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Cast.ai nabs $7.7M seed to remove barriers between public clouds

When you launch an application in the public cloud, you usually put everything on one provider, but what if you could choose the components based on cost and technology and have your database one place and your storage another?
That’s what Cast.ai says that it can provide, and today it announced a healthy $7.7 million seed round from TA Ventures, DNX, Florida Funders and other unnamed angels to keep building on that idea. The round closed in June.
Company CEO and co-founder Yuri Frayman says that they started the company with the idea that developers should be able to …

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YC-backed Cashfree raises $35.3 million for its payments platform

Cashfree, an Indian startup that offers a wide-range of payments services to businesses, has raised $35.3 million in a new financing round as the profitable firm looks to broaden its offering.

The Bangalore-based startup’s Series B was led by London-headquartered private equity firm Apis Partners (which invested through its Growth Fund II), with participation from existing investors Y Combinator and Smilegate Investments. The new round brings the startup’s to-date raise to $42 million.

Cashfree kickstarted its journey in 2015 as a solution for restaurants in Bangalore that needed an efficient way for their delivery personnel to collect cash from customers.

Akash Sinha and Reeju Datta, the founders of Cashfree, did not have any prior experience with payments. When their merchants asked if they could build a service to accept payments online, the founders quickly realized that Cashfree could serve a wider purpose.

In the early days, Cashfree also struggled to court investors, many of whom did not think a payments processing firm could grow big — and do so fast enough. But the startup’s fate changed after Y Combinator accepted its application, even though the founders had missed the deadline and couldn’t arrive to join the batch on time. Y Combinator later financed Cashfree’s seed round.

Fast-forward five years, Cashfree today offers more than a dozen products and services and helps over 55,000 businesses disburse salary to employees, accept payments online, set up recurring payments and settle marketplace commissions.

Some of its customers include financial services startup Cred, online grocer BigBasket, food delivery platform Zomato, insurers HDFC Ergo and Acko and travel ticketing service provider Ixigo. The startup works with several banks and also offers integrations with platforms such as Shopify, PayPal and Amazon Pay.

Based on its offerings, Cashfree today competes with scores of startups, but it has an edge — if not many. Cashfree has been profitable for the past three years, Sinha, who serves as the startup’s chief executive, told TechCrunch in an interview.

“Cashfree has maintained a leadership position in this space and is now going through a period of rapid growth fuelled by the development of unique and innovative products that serve the needs of its customers,” Udayan Goyal, co-founder and a managing partner at Apis, said in a statement.

The startup processed over $12 billion in payments volumes in the financial year that ended in March. Sinha said part of the fresh fund will be deployed in R&D so that Cashfree can scale its technology stack and build more services, including those that can digitize more offline payments for its clients.

Cashfree is also working on building cross-border payments solutions to explore opportunities in emerging markets, he said.

“We still see payments as an evolving industry with its own challenges and we would be investing in next-gen payments as well as banking tech to make payments processing easier and more reliable. With the solid foundation of in-house technologies, tech-driven processes and in-depth industry knowledge, we are confident of growing Cashfree to be the leader in the payments space in India and internationally,” he said.

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Kea raises $10M to build AI that helps restaurants answer the phone

Kea is a new startup giving restaurants an opportunity to upgrade one of the more old-fashioned ways that they take orders — over the phone.

Today, Kea is announcing that it has raised a $10 million Series A led by Marbruck, with participation from Streamlined Ventures, Xfund, Heartland Ventures, DEEPCORE, Barrel Ventures and AVG Funds, as well as angel investors Raj Kapoor (chief strategy officer at Lyft), Craig Flom (who was on the founding team at Panera Bread), Wingstop franchisee Tony Lam and Five Guys franchisee Jonathan Kelly.

Founder and CEO Adam Ahmad said that with restaurants perpetually understaffed, they usually don’t have someone who can devote their attention to answering the phone. (Many of you, after all, are probably pretty familiar with the experience of calling a restaurant and being immediately placed on hold.)

At the same time, he suggested it remains an important ordering channel — especially during the pandemic, as takeout and delivery has become the biggest source of revenue for many restaurants. The New Yorker’s Helen Rosner put it succinctly when she suggested that anyone who wants to support restaurants should “pick up the damn phone.

