Sam Lessin and Andrew Kortina on their voice assistant’s workplace pivot

Source: Tech News – Enterprise

Sam Lessin, a former product management executive at Facebook and old friend to Mark Zuckerberg, incorporated his latest startup under the name “Fin Exploration Company.”

Why? Well, because he wanted to explore. The company — co-founded alongside Andrew Kortina, best known for launching the successful payments app Venmo — was conceived as a consumer voice assistant in 2015 after the two entrepreneurs realized the impact 24/7 access to a virtual assistant would have on their digital to-do lists.

The thing is, developing an AI assistant capable of booking flights, arranging trips, teaching users how to play poker, identifying places to purchase specific items for a birthday party and answering wide-ranging zany questions like “can you look up a place where I can milk a goat?” requires a whole lot more human power than one might think. Capital-intensive and hard-to-scale, an app for “instantly offloading” chores wasn’t the best business. Neither Lessin nor Kortina will admit to failure, but Fin‘s excursion into B2B enterprise software eight months ago suggests the assistant technology wasn’t a billion-dollar idea.

Staying true to its name, the Fin Exploration Company is exploring again.

VCs bet on Aegis AI, a startup using computer vision to detect guns

Source: Microsoft more

A new startup using computer vision software to turn security cameras into gun-detecting smart cameras has raised $2.2 million in venture capital funding in a round led by Bling Capital, with participation from Upside Partnership and Tensility Venture Partners.

Aegis AI sells to U.S. corporations and school district its technology, which scans thousands of video feeds for brandished weapons and provides threat-detection alerts to customers within one second, for $30 per camera, per month. Coupling AI and cloud computing, Aegis integrates with existing camera hardware and video management software, requiring no on-site installation or maintenance.

“We can take over the role of a security guard with much higher accuracy at a much lower cost,” Aegis co-founder and chief product officer Ben Ziomek tells TechCrunch.

The financing round comes as a fresh cohort of businesses look to new technologies to protect against gun violence. AI-based gun detection is an unproven method, but investors and entrepreneurs alike are hopeful it represents a new era in threat-detection and safety. Seattle-based Virtual eForce, Israel’s AnyVision and Canadian tech startup SN Technologies are among the startups focused on improving security systems across the globe.

For Aegis co-founder and chief executive officer Sonny Tai, protecting against gun violence is personal. The first-time founder, who previously spent nearly a decade in the Marine Corps, grew up in South Africa where gun violence was all too common.

“We had a close family friend who was fatally shot in his own home 20 years ago,” Tai tells TechCrunch. “This prompted my mother to decide that we should immigrate to the U.S. On my end, it inspired a lifelong passion in me. I had to do something about the U.S. gun epidemic.”

IMG 9352 01 01

Aegis AI co-founders Sonny Tai (left) and Ben Ziomek

Lacking engineering expertise, Tai looked to Ziomek for technical support. Ziomek previously spent several years at Microsoft, most recently leading engineering and data science teams within the company’s AI program. Together they built Aegis, which is currently in the process of uprooting from Chicago to establish headquarters in New York City.

The pair spent 18 months building the technology they say can reliably recognize weapons in security camera footage. They had to take an “aggressive” data augmentation approach to develop the AI, Ziomek explains, as opposed to just scraping the web for images of weapons to feed to the platform.

“If you look at most of the state of the art computer vision models, they are really built specifically for the task of differentiating hundreds of different objects and the objects are very large,” Ziomek said. “We are looking for hard-to-see objects; we honed our system to look for small, dark objects in highly-complex scenes.”

“Traditionally — even if you’re working at Google or Microsoft — you scrape the internet for cats or hot dogs and you use a model based on that,” he added. “What happens when you do that same approach for weapons? You get product images, Instagram shots from people at the shooting range; all of these have no resemblance to real security camera footage.”

To teach its software to identify weapons, Aegis began by scrubbing the web for photos of weapons, then they reached out to key influencers in the personal safety space, who proved to be essential resources throughout the process. To complete the data collection process, they got their hands on real security footage and even took their own posed photos holding weapons to fill in any of the AI’s blind spots.

With a fresh bout of funding, Aegis will develop its technology to detect other threats, including bombs and vehicles.


VCs bet on Aegis AI, a startup using computer vision to detect guns

Here’s Mary Meeker’s 2019 internet trends report

Source: Tech News – Enterprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Here’s Mary Meeker’s 2019 internet trends report

‘Socially Inept,’ a comedy startup founded by Microsoft employees, roasts tech bros

Source: Microsoft more

Everyone gets a kick out of mocking the quintessential San Francisco techie, Patagonia vest and all. ‘Socially Inept,’ a new traveling comedy cohort, is making a business out of it.

