Nuula raises $120M to build out a financial services ‘superapp’ aimed at SMBs

A Canadian startup called Nuula that is aiming to build a superapp to provide a range of financial services to small and medium businesses has closed $120 million of funding, money that it will use to fuel the launch of its app and first product, a line of credit for its users.

The money is coming in the form of $20 million in equity from Edison Partners, and a $100 million credit facility from funds managed by the Credit Group of Ares Management Corporation.

The Nuula app has been in a limited beta since June of this year. The plan is to open it up to general availability soon, while also gradually bringing in more services, some built directly by Nuula itself and but many others following an embedded finance strategy: business banking, for example, will be a service provided by a third party and integrated closely into the Nuula app to be launched early in 2022; and alongside that, the startup will also be making liberal use of APIs to bring in other white-label services such as B2B and customer-focused payment services, starting first in the U.S. and then expanding to Canada and the U.K. before further countries across Europe.

Current products include cash flow forecasting, personal and business credit score monitoring, and customer sentiment tracking; and monitoring of other critical metrics including financial, payments and eCommerce data are all on the roadmap.

“We’re building tools to work in a complementary fashion in the app,” CEO Mark Ruddock said in an interview. “Today, businesses can project if they are likely to run out of money, and monitor their credit scores. We keep an eye on customers and what they are saying in real time. We think it’s necessary to surface for SMBs the metrics that they might have needed to get from multiple apps, all in one place.”

Nuula was originally a side-project at BFS, a company that focused on small business lending, where the company started to look at the idea of how to better leverage data to build out a wider set of services addressing the same segment of the market. BFS grew to be a substantial business in its own right (and it had raised its own money to that end, to the tune of $184 million from Edison and Honeywell).  Over time, it became apparent to management that the data aspect, and this concept of a super app, would be key to how to grow the business, and so it pivoted and rebranded earlier this year, launching the beta of the app after that.

Nuula’s ambitions fall within a bigger trend in the market. Small and medium enterprises have shaped up to be a huge business opportunity in the world of fintech in the last several years. Long ignored in favor of building solutions either for the giant consumer market, or the lucrative large enterprise sector, SMBs have proven that they want and are willing to invest in better and newer technology to run their businesses, and that’s leading to a rush of startups and bigger tech companies bringing services to the market to cater to that.

Super apps are also a big area of interest in the world of fintech, although up to now a lot of what we’ve heard about in that area has been aimed at consumers — just the kind of innovation rut that Nuula is trying to get moving.

“Despite the growth in services addressing the SMB sector, overall it still lacks innovation compared to consumer or enterprise services,” Ruddock said. “We thought there was some opportunity to bring new thinking to the space. We see this as the app that SMBs will want to use everyday, because we’ll provide useful tools, insights and capital to power their businesses.”

Nuula’s priority to build the data services that connect all of this together is very much in keeping with how a lot of neobanks are also developing services and investing in what they see as their unique selling point. The theory goes like this: banking services are, at the end of the day, the same everywhere you go, and therefore commoditized, and so the more unique value-added for companies will come from innovating with more interesting algorithms and other data-based insights and analytics to give more power to their users to make the best use of what they have at their disposal.

It will not be alone in addressing that market. Others building fintech for SMBs include Selina, ANNA, Amex’s Kabbage (an early mover in using big data to help loan money to SMBs and build other financial services for them), Novo, Atom Bank, Xepelin, and Liberis, biggies like Stripe, Square and PayPal, and many others.

The credit product that Nuula has built so far is a taster of how it hopes to be a useful tool for SMBs, not just another place to get money or manage it. It’s not a direct loaning service, but rather something that is closely linked to monitoring a customers’ incomings and outgoings and only prompts a credit line (which directly links into the users’ account, wherever it is) when it appears that it might be needed.

“Innovations in financial technology have largely democratized who can become the next big player in small business finance,” added Gary Golding, General Partner, Edison Partners. “By combining critical financial performance tools and insights into a single interface, Nuula represents a new class of financial services technology for small business, and we are excited by the potential of the firm.”

“We are excited to be working with Nuula as they build a unique financial services resource for small businesses and entrepreneurs,” said Jeffrey Kramer, Partner and Head of ABS in the Alternative Credit strategy of the Ares Credit Group, in a statement. “The evolution of financial technology continues to open opportunities for innovation and the emergence of new industry participants. We look forward to seeing Nuula’s experienced team of technologists, data scientists and financial service veterans bring a new generation of small business financial services solutions to market.”


By Ingrid Lunden

Spain’s Factorial raises $80M at a $530M valuation on the back of strong traction for its ‘Workday for SMBs’

Factorial, a startup out of Barcelona that has built a platform that lets SMBs run human resources functions with the same kind of tools that typically are used by much bigger companies, is today announcing some funding to bulk up its own position: the company has raised $80 million, funding that it will be using to expand its operations geographically — specifically deeper into Latin American markets — and to continue to augment its product with more features.

CEO Jordi Romero, who co-founded the startup with Pau Ramon and Bernat Farrero — said in an interview that Factorial has seen a huge boom of growth in the last 18 months and counts more than anything 75,000 customers across 65 countries, with the average size of each customer in the range of 100 employees, although they can be significantly (single-digit) smaller or potentially up to 1,000 (the “M” of SMB, or SME as it’s often called in Europe).

“We have a generous definition of SME,” Romero said of how the company first started with a target of 10-15 employees but is now working in the size bracket that it is. “But that is the limit. This is the segment that needs the most help. We see other competitors of ours are trying to move into SME and they are screwing up their product by making it too complex. SMEs want solutions that have as much data as possible in one single place. That is unique to the SME.” Customers can include smaller franchises of much larger organizations, too: KFC, Booking.com, and Whisbi are among those that fall into this category for Factorial.

