Aurora Insight emerges from stealth with $18M and a new take on measuring wireless spectrum

Aurora Insight, a startup that provides a “dynamic” global map of wireless connectivity that it built and monitors in real time using AI combined with data from sensors on satellites, vehicles, buildings, aircraft and other objects, is emerging from stealth today with the launch of its first publicly-available product, a platform providing insights on wireless signal and quality covering a range of wireless spectrum bands, offered as a cloud-based, data-as-a-service product.

“Our objective is to map the entire planet, charting the radio waves used for communications,” said Brian Mengwasser, the co-founder and CEO. “It’s a daunting task.” He said that to do this the company first “built a bunker” to test the system before rolling it out at scale.

With it, Aurora Insight is also announcing that it has raised $18 million in funding — an aggregate amount that reaches back to its founding in 2016 and covering both a seed round and Series A — from an impressive list of investors. Led by Alsop Louie Partners and True Ventures, backers also include Tippet Venture Partners, Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, Promus Ventures, Alumni Ventures Group, ValueStream Ventures, and Intellectus Partners.

The area of measuring wireless spectrum and figuring out where it might not be working well (in order to fix it) may sound like an arcane area, but it’s a fairly essential one.

Mobile technology — specifically, new devices and the use of wireless networks to connect people, objects and services — continues to be the defining activity of our time, with more than 5 billion mobile users on the planet (out of 7.5 billion people) today and the proportion continuing to grow. With that, we’re seeing a big spike in mobile internet usage, too, with more than 5 billion people, and 25.2 billion objects, expected to be using mobile data by 2025, according to the GSMA.

The catch to all this is that wireless spectrum — which enables the operation of mobile services — is inherently finite and somewhat flaky in how its reliability is subject to interference. That in turn is creating a need for a better way of measuring how it is working, and how to fix it when it is not.

“Wireless spectrum is one of the most critical and valuable parts of the communications ecosystem worldwide,” said Rohit Sharma, partner at True Ventures and Aurora Insight board member, in a statement. “To date, it’s been a massive challenge to accurately measure and dynamically monitor the wireless spectrum in a way that enables the best use of this scarce commodity. Aurora’s proprietary approach gives businesses a unique way to analyze, predict, and rapidly enable the next-generation of wireless-enabled applications.”

If you follow the world of wireless technology and telcos, you’ll know that wireless network testing and measurement is an established field, about as old as the existence of wireless networks themselves (which says something about the general reliability of wireless networks). Aurora aims to disrupt this on a number of levels.

Mengwasser — who co-founded the company with Jennifer Alvarez, the CTO who you can see presenting on the company here — tells me that a lot of the traditional testing and measurement has been geared at telecoms operators, who own the radio towers, and tend to focus on more narrow bands of spectrum and technologies.

The rise of 5G and other wireless technologies, however, has come with a completely new playing field and set of challenges from the industry.

Essentially, we are now in a market where there are a number of different technologies coexisting — alongside 5G we have earlier network technologies (4G, LTE, Wifi); a potential set of new technologies. And we have a new breed of companies are building services that need to have close knowledge of how networks are working to make sure they remain up and reliable.

Mengwasser said Aurora is currently one of the few trying to tackle this opportunity by developing a network that is measuring multiples kinds of spectrum simultaneously, and aims to provide that information not just to telcos (some of whom have been working with Aurora while still in stealth) but the others kinds of application and service developers that are building businesses based on those new networks.

“There is a pretty big difference between us and performance measurement, which typically operates from the back of a phone and tells you when have a phone in a particular location,” he said. “We care about more than this, more than just homes, but all smart devices. Eventually, eerything will be connected to network so we are aiming to provide intelligence on that.”

One example are drone operators who are building delivery networks: Aurora has been working with at least one while in stealth to help develop a service, Mengwasser said, although he declined to say which one. (He also, incidentally, specifically declined to say whether the company had talked with Amazon.)

5G is a particularly tricky area of mobile network spectrum and services to monitor and tackle, one reason why Aurora Insight has caught the attention of investors.

“The reality of massive MIMO beamforming, high frequencies, and dynamic access techniques employed by 5G networks means it’s both more difficult and more important to quantify the radio spectrum,” said Gilman Louie of Alsop Louie Partners, in a statement. “Having the accurate and near-real-time feedback on the radio spectrum that Aurora’s technology offers could be the difference between building a 5G network right the first time, or having to build it twice.” Louie is also sitting on the board of the startup.

Signal AI taps $25M for public data-based market intelligence that spots trends and risks

Media monitoring — where news sources and other public information outlets are scanned regularly for mentions of specific organizations — is a well established service used by companies for market intelligence and to measure sentiment around their businesses. Today, London-based Signal AI, which has built a substantial operation in the area, has raised $25 million funding to expand to newer frontiers: applying AI to that public data to also spot themes, risks and opportunities to make better decisions; and continuing to take that business to new markets.

The Series C is being led by Redline Capital, with previous VCs MMC Ventures, GMG Ventures (an investment firm linked to the Guardian Media Group) and Hearst Ventures also participating. The startup, which has now raised around $53 million, is not disclosing its valuation but CEO and found David Benigson said that it is “significantly higher” than before (it last raised $16 million a year ago), after growing revenues at well over 100% each year for the last two.

