AlphaSense, a search engine for analysis and business intel, raises $50M led by Innovation Endeavors

Google and its flagship search portal opened the door to the possibilities of how to build a business empire on the back of organising and navigating the world’s information, as found on the internet. Now, a startup that’s built a search engine tailored to the needs of enterprises and their own quests for information has raised a round of funding to see if it can do the same for the B2B world.

AlphaSense, which provides a way for companies to quickly amass market intelligence around specific trends, industries and more to help them make business decisions, has closed a $50 million round of funding, a Series B that it’s planning to use to continue enhancing its product and expanding to more verticals.

Today, the company today counts some 1,000 clients on its books, with a heavy emphasis on investment banks and related financial services companies. That’s in part because of how the company got its start: Finnish co-founder and CEO Jaakko (Jack) Kokko he had been an analyst at Morgan Stanley in a past life and understood the labor and time pain points of doing market research, and decided to build a platform to help shorted a good part of the information gathering process.

“My experience as an analyst on Wall Street showed me just how fragmented information really was,” he said in an interview, citing as one example how complex sites like those of the FDA are not easy to navigate to look for new information an updates — the kind of thing that a computer would be much more adept at monitoring and flagging. “Even with the best tools and services, it still was really hard to manually get the work done, in part because of market volatility and the many factors that cause it. We can now do that with orders of magnitude more efficiency. Firms can now gather information in minutes that would have taken an hour. AlphaSense does the work of the best single analyst, or even a team of them.”

(Indeed, the “alpha” of AlphaSense appears to be a reference to finance: it’s a term that refers to the ability of a trader or portfolio manager to beat the typical market return.)

The lead investor in this round is very notable and says something about the company’s ambitions. It’s Innovation Endeavors, the VC firm backed by Eric Schmidt, who had been the CEO of none other than Google (the pace-setter and pioneer of the search-as-business model) for a decade, and then stayed on as chairman and ultimately board member of Google and then Alphabet (its later holding company) until just last June.

Schmidt presided over Google at what you could argue was its most important time, gaining speed and scale and transitioning from an academic idea into full-fledged, huge public business whose flagship product has now entered the lexicon as a verb and (through search and other services like Android and YouTube) is a mainstay of how the vast majority of the world uses the web today. As such he is good at spotting opportunities and gaps in the market, and while enterprise-based needs will never be as prominent as those of mass-market consumers, they can be just as lucrative.

“Information is the currency of business today, but data is overwhelming and fragmented, making it difficult for business professionals to find the right insights to drive key business decisions,” he said in a statement. “We were impressed by the way AlphaSense solves this with its AI and search technology, allowing businesses to proceed with the confidence that they have the right information driving their strategy.”

This brings the total raised by AlphaSense to $90 million, with other investors in this round including Soros Fund Management LLC and other unnamed existing investors. Previous backers had included Tom Glocer (the former Reuters CEO who himself is working on his own fintech startup, a security firm called BlueVoyant), the MassChallenge incubator, Tribeca Venture Partners and others. Kokko said AlphaSense is not disclosing its valuation at this point. (I’m guessing though that it’s definitely on the up.)

There have been others that have worked to try to tackle the idea of providing more targeted, and business focused search portals, from the likes of Wolfram Alpha (another alpha!) through to Lexis Nexis and others like Bloomberg’s terminals, FactSet, Business Quant and many more.

One interesting aspect of AlphaSense is how it’s both focused on pulling in requests as well as set up to push information to its users based on previous search parameters. Currently these are set up to only provide information, but over time, there is a clear opportunity to build services to let the engines take on some of the actions based on that information, such as adjusting asking prices for sales and other transactions.

“There are all kinds of things we could do,” said Kokko. “This is a massive untapped opportunity. But we’re not taking the human out of the loop, ever. Humans are the right ones to be making final decisions, and we’re just about helping them make those faster.”


By Ingrid Lunden

OneTrust raises $200M at a $1.3B valuation to help organizations navigate online privacy rules

GDPR, and the newer California Consumer Privacy Act, have given a legal bite to ongoing developments in online privacy and data protection: it’s always good practice for companies with an online presence to take measures to safeguard people’s data, but now failing to do so can land them in some serious hot water.

Now — to underscore the urgency and demand in the market — one of the bigger companies helping organizations navigate those rules is announcing a huge round of funding. OneTrust, which builds tools to help companies navigate data protection and privacy policies both internally and with its customers, has raised $200 million in a Series A led by Insight that values the company at $1.3 billion.

It’s an outsized round for a Series A, being made at an equally outsized valuation — especially considering that the company is only three years old — but that’s because, according to CEO Kabir Barday, of the wide-ranging nature of the issue, and OneTrust’s early moves and subsequent pole position in tackling it.

“We’re talking about an operational overhaul in a company’s practices,” Barday said in an interview. “That requires the right technology and reach to be able to deliver that at a low cost.” Notably, he said that OneTrust wasn’t actually in search of funding — it’s already generating revenue and could have grown off its own balance sheet — although he noted that having the capitalization and backing sends a signal to the market and in particular to larger organizations of its stability and staying power.

Currently, OneTrust has around 3,000 customers across 100 countries (and 1,000 employees), and the plan will be to continue to expand its reach geographically and to more businesses. Funding will also go towards the company’s technology: it already has 50 patents filed and another 50 applications in progress, securing its own IP in the area of privacy protection.

OneTrust offers technology and services covering three different aspects of data protection and privacy management.

Its Privacy Management Software helps an organization manage how it collects data, and it generates compliance reports in line with how a site is working relative to different jurisdictions. Then there is the famous (or infamous) service that lets internet users set their preferences for how they want their data to be handled on different sites. The third is a larger database and risk management platform that assesses how various third-party services (for example advertising providers) work on a site and where they might pose data protection risks.

