Extra Crunch roundup: 2 VC surveys, Tesla’s melt up, The Roblox Gambit, more

This has been quite a week.

Instead of walking backward through the last few days of chaos and uncertainty, here are three good things that happened:

  • Google employee Sara Robinson combined her interest in machine learning and baking to create AI-generated hybrid treats.
  • A breakthrough could make water desalination 30%-40% more effective.
  • Bianca Smith will become the first Black woman to coach a professional baseball team.

Despite many distractions in our first full week of the new year, we published a full slate of stories exploring different aspects of entrepreneurship, fundraising and investing.

We’ve already gotten feedback on this overview of subscription pricing models, and a look back at 2020 funding rounds and exits among Israel’s security startups was aimed at our new members who live and work there, along with international investors who are seeking new opportunities.

Plus, don’t miss our first investor surveys of 2021: one by Lucas Matney on social gaming, and another by Mike Butcher that gathered responses from Portugal-based investors on a wide variety of topics.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch this week. I hope we can all look forward to a nice, boring weekend with no breaking news alerts.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist


Full Extra Crunch articles are only available to members
Use discount code ECFriday to save 20% off a one- or two-year subscription


The Roblox Gambit

In February 2020, gaming platform Roblox was valued at $4 billion, but after announcing a $520 million Series H this week, it’s now worth $29.5 billion.

“Sure, you could argue that Roblox enjoyed an epic 2020, thanks in part to COVID-19,” writes Alex Wilhelm this morning. “That helped its valuation. But there’s a lot of space between $4 billion and $29.5 billion.”

Alex suggests that Roblox’s decision to delay its IPO and raise an enormous Series H was a grandmaster move that could influence how other unicorns will take themselves to market. “A big thanks to the gaming company for running this experiment for us.”

I asked him what inspired the headline; like most good ideas, it came to him while he was trying to get to sleep.

“I think that I had “The Queen’s Gambit somewhere in my head, so that formed the root of a little joke with myself. Roblox is making a strategic wager on method of going public. So, ‘gambit’ seems to fit!”

8 investors discuss social gaming’s biggest opportunities

girl playing games on desktop computer

Image Credits: Erik Von Weber (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

For our first investor survey of the year, Lucas Matney interviewed eight VCs who invest in massively multiplayer online games to discuss 2021 trends and opportunities:

  • Hope Cochran, Madrona Venture Group
  • Daniel Li, Madrona Venture Group
  • Niko Bonatsos, General Catalyst
  • Ethan Kurzweil, Bessemer Venture Partners
  • Sakib Dadi, Bessemer Venture Partners
  • Jacob Mullins, Shasta Ventures
  • Alice Lloyd George, Rogue
  • Gigi Levy-Weiss, NFX

Having moved far beyond shooters and sims, platforms like Twitch, Discord and Fortnite are “where culture is created,” said Daniel Li of Madrona.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez uses Twitch to explain policy positions, major musicians regularly perform in-game concerts on Fortnite and in-game purchases generated tens of billions last year.

“Gaming is a unique combination of science and art, left and right brain,” said Gigi Levy-Weiss of NFX. “It’s never just science (i.e., software and data), which is why many investors find it hard.”

How to convert customers with subscription pricing

Giant hand and magnet picking up office and workers

Image Credits: C.J. Burton (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Startups that lack insight into their sales funnel have high churn, low conversion rates and an inability to adapt or leverage changes in customer behavior.

If you’re hoping to convert and retain customers, “reinforcing your value proposition should play a big part in every level of your customer funnel,” says Joe Procopio, founder of Teaching Startup.

What is up with Tesla’s value?

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., arrives at the Axel Springer Award ceremony in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Tesla Inc. will be added to the S&P 500 Index in one shot on Dec. 21, a move that will ripple through the entire market as money managers adjust their portfolios to make room for shares of the $538 billion company. Photographer: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Image Credits: Bloomberg (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Alex Wilhelm followed up his regular Friday column with another story that tries to find a well-grounded rationale for Tesla’s sky-high valuation of approximately $822 billion.

Meanwhile, GM just unveiled a new logo and tagline.

As ever, I learned something new while editing: A “melt up” occurs when investors start clamoring for a particular company because of acute FOMO (the fear of missing out).

Delivering 500,000 cars in 2020 was “impressive,” says Alex, who also acknowledged the company’s ability to turn GAAP profits, but “pride cometh before the fall, as does a melt up, I think.”

