Dashdash, a platform to create web apps using only spreadsheet skills, nabs $8M led by Accel

Sometimes I think of spreadsheets as the dirty secret of the IT world today. We’ve seen a huge explosion in the number of productivity tools on the market tailored to help workers with different aspects of doing their job and organising their information, in part to keep them from simply dumping lots of information into Excel or whatever program they happen to use. And yet, spreadsheets are still one of the very, very most common pieces of software in use today: Excel alone now has around 1 billion users, and for those who are devotees, spreadsheets are not going to go away soon.

So it’s interesting that there are now startups — and larger companies like Microsoft — emerging that are tapping into that, creating new services that still appear like spreadsheets in the front end, while doing something completely in the back.

One of the latest is a startup called dashdash, a startup out of Berlin and Porto that is building a platform for people, who might to be programmers but know their way around a spreadsheet, to use those skills to build, modify and update web apps. The dashdash platform looks and acts like a spreadsheet up front, but in the back, each ‘macro’ links to a web app computing feature, or a design element, to build something that ultimately will look nothing like a spreadsheet, bypassing all the lines of code that traditionally go into building web apps.

The startup is still in stealth mode, with plans to launch formally later this year. Today, it’s announcing that it has received $8 million in seed funding to get there, with the round being led by Accel, with participation from Cherry Ventures, Atlantic Labs, and angel investors including Felix Jahn, founder of Home24.

Co-founded by serial entrepreneurs Humberto Ayres Pereira and Torben Schulz — who had also been co-founders of food delivery startup EatFirst — Ayres Pereira said that the idea came out of their own observations in work life and the bottleneck of getting things fixed or modified in a company’s apps (both internal and customer-facing).

“People have a lot of frustration with the IT department, and their generally access to it,” he said in an interview. “If you are part of an internet business, it’s very hard to get features prioritised in an app, no matter how small they are. Tech is like a big train on iron tracks, and it can be hard to steer it in a different direction.”

On the other hand, even among the less technical staff, there will be proficiency with certain software, including spreadsheets. “Programming and spreadsheets already store and transform data,” Ayers Pereira said. “There are already a lot of people trying to do more with incumbent spreadsheets, and [combining that with] non-IT people frustrated at having no solution for working on apps, we saw an opportunity to use this to build an elegant platform the empower people. We can’t teach people to program but we can provide them with the tools to do the exact same job.”

While in stealth mode, he said that early users have ranged from smaller businesses such as pharmacies, to “a multi-billion-dollar internet company.” (No names, of course, but it’s interesting to me that this problem even exists at large tech businesses.)

Dashdash is not the only company that is tapping this opportunity. The other week, and IoT startup called Hanhaa launched a service that would let those using Hanhaa IoT sensors in their networks to monitor and interact with them by way of an Excel spreadsheet — another tip of the hat to the realisation that those who might need to keep tabs on devices in the network might not be the people who are the engineers and technicians who have set them up.

That, in turn, is part of a bigger effort from Microsoft to catapult Excel from its reputation as a piece of clunky legacy software into something much more dynamic, playing on the company’s push into cloud services and Office 365.

In September of 2017, Microsoft gave a developer preview of new “streaming functions” for Excel on Office 365, which lets developers, IT professionals and end users the ability to bring streams of data from a variety of sources such as websites, stock tickers and hardware directly into a cell or cells in an Excel spreadsheet, by way of a custom function. “Because Excel is so widely used and familiar to so many people, the ability to do all kinds of amazing things with that data and without complex integration is now possible,” said Ben Summers, a senior product manager for the Office 365 ecosystem team, in a statement to TechCrunch.

That ability to remove the bottleneck from web app building, combined with the track record of the founders, are two of the reasons that Accel decided to invest before the product even launched.

“We believe in dashdash’s mission to democratise app creation and are excited to back Humberto and Torben at such an early stage in their journey,” said Andrei Brasoveanu, the Accel partner who led the deal. “The team has the experience and vision to build a high-impact company that brings computing to the fingertips of a broad audience. Over the past decade we’ve seen a proliferation of web services and APIs, but regular business users still need to rely on central IT and colleagues with development skills to leverage these in their day-to-day processes. With dashdash anyone will be able to access these powerful web services directly with minimal effort, empowering them to automate their day to day tasks and work more effectively.”

With every tool that emerges that frees up accessibility to more people — be they employees or consumers — there are inevitably questions about how that power will be used. In the case of dashdash, my first thought is about those who I know who work in IT: they generally don’t want anyone able to modify or “fix” their code, lest it just creates more problems. And that’s before you start wondering about how all these democratised web apps will look, and if they might inadvertently will add to more overall UI and UX confusion.

