AI-driven audio cloning startup gives voice to Einstein chatbot

You’ll need to prick up your ears up for this slice of deepfakery emerging from the wacky world of synthesized media: A digital version of Albert Einstein — with a synthesized voice that’s been (re)created using AI voice cloning technology drawing on audio recordings of the famous scientist’s actual voice.

 

The startup behind the ‘uncanny valley’ audio deepfake of Einstein is Aflorithmic (whose seed round we covered back in February).

While the video engine powering the 3D character rending components of this ‘digital human’ version of Einstein is the work of another synthesized media company — UneeQ — which is hosting the interactive chatbot version on its website.

Alforithmic says the ‘digital Einstein’ is intended as a showcase for what will soon be possible with conversational social commerce. Which is a fancy way of saying deepfakes that make like historical figures will probably be trying to sell you pizza soon enough, as industry watchers have presciently warned.

The startup also says it sees educational potential in bringing famous, long deceased figures to interactive ‘life’.

Or, well, an artificial approximation of it — the ‘life’ being purely virtual and Digital Einstein’s voice not being a pure tech-powered clone either; Alforithmic says it also worked with an actor to do voice modelling for the chatbot (because how else was it going to get Digital Einstein to be able to say words the real-deal would never even have dreamt of saying — like, er, ‘blockchain’?). So there’s a bit more than AI artifice going on here too.

“This is the next milestone in showcasing the technology to make conversational social commerce possible,” Alforithmic’s COO Matt Lehmann told us. “There are still more than one flaws to iron out as well as tech challenges to overcome but overall we think this is a good way to show where this is moving to.”

In a blog post discussing how it recreated Einstein’s voice the startup writes about progress it made on one challenging element associated with the chatbot version — saying it was able to shrink the response time between turning around input text from the computational knowledge engine to its API being able to render a voiced response, down from an initial 12 seconds to less than three (which it dubs “near-real-time”). But it’s still enough of a lag to ensure the bot can’t escape from being a bit tedious.

Laws that protect people’s data and/or image, meanwhile, present a legal and/or ethical challenge to creating such ‘digital clones’ of living humans — at least not without asking (and most likely paying) first.

Of course historical figures aren’t around to ask awkward questions about the ethics of their likeness being appropriated for selling stuff (if only the cloning technology itself, at this nascent stage). Though licensing rights may still apply — and do in fact in the case of Einstein.

“His rights lie with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who is a partner in this project,” says Lehmann, before ‘fessing up to the artist licence element of the Einstein ‘voice cloning’ performance. “In fact, we actually didn’t clone Einstein’s voice as such but found inspiration in original recordings as well as in movies. The voice actor who helped us modelling his voice is a huge admirer himself and his performance captivated the character Einstein very well, we thought.”

Turns out the truth about high-tech ‘lies’ is itself a bit of a layer cake. But with deepfakes it’s not the sophistication of the technology that matters so much as the impact the content has — and that’s always going to depend upon context. And however well (or badly) the faking is done, how people respond to what they see and hear can shift the whole narrative — from a positive story (creative/educational synthesized media) to something deeply negative (alarming, misleading deepfakes).

Concern about the potential for deepfakes to become a tool for disinformation is rising, too, as the tech gets more sophisticated — helping to drive moves toward regulating AI in Europe, where the two main entities responsible for ‘Digital Einstein’ are based.

Earlier this week a leaked draft of an incoming legislative proposal on pan-EU rules for ‘high risk’ applications of artificial intelligence included some sections specifically targeted at deepfakes.

Under the plan, lawmakers look set to propose “harmonised transparency rules” for AI systems that are designed to interact with humans and those used to generate or manipulate image, audio or video content. So a future Digital Einstein chatbot (or sales pitch) is likely to need to unequivocally declare itself artificial before it starts faking it — to avoid the need for Internet users to have to apply a virtual Voight-Kampff test.

For now, though, the erudite-sounding interactive Digital Einstein chatbot still has enough of a lag to give the game away. Its makers are also clearly labelling their creation in the hopes of selling their vision of AI-driven social commerce to other businesses.

Facebook faces ‘mass action’ lawsuit in Europe over 2019 breach

Facebook is to be sued in Europe over the major leak of user data that dates back to 2019 but which only came to light recently after information on 533M+ accounts was found posted for free download on a hacker forum.

Today Digital Rights Ireland (DRI) announced it’s commencing a “mass action” to sue Facebook, citing the right to monetary compensation for breaches of personal data that’s set out in the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Article 82 of the GDPR provides for a ‘right to compensation and liability’ for those affected by violations of the law. Since the regulation came into force, in May 2018, related civil litigation has been on the rise in the region.

The Ireland-based digital rights group is urging Facebook users who live in the European Union or European Economic Area to check whether their data was breach — via the haveibeenpwned website (which lets you check by email address or mobile number) — and sign up to join the case if so.

Information leaked via the breach includes Facebook IDs, location, mobile phone numbers, email address, relationship status and employer.

