Relativity Space’s focus on 3D printing and cloud-based software helps it weather the COVID-19 storm

Just like in almost every other industry, there’s been a rash of layoffs among newer space startups and companies amid the novel coronavirus crisis. But Relativity Space has managed to avoid layoffs – and is even hiring, despite the global pandemic. Relativity CEO and founder Tim Ellis cites the company’s focus on large-scale 3D printing, as well as its adoption of cloud-based tools and technologies as big reasons why his startup hasn’t felt the pinch.

Because Relativity’s forthcoming launch vehicle is almost entirely made up of 3D-printed parts, from the engines, to the fuselage and everything in between, the company has been able to continue producing its prototypes essentially uninterrupted. Relativity has been classified an essential business, as have most companies operating in anything related to aerospace or defense, but Ellis said that they took steps very early to address the potential thread of COVID-19 and ensure the health and safety of their staff. As early as March 9, when the disease was really first starting to show up in the U.S. and before any formal restrictions or shelter-in-place orders were in effect, Relativity was recommending that employees work from home where possible.

“We’re able to do that, partially because with our automated printing technology we were able to have very, very few people in the factory and still keep printers running,” Ellis said in an interview. “We actually even have just one person now running several printers that are still actually printing – it’s literally a single person operating, while a lot of company has been able to make progress working from home for the last couple of weeks.”

Being able to run an entire production factory floor with just one person on-site is a tremendous competitive advantage in the current situation, and way to ensure you’re also respecting employee health and safety. Ellis added that the company has already been operating between multiple locations, including teams at Cape Canaveral, Florida, as well as at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and at its headquarters in LA. Relativity also had a further distributed workforce with a few employees working remotely from locations across the U.S, and it focused early on ensuring that its design and development processes could work without requiring everyone to be centrally-based.

“We’ve developed our own custom software tools to just streamline those workflows, that that really helped,” Ellis said. “Also, just being more of a cloud-enabled company, while still complying with ITAR and security protocols has been really, really advantageous as well.”

In addition to their focus on in-house software and cloud-based tools, Ellis credits the timing of their most recent round – a $140 million investment closed last October – as a reason they’re well-situated for enduring the COVID-19 crisis. He says that Relativity no only managed to avoid any layoffs, while sending out new offers, but they’re also still paying all employees, including hourly workers, their full regular wage. All of this stems from a business model that in retrospect, seems prescient, but that Ellis says actually just has significant advantages in today’s global business climate by virtue of chance. Still, he does believe that some of Relativity’s resilience thus far signals some of the biggest lasting changes that will result from the coronavirus pandemic.

“What it’s really going to change […] is the approach to global supply chain,” he said. “I think there’s going to be a big push to have more things made in America, and then less dependence on heavy globalization across supply chain. That’s one you thing we’ve always had with 3D printing – not only is an automated technology, where we can have very few operators still making progress even during times like like this and printing some of the first stage structures of our rocket – but on the supply chain side, just having simpler supply chains with fewer vendors and different types of manufacturing processes mean it’s much less likely that we’ll see very significant supplier and supply chain interruptions.”

Meanwhile, while Ellis says that ultimately they can’t predict how the coronavirus crisis will impact their overall schedule in terms of planned launch activities, which includes flying their first 3D-printed vehicle in 2021, they anticipate being able to make plenty of progress through remote work and a production line that can easily comply with social isolation guidelines. Partner facility shutdowns, including the rocket engine test stand at Stennis, will definitely have an impact, but Relativity’s resilience could prove a model for manufacturing businesses of all stripes to emulate once this moment has passed.

OctoML raises $15M to make optimizing ML models easier

OctoML, a startup founded by the team behind the Apache TVM machine learning compiler stack project, today announced it has raised a $15 million Series A round led by Amplify, with participation from Madrone Ventures, which led its $3.9 million seed round. The core idea behind OctoML and TVM is to use machine learning to optimize machine learning models so they can more efficiently run on different types of hardware.

