VMware announces intent to buy Avi Networks, startup that raised $115M

VMware has been trying to reinvent itself from a company that helps you build and manage virtual machines in your data center to one that helps you manage your virtual machines wherever they live, whether that’s on prem or the public cloud. Today, the company announced it was buying Avi Networks, a 6-year old startup that helps companies balance application delivery in the cloud or on prem in an acquisition that sounds like a pretty good match. The companies did not reveal the purchase price.

Avi claims to be the modern alternative to load balancing appliances designed for another age when applications didn’t change much and lived on prem in the company data center. As companies move more workloads to public clouds like AWS, Azure and Google Cloud Platform, Avi is providing a more modern load balancing tool, that not only balances software resource requirements based on location or need, but also tracks the data behind these requirements.

Diagram: Avi Networks

VMware has been trying to find ways to help companies manage their infrastructure, whether it is in the cloud or on prem, in a consistent way, and Avi is another step in helping them do that on the monitoring and load balancing side of things, at least.

Tom Gillis, senior vice president and general manager for the networking and security business unit at VMware sees this acquisition as fitting nicely into that vision. “This acquisition will further advance our Virtual Cloud Network vision, where a software-defined distributed network architecture spans all infrastructure and ties all pieces together with the automation and programmability found in the public cloud. Combining Avi Networks with VMware NSX will further enable organizations to respond to new opportunities and threats, create new business models, and deliver services to all applications and data, wherever they are located,” Gillis explained in a statement.

In a blog post,  Avi’s co-founders expressed a similar sentiment, seeing a company where it would fit well moving forward. “The decision to join forces with VMware represents a perfect alignment of vision, products, technology, go-to-market, and culture. We will continue to deliver on our mission to help our customers modernize application services by accelerating multi-cloud deployments with automation and self-service,” they wrote. Whether that’s the case, time will tell.

Among Avi’s customers, which will now become part of VMware are Deutsche Bank, Telegraph Media Group, Hulu and Cisco. The company was founded in 2012 and raised $115 million, according to Crunchbase data. Investors included Greylock, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Menlo Ventures, among others.


By Ron Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Josh Constine

Salesforce’s Tableau acquisition is huge, but not the hugest

When you’re talking about 16 billion smackeroos, it’s easy to get lost in the big number. When Salesforce acquired Tableau this morning for $15.7 billion, while it was among the biggest enterprise deals ever, it certainly wasn’t the largest.

There was widespread speculation that when the new tax laws went into effect in 2017, and large tech companies could repatriate large sums of their money stored offshore, we would start to see a wave of M&A activity, and sure enough that’s happened.

As Box CEO Aaron Levie pointed out on Twitter, it also shows that if you can develop a best-of-breed tool that knocks off the existing dominant tool set, you can build a multibillion-dollar company. We have seen this over and over, maybe not $15 billion companies, but substantial companies with multibillion-dollar price tags.

Last year alone we saw 10 deals that equaled $87 billion, with the biggest prize going to IBM when it bought Red Hat for a cool $34 billion, but even that wasn’t the biggest enterprise deal we could track down. In fact, we decided to compile a list of the biggest enterprise deals ever, so you could get a sense of where today’s deal fits.

Salesforce buys MuleSoft for $6.5 billion in 2018

At the time, this was the biggest deal Salesforce had ever done — until today. While the company has been highly acquisitive over the years, it had tended to keep the deals fairly compact for the most part, but it wanted MuleSoft to give it access to enterprise data wherever, it lived and it was willing to pay for it.

Microsoft buys GitHub for $7.5 billion in 2018

Not to be outdone by its rival, Microsoft opened its wallet almost exactly a year ago and bought GitHub for a hefty $7.5 billion. There was some hand-wringing in the developer community at the time, but so far, Microsoft has allowed the company to operate as an independent subsidiary.

SAP buys Qualtrics for $8 billion in 2018

SAP swooped in right before Qualtrics was about to IPO and gave it an offer it couldn’t refuse. Qualtrics gave SAP a tool for measuring customer satisfaction, something it had been lacking and was willing to pay big bucks for.