Ayres Pereira said dash dash is mindful of the design question, and will introduce ways of helping to direct this, for example for companies to implement their own house styles. And similarly, a business can put in place other controls to help channel how webapps created through dashdash’s spreadsheet interface ultimately get applied.

 

Favstar says it will shut down June 19 as a result of Twitter’s API changes for data streams

As Twitter develops an ever-closer hold on how it manages services around its real-time news and social networking service, a pioneer in Twitter analytics is calling it quits. Favstar, an early leader in developing a way to track and review how your and other people’s Tweets were getting liked and retweeted by others on the network, has announced that it will be shutting down on June 19 — a direct result, its creator Tim Haines notes, of changes that Twitter will be making to its own APIs, specifically around its Account Activity API, which is coming online at the same time that another API, User Streams, is being depreciated.

Favstar and others rely on User Streams to power its services. “Twitter… [has] not been forthcoming with the details or pricing,” Favstar’s creator Tim Haines said of the newer API. “Favstar can’t continue to operate in this environment of uncertainty.”

Favstar’s announcement was made over the weekend, but the issue for it and other developers has actually been brewing for a year.

Twitter announced back in December that, as part of the launch of the Account Activity API (originally announced April 2017), it would be shutting down User Streams on June 19.

User Streams are what Favstar, and a number of other apps such as TalonTweetbotTweetings, and Twitterrific (as pointed out in this blog post signed by all four on “Apps of a Feather”), are built on. Introduced as the Twitter Streaming API for developers, the aim was to provide a way for developers to get continuous updates from a number of Twitter accounts — needed for services that either provided alternative Twitter interfaces or a way of parsing the many Tweets on the platform — in a way that did not slow the whole service down.

The newer Account Activity API provides a number of features to developers to help facilitate tracking Twitter and using services like direct messaging for business purposes:

As you can see, some of the features that the newer API covers are directly linked to functionality you get via Favstar. The crux of the problem, writes Haines, is that Twitter hadn’t given Favstar and other developers that had been working with User Streams (and other depreciating functionality) answers about pricing and other details so that they could see if a retooling of their services would be possible. (Twitter has provided a guide, it seems, but it doesn’t appear to address these points.)

The post on Apps of a Feather further spells out the technical issues:

“The new Account Activity API is currently in beta testing, but third-party developers have not been given access and time is running out,” the developers write. “With access we might be able to implement some push notifications, but they would be limited at the standard level to 35 Twitter accounts – our products must deliver notifications to hundreds of thousands of customers. No pricing has been given for Enterprise level service with unlimited accounts – we have no idea if this will be an affordable option for us and our users.”

One of the consequences is that “automatic refresh of your timeline just won’t work,” they continue. “There is no web server on your mobile device or desktop computer that Twitter can contact with updates. Since updating your timeline with other methods is rate-limited by Twitter, you will see delays in real-time updates during sporting events and breaking news.”

Favstar has been around since 2009 — its name a tip of the hat to the original “like” on Twitter, which was a star, not a heart. Haines writes that at its peak, it had some 50 million users and was a “huge hit” with those who realised how the network could be leveraged to build up audiences outside of Twitter — including comedians and celebrities, tech people, journalists, and so on. It’s also tinkered with its service over time, and added in a Pro tier, to make it more user-friendly.

Somewhat unusual for a popular app, Favstar appears to have always been bootstrapped.

But there have been two trends at play for years now, one specific to Twitter and another a more general shift in the wider industry of apps:

The first, regarding Twitter, is that the company has been sharpening its business focus for years to find viable, diverse and recurring sources of revenue, while at the same time putting a tighter grip around how its platform is appropriated by others. This has led the company to significantly shift its relationship with developers and third parties. In some cases, it has ceased to support and work with third-party apps that it feels effectively overlap with features and functions that Twitter offers directly.

In the case of Favstar, the service rose in prominence at a time when Twitter appeared to completely ignore the star feature. MG once described the Favorite as “the unwanted step child feature of Twitter. Though it has been around since the early days of the service, they have never really done anything to promote its use.”

Fast forward to today, and Twitter has not only revamped the feature replacing the star with a heart (I still prefer the star, for what it’s worth), but Twitter uses those endorsements to help tune its algorithm, and populate your notifications tab, and to provide analytics to users on how their Tweets are doing. In other words, it’s doing quite a bit of what Favstar does.

And if you think of how Twitter has developed its own business model in recent years, with a push for video and working with news organisations and other media brands, the same early users of Favstar as detailed by Haines (celebs, news and other media organizations, etc.) are exactly the targets that Twitter has been trying to connect with, too.