Note: This story has Alex’s original headline, but I told him I would replace the featured image with a photo of someone who had very “richest man in the world” face.

How Segment redesigned its core systems to solve an existential scaling crisis

Abstract glowing grid and particles

Image Credits: piranka / Getty Images

On Tuesday, enterprise reporter Ron Miller covered a major engineering project at customer data platform Segment called “Centrifuge.”

“Its purpose was to move data through Segment’s data pipes to wherever customers needed it quickly and efficiently at the lowest operating cost,” but as Ron reports, it was also meant to solve “an existential crisis for the young business,” which needed a more resilient platform.

Dear Sophie: Banging my head against the wall understanding the US immigration system

Image Credits: Sophie Alcorn

Dear Sophie:

Now that the U.S. has a new president coming in whose policies are more welcoming to immigrants, I am considering coming to the U.S. to expand my company after COVID-19. However, I’m struggling with the morass of information online that has bits and pieces of visa types and processes.

Can you please share an overview of the U.S. immigration system and how it works so I can get the big picture and understand what I’m navigating?

— Resilient in Romania

The first “Dear Sophie” column of each month is available on TechCrunch without a paywall.

Revenue-based financing: The next step for private equity and early-stage investment

Shot of a group of people holding plants growing out of soil

Image Credits: Hiraman (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

For founders who aren’t interested in angel investment or seeking validation from a VC, revenue-based investing is growing in popularity.

To gain a deeper understanding of the U.S. RBI landscape, we published an industry report on Wednesday that studied data from 134 companies, 57 funds and 32 investment firms before breaking out “specific verticals and business models … and the typical profile of companies that access this form of capital.”

Lisbon’s startup scene rises as Portugal gears up to be a European tech tiger

Man using laptop at 25th of April Bridge in Lisbon, Portugal

Image Credits: Westend61 (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

Mike Butcher continues his series of European investor surveys with his latest dispatch from Lisbon, where a nascent startup ecosystem may get a Brexit boost.

Here are the Portugal-based VCs he interviewed:

  • Cristina Fonseca, partner, Indico Capital Partners
  • Pedro Ribeiro Santos, partner, Armilar Venture Partners
  • Tocha, partner, Olisipo Way
  • Adão Oliveira, investment manager, Portugal Ventures
  • Alexandre Barbosa, partner, Faber
  • António Miguel, partner, Mustard Seed MAZE
  • Jaime Parodi Bardón, partner, impACT NOW Capital
  • Stephan Morais, partner, Indico Capital Partners
  • Gavin Goldblatt, managing partner, Portugal Gateway

How late-stage edtech companies are thinking about tutoring marketplaces

Life Rings flying out beneath storm clouds are a metaphor for rescue, help and aid.

Image Credits: John Lund (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

How do you scale online tutoring, particularly when demand exceeds the supply of human instructors?

This month, Chegg is replacing its seven-year-old marketplace that paired students with tutors with a live chatbot.

A spokesperson said the move will “dramatically differentiate our offerings from our competitors and better service students,” but Natasha Mascarenhas identified two challenges to edtech automation.

“A chatbot won’t work for a student with special needs or someone who needs to be handheld a bit more,” she says. “Second, speed tutoring can only work for a specific set of subjects.”

Decrypted: How bad was the US Capitol breach for cybersecurity?

Image Credits: Treedeo (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

While I watched insurrectionists invade and vandalize the U.S. Capitol on live TV, I noticed that staffers evacuated so quickly, some hadn’t had time to shut down their computers.

Looters even made off with a laptop from Senator Jeff Merkley’s office, but according to security reporter Zack Whittaker, the damages to infosec wasn’t as bad as it looked.

Even so, “the breach will likely present a major task for Congress’ IT departments, which will have to figure out what’s been stolen and what security risks could still pose a threat to the Capitol’s network.”

Extra Crunch’s top 10 stories of 2020

On New Year’s Eve, I made a list of the 10 “best” Extra Crunch stories from the previous 12 months.

My methodology was personal: From hundreds of posts, these were the 10 I found most useful, which is my key metric for business journalism.

Some readers are skeptical about paywalls, but without being boastful, Extra Crunch is a premium product, just like Netflix or Disney+. I know, we’re not as entertaining as a historical drama about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II or a space western about a bounty hunter. But, speaking as someone who’s worked at several startups, Extra Crunch stories contain actionable information you can use to build a company and/or look smart in meetings — and that’s worth something.