Oracle acquires NetSuite for $9.3 billion in 2016

It wasn’t really a surprise when Oracle acquired NetSuite. It had been an investor and Oracle needed a good SaaS tool at the time, as it was transitioning to the cloud. NetSuite gave it a ready-to-go packaged cloud service with a built-in set of customers it desperately needed.

Salesforce buys Tableau for $15.7 billion in 2019

That brings us to today’s deal. Salesforce swooped in again and paid an enormous sum of money for the Seattle software company, giving it a data visualization tool that would enable customers to create views of data wherever it lives, whether it’s part of Salesforce or not. What’s more, it was a great complement to last year’s MuleSoft acquisition.

Broadcom acquires CA Technologies for $18.9 billion in 2018

A huge deal in dollars from a year of big deals. Broadcom surprised a few people when a chip vendor paid this kind of money for a legacy enterprise software vendor and IT services company. The $18.9 billion represented a 20% premium for shareholders.

Microsoft snags LinkedIn for $26 billion in 2016

This was a company that Salesforce reportedly wanted badly at the time, but Microsoft was able to flex its financial muscles and come away the winner. The big prize was all of that data, and Microsoft has been working to turn that into products ever since.

IBM snares Red Hat for $34 billion in 2018

Near the end of last year, IBM made a huge move, acquiring Red Hat for $34 billion. IBM has been preaching a hybrid cloud approach for a number of years, and buying Red Hat gives it a much more compelling hybrid story.

Dell acquires EMC for $67 billion in 2016

This was the biggest of all, by far surpassing today’s deal. A deal this large was in the news for months as it passed various hurdles on the way to closing. Among the jewels that were included in this deal were VMware and Pivotal, the latter of which has since gone public. After this deal, Dell itself went public again last year.


By Ron Miller

The Ticket Fairy is tech’s best hope against Ticketmaster

Ticketmaster’s dominance has led to ridiculous service fees, scalpers galore, and exclusive contracts that exploit venues and artists. The moronic approval of venue operator and artist management giant Live Nation’s merger with Ticketmaster in 2010 produced an anti-competitive juggernaut. It pressures venues to sign ticketing contracts under veiled threat that artists would otherwise be routed to different concert halls. Now it’s become difficult for venues, artists, and fans to avoid Ticketmaster, which charges fees as high as 50% that many see as a ripoff.

But The Ticket Fairy wants to wrestle control of venues away from Ticketmaster while giving fans ways to earn tickets for referring their friends. The startup is doing that by offering the most technologically advanced ticketing platform that not only handle sales and checkins, but acts as a full-stack Salesforce for concerts that can analyze buyers and run ad campaigns while thwarting scalpers. Co-founder Ritesh Patel says The Ticket Fairy has increased revenue for event organizers by 15% to 25% during its private beta focused on dance music festivals.

Now after 850,000 tickets sold, it’s officially launching its ticketing suite and actively poaching venues from EventBrite as it moves deeper into esports and conventions. With a little more scale, it will be ready to challenge Ticketmaster for lucrative clients.

Ritesh’s combination of product and engineering skills, rapid progress, and charismatic passion for live events after throwing 400 of his own has attracted an impressive cadre of angel investors. They’ve delivered a $2.5 million seed round for Ticket Fairy adding to its $485,000 pre-seed from angels like Twitch/Atrium founder Justin Kan, Twitch COO Kevin Lin, and Reddit CEO Steve Huffman. The new round includes YouTube founder Steve Chen, former Kleiner Perkins partner and Mark’s sister Arielle Zuckerberg, and funds like 500 Startups, ex-Uber angels Fantastic Ventures, G2 Ventures, Tempo Ventures, and WeFunder. It’s also scored music industry angels like Serato DJ hardware CEO AJ Bertenshaw, Spotify’s head of label licensing Niklas Lundberg, and celebrity lawer Ken Hertz who reps Will Smith and Gwen Stefani.

“The purpose of starting The Ticket Fairy was not to be another EventBrite, but to reduce the risk of the person running the event so they can be profitable. We’re not just another shopping cart” Patel says. The Ticket Fairy charges a comparable rate to EventBrite’s $1.59 + 3.5% per ticket plus payment processing that brings it closer to 6%, but Patel insists it offers far stronger functionality.