These are all provided either as a cloud-based software as a service, or an on-premises solution, depending on the customer in question.

The startup also has an interesting backstory that sheds some light on how it was founded and how it identified the gap in the market relatively early.

Alan Dabbiere, who is the co-chairman of OneTrust, had been the chairman of Airwatch — the mobile device management company acquired by VMware in 2014 (Airwatch’s CEO and founder, John Marshall, is OneTrust’s other co-chairman). In an interview, he told me that it was when they were at Airwatch — where Barday had worked across consulting, integration, engineering and product management — that they began to see just how a smartphone “could be a quagmire of information.”

“We could capture apps that an employee was using so that we could show them to IT to mitigate security risks,” he said, “but that actually presented a big privacy issue. If [the employee] has dyslexia [and uses a special app for it] or if the employee used a dating app, you’ve now shown things to IT that you shouldn’t have.”

He admitted that in the first version of the software, “we weren’t even thinking about whether that was inappropriate, but then we quickly realised that we needed to be thinking about privacy.”

Dabbiere said that it was Barday who first brought that sensibility to light, and “that is something that we have evolved from.” After that, and after the VMware sale, it seemed a no-brainer that he and Marshall would come on to help the new startup grow.

Airwatch made a relatively quick exit, I pointed out. His response: the plan is to stay the course at OneTrust, with a lot more room for expansion in this market. He describes the issues of data protection and privacy as “death by 1,000 cuts.” I guess when you think about it from an enterprising point of view, that essentially presents 1,000 business opportunities.

Indeed, there is obvious growth potential to expand not just its funnel of customers, but to add in more services, such as proactive detection of malware that might leak customers’ data (which calls to mind the recently-fined breach at British Airways), as well as tools to help stop that once identified.

While there are a million other companies also looking to fix those problems today, what’s interesting is the point from which OneTrust is starting: by providing tools to organizations simply to help them operate in the current regulatory climate as good citizens of the online world.

This is what caught Insight’s eye with this investment.

“OneTrust has truly established themselves as leaders in this space in a very short timeframe, and are quickly becoming for privacy professionals what Salesforce became for salespeople,” said Richard Wells of Insight. “They offer such a vast range of modules and tools to help customers keep their businesses compliant with varying regulatory laws, and the tailwinds around GDPR and the upcoming CCPA make this an opportune time for growth. Their leadership team is unparalleled in their ambition and has proven their ability to convert those ambitions into reality.”

Wells added that while this is a big round for a Series A it’s because it is something of an outlier — not a mark of how Series A rounds will go soon.

“Investors will always be interested in and keen to partner with companies that are providing real solutions, are already established and are led by a strong group of entrepreneurs,” he said in an interview. “This is a company that has the expertise to help solve for what could be one of the greatest challenges of the next decade. That’s the company investors want to partner with and grow, regardless of fund timing.”


By Ingrid Lunden

Signavio raises $177M at a $400M valuation for its business process automation solutions

Robotic Process Automation has been the name of the game in enterprise software lately — with organizations using advances in machine learning algorithms and other kinds of AI, alongside big-data analytics to speed up everything from performing mundane tasks to more complex business decisions.

To underscore the opportunity and growth in the market, today a startup in the wider segment of process automation is announcing a significant fundraise. Signavio, a company founded out of Berlin that provides tools for business process management — “providing the ‘P’ in RPA,” as the company describes it — has picked up an investment of $177 million at what we understand is a valuation of $400 million.

This round is large on its own, but even more so considering that before this the company — founded in 2009 — had only raised around $50 million before now, according to data from PitchBook. This latest capital injection is being led by Apax Digital (the growth equity team of Apax Partners), with DTCP. It notes that existing investor Summit Partners is also keeping a stake in the business with this deal.

The company was founded by a team of alums from the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany, who used research they did there for creating the world’s first web modeller for business process management and analytics as the template for Signavio’s own Process Manager. (The name “Signavio” seems to be a portmanteau of “navigating through signals”, which essentially explains the basics of what BPM aims to do to help a business with its decision-making.)

Partly because it’s raised so little money, Signavio has been somewhat under the radar, but it has seen a huge amount of growth. It says that revenues in the last 12 months have grown by more than 70%, and its software  is used by more than one million users across 1,300 customers — with clients including SAP, DHL, Liberty Mutual, Deloitte, Comcast and Puma. It counts Silicon Valley as its second HQ these days, that trajectory will be followed further with this latest funding: Signavio says the funding in part will be going to international expansion of the business.

“10 years ago, we set out on a journey to tackle the time-consuming practices that limit business productivity,” said Dr. Gero Decker, CEO and co-founder of Signavio, in a statement. “This significant new investment further validates our approach to solve business problems faster and more efficiently, unleashing the power of process through our unique Business Transformation Suite. We are thrilled to welcome Apax Digital as our new lead partner, and look forward to building upon our success to date by leveraging our partners’ operating capabilities and global platforms for our international expansion.”

The other area of investment will be the company’s technology suite. While BPM has been around for years as a concept — and indeed there are a number of other companies that provide tools that are compared sometimes to Signavio’s such from biggies like IBM and Microsoft through to Kissflow and others — what’s interesting is how it’s had a surge of interest more recently as organizations increasingly start to add more automation into their IT infrastructure, in part to reduce the human labor needed for more mundane back-office tasks, and in part to reduce costs and speed up processes.

Robotic process automation companies like UiPath and Blue Prism bring some of the same processing tools to the table as Signavio, although the argument is that the latter — which says it helps to “mine, model, monitor, manage and maintain” customers’ data — provides a more sophisticated level of data crunching that can be used for RPA, or for other ends. (It also works with several of the big RPA players, mainly Blue Prism but also UiPath and Automation Anywhere.)

