Risk and compliance startup Osano, which earlier this year debuted on the Battlefield stage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF, has raised $5.4 million in its Series A round.
The company told TechCrunch that the round was led by LiveOak Venture Partners and Next Coast Ventures, both of which invested in the company’s seed round. Its Series A fundraise also included participation from several individual investors, putting Osano’s total amount raised to date at $8.4 million.
The Austin, Texas-based startup bills itself as a privacy platform that helps businesses understand and address their compliance with state and international privacy laws, like Europe’s GDPR and California’s new statewide privacy law, set to take effect on January 1. One of the company’s flagship features is providing cookie and consent management on customer websites, allowing users to choose their privacy settings in their own language.
To date, the turnkey platform is used by more than 750,000 companies — including some Fortune 500 companies — to secure over 3.5 million websites.
Osano plans to use the new funds to further invest in research and development, marketing, and hiring to meet “growing demand” for its service, the company said.
“We are proud to continue into the next round with our original investors,” said Arlo Gilbert, Osano’s co-founder and chief executive. “Heading into 2020, we are moving quickly to add talent to our growing team and to deepen Osano’s position as a leading data privacy platform.”
“There is a definitive need to bring transparency to the process of how companies deal with privacy, and we are very excited about taking on this challenge to empower both individuals and organizations,” said Gilbert.
Plenty of the ocean remains unexplored, even though it’s a huge trove of potentially valuable information. Current methods for mapping and gathering ocean data, especially deep-ocean data, generally require humans in the mix (even if controlling vehicles remotely), are immensely expensive and are not designed for long periods of operation. Startup Terradepth, founded by two ex-Navy SEALs and based in Austin, Texas, is aiming to change all that using autonomous submersible vehicles that can, if deployed as a fleet with adequate scale, provide access to deep-ocean information on a data-as-a-service basis.
The startup has raised $8 million in funding in a new round led by storage hardware company Seagate Technology, and the funding will help it pursue its ambitious goal of demonstrating their technology at work in an open-water environment by next summer. From there, it hopes to scale its operations the following year, and ultimately operate an entire networked fleet of its fully autonomous underwater robots, which it calls “Autonomous Hybrid Vehicles,” or AxV.
Terradepth says that its technology will be able to operate at a scale and cost not previously possible because of their use of autonomous navigation, and it will aim to offer raw data, information processed through their own machine-learning powered analytics layer, or cloud-based third-party analytics. They aim to offer multispectral imaging, surveillance and monitoring/forecasting services for off-shore equipment and resources.
In addition to co-founders Joe Wolfel and Judson Kauffman, Terradepth’s small team includes a range of roboticists and engineers with expertise in both software and hardware. Their vehicles are designed to alternate between deep ocean passes and trips to the water’s surface, with underwater AxV communicating with the surface-based robots, which are simultaneously recharging, which then pass on data collected to satellites for relaying back to data centers and customers.
Gecko Robotics has landed $40 million in financing as it looks to build an additional 40 robots over the next year to meet what the company sees as growing demand for its safety and infrastructure monitoring services.
“We are growing fast solving a critical infrastructure problems that affect our lives, and can even save lives,” says Jake Loosararian, Gecko Robotics’ 28-year-old co-founder and chief executive officer, in a statement. “At our core, we are a robot-enabled software company that helps stop life threatening catastrophes. We’ve developed a revolutionary way to use robots as an enabler to capture data for predictability of infrastructure; reducing failure, explosions, emissions and billions of dollars of loss each year.”
In the three years since its launch in 2016, Gecko Robotics has managed to grow from a small team of Pittsburgh robotics experts hailing from Carnegie Mellon the company has added over 100 new employees. The hiring push has been largely around creating a team of qualified experts in particular market segments who can operate the robots that Gecko deploys to industrial worksites.
There’s been something of a robotics revolution in the safety and compliance market over the past few years. From automated assembly lines to warehouses and now to chemical plants and refineries, robots are making their presence felt.
The initial pitch from Gecko managed to attract angel investors like Mark Cuban, Deep Nishar (a managing partner at Softbank), Josh Reeves, and Jake Seid, the managing director at Stone Bridge Ventures.