Factorial offers a one-stop shop to manage hiring, onboarding, payroll management, time off, performance management, internal communications and more. Other services such as the actual process of payroll or sourcing candidates, it partners and integrates closely with more localized third parties.

The Series B is being led by Tiger Global, and past investors CRV, Creandum, Point Nine and K Fund also participating, at a valuation we understand from sources close to the deal to be around $530 million post-money. Factorial has raised $100 million to date, including a $16 million Series A round in early 2020, just ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic really taking hold of the world.

That timing turned out to be significant: Factorial, as you might expect of an HR startup, was shaped by Covid-19 in a pretty powerful way.

The pandemic, as we have seen, massively changed how — and where — many of us work. In the world of desk jobs, offices largely disappeared overnight, with people shifting to working at home in compliance with shelter-in-place orders to curb the spread of the virus, and then in many cases staying there even after those were lifted as companies grappled both with balancing the best (and least infectious) way forward and their own employees’ demands for safety and productivity. Front-line workers, meanwhile, faced a completely new set of challenges in doing their jobs, whether it was to minimize exposure to the coronavirus, or dealing with giant volumes of demand for their services. Across both, organizations were facing economics-based contractions, furloughs, and in other cases, hiring pushes, despite being office-less to carry all that out.

All of this had an impact on HR. People who needed to manage others, and those working for organizations, suddenly needed — and were willing to pay for — new kinds of tools to carry out their roles.

But it wasn’t always like this. In the early days, Romero said the company had to quickly adjust to what the market was doing.

“We target HR leaders and they are currently very distracted with furloughs and layoffs right now, so we turned around and focused on how we could provide the best value to them,” Romero said to me during the Series A back in early 2020. Then, Factorial made its product free to use and found new interest from businesses that had never used cloud-based services before but needed to get something quickly up and running to use while working from home (and that cloud migration turned out to be a much bigger trend played out across a number of sectors). Those turning to Factorial had previously kept all their records in local files or at best a “Dropbox folder, but nothing else,” Romero said.

It also provided tools specifically to address the most pressing needs HR people had at the time, such as guidance on how to implement furloughs and layoffs, best practices for communication policies and more. “We had to get creative,” Romero said.

But it wasn’t all simple. “We did suffer at the beginning,” Romero now says. “People were doing furloughs and [frankly] less attention was being paid to software purchasing. People were just surviving. Then gradually, people realized they needed to improve their systems in the cloud, to manage remote people better, and so on.” So after a couple of very slow months, things started to take off, he said.

Factorial’s rise is part of a much, longer-term bigger trend in which the enterprise technology world has at long last started to turn its attention to how to take the tools that originally were built for larger organizations, and right size them for smaller customers.

The metrics are completely different: large enterprises are harder to win as customers, but represent a giant payoff when they do sign up; smaller enterprises represent genuine scale since there are so many of them globally — 400 million, accounting for 95% of all firms worldwide. But so are the product demands, as Romero pointed out previously: SMBs also want powerful tools, but they need to work in a more efficient, and out-of-the-box way.

Factorial is not the only HR startup that has been honing in on this, of course. Among the wider field are PeopleHR, Workday, Infor, ADP, Zenefits, Gusto, IBM, Oracle, SAP and Rippling; and a very close competitor out of Europe, Germany’s Personio, raised $125 million on a $1.7 billion valuation earlier this year, speaking not just to the opportunity but the success it is seeing in it.

But the major fragmentation in the market, the fact that there are so many potential customers, and Factorial’s own rapid traction are three reasons why investors approached the startup, which was not proactively seeking funding when it decided to go ahead with this Series B.

“The HR software market opportunity is very large in Europe, and Factorial is incredibly well positioned to capitalize on it,” said John Curtius, Partner at Tiger Global, in a statement. “Our diligence found a product that delighted customers and a world-class team well-positioned to achieve Factorial’s potential.”

“It is now clear that labor markets around the world have shifted over the past 18 months,” added Reid Christian, general partner at CRV, which led its previous round, which had been CRV’s first investment in Spain. “This has strained employers who need to manage their HR processes and properly serve their employees. Factorial was always architected to support employers across geographies with their HR and payroll needs, and this has only accelerated the demand for their platform. We are excited to continue to support the company through this funding round and the next phase of growth for the business.”

Notably, Romero told me that the fundraising process really evolved between the two rounds, with the first needing him flying around the world to meet people, and the second happening over video links, while he was recovering himself from Covid-19. Given that it was not too long ago that the most ambitious startups in Europe were encouraged to relocate to the U.S. if they wanted to succeed, it seems that it’s not just the world of HR that is rapidly shifting in line with new global conditions.


By Ingrid Lunden

Kenya’s Ajua acquires WayaWaya to consolidate consumer experience play in African SMEs

Kenyan consumer experience platform for businesses in Africa, Ajua today announced that it has acquired WayaWaya, a Kenya-based AI and ML messaging and payments company.

WayaWaya’s customers and partners include the likes of I&M Bank, Interswitch and MTN. The company offers a range of services, from digital banking and payment services to financial services APIs and payment bots.

According to Ajua, the acquisition is primarily focused on WayaWaya’s payments bots system known as Janja. The platform, which has customers like Airtel, Ezee Money, Housing Finance Company of Kenya (HF Group), enables borderless banking and payments across apps and social media platforms. Teddy Ogallo, the entrepreneur who founded WayaWaya, joins Ajua as VP of Product APIs and Integrations.

Per Crunchbase, WayaWaya has just raised $75,000. Although the two companies did not disclose the financial details of the acquisition, Ajua is expected to have paid 10 times more than WayaWaya’s total raise.

Ajua, formerly mSurvey, was founded in 2012 by Kenfield Griffith. The company is solving a consumer data problem for African businesses to understand their business better and drive growth.