“There’s been quite a bit of progress in creating machine learning models,” OctoML CEO and University of Washington professor Luis Ceze told me. “But a lot of the pain has moved to once you have a model, how do you actually make good use of it in the edge and in the clouds?”

That’s where the TVM project comes in, which was launched by Ceze and his collaborators at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. It’s now an Apache incubating project and because it’s seen quite a bit of usage and support from major companies like AWS, ARM, Facebook, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Nvidia, Xilinx and others, the team decided to form a commercial venture around it, which became OctoML. Today, even Amazon Alexa’s wake word detection is powered by TVM.

Ceze described TVM as a modern operating system for machine learning models. “A machine learning model is not code, it doesn’t have instructions, it has numbers that describe its statistical modeling,” he said. “There’s quite a few challenges in making it run efficiently on a given hardware platform because there’s literally billions and billions of ways in which you can map a model to specific hardware targets. Picking the right one that performs well is a significant task that typically requires human intuition.”

And that’s where OctoML and its “Octomizer” SaaS product, which it also announced, today come in. Users can upload their model to the service and it will automatically optimize, benchmark and package it for the hardware you specify and in the format you want. For more advanced users, there’s also the option to add the service’s API to their CI/CD pipelines. These optimized models run significantly faster because they can now fully leverage the hardware they run on, but what many businesses will maybe care about even more is that these more efficient models also cost them less to run in the cloud, or that they are able to use cheaper hardware with less performance to get the same results. For some use cases, TVM already results in 80x performance gains.

Currently, the OctoML team consists of about 20 engineers. With this new funding, the company plans to expand its team. Those hires will mostly be engineers, but Ceze also stressed that he wants to hire an evangelist, which makes sense, given the company’s open-source heritage. He also noted that while the Octomizer is a good start, the real goal here is to build a more fully featured MLOps platform. “OctoML’s mission is to build the world’s best platform that automates MLOps,” he said.

Tech giants should let startups defer cloud payments

Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are the landlords. Amidst the Coronavirus economic crisis, startups need a break from paying rent. They’re in a cash crunch. Revenue has stopped flowing in, capital markets like venture debt are hesitant, and startups and small-to-medium sized businessesf are at risk of either having to lay off huge numbers of employees and/or shut down.

Meanwhile, the tech giants are cash rich. Their success this decade means they’re able to weather the storm for a few months. Their customers cannot.

Cloud infrastructure costs area amongst many startups’ top expenses besides payroll. The option to pay these cloud bills later could save some from going out of business or axing huge parts of their staff. Both would hurt the tech industry, the economy, and the individuals laid off. But most worryingly for the giants, it could destroy their customer base.

The mass layoffs have already begun. Soon we’re sure to start hearing about sizable companies shutting down, upended by COVID-19. But there’s still an opportunity to stop a larger bloodbath from ensuing.

That’s why I have a proposal: cloud relief.

The platform giants should let startups and small businesses defer their cloud infrastructure payments for three to six months until they can pay them back in installments. Amazon AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, these companies’ additional infrastructure products, and other platform providers should let customers pause payment until the worst of the first wave of the COVID-19 economic disruption passes. Profitable SAAS providers like Salesforce could give customers an extension too.

There are plenty of altruistic reasons to do this. They have the resources to help businesses in need. We all need to support each other in these tough times. This could protect tons of families. Some of these startups are providing important services to the public and even discounting them, thereby ramping up their bills while decreasing revenue.

Then there are the PR reasons. After years of techlash and anti-trust scrutiny, here’s the chance for the giants to prove their size can be beneficial to the world. Recruiters could use it as a talking point. “We’re the company that helped save Silicon Valley.” There’s an explanation for them squirreling away so much cash: the rainy day has finally arrived.