Constantly clad in his golden disco hoodie over a Ticket Fairy t-shirt, Patel lives his product, spending late nights dancing and taking feedback at the events his clients host. He’s been a savior of SXSW the past two years, injecting the aging festival that shuts down at 2am with multi-night after-hours raves. Featuring top DJs like Pretty Lights in creative locations cab drivers don’t believe are real, The Ticket Fairy’s parties have won the hearts of music industry folks.

The Ticket Fairy co-founders. Center and inset left: Ritesh Patel. Inset right: Jigar Patel

Now the Y Combinator startup hopes its ticketing platform will do the same thanks to a slew of savvy features:

Earn A Ticket – The Ticket Fairy supercharges word of mouth marketing with a referral system that lets fans get a rebate or full-free ticket if they get enough friends to buy a ticket. 30% of ticket buyers are now sharing a Ticket Fairy referral link, and Patel says the return on investment is $30 in revenue for each $1 paid out in rewards, with 10% to 25% of all ticket sales coming from referrals. A public leaderboard further encourages referrals, with those at the top eligible for backstage passes, free merch, and bar tabs. And to prevent mass spamming, only buyers, partners, and street teamers get a referral code.

Creative Payment Options – The startup offers “FreeFund” tickets for free events that otherwise see huge no-show rates. Users pay a small deposit that’s refunded when they scan their ticket for entry, discouraging RSVPs from those who won’t come. Buyers can also pay on layaway with Affirm or LayBuy and then earn a ticket before their debt is due.

Anti-Scalping – The Ticket Fairy offers identity-locked tickets that must be presented with the buyer’s ID on arrival, which means customers can’t scalp them. Instead, the startup offers a waitlist for sold out events, and buyers can sell their tickets back to the company which then redistributes them at face value with a new QR code to a specific friend or whoever’s at the top of the waitlist. Patel says client SunAndBass Festival hasn’t had a scalped ticket in five years of working with the ticketer.

Clever Analytics – Never wasting an opportunity, The Ticket Fairy lets events collect contact info and demand before ticket sales start with its pre-registration system. It can ceate multiple variants of ticketing sites designed for different demographics like rock vs dance fans for a festival, track sales and demographics in real-time, and relay instant stats about checkins at the door. Integration of email managers like MailChimp and sales pixels like Facebook plus the ability to instantly retarget people who abandoned their shopping via Facebook Custom Audience ads makes marketing easier. And all the metrics, budgets, and expenses are automatically organized into financial reports to eliminate spreadsheet busywork.

Still, the biggest barrier to adoption remains the long exclusive contracts Ticketmaster and other giants like AEG coerce venues into in the US. Abroad, venues typically work with multiple ticket promoters who sell from the same pool, which is why 80% of The Ticket Fairy’s business is international right now. In the US, ticketing is often handled by a single company except for the 8% of tickets artists can sell however they want. That’s why The Ticket Fairy has focused on signing up non-traditional venues for festivals, trade convention halls, newly built esports arenas, as well as concert halls.

“Coming from the event promotion background, we understand the risk event organizers take in creating these experiences” The Ticket Fairy’s co-founder and Ritesh’s brother Jigar Patel explains. “The odds of breaking even are poor and many are unable to overcome those challenges, but it is sheer passion that keeps them going in the face of financial uncertainty and multi-year losses.” As competitors’ contracts expire, The Ticket Fairy hopes to swoop in by dangling its sales-boosting tech. “We get locked out of certain things because people are locked in a contract, not because they don’t want to use our system.”

The live music industry can brutal, though. Events can have slim margins, organizers are loathe to change their process, it’s a sales heavy process convincing them to try new software. But while record business has been redefined by streaming, ticketing looks a lot like it did a decade ago. That makes it ripe for disruption.