“As businesses have become more global, and workforces more distributed, business processes have proliferated, and become more complex,” noted Daniel O’Keefe, Managing Partner, and Mark Beith, Managing Director, of Apax Digital, in a joint statement. “Signavio’s cloud-native suite allows employees across an enterprise to collaborate and transform their businesses by digitizing, optimizing and ultimately automating their processes. We are tremendously excited to partner with the Signavio team and to support their vision.” The two will also be joining Signavio’s board with this round.


By Ingrid Lunden

Anvyl, looking to help D2C brands manage their supply chain, raises $9.3M

Growing D2C brands face an interesting challenge. While they’ve eliminated much of the hassle of a physical storefront, they must still deal with all the complications involved in managing inventory and manufacturing and shipping a physical product to suppliers.

Anvyl, with a fresh $9.3 million in Series A funding, is looking to jump in and make a difference for those brands. The company, co-founded by chief executive Rodney Manzo, is today announcing the raise, led by Redpoint Ventures, with participation from existing investors First Round Capital and Company Ventures. Angel investors Kevin Ryan (MongoDB and DoubleClick), Ben Kaufman (Quirky and Camp) and Dan Rose (Facebook) also participated in the round.

Manzo hails from Apple, where with $300 million in spend to manage logistics and supply chain he was still operating in an Excel spreadsheet. He then went to Harry’s, where he shaved $10 million in cash burn in his first month. He says himself that sourcing, procurement and logistics are in his DNA.

Which brings us to Anvyl. Anvyl looks at every step in the logistics process, from manufacture to arrival at the supplier, and visualizes that migration in an easy-to-understand UI.

The difference between Anvyl and other supply chain logistics companies, such as Flexport, is that Anvyl goes all the way to the very beginning of the supply chain: the factories. The company partners with factories to set up cameras and sensors that let brands see their product actually being built.

“When I was at Apple, I traveled for two years at least once a month to China and Japan just to oversee production,” said Manzo. “To oversee production, you essentially have to be boots on the ground and eyes in the factory. None of our brands have traveled to a factory.”

On the other end of the supply chain, Anvyl lets brands manage suppliers, find new suppliers, submit RFQs, see cost breakdowns and accept quotes.

The company also looks at each step in between, including trucks, trains, boats and planes so that brands can see, in real time, their products go from being manufactured to delivery.

Anvyl charges brands a monthly fee using a typical SaaS model. On the other end, Anvyl takes a “tiny percentage” of goods being produced within the Anvyl marketplace. The company declined to share actual numbers around pricing.

This latest round brings Anvyl’s total funding to $11.8 million. The company plans to use the funding toward hiring in engineering and marketing, and grow its consumer goods customer base.


By Jordan Crook

Visa funds $40M for no-password crypto vault Anchorage

Visa and Andreessen Horowitz are betting even bigger on cryptocurrency, funding a big round for fellow Facebook Libra Association member Anchorage’s omnimetric blockchain security system. Instead of using passwords that can be stolen, Anchorage requires cryptocurrency withdrawals to be approved by a client’s other employees. Then the company uses both human and AI review of biometrics and more to validate transactions before they’re executed, while offering end-to-end insurance coverage.

This new-age approach to cryptocurrency protection has attracted a $40 million Series B for Anchorage led by Blockchain Capital and joined by Visa and Andreessen Horowitz. The round adds to Anchorage’s $17 million Series A that Andreessen led just six months ago, demonstrating extraordinary momentum for the security startup.

As a custodian, our work is focused on building financial plumbing that other companies depend on for their operations to run smoothly. In this regard we have always looked at Visa as a model” Anchorage co-founder and president Diogo Mónica tells me.

“Visa was ‘fintech’ before the term existed, and has always been on the vanguard of financial infrastructure. Visa’s investment in Anchorage is helpful not only to our company but to our industry, as a validation of the entire ecosystem and a recognition that crypto will play a key role in the future of global finance.”

Anchorage Crypto 1

Cold-storage, where assets are held in computers not connected to the Internet, has become a popular method of securing Bitcoin, Ether, and other tokens. But the problem is that this can prevent owners from participating in governance of certain cryptocurrency where votes are based on their holdings, or earning dividends. Anchorage tells me it’s purposefully designed to permit this kind of participation, helping clients to get the most out of their assets like capturing returns from staking and inflation, or joining in on-chain governance.

As 3 of the 28 founding members of the Libra Association that will govern the new Facebook-incubated cryptocurrency; Anchorage, Visa, and Andreessen Horowitz will be responsible for ensuring the stablecoin stays secure. While Facebook is building its own custodial wallet called Calibra for users, other Association members and companies hoping to dive into the ecosystem will need ways to protect their Libra stockpiles.

“Libra is exactly the kind of asset that Anchorage was created to hold” Mónica wrote the day Libra was revealed. “Our custody solution , so that asset-holders don’t face a trade-off between security and usability.” The company believes that custodians shouldn’t dictate what coins their clients hold, so it’s working to support all types of digital assets. Anchorage tells me that will include support for securing Libra in the future.

Libra Association Founding Partners

You’ve probably already used technology secured by Anchorage’s founders, who engineered Docker’s containers that are used by Microsoft, and Square’s first encrypted card reader. Mónica was at Square when he met his future Anchorage co-founder Nathan McCauley who’d been working on anti-reverse engineering tech for the U.S. military. When a company that had lost the password to a $1 million cryptocurrency account asked for their help with security, they recognized a recognized the need for a more idiot-proof take on asset protection.

