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

This has been quite a week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist


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The Roblox Gambit

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

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

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

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

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

8 investors discuss social gaming’s biggest opportunities

girl playing games on desktop computer

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to convert customers with subscription pricing

Giant hand and magnet picking up office and workers

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

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

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

What is up with Tesla’s value?

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

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

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

Meanwhile, GM just unveiled a new logo and tagline.

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

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

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

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

Abstract glowing grid and particles

Image Credits: piranka / Getty Images

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

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

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

Image Credits: Sophie Alcorn

Dear Sophie:

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

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

— Resilient in Romania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the Portugal-based VCs he interviewed:

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

How late-stage edtech companies are thinking about tutoring marketplaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extra Crunch’s top 10 stories of 2020

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

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

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


By Walter Thompson

Dataloop raises $11M Series A round for its AI data management platform

Dataloop, a Tel Aviv-based startup that specializes in helping businesses manage the entire data lifecycle for their AI projects, including helping them annotate their datasets, today announced that it has now raised a total of $16 million. This includes a $5 seed round that was previously unreported, as well as an $11 million Series A round that recently closed.

The Series A round was led by Amiti Ventures with participation from F2 Venture Capital, crowdfunding platform OurCrowd, NextLeap Ventures and SeedIL Ventures.

“Many organizations continue to struggle with moving their AI and ML projects into production as a result of data labeling limitations and a lack of real time validation that can only be achieved with human input into the system,” said Dataloop CEO Eran Shlomo. “With this investment, we are committed, along with our partners, to overcoming these roadblocks and providing next generation data management tools that will transform the AI industry and meet the rising demand for innovation in global markets.”

Image Credits: Dataloop

For the most part, Dataloop specializes in helping businesses manage and annotate their visual data. It’s agnostic to the vertical its customers are in, but we’re talking about anything from robotics and drones to retail and autonomous driving.

The platform itself centers around the ‘humans in the loop’ model that complements the automated systems with the ability for humans to train and correct the model as needed. It combines the hosted annotation platform with a Python SDK and REST API for developers, as well as a serverless Functions-as-a-Service environment that runs on top of a Kubernetes cluster for automating dataflows.

Image Credits: Dataloop

The company was founded in 2017. It’ll use the new funding to grow its presence in the U.S. and European markets, something that’s pretty standard for Israeli startups, and build out its engineering team as well.


By Frederic Lardinois

Grid AI raises $18.6M Series A to help AI researchers and engineers bring their models to production

Grid AI, a startup founded by the inventor of the popular open-source PyTorch Lightning project, William Falcon, that aims to help machine learning engineers more efficiently, today announced that it has raised an $18.6 million Series A funding round, which closed earlier this summer. The round was led by Index Ventures, with participation from Bain Capital Ventures and firstminute. 

Falcon co-founded the company with Luis Capelo, who was previously the head of machine learning at Glossier. Unsurprisingly, the idea here is to take PyTorch Lightning, which launched about a year ago, and turn that into the core of Grid’s service. The main idea behind Lightning is to decouple the data science from the engineering.

The time argues that a few years ago, when data scientists tried to get started with deep learning, they didn’t always have the right expertise and it was hard for them to get everything right.

“Now the industry has an unhealthy aversion to deep learning because of this,” Falcon noted. “Lightning and Grid embed all those tricks into the workflow so you no longer need to be a PhD in AI nor [have] the resources of the major AI companies to get these things to work. This makes the opportunity cost of putting a simple model against a sophisticated neural network a few hours’ worth of effort instead of the months it used to take. When you use Lightning and Grid it’s hard to make mistakes. It’s like if you take a bad photo with your phone but we are the phone and make that photo look super professional AND teach you how to get there on your own.”

As Falcon noted, Grid is meant to help data scientists and other ML professionals “scale to match the workloads required for enterprise use cases.” Lightning itself can get them partially there, but Grid is meant to provide all of the services its users need to scale up their models to solve real-world problems.

What exactly that looks like isn’t quite clear yet, though. “Imagine you can find any GitHub repository out there. You get a local copy on your laptop and without making any code changes you spin up 400 GPUs on AWS — all from your laptop using either a web app or command-line-interface. That’s the Lightning “magic” applied to training and building models at scale,” Falcon said. “It is what we are already known for and has proven to be such a successful paradigm shift that all the other frameworks like Keras or TensorFlow, and companies have taken notice and have started to modify what they do to try to match what we do.”

The service is now in private beta.

With this new funding, Grid, which currently has 25 employees, plans to expand its team and strengthen its corporate offering via both Grid AI and through the open-source project. Falcon tells me that he aims to build a diverse team, not in the least because he himself is an immigrant, born in Venezuela, and a U.S. military veteran.

“I have first-hand knowledge of the extent that unethical AI can have,” he said. “As a result, we have approached hiring our current 25 employees across many backgrounds and experiences. We might be the first AI company that is not all the same Silicon Valley prototype tech-bro.”