The group has been roasting the tech scene in hubs across the U.S., including Seattle, where the company is based, as well as Los Angeles, Austin and San Francisco, since last summer.

It’s made out of current and former techies themselves. Co-founders Jesse Warren and Austin Nasso have a history at Microsoft . Warren recently left his full-time gig at the tech giant, while Nasso has yet to let go of the 9 to 5. Lee Yang, a producer, is concurrently building another startup called Epitome.io.

The hope is that the traveling comedy show will gain followers across the U.S. and perform shows in dozens of cities. That way, the entire team can commit to the effort full-time.

At their shows, Socially Inept taps local comedic talent to roast willing local tech workers.

“On the one hand they are wealthy and intelligent which puts them in a sort of ‘elevated status.’ It’s hard to really punch down on a recent college grad who makes $130,000 per year,” Warren recently told GeekWire. “However, despite their high status they typically have many funny characteristics and interests such as their social awkwardness, obsession with self-help, inability to properly dress themselves, and fascination with the television series ‘My Little Pony.’”

The show is making its way back to San Francisco this Thursday for a night of tech-themed insults at Cobb’s Comedy Club. Warren and Nasso, along with local comedians Tony Zavala and Julie Ash will be doing the honors of roasting.


‘Socially Inept,’ a comedy startup founded by Microsoft employees, roasts tech bros

VCs bet $12M on Troops, a Slackbot for sales teams

Source: Tech News – Enterprise

Slack wants to be the new operating system for teams, something it has made clear on more than one occasion, including in its recent S-1 filing. To accomplish that goal, it put together an in-house $80 million venture fund in 2015 to invest in third-party developers building on top of its platform.

Weeks ahead of its direct listing on The New York Stock Exchange, it continues to put that money to work.

Troops is the latest to land additional capital from the enterprise giant. The New York-based startup helps sales teams communicate with a customer relationship management tool plugged directly into Slack. In short, it automates routine sales management activities and creates visibility into important deals through integrations with employee emails and Salesforce.

Troops founder and chief executive officer Dan Reich, who previously co-founded TULA Skincare, told TechCrunch he opted to build a Slackbot rather than create an independent platform because Slack is a rocket ship and he wanted a seat on board: “When you think about where Slack will go in the future, it’s obvious to us that companies all over the world will be using it,” he said.

Troops has raised $12 million in Series B funding in a round led by Aspect Ventures, with participation from the Slack Fund, First Round Capital, Felicis Ventures, Susa Ventures, Chicago Ventures, Hone Capital, InVision founder Clark Valberg and others. The round brings Troops’ total raised to $22 million.

Launched in 2015 by New York tech veterans Reich, Scott Britton and Greg Ratner, the trio weren’t initially sure of Slack’s growth trajectory. It wasn’t until Slack confirmed its intent to support the developer ecosystem with a suite of developer tools and a fund that the team focused its efforts on building a Slackbot.

“People sometimes thought of us, at least in the early days, as a little bit crazy,” Reich said. “But now Slack is the fastest-growing SaaS company ever.”

“We think the biggest opportunity in the [enterprise SaaS] category is going to be tools oriented around the customer-facing employee (CRM), and that’s where we are innovating,” he added.

Troops’ tools are helpful for any customer-facing team, Reich explains. Envoy, WeWork, HubSpot and a few hundred others are monthly paying subscribers of the tool, using it to interact with their CRM in a messaging interface and to receive notifications when a deal has closed. Troops integrates with Salesforce, so employees can use it to search records, schedule automatic reports and celebrate company wins.

Slack, in partnership with a number of venture capital funds, including Accel, Kleiner Perkins and Index, has also deployed capital to a number of other startups, like Lattice, Drafted and Loom.

With Slack’s direct listing afoot, the Troops team is counting on the imminent and long-term growth of the company’s platform.

“We think it’s still early days,” Reich said. “In the future, we see every company using something like Troops to manage their day-to-day.”


VCs bet M on Troops, a Slackbot for sales teams

The Slack origin story

Source: Tech News – Enterprise

Let’s rewind a decade.

It’s 2009. Vancouver, Canada.

Stewart Butterfield, known already for his part in building Flickr, a photo-sharing service acquired by Yahoo in 2005, decided to try his hand — again — at building a game. Flickr had been a failed attempt at a game called Game Neverending followed by a big pivot. This time, Butterfield would make it work.

To make his dreams a reality, he joined forces with Flickr’s original chief software architect Cal Henderson, as well as former Flickr employees Eric Costello and Serguei Mourachov, who like himself, had served some time at Yahoo after the acquisition. Together, they would build Tiny Speck, the company behind an artful, non-combat massively multiplayer online game.