“Anchorage applies the best of modern security engineering for a more advanced approach: we generate and store private keys in secure hardware so they are never exposed at any point in their life cycle, and we eliminate human operations that expose assets to risk” Mónica says. The startup competes with other crypto custody firms like Bitgo, Ledger, Coinbase, and Gemini.

Anchorage CryptocurrencyLast time we spoke, Anchorage was cagey about what I could reveal regarding how its transaction validation system worked. With the new funding, it’s feeling a little more secure about its market position and was willing to share more.

Anchorage ditches usernames, passwords, email addresses, and phone numbers completely. That way a hacker can’t just dump your coins into their account by stealing your private key or SIM-porting your number to their phone. Instead, clients whitelist devices held by their employees, who use the Anchorage app to submit transactions. You’d propose selling $10 million worth of Bitcoin or transferring it to someone else as payment, and a minimum of two-thirds of your designated co-workers would need to concur to form a quorum that approves the transfer.

But first, Anchorage would’s artificial intelligence and human staff would check for any suspicious signals that might indicate a hack in progress. It uses behavioral analysis (do you act like a real human and similar to how you have before), biometric signals (do you look like you), and network signals (is your device what and where it should be) to confirm the transaction is legitimate. The same process goes down if you try to add a new whitelisted device or change who has permission to do what.

The challenge will be scaling security to an ever-broadening range of digital assets, each with their own blockchain quirks and complex smart contracts. Even if Anchorage keeps coins safely in custody, those variables could expose assets to risk while in transit. Now with deeper pockets and the Visa vote of confidence, Anchorage could solve those problems as clients line up.

While most blockchain attention has focused on the cryptocurrencies themselves and the exchanges where you can buy and sell them, a second order of critical infrastructure startups is emerging. Companies like Anchorage could make Bitcoin, Ether, Libra, and more not just objects of speculation or the domain of experts, but safely functioning elements of the new world economy.


By Josh Constine

15Five raises $30.7M to expand its employee development toolkit

Technology has been used to improve many of the processes that we use to get work done. But today, a startup has raised funding to build tech to improve us, the workers.

15Five, which builds software and services to help organisations and their employees evaluate their performance, as well as set and meet goals, has closed a Series B round of $30.7 million, money that it plans to use to continue building out the functionality of its core product — self-evaluations that take “15 minutes to write, 5 minutes to read” — as well as expand into new services that will sit alongside that.

David Hassell, 15Five’s CEO and co-founder, would not elaborate on what those new services might be, but he recently started a podcast with the startups “chief culture officer” Shane Metcalf around the subject of “best-self” management that taps into research on organizational development and positive psychology.

At the same time that 15Five works on productizing these principles into software form, it seems that the secondary idea will be to bring in more services and coaching into the mix alongside 15Five’s existing SaaS model.

This Series B is being led by Next47​, the strategic investment arm of manufacturing giant Siemens. Others in the round included Matrix Partners, PointNine Capital, ​Jason Calacanis’s LAUNCH Fund​, Newground Ventures, Bling Capital, Chaifetz ​Group, and ​Origin Ventures (which had led 15Five’s Series A). It brings the total raised to $42.6 million, but Hassell said that while the valuation is up, the exact number is not being disclosed.

(Previous investors in the company have included David Sacks, 500 Startups and Ben Ling.)

15Five’s growth comes at a time when we are seeing a significant evolution in how companies are run internally. The digital age has made workforces more decentralised — with people using smartphones, video communications and services like Slack to stay in constant contact while otherwise working potentially hundreds of miles from their closest colleagues, or at least not sitting in one office altogether, all the time.

All well and good, but this has also had an inevitable impact on how employees are evaluated by their managers, and also how they are able to gauge how well they are doing versus those with whom they work. So while communication of one kind — getting information across from one person to another across big distances — has seen a big boost through technology, you could argue that another kind of communication — of the human kind — has been lost.

15Five’s approach is to create a focus on building an easy way for employees to think about and set goals for themselves on a regular basis.

Indeed, “regular” is the operative word here, with key thing being frequency. A lot of companies — especially large ones — already use performance management software (other players in this space include BetterWorks, Lattice, and PeopleGoal among many others), but in many cases, it’s based around self-evaluations that you might make annually, or at six-month intervals.

15Five’s focus is on providing a service that people will use much more often than that.  all the time, by way of sending praise to each other when something positive happens (it calls these “High fives” appropriately enough), as well as regular evaluations and goals set by the employees themselves.

Hassell said in an interview that this is in tune with what modern workplaces, and younger employees, expect today, partly fuelled by the rise of social media.

“Most millennials will get feedback on what they eat for breakfast more than what they do at work,” he said. “The rest of our lives exist in a real-time feedback loop, filled with continuous in positive reinforcement, but then you go into work and have an annual or maybe biannual performance review? It’s simply not enough.” He said that he knows some millennial employees who have said that they will not work at a company if it’s not already using or planning to adopt 15Five, and since talent is the cornerstone to a company’s success this could have a significant impact.

The startup was born in San Francisco in more than one sense: it’s based there, but its principles seem to be uniquely a product of the kind of self-reflection and self-care/quality of life emphasis that has been associated with California culture for a while now, even admist the relentless march that comes with being at the epicenter of the tech world.

In that regard, its newest investor, Next47, will help put 15Five to the test, both in terms of how the product will be adopted and used at a company whose holdings are as much manufacturing as technology, and in terms of sheer size: Siemens globally has around 400,000 employees.

Matthew Cowan, a partner at the firm, noted that while Siemens is currently not a 15Five user, the thinking behind the investment was strategic and the idea will be to incorporate it into the company’s practices for helping employees’ progress.

