US patents hit record 333,530 granted in 2019; IBM, Samsung (not the FAANGs) lead the pack

We may have moved on from a nearly-daily cycle of news involving tech giants sparring in courts over intellectual property infringement, but patents continue to be a major cornerstone of how companies and people measure their progress and create moats around the work that they have done in hopes of building that into profitable enterprises in the future. IFI Claims, a company that tracks patent activity in the US, released its annual tally of IP work today underscoring that theme: it noted that 2019 saw a new high-watermark of 333,530 patents granted by the US Patent and Trademark Office.

The figures are notable for a few reasons. One is that this is the most patents ever granted in a single year; and the second that this represents a 15% jump on a year before. The high overall number speaks to the enduring interest in safeguarding IP, while the 15% jump has to do with the fact that patent numbers actually dipped last year (down 3.5%) while the number that were filed and still in application form (not granted) was bigger than ever. If we can draw something from that, it might be that filers and the USPTO were both taking a little more time to file and process, not a reduction in the use of patents altogether.

But patents do not tell the whole story in another very important regard.

Namely, the world’s most valuable, and most high profile tech companies are not always the ones that rank the highest in patents filed.

Consider the so-called FAANG group, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google: Facebook is at number-36 (one of the fastest movers but still not top 10) with 989 patents; Apple is at number-seven with 2,490 patents; Amazon is at number-nine with 2,427 patents; Netflix doesn’t make the top 50 at all; and the Android, search and advertising behemoth Google is merely at slot 15 with 2,102 patents (and no special mention for growth).

Indeed, the fact that one of the oldest tech companies, IBM, is also the biggest patent filer almost seems ironic in that regard.

As with previous years — the last 27, to be exact — IBM has continued to hold on to the top spot for patents granted, with 9,262 in total for the year. Samsung Electronics, at 6,469, is a distant second.

These numbers, again, don’t tell the whole story: IFI Claims notes that Samsung ranks number-one when you consider all active patent “families”, which might get filed across a number of divisions (for example a Samsung Electronics subsidiary filing separately) and count the overall number of patents to date (versus those filed this year). In this regard, Samsung stands at 76,638, with IBM the distant number-two at 37,304 patent families.

Part of this can be explained when you consider their businesses: Samsung makes a huge range of consumer and enterprise products. IBM, on the other hand, essentially moved out of the consumer electronics market years ago and these days mostly focuses on enterprise and B2B and far less hardware. That means a much smaller priority placed on that kind of R&D, and subsequent range of families.

Two other areas that are worth tracking are biggest movers and technology trends.

In the first of these, it’s very interesting to see a car company rising to the top. Kia jumped 58 places and is now at number-41 (921 patents) — notable when you think about how cars are the next “hardware” and that we are entering a pretty exciting phase of connected vehicles, self-driving and alternative energy to propel them.

Others rounding out fastest-growing were Hewlett Packard Enterprise, up 28 places to number-48 (794 patents); Facebook, up 22 places to number-36 (989 patents); Micron Technology, up nine places to number-25 (1,268), Huawei, up six places to number-10 (2,418), BOE Technology, up four places to number-13 (2,177), and Microsoft, up three places to number-4 (3,081 patents).

In terms of technology trends, IFI looks over a period of five years, where there is now a strong current of medical and biotechnology innovation running through the list right now, with hybrid plant creation topping the list of trending technology, followed by CRISPR gene-editing technology, and then medicinal preparations (led by cancer therapies). “Tech” in the computer processor sense only starts at number-four with dashboards and other car-related tech; with quantum computing, 3-D printing and flying vehicle tech all also featuring.

Indeed, if you have wondered if we are in a fallow period of innovation in mobile, internet and straight computer technology… look no further than this list to prove out that thought.

Unsurprisingly, US companies account for 49% of U.S. patents granted in 2019 up from 46 percent a year before. Japan accounts for 16% to be the second-largest, with South Korea at 7% (Samsung carrying a big part of that, I’m guessing), and China passing Germany to be at number-four with 5%.

