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Updated: 7 hours 42 min ago

Meet the quantum blockchain that works like a time machine

2018, April 24 - 11:48pm

A new — and theoretical — system for blockchain-based data storage could ensure that hackers will not be able to crack cryptocurrencies once the quantum era starts. The idea, proposed by researchers at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, would secure cryptocurrency futures for decades using a blockchain technology that is like a time machine.

You can check out their findings here.

To understand what’s going on here we have to define some terms. A blockchain stores every transaction in a system on what amounts to an immutable record of events. The work necessary for maintaining and confirming this immutable record is what is commonly known as mining. But this technology — which the paper’s co-author Del Rajan claims will make up “10 percent of global GDP… by 2027” — will become insecure in an era of quantum computers.

Therefore the solution to store a blockchain in a quantum era requires a quantum blockchain using a series of entangled photons. Further, Spectrum writes: “Essentially, current records in a quantum blockchain are not merely linked to a record of the past, but rather a record in the past, one that does not exist anymore.”

Yeah, it’s weird.

From the paper intro:

Our method involves encoding the blockchain into a temporal GHZ (Greenberger–Horne–Zeilinger) state of photons that do not simultaneously coexist. It is shown that the entanglement in time, as opposed to an entanglement in space, provides the crucial quantum advantage. All the subcomponents of this system have already been shown to be experimentally realized. Perhaps more shockingly, our encoding procedure can be interpreted as non-classically influencing the past; hence this decentralized quantum blockchain can be viewed as a quantum networked time machine.

In short, the quantum blockchain is immutable because the photons that it contains do not exist at the current time but are still extant and readable. This means the entire blockchain is visible but cannot be “touched” and the only entry you would be able to try to tamper with is the most recent one. In fact, the researchers write, “In this spatial entanglement case, if an attacker tries to tamper with any photon, the full blockchain would be invalidated immediately.”

Is this possible? The researchers note that the technology already exists.

“Our novel methodology encodes a blockchain into these temporally entangled states, which can then be integrated into a quantum network for further useful operations. We will also show that entanglement in time, as opposed to entanglement in space, plays the pivotal role for the quantum benefit over a classical blockchain,” the authors write. “As discussed below, all the subsystems of this design have already been shown to be experimentally realized. Furthermore, if such a quantum blockchain were to be constructed, we will show that it could be viewed as a quantum networked time machine.”

Don’t worry about having to update your Bitcoin wallet, though. This process is still theoretical and not at all available to mere mortals. That said, it’s nice to know someone is looking out for our quantum future, however weird it may be.

Categories: Business News

Kidbox raises $15.3 million for its personalized children’s clothing box

2018, April 24 - 11:15pm

Kidbox, a clothing-in-a-box startup aimed at a slightly younger crowd than StitchFix, has raised $15.3 million in Series B funding to expand and scale its business.

The round was led by Canvas Ventures, and includes participation from existing investors Firstime Ventures and HDS Capital, as well as new strategic partners Fred Langhammer, former CEO of The Estée Lauder Companies Inc., and The Gindi Family, owners of Century 21 department stores.

To date, Kidbox has raised $28 million.

The company was founded in October, 2015, then shipped its first box of clothing out of beta testing during the back-to-school shopping season the next year.

Similar to StitchFix, Kidbox also curates a selection of around half a dozen pieces of clothing and other accessories (but not shoes), which are based on a child’s “style profile” filled out online by mom or dad. The profile asks for the child’s age, sizes and questions about the child’s clothing preferences — like what colors they like and don’t like, as well as other styles to avoid — like if you have a child who hates wearing dresses, for example, or one who has an aversion to the color orange.

“Those answers feed into a proprietary algorithm — we’re very data science and tech focused,” explains Kidbox CEO Miki Berardelli. “That algorithm hits up against our product catalog at any given moment, and presents to our human styling team the perfect box for — just as an example, a size 7 sporty boy. And from there, the styling team looks at the box that’s been served up, the customer’s history, if they’re a repeat customer, the customer’s geography and any notes [the customer] added to their account,” she says.

The box is then put together and shipped to the customer.

Berardelli previously worked at Ralph Lauren, Tory Burch and was president of Digital Commerce for Chico’s (Chico’s, White House Black Market and Soma). She joined Kidbox in September 2016 after meeting founder Haim Dabah while he was searching for Kidbox’s CEO.

“It resonated with me as a consumer, as an early adopter of all things digital, and as a multi-time operator of e-commerce businesses,” she says, of why she decided to join the startup.

Today, Kidbox’s boxes are sent out seasonally for spring, summer, back-to-school, fall and winter. However, unlike StitchFix, Kidbox isn’t a subscription service — you can skip boxes at any time, and you’re not charged a “styling fee” or any other add-on fees.

However, if you keep the full box, Kidbox donates a new outfit to a child in need through a partnership with Delivering Good, a nonprofit that allows customers to choose the charity to receive their clothing donation.

At launch, Kidbox carried around 30 kid’s brands. It’s since grown its assortment to more than 100 brands for kids ages newborn through 14, including well-known names like Adidas, DKNY, 7 for All Mankind, Puma, Jessica Simpson, Reebok, Diesel and others.

Kidbox launches its own private labels

With the next back-to-school box, Kidbox will insert its own brands into the mix. The company will be launching multiple private labels across all ages, and every box will get at least one own-label item. The brands will include everything from onesies for babies to graphic tees to denim to basics, and more. 

“We believe we’ve identified a void in the children’s apparel marketplace,” notes Berardelli. “The style sensibility of our exclusive brands will all have a unique personality, and a unique voice that’s akin to how our customers describe themselves. It’s all really based on customer feedback. Our customers tell us what they would love more of; and our merchandising team understands what they would like to be able to procure more of, in terms of rounding out our assortment,” she says.

On a personal note, a customer of both Kidbox and Rockets of Awesome, two of the leading kid box startups, what I appreciate about Kidbox is the affordable price point — the whole box is less than $100 — and its personal touches. Kidbox ships with crayons and a pencil-case for kids, and the box is designed for kids to color. It also includes a print edition of its editorial content, and sometimes there’s a small toy included, too.

Kidbox rival Rockets of Awesome is a little pricier, I’ve found, but has some unique pieces that make it worth checking out, as well.

With the new funding, Kidbox aims to further invest in its technology foundation, its data science teams, its own labels, its customer acquisition strategy and marketing.

The company doesn’t disclose how many customers it has or its revenues. Instead, it notes that the Kidbox “community” — which includes fluffy numbers like Facebook Page fans and people who signed up for emails — is over 1.2 million. So it’s hard to determine how many people are actually buying from Kidbox boxes.

Kidbox has potential in a market where brick-and-mortar retailers are closing their doors, and e-commerce apparel is on the upswing. But it — like others in the space — faces the looming threat posed by Amazon. The retailer has also just launched its clothing box service, Prime Wardrobe, which includes kids’ clothing.

“Kidbox is at the head of a trend that sees a world in which every person will have their own personalized storefront for literally anything — be it kids clothing, furniture or weddings,” says Paul Hsiao, general partner at Canvas Ventures, about the firm’s investment. Hsiao has also led investments in Zola and eporta while at Canvas, and in Houzz while at NEA.

“Kidbox is growing at atypically high multiples. I think it is because of their deep connection with their customers — the kids, the parents and grandparents,” Hsiao continues. “The Kidbox team is also remarkable at logistics. Sounds boring, but e-commerce is fundamentally a logistics business,” he adds.

Kidbox is currently a team of 35 based in New York.

 

 

 

Categories: Business News

Spotify beefs up its free tier

2018, April 24 - 10:50pm

Today at the Gramercy Theater in NYC, Spotify’s Chief R&D Officer Gustav Söderström announced a brand new free version of the Spotify mobile app.

