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

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

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

Diagram: Avi Networks

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

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

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

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


By Ron Miller

IBM, KPMG, Merck, Walmart team up for drug supply chain blockchain pilot

IBM announced its latest blockchain initiative today. This one is in partnership with KPMG, Merk and Walmart to build a drug supply chain blockchain pilot.

These four companies are coming to together to help come up with a solution to track certain drugs as they move through a supply chain. IBM is acting as the technology partner, KPMG brings a deep understanding of the compliance issues, Merk is of course a drug company and Walmart would be a drug distributor through its pharmacies and care clinics.

The idea is to give each drug package a unique identifier that you can track through the supply chain from manufacturer to pharmacy to consumer. Seems simple enough, but the fact is that companies are loathe to share any data with one another. The blockchain would provide an irrefutable record of each transaction as the drug moved along the supply chain, giving authorities and participants an easy audit trail.

The pilot is part of set of programs being conducted by various stakeholders at the request of the FDA. The end goal is to find solutions to help comply with the U.S. Drug Supply Chain Security Act. According to the FDA Pilot Program website, “FDA’s DSCSA Pilot Project Program is intended to assist drug supply chain stakeholders, including FDA, in developing the electronic, interoperable system that will identify and trace certain prescription drugs as they are distributed within the United States.”

IBM hopes that this blockchain pilot will show it can build a blockchain platform or network on top of which other companies can build applications. “The network in this case, would have the ability to exchange information about these pharmaceutical shipments in a way that ensures privacy, but that is validated,” Mark Treshock, global blockchain solutions leader for healthcare and life sciences at IBM told TechCrunch.

He believes that this would help bring companies on board that might be concerned about the privacy of their information in a public system like this, something that drug companies in particular worry about. Trying to build an interoperable system is a challenge, but Treshock sees the blockchain as a tidy solution for this issue.

Some people have said that blockchain is a solution looking for a problem, but IBM has been looking at it more practically with several real-world projects in production including one to track leafy greens from field to store with Walmart and a shipping supply chain with Maersk to track shipping containers as they move through the world

Treshock believes the Walmart food blockchain is particularly applicable here and could be used as a template of sorts to build the drug supply blockchain. “It’s very similar, tracking food to tracking drugs, and we are leveraging or adopting the assets that we built for food trust to this problem. We’re taking that platform and adapting it to track pharmaceuticals,” he explained.


By Ron Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Josh Constine

RealityEngines.AI raises $5.25M seed round to make ML easier for enterprises

RealityEngines.AI, a research startup that wants to help enterprises make better use of AI, even when they only have incomplete data, today announced that it has raised a $5.25 million seed funding round. The round was led by former Google CEO and Chairman Eric Schmidt and Google founding board member Ram Shriram. Khosla Ventures, Paul Buchheit, Deepchand Nishar, Elad Gil, Keval Desai, Don Burnette and others also participated in this round.

The fact that the service was able to raise from this rather prominent group of investors clearly shows that its overall thesis resonates. The company, which doesn’t have a product yet, tells me that it specifically wants to help enterprises make better use of the smaller and noisier datasets they have and provide them with state-of-the-art machine learning and AI systems that they can quickly take into production. It also aims to provide its customers with systems that can explain their predictions and are free of various forms of bias, something that’s hard to do when the system is essentially a black box.

As RealityEngines CEO Bindu Reddy, who was previously the head of products for Google Apps, told me the company plans to use the funding to build out its research and development team. The company, after all, is tackling some of the most fundamental and hardest problems in machine learning right now — and that costs money. Some, like working with smaller datasets, already have some available solutions like generative adversarial networks that can augment existing datasets and that RealityEngines expects to innovate on.

Reddy is also betting on reinforcement learning as one of the core machine learning techniques for the platform.

Once it has its product in place, the plan is to make it available as a pay-as-you-go managed service that will make machine learning more accessible to large enterprise, but also to small and medium businesses, which also increasingly need access to these tools to remain competitive.


By Frederic Lardinois

Apollo raises $22M for its GraphQL platform

Apollo, a San Francisco-based startup that provides a number of developer and operator tools and services around the GraphQL query language, today announced that it has raised a $22 million growth funding round co-led by Andreessen Horowitz and Matrix Partners. Existing investors Trinity Ventures and Webb Investment Network also participated in this round.

Today, Apollo is probably the biggest player in the GraphQL ecosystem. At its core, the company’s services allow businesses to use the Facebook-incubated GraphQL technology to shield their developers from the patchwork of legacy APIs and databases as they look to modernize their technology stacks. The team argues that while REST APIs that talked directly to other services and databases still made sense a few years ago, it doesn’t anymore now that the number of API endpoints keeps increasing rapidly.