Now the company adds the midwestern venture capital juggernaut, Drive Capital, to its stable of investors.
“We are very excited for the future of robotics in industrial inspection. The Gecko Robotics team are revolutionizing an industry that is in need of a real upgrade and will save lives,” said Mark Kvamme, lead investor and partner at Drive Capital. “I see amazing potential for Gecko’s business model, they are on the path to become a market leader in their industry.”
Gecko Robotics has already opened a 20,000 square foot office in Houston, and offices Houston, Austin, and Pittsburgh.
“The robots are amazing but they’re not going to be able to complete the job done by these experts who have experience in thirty to forty years,” says Loosararian. “We have thought leaders who go out in the field… they take the robots out and they use their own manual ability and knowledge to provide these expertise to the clients.”
Gecko currently has 60 robots in its stable of robots and will add at least another 40 over the course of the year. “The product at the end is the software license that they pay for annually,” Loosararian says.
A massive database storing tens of millions of SMS text messages, most of which were sent by businesses to potential customers, has been found online.
The database is run by TrueDialog, a business SMS provider for businesses and higher education providers, which lets companies, colleges, and universities send bulk text messages to their customers and students. The Austin, Texas-based company says one of the advantages to its service is that recipients can also text back, allowing them to have two-way conversations with brands or businesses.
The database stored years of sent and received text messages from its customers and processed by TrueDialog. But because the database was left unprotected on the internet without a password, none of the data was encrypted and anyone could look inside.
Security researchers Noam Rotem and Ran Locar found the exposed database earlier this month as part of their internet scanning efforts.
TechCrunch examined a portion of the data, which contained detailed logs of messages sent by customers who used TrueDialog’s system, including phone numbers and SMS message contents. The database contained information about university finance applications, marketing messages from businesses with discount codes, and job alerts, among other things.
But the data also contained sensitive text messages, such as two-factor codes and other security messages, which may have allowed anyone viewing the data to gain access to a person’s online accounts. Many of the messages we reviewed contained codes to access online medical services to obtain, and password reset and login codes for sites including Facebook and Google accounts.
The data also contained usernames and passwords of TrueDialog’s customers, which if used could have been used to access and impersonate their accounts.
Because some of the two-way message conversations contained a unique conversation code, it’s possible to read entire chains of conversations. One table alone had tens of millions of messages, many of which were message recipients trying to opt-out of receiving text messages.
TechCrunch contacted TrueDialog about the exposure, which promptly pulled the database offline. Despite reaching out several times, TrueDialog’s chief executive John Wright would not acknowledge the breach nor return several requests for comment. Wright also did not answer any of our questions — including whether the company would inform customers of the security lapse and if he plans to inform regulators, such as state attorneys general, per state data breach notification laws.
The company is just one of many SMS providers that have in recent months left systems — and sensitive text messages — on the internet for anyone to access. Not only that but it’s another example of why SMS text messages may be convenient but is not a secure way to communicate — particularly for sensitive data, like sending two-factor codes.
Newly in the same company is Next Coast Ventures, a firm that just closed on $130 million in fresh capital commitments to pursue a thematic approach and that is focused for right now on the future of work, the rise of digital natives, the death of traditional retail and the ways that ubiquitous connectivity is changing marketplaces.
It’s the second fund for the firm, which closed its debut fund with a very respectable $85 million, thanks in large part to the backgrounds of its two managing directors. Michael Smerklo previously bought a technology services company called ServiceSource that he ran for 12 years and eventually took public. His co-founder, Thomas Ball, previously spent more than a decade with Austin Ventures.
Interestingly, for many years, Austin Ventures was the only game in town in Austin, but that has changed meaningfully since it announced in 2015 that it wouldn’t be raising more capital. Not only has Next Coast just gathered up more capital, but so have numerous other regional firms this year. In April, for example, we reported on the newest, $105 million, fund raised by LiveOak Ventures. Meanwhile, Silverton Partners, one of the city’s most active investors, is zeroing in on a new $120 million fund just one year after closing a $108 million fund, and several other firms — including ATX Ventures and Quake Capital — are trying to raise sizable new funds.