By leveraging their investment in machine learning, Spotify’s new free tier recommends music to users on the fly. That said, the free tier has always limited users to shuffle. With the new version, users can listen on-demand to whatever song they want, as many times as they want, as long as those songs appear on one of the 15 personalized discovery playlists like Daily Mix, Discover Weekly, Release Radar or Today’s Top Hits.

In total, that’s around 750 tracks (>40 hours of music) that Spotify is serving up to users for on-demand listening.

Spotify will also make recommendations in the free mobile version based on existing user-made playlists, from the songs on those playlists to the name of the playlist itself. The company is calling this “assisted playlisting,” which essentially means that each time you search for a song to add to a playlist, Spotify will make recommendations similar to it as well.

Finally, Spotify has built in a low-data mode (called data saver) that cuts data consumption by up to 75 percent. In the past, Spotify didn’t allow offline listening for free, meaning that users were somewhat tethered to wifi if they needed to conserve data.

With the new data consumption system, which caches music ahead of time to stream via 3G, users can actually listen to much more music with wireless data. Alongside utilizing 3G, Spotify is also optimizing the streaming itself as well as the app (including imagery and other UI elements) to save data and power.

All that said, advertisements will still run on the free tier of Spotify. Which is part of the company’s strategy not only for funding a free tier but for converting users to premium.

In 2014, Spotify introduced its free tier to mobile, letting users listen to their playlists on shuffle with ads. It was a huge part of Spotify’s free-tier growth. In fact, today Spotify has 90 million users on the free tier. And many of those convert to paid users — the company now has 70 million paid subscribers.

“If you’re on a date listening to music, you’re not going to want an ad to come on,” said Spotify’s Global Head of Creator Services Troy Carter.

The company has focused heavily on mobile since 2014, especially where it concerns the premium mobile player.

Spotify is built upon three tiers: ubiquity, personalization and freemium. Söderström explained that Spotify thinks of itself as the broadcast radio of the 90s, where discovery of great music was supported by ads and drove people to the record stores.

Spotify’s free tier represents broadcast radio for Spotify, and is a critical piece of Spotify’s overall strategy as paid services like Apple Music continue to grow.

Categories: Business News

Flipboard launches a new tech section

2018, April 24 - 10:23pm

With recent changes, Flipboard has been placing a big emphasis on allowing readers to go deep on their interests. Now it’s adding even more features around one particular interest, in the Technology section of the Flipboard website and app.

“We want to make Flipboard definitive for tech insiders and enthusiasts,” said CEO Mike McCue .

This positions Flipboard as more of a direct competitor to a tech news aggregator like Techmeme, but with more curation from partners and from readers themselves.

The most immediately noticeable change is what the company describes as a “newspaper-like, high-density layout.” Basically, it moves away from the image-heavy look that Flipboard is known for, towards a layout that places a bigger emphasis on headlines and text, designed for quick scanning.

While McCue said the new look is “really meant for the desktop,” Flipboard has also created a version for the mobile web, and the app will also vary between a high-density and low-density layout depending on the stories. (If it seems strange for Flipboard to be prioritizing its web experience, remember that the company has also been shifting its focus away from its own native article formats toward the mobile web.)

Regardless of which layout you’re seeing, the section will also have new content. Some of it will be curated by Flipboard publishers, with The Verge creating roundups for Gadgets News and Artificial Intelligence, the Wirecutter offering Deals of the Week and the team here at TechCrunch curating our latest Features.

“Flipboard has really become more of an ecosystem,” McCue said. “Publishers and curators are curating stories around all sorts of different topics. We want to provide access to that ecosystem on any platform, with or without the app.”

Teams can also create their own magazines, which are basically private collections of stories. So if you’re at a startup and want all of your colleagues to be up-to-date on the latest headlines about your industry and competitors, you can curate a magazine that’s only visible to them.

Flipboard will also be asking experts and influencers for book recommendations, starting with Wired editor-in-chief Nick Thompson’s roundup of “Five Books I’ve Recently Read About the Future.”

And all of this will be rounded up in a daily email, which will include the latest tech headlines as well as selections from any team magazine to which you contribute. On Saturday, the newsletter will focus on those book recommendations, with links to buy the titles on Amazon.

McCue suggested that if all this new content is embraced by readers, we might see Flipboard start to pursue a similar strategy around other topics, with a focus on reaching professional readers. Next up: Advertising.

Categories: Business News

Delivery robotics company Marble raises $10 million, with plans to move beyond food

2018, April 24 - 10:00pm

San Francisco-based robotics company Marble announced this morning that it’s just closed a $10 million Series A. The round, which involves the likes of Tencent, Lemnos, Crunchfund and Maven, brings the startup’s total funding to $15 million.

In press material tied to the announcement, Marble’s careful not to get hung up on the whole food delivery label that’s been hung on the company since its early days. Instead, Marble’s now referring to itself as “the last-mile logistics company,” a catchy title that points to its broader ambitions to help meet the growing expectations of e-commerce consumers.

“Two day [delivery] has become the norm of expectations,” Marble CEO Matthew Delaney told TechCrunch. “It’s the Amazon effect. Everyone is trying to figure out how to get things to meet the consumer demand of faster and cheaper. That move from next day to same day and sooner is the inevitable trend that is happening.”

This time last year, the company made headlines for cruising down the San Francisco sidewalks with a Yelp Eat24 logo, playing the role traditionally reserved for humans on bicycles and mopeds. The system’s on-board LIDAR sensor help it navigate around pedestrians and other potential hazards, with plans for on-board temperature control helping keep food hot or cold as it cruises toward its destination.

Even then the company touched upon broader ambitions, including groceries, prescriptions and package delivery. Now, it seems, the company is ready to expand those trials.

“It’s a lot more than just food delivery. It’s about rearchitecting the urban supply chain of the future, to open up these services that everyone can afford,” says Delaney, “and bring that next level conveyance to everyone. The at-home parent with six kids or the homebound, elderly or disabled. They don’t have this option. Nobody can afford these services.”

Of course, the company and its competition are going to have to work with regulators to see that future to fruition. Marble’s hometown has halted sidewalk trials out of the same concerns that recently found it putting the kibosh on the city’s recent scooter obsession.

“If we don’t value our society,” City Supervisor Norman Yee said at the time, “if we don’t value getting the chance to go the store without being run over by a robot[…]what is happening?”

Delaney says the company is exploring other avenues for testing, but remains hopeful that it will be able to use its own backyard. “We’ve had so many other states and cities reach out to us. We continue to remain optimistic about San Francisco. It’s our home town. We want to continue to work with the local government to move regulation forward. We want our home town to benefit from this, instead of being the one backwards place.”

Categories: Business News

DoorDash makes a big push into grocery delivery through a pilot program with Walmart

2018, April 24 - 9:00pm

DoorDash is about to make a huge move into grocery delivery, but instead of going all out as a delivery service on its own, it’s instead going to be working behind the scenes to power delivery networks for larger companies — with Walmart as its first big partner.

While Instacart looks to control the end-to-end customer experience for grocery delivery, and Amazon is off doing Amazon-y things with its Whole Foods delivery system, DoorDash is hoping it can build a network that any company that needs some delivery network can tap without giving up its direct relationship with their customers. DoorDash is rolling out grocery delivery with Walmart in Atlanta in the first of what may be a major move to become a back-end platform for companies like Walmart, which want a delivery button on their website but don’t want to build the entire network themselves. By doing that, it offers DoorDash a potentially nice neutral niche as grocery delivery heats up.

