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Abacus.AI raises another $22M and launches new AI modules

AI startup RealityEngines.AI changed its name to Abacus.AI in July. At the same time, it announced a $13 million Series A round. Today, only a few months later, it is not changing its name again, but it is announcing a $22 million Series B round, led by Coatue, with Decibel Ventures and Index Partners participating as well. With this, the company, which was co-founded by former AWS and Google exec Bindu Reddy, has now raised a total of $40.3 million.

Abacus co-founder Bindu Reddy, Arvind Sundararajan and Siddartha Naidu. Image Credits: Abacus.AI

In addition to the new funding, Abacus.AI is also launching a new product today, which it calls Abacus.AI Deconstructed. Originally, the idea behind RealityEngines/Abacus.AI was to provide its users with a platform that would simplify building AI models by using AI to automatically train and optimize them. That hasn’t changed, but as it turns out, a lot of (potential) customers had already invested into their own workflows for building and training deep learning models but were looking for help in putting them into production and managing them throughout their lifecycle.

“One of the big pain points [businesses] had was, ‘look, I have data scientists and I have my models that I’ve built in-house. My data scientists have built them on laptops, but I don’t know how to push them to production. I don’t know how to maintain and keep models in production.’ I think pretty much every startup now is thinking of that problem,” Reddy said.

Image Credits: Abacus.AI

Since Abacus.AI had already built those tools anyway, the company decided to now also break its service down into three parts that users can adapt without relying on the full platform. That means you can now bring your model to the service and have the company host and monitor the model for you, for example. The service will manage the model in production and, for example, monitor for model drift.

Another area Abacus.AI has long focused on is model explainability and de-biasing, so it’s making that available as a module as well, as well as its real-time machine learning feature store that helps organizations create, store and share their machine learning features and deploy them into production.

As for the funding, Reddy tells me the company didn’t really have to raise a new round at this point. After the company announced its first round earlier this year, there was quite a lot of interest from others to also invest. “So we decided that we may as well raise the next round because we were seeing adoption, we felt we were ready product-wise. But we didn’t have a large enough sales team. And raising a little early made sense to build up the sales team,” she said.

Reddy also stressed that unlike some of the company’s competitors, Abacus.AI is trying to build a full-stack self-service solution that can essentially compete with the offerings of the big cloud vendors. That — and the engineering talent to build it — doesn’t come cheap.

Image Credits: Abacus.AI

It’s no surprise then that Abacus.AI plans to use the new funding to increase its R&D team, but it will also increase its go-to-market team from two to ten in the coming months. While the company is betting on a self-service model — and is seeing good traction with small- and medium-sized companies — you still need a sales team to work with large enterprises.

Come January, the company also plans to launch support for more languages and more machine vision use cases.

“We are proud to be leading the Series B investment in Abacus.AI, because we think that Abacus.AI’s unique cloud service now makes state-of-the-art AI easily accessible for organizations of all sizes, including start-ups,” Yanda Erlich, a p artner at Coatue Ventures  told me. “Abacus.AI’s end-to-end autonomous AI service powered by their Neural Architecture Search invention helps organizations with no ML expertise easily deploy deep learning systems in production.”

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LA-based A-Frame, a developer of celebrity-led personal care brands, raises cash for its brand incubator

A-Frame, a Los Angeles-based developer of personal care brands supported by celebrities, has raised $2 million in a new round of funding led by Initialized Capital.

Joining Initialized in the round is the serial entrepreneur Moise Emquies, whose previous clothing lines, Ella Moss and Splendid, were acquired by the fashion holding company VFC in 2017.

A-Frame previously raised a seed round backed by cannabis dispensary Columbia Care. The company’s first product is a hand soap, Keeper. Other brands in suncare and skincare, children and babycare, and bath and body will follow, the company said.

“We partner with the investment groups at the agencies,” said company founder and chief executive, Ari Bloom. “We start interviewing different talent, speaking with their agents and their managers. We create an entity that we spin out. I wouldn’t say that we compete with the agencies.”

So far, the company has worked with CAA, UTA and WME on all of the brands in development, Bloom said. Two new brands should launch in the next couple of weeks.

As part of the round, actor, activist, and author Hill Harper has joined the company as a co-founder and as the company’s chief strategy officer. Emquies is also joining the company as its chief brand officer.

“Hill is my co-founder. He and I have worked together for a number of years. He’s with me at the holding company level. Identifying the opportunities,” said Bloom. “He’s bridging the gap between business and talent. He’s a part of the conversations when we talk to the agencies, managers and the talent. He’s a great guy that I think has a lot of respect in the agency and talent world.”

Initialized General Partner Alda Leu Dennis took point on the investment for Initialized and will take a seat on the company’s board of directors alongside Emquies. Other directors include Columbia Care chief executive, Nicholas Vita, and John D. Howard, the chief executive of Irving Place Capital.

“For us the calculus was to look at personal care and see what categories need to be reinvented because of sustainability,” said Bloom. “It was important to us once we get to a category what is the demographic opportunity. Even if categories were somewhat evolved they’re not all the way there… everything is in non-ingestible personal care. When you have a celebrity focused brand you want to focus on franchise items.”

