Grid AI raises $18.6M Series A to help AI researchers and engineers bring their models to production

Grid AI, a startup founded by the inventor of the popular open-source PyTorch Lightning project, William Falcon, that aims to help machine learning engineers more efficiently, today announced that it has raised an $18.6 million Series A funding round, which closed earlier this summer. The round was led by Index Ventures, with participation from Bain Capital Ventures and firstminute. 

Falcon co-founded the company with Luis Capelo, who was previously the head of machine learning at Glossier. Unsurprisingly, the idea here is to take PyTorch Lightning, which launched about a year ago, and turn that into the core of Grid’s service. The main idea behind Lightning is to decouple the data science from the engineering.

The time argues that a few years ago, when data scientists tried to get started with deep learning, they didn’t always have the right expertise and it was hard for them to get everything right.

“Now the industry has an unhealthy aversion to deep learning because of this,” Falcon noted. “Lightning and Grid embed all those tricks into the workflow so you no longer need to be a PhD in AI nor [have] the resources of the major AI companies to get these things to work. This makes the opportunity cost of putting a simple model against a sophisticated neural network a few hours’ worth of effort instead of the months it used to take. When you use Lightning and Grid it’s hard to make mistakes. It’s like if you take a bad photo with your phone but we are the phone and make that photo look super professional AND teach you how to get there on your own.”

As Falcon noted, Grid is meant to help data scientists and other ML professionals “scale to match the workloads required for enterprise use cases.” Lightning itself can get them partially there, but Grid is meant to provide all of the services its users need to scale up their models to solve real-world problems.

What exactly that looks like isn’t quite clear yet, though. “Imagine you can find any GitHub repository out there. You get a local copy on your laptop and without making any code changes you spin up 400 GPUs on AWS — all from your laptop using either a web app or command-line-interface. That’s the Lightning “magic” applied to training and building models at scale,” Falcon said. “It is what we are already known for and has proven to be such a successful paradigm shift that all the other frameworks like Keras or TensorFlow, and companies have taken notice and have started to modify what they do to try to match what we do.”

The service is now in private beta.

With this new funding, Grid, which currently has 25 employees, plans to expand its team and strengthen its corporate offering via both Grid AI and through the open-source project. Falcon tells me that he aims to build a diverse team, not in the least because he himself is an immigrant, born in Venezuela, and a U.S. military veteran.

“I have first-hand knowledge of the extent that unethical AI can have,” he said. “As a result, we have approached hiring our current 25 employees across many backgrounds and experiences. We might be the first AI company that is not all the same Silicon Valley prototype tech-bro.”

“Lightning’s open-source traction piqued my interest when I first learned about it a year ago,” Index Ventures’ Sarah Cannon told me. “So intrigued in fact I remember rushing into a closet in Helsinki while at a conference to have the privacy needed to hear exactly what Will and Luis had built. I promptly called my colleague Bryan Offutt who met Will and Luis in SF and was impressed by the ‘elegance’ of their code. We swiftly decided to participate in their seed round, days later. We feel very privileged to be part of Grid’s journey. After investing in seed, we spent a significant amount with the team, and the more time we spent with them the more conviction we developed. Less than a year later and pre-launch, we knew we wanted to lead their Series A.”

JupiterOne raises $19M Series A to automate cyber asset management

Asset management might not be the most exciting talking topic, but it’s often an overlooked area of cyber-defenses. By knowing exactly what assets your company has makes it easier to know where the security weak spots are.

That’s the problem JupiterOne is trying to fix.

“We built JupiterOne because we saw a gap in how organizations manage the security and compliance of their cyber assets day to day,” said Erkang Zheng, the company’s founder and chief executive.

The Morrisville, N.C.-based startup, which spun out from healthcare cloud firm LifeOmic in 2018, helps companies see all of their digital and cloud assets by integrating with dozens of services and tools, including Amazon Web Services, Cloudflare, and GitLab, and centralizing the results into a single monitoring tool.