“You can use the term white label, but our drivers still will often wear the DoorDash shirt and have the DoorDash bag,” DoorDash COO Christopher Payne said. “But if you go to Walmart.com, and order from Walmart in Atlanta, you’ll have no idea it’s from DoorDash. We’re very supportive of that scenario, that’s the DoorDash Drive scenario. We’re excited to build a business with them and provide this capability.”

Payne said he hopes this will be one of the first of a major expansion of that DoorDash Drive initiative to become a tool that businesses can start tapping for local delivery. And while DoorDash may partly be giving up that direct relationship with users, it can start getting a lot more data when it comes to deliveries. That data then helps it become more and more efficient, ensuring that it can get deliveries done in the best matter and attract more customers, leading to the need for more drivers, and so on.

DoorDash also basically started the whole last-mile delivery business on hard mode with restaurant delivery, Payne said. What DoorDash loses in that direct user experience is paid back in data, Payne says, and that’s more than valuable enough.

“It turns out restaurant delivery is probably one fo the hardest delivery use cases you have — you have to get a pizza somewhere in 20 or 30 minutes or it won’t be crisp, and you have to get an ice cream cone somewhere before it melts. Grocery delivery tends to be delivered earlier in the day, which is before dinner or before you go to work,” he said. “That works out perfectly for us, actually, because our drivers aren’t busy or are less busy than they would be otherwise. It’s a delivery window, as opposed to one that’s getting something to you at an exact moment and time. That’s actually much easier and less demanding than a real-time delivery.

It’s still a significant step beyond its core competency, which is restaurant delivery. But while that has the potential to be a big business, it’s also going to top out at some point. GrubHub, for example, has a market cap of nearly $9 billion — but Amazon, the backbone of how many consumers engage with physical goods through the Internet, is a $700 billion-plus company. If DoorDash is going to continue to grow, it has to start expanding into new lines of revenue, and figuring out how to take all the data and tools it’s built and bring them to new businesses is going to be critical.

Amazon changed the calculus of last-mile grocery delivery, and it pretty much did it overnight — or at least over the span of a few months, which is the equivalent of overnight for a $700 billion company. Amazon acquired Whole Foods, and all of its locations in major metropolitan areas, for $13.7 billion and very quickly began offering two-hour delivery for prime customers for Whole Foods. On top of that, the company quickly started offering a credit card with an absurdly good reward system that’s tied directly to Prime purchases and Whole Foods (assuming you stay within the Prime ecosystem).

That’s meant that larger companies find themselves trying to figure out how to make such an agile move, and do it as soon as possible. For Walmart, getting this partnership with DoorDash allows it to just add a small segment to its typical customer flow without having to build out a full-on logistics delivery system. The opportunity to expand that to other businesses is pretty natural, and that’s the theme behind the Drive platform, and in theory offers businesses a way to quickly ramp up a delivery network without having to hand off the customer relationship to DoorDash. That may, in the end, be much more palatable for businesses.

“One of the other advantages of partnering with a company like Walmart isn’t just that they’re a leading grocer in the US,” Payne said. “They’re in a lot of other lines of businesses. As they want to expand and deliver more to their customers, they have physical assets to do that, so it provides a nice solution for us to test other items in the future. I would say grocery delivery is very much in its early days, it’s roughly equivalent to where food delivery was four years ago. We’re all going to be learning together, and it also means there’s gonna be a lot of other competition as there is in food delivery. But we believe our merchant operational excellence and quality of delivery will set us apart, and that’ll be proven in time.”

Categories: Business News

Belgium’s Cowboy raises $3M led by Index to launch a smarter e-bike

2018, April 24 - 8:35pm

Cowboy, the startup that’s building a new, smarter electronic bicycle, quietly launched in its home country of Belgium this past week, whilst simultaneously disclosing it has raised $3 million in seed funding.

Notably, the round is led by Index Ventures. The London and San Francisco-based VC appears to be particularly bullish on electric-powered mobility, recently backing electric scooter startup Bird.

France’s Hardware Club, and Kima Ventures also participated in Cowboy’s seed round, along with individual investors Thibaud Elziere (eFounders), Bertrand Jelensperger (LaFourchette), Harold Mechelynck (Ogone), Frederic Potter (Netatmo) and Francis Nappez (BlaBlaCar).

Founded by Adrien Roose and Karim Slaoui, who both previously co-founded Take East Easy, an early Deliveroo competitor, and Tanguy Goretti, who was previously co-founder ride-sharing startup Djump, Cowboy has set out to build and sell a better designed e-bike that it claims addresses issues that have historically held back the category’s mass appeal. This includes a more elegant design than many existing models currently on the market, making the bike ‘smart’ by being connected to a mobile phone and ‘over the air’ through cellular and GPS networks, and better affordability than comparative offerings.

In a call last week, Roose gave me a brief run down of the Cowboy’s features and a little of the product’s back story, including how Index got interested. He says he first became aware of e-bikes (or “ped-elec” bikes that combine a manual pedal and electric motor) after being puzzled that they weren’t more widely used by Take Eat Easy’s bicycle couriers. Riders that did use an e-bike tended to be older, suggesting that current e-bikes didn’t appeal to a younger demographic.

After researching the market a lot deeper, Cowboy’s eventual founders also noticed that most e-bikes use entirely off the shelf components, which not only constrains differentiation, but also price, since most of the margin goes to parts suppliers and retailers. By designing a completely new e-bike, where the body and brain is bespoke — namely, the chassis/battery, and printed circuit board (PCB) — and where the product is sold direct online, the team believed there was an opportunity to re-define the e-bike category entirely.

The resulting Cowboy e-bike is pitched as a better ride, powered by “intuitive and automatic motor assistance”. This uses built-in sensor technology that measures speed and torque, and adjusts to pedalling style and force to deliver an added boost of motor-assisted speed at key moments e.g. when you start pedalling, when you accelerate, or go uphill.

In addition, the Cowboy it attempting to be more secure thanks to its connectivity. You unlock the bike via the Cowboy smart phone app, which also supports on-board navigation and a data dashboard that tracks speed and other useful stats.

It is also worth noting that this is definitely a vertical platform in the longer-run. That IoT-styled SIM card and GPS have been added to the e-bike for a reason. Initially it will be used for diagnostics and ‘find my bike’ in case of theft, but one can easily imagine other premium services being offered on top, such as bike insurance perhaps.

The battery is said to be good to go for around 50km, and takes 2.5 hours to fully charge. As part of the bespoke design, it is integrated into the frame under the saddle and is easily removable. The Cowboy claims to be one of the lightest urban electric bikes on the market, too (the bike and battery together weigh 16kg).

However, as with any product where it’s ultimately about the ride, you probably need to try a Cowboy before truly appreciating it — which, as a powered wheelchair user with limited muscle strength, I’m never going to be able to do. Instead, I’ll note that a pre-production model — which Roose admits still had many remaining issues to iron out — won the prestigious EuroBike trade fair in July 2017.

He also echoes this sentiment when I ask him to tell the story of how the Cowboy team first got the attention of Index Ventures. He says that the startup weren’t originally planning to raise a large seed round, having already got a commitment from Cowboy’s original backers for enough follow-on investment to do a production run and small launch in Belgium. However, knowing that hardware is, well, hard, and that costs can easily overshoot, the company was advised by Hardware Club (who he says has been instrumental in making Cowboy a reality) to find a larger VC backer to mitigate this risk. Index Partner Martin Mignot, who led the round, was immediately interested and then convinced after actually trying the e-bike, but Roose says that it took a lot more to persuade the rest of the Index team to back Cowboy when he subsequently pitched the startup over a video call.

