The $10B JEDI contract is locked, loaded, and still completely stuck

The other day I took a moment to count the number of stories we’ve done on TechCrunch on the DoD’s $10 billion, decade-long, winner-take-all, JEDI cloud contract. This marks the 30th time we’ve written about this deal over the last two years, and it comes after a busy week last week in JEDI cloud contract news.

That we’re still writing about this is fairly odd if you consider the winner was announced last October when the DoD chose Microsoft, but there is no end in sight to the on-going drama that is this procurement process.

Government contracts don’t typically catch our attention at TechCrunch, but this one felt different early on. There was the size and scope of the deal of course. There was the cute play on the Star Wars theme. There was Oracle acting like a batter complaining to the umpire before the first pitch was thrown. There was the fact that everyone thought Amazon would win until it didn’t.

There was a lot going on. In fact, there’s still a lot going on with this story.

Oracle doth protest too much

Let’s start with Oracle, which dispatched CEO Safra Catz to the White House in April 2018 even before the RFP had been written. She was setting the stage to complain that the deal was going to be set up to favor Amazon, something that Oracle alleged until the day Microsoft was picked the winner.

Catz had been on the Trump transition team and so had the ear of the president. While the president certainly interjected himself in this process, it’s not known how much influence that particular meeting might have had. Suffice to say that it was only the first volley in Oracle’s long war against the JEDI contract procurement process.

It would include official complaints with the Government Accountability Office and a federal lawsuit worth not coincidentally $10 billion. It would claim the contract favored Amazon. It would argue that the one-vendor approach wasn’t proper. It would suggest that because the DoD had some former Amazon employees helping write the RFP, that it somehow favored Amazon. The GAO and two court cases found otherwise, ruling against Oracle every single time.

It’s worth noting that the Court of Appeals ruling last week indicated that Oracle didn’t even meet some of the basic contractual requirements, all the while complaining about the process itself from the start.

Amazon continues to press protests

Nobody was more surprised that Amazon lost the deal than Amazon itself. It still believes to this day that it is technically superior to Microsoft and that it can offer the DoD the best approach. The DoD doesn’t agree. On Friday, it reaffirmed its choice of Microsoft. But that is not the end of this, not by a long shot.

Amazon has maintained since the decision was made last October that the decision-making process had been tainted by presidential interference in the process. They believe that because of the president’s personal dislike of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post, he inserted himself in the process to prevent Bezos’ company from winning that deal.

In January, Amazon filed a motion to stop work on the project until this could all be sorted out. In February, a judge halted work on the project until Amazon’s complaints could be heard by the court. It is September and that order is still in place.

In a blog post on Friday, Amazon reiterated its case, which is based on presidential interference and what it believes is technical superiority. “In February, the Court of Federal Claims stopped performance on JEDI. The Court determined AWS’s protest had merit, and that Microsoft’s proposal likely failed to meet a key solicitation requirement and was likely deficient and ineligible for award. Our protest detailed how pervasive these errors were (impacting all six technical evaluation factors), and the Judge stopped the DoD from moving forward because the very first issue she reviewed demonstrated serious flaws,” Amazon wrote in the post.

Microsoft for the win?

Microsoft on the other hand went quietly about its business throughout this process. It announced Azure Stack, a kind of portable cloud that would work well as a field operations computer system. It beefed up its government security credentials.

Even though Microsoft didn’t agree with the one-vendor approach indicating that the government would benefit more from the multi-vendor approach many of its customers were taking, it made clear if those were the rules, it was in it to win it — and win it did, much to the surprise of everyone, especially Amazon.

Yet here we are, almost a year later and in spite of the fact that the DoD found once again, after further review, that Microsoft is still the winner, the contract remains in limbo. Until that pending court case is resolved, we will continue to watch and wait and wonder if this will ever be truly over, and the JEDI cloud contract will actually be implemented.


By Ron Miller

DoD reaffirms Microsoft has won JEDI cloud contract, but Amazon legal complaints still pending

We have seen a lot of action this week as the DoD tries to finally determine the final winner of the $10 billion, decade long DoD JEDI cloud contract. Today, the DoD released a statement that after reviewing the proposals from finalists Microsoft and Amazon again, it reiterated that Microsoft was the winner of the contract.

“The Department has completed its comprehensive re-evaluation of the JEDI Cloud proposals and determined that Microsoft’s proposal continues to represent the best value to the Government. The JEDI Cloud contract is a firm-fixed-price, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract that will make a full range of cloud computing services available to the DoD,” The DoD said in a statement.

This comes on the heels of yesterday’s Court of Appeals decision denying Oracle’s argument that the procurement process was flawed and that there was a conflict of interest because a former Amazon employee helped write the requirements for the RFP.

While the DoD has determined that it believes that Microsoft should still get the contract, after selecting them last October,  that doesn’t mean that this is the end of the line for this long-running saga. In fact, a federal judge halted work on the project in February pending a hearing on an on-going protest from Amazon, which believes it should have won based on merit, and the fact it believes the president interfered with the procurement process to prevent Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post from getting the lucrative contract.

The DoD confirmed that the project could not begin until the legal wrangling was settled. “While contract performance will not begin immediately due to the Preliminary Injunction Order issued by the Court of Federal Claims on February 13, 2020, DoD is eager to begin delivering this capability to our men and women in uniform,” the DoD reported in a statement.

A Microsoft spokesperson said the company was ready to get to work on the project as soon as it got the OK to proceed. “We appreciate that after careful review, the DoD confirmed that we offered the right technology and the best value. We’re ready to get to work and make sure that those who serve our country have access to this much needed technology,” a Microsoft spokesperson told TechCrunch.