“Lightning’s open-source traction piqued my interest when I first learned about it a year ago,” Index Ventures’ Sarah Cannon told me. “So intrigued in fact I remember rushing into a closet in Helsinki while at a conference to have the privacy needed to hear exactly what Will and Luis had built. I promptly called my colleague Bryan Offutt who met Will and Luis in SF and was impressed by the ‘elegance’ of their code. We swiftly decided to participate in their seed round, days later. We feel very privileged to be part of Grid’s journey. After investing in seed, we spent a significant amount with the team, and the more time we spent with them the more conviction we developed. Less than a year later and pre-launch, we knew we wanted to lead their Series A.”


By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft launches new Cortana features for business users

Cortana may have failed as a virtual assistant for consumers, but Microsoft is still betting on it (or at least its brand) for business use cases, now that it has rebranded it as a ‘personal productivity assistant’ as part of Microsoft 365. Today, at its Ignite conference, Microsoft launched and announced a number of new Cortana services for business users.

These include the general availability of Cortana for the new Microsoft Teams displays the company is launching in partnership with a number of hardware vendors. You can think of these as dedicated smart displays for Teams that are somewhat akin to Google Assistant-enabled smart displays, for example — but with the sole focus on meetings. These days, it’s hard to enable a device like this without support for a voice assistant, so there you go. It’ll be available in September in English in the U.S. and will then roll out to Australia, Canada, the UK and India in the coming months.

In addition to these Teams devices, which Microsoft is not necessarily positioning for meeting rooms but as sidekicks to a regular laptop or desktop, Cortana will also soon come to Teams Rooms devices. Once we go back to offices and meeting rooms, after all, few people will want to touch a shared piece of hardware, so a touchless experience is a must.

For a while now, Microsoft has also been teasing more email-centric Cortana services. Play My Emails, a service that reads you your email out aloud and that’s already available in the U.S. on iOS and Android is coming to n Australia, Canada, the UK and India in the coming months. But more importantly, later this month, Outlook for iOS users will be able to interact with their inbox by voice, initiate calls to email senders and play emails from specific senders.

Cortana can now also send you daily briefing emails if you are a Microsoft 365 Enterprise users. This feature is now generally available and will get better meeting preparation, an integration with Microsoft To Do and other new features in the coming months.

And if you’re using Cortana on Windows 10, this chat-based app now let you compose emails, for example (at least if you speak English and are in the U.S.). And if you so desire, you can now use a wake word to launch it.


By Frederic Lardinois

Startups are transforming global trade in the COVID-19 era

Global trade watchers breathed a sigh of relief on January 15, 2020.

After two years of threats, tariffs and tweets, there was finally a truce in the trade war between the U.S. and China. The agreement signed by President Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He in the Oval Office didn’t resolve all trade tensions and maintained most of the $360 billion in tariffs the administration had put on Chinese goods. But for the first time in months, it looked like manufacturers, importers and shippers could start to put two difficult years behind them.

Then came COVID-19, at first a local disruption in Wuhan, China. Then it spread throughout Hubei province, causing havoc in a concentric circle that eventually engulfed the rest of China, where industrial production fell by more than 13.5% in the first two months of the year. When the virus spread everywhere, chaos ensued: Factories shuttered. Borders closed. Supply chains crumbled.

“It has had a cascading effect through the entire world’s economy,” says Anja Manuel, co-founder and managing partner of Rice, Hadley, Gates & Manuel LLC, an international strategic consulting firm based in Silicon Valley.

The crisis has caused a drastic contraction in global trade; the World Trade Organization estimates trade volumes will fall 13-20% in 2020. And spinning activity back up could be tricky: Even as China starts to get back online, the slowdown there could reduce worldwide exports by $50 billion this year. When factories do reopen, there’s no guarantee whether they will have parts available or empty warehouses, says Manuel, who also serves on the advisory board of Flexport, a shipping logistics startup. “Our supply chains are so tightly-knit and so just-in-time that throw a few wrenches in it like we’ve just done, and it’s going to be really hard to stand it back up again. The idea that we go back to normal the moment we lift restrictions is unlikely, fanciful, even.”

Getting to that new normal, though, is a job that a number of logistics startups are embracing. Already on the rise, companies like Flexport, Haven and Factiv see a global trade crisis as a setback, but also an opportunity to demonstrate the value of their digital platforms in a very much analog industry.

Information is king

As companies along the global supply chain reel from these fast-moving events, they are increasingly turning to firms that can offer them information — and the options that come with it.

“In moments of lots of volatility, you want to make sure the data you’re looking at is real,” says Sanne Manders, Flexport’s COO. “Where before you could get away with a weekly supply chain update, now you need accurate and timely data every minute. If you don’t, you’re not agile to make decisions.”


By Walter Thompson

Verizon is buying b2b videoconferencing firm BlueJeans

US carrier Verizon* has splashed out to buy veteran b2b videoconferencing platform, BlueJeans Network — shelling out less than $500 million on the acquisition, according to the Wall Street Journal which first reported the news.

A Verizon spokeswoman confirmed to TechCrunch that the price-tag is sub-$500M but did not provide a more exact figure. Videoconferencing platform BlueJeans has raised ~$175M since being founded around a decade ago, per Crunchbase, with US investor NEA leading a Series E round back in 2015.