JupiterOne says it makes it easier for companies to spot security issues and maintain compliance, with an aim of helping companies prevent security lapses and data breaches by catching issues early on.

The company already has Reddit, Databricks and Auth0 as customers, and just secured $19 million in its Series A, led by Bain Capital Ventures and with participation from Rain Capital and its parent company LifeOmic.

As part of the deal, Bain partner Enrique Salem will join JupiterOne’s board. “We see a large multibillion dollar market opportunity for this technology across mid-market and enterprise customers,” he said. Asset management is slated to be a $8.5 billion market by 2024.

Zheng told TechCrunch the company plans to use the funds to accelerate its engineering efforts and its go-to-market strategy, with new product features to come.

The story behind Rent the Runway’s first check

When Rent the Runway co-founders Jennifer Fleiss and Jennifer Hyman got their first term sheet, it had an exploding clause in it: If they didn’t sign the offer in 24 hours, they would lose the deal.

The co-founders, then students at Harvard Business School, were ready to commit, but their lawyer advised them to pause and attend the meetings they had previously set up with other investors.

Twelve years later, Rent the Runway has raised $380 million in venture capital equity funding from top investors like Alibaba’s Jack Ma, Temasek, Fidelity, Highland Capital Partners and T. Rowe Capital. Fleiss gave up an operational role in the company to a board seat in 2017, as the company reportedly was eyeing an IPO.

But the shoe didn’t always fit: Earlier this year, Rent the Runway struggled with supply chain issues that left customers disgruntled. Then, the pandemic threatened the market of luxury wear more broadly: Who needs a ball gown while Zooming from home? In early March, the business went through a restructuring and laid off nearly half of its workforce, including every retail employee at its physical locations.

In 2009, Fleiss and Hyman were successful Harvard Business School students. Hyman’s father knew a prominent lawyer who agreed to advise them on a contingency basis in exchange for connecting them with potential investors.

Still, fundraising “was extremely hard,” Hyman said. “We were in the middle of a recession and we were two young women at business school who had never really done anything before.”

Fleiss said venture capital firms often sent junior associates, receptionists and assistants to take the meeting instead of dispatching a full-time partner. “It was clear they weren’t taking us very seriously,” Fleiss said, recounting that on one occasion, a male investor called his wife and daughter on speaker to vet their thoughts.

In an attempt to test their thesis that women would pay to rent (and return) luxury clothing, Fleiss and Hyman started doing trunk pop-up shows with 100 dresses. On one occasion, they rented out a Harvard undergraduate dorm room common hall and invited sororities, student activity organizations and a handful of investors.

Only one person showed up, said Fleiss: A guy “who was 30 years older than anyone else in the room.”

Old-fashioned meets nontraditional

Clockwise CEO Matt Martin: How we closed an $18M Series B during a pandemic

It all started with an email from a customer: “Do you know why Bain Capital Ventures is reaching out to me about Clockwise?”

That email would mark the beginning of a journey toward closing $18 million in new funding that will dramatically accelerate my company, Clockwise . It would require getting to know a partner in lockdown, long nights assembling a pitch deck and many bleary-eyed Zoom calls with some of the best VCs in the world.

Here’s how Ajay Agarwal from Bain Capital Ventures and I established trust online, how I made high-stakes decisions in extreme economic uncertainty and how we were able to turn the pandemic’s constraints into opportunities.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Building momentum: 2016 to 2020

Clockwise was founded in late fall of 2016. We realized that, as personal as time is, our schedules inside modern work environments are intertwined by a network of calendar events and attendees. People schedule meetings without considering the preferences of colleagues by simply hunting for any available “white space” (read: time to do real work). The net effect is that our most valuable resource, time, is easy to take and almost impossible to protect.