While it takes us one step closer to the end of the road for this long-running drama, it won’t be over until the court rules on Amazon’s arguments.

Note: We sent a request for comment to Amazon, and will update the story if we hear back from them.


By Ron Miller

Microsoft and AWS exchange poisoned pen blog posts in latest Pentagon JEDI contract spat

Microsoft and Amazon are at it again as the fight for the Defense Department JEDI contract continues. In a recent series of increasingly acerbic pronouncements, the two companies continue their ongoing spat over the $10 billion, decade-long JEDI contract spoils.

As you may recall (or not), last fall in a surprise move, the DoD selected Microsoft as the winning vendor in the JEDI winner-take-all cloud infrastructure sweepstakes. The presumed winner was always AWS, but when the answer finally came down, it was not them.

To make a very long story short, AWS took exception to the decision and went to court to fight it. Later it was granted a stay of JEDI activities between Microsoft and the DoD, which as you can imagine did not please Microsoft . Since then, the two companies have been battling in PR pronouncements and blog posts trying to get the upper hand in the war for public opinion.

That fight took a hard turn this week when the two companies really went at it in dueling blog posts after Amazon filed its latest protest.

First there was Microsoft with PR exec Frank Shaw taking exception to AWS’s machinations, claiming the company just wants a do-over:

This latest filing – filed with the DoD this time – is another example of Amazon trying to bog down JEDI in complaints, litigation and other delays designed to force a do-over to rescue its failed bid.

Amazon’s Drew Herdner countered in a blog post published this morning:

Recently, Microsoft has published multiple self-righteous and pontificating blog posts that amount to nothing more than misleading noise intended to distract those following the protest.

The bottom line is that Microsoft believes it won the contract fair and square with a more competitive bid, while Amazon believes it should have won on technical superiority, and that there was political interference from the president because he doesn’t like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post.

If you’ve been following this story from the beginning (as I have), you know it has taken a series of twists and turns. It’s had lawsuits, complaints, drama and intrigue. The president has inserted himself into it too. There have been accusations of conflicts of interest. There have been investigations, lawsuits, and more investigations.

Government procurement tends to be pretty bland, but from the start when the DoD chose to use the cutesy Star Wars-driven acronym for this project, it has been anything but. Now it’s come down to two of the world’s largest tech companies exchanging angry blog posts. Sooner or later this is going to end right?


By Ron Miller

Health APIs usher in the patient revolution we have been waiting for

If you’ve ever been stuck using a health provider’s clunky online patient portal or had to make multiple calls to transfer medical records, you know how difficult it is to access your health data.

In an era when control over personal data is more important than ever before, the healthcare industry has notably lagged behind — but that’s about to change. This past month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published two final rules around patient data access and interoperability that will require providers and payers to create APIs that can be used by third-party applications to let patients access their health data.

This means you will soon have consumer apps that will plug into your clinic’s health records and make them viewable to you on your smartphone.

Critics of the new rulings have voiced privacy concerns over patient health data leaving internal electronic health record (EHR) systems and being surfaced to the front lines of smartphone apps. Vendors such as Epic and many health providers have publicly opposed the HHS rulings, while others, such as Cerner, have been supportive.

While that debate has been heated, the new HHS rulings represent a final decision that follows initial rules proposed a year ago. It’s a multi-year win for advocates of greater data access and control by patients.

The scope of what this could lead to — more control over your health records, and apps on top of it — is immense. Apple has been making progress with its Health Records app for some time now, and other technology companies, including Microsoft and Amazon, have undertaken healthcare initiatives with both new apps and cloud services.

It’s not just big tech that is getting in on the action: startups are emerging as well, such as Commure and Particle Health, which help developers work with patient health data. The unlocking of patient health data could be as influential as the unlocking of banking data by Plaid, which powered the growth of multiple fintech startups, including Robinhood, Venmo and Betterment.

What’s clear is that the HHS rulings are here to stay. In fact, many of the provisions require providers and payers to provide partial data access within the next 6-12 months. With this new market opening up, though, it’s time for more health entrepreneurs to take a deeper look at what patient data may offer in terms of clinical and consumer innovation.

The incredible complexity of today’s patient data systems


By Walter Thompson

In the wake of COVID-19, UK puts up £20M in grants to develop resilient tech for critical industries

Most of the world — despite the canaries in the coal mine — was unprepared to cope with the coronavirus outbreak that’s now besieging us. Now, work is starting to get underway both to help manage what is going on now and better prepare us in the future. In the latest development, the UK government today announced that it will issue £20 million ($24.5 million) in grants of up to £50,000 each to startups and other businesses that are developing tools to improve resilience for critical industries — in other words, those that need to keep moving when something cataclysmic like a pandemic hits.

You can start your application here. Unlike a lot of other government efforts, this one is aimed at a quick start: you need to be ready to kick of your project using the grant no later than June 2020, but earlier is okay, too.

Awarded through Innovate UK, which part of UK Research and Innovation (itself a division of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), the grants will be available to businesses of any size as long as they are UK-registered, and aim to cover a wide swathe of industries that form the core fabric of how society and the economy can continue to operate.

“The Covid-19 situation is not just a health emergency, but also one that effects the economy and society. With that in mind, Innovate UK has launched this rapid response competition today seeking smart ideas from innovators,” said Dr Ian Campbell Executive Chair, Innovate UK, in a statement. “These could be proposals to help the distribution of goods, educate children remotely, keep families digitally connected and even new ideas to stream music and entertainment. The UK needs a great national effort and Innovate UK is helping by unleashing the power of innovation for people and businesses in need.”