The presence of not one but two media-linked investors in the round points to the startup’s roots: Signal AI had previously been called Signal Media and worked mainly around the task of media monitoring in the more traditional sense: tracking how companies were being mentioned in the press.

Benigson said that the reason for the rebrand was to “signal” to the world how the startup was widening its remit, both in terms of its sources of data and also in terms of its customers and how they now utilize Signal’s technology.

The challenge and opportunity that Signal AI is tackling is the fact that the world is awash in information, much of it unstructured and usually bombarding us from many angles, but tantalising all the same for hinting at the insights that it might hold if it could be looked at in a more comprehensive way.

“When we started six years ago, it was by aggregating news data and tapping the repository of global, traditional media,” Benigson said. “We have since broadened into social media, broadcast and radio, and regulatory information and started to apply more machine learning to structure that data.” The company also, in addition to selling services directly, now partners with third parties to build analytics around more targeted subjects such as a changing regulatory climate in a specific area, which in turn sold on by the third parties to other clients.

The company, for example, works with Deloitte’s tax division to monitor how tax codes are evolving and likely to move over time: the firm used to keep its own clients up to date verbally on these details, and now it sends alerts automatically with insights — a switch that Benigson said has saved the company $100 million a year in human and overhead costs.

Signal AI sits in a relatively new, not clearly defined area of business. It can be comparable with the likes of Meltwater, Cision (Gorkana) and even Dataminr when it comes to reading media in real time. But it also works a little like business intelligence or market analytics in its predictive analysis. The company refers to its specific area as “augmented intelligence”:

“There is a trend / emerging category that is far less crowded and defined than business intelligence or analytics,” Benigson said. “For me, it’s around taking those same values of BI and applying them to the world of data that sits outside the organization. There are very few companies that use augmented intelligence, although we are seeing management consultancy firms and others we potentially compete with convening around this space.”

It’s that open water that has attracted investors to the company.

“In this new digital era of news and content, having an adaptive platform to help the world’s leading organizations see around the corner is invaluable,” said Nicolas Giuli, Partner at Redline Capital, in a statement. “Signal AI’s team of data scientists and engineers have been at the forefront of the AI revolution and we are excited to take this journey with them as they continue to scale across the world.”

In this day and age, data is indeed very much a hot commodity, but I’d argue that it’s also a hot potato. By that, I’m referring to the rise of security breaches, people’s growing awareness of how their personal information is being used (and too often misused), and regulation that now draws lines on how data can be used, after organizations failed to draw those lines themselves. All of these have made concepts like data analytics and data mining, even around supposedly anonymised information, feel more nefarious and unclear in their target purposes and ends. That potentially spells out trouble ahead for companies that dabble in this space.

Benigson, for his part, was unequivocal on where Signal AI stands on any kind of anonymised or other potentially personal data:

“We purposefully avoid those data sets because we feel that the challenges are not being met,” he said. The exception, he noted, was in cases where a company uses its own internal data for its own purposes, but this does not feed into Signal’s AI engine, which focuses only on publicly-available third-party content. “We have no plans to incorporate that kind of data ourselves. We have an opportunity to do this in an ethical manner.”

Shine Bathroom raises $750K for a smart home add-on that flushes away your toilet doldrums

One ongoing theme in the world of smart homes has been the emergence of gadgets and other tools that can turn “ordinary” objects and systems into “connected” ones — removing the need to replace things wholesale that still essentially work, while still applying technology to improve the ways that they can be used.

In the latest development, a smart home startup from Santa Barbara called Shine Bathroom has raised $750,000 in seed funding to help build and distribute its first product: an accessory that you attach to an existing toilet to make it a “smart toilet.”

It’s a dirty business, but someone had to do it.

Shine’s immediate goal is to flush away the old, ecologically unfriendly way of cleaning toilets; and to provide the tools to detect when something is not working right in the plumbing, even helping you fix it without calling out a plumber.

The longer-term vision is to apply technology and science to rethink the whole bathroom to put less strain on our natural resources, and to use it in a way that lines up with what we want to do as consumers, using this first product to test that market.

“Bathrooms are evolving from places where we practice basic hygiene to where we prepare ourselves for the day,” said Chris Herbert, the founder and CEO of Shine. “Wellness and self care will be happening more in the home, and this is a big opportunity.”

Intro

Shine’s first injection of money is coming from two VCs also based in Southern California: Entrada Ventures (like Shine also in Santa Barbara), and Mucker Capital, an LA fund specifically backing startups not based in Silicon Valley (others in its current porfolio include Naritiv, Everipedia and Next Trucking).

The Shine Bathroom Assistant, as the first product is called, is currently being sold via Indiegogo starting at $99, with the first products expected to ship in February 2020.

It’s a fitting challenge for a hardware entrepreneur: toilets are a necessary part of our modern lives, but they are unloved, and they haven’t really been innovated for a long time.

Herbert admitted to me (and I’m sure Freud would have something to say here, too) that this has been something of a years-long obsession, stretching back to when he made a trip to Japan as a sophomore in high school and was struck by how companies like Toto were innovating in the business, with fancy, all-cleaning (and all-singing and dancing) loos.

“We thought to ourselves, how could we make a better bathroom?” he said. “We decided that the answer was through software. When you take a thesis like that, you can see lots of opportunity.”

