Takeaways from KubeCon; the latest on Kubernetes and cloud native development

Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch’s Frederic Lardinois and Ron Miller discuss major announcements that came out of the Linux Foundation’s European KubeCon/CloudNativeCon conference and discuss the future of Kubernetes and cloud-native technologies.

Nearly doubling in size year-over-year, this year’s KubeCon conference brought big news and big players, with major announcements coming from some of the world’s largest software vendors including Google, AWS, Microsoft, Red Hat, and more. Frederic and Ron discuss how the Kubernetes project grew to such significant scale and which new initiatives in cloud-native development show the most promise from both a developer and enterprise perspective.

“This ecosystem starts sprawling, and we’ve got everything from security companies to service mesh companies to storage companies. Everybody is here. The whole hall is full of them. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between them because there are so many competing start-ups at this point.

I’m pretty sure we’re going to see a consolidation in the next six months or so where some of the bigger players, maybe Oracle, maybe VMware, will start buying some of these smaller companies. And I’m sure the show floor will look quite different about a year from now. All the big guys are here because they’re all trying to figure out what’s next.”

Frederic and Ron also dive deeper into the startup ecosystem rapidly developing around Kubernetes and other cloud-native technologies and offer their take on what areas of opportunity may prove to be most promising for new startups and founders down the road.

For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 


By Arman Tabatabai

Andreessen pours $22M into PlanetScale’s database-as-a-service

PlanetScale’s founders invented the technology called Vitess that scaled YouTube and Dropbox. Now they’re selling it to any enterprise that wants their data both secure and consistently accessible. And thanks to its ability to re-shard databases while they’re operating, it can solve businesses’ troubles with GDPR, which demands they store some data in the same locality as the user it belongs to.

The potential to be a computing backbone that both competes with and complements Amazon’s AWS has now attracted a mammoth $22 million Series A for PlanetScale. Led by Andreessen Horowitz and joined by the firm’s Cultural Leadership Fund, head of the US Digital Service Matt Cutts plus existing investor SignalFire, the round is a tall step up from the startup’s $3 million seed it raised a year ago.

“What we’re discovering is that people we thought were at one point competitors, like AWS and hosted relational databases — we’re discovering they may be our partners instead since we’re seeing a reasonable demand for our services in front of AWS’ hosted databases” says CEO Jitendra Vaidya.

PlanetScale co-founders (from left): Jiten Vaidya and Sugu Sougoumarane

Vitess, a predescessor to Kubernetes, is a horizontal scaling sharding middleware built for MySQL. It lets businesses segment their database to boost memory efficiency without sacrificing reliable access speeds. PlanetScale sells Vitess in four ways: hosting on its database-as-a-service, licensing of the tech that can be run on-premises for clients or through another cloud provider, professional training for using Vitess, and on-demand support for users of the open-source version of Vitess.

“We don’t have any concerns about the engineering side of things, but we need to figure out a go-to-market strategy for enterprises” Vaidya explains. “As we’re both technical co-founders, about half of our funding is going towards hiring those functions [outside of engineering], and making that part of our organization work well and get results.”


By Josh Constine

eFounders backs Yousign to build a European eSignature company

French startup Yousign is partnering with startup studio eFounders. While eFounders usually builds software-as-a-service startups from scratch, the company is trying something new with this partnership.

eFounders wants to create all the tools you need to make your work more efficient. The startup studio is behind many respectable SaaS successes, such as Front, Aircall or Spendesk. And electronic signatures are a must if you want to speed up your workflow.

Sure, there are a ton of well-established players in the space — DocuSign, SignNow, Adobe Sign, HelloSign, etc. But nobody has really cracked the European market in a similar way.

Yousign has been around for a while in France. When it comes to features, it has everything you’d expect. You can upload a document and set up automated emails and notifications so that everybody signs the document.

Signatures are legally binding and Yousign archive your documents. You can also create document templates and send contract proposals using an API.

The main challenge for Yousign is that Europe is still quite fragmented. The company will need to convince users in different countries that they need to switch to an eSignature solution. Starting today, Yousign is now available in France, Germany, the U.K. and Spain.

Yousign had only raised some money. eFounders is cleaning the cap table by buying out existing investors and replacing them.

“We can’t really communicate on the details of the investment, but what I can tell you is that we bought out existing funds for several millions of euros in order to replace them — founders still have the majority of shares,” eFounders co-founder and CEO Thibaud Elzière told me.