These include not just what are typically considered “critical” industries like healthcare and food production and distribution, but also those that are less tangible but equally important in keeping society running smoothly, like entertainment and wellbeing services:

  • community support services
  • couriers and delivery (rural and/or city based)
  • education and culture
  • entertainment (live entertainment, music, etc.)
  • financial services
  • food manufacture and processing
  • healthcare
  • hospitality
  • personal protection equipment
  • remote working
  • retail
  • social care
  • sport and recreation
  • transport
  • wellbeing

The idea is to introduce new technologies and processes that will support existing businesses and organizations, not use the funding to build new startups from scratch. Those getting the funding could already be businesses in these categories, or building tools to help companies that fall under these themes.

The grants were announced at a time where we are seeing a huge surge of companies step up to the challenge of helping communities and countries cope with COVID-19. That’s included not only those that already made medical supplies increase production, but a number of other businesses step in and try to help where they can, or recalibrate what they normally do to make their factories or other assets more useful. (For example, in the UK, Rolls Royce, Airbus and the Formula 1 team are all working on ventilators and other hospital equipment, a model of industry retooling that has been seen in many other countries, too.)

That trend is what helped to inspire this newest wave of non-equity grants.

“The response of researchers and businesses to the coronavirus outbreak have been remarkable,” said Science Minister Amanda Solloway in a statement. “This new investment will support the development of technologies that can help industries, communities and individuals adapt to new ways of working when situations like this, and other incidents, arise.”

The remit here is intentionally open-ended but will likely be shaped by some of the shortcomings and cracks that have been appearing in recent weeks while systems get severely stress-tested.

So, unsurprisingly, the sample innovations that UK Innovate cites appear to directly relate to that. They include things like technology to help respond to spikes in online consumer demand — every grocery service in the online and physical world has been overwhelmed by customer traffic, leading to sites crashing, people leaving stores disappointed at what they cannot find, and general panic. Or services for families to connect with and remotely monitor vulnerable relatives: while Zoom and the rest have seen huge surges in traffic, there are still too many people on the other side of the digital divide who cannot access or use these. And better education tools: again, there are thousands of edtech companies in the world, but in the UK at least, I wouldn’t say that the educational authorities had done even a small degree of disaster planning, leaving individual schools to scramble and figure out ways to keep teaching remotely that works for everyone (again not always easy with digital divides, safeguarding and other issues).

None of this can cure coronavirus or stop another pandemic from happening — there are plenty of others that are working very squarely on that now, too — but these are equally critical to get right to make sure that a health disaster doesn’t extend into a more permanent economic or societal one.

More information and applications are here.


By Ingrid Lunden

Pentagon asks court for time to reconsider JEDI award to Microsoft

The JEDI contract award process might never be done. Following legal challenges from Amazon after the Pentagon’s massive, $10 billion cloud contract was awarded to Microsoft in October, the Pentagon indicated in court documents last night that it wishes to reconsider the award.

It’s just the latest plot twist in an epic government procurement saga.

Here’s what we know. The Pentagon filing is based on Amazon’s complaints about the technical part of the deal only. Amazon has said that it believes political interference influenced the awarding of the contract. However, the cloud computing giant also believes it beat Microsoft on the technical merits in a majority of instances required in the request for proposals issued by the Pentagon.

In fact, sources told TechCrunch, “AWS’s protest identified evaluation errors, clear deficiencies and unmistakable bias in six of the eight evaluation factors.”

Obviously Amazon was happy to hear this news. “We are pleased that the DoD has acknowledged ‘substantial and legitimate’ issues that affected the JEDI award decision, and that corrective action is necessary,” a spokesperson stated.

“We look forward to complete, fair, and effective corrective action that fully insulates the re-evaluation from political influence and corrects the many issues affecting the initial flawed award.”

The court granted the Pentagon 120 days to review the results again, but indicated it could take longer. In the mean time, the project is at a standstill.

On Friday, the court issued a ruling that Amazon was likely to succeed on its complaint on merit, and that could have been the impetus of this latest action by the Pentagon.

 

While the political influence piece might not be overtly part of this filing, it does lurk in the background. The president has made it clear that he doesn’t like Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post. As we wrote last year:

Amazon, for instance, could point to Jim Mattis’ book where he wrote that the president told the then Defense Secretary to “screw Bezos out of that $10 billion contract.” Mattis says he refused, saying he would go by the book, but it certainly leaves the door open to a conflict question.

As we previously reported, AWS CEO Andy Jassy, stated at a press event at AWS re:Invent in December that the company believed there was political bias at play in the decision-making process.

“What I would say is that it’s fairly obvious that we feel pretty strongly that it was not adjudicated fairly,” he said. He added, “I think that we ended up with a situation where there was political interference. When you have a sitting president, who has shared openly his disdain for a company, and the leader of that company, it makes it really difficult for government agencies, including the DoD, to make objective decisions without fear of reprisal.”

We have requested comment from Microsoft and DoD and will update the story should they respond.


By Ron Miller

CircleCI-AWS GovCloud partnership aims to bring modern development to U.S. government

Much like private businesses, the United States government is in the process of moving workloads to the cloud, and facing a similar set of challenges. Today, CircleCI, the continuous delivery developer service, announced a partnership with AWS GovCloud to help federal government entities using AWS’s government platform to modernize their applications development workflows.

“What this means is that it allows us to run our server offering, which is our on-prem offering, and our government customers can run that on dedicated pure cloud resource [on AWS GovCloud],” CircleCI CEO Jim Rose told TechCrunch.