In a press release announcing the deal, Verizon said it has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire the enterprise-grade videoconferencing and event platform in order to expand its “immersive unified communications portfolio”.

“Customers will benefit from a BlueJeans enterprise-grade video experience on Verizon’s high-performance global networks. In addition, the platform will be deeply integrated into Verizon’s 5G product roadmap, providing secure and real-time engagement solutions for high growth areas such as telemedicine, distance learning and field service work,” it wrote.

“As the way we work continues to change, it is absolutely critical for businesses and public sector customers to have access to a comprehensive suite of offerings that are enterprise ready, secure, frictionless and that integrate with existing tools,” added Tami Erwin, CEO of Verizon Business, in a supporting statement. “Collaboration and communications have become top of the agenda for businesses of all sizes and in all sectors in recent months. We are excited to combine the power of BlueJeans’ video platform with Verizon Business’ connectivity networks, platforms and solutions to meet our customers’ needs.”

The acquisition comes at a time when videoconferencing has been seeing a massive uptick in usage as white collar workers around the world log on to meetings from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Although it’s BlueJeans’ rival, Zoom, that’s been the most high profile name linked to the viral videoconferencing boom in recent weeks. The latter recently revealed that daily meeting participants on its platform jumped from a modest 10M in December to 200M in March.

However such booming growth and consumer usage has brought increased scrutiny for Zoom — leading to a spate of warnings (and even some bans), related to security and privacy concerns. And earlier this month the company said it would freeze product dev to focus on the laundry list of issues that have surfaced as users have piled in and kicked its tires, taking a little of the shine off of surging growth. 

On the sheer usage front BlueJeans is certainly small fish in comparison to Zoom — having remained b2b focused. A BlueJeans spokeswoman told us it has more than $100M ARR and over 15,000 customers at this point. (Some notable users include Facebook and Disney.)

But it’s paying users that are likely of most interest to Verizon, hence talk of telemedicine, distance learning and field service work — areas ripe for coronavirus-accelerated digitization.

Carriers generally, meanwhile, haven’t been able to translate increased usage during the pandemic into a revenue growth story — as a result of a combination of fixed costs, debt and market disruption that’s been hitting their shares during the coronavirus crisis, per Reuters.

“The combination of BlueJeans’ world class enterprise video collaboration platform and trusted brand with Verizon Business’ next generation edge computing innovation will deliver highly differentiated and compelling solutions to our joint customers,” said Quentin Gallivan, BlueJeans CEO, in a statement. “We are very excited about joining the Verizon team and we truly believe the future of business communications starts today!”

BlueJeans co-founder Krish Ramakrishnan has a history of exits, selling a couple of his previous startups to networking giant Cisco — where he has also worked, in between spinning out his own companies.

Verizon said today that said BlueJeans founders and “key management” will join the company as part of the acquisition, with BlueJeans employees set to become Verizon employees immediately following the close of the deal — which is expected in the second quarter, pending customary closing conditions.

*Disclosure: Verizon is also TechCrunch’s parent company


By Natasha Lomas

Microsoft’s Cortana drops consumer skills as it refocuses on business users

With the next version of Windows 10, coming this spring, Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistant will lose a number of consumer skills around music and connected homes, as well as some third-party skills. That’s very much in line with Microsoft’s new focus for Cortana, but it may still come as a surprise to the dozens of loyal Cortana fans.

Microsoft is also turning off Cortana support in its Microsoft Launcher on Android by the end of April and on older versions of Windows that have reached their end-of-service date, which usually comes about 36 months after the original release.

cortana

As the company explained last year, it now mostly thinks of Cortana as a service for business users. The new Cortana is all about productivity, with deep integrations into Microsoft’s suite of Office tools, for example. In this context, consumer services are only a distraction, and Microsoft is leaving that market to the likes of Amazon and Google .

Because the new Cortana experience is all about Microsoft 365, the subscription service that includes access to the Office tools, email, online storage and more, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the assistant’s new feature will give you access to data from these tools, including your calendar, Microsoft To Do notes and more.

And while some consumer features are going away, Microsoft stresses that Cortana will still be able to tell you a joke, set alarms and timers, and give you answers from Bing.

For now, all of this only applies to English-speaking users in the U.S. Outside of the U.S., most of the productivity features will launch in the future.


By Frederic Lardinois

Messaging app Wire confirms $8.2M raise, responds to privacy concerns after moving holding company to the US

Big changes are afoot for Wire, an enterprise-focused end-to-end encrypted messaging app and service that advertises itself as “the most secure collaboration platform”. In February, Wire quietly raised $8.2 million from Morpheus Ventures and others, we’ve confirmed — the first funding amount it has ever disclosed — and alongside that external financing, it moved its holding company in the same month to the US from Luxembourg, a switch that Wire’s CEO Morten Brogger described in an interview as “simple and pragmatic.”

He also said that Wire is planning to introduce a freemium tier to its existing consumer service — which itself has half a million users — while working on a larger round of funding to fuel more growth of its enterprise business — a key reason for moving to the US, he added: There is more money to be raised there.