In a blog post, Elzière writes that eFounders has acquired around 50 percent of the company through a SPV (Single Purpose Vehicle) that it controls. The startup studio holds 25 percent directly, and investors in the eFounders eClub hold 25 percent.

Yousign now looks pretty much like any other eFounders company when they start. Of course, founders and eFounders might get diluted further down the road if Yousign ends up raising more money.


By Romain Dillet

Serverless and containers: Two great technologies that work better together

Cloud native models using containerized software in a continuous delivery approach could benefit from serverless computing where the cloud vendor generates the exact amount of resources required to run a workload on the fly. While the major cloud vendors have recognized this and are already creating products to abstract away the infrastructure, it may not work for every situation in spite of the benefits.

Cloud native put simply involves using containerized applications and Kubernetes to deliver software in small packages called microservices. This enables developers to build and deliver software faster and more efficiently in a continuous delivery model. In the cloud native world, you should be able to develop code once and run it anywhere, on prem or any public cloud, or at least that is the ideal.

Serverless is actually a bit of a misnomer. There are servers underlying the model, but instead of dedicated virtual machines, the cloud vendor delivers exactly the right number of resources to run a particular workload for the right amount of time and no more.

Nothing is perfect

Such an arrangement would seem to be perfectly suited to a continuous delivery model, and while vendors have recognized the beauty of such an approach, as one engineer pointed out, there is never a free lunch in processes that are this complex, and it won’t be a perfect solution for every situation.

Arpana Sinha, director of product management at Google says the Kubernetes community has really embraced the serveless idea, but she says that it is limited in its current implementation, delivered in the form of functions with products like AWS Lambda, Google Cloud Functions and Azure Functions.

“Actually, I think the functions concept is a limited concept. It is unfortunate that that is the only thing that people associate with serverless,” she said.

She says that Google has tried to be more expansive in its definition “It’s basically a concept for developers where you are able to seamlessly go from writing code to deployment and the infrastructure takes care of all of the rest, making sure your code is deployed in the appropriate way across the appropriate, most resilient parts of the infrastructure, scaling it as your app needs additional resources, scaling it down as your traffic goes down, and charging you only for what you’re consuming,” she explained

But Matt Whittington, senior engineer on the Kubernetes Team at Atlassian says, while it sounds good in theory, in practice fully automated infrastructure could be unrealistic in some instances. “Serverless could be promising for certain workloads because it really allows developers to focus on the code, but it’s not a perfect solution. There is still some underlying tuning.”

He says you may not be able to leave it completely up to the vendor unless there is a way to specify the requirements for each container such as instructing them you need a minimum container load time, a certain container kill time or perhaps you need to deliver it a specific location. He says in reality it won’t be fully automated, at least while developers fiddle with the settings to make sure they are getting the resources they need without over-provisioning and paying for more than they need.

Vendors bringing solutions

The vendors are putting in their two cents trying to create tools that bring this ideal together. For instance, Google announced a service called Google Cloud Run at Google Cloud Next last month. It’s based on the open source Knative project, and in essence combines the goodness of serverless for developers running containers. Other similar services include AWS Fargate and Azure Container Instances, both of which are attempting to bring together these two technologies in a similar package.

In fact, Gabe Monroy, partner program manager at Microsoft, says Azure Container Instances is designed to solve this problem without being dependent on a functions-driven programming approach. “What Azure Container Instances does is it allows you to run containers directly on the Azure compute fabric, no virtual machines, hypervisor isolated, pay-per-second billing. We call it serverless containers,” he said.

While serverless and containers might seem like a good fit, as Monroy points there isn’t a one size fits all approach to cloud native technologies, whatever the approach may be. Some people will continue to use a function-driven serverless approach like AWS Lambda or Azure Functions and others will shift to containers and look for other ways to bring these technologies together. Whatever happens, as developer needs change, it is clear the open source community and vendors will respond with tools to help them. Bringing serverless and containers is together is just one example of that.


By Ron Miller

Zendesk acquires Smooch, doubles down on support via messaging apps like WhatsApp

One of the bigger developments in customer services has been the impact of social media — both as a place to vent frustration or praise (mostly frustration), and — especially over messaging apps — as a place for businesses to connect with their users.

