Crypto 1

Cold-storage, where assets are held in computers not connected to the Internet, has become a popular method of securing Bitcoin, Ether, and other tokens. But the problem is that this can prevent owners from participating in governance of certain cryptocurrency where votes are based on their holdings, or earning dividends. Anchorage tells me it’s purposefully designed to permit this kind of participation, helping clients to get the most out of their assets like capturing returns from staking and inflation, or joining in on-chain governance.

As 3 of the 28 founding members of the Libra Association that will govern the new Facebook-incubated cryptocurrency; Anchorage, Visa, and Andreessen Horowitz will be responsible for ensuring the stablecoin stays secure. While Facebook is building its own custodial wallet called Calibra for users, other Association members and companies hoping to dive into the ecosystem will need ways to protect their Libra stockpiles.

“Libra is exactly the kind of asset that Anchorage was created to hold” Mónica wrote the day Libra was revealed. “Our custody solution , so that asset-holders don’t face a trade-off between security and usability.” The company believes that custodians shouldn’t dictate what coins their clients hold, so it’s working to support all types of digital assets. Anchorage tells me that will include support for securing Libra in the future.

Libra Association Founding Partners

You’ve probably already used technology secured by Anchorage’s founders, who engineered Docker’s containers that are used by Microsoft, and Square’s first encrypted card reader. Mónica was at Square when he met his future Anchorage co-founder Nathan McCauley who’d been working on anti-reverse engineering tech for the U.S. military. When a company that had lost the password to a $1 million cryptocurrency account asked for their help with security, they recognized a recognized the need for a more idiot-proof take on asset protection.

“Anchorage applies the best of modern security engineering for a more advanced approach: we generate and store private keys in secure hardware so they are never exposed at any point in their life cycle, and we eliminate human operations that expose assets to risk” Mónica says. The startup competes with other crypto custody firms like Bitgo, Ledger, Coinbase, and Gemini.

Anchorage CryptocurrencyLast time we spoke, Anchorage was cagey about what I could reveal regarding how its transaction validation system worked. With the new funding, it’s feeling a little more secure about its market position and was willing to share more.

Anchorage ditches usernames, passwords, email addresses, and phone numbers completely. That way a hacker can’t just dump your coins into their account by stealing your private key or SIM-porting your number to their phone. Instead, clients whitelist devices held by their employees, who use the Anchorage app to submit transactions. You’d propose selling $10 million worth of Bitcoin or transferring it to someone else as payment, and a minimum of two-thirds of your designated co-workers would need to concur to form a quorum that approves the transfer.

But first, Anchorage would’s artificial intelligence and human staff would check for any suspicious signals that might indicate a hack in progress. It uses behavioral analysis (do you act like a real human and similar to how you have before), biometric signals (do you look like you), and network signals (is your device what and where it should be) to confirm the transaction is legitimate. The same process goes down if you try to add a new whitelisted device or change who has permission to do what.

The challenge will be scaling security to an ever-broadening range of digital assets, each with their own blockchain quirks and complex smart contracts. Even if Anchorage keeps coins safely in custody, those variables could expose assets to risk while in transit. Now with deeper pockets and the Visa vote of confidence, Anchorage could solve those problems as clients line up.

While most blockchain attention has focused on the cryptocurrencies themselves and the exchanges where you can buy and sell them, a second order of critical infrastructure startups is emerging. Companies like Anchorage could make Bitcoin, Ether, Libra, and more not just objects of speculation or the domain of experts, but safely functioning elements of the new world economy.


By Josh Constine

IBM, KPMG, Merck, Walmart team up for drug supply chain blockchain pilot

IBM announced its latest blockchain initiative today. This one is in partnership with KPMG, Merk and Walmart to build a drug supply chain blockchain pilot.

These four companies are coming to together to help come up with a solution to track certain drugs as they move through a supply chain. IBM is acting as the technology partner, KPMG brings a deep understanding of the compliance issues, Merk is of course a drug company and Walmart would be a drug distributor through its pharmacies and care clinics.

The idea is to give each drug package a unique identifier that you can track through the supply chain from manufacturer to pharmacy to consumer. Seems simple enough, but the fact is that companies are loathe to share any data with one another. The blockchain would provide an irrefutable record of each transaction as the drug moved along the supply chain, giving authorities and participants an easy audit trail.

