All posts in “Software”

Run to the rock


The past week has been a tough one for lovers of freedom. Slippery slopes have been slid down and a side of the human mind that once remained in shadow has reared its head. Charlottesville is just the first step down a dark road.

In real life, on the public square, our support of freedom of speech and public assembly – a freedom that has long helped hater and lover alike – is in question. Do we open our squares to men who will fight equality? Do we unlock our school grounds so that fear can reign? Do we simply close our windows on loudspeakers calling out for genocide or do we act? I don’t have an answer, but sunlight has always been the best antiseptic and seeing most of these groups on a bare parade ground lays bare their insignificance.

But what do you about the Internet where everything is shadow hiding inside corporate iron? The Internet is a utility, to a degree, but not one whose sanctity is guaranteed to us by some holy writ. We send bits over corporate networks onto servers housed in corporate basements. We shout into corporate megaphones and write screeds – like this one – into corporate editor windows.

On that skein of wires there is no sunlight. We, the creators of that world, must decide. Do we let hate live alongside love? What is conversation when everyone yells? What is fair when everyone has the loudest voice?

I was once a free-love kind of Internet zealot. I still agree that DRM is wrong, that media wants to be free and that good media will be paid for by someone. I still agree that sex is far less egregious than violence and that visions of both help define the lines of our personalities and ensure we do not wander too far into some puritan desert. I was angry, for example, when Pinterest pulled sexual content but know I know things have changed. Pinterest runs is own servers. It is responsible for the contents. It deserves final say.

And that’s where we are now. If you hate, says Wired in a recent profile of Instagram’s Kevin Systrom, you will be shut down.

“Insta­gram is supposed to be a place for self-expression and joy,” wrote Nicholas Thompson in the profile. “Who wants to express themselves, though, if they’re going to be mocked, harassed, and shamed in the comments below a post? Instagram is a bit like Disneyland—if every now and then the seven dwarfs hollered at Snow White for looking fat.”

Or who wants to star in a Ghostbusters reboot and be called racial slurs? And who wants to live in a world where /r/aww lives next to /r/poli?

We, the curators of the Internet, have to decide. Some of us already have. We see Cloudflare and GoDaddy pulling their services from white power site Daily Stormer. Cloudflare’s CEO Matthew Prince agonized over the decision. He, like most Internet users, expects the web to be free as in freedom.

“Our team has been thorough and have had thoughtful discussions for years about what the right policy was on censoring. Like a lot of people, we’ve felt angry at these hateful people for a long time but we have followed the law and remained content neutral as a network. We could not remain neutral after these claims of secret support by Cloudflare,” he wrote. “You, like me, may believe that the Daily Stormer’s site is vile. You may believe it should be restricted. You may think the authors of the site should be prosecuted. Reasonable people can and do believe all those things. But having the mechanism of content control be vigilante hackers launching DDoS attacks subverts any rational concept of justice.”

In the end this is where we must go. It’s folks like Rabbi Abe Cooper as well as Valley CEOs who will help us find a way forward. Freedom of speech in the public square is one right we all have. But there is no free speech in the walled garden if the gardener doesn’t will it.

Listen to Nina Simone. She sang an old spiritual and sang it beautifully.

“Oh, sinnerman, where you gonna run to? Where you gonna run to? All on that day,” she said. “We got to run to the rock. Please hide me, I run to the rock. All on that day. But the rock cried out. I can’t hide you, the rock cried out. I ain’t gonna hide you there.”

Haters are hiding. They run to the rock. The rock is cries out. It won’t hide them. They must stand, then, and face those they wronged. This is the way it has always been and always will be. We can’t let the Internet change that.

Clara Labs nabs $7M Series A as it positions its AI assistant to meet the needs of enterprise teams


Clara Labs, creator of the Clara AI assistant, is announcing a $7 million Series A this morning led by Basis Set Ventures. Slack Fund also joined in the round, alongside existing investors Sequoia and First Round. The startup will be looking to further differentiate within the crowded field of email-centric personal assistants by building in features and integrations to address the needs of enterprise teams.