“It’s very representative of how the workplace is transforming,” he said


By Ingrid Lunden

Tara.ai, which uses machine learning to spec out and manage engineering projects, nabs $10M

Artificial intelligence has become an increasingly important component of how a lot of technology works; now it’s also being applied to how technologists themselves work. Today, one of the startups building such a tool has raised some capital, Tara.ai, a platform that uses machine learning to help an organization get engineering projects done — from identifying and predicting the work that will need to be tackled, to sourcing talent to execute that, and then monitoring the project of that project — has raised a Series A of $10 million to continue building out its platform.

The funding for the company cofounded by Iba Masood (she is now CEO) and Syed Ahmed comes from an interesting group of investors that point to Tara’s origins, as well as how it sees its product developing over time.

The round was led by Aspect Ventures (the female-led firm that puts a notable but not exclusive emphasis on female-founded startups) with participation also from Slack, by way of its Slack Fund. Previous investors Y Combinator and Moment Ventures also participated in the round. (Y Combinator provides an avenue to companies from its cohorts to help them source their Series A rounds, and Tara.ai went through this process.)

Tara.ai was originally founded as Gradberry out of Y Combinator, with its initial focus on using an AI platform for organizations to evaluate and help source engineering talent: Tara.ai was originally that name of its AI engine.

(The origin of how Masood and Ahmed identified this problem was through their own direct experience: both were engineering grads from the American University of Sharjah in the U.A.E. that had problems getting hired because no one had ever heard of their university. Even so, they had won an MIT-affiliated startup competition in Morocco and relocated to Boston. The idea with Gradberry was to cut through the big names and focus just on what people could do.)

Masood and Syed (who eventually got married) eventually realised that using that engine to evaluate the wider challenges of executing engineering projects came as a natural progression once the team started digging into the challenges and identifying what actually needed to be solved.

A study that Tara conducted across some 5,000 projects found that $66 billion dollars were identified as “lost” due to projects running past the expected completion time, lack of adequate talent and just overall poor planning.

“We realised that recruiting was actually the final decision you make, not the first, and we wanted to be involved earlier in the decision-making process,” Masood said in an interview. “We saw a much bigger opportunity looking not at the people, but the whole project.”

In action, that means that Tara.ai is used not just to scope out the nature of the problem that needed to be solved, or the goal that an organization wanted to achieve; it is also used to suggest which frameworks will need to be used to execute on that goal, and then suggest a timeline to follow.

Then, it starts to evaluate a company’s own staff expertise, along with that from other recruiting platforms, to figure out which people to source from within the company. Eventually, that will also be complemented with sourcing information from outside the organization — either contractors or new hires.

Masood noted that a large proportion of users in the tech world today use Jira and platforms like it to manage projects. While there are some tools in Jira to help plan out projects better, Tara is proposing its platform as a kind of virtual project manager, or an assistant to an existing project manager, to conceive of the whole project, not just help with the admin of getting it done.

Notably, right now she says that some 75% of Tara.ai’s users — customers include Cisco, Orange Silicon Valley and Mower Digital — are “not technical,” meaning they themselves do not ship or use code. “This helps them understand what could be considered and the dependencies that can be expected out of a project,” she notes.

Lauren Kolodny, the partner at Aspect who led the investment, said that one of the things that stood out for her, in fact, with Tara.ai, was precisely how it could be applied exactly in those kinds of scenarios.

Today, tech is such a fundamental part of how a lot of businesses operate, but that doesn’t mean that every business is natively a technology one (think here of food and beverage companies as an example, or government agencies). In those cases, these companies would have traditionally had to turn to outside consultants to identify opportunities, and then build and potentially long-term operate whatever the solutions become. Now there is an opportunity to rethink how technology is used in these kinds of organizations.

“Projects have been hacked together from multiple systems, not really built in combination,” Kolodny said of how much development happens at these traditional businesses. “We are really excited about the machine learning scoping and mapping of internal and external talent, which is looking to be particularly important as traditional enterprises are required to get level with newer businesses, and the amount of talent they need to execute on these projects becomes challenging.”

Tara.ai’s next steps will involve essentially taking the building blocks of what you can think of as a very power talent and engineering project search engine, and making it more powerful. That will include integrating databases of external consultants and figuring out how best to have these in tandem with internal teams while keeping them working well together. And soon to come also will be bug prediction: how to identify these before they arise in a project.

The Slack investment is also a notable nod to what direction Tara.ai will take. Masood said that Slack was one of three “big tech” companies interested in investing in this round, and she and Syed chose Slack because from what they could see of its existing and target customers, many were already using it and some have already started requesting closer collaboration so that events in one could come up as updates in the other.

“Our largest customers are heavy Slack users and they are already having conversations in Slack related to projects in Tara.ai,” she said. “W are tackling the scoping element and now seeing how to link up even command line interfaces between the two.”

She noted that this does not rule out closer integrations with communications and other platforms that people use on a daily basis to get their work done: the idea is to become a tool to work better overall.


By Ingrid Lunden

Fellow raises $6.5M to help make managers better at leading teams and people

Managing people is perhaps the most challenging thing most people will have to learn in the course of their professional lives – especially because there’s no one ‘right’ way to do it. But Ottawa-based startup Fellow is hoping to ease the learning curve for new managers, and improve and reinforce the habits of experienced ones with their new people management platform software.

Fellow has raised $6.5 million in seed funding, from investors including Inovia Capital, Felicia Ventures, Garage Capital and a number of angels. The funding announcement comes alongside the announcement of their first customers, including Shopify (disclosure: I worked at Shopify when Fellow was implemented and was an early tester of this product, which is why I can can actually speak to how it works for users).

The Fellow platform is essentially a way to help team leads interact with their reports, and vice versa. It’s a feedback tool that you can use to collect insight on your team from across the company; it includes meeting supplemental suggestions and templates for one-on-ones, and even provides helpful suggestions like recommending you have a one-on-one when you haven’t in a while; and it all lives in the cloud, with integrations for other key workplace software like Slack that help it integrate with your existing flow.