The pilot is part of set of programs being conducted by various stakeholders at the request of the FDA. The end goal is to find solutions to help comply with the U.S. Drug Supply Chain Security Act. According to the FDA Pilot Program website, “FDA’s DSCSA Pilot Project Program is intended to assist drug supply chain stakeholders, including FDA, in developing the electronic, interoperable system that will identify and trace certain prescription drugs as they are distributed within the United States.”

IBM hopes that this blockchain pilot will show it can build a blockchain platform or network on top of which other companies can build applications. “The network in this case, would have the ability to exchange information about these pharmaceutical shipments in a way that ensures privacy, but that is validated,” Mark Treshock, global blockchain solutions leader for healthcare and life sciences at IBM told TechCrunch.

He believes that this would help bring companies on board that might be concerned about the privacy of their information in a public system like this, something that drug companies in particular worry about. Trying to build an interoperable system is a challenge, but Treshock sees the blockchain as a tidy solution for this issue.

Some people have said that blockchain is a solution looking for a problem, but IBM has been looking at it more practically with several real-world projects in production including one to track leafy greens from field to store with Walmart and a shipping supply chain with Maersk to track shipping containers as they move through the world

Treshock believes the Walmart food blockchain is particularly applicable here and could be used as a template of sorts to build the drug supply blockchain. “It’s very similar, tracking food to tracking drugs, and we are leveraging or adopting the assets that we built for food trust to this problem. We’re taking that platform and adapting it to track pharmaceuticals,” he explained.


By Ron Miller

Helium launches $51M-funded “LongFi” IoT alternative to cellular

With 200X the range of WiFi at 1/1000th of the cost of a cellular modem, Helium’s “LongFi” wireless network debuts today. Its transmitters can help track stolen scooters, find missing dogs via IoT collars, and collect data from infrastructure sensors. The catch is that Helium’s tiny, extremely low-power, low-data transmission chips rely on connecting to P2P Helium Hotspots people can now buy for $495. Operating those hotspots earns owners a cryptocurrency token Helium promises will be valuable in the future…

The potential of a new wireless standard has allowed Helium to raise $51 million over the past few years from GV, Khosla Ventures, and Marc Benioff including a new $15 million round co-led by Union Square Ventures and Multicoin Capital. That’s in part because one of Helium’s co-founders is Napster inventer Shawn Fanning. Investors are betting that he can change the tech world again, this time with a wireless protocol that like WiFi and Bluetooth before it could unlock unique business opportunities.

Helium already has some big partners lined up including Lime, which will test it for tracking its lost and stolen scooters and bikes when they’re brought indoors obscuring other connectivity or their battery is pulled out deactivating GPS. “It’s an ultra low-cost version of a LoJack” Helium CEO Amir Haleem says.

InvisiLeash will partner with it to build more trackable pet collars. Agulus will pull data from irrigation valves and pumps for its agriculture tech business, Nestle will track when its time to refill water in its ReadyRefresh coolers at offices, and Stay Alfred will use it to track occupancy status and air quality in buildings. Haleem also imagines the tech being useful for tracking wildfires or radiation.

Haleem met Fanning playing video games in the 2000s. They teamed up with Fanning and Sproutling baby monitor (sold to Mattel) founder Chris Bruce in 2013 to start work on Helium. They foresaw a version of Tile’s trackers that could function anywhere while replacing expensive cell connections for devices that don’t need high-bandwith. Helium will compete with SigFox, another lower-power IoT protocol, though Haleem claims its more centralized infrastructure costs are prohibitive. Lucky for Helium, on-demand rental bikes and scooters that are perfect for its network have reached mainstream popularity just as Helium launches six years after its start.

Helium says its already pre-sold 80% of its Helium Hotspots for its first market in Austin, Texas. People connect them to their Wifi and put in their window so thee devices can pull in data from Helium’s IoT sensors over its open-source LongFi protocol. The hotspots then encrypt and send the data to the company’s cloud that clients can plug into to track and collect info from their devices. The Helium Hotspots only require as much energy as a 12-watt LED lightbulb to run, but that $495 price tag is steep. The lack of a concrete return on investment could deter later adopters from buying the expensive device.

Only 150-200 hotspots are necessary to blanket a city in connectivity, Haleem tells me. But since they need to be distributed across the landscape so a client can’t just fill their warehouse with the hotspots and the upfront price is expensive for individuals, Helium might need to sign up some retail chains as partners for deployment. Haleem admits “The hard part is the education”. Making hotspot buyers understand the potential (and risks) while demonstrating the opportunities for clients will require a ton of outreach and slick marketing.