Similarly, Ahmad said that for restaurants, paying substantial third-party ordering fees on all of their orders is “not a sustainable long-term strategy.” So Kea is offering technology that should help restaurants handle more orders over the phone, creating what Ahmad called a “virtual cashier” who can do the initial intake with customers, process most routine orders and bring in a human employee when needed.

The idea of an automated voice assistant may bring back unpleasant memories of trying to call your bank or another Byzantine customer service department. But Ahmad said that while most existing phone systems are “not smart,” Kea’s AI is very different, because it’s just focused on restaurant ordering.

“We’re doing a very closed domain,” he said. “In the pizza world, there are only a couple thousand permutations. We’re not innovating for the whole dictionary — it’s a constrained model, it’s a menu.”

In fact, the Kea team gave me a number to dial where I could try out the system for myself. It was a pretty straightforward and easy process, where I provided my address and then the details of my pizza order. And again, you can transfer to a human employee at any time. (In fact, I was accidentally transferred during my demo, leading me to quickly hang up in embarrassment.)

Kea is already live in more than 250 restaurants, including Papa John’s, Donatos and Primanti Brothers, and it says it’s saving them an average of 10 hours of labor per week, with a 23% increase in average order size. With the new funding, Ahmad’s goal is to bring Kea to 1,000 restaurants across 37 states in 2021.

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Steve Case’s Revolution is targeting $500 million for its fourth growth fund

Revolution, the Washington, D.C.-based investment firm founded by AOL co-founder CEO Steve Case and former AOL senior exec Ted Leonsis, is raising $500 million for its fourth fund, shows a new SEC filing.

Asked about the effort earlier today, the firm — one of whose executives leaves for the White House in January —  declined to comment.

This new fund was expected. It has been more than four years since Revolution announced its third growth fund, a vehicle that closed with $525 million in capital commitments. That’s a longer time between funds than we’re seeing more broadly across the venture industry, where teams have tended to raise new funds approximately every two years, but Revolution’s pacing could tie to its mission. The firm tends to invest primarily in what it long ago dubbed “rise of the rest” cities, where the cost of living and talent is less extreme and where checks go a lot further as a result.

The outfit is also investing out of more than one fund at a time. In recent years, it formed a seed practice and has since raised two Rise of the Rest seed funds, the most recent of which closed last year with $150 million in capital commitments.

Presumably, the firm’s investors have further taken note of some recent exits for Revolution. Earlier this year, its Boston-based portfolio company DraftKings closed on a three-way merger and debuted on the Nasdaq. Meanwhile, BigCommerce, an Austin-based SaaS startup helping companies build, manage and market online stores, went public via a traditional IPO in early August and currently boasts a market cap of $4.2 billion. (Revolution provided the capital for the company’s Series C round in 2013 and continued to invest in subsequent rounds.)

Others of Revolution’s notable investments include Orchard, a tech platform that helps users sell their current home while simultaneously purchasing their next one and whose $69 million Series C round was led by Revolution in September; TemperPack, a maker of thermal liners meant to address the plastic waste that raised $31 million in Series C funding this past summer, including follow-on funding from Revolution; and sweetgreen, the fast-casual restaurant chain that has endured some ups and downs owing to the pandemic but that closed on $150 million in funding a year ago and which first received backing from Revolution back in 2013.

Last month, we talked at some length with Case, including about his involvement in the creation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which helped create today’s internet giants.

We also talked at the time about whether COVID-19 will cause Silicon Valley to finally lose its gravitational pull. Said Case at the time, in comments not published previously:

Obviously the jury is out. I think a lot of people who decided to leave Silicon Valley to shelter someplace else, most of those will end up returning. I don’t think you’ll see a mass exodus from the city, whether that be Silicon Valley or New York or Boston, which some have predicted.

I do think some of the people who decided to leave at least temporarily will decide to stay, and most of them will end up still working for their current company, in part because some of the tech companies like Facebook and Square and many others have have made it easier to work remotely. But some, once they get settled in another place, and their family is settled, will likely will decide to do something different [and] I think it could be a helpful catalyst in terms of these rise-of-the-rest cities that were showing some signs of momentum. This could be an accelerant.