Facebook has been contacted for comment on the litigation.

The tech giant’s European headquarters is located in Ireland — and earlier this week the national data watchdog opened an investigation, under EU and Irish data protection laws.

A mechanism in the GDPR for simplifying investigation of cross-border cases means Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) is Facebook’s lead data regulator in the EU. However it has been criticized over its handling of and approach to GDPR complaints and investigations — including the length of time it’s taking to issue decisions on major cross-border cases. And this is particularly true for Facebook.

With the three-year anniversary of the GDPR fast approaching, the DPC has multiple open investigations into various aspects of Facebook’s business but has yet to issue a single decision against the company.

(The closest it’s come is a preliminary suspension order issued last year, in relation to Facebook’s EU to US data transfers. However that complaint long predates GDPR; and Facebook immediately filed to block the order via the courts. A resolution is expected later this year after the litigant filed his own judicial review of the DPC’s processes).

Since May 2018 the EU’s data protection regime has — at least on paper — baked in fines of up to 4% of a company’s global annual turnover for the most serious violations.

Again, though, the sole GDPR fine issued to date by the DPC against a tech giant (Twitter) is very far off that theoretical maximum. Last December the regulator announced a €450k (~$547k) sanction against Twitter — which works out to around just 0.1% of the company’s full-year revenue.

That penalty was also for a data breach — but one which, unlike the Facebook leak, had been publicly disclosed when Twitter found it in 2019. So Facebook’s failure to disclose the vulnerability it discovered and claims it fixed by September 2019, which led to the leak of 533M accounts now, suggests it should face a higher sanction from the DPC than Twitter received.

However even if Facebook ends up with a more substantial GDPR penalty for this breach the watchdog’s caseload backlog and plodding procedural pace makes it hard to envisage a swift resolution to an investigation that’s only a few days old.

Judging by past performance it’ll be years before the DPC decides on this 2019 Facebook leak — which likely explains why the DRI sees value in instigating class-action style litigation in parallel to the regulatory investigation.

“Compensation is not the only thing that makes this mass action worth joining. It is important to send a message to large data controllers that they must comply with the law and that there is a cost to them if they do not,” DRI writes on its website.

It also submitted a complaint about the Facebook breach to the DPC earlier this month, writing then that it was “also consulting with its legal advisors on other options including a mass action for damages in the Irish Courts”.

It’s clear that the GDPR enforcement gap is creating a growing opportunity for litigation funders to step in in Europe and take a punt on suing for data-related compensation damages — with a number of other mass actions announced last year.

In the case of DRI its focus is evidently on seeking to ensure that digital rights are upheld. But it told RTE that it believes compensation claims which force tech giants to pay money to users whose privacy rights have been violated is the best way to make them legally compliant.

Facebook, meanwhile, has sought to play down the breach it failed to disclose — claiming it’s ‘old data’ — a deflection that ignores the fact that dates of birth don’t change (nor do most people routinely change their mobile number or email address).

Plenty of the ‘old’ data exposed in this latest massive Facebook data leak will be very handy for spammers and fraudsters to target Facebook users — and also now for litigators to target Facebook for data-related damages.

Oxbotica raises $13.8M from Ocado to build autonomous vehicle tech for the online grocer’s logistics network

Ocado, the UK online grocer that has been making strides reselling its technology to other grocery companies to help them build and run their own online ordering-and-delivery operations, is making an investment today into what it believes will be the next stage of development of that business: the company is taking a £10 million ($13.8 million) stake in Oxbotica, a UK startup that develops autonomous driving systems.

Ocado is treating this as a strategic investment to develop autonomous systems that will work across its operations, from vehicles within and around its packing warehouses through to the last-mile vehicles that deliver grocery orders to people’s homes. It says it expects the first products to come out of this deal — likely in closed environments like warehouses rather than open streets — to be online in two years.

“We are excited about the opportunity to work with Oxbotica to develop a wide range of autonomous solutions that truly have the potential to transform both our and our partners’ CFC [customer fulfillment centers] and service delivery operations, while also giving all end customers the widest range of options and flexibility,” said Alex Harvey, chief of advanced technology at Ocado, in a statement.

The investment is coming as an extension to Oxbotica’s Series B that it announced in January, bringing the total size of the round — which was led by bp ventures, the investing arm of oil and gas giant bp, and also included BGF, safety equipment maker Halma, pension fund HostPlus, IP Group, Tencent, Venture Science and funds advised by Doxa Partners — to over $60 million.

The timing of the news is very interesting. It comes just one day (less than 24 hours in fact) after Walmart in the US took a stake in Cruise, another autonomous tech company, as part of recent $2.75B monster round. Walmart owns one of Ocado’s big competitors in the UK, ASDA; and Ocado recently made its first forays into the US, by way of its deal to power Kroger’s delivery. So it seems that competition between these two is heating up on the food front.