  1. International Business Machines Corp 9262
  2. Samsung Electronics Co Ltd 6469
  3. Canon Inc 3548
  4. Microsoft Technology Licensing LLC 3081
  5. Intel Corp 3020
  6. LG Electronics Inc 2805
  7. Apple Inc 2490
  8. Ford Global Technologies LLC 2468
  9. Amazon Technologies Inc 2427
  10. Huawei Technologies Co Ltd 2418
  11. Qualcomm Inc 2348
  12. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co TSMC Ltd 2331
  13. BOE Technology Group Co Ltd 2177
  14. Sony Corp 2142
  15. Google LLC 2102
  16. Toyota Motor Corp 2034
  17. Samsung Display Co Ltd 1946
  18. General Electric Co 1818
  19. Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson AB 1607
  20. Hyundai Motor Co 1504
  21. Panasonic Intellectual Property Management Co Ltd 1387
  22. Boeing Co 1383
  23. Seiko Epson Corp 1345
  24. GM Global Technology Operations LLC 1285
  25. Micron Technology Inc 1268
  26. United Technologies Corp 1252
  27. Mitsubishi Electric Corp 1244
  28. Toshiba Corp 1170
  29. AT&T Intellectual Property I LP 1158
  30. Robert Bosch GmbH 1107
  31. Honda Motor Co Ltd 1080
  32. Denso Corp 1052
  33. Cisco Technology Inc 1050
  34. Halliburton Energy Services Inc 1020
  35. Fujitsu Ltd 1008
  36. Facebook Inc 989
  37. Ricoh Co Ltd 980
  38. Koninklijke Philips NV 973
  39. EMC IP Holding Co LLC 926
  40. NEC Corp 923
  41. Kia Motors Corp 921
  42. Texas Instruments Inc 894
  43. LG Display Co Ltd 865
  44. Oracle International Corp 847
  45. Murata Manufacturing Co Ltd 842
  46. Sharp Corp 819
  47. SK Hynix Inc 798
  48. Hewlett Packard Enterprise Development LP 794
  49. Fujifilm Corp 791
  50. LG Chem Ltd 791

Google brings IBM Power Systems to its cloud

As Google Cloud looks to convince more enterprises to move to its platform, it needs to be able to give businesses an onramp for their existing legacy infrastructure and workloads that they can’t easily replace or move to the cloud. A lot of those workloads run on IBM Power Systems with their Power processors and until now, IBM was essentially the only vendor that offered cloud-based Power systems. Now, however, Google is also getting into this game by partnering with IBM to launch IBM Power Systems on Google Cloud.

“Enterprises looking to the cloud to modernize their existing infrastructure and streamline their business processes have many options,” writes Kevin Ichhpurani, Google Cloud’s corporate VP for its global ecosystem in today’s announcement. “At one end of the spectrum, some organizations are re-platforming entire legacy systems to adopt the cloud. Many others, however, want to continue leveraging their existing infrastructure while still benefiting from the cloud’s flexible consumption model, scalability, and new advancements in areas like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and analytics.”

Power Systems support obviously fits in well here, given that many companies use them for mission-critical workloads based on SAP and Oracle applications and databases. With this, they can take those workloads and slowly move them to the cloud, without having to re-engineer their applications and infrastructure. Power Systems on Google Cloud is obviously integrated with Google’s services and billing tools.

This is very much an enterprise offering, without a published pricing sheet. Chances are, given the cost of a Power-based server, you’re not looking at a bargain, per-minute price here.

Since IBM has its own cloud offering, it’s a bit odd to see it work with Google to bring its servers to a competing cloud — though it surely wants to sell more Power servers. The move makes perfect sense for Google Cloud, though, which is on a mission to bring more enterprise workloads to its platform. Any roadblock the company can remove works in its favor and as enterprises get comfortable with its platform, they’ll likely bring other workloads to it over time.

Tech’s biggest companies are worth ~$5T as 2019’s epic stock market run wraps

Look, this is the last post I’m writing in 2019 and I’m tired. But I can’t let the year close without taking stock of how well tech stocks did this year. It was bonkers.

So let’s mark the year’s conclusion with some notes for our future selves. Yes, we know that the Nasdaq has been setting new records and SaaS had a good year. But we need to dig in and get the numbers out so that we can look back and remember.

Let’s cap off this year the way it deserves to be remembered, as a kick-ass trip ’round the sun for your local, public technology company.

Keeping score

We’ll start with the indices that we care about:

  • The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite rose 35% in 2019
  • The SaaS-heavy Bessemer Cloud Index rose 41% this year

Next, the highest-value U.S.-based technology companies:

  • Microsoft was up around 55% in 2019
  • Apple managed an 86% gain in the year
  • Not be left out, Facebook rose 57%
  • Amazon posted its own gain of 23% in 2019
  • Alphabet managed to grow by 29%, as well

Now let’s turn to some companies that we care about, even if they are smaller than the Big Five:

  • Salesforce? Up 19% this year
  • Adobe was up 46% in 2019, which was astounding
  • Intel picked up 28% in the year, making it no slouch
  • Even Oracle managed to gain 17% in 2019

And so on.

The technology industry’s epic run has been so strong that The Wall Street Journal noted this morning that, powered by tech companies, U.S. stocks “are poised for their best annual performance in six years.” The Journal highlighted the performance of Apple and Microsoft in particular for helping drive the boom. I wonder why.