More than two years later, in June of 2019, we launched Clockwise to the public. After years of experimentation and refinement, we delivered to the world an intelligent calendar assistant that frees up your time so you can focus on what matters. Workers soon confirmed our hunch that they’re hungry for a tool that gives them more productive hours in their day. Our rapid user growth carried throughout 2019.

By January of 2020, we were on fire. Since January 1, our user base has grown by more than 90%, expanding at a clip of well over 5% week-over-week. As people sought remote tools during shelter-in-place, our rate of growth accelerated even further.

Our growth, incredible team, top-tier existing investors (Accel and Greylock) and strong cash position meant we didn’t need to raise additional capital until the fall of 2020. While COVID-19 certainly sent shock waves through the community, I was in regular communication with a few highly engaged investors who still seemed eager to invest in the future of productivity. I felt cautiously confident more capital could wait.

But, you know, best-laid plans.

Establishing trust while sheltering in place

Where top VCs are investing in manufacturing and warehouse robotics

Robotics and automation tools are now foundational parts of warehouses and manufacturing facilities around the world. Unlike many other robotics and AI use cases, the technology has moved well beyond the theoretical into practice and is used by small suppliers and large companies like Amazon and Walmart.

There’s no doubt that automation will transform every step of the supply chain, from manufacturing to fulfillment to shipping and logistics. The only question is how long such a revolution will take.

There’s still plenty of market left to transform and lots of room for new players to redefine different verticals, even with many of the existing leaders having already staked their claim. Naturally, VCs are plenty eager to invest millions in the technology. In 2019 alone, manufacturing, machinery and automation saw roughly 800-900 venture-backed fundraising rounds, according to data from Pitchbook and Crunchbase, close to two-thirds of which were still early-stage (pre-seed to Series B) investments.

With our 2020 Robotics+AI sessions event less than two weeks away, we’ve decided to perform temperature checks across some of the hottest robotics sub-verticals to see which trends are coming down the pipe and where checks are actually being written. Just as we did with construction robotics last week, this time, we asked six leading VCs who actively invest in manufacturing automation robotics to share what’s exciting them most and where they see opportunities in the sector:

Rohit Sharma, True Ventures

Which trends are you most excited about in manufacturing/warehouse automation robotics from an investing perspective?

Where top VCs are investing in open source and dev tools (Part 2 of 2)

In part two of a survey that asks top VCs about exciting opportunities in open source and dev tools, we dig into responses from 10 leading open-source-focused investors at firms that span early to growth stage across software-specific firms, corporate venture arms and prominent generalist firms.

In the conclusion to our survey, we’ll hear from:

These responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Legacy, a sperm testing and freezing service, just raised $3.5 million to send the message to men: get checked

Legacy, a male fertility startup, has just raised a fresh, $3.5 million in funding from Bill Maris’s San Diego-based venture firm, Section 32, along with Y Combinator and Bain Capital Ventures, which led a $1.5 million seed round for the Boston startup last year.

We talked earlier today with Legacy’s founder and CEO Khaled Kteily about his now two-year-old, five-person startup and its big ambitions to become the world’s preeminent male fertility center. Our biggest question was how Legacy and similar startups convince men — who are generally less concerned with their fertility than women — that they need the company’s at-home testing kits and services in the first place.

“They should be worried about [their fertility],” said Kteily, a former healthcare and life sciences consultant with a master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. “Sperm counts have gone down 50 to 60% over the last 40 years.” More from our chat with Legacy, a former TechCrunch Battlefield winner, follows; it has been edited lightly for length.

TC: Why start this company?

KK: I didn’t grow up wanting to be the king of sperm [laughs]. But I had a pretty bad accident — a second-degree burn on my legs after having four hot Starbucks teas spill on my lap in a car — and between that and a colleague at the Kennedy School who’d been diagnosed with cancer and whose doctor suggested he freeze his sperm ahead of his radiation treatments, it just clicked for me that maybe I should also save my sperm. When I went into Cambridge to do this, the place was right next to the restaurant Dumpling House and it was just very awkward and expensive and I thought, there must be a better way of doing this.