The Keeper product is a subscription-based model for soap concentrates and cleansing hand sprays.

A serial entrepreneur, Bloom’s last business was the AR imaging company, Avametric, which was backed by Khosla Ventures and Y Combinator and wound up getting acquired by Gerber Technology in 2018. Bloom is also a founder of the Wise Sons Delicatessen in San Francisco.

“We first invested in Avametric at Initialized in 2013 and he had experience prior to that as well. From a venture perspective I think of these all around real defensibility of brand building,” said Dennis.

The investors believe that between Bloom’s software for determining market preferences, A-Frame’s roster of celebrities and the company’s structure as a brand incubator, all of the ingredients are in place for a successful direct to consumer business.

However, venture capitalists have been down this road before. The Honest Co. was an early attempt to build a sustainable brand around sustainable personal care products. Bloom said Honest provided several lessons for his young startup, one of them being a knowledge of when a company has reached the peak of its growth trajectory and created an opportunity for other, larger companies to take a business to the next level.

“Our goal is a three-to-seven year horizon that is big enough at a national scale that a global player can come in and internationally scale it,” said Bloom.

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Mirantis brings extensions to its Lens Kubernetes IDE, launches a new Kubernetes distro

Earlier this year, Mirantis, the company that now owns Docker’s enterprise business, acquired Lens, a desktop application that provides developers with something akin to an IDE for managing their Kubernetes clusters. At the time, Mirantis CEO Adrian Ionel told me that the company wants to offer enterprises the tools to quickly build modern applications. Today, it’s taking another step in that direction with the launch of an extensions API for Lens that will take the tool far beyond its original capabilities

In addition to this update to Lens, Mirantis also today announced a new open-source project: k0s. The company describes it as “a modern, 100% upstream vanilla Kubernetes distro that is designed and packaged without compromise.”

It’s a single optimized binary without any OS dependencies (besides the kernel). Based on upstream Kubernetes, k0s supports Intel and Arm architectures and can run on any Linux host or Windows Server 2019 worker nodes. Given these requirements, the team argues that k0s should work for virtually any use case, ranging from local development clusters to private datacenters, telco clusters and hybrid cloud solutions.

“We wanted to create a modern, robust and versatile base layer for various use cases where Kubernetes is in play. Something that leverages vanilla upstream Kubernetes and is versatile enough to cover use cases ranging from typical cloud based deployments to various edge/IoT type of cases.,” said Jussi Nummelin, Senior Principal Engineer at Mirantis and founder of k0s. “Leveraging our previous experiences, we really did not want to start maintaining the setup and packaging for various OS distros. Hence the packaging model of a single binary to allow us to focus more on the core problem rather than different flavors of packaging such as debs, rpms and what-nots.”

Mirantis, of course, has a bit of experience in the distro game. In its earliest iteration, back in 2013, the company offered one of the first major OpenStack distributions, after all.

As for Lens, the new API, which will go live next week to coincide with KubeCon, will enable developers to extend the service with support for other Kubernetes-integrated components and services.

“Extensions API will unlock collaboration with technology vendors and transform Lens into a fully featured cloud native development IDE that we can extend and enhance without limits,” said Miska Kaipiainen, the co-founder of the Lens open-source project and senior director of engineering at Mirantis. “If you are a vendor, Lens will provide the best channel to reach tens of thousands of active Kubernetes developers and gain distribution to your technology in a way that did not exist before. At the same time, the users of Lens enjoy quality features, technologies and integrations easier than ever.”

The company has already lined up a number of popular CNCF projects and vendors in the cloud-native ecosystem to build integrations. These include Kubernetes security vendors Aqua and Carbonetes, API gateway maker Ambassador Labs and AIOps company Carbon Relay. Venafi, nCipher, Tigera, Kong and StackRox are also currently working on their extensions.

“Introducing an extensions API to Lens is a game-changer for Kubernetes operators and developers, because it will foster an ecosystem of cloud-native tools that can be used in context with the full power of Kubernetes controls, at the user’s fingertips,” said Viswajith Venugopal, StackRox software engineer and developer of KubeLinter. “We look forward to integrating KubeLinter with Lens for a more seamless user experience.”

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Funded by Connect Ventures, Purple Dot plans to take on Klarna-style purchase debt

In recent times startups have appeared offering credit at an e-commerce basket checkout so that a customer can buy a product without needing to pay right away. Klarna or Clearpay are the two most notable in this field. But what if you flipped the model around so that consumers could buy the item at a lower price later on, and the retailer could reduce waste? This is the model of Purple Dot, which bills itself as a ‘worth-the-wait’ payment option for fashion brands.

It’s now raised a seed round of £1.35 million, led by Connect Ventures, with support from AI Seed, Moxxie Ventures, Andy Chung and Philipp Moehring from AngelList, Alex Roetter former SVP of Engineering at Twitter and the family office of Paul Forster, co-founder of Indeed.com.