But the capitalistic truth and the story they could sell to Wall Street is that it’s not good for our business if our customers go out of business. Look at what happened to infrastructure providers in the dotcom crash. When tons of startups vaporized, so did the profits for those selling them hosting and tools. Any government stimulus for businesses would be better spent by them paying employees than paying the cloud companies that aren’t in danger. Saving one future Netflix from shutting down could cover any short-term loss from helping 100 other businesses.

This isn’t a handout. These startups will still owe the money. They’d just be able to pay it a little later, spread out over their monthly bills for a year or so. Once mass shelter-in-place orders subside, businesses can operate at least a little closer to normal, and investors get less cautious, customers will have the cash they need to pay their dues. Plus interest if necessary.

Meanwhile, they’ll be locked in and loyal customers for the foreseeable future. Cloud vendors could gate the deferment to only customers that have been with them for X amount of months or that have already spent Y amount on the platform. The vendors could also offer the deferment on the condition that customers add a year or more to their existing contracts. Founders will remember who gave them the benefit of the doubt.

cloud ice cream cone imagine

Consider it a marketing expense. Platforms often offer discounts or free trials to new customers. Now it’s existing customers that need a reprieve. Instead of airport ads, the giants could spend the money ensuring they’ll still have plenty of developers building atop them by the end of 2020.

Beyond deferred payment, platforms could just push the due date on all outstanding bills to three or six months from now. Alternatively, they could offer a deep discount such as 50% off for three months if they didn’t want to deal with accruing debt and then servicing it. Customers with multi-year contracts could offered the opportunity to downgrade or renegotiate their contracts without penalties. Any of these might require giving sales quota forgiveness to their account executives.

It would likely be far too complicated and risky to accept equity in lieu of cash, a cut of revenue going forward, or to provide loans or credit lines to customers. The clearest and simplest solution is to let startups skip a few payments, then pay more every month later until they clear their debt. When asked for comment or about whether they’re considering payment deferment options, Microsoft declined, and Amazon and Google did not respond.

To be clear, administering payment deferment won’t be simple or free. It could require the giants to change their earnings guidance. Rewriting deals with significantly sized customers will take work on both ends, and there’s a chance of breach of contract disputes. Giants would face the threat of customers recklessly using cloud resources before shutting down or skipping town.

Most taxing would be determining and enforcing the criteria of who’s eligible. The vendors would need to lay out which customers are too big so they don’t accidentally give a cloud-intensive but healthy media company a deferment they don’t need. Businesses that get questionably excluded could make a stink in public. Executing on the plan will require staff when giants are stretched thin trying to handle logistics disruptions, misinformation, and accelerating work-from-home usage.

Still, this is the moment when the fortunate need to lend a hand to the vulnerable. Not a hand out, but a hand up. Companies with billions in cash in their coffers could save those struggling to pay salaries. All the fundraisers and info centers and hackathons are great, but this is how the tech giants can live up to their lofty mission statements.

We all live in the cloud now. Don’t evict us. #CloudRelief

Thanks to Falon Fatemi, Corey Quinn, Ilya Fushman, Jason Kim, Ilya Sukhar, and Michael Campbell for their ideas and feedback on this proposal

Google cancels Cloud Next because of coronavirus, goes online-only

Google today announced that it is canceling the physical part of Cloud Next, its cloud-focused event and its largest annual conference by far with around 30,000 attendees, over concerns around the current spread of COVID-19.

Given all of the recent conference cancellations, this announcement doesn’t come as a huge surprise, especially after Facebook canceled its F8 developer conference only a few days ago.

Cloud Next was scheduled to run from April 6 to 8. Instead of the physical event, Google will now host an online event under the “Google Cloud Next ’20: Digital Connect” moniker. So there will still be keynotes and breakout sessions, as well as the ability to connect with experts.

“Innovation is in Google’s DNA and we are leveraging this strength to bring you an immersive and inspiring event this year without the risk of travel,” the company notes in today’s announcement.

