All posts in “Startups”

CFO Naeem Ishaq is leaving Boxed

Naeem Ishaq is leaving his role as chief financial officer of bulk e-commerce company Boxed.

Ishaq joined Boxed in 2016, following a stint as head of finance, strategy and risk at Square. A Boxed spokesperson confirmed Ishaq’s departure, and sent the following statement from CEO Chieh Huang:

Naeem is a world-class financial talent. Over the last two years, he has been indispensable in helping build and grow Boxed to what it is today. We will miss his energy, focus and enthusiasm for our company. Perhaps his greatest legacy is building a well-versed finance team that will continue to focus on evolving the Boxed platform.

I want to thank Naeem for his contribution to Boxed and wish him well on his future endeavors.

Boxed says it’s currently looking for another CFO.

“The last two years I’ve spent at Boxed have been some of the most thrilling of my career,” Ishaq said in a statement (also provided by Boxed). “We achieved much of what I set out to accomplish when I joined. Boxed … has tremendous opportunities ahead and I look forward to rooting [for] them as they continue to grow.”

The news comes less than a week after Bloomberg reported that Boxed had rejected a $400 million acquisition offer from Kroger. Other retailers, including Amazon, Target and Costco, were also rumored to be interested.

When I called Ishaq, he said he’s joining a company in the financial technology industry, but declined get more specific (I guess that’ll be announced separately). He also said his departure is unconnected to those acquisition stories.

“This is more about an opportunity that came up that frankly, I’m super excited about,” he said. “Boxed is extremely well-positioned … I don’t think [my departure] diminishes that at all. It’s a personal choice for me.”

Voicery makes synthesized voices sound more like humans

Advancements in AI technology have paved the way for breakthroughs in speech recognition, natural language processing and machine translation. A new startup called Voicery now wants to leverage those same advancements to improve speech synthesis, too. The result is a fast, flexible speech engine that sounds more human — and less like a robot. Its machine voices can then be used anywhere a synthesized voice is needed — including in new applications, like automatically generated audiobooks or podcasts, voice-overs, TV dubs and elsewhere.

Before starting Voicery, co-founder Andrew Gibiansky worked at Baidu Research, where he led the deep learning speech synthesis team.

While there, the team developed state of the art techniques in the field of machine learning, published papers on speech constructed from deep neural networks and artificial speech generation and commercialized its technology in production-quality systems for Baidu.

Now, Gibiansky is bringing that same skill set to Voicery, where he’s joined by co-founder Bobby Ullman, who previously worked at Palantir on databases and scalable systems.

“In the time that I was at Baidu, what became very evident is that the revolution in deep learning and machine learning was about to happen to speech synthesis,” explains Gibiansky. “In the past five years, we’ve seen that these new techniques have brought an amazing gains in computer vision, speech recognition and in other industries — but it hasn’t yet happened with synthesizing human speech. We saw that if we could use this new technology to build speech synthesis engines, we could do it so much better than everything that currently exists.” 

Specifically, the company is leveraging newer deep learning technologies to create better synthesized voices more quickly than before.

In fact, the founders built Voicery’s speech synthesis engine in just two-and-half months.

Unlike traditional voice synthesizing solutions, where a single person records hours upon hours of speech that’s then used to create the new voice, Voicery trains its system on hundreds of voices at once.

It also can use varying amounts of speech input from any one person. Because of how much data it takes in, the system sounds more human as it learns the correct pronunciations, inflections and accents from a wider variety of source voices.

The company claims its voices are nearly indistinguishable from humans — it even published a quiz on its website that asks visitors to see if they can identify which ones are synthesized and which are real. I found that you’re still able to identify the voices as machines, but they’re much better than the machine reader voices you may be used to.

Of course, given the rapid pace of technology development in this field — not to mention the fact that the team built their system in a matter of months — one has to wonder why the major players in voice computing couldn’t just do something similar with their own in-house engineering teams.

However, Gibiansky says that Voicery has the advantage of being the first out of the gate with its technology that capitalizes on the machine learning advancements.

“None of the currently published research is quite good enough for what we wanted to do, so we had to extend that a fair bit,” he notes. “Now we have several voices that are ready, and we’re starting to find customers to partner with.”

Voicery already has a few customers piloting the technology, but nothing to announce at this time as those talks are in various stages.

The company is charging customers an upfront fee to develop a new voice for a customer, and then charges a per-usage fee.