The other, more general, trend that this latest turn has teased out is the one that we’ve heard come up many times before. Building services dependent on another platform can be a precarious state of affairs for a developer. You never know when the platform owner might simply decide to pull the plug on you. Your success could lead to many users, business growth, and even an acquisition by the platform itself — but it could nearly as quickly lead to your downfall if the platform views you as a threat, and decides to cut you off instead.

We’ve reached out both to Haines and to Twitter for further comment and will update this post as and when we learn more.

iZettle, the ‘Square of Europe’, plans IPO to raise around $227M, valuing it at $1.1B

The strong climate for tech IPOs at the moment is leading yet more mature startups to set up their own plans to list, and the latest development on that front is coming out Sweden. iZettle, the payments and small business financial services startup that is often referred to as the “Square of Europe,” with some 413,000 business customers, today confirmed plans to list on Nasdaq in Stockholm. The company plans to raise 2 billion Swedish kronor ($227 million at current rates), giving it an estimated valuation of about SEK10 billion ($1.1 billion).

Jacob deGeer, iZettle’s co-founder and CEO, said in an interview that the plan is to use the proceeds to “execute on our ambitious growth strategy” both by continuing to serve small and medium businesses but also by turning its focus also to larger merchants and other companies in Europe and Latin America, the two markets where iZettle is currently active.

The company is currently operating at a loss, but it’s growing quickly with that loss narrowing. In its prospectus, iZettle said it would consolidated net revenue (gross revenue less interchange and card scheme fees) growth of at least 40 percent annually, with profit — specifically, positive consolidated Ebitda — “by the year ended December 31, 2020.”

“Our growth is driven by two factors,” DeGeer said in an email interview, “an increase in the number of active users and improved user engagement. Our strategy going forward is to grow our merchant base in existing markets as well as shift the mix towards slightly larger merchants, though our focus will continue to remain on small businesses.” 

iZettle notes that the listing would happen sometime in 2018 but has not yet specified an exact date.

Along with the IPO announcement, iZettle has published its most up-to-date financials, which confirm that the company is still operating at a loss, but with that margin shrinking as its revenues continue to grow. In the first three months of 2018, the company reported negative earnings before tax, depreciation and amortization of SEK73 million ($8.3 million), slightly narrower than its negative Ebitda of SEK78 million ($8.8 million). More details on its financials below.

iZettle’s announcement puts to rest IPO speculation that has been swirling around for a while now, which reached a crescendo pitch last week. It also comes less than five months after the company raised its last funding — $47 million at a $950 million valuation.

A number of strong tech IPOs so far this year point to a sympathetic climate for more to list, rather than stay private and raise more growth funds that way. “We were founded eight years ago and have grown from a start-up to a mature fintech company,” DeGeer said. “Our shareholders and board believe that it is now an appropriate time to broaden the shareholder base and list the company. We believe that the listing will support our continued growth, our strategy and provide us with improved access to capital markets.” 

Similar to Square, iZettle started out life as a service for small businesses and sole traders to take card payments by turning their mobile devices into card readers, taking a cut on each transaction, before later expanding from that into a wider range of services to help those people run other aspects of their businesses, from inventory management and ordering through to accounting and taking out business loans, and most recently to helping businesses build out e-commerce operations online, beyond the physical point of sale.

Some $36 million of the funding that it has raised — around $235 million in total to-date — has also been used to look into newer areas of tech, specifically artificial intelligence, and how that can be applied both to helping iZettle run its business and develop new products for its customers.

So far, the company has been growing strong, but despite the push into multiple alternative revenue streams, the bulk of its revenues remain in payments. In the first three months of this year, iZettle reported gross revenues of SEK258 million ($29 million), versus SEK187 million for the same period a year ago. Of the SEK258 million, SEK209 million came from transactions, SEK31 million came from hardware and only SEK18 million came from software and services. “In the long term, the Company targets a consolidated Ebitda net margin (defined as Ebitda as a percentage of Net revenue) of 30-35 percent,” the company notes.

Microsoft Pay comes to Outlook, integrating Stripe, Braintree, Sage, Wave and more

Microsoft Pay — Microsoft’s answer to Android Pay and Apple Pay that was originally launched in 2016 as Microsoft Wallet — is getting a little more useful today. At Build, Microsoft announced that it will be integrating its digital wallet service into Outlook. This means that, for the first time, when a company sends you an invoice in an email, and you are using Outlook to read it, you can pay that bill directly, without needing to leave Outlook and open a different app or service. Instead, a panel that will open to the right of the main one by way of Microsoft’s Adaptive Cards.