We had also talked with Case about data that suggests that women and other founders who are not in the networking flow of traditional venture firms are getting left behind as deals are being struck over Zoom. He’d also seen the data and was surprised by it. As he told us:

Yeah, that’s a concern. And it’s a concern about place. It’s also a concerned about people. If you just look at the the NVCA data, last year, 75% of venture capital went to just three states and more than 90% of venture capital went to men and less than 10% to women, even though women represent half our population. And last year, even though Black Americans are about 14% of the population, Black founders got less than 1% of venture capital. So if you just look at the data, it does matter where you live, it does matter what you look like, it does matter the kind of school you went to.

I would have thought that because of the pandemic and because suddenly, Zoom meetings for pitches were becoming increasingly commonplace . . .that that would open up the aperture for most venture capitalists. They would be more willing to take meetings with people in other places, and also be willing to get to reach out to some of the diverse communities that they haven’t traditionally have invested in.

Some of that has happened, for sure. We have seen more interest among coastal investors in opportunities in these in these rise-of-the-rest cities. I think the challenge more broadly, when you go beyond place toward people is what you hear from more of these venture capitalists. They say, ‘Yes, we understand that it’s a problem we need to be help solve. It’s also an opportunity we can potentially seize, because some of these entrepreneurs are going to build some really valuable companies. But we don’t really have the networks. We tend to be mostly situated where we live and have worked or went to school and also where we’ve previously made investments. So we just don’t have the networks in the middle of a country. We don’t have networks with Black founders,’ and so forth.

So that’s an area that we’re really focusing on now: how do we extend the networks. I do think most VCs realize they should be part of the solution, and not part of the problem.

Case mentioned during our call — ahead of the U.S. presidential election — his longstanding friendship with now President-elect Joseph Biden. Case isn’t the only one at Revolution with ties to Biden, however. Ron Klain, an executive vice president at Revolution, previously served as Biden’s chief of staff when he was vice president and, as the world learned last week, Klain is again heading into politics after being chosen to serve as the incoming White House chief of staff.

Said Case of Klain last week to the New York Times: “He can process a lot of information, focus on the things that matter and balance a lot of balls.”

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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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AI-tool maker Seldon raises £7.1M Series A from AlbionVC and Cambridge Innovation Capital

Seldon is a U.K. startup that specializes in the rarified world of development tools to optimize machine learning. What does this mean? Well, dear reader, it means that the “AI” that companies are so fond of trumpeting does actually end up working.

It has now raised a £7.1 million Series A round co-led by AlbionVC and Cambridge Innovation Capital . The round also includes significant participation from existing investors Amadeus Capital Partners and Global Brain, with follow-on investment from other existing shareholders. The £7.1 million funding will be used to accelerate R&D and drive commercial expansion, take Seldon Deploy — a new enterprise solution — to market and double the size of the team over the next 18 months.

More accurately, Seldon is a cloud-agnostic machine learning (ML) deployment specialist which works in partnership with industry leaders such as Google, Red Hat, IBM and Amazon Web Services.

Key to its success is that its open-source project Seldon Core has more than 700,000 models deployed to date, drastically reducing friction for users deploying ML models. The startup says its customers are getting productivity gains of as much as 92% as a result of utilizing Seldon’s product portfolio.

Alex Housley, CEO and founder of Seldon speaking to TechCrunch explained that companies are using machine learning across thousands of use cases today, “but the model actually only generates real value when it’s actually running inside a real-world application.”

“So what we’ve seen emerge over these last few years are companies that specialize in specific parts of the machine learning pipeline, such as training version control features. And in our case we’re focusing on deployment. So what this means is that organizations can now build a fully bespoke AI platform that suits their needs, so they can gain a competitive advantage,” he said.

In addition, he said Seldon’s open-source model means that companies are not locked-in: “They want to avoid locking as well they want to use tools from various different vendors. So this kind of intersection between machine learning, DevOps and cloud-native tooling is really accelerating a lot of innovation across enterprise and also within startups and growth-stage companies.”

Nadine Torbey, an investor at AlbionVC, added: “Seldon is at the forefront of the next wave of tech innovation, and the leadership team are true visionaries. Seldon has been able to build an impressive open-source community and add immediate productivity value to some of the world’s leading companies.”

Vin Lingathoti, partner at Cambridge Innovation Capital, said: “Machine learning has rapidly shifted from a nice-to-have to a must-have for enterprises across all industries. Seldon’s open-source platform operationalizes ML model development and accelerates the time-to-market by eliminating the pain points involved in developing, deploying and monitoring machine learning models at scale.”