Now, customer support specialist Zendesk has made an acquisition so that it can make a bigger move into how it works within social media platforms, and specifically messaging apps: it has acquired Smooch, a startup that describes itself as an “omnichannel messaging platform,” which companies’ customer care teams can use to interact with people over messaging platforms like WhatsApp, WeChat, Line and Messenger, as well as SMS and email.

Smooch was in fact one of the first partners for the WhatsApp Business API, alongside VoiceSageNexmoInfobip, Twilio, MessageBird and others are already advertising their services in this area.

It had also been a longtime partner of Zendesk’s, powering the company’s own WhatsApp Business integration and other features. The two already have some customers in common, including Uber. Other Smooch customers include Four Seasons, SXSW, Betterment, Clarabridge, Harry’s, LVMH, Delivery Hero and BarkBox.

Terms of the deal are not being disclosed, but Zendesk SVP  class=”il”>Shawna Wolverton said in an interview that that the startup’s entire team of 48, led by co-founder and CEO Warren Levitan, are being offered positions with Zendesk. Smooch is based out of Montreal, Canada — so this represents an expansion for Zendesk into building an office in Canada.

Its backers included iNovia, TA Associates and Real Ventures, who collectively had backed it with less than $10 million (when you leave in inflated hills surrounding Silicon Valley, numbers magically decline). As Zendesk is publicly traded, we may get more of a picture of the price in future quarterly reports. This is the company’s fifth acquisition to date.

The deal underscores the big impact that messaging apps are making in customer service. While phone and internet are massive points of contact, messaging apps is one of the most-requested features Zendesk’s customers are asking for, “because they want to be where their customers are,” with WhatsApp — now at 1.5 billion users — currently at the top of the pile, Wolverton said. (More than half of Zendesk’s revenues are from outside the US, which speaks to why WhatsApp — which is bigger outside the US than it is in it — is a popular request.)

That’s partly a by-product of how popular messaging apps are full-stop, with more than 75 percent of all smartphone users having at least one messaging app in use on their devices.

“We live in a messaging-centric world, and customers expect the convenience and interactivity of messaging to be part of their experiences,” said Mikkel Svane, Zendesk founder, CEO and chairman, in a statement. “As long-time partners with Smooch, we know first hand how much they have advanced the conversational experience to bring together all forms of messaging and create a continuous conversation between customers and businesses.”

 

While the two companies were already working together, the acquisition will mean a closer integration.

That will be in multiple areas. Last year, Zendesk launched a new CRM play called Sunshine, going head to head with the likes of Salesforce in helping businesses better organise and make use of customer data. Smooch will build on that strategy to bring in data to Sunshine from messaging apps and the interactions that take place on them. Also last year, Zendesk launched an omnichannel play, a platform called The Suite, which it says “has become one of our most successful products ever,” with a 400 percent rise in its customers taking an omnichannel approach. Smooch already forms a key part of that, and it will be even more tightly so.

On the outbound side, for now, there will be two areas where Smooch will be used, Wolverton said. First will be on the basic level of giving Zendesk users the ability to see and create messaging app discussions within a dashboard where they are able to monitor and handle all customer relationship contacts: a conversation that was inititated now on, say, Twitter, can be easily moved into WhatsApp or whatever more direct channel someone wants to use.

Second, Wolverton said that customer care workers can use Smooch to send on “micro apps” to users to handle routine service enquiries, for example sending them links to make or change seat assignments on a flight.

Over time, the plan will be to bring in more automated options into the experience, which opens the door for using more AI and potentially bots down the line.


By Ingrid Lunden

Google says some G Suite user passwords were stored in plaintext since 2005

Google says a small number of its enterprise customers mistakenly had their passwords stored on its systems in plaintext.

The search giant disclosed the exposure Tuesday but declined to say exactly how many enterprise customers were affected. “We recently notified a subset of our enterprise G Suite customers that some passwords were stored in our encrypted internal systems unhashed,” said Google vice president of engineering Suzanne Frey.

Passwords are typically scrambled using a hashing algorithm to prevent them from being read by humans. G Suite administrators are able to manually upload, set and recover new user passwords for company users, which helps in situations where new employees are on-boarded. But Google said it discovered in April that the way it implemented password setting and recovery for its enterprise offering in 2005 was faulty and improperly stored a copy of the password in plaintext.

Google has since removed the feature.