Which brings us to Cowboy’s go-to-market strategy. If you really need to touch the device to truly appreciate it, how will the startup sell directly online? In Brussels, Roose says the startup is experimenting with recruiting product ambassadors — people who already have a Cowboy in their possession — who will be able to bring the device to a prospective buyer to try beforehand. This isn’t as scalable as a pure digital marketing effort, but is still likely a lot cheaper than selling to physical retailers, which in turn would push up the €1,790 price. Meanwhile, the company is only delivering to Belgium for now, but with capital in the bank it plans to launch more widely in Europe next year.

Categories: Business News

Drink-a-day startup Hooch adds a perk-filled premium membership plan

2018, April 24 - 1:00pm

Hooch, the subscription startup that allows members to claim one free drink per day from hundreds of different bars and restaurants, is adding a new membership level called Hooch Black.

Signing up for Hooch Black will cost you significantly more than the regular subscription — instead of $9.99 per month, it’s $295 per year. And you don’t just get in automatically; you actually need to fill out an application.

But in exchange for that money and work, Hooch Black members get access to a variety of perks (on top of the standard drink-a-day option), including deals at more than 100,000 hotels worldwide — co-founder and CEO Lin Dai said that because they’re are only visible to members, Hooch gets access to lower “unpublished” prices that you won’t find elsewhere online, with discounts as high as 60 percent.

It also offers preferred reservations, discounts and free champagne at select restaurants. And there are other giveaways, too — in New York City, the launch offerings include Hamilton and Governor’s Ball tickets.

Dai suggested that Hooch has always been meant as an antidote to apps that “facilitate a couch economy” — instead of delivering stuff to your home, Hooch convinces you to go out to bars. Dai said Hooch Black “continues the concept” with all additional perks tied to real-world experiences. (There’s some couch-centric stuff too, like a $100 Postmates credit.)

In addition, Hooch Black members will get access to what Dai described as an “concierge who can make travel arrangements and dining reservations for you.” (Those reservations don’t have to be with Hooch partners, by the way.) He compared the experience to an American Express concierge, but with the advantage that the communication is handled in the Hooch app: “No one wants to pick up the phone anymore.”

About that application: Dai said he wants to limit the initial membership to around 295 people in the three launch cities of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He hopes to bring in more people eventually, but at first, having thousands of members would “dilute the experience,” particularly since some of the benefits (like access to celeb-hosted parties) don’t really scale.

At the same time, Dai said the application is “not about income or job title.” Instead, he sees the service as appealing to the same audience of “young professionals or millennial hustlers” as Hooch itself. So the application is focused on your bigger ambitions and “how hard you want to work to get there.”

Dai also noted that Hooch’s current membership is roughly even between men and women, something he’s hoping to continue with Hooch Black.

“We want to build a very inclusive community,” he added. “The primary criteria is, I would say, aspiration. We’re not just catering to a specific income level or race or gender.”

Categories: Business News

From Ferraris to flying taxis: Q&A with Lilium’s new head of Product Design

2018, April 24 - 8:00am

Munich-based Lilium, the super-ambitious company developing an electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) jet and accompanying “air taxi” service, continues to hire top talent to make its vision a reality. The latest new recruitment is car design veteran Frank Stephenson, who has previously worked for Ferrari, Maserati and Mini, to name but a few.

Considered one of the world’s most renowned and influential car designers in recent times, 58-year-old Stephenson’s portfolio includes iconic designs such as the BMW X5, New MINI, Ferrari F430, Maserati MC12 and McLaren P1. Now he’s embarking on adding the Lilium jet to that list.

Officially starting next month, he’ll be tasked with recruiting an entirely new design team to shape both the interior and exterior of the jet itself, as well as a design language for the company’s wider infrastructure, including landing pads and departure lounges.

In a call with Stephenson yesterday morning, I got to ask him why he’s ditched Ferraris for flying taxis, what his new role will entail more specifically and to dig a little deeper into how he thinks about design and why good design really matters. A lightly edited transcript of the full Q&A follows.

TC: I don’t know a huge amount about designing cars, let alone designing cars that can fly. Designing a modern-day car involves a heck of a lot of people and designing something like the Lilium jet again involves a whole team of people. As head of design, how does your role fit into the larger machine of building a vehicle or “flying car?”

So if you have a Michelin-rated restaurant and you’ve got to feed 100 people, you’re going to have quite a few cooks in there and the waiters and everybody else to run the machine. But the chef, the guy that’s got the Michelin stars… gets all the credit for it. But it’s all the other guys doing the work for him and he’s basically overseeing it and he’s trying to keep everything moving along the right track. That’s kind of what it’s like. I mean, I’m not probably your standard type of design director because I like to get in and cook and mix up the stuff too. I just have never been able to stop getting my hands dirty. I guess in that respect, the design directors come across often as prima donnas almost and sit back and watch the guys work and every now and then say he likes it or he doesn’t like it. But I am more of a hands-on type of director.

I like to build small teams. I don’t like huge teams because it takes a lot longer to get things done and the energy sometimes isn’t as strong with a big team as it is with a smaller team. You’ve got to work faster and much more focused and much more efficiently to get the amount of work done. So that sort of builds the steam up in the pressure cooker, but if you love design it’s absolutely the right temperature to be working at. You want to be under pressure to deliver great design. And typically if you think about a design too long, it gets watered down and loses that character, that pureness that you had at the beginning. So smaller teams tend to come up with better ideas I think, or more dramatic ideas, than huge companies with huge design teams.

I don’t set the brief because that comes from marketing, what product segment or what market segment the product should fit. So if they’re telling us to design a two-seater vehicle or a five-seater vehicle or whatever then that becomes the target of the design team to deliver in a certain time span. What I do is I meet with the marketing guys, I meet with engineering guys.

The engineering guys will lay out what we call a package, where all the critical components are for the vehicle. With a car it is typically “Where does the passenger and the driver sit? Where are the wheels and where is the engine and how much trunk or boot space are we going to have?” Things like that. And then I work around all those components with the aerodynamic engineers, suspension and everything.

What I have to do basically is get the team going with theme ideas and really innovative breakthrough ideas, because that’s what designers do. They don’t repeat stuff, they have to come up with stuff that basically moves the game forward. You’ve got to create within this design team a kind of awesome childlike creativity and emotion feeling. It takes a lot of brainstorming and inspiration. You sort of set the tone of that kind of atmosphere within design to get the designers going and then the mood gains momentum.

I’m very advanced in the way I think — I have to be because of the way design is geared, you do a lot of computer work — but I typically make sure that we all start pen on paper sketching, because that is really the only way to get a design or a spark out of your mind. If you go through a computer it loses the human… So I pretty much try to keep the design team on paper as long as possible.

The moment we come up with great ideas, we work with engineers. Typically I try to get engineers and designers working together in the same studio or very tightly together so there’s no loss of traction, and to make sure that what we’re doing can be made. We typically create scale models out of clay. We maybe do two, maybe three, different designs, and as those designs evolve one will get chosen as the favorite theme. That goes to full-scale. And then when this clay model is finally approved by engineering, and approved by finance, and approved by marketing, and approved by design, we will recommend that to the CEO and he’ll have a look at it if he hasn’t followed throughout the process, and then that product will become the model for prototyping and we’ll take molds off of it and create the real panels for the car and then it goes into production. Pretty much that’s it in a nutshell.

As a design director I have to control everything from the look to the color to the ergonomics to the feasibility of it. And then with Lilium the requirements will probably branch out over into what the Lilium port will look like that you access to get into your jet. So the whole kind of environment from an aesthetic or emotional point of view.

TC: Give me more of a sense of the relationship between design and engineering (or form and function)… Aren’t you somewhat constrained in your imagination by the science of flying?