The virtual event will be free and in an email to attendees, Google says that it will automatically refund all tickets to this year’s conference. It will also automatically cancel all hotel reservations made through its conference reservation system.

It now remains to be seen what happens to Google’s other major conference, I/O, which is slated to run from May 12 to 14 in Mountain View. The same holds true for Microsoft’s rival Build conference in Seattle, which is scheduled to start on May 19. These are the two premier annual news events for both companies, but given the current situation, nobody would be surprised if they get canceled, too.

AWS partners with Kenya’s Safaricom on cloud and consulting services

Amazon Web Services has entered a partnership with Safaricom — Kenya’s largest telco, ISP and mobile payment provider — in a collaboration that could spell competition between American cloud providers in Africa.

In a statement to TechCrunch, the East African company framed the arrangement as a “strategic agreement” whereby Safaricom will sell AWS services (primarily cloud) to its East Africa customer network.

Safaricom — whose products include the famed M-Pesa mobile money product — will also become the first Advanced Consulting Partner for the AWS partner network in East Africa.

“The APN is…the program for technology…businesses who leverage AWS to build solutions and services for customers…and sell their AWS offerings by providing valuable business, technical, and marketing support,” Safaricom said.

“We chose to partner with AWS because it offers customers the broadest and deepest cloud platform…This agreement will allow us to accelerate our efforts to enable digital transformation in Kenya,” said Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph.

“Safaricom will be able to offer AWS services to East-African customers, allowing businesses of all sizes to quickly get started on AWS cloud,” the company statement continued.

For now, the information provided by Safaricom is a bit sparse on the why and how of the partnership between the American company and East African mobile, financial and ISP provider.

TechCrunch has an inquiry into Amazon and some additional questions posed to Safaricom, toward additional coverage.

An initial what-this-all-means take on the partnership points to an emerging competition between American cloud service providers to scale in Africa by leveraging networks of local partners.

The most obvious rival to the AWS-Safaricom strategic agreement is the Microsoft -Liquid Telecom collaboration. Since 2017, MS has partnered with the Southern African digital infrastructure company to grow Microsoft’s AWS competitor product — Azure — and offer cloud services to the continent’s startups and established businesses.

MS and Liquid Telecom have focused heavily on the continent’s young tech companies. “We believe startups will be key employers in Africa’s future economy. They’re also our future customers,” Liquid Telecom’s  Head of Innovation Partnerships Oswald Jumira told TechCrunch in 2018.

Amazon hasn’t gone fully live yet with e-commerce services in Africa, but it has aggressively positioned AWS and built a regional client list that includes startups — such as fintech venture Jumo — and large organizations, such Absa and Standard Bank.

Partnering with Safaricom plugs AWS into the network of one East Africa’s most prominent digital companies.

Safaricom, led primarily by its M-Pesa mobile money product, holds remarkable dominance in Kenya, Africa’s 6th largest economy. M-Pesa has 20.5 million customers across a network of 176,000 agents and generates around one-fourth ($531 million) of Safaricom’s ≈ $2.2 billion annual revenues (2018).

Compared to other players — such as Airtel  Money and Equitel Money — M-Pesa has 80% of Kenya’s mobile money agent network, 82% of the country’s active mobile-money subscribers and transfers 80% of Kenya’s mobile-money transactions, per the latest sector statistics.

A number of Safaricom’s clients (including those it provides payments and internet services to) are companies, SMEs and startups.

Extending AWS services to them will play out next to the building of Microsoft’s $100 million Africa Development Center, with an office in Nairobi, announced last year.

VC firm Oxx says SaaS startups should avoid high-risk growth models

Oxx, a European venture capital firm co-founded by Richard Anton and Mikael Johnsson, this month announced the closing of its debut fund of $133 million to back “Europe’s most promising SaaS companies” at Series A and beyond.