Sized similar to an Amazon Echo or other connected home speaker, Shine’s toilet attachment is battery operated and comes in three parts: a water vessel, a sensor and spraying nozzle that you place inside your toilet bowl, and a third sensor fitted with an accelerometer that you attach to the main line that fills up the toilet’s tank. The vessel is filled with tap water (which you replace periodically).

That water is passed through a special filter that electrolyzes it (by sending a current through the water) and then sprays it with every flush to clean and deodarize. Shine claims this spraying technique is five times as powerful as traditional deodarizing spray, and as powerful as bleach, but without the harsh chemicals: the water converts back into saline after it does its work. (And to be clear, there are no soaps or other detergents involved.)

Alongside the cleaning features, the second part of the bathroom assistant is Sam, an AI on your phone. Linked up to the hardware and sensors, Sam identifies common toilet problems, such as leaks that trickle out hundreds of gallons of water, by measuring variations in vibrations, and when it does, it sends out a free repair kit to fix it yourself.

Users can also link up Sam to work with Alexa to order the machine to clean, check water levels, and do more in future.

AlexaAskSam

The solution of monitoring vibrations is notable for how it links up with a past entrepreneurial life for Herbert and some of his team.

Herbert was one of two co-founders of Trackr, a Tile-like product that also played on the idea of making “dumb” objects smart: Trackr’s basic product was a small fob with Bluetooth inside it that could be attached to keys, wallets, bags and more to find their location when they were misplaced.

The company’s longer term goals extended into the area of IoT and how “dumb” machines could be made smarter by attaching sensors to them to monitor vibrations and sounds to determine how they were working — concepts that never materialised at Trackr but have found a new life at Shine.

On the other hand, Trackr is a cautionary tale about how a good idea can be inspiring, but not always enough.

The startup in its time raised more than $70 million, from a set of investors that included Amazon, Revolution, NTT, the Foundry Group and more. Ultimately, the basic concept was too commoditized (trackers are a dime a dozen on Amazon), Tile emerged as the market leader among the independents — a position it’s used to evolve its product — but even so, that’s before we’ve even determined if there really is a profitable business to be had here, and if platform companies potentially make their move to upset it in a different way.

Eventually, Trackr’s team (including Herbert) scattered and a new leadership team came in and rebranded to Adero . Now, even that team is gone, with the CEO Nate Kelly and others decamping to Glowforge. Multiple attempts to contact the company have been unanswered, although from what we understand, it’s not down for the count just yet. (Watch this space.)

“There is still something there, and I hope they can do something,” Herbert said of his previous startup.  

Meanwhile, he and several of his ex-Trackr colleagues have now turned their attention to a new shiny challenge, the toilet and the bigger bathroom where it sits, and investors want in.

“We were impressed by Shine’s vision for a bathroom to better prepare us for our day head and saw a massively overlooked opportunity in the bathroom space” said Taylor Tyng from Entrada Ventures.

Commercetools raises $145M from Insight for Shopify-style e-commerce APIs for large enterprises

Global retail e-commerce is expected to be a $25 trillion business this year, and today one of the companies that has built a set of tools to help larger enterprises to sell to consumers online has raised a large growth round to meet that demand. Commercetools, a German startup that provides a set of APIs that power e-commerce sales and related functions for large businesses, has raised $145 million (€130 million) in a growth round of funding led by Insight Partners, at a valuation that we understand from a close source is around $300 million.

The funding comes at the same time that commercetools is getting spun out by REWE, a German retail and tourist services giant that acquired the startup in 2015 for an undisclosed amount.

The route the company took after that is a not-totally-uncommon one for tech startups acquired by non-tech companies: commercetools had been acquired by REWE as part of a strategy to take some of its own e-commerce tech in-house, but commercetools had always continued to work with outside clients and has been growing at about 60-70% annually, CEO and co-founder Dirk Hoerig said in an interview.

Current companies include Audi, Bang & Olufsen, Carhartt, Yamaha and some very big names in retail products and services (including major telco/media brands in the USA that you will definitely know). Ultimately, the decision was taken to bring in outside funding and spin out the businesses as an independent startup once again to supercharge that growth. REWE will remain a significant shareholder with this deal.

Hoerig said that commercetools had raised only around $30 million in outside funding when it was a startup ahead of getting acquired.

Although e-commerce has grown over the last couple of years with slightly less momentum than in previous years given wider economic uncertainty, it continues to expand, and in that growth, we’ve seen a swing back to individual retail brands looking for ways of connecting more directly with customers outside of the third-party marketplaces (like Amazon) that have come to dominate how people spending money online.

That is giving a boost to those providing essentially non-tech businesses the tools to build e-commerce activity by offering “headless” tools that are attached to front-end systems designed by others.

Shopify, which focuses more on providing e-commerce tools by way of APIs to medium and smaller customers, has ballooned to some 800,000 customers. Commercetools focuses more on companies that typically generate revenues in excess of $100 million annually, Hoerig said.

Commercetools has no plans to expand to smaller companies — “We have no plan to compete against Shopify,” Hoerig said. Nor is there any strategy in place to extend into logistics, another important component of e-commerce services.

Instead, it wants to use the funding to continue expanding its business in North America and other parts of the world, as well as to continue building up its B2B2B offering — that is, tools for businesses to sell to other businesses. This is an area that companies like Alibaba are very strong in (and Amazon has been also growing its business), and the idea is to provide tools to let companies sell on their own sites either as a complement to, or to replace, third-party marketplaces.