As it launches — Microsoft says it will come first to a limited number of Outlook.com users over the next few weeks, and then more broadly over the next few months — it said that Stripe (using Stripe Connect) and Braintree will be among the payment processors powering the service, and Zuora, FreshBooks, Intuit, Invoice2Go, Sage, Wave, and Xero will be among the billing and invoicing services that will initially be using the feature. In other words, businesses using a combination of these will be able to offer Oulook-using customers the ability to use the feature.

The integration of Microsoft Pay into Outlook is part of a bigger shift that Microsoft is making to try to reduce some of the friction in its services by way of Adaptive Cards and other integration-friendly developer mechanics. The company effectively has capabilities covering many different aspects of computing and what the average user might want to do on a screen or in an app, and so it is building (and promoting to developers) more connective bridges to use Microsoft services rather than someone else’s.

Payments in Outlook is a prime example of that: Microsoft is not a bill payment service and is not a bill payment agent — so its partners are the ones making transaction commissions when the invoice is paid there — but offering this convenience to users makes Outlook itself more sticky and more useful overall to people. Down the line, it will help lock users into the Microsoft ecosystem more tightly — just as Android Pay or Apple Pay do the same for those respective platforms. But in that regard, this is also table stakes: conveniences like these have quickly moved from “nice to have” to “why didn’t Outlook have this before?”

For businesses, the sweetener is that they might just get paid that much faster, simply more making the process of paying something easier.

Stripe’s goal is to increase the GDP of the internet, which we do by providing the tools and infrastructure that make it easier to transact online from anywhere in the world,” said Richard Alfonsi, head of global revenue and growth, Stripe, in a statement. “We’re excited to work closely with Microsoft to power payments in Outlook, allowing anyone receiving an email invoice or bill in Outlook to immediately take action and pay that invoice with a few simple clicks. By removing the friction and time needed to complete a payment, Stripe and Microsoft can help businesses around the world reduce missed or late payments, ultimately increasing their revenue.”

Alongside the Outlook news, Stripe announced that it is also now supporting Microsoft Pay so that businesses that use Stripe in other apps can now offer this as an option to users who are using Microsoft Pay, to avoid inputting card details multiple times. (Stripe already offered support for Apple Pay, Android Pay and Alipay, among others.)

“Our partnership with Stripe opens up new opportunities for developers to monetize on Microsoft platforms” said Peggy Johnson, executive vice president of business development, Microsoft, in a statement. “Starting with payments in Outlook, anyone using Stripe on our platforms can now accept payments with minimal effort, creating a more powerful experience for both our partners and our customers.”

Nokia acquires SpaceTime Insight, adding AI to its Internet of Things business

Nokia last week said that it was selling off its digital health business, after failing to develop it into a substantial business itself, but this week the Finnish company is announcing an acquisition that underscores how it is doubling down in another one of its business areas, the Internet of Things. Nokia has acquired SpaceTime Insight, a California-based IoT startup that provides predictive analytics based on machine learning algorithms.

Terms of the deal are not being disclosed, Bhaskar Gorti, president of Nokia Software, said in an interview. The startup had raised between $50 million and $65 million in funding (based on figures from Crunchbase and PitchBook), and PitchBook last estimated its valuation at just over $103 million in 2016. Backers of the startup included the energy giant E.ON, Novus Energy Partners, Zouk Capital and more.

As a measure of the significance of the deal for Nokia, Rob Schilling, who had been CEO of SpaceTime, will become the head of Nokia’s IoT unit.

IoT today is a fairly small part of Nokia’s business: the company reported over €23 billion in annual revenues last year. Of that, the software division reported only €1.6 billion of business, and IoT will sit somewhere within that.

But we’re at a moment right now where a lot of carriers and large industrial businesses are investing in IoT services — the former as a business opportunity to offset declines in more legacy business lines and slower growth in mobile services; and the latter to improve their efficiencies on both legacy and new equipment.

And just as these companies are trying to catch the next big wave, Nokia itself is facing the same declining, levelling and efficiency trends. So it, too, is also looking for ways of diversifying its own communications equipment business. In that context, Gorti said that Nokia is keen to seize the moment and invest in growing its own IoT business.

“All devices [eventually] have to connect,” he said. “IoT is strategic for us, and we are moving in this direction.” He said that Nokia itself is building an IoT network that it plans to offer to service providers. “It’s a multi-prong strategy to address the market segment.”

SpaceTime is an interesting acquisition not only because will help Nokia tap into utilising more artificial intelligence — which by many accounts has become and will be the essential cornerstone of how IT services operate — but because it’s also bringing something else to the business: customers.