By Walter Thompson

Firebolt raises $37M to take on Snowflake, Amazon and Google with a new approach to data warehousing

For many organizations, the shift to cloud computing has played out more realistically as a shift to hybrid architectures, where a company’s data is just as likely to reside in one of a number of clouds, as it might in an on-premise deployment, in a data warehouse, or in a data lake. Today, a startup that has built a more comprehensive way to assess, analyse and use that data is announcing funding as it looks to take on Snowflake, Amazon, Google and others in the area of enterprise data analytics.

Firebolt, which has redesigned the concept of a data warehouse to work more efficiently and at a lower cost, is today announcing that it has raised $37 million from Zeev Ventures, TLV Partners, Bessemer Venture Partners and Angular Ventures. It plans to use the funding to continue developing its product and bring on more customers.

The company is officially “launching” today but — as is the case with so many enterprise startups these days operating in stealth — it has been around for two years already building its platform and signing commercial deals. It now has some 12 large enterprise customers and is “really busy” with new business, said CEO is Eldad Farkash in an interview.

The funding may sound like a large amount for a company that has not really been out in the open, but part of the reason is because of the track record of the founders. Farkash, was one of the founders of SiSense, the successful business intelligence startup, and he has co-founded Firebolt with two others who were on SiSense’s founding team, Saar Bitner as COO and Ariel Yaroshevich as CTO.

At SiSense, these three were coming up against an issue: when you are dealing in terabytes of data, cloud data warehouses were straining to deliver good performance to power its analytics and other tools, and the only way to potentially continue to mitigate that was by piling on more cloud capacity.

Farkash is something of a technical savant and said that he decided to move on and build Firebolt to see if he could tackle this, which he described as a new, difficult, and “meaningful” problem. “The only thing I know how to do is build startups,” he joked.

In his opinion, while data warehousing has been a big breakthrough in how to handle the mass of data that companies now amass and want to use better, it has started to feel like a dated solution.

“Data warehouses are solving yesterday’s problem, which was, ‘How do I migrate to the cloud and deal with scale?’” he said, citing Google’s BigQuery, Amazon’s RedShift and Snowflake as fitting answers for that issue. “We see Firebolt as the new entrant in that space, with a new take on design on technology. We change the discussion from one of scale to one of speed and efficiency.”

The startup claims that its performance is up to 182 times faster than that of other data warehouses. It’s a SQL-based system that works on principles that Farkash said came out of academic research that had yet to be applied anywhere, around how to handle data in a lighter way, using new techniques in compression and how data is parsed. Data lakes in turn can be connected up with a wider data ecosystem, and what it translates to is a much smaller requirement for cloud capacity.

This is not just a problem at SiSense. With enterprise data continuing to grow exponentially, cloud analytics is growing with it, and is estimated by 2025 to be a $65 billion market, Firebolt estimates.

Still, Farkash said the Firebolt concept was initially a challenging sell even to the engineers that it eventually hired to build out the business: it required building completely new warehouses from the ground up to run the platform, five of which exist today and will be augmented with more, on the back of this funding, he said.

And it should be pointed out that its competitors are not exactly sitting still either. Just yesterday, Dataform announced that it had been acquired by Google to help it build out and run better performance at BigQuery.

“Firebolt created a SaaS product that changes the analytics experience over big data sets” Oren Zeev of Zeev Ventures said in a statement. “The pace of innovation in the big data space has lagged the explosion in data growth rendering most data warehousing solutions too slow, too expensive, or too complex to scale. Firebolt takes cloud data warehousing to the next level by offering the world’s most powerful analytical engine. This means companies can now analyze multi Terabyte / Petabyte data sets easily at significantly lower costs and provide a truly interactive user experience to their employees, customers or anyone who needs to access the data.”


By Ingrid Lunden

Application security platform NeuraLegion raises $4.7 million seed led by DNX Ventures

A video call group photo of NeuraLegion's team working remotely around the world

A video call group photo of NeuraLegion’s team working remotely around the world

Application security platform NeuraLegion announced today it has raised a $4.7 million seed round led by DNX Ventures, an enterprise-focused investment firm. The funding included participation from Fusion Fund, J-Ventures and Incubate Fund. The startup also announced the launch of a new self-serve, community version that allows developers to sign up on their own for the platform and start performing scans within a few minutes.