Another area where it will continue to figure where it can play better is in the development of better online-to-offline technology.

Richard Wells and Matt Gatto of Insight are both joining the board with this deal.

“With a strong track record of investing in retail software leaders, we are excited to have the opportunity to invest in commercetools and help them scale up internationally,” said Wells in a statement. “In our opinion commercetools represents the next wave of enterprise commerce software and has the potential to unlock powerful innovation and growth within the e-commerce sector.”

Evervault raises $3.2M from Sequoia, Kleiner for an API to build apps with privacy baked in

Data privacy for apps is typically part of the purview of compliance teams — a model that isn’t always perfect, judging by the number of breaches and the extensive regulation that’s been (and still being) put in place to force companies and organizations to behave better. Now, in an effort to improve how apps manage data privacy, a startup called Evervault — founded by a 19 year-old in Dublin, Ireland — is building a data protection solution aimed at developers, by way of an API, which aims to bake data protection into the app from the start.

To help get its product out to market, the company today is announcing that it has raised $3.2 million in seed funding from a high-profile set of investors. Led by Sequoia, the round also includes Kleiner Perkins, Frontline, SV Angel and other unnamed investors.

Ultimately, the aim will be to sell Evervault into any app or piece of software that uses PII (personally identifiable information), to help developers build encrypted “data cages” to handle the information from the moment it’s ingested.

“I believe that once data has been ingested, it should be encrypted and never decrypted again,” founder Shane Curran said in an interview. “There’s a philosophical argument to be made over offering privacy at different levels, but we’re looking at the holistic side of things. If your app gets breached, the data will not leak.”

But that impressive investor list in this seed round is all the more notable when you consider that Evervault’s product has yet to be released.

Curran, the company’s CEO (and as of the time of writing, only full-time employee), said in an interview that Evervault’s API has been built, but the startup is still working on how run it efficiently at scale. The funding will be used to help with that, as well as to help with hiring more for the team. (There are two others joining Curran soon, he said.)

Evervault’s product is notable, because it represents a shift in how companies are approaching only data privacy.

“It’s moving away from compliance teams because it should be in products from day one,” said Evervault’s 19-year-old founder to explain why it’s focusing on developer tools.

“Originally, I thought of how to solve data protection from the developer side as a mathematical problem, but it was only having done the research and being exposed to others on that space that it became something interesting to me,” he added.

A lot of the early work in building so-called “data cages”, Curran noted, was targeted at “crypto anarchists,” but that idea has evolved as data breaches have grown and the concept of data protection has entered the mainstream consciousness: this has opened up an opportunity to build solutions so that companies can continue to operate online as they do but in a way that your data stays private. “It should be something more reasonable beyond the idea of ‘companies should never touch our data,'” he said. The aim with Evervault, he said, is to make a service more secure with regards to personal data, but in a way that doesn’t compromise the experience for the user, or the app/software company itself.

That idea of building a completely new way of handling data protection, but using a method that will let businesses continue operating as they do, is part of what compelled some of this investment.

“Data is king, and the team at evervault is on a mission to solve the ‘how’ of ensuring data privacy,” said Mamoon Hamid, partner, Kleiner Perkins. “Their developer-first approach ensures that data privacy becomes part of the development fabric, instead of an afterthought left for compliance to troubleshoot. We’re thrilled to partner with evervault and help build the new Internet infrastructure for data privacy.”

On another level, the idea of baking data protection into the app’s code itself also follows on from a bigger trend in building apps, where components are brought in from outside by way of APIs rather than built from the ground up when they are not part of the team’s core competency, or commoditised processes.

It’s the same model we see when apps with voice interfaces might, for example, use NLP from Amazon rather than building that function in house; or an e-commerce service integrates a payment API from Stripe for transactions.

The Stripe comparison, it turns out, is true in more ways than one. Curran first conceived of the idea that became Evervault when he was just 17, as the basis of what became his first-prize-winning submission for the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition, an annual competition in Ireland. (His original description of the tech was this: “qCrypt: The quantum-secure, encrypted, data storage platform with multijurisdictional quorum sharding technology.”)

This happened to be same competition that first brought attention to Patrick Collison, Stripe’s co-founder and CEO, who in 2005 also won first prize in the Young Scientist Exhibition, when he was also still a student, for having developed a new computer language, CROMA, as a dialect of LISP to simplify coding.

Putting CROMA to one side, Collison went on to co-found and sell one company, Auctomatic, and then start the extremely successful Stripe. And that is where the two (for now at least) have diverged. After winning the competition in 2017, Currant stayed with his original concept, eventually jetting off to the Bay Area to pitch it to what he referred to as the “Irish mafia” in Silicon Valley to see how much further he could take it.

One coffee led to another, and before he knew it, he was meeting with tier-one VCs and angels, who not only convinced him to develop his prize-winning idea into a business, but gave him money to do it. He did finish high school, he told me, but spent only “a few days” at university before deciding to take a leave of absence to pursue Evervault.

“Shane has a special combination of clear vision, deep thoughtfulness and insatiable curiosity,” said Stephanie Zhan, partner at Sequoia, in a statement. “We are thrilled to partner with evervault at the seed, to solve for today’s massive data breaches and build simple developer tools for data privacy.”