Launched in 2017 and headquartered in London and Stockholm, Oxx pitches itself as one of only a few European funds focused solely on SaaS, and says it will invest broadly across software applications and infrastructure, highlighting five key themes: “data convergence & refinery,” “future of work,” “financial services infrastructure,” “user empowerment” and “sustainable business.”

However, its standout USP is that the firm says it wants to be a more patient form of capital than investors who have a rigid Silicon Valley SaaS mindset, which, it says, often places growth ahead of building long-lasting businesses.

I caught up with Oxx’s co-founders to dig deeper into their thinking, both with regards to the firm’s remit and investment thesis, and to learn more about the pair’s criticism of the prevailing venture capital model they say often pushes SaaS companies to prioritize “grow at all costs.”

TechCrunch: Oxx is described as a B2B software investor investing in SaaS companies across Europe from Series A and beyond. Can you be more specific regarding the size of check you write and the types of companies, geographies, technologies and business models you are focusing on?

Richard Anton: We will lead funding rounds anywhere in the range $5-20 million in SaaS companies. Some themes we’re especially excited about include data convergence and the refining and usage of data (think applications of machine learning, for example), the future of work, financial services infrastructure, end-user empowerment and sustainable business.

A group of ex-NSA and Amazon engineers are building a ‘GitHub for data’

Six months ago or thereabouts, a group of engineers and developers with backgrounds from the National Security Agency, Google and Amazon Web Services had an idea.

Data is valuable for helping developers and engineers to build new features and better innovate. But that data is often highly sensitive and out of reach, kept under lock and key by red tape and compliance, which can take weeks to get approval. So, the engineers started Gretel, an early-stage startup that aims to help developers safely share and collaborate with sensitive data in real time.

It’s not as niche of a problem as you might think, said Alex Watson, one of the co-founders. Developers can face this problem at any company, he said. Often, developers don’t need full access to a bank of user data — they just need a portion or a sample to work with. In many cases, developers could suffice with data that looks like real user data.

“It starts with making data safe to share,” Watson said. “There’s all these really cool use cases that people have been able to do with data.” He said companies like GitHub, a widely used source code sharing platform, helped to make source code accessible and collaboration easy. “But there’s no GitHub equivalent for data,” he said.

And that’s how Watson and his co-founders, John Myers, Ali Golshan and Laszlo Bock came up with Gretel.

“We’re building right now software that enables developers to automatically check out an anonymized version of the data set,” said Watson. This so-called “synthetic data” is essentially artificial data that looks and works just like regular sensitive user data. Gretel uses machine learning to categorize the data — like names, addresses and other customer identifiers — and classify as many labels to the data as possible. Once that data is labeled, it can be applied access policies. Then, the platform applies differential privacy — a technique used to anonymize vast amounts of data — so that it’s no longer tied to customer information. “It’s an entirely fake data set that was generated by machine learning,” said Watson.

It’s a pitch that’s already gathering attention. The startup has raised $3.5 million in seed funding to get the platform off the ground, led by Greylock Partners, and with participation from Moonshots Capital, Village Global and several angel investors.

“At Google, we had to build our own tools to enable our developers to safely access data, because the tools that we needed didn’t exist,” said Sridhar Ramaswamy, a former Google executive, and now a partner at Greylock.

Gretel said it will charge customers based on consumption — a similar structure to how Amazon prices access to its cloud computing services.

“Right now, it’s very heads-down and building,” said Watson. The startup plans to ramp up its engagement with the developer community in the coming weeks, with an eye on making Gretel available in the next six months, he said.

Thomas Kurian on his first year as Google Cloud CEO

“Yes.”

That was Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian’s simple answer when I asked if he thought he’d achieved what he set out to do in his first year.

A year ago, he took the helm of Google’s cloud operations — which includes G Suite — and set about giving the organization a sharpened focus by expanding on a strategy his predecessor Diane Greene first set during her tenure.

It’s no secret that Kurian, with his background at Oracle, immediately put the entire Google Cloud operation on a course to focus on enterprise customers, with an emphasis on a number of key verticals.