“The events industry is more important than ever, with artists making the bulk of their income from touring instead of record sales, and demand from fans for live experiences is increasing at a global level” Jigar concludes. “When events go out of business, everybody loses, including artists and fans. Everything we do at The Ticket Fairy has that firmly in mind – we are here to keep the ecosystem alive.”


By Josh Constine

Google to acquire analytics startup Looker for $2.6 billion

Google made a big splash this morning when it announced it’s going to acquire Looker, a hot analytics startup that’s raised over $280 million. It’s paying $2.6 billion for the privilege and adding the company to Google Cloud.

Thomas Kurian, the man who was handed the reigns to Google Cloud at the end of last year see the crucial role data plays today for organizations, especially as they move to the cloud. “The combination of Google Cloud and Looker will enable customers to harness data in new ways to drive their digital transformation,” Kurian said in a statement.

Google Cloud has been mired in third place in the cloud infrastructure market, and grabbing Looker gives it an analytics company with a solid track record. The last time I spoke to Looker it was grabbing a hefty $103 million in funding on a $1.6 billion valuation. Today’s price is nice even billion over that.

As I wrote at the time, Looker’s CEO Frank Bien wasn’t all that interested in bragging about valuations though. “He reported that the company has 1,600 customers now and just crossed the $100 million revenue run rate, a significant milestone for any enterprise SaaS company. What’s more, Bien reports revenue is still growing 70 percent year over year, so there’s plenty of room to keep this going.”

Perhaps, it’s not a coincidence that Google went after Looker as the two companies had a strong existing partnership and 350 common customers, according to Google.

Per usual this deal is going to be subject to regulatory approval, but the deal is expected to close later this year if all goes well.


By Ron Miller

AntiToxin sells safetytech to clean up poisoned platforms

The big social networks and video games have failed to prioritize user well-being over their own growth. As a result, society is losing the battle against bullying, predators, hate speech, misinformation and scammers. Typically when a whole class of tech companies have a dire problem they can’t cost-effectively solve themselves, a software-as-a-service emerges to fill the gap in web hosting, payment processing, etc. So along comes AntiToxin Technologies, a new Israeli startup that wants to help web giants fix their abuse troubles with its safety-as-a-service.

It all started on Minecraft. AntiToxin co-founder Ron Porat is cybersecurity expert who’d started popular ad blocker Shine. Yet right under his nose, one of his kids was being mercilessly bullied on the hit children’s game. If even those most internet-savvy parents were being surprised by online abuse, Porat realized the issue was bigger than could be addressed by victims trying to protect themselves. The platforms had to do more, research confirmed.

A recent Ofcom study found almost 80% of children had a potentially harmful online experience in the past year. Indeed, 23% said they’d been cyberbullied, and 28% of 12 to 15-year-olds said they’d received unwelcome friend or follow requests from strangers. A Ditch The Label study found of 12 to 20-year-olds who’d been bullied online, 42% were bullied on Instagram.

Unfortunately, the massive scale of the threat combined with a late start on policing by top apps makes progress tough without tremendous spending. Facebook tripled the headcount of its content moderation and security team, taking a noticeable hit to its profits, yet toxicity persists. Other mainstays like YouTube and Twitter have yet to make concrete commitments to safety spending or staffing, and the result is non-stop scandals of child exploitation and targeted harassment. Smaller companies like Snap or Fortnite-maker Epic Games may not have the money to develop sufficient safeguards in-house.

“The tech giants have proven time and time again we can’t rely on them. They’ve abdicated their responsibility. Parents need to realize this problem won’t be solved by these companies” says AntiToxin CEO Zohar Levkovitz, who previously sold his mobile ad company Amobee to Singtel for $321 million. “You need new players, new thinking, new technology. A company where ‘Safety’ is the product, not an after-thought. And that’s where we come-in.” The startup recently raised a multimillion-dollar seed round from Mangrove Capital Partners and is allegedly prepping for a double-digit millions Series A.

AntiToxin’s technology plugs into the backends of apps with social communities that either broadcast or message with each other and are thereby exposed to abuse. AntiToxin’s systems privately and securely crunch all the available signals regarding user behavior and policy violation reports, from text to videos to blocking. It then can flag a wide range of toxic actions and let the client decide whether to delete the activity, suspend the user responsible or how else to proceed based on their terms and local laws.