As for Next Coast, some of its many current bets include Everlywell, a company that sells tens of in-home diagnostic tests and that closed on $50 million in funding earlier this year, and AlertMedia, a cloud-based mass notification system that aims to streamline notifications across devices and platforms and which raised $25 million in Series C funding back in January. (You can check out a longer list of its investments here.)
The firm has also seen five companies in its portfolio sell to acquirers (all for undisclosed terms). While one has yet to be announced, the other four are OnRamp, a cloud hosting company that sold last year to a data and IT company called LightEdge; the personal finance startup Clarity Money, which sold to Goldman Sachs last year; the wardrobe tech company Finery, which sold to Stitch Fix in September; and the smart oven maker Brava, which just yesterday disclosed that it’s being acquired by Middleby, an industrial equipment company.
We were in touch yesterday with Smerklo to learn how Next Coast’s new and bigger fund might differ from its predecessor, and the answer seems to be: not much. He said check sizes will increase, from a range of $3 million to $7 million into Series A-stage companies to more like $5 million to $10 million at the upper end.
He also suggested that Next Coast remains as committed as ever to uncovering and funding talent regionally, something that’s getting easier all the time, evidently. “Austin’s entrepreneurial and startup ecosystem is absolutely booming,” Smerklo wrote us via email. “It’s never been cheaper to start a company, and places like Austin with a high quality of life, growing available capital and a strong entrepreneurial spirit will continue to be a hotbed for founders and tech talent.”
“Congrats! This car is all yours, with no one up front,” the pop-up notification from the Waymo app reads. “This ride will be different. With no one else in the car, Waymo will do all the driving. Enjoy this free ride on us!”
Moments later, an empty Chrysler Pacifica minivan appears and navigates its way to my location near a park in Chandler, the Phoenix suburb where Waymo has been testing its autonomous vehicles since 2016.
Waymo, the Google self-driving-project-turned-Alphabet unit, has given demos of its autonomous vehicles before. More than a dozen journalists experienced driverless rides in 2017 on a closed course at Waymo’s testing facility in Castle; and Steve Mahan, who is legally blind, took a driverless ride in the company’s Firefly prototype on Austin’s city streets way back in 2015.
But this driverless ride is different — and not just because it involved an unprotected left-hand turn, busy city streets or that the Waymo One app was used to hail the ride. It marks the beginning of a driverless ride-hailing service that is now being used by members of its early rider program and eventually the public.
It’s a milestone that has been promised — and has remained just out of reach — for years.
Nearly two years after Krafcik’s comments, vehicles driven by humans — not computers — still clog the roads in Phoenix. The majority of Waymo’s fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans in Arizona have human safety drivers behind the wheel; and the few driverless ones have been limited to testing only.
Despite some progress, Waymo’s promise of a driverless future has seemed destined to be forever overshadowed by stagnation. Until now.
Waymo wouldn’t share specific numbers on just how many driverless rides it would be giving, only saying that it continues to ramp up its operations. Here’s what we do know. There are hundreds of customers in its early rider program, all of whom will have access to this offering. These early riders can’t request a fully driverless ride. Instead, they are matched with a driverless car if it’s nearby.
There are, of course, caveats to this milestone. Waymo is conducting these “completely driverless” rides in a controlled geofenced environment. Early rider program members are people who are selected based on what ZIP code they live in and are required to sign NDAs. And the rides are free, at least for now.
Still, as I buckle my seatbelt and take stock of the empty driver’s seat, it’s hard not to be struck, at least for a fleeting moment, by the achievement.
It would be a mistake to think that the job is done. This moment marks the start of another, potentially lengthy, chapter in the development of driverless mobility rather than a sign that ubiquitous autonomy is finally at hand.
A driverless ride sounds like a futuristic joyride, but it’s obvious from the outset that the absence of a human touch presents a wealth of practical and psychological challenges.
As soon as I’m seated, belted and underway, the car automatically calls Waymo’s rider assistance team to address any questions or concerns about the driverless ride — bringing a brief human touch to the experience.