“There’s a lot of commerce happening on the continent and Ajua wants companies to move from transaction numbers to the customers behind such transaction,” Griffith told TechCrunch. “Imagine if we knew what drove consumer habits for businesses. I mean, that’s a huge exponential curve for African businesses.”

Teddy Ogallo (Founder, WayaWaya) & Kenfield Griffith (CEO, Ajua)

Teddy Ogallo (Founder, WayaWaya) & Kenfield Griffith (CEO, Ajua)

Nigeria’s SME market alone is valued at $220 billion annually. And while businesses, mostly big enterprises, can afford customer communication tools, a large segment of small businesses are being left out. Ajua’s play is to use data and analytics to connect companies with their customers in real time. “We’ve taken what makes enterprise customers successful, and we’re capturing it in a simple format so SMEs can have the same tools,” Griffith added

Since most consumer behavior for these SMEs happens offline, Ajua gives businesses unique USSD codes to receive payments, get feedback and offer discounts to their customers. It is one of the products Ajua has launched over the years for customer feedback at the point of service to businesses that cumulatively have over 45 million customers.

The company’s partners and clients also include Coca-Cola, FBNQuest, GoodLife Pharmacy, Java House, Safaricom, Standard Chartered and Total.

As an intelligent messaging bot, Janja is used by individuals and businesses across WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Telegram to automate customer support and make cross-border payments. So, Janja’s integration into Ajua’s product stack will close much of the acquirer’s customer experience loop by automating responses and giving customers what they want, when they want it.

This acquisition comes a month after Ajua announced that it partnered with telecom operator MTN Nigeria to launch a customer management product for Nigerian businesses. The product called MTN EnGauge carries the same features present in Ajua but, in this case, is tailored solely for businesses using the MTN network. The roll-out is expected to generate more data for Ajua’s thousands of users. It will also be upgraded to incorporate Janja and other services.

In hindsight, it appears Ajua could have created a product like Janja in-house due to its vast experience in the consumer experience space. However, the company chose an acquisition and Griffith gave two reasons why — building a similar product would have taken a long time and Ogallo seemed to know Janja’s business and operations so well, it just made sense to get him on board. 

“Teddy was going the same direction we’re going. We just thought to acquire WayaWaya instead and make a really good company out of both products attempting to solve the same problem. To me, it’s all about solving the problem together rather than going alone,” said the CEO. 

On why he accepted the acquisition, Ogallo, who now has a new role, noted that Ajua’s ability to scale customer service and experience and also help businesses was one reason and earned admiration from him. “Seeing how WayaWaya’s technology can complement Ajua’s innovative products and services, and help scale and monetize businesses, is an exciting opportunity for us, and we are happy that our teams will be collaborating to build something unique for the continent,” he added

This is a solid infrastructure play from Ajua coming from a founder who is a massive advocate of acquisition and consolidation. Griffith believes that the two are strategies for a speedier route to new markets and channels in Africa

I think there are lots of ways we can build the ecosystem. There are lots of young talent building stuff, and they don’t have access to capital to get to the next stage. The question is if they want to race to the finish line or take off time and get acquired. I think there’s a huge opportunity in Africa if you want to solve complex problems by acquisition.”

There has been an uptick in local acquisitions in Africa from startups within a single country and between two countries in the past three years. For the former, Nigerian recruitment platform Jobberman’s acquisition of NGCareers last year comes to mind. And there are pan-African instances like Lagos-based hub CcHub’s acquisition of iHub, its Nairobi counterpart; Ethiopian software provider Apposit sell-off to Nigerian fintech Paga; and Johannesburg-based fintech MFS Africa acquiring Uganda’s Beyonic.

The common theme among the acquisitions (and most African acquisitions) is their undisclosed sums. For Ajua, Griffith cited regulatory issues as one reason why the company is keeping the figure under wraps.

Since launching nine years ago, Ajua has raised a total of $3.5 million, according to Crunchbase. Given the nature of this acquisition and partnership with MTN, the company might set sights on another fundraise to scale aggressively into Nigeria (a market it entered in 2019) and other African countries.


By Tage Kene-Okafor

Google’s Anthos multi-cloud platform gets improved logging, Windows container support and more

Google today announced a sizable update to its Anthos multi-cloud platform that lets you build, deploy and manage containerized applications anywhere, including on Amazon’s AWS and (in preview) and Microsoft Azure.

Version 1.7 includes new features like improved metrics and logging for Anthos on AWS, a new Connect gateway to interact with any cluster right from Google Cloud and a preview of Google’s managed control plane for Anthos Service Mesh. Other new features include Windows container support for environments that use VMware’s vSphere platform and new tools for developers to make it easier for them to deploy their applications to any Anthos cluster.

Today’s update comes almost exactly two years after Google CEO Sundar Pichai originally announced Anthos at its Cloud Next event in 2019 (before that, Google called this project the ‘Google Cloud Services Platform,’ which launched three years ago). Hybrid- and multi-cloud, it’s fair to say, takes a key role in the Google Cloud roadmap — and maybe more so for Google than for any of its competitors. And recently, Google brought on industry veteran Jeff Reed to become the VP of Product Management in charge of Anthos.

Reed told me that he believes that there are a lot of factors right now that are putting Anthos in a good position. “The wind is at our back. We bet on Kubernetes, bet on containers — those were good decisions,” he said. Increasingly, customers are also now scaling out their use of Kubernetes and have to figure out how to best scale out their clusters and deploy them in different environments — and to do so, they need a consistent platform across these environments. He also noted that when it comes to bringing on new Anthos customers, it’s really those factors that determine whether a company will look into Anthos or not.

He acknowledged that there are other players in this market, but he argues that Google Cloud’s take on this is also quite different. “I think we’re pretty unique in the sense that we’re from the cloud, cloud-native is our core approach,” he said. “A lot of what we talk about in [Anthos] 1.7 is about how we leverage the power of the cloud and use what we call ‘an anchor in the cloud’ to make your life much easier. We’re more like a cloud vendor there, but because we support on-prem, we see some of those other folks.” Those other folks being IBM/Red Hat’s OpenShift and VMware’s Tanzu, for example. 