Apollo replaces this with what it calls the Data Graph. “There is basically a missing piece where we think about how people build apps today, which is the piece that connects the billions of devices out there,” Apollo co-founder and CEO Geoff Schmidt told me. “You probably don’t just have one app anymore, you probably have three, for the web, iOS and Android . Or maybe six. And if you’re a two-sided marketplace you’ve got one for buyers, one for sellers and another for your ops team.” Managing the interfaces between all of these apps quickly becomes complicated and means you have to write a lot of custom code for every new feature. The promise of the Data Graph is that developers can use GraphQL to query the data in the graph and move on, all without having to write the boilerplate code that typically slows them down. At the same time, the ops teams can use the Graph to enforce access policies and implement other security features.

“If you think about it, there’s a lot of analogies to what happened with relational databases in the 80s,” Schmidt said. “There is a need for a new layer in the stack. Previously, your query planner was a human being, not a piece of software, and a relational databased is a piece of software that would just give you a database. And you needed a way to query that database and that syntax was called SQL.”

Geoff Schmidt, Apollo CEO, and Matt DeBergalis, CTO.

GraphQL itself, of course, is open source. Apollo is now building a lot of the proprietary tools around this idea of the Data Graph that make it useful for businesses. There’s a cloud-hosted graph manager, for example, that lets you track your schema, as well as a dashboard to track performance, as well as integrations with continuous integration services. “It’s basically a set of services that keep track of the metadata about your graph and help you manage the configuration of your graph and all the workflows and processes around it,” Schmidt said.

The development of Apollo didn’t come out of nowhere. The founders previously launched Meteor, a framework and set of hosted services that allowed developers to write their apps in JavaScript, both on the front-end and back-end. Meteor was tightly coupled to MongoDB, though, which worked well for some use cases but also held the platform back in the long run. With Apollo, the team decided to go in the opposite direction and instead build a platform that makes being database agnostic the core of its value proposition.

The company also recently launched Apollo Federation, which makes it easier for businesses to work with a distributed graph. Sometimes, after all, your data lives in lots of different places. Federation allows for a distributed architecture that combines all of the different data sources into a single schema that developers can then query.

Schmidt tells me that the company started to get some serious traction last year and by December, it was getting calls from VCs that heard from their portfolio companies that they were using Apollo.

The company plans to use the new funding to build out its technology to scale its field team to support the enterprises that bet on its technology, including the open source technologies that power both the service.

“I see the Data Graph as a core new layer of the stack, just like we as an industry invested in the relational databased for decades, making it better and better,” Schmidt said. “We’re still finding new uses for SQL and that relational database model. I think the Data Graph is going to be the same way.”


By Frederic Lardinois

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

Misfits Market raises $16.5 million for their ‘ugly’ produce subscription box

As grocery shopping moves online, one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been directly addressed: fresh fruits and vegetables. That also happens to be a category in which there is a ton of food waste, with a good deal of fruits and veggies never making it out of the grocery store to begin with.

Misfits Market has raised $16.5 million in Series A to handle just that.

Greenoaks Capital led the round, but Misfits isn’t disclosing other participants in the financing. Other Greenoaks Capital investments include Deliveroo, OYO, Clover Health, Brex and Discord.

Misfits Market offers a subscription box of “ugly” fruits and veggies, the ones with blemishes or odd shapes that make a grocery shopper think twice before checking out, each week.

Misfits sources these fruits and veggies straight from farms. This means that the extra time spent shipping them to a grocery store, and then sitting on shelves, is eliminated from the equation with Misfits.

The company currently operates in all zip codes in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Maine and Ohio, with plans to expand into Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Currently, Misfits Market offers two different box options. The smaller box, called The Mischief, includes 10 to 12 pounds of fruits and veggies each week for $23.75 à la carte, or less than $20 as a weekly subscription. The Madness, Misfits’ bigger box, includes 18 to 20 pounds of fresh fruits and veggies for $42.50 as a one-time purchase, or for $34 as a subscription.

Users can pause their weekly subscription or cancel at any time.

CEO and founder Abhi Ramesh said the idea for Misfits Market started when he visited a farm a few years ago. The farmer was collecting apples that he said weren’t of the grade he could sell to grocery stores or farmers’ markets, and that they’d either be given away to neighbors or thrown away.

“That was my sort of romanticized light bulb moment,” said Ramesh.

He was fascinated and started interviewing farmers in the north east and asking them how much of their produce ended up going to waste because it wasn’t pretty enough for grocery stores. The answer was consistently between 20% and 40%.

Ramesh says there is an opportunity down the line to expand beyond fruits and veggies, but that for now the company is laser-focused on that category.

Since launching in 2018, Misfits has sent out 5 million pounds of produce that would have gone to waste otherwise.