It’s a pretty classic Silicon Valley story of gifted, very young founder finding early success, but as with all stories like that, it glosses over some of the challenges: Curran is still only 19, he’s building a company from scratch, and his idea is still, essentially, untested as the product has not launched.

“Imposter syndrome is very real,” Curran said, before backtracking a bit. “I mean, I always knew what I wanted to do, but I would have never thought that Sequoia or the others would invest in me. Very spontaneously, this thing just fell together, but then I think, I couldn’t have done it any better. This does set the bar very high, but I’m not complaining.”

LinkedIn gets physical, debuts Events hub for people to plan in-person networking events

LinkedIn, the Microsoft-owned social network for the working world with around 650 million users, is known best as a place where people connect with each other online either to build work connections, for recruitment, or for professional development. Now, the company is taking a step to bring its networking features into the physical world: the company is launching a new feature called Events, a (currently free) tool for people to plan, announce and invite people to meetups and other get-togethers, in the physical world.

The feature — which will appear as a menu item in LinkedIn’s website and mobile app — is rolling out first in English-speaking countries starting October 17, with the aim to expand it to further non-English markets soon after that.

Ajay Datta, the head of product for LinkedIn India (where the app was developed; more on that below), believes that there is a clear gap in the market for a feature like this, much like you could argue Facebook’s events feature has served a role in the out-of-work world to plan casual events.

“I think there is a massive whitespace for events today,” he said. “People don’t have a single place to organise [work-related] offline meetups specific to an industry or a neighborhood. People want to find other people.”

You may recall a limited trial of the Events feature about a year ago in New York and San Francisco: the kinds of events that LinkedIn said were created with the pilot included meetups, training sessions, offsites, sales events and happy hours, so expect to see these popping up in the live product, too.

Screenshot 2019 10 15 at 18.26.01

Events is also important because it is the first major, global feature to be built out of the company’s R&D office in Bangalore, India — a significant milestone for the team of engineers and others that are based there. Up to now, much of the work that they have done has been focused on regional tools or those specifically targeting emerging markets.

LinkedIn Lite, the company’s pared-down Android app for users in bandwidth-constrained markets, has probably been the  Bangalore office’s biggest win so far: it has now passed 10 million downloads in the 70+ countries where it is available.

To be clear, right now, Events is free to use and is fairly limited in its first iteration. You can create an announcement and invite first-person contacts, but you have no way to promote the event beyond your own organic reach on the platform (and wherever you might want to share the link outside it).

“Targeting is not the focus right now,” said Ajay Datta, the head of product at LinkedIn India. “Organic adoption is what we are looking for first before we look at anything else.”

You can lay out your plans, but there are no links to services to find and book out available spaces. You can’t create any ticketing or other limitations on attendance numbers, but you can include links to places where you might be able to manage such things, such as Eventbrite or any of its many competitors.

But if this starts to see traction — and I suspect that it will, because of its natural proximity to the social network to amplify an event, and the fact that most of the people who are hanging out on LinkedIn are likely to already be predisposed to engaging on it — you could imagine how LinkedIn might start to add on all of the above, and more. It says that other areas where it’s continuing to experiment to facilitate better in-person connections using include QR codes, business cards, and proximity-based beacons.

This could help LinkedIn create another revenue stream in its business — or at least provide another way to boost existing revenue streams such as premium memberships (access to a wider circle of people to invite), advertising and recruitment solutions. Potentially, this could help pave the way to positioning LinkedIn (and by association, Microsoft) as an Eventbrite competitor.

From the Events menu bar, you will be able to create events yourself and also invite others. It looks like it’s already live on my own account, so here is how it looks from there:

Screenshot 2019 10 15 at 18.43.00

And here’s how the event-creation window looks. As you can see, you post links through to other sites for ticketing, and potentially further details about agendas and more. Each box has a limit on

Screenshot 2019 10 15 at 18.42.15

LinkedIn is also being cognisant of its reputation for how the platform can be used for over-aggressive contacting, and so it’s also including security features for people to report and block suspicious events or conversations related to them. It’s also applying AI algorithms to the events that do get listed to screen them for bad actors and bogus content, which then get assessed by human reviewers for further action.

The move into Events is one of the bigger moves that LinkedIn has made over the last several years — another big one has been its efforts in educational content — to open itself up to a new area of business by leveraging how it uses the professional graph that it has built up over time. It sometimes feels to me that under Microsoft (which bought the company for $26 billion in 2016) the company has been less productive in terms of launching new services and generally making noise, so this move is interesting in that sense too.

Still, the synergy between online networking and physical networking is so close that it’s a surprise that the company hadn’t launched an Events feature before now. All the more because Linked has dabbled in building tools to help people make better connections with each other when they are in the same physical space before.

Years ago it launched a Connected app to help people maximise the kinds of connections they make in the physical world. It has since been sunset and integrated into the main LinkedIn app, which has a “find nearby” feature that you can use to see if people who are your connections are, say, at the same conference as you are, or if you’re meeting a contact for coffee and don’t know what the person looks like.

It’s also been over the last three months seeding the idea of associating actual events with LinkedIn the platform by encouraging the organising of “LinkedIn Local” events, which apparently have created more feedback from users to build an Events too, too.