The addition of support for Windows containers in vSphere environments also points to the fact that a lot of Anthos customers are classical enterprises that are trying to modernize their infrastructure, yet still rely on a lot of legacy applications that they are now trying to bring to the cloud.

Looking ahead, one thing we’ll likely see is more integrations with a wider range of Google Cloud products into Anthos. And indeed, as Reed noted, inside of Google Cloud, more teams are now building their products on top of Anthos themselves. In turn, that then makes it easier to bring those services to an Anthos-managed environment anywhere. One of the first of these internal services that run on top of Anthos is Apigee. “Your Apigee deployment essentially has Anthos underneath the covers. So Apigee gets all the benefits of a container environment, scalability and all those pieces — and we’ve made it really simple for that whole environment to run kind of as a stack,” he said.

I guess we can expect to hear more about this in the near future — or at Google Cloud Next 2021.

 


By Frederic Lardinois

PingPong is a video chat app for product teams working across multiple time zones

From the earliest days of the pandemic, it was no secret that video chat was about to become a very hot space.

Over the past several months investors have bankrolled a handful of video startups with specific niches, ranging from always-on office surveillance to platforms that encouraged plenty of mini calls to avoid the need for more lengthy team-wide meetings. As the pandemic wanes and plenty of startups begin to look towards hybrid office models, there are others who have decided to lean into embracing a fully remote workforce, a strategy that may require new tools.

PingPong, a recent launch from Y Combinator’s latest batch, is building an asynchronous video chat app for the workplace. We selected PingPong as one of our favorite startups that debuted last week.

The company’s central sell is that for remote teams, there needs to be a better alternative to Slack or email for catching up with co-workers across time zones. While Zoom calls might be able to convey a company’s culture better than a post in a company-wide Slack channel, for fully remote teams operating on different continents, scheduling a company-wide meeting is often a non-starter.

PingPong is selling its service as an addendum to Slack that helps remote product teams collaborate and convey what they’re working on. Users can capture a short video of themselves and share their screen in lieu of a standup presentation and then they can get caught up on each other’s progress on their own time. PingPong’s hope is that users find more value in brainstorming, conducting design reviews, reporting bugs and more inside while using asynchronous video than they would with text.

“We have a lot to do before we can replace Slack, so right now we kind of emphasize playing nice with Slack,” PingPong CEO Jeff Whitlock tells TechCrunch. “Our longer term vision is that what young people are doing in their consumer lives, they bring into the enterprise when they graduate into the workforce. You and I were using Instant Messenger all the time in the early 2000s and then we got to the workplace, that was the opportunity for Slack… We believe in the next five or so years, something that’s a richer, more asynchronous video-based Slack alternative will have a lot more interest.”

Building a chat app specifically designed for remote product teams operating in multiple time zones is a tight niche for now, but Whitlock believes that this will become a more common problem as companies embrace the benefits of remote teams post-pandemic. PingPong costs $100 per user per year.


By Lucas Matney

TigerGraph raises $105M Series C for its enterprise graph database

TigerGraph, a well-funded enterprise startup that provides a graph database and analytics platform, today announced that it has raised a $105 million Series C funding round. The round was led by Tiger Global and brings the company’s total funding to over $170 million.

“TigerGraph is leading the paradigm shift in connecting and analyzing data via scalable and native graph technology with pre-connected entities versus the traditional way of joining large tables with rows and columns,” said TigerGraph found and CEO, Yu Xu. “This funding will allow us to expand our offering and bring it to many more markets, enabling more customers to realize the benefits of graph analytics and AI.”

Current TigerGraph customers include the likes of Amgen, Citrix, Intuit, Jaguar Land Rover and UnitedHealth Group. Using a SQL-like query language (GSQL), these customers can use the company’s services to store and quickly query their graph databases. At the core of its offerings is the TigerGraphDB database and analytics platform, but the company also offers a hosted service, TigerGraph Cloud, with pay-as-you-go pricing, hosted either on AWS or Azure. With GraphStudio, the company also offers a graphical UI for creating data models and visually analyzing them.

The promise for the company’s database services is that they can scale to tens of terabytes of data with billions of edges. Its customers use the technology for a wide variety of use cases, including fraud detection, customer 360, IoT, AI, and machine learning.

Like so many other companies in this space, TigerGraph is facing some tailwind thanks to the fact that many enterprises have accelerated their digital transformation projects during the pandemic.

“Over the last 12 months with the COVID-19 pandemic, companies have embraced digital transformation at a faster pace driving an urgent need to find new insights about their customers, products, services, and suppliers,” the company explains in today’s announcement. “Graph technology connects these domains from the relational databases, offering the opportunity to shrink development cycles for data preparation, improve data quality, identify new insights such as similarity patterns to deliver the next best action recommendation.”


By Frederic Lardinois

Mirantis brings extensions to its Lens Kubernetes IDE, launches a new Kubernetes distro

Earlier this year, Mirantis, the company that now owns Docker’s enterprise business, acquired Lens, a desktop application that provides developers with something akin to an IDE for managing their Kubernetes clusters. At the time, Mirantis CEO Adrian Ionel told me that the company wants to offer enterprises the tools to quickly build modern applications. Today, it’s taking another step in that direction with the launch of an extensions API for Lens that will take the tool far beyond its original capabilities

In addition to this update to Lens, Mirantis also today announced a new open-source project: k0s. The company describes it as “a modern, 100% upstream vanilla Kubernetes distro that is designed and packaged without compromise.”