TC: How do you get started on something like this?

KK: This was before Ro and Hims began taking off, but people were increasingly comfortable doing things from their own homes, so I started doing research around the idea. I joined the American Society of Reproductive Medicine. I started taking continuing education classes about sperm…

TC: Women are under so much pressure from the time they turn 30 to monitor their fertility. Aside from extreme circumstances, as with your friend, do men really think about testing their sperm? 

KK: Men should be worried about it, and they should be taking responsibility for it. What a lot of folks don’t know is for every one in seven couples that are actively trying to get pregnant, the man is equally responsible [for their fertility struggles]. Women are taught about their fertility but men aren’t, yet the quality of their sperm is degrading over the years. Sperm counts have gone down by 50 to 60% over the last 40 years, too.

TC: Wait, what? Why?

KK: [Likely culprits are] chemicals in plastics, chemicals in what we eat eat and drink, changes in lifestyle; we move less and eat more, and sperm health relates to overall health. I also think mobile phones are causing it. I will caveat this by saying there’s been mixed research, but I’m convinced that cell phones are the new smoking in that it wasn’t clear that smoking was as dangerous as it is when the research was being conducted by companies that benefited by [perpetuating cigarette use]. There’s also a generational decline in sperm quality [to consider]; it poses increased risk to the mother but also the child, as the risk of gestational diabetes goes up, as well as the rate of autism and other congenital conditions.

TC: You’re selling directly to consumers. Are you also working with companies to incorporate your tests in their overall wellness offerings?

KK: We’re investing heavily in business-to-business and expect that to be a huge acquisition channel for us. We can’t share any names yet, but we just signed a big company last week and have a few more in the works. These are mostly Bay Area companies right now; it’s an area where our experience as a YC alum was valuable because of the founders who’ve gone through and now run large companies of their own.

TC: When you’re talking with investors, how do you describe the market size? 

KK: There are four million couples that are facing fertility challenges and in all cases, we believe the man should be tested. So do [their significant others]. Almost half of purchases [of our kits] are by a female partner. We also see men in the military freezing their sperm before being deployed, same-sex couples who plan to use a surrogate at some point and transgender patients who are looking at a life-changing [moment] and want to preserve their fertility before they start the process. But we see this as something that every man might do as they go off to college, and investors see that bigger picture.

TC: How much do the kits and storage cost?

KK: The kit costs $195 up front, and if they choose to store their sperm, $145 a year. We offer different packages. You can also spend $1,995 for two deposits and 10 years of storage.

TC: Is one or two samples effective? According to the Mayo Clinic, sperm counts fluctuate meaningfully from one sample to the next, so they suggest semen analysis tests over a period of time to ensure accurate results.

KK: We encourage our clients to make multiple deposits. The scores will be variable, but they’ll gather around an average.

TC: But they are charged for these deposits separately?

KK: Yes.

TC: And what are you looking for?

KK: Volume, count, concentration, motility and morphology [meaning the shape of the sperm].

TC: Who, exactly, is doing the analysis and handling the storage?

KK: We partner with Andrology Labs in Chicago on analysis; it’s one of the top fertility labs in the country. For storage, we partner with a couple of cryo-storage providers in different geographies. We divide the samples into four, then store them in two different tanks within each of two locations. We want to make sure we’re never in a position where [the samples are accidentally destroyed, as has happened at clinics elsewhere].

TC: I can imagine fears about these samples being mishandled. How can you assure customers this won’t happen?

KK: Trust and legitimacy are core factors and a huge area of focus for us. We’re CPPA and HIPAA compliant. All [related data] is encrypted and anonymized and every customer receives a unique ID [which is a series of digits so that even the storage facilities don’t know whose sperm they are handling]. We have extreme redundancies and processes in place to ensure that we’re handling [samples] in the most scientifically rigorous way possible, as well as ensuring the safety and privacy of each [specimen].