How long will we live in the neighborhood of Nasdaq 9,000? How long can two tech companies be worth more than $1 trillion at the same time? How long can the biggest tech companies be worth a combined $4.93 trillion (I remember when $3 trillion for the Big Five was news, and I recall when the group reach a collective value of $4 trillion).1

But the worst trade in recent years has been the pessimists’ gambit. No matter what, stocks have kept going up, short-term hiccoughs and other missteps aside.

For nearly everyone, that is. While tech stocks in general did very well, some names that we all know did not. Let’s close on those reminders that a rising tide lifts only most boats.

2019 naughty list

Several of the most lackluster public tech companies were 2019 technology IPOs, interestingly enough. Who didn’t do well? Uber earns a spot on the naughty list for not only being underwater from its IPO price, but also from its final private valuations. And as you guessed, Lyft is down from its IPO price as well, which is not good.

Some 2019 IPOs did well in the middle of the year, but fell a little flat as the year came to a close. Pinterest, Beyond Meat and Zoom meet that criteria, for example. And some SaaS companies struggled, even if we think they will reach $1 billion in revenue in time.

But it was mostly a party. The public markets were good, and tech stocks were great. This helped create another 100+ unicorns in the year.

Such was 2019. On to 2020!

  1. In time, those numbers will look small. But sitting here on December 31, 2019, they appear huge and towering and, it must be said, somewhat perilously stacked.

VTEX, an e-commerce platform used by Walmart, raises $140M led by SoftBank’s LatAm fund

E-commerce now accounts for 14% of all retail sales, and its growth has led to a rise in the fortunes of startups that build tools to enable businesses to sell online. In the latest development, a company called VTEX — which originally got its start in Latin America helping companies like Walmart expand their business to new markets with an end-to-end e-commerce service covering things like order and inventory management; front-end customer experience and customer service — has raised $140 million in funding, money that it will be using to continue taking its business deeper into more international markets.

The investment is being led by SoftBank, specifically via its Latin American fund, with participation also from Gávea Investimentos and Constellation Asset Management. Previous investors include Riverwood and Naspers, and Riverwood continues to be a backer, too, the company said.

Mariano Gomide, the CEO who co-founded VTEX with Geraldo Thomaz, said the valuation is not being disclosed, but he confirmed that the founders and founding team continue to hold more than 50% of the company. In addition to Walmart, VTEX customers include Levi’s, Sony, L’Oréal and Motorola . Annually, it processes some $2.4 billion in gross merchandise value across some 2,500 stores, growing 43% per year in the last five years.

VTEX is in that category of tech businesses that has been around for some time — it was founded in 1999 — but has largely been able to operate and grow off its own balance sheet. Before now, it had raised less than $13 million, according to PitchBook data.

This is one of the big rounds to come out of the relatively new SoftBank Innovation Fund, an effort dedicated to investing in tech companies focused on Latin America. The fund was announced earlier this year at $2 billion and has since expanded to $5 billion. Other Latin American companies that SoftBank has backed include online delivery business Rappi, lending platform Creditas, and proptech startup QuintoAndar.

The common theme among many SoftBank investments is a focus on e-commerce in its many forms (whether that’s transactions for loans or to get a pizza delivered) and VTEX is positioned as a platform player that enables a lot of that to happen in the wider marketplace, providing not just the tools to build a front end, but to manage the inventory, ordering and customer relations at the back end.

“VTEX has three attributes that we believe will fuel the company’s success: a strong team culture, a best-in-class product and entrepreneurs with profitability mindset,” said Paulo Passoni, managing investment partner at SoftBank’s Latin America fund, in a statement. “Brands and retailers want reliability and the ability to test their own innovations. VTEX offers both, filling a gap in the market. With VTEX, companies get access to a proven, cloud-native platform with the flexibility to test add-ons in the same data layer.”

Although VTEX has been expanding into markets like the US (where it acquired UniteU earlier this year), the company still makes some 80% of its revenues annually in Latin America, Gomide said in an interview.

There, it has been a key partner to retailers and brands interested in expanding into the region, providing integrations to localise storefronts, a platform to help brands manage customer and marketplace relations, and analytics, competing against the likes of SAP, Oracle, Adobe, and Salesforce (but not, he said in answer to my question, Commercetools, which builds Shopify -style API tools for mid- and large-sized enterprises and itself raised $145 million last month).

E-commerce, as we’ve pointed out before, is a business of economies of scale. Case in point, while VTEX processes some $2.5 billion in transactions annually, it makes a relative small return on that: $69 million, to be exact. This, plus the benefit of analytics on a wider set of big data (another economy of scale play), are two of the big reasons why VTEX is now doubling down on growth in newer markets like Europe and North America. The company now has 122 integrations with localised payment methods.