It’s a single optimized binary without any OS dependencies (besides the kernel). Based on upstream Kubernetes, k0s supports Intel and Arm architectures and can run on any Linux host or Windows Server 2019 worker nodes. Given these requirements, the team argues that k0s should work for virtually any use case, ranging from local development clusters to private datacenters, telco clusters and hybrid cloud solutions.

“We wanted to create a modern, robust and versatile base layer for various use cases where Kubernetes is in play. Something that leverages vanilla upstream Kubernetes and is versatile enough to cover use cases ranging from typical cloud based deployments to various edge/IoT type of cases.,” said Jussi Nummelin, Senior Principal Engineer at Mirantis and founder of k0s. “Leveraging our previous experiences, we really did not want to start maintaining the setup and packaging for various OS distros. Hence the packaging model of a single binary to allow us to focus more on the core problem rather than different flavors of packaging such as debs, rpms and what-nots.”

Mirantis, of course, has a bit of experience in the distro game. In its earliest iteration, back in 2013, the company offered one of the first major OpenStack distributions, after all.

As for Lens, the new API, which will go live next week to coincide with KubeCon, will enable developers to extend the service with support for other Kubernetes-integrated components and services.

“Extensions API will unlock collaboration with technology vendors and transform Lens into a fully featured cloud native development IDE that we can extend and enhance without limits,” said Miska Kaipiainen, the co-founder of the Lens open-source project and senior director of engineering at Mirantis. “If you are a vendor, Lens will provide the best channel to reach tens of thousands of active Kubernetes developers and gain distribution to your technology in a way that did not exist before. At the same time, the users of Lens enjoy quality features, technologies and integrations easier than ever.”

The company has already lined up a number of popular CNCF projects and vendors in the cloud-native ecosystem to build integrations. These include Kubernetes security vendors Aqua and Carbonetes, API gateway maker Ambassador Labs and AIOps company Carbon Relay. Venafi, nCipher, Tigera, Kong and StackRox are also currently working on their extensions.

“Introducing an extensions API to Lens is a game-changer for Kubernetes operators and developers, because it will foster an ecosystem of cloud-native tools that can be used in context with the full power of Kubernetes controls, at the user’s fingertips,” said Viswajith Venugopal, StackRox software engineer and developer of KubeLinter. “We look forward to integrating KubeLinter with Lens for a more seamless user experience.”


By Frederic Lardinois

With $29M in funding, Isovalent launches its cloud-native networking and security platform

Isovalent, a startup that aims to bring networking into the cloud-native era, today announced that it has raised a $29 million Series A round led by Andreesen Horowitz and Google. In addition, the company today officially launched its Cilium platform (which was in stealth until now) to help enterprises connect, observe and secure their applications.

The open-source Cilium project is already seeing growing adoption, with Google choosing it for its new GKE dataplane, for example. Other users include Adobe, Capital One, Datadog and GitLab. Isovalent is following what is now the standard model for commercializing open-source projects by launching an enterprise version.

Image Credits: Cilium

The founding team of CEO Dan Wendlandt and CTO Thomas Graf has deep experience in working on the Linux kernel and building networking products. Graf spent 15 years working on the Linux kernel and created the Cilium open-source project, while Wendlandt worked on Open vSwitch at Nicira (and then VMware).

Image Credits: Isovalent

“We saw that first wave of network intelligence be moved into software, but I think we both shared the view that the first wave was about replicating the traditional network devices in software,” Wendlandt told me. “You had IPs, you still had ports, you created virtual routers, and this and that. We both had that shared vision that the next step was to go beyond what the hardware did in software — and now, in software, you can do so much more. Thomas, with his deep insight in the Linux kernel, really saw this eBPF technology as something that was just obviously going to be groundbreaking technology, in terms of where we could take Linux networking and security.”

As Graf told me, when Docker, Kubernetes and containers, in general, become popular, what he saw was that networking companies at first were simply trying to reapply what they had already done for virtualization. “Let’s just treat containers as many as miniature VMs. That was incredibly wrong,” he said. “So we looked around, and we saw eBPF and said: this is just out there and it is perfect, how can we shape it forward?”

And while Isovalent’s focus is on cloud-native networking, the added benefit of how it uses the eBPF Linux kernel technology is that it also gains deep insights into how data flows between services and hence allows it to add advanced security features as well.

As the team noted, though, users definitely don’t need to understand or program eBPF, which is essentially the next generation of Linux kernel modules, themselves.

Image Credits: Isovalent

“I have spent my entire career in this space, and the North Star has always been to go beyond IPs + ports and build networking visibility and security at a layer that is aligned with how developers, operations and security think about their applications and data,” said Martin Casado, partner at Andreesen Horowitz (and the founder of Nicira). “Until just recently, the technology did not exist. All of that changed with Kubernetes and eBPF.  Dan and Thomas have put together the best team in the industry and given the traction around Cilium, they are well on their way to upending the world of networking yet again.”

As more companies adopt Kubernetes, they are now reaching a stage where they have the basics down but are now facing the next set of problems that come with this transition. Those, almost by default, include figuring out how to isolate workloads and get visibility into their networks — all areas where Isovalent/Cilium can help.

The team tells me its focus, now that the product is out of stealth, is about building out its go-to-market efforts and, of course, continue to build out its platform.


By Frederic Lardinois

Temporal raises $18.75M for its microservices orchestration platform

Temporal, a Seattle-based startup that is building an open-source, stateful microservices orchestration platform, today announced that it has raised an $18.75 million Series A round led by Sequoia Ventures. Existing investors Addition Ventures and Amplify Partners also joined, together with new investor Madrona Venture Group. With this, the company has now raised a total of $25.5 million.

Founded by Maxim Fateev (CEO) and Samar Abbas (CTO), who created the open-source Cadence orchestration engine during their time at Uber, Temporal aims to make it easier for developers and operators to run microservices in production. Current users include the likes of Box and Snap.