“We knew we needed this funding and additional to support continued growth. We made the decision that at some point in time it will be easier to get funding in North America, where there’s six times the amount of venture capital,” he said.

While Wire has moved its holding company to the US, it is keeping the rest of its operations as is. Customers are licensed and serviced from Wire Switzerland; the software development team is in Berlin, Germany; and hosting remains in Europe.

The news of Wire’s US move and the basics of its February funding — sans value, date or backers — came out this week via a blog post that raises questions about whether a company that trades on the idea of data privacy should itself be more transparent about its activities.

The changes to Wire’s financing and legal structure had not been communicated to users until news started to leak out, which brings up questions not just about transparency, but about how secure Wire’s privacy policy will play out, given the company’s ownership now being on US soil.

It was an issue picked up and amplified by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden . Via Twitter, he described the move to the US as “not appropriate for a company claiming to provide a secure messenger — claims a large number of human rights defenders relied on.”

The key question is whether Wire’s shift to the US puts users’ data at risk — a question that Brogger claims is straightforward to answer: “We are in Switzerland, which has the best privacy laws in the world” — it’s subject to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation framework (GDPR) on top of its own local laws — “and Wire now belongs to a new group holding, but there no change in control.” 

In its blog post published in the wake of blowback from privacy advocates, Wire also claims it “stands by its mission to best protect communication data with state-of-the-art technology and practice” — listing several items in its defence:

  • All source code has been and will be available for inspection on GitHub (github.com/wireapp).
  • All communication through Wire is secured with end-to-end encryption — messages, conference calls, files. The decryption keys are only stored on user devices, not on our servers. It also gives companies the option to deploy their own instances of Wire in their own data centers.
  • Wire has started working on a federated protocol to connect on-premise installations and make messaging and collaboration more ubiquitous.
  • Wire believes that data protection is best achieved through state-of-the-art encryption and continues to innovate in that space with Messaging Layer Security (MLS).

But where data privacy and US law are concerned, it’s complicated. Snowden famously leaked scores of classified documents disclosing the extent of US government mass surveillance programs in 2013, including how data-harvesting was embedded in US-based messaging and technology platforms.

Six years on, the political and legal ramifications of that disclosure are still playing out — with a key judgement pending from Europe’s top court which could yet unseat the current data transfer arrangement between the EU and the US.

Privacy versus security

Wire launched at a time when interest in messaging apps was at a high watermark. The company made its debut in the middle of February 2014, and it was only one week later that Facebook acquired WhatsApp for the princely sum of $19 billion. We described Wire’s primary selling point at the time as a “reimagining of how a communications tool like Skype should operate had it been built today” rather than in in 2003.

That meant encryption and privacy protection, but also better audio tools and file compression and more. It was  a pitch that seemed especially compelling considering the background of the company. Skype co-founder Janus Friis and funds connected to him were the startup’s first backers (and they remain the largest shareholders); Wire was co-founded in by Skype alums Jonathan Christensen and Alan Duric (no longer with the company); and even new investor Morpheus has Skype roots.

Even with the Skype pedigree, the strategy faced a big challenge.

“The consumer messaging market is lost to the Facebooks of the world, which dominate it,” Brogger said today. “However, we made a clear insight, which is the core strength of Wire: security and privacy.”

That, combined with trend around the consumerization of IT that’s brought new tools to business users, is what led Wire to the enterprise market in 2017.

But fast forward to today, and it seems that even as security and privacy are two sides of the same coin, it may not be so simple when deciding what to optimise in terms of features and future development, which is part of the question now and what critics are concerned with.

“Wire was always for profit and planned to follow the typical venture backed route of raising rounds to accelerate growth,” one source familiar with the company told us. “However, it took time to find its niche (B2B, enterprise secure comms).

“It needed money to keep the operations going and growing. [But] the new CEO, who joined late 2017, didn’t really care about the free users, and the way I read it now, the transformation is complete: ‘If Wire works for you, fine, but we don’t really care about what you think about our ownership or funding structure as our corporate clients care about security, not about privacy.’”

And that is the message you get from Brogger, too, who describes individual consumers as “not part of our strategy”, but also not entirely removed from it, either, as the focus shifts to enterprises and their security needs.

Brogger said there are still half a million individuals on the platform, and they will come up with ways to continue to serve them under the same privacy policies and with the same kind of service as the enterprise users. “We want to give them all the same features with no limits,” he added. “We are looking to switch it into a freemium model.”

On the other side, “We are having a lot of inbound requests on how Wire can replace Skype for Business,” he said. “We are the only one who can do that with our level of security. It’s become a very interesting journey and we are super excited.”

Part of the company’s push into enterprise has also seen it make a number of hires. This has included bringing in two former Huddle C-suite execs, Brogger as CEO and Rasmus Holst as chief revenue officer — a bench that Wire expanded this week with three new hires from three other B2B businesses: a VP of EMEA sales from New Relic, a VP of finance from Contentful; and a VP of Americas sales from Xeebi.

Such growth comes with a price-tag attached to it, clearly. Which is why Wire is opening itself to more funding and more exposure in the US, but also more scrutiny and questions from those who counted on its services before the change.