No consumer Gmail accounts were affected by the security lapse, said Frey.

“To be clear, these passwords remained in our secure encrypted infrastructure,” said Frey. “This issue has been fixed and we have seen no evidence of improper access to or misuse of the affected passwords.”

Google has more than 5 million enterprise customers using G Suite.

Google said it also discovered a second security lapse earlier this month as it was troubleshooting new G Suite customer sign-ups. The company said since January it was improperly storing “a subset” of unhashed G Suite passwords on its internal systems for up to two weeks. Those systems, Google said, were only accessible to a limited number of authorized Google staff, the company said.

“This issue has been fixed and, again, we have seen no evidence of improper access to or misuse of the affected passwords,” said Frey.

Google said it’s notified G Suite administrators to warn of the password security lapse, and will reset account passwords for those who have yet to change.

A spokesperson confirmed Google has informed data protection regulators of the exposure.

Google becomes the latest company to have admitted storing sensitive data in plaintext in the past year. Facebook said in March that “hundreds of millions” of Facebook and Instagram passwords were stored in plaintext. Twitter and GitHub also admitted similar security lapses last year.

Read more:


By Zack Whittaker

Microsoft makes a push for service mesh interoperability

Services meshes. They are the hot new thing in the cloud native computing world. At Kubecon, the bi-annual festival of all things cloud native, Microsoft today announced that it is teaming up with a number of companies in this space to create a generic service mesh interface. This will make it easier for developers to adopt the concept without locking them into a specific technology.

In a world where the number of network endpoints continues to increase as developers launch new micro-services, containers and other systems at a rapid clip, they are making the network smarter again by handling encryption, traffic management and other functions so that the actual applications don’t have to worry about that. With a number of competing service mesh technologies, though, including the likes of Istio and Linkerd, developers currently have to chose which one of these to support.

“I’m really thrilled to see that we were able to pull together a pretty broad consortium of folks from across the industry to help us drive some interoperability in the service mesh space,” Gabe Monroy, Microsoft’s lead product manager for containers and the former CTO of Deis, told me. “This is obviously hot technology — and for good reasons. The cloud-native ecosystem is driving the need for smarter networks and smarter pipes and service mesh technology provides answers.”

The partners here include Buoyant, HashiCorp, Solo.io, Red Hat, AspenMesh, Weaveworks, Docker, Rancher, Pivotal, Kinvolk and VMWare. That’s a pretty broad coalition, though it notably doesn’t include cloud heavyweights like Google, the company behind Istio, and AWS.

“In a rapidly evolving ecosystem, having a set of common standards is critical to preserving the best possible end-user experience,” said Idit Levine, founder and CEO of Solo.io. “This was the vision behind SuperGloo – to create an abstraction layer for consistency across different meshes, which led us to the release of Service Mesh Hub last week. We are excited to see service mesh adoption evolve into an industry level initiative with the SMI specification.”

For the time being, the interoperability features focus on traffic policy, telemetry and traffic management. Monroy argues that these are the most pressing problems right now. He also stressed that this common interface still allows the different service mesh tools to innovate and that developers can always work directly with their APIs when needed. He also stressed that the Service Mesh Interface (SMI), as this new specification is called, does not provide any of its own implementations of these features. It only defines a common set of APIs.

Currently, the most well-known service mesh is probably Istio, which Google, IBM and Lyft launched about two years ago. SMI may just bring a bit more competition to this market since it will allow developers to bet on the overall idea of a service mesh instead of a specific implementation.

In addition to SMI, Microsoft also today announced a couple of other updates around its cloud-native and Kubernetes services. It announced the first alpha of the Helm 3 package manager, for example, as well as the 1.0 release of its Kubernetes extension for Visual Studio Code and the general availability of its AKS virtual nodes, using the open source Virtual Kubelet project.

 


By Frederic Lardinois

FlareAgent, a platform that automates real estate transactions, launches out of YC

The real estate industry is experiencing a bit of a rejuvenation. After years resisting the influence of tech, the industry is now feeling the entrance of e-buyers, as well as a variety of software to streamline the process. One such tech company looking to infiltrate real estate is FlareAgent, which launches today out of Y Combinator.

FlareAgent was founded by Abhi CKV and Rashid Aziz. The duo, who just graduated out of NYU, first built FlareAgent when Rashid’s dad, a real estate agent, was asked by his boss (Mr. Brown) about finding software that might speed up the process of completing a transaction.