No, that’s what a bad designer would tell you, “I’m constrained, that’s why the vehicle doesn’t look as good as it should.” But the fact is he’s getting paid the big bucks to make that thing look good and if he can’t make it look good he’s just not good enough. So there’s no excuse in my book for bad design or anything that looks bad. Absolutely no excuse. Anything can be made beautiful and should be made desirable, obviously.

We have to have constraints because safety and engineering require that. If we don’t have constraints then designers aren’t designers they’re just artists and they’re not doing the job. You can make a pretty picture but if it doesn’t work at the end of the day then you haven’t really designed anything, you’ve just drawn a pretty picture.

So in terms of constraints, yeah, but that is what makes the game so fun for a designer, that you’re working within rules and legislation and restrictions which make it a challenge. That’s why you get good-looking cars and other cars that don’t look as good. Like I said, if there is a beautiful small car, why aren’t all small cars beautiful? It’s a taste thing obviously. Some people like some designs, a lot of people like other designs. But good design is absolutely not subjective. There’s good design and bad design, and there are a lot of bad designs out there — not to knock them or criticize — but there are principles for good design that designers typically learn when they’re being educated. If you don’t apply those laws of good design then you’re not going to have a good design.

Inspiration for good design comes from a lot of different sources, but if you’re looking at inspiration from trendy sources like fashion or other types of design that are in one day and out the next then you’re not gonna have a timeless design or an iconic design. Iconic designs are typically timeless designs, they last forever. Anything that was designed iconically 40 years ago will still look great 40 years in the future. The design is so good that it just lasts and lasts and lasts. It is hard to achieve that, but if you use the right type of mental design approach then it’s achievable.

I think designing cars is not harder or easier than designing an aircraft, it’s just making the absolutely best product you can make that works well. Typically if you design something that works very, very well it looks fantastic. If you design something that doesn’t work very well then the design doesn’t matter at the end of the day. One of the interesting things is people always say that form follows function. I’ve never heard anything more ridiculous in my life because for me form equals function. If the product works well, it looks great. There’s nothing in the world that works fantastically well and looks awful, that combination doesn’t exist. Especially in nature. You look at all these beautiful animals and organisms in nature that work incredibly well, and therein lies the beauty of nature. Horses and cheetahs and all these amazing animals, nobody sat down and designed this amazing-looking animal. Evolution caused it to be absolutely fantastic at what it does, and through being fantastic at what it does, the result is the look, and that look is awesome. That same principle is how I feel about design. If you work very good with the engineers and you create optimized solutions, it’s very easy to make them look good, it’s almost inherent in that way.

TC: Regarding the Lilium jet… what is the main challenge in your mind of designing what is a new type of transportation?

My challenge — simply put — is to make the person who gets into the jet not want to get out of it. You know. Although he’s reached his destination he’ll want to do it again and again and again. The reason behind that is because all the new generations coming along after the old farts like us are basically looking for experiences. They’re not so much geared towards buying materialistic things. They love experiences. And that’s what Lilium is going to be offering, an experience and a service. And I see that as the future. For me it’s an amazing opportunity to be able to take something from scratch and develop it into a reality.

It’s always been a sort of science fiction, when you see The Jetsons, the cartoons and things… it’s like, one day, but not in my lifetime. Well, here’s news for the world, it’s coming before they know it and it’s going to be here very, very soon. And these things have to look as amazing as the technology that they’re bringing with them.

What I need to do is not just make it an incredible aesthetic joy to be in, but when you get inside one of these things you don’t want to get out of it. It’s going to be the experiences that you have when you’re inside this transportation device. If you could just take that situation of being inside a capsule, what would you want to occur there? You want to relax, you want to socialize, you want to work, you want to be entertained. All that is now incredibly possible.

I mean all the advances … where everything coming now is digital and so real that you can actually imagine something on the inside being the new wave of entertainment. So basically you’re in your private space, you get to turn it into a virtual world where you’re being transported from A to B or wherever your destination is. And within that space in time you’re in the ideal atmosphere. You’re not really sitting in a plane and just going along for the ride, which is what you do pretty much in a taxi. All the new materials that are coming about at the moment in terms of seats, flooring, lighting, buttons, displays, image projection, sounds and temperature control. You know all the things that we try to shoot into new cars as a next step for luxury, those are just going to become everyday things that are making the whole ride an incredible experience.

Regretfully they’ll be a lot shorter in duration because of the nature of the jet being you know very high-speed and all that. But it’s kind of like if you can imagine somebody who loves roller coasters they’re always at the end thinking “oh my gosh that was too quick, I want to do this thing again.” That is the kind of positive feeling you should have when you get out of the vehicle.

TC: I saw this documentary a while back that made the point that the world we live in is predominately designed by humans and therefore design can make or break our everyday experiences. As a designer, is it really difficult for you living in a world where, let’s face it, a lot of design is awful?

Some designers take it as a job. Other people just live it. And design is all about making the world a better place not a prettier place. That’s [just] a consequence of making it a better place, but making it a better place is what the end goal should be. It’s a shame that there aren’t more designers in the world thinking about making the world a better place.

TC: How did you get this job ? Did they come to you? Were you just like, “I’ve done cars, I want to do something new”?

It was fate, that thing when two separate paths suddenly collide. I think it was more like that. I’d left McLaren in November 2017, not because I was frustrated or anything like that but because I thought there was something bigger than just designing products that nobody really needs, they just desired and want. What was I doing, I was just clogging up the road networks even more and not making the world a better place, probably a more exciting place, but not socially better. And so I left with my ideas of starting my own design studio, which I’ve been sort of kicking off, in terms of how to improve the world, and then I heard about Lilium and Lilium contacted me.

It was just a match made in heaven. It met all my principles of working for an exciting and incredibly innovative company from the very beginning. To be able to establish a design department for them with a design DNA, a design language, the design team, the studio. Doing something for the future of humanity. Staying with transportation, but making it even better than it ever was. Making something science fiction reality.

TC: Are there any particular designers or designs that you can point to and say that designer or product has stood the test of time?

That’s really, really tough. I can tell you specific products for their aesthetic value but I think I have to go deeper than that because you know everybody admires different designers for different reasons. If you could put two guys together that would be da Vinci and Einstein. I mean da Vinci was probably the guy because he not only could paint and draw and all that but he was also an incredible engineer and he figured out how to make these things work and he wanted things to look great too. So if I could say one person for me it would be da Vinci more than anybody else just because the guy could paint, the guy could engineer. Anything he ever touched was absolutely amazing. He was doing flying machines way back too. I like his natural approach. I like people who are really in tune with nature because for me that’s the best inspiration we have. He came up with things that never existed before for the benefit of humanity. Pretty much. If he would have been that kind of guy today he would be the absolutely most awesome human being on earth. I’ve got tons of books on his works and him, and everything like that, just because he’s so inspiring to me.

Categories: Business News

Indian lending platform Capital Float raises $22M Series C extension from Amazon

2018, April 24 - 3:30am

Capital Float, the fintech startup that says it is India’s largest online lender, announced today that it has raised $22 million in new funding from Amazon. At the end of last year, reports surfaced that Amazon was considering an investment in Capital Float as an extension of its $45 million Series C, which was announced last August. The Bangalore-based startup confirmed to TechCrunch that Amazon’s investment is indeed an extension of that round and brings the total equity it has raised over the past 12 months to $67 million.

Over the same period, Capital Float also raised $80 million of debt from banks and other financial companies, which it combines with its own balance sheet to finance loans to small businesses and other borrowers. Amazon India is among several e-commerce platforms that the company has partnered with to provide loans to sellers, including Snapdeal and Shopclues.