Through the use of artificial intelligence, including natural language processing, machine learning and computer vision, AntiToxin can identify the intent of behavior to determine if it’s malicious. For example, the company tells me it can distinguish between a married couple consensually exchanging nude photos on a messaging app versus an adult sending inappropriate imagery to a child. It also can determine if two teens are swearing at each other playfully as they compete in a video game or if one is verbally harassing the other. The company says that beats using static dictionary blacklists of forbidden words.

AntiToxin is under NDA, so it can’t reveal its client list, but claims recent media attention and looming regulation regarding online abuse has ramped up inbound interest. Eventually the company hopes to build better predictive software to identify users who’ve shown signs of increasingly worrisome behavior so their activity can be more closely moderated before they lash out. And it’s trying to build a “safety graph” that will help it identify bad actors across services so they can be broadly deplatformed similar to the way Facebook uses data on Instagram abuse to police connected WhatsApp accounts.

“We’re approaching this very human problem like a cybersecurity company, that is, everything is a Zero-Day for us” says Levkowitz, discussing how AntiToxin indexes new patterns of abuse it can then search for across its clients. “We’ve got intelligence unit alums, PhDs and data scientists creating anti-toxicity detection algorithms that the world is yearning for.” AntiToxin is already having an impact. TechCrunch commissioned it to investigate a tip about child sexual imagery on Microsoft’s Bing search engine. We discovered Bing was actually recommending child abuse image results to people who’d conducted innocent searches, leading Bing to make changes to clean up its act.

AntiToxin identified publicly listed WhatsApp Groups where child sexual abuse imagery was exchanged

One major threat to AntiToxin’s business is what’s often seen as boosting online safety: end-to-end encryption. AntiToxin claims that when companies like Facebook expand encryption, they’re purposefully hiding problematic content from themselves so they don’t have to police it.

Facebook claims it still can use metadata about connections on its already encrypted WhatApp network to suspend those who violate its policy. But AntiToxin provided research to TechCrunch for an investigation that found child sexual abuse imagery sharing groups were openly accessible and discoverable on WhatsApp — in part because encryption made them hard to hunt down for WhatsApp’s automated systems.

AntiToxin believes abuse would proliferate if encryption becomes a wider trend, and it claims the harm that it  causes outweighs fears about companies or governments surveiling unencrypted transmissions. It’s a tough call. Political dissidents, whistleblowers and perhaps the whole concept of civil liberty rely on encryption. But parents may see sex offenders and bullies as a more dire concern that’s reinforced by platforms having no idea what people are saying inside chat threads.

What seems clear is that the status quo has got to go. Shaming, exclusion, sexism, grooming, impersonation and threats of violence have started to feel commonplace. A culture of cruelty breeds more cruelty. Tech’s success stories are being marred by horror stories from their users. Paying to pick up new weapons in the fight against toxicity seems like a reasonable investment to demand.


By Josh Constine

The Slack origin story

Let’s rewind a decade.

It’s 2009. Vancouver, Canada.

Stewart Butterfield, known already for his part in building Flickr, a photo-sharing service acquired by Yahoo in 2005, decided to try his hand — again — at building a game. Flickr had been a failed attempt at a game called Game Neverending followed by a big pivot. This time, Butterfield would make it work.

To make his dreams a reality, he joined forces with Flickr’s original chief software architect Cal Henderson, as well as former Flickr employees Eric Costello and Serguei Mourachov, who like himself, had served some time at Yahoo after the acquisition. Together, they would build Tiny Speck, the company behind an artful, non-combat massively multiplayer online game.

Years later, Butterfield would pull off a pivot more massive than his last. Slack, born from the ashes of his fantastical game, would lead a shift toward online productivity tools that fundamentally change the way people work.

Glitch is born

In mid-2009, former TechCrunch reporter-turned-venture-capitalist M.G. Siegler wrote one of the first stories on Butterfield’s mysterious startup plans.