“Before microservices, coding applications was much simpler,” Temporal’s Fateev told me. “Resources were always located in the same place — the monolith server with a single DB — which meant developers didn’t have to codify a bunch of guessing about where things were. Microservices, on the other hand, are highly distributed, which means developers need to coordinate changes across a number of servers in different physical locations.”

Those servers could go down at any time, so engineers often spend a lot of time building custom reliability code to make calls to these services. As Fateev argues, that’s table stakes and doesn’t help these developers create something that builds real business value. Temporal gives these developers access to a set of what the team calls ‘reliability primitives’ that handle these use cases. “This means developers spend far more time writing differentiated code for their business and end up with a more reliable application than they could have built themselves,” said Fateev.

Temporal’s target use is virtually any developer who works with microservices — and wants them to be reliable. Because of this, the company’s tool — despite offering a read-only web-based user interface for administering and monitoring the system — isn’t the main focus here. The company also doesn’t have any plans to create a no-code/low-code workflow builder, Fateev tells me. However, since it is open-source, quite a few Temporal users build their own solutions on top of it.

The company itself plans to offer a cloud-based Temporal-as-a-Service offering soon. Interestingly, Fateev tells me that the team isn’t looking at offering enterprise support or licensing in the near future, though. “After spending a lot of time thinking it over, we decided a hosted offering was best for the open-source community and long term growth of the business,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, the company plans to use the new funding to improve its existing tool and build out this cloud service, with plans to launch it into general availability next year. At the same time, the team plans to say true to its open-source roots and host events and provide more resources to its community.

“Temporal enables Snapchat to focus on building the business logic of a robust asynchronous API system without requiring a complex state management infrastructure,” said Steven Sun, Snap Tech Lead, Staff Software Engineer. “This has improved the efficiency of launching our services for the Snapchat community.”


By Frederic Lardinois

Dataloop raises $11M Series A round for its AI data management platform

Dataloop, a Tel Aviv-based startup that specializes in helping businesses manage the entire data lifecycle for their AI projects, including helping them annotate their datasets, today announced that it has now raised a total of $16 million. This includes a $5 seed round that was previously unreported, as well as an $11 million Series A round that recently closed.

The Series A round was led by Amiti Ventures with participation from F2 Venture Capital, crowdfunding platform OurCrowd, NextLeap Ventures and SeedIL Ventures.

“Many organizations continue to struggle with moving their AI and ML projects into production as a result of data labeling limitations and a lack of real time validation that can only be achieved with human input into the system,” said Dataloop CEO Eran Shlomo. “With this investment, we are committed, along with our partners, to overcoming these roadblocks and providing next generation data management tools that will transform the AI industry and meet the rising demand for innovation in global markets.”

Image Credits: Dataloop

For the most part, Dataloop specializes in helping businesses manage and annotate their visual data. It’s agnostic to the vertical its customers are in, but we’re talking about anything from robotics and drones to retail and autonomous driving.

The platform itself centers around the ‘humans in the loop’ model that complements the automated systems with the ability for humans to train and correct the model as needed. It combines the hosted annotation platform with a Python SDK and REST API for developers, as well as a serverless Functions-as-a-Service environment that runs on top of a Kubernetes cluster for automating dataflows.

Image Credits: Dataloop

The company was founded in 2017. It’ll use the new funding to grow its presence in the U.S. and European markets, something that’s pretty standard for Israeli startups, and build out its engineering team as well.


By Frederic Lardinois

ServiceNow updates its workflow automation platform

ServiceNow today announced the latest release of its workflow automation platform. With this, the company is emphasizing a number of new solutions for specific verticals, including for telcos and financial services organizations. This focus on verticals extends the company’s previous efforts to branch out beyond the core IT management capabilities that defined its business during its early years. The company is also adding new features for making companies more resilient in the face of crises, as well as new machine learning-based tools.

Dubbed the ‘Paris’ release, this update also marks one of the first major releases for the company since former SAP CEO Bill McDermott became its president and CEO last November.

“We are in the business of operating on purpose,” McDermott said “And that purpose is to make the world of work work better for people. And frankly, it’s all about people. That’s all CEOs talk about all around the world. This COVID environment has put the focus on people. In today’s world, how do you get people to achieve missions across the enterprise? […] Businesses are changing how they run to drive customer loyalty and employee engagement.”

He argues that at this point, “technology is no longer supporting the business, technology is the business,” but at the same time, the majority of companies aren’t prepared to meet whatever digital disruption comes their way. ServiceNow, of course, wants to position itself as the platform that can help these businesses.

“We are very fortunate at ServiceNow,” CJ Desai, ServiceNow’s Chief Product Officer, said. “We are the critical platform for digital transformation, as our customers are thinking about transforming their companies.”

As far as the actual product updates, ServiceNow is launching a total of six new products. These include new business continuity management features with automated business impact analysis and tools for continuity plan development, as well as new hardware asset management for IT teams and legal service delivery for legal operations teams.

Image Credits: ServiceNow

With specialized solutions for financial services and telco users, the company is also now bringing together some of its existing solutions with more specialized services for these customers. As ServiceNow’s Dave Wright noted, this goes well beyond just putting together existing blocks.

“The first element is actually getting familiar with the business,” he explained. “So the technology, actually building the product, isn’t that hard. That’s relatively quick. But the uniqueness when you look at all of these workflows, it’s the connection of the operations to the customer service side. Telco is a great example. You’ve got the telco network operations side, making sure that all the operational equipment is active. And then you’ve got the business service side with customer service management, looking at how the customers are getting service. Now, the interesting thing is, because we’ve got both things sitting on one platform, we can link those together really easily.”

Image Credits: ServiceNow

On the machine learning side, ServiceNow made six acquisitions in the area in the last four years, Wright noted — and that is now starting to pay off. Specifically, the company is launching its new predictive intelligence workbench with this release. This new service makes it easier for process owners to detect issues, while also suggesting relevant tasks and content to agents, for example, and prioritizing incoming requests automatically. Using unsupervised learning, the system can also identify other kinds of patterns and with a number of pre-built templates, users can build their own solutions, too.