More generally, there has been a huge surge in the world of online grocery order and delivery services in the last year, with earlier movers like online-only Ocado, Tesco in the U.K. (which owns both physical stores and online networks), and Instacart in the U.S. seeing record demand, but also a lot of competition from well-capitalized newer entrants bringing different approaches (next-hour delivery, smaller baskets, specific products).

In Ocado’s home patch of Europe, they include Oda (formerly Kolonial), Rohlik out of the Czech Republic (which in March bagged $230 million in funding); Everli out of Italy (formerly called Supermercato24, it raised $100 million); Picnic out of the Netherlands (which has yet to announce any recent funding but it feels like it’s only a matter of time given it too has publicly laid out international ambitions). Even Ocado has raised huge amounts of money to pursue its own international ambitions. And that’s before you consider the nearly dozens of next-hour, smaller bag grocery delivery plays.

A lot of these players will have had a big year last year, not least because of the pandemic. Now, the big question will be how that market will look in the future as peoples go back to “normal” life.

That may well tighten the competitive landscape, and could be one reason why companies like Ocado are putting more money into working on what might be the next generation of services, one more efficient and run purely (or at least mostly) on technology.

Logistics account for some 10% of the total cost of a grocery delivery operation. But that figure goes up when there is peak demand or anything that disrupts regularly scheduled services.

My guess is also that with all of the subsidised services that are flying about right now where you see free deliveries or discounts on groceries to encourage new business — a result of the market getting so competitive — those logistics have bled into being an even bigger cost. So it’s no surprise to see the biggest players in this space looking at ways that it might leverage advances in technology to cut those costs and speed up how those operations work.

In addition to this collaboration with Oxbotica, Ocado continues to seek further investments and/or partnerships as it grows and develops its autonomous vehicle capabilities.

Notably, Oxbotica and Ocado are not strangers. They started to work together on a delivery pilot back in 2017. You can see a video of how that delivery service looks here:

 

“This is an excellent opportunity for Oxbotica and Ocado to strengthen our partnership, sharing our vision for the future of autonomy,” said Paul Newman, co-founder and CTO of Oxbotica, in a statement. “By combining both companies’ cutting-edge knowledge and resources, we hope to bring our Universal Autonomy vision to life and continue to solve some of the world’s most complex autonomy challenges.”

But as with all self-driving technology — incredibly complex and full of regulatory and safety hurdles — we are still fairly far from full commercial systems that actually remove people from the equation completely.

“For both regulatory and complexity reasons, Ocado expects that the development of vehicles that operate in low-speed urban areas or in restricted access areas, such as inside its CFC buildings or within its CFC yards, may become a reality sooner than fully-autonomous deliveries to consumers’ homes,” Ocado notes in its statement on the deal. “However, all aspects of autonomous vehicle development will be within the scope of this collaboration. Ocado expects to see the first prototypes of some early use cases for autonomous vehicles within two years.”

More to come.

MEPs call for European AI rules to ban biometric surveillance in public

A cross-party group of 40 MEPs in the European parliament has called on the Commission to strengthen an incoming legislative proposal on artificial intelligence to include an outright ban on the use of facial recognition and other forms of biometric surveillance in public places.

They have also urged EU lawmakers to outlaw automated recognition of people’s sensitive characteristics (such as gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity, health status and disability) — warning that such AI-fuelled practices pose too great a rights risk and can fuel discrimination.

The Commission is expected to presented its proposal for a framework to regulate ‘high risk’ applications of AI next week — but a copy of the draft leaked this week (via Politico). And, as we reported earlier, this leaked draft does not include a ban on the use of facial recognition or similar biometric remote identification technologies in public places, despite acknowledging the strength of public concern over the issue.

“Biometric mass surveillance technology in publicly accessible spaces is widely being criticised for wrongfully reporting large numbers of innocent citizens, systematically discriminating against under-represented groups and having a chilling effect on a free and diverse society. This is why a ban is needed,” the MEPs write now in a letter to the Commission which they’ve also made public.

They go on to warn over the risks of discrimination through automated inference of people’s sensitive characteristics — such as in applications like predictive policing or the indiscriminate monitoring and tracking of populations via their biometric characteristics.

“This can lead to harms including violating rights to privacy and data protection; suppressing free speech; making it harder to expose corruption; and have a chilling effect on everyone’s autonomy, dignity and self-expression – which in particular can seriously harm LGBTQI+ communities, people of colour, and other discriminated-against groups,” the MEPs write, calling on the Commission to amend the AI proposal to outlaw the practice in order to protect EU citizens’ rights and the rights of communities who faced a heightened risk of discrimination (and therefore heightened risk from discriminatory tools supercharged with AI).

“The AI proposal offers a welcome opportunity to prohibit the automated recognition of gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity, disability and any other sensitive and protected characteristics,” they add.

The leaked draft of the Commission’s proposal does tackle indiscriminate mass surveillance — proposing to prohibit this practice, as well as outlawing general purpose social credit scoring systems.