GovCloud is a dedicated, single tenant cloud platform that lets government entities build FedRAMP-compliant secure cloud solutions (other cloud vendors have similar offerings). FedRAMP is a set of government cloud security standards any cloud vendor has to meet to work with the federal government

CircleCI builds modern continuous delivery/continuous integration (CI/CD) pipelines for development teams pushing changes to the application in a rapid change cycle.

“What GovCloud allows us to do is now provide that same level of security and service for government customers that wanted us to do so in an on prem environment in a dedicated single tenant environment [in the cloud],” Rose explained.

While there are a number of steps involved in building cloud applications, Rose said they are sticking to their core strength around building continuous delivery pipelines. As he says, if you have a legacy mainframe application that changes once every year or two, using CircleCI wouldn’t make sense, but as you begin to modernize, that’s where his company could help.

“[CircleCi comes into play] when you get into more modern cloud applications that are changing in some cases hundreds of times a day, and the sources of change for those applications is getting really diverse and managing that is becoming more complex,” Rose said.

This partnership could involve working directly with an agency, as it has done with the Small Business Administration (SBA), or it might involve a systems integrator, or even AWS, inviting them to be part of a larger RFP.

Rose says he realizes that working with the government can sometimes be controversial. Companies from Chef to Salesforce to Google, have run afoul with employees, who don’t want to work with certain agencies like DoD or ICE. He says his company has tended to focus on areas where agencies are looking to improve citizen interactions, and steered away from other areas.

“From our perspective, given that we’re not super involved in a lot of those areas, but we want to get in front of it, both commercially, as well as on the government side, and determine what falls within the fence line and what’s outside of it,” he said.


By Ron Miller

Judge halts Microsoft work on JEDI contract after AWS request

A sealed order from a judge today has halted the $10 billion, decade long JEDI project in its tracks until AWS’s protest of the contract award to Microsoft can be heard by the court.

The order signed by Judge Patricia E. Campbell-Smith of the US Court Federal Claims stated:

The United States, by and through the Department of Defense, its officers, agents, and employees, is hereby PRELIMINARILY ENJOINED from proceeding with contract activities under Contract No. HQ0034-20-D-0001, which was awarded under Solicitation No. HQ0034-18-R-0077, until further order of the court.

The judge was not taking this lightly, adding that Amazon would have to put up $42 million bond to cover costs should it prove that the motion was filed wrongfully. Given Amazon’s value as of today is $1.08 trillion, they can probably afford to put up the money, but they must provide it by February 20th, and the court gets to hold the funds until a final determination has been made.

At the end of last month, Amazon filed a motion to stop work on the project until the court could rule on its protest. In protests of this sort it is not unusual to stop work until a final decision on the award can be made.

This is all part of an ongoing drama that has gone for a couple of years since the DoD put this out to bid. After much wrangling, the DoD awarded the contract to Microsoft at the end of October. Amazon filed suit in November, claiming that the president had unduly influenced the process. Earlier this week, the company filed paperwork to depose the president and Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper.

More to come.


By Ron Miller

Even after Microsoft wins, JEDI saga could drag on

The DoD JEDI contract saga came to a thrilling conclusion on Friday afternoon, appropriately enough, with one final plot twist. The presumptive favorite, Amazon did not win, stunning many, including likely the company itself. In the end, Microsoft took home the $10 billion prize.

This contract was filled with drama from the beginning, given the amount of money involved, the length of the contract, the winner-take-all nature of the deal — and the politics. We can’t forget the politics. This was Washington after all and Jeff Bezos does own the Washington Post.

Then there was Oracle’s fury throughout the procurement process. The president got involved in August. The current defense secretary recused himself on Wednesday, two days before the decision came down. It was all just so much drama, even the final decision itself, handed down late Friday afternoon, but it’s unclear if this is the end or just another twist in this ongoing tale.

Some perspective on $10 billion

Before we get too crazy about Microsoft getting a $10 billion, 10 year contract, consider that Amazon earned $9 billion last quarter alone in cloud revenue. Microsoft reported $33 billion last quarter in total revenue. It reported around $11 billion in cloud revenue. Synergy Research pegs the current cloud infrastructure market at well over $100 billion annually (and growing).

What we have here is a contract that’s worth a billion a year. What’s more, it’s possible it might not even be worth that much if the government uses one of its out clauses. The deal is actually initially guaranteed for just two years. Then there are a couple of three-year options, with a final two-year option at the end if gets that far.

The DOD recognized that with the unique nature of this contract, going with a single vendor, it wanted to keep its options open should the tech world shift suddenly under its feet. It didn’t want to be inextricably tied to one company for a decade if that company was suddenly disrupted by someone else. Given the shifting sands of technology, that part of the strategy was a wise one.

Where the value lies

If value of this deal was not the contract itself, it begs the question, why did everyone want it so badly? The $10 billion JEDI deal was simply a point of entree. If you could modernize the DoD’s infrastructure, the argument goes, chances are you could do the same for other areas of the government. It could open the door for Microsoft for a much more lucrative government cloud business.

But it’s not as though Microsoft didn’t already have a lucrative cloud business. In 2016, for example, the company signed a deal worth almost a billion dollars to help move the entire department to Windows 10. Amazon too, has had its share of government contracts, famously landing the $600 million to build the CIA’s private cloud.

But given all the attention to this deal, it always felt a little different from your standard government contract. Just the fact the DoD used a Star Wars reference for the project acronym drew more attention to the project from the start. Therefore, there was some prestige for the winner of this deal, and Microsoft gets bragging rights this morning, while Amazon is left to ponder what the heck happened. As for other companies like Oracle, who knows how they’re feeling about this outcome.