“So what is Tiny Speck all about?” Siegler wrote. “That is still not entirely clear. The word on the street has been that it’s some kind of new social gaming endeavor, but all they’ll say on the site is ‘we are working on something huge and fun and we need help.’”

Siegler would go on to invest in Slack as a general partner at GV, the venture capital arm of Alphabet .

“Clearly this is a creative project,” Siegler added. “It almost sounds like they’re making an animated movie. As awesome as that would be, with people like Henderson on board, you can bet there’s impressive engineering going on to turn this all into a game of some sort (if that is in fact what this is all about).”

After months of speculation, Tiny Speck unveiled its project: Glitch, an online game set inside the brains of 11 giants. It would be free with in-game purchases available and eventually, a paid subscription for power users.


By Kate Clark

Fintech and clean tech? An odd couple or a perfect marriage?

The Valley’s rocky history with clean tech investing has been well-documented.

Startups focused on non-emitting generation resources were once lauded as the next big cash cow, but the sector’s hype quickly got away from reality.

Complex underlying science, severe capital intensity, slow-moving customers, and high-cost business models outside the comfort zones of typical venture capital, ultimately caused a swath of venture-backed companies and investors in the clean tech boom to fall flat.

Yet, decarbonization and sustainability are issues that only seem to grow more dire and more galvanizing for founders and investors by the day, and more company builders are searching for new ways to promote environmental resilience.

While funding for clean tech startups can be hard to find nowadays, over time we’ve seen clean tech startups shift down the stack away from hardware-focused generation plays towards vertical-focused downstream software.

A far cry from past waves of venture-backed energy startups, the downstream clean tech companies offered more familiar technology with more familiar business models, geared towards more recognizable verticals and end users. Now, investors from less traditional clean tech backgrounds are coming out of the woodworks to take a swing at the energy space.

An emerging group of non-traditional investors getting involved in the clean energy space are those traditionally focused on fintech, such as New York and Europe based venture firm Anthemis — a financial services-focused team that recently sat down with our fintech contributor Gregg Schoenberg and I (check out the full meat of the conversation on Extra Crunch).

The tie between clean tech startups and fintech investors may seem tenuous at first thought. However, financial services has long played a significant role in the energy sector and is now becoming a more common end customer for energy startups focused on operations, management and analytics platforms, thus creating real opportunity for fintech investors to offer differentiated value.

Finance powering the world?

Though the conversation around energy resources and decarbonization often focuses on politics, a significant portion of decisions made in the energy generation business is driven by pure economics — Is it cheaper to run X resource relative to resources Y and Z at a given point in time? Based on bid prices for Request for Proposals (RFPs) in a specific market and the cost-competitiveness of certain resources, will a developer be able to hit their targeted rate of return if they build, buy or operate a certain type of generation asset?

Alternative generation sources like wind, solid oxide fuel cells, or large-scale or even rooftop solar have reached more competitive cost levels – in many parts of the US, wind and solar are in fact often the cheapest form of generation for power providers to run.

Thus as renewable resources have grown more cost competitive, more, infrastructure developers, and other new entrants have been emptying their wallets to buy up or build renewable assets like large scale solar or wind farms, with the American Council on Renewable Energy even forecasting cumulative private investment in renewable energy possibly reaching up to $1 trillion in the US by 2030.

A major and swelling set of renewable energy sources are now led by financial types looking for tools and platforms to better understand the operating and financial performance of their assets, in order to better maximize their return profile in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Therefore, fintech-focused venture firms with financial service pedigrees, like Anthemis, now find themselves in pole position when it comes to understanding clean tech startup customers, how they make purchase decisions, and what they’re looking for in a product.

In certain cases, fintech firms can even offer significant insight into shaping the efficacy of a product offering. For example, Anthemis portfolio company kWh Analytics provides a risk management and analytics platform for solar investors and operators that helps break down production, financial analysis, and portfolio performance.

For platforms like kWh analytics, fintech-focused firms can better understand the value proposition offered and help platforms understand how their technology can mechanically influence rates of return or otherwise.

The financial service customers for clean energy-related platforms extends past just private equity firms. Platforms have been and are being built around energy trading, renewable energy financing (think financing for rooftop solar) or the surrounding insurance market for assets.