Founded in August 2019 by senior Skyscanner employees Madeline Parra (CEO) and John Talbott (CTO), Purple Dot allows consumers to request a ‘worth-the-wait’ lower price. The advantage for retailers is that they can then decide whether or not to release a fashion product mid-season at a slightly reduced rate in order to secure the sale.

“Unlike Klarna, we don’t encourage consumers to buy stuff they can’t afford.”

The customers still pays upfront and then waits to have the item confirmed, receiving a full refund if not. The Purple Dot payment method sits alongside ‘buy now, pay later’ finance options.

This ‘worth-the-wait’ price does not usually fall below a 10-20% reduction from the recommended retail price, thus reducing losses from end-of-season discounting, where discounts are much deeper. The advantage for the consumer is that they don’t then rack up debt on their purchases.

The startup says it’s already in talks with a number of major UK and US high street brands but has already secured menswear retailer Spoke, which will also use the tech for ‘pre-ordering’. This means they can test out new styles, designs and fabrics in a limited manner, thus reducing waste (and therefore carbon emissions) when they commit to a new line of clothing.

Madeline Parra, CEO of Purple Dot, commented: “When shopping online today, customers can either pay the retail price or walk away. When they do walk away, the item goes through the discounting process, becomes unprofitable for the merchant and is resigned to landfill. This binary system isn’t working for anyone – the customer loses out on the item, because it may go out of stock in their size before they attempt to purchase it again, and the merchant loses the sale. Purple Dot tackles this problem head-on by providing a new way to shop, taking on unsustainable, unrelenting consumerism, poor pricing tactics and profit-crunching sales at the same time.”

Speaking to TechCrunch she also added that “Unlike Klarna, we don’t encourage consumers to buy stuff they can’t afford.”

Pietro Bezza, General Partner at Connect Ventures, commented:  “Purple Dot’s innovative proposition benefits retailers by creating a solution to their inventory problems. End of season ‘panic sales’ have long caused financial uncertainty for retailers and a negative impact on the environment in equal measure.”

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Startup brands like the shoe company Thousand Fell are bringing circular economics to the fashion industry

Thousand Fell, the environmentally conscious, direct-to-consumer shoe retailer which launched last November, has revealed the details of the recycling program that’s a core component of its pitch to consumers.

The company, which has now sold enough shoes to start seeing its early buyers begin recycling them after ten months of ownership, expects to recycle roughly 3,000 pairs per quarter by 2021, with the capacity to scale up to 6,000 pairs of shoes.,

The recycling feature, through partnerships with United Parcel Service and TerraCycle, offers customers the option to avoid simply throwing out the shoes for $20 in cash that the company pays out upon receipt of the old shoes.

With the initiative, Thousand Fell joins a growing number of companies in consumer retail that are experimenting with various strategies to incorporate reuse into the life-cycle of their products. Nike operates a reuse a shoe program at some of its stores, which will collect used athletic shoes from any brand for recycling. And several companies are offering denim recycling drop-off locations to take old jeans and convert the material into other products.

What’s more, Thousand Fell’s recycling partner, TerraCycle, has developed a milkman model for reusing packaging to replace consumer packaged goods like dry goods, beverages, desserts and home and beauty products under its Loop brand (and in partnership with Kroger and Walgreens).

Across retail, zero waste packaging and delivery options (and companies emphasizing a more sustainable, circular approach to consumption) are attracting increased interest from investors across the board, with everyone from delivery companies to novel packaging materials attracting investor interest.

“Thousand Fell owns the material feeds and covers the cost of recycling, as well as the resale or reintegratoin of recycled material back into new shoes and the issuance of the $20 recycling cash that is sent back to the consumer once they recycle,” wrote Thousand Fell co-founder Stuart Ahlum, in an email.

Clothing and textiles account for 17% of all landfill waste and shoes are particularly wasteful. Shoes account for 10% of retail production capacity but about 25% of textile waste, according to Ahlum.

The company sells its environmentally friendly shoes for under $100, a price point that makes them more accessible to price-conscious consumers, according to Ahlum.

Through the program UPS will run shipping for the Thousand Fell sneaker recycling program and making its network of shipping locations — including within Staples stores — available for drop-off of Thousand Fell’s shoes.

With TerraCycle, Thousand Fell will ensure that the old sneakers will be sustainably recycled and diverted from landfills. UPS’ Ware2Go business is also providing fulfillment and warehousing services for Thousand Fell, the companies said in a statement earlier this week.

Meanwhile, TerraCycle and Thousand Fell are developing a closed loop process where old sneakers will be reintegrated into the supply chain to make new sneakers.

Through Thousand Fell, shoe buyers can track their purchase history and the carbon footprint of their sneakers at the company’s website — and register their sneakers once they’ve received them. The registration allows customers to initiate the recycling process at a drop off location or directly shipping their shoes back to TerraCycle.

“This enterprise partnership between UPS, TerraCycle, and Thousand Fell is the reverse logistics engine that powers the circular economy. It solves the critical problem of collecting worn products back from customers — at scale and at cost,” Ahlum wrote in an email.

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