Based in Tel Aviv, Israel, NeuraLegion also has offices in San Francisco, London, and Mostar, Bosnia. It currently offers NexDAST for dynamic application security testing, and NexPLOIT to integrate application security into SDLC (software development life-cycle). It was launched last year by a founding team that includes chief executive Shoham Cohen, chief technology officer Bar Hofesh, chief scientist Art Linkov, and president and chief commercial officer Gadi Bashvitz.

When asked who NeuraLegion views as its closest competitors, Bashvitz said Invicti Security and WhiteHat Security. Both are known primarily for their static application security testing (SAST) solutions, which Bashvitz said complements DAST products like NeuraLegion’s.

“These are complementary solutions and in fact we have some information partnerships with some of these companies,” he said.

Where NeuraLegion differentiates from other application security solutions, however, is that it was created for specifically for developers, quality assurance and DevOps workers, so even though it can also be used by security professionals, it allows scans to be run much earlier in the development process than usual while lowering costs.

Bashvitz added that NeuraLegion is now used by thousands of developers through their organizations, but it is releasing its self-serve, community product to make its solutions more accessible to developers, who can sign up on their own, run their first scans and get results within fifteen minutes.

In a statement about the funding, DNX Ventures managing partner Hiro Rio Maeda said, “The DAST market has been long stalled without any innovative approaches. NeuraLegion’s next-generation platform introduces a new way of conducting robust testing in today’s modern CI/CD environment.”


By Catherine Shu

Data virtualization service Varada raises $12M

Varada, a Tel Aviv-based startup that focuses on making it easier for businesses to query data across services, today announced that it has raised a $12 million Series A round led by Israeli early-stage fund MizMaa Ventures, with participation by Gefen Capital.

“If you look at the storage aspect for big data, there’s always innovation, but we can put a lot of data in one place,” Varada CEO and co-founder Eran Vanounou told me. “But translating data into insight? It’s so hard. It’s costly. It’s slow. It’s complicated.”

That’s a lesson he learned during his time as CTO of LivePerson, which he described as a classic big data company. And just like at LivePerson, where the team had to reinvent the wheel to solve its data problems, again and again, every company — and not just the large enterprises — now struggles with managing their data and getting insights out of it, Vanounou argued.

Image Credits: Varada

The rest of the founding team, David Krakov, Roman Vainbrand and Tal Ben-Moshe, already had a lot of experience in dealing with these problems, too, with Ben-Moshe having served at the Chief Software Architect of Dell EMC’s XtremIO flash array unit, for example. They built the system for indexing big data that’s at the core of Varada’s platform (with the open-source Presto SQL query engine being one of the other cornerstones).

Image Credits: Varada

Essentially, Varada embraces the idea of data lakes and enriches that with its indexing capabilities. And those indexing capabilities is where Varada’s smarts can be found. As Vanounou explained, the company is using a machine learning system to understand when users tend to run certain workloads and then caches the data ahead of time, making the system far faster than its competitors.

“If you think about big organizations and think about the workloads and the queries, what happens during the morning time is different from evening time. What happened yesterday is not what happened today. What happened on a rainy day is not what happened on a shiny day. […] We listen to what’s going on and we optimize. We leverage the indexing technology. We index what is needed when it is needed.”

That helps speed up queries, but it also means less data has to be replicated, which also brings down the cost. AÅs Mizmaa’s Aaron Applebaum noted, since Varada is not a SaaS solution, the buyers still get all of the discounts from their cloud providers, too.

In addition, the system can allocate resources intelligently to that different users can tap into different amounts of bandwidth. You can tell it to give customers more bandwidth than your financial analysts, for example.

“Data is growing like crazy: in volume, in scale, in complexity, in who requires it and what the business intelligence uses are, what the API uses are,” Applebaum said when I asked him why he decided to invest. “And compute is getting slightly cheaper, but not really, and storage is getting cheaper. So if you can make the trade-off to store more stuff, and access things more intelligently, more quickly, more agile — that was the basis of our thesis, as long as you can do it without compromising performance.”

Varada, with its team of experienced executives, architects and engineers, ticked a lot of the company’s boxes in this regard, but he also noted that unlike some other Israeli startups, the team understood that it had to listen to customers and understand their needs, too.

“In Israel, you have a history — and it’s become less and less the case — but historically, there’s a joke that it’s ‘ready, fire, aim.’ You build a technology, you’ve got this beautiful thing and you’re like, ‘alright, we did it,’ but without listening to the needs of the customer,” he explained.

