Gretel announces $12M Series A to make it easier to anonymize data

As companies work with data, one of the big obstacles they face is making sure they are not exposing personally identifiable information (PII) or other sensitive data. It usually requires a painstaking manual effort to strip out that data. Gretel, an early stage startup, wants to change that by making it faster and easier to anonymize data sets. Today the company announced a $12 million Series A led by Greylock. The company has now raised $15.5 million.

Gretel founder and CEO Alex Watson says that his company was founded to make it simpler to anonymize data and unlock data sets that were previously out of reach because of privacy concerns.

“As a developer, you want to test an idea or build a new feature, and it can take weeks to get access to the data you need. Then essentially it boils down to getting approvals to get started, then snapshotting a database, and manually removing what looks like personal data and hoping that you got everything,”

Watson, who previously worked as a GM at AWS, believed that there needed to be a faster and more reliable way to anonymize the data, and that’s why he started Gretel. The first product is an open source, synthetic machine learning library for developers that strips out personally identifiable information.

“Developers use our open source library, which trains machine learning models on their sensitive data, then as that training is happening we are enforcing something called differential privacy, which basically ensures that the model doesn’t memorize details about secrets for individual people inside of the data,” he said. The result is a new artificial data set that is anonymized and safe to share across a business.

The company was founded last year, and they have actually used this year to develop the open source product and build an open source community around it. “So our approach and our go-to-market here is we’ve open sourced our underlying libraries, and we will also build a SaaS service that makes it really easy to generate synthetic data and anonymized data at scale,” he said.

As the founders build the company, they are looking at how to build a diverse and inclusive organization, something that they discuss at their regular founders’ meetings, especially as they look to take these investment dollars and begin to hire additional senior people.

“We make a conscious effort to have diverse candidates apply, and to really make sure we reach out to them and have a conversation, and that’s paid off, or is in the process of paying off I would say, with the candidates in our pipeline right now. So we’re excited. It’s tremendously important that we avoid group think that happens so often,” he said.

The company doesn’t have paying customers, but the plan is to build off the relationships it has with design partners and begin taking in revenue next year. Sridhar Ramaswamy, the partner at Greylock, who is leading the investment, says that his firm is placing a bet on a pre-revenue company because he sees great potential for a service like this.

“We think Gretel will democratize safe and controlled access to data for the whole world the way Github democratized source code access and control,” Ramaswamy said.

Tim Berners Lee’s startup Inrupt releases Solid privacy platform for enterprises

Inrupt, the startup from World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee, announced an enterprise version of the Solid privacy platform today, which allows large organizations and governments to build applications that put users in control of their data.

Berners-Lee has always believed that the web should be free and open, but large organizations have grown up over the last 20 years that make their money using our data. He wanted to put people back in charge of their data, and the Solid open source project, developed at MIT, was the first step in that process.

Three years ago he launched Inrupt, a startup built on top of the open source project, and hired John Bruce to run the company. The two shared the same vision of shifting data ownership without changing the way websites get developed. With Solid, developers use the same standards and methods of building sites, and these applications will work in any browser. What Solid aims to do is alter the balance of data power and redirect it to the user.

“Fast forward to today, and we’re releasing the first significant technology as the fruits of our labor, which is an enterprise version of Solid to be deployed at scale by large organizations,” Bruce explained.

The core idea behind this approach is that users control their data in online storage entities called Personal Online Data Stores or Pods for short. The enterprise version consists of Solid Server to manage the Pods, and developers can build applications using an SDK to take advantage of the Pods and access the data they need to do a particular job like pay taxes or interact with a healthcare provider. Bruce points out that the enterprise version is fully compatible with the open source Solid project specifications.

The company has been working with some major organizations prior to today’s release including the BBC and National Health Service in the UK and the Government of Flanders in Belgium as they have been working to bring this to market.

To give you a sense of how this works, the National Health Service has been building an application for patients interacting with them, who using Solid can control their health data. “Patients will be able to permit doctors, family or at-home caregivers to read certain data from their Solid Pods, and add caretaking notes or observations that doctors can then read in order to improve patient care,” the company explained.

The difference between this and more conventional web or phone apps is that it is up to the user who can access this information and the application owner has to ask the user for permission and the user has to explicitly grant it and under what conditions.

The startup launched in 2017 and has raised about $20 million so far. Bruce and Berners-Lee understand that for this to take root, it has to be easy to use, be standards-based and and have the capacity to handle massive scale. Anyone can download and use the open source version of Solid, but by having an enterprise version, it gives large organizations like the ones they have been working with the support, security and scale that these companies require.