By Jordan Crook

Uber and AT&T team up for always-on connectivity for Uber Copter and Uber Air

Uber is partnering with mobile network operator AT&T on the always-on connectivity it’ll require for its aerial transportation service network. The on-demand mobility company announced the team-up at its annual Elevate Summit, which brings together a number of key players working toward making affordable, accessible in-city aerial transit a reality.

Uber said that it’s already working with AT&T on the network it’ll use for Uber Copter, the Manhattan-to-JFK helicopter-based service that it’s launching in New York in July. The service is promising connection with ground transportation at both ends, and it’s also anticipating travel times and working backwards to provide transportation on-demand as needed to get passengers to their destination at the time they request. So, for instance, Uber Copter customers could say they need to be at JFK by 5 PM and the app will figure out when they need to get a car to get to the heliport to make that work.

This is just the first step in a broader-ranging partnership Uber Elevate Head of Product Nikhil Goel described that will eventually scale to cover all of its needs for Uber Air, the service it aims to provide that will provide on-demand short-distance air travel within cities, with a targeted launch time frame of 2023. Goel noted that this will also include leveraging AT&T’s 5G network as it rolls out, which should provide exactly the kind of high-bandwidth, always-on reliability needed for this kind of aerial and ground-based integrated transportation network.


By Darrell Etherington

Opera launches a ‘gaming browser’ with Twitch integration

“You’re probably asking, ‘what is a gaming browser?,’ ” Opera PM Maciej Kocemba says in the opening of the Opera GX introduction video. Fair enough. My first thought when the Norwegian browser company mentioned the concept to me was something akin to Google Stadia, with remote game streaming.

Turns out a gaming browser — in this instance at least — is more about providing a custom browser for PC gamers, rather than a browser that does the heavy lifting for gaming itself. Instead, the system is more interested in minimizing system requirements as gamers game.

The browser’s central feature is the GX Control panel, which lets users determine how much of the system’s CPU and RAM are allotted to the browser. The idea being that gamers can, say, stream content from Twitch while playing, without slowing their computer to a crawl.

“Running a game might require a lot of effort from your machine. Even more so if you are streaming while you play,” says Kocemba in a release tied to today’s E3 announcement. “Before Opera GX, gamers often shut down their browsers in order to not slow down their gaming experience. We came up with the GX Control feature to make people’s games run more smoothly without requiring them to compromise on what they do on the Web.”

The other big piece here is Twitch integration, letting users log in to the service directly from the browser sidebar. They’ll also get notifications when streamers they follow go live. There are various other touches through out, including “sounds and animation inspired by gaming consoles” and other customizable design features.

You probably think this is all pretty gimmicky, and honestly, you’re not really wrong. Those who are interested can check out early access to the browser at E3 this week.


By Brian Heater

Over 1,400 self-driving vehicles are now in testing by 80+ companies across the US

In a talk at the Uber Elevate Summit in Washington, D.C., today, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao shared a total overall figure for ongoing testing of autonomous vehicles on U.S roads: More than 1,400 self-driving cars, trucks and other vehicles are currently in testing by more than 80 companies across 36 U.S. states, plus DC itself.

This puts some sense of overall scale to the work being done to test and develop self-driving car tech in the U.S. For context, note that California, one of the first states to have implemented AV testing on public roads, currently has 62 companies registered to perform testing — which represents a significant chunk of that 80-plus figure provided by Secretary Chao.

Chao also shared that there are more than 1.59 million registered drones currently in the U.S., of which more than 372,000 are classified as commercial, with more than 136,000 registered commercial drone operators also on the books. That represents a net new job category, Chao noted.

The secretary also later emphasized that the DoT over which she presides and the current administration aim to be “tech neutral, and not command and control” and that the department is not “in the business of picking winners and losers,” something she said the assembled audience of mostly private-sector attendants would be “so pleased to hear.”

Under Chao, the DoT has introduced and continues to overhaul guidelines, rules and programs that favor and unblock industry and commercial access to autonomous driving, drone operation and spacecraft launch capabilities. Recently, Chao has come under fire for potential conflict of interest related to use of her position.


By Darrell Etherington

Mozilla gives Firefox a new logo as it looks beyond the browser

Mozilla’s Firefox is getting a new logo that is meant to reflect that the brand now stands for more than a browser.

With products like its password manager Lockwise, private file-sharing service Send and security tools like Firefox Monitor, Mozilla has greatly expanded the brand. That’s a challenge no branding expert can refuse, so it’s no surprise the organization went on a quest for new logos and an update to its iconic Firefox brand.

In its announcement, Mozilla talks a lot about how the brand system rests on ideas like “it’s a radical act to be optimistic about the future of the internet” and “we make transparency and a global perspective integral to our brand, speaking many languages and striving to reflect all vantage points.”

The result of this exercise is an updated Firefox logo that takes the fox out of the equation and basically only leaves the tail. To confuse things, though, that’s the logo for the overall Firefox brand — the browser itself still features a stylized fox wrapped around a ball.