“At the end of the day, e-commerce software is a combination of knowledge. If you don’t have access to thousands of global cases you can’t imbue the software with knowledge,” Gomide said. “Companies that have been focused on one specific region and now realising that trade is a global thing. China has proven that, so a lot of companies are now coming to us because their existing providers of e-commerce tools can’t ‘do international.'” There are very few companies that can serve that global approach and that is why we are betting on being a global commerce platform, not just one focused on Latin America.”

The first hires are the hardest

Welcome to this edition of The Operators, a recurring Extra Crunch column, podcast and YouTube show that brings you insights and information from inside of tech companies. Our guests are execs with operational experience at both fast-rising startups like Brex, Calm, DocSend and Zeus Living, along with more established companies like AirBnB, Facebook, Google and Uber. Here, they share strategies and tactics for building your first company and charting your career in tech.

In this episode, we’re talking about hiring and recruiting:

  1. Why people take the risk of working at early-stage startups
  2. When and how to work with recruiters
  3. How to make your first hires

A company’s first hires are often the hardest; money is usually too tight to pay competitive salaries, there’s no recognizable brand or reputation yet and most people would prefer to work at a company their friends and family have heard of before. There’s also fair presumption of risk and unviability — who wants to take a job that might not be around in a year?

Startup founders overcome these odds on a regular basis. To figure out how, we spoke with two experts:

Farah Sharghi-Dolatabadi began her career as a software developer and financial advisor before moving into recruiting. She’s been a recruiter at startups in addition to companies like Google and Lyft. She’s currently a senior technical recruiter at Uber and an active career coach at HireClub.

Kelly Kinnard is Vice President of Talent at Battery Ventures, where she’s worked with startups like Wag, Coupa, Fastly, and Gainsight. She also has experience at top recruiting firms and in executive search at Oracle.

Below is a synthesized summary of our conversation; check out The Operators for the full episode.

Why people take the risk of working at early-stage startups

Most early-stage startups fail. That shouldn’t be news to anyone. Still, however unlikely big outcomes are, the possibility of being a part of the next Facebook or Uber is tempting, and taking a job at a brand new company may even rational on an expected value basis.

Sometimes it’s not just the chance at a big financial outcome. We’ve heard early-stage employees say they made their choice based for more intangible reasons, like having more autonomy in their work, seeking a less structured environment, working with a certain type or set of colleagues, wanting a sense of adventure or purpose and the opportunity for more rapid career progression.

It may not be possible for an early-stage startup to offer market-rate compensation, but they can personalize the opportunity for early employees.

“Be creative and do things like cater to that individual and think about it on a case by case basis,” said Kinnard. “If that candidate really wants to work from home two days a week because they have a dog and you can’t allow dogs in the office, and they want to be able to walk their dog or go pick up their child from school after school, then try to customize things according to each individual.” But don’t forget that compensation still matters, as do market rates. According to Kinnard, “cash is still king, and I think sometimes I see founders and I see CEOs be unrealistic about what they expect to be able to pay people. A part of what I do is provide them with competitive comp data so they can look at the data and [see] here’s what 3000 companies that we’ve surveyed have suggested the compensation ranges.”

Creative problem-solving pays dividends in recruiting, just like in does with most other problems startups need to solve. Experienced recruiters can help companies figure out how to get creative, but how do you know if working a recruiter is right for you?

 

When and how to work with recruiters

Even after Microsoft wins, JEDI saga could drag on

The DoD JEDI contract saga came to a thrilling conclusion on Friday afternoon, appropriately enough, with one final plot twist. The presumptive favorite, Amazon, did not win, stunning many, including likely the company itself. In the end, Microsoft took home the $10 billion prize.

This contract was filled with drama from the beginning, given the amount of money involved, the length of the contract, the winner-take-all nature of the deal — and the politics. We can’t forget the politics. This was Washington after all, and Jeff Bezos does own The Washington Post.

Then there was Oracle’s fury throughout the procurement process. The president got involved in August. The current defense secretary recused himself on Wednesday, two days before the decision came down. It was all just so much drama, even the final decision itself, handed down late Friday afternoon — but it’s unclear if this is the end or just another twist in this ongoing tale.

Some perspective on $10 billion

Before we get too crazy about Microsoft getting a $10 billion, 10-year contract, consider that Amazon earned $9 billion last quarter alone in cloud revenue. Microsoft reported $33 billion last quarter in total revenue. It reported around $11 billion in cloud revenue. Synergy Research pegs the current cloud infrastructure market at well over $100 billion annually (and growing).