It’s not clear why it’s taken so long — LinkedIn sometimes does take its time, as it did with video — but in this period when some of us are beginning to pause and ponder what being online too much does for our ability to relate to each other, collaborate and progress not just in the working world, but in the wider world, it’s an interesting moment to choose to launch Events. We’ll see if LinkedInners agree.

Source: Nike has picked up Russell Wilson’s Tally/TraceMe in a rare acquisition

Nike has long been synonymous with premium sneakers and other sports gear, but now it seems that the company could be extending its brand into another area — digital media — thanks to the rumored acquisition of a Seattle-based startup.

TechCrunch has learned from a source that the multibillion-dollar sports giant has acquired TraceMe, which originally built an app to let fans engage with sports stars and other celebrities before later pivoting into a service called Tally, a platform aimed at sports teams, broadcasters and venues to help fans engage around sporting events.

TraceMe was originally founded by Russell Wilson, the champion quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, who was the executive chairman of the startup. The company had raised at least $9 million from investors that included the Seattle-based Madrona Venture Group and Bezos Expeditions (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ fund), as well as YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley and others, and it was last valued, in 2017, at $60 million.

Our source said the deal closed in recent weeks and that “it was a good outcome” for the company and investors. It involved both IP — the main interest, the source said, was in TraceMe’s tech rather than Tally’s — and the team.

Indeed, at least eight of them, including TraceMe’s CEO Jason LeeKeenan, an ex-Hulu executive, are now listing Nike as their place of employment. LeeKeenan describes his new role as the head of Nike Seattle. Others on the team now have taken roles that include software engineers, head of product and product designers.

No one at TraceMe and Nike that we contacted has responded to our requests for comment, but just a little while ago GeekWire (which likely had the same tip we did) published a post noting that it had a source that confirmed the deal.

The athletic footwear giant Nike is no stranger to the world of technology: it has been a longtime collaborator with the likes of Apple to develop apps for its devices and has been an early mover on the concept of bringing and integrating cutting-edge (yes, possibly gimmicky) tech into its footwear and other gear. And that’s before you consider Nike as an e-commerce force.

But while the dalliance between sports, tech and fashion is well established, this deal opens up a different frontier for the company. It’s very rare for Nike to make an acquisition, but it makes sense that if it were going to do some M&A, it would be in the area of digital media and picking up engineers to execute on a wider vision in that area.

The company is best known, of course, for its shoes and related sporty clothes, which it has for a long time created in co-branding with the biggest sports stars and has more recently started to extend to a wider circle of celebrities and hot brands in a spirit of sporty street style. These have included the likes of so-cool Supreme, Travis Scott and seemingly tentative forays into music culture.

Nike overshadows all other sports shoe brands in size, with its current market cap at nearly $117 billion, more than twice that of its closest competitor, Adidas . But Adidas has been stealing a march when it comes to partnerships with a wide network of celebrities (even if Drake prefers checks over stripes).

While it isn’t clear yet how and if Nike will be using the startup’s existing services, you could see how a deal like this could help Nike start to think about how it might leverage the collaborations and endorsements it already has in place into experiences beyond shoes, advertising and athletic performance. In this age of Instagram and influencers playing a massive role in shifting consumer sentiment (and dollars), this could give Nike a shot at building its own media platform, independent of these, on its own terms.

This is a bigger trend that we’re seeing across a lot of digital media. Consider how companies like Spotify have extended beyond simple music streaming, investing in building tools to help artists on its platform with marketing and expanding their brands: selling shoes means selling a concept, and that concept needs to have a foothold in a digital experience. 

Descartes Labs snaps up $20M more for its AI-based geospatial imagery analytics platform

Satellite imagery holds a wealth of information that could be useful for industries, science and humanitarian causes, but one big and persistent challenge with it has been a lack of effective ways to tap that disparate data for specific ends.

That’s created a demand for better analytics, and now, one of the startups that has been building solutions to do just that is announcing a round of funding as it gears up for expansion. Descartes Labs, a geospatial imagery analytics startup out of Santa Fe, New Mexico, is today announcing that it has closed a $20 million round of funding, money that CEO and founder Mark Johnson described to me as a bridge round ahead of the startup closing and announcing a larger growth round.

The funding is being led by Union Grove Venture Partners, with Ajax Strategies, Crosslink Capital, and March Capital Partners (which led its previous round) also participating. It brings the total raised by Descartes Labs to $60 million, and while Johnson said the startup would not be disclosing its valuation, PitchBook notes that it is $220 million ($200 million pre-money in this round).

As a point of comparison, another startup in the area of geospatial analytics, Orbital Insight, is reportedly now raising money at a $430 million valuation (that data is from January of this year, and we’ve contacted the company to see if it ever closed).

Santa Fe — a city popular with retirees that counts tourism as its biggest industry — is an unlikely place to find a tech startup. Descartes Labs’ presence there is a result of that fact that it is a spinoff from the Los Alamos National Laboratory near the city.

Johnson — who had lived in San Francisco before coming to Santa Fe to help create Descartes Labs (his previous experience building Zite for media, he said, led the Los Alamos scientists to first conceive of the Descartes Labs IP as the basis of a kind of search engine) — admitted that he never thought the company would stay headquartered there beyond a short initial phase of growth of six months.

However, it turned out that the trends around more distributed workforces (and cloud computing to enable that), engineers looking for employment alternatives to living in pricey San Francisco, plus the heated competition for talent you get in the Valley all came together in a perfect storm that helped Descartes Labs establish and thrive on its home turf.