The Varada team is not afraid to compare itself to Snowflake, which at least at first glance seems to make similar promises. Vananou praised the company for opening up the data warehousing market and proving that people are willing to pay for good analytics. But he argues that Varada’s approach is fundamentally different.

“We embrace the data lake. So if you are Mr. Customer, your data is your data. We’re not going to take it, move it, copy it. This is your single source of truth,” he said. And in addition, the data can stay in the company’s virtual private cloud. He also argues that Varada isn’t so much focused on the business users but the technologists inside a company.

 


By Frederic Lardinois

Hunters raises $15M Series A for its threat-hunting platform

Hunters, a Tel Aviv-based cybersecurity startup that helps enterprises defend themselves from intruders and analyze attacks, today announced that it has raised a $15 million Series A funding round from Microsoft’s M12 and U.S. Venture Partners. Seed investors YL Ventures and Blumberg Captial also participated in this round, as well as new investor Okta Ventures, the venture arm of identity provider Okta. With this, Hunters has now raised a total of $20.4 million.

The company’s SaaS platform basically automates the threat-hunting processes, which has traditionally been a manual process. The general idea here is to take as much data from an enterprise’s various networking and security tools to detect stealth attacks.

“Hunters is basically this layer, a cognitive layer or connective tissue that you put on top of your telemetry stack,” Hunters co-founder and CEO Uri May told me. “So you have your [endpoint detection and response], your firewalls, cloud, production environment sensors — and all of those are shooting telemetry and detections all over the organization, generating huge amounts of data. And, basically, our place in the world depends on our ability to generate that delta. So without being able to find things that you can’t see with a single point solution or without really expediting response procedures and workflows by correlating things in a nontrivial way, we don’t have any excuse to exist. But we got pretty good at those — at showing that delta — and we onboarded customers — nice logos — and that was a very strong validation.”

Image Credits: Hunters

Hunters’ first customer was actually data management service Snowflake, which functioned as the company’s design partner. In addition to being a customer, Snowflake now also features Hunters in its partner marketplace, as does security service CrowdStrike. May also noted that Crowdstrike is a good example for the kind of customer Hunters is going after.

“Not necessarily Global 2000 or Fortune 500. It’s really high-end mid-market organizations, not necessarily tens of thousand employees, but billions of dollars in revenues, a lot of value at risk, born to the cloud, super mature tech stack, not necessarily a big security operation center, but definitely CISO and a team of security engineers and analysts, and they’re looking for the solution, that on-top solution that can make sense of a lot of the data and give them the confidence and also give them results in terms of cybersecurity, posture and their detection and response capabilities.”

Microsoft already has a large security development center in Israel and so it’s no surprise that Hunters appeared on the company’s radar. Hunters also spent some time proactively looking at the Microsoft ecosystem, May told me, but the company’s VCs also made some introductions. All of this culminated in a number of meetings at the Tel Aviv CyberTech conference in January and the RSA Conference in San Francisco in February, just before the coronavirus pandemic essentially shut down travel.

Hunters says it will use the new funding to build out its go-to-market capabilities in the U.S. and expand its R&D team in Israel. As for the product itself, the company will look to broaden its product integration and machine learning capabilities to help it generate better attack stories. May also noted that it plans to give its users capabilities to customize the system for their needs by allowing them to develop their own signals and detections to augment the company’s default tools. This, May argued, will allow the company to go after higher-end enterprise customers that already have threat-hunting teams but that are looking to automate more of the process. With that, it will also look to partner with other security firms to leverage its system to provide better services to their customers as well.


By Frederic Lardinois

83North closes $300M fifth fund focused on Europe, Israel

83North has closed its fifth fund, completing an oversubscribed $300 million raise and bringing its total capital under management to $1.1BN+.

The VC firm, which spun out from Silicon Valley giant Greylock Partners in 2015 — and invests in startups in Europe and Israel, out of offices in London and Tel Aviv — last closed a $250M fourth fund back in 2017.

It invests in early and growth stage startups in consumer and enterprise sectors across a broad range of tech areas including fintech, data centre & cloud, enterprise software and marketplaces.

General partner Laurel Bowden, who leads the fund, says the latest close represents investment business as usual, with also no notable changes to the mix of LPs investing for this fifth close.