What we have here is a contract that’s worth a billion a year. What’s more, it’s possible it might not even be worth that much if the government uses one of its out clauses. The deal is actually initially guaranteed for just two years. Then there are a couple of three-year options, with a final two-year option at the end if it gets that far.

The DOD recognized that with the unique nature of this contract, going with a single vendor, it wanted to keep its options open should the tech world shift suddenly under its feet. It didn’t want to be inextricably tied to one company for a decade if that company was suddenly disrupted by someone else. Given the shifting sands of technology, that part of the strategy was a wise one.

Where the value lies

If the value of this deal was not the contract itself, it begs the question, why did everyone want it so badly? The $10 billion JEDI deal was simply a point of entree. If you could modernize the DoD’s infrastructure, the argument goes, chances are you could do the same for other areas of the government. It could open the door for Microsoft for a much more lucrative government cloud business.

But it’s not as though Microsoft didn’t already have a lucrative cloud business. In 2016, for example, the company signed a deal worth almost a billion dollars to help move the entire department to Windows 10. Amazon too, has had its share of government contracts, famously landing the $600 million to build the CIA’s private cloud.

But given all the attention to this deal, it always felt a little different from your standard government contract. Just the fact the DoD used a Star Wars reference for the project acronym drew more attention to the project from the start. Therefore, there was some prestige for the winner of this deal, and Microsoft gets bragging rights this morning, while Amazon is left to ponder what the heck happened. As for other companies like Oracle, who knows how they’re feeling about this outcome.

Hell hath no fury like Oracle scorned

Ah yes, Oracle; this tale would not be complete without discussing the rage of Oracle throughout the JEDI RFP process. Even before the RFP process started, they were complaining about the procurement process. Co-CEO Safra Catz had dinner with the president to complain that the contract process wasn’t fair (not fair!). Then it tried complaining to the Government Accountability Office. They found no issue with the process.

They went to court. The judge dismissed their claims that involved both the procurement process and that a former Amazon employee, who was hired by the DoD, was involved in the process of creating the RFP. They claimed that the former employee was proof that the deal was tilted toward Amazon. The judge disagreed and dismissed their complaints.

What Oracle could never admit was that it simply didn’t have the same cloud chops as Microsoft and Amazon, the two finalists. It couldn’t be that they were late to the cloud or had a fraction of the market share that Amazon and Microsoft had. It had to be the process or that someone was boxing them out.

What Microsoft brings to the table

Outside of the politics of this decision (which we will get to shortly), Microsoft brought to the table some experience and tooling that certainly gave it some advantage in the selection process. Until we see the reasons for the selections, it’s hard to know exactly why the DoD chose Microsoft, but we know a few things.

First of all there are the existing contracts with the DoD, including the aforementioned Windows 10 contract and a five-year $1.76 billion contract with DoD Intelligence to provide “innovative enterprise services” to the DoD.

Then there is Azure Stack, a portable private cloud stack that the military could stand up anywhere. It could have great utility for missions in the field when communicating with a cloud server could be problematic.

Fool if you think it’s over

So that’s that right? The decision has been made and it’s time to move on. Amazon will go home and lick its wounds. Microsoft gets bragging rights and we’re good. Actually, this might not be where it ends at all.

Amazon, for instance, could point to Jim Mattis’ book where he wrote that the president told the then Defense Secretary to “screw Bezos out of that $10 billion contract.” Mattis says he refused, saying he would go by the book, but it certainly leaves the door open to a conflict question.

It’s also worth pointing out that Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post and the president isn’t exactly in love with that particular publication. In fact, this week, the White House canceled its subscription and encouraged other government agencies to do so as well.

Then there is the matter of current Defense Secretary Mark Espers suddenly recusing himself last Wednesday afternoon based on a minor point that one of his adult children works at IBM (in a non-cloud consulting job). He claimed he wanted to remove any hint of conflict of interest, but at this point in the process, it was down to Microsoft and Amazon. IBM wasn’t even involved.

If Amazon wanted to protest this decision, it seems it would have much more solid ground to do so than Oracle ever had. An Amazon spokesperson would only say that the company “was keeping its options open.”

The bottom line is a decision has been made, at least for now, but this process has been rife with controversy from the start, just by the design of the project, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Amazon take some protest action of its own. It seems oddly appropriate.

Former Oracle co-CEO Mark Hurd has passed away

Mark Hurd, who until last month was one of two CEOs leading the database software giant Oracle, has passed away at age 62, one month after telling employees in a letter that he was taking a leave of absence owing to health reasons.

Staffers, who were notified that Hurd died earlier this morning, have been offering their condolences on Twitter.

Hurd joined Oracle nine years ago, after spending five years with Hewlett-Packard, where he was CEO, president and, ultimately, board chairman, all roles from which he was pressured to resign in 2010 after submitting inaccurate expense reports that concealed his personal relationship with an outside consultant to the company.