Since its inception in 2013 by co-founders Sashank Rishyasringa and Gaurav Hinduja, Capital Float has raised a total of about $110 million in equity funding from investors, including Ribbit Capital, SAIF Partners, Sequoia India, Creation Investments and Aspada, as well as total debt lines of $130 million.

During the last six months, Capital Float added 50,000 new customers, bringing its total customer base to more than 80,000 people in more than 300 cities. The startup says it currently disburses more than 10,000 loans each month and now has an outstanding loan portfolio of more than $170 million, with a default rate of about 2 percent. About 70 percent of its loans are microloans ranging from 25,000 rupees to 500,000 rupees (about $376 to $7,530).

With the investment from Amazon, the startup has set an ambitious goal of adding 300,000 new customers and originating more than $800 million in loans this year.

In a press statement, Amazon India’s country manager Amit Agarwal said, “We’re excited to work with Capital Float and invest alongside other investors. We are highly impressed with what Gaurav and Sashank have built and we back missionary entrepreneurs and management teams. Credit in India is highly under-penetrated and Capital Float is bringing the right kind of credit solutions to the underserved and informally served segments of SMEs to help realize their full potential.”

Over the last year, Capital Float expanded into more verticals, including products for small- to mid-sized manufacturers, point-of-sale financing for retailers and loans for school construction and self-employed professionals like doctors. It also added new online payment gateways to make it easier for borrowers to repay loans and began piloting deep learning-based underwriting models that use data points like image processing, geotags and new policies such as the Goods and Service Tax (GST), an indirect tax launched last year that is levied at every step of the production chain and the banknote demonetization started by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in 2016.

Categories: Business News

Rapchat raises $1.6 million to help you make and share your def jams

2018, April 24 - 1:30am

The first thing to understand about media-sharing app Rapchat is that co-founder Seth Miller is not a rapper and his other co-founder, Pat Gibson, is. Together they created Rapchat, a service for making and sharing raps, and the conjunction of rapper and nerd seems to be really taking off.

Since we last looked at the app in 2016 (you can see Tito’s review below), a lot has changed. The team has raised $1.6 million in funding from investors out of Oakland and the Midwest. Their app, which is sort of a musical.ly for rap, is a top 50 music app on iOS and Android and hit 100 million listens since launch. In short, their little social network/sharing platform is a “millionaire in the making, boss of [its] team, bringin home the bacon.”

The pair’s rap bona fides are genuine. Gibson has opened or performed with Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa and Machine Gun Kelly, and he’s sold beats to MTV. “My music has garnered over 20M+ plays across YouTube, SoundCloud and more,” he wrote me, boasting in the semi-churlish manner of a rapper with a “beef.” Miller, on the other hand, likes to freestyle.

“I grew up loving to freestyle with friends at OU and I noticed lots of other millennials did this too (even if most suck lol) … at any party at 3am – there would always be a group of people in the corner freestyling,” he said. “At the same time Snapchat was blowing up on campus and just thought you should be able to do the same exact thing for rap.”

Gibson, on the other hand, saw it as a serious tool to help him with his music.

“I spent a lot of time, energy and resources making music,” he said. “I was producing the beats, writing the songs, recording/mixing the vocals, mastering the project, then distributing & promoting the music all by myself. With Rapchat, there’s a library of 1,000+ beats from top producers, an instant recording studio in your pocket, and the network to distribute your music worldwide and be discovered…. all from a free app. Rapchat is disrupting the creation, collaboration, distribution, & discovery of music via mobile.”

“We have a much bigger but also more active community than any other music creation app,” said Miller.

While it’s clear the world needs another sharing platform like it needs a hole in the head, thanks to a rabid fan base and a great idea, the team has ensured that Rapchat is not, as they say, wicka-wicka-whack. That, in the end, is all that matters.

Categories: Business News

Bluedot Innovation gets $5.5 million in funding to track smartphone users more precisely

2018, April 24 - 1:08am

When it comes to the promises of persistent location hyper-awareness, the promises of mobile have largely fallen flat. While this has been a bummer for consumers looking for more contextual services from the apps they have installed, this also has been a pain for marketers keen to get their hands on more quality user data.

Bluedot Innovation wants to tackle this by building out tech that can zero-in on smartphone users’ locations in the background. Bluedot announced today they have raised $5.5 million in Series A funding led by a major toll road company, Transurban. The Melbourne startup has raised $13 million to date.

The startup’s tech focuses on dialing-in user location data to just a few meters so that companies utilizing the API can tell whether their marketing efforts are actually turning into consumers visiting physical locations. There are no shortage of players in this space; what makes Bluedot unique, the company insists, is their focus on R&D to develop more precise, low-power solutions that rely on networks and a variety of sensors in the phone to deliver data insightful enough that customers can distinguish what users are doing in tighter urban areas and how they’re getting around.

Bluedot had initially focused its efforts entirely on developing a service that could make mobile payments for toll roads, the idea being that rather than having to install something on your windshield, you could just download an app, allowing persistent location access so whenever you drove through a tollway that had been mapped within the app, you’d make a payment without any friction.

The startup’s ambitions have certainly expanded since then, particularly through a partnership with Salesforce, though given the fact that this round was led by a toll road company it suffices to say that this use case is still firmly within their sights. In November, the startup released the LinktGO app with Transurban, which allows Australian users to make toll road payments from their phone.

The startup says it’s using this latest fund raise to build out its U.S. office in San Francisco and its Melbourne HQ, where it plans to double its current staff of 30 employees.

 

Categories: Business News

Deliv now offers same-day delivery for Shopify retailers

2018, April 24 - 1:05am

Deliv, which partners with retailers like Macy’s, Best Buy and PetSmart to offer same-day delivery, is enabling Shopify retailers to offer scheduled, same-day delivery to customers.

This is thanks to a partnership with Zapiet, a store pickup and local delivery plug-in for Shopify. Zapiet helps Shopify retailers manage store inventories and configure the confines of the deliveries. This greater expansion into small businesses comes a couple of months after Deliv launched DeIiv RX for same-day delivery of prescriptions.

“Part of our business model is we are an assets-free logistics company,” Deliv CEO Daphne Carmeli told TechCrunch. “When it comes to storage, the retailers are one place of where storage is.”

For the retailers without storage of their own, Deliv partners with third parties like on-demand fulfillment startup Darkstore and others. When it comes to actual deliveries, Deliv relies on 1099 contractors. Across all of its 35 markets, Deliv has a network of tens of thousands of delivery drivers on board.

“If you think about us in the world of driving, think of us as the airport shuttle versus the taxi,” Carmeli said. “By definition, if we’re focused on scheduled deliveries, our focus and technology is about adding as many stops to our routes as possible.”

This comes shortly after UberRUSH announced it would be shutting down nationwide.

“It wasn’t a surprise to us,” Carmeli said. “Moving people and moving packages are entirely different and requires very different things.”

Categories: Business News

Mobile guru Amol Sarva talks about the future of work

2018, April 23 - 10:51pm

Amol Sarva has done some amazing stuff. The founder of Virgin Mobile, Sarva went on to create the Peek email device created back when cheap, ubiquitous mobile devices were nowhere to be found. Now he runs Knotel, a unique workspace aimed at up and coming startups.

In this episode of Technotopia I asked Sarva about his thoughts on work, interaction and the future of offices. In his vision we are all working together remotely using tools that could allow us to all directly interact simply by using our brains. It’s an odd — and cool — idea, and he’s a fun interview subject.

Technotopia is a podcast by John Biggs about a better future. You can subscribe in Stitcher, RSS or iTunes and listen to the MP3 here.