Abhi and Rashid built something that ended up helping grow the real estate firm from 20 deals per month to over 100 deals/month. How?

FlareAgent lets all parties collaborate on a transaction from the comfort of their own home or office. From purchase offers to escrow documents to the closing agreement, FlareAgent allows brokers and clients to view and interact with various documents to speed up the time to close.

This used to be done manually by brokers, who’d have to fax or mail or hand-deliver documents to and from various parties in the transaction. If changes take place to the paperwork, this process may start over from scratch.

With FlareAgent, all the time spent changing and sharing documents manually can be done online.

To be clear, a transaction doesn’t actually go through FlareAgent. In other words, the money changing hands from buyer to seller doesn’t flow through the FlareAgent platform. But all the documents that need to be reviewed, amended, and signed can be handled on FlareAgent.

To make money, the company charges a monthly subscription to brokers using the platform.

Thus far, FlareAgent says it has around 100 active agents on the platform and has processed more than 2,500 transactions (worth $550 million in property value) since its inception.


By Jordan Crook

Atlassian puts its Data Center products into containers

It’s KubeCon + CloudNativeCon this week and in the slew of announcements, one name stood out: Atlassian . The company is best known as the maker of tools that allow developers to work more efficiently and now as a cloud infrastructure provider. In this age of containerization, though, even Atlassian can bask in the glory that is Kubernetes because the company today announced that it is launching Atlassian Software in Kubernetes (AKS), a new solution that allows enterprises to run and manage its on-premise applications like Jira Data Center as containers and with the help of Kubernetes.

To build this solution, Atlassian partnered with Praqma, a Continuous Delivery and DevOps consultancy. It’s also making AKS available as open source.

As the company admits in today’s announcement, running a Data Center application and ensuring high availability can be a lot of work using today’s methods. With AKS and by containerizing the applications, scaling and management should become easier — and downtime more avoidable.

“Availability is key with ASK. Automation keeps mission-critical applications running whatever happens,” the company explains. “If a Jira server fails, Data Center will automatically redirect traffic to healthy servers. If an application or server crashes Kubernetes automatically reconciles by bringing up a new application. There’s also zero downtime upgrades for Jira.”

AKS handles the scaling and most admin tasks, in addition to offering a monitoring solution based on the open-source Grafana and Prometheus projects.

Containers are slowly becoming the distribution medium of choice for a number of vendors. As enterprises move their existing applications to containers, it makes sense for them to also expect that they can manage their existing on-premises applications from third-party vendors in the same systems. For some vendors, that may mean a shift away from pre-server licensing to per-seat licensing, so there are business implications to this, but in general, it’s a logical move for most.


By Frederic Lardinois

IDC: Asia-Pacific spending on AI systems will reach $5.5 billion this year, up 80 percent from 2018

Spending on artificial intelligence systems in the Asia-Pacific region is expected to reach $5.5 billion this year, an almost 80 percent increase over 2018, driven by businesses in China and the retail industry, according to IDC. In a new report, the research firm also said it expects AI spending to climb at a compound annual growth rate of 50 percent from 2018 to 2022, reaching a total of $15.06 billion in 2022.

This means AI spending growth in the Asia-Pacific region is expected to outpace the rest of the world over the next three years. In March, IDC forecast that worldwide spending on AI systems is expected to grow at a CAGR of 38 percent between 2018 to 2022.

Most of the growth will happen in China, which IDC says will account for nearly two-thirds of AI spending in the region, excluding Japan, in all forecast years. Spending on AI systems will be driven by retail, professional services and government industries.

Retail demand for AI-based tools will also lead growth in the rest of the region, as companies begin to rely on it more for merchandising, product recommendations, automated customer service and supply and logistics. While the banking industry’s AI spending trails behind retail, it will also begin adopting the tech for fraud analysis, program advisors, recommendations and customer service. IDC forecasts that this year, companies will invest almost $700 million in automated service agents. The next largest area for investment is sales process recommendations and automation, with $450 million expected, and intelligent process automation at more than $350 million.

The fastest-growing industries for AI spending are expected to be healthcare (growing at 60.2 percent CAGR) and process manufacturing (60.1 percent CAGR). In terms of infrastructure, IDC says spending on hardware, including servers and storage, will reach almost $7 billion in 2019, while spending on software is expected to grow at a five-year CAGR of 80 percent.