Hell hath no fury like Oracle scorned

Ah yes Oracle; this tale would not be complete without discussing the rage of Oracle throughout the JEDI RFP process. Even before the RFP process started, they were complaining about the procurement process. Co-CEO Safra Catz had dinner with the president to complain that contract process wasn’t fair (not fair!). Then it tried complaining to the Government Accountability Office. They found no issue with the process.

They went to court. The judge dismissed their claims that involved both the procurement process and that a former Amazon employee, who was hired by DoD, was involved in the process of creating the RFP. They claimed that the former employee was proof that the deal was tilted toward Amazon. The judge disagreed and dismissed their complaints.

What Oracle could never admit, was that it simply didn’t have the same cloud chops that Microsoft and Amazon, the two finalists, had. It couldn’t be that they were late to the cloud or had a fraction of the market share that Amazon and Microsoft had. It had to be the process or that someone was boxing them out.

What Microsoft brings to the table

Outside of the politics of this decision (which we will get to shortly), Microsoft brought some experience and tooling the table that certainly gave it some advantage in the selection process. Until we see the reasons for the selections, it’s hard to know exactly why DoD chose Microsoft, but we know a few things.

First of all there are the existing contracts with DoD, including the aforementioned Windows 10 contract and a five year $1.76 billion contract with DoD Intelligence to provide “innovative enterprise services” to the DoD.

Then there is Azure Stack, a portable private cloud stack that the military could stand up anywhere. It could have great utility for missions in the field when communicating with a cloud server could be problematic.

Fool if you think it’s over

So that’s that right? The decision has been made and it’s time to move on. Amazon will go home and lick its wounds. Microsoft gets bragging rights and we’re good. Actually, this might not be where it ends at all.

Amazon for instance could point to Jim Mattis’ book where he wrote that the president told the then Defense Secretary to “screw Bezos out of that $10 billion contract.” Mattis says he refused saying he would go by the book, but it certainly leaves the door open to a conflict question.

It’s also worth pointing out that Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post and the president isn’t exactly in love with that particular publication. In fact, this week, the White House canceled its subscription and encouraged other government agencies to do so as well.

Then there is the matter of current Defense Secretary Mark Espers suddenly recusing himself last Wednesday afternoon based on a minor point that one of his adult children works at IBM (in a non-cloud consulting job). He claimed he wanted to remove any hint of conflict of interest, but at this point in the process, it was down to Microsoft and Amazon. IBM wasn’t even involved.

If Amazon wanted to protest this decision, it seems it would have much more solid ground to do so than Oracle ever had.

The bottom line is a decision has been made, at least for now, but this process has been rife with controversy from the start, just by the design of the project, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Amazon take some protest action of its own. It seems oddly appropriate.


By Ron Miller

Descartes Labs snaps up $20M more for its AI-based geospatial imagery analytics platform

Satellite imagery holds a wealth of information that could be useful for industries, science and humanitarian causes, but one big and persistent challenge with it has been a lack of effective ways to tap that disparate data for specific ends.

That’s created a demand for better analytics, and now, one of the startups that has been building solutions to do just that is announcing a round of funding as it gears up for expansion. Descartes Labs, a geospatial imagery analytics startup out of Santa Fe, New Mexico, is today announcing that it has closed a $20 million round of funding, money that CEO and founder Mark Johnson described to me as a bridge round ahead of the startup closing and announcing a larger growth round.

The funding is being led by Union Grove Venture Partners, with Ajax Strategies, Crosslink Capital, and March Capital Partners (which led its previous round) also participating. It brings the total raised by Descartes Labs to $60 million, and while Johnson said the startup would not be disclosing its valuation, PitchBook notes that it is $220 million ($200 million pre-money in this round).

As a point of comparison, another startup in the area of geospatial analytics, Orbital Insight, is reportedly now raising money at a $430 million valuation (that data is from January of this year, and we’ve contacted the company to see if it ever closed).

Santa Fe — a city popular with retirees that counts tourism as its biggest industry — is an unlikely place to find a tech startup. Descartes Labs’ presence there is a result of that fact that it is a spinoff from the Los Alamos National Laboratory near the city.

Johnson — who had lived in San Francisco before coming to Santa Fe to help create Descartes Labs (his previous experience building Zite for media, he said, led the Los Alamos scientists to first conceive of the Descartes Labs IP as the basis of a kind of search engine) — admitted that he never thought the company would stay headquartered there beyond a short initial phase of growth of six months.

However, it turned out that the trends around more distributed workforces (and cloud computing to enable that), engineers looking for employment alternatives to living in pricey San Francisco, plus the heated competition for talent you get in the Valley all came together in a perfect storm that helped Descartes Labs establish and thrive on its home turf.

Descartes Labs — named after the seminal philosopher/mathematician Rene Descartes — describes itself as a “data refinery”. By this, it means it injests a lot of imagery and unstructured data related to the earth that is picked up primarily by satellites but also other sensors (Johnson notes that its sources include data from publicly available satellites; data from NASA and the European space agency, and data from the companies themselves); applies AI-based techniques including computer vision analysis and machine learning to make sense of the sometimes-grainy imagery; and distills and orders it to create insights into what is going on down below, and how that is likely to evolve.

Screenshot 2019 10 11 at 13.26.33

This includes not just what is happening on the surface of the earth, but also in the air above it: Descartes Labs has worked on projects to detect levels of methane gas in oil fields, the spread of wildfires, and how crops might grow in a particular area, and the impact of weather patterns on it all.

It has produced work for a range of clients that have included governments (the methane detection was commissioned as part of New Mexico’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions), energy giants and industrial agribusiness, and traders.