SpaceTime is coming to Nokia with an established set of customers, including Entergy, FedEx, NextEra Energy and Singapore Power, and Gorti said that these will continue to be customers and become an opportunity for further business.

“Over the last few years have been selling networking products in hardware and software to industries like utilities and transportation, and this will help us move up the value chain, addressing other business problems our customers have,” he said.

And for SpaceTime, it gives the startup to sell its solutions into much bigger customers that already work with Nokia. (Nokia may no longer be the world’s biggest handset maker, but it still has an extensive relationship with carriers. Among those, some of them, like Verizon — which, disclaimer, also owns us — is also putting a lot of investment into its IoT business, making it a natural target for solutions like these.)

“Today marks a transformational moment for SpaceTime, and I’m delighted to join forces with one of the world’s top organizations,” said Rob Schilling, CEO of SpaceTime Insight. “I am excited for this incredible opportunity to help accelerate and scale Nokia’s IoT business and provide a new class of next-generation IoT solutions customers cannot find anywhere else.”

More generally, Gorti said that there is an interesting period of consolidation underway in the IoT world. As in other areas of tech, a big infusion of cash from the world of VC has led to a large crop of IoT startups sprouting up. But inevitably, we’re now seeing a shift where smaller but promising businesses are looking to come together around bigger platforms.

“I think the landscape is maturing,” he said. “Two to three years ago, there was a lot of hype and noise, with the main focus on connectivity management. Now people are focusing on vertical industries and use cases, whether that is analytics or surveillance or something else. If you look at the value pyramid, 80% is in applications and analytics, and the rest is connectivity. That also means the platform-based approach is starting to build up more.”

Salesforce Ventures earmarks $100M to invest in Canadian enterprise cloud startups

After committing $2 billion towards expanding operations north of the border in Canada in February, Salesforce is now doubling down on startups in the country. Salesforce Ventures, the company’s investment arm, today announced the Trailblazer Fund, earmarking $100 million to invest in startups out of Canada, with a special focus on those working in enterprise cloud computing.

It’s also announcing the first four startups to get backed out of the fund. They include Tier1CRM, which develops cloud-based CRM solutions for financial services companies; Traction Guest, which builds visitor management systems (VMS systems power the digital sign-in services you go through when you visit many offices);
Tulip, a retail app developer focused on omnichannel commerce; and OSF Commerce, a customer experience specialist.

“Salesforce Ventures is an incredibly strong partner to Canadian startups,” said Ali Asaria, CEO and founder of Tulip, in a statement. “Their investment and the unique access we get to the Salesforce ecosystem has enabled us to expand our business faster and maintain that rapid pace of growth.”

The news follows several other funds out of Salesforce Ventures also focusing on specific areas or regions. In 2015 it set aside $100 million specifically for European cloud startups; and in 2017 it earmarked $50 million for cloud consulting startups and $50 million for those focused on AI solutions for the Salesforce platform (not unlike its own version of an Alexa or Slack Fund). Salesforce Ventures itself started as a fund, the Salesforce1 fund back in 2014.

Salesforce has invested in a number of startups out of the country before now, including those that do not look like they only indirectly offer a strategic fit into Salesforce itself. They have included the smart wristband company Bionym, video analytics startup Vidyard, and LeadSift.

“There is incredible innovation happening in Canada today and we want to encourage and empower the next generation of enterprise cloud startups in the region,” said John Somorjai, EVP of corporate development and Salesforce Ventures at Salesforce, in a statement. “Salesforce Ventures’ Canada Trailblazer Fund is a commitment to our mission to help startups grow and enable our customers to reach new levels of success.”

Canada plays a key role for Salesforce in its business. Today the company says that it’s the number-one CRM provider in the country, with 6,000 companies including Air Canada, Husky Energy, Loblaws, Manulife, Roots, TD Bank and TELUS among its customers.

The $2 billion investment announced earlier this year, which will be made over the next five years, was aimed at growing headcount, real estate footprint and data center capacity. This startup fund will not only be a boost to small tech businesses in the region; but it could prove to be an interesting dealflow funnel for Salesforce itself to tap into and acquire local talent for that bigger operation.

It’s also tapping into a large economy that is adjacent and tightly connected to that of Salesforce’s home market. It notes that IDC estimates Canada’s public cloud software market will be worth C$4.1 billion ($3.1 billion) by 2019.

“Canada is recognized as an excellent place to start and build globally competitive technology companies,” said the Honourable Navdeep Bains, Canadian Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, in a statement. “Corporate initiatives such as Salesforce Ventures’ new Canada Trailblazer Fund provide valuable support to technology entrepreneurs throughout their start-and-scale journey.”