“As a fund we’re really focused on keeping our fund size down. We think that for just the investment opportunity in Europe and Israel… these are good sized funds to raise and then return and make good multiples on,” she tells TechCrunch. “If you go back in the history of our fundraising we’re always somewhere between $200M-$300M. And that’s the size we like to keep.”

“Of course we do think there’s great opportunities in Europe and Israel but not significantly different than we’ve thought over the last 15 years or so,” she adds.

83North has made around 70 investments to date — which means its five partners are usually making just one investment apiece per year.

The fund typically invests around $1M at the seed level; between $4M-$8M at the Series A level and up to $20M for Series B, with Bowden saying around a quarter of its investments go into seed (primarily into startups out of Israel); ~40% into Series A; and ~30% Series B.

“It’s somewhat evenly mixed between seed, Series A, Series B — but Series A is probably bigger than everything,” she adds.

It invests roughly half and half in its two regions of focus.

The firm has had 15 exits of portfolio companies (three of which it claims as unicorns). Recent multi-billion dollar exits for Bowden are: Just Eat, Hybris (acquired by SAP), iZettle (acquired by PayPal) and Qlik.

While 83North has a pretty broad investment canvas, it’s open to new areas — moving into IoT (with recent investments in Wiliot and VDOO), and also taking what it couches as a “growing interest” in healthtech and vertical SaaS. 

“Some of my colleagues… are looking at areas like lidar, in-vehicle automation, looking at some of the drone technologies, looking at some even healthtech AI,” says Bowden. “We’ve looked at a couple of those in Europe as well. I’ve looked, actually, at some healthtech AI. I haven’t done anything but looked.

“And also all things related to data. Of course the market evolves and the technology evolves but we’ve done things related to BI to process automation through to just management of data ops, management of data. We always look at that area. And think we’ll carry on for a number of years. ”

“In venture you have to expand,” she adds. “You can’t just stay investing in exactly the same things but it’s more small additional add-ons as the market evolves, as opposed to fundamental shifts of investment thesis.”

Discussing startup valuations, Bowden says European startups are not insulated from wider investment dynamics that have been pushing startup valuations higher — and even, arguably, warping the market — as a consequence of more capital being raised generally (not only at the end of the pipe).

“Definitely valuations are getting pushed up,” she says. “Definitely things are getting more competitive but that comes back to exactly why we’re focused on raising smaller funds. Because we just think then we have less pressure to invest if we feel that valuations have got too high or there’s just a level… where startups just feel the inclination to raise way more money than they probably need — and that’s a big reason why we like to keep our fund size relatively small.”


By Natasha Lomas

Ment.io wants to help your team make decisions

Getting even the most well-organized team to agree on anything can be hard. Tel Aviv’s Ment.io, formerly known as Epistema, wants to make this process easier by applying smart design and a dose of machine learning to streamline the decision-making process.

Like with so many Israeli startups, Ment.io’s co-founders Joab Rosenberg and Tzvika Katzenelson got their start in Israel’s intelligence service. Indeed, Rosenberg spent 25 years in the intelligence service, where his final role was that of the deputy head analyst. “Our story starts from there, because we had the responsibility of gathering the knowledge of a thousand analysts, surrounded by tens of thousands of collection unit soldiers,” Katzenelson, who is Ment.io’s CRO, told me. He noted that the army had turned decision making into a form of art. But when the founders started looking at the tech industry, they found a very different approach to decision making — and one that they thought needed to change.

If there’s one thing the software industry has, it’s data and analytics. These days, the obvious thing to do with all of that information is to build machine learning models, but Katzenelson (rightly) argues that these models are essentially black boxes. “Data does not speak for itself. Correlations that you may find in the data are certainly not causations,” he said. “Every time you send analysts into the data, they will come up with some patterns that may mislead you.”

home 1

So Ment.io is trying to take a very different approach. It uses data and machine learning, but it starts with questions and people. The service actually measures the level of expertise and credibility every team member has around a given topic. “One of the crazy things we’re doing is that for every person, we’re creating their cognitive matrix. We’re able to tell you within the context of your organization how believable you are, how balanced you are, how clearly you are being perceived by your counterparts, because we are gathering all of your clarification requests and every time a person challenges you with something.”Ment1

At its core, Ment.io is basically an internal Q&A service. Anybody can pose questions and anybody can answer them with any data source or supporting argument they may have.

“We’re doing structuring,” Katzenelson explained. “And that’s basically our philosophy: knowledge is just arguments and counterarguments. And the more structure you can put in place, the more logic you can apply.”