“The idea is to help them take advantage of all the new data going online,” Johnson said, noting that this can help, for example, bankers forecast how much a commodity will trade for, or the effect of a change in soil composition on a crop.

The fact that Descartes Labs’ work has connected it with the energy industry gives an interesting twist to the use of the phrase “data refinery”. But in case you were wondering, Johnson said that the company goes through a process of vetting potential customers to determine if the data Descartes Labs provides to them is for a positive end, or not.

“We have a deep belief that we can help them become more efficient,” he said. “Those looking at earth data are doing so because they care about the planet and are working to try to become more sustainable.”

Johnson also said (in answer to my question about it) that so far, there haven’t been any instances where the startup has been prohibited to work with any customers or countries, but you could imagine how — in this day of data being ‘the new oil’ and the fulcrum of power — that could potentially be an issue. (Related to this: Orbital Insight counts In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture arm, as one of its backers.)

Looking ahead, the company is building what it describes as a “digital twin” of the earth, the idea being that in doing so it can better model the imagery that it injests and link up data from different regions more seamlessly (since, after all, a climatic event in one part of the world inevitably impacts another). Notably, “digital twinning” is a common concept that we see applied in other AI-based enterprises to better predict activity: this is the approach that, for example, Forward Networks takes when building models of an enterprise’s network to determine how apps will behave and identify the reasons behind an outage.

In addition to the funding round, Descartes Labs named Phil Fraher its new CFO, and is announcing Veery Maxwell, Director for Energy Innovation and Patrick Cairns, who co-founded UGVP, as new board observers.


By Ingrid Lunden

Nadella warns government conference not to betray user trust

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, delivering the keynote at the Microsoft Government Leaders Summit in Washington, DC today, had a message for attendees to maintain user trust in their tools technologies above all else.

He said it is essential to earn user trust, regardless of your business. “Now, of course, the power law here is all around trust because one of the keys for us, as providers of platforms and tools, trust is everything,” he said today. But he says it doesn’t stop with the platform providers like Microsoft. Institutions using those tools also have to keep trust top of mind or risk alienating their users.

“That means you need to also ensure that there is trust in the technology that you adopt, and the technology that you create, and that’s what’s going to really define the power law on this equation. If you have trust, you will have exponential benefit. If you erode trust it will exponentially decay,” he said.

He says Microsoft sees trust along three dimensions: privacy, security and ethical use of artificial intelligence. All of these come together in his view to build a basis of trust with your customers.

Nadella said he sees privacy as a human right, pure and simple, and it’s up to vendors to ensure that privacy or lose the trust of their customers. “The investments around data governance is what’s going to define whether you’re serious about privacy or not,” he said. For Microsoft, they look at how transparent they are about how they use the data, their terms of service, and how they use technology to ensure that’s being carried out at runtime.

He reiterated the call he made last year for a federal privacy law. With GDPR in Europe and California’s CCPA coming on line in January, he sees a centralized federal law as a way to streamline regulations for business.

As for security, as you might expect, he defined it in terms of how Microsoft was implementing it, but the message was clear that you needed security as part of your approach to trust, regardless of how you implement that. He asked several key questions of attendees.

“Cyber is the second area where we not only have to do our work, but you have to [ask], what’s your operational security posture, how have you thought about having the best security technology deployed across the entire chain, whether it’s on the application side, the infrastructure side or on the endpoint, side, and most importantly, around identity,” Nadella said.

The final piece, one which he said was just coming into play was how you use artificial intelligence ethically, a sensitive topic for a government audience, but one he wasn’t afraid to broach. “One of the things people say is, ‘Oh, this AI thing is so unexplainable, especially deep learning.’ But guess what, you created that deep learning [model]. In fact, the data on top of which you train the model, the parameters and the number of parameters you use — a lot of things are in your control. So we should not abdicate our responsibility when creating AI,” he said.

Whether Microsoft or the US government can adhere to these lofty goals is unclear, but Nadella was careful to outline them both for his company’s benefit and this particular audience. It’s up to both of them to follow through.


By Ron Miller

Satya Nadella looks to the future with edge computing

Speaking today at the Microsoft Government Leaders Summit in Washington DC, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella made the case for edge computing, even while pushing the Azure cloud as what he called “the world’s computer.”

While Amazon, Google and other competitors may have something to say about that, marketing hype aside, many companies are still in the midst of transitioning to the cloud. Nadella says the future of computing could actually be at the edge where computing is done locally before data is then transferred to the cloud for AI and machine learning purposes. What goes around, comes around.

But as Nadella sees it, this is not going to be about either edge or cloud. It’s going to be the two technologies working in tandem. “Now, all this is being driven by this new tech paradigm that we describe as the intelligent cloud and the intelligent edge,” he said today.

He said that to truly understand the impact the edge is going to have on computing, you have to look at research, which predicts there will be 50 billion connected devices in the world by 2030, a number even he finds astonishing. “I mean this is pretty stunning. We think about a billion Windows machines or a couple of billion smartphones. This is 50 billion [devices], and that’s the scope,” he said.

The key here is that these 50 billion devices, whether you call them edge devices or the Internet of Things, will be generating tons of data. That means you will have to develop entirely new ways of thinking about how all this flows together. “The capacity at the edge, that ubiquity is going to be transformative in how we think about computation in any business process of ours,” he said. As we generate ever-increasing amounts of data, whether we are talking about public sector kinds of use case, or any business need, it’s going to be the fuel for artificial intelligence, and he sees the sheer amount of that data driving new AI use cases.