That’s been the overall evolution of the brand in recent years anyway, so it’s not all that radical a change. Other Mozilla products use the same color palette, yet with a different system of shapes and a new typeface.

“As a living brand, Firefox will never be done,” Mozilla writes today. “It will continue to evolve as we change and the world changes around us.”

What’s probably more important, though, is that the Firefox browser tech continues to evolve in step with its competitors. After a long slog, Firefox is finally a competitive browser again. The last time this happened, Mozilla lost focus by trying to build a mobile operating system and lots of other side projects. This time around, it seems to have a clearer mission that centers around privacy, so hopefully, it’ll be able to avoid the pitfalls of branching out well beyond the browser.


By Frederic Lardinois

As Alzheimer’s costs soar, startups like Neurotrack raise cash to diagnose and treat the disease

As studies show that early diagnosis and preventative therapies can help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s, startups that are working to diagnose the disease earlier are gaining more attention and funding.

That’s a boon to companies like Neurotrack, which closed on $21 million in new financing led by the company’s previous investor, Khosla Ventures, with participation from new investors Dai-ichi Life and SOMPO Holdings.

Last year, the Japanese life insurance company, Dai-ichi Life partnered with Neurotrack to roll out a cognitive assessment tool to the company’s customers in Japan.

And earlier this year, the Japanese health insurer, SOMPO conducted a 16-week pilot with Neurotrack, where more than 550 of SOMPO’s employees took Neurotrack’s test and followed the Memory Health Program for four months. Neurotrack and SOMPO are now working to deepen and extend their partnership.

“As the global crisis around Alzheimer’s continues to grow, the private sector is joining government and nonprofits to address the problem in their markets. In Japan, for example, traditional insurance companies are developing novel solutions that incorporate Neurotrack’s products to advance better memory health among its population,” said Elli Kaplan, Neurotrack Co-founder and CEO. “These partnerships are innovative models that we hope to replicate in other markets, enabling traditional insurance companies to create new markets while helping to address the Alzheimer’s crisis. And now they’re also investing in our company so these companies have two ways of doing well by doing good.”

Neurodegenerative disorders are becoming a more serious issue for the island nation — and the rest of the world. In fact, over the weekend the G20 first raised the possibility that aging populations could be a global risk.

“Most of the G20 nations already experience or will experience ageing,” Bank of Japan governor Haruhiko Kuroda, told reporters from Agence France Presse. “We need to discuss problems that arise with societal aging and how to deal with them.”

In the U.S., the estimated cost of caring for Americans with Alzheimer’s and other dementias was an estimated $277 billion in 2018, according to a study cited by WebMD. Roughly $186 billion of those costs are borne by Medicare and Medicaid with another $60 billion in payments coming out-of-pocket. That number could top $1.1 trillion by 2050, according to the same report.

Neurotrack uses cognitive assessments that follow eye movements using the camera on a computer or mobile phone to create a baseline for cognitive functions. The company then uses a combination of brain training and diet, exercise, and sleep adjustments to try and improve cognitive function and health.

Its technology is one of several different approaches startups are taking to try and provide early diagnoses and potential preventative measures against the disease.

MyndYou is another company tackling neurodegenerative diagnostics uses an app to monitor movement among its users. The company assesses that data to determine whether there may be any issues related to cognitive function.  It recently partnered with the Japanese company Mizuho to test its efficacy among Japan’s aging population.

MyndYou partners with Mizuho to expand senior care services assessing cognitive degeneration

Then there’s Altoida, another startup which launched recently to tackle the cognitive assessment market. It uses augmented reality and a series of memory tests to assess brain function and attempt to detect neurodegeneration.

Neurotrack’s technology, based on research from Emory University, has managed to attract more than just Japanese corporations. Previous investors like Sozo Ventures, Rethink Impact, AME Cloud Partners, and Salesforce founder Marc Benioff have also thrown cash behind the company.

To date, the company has raised more than $50 million including $6.8 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Aging.

The company said its new investment will be used to develop new partnerships in additional global markets and continue research and development.

“One can now feel empowered to test for potential memory decline, given that Neurotrack’s Memory Health Program can help stave off cognitive decline. This fully integrated platform enables users to assess the state of their memory, reduce future risk for decline, and monitor progress in order to take better control of one’s memory health. We combine these tools with deep analytics to further target and personalize, creating a very powerful precision medicine solution,” said Kaplan. “Just as when you go on a diet, you use a scale to provide evidence that you’re losing weight. Neurotrack now has the equivalent of both a scale to measure and the Memory Health Program for cognitive health. This is a game-changer for dementia risk.”

Japan has national efforts targeting a reduction in the onset of dementia in 6% of people in their 70s by 2025 (the country has the world’s largest population of the elderly with over 20% of the country over the age of 65). Roughly 13 million people are expected to develop Alzheimer’s in Japan by 2025.