However the MEPs want lawmakers to go further — warning over weaknesses in the wording of the leaked draft and suggesting changes to ensure that the proposed ban covers “all untargeted and indiscriminate mass surveillance, no matter how many people are exposed to the system”.

They also express alarm at the proposal having an exemption on the prohibition on mass surveillance for public authorities (or commercial entities working for them) — warning that this risks deviating from existing EU legislation and from interpretations by the bloc’s top court in this area.

“We strongly protest the proposed second paragraph of this Article 4 which would exempt public authorities and even private actors acting on their behalf ‘in order to safeguard public security’,” they write. “Public security is precisely what mass surveillance is being justified with, it is where it is practically relevant, and it is where the courts have consistently annulled legislation on indiscriminate bulk processing of personal data (e.g. the Data Retention Directive). This carve-out needs to be deleted.”

“This second paragraph could even be interpreted to deviate from other secondary legislation which the Court of Justice has so far interpreted to ban mass surveillance,” they continue. “The proposed AI regulation needs to make it very clear that its requirements apply in addition to those resulting from the data protection acquis and do not replace it. There is no such clarity in the leaked draft.”

The Commission has been contacted for comment on the MEPs’ calls but is unlikely to do so ahead of the official reveal of the draft AI regulation — which is expected around the middle of next week.

It remains to be seen whether the AI proposal will undergo any significant amendments between now and then. But MEPs have fired a swift warning shot that fundamental rights must and will be a key feature of the co-legislative debate — and that lawmakers’ claims of a framework to ensure ‘trustworthy’ AI won’t look credible if the rules don’t tackle unethical technologies head on.

Sales scheduling platform Chili Piper raises $33M Series B funding led by Tiger Global

Chili Piper, which has a sophisticated SaaS appointment scheduling platform for sales teams, has raised a $33 million B round led by Tiger Global. Existing investors Base10 Partners and Gradient Ventures (Google’s AI-focused VC) also participated. This brings the company’s total financing to $54 million. The company will use the capital raised to accelerate product development. The previous $18M A round was led by Base10 and Google’s Gradient Ventures 9 months ago.

It’s main competitor is Calendly, started 21/2 years previously, which recently achieved a $3Bn valuation.

Launched in 2016, Chili Piper’s software for B2B revenue teams is designed to convert leads into attended meetings. Sales teams can also use it to book demos, increase inbound conversion rates, eliminate manual lead routing, and streamline critical processes around meetings. It’s used by Intuit, Twilio, Forrester, Spotify, and Gong.

Chili Piper has a number of different tools for businesses to schedule and calendar accountments, but its key USP is in its use by ‘inbound SDR Sales Development Representatives (SDR)’, who are responsible for qualifying inbound sales leads. It’s particularly useful in scheduling calls when customers hit websites ask for a salesperson to call them back.

Nicolas Vandenberghe, CEO, and co-founder of Chili Piper said: “When we started we sold the house and decided to grow the company ourselves. So all the way until 2019 we bootstrapped. Tiger gave us a valuation that we expected to get at the end of this year, which will help us accelerate things much faster, so we couldn’t refuse it.”

Alina Vandenberghe, CPO, and Co-founder said: “We’re proud to have so many customers scheduling meetings and optimizing their calendars with Chili Piper’s Instant Booker.”

Since the pandemic hit, the husband-and-wife founded company has gone fully remote, with 93 employees in 81 cities and 21 countries.

John Curtius, Partner at Tiger Global said: “When we met Nicolas and Alina, we were fired up by their product vision and focus on customer happiness.”

TJ Nahigian, Managing Partner at Base10 Partners, added: “We originally invested in Chili Piper because we knew customers needed ways to add fire to how they connected with inbound leads. We’ve been absolutely blown away with the progress over the past year, 2020 has been a step-change for this company as business went remote.”

IBM acquires Italy’s MyInvenio to integrate process mining directly into its suite of automation tools

Automation has become a big theme in enterprise IT, with organizations using RPA, no-code and low-code tools, and other  technology to speed up work and bring more insights and analytics into how they do things every day, and today IBM is announcing an acquisition as it hopes to take on a bigger role in providing those automation services. The IT giant has acquired MyInvenio, an Italian startup that builds and operates process mining software.

Process mining is the part of the automation stack that tracks data produced by a company’s software, as well as how the software works, in order to provide guidance on what a company could and should do to improve it. In the case of myInvenio, the company’s approach involves making a “digital twin” of an organization to help track and optimize processes. IBM is interested in how myInvenio’s tools are able to monitor data in areas like sales, procurement, production and accounting to help organizations identify what might be better served with more automation, which it can in turn run using RPA or other tools as needed.

Terms of the deal are not being disclosed. It is not clear if myInvenio had any outside investors (we’ve asked and are awaiting a response). This is the second acquisition IBM has made out of Italy. (The first was in 2014, a company called CrossIdeas that now forms part of the company’s security business.)