Without enough Helium Hotspots, the Helium network won’t function. That means this startup will have to simultaneously win at telecom technology, enterprise sales, and cryptocurrency for the network to pan out. As if one of those wasn’t hard enough.


By Josh Constine

Aion Network introduces first blockchain virtual machine for Java developers

Aion Network, a non-profit dedicated to creating tools to promote blockchain technologies, announced a new virtual machine today that’s built on top of the popular Java Virtual Machine. Its ultimate goal is increasing the popularity of blockchain with developers.

Aion CEO Matthew Spoke says one of the barriers to more widespread blockchain adoption has been a lack of tooling for developers in a common language like Java. The company believed if they could build a virtual machine specifically for blockchain on top of the Java Virtual Machine (JVM), which has been in use for years, it could help promote more extensive use of blockchain.

Today, it’s announcing the Aion Virtual Machine (AVM), a virtual machine that sits on top of the JVM. AVM makes it possible for developers to use their familiar toolset while building in the blockchain bits like smart contracts in the AVM without having to alter the JVM at all.

“We didn’t want to modify the JVM. We wanted to build some sort of supplementary software layer that can interact with the JVM. Blockchains have a set of unique criteria. They need to be deterministic; the computing needs to happen across the distributed network of nodes; and the JVM was never designed with this in mind,” Spoke explained.

Aion set out to build a virtual machine for blockchain without reinventing the wheel. It recognized that Java remains one of the most popular programming languages around, and it didn’t want to mess with that. In fact, it wanted to take advantage of the popularity by building a kind of blockchain interpreter that would sit on top of the JVM without getting in the way of it.

“Rather than trying to convince people of the merits of a new system, can we just get the system they’re already familiar with on top of the blockchain? So we started engineering towards that solution. And we’ve been working on that since for about a year at this point, leading up to our release this week to prove that we can solve that problem,” Spoke told TechCrunch.

Up to this point, Aion has been focusing on the crypto community, but the company felt to really push the blockchain beyond the realm of the true believers, it needed to come up with a way for developers who weren’t immersed in this to take advantage of it.

“Our big focus now is how do we take this message of building blockchain apps and take it into a more traditional software industry audience. Instead of trying to compete for the attention of crypto developers, we want the blockchain to become almost a micro service layer to what normal software developers are solving on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

The company is hoping that by providing this way to access blockchain services, it can help popularize blockchain concepts with developers who might not otherwise have been familiar with them. It’s but one attempt to bring blockchain to more business-oriented use cases, but the company has given this a lot of thought and believes it will help them evangelize this approach with a wider audience of developers moving forward.


By Ron Miller

IBM-Maersk blockchain shipping consortium expands to include other major shipping companies

Last year IBM and Danish shipping conglomerate Maersk announced the limited availability of a blockchain-based shipping tool called TradeLens. Today, the two partners announced that a couple of other major shippers have come on board.

The partners announced that CMA CGM and MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company have joined TradeLens. When you include these companies together with Maersk, the TradeLens consortium now encompasses almost half of the world’s cargo container shipments, according to data supplied by IBM .

That’s important because shipping has traditionally been a paper-intensive and largely manual process. It’s still challenging to track where a container might be in the world and which government agency might be holding it up. When it comes to auditing, it can take weeks of intensive effort to gather the paperwork generated throughout a journey from factory or field to market. Suffice to say, cargo touches a lot of hands along the way.

It’s been clear for years that shipping could benefit from digitization, but to this point previous attempts like EDI have not been terribly successful. The hope is that by using blockchain to solve the problem, all the participants can easily follow the flow of shipments along the chain and trust that the immutable record has not been altered at any point.

As Marie Wieck, general manager for IBM Blockchain told TechCrunch at the time of last year’s announcement, the blockchain brings some key benefits to the shipping workflow.

“The blockchain provides a couple of obvious advantages over previous methods. For starters, [Wieck said] it’s safer because data is distributed, making it much more secure with digital encryption built in. The greatest advantage though is the visibility it provides. Every participant can check any aspect of the flow in real time, or an auditor or other authority can easily track the entire process from start to finish by clicking on a block in the blockchain instead of requesting data from each entity manually.”