Fellow co-founder and CEO Aydin Mirzaee and his co-founding team have previous experience building companies: They founded Fluidware, a survey software company, in 2008 and then sold it to SurveyMonkey in 2014. In growing the team to over 100 people, Mirzaee says they realized where there were gaps, both in his leadership team’s knowledge and in available solutions on the market.

“Starting the last company, we were in our early 20s, and like the way that we used to learn different practices was by using software, like if you use the Salesforce, and you know nothing about sales, you’ll learn some things about sales,” Mirzaee told me in an interview. “If you don’t know about marketing, use Marketo, and you’ll learn some things about marketing. And you know, from our perspective, as soon as we started actually having some traction and customers and then hired some people, we just got thrown into it. So it was ‘Okay, now, I guess we’re managers.’ And then eventually we became managers of managers.”

Fellow Team Photo 2019

Mirzaee and his team then wondered why a tool like Salesforce or Marketo didn’t exist for management. “Why is it that when you get promoted to become a manager, there isn’t an equivalent tool to help you with that?” he said.

Concept in hand, Fellow set out to build its software, and what it came up with is a smartly designed, user-friendly platform that is accessible to anyone regardless of technical expertise or experience with management practice and training. I can attest to this first-hand, since I was a first-time manager using Fellow to lead a team during my time at Shopify – part of the beta testing process that helped develop the product into something that’s ready for broader release. I was not alone in my relative lack of management knowledge, Mirzaee said, and that’s part of why they saw a clear need for this product.

“The more we did research, the more we figured out that obviously, managers are really important,” he explained. “70% of customer engagements are due to managers, for instance. And when people leave companies, they tend to leave the manager, not the company. The more we dug into it the more it was clear that there truly was this management problem –  management crisis almost, and that nobody really had built a great tool for managers and their teams like.”

Fellow’s tool is flexible enough to work with specific management methodologies like setting SMART goals or OKRs for team members, and managers can use pre-set templates or build their own for things like setting meeting talking points, or gathering feedback from the colleagues of their reports.

Right now, Fellow is live with a number of clients including Shoify, Vidyard, Tulip, North and more, and it’s adding new clients who sign up on a case-by-case basis, but increasing the pace at which it onboard new customers. Mirzaee explained that it hopes to open sign ups entirely later this year.


By Darrell Etherington

Showpad, a sales enablement platform for presentations and other collateral, raises $70M

Sales teams have long turned to tech solutions to help improve how they source leads, develop relationships and close deals. Now, one of the startups that helps out at a key point in that trajectory is announcing a round of growth funding to help fuel its own rapid growth. Showpad, a sales enablement platform that lets salespeople source and organise relevant content and other collateral that they use in their deals, has raised a Series D of $70 million.

The funding, which brings the total raised by Showpad to $160 million, is coming in the form of debt and equity. The equity part is co-led by Dawn Capital and Insight Partners, with existing investors Hummingbird Ventures, and Korelya Capital also participating. Silicon Valley Bank is providing debt financing. This is one of the first big investments out of Dawn’s Opportunities Fund that we wrote about last week.

The company is not disclosing its valuation but Pieterjan Bouten, the CEO who co-founded the company with Louis Jonckheere (currently CPO), confirmed that it has doubled since the $50 million Series C that it raised in 2016, with the company growing 90% year-on-year at the moment in terms of revenues.

And as a point of reference, another sales enablement player, Seismic, last December raised a Series E of $100 million at a $1 billion valuation.

Founded in Ghent, Belgium, Showpad today operates across two main headquarters, its original European base and Chicago. The latter was the homebase of LearnCore, a company that Showpad acquired last year that focuses on sales coaching and training, which has been used as a strategic acquisition to expand Showpad’s primary product, a platform that acts as a kind of content management system for sales collateral. (Today, while Chicago is where Showpad builds its go-to market efforts and professional services, Ghent focuses on engineering and product, he said.) As it happens, Chicago is also the headquarters of Seismic.

As Bouten sees it, Showpad is part of what he considers to be the fourth pillar of the technology marketing stack: storage (the cloud services where you keep all your data), CRM, marketing automation and sales enablement, where Showpad sits.

While the first three are key to helping to manage a salesperson’s activities and work, the fourth is a crucial one for helping to make sure a salesperson can do his or her job more effectively. Traditionally a lot of the content that salespeople used — presentations, white papers, other materials — to help make their cases and close their deals would be managed offline and directly by individual salespeople. Showpad has taken some of that process and made it digital, which means that now teams of salespeople can more effectively share materials amongst each other; and interestingly the material and its link to successful sales becomes part of how Showpad “learns” what works and what doesn’t.

That, in turn, helps build its own artificial intelligence algorithms, to help suggest the best materials for a particular sales effort either to someone else in that team, or to other salespeople using the platform.

“To date there has been enormous innovation in automating the marketing and sales workflow. However, in the end, sales comes down to one person selling to another,” said Norman Fiore, General Partner at Dawn Capital and member of the Showpad Board, in a statement. “Historically, this has been an offline process that has been wildly inconsistent and opaque. Showpad’s suite of products succeeds in bringing this process online for the first time with data-rich feedback loops on the effectiveness of teams, managers, salespeople and even individual pieces of sales content.”

This is a crowded area of the market with a number of standalone companies building sales enablement solutions, but also other companies within the sales stack also adding on enablement as a value-added service. For now, though, Bouten notes that these are more strategic partners than competitors. Salesforce is a partner, he says, and “We integrate with Salesloft to make sure sure emails that are sent out are using the right content. We become the single source of truth but also are being used for outreach.”