IBM and myInvenio are not exactly strangers: the two inked a deal as recently as November 2020 to integrate the Italian startup’s technology into IBM’s bigger automation services business globally.

Dinesh Nirmal, GM of IBM Automation, said in an interview that the reason IBM acquired the company was two-fold. First, it lets IBM integrate the technology more closely into the company’s Cloud Pak for Business Automation, which sits on and is powered by Red Hat OpenShift and has other automation capabilities already embedded within it, specifically robotic process automation (RPA), document processing, workflows and decisions.

Second and perhaps more importantly, it will mean that IBM will not have to tussle for priority for its customers in competition with other solution partners that myInvenio already had. IBM will be the sole provider.

“Partnerships are great but in a partnership you also have the option to partner with others, and when it comes to priority who decides?” he said. “From the customer perspective, will they will work just on our deal, or others first? Now, our customers will get the end result of this… We can bring a single solution to an end user or an enterprise, saying, ‘look you have document processing, RPA, workflow, mining. That is the beauty of this and what customers will see.”

He said that IBM currently serves customers across a range of verticals including financial, insurance, healthcare and manufacturing with its automation products.

Notably, this is not the first acquisition that IBM has made to build out this stack. Last year, it acquired WDG to expand into robotic process automation.

And interestingly, it’s not even the only partnership that IBM has had in process mining. Just earlier this month, it announced a deal with one of the bigger names in the field, Celonis, a German startup valued at $2.5 billion in 2019.

Ironically, at the time, my colleague Ron wondered aloud why IBM wasn’t just buying Celonis outright in that deal. It’s hard to speculate if price was one reason. Remember: we don’t know the terms of this acquisition, but given myInvenio was off the fundraising radar, chances are it’s possibly a little less than Celonis’s pricetag.

We’ve asked and IBM has confirmed that it will continue to work with Celonis alongside now offering its own native process mining tools.

“In keeping with IBM’s open approach and $1 billion investment in ecosystem, [Global Business Services, IBM’s enterprise services division] works with a broad range of technologies based on client and market demand, including IBM AI and Automation software,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “Celonis focuses on execution management which supports GBS’ transformation of clients’ business processes through intelligent workflows across industries and domains. Specifically, Celonis has deep connectivity into enterprise systems such as Salesforce, SAP, Workday or ServiceNow, so the Celonis EMS platform helps GBS accelerate clients’ transformations and BPO engagements with these ERP platforms.”

Indeed, at the end of the day, companies that offer services, especially suites of services, are working in environments where they have to be open to customers using their own technology, or bringing in something else.

There may have been another force pushing IBM to bring more of this technology in-house, and that’s wider competitive climate. Earlier this year, SAP acquired another European startup in the process mining space, Signavio, in a deal reportedly worth about $1.2 billion. As more of these companies get snapped up by would-be IBM rivals, and those left standing are working with a plethora of other parties, maybe it was high time for IBM to make sure it had its own horse in the race.

“Through IBM’s planned acquisition of myInvenio, we are revolutionizing the way companies manage their process operations,” said Massimiliano Delsante, CEO, myInvenio, who will be staying on with the deal. “myInvenio’s unique capability to automatically analyze processes and create simulations — what we call a ‘Digital Twin of an Organization’ —  is joining with IBM’s AI-powered automation capabilities to better manage process execution. Together we will offer a comprehensive solution for digital process transformation and automation to help enterprises continuously transform insights into action.”

Cado Security locks in $10M for its cloud-native digital forensics platform

As computing systems become increasingly bigger and more complex, forensics have become an increasingly important part of how organizations can better secure them. As the recent Solar Winds breach has shown, it’s not always just a matter of being able to identify data loss, or prevent hackers from coming in in the first place. In cases where a network has already been breached, running a thorough investigation is often the only way to identify what happened, if a breach is still active, and whether a malicious hacker can strike again.

As a sign of this growing priority, a startup called Cado Security, which has built forensics technology native to the cloud to run those investigations, is announcing $10 million in funding to expand its business.

Cado’s tools today are used directly by organizations, but also security companies like Redacted — a somewhat under-the-radar security startup in San Francisco co-founded by Facebook’s former chief security officer Max Kelly and John Hering, the co-founder of Lookout. It uses Cado to carry out the forensics part of its work.

The funding for London-based Cado is being led by Blossom Capital, with existing investors Ten Eleven Ventures also participating, among others. As another signal of demand, this Series A is coming only six months after Cado raised its seed round.

The task of securing data on digital networks has grown increasingly complex over the years: not only are there more devices, more data and a wider range of configurations and uses around it, but malicious hackers have become increasingly sophisticated in their approaches to needling inside networks and doing their dirty work.

The move to the cloud has also been a major factor. While it has helped a wave of organizations expand and run much bigger computing processes are part of their business operations, it has also increased the so-called attack surface and made investigations much more complicated, not least because a lot of organizations run elastic processes, scaling their capacity up and down: this means when something is scaled down, logs of previous activity essentially disappear.