The TradeLens partners certainly see the benefits of digitizing the process. “We believe that TradeLens, with its commitment to open standards and open governance, is a key platform to help usher in this digital transformation,” Rajesh Krishnamurthy, executive vice president for IT & Transformations at CMA CGM Group said in a statement.

Today’s announcement is a big step toward gaining more adoption for this approach. While there are many companies working on supply chain products on the blockchain, the more shipping companies and adjacent entities like customs agencies who join TradeLens, the more effective it’s going to be.


By Ron Miller

Microsoft launches a fully managed blockchain service

Microsoft didn’t rush to bring blockchain technology to its Azure cloud computing platform, but over the course of the last year, it started to pick up the pace with the launch of its blockchain development kit and the Azure Blockchain Workbench. Today, ahead of its Build developer conference, it is going a step further by launching Azure Blockchain Services, a fully managed service that allows for the formation, management and governance of consortium blockchain networks.

We’re not talking cryptocurrencies here, though. This is an enterprise service that is meant to help businesses build applications on top of blockchain technology. It is integrated with Azure Active Directory and offers tools for adding new members, setting permissions and monitoring network health and activity.

The first support ledger is J.P. Morgan’s Quorum. “Because it’s built on the popular Ethereum protocol, which has the world’s largest blockchain developer community, Quorum is a natural choice,” Azure CTO Mark Russinovich writes in today’s announcement. “It integrates with a rich set of open-source tools while also supporting confidential transactions—something our enterprise customers require.” To launch this integration, Microsoft partnered closely with J.P. Morgan.

The managed service is only one part of this package, though. Microsoft also today launched an extension to Visual Studio Code to help developers create smart contracts. The extension allows Visual Studio Code users to create and compiled Etherium smart contracts and deploy them other on the public chain or on a consortium network in Azure Blockchain Service. The code is then managed by Azure DevOps.

Building applications for these smart contracts is also going to get easier thanks to integrations with Logic Apps and Flow, Microsoft’s two workflow integration services, as well as Azure Functions for event-driven development.

Microsoft, of course, isn’t the first of the big companies to get into this game. IBM, especially, made a big push for blockchain adoption in recent years and AWS, too, is now getting into the game after mostly ignoring this technology before. Indeed, AWS opened up its own managed blockchain service only two days ago.


By Frederic Lardinois

Enterprise blockchain startup Offchain Labs scores $3.7M seed round

Two of the issues limiting blockchain adoption in the enterprise has been lack of scalability and privacy. Offchain Labs, a startup that spun out of research at Princeton, wants to help create more scalable smart contracts while shifting part of the process off of the public blockchain to increase privacy. Today, the company announced a $3.7M seed round led by Pantera Capital.

Compound VC, Raphael Ouzan of Blocknation, Jake Seid, managing director at Stone Bridge Ventures and other unnamed investors also participated.

The startup has created a protocol called Arbitrum that helps developers scale smart contracts in a way that’s difficult to do right now, says company co-founder Ed Felten. “We’re working to build a platform for smart contract development that provides what we think developers want, a combination of scalability so that you can scale to more transactions per second, more users, and to contracts that have more code and still have more data in them,” he explained.

In addition to scalability, the company believes that companies want a way to business without sharing everything they are doing, as is required on a public chain. “The second thing we think people want is privacy, meaning control over who gets to see what’s happening in their contract. So you don’t have to publish everything about your contracts, your code and everything it does on a public chain in order to get your work done.”

The last piece related to that is trust. “Our platform offers what we call the ‘Any Trust Guarantee’, which means that when you launch or deploy your contract, you specify a set of validators for it. And the guarantee we give you is that as long as at least one validator is acting honestly, your contract will execute correctly, no matter how evil or inattentive the other validators are,” Felten said.

The company was born out of research at Princeton University and began with what Felten called an academic prototype created in their labs. Felten is a computer science professor at Princeton, and also served as Deputy CTO to the White House under President Obama,

Those credentials and the prototype showed enough to attract investors. Today, the company is hoping to use the money to complete a Beta version of Arbitrum. He wouldn’t commit to a timeline, but said the product is close.

While Felten recognizes he is competing with giants like IBM and SAP in the enterprise blockchain space, he believes that the startup has come up with a solution to a persistent problem for blockchain developers, and they are releasing the protocol as open source to make it even more attractive.