TC: How long can sperm be frozen?

KK: Indefinitely.

TC: How will you use all the data you’ll be collecting?

KK: I could see us entering into partnerships with research institutions. What we won’t do is sell it like 23andMe.

Waymo’s Anca Dragan and Ike Robotics CTO Jur van den Berg are coming to TC Sessions: Robotics+AI

The road to “solving” self-driving cars is riddled with challenges from perception and decision making to figuring out the interaction between human and robots.

Today we’re announcing that joining us at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI on March 3 at UC Berkeley are two experts who play important roles in the development and deployment of autonomous vehicle technology: Anca Dragan and Jur van den Berg.

Dragan is assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s electrical engineering and computer sciences department as well as a senior research scientist and consultant for Waymo, the former Google self-driving project that is now a business under Alphabet. She runs the InterACT Lab at UC-Berkeley, which focuses on on algorithms for human-robot interaction. Dragan also helped found and serve on the steering committee for the Berkeley AI Research Lab, and is co-PI of the Center for Human-Compatible AI.

Last year, Dragan was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Van den Berg is the co-founder and CTO of Ike Robotics, a self-driving truck startup that last year raised $52 million in a Series A funding round led by Bain Capital  Ventures. Van den Berg has been part of the most important, secretive and even controversial companies in the autonomous vehicle technology industry. He was a senior researcher and developer in Apple’s special projects group, before jumping to self-driving trucks startup Otto. He became a senior autonomy engineer at Uber after the ride-hailing company acquired Otto .

All of this led to Ike, which was founded in 2018 with Nancy Sun and Alden Woodrow, who were also veterans of Apple, Google and Uber Advanced Technologies Group’s self-driving truck program

TC Sessions: Robotics+AI returns to Berkeley on March 3. Make sure to grab your early-bird tickets today for $275 before prices go up by $100. Students, grab your tickets for just $50 here.

Startups, book a demo table right here and get in front of 1,000+ of Robotics/AI’s best and brightest — each table comes with four attendee tickets.

Roofstock, which makes it easier to buy a home as an investment property, just raised $50 million in new funding

There are plenty of startups that say they’re making it easier to buy a home. There are fewer startups that are promising to make it easier to buy a home as an income-producing property. Among these is Roofstock, a four-year-old, Oakland, Ca.-based online marketplace where buyers and sellers buy and sell rental homes in more than 70 U.S. markets — homes with tenants residing in them oftentimes. The idea: both institutional and retail investors can buy and sell homes without forcing renters to leave their homes; buyers can also presumably generate income from day one.

It’s a huge market to chase after. Though there’s an assortment of (huge) estimates out there, Roofstock pegs the single-family rental market at a whopping $3 trillion. Investors just gave the company a fresh $50 million to go after it more aggressively, too. Earlier backer SVB Capital led the round, but it was joined by Citi Ventures, Fort Ross Ventures and 7 Global Capital, as well some other earlier investors, like Khosla Ventures, Bain Capital Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Canvas Ventures.

The company, which says it has facilitated more than $2 billion worth of transactions since launching, isn’t willing to talk about its post-money valuation (it has now raised roughly $125 million altogether). But its cofounder and CEO, Gary Beasley, answered some of our other questions this morning.

TC: How, or where, does the company drum up inventory?

GB: Roofstock’s properties come from a variety of sources, including individual property owners directly, brokers and agents who represent owners of investment properties, property management companies, listing services, and institutions. Last year the number of home sellers on Roofstock’s marketplace increased by 10 times.

TC: And they can list tenant-occupied properties on your marketplace?

GB: Yes [and that] has been difficult to do through traditional channels.

TC: Is there anything preventing new landlords from increasing the rent of tenants as soon as a property changes hands?

GB: Landlords need to honor existing leases and follow local laws and regulations when contemplating rent increases.

TC: Who determines pricing — Roofstock or the sellers?