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Marketing automation platform Klaviyo scores $200M Series C on $4.15B valuation

Boston-based marketing automation firm Klaviyo wants to change the way marketers interact with data, giving them direct access to their data and their customers. It believes that makes it easier to customize the messages and produce better results. Investors apparently agree, awarding the company a $200 million Series C on a hefty $4.15 billion valuation today.

The round was led by Accel with help from Summit Partners. It comes on the heels of last year’s $150 million Series B, and brings the total raised to $385.5 million, according the company. Accel’s Ping Li will also be joining the company board under the terms of today’s announcement.

Marketing automation and communication takes on a special significance as we find ourselves in the midst of this pandemic and companies need to find ways to communicate in meaningful ways with customers who can’t come into brick and mortar establishments. Company CEO and co-founder Andrew Bialecki says that his company’s unique use of data helps in this regard.

“I think our success is because we are a hybrid customer data and marketing platform. We think about what it takes to create these owned experiences. They’re very contextual and you need all of that customer data, not some of it, all of it, and you need that to be tightly coupled with how you’re building customer experiences,” Bialecki explained.

Andrew Bialecki, CEO and co-founder at Klaviyo Image Credits: Klaviyo

He believes that by providing a platform of this scope that combines the data, the ability to customize messages and the use of machine learning to keep improving that, it will help them compete with the largest platforms. In fact his goal is to help companies understand that they don’t have to give up their customer data to Amazon, Google and Facebook.

“The flip side of that is growing through Amazon where you give up all your customer data, or Facebook or Google where you kind of are delegated to wherever their algorithms decide where you get to show up,” he said. With Klaviyo, the company retains its own data, and Ping Li, who is leading the investment at Accel says that it where the e-commerce market is going.

“So the question is, is there a tool that allows you to do that as easily as going on Facebook and Google, and I think that’s the vision and the promise that Klaviyo is delivering on,” Li said.  He believes that this will allow their customers to actually build that kind of fidelity with their customers by going directly to them, instead of through a third-party intermediary.

The company has seen some significant success with 50,000 customers in 125 countries along with that lofty valuation. The customer number has doubled year over year, even during the economic malaise brought on by the pandemic.

Today, the company has 500 employees with plans to double that in the next year. As he grows his company, Bialecki believes diversity is not just the right thing to do, it’s also smart business. “I think the competitive advantages that tech companies are going to have going forward, especially for the tech companies that are not the leaders today, but [could be] leaders in the coming decades, it’s because they have the most diverse teams and inclusive culture and those are both big focuses for us,” he said.

As they move forward flush with this cash, the company wants to continue to build out the platform, giving customers access to a set of tools that allow them to know their own customers on an increasingly granular level, while delivering more meaningful interactions. “It’s all about accelerating product development and getting into new markets,” Bialecki said. They certainly have plenty of runway to do that now.

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Gretel announces $12M Series A to make it easier to anonymize data

As companies work with data, one of the big obstacles they face is making sure they are not exposing personally identifiable information (PII) or other sensitive data. It usually requires a painstaking manual effort to strip out that data. Gretel, an early stage startup, wants to change that by making it faster and easier to anonymize data sets. Today the company announced a $12 million Series A led by Greylock. The company has now raised $15.5 million.

Gretel co-founder and CEO Alex Watson says that his company was founded to make it simpler to anonymize data and unlock data sets that were previously out of reach because of privacy concerns.

“As a developer, you want to test an idea or build a new feature, and it can take weeks to get access to the data you need. Then essentially it boils down to getting approvals to get started, then snapshotting a database, and manually removing what looks like personal data and hoping that you got everything,”

Watson, who previously worked as a GM at AWS, believed that there needed to be a faster and more reliable way to anonymize the data, and that’s why he started Gretel. The first product is an open source, synthetic machine learning library for developers that strips out personally identifiable information.

“Developers use our open source library, which trains machine learning models on their sensitive data, then as that training is happening we are enforcing something called differential privacy, which basically ensures that the model doesn’t memorize details about secrets for individual people inside of the data,” he said. The result is a new artificial data set that is anonymized and safe to share across a business.