Categories: Business News

Netflix looks to raise $1.5 billion in debt financing

2018, April 23 - 10:19pm

In the span of 20 years, Netflix has gone from a (super convenient) Blockbuster knockoff to one of the most powerful players in media. Partially, that’s credited to Netflix’s technology, bringing streaming content to the mainstream. But Netflix’s success is also owed in part to its willingness to invest in its content library.

Netflix continues that investment today with the announcement that it will raise another $1.5 billion in debt.

From the official statement:

Netflix intends to use the net proceeds from this offering for general corporate purposes, which may
include content acquisitions, production and development, capital expenditures, investments, working
capital and potential acquisitions and strategic transactions.

While that might sound vague, Netflix is most certainly going to invest this capital in original content, as it has with earlier debt capital.

In fact, this is not a new strategy from Netflix. The company has raised many billions in debt to accelerate its push into original content.

The announcement comes shortly after a stellar Q1 earnings report, with 7.41 million new streaming subscribers, outperforming estimates and handily beating out last year’s growth of 4.95 million new subscribers. In total, Netflix now has 125 million subscribers across the globe.

Categories: Business News

Let’s meet today in New York for some ICO talk

2018, April 23 - 9:05pm

I’ll be helping build a larger meetup focused on pre-ICO companies in New York on April 23 and I’d love to see you there. It will be held at Knotel on April 23 at 7pm and will feature a pitch-off with eight startups — I will write about the best ones — and two panels with some yet-unnamed stars in the space.

I’d love to see you there, so please sign up here. We’ll have some beers and pizza for the attendees.

The event will be held at 551 Fifth Avenue on the 9th Floor. See you tonight!

Categories: Business News

Slite raises $4.4M to create a smarter internal notes tool

2018, April 23 - 4:01pm

Slack exposed the demand for a dead-simple internal communications tool, which has inspired a wave of startups trying to pick apart the rest of a company’s daily activities — including Slite, which hopes to take on internal notes with a fresh round of new capital.

Slite is more or less an attempt at a replacement for a Google Doc or something in Dropbox Paper that is sprawling and getting a little out of control. An employee might create a Slite note like an onboarding manual or an internal contact list, and the hope is to replace the outdated internal wiki and offer employees a hub where they can either go and start stringing together important information, or find it right away. The company today said it has raised $4.4 million in a new seed funding round led by Index Ventures after coming out of Y Combinator’s 2018 winter class. Ari Helgason is joining Slite’s board of directors as part of the deal.

“We now have to develop this product enough to show we can actually replace large amounts of things,” co-founder Christophe Pasquier said. “Today we have more than 300 active teams, and we have to show that we can make it scale. In the short term is just we’re replacing Google Docs because these tools ahven’t evolved and we’re bringing something super fresh. The longer-term vision of really bringing all the information that has value from a team and becoming this single source of truth for teams.”

Slite tracks permissions and changes to the notes in order to allow companies to do a better job of maintaining them, rather than sharing around links and having different people jump in and make changes. The part about sharing links is one in particular that stung for Pasquier, as even larger companies can have issues with employees asking in Slack what policies are — or even for links to parts of the internal wiki where that important information is buried.

Getting there certainly won’t be easy. Companies like Dropbox continuing to invest in these kinds of collaborative note-taking tools — that could easily evolve into internal hubs of information. And as Pasquier tries to liken the development arc to Slack, which showed employees wanted some more seamless tool for communication, that company is also working on making its search tools smarter, like helping employees find the right person to ask a question. It doesn’t look like an asynchronous notes tool just yet, but if all the information is somewhere in Slack already, a smart search tool may be the only thing necessary to find all that information.

Categories: Business News

Pivotal CEO talks IPO and balancing life in Dell family of companies

2018, April 22 - 3:51am

Pivotal has kind of a strange role for a company. On one hand its part of the EMC federation companies that Dell acquired in 2016 for a cool $67 billion, but it’s also an independently operated entity within that broader Dell family of companies — and that has to be a fine line to walk.

Whatever the challenges, the company went public yesterday and joined VMware as a  separately traded company within Dell. CEO Rob Mee says the company took the step of IPOing because it wanted additional capital.

“I think we can definitely use the capital to invest in marketing and R&D. The wider technology ecosystem is moving quickly. It does take additional investment to keep up,” Mee told TechCrunch just a few hours after his company rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

As for that relationship of being a Dell company, he said that Michael Dell let him know early on after the EMC acquisition that he understood the company’s position. “From the time Dell acquired EMC, Michael was clear with me: You run the company. I’m just here to help. Dell is our largest shareholder, but we run independently. There have been opportunities to test that [since the acquisition] and it has held true,” Mee said.

Mee says that independence is essential because Pivotal has to remain technology-agnostic and it can’t favor Dell products and services over that mission. “It’s necessary because our core product is a cloud-agnostic platform. Our core value proposition is independence from any provider — and Dell and VMware are infrastructure providers,” he said.

That said, Mee also can play both sides because he can build products and services that do align with Dell and VMware offerings. “Certainly the companies inside the Dell family are customers of ours. Michael Dell has encouraged the IT group to adopt our methods and they are doing so,” he said. They have also started working more closely with VMware, announcing a container partnership last year.

Photo: Ron Miller

Overall though he sees his company’s mission in much broader terms, doing nothing less than helping the world’s largest companies transform their organizations. “Our mission is to transform how the world builds software. We are focused on the largest organizations in the world. What is a tailwind for us is that the reality is these large companies are at a tipping point of adopting how they digitize and develop software for strategic advantage,” Mee said.

The stock closed up 5 percent last night, but Mee says this isn’t about a single day. “We do very much focus on the long term. We have been executing to a quarterly cadence and have behaved like a public company inside Pivotal [even before the IPO]. We know how to do that while keeping an eye on the long term,” he said.

Categories: Business News

In the NYC enterprise startup scene, security is job one

2018, April 22 - 1:00am

While most people probably would not think of New York as a hotbed for enterprise startups of any kind, it is actually quite active. When you stop to consider that the world’s biggest banks and financial services companies are located there, it would certainly make sense for security startups to concentrate on such a huge potential market — and it turns out, that’s the case.

According to Crunchbase, there are dozens of security startups based in the city with everything from biometrics and messaging security to identity, security scoring and graph-based analysis tools. Some established companies like Symphony, which was originally launched in the city (although it is now on the west coast), has raised almost $300 million. It was actually formed by a consortium of the world’s biggest financial services companies back in 2014 to create a secure unified messaging platform.

There is a reason such a broad-based ecosystem is based in a single place. The companies who want to discuss these kinds of solutions aren’t based in Silicon Valley. This isn’t typically a case of startups selling to other startups. It’s startups who have been established in New York because that’s where their primary customers are most likely to be.

In this article, we are looking at a few promising early-stage security startups based in Manhattan

Hypr: Decentralizing identity

Hypr is looking at decentralizing identity with the goal of making it much more difficult to steal credentials. As company co-founder and CEO George Avetisov puts it, the idea is to get rid of that credentials honeypot sitting on the servers at most large organizations, and moving the identity processing to the device.

Hypr lets organizations remove stored credentials from the logon process. Photo: Hypr

“The goal of these companies in moving to decentralized authentication is to isolate account breaches to one person,” Avetisov explained. When you get rid of that centralized store, and move identity to the devices, you no longer have to worry about an Equifax scenario because the only thing hackers can get is the credentials on a single device — and that’s not typically worth the time and effort.

At its core, Hypr is an SDK. Developers can tap into the technology in their mobile app or website to force the authorization to the device. This could be using the fingerprint sensor on a phone or a security key like a Yubikey. Secondary authentication could include taking a picture. Over time, customers can delete the centralized storage as they shift to the Hypr method.