By Catherine Shu

Wagestream closes $51M Series A to plug the payday gap without putting workers in debt

Getting your work wages on a monthly (not weekly nor biweekly) basis has become a more widespread trend as the price of running payrolls has gone up, and organizations’ cashflow has gone down. That 30-day shift may be a boost to employers, but not employees, who may need access to those wages more immediately and find it a challenge to stretch out their income month to month.

Now, a startup based out of London has raised a large round of funding for service that’s aiming to plug that gap. Wagestream — which works with employers to let employees draw down a percentage of their income in the month for a small, flat fee — today said that it has closed a Series A round of £40 million ($51 million).

The funding is coming in the form of equity and debt, with Balderton and Northzone leading on the equity side, which makes up £15 million of the raise, and savings bank Shawbrook investing £25 million on the debt side to finance employee draw-downs. Other investors in the round include QED, the Rowntree Foundation, the London Co-investment Fund (LCIF) and Village Global, a social venture firm backed by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, among others.

The company is not disclosing its valuation but this brings the total raised to just under £45 million and “the valuation is definitely higher now”, according to CEO and co-founder Peter Briffett.

The list of investors is proving to be a useful one for Wagestream as it grows. I asked if Bezos’ company Amazon was working with Wagestream. Briffett confirmed it is not a customer currently, “but we are talking to them.” It does, however, have a number of other customers already signed up, including pest removal service Rentokil PLC, Camden Town Brewery, the Slug & Lettuce pub chain and Carluccio’s chain of eateries, along with the NHS and Hackney Council — covering some 120,000 workers in all.

Amazon is an indicative example of one of the big opportunities for the company, which today is active in the UK but aiming to expand across Europe and the rest of the world.

While it is one of the biggest employers in the tech world, where it might typically pay out six-figure salaries in senior management, operational and technical roles, it’s also building out its business by being one of the biggest employers also of hourly workers in its warehouses, wider logistics operations and similar areas. It’s employees like these who might be considered the first wave of employees that Wagestream is initially targeting, some of whom may be earning just enough or slightly more than enough to get by (at best), and face being victims of what Briffett referred to as the “payday poverty cycle.”

Getting paid monthly today accounts for some 85 percent of all paychecks in the UK today, and the proportion is similar in Europe and also getting increasingly common in the US, Briffett — who has also worked at Microsoft, LivingSocial (when it was still backed by Amazon, and where he started the UK operation and ran it as the CEO for years), and YPlan (acquired by Time Out) — said in an interview. You might ask: why don’t the workers just budget better? But it doesn’t always work out that way, especially the longer the gap is between paychecks, and if you, for example, have an unexpected expense to cover.

Because of that ubiquity, and the acuteness of the problem (if you’ve ever earned just about enough, or been a child in a family whose parents did, you may understand the predicament quite well ), Wagestream is not the first time that we’ve seen a financial services startup emerge to target that demographic.

Some other attempts have been scandalously disastrous, however: recall “Payday Loan” provider Wonga, backed by an illustrious set of investors but ultimately accused of, and hit hard by regulators and the public for, preying on people who were in need of funds with loans that were not transparent enough in their terms and led the borrowers into deep debt.

Wonga itself paid a big price for its practices, and the company is now bankrupt (and apparently still unable to replay creditors, as of the last report in March).

It was the disaster of Wonga — and an article in the WSJ about alternatives to payday loans — that Briffett said got him thinking about the possibilities and building Wagestream. (Ironic note: if you use PitchBook as I do, Wonga is listed among Wagestream’s backers, which Briffett assures me is an error.)

Wagestream positions itself as a “social impact” startup for targeting a very real problem that impacts financial inclusion for a proportion of the population, and it says this represents one of the highest rounds ever for a startup in the UK aimed at social impact.

“We fell in love with the strong product-market fit of Wagestream. We very rarely hear such universal positive feedback from all who have tried a product,” said Rob Moffat, a partner at Balderton, in a statement. “Companies used to take an active role in supporting the financial health of their users but this has slowly been eroded, to the extent where employees paid at the end of the month are effectively subsidising their employer for 29 days a month. Wagestream starts to restore the right balance.”