Years later, Butterfield would pull off a pivot more massive than his last. Slack, born from the ashes of his fantastical game, would lead a shift toward online productivity tools that fundamentally change the way people work.

Glitch is born

In mid-2009, former TechCrunch reporter-turned-venture-capitalist M.G. Siegler wrote one of the first stories on Butterfield’s mysterious startup plans.

“So what is Tiny Speck all about?” Siegler wrote. “That is still not entirely clear. The word on the street has been that it’s some kind of new social gaming endeavor, but all they’ll say on the site is ‘we are working on something huge and fun and we need help.’”

Siegler would go on to invest in Slack as a general partner at GV, the venture capital arm of Alphabet .

“Clearly this is a creative project,” Siegler added. “It almost sounds like they’re making an animated movie. As awesome as that would be, with people like Henderson on board, you can bet there’s impressive engineering going on to turn this all into a game of some sort (if that is in fact what this is all about).”

After months of speculation, Tiny Speck unveiled its project: Glitch, an online game set inside the brains of 11 giants. It would be free with in-game purchases available and eventually, a paid subscription for power users.

Madrona Venture Labs raises $11M to build companies from the ground up

Source: Microsoft more

In regions where would-be entrepreneurs need a little more support and encouragement before they’ll quit their day job, the startup studio model is taking off.

In Seattle, one of its oldest and most-celebrated venture capital firms, Madrona Venture Group, has raised $11.3 million for its studio, Madrona Venture Labs (MVL). The investment brings the studio’s total funding to $20 million.

Traditional venture capital funds invite founders to pitch their business idea to a line-up of partners. Sometimes that’s a founder with an idea looking for seed capital, other times it’s a more mature company looking to scale. When it comes to startup studios, the partners themselves craft startup ideas internally, recruiting entrepreneurs to lead the projects, then building them from the ground up within their own safe, protective walls. After a project passes the studio’s litmus test, i.e. shows proof of traction, product-market fit and more, it’s spun out with funding from Madrona and other VCs within its large and growing investor network.

For aspiring entrepreneurs deterred by the risk factors inherent to building venture-backed startups, it’s a highly desirable route. In the Pacific Northwest, where MVL focuses its efforts, it’s a chance to lure Microsoft and Amazon employees into the world of entrepreneurship.

“We want to be an onboard for founders in our market,” MVL managing director Mike Fridgen, who previously founded the eBay-acquired business Decide.com, tells TechCrunch. “In Seattle, everyone isn’t a co-founder or an angel investor. Not everyone has been at a startup. A lot of people coming here are coming to work at Amazon, Microsoft or one of the larger satellite offices like Facebook. We want to help them fast-track learning, fundraising and everything else that comes with launching a successful company.”

Fridgen, MVL managing director Ben Elowitz, who co-founded the online jewelry marketplace Blue Nile and chief technology officer Jay Bartot, the co-founder of Hulu-acquired Vhoto, lead Madrona’s studio effort.

The investment in MVL comes in part from its parent company, Madrona, and for the first time, outside investors have acquired stakes in the practice. Alpha Edison, West River Group, Founder’s Co-op partner Rudy Gadre, Zillow co-founder Spencer Rascoff, former GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving, Trinity Ventures venture partner Gus Tai, TCV venture partner Erik Blachford and others participated.

With $1.6 billion in assets under management, Madrona is known for investments in Seattle bigwigs like Smartsheet, Rover and Redfin. The firm, which recently closed on another $100 million for an acceleration fund that will expand its geographic reach beyond the Pacific Northwest, launched its startup studio in 2014. Since then, it’s spun-out seven companies with an aggregate valuation of $140 million.

“There are some 85 VCs that have $300 million-plus funds,” Fridgen said. “In Seattle, we have two of the most valuable companies in the world and we have just one [big fund], Madrona; it’s the center of gravity for Seattle technology innovation.”

Companies created within MVL include Spruce Up, an AI-powered personal shopping platform, and Domicile, a luxury apartment rental service geared toward business travelers. Domicile was co-founded by Ross Saario, who spent the three years ahead of launching the startup as a general manager at Amazon. The company recently raised a $5 million round, while Spruce Up, co-founded by serial founder Mia Lewin, closed a $3 million round in May.

Other spin-outs include MightyAI, which was valued at $71 million in 2017; Nordstrom-acquired MessageYes, Chatitive and Rep the Squad. The latter, a jersey rental business, was a failure, shutting down in 2018 after failing to land necessary investment, according to GeekWire.

MVL’s latest fundraise will be used to invest in operations. Though MVL does provide its spin-outs with some capital, between $100,000 to $200,000 Fridgen said, it takes a back seat when it comes time to raise outside capital and doesn’t serve as the lead investor in deals.


Madrona Venture Labs raises M to build companies from the ground up