Founded in 2014, Clara Labs has spent much of the last three years trying to fix email. When CC-ed on emails, the Clara assistant can automatically schedule meetings — reasoning around preferences like location and time.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve probably come across x.ai or Fin. But while all three startups look similar on paper, each has its own distinct ideology. Where Clara is running toward the needs of teams, Fin embraces the personal pains of travel planning and shopping. Meanwhile, x.ai opts for maximum automation and lower pricing.

That last point around automation needs some extra context. Clara Labs prides itself in its implementation of a learning strategy called human-in-the-loop. For machines to analyze emails, they have to make a lot of decisions — is that date when you want to grab coffee, or is it the start of your vacation when you’ll be unable to meet?

In the open world of natural language, incremental machine learning advances only get you so far. So instead, companies like Clara convert uncertainty into simple questions that can be sent to humans on demand (think proprietary version of Amazon Mechanical Turk). The approach has become a tech trope with the rise of all things AI, but Maran Nelson, CEO of Clara Labs, is adamant that there’s still a meaningful way to implement agile AI.

The trick is ensuring that a feedback mechanism exists for these questions to serve as training materials for uncertain machine learning models. Three years later, Clara Labs is confident that its approach is working.

Bankrolling the human in human-in-the-loop does cost everyone more, but people are willing to pay for performance. After all, even a nosebleed-inducing $399 per month top-tier plan costs a fraction of a real human assistant.

Anyone who has ever experimented with adding new email tools into old workflows understands that Gmail and Outlook have tapped into the dark masochistic part of our brain that remains addicted to inefficiency. It’s tough to switch and the default of trying tools like Clara is often a slow return to the broken way of doing things. Nelson says she’s keeping a keen eye on user engagement and numbers are healthy for now — there’s undoubtedly a connection between accuracy and engagement.

As Clara positions its services around the enterprise, it will need to take into account professional sales and recruiting workflows. Integrations with core systems like Slack, CRMs and job applicant tracking systems will help Clara keep engagement numbers high while feeding machine learning models new edge cases to improve the quality of the entire product.

“Scheduling is different if you’re a sales person and your sales team is measured by the total number of meetings scheduled,” Nelson told me in an interview.

Nelson is planning to make new hires in marketing and sales to push the Clara team beyond its current R&D comfort zone. Meanwhile the technical team will continue to add new features and integrations, like conference room booking, that increase the value-add of the Clara assistant.

Xuezhao Lan of Basis Set Ventures will be joining the Clara Labs board of directors as the company moves into its next phase of growth. Lan will bring both knowledge of machine learning and strategy to the board. Today’s Clara deal is one of the first public deals to involve the recently formed $136 million AI-focused Basis Set fund.

Facebook may begin testing a paywall for selected media stories as soon as October


Facebook could begin testing a paywall for subscription news stories as early as October, according to a top company executive.

Campbell Brown, who heads up the social network’s new partnerships business, made the reveal at the Digital Publishing Innovation Summit on Tuesday, The Street reported. We have independently confirmed that, too.

“We are in early talks with several news publishers about how we might better support subscription business models on Facebook. As part of the Facebook Journalism Project, we are taking the time to work closely together with our partners and understand their needs,” Brown told TechCrunch in a statement via a spokesperson.

The project is still in its infancy, and it may be subject to change, but TechCrunch understands that the current plan is to work with a handful of publishers to introduce a system that would limit free viewing to 10 articles per month, as Digiday previously reported. After viewing 10 articles from the media company, a user would be promoted to sign up for a subscription to that publication or log into an active one.

That number is rigid at 10, despite the fact that publishers that operate a paywall allow varying numbers of free articles for visitors per month. A source to Facebook said the number would be the same across all partners to ensure consistency for users.

The source stressed that Facebook would allow participating media partners to maintain full control over which stories are locked behind the paywall and which aren’t, and full control of their subscriber data, too. At this point it is unclear exactly what access to reading data and history, which can help increase engagement, the media partners would get.

Equally, it isn’t clear how payment will be taken for subscribers who sign up via the Facebook paywall. Digiday reports the social network is considering bypassing Google Play and Apple’s App Store to avoid the mandatory 30 percent cut that each operator takes from digital payments. That may require a mobile web payment option, which would add friction to the user experience, potentially impacting the effectiveness of the program.