Wagestream operates by striking deals with employers to offer its services to its workers, who download an app and link up Wagestream with their salary and banking details. Businesses are able to set limits for what percentage of their wages employees can draw down each month, and how often the service can be used. Typically the limit is around 40 percent of a monthly wage, Briffett said.

Employees then can get the money instantly by paying a fee of £1.75 per withdrawal. “We are funding all of the withdrawals up front,” Briffett said. “We are the first company to marry workforce management and financial data.”

Down the road, the plan will be to expand to Europe as well as to the US, where there are already some other services that are trying to tackle the same problem, such as Instant Financial and DailyPay. There are also a number of areas the company could move into, such as working with companies that employ contract workers, and providing additional financial services to workers already using the app to draw down funds.

More expansion, Briffett said, will inevitably also mean more funding particularly on the debt side.

For now, the emergence of Wavestream is an encouraging sign of how VCs are not just interested in tapping their coffers to bet on tech companies that they think will be hits. They also want to hunt for those whose returns may well be strong, but ultimately are made stronger by the longer-term effect they might have on the wider landscape of consumers, how they interface with fintech, and continue their own progress in the world.


By Ingrid Lunden

Robin picks up $20 million Series B to optimize the office

Robin Powered, a startup looking to help offices run better, has today announced the close of a $20 million Series B funding. The round was led by Tola Capital, with existing investors Accomplice and FirstMark participating in the round, along with a new strategic Allegion Ventures.

Robin started as part of an agency called One Mighty Roar, where Robin Powered cofounder Sam Dunn and his two cofounders built out RFID and beacon tech for clients’ live events. In 2014, they spun out the tech as Robin and tweaked the focus on the modern office.

The office stands to be one of the least efficient pieces of any business. As a company grows, or even if it doesn’t, it’s particularly difficult to understand the ‘inventory’ of the office and how it is used by workers throughout the day.

“Before, if I asked you what you needed out of your next office, you might go around and survey employees or hire an architecture firm,” said Dunn. “I heard a story where a manager sent around an intern every Thursday at 3pm to talk to employees about the office, and that was one of two pieces of information handed over to the architecture firm. At the end of the day, it’s hard to know if there’s a shortage of meeting rooms, or teleconference-enabled rooms, or collaborative workspaces.”

That’s where Robin comes in. Robin hooks into Google Calendar and Outlook to help employees get a sense of what meeting rooms and activity spaces are available in the office, complete with tablet signage out front. Meetings are the starting point for Robin, but the company can also offer tools for seating charts and office maps, as well as insights. The company wants to offer insights about how the space in this or that office is being used — what they lack and what they have too much of.

Robin charges its clients per room ($300) and per desk ($24 – $60). The hope is to build out the same technological backbone for clients’ offices as WeWork provides alongside its physical space, giving every business the opportunity to optimize one of their biggest investments: the office itself.

Robin has raised a total of $30 million.


By Jordan Crook

Under the hood on Zoom’s IPO, with founder and CEO Eric Yuan

Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch’s Kate Clark sat down with Eric Yuan, the founder and CEO of video communications startup Zoom, to go behind the curtain on the company’s recent IPO process and its path to the public markets.

Since hitting the trading desks just a few weeks ago, Zoom stock is up over 30%. But the Zoom’s path to becoming a Silicon Valley and Wall Street darling was anything but easy. Eric tells Kate how the company’s early focus on profitability, which is now helping drive the stock’s strong performance out of the gate, actually made it difficult to get VC money early on, and the company’s consistent focus on user experience led to organic growth across different customer bases.

Eric: I experienced the year 2000 dot com crash and the 2008 financial crisis, and it almost wiped out the company. I only got seed money from my friends, and also one or two VCs like AME Cloud Ventures and Qualcomm Ventures.

nd all other institutional VCs had no interest to invest in us. I was very paranoid and always thought “wow, we are not going to survive next week because we cannot raise the capital. And on the way, I thought we have to look into our own destiny. We wanted to be cash flow positive. We wanted to be profitable.

nd so by doing that, people thought I wasn’t as wise, because we’d probably be sacrificing growth, right? And a lot of other companies, they did very well and were not profitable because they focused on growth. And in the future they could be very, very profitable.

Eric and Kate also dive deeper into Zoom’s founding and Eric’s initial decision to leave WebEx to work on a better video communication solution. Eric also offers his take on what the future of video conferencing may look like in the next five to 10 years and gives advice to founders looking to build the next great company.