At the time, Allen Lind, a professor of leadership at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, told Time magazine: “People don’t like their leaders to have frailties. That’s just the way it works.”

The very next month, Larry Ellison, a friend of Hurd, named him the co-president of Oracle, the company Ellison had himself founded in the summer of 1977. Said then-CEO Ellison in a statement relating to the move, “Mark did a brilliant job at H-P, and I expect he’ll do even better at Oracle. There is no executive in the I.T. world with more relevant experience than Mark.”

Indeed, when Ellison stepped down as the CEO of Oracle in 2014 to become the company’s chief technology officer, he promoted Hurd to the role of CEO, a role he had since shared with Oracle’s former CFO, Safra Catz.

When Hurd left last month, Catz, who has been an executive with Oracle since 1999, became the sole CEO of Oracle, though Ellison has indicated that she won’t be operating the company single-handedly for long. Instead, he told analysts last month that though some people find it “weird,” Oracle plans to keep its dual-CEO structure, in part owing to situations as with Hurd where life throws an executive team a curveball.

According to Business Insider, Ellison has already promised the board of directors the names of numerous internal candidates, including Don Johnson, the executive vice president of Oracle Cloud Infrastructure.

Said Ellison at Oracle’s OpenWorld event in San Francisco last month: “I believe in a dual-CEO structure. The normal case would be dual CEO here for obvious reasons. That it’s good to have capacity and good to have specialization. And then, God forbid, if something untoward should happen, you have capacity; you are not incapacitated.”

Hurd attended Baylor University in Waco, Texas on a tennis scholarship and reportedly dabbled on the professional tennis circuit immediately after graduating. He began his career at NCR Corp., where he was promoted to chief operating officer 22 years into his tenure with the company, and to the role of CEO the following year, in 2003.

Two years later, H-P brought him aboard.

Hurd is survived by his wife, Paula, and daughters Kathryn and Kelly.

Ellison released a statement just now about the development. It reads:

It is with a profound sense of sadness and loss that I tell everyone here at Oracle that Mark Hurd passed away early this morning. Mark was my close and irreplaceable friend, and trusted colleague. Oracle has lost a brilliant and beloved leader who personally touched the lives of so many of us during his decade at Oracle. All of us will miss Mark’s keen mind and rare ability to analyze, simplify and solve problems quickly. Some of us will miss his friendship and mentorship. I will miss his kindness and sense of humor. Mark leaves his beloved wife Paula, two wonderful daughters who were the joy of his life, and his much larger extended family here at Oracle who came to love him. I know that many of us are inconsolable right now, but we are left with memories and a sense of gratitude…that we had the opportunity to get know Mark, the opportunity to work with him…and become his friend.

Jobpal pockets $2.7M for its enterprise recruitment chatbot

Berlin-based recruitment chatbot startup Jobpal has closed a €2.5 million (~$2.7M) seed round of funding from InReach Ventures and Acadian Ventures.

The company, which was founded back in 2016, has built a cross-platform chatbot to automate candidate support and increase efficiency around hiring by applying machine learning and natural language processing for what it dubs “talent interaction”.

The target customers are large enterprises with Jobpal offering the product as a managed service.

For these employers the pitch is increased efficiency by being able to rapidly respond to and engage potential job applicants whenever they’re reaching out for more info via an always-on channel (i.e. the chatbot) which is primed to respond to common questions.

Candidates can also apply for vacancies via the Jobpal chatbot by answering a series of questions in the familiar messaging thread format. Jobpal says its chatbot can also be used to screen applicants’ CVs and recommend the most promising candidates.

It takes care of the logistical legwork of scheduling interview appointments — leaving HR departments with more time to spend on more meaningful portions of the recruitment process.

Co-founder and CEO Luc Dudler tells TechCrunch it has more than 30 enterprise clients at this stage, generating “thousands of conversations” per day. Customers he name checks include the likes of Airbus, Deutsche Telekom and McDonald’s.

The software works on popular messaging platforms including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat and SMS, and is available in 15+ languages — though Jobpal confirms the German market remains its largest so far.

“The sheer volume of interest and number of questions enterprises receive from prospective talent is often difficult to deal with, which results in a suboptimal experience and frustrated candidates. Conversational interfaces and Natural Language Processing enable us to deliver a candidate-centric experience and increase the efficiency of the recruiting function,” says Dudler, arguing that the recruitment landscape has become “candidate first” — putting the onus on enterprises to get the “candidate experience” right.

“This technology allows employers to engage with candidates when they want and on the platforms they use, such as WhatsApp. This gives control to the candidates, meaning they can get answers in a matter of seconds, instead of days or weeks. For Internal HR teams, they can spend time more time finding the best talent, as jobpal automates tedious and time-consuming tasks, allowing recruitment teams to focus on more value-add tasks.”