Brogger said inbound interest has been strong and he expects the startup’s next round to close in the next two to three months.


By Ingrid Lunden

Cyber-skills platform Immersive Labs raises $40M in North America expansion

Immersive Labs, a cybersecurity skills platform, has raised $40 million in its Series B, the company’s second round of funding this year following an $8 million Series A in January.

Summit Partners led the fundraise with Goldman Sachs participating, the Bristol, U.K.-based company confirmed.

Immersive, led by former GCHQ cybersecurity instructor James Hadley, helps corporate employees learn new security skills by using real, up-to-date threat intelligence in a “gamified” way. Its cybersecurity learning platform uses a variety of techniques and psychology to build up immersive and engaging cyber war games to help IT and security teams learn. The platform aims to help users better understand cybersecurity threats, like detecting and understanding phishing and malware reverse-engineering.

It’s a new take on cybersecurity education, which the company’s founder and chief executive Hadley said the ever-evolving threat landscape has made traditional classroom training “obsolete.”

“It creates knowledge gaps that increase risk, offer vulnerabilities and present opportunities for attackers,” said Hadley.

The company said it will use the round to expand further into the U.S. and Canadian markets from its North American headquarters in Boston, MA.

Since its founding in 2017, Immersive already has big customers to its name, including Bank of Montreal and Citigroup, on top of its U.K. customers, including BT, the National Health Service, and London’s Metropolitan Police.

Goldman Sachs, an investor and customer, said it was “impressed” by Immersive’s achievements so far.

“The platform is continually evolving as new features are developed to help address the gap in cyber skills that is impacting companies and governments across the globe,” said James Hayward, the bank’s executive director.

Immersive said it has 750% year-over-year growth in annual recurring revenues and over 100 employees across its offices.


By Zack Whittaker

Samsung ramps up its B2B partner and developer efforts

Chances are you mostly think of Samsung as a consumer-focused electronics company, but it actually has a very sizable B2B business as well, which serves over 50,000 large enterprises and hundreds of thousands of SMB entrepreneurs via its partners. At its developer conference this week, it’s putting the spotlight squarely on this side of its business — with a related hardware launch as well. The focus of today’s news, however, is on Knox, Samsung’s mobile security platform and Project AppStack, which will likely get a different name soon, and which provides B2B customers with a new mechanism to deliver SaaS tools and native apps to their employees’ devices, as well as new tools for developers that make these services more discoverable.

At least in the U.S., Samsung hasn’t really marketed its B2B business all that much. With this event, the company is clearly thinking to change that.

At its core, Samsung is, of course, a hardware company, and as Taher Behbehani, the head of its U.S. mobile B2B division, told me, Samsung’s tablet sales actually doubled in the last year and most of these were for industrial deployments and business-specific solutions. To better serve this market, the company today announced that it is bringing the rugged Tab Active Pro to the U.S. market. Previously, it was only available in Europe.

The Active Pro, with its 10.1″ display, supports Samsung’s S Pen, as well as Dex for using it on the desktop. It’s got all of the dust and water resistance you would expect from a rugged device, is rated to easily support drops from about four feet high, and promises up to 15 hours of battery life. It also features LTE connectivity and has an NFC reader on the back to allow you to badge into a secure application or take contactless payments (which are quite popular in most of the world but are only very slowly becoming a thing in the U.S.), as well a programmable button to allow business users and frontline workers to open up any application they select (like a barcode scanner).

“The traditional rugged devices out there are relatively expensive, relatively heavy to carry around for a full shift,” Samsung’s Chris Briglin told me. “Samsung is growing that market by serving users that traditionally haven’t been able to afford rugged devices or have had to share them between up to four co-workers.”

Today’s event is less about hardware than software and partnerships, though. At the core of the announcements is the new Knox Partner Program, a new way for partners to create and sell applications on Samsung devices. “We work with about 100,000 developers,” said Behbehani. “Some of these are developers are inside companies. Some are outside independent developers and ISVs. And what we hear from these developer communities is when they have a solution or an app, how do I get that to a customer? How do I distribute it more effectively?”

This new partner program is Samsung’s solution for that. It’s a three-tier partner program that’s an evolution of the existing Samsung Enterprise Alliance program. At the most basic level, partners get access to support and marketing assets. At all tiers, partners can also get Knox validation for their applications to highlight that they properly implement all of the Knox APIs.

The free Bronze tier includes access to Knox SDKs and APIs, as well as licensing keys. At the Silver level, partners will get support in their region, while Gold-level members get access to the Samsung Solutions Catalog, as well as the ability to be included in the internal catalog used by Samsung sales teams globally. “This is to enable Samsung teams to find the right solutions to meet customer needs, and promote these solutions to its customers,” the company writes in today’s announcement. Gold-level partners also get access to test devices.

The other new service that will enable developers to reach more enterprises and SMBs is Project Appstack.

“When a new customer buys a Samsung device, no matter if it’s an SMB or an enterprise, depending on the information they provide to us, they get to search for and they get to select a number of different applications specifically designed to help them in their own vertical and for the size of the business,” explained Behbehani. “And once the phone is activated, these apps are downloaded through the ISV or the SaaS player through the back-end delivery mechanism which we are developing.”