Salesforce Ventures earmarks $100M to invest in Canadian enterprise cloud startups

After committing $2 billion towards expanding operations north of the border in Canada in February, Salesforce is now doubling down on startups in the country. Salesforce Ventures, the company’s investment arm, today announced the Trailblazer Fund, earmarking $100 million to invest in startups out of Canada, with a special focus on those working in enterprise cloud computing.

It’s also announcing the first four startups to get backed out of the fund. They include Tier1CRM, which develops cloud-based CRM solutions for financial services companies; Traction Guest, which builds visitor management systems (VMS systems power the digital sign-in services you go through when you visit many offices);
Tulip, a retail app developer focused on omnichannel commerce; and OSF Commerce, a customer experience specialist.

“Salesforce Ventures is an incredibly strong partner to Canadian startups,” said Ali Asaria, CEO and founder of Tulip, in a statement. “Their investment and the unique access we get to the Salesforce ecosystem has enabled us to expand our business faster and maintain that rapid pace of growth.”

The news follows several other funds out of Salesforce Ventures also focusing on specific areas or regions. In 2015 it set aside $100 million specifically for European cloud startups; and in 2017 it earmarked $50 million for cloud consulting startups and $50 million for those focused on AI solutions for the Salesforce platform (not unlike its own version of an Alexa or Slack Fund). Salesforce Ventures itself started as a fund, the Salesforce1 fund back in 2014.

Salesforce has invested in a number of startups out of the country before now, including those that do not look like they only indirectly offer a strategic fit into Salesforce itself. They have included the smart wristband company Bionym, video analytics startup Vidyard, and LeadSift.

“There is incredible innovation happening in Canada today and we want to encourage and empower the next generation of enterprise cloud startups in the region,” said John Somorjai, EVP of corporate development and Salesforce Ventures at Salesforce, in a statement. “Salesforce Ventures’ Canada Trailblazer Fund is a commitment to our mission to help startups grow and enable our customers to reach new levels of success.”

Canada plays a key role for Salesforce in its business. Today the company says that it’s the number-one CRM provider in the country, with 6,000 companies including Air Canada, Husky Energy, Loblaws, Manulife, Roots, TD Bank and TELUS among its customers.

The $2 billion investment announced earlier this year, which will be made over the next five years, was aimed at growing headcount, real estate footprint and data center capacity. This startup fund will not only be a boost to small tech businesses in the region; but it could prove to be an interesting dealflow funnel for Salesforce itself to tap into and acquire local talent for that bigger operation.

It’s also tapping into a large economy that is adjacent and tightly connected to that of Salesforce’s home market. It notes that IDC estimates Canada’s public cloud software market will be worth C$4.1 billion ($3.1 billion) by 2019.

“Canada is recognized as an excellent place to start and build globally competitive technology companies,” said the Honourable Navdeep Bains, Canadian Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, in a statement. “Corporate initiatives such as Salesforce Ventures’ new Canada Trailblazer Fund provide valuable support to technology entrepreneurs throughout their start-and-scale journey.”

France’s BlaBlaCar acquires carpool startup Less in ongoing ridesharing consolidation

The ongoing trend of consolidation in the world of ridesharing continues apace, with the latest development coming out of Europe. BlaBlaCar, the French carpooling platform, is acquiring Less, a young carpooling platform based in Paris and focusing only on urban rides, paying drivers on a per-kilometer rate to incentivize them.

The financial terms are not being disclosed but BlaBlaCar is picking up all of the company’s assets — it mentions skills and IP in app creation and distribution, big data analytics and in-car embedded systems — and employees (around 20 in all).

Less was less than mature. Co-founded by the founder of adtech firm Criteo, Jean-Baptiste Rudelle, it had launched a beta of its service only five months ago, in December 2017 (and it was founded about 18 months ago altogether).

Two salient facts of the ride-sharing industry are that it’s generally a very capital-intensive business — market leader Uber has raised $21 billion, for context — and it is built on economies of scale, and those two forces have been leading to a lot of movement, with the bigger fish snapping up the more promising of the smaller fish, and many more startups going belly up. Less threw in the towel so quickly, in part, because it didn’t see itself able to hit the right growth targets to survive.

“Less is conscious of the challenges of creating a scalable marketplace in the mobility space, and anticipating consolidation within the market, the team wanted to combine its forces with an established industry player”, said Rudelle, the CEO of Less, in a statement to TechCrunch.

BlaBlaCar has made seven other acquisitions in its own efforts to position itself as a Big Fish, including its closest competitor, Carpooling.