If the ad industry is serious about transparency, let’s open-source our SDKs

Year after year, a lack of transparency in how ad traffic is sourced, sold and measured is cited by advertisers as a source of frustration and a barrier to entry in working with various providers. But despite progress on the protection and privacy of data through laws like GDPR and COPPA, the overall picture regarding ad-marketing transparency has changed very little.

In part, this is due to the staggering complexity of how programmatic and other advertising technologies work. With automated processes managing billions of impressions every day, there is no universal solution to making things more simple and clear. So the struggle for the industry is not necessarily a lack of intent around transparency, but rather how to deliver it.

Frustratingly, evidence shows that the way data is collected and used by some industry players has played a large part in reducing people’s trust in online advertising. This is not a problem that was created overnight. There is a long history and growing sense of consumer frustration with the way their data is being used, analyzed and monetized and a similar frustration by advertisers with the transparency and legitimacy of ad clicks for which they are asked to pay.

There are continuing efforts by organizations like the IAB and TAG to create policies for better transparency such as ads.txt. But without hard and fast laws, the responsibility lies with individual companies.

One relatively simple yet largely spurned practice that would engender transparency and trust for the benefit of all parties (brands, consumers and ad/marketing providers) would be for the industry to come together and have all parties open their SDKs.

Why open-sourcing benefits advertisers, publishers and the ad industry

Open-source software is code that anyone is free to use, analyze, alter and improve.

Auditing the code and adjusting the SDKs functionality based on individual needs is a common practice — and so too are audits by security companies or interested parties who are rightly on the lookout for app fraud. By showing exactly how the code within the SDK has been written, it is the best way to reassure developers and partners that there are no hidden functions or unwanted features.

Everyone using open-source SDKs can learn exactly how it works, and because it is under an open-source license, anyone can suggest modifications and improvements in the code.

Open source brings some risks, but much bigger rewards

The main risk from opening up an SDK code is that third parties will look for ways to exploit it and insert their own malicious code, or else look at potential vulnerabilities to access back-end services and data. However, providers should be on the lookout and be able to fix the potential vulnerabilities as they arise.

As for the rewards, open-sourcing engenders trust and transparency, which should certainly translate into customer loyalty and consumer confidence. After all, we are all operating in a market where advertisers and developers can choose who they want to work with — and on what terms.

Selfishly but practically speaking, opening SDKs can also help companies in our industry protect themselves from others’ baseless claims that are simply intended to promote their products. With open standards, there are no unsubstantiated, false accusations intended for publicity. The proof is out there for everyone to see.

How ad tech is embracing open source

In the ad tech space, companies such as MoPub, Appodeal and AppsFlyer are just a few that have already made some or all of their SDKs available through an open-source license.

All of these companies have decided to use an open-source approach because they recognize the importance of transparency and trust, especially when you are placing the safety and reputation of your brand in the hands of an algorithm. However, the majority of SDKs remain closed.

Relying on forward-thinking companies to set their own transparency levels will only take our industry so far. It’s time for stronger action around trust and data transparency. In the same way that GDPR and COPPA have required companies to address privacy and, ultimately, to have forced a change that was needed, open-sourcing our SDKs will take the ad-marketing space to new heights and drive new levels of trust and deployment with our clients, competitors, legislators and consumers.

The industry-wide challenge of transparency won’t be solved any time soon, but the positive news is that there is movement in the right direction, with steps that some companies are already taking and others can easily take. By implementing measures to ensure brand-safe placements and helping limit ad fraud; improving relationships between brands, agencies, and programmatic partners; and bringing clarity to consumer data use; confidence in the advertising industry will improve and opportunities will subsequently grow.

That’s why we are calling on all ad/marketing companies to take this step forward with us — for the benefit of our consumers, brands, providers and industry at large — to embrace open-source SDKs as the way to engender trust, transparency and industry transformation. In doing so, we will all be rewarded with consumers who are more trusting of brands and brand advertising, and subsequently, brands who trust us and seek opportunities to implement more sophisticated solutions and grow their business.

Progress snags software automation platform Chef for $220M

Progress, a Boston area developer tool company, boosted its offerings in a big way today when it announced it was acquiring software automation platform Chef for $220 million.

Chef, which went 100% open source last year, had annual recurring revenue (ARR) of $70 million from the commercial side of the house. Needless to say, Progress CEO Yogesh Gupta was happy to bring the company into the fold and gain not only that revenue, but a set of highly skilled employees, a strong developer community and an impressive customer list.