Cado’s Response product — which works proactively on a network and all of its activity after it’s installed — is built to work across cloud, on-premise and hybrid environments. Currently it’s available for AWS EC2 deployments and Docker, Kubernetes, OpenShift and AWS Fargate container systems, and the plan is to expand to Azure very soon. (Google Cloud Platform is less of a priority at the moment, CEO James Campbell said, since it rarely comes up with current and potential customers.)

Campbell co-founded Cado with Christopher Doman (the CTO) last April, with the concept for the company coming out of their respective experiences working on security services together at PwC, and respectively for government organizations (Campbell in Australia) and AlienVault (the security firm acquired by AT&T). In all of those, one persistent issue the two continued to encounter was the issue with adequate forensics data, essential for tracking the most complex breaches.

A lot of legacy forensics tools, in particular those tackling the trove of data in the cloud, was based on “processing data with open source and pulling together analysis in spreadsheets,” Campbell said. “There is a need to modernize this space for the cloud era.”

In a typical breach, it can take up to a month to run a thorough investigation to figure out what is going on, since, as Doman describes it, forensics looks at “every part of the disk, the files in a binary system. You just can’t find what you need without going to that level, those logs. We would look at the whole thing.”

However, that posed a major problem. “Having a month with a hacker running around before you can do something about it is just not acceptable,” Campbell added. The result, typically, is that other forensics tools investigate only about 5% of an organization’s data.

The solution — for which Cado has filed patents, the pair said — has essentially involved building big data tools that can automate and speed up the very labor intensive process of looking through activity logs to figure out what looks unusual and to find patterns within all the ones and zeros.

“That gives security teams more room to focus on what the hacker is getting up to, the remediation aspect,” Campbell explained.

Arguably, if there were better, faster tracking and investigation technology in place, something like Solar Winds could have been better mitigated.

The plan for the company is to bring in more integrations to cover more kinds of systems, and go beyond deployments that you’d generally classify as “infrastructure as a service.”

“Over the past year, enterprises have compressed their cloud adoption timelines while protecting the applications that enable their remote workforces,” said Imran Ghory, partner at Blossom Capital, in a statement. “Yet as high-profile breaches like SolarWinds illustrate, the complexity of cloud environments makes rapid investigation and response extremely difficult since security analysts typically are not trained as cloud experts. Cado Security solves for this with an elegant solution that automates time-consuming tasks like capturing forensically sound cloud data so security teams can move faster and more efficiently. The opportunity to help Cado Security scale rapidly is a terrific one for Blossom Capital.”

Lingoda, an on-demand online language school with live instructors and Zoom classrooms, raises $67M

A startup out of Berlin that’s built and grown a successful online language learning platform based around live teachers and virtual classrooms is announcing some funding today to continue expanding its business.

Lingoda, which connects students who want to learn a language — currently English, Spanish, French or German — with native-speaking teachers who run thousands of 24/7 live, immersion classes across a range of language levels, has picked up $67 million (€57 million). CEO Michael Shangkuan said the funding will be used both to continue enhancing its tech platform — with more tools for teachers and asynchronous supplementary material — and to widen its footprint in markets further afield such as the U.S.

The company currently has some 70,000 students, 1,400 teachers and runs more than 450,000 classes each year covering some 2,000 lessons. Shangkuan said that its revenue run rate is at 10x that of a year ago, and its customer base in that time grew 200% with students across 200 countries, so it is not a stranger to scaling as it doubles down on the model.

“We want the whole world to be learning languages,” Shangkuan said. “That is our vision.”

The funding is coming from a single investor, Summit Parnters, and the valuation is not being disclosed.

Founded in 2015 by two brothers — Fabian and Felix Wunderlich (now respectively CFO and head of sales) — Lingoda had only raised around $15 million before now, a mark of the company being pretty capital efficient.

“We only run classes that are profitable,” said Shangkuan (who is from the US, New Jersey specifically) in an interview. That being said, he added, “We can’t answer if we are profitable, but we’re not hugely unprofitable.” The market for language learning globally is around $50 billion so it’s a big opportunity despite the crowds of competition.

A lot of the innovation in edtech in recent years has been focused around automated tools to help people learn better in virtual environments: technology built with scale, better analytics or knowledge acquisition in mind.

So it’s interesting to come across edtech startups that may be using some of these same tools — the whole of Lingoda is based on Zoom, which it uses to run all of its classes online, and it’s keen to bring more analytics and other tech into the equation to improve learning between lessons, to help teachers get a better sense of students’ engagement and progress during class, and to more — but are fundamentally also retaining one of the more traditional aspects of learning, humans teaching other humans.

This is very much by design, Shangkuan said. At first, the idea was to disrupt in-person language schools, but if the startup had ever considered how and if it would pivot to more automated classes and cut the teachers out of the equation, it decided that it wasn’t worth it.