“The ServiceNow advantage has always been one architecture, one data model and one born-in-the-cloud platform that delivers workflows companies need and great experiences employees and customers expect,” said Desai. “The Now Platform Paris release provides smart experiences powered by AI, resilient operations, and the ability to optimize spend. Together, they will provide businesses with the agility they need to help them thrive in the COVID economy.”


By Frederic Lardinois

Pure Storage acquires data service platform Portworx for $370M

Pure Storage, the public enterprise data storage company, today announced that it has acquired Portworx, a well-funded startup that provides a cloud-native storage and data-management platform based on Kubernetes, for $370 million in cash. This marks Pure Storage’s largest acquisition to date and shows how important this market for multi-cloud data services has become.

Current Portworx enterprise customers include the likes of Carrefour, Comcast, GE Digital, Kroger, Lufthansa, and T-Mobile. At the core of the service is its ability to help users migrate their data and create backups. It creates a storage layer that allows developers to then access that data, no matter where it resides.

Pure Storage will use Portworx’s technology to expand its hybrid and multi-cloud services and provide Kubernetes -based data services across clouds.

Image Credits: Portworx

“I’m tremendously proud of what we’ve built at Portworx: an unparalleled data services platform for customers running mission-critical applications in hybrid and multi-cloud environments,” said Portworx CEO Murli Thirumale. “The traction and growth we see in our business daily shows that containers and Kubernetes are fundamental to the next-generation application architecture and thus competitiveness. We are excited for the accelerated growth and customer impact we will be able to achieve as a part of Pure.”

When the company raised its Series C round last year, Thirumale told me that Portworx had expanded its customer base by over 100 percent and its bookings increased by 376 from 2018 to 2019.

“As forward-thinking enterprises adopt cloud native strategies to advance their business, we are thrilled to have the Portworx team and their groundbreaking technology joining us at Pure to expand our success in delivering multi-cloud data services for Kubernetes,” said Charles Giancarlo, Chairman and CEO of Pure Storage. “This acquisition marks a significant milestone in expanding our Modern Data Experience to cover traditional and cloud native applications alike.”


By Frederic Lardinois

Airtable raises $185M and launches new low-code and automation features

The spreadsheet-centric database and no-code platform Airtable today announced that it has raised a $185 million Series D funding round, putting the company at a $2.585 billion post-money valuation.

Thrive Capital led the round, with additional funding by existing investors Benchmark, Coatue, Caffeinated Capital and CRV, as well as new investor D1 Capital. With this, Airtable, which says it now has 200,000 companies using its service, has raised a total of about $350 million. Current customers include Netflix, HBO, Condé Nast Entertainment, TIME, City of Los Angeles, MIT Media Lab and IBM.

In addition, the company is also launching one of its largest feature updates today, which start to execute on the company’s overall platform vision that goes beyond its current no-code capabilities and bring more low-code features, as well new automation (think IFTTT for Airtable) and data management tools to the service.

As Airtable founder and CEO Howie Liu told me, a number of investors approached the company since it raised its Series C round in 2018, in part because the market clearly realized the potential size of the low-code/no-code market.

“I think there’s this increasing market recognition that the space is real, and the spaces is very large […],” he told me. “While we didn’t strictly need the funding, it allowed us to continue to invest aggressively into furthering our platform, vision and really executing aggressively, […] without having to worry about, ‘well, what happens with COVID?’ There’s a lot of uncertainty, right? And I think even today there’s still a lot of uncertainty about what the next year will bear.”

The company started opening the round a couple of months after the first shelter in place orders in California and for most investors, this was a purely digital process.

Liu has always been open about the fact that he wants to build this company for the long haul — especially after he sold his last company to Salesforce at an early stage. As a founder, that likely means he is trying to keep his stake in the company high, even as Airtable continues to raise more money. He argues, though, that more so than the legal and structural controls, being aligned with his investors is what matters most.

“I think actually, what’s more important in my view, is having philosophical alignment and expectations alignment with the investors,” he said. “Because I don’t want to be in a position where it comes down to a legal right or structural debate over the future of the company. That almost feels to me like the last resort where it’s already gotten to a place where things are ugly. I’d much rather be in a position where all the investors around the table, whether they have legal say or not, are fully aligned with what we’re trying to do with this business.”

Just as important as the new funding though, are the various new features the company is launching today. Maybe the most important of these is Airtable Apps. Previously, Airtable users could use pre-built blocks to add maps, Gantt charts and other features to their tables. But while being a no-code service surely helped Airtable’s users get started, there’s always an inevitable point where the pre-built functionality just isn’t enough and users need more custom tools (Liu calls this an escape valve). So with Airtable Apps, more sophisticated users can now build additional functionality in JavaScript — and if they choose to do so, they can then share those new capabilities with other users in the new Airtable Marketplace.

Image Credits: Airtable

“You may or may not need an escape valve and obviously, we’ve gotten this far with 200,000 organizations using Airtable without that kind of escape valve,” he noted. “But I think that we open up a lot more use cases when you can say, well, Airtable by itself is 99% there, but that last 1% is make or break. You need it. And then, just having that outlet and making it much more leveraged to build that use case on Airtable with 1% effort, rather than building the full-stack application as a custom built application is all the difference.”

Image Credits: Airtable

The other major new feature is Airtable Automations. With this, you can build custom, automated workflows to generate reports or perform other repetitive steps. You can do a lot of that through the service’s graphical interface or use JavaScript to build you own custom flows and integrations, too. For now, this feature is available for free, but the team is looking into how to charge for it over time, given that these automated flows may become costly if you run them often.