In a sense, the company is doing this because natural language processing (NLP) technology isn’t yet able to understand the nuances of a discussion.Ment6If you’re anything like me, though, the last thing you want is to have to use yet another SaaS product at work. The Ment.io team is quite aware of that and has built a deep integration with Slack already and is about to launch support for Microsoft Teams in the next few days, which doesn’t come as a surprise, given that the team has participated in the Microsoft ScaleUp accelerator program.

The overall idea here, Katzenelson explained, is to provide a kind of intelligence layer on top of tools like Slack and Teams that can capture a lot of the institutional knowledge that is now often shared in relatively ephemeral chats.

Ment.io is the first Israeli company to raise funding from Peter Thiel’s late-stage fund, as well as from the Slack Fund, which surely creates some interesting friction, given the company’s involvement with both Slack and Microsoft, but Katzenelson argues that this is not actually a problem.

Microsoft is also a current Ment.io customer, together with the likes of Intel, Citibank and Fiverr.

Ment2


By Frederic Lardinois

The Exit: an AI startup’s McPivot

Five years ago, Dynamic Yield was courting an investment from The New York Times as it looked to shift how publishers paywalled their content. Last month, Chicago-based fast food king McDonald’s bought the Israeli company for $300 million, a source told TechCrunch, with the purpose of rethinking how people order drive-thru chicken nuggets.

The pivot from courting the grey lady to the golden arches isn’t as drastic as it sounds. In a lot of ways, it’s the result of the company learning to say “no” to certain customers. At least, that’s what Bessemer’s Adam Fisher tells us.

The Exit is a new series at TechCrunch. It’s an exit interview of sorts with a VC who was in the right place at the right time but made the right call on an investment that paid off. 

Fisher

Fisher was Dynamic Yield founder Liad Agmon’s first call when he started looking for funds from institutional investors. Bessemer bankrolled the bulk of a $1.7 million funding round which valued the startup at $5 million pre-money back in 2013. The firm ended up putting about $15 million into Dynamic Yield, which raised ~$85 million in total from backers including Marker Capital, Union Tech Ventures, Baidu and The New York Times.

Fisher and I chatted at length about the company’s challenging rise and how Israel’s tech scene is still being underestimated. Fisher has 11 years at Bessemer under his belt and 14 exits including Wix, Intucell, Ravello and Leaba.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


Saying “No”

Lucas Matney: So, right off the bat, how exactly did this tool initially built for publishers end up becoming something that McDonalds wanted?

Adam Fisher: I mean, the story of Dynamic Yield is unique. Liad, the founder and CEO, he was an entrepreneur in residence in our Herzliya office back in 2011. I’d identified him earlier from his previous company, and I just said, ‘Well, that’s the kind of guy I’d love to work with.’ I didn’t like his previous company, but there was something about his charisma, his technology background, his youth, which I just felt like “Wow, he’s going to do something interesting.” And so when he sold his previous company, coincidentally to another Chicago based company called Sears, I invited him and I think he found it very flattering, so he joined us as an EIR.


By Lucas Matney

Alibaba acquires Israeli VR startup Infinity Augmented Reality

Infinity Augmented Reality, an Israeli virtual reality startup, has been acquired by Alibaba, the companies announced this weekend. The deal’s terms were not disclosed. Alibaba and InfinityAR have had a strategic partnership since 2016, when Alibaba Group led InfinityAR’s Series C. Since then, the two have collaborated on augmented reality, computer vision and artificial intelligence projects.

Founded in 2013, the startup’s augmented glasses platform enables developers in a wide range of industries (retail, gaming, medical, etc.) to integrate AR into their apps. InfinityAR’s products include software for ODMs and OEMs and a SDK plug-in for 3D engines.

Alibaba’s foray into virtual reality started three years ago, when it invested in Magic Leap and then announced a new research lab in China to develop ways of incorporating virtual reality into its e-commerce platform.

InfinityAR’s research and development team will begin working out of Alibaba’s Israel Machine Laboratory, part of Alibaba DAMO Academy, the R&D initiative it is pouring $15 billion into with the goal of eventually serving two billion customers and creating 100 million jobs by 2036. DAMO Academy collaborates with universities around the world and Alibaba’s Israel Machine Laboratory has a partnership with Tel Aviv University focused on video analysis and machine learning.