Less is not disclosing how many users it had, but BlaBlaCar itself now has around 60 million users in 22 countries.

BlaBlaCar has raised about $335 million in funding to date from investors that include Accel and Insight Venture Partners; and it was last valued at $1.6 billion when it raised $200 million back in 2015 (when it had only 20 million users). Less had raised $19 million from investors that included Index Ventures (who had also been one of Criteo’s early and consistent backers).

What the acquisition of Less will do potentially is help BlaBlaCar build out its short-distance urban mobility play. The bigger company got its start originally by focusing on long-distance rides, although last year it expanded into city rides with BlaBlaLines.

BlaBlaLines has been building out its service with riders paying drivers directly, in cash, while Less’s model is based on a per-kilometer fee — currently €0.10/km — in the city of Paris, the only place Less had launched. It’s reasonable to expect that one outcome of this deal will be BlaBlaLines taking on a similar pricing model.

“We are delighted to welcome an innovative and talented team that is just as passionate about carpooling as we are,” said Nicolas Brusson, co-founder and CEO of BlaBlaCar, in a statement. “Today’s acquisition takes place at a period of real innovation at BlaBlaCar, following the roll-out of BlaBlaLines across France, and the development of a new algorithm that increases the granularity of our long-distance service.”

Allegro.AI nabs $11M for a platform that helps businesses build computer vision-based services

Artificial intelligence and the application of it across nearly every aspect of our lives is shaping up to be one of the major step changes of our modern society. Today, a startup that wants to help other companies capitalise on AI’s advances is announcing funding and emerging from stealth mode.

Allegro.AI, which has built a deep learning platform that companies can use to build and train computer-vision-based technologies — from self-driving car systems through to security, medical and any other services that require a system to read and parse visual data — is today announcing that it has raised $11 million in funding, as it prepares for a full-scale launch of its commercial services later this year after running pilots and working with early users in a closed beta.

The round may not be huge by today’s startup standards, but the presence of strategic investors speaks to the interest that the startup has sparked and the gap in the market for what it is offering. It includes MizMaa Ventures — a Chinese fund that is focused on investing in Israeli startups, along with participation from Robert Bosch Venture Capital GmbH (RBVC), Samsung Catalyst Fund and Israeli fund Dynamic Loop Capital. Other investors (the $11 million actually covers more than one round) are not being disclosed.

Nir Bar-Lev, the CEO and cofounder (Moses Guttmann, another cofounder, is the company’s CTO), started Allegro.AI first as Seematics in 2016 after he left Google, where he had worked in various senior roles for over 10 years. It was partly that experience that led him to the idea that with the rise of AI, there would be an opportunity for companies that could build a platform to help other less AI-savvy companies build AI-based products.

“We’re addressing a gap in the industry,” he said in an interview. Although there are a number of services, for example Rekognition from Amazon’s AWS, which allow a developer to ping a database by way of an API to provide analytics and some identification of a video or image, these are relatively basic and couldn’t be used to build and “teach” full-scale navigation systems, for example.

“An ecosystem doesn’t exist for anything deep-learning based.” Every company that wants to build something would have to invest 80-90 percent of their total R&D resources on infrastructure, before getting to the many other apsects of building a product, he said, which might also include the hardware and applications themselves. “We’re providing this so that the companies don’t need to build it.”

Instead, the research scientists that will buy in the Allegro.AI platform — it’s not intended for non-technical users (not now at least) — can concentrate on overseeing projects and considering strategic applications and other aspects of the projects. He says that currently, its direct target customers are tech companies and others that rely heavily on tech, “but are not the Googles and Amazons of the world.”

Indeed, companies like Google, AWS, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook have all made major inroads into AI, and in one way or another each has a strong interest in enterprise services and may already be hosting a lot of data in their clouds. But Bar-Lev believes that companies ultimately will be wary to work with them on large-scale AI projects:

“A lot of the data that’s already on their cloud is data from before the AI revolution, before companies realized that the asset today is data,” he said. “If it’s there, it’s there and a lot of it is transactional and relational data.

“But what’s not there is all the signal-based data, all of the data coming from computer vision. That is not on these clouds. We haven’t spoken to a single automotive who is sharing that with these cloud providers. They are not even sharing it with their OEMs. I’ve worked at Google, and I know how companies are afraid of them. These companies are terrified of tech companies like Amazon and so on eating them up, so if they can now stop and control their assets they will do that.”

Customers have the option of working with Allegro either as a cloud or on-premise product, or a combination of the two, and this brings up the third reason that Allegro believes it has a strong opportunity. The quantity of data that is collected for image-based neural networks is massive, and in some regards it’s not practical to rely on cloud systems to process that. Allegro’s emphasis is on building computing at the edge to work with the data more efficiently, which is one of the reasons investors were also interested.