I’ve been riding in autonomous vehicles on public roads since late 2016. All of those rides had human safety drivers behind the wheel. Seeing an empty driver’s seat at 45 miles per hour, or a steering wheel spinning in empty space as it navigates suburban traffic, feels inescapably surreal. The sensation is akin to one of those dreams where everything is the picture of normalcy except for that one detail — the clock with a human face or the cat dressed in boots and walking with a cane.
Other than that niggling feeling that I might wake up at any moment, my 10-minute ride from a park to a coffee shop was very much like any other ride in a “self-driving” car. There were moments where the self-driving system’s driving impressed, like the way it caught an unprotected left turn just as the traffic signal turned yellow or how its acceleration matched surrounding traffic. The vehicle seemed to even have mastered the more human-like driving skill of crawling forward at a stop sign to signal its intent.
Only a few typical quirks, like moments of overly cautious traffic spacing and overactive path planning, betrayed the fact that a computer was in control. A more typical rider, specifically one who doesn’t regularly practice their version of the driving Turing Test, might not have even noticed them.
How safe is ‘safe enough’?
Waymo’s decision to put me in a fully driverless car on public roads anywhere speaks to the confidence it puts in its “driver,” but the company wasn’t able to point to one specific source of that confidence.
Waymo’s Director of Product Saswat Panigrahi declined to share how many driverless miles Waymo had accumulated in Chandler, or what specific benchmarks proved that its driver was “safe enough” to handle the risk of a fully driverless ride. Citing the firm’s 10 million real-world miles and 10 billion simulation miles, Panigrahi argued that Waymo’s confidence comes from “a holistic picture.”
“Autonomous driving is complex enough not to rely on a singular metric,” Panigrahi said.
It’s a sensible, albeit frustrating, argument, given that the most significant open question hanging over the autonomous drive space is “how safe is safe enough?” Absent more details, it’s hard to say if my driverless ride reflects a significant benchmark in Waymo’s broader technical maturity or simply its confidence in a relatively unchallenging route.
The company’s driverless rides are currently free and only taking place in a geofenced area that includes parts of Chandler, Mesa and Tempe. This driverless territory is smaller than Waymo’s standard domain in the Phoenix suburbs, implying that confidence levels are still highly situational. Even Waymo vehicles with safety drivers don’t yet take riders to one of the most popular ride-hailing destinations: the airport.
The complexities of driverless
Panigrahi deflected questions about the proliferation of driverless rides, saying only that the number has been increasing and will continue to do so. Waymo has about 600 autonomous vehicles in its fleet across all geographies, including Mountain View, Calif. The majority of those vehicles are in Phoenix, according to the company.
However, Panigrahi did reveal that the primary limiting factor is applying what it learned from research into early rider experiences.
“This is an experience that you can’t really learn from someone else,” Panigrahi said. “This is truly new.”
Some of the most difficult challenges of driverless mobility only emerge once riders are combined with the absence of a human behind the wheel. For example, developing the technologies and protocols that allow a driverless Waymo to detect and pull over for emergency response vehicles and even allow emergency services to take over control was a complex task that required extensive testing and collaboration with local authorities.
“This was an entire area that, before doing full driverless, we didn’t have to worry as much about,” Panigrahi said.
The user experience is another crux of driverless ride-hailing. It’s an area to which Waymo has dedicated considerable time and resources — and for good reason. User experience turns out to hold some surprisingly thorny challenges once humans are removed from the equation.
The everyday interactions between a passenger and an Uber or Lyft driver, such as conversations about pick-up and drop-offs as well as sudden changes in plans, become more complex when the driver is a computer. It’s an area that Waymo’s user experience research (UXR) team admits it is still figuring out.
Computers and sensors may already be better than humans at specific driving capabilities, like staying in lanes or avoiding obstacles (especially over long periods of time), but they lack the human flexibility and adaptability needed to be a good mobility provider.
Learning how to either handle or avoid the complexities that humans accomplish with little effort requires a mix of extensive experience and targeted research into areas like behavioral psychology that tech companies can seem allergic to.
Not just a tech problem
Waymo’s early driverless rides mark the beginning of a new phase of development filled with fresh challenges that can’t be solved with technology alone. Research into human behavior, building up expertise in the stochastic interactions of the modern urban curbside, and developing relationships and protocols with local authorities are all deeply time-consuming efforts. These are not challenges that Waymo can simply throw technology at, but require painstaking work by humans who understand other humans.