So it’s no surprise, then, that the first highlight Kurian cited is that Google Cloud expanded its feature lineup with important capabilities that were previously missing. “When we look at what we’ve done this last year, first is maturing our products,” he said. “We’ve opened up many markets for our products because we’ve matured the core capabilities in the product. We’ve added things like compliance requirements. We’ve added support for many enterprise things like SAP and VMware and Oracle and a number of enterprise solutions.” Thanks to this, he stressed, analyst firms like Gartner and Forrester now rank Google Cloud “neck-and-neck with the other two players that everybody compares us to.”

If Google Cloud’s previous record made anything clear, though, it’s that technical know-how and great features aren’t enough. One of the first actions Kurian took was to expand the company’s sales team to resemble an organization that looked a bit more like that of a traditional enterprise company. “We were able to specialize our sales teams by industry — added talent into the sales organization and scaled up the sales force very, very significantly — and I think you’re starting to see those results. Not only did we increase the number of people, but our productivity improved as well as the sales organization, so all of that was good.”

He also cited Google’s partner business as a reason for its overall growth. Partner influence revenue increased by about 200% in 2019, and its partners brought in 13 times more new customers in 2019 when compared to the previous year.

Google Cloud opens its Seoul region

Google Cloud today announced that its new Seoul region, its first in Korea, is now open for business. The region, which it first talked about last April, will feature three availability zones and support for virtually all of Google Cloud’s standard service, ranging from Compute Engine to BigQuery, Bigtable and Cloud Spanner.

With this, Google Cloud now has a presence in 16 countries and offers 21 regions with a total of 64 zones. The Seoul region (with the memorable name of asia-northeast3) will complement Google’s other regions in the area, including two in Japan, as well as regions in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but the obvious focus here is on serving Korean companies with low-latency access to its cloud services.

“As South Korea’s largest gaming company, we’re partnering with Google Cloud for game development, infrastructure management, and to infuse our operations with business intelligence,” said Chang-Whan Sul, the CTO of Netmarble. “Google Cloud’s region in Seoul reinforces its commitment to the region and we welcome the opportunities this initiative offers our business.”

Over the course of this year, Google Cloud also plans to open more zones and regions in Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Jakarta, Indonesia.

Google Cloud acquires mainframe migration service Cornerstone

Google today announced that it has acquired Cornerstone, a Dutch company that specializes in helping enterprise migrate their legacy workloads from mainframes to public clouds. Cornerstone, which provides very hands-on migration assistance, will form the basis of Google Cloud’s mainframe-to-GCP solutions.

This move is very much in line with Google Cloud’s overall enterprise strategy, which focuses on helping existing enterprises move their legacy workloads into the cloud (and start new projects as cloud-native solutions from the get-go).

“This is one more example of how Google Cloud is helping enterprise customers modernize their infrastructure and applications as they transition to the cloud,” said John Jester, VP of Customer Experience at Google Cloud. “We’ve been making great strides to better serve enterprise customers, including introducing Premium Support, better aligning our Customer Success organization, simplifying our commercial contracting process to make it easier to do business with Google Cloud, and expanding our partner relationships.”

A lot of businesses still rely on their mainframes to power mission-critical workloads. Moving them to the cloud is often a very complex undertaking, which is where Cornerstone and similar vendors come in. It doesn’t help that a lot of these mainframe applications were written in Cobol, PL/1 or assembly. Cornerstone’s technology can automatically break these processes down into cloud-native services that are then managed within a containerized environment. It can also migrate databases as needed.

It’s worth noting that Google Cloud also recently introduced support for IBM Power Systems in its cloud. This, too, was a move to help enterprises move their legacy systems into the cloud. With Cornerstone, Google Cloud adds yet another layer on top of this by providing even more hands-on migration assistance for users who want to slowly modernize their overall stack without having to re-architect all of their legacy applications.