“Of course when you have that rich computational fabric, one of the things that you can do is create this new asset, which is data and AI. There is not going to be a single application, a single experience that you are going to build, that is not going to be driven by AI, and that means you have to really have the ability to reason over large amounts of data to create that AI,” he said.

Nadella would be more than happy to have his audience take care of all that using Microsoft products, whether Azure compute, database, AI tools or edge computers like the Data Box Edge it introduced in 2018. While Nadella is probably right about the future of computing, all of this could apply to any cloud, not just Microsoft.

As computing shifts to the edge, it’s going to have a profound impact on the way we think about technology in general, but it’s probably not going to involve being tied to a single vendor, regardless of how comprehensive their offerings may be.


By Ron Miller

Vannevar Labs comes out of stealth to bring best-in-class AI tech to national security agencies

Few organizations have the complex data and analytics problems that challenge the defense and intelligence communities every single day. Whether it is managing petabytes of text, audio, or video data, finding extraordinarily small patterns in the noise, or processing multilingual analytics, the agencies at the heart of America’s national security system confront cutting-edge problems every day.

Despite the desire for better tools though, intelligence analysts are often stymied to procure up-to-date software due to the byzantine rules that drive Pentagon and intelligence procurement.

That’s why a former intelligence official and former intelligence investor are looking to build a new platform that connects the best minds in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing and bundling it together into a service purchasable by these government agencies.

Through Palo Alto-based Vannevar, co-founders Brett Granberg and Nini Moorhead are hoping to launch their first product, which is focused on bringing NLP technologies like feature detection to international counterterrorism missions.

Vannevar Labs

Co-founders Nimi Moorhead and Brett Granberg of Vannevar Labs. Photo via Vannevar Labs.

The company is named for Vannevar Bush, who is often credited with inventing an early form of the computer, putting together the Manhattan Project which led to the atom bomb, and for writing a seminal essay that sort of predicted the internet decades before its inception.

The two chose this particular product as an entrée because of their past experiences. Before beginning Vannevar, Granberg spent two years at In-Q-Tel, the non-profit VC firm that works deeply with the intelligence community to supply agencies with the best in startup technology. He also was an advisor at Lilt, a real-time deep learning translation product that spun out of Chris Manning’s famed Stanford NLP research lab.

Meanwhile, Moorhead spent seven years working as a counterterrorism officer within the intelligence community, working to disrupt terrorist networks.

The two met while they overlapped at Stanford GSB and realized they had seen similar problems that they both wanted to solve. While in business school, “top of mind for me was some of the technological challenges that I encountered as an end user [and] analyst in the intelligence community,” Moorhead said. “We immediately connected and shared a lot of experiences in common in terms of seeing gaps between the really hard domain problems that I’d been working on in my career as an analyst and some of the technology that was available to me,” she said. The two actually met the first day of school.

Their approach is to take proven techniques and attempt to translate them into government use cases. “We’re not sort of inventing new math to solve these problems, we’re more taking cutting-edge approaches and just applying them to specific use cases,” Granberg said.

While the project is early, the team raised a $4.5 million seed venture capital funding from fellow GSB alum Katherine Boyle of General Catalyst and Costanoa Ventures. Boyle has made a big push into defense and highly-regulated industries as part of her investment practice, where she previously funded Anduril, the company started by Oculus founder Palmer Luckey that has attempted to apply ML technology to security issues such as battlefield awareness and border control (and gotten into some controversy along the way as well).

She is particularly excited about new ways for startups to secure government contracts at a speed faster than the sun burning out. Talking to me about the potential in this industry, she said:

We’ve been spending a lot of time with companies that are going after what’s known as Other Transaction Authorities, which are a new type of contracting vehicle that was developed in 2015 by former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, to help tech companies work very quickly with the Department of Defense and with the intelligence community. So what historically might have taken 18 months to get a contract now takes 30 to 60 days for critical pieces of technology

Boyle explained that Vannevar fits directly into her thesis for the future of government procurement. “Our view is that the companies that do best in the space are people who have worked in government or understand how to sell to governments,” she said. She noted that the company is very early, and her investment was primarily focused on the team.

I asked about recent controversies that have hit companies like Google, which saw a revolt by some employees over its involvement with a defense program called Project Maven, which attempted to use machine learning technology and apply that to the battlefield, so that, for instance, drones could increase their effectiveness during strikes.

Granberg said that “we think that the people that defend our country should have access to the best tools and technologies to do their job. We know these people, we used to work with them, and we want to help them.”

He understands the concerns of critics though, and says that Vannevar intends to work with the government to ensure ethics remains core to its product. “We believe it’s our responsibility to sort of shape that technology and help the government think about putting in place policies that … prevent the misuse from happening.”

Boyle agreed. “One of the things that we’ve noticed is that if you’re very transparent and upfront about the types of products you’re going to be building in the beginning, it’s not a recruitment problem, it’s not an ethics problem.” Unlike Google, which had a six-figure large workforce with many employees who don’t want to touch defense-related code, the hope for Granberg and Moorhead is that a company like Vannevar can build a coalition of the willing, as it were, and maybe solve some serious security problems as well.


By Danny Crichton

ZenBusiness raises $15m to help founders launch and grow “worry-free”

There are two sides to starting a new business. On one side, entrepreneurs need creativity, imagination — a dream, essentially — to find, build, and market a new product to users and consumers. But on the other side, they have to deal with the regulatory state and all the minutia that comes with running any business in the 21st century.

That includes such delightful topics as choosing a particular model for incorporation, ensuring that a business has the right licenses to operate, and tracking all the legal changes happening in 50 state legislatures every year. It can be inordinately complicated (and expensive!) to ensure that your business is ready and legal.