Some of these challenges are relatively straightforward. For example, it didn’t take long for Waymo to realize that dropping off riders as close to the entrance of a Walmart was actually less convenient due to the high volume of foot traffic. But understanding that pick-up and drop-off isn’t ruled by a single principle (e.g. closer to the entrance is always better) hints at a hidden wealth of complexity that Waymo’s vehicles need to master.
As frustrating as the slow pace of self-driving proliferation is, the fact that Waymo is embracing these challenges and taking the time to address it is encouraging.
The first chapter of autonomous drive technology development was focused on the purely technical challenge of making computers drive. Weaving Waymo’s computer “driver” into the fabric of society requires an understanding of something even more mysterious and complex: people and how they interact with each other and the environment around them.
Given how fundamentally autonomous mobility could impact our society and cities, it’s reassuring to know that one of the technology’s leading developers is taking the time to understand and adapt to them.
Shipwell, the software platform for managing trucking logistics, has raised $35 million and is expanding its suite of services to become a full-service hub for logistics management.
The new round led by Georgian Partners comes as the company has just expanded its suite of tracking and management tools to integrate with FedEx’s parcel shipping services. The company also is planning an expansion into ocean shipping in the coming months, according to chief executive Gregory Price.
The Austin-based company works with multiple service providers — including the logistics services unicorn Flexport — but operates as a marketplace for shippers to connect with freight companies and online tools to manage those shipments. In effect, the company is pitching to any retailer or outlet a version of the proprietary logistics management toolkit that has made Amazon so successful.
Since its last round of funding a year ago, Shipwell has grown to service more than 4,000 customers per month with supply chains spanning multiple geographies. The company now operates in Canada, Mexico and even across Europe.
With the new funding the company intends to open new offices in Chicago and expand to a second location in its home base of Austin.
The company has also launched a new application program interface that allows it to help manage logistics through other modes than just trucking. Price says the company has about 20 companies beta-testing the tool, which is set to launch publicly in November.
Neighborhood Goods, the direct to consumer department store hawking brands like Rothy’s, Dollar Shave Club, Buck Mason, Draper James and Stadium Goods, has new cash to expand its storefront for e-commerce juggernauts.
The Dallas-based startup has raised $25.5 million to date and is expanding into a new location in Austin to complement its stores in Plano, Texas and a location in New York, opening soon, according to the company’s chief executive and co-founder Matt Alexander.
The Neighborhood Goods concept, providing a brick and mortar outlet for online brands, is one that dovetails nicely with backers like Global Founders Capital and Forerunner Ventures, which are both longtime investors in direct to consumer startups.
“As we expand our network of brands, we’re so thrilled to have Neighborhood Goods as a core element of our portfolio for them to test, assess, explore and learn about the impact of physical retail as they grow,” said Global Founders Capital investor Don Stalter.
As the company expands its geographic footprint, it’s also experimenting with different online features, like online browsing of in-store collections and the option for physical, in-store pickup of digital orders. Neighborhood Goods also said it will begin offering an analytics back-end for brand partners to provide data on activations and branded events at the company’s stores.
Sami Khan began his work in the startup world by marketing mobile-based investment services like Acorns.
Now the marketer who helped grow that business to a nearly $1 billion valuation is turning his attention to location based gaming in the hopes that he can take on leading contender, Niantic, with a faster, more flexible, and fan driven approach to game development with his new startup, Cerberus Interactive.
Khan’s pitch is that he’s taking the skills he’d honed building up services like Acorns or the browser extension for bargain hunters, Honey, to game development to make games more viral from their inception.
“The biggest thing is how do you de-risk what is perceived as a hit driven industry?” Khan asks. “Games are closer to digital apps than back in the days of the console and companies should ship it like an ecommerce concept… If adoption of the game is going to be the decision factor of whether a game fails or succeeds…why isn’t the adoption fo the game tested before the title is built or while the game is being conceived?”
So for his first foray into gaming, Khan is combining a crowd-sourced approach to the development of the game and applying it to what many people think is gaming’s next big frontier — the location based game phenomenon that hit its stride with Niantic’s Pokemon GO.