The company has raised $15 million and has 35 employees based in New York City.

Uplevel Security: Making connections with graph data

Uplevel’s founder Liz Maida began her career at Akamai where she learned about the value of large data sets and correlating that data to events to help customers understand what was going on behind the scenes. She took those lessons with her when she launched Uplevel Security in 2014. She had a vision of using a graph database to help analysts with differing skill sets understand the underlying connections between events.

“Let’s build a system that allows for correlation between machine intelligence and human intelligence,” she said. If the analyst agrees or disagrees, that information gets fed back into the graph, and the system learns over time the security events that most concern a given organization.

“What is exciting about [our approach] is you get a new alert and build a mini graph, then merge that into the historical data, and based on the network topology, you can start to decide if it’s malicious or not,” she said.

Photo: Uplevel

The company hopes that by providing a graphical view of the security data, it can help all levels of security analysts figure out the nature of the problem, select a proper course of action, and further build the understanding and connections for future similar events.

Maida said they took their time creating all aspects of the product, making the front end attractive, the underlying graph database and machine learning algorithms as useful as possible and allowing companies to get up and running quickly. Making it “self serve” was a priority, partly because they wanted customers digging in quickly and partly with only 10 people, they didn’t have the staff to do a lot of hand holding.

Security Scorecard: Offering a way to measure security

The founders of Security Scorecard met while working at the NYC ecommerce site, Gilt. For a time ecommerce and adtech ruled the startup scene in New York, but in recent times enterprise startups have really started to come on. Part of the reason for that is many people started at these foundational startups and when they started their own companies, they were looking to solve the kinds of enterprise problems they had encountered along the way. In the case of Security Scorecard, it was how could a CISO reasonably measure how secure a company they were buying services from was.

Photo: Security Scorecard

“Companies were doing business with third-party partners. If one of those companies gets hacked, you lose. How do you vett the security of companies you do business with” company co-founder and CEO Aleksandr Yampolskiy asked when they were forming the company.

They created a scoring system based on publicly available information, which wouldn’t require the companies being evaluated to participate. Armed with this data, they could apply a letter grade from A-F. As a former CISO at Gilt, it was certainly a paint point he felt personally. They knew some companies did undertake serious vetting, but it was usually via a questionnaire.

Security Scorecard was offering a way to capture security signals in an automated way and see at a glance just how well their vendors were doing. It doesn’t stop with the simple letter grade though, allowing you to dig into the company’s strengths and weaknesses and see how they compare to other companies in their peer groups and how they have performed over time.

It also gives customers the ability to see how they compare to peers in their own industry and use the number to brag about their security position or conversely, they could use it to ask for more budget to improve it.

The company launched in 2013 and has raised over $62 million, according to Crunchbase. Today, they have 130 employees and 400 enterprise customers.

If you’re an enterprise security startup, you need to be where the biggest companies in the world do business. That’s in New York City, and that’s precisely why these three companies, and dozens of others have chosen to call it home.

Categories: Business News

Through luck and grit, Datadog is fusing the culture of developers and operations

2018, April 22 - 1:00am

There used to be two cultures in the enterprise around technology. On one side were software engineers, who built out the applications needed by employees to conduct the business of their companies. On the other side were sysadmins, who were territorially protective of their hardware domain — the servers, switches, and storage boxes needed to power all of that software. Many a great comedy routine has been made at the interface of those two cultures, but they remained divergent.

That is, until the cloud changed everything. Suddenly, there was increasing overlap in the skills required for software engineering and operations, as well as a greater need for collaboration between the two sides to effectively deploy applications. Yet, while these two halves eventually became one whole, the software monitoring tools used by them were often entirely separate.

New York City-based Datadog was designed to bring these two cultures together to create a more nimble and collaborative software and operations culture. Founded in 2010 by Olivier Pomel and Alexis Lê-Quôc, the product offers monitoring and analytics for cloud-based workflows, allowing ops team to track and analyze deployments and developers to instrument their applications. Pomel said that “the root of all of this collaboration is to make sure that everyone has the same understanding of the problem.”

The company has had dizzying success. Pomel declined to disclose precise numbers, but says the company had “north of $100 million” of recurring revenue in the past twelve months, and “we have been doubling that every year so far.” The company, headquartered in the New York Times Building in Times Square, employs more than 600 people across its various worldwide offices. The company has raised nearly $150 million of venture capital according to Crunchbase, and is perennially on banker’s short lists for strong IPO prospects.

The real story though is just how much luck and happenstance can help put wind in the sails of a company.

Pomel first met Lê-Quôc while an undergraduate in France. He was working on running the campus network, and helped to discover that Lê-Quôc had hacked the network. Lê-Quôc was eventually disconnected, and Pomel would migrate to IBM’s upstate New York offices after graduation. After IBM, he led technology at Wireless Generation, a K-12 startup, where he ran into Lê-Quôc again, who was heading up ops for the company. The two cultures of develops and ops was glaring at the startup, where “we had developers who hated operations” and there was much “finger-pointing.”

Putting aside any lingering grievances from their undergrad days, the two began to explore how they could ameliorate the cultural differences they witnessed between their respective teams. “Bringing dev and ops together is not a feature, it is core,” Pomel explained. At the same time, they noticed that companies were increasingly talking about building on Amazon Web Services, which in 2009, was still a relatively new concept. They incorporated Datadog in 2010 as a cloud-first monitoring solution, and launched general availability for the product in 2012.

Luck didn’t just bring the founders together twice, it also defined the currents of their market. Datadog was among the first cloud-native monitoring solutions, and the superlative success of cloud infrastructure in penetrating the enterprise the past few years has benefitted the company enormously. We had “exactly the right product at the right time,” Pomel said, and “a lot of it was luck.” He continued, “It’s healthy to recognize that not everything comes from your genius, because what works once doesn’t always work a second time.”

While startups have been a feature in New York for decades, enterprise infrastructure was in many ways in a dark age when the company launched, which made early fundraising difficult. “None of the West Coast investors were listening,” Pomel said, and “East Coast investors didn’t understand the infrastructure space well enough to take risks.” Even when he could get a West Coast VC to chat with him, they “thought it was a form of mental impairment to start an infrastructure startup in New York.”

Those fundraising difficulties ended up proving a boon for Datadog, because it forced the company to connect with customers much earlier and more often than it might have otherwise. Pomel said, “it forced us to spend all of our time with customers and people who were related to the problem” and ultimately, “it grounded us in the customer problem.” Pomel believes that the company’s early DNA of deeply listening to customers has allowed it to continue to outcompete its rivals on the West Coast.

More success is likely to come as companies continue to move their infrastructure onto the cloud. Datadog used to have a roughly even mix of private and public cloud business, and now the balance is moving increasingly toward the public side. Even large financial institutions, which have been reticent in transitioning their infrastructures, have now started to aggressively embrace cloud as the future of computing in the industry, according to Pomel.

Datadog intends to continue to add new modules to its core monitoring toolkit and expand its team. As the company has grown, so has the need to put in place more processes as parts of the company break. Quoting his co-founder, Pomel said the message to employees is “don’t mind the rattling sound — it is a spaceship, not an airliner” and “things are going to break and change, and it is normal.”

Much as Datadog has bridged the gap between developers and ops, Pomel hopes to continue to give back to the New York startup ecosystem by bridging the gap between technical startups and venture capital. He has made a series of angel investments into local emerging enterprise and data startups, including Generable, Seva, and Windmill. Hard work and a lot of luck is propelling Datadog into the top echelon of enterprise startups, pulling New York along with it.

Categories: Business News

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