Using augmented reality, Altoida is identifying the likely onset of neurodegenerative diseases

Part of the company’s success in fundraising comes from the results of a preliminary study that showed improved cognitive functions for people diagnosed with some decline in cognitive function after a year of using Neurotrack’s Memory Health Program. The company claims it has the the first fully integrated, clinically-validated platform that can assess a person’s cognition through its cognitive assessment — which can predict conversion from healthy to mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or MCI to Alzheimer’s disease within 3 years at 89% accuracy, and within 6 years at 100% accuracy.

While that kind of assessment is good, Alzheimer’s symptoms can begin to appear as early as 25 years before the onset of the disease. So there’s still work to be done.

“Neurotrack has built an incredible integrative platform that is transforming our battle with Alzheimer’s,” said Jenny Abramson, Founder & Managing Partner of Rethink Impact. “Elli’s two decades of experience in the private sector and in government are helping her scale this solution to the millions of people suffering from cognitive decline around the world. We couldn’t be more excited to continue to support Neurotrack, given both the financial opportunity and the impact they are already having on this critical disease.”


By Jonathan Shieber

Facebook’s new Study app pays adults for data after teen scandal

Facebook shut down its Research and Onavo programs after TechCrunch exposed how the company paid teenagers for root access to their phones to gain market data on competitors. Now Facebook is relaunching its paid market research program, but this time with principles — namely transparency, fair compensation and safety. The goal? To find out which other competing apps and features Facebook should buy, copy or ignore.

Today Facebook releases its “Study from Facebook” app for Android only. Some adults 18+ in the U.S. and India will be recruited by ads on and off Facebook to willingly sign up to let Facebook collect extra data from them in exchange for a monthly payment. They’ll be warned that Facebook will gather which apps are on their phone, how much time they spend using those apps, the app activity names of features they use in other apps, plus their country, device and network type.

Facebook promises it won’t snoop on user IDs, passwords or any of participants’ content, including photos, videos or messages. It won’t sell participants’ info to third parties, use it to target ads or add it to their account or the behavior profiles the company keeps on each user. Yet while Facebook writes that “transparency” is a major part of “Approaching market research in a responsible way,” it refuses to tell us how much participants will be paid.

“Study from Facebook” could give the company critical insights for shaping its product roadmap. If it learns everyone is using screensharing social network Squad, maybe it will add its own screensharing feature. If it finds group video chat app Houseparty is on the decline, it might not worry about cloning that functionality. Or if it finds Snapchat’s Discover mobile TV shows are retaining users for a ton of time, it might amp up teen marketing of Facebook Watch. But it also might rile up regulators and politicians who already see it as beating back competition through acquisitions and feature cloning.

An attempt to be less creepy

TechCrunch’s investigation from January revealed that Facebook had been quietly operating a research program codenamed Atlas that paid users ages 13 to 35 up to $20 per month in gift cards in exchange for root access to their phone so it could gather all their data for competitive analysis. That included everything the Study app grabs, but also their web browsing activity, and even encrypted information, as the app required users to install a VPN that routed all their data through Facebook. It even had the means to collect private messages and content shared — potentially including data owned by their friends.

Facebook pays teens to install VPN that spies on them

Facebook’s Research app also abused Apple’s enterprise certificate program designed for distributing internal use-only apps to employees without the App Store or Apple’s approval. Facebook originally claimed it obeyed Apple’s rules, but Apple quickly disabled Facebook’s Research app and also shut down its enterprise certificate, temporarily breaking Facebook’s internal test builds of its public apps, as well as the shuttle times and lunch menu apps employees rely on.

In the aftermath of our investigation, Facebook shut down its Research program. It then also announced in February that it would shut down its Onavo Protect app on Android, which branded itself as a privacy app providing a free VPN instead of paying users while it collected tons of data on them. After giving users until May 9th to find a replacement VPN, the Onavo Protect was killed off.

This was an embarrassing string of events that stemmed from unprincipled user research. Now Facebook is trying to correct its course and revive its paid data collection program but with more scruples.

How Study from Facebook works

Unlike Onavo or Facebook Research, users can’t freely sign up for Study. They have to be recruited through ads Facebook will show on its own app and others to both 18+ Facebook users and non-users in the U.S. and India. That should keep out grifters and make sure the studies stay representative of Facebook’s user base. Eventually, Facebook plans to extend the program to other countries.

If users click through the ad, they’ll be brought to Facebook’s research operations partner Applause’s website, which clearly identifies Facebook’s involvement, unlike Facebook Research, which hid that fact until users were fully registered. There they’ll be informed how the Study app is opt-in, what data they’ll give up in exchange for what compensation and that they can opt out at any time. They’ll need to confirm their age, have a PayPal account (which are only supposed to be available to users 18 and over) and Facebook will cross-check the age to make sure it matches the person’s Facebook profile, if they have one. They won’t have to sign and NDA like with the Facebook Research program.