In a press statement, the laboratory’s head, Lihi Zelnik-Manor, said “Alibaba is delighted to be working with InfinityAR as one team after three years of partnership. The talented team brings unique knowhow in sensor fusion, computer vision and navigation technologies. We look forward to exploring these leading technologies and offering additional benefits to customers, partners and developers.”


By Catherine Shu

SAM nabs $12M for cybersecurity aimed at home routers and devices connected to them

A wave of security startups have built solutions for enterprises that are meeting the challenges of “consumerization”, where IT organizations are tasked with securing a range of devices and apps — some brought in by employees, not issued by IT — that are on the organization’s networks. Today, a startup based out of Israel that is taking a similar approach, but aimed at consumers and the plethora of devices now connected to their home networks, is announcing a round of funding. SAM — which provides a system administered by way of a home or small office/home office internet router to monitor connected devices for suspicious activity — has raised a $12 million in funding.

The Series A includes interesting strategic investors. Led by Intel Capital, the round also includes participation from home security giant ADT, NightDragon (a cybersecurity-focused VC founded by Dave DeWalt, the former CEO of FireEye and McAfee) and Blumberg Capital.

Intel is already integrating SAM’s tech into its hardware, and ADT is evaluating how it can do so right now, said Sivan Rauscher, the CEO who first cut her teeth working on cybersecurity in the Israeli army before co-founding SAM with CTO Eilon Lotem and Vice Chairman Shmuel Chafets.

Prior to this round, SAM first emerged from stealth in February 2018 with $4 million from backers that included Team8, the well-supported VC-company incubator, whose co-founders Nadav Zafir, Israel Grimberg, and Liran Grinberg now also serve as advisors to the startup.

One of the reasons for following that up relatively quickly with more funding is because SAM has already signed some deals and it’s making its way into the market. Rauscher said that the first services using the startup’s tech will go live in Germany, Belgium and UK soon. (She declined to name the telcos that will roll it out, since “they want to keep the element of surprise,” she said.) It’s also already deployed across some 4 million devices by way of Israeli carrier Bezeq.

The company is notable because in the world of cybersecurity, many of the most talented people and companies are focused on targeting the enterprise market. In a way, that is not a surprise, since these typically are larger and more complex networks, and a larger amount of data is more immediately at stake.

(And you could argue that in fact this is also an enterprise play, since SAM is working with telcos to provide services to consumers: “We have an agenda to protect the end user but also the carrier as well,” Rauscher said.)

SAM is coming into the market at a key time.

Home networks are increasingly including a range of devices — not just phones, laptops and tablets; but set-top boxes, home security systems, lighting and fire detection, home ‘hubs’, connected appliances and more. Gartner estimates more than 7 billion connected devices in the consumer market for this year, with that number rising to 12.9 billion by 2020.

But perhaps an even bigger urgency is that home routers — which Rauscher describes as “low-hanging fruit” — have increasingly become a target for malicious hackers. A report from Akamai earlier this year estimated that 65,000 home routers have been accessed by hackers; the US and UK governments have further issued warnings that Russian hackers are lying in wait, using compromised routers to lay out long-term cyber warfare operations.

In that context, while the concept of securing a home router might not sound like as lucrative a target on its own compared to multi-million-dollar enterprise contracts (and the billions of dollars and thousands of data points that are at stake), the wider problem is clearly one that is ripe for addressing.

In a nutshell, Rauscher — also, I should add, notable for being one of a handful of female founders in the world of cybersecurity — says that what SAM does is operate by way of the router, but by identifying and providing security wrappers for every device that connects with the router.

“Our software is agnostic to any home router,” she said, adding that once you secure the router, “you secure everything in the network.” The essence of what SAM does is search out suspicious links into and coming out of these devices, and when it detects them, they are blocked, essentially taking the role of an IT department or presenting an enterprise-style deployment designed to work in the home.

“We were impressed with SAM’s technology and level of security for the home network, which is a critical part of building out the future of 5G,” said Dave Flanagan, vice president of Intel Corp. and group managing director of Intel Capital. “Unlike existing solutions, which necessitate buying a new gateway or replacing it with a secure gateway, SAM’s solution provides end-users security, without them needing to do anything. And for telecommunications companies and ISPs, its AI and machine learning capabilities monitor behavior on the network to detect unusual activity and prevent attacks. With the global market for smart home technology predicted to hit $100 billion by 2020, Intel and its partners know security is essential.”


By Ingrid Lunden