“We focus mainly on communication and engagement, and our customers only do in-house recruitment. We don’t work with agencies,” he adds.

Jobpal points to increased engagement from use of its chatbot — claiming companies are seeing more queries from jobseekers than they used to receive emails, as well as arguing the “low-friction” approach is accessible and convenient and leads to increased conversion rates.

With any automated process there could be a risk of biased and unequitable outcomes — depending on the criteria the chatbot is using to sift candidates. Although Jobpal says it’s not using algorithms to take recruitment decisions, so the biggest bias risk looks to be in the hands of the employers setting the criteria.

Misinterpretation of candidates’ queries based on the technology failing to understand what’s being asked could potentially lead to responses that disproportionately disadvantage certain applicants. Though Jobpal says queries that are too complex are routed to a human to deal with.

“We get a lot of queries about the application process/deadline/evaluation, qualifications needed, supporting documents, working hours, growth options and salary that Jobpal is designed to deal with,” says Dudler, of Jobpal candidate users. “Our chatbots don’t answer questions that are too personal, too obscure or anything non-recruitment related such as customer service queries.”

“Jobpal stores the query data but it’s de-associated from the candidate data. This data is used to train AI models which supports general communication as well as company-specific chatbots. We don’t mine or sell candidate profiles, and we don’t do algorithmic decision making in the recruitment process,” he adds.

The software integrates with a number of enterprise Human Capital Management suites at this point, including SAP SuccessFactors, Workday, Oracle (formerly Taleo), Avature and Smartrecruiters.

The seed round follows what Dudler couches as “a huge increase in demand” — with the team spying an opportunity for further growth.

“We’ll be investing in product development and tripling our headcount in the next 12 months. Specifically, we are looking to recruit a VP of marketing,” he tells us.

Chatbots still strike many consumers as robotic — and even irritating — but the technology has nonetheless been flourishing in the customer support and recruitment space for several years now. Business areas where there’s no shortage of repetitive tasks for automating. And where being able to offer some level of service 24/7 is a major plus.

On the hiring front, the power imbalance between employer and job applicant might even make interfacing with a bot more appealing for a candidate than the pressure of talking to an actual human who already works at the target employer.

For certain types of jobs employee churn can also be incredibly high — making hiring essentially a neverending task. Again, chatbots are a natural fit in such a scenario; being scalable, they take the strain out of repeat and formulaic conversations — with the promise of a smooth pipeline of candidate conversions.

Given all that there’s now no shortage of recruitment chatbots touting automated support for HR departments. At the same time there’s unlikely to ever be a one-size fits all approach to the hiring problem. It’s a multifaceted, multi-dimensional challenge on account of the spectrum of work that exists and jobs to be filled, and indeed the human variety of jobseekers.

This is why there are so many different ‘flavors’ and ‘styles’ of chatbots offering to assist, some with algorithmic matching, and/or targeting different types of employers and/or jobs/industry (or indeed jobseekers; passive vs active) — others just super basic tools (such as the Jobo bot which alerts jobseekers to vacancies matching criteria they’ve specified).

Some more sophisticated chatbot examples include MeetFrank (passive job matching); Mya (for recruiting agencies and massive enterprises, including for shift filling); Vahan (low skilled, blue-collar job-matching for high attrition delivery jobs); and AllyO (conversational AI for “end-to-end HR management”).

While a few recruitment chatbots that are closer to what Jobpal is offering include the likes of IdealBrazen and Xor, to name three.

With so much chatbot competition pledging to ‘streamline recruitment’ by applying automation to the hiring task, employers might be forgiven for thinking they have a fresh choice headache on their hands.

But for startups applying AI technology to ‘fix recruitment’ by making talk cheap (and structured), the patchwork of players and approaches still in play suggests there’s ongoing opportunity to grab a slice of a truly massive market. 

India’s Darwinbox raises $15M to bring its HR tech platform to more Asian markets

An Indian SaaS startup, which is increasingly courting clients from outside of the country, just raised a significant amount of capital to expand its business.

Hyderabad-based Darwinbox, which operates a cloud-based human resource management platform, said on Thursday it has raised $15 million in a new financing round. The Series B round — which moves the firm’s total raise to $19.7 million — was led by Sequoia India and saw participation from existing investors Lightspeed India Partners, Endiya Partners, and 3one4 Capital.

More than 200 firms including giants such as adtech firm InMobi, fintech startup Paytm, drink conglomerate Bisleri, automobile maker Mahindra, Kotak group, and delivery firms Swiggy and Milkbasket use Darwinbox’s HR platform to serve half a million of their employees in 50 nations, Rohit Chennamaneni, cofounder of Darwinbox, told TechCrunch in an interview.