Gupta said that Chef fits with his company’s acquisition philosophy. “This acquisition perfectly aligns with our growth strategy and meets the requirements that we’ve previously laid out: a strong recurring revenue model, technology that complements our business, a loyal customer base and the ability to leverage our operating model and infrastructure to run the business more efficiently,” he said in a statement.

Chef CEO Barry Crist offered a typical argument for an acquired company, that Progress offered  a better path to future growth, while sending a message to the open source community and customers that Progress would be a good steward of the startup’s vision.

“For Chef, this acquisition is our next chapter, and Progress will help enhance our growth potential, support our Open Source vision, and provide broader opportunities for our customers, partners, employees and community,” Crist said in a statement.

Chef’s customer list is certainly impressive including tech industry stalwarts like Facebook, IBM and SAP, as well as non-tech companies like Nordstrom, Alaska Airlines and Capital One.

The company was founded in 2008 and had raised $105 million. according to Crunchbase data. It hadn’t raised any funds since 2015 when it raised a $40 million Series E led by DFJ Growth. Other investors along the way included Battery Ventures, Ignition Partners and Scale Venture Partners.

The transaction is expected to close next month pending normal regulatory approvals.

China is building a GitHub alternative called Gitee

The technological decoupling between the U.S. and China has been a boon to Chinese firms from chipmakers for smartphones and electric vehicles through to software that are the backbones of millions of businesses’ daily operations.

Chinese companies might have established a firm grip on internet services for consumers, but many fundamental technologies undergirding hardware and enterprise software remain in the hands of Western companies. As tech businesses become increasingly entangled in broader geopolitical disputes, their users and clients are feeling the heat. Huawei’s plan to unshackle imported chips is just one oft-cited example of the vulnerability of Chinese firms dependent on foreign tech.

Another area that has made the tech community restless is source code hosting. Chinese developers rely heavily on GitHub, as evident from an apparent government ban of the site in 2013 that prompted former Google China head Kaifu Lee to speak out. Now the China is wary that political conflict may inflict GitHub.

The scenario is not without precedent. Last July, Microsoft-owned GitHub cut off certain services from users in U.S.-sanctioned countries including Iran, Syria and Crimea, causing outrage and panic in the global developer community.

Seven-year-old Gitee is at the center of China’s push to localize businesses’ source codes. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), one of China’s top tech policymakers, recently picked (in Chinese) Gitee to construct an “independent, open-source code hosting platform for China.”

The project will be carried out by a consortium led by Open Source China, the Shenzhen-based firm behind its namesake open-source community and Gitee. The hosting service appears to be a government-led effort with support from research universities and participation from the private sector — a group of 10 organizations including Huawei,  who is itself suffering from supply chain disruption amid the political storm.

“If China does not have its own open-source community to maintain and manage source codes, our domestic software industry will be very vulnerable to uncontrollable factors,” said Huawei executive Wang Chenglu at an event last August, shortly after GitHub acted to comply with U.S. sanctions laws.

Gitee claims to have hosted over 10 million open-source repositories and provided services to over 5 million developers so far. For comparison, GitHub reported having 100 million repositories and around 31 million developers worldwide last November.

The question is whether Gitee’s platform can convince Chinese developers to migrate from GitHub — or its Tencent-backed local rival Coding.net — now that industry titans are onboard to help. It’s also unclear whether GitHub will act to preempt export restrictions, as it hinted at the possibility when its executive told the Financial Times that it’s ‘keen’ to open a subsidiary in China.

Gitee is clearly confident that there is space for a ‘Chinese alternative’ to GitHub.

“The world should be one where a hundred flowers bloom. The foreign market has GitHub and other kinds of foundations. In China, there are various organizations dedicated to evangelizing open source software, as well as Gitee,” wrote (in Chinese) Open Source China founder who goes by the nickname ‘Hongshu’, or ‘Sweet Potato’.

“An open-source ecosystem can’t be built overnight. It’s a process of building a tower with sand. We have faith in the innovative power of Chinese developers. We also believe in our perseverance and strength to strive.”

Mozilla lays off 250

Mozilla today announced a major restructuring of its commercial arm, the Mozilla Corporation that will see about 250 employees lose their jobs and the shuttering of the organization’s operations in Taipei, Taiwan. This move comes after the organization already laid off about 70 employees earlier this year.  The most recent numbers from 2018 put Mozilla at about 1,000 employees worldwide.

Citing falling revenues because of the global pandemic, Mozilla’s executive chairwoman and CEO Mitchell Baker said in an internal message that the company’s pre-COVID plans were no longer feasible.