“AI and machine learning will transform the way we interact with all the devices in our lives, by enabling them to process what they’re seeing in real time,” said David Goldschmidt, VP and MD at Samsung Catalyst Fund, in a statement. “By advancing deep learning at the edge, Allegro.AI will help companies in a diverse range of fields—from robotics to mobility—develop devices that are more intelligent, robust, and responsive to their environment. We’re particularly excited about this investment because, like Samsung, Allegro.AI is committed not just to developing this foundational technology, but also to building the open, collaborative ecosystem that is necessary to bring it to consumers in a meaningful way.”

Allegro.AI is not the first company with hopes of providing AI and deep learning as a service to the enterprise world: Element.AI out of Canada is another startup that is being built on the premise that most companies know they will need to consider how to use AI in their businesses, but lack the in-house expertise or budget (or both) to do that. Until the wider field matures and AI know-how becomes something anyone can buy off-the-shelf, it’s going to present an interesting opportunity for the likes of Allegro and others to step in.

 

 

 

Google confirms some of its own services are now getting blocked in Russia over the Telegram ban

A shower of paper airplanes darted through the skies of Moscow and other towns in Russia today, as users answered the call of entrepreneur Pavel Durov to send the blank missives out of their windows at a pre-appointed time in support of Telegram, a messaging app he founded that was blocked last week by Russian regulator Roskomnadzor (RKN) that uses a paper airplane icon. RKN believes the service is violating national laws by failing to provide it with encryption keys to access messages on the service (Telegram has refused to comply).

The paper plane send-off was a small, flashmob turn in a “Digital Resistance” — Durov’s preferred term — that has otherwise largely been played out online: currently, nearly 18 million IP addresses are knocked out from being accessed in Russia, all in the name of blocking Telegram.

And in the latest development, Google has now confirmed to us that its own services are now also being impacted. From what we understand, Google Search, Gmail and push notifications for Android apps are among the products being affected.

“We are aware of reports that some users in Russia are unable to access some Google products, and are investigating those reports,” said a Google spokesperson in an emailed response. We’d been trying to contact Google all week about the Telegram blockade, and this is the first time that the company has both replied and acknowledged something related to it.

(Amazon has acknowledged our messages but has yet to reply to them.)

Google’s comments come on the heels of RKN itself also announcing today that it had expanded its IP blocks to Google’s services. At its peak, RKN had blocked nearly 19 million IP addresses, with dozens of third-party services that also use Google Cloud and Amazon’s AWS, such as Twitch and Spotify, also getting caught in the crossfire.

Russia is among the countries in the world that has enforced a kind of digital firewall, blocking periodically or permanently certain online content. Some turn to VPNs to access that content anyway, but it turns out that Telegram hasn’t needed to rely on that workaround to get used.

“RKN is embarrassingly bad at blocking Telegram, so most people keep using it without any intermediaries,” said Ilya Andreev, COO and co-founder of Vee Security, which has been providing a proxy service to bypass the ban. Currently, it is supporting up to 2 million users simultaneously, although this is a relatively small proportion considering Telegram has around 14 million users in the country (and, likely, more considering all the free publicity it’s been getting).

As we described earlier this week, the reason so many IP addresses are getting blocked is because Telegram has been using a technique that allows it to “hop” to a new IP address when the one that it’s using is blocked from getting accessed by RKN. It’s a technique that a much smaller app, Zello, had also resorted to using for nearly a year when the RKN announced its own ban.

Zello ceased its activities earlier this year when RKN got wise to Zello’s ways and chose to start blocking entire subnetworks of IP addresses to avoid so many hops, and Amazon’s AWS and Google Cloud kindly asked Zello to stop as other services also started to get blocked. So, when Telegram started the same kind of hopping, RKN, in effect, knew just what to do to turn the screws. (And it also took the heat off Zello, which miraculously got restored.)

So far, Telegram’s cloud partners have held strong and have not taken the same route, although getting its own services blocked could see Google’s resolve tested at a new level.

Some believe that one outcome could be the regulator playing out an elaborate game of chicken with Telegram and the rest of the internet companies that are in some way aiding and abetting it, spurred in part by Russia’s larger profile and how such blocks would appear to international audiences.

“Russia can’t keep blocking random things on the Internet,” Andreev said. “Russia is working hard to make its image more alluring to foreigners in preparation for the World Cup,” which is taking place this June and July. “They can’t have tourists coming and realising Google doesn’t work in Russia.”

We’ll update this post and continue to write on further developments as we learn more.