For large enterprises, Samsung also runs an algorithm that looks at the size of the business and the vertical it is in to recommend specific applications, too.

Samsung will run a series of hackathons over the course of the next few months to figure out exactly how developers and its customers want to use this service. “It’s a module. It’s a technology backend. It has different components to it,” said Behbehani. “We have a number of tools already in place we have to finetune others and we also, to be honest, want to make sure that we come up with a POC in the marketplace that accurately reflects the requirements and the creativity of what the demand is in the marketplace.”


By Frederic Lardinois

Autify raises $2.5M seed round for its no-code software testing platform

Autify, a platform that makes testing web application as easy as clicking a few buttons, has raised a $2.5 million seed round from Global Brain, Salesforce Ventures, Archetype Ventures and several angels. The company, which recently graduated from the Alchemist accelerator program for enterprise startups, splits its base between the U.S., where it keeps an office, and Japan, where co-founders Ryo Chikizawa (CEO) and Sam Yamashita got their start as software engineers.

The main idea here is that Autify, which was founded in 2016, allows teams to write test by simply recording their interactions with the app with the help of a Chrome extension and can then have Autify run these tests automatically on a variety of other browsers and mobile devices. Typically, these kinds of tests are very brittle and quickly start to fail whenever a developer makes changes to the design of the application.

Autify gets around this by using some machine learning smarts that give it the ability to know that a given button or form is still the same, no matter where it is on the page. Users can currently test their applications using IE, Edge, Chrome and Firefox on macOS and Windows, as well as a range of iOS and Android devices.

Scenario Editor

Chikizawa tells me that the main idea of Autify is based on his own experience as a developer. He also noted that many enterprises are struggling to hire automation engineers who can write tests for them, using Selenium and similar frameworks. With Autify, any developer (and even non-developer) can create a test without having to know the specifics of the underlying testing framework. “You don’t really need technical knowledge,” explained Chikizawa. “You can just out of the box use Autify.”

There are obviously some other startups that are also tacking this space, including SpotQA, for example. Chikizawa, however, argues that Autify is different given its focus on enterprises. “The audience is really different. We have competitors that are targeting engineers, but because we are saying that no coding [is required], we are selling to the companies that have been struggling with hiring automating engineers,” he told me. He also stressed that Autify is able to do cross-browser testing, something that’s also not a given among its competitors.

The company introduced its closed beta version in March and is currently testing the service with about a hundred companies. It integrates with development platforms like TestRail, Jenkins and CircleCI, as well as Slack.

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By Frederic Lardinois

Arceo.ai raises $37 million to expand cyber insurance coverage and access

Critical cyber attacks on both businesses and individuals have been grabbing headlines at an alarming rate. Cybersecurity has moved from a background risk for enterprises to a critical day-to-day threat to business operations, forcing executive teams to pour time and hundreds of billions in capital into monitoring and prevention efforts.

Yet even as investment in security ticks up, the frequency and cost of cybercrime to businesses continues to rapidly accelerate, with the World Economic Forum estimating the economic loss due to cybercrime could reach $3 trillion by 2020.

More companies are now turning to cyber insurance as a means of mitigating financial exposure. However, for traditional insurers, cybersecurity remains a relatively nascent and unfamiliar issue, requiring risk-assessment data points and methodologies largely different from those seen in traditional insurance products. As a result, businesses often struggle to get the scale of cybersecurity coverage they require.

Arceo.ai is hoping to expand the size and scope of the cyber insurance market for both insurers and companies, by providing insurers with effective real-time data, analytics and context, necessary for safely and efficiently underwrite cyber risk.

This morning, Arceo took a major step in achieving that goal, announcing the company has raised a $37 million round of funding led by Lightspeed Venture Partners and Founders Fund with participation from CRV and  UL Ventures.

Using an expansive set of global sources across a customer’s digital footprint, Arceo.AI collects internal, external and macro cyber risk data which it uses to evaluate a company’s security and cyber risk management behavior. By automating the data collection process and connecting it with insurer underwriting processes, Arceo is able to keep its data and policy assessments up to date in real-time and enable faster, more efficient quotes.

A vital component of Arceo’s platform is its analytics offering. Using patented data science and cyber risk models, Arceo generates analytics-driven insights for insurance carriers, brokers and end-insured customers. For end-insured customers, Arceo helps companies understand whether they’re using the best mitigation strategies by providing policy recommendations and industry benchmarking to help contextualize day-to-day cyber behavior and hygiene. For underwriters, Arceo can provide specific insurance recommendations based on particular policy coverages.

Ultimately, Arceo looks to provide both insurers and the insured with actionable answers to key questions such as how one assesses cyber risk, how one determines what risks can be mitigated with technology alone, how one knows which systems are best and whether those systems are being used appropriately.