Shangkuan — himself a language enthusiast who moved himself to Germany specifically to immerse himself in a new country and language, from where he then proceeded to look for a job — noted that feedback from its students showed a strong inclination and preference for human teachers, with 97% saying that language learning in the Lingoda format has been more effective for them than the wave of language apps (which include the likes of Duolingo, Memrise, Busuu, Babbel, Rosetta and many more).

“For me as an entrepreneur trying to provide a great product, that is the bellwether, and why we are focused on delivering on our original vision,” he said, “one in which it does take teachers and real quality experiences and being able to repeat that online.” Indeed, it’s not the only tech startup that’s identified this model: VIPKid out of China and a number of others have also based learning around live teachers.

There are a number of reasons for why human teaching may be more suitable for language acquisition — starting with the fact that language is a living knowledge and so learning to speak it requires a pretty fundamental level of engagement from the learner.

Added to that is the fact that the language is almost never spoken in life in the same way that it is in textbooks (or apps) so hearing from a range of people speaking the language, as you do with the Lingoda format, which is not focused on matching a student with a single instructor (there is no Peloton-style following around instructors here), works very well.

On the subject of the teachers, it’s an interesting format that taps a little into the concept of the gig economy, although it’s not the same as being employed as a delivery driver or cleaner.

Lingoda notes that teachers set their own schedules and call classes themselves, rather than being ordered into them. Students meanwhile pay for courses along a sliding scale depending on various factors like whether you opt for group or one-to-one classes, how frequently you use the service, and which language you are learning, with per-classes prices typically ranging between $6.75 and $14.30 depending on what you choose.

Students can request a teaching level if they want it: there is always a wide selection yet with dozens of levels between basic A1 and advanced C1 proficiency, if you don’t find what you want and order it, it can take between a day and a week for it to materialise, typically with 1-5 students per class. But in any case, a teacher needs to set the class herself or himself. This format makes it fall into more standardized language learning labor models.

“We closely mirror the business model of traditional (brick and mortar) in-person language schools, where teachers work part time in compliance with local laws and have the flexibility to schedule their own classes,” a spokesperson said. “The main difference is that our model brings in-person classes online, but we are still following the same local guidelines.”

After students complete a course, Lingoda provides them with a certification. In English, you can take a recognized Cambridge assessment to verify your proficiency.

Lingoda’s growth is coming at an interesting moment in the world of online education, which has been one of the big juggernauts of the last year. Schools shutting down in-person learning, people spending more time at home, and the need for many of us to feel like we are doing something at a time of so many restrictions have all driven people to spend time learning online have all driven edtech companies to expand, and the technology that’s being used for the purpose to continue evolving.

To be clear, Lingoda has been around for years and was not hatched out of pandemic conditions: many of the learners that it has attracted are those who might have otherwise attended an in-person language class run by one of the many smaller schools you might come across in a typical city (London has hundreds of them), learning because they are planning to relocate or study abroad, or because people have newly arrived in a country and need to learn the language to get by, or they have to learn it for work.

But what’s been interesting in this last year is how services created for one kind of environment have been taken up in our “new normal.” The classes that Lingoda offers become a promise of a moment when we will be able to visit more places again, and hopefully order coffees, argue about jaywalkers, and chat with strangers here and there a little more easily.

“The language learning market is increasingly shifting to online offerings that provide consumers with a more convenient, flexible and cost-effective way to improve their foreign language skills,” said Matthias Allgaier, MD at Summit Partners, in a statement. “We believe Lingoda has developed one of the most comprehensive and effective online language learning solutions globally and is positioned to benefit from the ongoing and accelerating trend of digitization in education. We are thrilled to partner with the entire Lingoda team, and we are excited about the future for this business.” Allgaier is joining Lingoda’s board with this round.

Challenger bank N26 to offer insurance products

Fintech startup N26 is launching N26 Insurance as it plans to offer insurance products that you can access from the company’s mobile app and website. The first insurance product is a smartphone insurance plan for German customers.

But the startup doesn’t plan to stop there. N26 says it is also working on private liability insurance, home insurance, life insurance, pet insurance and coverage for bikes, electronics and large purchases.

The idea is that you’ll be able to purchase coverage, manage your plans and initiate claims within the N26 app. As N26 already has your personal information, it should be easier to sign up to a new insurance product through N26 compared to creating a new account in a separate app.

The challenger bank isn’t becoming an insurtech company overnight. Instead, it is partnering with other companies, such as Simplesurance, for those products.

“The big thing we’re doing in Q1 and Q2 is a big focus on the marketplace,” co-founder and CEO Valentin Stalf told me a few months ago. “Early on we always tried to integrate the full experience.”

N26 Insurance is the first release of this new API-driven strategy. Partners will be able to integrate their products on their own and N26 will make it easy to share KYC files (‘know your customer’), transfer money between N26 and partners, etc.

“Most fintech startups are super low frequency,” Stalf said. He mentioned mortgage as one financial product that you set up once and never touch again. These companies have high customer acquisition costs, so N26 can help on that front. For instance, if you purchase a bike online, N26 could recommend a bike insurance product after your purchase.