There’s certainly much to be confirmed. For one thing, which media firms will participate.

Facebook remains in talks with prospective partners, some of which have had one-on-one briefings while others were engaged via roundtables staged in New York and Paris last week. All being well, our source said that Facebook will look to broaden the paywall feature to more users next year, but there’s some way to go before that happens.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Stox to launch token sale for its new prediction market


Stox.com is Invest.com’s prediction market product and it’s getting a little boost through a newly-opened token sale using Bancor’s smart token protocol. This announcement, while full of jargon, means that Stox will be able to raise money to develop infrastructure and increase its marketing and sales groups.

Stox is a spin-off of Invest.com, an established player in the financial market. Invest sees $50 million in annual revenue and 3 million registered clients. Stox will be an “open source, Ethereum-based prediction market platform” according to the team.

“The biggest difference, is that there is a real, substantial, experienced company behind this,” said CEO Ophir Gertner. “This isn’t a few folks and a whitepaper that have never managed a company, dealt with user acquisition, weather the ups and downs, etc.”

The team is calling its raise a “token generation event,” a move that distances them from the concept of the initial coin offering or ICO so popular in crypto jargon. Users can use the single token on Stox.com to “trade” on the outcome of “finance, sports, politics and even the weather.” Because it is open source anyone can connect to the platform and post a trade.

“Stox will feature Invest.com as its debut provider, but will be built in such a way that allows independent operators to join and partake in its ecosystem as well,” said Gertner.

The team isn’t concerned about the recent dip in cryptocurrencies.

“Rather than a negative signal for the space, we see it as supporting our assertion that this is exactly why you need real companies involved,” said Gertner. “Teams that have weathered the ups and downs of running a real business, that are experienced in user acquisition, and so forth.”

BloomAPI locks down $2.4M to fix medical record releases


Seattle-based BloomAPI is announcing a $2.4 million seed round led by Founders’ Co-op this morning for its solution to the broken medical records release process. It’s no secret that the entire U.S. healthcare system is held back by antiquated technology — but unlike many competitors, BloomAPI offers a solution that works with, and not against, the old-school technologies that are still the unfortunate reality for the industry.

BloomAPI sits on top of existing systems, integrates quickly and doesn’t cost doctors a dime. As a result of this orientation, the solution doesn’t functionally change any existing human processes. When it comes to privacy, patients are still expected to sign all the same documentation and waivers they traditionally would for record releases — it’s just the conduit for the actual document transfer that has been streamlined.

Michael Wasser, founder and CEO of BloomAPI

The company makes its money by charging third parties, like insurance companies and other vendors, for API access. This allows the company to scale faster across doctors’ offices to give the myriad medical record salve startups a run for their money.

“With BloomAPI, data sharing just becomes simple,” asserted Michael Wasser, founder of BloomAPI in an interview. “This way you don’t even have to question whether a medical record is available.”

To date, BloomAPI has onboarded 300 doctors with access to more than 1 million individuals. That process is clearly more difficult and decentralized than a traditional big-ticket enterprise SaaS contract, but Wasser tells me this is part of his secret sauce.

Other competitors have taken a top-down approach, promising to fix the massive medical records problem by promising interoperability across major hospital groups. Wasser believes this is the wrong strategy, and many players attempting to make it work are getting caught up in complex negotiations with maligned incentives.

“Doctors hear ‘interoperability’ and say this will come but it never actually shows up,” explained Wasser. “We are saying, you already do medical record releases, we just want to make it happen better.”

The company plans to continue to simplify the onboarding process for doctors and begin introducing some machine learning capabilities. If BloomAPI is able to sit on top of disparate systems of record, it would have the opportunity to take a more active role in organizing medical records. Some day this could mean pulling diagnosis codes from paper documents and classifying documents.

Today’s round also included Y Combinator, Slow Ventures, Founders’ Co-Op, Section 32 (Bill Maris’s new fund), Liquid 2 Ventures, Fifty Years Fund, TWB Investment Partnership, Wei Fund, Parker Conrad and other angels.

Featured Image: Medioimages/Photodisc/Getty Images