Raj Shah

Arceo.ai Chairman Raj Shah. Image via Arceo.ai

In an interview with TechCrunch, Arceo Chairman Raj Shah explained that the company’s background expertise, proprietary data systems, and deep pedigree in both the security and insurance truly differentiate Arceo from competing solutions. For starters, both Shah and Arceo co-founder and CEO Vishaal Hariprasad have spent close to the entirety of their careers in national security and cybersecurity. Hariprasad started his career in the Airforce’s first cohort of cyber warfare officers, before teaming up with Shah to start Morta Security in 2012, a security startup the two sold to Palo Alto networks in just roughly two years.

After selling the company, Shah and Hariprasad remained in the security world before realizing that there was a natural intersection between security and insurance, and a real opportunity for risk transfer solutions.

“Having studied the market, we saw that people are spending more and more dollars on cybersecurity products… There are hundreds of thousands of new vendors every year… Spend is going up, but we don’t feel any safer!” Shah told TechCrunch.

“That’s when we said ‘Hey, we need to move beyond just thinking about technology points and products, and think about holistic cyber risk management.’ And this is where insurance has historically done a great job. Putting a price on behavior and making people think and letting them take risks… From life and death and health to buyers and property and casualty. And so cyber is that next class risk… So that’s really why we started the business. We wanted to provide a real way to manage the cyber stress that they’re facing and that will impact every single one of our digital lives.”

Since the company’s founding, Raj and Vishaal have been joined by a deep network of cyber and insurance experts. Today, Arceo also announced that Hemant Shah, founder and former CEO of catastrophe risk modeling company RMS has joined Arceo’s Board of Directors. Additionally, earlier this month, the company announced that Mario Vitale, the former CEO of publically-traded insurance companies Willis Towers Watson and Zurich Insurance Group, would be joining the Arceo team as the company’s President.

The company noted that participation from high-profile industry vets like Hemant and Mario not only further advance Arceo’s competitive advantage but also acts as another major validation of the company’s future and work to date.

According to Arceo Chairman Raj Shah, after years of investing in R&D, the latest funds will be used towards expansion efforts and scaling Arceo to the broader ecosystem of insurance and brokers. Longer-term, the company hopes to offer the most complete combined cybersecurity and risk transfer solution to insurers and the insured, easing the stress around cyber threats for both enterprises and individuals and ultimately improving broader cyber resiliency.

If you’d like to hear more from Arceo’s Raj Shah, Raj will also be joining us this year on the Extra Crunch stage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF, where he’ll discuss how founders and companies should think about potential US government investment. We hope to see you there!


By Arman Tabatabai

Amazon launches Amazon Care, a virtual and in-person healthcare offering for employees

Amazon has gone live with Amazon Care, a new pilot healthcare service offering that is initially available to its employees in and around the Seattle area. The Amazon Care offering includes both virtual and in-person care, with telemedicine via app, chat and remote video, as well as follow-up visits and prescription drug delivery in person directly at an employee’s home or office.

First reported by CNBC, Amazon Care grew out of an initiative announced in 2018 with J.P. Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway to make a big change in how they all collectively handle their employee healthcare needs. The companies announced at the time that they were eager to put together a solution that was “free from profit-making incentives and constraints,” which are of course at the heart of private insurance companies that serve corporate clients currently.

Other large companies, like Apple, offer their own on-premise and remotely accessible healthcare services as part of their employee compensation and benefits packages, so Amazon is hardly unique in seeking to scratch this itch. The difference, however, is that Amazon Care is much more external-facing than those offered by its peers in Silicon Valley, with a brand identity and presentation that strongly suggests the company is thinking about more than its own workforce when it comes to a future potential addressable market for Care.

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The Amazon Care logo.

Care’s website also provides a look at the app that Amazon developed for the telemedicine component, which shows the flow for choosing between text chat and video, as well as a summary of care provided through the service, with invoices, diagnosis and treatment plans all available for patient review.

Amazon lists Care as an option for a “first stop,” with the ability to handle things like colds, infections, minor injuries, preventative consultations, lab work, vaccinations, contraceptives and STI testing and general questions. Basically, it sounds like they cover off a lot of what you’d handle at your general practitioner, before being recommended on for any more specialist or advanced medical treatment or expertise.

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Rendered screenshots of the Amazon Care app for Amazon employees.

Current eligibility is limited to Amazon’s employees, who are enrolled in the company’s health insurance plan, and who are located in the pilot service geographical area. The service is currently available between 8 AM and 9 PM local time from Monday through Friday, and between 8 AM and 6 PM Saturday through Sunday.

Amazon acquired PillPack last year, an online pharmacy startup, for around $753 million, and that appears to be part of their core value proposition with Amazon Care, too, which features couriered prescribed medications and remotely communicated treatment plans.

Amazon may be limiting this pilot to employees at launch, but the highly-publicized nature of their approach, and the amount of product development that clearly went into developing the initial app, user experience and brand all indicate that it has the broader U.S. market in mind as a potential expansion opportunity down the line. Recent reports also suggest that it’s going to make a play in consumer health with new wearable fitness tracking devices, which could very nicely complement insurance and health care services offered at the enterprise and individual level. Perhaps not coincidentally, Walgreens, CVS and McKesson stock were all trading down today.