By Ron Miller

Okta unveils $50M in-house venture capital fund

Identity management software provider Okta, which went public two years ago in what was one of the first pure-cloud subscription-based company IPOs, wants to fund the next generation of identity, security and privacy startups.

At its big customer conference Oktane, where the company has also announced a new level of identity protection at the server level, chief operating officer Frederic Kerrest (pictured above, right, with chief executive officer Todd McKinnon) will unveil a $50 million investment fund meant to back early-stage startups leveraging artificial intelligence, machine learning and blockchain technology.

“We view this as a natural extension of what we are doing today,” Okta senior vice president Monty Gray told TechCrunch. Gray was hired last year to oversee corporate development, i.e. beef up Okta’s M&A strategy.

Gray and Kerrest tell TechCrunch that Okta Ventures will invest capital in existing Okta partners, as well as other companies in the burgeoning identity management ecosystem. The team managing the fund will look to Okta’s former backers, Sequoia, Andreessen Horowitz and Greylock, for support in the deal sourcing process.

Okta Ventures will write checks sized between $250,000 and $2 million to eight to 10 early-stage businesses per year.

“It’s just a way of making sure we are aligning all our work and support with the right companies who have the right vision and values because there’s a lot of noise around identity, ML and AI,” Kerrest said. “It’s about formalizing the support strategy we’ve had for years and making sure people are clear of the fact we are helping these organizations build because it’s helpful to our customers.”

Okta Ventures’ first bet is Trusted Key, a blockchain-based digital identity platform that previously raised $3 million from Founders Co-Op. Okta’s investment in the startup, founded by former Microsoft, Oracle and Symantec executives, represents its expanding interest in the blockchain.

“Blockchain as a backdrop for identity is cutting edge if not bleeding edge,” Gray said.

Okta, founded in 2009, had raised precisely $231 million from Sequoia, Andreessen Horowitz, Greylock, Khosla Ventures, Floodgate and others prior to its exit. The company’s stock has fared well since its IPO, debuting at $17 per share in 2017 and climbing to more than $85 apiece with a market cap of $9.6 billion as of Tuesday closing.


By Kate Clark

Xage brings role-based single sign-on to industrial devices

Traditional industries like oil and gas and manufacturing often use equipment that was created in a time when remote access wasn’t a gleam in an engineer’s eye, and hackers had no way of connecting to them. Today, these devices require remote access and some don’t have even rudimentary authentication. Xage, the startup that wants to make industrial infrastructure more secure, announced a new solution today to bring single sign-on and role-based control to even the oldest industrial devices.

Company CEO Duncan Greatwood says that some companies have adopted firewall technology, but if a hacker breaches the firewall, there often isn’t even a password to defend these kinds of devices. He adds that hackers have been increasingly targeting industrial infrastructure.

Xage has come up with a way to help these companies with its latest product called Xage Enforcement Point (XEP). This tool gives IT a way to control these devices with a single password, a kind of industrial password manager. Greatwood says that some companies have hundreds of passwords for various industrial tools. Sometimes, whether because of distance across a factory floor, or remoteness of location, workers would rather adjust these machines remotely when possible.

While operations wants to simplify this for workers with remote access, IT worries about security and the tension can hold companies back, force them to make big firewall investments or in some cases implement these kinds of solutions without adequate protection.

XEP helps bring a level of protection to these pieces of equipment. “XEP is a relatively small piece of software that can run on a tiny credit-card size computer, and you simply insert it in front of the piece of equipment you want to protect,” Greatwood explained.

The rest of the Xage platform adds additional security. The company introduced fingerprinting last year, which gives unique identifiers to these pieces of equipment. If a hacker tries to spoof a piece of equipment, and the device lacks a known fingerprint, they can’t get on the system.

Xage also makes use of the blockchain and a rules engine to secure industrial systems. The customer can define rules and use the blockchain as an enforcement mechanism where each node in the chain carries the rules, and a certain number of nodes as defined by the customer, must agree that the person, machine or application trying to gain access is a legitimate actor.

The platform taken as a whole provides several levels of protection in an effort to discourage hackers who are trying to breach these systems. Greatwood says that while companies don’t usually get rid of tools they already have like firewalls, they may scale back their investment after buying the Xage solution.

Xage was founded at the end of 2017. It has raised $16 million to this point and has 30 employees. Greatwood didn’t want to discuss a specific number of customers, but did say they were making headway in oil and gas, renewable energy, utilities and manufacturing.


By Ron Miller