Anyone can download the Study from Facebook app from Google Play, but only those who’ve been approved through Applause will be able to log in and unlock the app. It will again explain what Facebook will collect, and ask for data permissions. The app will send periodic notifications to users reminding them they’re selling their data to Facebook and offering them an opt-out. Study from Facebook will use standard Google-approved APIs and won’t use a VPN, SSL bumping, root access, enterprise certificates or permission profiles you install on your device like the Research program that ruffled feathers.

Different users will be paid the same amount to their PayPal account, but Facebook wouldn’t say how much it’s dealing out, or even whether it was in the ball park of cents, dollars or hundreds of dollars per month. That seems like a stern departure from its stated principle of transparency. This matters, because Facebook earns billions in profit per quarter. It has the cash to potentially offer so much to Study participants that it effectively coerces them to give up their data; $10 to $20 per month like it was paying Research participants seems reasonable in the U.S., but that’s enough money in India to make people act against their better judgement.

The launch shows Facebook’s boldness despite the threat of antitrust regulation focusing on how it has suppressed competition through its acquisitions and copying. Democrat presidential candidates could use Study from Facebook as a talking point, noting how the company’s huge profits earned from its social network domination afford it a way to buy private user data to entrench its lead.

At 15 years old, Facebook is at risk of losing touch with what the next generation wants out of their phones. Rather than trying to guess based on their activity on its own app, it’s putting its huge wallet to work so it can pay for an edge on the competition.


By Josh Constine

Verified Expert Growth Marketing Agency: Growth Pilots

Growth Pilots is one of the more exclusive performance marketing agencies in San Francisco, but they know how to help high-growth startups excel at paid marketing. CEO and founder Soso Sazesh credits his personal experiences as an entrepreneur along with his team’s deep understanding of high-growth company needs and challenges as to what sets Growth Pilots apart. Whether you’re a founder of a seed or Series D stage startup, learn more about Growth Pilots’ approach to growth and partnerships.

Advice to early-stage founders

“I think a lot of times, especially at the early stage, founders don’t have a lot of time so they’re willing to find the path of least resistance to get their paid acquisition channels up and running. If things are not properly set up and managed, this can lead to a false negative in terms of writing off a channel’s effectiveness or scalability. It’s worth talking to an expert, even if it’s just for advice, to ensure you don’t fall into this trap.”

On Growth Pilots’ operations

[pullquote align=”right” author=”Guillaume McIntyre, SF, Head of Acquisition Marketing, Instacart”]“They have good business acumen, move fast and work as an extension to your internal team.”[/pullquote]
“Something we pride ourselves on is working with relatively few clients at a time so we can really focus all of our team’s efforts and energy on doing the highest quality work. Each of our team members works on a maximum of two to three accounts, and therefore they’re able to get very invested in each client’s business and integrated into their team. We really try to simulate the internal team dynamics as much as possible and pairing that with our external capabilities and expertise.”

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup growth marketing agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already.


Interview with Growth Pilots Founder and CEO Soso Sazesh

Yvonne Leow: Tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into growth.

Soso Sazesh: I grew up in northern Minnesota where there is no tech industry whatsoever and then after high school, I came out to Silicon Valley and got exposed to the epicenter of the technology industry. I became very interested in startups and hustled to find startup internships so I could get experience and learn how they operated.

After a couple of startup internships, I got accepted to UC Berkeley and that gave me even more exposure to the startup ecosystem with all of the startup events and resources that UC Berkeley had to offer. I worked on a couple of startup projects while I was at UC Berkeley, and I taught myself scrappy product management and how to get software built using contract developers.

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As I was graduating, I had just launched my second startup project and it was growing organically but very slowly, and I realized I didn’t know how to acquire users. So I joined an SEM agency and that’s where I learned and fell in love with digital marketing. I helped companies successfully acquire users at scale using Google AdWords and finally solved for the missing skills I needed. After a couple of years, I ventured off to try my hand at starting a company again, this time with more experience and a co-founder.

We went through the AngelPad accelerator and raised a small round of capital – what would be called a pre-seed round nowadays. It was an eye-opening experience. I gained a lot of appreciation for what it meant to be a startup operator hustling to build a product people wanted and trying to acquire customers.

Startups are a roller coaster and we had a lot of ups and downs. We ultimately we’re not able to raise our next round of funding due to lack of traction and decided to shut the company down. As we were winding down, people in my network started coming to me looking for help with their digital marketing channels.

I started consulting for a few startups and identified an interesting opportunity, which was that very few startups knew how to do paid acquisition well and very few agencies were well-suited to work with startups. There was a huge gap in the market.