By Darrell Etherington

Learn how enterprise startups win big deals at TechCrunch’s Enterprise show on Sept. 5

Big companies today may want to look and feel like startups, but when it comes to the way they approach buying new enterprise solutions, especially from new entrants, they still often act like traditional enterprise behemoths. But from the standpoint of a true startup, closing deals with just a few big customers is critical to success. At our much-anticipated inaugural TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise event in San Francisco on September 5, Okta’s Monty Gray, SAP’s DJ Paoni, VMware’s Sanjay Poonen and Sapphire Venture’s Shruti Tournatory will discuss ways for startups to adapt their strategies to gain more enterprise customers (p.s. early-bird tickets end in 48 hours — book yours here).

This session is sponsored by SAP, the lead sponsor for the event.

Monty Gray is Okta’s senior vice president and head of Corporate Development. In this role, he is responsible for driving the company’s growth initiatives, including mergers and acquisitions. That role gives him a unique vantage point of the enterprise startup ecosystem, all from the perspective of an organization that went through the process of learning how to sell to enterprises itself. Prior to joining Okta, Gray served as the senior vice president of Corporate Development at SAP.

Sanjay Poonen joined VMware in August 2013, and is responsible for worldwide sales, services, alliances, marketing and communications. Prior to SAP, Poonen held executive roles at Symantec, VERITAS and Informatica, and he began his career as a software engineer at Microsoft, followed by Apple.

SAP’s DJ Paoni has been working in the enterprise technology industry for over two decades. As president of SAP North America, Paoni is responsible for the strategy, day-to-day operations and overall customer success in the United States and Canada.

These three industry executives will be joined onstage by Sapphire Venture’s Shruti Tournatory, who will provide the venture capitalist’s perspective. She joined Sapphire Ventures in 2014 and leads the firm’s CXO platform, a network of Fortune CIOs, CTOs and digital executives. She got her start in the industry as an analyst for IDC, before joining SAP and leading product for its business travel solution.

Grab your early-bird tickets today before we sell out. Early-bird sales end after this Friday, so book yours now and save $100 on tickets before prices increase. If you’re an early-stage enterprise startup you can grab a startup demo table for just $2K here. Each table comes with four tickets and a great location for you to showcase your company to investors and new customers.


By Frederic Lardinois

Apple subsidiary FileMaker Inc. changes its name (back) to Claris

Remember Claris, the 1987 Apple spin-off that made applications like MacWrite, MacPaint and FileMaker? In 1998, Apple brought all of those products in-house again, with the exception of the low-code application platform FileMaker . With that move, Claris changed its name to FileMaker Inc. Today, however, the Claris name rises from the dead, as FileMaker Inc. is changing its name to Claris International. The name of the FileMaker product itself, though, remains the same.

As FileMaker Claris CEO Brad Freitag, who recently took over this role from Dominique Goupil, told me, the reason for this move is because the company is starting to look beyond its core FileMaker product. “We’re accelerating our vision and our strategy,” he said. “We’ve described our vision for a long time as making powerful technology accessible to everyone. And with the leadership change, we are really asserting a more aggressive posture in bringing that product roadmap to life.”

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Claris CEO Brad Freitag

To put a point on this and clarify its strategy, Claris is also using today’s announcement to launch Claris Connect, a tool for integrating various cloud services and automating workflows between them. With this, Claris also confirmed the previously reported acquisition of Stamplay, a small Italian startup that makes tools for connecting the APIs of various enterprise tools. Claris Connect is going to be the second product in Claris’ lineup, with FileMaker remaining its flagship product.

FileMaker, the product, currently serves more than a million end users who work at about 50,000 different companies. The company has great brand recognition and has been profitable for more than 80 consecutive quarters, Freitag said, but with its foray into workflow and business process automation, it was time to look for a different brand name.

Although low-code/no-code has been a growing buzzword in the industry for a few years now, FileMaker didn’t really make any waves. That, too, is going to change a bit, it seems, as Freitag actually hopes to expand the business significantly. “As we look out five years, we see multiplying the user community by at least 3x and there’s a pretty clear path to getting there,” he said. “If you look at our business, we’re over 50% outside of the U.S. The market opportunities for us exist in the Americas, as well as Europe and Asia.”

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Freitag admits that FileMaker was “relatively modest” in its go-to-market posture, so it will expand its brand and category awareness efforts. Chances are then, you’ll hear the Claris and FileMaker names a bit more often going forward (and Freitag stressed that the company remains “100% committed to the FileMaker platform”).

Claris also expects to expand its product offerings going forward — and that may include additional acquisitions. “We are investing heavily in organic innovation as we expand the product lines — and we are open to additional acquisitions,” he said.

FileMaker Inc./Claris is making this move while the overall market for products like FileMaker continues to grow. That’s something Freitag hopes to capitalize on as the company looks ahead. What exactly that will look like remains to be seen, but Freitag noted that the kind of next-generation platform will go beyond the kind of database-driven applications FileMaker itself is known for today and focus on services that support workflow applications. He also believes there is an opportunity for IoT solutions under the Claris brand and maybe, in the long run, augmented reality applications.


By Frederic Lardinois