“Right now in location based games you have the behemoth which is Niantic,” says Khan. “Right now the gaming industry looks at location based games as its own sub genre. But when we look at location based games, we believe that location based games have an aspect that it is a game mechanic within other games.”
The first game that Cerberus is developing is a base building simulator akin to a title like “Age of Empires” but based on real-world locations. “Simulation games or casual games with location built in will have a bonus or an advantage over the stationary games that we play today,” says Khan.
The “Atlas Empires” title that Cerberus is currently developing is being made in concert with the gamers who might want to play it. So far, an undisclosed number of customers are already paying to have a say in certain aspects of the game’s development — kind of like a premiere tier within a crowdfunding campaign.
Khan, a New Orleans native who splits his time between Los Angeles and Austin, has enlisted some marquee investors in his bid to challenge both the traditional ways in which games have been developed and the current industry leader.
Strategic investor MobilityWare has signed on to back the company along with individual investors like Steve Huffman, the co-founder and chief executive of Reddit, and Blake Chandler, the chief business officer of the runaway social network hit, TikTok.
Khan traces his love of games to his time visiting his cousins in Bangladesh and playing “Prince of Persia” on an early Toshiba laptop. “I remember sitting around the computer, watching my oldest cousin play because my dad didn’t want any of the kids touching the laptop,” Khan says.
So far the beta version of “Atlas Empires” has had 50,000 downloads and has about 1,000 daily players, Khan says. The commercial version of the game is expected to go live in the first quarter of 2020, says Khan.
Earbuds, a new startup from Austin founded by former Detroit Lions lineman Jason Fox, wants to bring the power of social media to your eardrums.
The company is one of a growing number of startups trying to rejuvenate the music streaming market by combining it with social networking so that audiences can listen to the playlists of their favorite athletes and entertainers… and their friends.
For Fox, the idea for Earbuds sprung from his experiences in the NFL, watching how other players interacted with crowds and hearing about the things fans wanted to know about their favorite players’ routines.
“We were playing Caroline in the first game of the season and Cam Newton was warming up right next to me,” Fox recalled. “He was jamming. Getting the crowd into it. And I was thinking there’re 85,000 people here and millions of more people watching at home… And I thought… how many people would love to be in his headphones right now?”
Earbuds founder Jason Fox
It wasn’t just Cam Newton who received attention. Fox said at every press conference one or two questions would be about what songs teammates played before games. On social media, players would take screenshots of their playlists and post them to platforms like Twitter or Instagram, Fox said.
The company has been out in the market in a beta version since February and has focused on lining up potential Earbuds devotees from among Fox’s friends in the NFL and entertainers from music and media.
“We made a decision to tweak something and make it very very heavily around influencers because that’s what’s really driving traffic for us,” Fox says.
At its core, the app is just about making music more social, according to Fox. “There’s a social platform for everything, but in the days of terrestrial media distribution music has remain isolated,” he says.
Logging on is easy. Users can create a login for the app or use their Google or Facebook accounts. One more step to link the Earbuds app with Spotify or Apple Music (the company offers one month free of the premium versions of either service to new users) and then a user can look for friends or browse popular playlists.
A leaderboard indicates which users on the app have streamed the most music and users can create their own streams by adding songs from their libraries to build in-app playlists.
Fox thinks that the ability to attract entertainers like Nelly (who’s on the app) and athletes could be transformative for listeners. Basically these artists and athletes can become their own online radio station, he says.
Fox spent nearly a year meeting with streaming services, music labels, athletes, artists and college students (the app’s initial target market) before even working with developers on a single line of code. The initial work was done out of Los Angeles, but after a year Fox moved the company down to Austin and rebuilt the app from the ground up to focus more on the user experience.
Early partnerships with Burton on an activation had snowboarders streaming their music as they rode a halfpipe proved that there was an audience, Fox said. Now the company is working on integrations across different sports and even esports.
Fox raised a small friends and family round of $630,000 before putting together a $1.5 million seed to get the app out into the market. Now the company is looking for $3 million to scale even more as it looks to integrations with sports teams and other streaming services like Twitch (to capture the gaming audience).