Some of these founders would come to me after trying to get paid acquisition to work on their own, but they didn’t have the time or expertise to do it properly. Some of them would hire an agency and not see results, because most agencies don’t understand the needs and grow-or-die nature of fast-moving startups. These agencies wouldn’t allocate the time and resources needed to really understand these startups and work closely with them to make their paid channels work.

So that’s exactly what I did and I was able to achieve results for them. I combined my previous expertise as a digital marketer with my recent startup operator experience and this allowed me to successfully help the startups I was consulting for. Due to the network effects in the startup community, I soon had more companies who wanted to work with me than I could take on alone and that’s what led me to start Growth Pilots.

Yvonne Leow: Awesome. How does Growth Pilots differentiate itself from other agencies?

Soso Sazesh: Growth Pilots is “the” performance marketing agency for high-growth companies. We’ve worked with over 120 venture-backed companies over the past five and a half years, and we have really tailored our service offering around the unique needs and challenges of high-growth companies as they move from stage to stage. We’ve had this internal framework that breaks down paid acquisition needs based on company stage.

The first is what we call the early stage. At the early stage, companies are looking to establish and validate their paid marketing channels. These companies are typically seed stage or Series A startups looking to find channels that allow them to hit their metrics to achieve their goals for their next round of funding. These companies require a lot of time and attention, which is a bit paradoxical because their budgets are not very large.

The second stage is what we call the scaling stage. This is when companies are trying to achieve escape velocity and growth matters above everything else. This typically happens at the Series A through Series C stage. Their business model is working and ideally within sight of positive unit economics if not already there, but the main focus is acquiring customers at the fastest rate possible and less so on efficiency or profitability. This stage requires all hands on deck and non-stop testing and optimization to squeeze out as much velocity as possible from each channel. The stakes are very high at this stage and category-leading companies often emerge here.

Finally is the late stage. These companies are typically Series C or Series D and beyond and preparing for an exit or IPO. Growth often becomes slightly less important at this stage and the focus shifts to efficiency and improved unit economics. Optimization becomes even more critical at this stage and measurement and attribution get a lot more sophisticated to fully measure the impact of the paid channels.

The needs of companies are vastly different at each of these stages. Our focus is on helping companies achieve their goals within each stage and helping them move to the next stage.

Yvonne Leow: Cool. If I’m a founder and I’d like to work with Growth Pilots, what can I expect are our next steps?

Soso Sazesh: The first step is understanding the business and assessing if there’s a mutual fit. We’re very selective about the companies we take on because over the course of the five and a half years we’ve been able to establish which business models and verticals are conducive to paid marketing success.

For instance, marketplaces, e-commerce, B2B SaaS, mobile apps, and other business models where there is a transactional component is typically a good candidate for paid acquisition. We want to know what the goals are and we want to be able to confidently say that we believe we can achieve the goals at hand. If we can’t say that, we won’t take the company on.

Step two is determining what stage of our framework the company falls into and what the opportunity looks like. If it’s an early stage company, it’s more about assessing the product, the market, and how reachable their target customers are online.

For scaling-stage and late-stage companies that are already up and running, we’ll dive into their current accounts and assess what the opportunity looks like and put together a strategy proposal based on our findings and outlook.

Yvonne Leow: What’s the typical length for each project or partnership?

Soso Sazesh: We’re not project-based so when a company comes to work with us we effectively become an extension of their marketing team. There’s no set duration. We’ve worked with some companies for five years and some companies we’ve worked with for 12 months.

If we work with a company less than 12 months, something is wrong and we probably shouldn’t have taken that company on as a client but you don’t always know how things will play out. Overall our goal is to work with companies in a long-term capacity as an integrated partner.  Something we pride ourselves on is working with relatively few clients at a time so we can really focus all of our team’s efforts and energy into doing the highest quality work.

Each of our team members only works on a maximum of two to three accounts, and therefore they’re able to get very invested in each client’s business and integrated into their team. We really try to simulate the internal team dynamics as much as possible while balancing and pairing that with our external capabilities and expertise.

Yvonne Leow: Are you at the point in your experience that you can apply certain growth strategies and guarantee success?

Soso Sazesh: Guarantee is a tough word, but having worked with more than 120 startups we are definitely at the point where we have enough data points where we can look at a given business and assess the viability of whether they’ll likely see success on paid channels. Success being a combination of scale and efficiency.

Yvonne Leow: Can you talk a little bit about how you and your team assess that?

Soso Sazesh: The first things we look at are business model, product quality, and whether or not product market fit exists or is likely to be achieved. Even a great business model in a large market combined with a poor product or lack of product market fit is unlikely to succeed with paid acquisition. In the absence of having a live product, or if a company is too early to assess product-market fit, we look at other data points that we have found to be good indicators of viability. Some of these include competitor success with paid marketing, the founders’ backgrounds, amount of capital raised, and who their investors are.