The last new feature is Airtable Sync. With this, teams can more easily share data across an organization, while also providing controls for who can see what. “The goal is to enable people who built software with Airtable to make that software interconnected and to be able to share a source of truth table between different instances of our tables,” Liu explained.

Image Credits: Airtable


By Frederic Lardinois

Mirantis acquires Lens, an IDE for Kubernetes

Mirantis, the company that recently bought Docker’s enterprise business, today announced that it has acquired Lens, a desktop application that the team describes as a Kubernetes integrated development environment. Mirantis previously acquired the team behind the Finnish startup Kontena, the company that originally developed Lens.

Lens itself was most recently owned by Lakend Labs, though, which describes itself as “a collective of cloud native compute geeks and technologists” that is “committed to preserving and making available the open-source software and products of Kontena.” Lakend open-sourced Lens a few months ago.

Image Credits: Mirantis

“The mission of Mirantis is very simple: we want to be — for the enterprise — the fastest way to [build] modern apps at scale,” Mirantis CEO Adrian Ionel told me. “We believe that enterprises are constantly undergoing this cycle of modernizing the way they build applications from one wave to the next — and we want to provide products to the enterprise that help them make that happen.”

Right now, that means a focus on helping enterprises build cloud-native applications at scale and, almost by default, that means providing these companies with all kinds of container infrastructure services.

“But there is another piece of this of the story that’s always been going through our minds, which is, how do we become more developer-centric and developer-focused, because, as we’ve all seen in the past 10 years, developers have become more and more in charge off what services and infrastructure they’re actually using,” Ionel explained. And that’s where the Kontena and Lens acquisitions fit in. Managing Kubernetes clusters, after all, isn’t trivial — yet now developers are often tasked with managing and monitoring how their applications interact with their company’s infrastructure.

“Lance makes it dramatically easier for developers to work with Kubernetes, to build and deploy their applications on Kubernetes, and it’s just a huge obstacle-remover for people who are turned off by the complexity of Kubernetes to get more value,” he added.

“I’m very excited to see that we found a common vision with Adrian for how to incorporate lens and how to make life for developers more enjoyable in this cloud -native technology landscape,” Miska Kaipiainen, the former CEO Kontena and now Mirantis’ Director of Engineering, told me.

He describes Lens as an IDE for Kubernetes. While you could obviously replicate Lens’ functionality with existing tools, Kaipiainen argues that it would take 20 different tools to do this. “One of them could be for monitoring, another could be for logs. A third one is for command-line configuration, and so forth and so forth,” he said. “What we have been trying to do with Lens is that we are bringing all these technologies [together] and provide one single, unified, easy to use interface for developers, so they can keep working on their workloads and on their clusters, without ever losing focus and the context on what they are working on.”

Among other things, Lens includes a context-aware terminal, multi-cluster management capabilities that work across clouds, and support for the open-source Prometheus monitoring service.

For Mirantis, Lens is a very strategic investment and the company will continue to develop the service. Indeed, Ionel said that the Lens team now basically has unlimited resources.

Looking ahead, Kaipiainen said that the team is looking at adding extensions to Lens through an API within the next couple of months. “Through this extension API, we are actually able to collaborate and work more closely with other technology vendors within the cloud technology landscape so they can start plugging directly into the Lens UI and visualize the data coming from their components, so that will make it very powerful.”

Ionel also added that the company is working on adding more features for larger software teams to Lens, which is currently a single-user product. A lot of users are already using Lens in the context of very large development teams, after all.

While the core Lens tools will remain free and open-source, Mirantis will likely charge for some new features that require a centralized service for managing them. What exactly that will look like remains to be seen, though.

If you want to give Lens a try, you can download the Windows, macOS and Linux binaries here.


By Frederic Lardinois

SUSE acquires Kubernetes management platform Rancher Labs

SUSE, which describes itself as ‘the world’s largest independent open source company,’ today announced that it has acquired Rancher Labs, a company that has long focused on making it easier for enterprises to make their container clusters.

The two companies did not disclose the price of the acquisition, but Rancher was well funded, with a total of $95 million in investments. It’s also worth mentioning that it’s only been a few months since the company announced its $40 million Series D round led by Telstra Ventures. Other investors include the likes of Mayfield and Nexus Venture Partners, GRC SinoGreen and F&G Ventures.

Like similar companies, Rancher’s original focus was first on Docker infrastructure before it pivoted to putting its emphasis on Kubernetes once that became the de facto standard for container orchestration. Unsurprisingly, this is also why SUSE is now acquiring this company. After a number of ups and downs — and various ownership changes — SUSE has now found its footing again and today’s acquisition shows that its aiming to capitalize on its current strengths.

Just last month, the company reported that the annual contract value of its booking increased by 30% year over year and that it saw a 63% increase in customer deals worth more than $1 million in the last quarter, with its cloud revenue growing 70%. While it is still in the Linux distribution business that the company was founded on, today’s SUSE is a very different company, offering various enterprise platforms (including its Cloud Foundry-based Cloud Application Platform), solutions and services. And while it already offered a Kubernetes-based container platform, Rancher’s expertise will only help it to build out this business.

“This is an incredible moment for our industry, as two open source leaders are joining forces. The merger of a leader in Enterprise Linux, Edge Computing and AI with a leader in Enterprise Kubernetes Management will disrupt the market to help customers accelerate their digital transformation journeys,” said SUSE CEO Melissa Di Donato in today’s announcement. “Only the combination of SUSE and Rancher will have the depth of a globally supported and 100% true open source portfolio, including cloud native technologies, to help our customers seamlessly innovate across their business from the edge to the core to the cloud.”

The company describes today’s acquisition as the first step in its ‘inorganic growth strategy’ and Di Donato notes that this acquisition will allow the company to “play an even more strategic role with cloud service providers, independent hardware vendors, systems integrators and value-added resellers who are eager to provide greater customer experiences.”


By Frederic Lardinois