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Kate Clark: Well thanks for joining us Eric.

Eric Yuan: No problem, no problem.

Kate: Super excited to chat about Zoom’s historic IPO. Before we jump into questions, I’m just going to review some of the key events leading up to the IPO, just to give some context to any of the listeners on the call.


By Arman Tabatabai

HPE is buying Cray for $1.3 billion

HPE announced it was buying Cray for $1.3 billion, giving it access to the company’s high performance computing portfolio, and perhaps a foothold into quantum computing in the future.

The purchase price was $35 a share, a $5.19 premium over yesterday’s close of $29.81 a share. Cray was founded in the 1970s and for a time represented the cutting edge of super computing in the United States, but times have changed, and as the market has shifted, a deal like this makes sense.

Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst at Constellation Research says this is about consolidation at the high end of the market. “This is a smart acquisition for HPE. Cray has been losing money for some time but had a great portfolio of IP and patents that is key for the quantum era,” he told TechCrunch.

While HPE’s president and CEO Antonio Neri didn’t see it in those terms, he did see an opportunity in combining the two organizations. “By combining our world-class teams and technology, we will have the opportunity to drive the next generation of high performance computing and play an important part in advancing the way people live and work,” he said in a statement.

Cray CEO and president Peter Ungaro agreed. “We believe that the combination of Cray and HPE creates an industry leader in the fast-growing High-Performance Computing and AI markets and creates a number of opportunities that neither company would likely be able to capture on their own,” he wrote in a blog post announcing the deal.

While it’s not clear how this will work over time, this type of consolidation usually involves some job loss on the operations side of the house as the two companies become one. It is also unclear how this will affect Cray’s customers as it moves to become part of HPE but HPE has plans to create a high performance computing product family using its new assets.

HPE was formed when HP split into two companies in 2014. HP Inc. was the printer division, while HPE was the enterprise side.

The deal is subject to the typical regulatory oversight, but if all goes well, it is expected to close in HPE’s fiscal Q1 2020.


By Ron Miller

Health[at]Scale lands $16M Series A to bring machine learning to healthcare

Health[at]Scale, a startup with founders who have both medical and engineering expertise, wants to bring machine learning to bear on healthcare treatment options to produce outcomes with better results and less aftercare. Today the company announced a $16 million Series A. Optum, which is part of the UnitedHealth Group, was the sole investor .

Today, when people looks at treatment options, they may look at a particular surgeon or hospital, or simply what the insurance company will cover, but they typically lack the data to make truly informed decisions. This is true across every part of the healthcare system, particularly in the U.S. The company believes using machine learning, it can produce better results.

“We are a machine learning shop, and we focus on what I would describe as precision delivery. So in other words, we look at this question of how do we match patients to the right treatments, by the right providers, at the right time,” Zeeshan Syed, Health at Scale CEO told TechCrunch.

The founders see the current system as fundamentally flawed, and while they see their customers as insurance companies, hospital systems and self-insured employers; they say the tools they are putting into the system should help everyone in the loop get a better outcome.

The idea is to make treatment decisions more data driven. While they aren’t sharing their data sources, they say they have information from patients with a given condition, to doctors who treat that condition, to facilities where the treatment happens. By looking at a patient’s individual treatment needs and medical history, they believe they can do a better job of matching that person to the best doctor and hospital for the job. They say this will result in the fewest post-operative treatment requirements, whether that involves trips to the emergency room or time in a skilled nursing facility, all of which would end up adding significant additional cost.

If you’re thinking this is strictly about cost savings for these large institutions, Mohammed Saeed, who is the company’s chief medical officer and has and MD from Harvard and a PhD in electrical engineering from MIT, insists that isn’t the case. “From our perspective, it’s a win-win situation since we provide the best recommendations that have the patient interest at heart, but from a payer or provider perspective, when you have lower complication rates you have better outcomes and you lower your total cost of care long term,” he said.

The company says the solution is being used by large hospital systems and insurer customers, although it couldn’t share any. The founders also said, it has studied the outcomes after using its software and the machine learning models have produced better outcomes, although it couldn’t provide the data to back that up at that point at this time.

The company was founded in 2015 and currently has 11 employees. It plans to use today’s funding to build out sales and marketing to bring the solution to a wider customer set.


By Ron Miller