Yvonne Leow: What were some of your greatest lessons learned when you started Growth Pilots?

Soso Sazesh: In the early days of Growth Pilots, there was so much activity and growth that we ignored important things like team infrastructure and people operations. We saw the effects of this in the form of team morale taking a hit and people not seeing a future with us. We eventually took notice and course corrected by investing heavily in people operations and employee development. In an ideal world, we would have done this much earlier.

Another interesting reflection is how critical the work we do is. I think this is what a lot of agencies get wrong. You need the commitment to work with startups. You can’t be one foot in and one foot out when a company may live or die by the work you are doing. A lot of the companies that we work with explicitly outline what goals they need to hit in order to raise their next round of funding and it becomes very clear what part we play in that.

Yvonne Leow: What advice would you give to early-stage founders who are deciding whether or not to work with an agency?

Soso Sazesh: When you work with an agency it’s really important to have clear goals and expectations established up front. A lot of times early-stage companies hire agencies, and agencies will gladly take their money, but the agency isn’t really investing the time that’s needed to get results. So asking “What does it look like to work with your agency? Who’s going to be working on my account? How much attention can I expect to receive?” Those types of questions are really important to clarify and especially at the early stage.

Yvonne Leow: What’s a common mistake you see founders make when it comes to growth?

Soso Sazesh: The most common mistake I see is not doing the upfront work and investment required to get optimal results with paid acquisition. A lot of times you see the founder mentality of move fast and figure things out later kicks in, but this can be dangerous when it comes to paid marketing when you’re directly paying for traffic and customers. This leads to companies not seeing the performance and scalability that they actually could and it contributes to the negative perception of channels like Google Ads and Facebook Ads. VCs, for example, love to bash paid marketing channels as being too expensive or too saturated. There is certainly some truth to the channels getting more crowded but at the same time, you would be surprised how poorly setup and managed some of the accounts are that we look at, including companies that have raised tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Yvonne Leow: Thanks for sharing. Last question: what is your payment structure?

Soso Sazesh: We charge based on a tiered percentage of ad spend managed with a monthly minimum retainer fee of $10,000 at the lowest level. Our minimum fee is frankly much higher than a lot of other agencies and that’s by design. This goes back to what I was saying before about early-stage companies requiring a disproportionate amount of work relative to their budgets in order to be successful with paid acquisition. We apply a lot more focus and resources than other agencies and this allows us to achieve success where other agencies can’t. The tradeoff is that we need to charge more to deliver this higher quality of service.


Founder Recommendations:

“They helped me raise $5M+ and ran one of the most successful pre-order campaigns in 2017.” – Roderick De Rode, Venice, CA, Founder & CEO, Spinn, Inc.

“They have helped us dramatically accelerate our growth and act as an extension of our internal team.” – Digital Advertising Manager in Corte Madera

“They helped us establish a low customer acquisition cost before we were even able to ship product and help us convert site visitors to customers when we had influxes of traffic from press we received.” – Stephen Kuhl, NYC, Co-founder & CEO, Burrow

“Largely instrumental in the way we optimize and measure success of our mobile app install campaigns.” – User Acquisition & Growth Strategist in Denver

“Growth Pilots is a great partner. I on-boarded them to build out, optimize and scale all paid search and social campaigns for Instacart. In a few months, paid search and social became some of our best performing channels. They have good business acumen, move fast and work as an extension to your internal team.” – Guillaume McIntyre, SF,  Head of Acquisition Marketing, Instacart


By Yvonne Leow

Here’s Mary Meeker’s 2019 internet trends report

The Internet Trends Report — everyone’s favorite slide deck — is back. Bond Capital founder and former Kleiner Perkins general partner Mary Meeker made her presentation on stage at Vox/Recode’s Code Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona on Tuesday.

Meeker first crafted a report of this kind, which highlights the most important statistics and technology trends on the internet, in 1995.

This morning, Meeker highlighted slowed growth in ecommerce sales, increased internet ad spending, data growth, as well as the rise of freemium subscription business models, telemedicine, photo-sharing, interactive gaming, the on-demand economy and more.

“If it feels like we’re all drinking from a data firehose, it’s because we are,” Meeker told the audience.

The “Queen of the internet” made references to Slack, Stripe, Spotify, Dropbox, Discord, Twitch, Zoom, Stitch Fix, Instagram, and Bond portfolio company Canva as she reviewed her slides.

It’s been a busy past year for the former Morgan Stanley analyst, who since releasing the 2018 internet trends report last May, exited Kleiner Perkins and raised more than $1 billion for her debut growth fund, Bond.

We’ll be back later with a full analysis of this year’s report. For now, here’s a look at all 333 slides. You can view the full internet trends report archive here.

Mary Meeker raises $1.25B for Bond, her debut growth fund


By Kate Clark