“Pre-COVID, our plan for 2020 was a year of change: building a better internet by accelerating product value in Firefox, increasing innovation, and adjusting our finances to ensure financial stability over the long term,” Baker writes. “We started with immediate cost-saving measures such as pausing our hiring, reducing our wellness stipend and cancelling our All-Hands. But COVID-19 has accelerated the need and magnified the depth for these changes. Our pre-COVID plan is no longer workable. We have talked about the need for change — including the likelihood of layoffs — since the spring. Today these changes become real.”

Layed off employees will receive severance that is at least equivalent to their full base pay through December 31 and will still receive their individual performance bonuses for the first half of the year, as well as part of their company bonus and the standard COBRA health insurance benefits.

Mozilla promises that its smaller organization will be able to act more “quickly and nimbly” and that it will work more closely with partners that share its goal of an open web ecosystem. At the same time, Baker wants Mozilla to remain a “technical powerhouse of the internet activist movement,” yet she also acknowledges that the organization as a whole must also focus on economics and work on creating sustainable business models that still stay true to its mission.

‘We are also restructuring to put a crisper focus on new product development and go to market activities,” writes Baker. “In the long run, I am confident that the new organizational structure will serve our product and market impact goals well, but we will talk in detail about this in a bit.”

On the product side, Mozilla will continue to focus on Firefox, as well as Pocket, its Hubs virtual reality project, its new VPN service, Web Assembly and other privacy and security products. But it is also launching a new Design and UX team, as well as a new applied machine learning team to help bring machine learning to its products.

Microsoft launches Open Service Mesh

Microsoft today announced the launch of a new open-source service mesh based on the Envoy proxy. The Open Service Mesh is meant to be a reference implementation of the Service Mesh Interface (SMI) spec, a standard interface for service meshes on Kubernetes that has the backing of most of the players in this ecosystem.

The company plans to donate Open Service Mesh to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) to ensure that it is community-led and has open governance.

“SMI is really resonating with folks and so we really thought that there was room in the ecosystem for a reference implementation of SMI where the mesh technology was first and foremost implementing those SMI APIs and making it the best possible SMI experience for customers,” Microsoft director of partner management for Azure Compute (and CNCF board member) Gabe Monroy told me.

Image Credits: Microsoft

He also added that, because SMI provides the lowest common denominator API design, Open Service Mesh gives users the ability to “bail out” to raw Envoy if they need some more advanced features. This “no cliffs” design, Monroy noted, is core to the philosophy behind Open Service Mesh.

As for its feature set, SMI handles all of the standard service mesh features you’d expect, including securing communications between services using mTLS, managing access control policies, service monitoring and more.

Image Credits: Microsoft

There are plenty of other service mesh technologies in the market today, though. So why would Microsoft launch this?

“What our customers have been telling us is that solutions that are out there today, Istio being a good example, are extremely complex,” he said. “It’s not just me saying this. We see the data in the AKS support queue of customers who are trying to use this stuff — and they’re struggling right here. This is just hard technology to use, hard technology to build at scale. And so the solutions that were out there all had something that wasn’t quite right and we really felt like something lighter weight and something with more of an SMI focus was what was going to hit the sweet spot for the customers that are dabbling in this technology today.”

Monroy also noted that Open Service Mesh can sit alongside other solutions like Linkerd, for example.

A lot of pundits expected Google to also donate its Istio service mesh to the CNCF. That move didn’t materialize. “It’s funny. A lot of people are very focused on the governance aspect of this,” he said. “I think when people over-focus on that, you lose sight of how are customers doing with this technology. And the truth is that customers are not having a great time with Istio in the wild today. I think even folks who are deep in that community will acknowledge that and that’s really the reason why we’re not interested in contributing to that ecosystem at the moment.”

Databricks acquires Redash, a visualizations service for data scientists

Data and analytics service Databricks today announced that it has acquired Redash, a company that helps data scientists and analysts visualize their data and build dashboards around it.

Redash’s customers include the likes of Atlassian, Cloudflare, Mozilla and Soundcloud and the company offers both an open-source self-hosted version of its tools, as well as paid hosted options.

The two companies did not disclose the financial details of the acquisition. According to Crunchbase, Tel Aviv-based Redash never raised any outside funding.

Databricks co-founder CEO Ali Ghodsi told me that the two companies met because one of his customers was using the product. “Since then, we’ve been impressed with the entire team and their attention to quality,” he said. “The combination of Redash and Databricks is really the missing link in the equation — an amazing backend with Lakehouse and an amazing front end built-in visualization and dashboarding feature from Redash to make the magic happen.”

Image Credits: Databricks

For Databricks, this is also a clear signal that it wants its service to become the go-to platform for all data teams and offer them all of the capabilities they would need to extract value from their data in a single platform.