When speaking with several of Anthemis’ clean tech portfolio companies, founders emphasized the value of having a fintech investor on board that not only knows the customer in these cases, but that also has a deep understanding of the broader financial ecosystem that surrounds energy assets.

Founders and firms seem to be realizing that various arms of financial services are playing growing roles when it comes to the development and access to clean energy resources.

By offering platforms and surrounding infrastructure that can improve the ease of operations for the growing number of finance-driven operators or can improve the actual financial performance of energy resources, companies can influence the fight for environmental sustainability by accelerating the development and adoption of cleaner resources.

Ultimately, a massive number of energy decisions are made by financial services firms and fintech firms may often times know the customers and products of downstream clean-tech startups more than most.  And while the financial services sector has often been labeled as dirty by some, the vital role it can play in the future of sustainable energy offers the industry a real chance to clean up its image.


By Arman Tabatabai

FireEye snags security effectiveness testing startup Verodin for $250M

When FireEye reported its earnings last month, the outlook was a little light, so the security vendor decided to be proactive and make a big purchase. Today, the company announced it has acquired Verodin for $250 million. The deal closed today.

The startup had raised over $33 million since it opened its doors 5 years ago, according to Crunchbase data, and would appear to have given investors a decent return. With Verodin, FireEye gets a security validation vendor, that is, a company that can run a review against the existing security setup and find gaps in coverage.

That would seem to be a handy kind of tool to have in your security arsenal, and could possibly explain the price tag. Perhaps, it could also help set FireEye apart from the broader market, or fill in a gap in its own platform.

FireEye CEO Kevin Mandia certainly sees the potential of his latest purchase. “Verodin gives us the ability to automate security effectiveness testing using the sophisticated attacks we spend hundreds of thousands of hours responding to, and provides a systematic, quantifiable, and continuous approach to security program validation,” he said in a statement.

Chris Key, Verodin co-founder and chief executive officer, sees the purchase through the standard acquisition lens. “By joining FireEye, Verodin extends its ability to help customers take a proactive approach to understanding and mitigating the unique risks, inefficiencies and vulnerabilities in their environments,” he said in a statement. In other words, as part of a bigger company, we’ll do more faster.

While FireEye plans to incorporate Verodin into its on-prem and managed services, it will continue to sell the solution as a stand-alone product, as well.


By Ron Miller

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

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

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.

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. 

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

SugarCRM moves into marketing automation with Salesfusion acquisition

SugarCRM announced today that it has acquired Atlanta-based Salesfusion to help build out the the marketing automation side of its business. The deal closed last Friday. The companies did not share the purchase price.

CEO Craig Charlton, who joined the company in February, says he recognized that marketing automation was an area of the platform that badly needed enhancing. Faced with a build or buy decision, he decided it would be faster to buy a company and began looking for an acquisition target.

“We spent the last three or four months doing a fairly intensive market scan and dealing with a number of the possible opportunities, and we decided that Salesfusion was head and shoulders above the rest for a variety of reasons,” he told TechCrunch.

Among those was the fact the company was still growing and some of the targets Sugar looked at were actually shrinking in size. The real attraction for him was Salesfusion’s customer focus. “They have a very differentiated on-boarding process, which I hadn’t seen before. I think that’s one of the reasons why they get such a quick time to value for the customers is because they literally hold their hand for 12 weeks until they graduate from the on-boarding process. And when they graduate, they’re actually live with the product,” he said.

Brent Leary, principal at CRM Essentials, who is also based in Atlanta, thinks this firm could help Sugar by giving it a marketing automation story all its own. “Salesfusion gives Sugar a marketing automation piece they can fully bring into their fold and not have to be at the whims of marketing automation vendors, who end up not being the best fit as partners, whether it’s due to acquisition or instability of leadership at chosen partners,” Leary told TechCrunch.

It has been a period of transition for SugarCRM, which has had a hard time keeping up with giants in the industry, particularly Salesforce. The company dipped into the private equity market last summer and took a substantial investment from Accel-KKR, which several reports pegged as a 9 figure deal, and Pitchbook characterized as a leveraged buyout.