The company was founded last year, and they have actually used this year to develop the open source product and build an open source community around it. “So our approach and our go-to-market here is we’ve open sourced our underlying libraries, and we will also build a SaaS service that makes it really easy to generate synthetic data and anonymized data at scale,” he said.

As the founders build the company, they are looking at how to build a diverse and inclusive organization, something that they discuss at their regular founders’ meetings, especially as they look to take these investment dollars and begin to hire additional senior people.

“We make a conscious effort to have diverse candidates apply, and to really make sure we reach out to them and have a conversation, and that’s paid off, or is in the process of paying off I would say, with the candidates in our pipeline right now. So we’re excited. It’s tremendously important that we avoid group think that happens so often,” he said.

The company doesn’t have paying customers, but the plan is to build off the relationships it has with design partners and begin taking in revenue next year. Sridhar Ramaswamy, the partner at Greylock, who is leading the investment, says that his firm is placing a bet on a pre-revenue company because he sees great potential for a service like this.

“We think Gretel will democratize safe and controlled access to data for the whole world the way Github democratized source code access and control,” Ramaswamy said.

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Provizio closes $6.2M seed round for its car safety platform using sensors and AI

Provizio, a combination hardware and software startup with technology to improve car safety, has closed a seed investment round of $6.2million. Investors include Bobby Hambrick (the founder of Autonomous Stuff); the founders of Movidius; the European Innovation Council (EIC); ACT Venture Capital.

The startup has a “five-dimensional” sensory platform that — it says — perceives, predicts and prevents car accidents in real time and beyond the line-of-sight. Its “Accident Prevention Technology Platform” combines proprietary vision sensors, machine learning and radar with ultra-long range and foresight capabilities to prevent collisions at high speed and in all weather conditions, says the company. The Provizio team is made up of experts in robotics, AI and vision and radar sensor development.

Barry Lunn, CEO of Provizio said: “One point three five road deaths to zero drives everything we do at Provizio. We have put together an incredible team that is growing daily. AI is the future of automotive accident prevention and Provizio 5D radars with AI on-the-edge are the first step towards that goal.”

Also involved in Provizio is Dr. Scott Thayer and Prof. Jeff Mishler, formally of Carnegie Mellon robotics, famous for developing early autonomous technologies for Google / Waymo, Argo, Aurora and Uber.

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Chinese autonomous vehicle startup Pony.ai hits $5.3 billion valuation

Pony.ai, the Chinese autonomous vehicle startup and relative newcomer to the industry, is now valued at $5.3 billion following a fresh injection of $267 million in funding.

The round was led by TIP, an innovation fund within the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board that focuses on late-stage venture and growth equity investments in companies that deliver disruptive technology. Existing partners Fidelity China Special Situations PLC, 5Y Capital (formerly Morningside Venture Capital), ClearVue Partners and Eight Roads also participated in the round.

The new funds will primarily be used for research and development, according to the company.

Pony.ai has won over investors, OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers during its four-year existence. The company, which operates in China and California, has raised more than $1 billion since its founding, including $400 million from Toyota. Pony has several partnerships or collaborations with automakers and suppliers, including Bosch, Hyundai and Toyota.

Pony is building what it describes as an agnostic virtual driver for all sizes of vehicles, from small cars to large trucks, and to operate on both ridesharing and logistics (delivery) service networks. The company said back in 2019 that it was working with OEMs and suppliers to apply its automated technology to the long-haul trucking market. But it’s perhaps best known for its effort around robotaxis.

The company has launched ridesharing and commuter pilots in Fremont and Irvine, California and Guangzhou, China. Last year, a fleet of electric, autonomous Hyundai Kona crossovers equipped with a self-driving system from Pony.ai and Via’s ride-hailing platform began shuttling customers on public roads. The robotaxi service, called BotRide, wasn’t a driverless service, as there was a human safety driver behind the wheel at all times. The BotRide pilot concluded in January 2020.

The company then started operating a public robotaxi service called PonyPilot in the Irvine area. Pony shifted that robotaxi service from shuttling people to packages as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the world. In April, Pony.ai announced it had partnered with e-commerce platform Yamibuy to provide autonomous last-mile delivery service to customers in Irvine. The new delivery service was launched to provide additional capacity to address the surge of online orders triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Pony.ai said at the time.

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