As for phone insurance launching today, prices will vary depending on your phone. If you spent a lot of money on your phone, your insurance plan is going to be more expensive. N26 lets you opt for annual plans to save a bit of money.

Phone insurance also contributes to the freemium strategy of N26. The company offers free and paid accounts that start at €4.90 per month. The most expensive plan, N26 Metal, costs €16.90 per month and includes phone insurance.

Some customers who might want to insure their phone might be tempted to switch to N26 Metal to insure their phone and get more features, such as travel insurance.

N26 started revamping its plans in November 2020 by introducing a new mid-tier plan called N26 Smart. In Europe, N26 no longer sends you a plastic debit card if you create a free account — you get a virtual debit card that you can add to Apple Pay or Google Pay by default. You either have to pay a one-off €10 fee to receive a plastic card or subscribe to N26 Smart for €4.90 per month.

Offering new products in the app and pushing users toward paid subscriptions should definitely help N26 when it comes to profitability. The startup has grown tremendously over the past few years and the company is focused on consolidating the business as much as possible now.

Kroger launches its first Ocado-powered ‘shed’, a massive, robot-filled fulfillment center in Ohio

After inking a deal to work together almost three years ago, U.S. supermarket chain Kroger and U.K. online grocer Ocado today took the wraps off the first major product of that deal. Kroger has launched a new Ocado-powered customer fulfillment center in Monroe, Ohio, outside of Cincinnati, a gigantic warehouse covering 375,000 square feet and thousands of products for packing and delivering Kroger orders from online shoppers.

Built with a giant grid along the floor, “the shed”, as Ocado calls its warehouses, will feature some 1,000 robots alongside 400 human employees to pick, sort and move around items. It is expected to process as much as $700 million in sales annually, the sales of 20 brick-and-mortar stores.

Those orders, in turn, will be delivered in temperature-controlled Kroger Delivery vans, built on the model of Ocado’s vans in the US and able to store up to 20 orders. These will also be run using Ocado software, mapping algorithms to optimize deliveries along the fastest and most fuel-efficient routes.

The partnership was a long time in the making but the focus on what has come out of it is probably at its keenest right now, given the huge boost online shopping has had in the past year. The Covid-19 pandemic, and the resulting push for more social distancing, has driven a lot of people to the internet to shop, opting for deliveries over physical store visits for some or all of their food and other weekly essentials.

In call today with journalists, Rodney McMullen, Kroger’s chairman and CEO, said that delivery had grown 150% for Kroger last year. While some of that may well melt back into physical shopping as and when Covid-19 cases wane (fingers crossed), many in the industry believe that the genie has been let out of the bottle, so to speak: many consumers introduced to shopping online will stay, at least in part, and so this is about building infrastructure to meet that new demand.

(And there is some data that backs that up: Ocado CEO and co-founder Tim Steiner noted that at Ocado, pre-pandemic the average order value for the company was £105 ($144). That grew to £180 last year, and are at £120.)

Kroger, like many brick-and-mortar players, has been building out multiple fronts in its digital strategy. Alongside Ocado, the company has also been investing in technology to boost the efficiency of its in-store operations (for example by working with companies like Shelf Engine), and it has a grocery delivery partnership with Instacart.

That partnership with Instacart will remain in place, not least because it covers a much wider geography than the Ocado approach, which is live now in Cincinnati, and sounds like it will also expand to Florida. While Kroger today said that CFCs will vary in size and be built on the concept of “modules” (the Monroe facility is built on seven modules), this is still a capital intensive approach compared to the Instacart model, so might overall face a slower rollout and perhaps only make sense in Kroger’s denser markets.

“The two partnerships are critical to Kroger and our customers,” said Yael Cosset, Kroger’s CIO, in the call today. “We expect to work very closely in strategic partnership with Instacart and with Ocado.”

Ocado, an early player that started out in the UK back in 2000, is seen by many as the industry standard for how to build and run an online-only grocery business.

The company has been expanding its reach by way of taking the technology that it has built for itself and turning it into a product — a process that is still very much in development, with the company working now on robotic pickers and other autonomous systems, along with other technology to power and make its delivery service more efficient.

Ocado’s “AWS” strategy of turning tech that it has built for itself into a product to sell to others has born fruit: it now has partnerships to power online grocery services, and specifically fulfillment centers, in Japan (with Aeon), France (with Casino) and Canada (with Sobeys). That means the Kroger rollout is now a tested model, but it’s still a very notable move for the company to break into the U.S. while at the same time giving Kroger a much-needed bit of infrastructure to better compete with bigger players in the country like Walmart and Amazon.

In that regard, it will be interesting to see how and if Kroger leverages its much bigger Ocado-powered infrastructure for its other projects. The company is working with Mirakl to develop its own marketplace for third-party retailers, going head to head with similar offerings from — yes — Amazon and Walmart.