As part of that investment, the company replaced long-time CEO Larry Augustin with Charlton and began creating a plan to spend some of that money. In March, it bought email integration firm Collabspot, and Charlton says they aren’t finished yet with possibly two or three more acquisitions on target for this quarter alone.

“We’re looking to make some waves and grow very aggressively and and to drive home some really compelling differentiation that we have, and and that will be building over the next 12 to 24 months,” he said.

Salesfusion, which was founded in 2007 and raised $32 million, will continue to operate out of its offices in Atlanta. The company’s 50 employees are now part of Sugar.


By Ron Miller

OpenFin raises $17 million for its OS for finance

OpenFin, the company looking to provide the operating system for the financial services industry, has raised $17 million in funding through a Series C round led by Wells Fargo, with participation from Barclays and existing investors including Bain Capital Ventures, J.P. Morgan and Pivot Investment Partners. Previous investors in OpenFin also include DRW Venture Capital, Euclid Opportunities and NYCA Partners.

Likening itself to “the OS of finance”, OpenFin seeks to be the operating layer on which applications used by financial services companies are built and launched, akin to iOS or Android for your smartphone.

OpenFin’s operating system provides three key solutions which, while present on your mobile phone, has previously been absent in the financial services industry: easier deployment of apps to end users, fast security assurances for applications, and interoperability.

Traders, analysts and other financial service employees often find themselves using several separate platforms simultaneously, as they try to source information and quickly execute multiple transactions. Yet historically, the desktop applications used by financial services firms — like trading platforms, data solutions, or risk analytics — haven’t communicated with one another, with functions performed in one application not recognized or reflected in external applications.

“On my phone, I can be in my calendar app and tap an address, which opens up Google Maps. From Google Maps, maybe I book an Uber . From Uber, I’ll share my real-time location on messages with my friends. That’s four different apps working together on my phone,” OpenFin CEO and co-founder Mazy Dar explained to TechCrunch. That cross-functionality has long been missing in financial services.

As a result, employees can find themselves losing precious time — which in the world of financial services can often mean losing money — as they juggle multiple screens and perform repetitive processes across different applications.

Additionally, major banks, institutional investors and other financial firms have traditionally deployed natively installed applications in lengthy processes that can often take months, going through long vendor packaging and security reviews that ultimately don’t prevent the software from actually accessing the local system.

OpenFin CEO and co-founder Mazy Dar. Image via OpenFin

As former analysts and traders at major financial institutions, Dar and his co-founder Chuck Doerr (now President & COO of OpenFin) recognized these major pain points and decided to build a common platform that would enable cross-functionality and instant deployment. And since apps on OpenFin are unable to access local file systems, banks can better ensure security and avoid prolonged yet ineffective security review processes.

And the value proposition offered by OpenFin seems to be quite compelling. Openfin boasts an impressive roster of customers using its platform, including over 1,500 major financial firms, almost 40 leading vendors, and 15 out of the world’s 20 largest banks.

Over 1,000 applications have been built on the OS, with OpenFin now deployed on more than 200,000 desktops — a noteworthy milestone given that the ever popular Bloomberg Terminal, which is ubiquitously used across financial institutions and investment firms, is deployed on roughly 300,000 desktops.

Since raising their Series B in February 2017, OpenFin’s deployments have more than doubled. The company’s headcount has also doubled and its European presence has tripled. Earlier this year, OpenFin also launched it’s OpenFin Cloud Services platform, which allows financial firms to launch their own private local app stores for employees and customers without writing a single line of code.

To date, OpenFin has raised a total of $40 million in venture funding and plans to use the capital from its latest round for additional hiring and to expand its footprint onto more desktops around the world. In the long run, OpenFin hopes to become the vital operating infrastructure upon which all developers of financial applications are innovating.

Apple and Google’s mobile operating systems and app stores have enabled more than a million apps that have fundamentally changed how we live,” said Dar. “OpenFin OS and our new app store services enable the next generation of desktop apps that are transforming how we work in financial services.”


By Arman Tabatabai