Descartes Labs — named after the seminal philosopher/mathematician Rene Descartes — describes itself as a “data refinery”. By this, it means it injests a lot of imagery and unstructured data related to the earth that is picked up primarily by satellites but also other sensors (Johnson notes that its sources include data from publicly available satellites; data from NASA and the European space agency, and data from the companies themselves); applies AI-based techniques including computer vision analysis and machine learning to make sense of the sometimes-grainy imagery; and distills and orders it to create insights into what is going on down below, and how that is likely to evolve.

Screenshot 2019 10 11 at 13.26.33

This includes not just what is happening on the surface of the earth, but also in the air above it: Descartes Labs has worked on projects to detect levels of methane gas in oil fields, the spread of wildfires, and how crops might grow in a particular area, and the impact of weather patterns on it all.

It has produced work for a range of clients that have included governments (the methane detection, pictured above, was commissioned as part of New Mexico’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions), energy giants and industrial agribusiness, and traders.

“The idea is to help them take advantage of all the new data going online,” Johnson said, noting that this can help, for example, bankers forecast how much a commodity will trade for, or the effect of a change in soil composition on a crop.

The fact that Descartes Labs’ work has connected it with the energy industry gives an interesting twist to the use of the phrase “data refinery”. But in case you were wondering, Johnson said that the company goes through a process of vetting potential customers to determine if the data Descartes Labs provides to them is for a positive end, or not.

“We have a deep belief that we can help them become more efficient,” he said. “Those looking at earth data are doing so because they care about the planet and are working to try to become more sustainable.”

Johnson also said (in answer to my question about it) that so far, there haven’t been any instances where the startup has been prohibited to work with any customers or countries, but you could imagine how — in this day of data being ‘the new oil’ and the fulcrum of power — that could potentially be an issue. (Related to this: Orbital Insight counts In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture arm, as one of its backers.)

Looking ahead, the company is building what it describes as a “digital twin” of the earth, the idea being that in doing so it can better model the imagery that it injests and link up data from different regions more seamlessly (since, after all, a climatic event in one part of the world inevitably impacts another). Notably, “digital twinning” is a common concept that we see applied in other AI-based enterprises to better predict activity: this is the approach that, for example, Forward Networks takes when building models of an enterprise’s network to determine how apps will behave and identify the reasons behind an outage.

In addition to the funding round, Descartes Labs named Phil Fraher its new CFO, and is announcing Veery Maxwell, Director for Energy Innovation and Patrick Cairns, who co-founded UGVP, as new board observers.

With a possible Apple tag waiting in the wings, Tile unveils Sticker, an adhesive device for tracking objects

We are still waiting to see if Apple officially unveils a new spin on the business of tracking tags — the small devices that you put on ‘dumb’ objects like keys, wallets and other objects you have a habit of losing or leaving places to be able to pinpoint their location — but in the meantime, Tile, one of the pioneers of this technology, is upping its game today with its least-obtrusive device yet: a sticker.

Today, the startup unveiled Sticker, a new, waterproof tracking device that it created in collaboration with 3M, which uses adhesive to attach to objects to be able to track them by Bluetooth to a range of 150 feet, or further using Tile’s community network by way of its app.

Alongside this, the startup is also announcing enhancements to its existing range of Tile tracking devices. The Slim is now in the shape and thinness of a credit card, designed for wallets and other places where you might insert card-shaped information (for example, in luggage ID compartments), and its range has been extended to 200 feet with a battery life of three years.

And the Mate and Pro tags — the square-shaped fobs that Tile is most famous for — are also getting their ranges extended to 400 feet.

All four models are going on sale as of today at a range of prices: Tile Stickers starting from $39.99 for a 2-pack, $59.99 for a 4-pack; Tile Slim at $29.99; Tile Mate at $24.99; and Tile Pro at $34.99. The message here is that Tile is continuing to increase its flexibility and use cases with these updates and new Sticker release.

“Over the years we’ve seen our customers use Tile for a variety of items,” said CJ Prober, Tile CEO, in a statement. “From wallets to remote controls, power tools to backpacks, our customers have shown us they want a Tile for everything. We’ve designed our new product line to empower the Tile community to find literally anything.”

The moves come on the heels of a competitive time for Tile. On the one hand, the business area that it identified early on has clearly caught the attention of a number of other companies, underscoring the opportunity. But the flip side of that is a lot of new competition in an area that is already crowded and has seen some high-profile failures.

On the launch front, in addition to Apple’s reported interest in launching a competitor, earlier this year Verizon (which also owns TechCrunch) also launched its own IoT play in this area, and Google has also created tighter integrations for people to use its Home devices and Android platform to locate objects. At the same time, some of Tile’s earliest competitors have been heavily challenged to make a go of it: Trackr last year rebranded to Adero and just weeks later laid off nearly half its staff, a decline that we’ve heard has not been halted in the months since.

For its part, Tile last summer raised $45 million last summer on the heels of some interesting strategic partnerships with the likes of Comcast — which, similar to Verizon, Apple, and Google, sees an opportunity in doing more with item tracking as part of a bigger end-to-end connected home play. The feeling is that Tile raised the money to help leverage its bigger market profile in the hopes of staving off this wave of competitors and the many others that already existed before that.