GB: Sellers ultimately determine the pricing and sale strategy [but we] provide sellers with several data-driven tools to help them set a listing price, including comparable sales values, probabilities of sale at various prices, and estimates of days-to-sell. We also provide sellers with the ability to field offers on homes or list at a non-negotiable price. Nearly all sellers on Roofstock select the option to field all offers.

TC: Do you use any other information ‘hubs’ to assess the value of properties?

GB: We combine our data with various third-party sources, like Corelogic, House Canary, and Zillow to give investors a portrait of a property that includes valuation, neighborhood rating, comparisons with similar homes, as well as other tools and information.

TC: How does Roofstock get paid?

GB: We make money through each transaction. We charge 2.5 percent to sellers, and .5 percent to buyers.

TC: How long on average does it take to sell a house?

GB: The majority of properties that sell on Roofstock go under contract within 15 days or less, which is significantly faster than the industry standard.

TC:  How many properties has Roofstock sold thus far?

GB: We’ve facilitated more than $2 billion of transactions on our marketplace since we launched, and as of the fourth quarter of last year, our run rate was about 500 home transactions per month. It’s been extremely popular with the next generation of investors: 75% of our users are first-time real estate investors, and more than half are under 35.

TC: You operate in more than 70 U.S. markets. Where are you seeing the most transactions?

GB:  The top markets on Roofstock are Atlanta, Memphis, Indianapolis, Jacksonville and the greater Chicago area.

TC: How might a downturn in the economy impact the company’s business?

GB: Broadly speaking, single-family rentals have historically been a strong investment option during economic downturns. During the 2007 to 2011 housing downturn, rental rates [showed] positive rent growth despite broader economic conditions.

Exhibit your startup at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020

Mobility mavericks, get ready to strut your stuff at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 on May 14. Don’t miss our second annual day-long conference devoted to technologies that move people and parcels around the world in new, exciting ways.

More than 1,000 of the industry’s mightiest minds, makers, innovators and investors will converge in San Jose for a mobile mind meld. That spells opportunity for early-stage mobility startup founders. Buy an Early-Stage Startup Exhibitor Package and plant your company in front of the influencers who can drive your mobility dreams to the next level.

Whether you’re racing to perfect autonomous vehicles or flying cars, developing AI-based applications, focused on improving battery technology — or you want to recruit a few brilliant engineers — exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility offers invaluable exposure and opportunity.

Your exhibitor package includes a 30-inch high-boy table, power, linen and signage. Even better — it includes four tickets to the event. That’s four times the networking power. And it gives you time to take in some of the show’s many panel discussions, fireside chats and workshops.

Because, of course, the day will be loaded with top-notch speakers who, along with TC editors, will discuss the opportunities and challenges — social, economic and regulatory — that come from creating new mobile paradigms.

We’re building our slate of speakers for this year’s event, and we’ll be announcing them on a rolling basis in the coming months. Know someone who should be onstage at this event? You can nominate a speaker here. In the meantime, here are just a couple of examples of what went down at last year’s Session.

Alisyn Malek, co-founder and COO of May Mobility, an autonomous transportation startup, talked about making transportation easier and accessible for everyone, and Jesse Levinson, Zoox CTO and co-founder, shared specifics on the company’s autonomous vehicle hardware design.

And here are just a few more of the speakers who graced the TC Sessions: Mobility 2019 stage:

  • Seleta Reynolds, head of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation
  • Caroline Samponaro, Lyft, head of Micromobility Policy
  • Ted Serbinski, Techstars, founder and managing director of The Mobility Program
  • Sarah Smith, Bain Capital Ventures, partner

You get the idea. And you can expect more high-caliber technologists, policy makers and investors to be in the house when TC Sessions: Mobility takes place May 14, 2020.

Plenty of reason to attend — and even more reason to exhibit. But don’t wait. Exhibition space is limited, and so are the number of packages available. Reserve your demo table here, and get ready to move your early-stage mobility startup in a whole new direction.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.