Today, the company has around 1,200 enterprise customers, including Johnson & Johnson, GE Healthcare, Bridgestone, Honeywell, and Merck, and the plan going forward will be to continue building out the services that it offers around its sales enablement software.

“You can equip sales people with the best content, but if they are not trained and coached in the right way, it goes nowhere,” he said.

 


By Ingrid Lunden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Josh Constine

Colombian point-of-sale lender ADDI nabs $12.5 million from Andreessen Horowitz

Andreessen Horowitz <3 Latin American startups.

Latin America is the only region outside of the U.S. where the venture firm is routinely investing capital, and it just made another commitment, doubling down on its early-stage support for the point-of-sale lending startup ADDI.

ADDI picked up $12.5 million in new financing in April of this year as the company looks to expand its lending services online.

For an American audience, the closest corollary to what ADDI is up to is likely Affirm, the point-of-sale lender that’s raised a ton of cash and come in for some (valid) criticism for its basic business model.

Like Affirm, ADDI lets its borrowers apply for credit at the moment of purchase. The company likens its service to the layaway and credit plans that already exist in Colombia — but involve pretty onerous requirements to use. Company co-founder Santiago Suarez and Andreessen Horowitz general partner Angela Strange both commented on how, in some cases, Colombian shoppers have to have three people vouch for a borrower before a store will issue credit or agree to a layaway plan.

The difference between an ADDI loan — or any loan — and layaway is that an installment payment plan doesn’t charge interest (and even with the fees that installment plans do charge, they are often still cheaper than taking out a loan).

But financial products are coming for consumers in Latin America whether those buyers like it or not — and for the most part, it seems they do like it.

Historically, only the wealthiest clientele in Latin America received anything resembling the kinds of financial products that are more widely available in the United States, according to Strange. And the investment in ADDI is just part of her firm’s thesis in trying to make more services more broadly available in a region where a technological transformation is creating unprecedented opportunities for challengers.

That assessment is what drew Santiago Suarez back to Latin America only two years ago. A former executive at Lending Club who previously had worked as the head of New Product Development and Emerging Services at J.P. Morgan, Suarez saw the tremendous growth happening in Latin America and returned to Colombia to see if he could bring some much needed services to his home country.

Suarez partnered with his childhood friend, Elmer Ortega, who was working as the chief technology officer of the local hedge fund where he had previously been employed as a derivatives trader before learning how to code.

Together, the two men, who had known each other since they were five years old, set out to transform how credit was offered in retail shops. It’s an industry that Suarez had known well since his parents had owned stores.

“In the U.S. there are all of these gaps that fintech companies are filling,” says Suarez. “But the gaps in Latin America are bigger.”

Suarez and Ortega incorporated the company in September 2018, around the same time they raised $2.3 million from the regional investment firm, Monashees, Andreessen and Village Global. They then raised another $1.5 million in an internal round of financing before closing the most recent funding.

The company offers loans at annual percentage rates ranging from 19.99% to 28.90%. The company started with a digital solution for brick and mortar retailers because 90% of retail in Colombia still happens offline. 

Although it’s in its early days, the company has already originated 10,000 borrowers and typically loans out roughly $500 since it launched on February 22, according to Suarez. He declined to comment on the company’s default rate on loans.

Now with 40 employees on staff, the company is looking to bring its lending tool to more e-commerce and physical retailers, according to Suarez. And despite the threat of cyclical political turmoil, Suarez says there’s no better time to be investing in Colombia. 

“It’s the most stable country outside of Chile… Way more stable than Brazil, way more stable than Argentina and way more stable than Mexico,” Suarez says. “What we’re looking at is more than cyclical instability… those things go beyond that. Nubank was able to build a multibillion business in the worst political and economic crisis in Brazil’s history. I think Colombia is an incredibly attractive space with a deep talent pool.”


By Jonathan Shieber

The Ticket Fairy is tech’s best hope against Ticketmaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Josh Constine

AntiToxin sells safetytech to clean up poisoned platforms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Josh Constine

VCs bet $12M on Troops, a Slackbot for sales teams

Slack wants to be the new operating system for teams, something it has made clear on more than one occasion, including in its recent S-1 filing. To accomplish that goal, it put together an in-house $80 million venture fund in 2015 to invest in third-party developers building on top of its platform.

Weeks ahead of its direct listing on The New York Stock Exchange, it continues to put that money to work.

Troops is the latest to land additional capital from the enterprise giant. The New York-based startup helps sales teams communicate with a customer relationship management tool plugged directly into Slack. In short, it automates routine sales management activities and creates visibility into important deals through integrations with employee emails and Salesforce.

Troops founder and chief executive officer Dan Reich, who previously co-founded TULA Skincare, told TechCrunch he opted to build a Slackbot rather than create an independent platform because Slack is a rocket ship and he wanted a seat on board: “When you think about where Slack will go in the future, it’s obvious to us that companies all over the world will be using it,” he said.

Troops has raised $12 million in Series B funding in a round led by Aspect Ventures, with participation from the Slack Fund, First Round Capital, Felicis Ventures, Susa Ventures, Chicago Ventures, Hone Capital, InVision founder Clark Valberg and others. The round brings Troops’ total raised to $22 million.

Launched in 2015 by New York tech veterans Reich, Scott Britton and Greg Ratner, the trio weren’t initially sure of Slack’s growth trajectory. It wasn’t until Slack confirmed its intent to support the developer ecosystem with a suite of developer tools and a fund that the team focused its efforts on building a Slackbot.

“People sometimes thought of us, at least in the early days, as a little bit crazy,” Reich said. “But now Slack is the fastest-growing SaaS company ever.”