That’s where ZenBusiness comes in. The Austin-based startup wants to empower entrepreneurs to build businesses large and small by dramatically simplifying the processes required to launch a business and then grow it.

When I last chatted with the company 18 months ago, they had just raised a $4.5 million seed round and had launched its platform. Today, it’s announcing that it has raised a new $15 million series A round led by return backer Greycroft, along with returning investors Lerer Hippeau and Revolution’s Rise of the Rest fund, alongside new investors Rosecliff Venture Partners, Interlock Partners and Recruit Strategic Partners.

The company launched with a product that was essentially an automated registered agent for new entrepreneurs. Under state incorporation laws, companies must designate a so-called “registered agent” to receive official notices from regulatory agencies, and so ZenBusiness chose this strategic point for entry into the market.

When I last chatted with CEO Russ Buhrdorf, he described rolling up this market as one of the key initial targets for the company:

ZenBusiness is the brainchild of Ross Buhrdorf, who joined vacation rental marketplace HomeAway five months after its inception as founding CTO, and stayed for a decade until its acquisition by Expedia in 2015 for $3.9 billion. Buhrdorf intended to take a year off, but “didn’t quite make it a year” he told me.

He explained to me that HomeAway in many ways followed a rollup playbook, “raising $400 million and acquired 26 companies.” Bringing that rollup lens while exploring new spaces, he ran into the corporate legal services market, which offers help to companies to keep them in compliance with the law. Buhrdorf liked what he saw. “It’s different in all 50 states, highly-regulated, which is great for technology, it is overpriced, and they underserve their customers.” He says the space is “completely ripe for disruption.”

Since that time, the company has expanded its product to help entrepreneurs get beyond merely incorporating to actually building out their business by recommending services like banking, lending, tax preparation, website building, and more. The hope is to provide a “worry-free” guarantee to entrepreneurs so that they can get those early critical logistics out of the way and back to actually operating and growing their business.

“Small businesses come through this funnel, they don’t necessarily know exactly what to do. So we curate that solution, and then we provide them with the basics for them to get up and running and to be successful,” Buhrdorf said.

He explained that the company has built out some tools itself such as a simple webpage creator, but in the long run, he hopes to partner with other providers who integrate into the ZenBusiness platform. For instance, ZenBusiness has partnered with Xero as the company’s main accounting provider, while also backstopping that offering with accountants working at ZenBusiness. The idea is that the automated tooling plus a little human touch can help most owners handle the day-to-day challenges of running a business.

TeamPhoto2018

The ZenBusiness team in 2018. Photo via ZenBusiness.

Buhrdorf is particularly focused on keeping the product very self-service and automated to allow it to focus on these smaller customers. “Many of the companies that you cover that are in the enterprise space, who provide solutions for medium-sized businesses, they have to charge, they have to have sales forces, it’s very competitive there,” Buhrdorf said. “What we’re after is the segment that’s underserved, it’s the long tail of the small business segment.”

ZenBusiness has expanded its services, and it is hoping to use the fresh infusion of capital to invest in building out community features that will allow small business owners to swap tips with each other and help one another grow their businesses (presumably with some guidance from ZenBusiness community managers and experts).

The company is now 40 employees predominantly in Austin with a small office in Peru. Since we last checked in, the company has transitioned to become a public benefit corporation, which Buhrdorf said was an attempt to better align the company’s charter with its mission orientation to help small business entrepreneurs.

Update: The funding total was changed from $10m to $15m. Sorry about that.


By Danny Crichton

Chef CEO does an about face, says company will not renew ICE contract

After stating clearly on Friday that he would honor a $95,000 contract with ICE, CEO Barry Crist must have had a change of heart over the weekend. In a blog post, this morning he wrote that the company would not be renewing the contract with ICE after all.

“After deep introspection and dialog within Chef, we will not renew our current contracts with ICE and CBP when they expire over the next year. Chef will fulfill our full obligations under the current contracts,” Crist wrote in the blog post.

He also backed off the seemingly firm position he took on Friday on the matter when he told TechCrunch, “It’s something that we spent a lot of time on, and I want to represent that there are portions of [our company] that do not agree with this, but I as a leader of the company, along with the executive team, made a decision that we would honor the contracts and those relationships that were formed and work with them over time,” he said.

Today, he acknowledged that intense feelings inside the company against the contract led to his decision. The contract began in 2015 under the Obama administration and was aimed at modernizing programming approaches at DHS, but over time as ICE family separation and deportation polices have come under fire, there were calls internally (and later externally) to end the contract. “Policies such as family separation and detention did not yet exist [when we started this contract]. While I and others privately opposed this and various other related policies, we did not take a position despite the recommendation of many of our employees. I apologize for this,” he wrote

Crist also indicated that the company would be donating the revenue from the contracts to organizations that work with people who have been affected by these policies. It’s a similar approach that Salesforce took when 618 of its employees protested a contract the company has with the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). In response to the protests, Salesforce pledged $1 million to organizations helping affected families.

After a tweet last week exposed the contract, the protests began on social media, and culminated in programmer Seth Vargo removing pieces of open source code from the repository in protest of the contract in response. The company sounded firmly committed to fulfilling this contract in spite of the calls for action internally and externally, and the widespread backlash it was facing both inside and outside the company.

Vargo told TechCrunch in an interview that he saw this issue in moral terms, “Contrary to Chef’s CEO’s publicly posted response, I do think it is the responsibility of businesses to evaluate how and for what purposes their software is being used, and to follow their moral compass,” he said. Apparently Crist has come around to this point of view. Vargo chose not to comment on the latest development.


By Ron Miller