“Not only are our organizations aligned in our open source heritage, but we also share in the mission to democratize and simplify data and AI so that data teams and more broadly, business intelligence users, can innovate faster,” Ghodsi noted. “We are already seeing awesome results for our customers in the combined technologies and look forward to continuing to grow together.”

In addition to the Redash acquisition, Databricks also today announced the launch of its Delta Engine, a new high-performance query engine for use with the company’s Delta Lake transaction layer.

Databricks’ new Delta Engine for Delta Lake enables fast query execution for data analytics and data science, without moving the data out of the data lake,” the company explains. “The high-performance query engine has been built from the ground up to take advantage of modern cloud hardware for accelerated query performance. With this improvement, Databricks customers are able to move to a unified data analytics platform that can support any data use case and result in meaningful operational efficiencies and cost savings.”

Cockroach Labs scores $86.6M Series D as scalable database resonates

Cockroach Labs, the NYC enterprise database company, announced an $86.6 million Series D funding round today. The company was in no mood to talk valuations, but was happy to have a big chunk of money to help build on its recent success and ride out the current economic malaise.

Altimeter Capital and Bond co-led the round with participation from Benchmark, GV, Index Ventures, Redpoint Ventures, Sequoia Capital and Tiger Capital. Today’s funding comes on top of a $55 million Series C last August, and brings the total raised to $195 million, according to the company.

Cockroach has a tough job. It’s battling both traditional databases like Oracle and modern ones from the likes of Amazon, but investors see a company with a lot of potential market building an open source, on prem and cloud database product. In particular, the open source product provides a way to attract users and turn some percentage of those into potential customers, an approach investors tend to favor.

CEO and co-founder Spenser Kimball says that the company had been growing fast before the pandemic hit. “I think the biggest change between now and last year has just been our go to market which is seeing pretty explosive growth. By number of customers, we’ve grown by almost 300%,” Kimball told TechCrunch.

He says having that three-pronged approach of open source, cloud an on-prem products has really helped fuel that growth. The company launched the cloud service in 2018 and it has helped expand its market. Whereas the on-prem version was mostly aimed at larger customers, the managed service puts Cockroach in reach of individual developers and teams, who might not want to deal with all of the overhead of managing a complex database on their own.

Kimball says it’s really too soon to say what impact the pandemic will have on his business. He recognizes that certain verticals like travel, hospitality and some retail business are probably going to suffer, but other businesses that are accelerating in the crisis could make use of a highly scalable database like CockroachDB.

“Obviously it’s a new world right now. I think there are going to be some losers and some winners, but on balance I think [our] momentum will continue to grow for something that really does represent a best in class solution for businesses, whether they are startups or big enterprises, as they’re trying to figure out how to build for a cloud native future,” Kimball said.

The company intends to keep hiring through this, but is being careful and regularly evaluating what its needs are much more carefully than it might have done prior to this crisis with a much more open mind toward remote work.

Kimball certainly recognizes that it’s not an easy time to be raising this kind of cash and he is grateful to have the confidence of investors to keep growing his company, come what may.

Mozilla names long-time chairwoman Mitchell Baker as CEO

Mozilla Corporation announced today that it has chosen long-time chairwoman Mitchell Baker to be CEO, replacing Chris Beard who announced he would be stepping down at the end of the year last August.

Baker represents a logical choice to lead the company. At a time of great turmoil in the world at large, she brings the stability of someone who has been with Mozilla Corporation since 2003. Writing in a company blog post, she certainly recognized the challenges ahead, navigating through the current economic uncertainty and the competitive challenges the company faces with its flagship Firefox browser..

“It’s a time of challenge on many levels, there’s no question about that. Mozilla’s flagship product remains excellent, but the competition is stiff. The increasing vertical integration of internet experience remains a deep challenge. It’s also a time of need, and of opportunity. Increasingly, numbers of people recognize that the internet needs attention,” Baker wrote.

Baker has been acting as interim CEO since December when Beard officially left the company. In a blog post from the board announcing Baker’s official new title, they certainly recognized that it would take someone with her unique combination of skills and experience to guide the company through this next phase.

“Mitchell’s deep understanding of Mozilla’s existing businesses gives her the ability to provide direction and support to drive this important work forward,” they wrote. Adding, “And her leadership style grounded in openness and honesty is helping the organization navigate through the uncertainty that COVID-19 has created for Mozillians at work and at home.”

Mozilla Corporation was founded in 1998 and is best known for its flagship, open source Firefox browser. The company faces stiff competition in the browser market from Google, Apple and Microsoft.