“We think the biggest opportunity in the [enterprise SaaS] category is going to be tools oriented around the customer-facing employee (CRM), and that’s where we are innovating,” he added.

Troops’ tools are helpful for any customer-facing team, Reich explains. Envoy, WeWork, HubSpot and a few hundred others are monthly paying subscribers of the tool, using it to interact with their CRM in a messaging interface and to receive notifications when a deal has closed. Troops integrates with Salesforce, so employees can use it to search records, schedule automatic reports and celebrate company wins.

Slack, in partnership with a number of venture capital funds, including Accel, Kleiner Perkins and Index, has also deployed capital to a number of other startups, like Lattice, Drafted and Loom.

With Slack’s direct listing afoot, the Troops team is counting on the imminent and long-term growth of the company’s platform.

“We think it’s still early days,” Reich said. “In the future, we see every company using something like Troops to manage their day-to-day.”


By Kate Clark

Foursquare buys Placed from Snap Inc. on the heels of $150M in new funding

Foursquare just made its first acquisition. The location tech company has acquired Placed from Snap Inc on the heels of a fresh $150 million investment led by the Raine Group. The terms of the deal were not disclosed. Placed founder and CEO David Shim will become President of Foursquare.

Placed is the biggest competitor to Foursquare’s Attribution product, which allows brands to track the physical impact (foot traffic to store) of a digital campaign or ad. Up until now, Placed and Attribution by Foursquare combined have measured over $3 billion in ad-to-store visits.

Placed launched in 2011 and raised $13.4 million (according to Crunchbase) before being acquired by Snap Inc. in 2017.

As part of the deal with Foursquare, the company’s Attribution product will henceforth be known as Placed powered by Foursquare. The acquisition also means that Placed powered by Foursquare will have more than 450 measureable media partners, including Twitter, Snap, Pandora, and Waze. Moreover, more than 50 percent of the Fortune 100 are partnered with Placed or Foursquare.

It’s also worth noting that this latest investment of $150 million is the biggest financing round for Foursquare ever, and comes following a $33 million Series F last year.

Here’s what Foursquare CEO Jeff Glueck had to say about the financing in a prepared statement:

This is one of the largest investments ever in the location tech space. The investment will fund our acquisition and also capitalize us for our increased R&D and expansion plans, allowing us to focus on our mission to build the world’s most trusted, independent location technology platform.

That last bit, about an independent location technology platform, is important here. Foursquare is ten years old and has transformed from a consumer-facing location check-in app — a game, really — into a location analytics and development platform.

Indeed, when Glueck paints his vision for the company, he lists five key areas of focus:

  1. Developer Tools to build smarter apps and customer engagement, using geo-context;
  2. Analytics, including consumer insights for planning;
  3. Audiences, so businesses can reach the right consumer segments for their message;
  4. Attribution, to test and learn which messages, segments and channels work best;
  5. Consumer, where through our own apps and Foursquare Labs’ R&D efforts we showcase what’s possible and inspire developers via our innovations around contextual location.

You’ll notice that its consumer apps, Foursquare and Swarm, are at the bottom of the list. But that’s because Foursquare’s real technological and strategic advantage isn’t in building the best social platform. In fact, Glueck said that more than 90 percent of the company’s revenue came from the enterprise side of the business. Foursquare’s advantage is in the accuracy of its technology, as afforded by the decade of data that has come from Foursquare, Swarm, and the users who have expressly verified their location.

The Pilgrim SDK fits into that top item on the list: developer tools. The Pilgrim SDK allows developers to embed location-smart experiences and notifications into their apps and services. But it also expands Foursquare’s access to data from beyond its own apps to the greater ecosystem, yielding the data it needs to power analytics tools for brands and publishers.

With this acquisition, Placed will be able to leverage Foursquare’s existing map of 105 million places of interest across 190 countries, as well as tap into the measured U.S. audience of over 100 million monthly devices.

Foursquare and Placed share a similar philosophy of building against a truth set of real consumer responses. Getting real people to confirm the name of their location is the only way to know if your technology is accurate or not. Placed has leveraged over 135 million survey responses in its first-party Placed survey apps, all from consumers opted-in to its rewards app. Foursquare expands the truth set for machine learning exponentially by adding in our over 13 billion consumer confirmations.

The hope is that Foursquare is accurate enough to become the de facto location analytics and services company for measuring ad spend. With enough scale, that may allow the company to break into the walled gardens where most of that ad spend is going, Facebook and Google.

Of course, to win as the “world’s most trusted, independent location technology platform,” consumers have to trust the platform. After all, one’s location may be the most sensitive piece of data about them. Foursquare has taken steps to be clear about what its technology is capable of. In fact, at SXSW this year, Foursquare offered a limited run of a product called Hypertrending, which was essentially an anonymized view of real-time location data showing activity in the Austin area.

Here’s what Chairman of the Board and cofounder Dennis Crowley had to say at the time:

We feel the general trend with internet and technology companies these days has been to keep giving users a more and more personalized (albeit opaquely personalized) view of the world, while the companies that create these feeds keep the broad “God View” to themselves. Hypertrending is one example of how we can take Foursquare’s aggregate view of the world and make it available to the users who make it what it is. This is what we mean when we talk about “transparency” – we want to be honest, in public, about what our technology can do, how it works, and the specific design decisions we made in creating it.

With regards to today’s acquisition of Placed, Jeff Glueck had this to say:

Both companies also share a commitment to privacy and consumers being in control. Our Foursquare credo of “data as a privilege” only deepens as our company expands. We believe location should only be shared when consumers can see real value and visible benefits driven by location. We remain dedicated to elevating the industry through respect for transparency, user control, and instituting layers of privacy safeguards.

This new financing brings Foursquare’s total funding to $390.4 million.


By Jordan Crook