Indeed, if you search on something like Amazon for Bluetooth tracking stickers, you’ll see that this is not exactly a new thing, and there are a number of alternatives out there (one of the big reasons why this market has been a challenging one).

One big differentiator with Tile has been the wider network and economies of scale that it promises to its users: once you are out of the Bluetooth range of your tag, you are able to track the object by way of its app and the wider Tile community, which forms a Bluetooth-based P2P network of sorts to be able to locate items. Of course, the premise of this is that enough people are using Tiles to begin with to create the locating network in the first place, which is one reason why forming collaborations with the likes of Google and Comcast can be very critical longer term to Tile’s success.

Berlin’s Tier Mobility scoops up $60M as its scooter-based transportation service passes 10M rides

On the heels of Bird closing a $275 million round to help put itself in pole position in the electric scooter market, a smaller European rival has also raised some money to grow its own business. Tier Mobility, a Berlin-based startup that operates a fleet of 20,000 scooters across 40 cities in 12 countries, has raised $60 million, funding that Tier’s co-founder and CEO Lawrence Leuschner said it would invest in further geographical expansion and its technology.

Tier earlier this year started to describe itself as a “micro mobility” player, with plans to augment scooters with other transportation options, but in an interview Leuschner declined to say what those might be, or when they will come online. In the meantime, it’s been upgrading its fleet to a more robust hardware to cut down on maintenance costs (which has typically been one of the biggest strains on scooter startups): these newer scooters have lifespans of around 18 months and now make up some 80% of Tier’s current fleet, Leuschner said.

This latest funding, a Series B, is being co-led by Mubadala Capital and Goodwater Capital. Mubadala is the state fund for Abu Dhabi, which is currently the only non-European market where Tier operates. Mubadala made some headlines earlier this year when it was revealed that Softbank was backing its $400 million fund for European investments. (Indirectly, this also means that Softbank is backing Tier.)

“We firmly believe that micro-mobility as a form of transportation is here to stay, especially in Europe,” said Amer Alaily from Mubadala Capital in a statement. “We are confident that Tier Mobility is best positioned to become the leading player in Europe and globally. We are excited and look forward to building a global category leading company out of Europe.”

Others in this round include insurance giant Axa Germany, Evli Growth Partners, White Star Capital, Northzone, Speedinvest, Point9, Indico, Kibo Ventures, Market One Capital and — an ironic twist when you consider the reputation of scooter users being somewhat on the reckless side — Formula One racing champion Nico Rosberg. The valuation is not being disclosed.

The scooter market is a crowded one, but Tier’s rapid growth points both to the opportunity for those building services in it, and Tier’s own success.

Since raising its Series A (initially €25 million, but expanded to €32 million in February of this year), Tier has grown to 10 million rides, adding 8 million in the last four months both through its direct services and by way of partnerships with others, such as car rental company Sixt. That growth has led Tier to claim that it is currently the fastest-growing mobility company “in the world.” Leuschner — who co-founded the company with Matthias Laug (now CTO) — said the goal now is to hit between 3 million and 5 million rides monthly.

That’s impressive growth, but it comes with challenges. The funding today takes the total raised by Tier to around $95 million. However, relatively speaking, that is actually a modest amount when you consider the hundreds of millions raised by the likes of Bird (capital that it’s using in part to grow in Europe in direct competition with Tier) and Lime.

Tier has taken the view, so far, that big money isn’t the only way to build a big service.

“With our series A funding of €32 million, we built the fastest growing mobility company,” Leuschner said. “We achieved that with a fraction of the capital of Bird and Lime. That shows how efficiently we are operating. With this round we will now accelerate the growth based on our scalable infrastructure and positive unit economics.”

With the scooter market’s unit economics unlike that of car-based on-demand transportation (the vehicles are owned, and there are not drivers to pay out, for starters), he said that Tier is already profitable in some of its markets.

One of the other big sticking points that has hindered the growth of more scooter services has been regulation, and specifically safety concerns, with reports of faulty software and human error / reckless driving both contributing to a number of accidents.

Leuschner noted that Tier has had around 250 accidents to date across its 10 million rides, with “the vast majority minor accidents.”

“We continue to educate users, but I can’t see a significant safety issue compared to other vehicles,” he added. “I think Tier is has taken a leadership role in safety with the safest scooter on the market, permanent education of our users and insurance for every driver in every city.”

In this regard, having an insurance company — Axa — now on board as a strategic investor will potentially see both more safety initiatives rolled out by Tier, but also potentially the emergence of insurance policies provided to customers as part of the service.

All told, the strong growth on the back of conservative capital, combined with the experience of the founders (Laug had also been the co-founder of Lieferando, one of the first big food delivery startups in Europe), and that interesting backing from big industry players, has all contributed to an optimistic outlook from investors. 

“Tier Mobility is not only the fastest growing mobility company in the world, but one of the fastest growing companies in consumer tech history,” noted Chi-Hua Chien, the star investor and Goodwater Capital co-founder who had previously been at Kleiner Perkins and before that Accel.

“With phenomenal execution they have emerged as the leading micro-mobility provider in Europe on only a fraction of the invested capital of their competitors. This is a true testament to the uniquely capital efficient and profitable model the team chose to deploy from the outset. Tier’s unique approach to operations and partnerships yields superior unit economics and defensibility.”