The startup, which competes with giants such as SAP and Oracle, said its platform enables high level of configurability, ease of use, and understands the needs of modern employees. “The employees today who have grown accustomed to using consumer-focused services such as Uber and Amazon are left disappointed in their experience with their own firm’s HR offerings,” said Gowthami Kanumuru, VP Marketing at Darwinbox, in an interview.

Darwinbox’s HR platform offers a range of features including the ability for firms to offer their employees insurance and early salary as loans. Its platform also features social networks for employees within a company to connect and talk, as well as an AI assistant that allows them to apply for a leave or set up meetings with quick voice commands from their phone.

“The AI system is not just looking for certain keywords. If an employee tells the system he or she is not feeling well today, it automatically applies a leave for them,” she said.

Darwinbox’s platform is built to handle onboarding new employees, keeping a tab on their performance, monitor attrition rate, and maintain an ongoing feedback loop. Or as Kanumuru puts it, the entire “hiring to retiring” cycle.

One of Darwinbox’s clients is L&T, which is tasked with setting up subway in many Indian cities. L&T is using geo-fencing feature of Darwin to log the attendance of employees. “They are not using biometric punch machine that is typically used by other firms. Instead, they just require their 1,200 employees to check-in from the workplace using their phones,” said Kanumuru.

darwinbox event

Additionally, Darwinbox is largely focusing on serving companies based in Asia as it believes Western companies’ solutions are not a great fit for people here, said Kanumuru. The startup began courting clients in Southeast Asian markets last year.

“Our growth is a huge validation for our vision,” she said. “Within six months of operations, we had the delivery giant Delhivery with over 23,000 employees use our platform.”

In a statement to TechCrunch, Dev Khare, a partner at Lightspeed Venture, said, “there is a new trend of SaaS companies targeting the India/SE Asia markets. This trend is gathering steam and is disproving the conventional wisdom that Asia-focused SaaS companies cannot get to be big companies. We firmly believe that Asia-focused SaaS companies can get to large impact value and become large and profitable. Darwinbox is one of these companies.”

Darwinbox’s Chennamaneni said the startup will use the fresh capital to expand its footprints in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian markets. Darwinbox will also expand its product offerings to address more of employees’ needs. The startup is also looking to make its platform enable tasks such as booking of flights and hotels.

Chennamaneni, an alum of Google and McKinsey, said Darwinbox aims to double the number of clients it has in the next six to nine months.

New investment firm wants to change the way we fund early stage companies — from New Hampshire

The three founders of York IE have a vision about how to change the way early stage startups get funding. They have experience shattering norms, having built a successful startup, Dyn, in Manchester, New Hampshire, which is not exactly a hot-bed of startup activity.

The founders want to take that same spirit and apply it to investing, while maintaining its headquarters in New Hampshire (and Boston). In fact, the three founders — Kyle York, Joe Raczka and Adam Coughlin — launched Dyn and built it to $30 million in ARR before taking a dime in venture funding. They went onto raise $88 million before being acquired by Oracle in 2016. They believe they can apply the lessons that they learned to other early stage startups.

“We think, especially in B2B and SaaS, there is a way to build a scalable, effective and efficient business without chasing massive fund raises, diluting your company, bringing on traditional venture investors and chasing those kind of on-paper vanity metrics,” company CEO and co-founder Kyle York told TechCrunch.

For the past five years, while working at Oracle after the acquisition, the founders have been testing their theories while advising startups and acting as angel investors. They believed it was time to take all of those learnings and apply it to their own firm.

“I started thinking about how to transition out of Oracle, and what I wanted to do from a career perspective and we wanted to build a modern investment firm less focused on how to deploy as much capital as possible for the limited partners, and more on working with the entrepreneurs to help coach them on a path to success,” York said.

The company still wants to act as investors, and to make money along the way, but they want to help build more solid, grounded companies. York says that they want the founders truly understand that they are selling a part of their company in exchange for those dollars, and that it makes sense to have a strong foundation before taking on money.

York wants to change this culture of fund raising for fund raising’s sake. He acknowledges that some companies with deep tech or deep infrastructure require that kind of substantial up-front investment to get off the ground, but SaaS companies are supposed to be able to take advantage of modern technology to build companies more easily, and he wants to see them build solid companies first and foremost.

“The goal shouldn’t be to raise more capital. The goal should be to build a healthy successful, scalable company,” he said.

To put their money where their mouth is, the new firm will not take management fees. “We are investing like a normal investor and coming through with equity position, but we are betting on the future. In essence, if the startup wins, then we win.”