The technology can be used where voice systems exist today, like in translation apps, GPS navigation apps, voice assistant apps or screen readers, for example. But the team also sees the potential for it to open up new markets, given the ease of creating synthesized voices that really sound like people. This includes things like synthesizing podcasts, reading the news (think: Alexa’s “Flash Briefing”), TV dub-ins, voices for characters in video games and more.

“We can move into spaces that fundamentally haven’t been using the technology because it hasn’t been high enough quality. And we have some interest from companies that are looking to do this,” says Gibiansky.

Voicery, based in San Francisco, is bootstrapped save for the funding it received by participating in Y Combinator’s Winter 2018 class. It’s looking to raise additional funds after YC’s Demo Day.

Cryptocurrency ad bans are a step in the right direction

Google just banned cryptocurrency and ICO ads, a move that follows Facebook’s decision to do the same. The language is stark: You are no longer allowed to advertise “Cryptocurrencies and related content (including but not limited to initial coin offerings, cryptocurrency exchanges, cryptocurrency wallets, and cryptocurrency trading advice).”

This is good news.

In the Wild West of crypto things can head in one of two ways. First, the industry can ignore rationality and decorum and pump and dump ICOs all day long until the SEC, the FBI and European authorities shut down every single one. Or, if the industry takes the slow and steady route, builds self-regulatory bodies and avoids scammy pump-and-dump tactics, then perhaps the industry can grow into maturity.

Currently the methods for token sale marketing are ridiculous. Most recently I spotted a token advertisement that featured a scantily clad young lady in a compromising position — all in an effort to see financial instruments. Further, “crypto geniuses” like James Altucher have polluted all of our feeds for the past few months with strange claims and spurious product offerings. Enough is enough.

The sad part is that cryptocurrencies have to become boring before they can work. I always go back to the early days of Linux. There were flame wars, screeds and practitioners of dark FUD. No one could agree if KDE or Gnome was a better desktop environment and woe were you if you picked the wrong one. The world was full of angry, aggressive and passionate people.

Fast-forward a few decades and now those same people are typing softly in cubicles making millions of dollars. Their early zeal, while seemingly silly, paid off. And now Linux is completely boring, a tool programmers use to spin up and down servers in a heartbeat.

Cryptocurrency has to head in this same direction.

Until it is hidden, until it is unclear where the blockchain stops and the rest of the world starts, and until we rid ourselves of the get-rich-quickers and the outright scams, the industry will not rise to the rank it deserves. Fools and their money are soon parted. Google and Facebook are right to do something to protect them.

ClassPass Live launches offering on-demand workouts from home

ClassPass has today announced the launch of ClassPass Live, an at-home workout platform that connects users with fitness teachers via live video.

ClassPass Live was first announced in December of last year. The company purchased a studio in Industry City, along with hiring instructors to develop a proprietary ClassPass workout for users and run classes.

Here’s what ClassPass CEO Fritz Lanman had to say at the time:

At ClassPass we’re flexing our technical capabilities to push the future of fitness, especially as it relates to interactive, immersive experiences – nowhere is that more evident than with ClassPass Live. We’ve leveraged our unparalleled data assets and reviews to create one-of-a-kind, live programming anchored in heart rate training that’s unlike anything else on the market. By expanding into an at-home digital product, we’re able to offer existing members more value and flexibility in how and when they work out while simultaneously bringing studio fitness inspired workouts to more people nationwide.

Folks that subscribe to the product will get access to a starter kit, unlimited live workouts, and a heart rate zone tracker.

ClassPass live will be available for $10/month to existing ClassPass subscribers and $15/month for standalone users, with yearly pricing at $99/year.

Part of the benefit of ClassPass Live is that the company can provide workouts to users without incurring the wholesale cost of buying spots in existing boutique classes. Plus, ClassPass Live allows the company to expand to a new market almost instantly without having to lay any groundwork.

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The launch of ClassPass Live comes at an important time for the company. ClassPass recently changed up its pricing structure again with the introduction of credits. Instead of letting users buy a certain number of classes each month, ClassPass is now selling credits that can go toward buying classes, allowing for a dynamic pricing model.

While ClassPass has said that this product was well-received during six months of testing, some Twitter users have expressed disappointment
with the new structure.

Still, ClassPass remains a dominant player in the fitness world, with $154 million in total funding.

PlayTable uses blockchain to connect video games and physical objects

I’ll be honest: When I first got the pitch for “the first blockchain-based video game console,” I assumed it must be some kind of gimmick.

But Jimmy Chen, co-founder and CEO of Blok.Party, said the Ethereum blockchain is “a critical part of this experience,” allowing his team to create “this seamless bridge between the digital and physical worlds.”

Today, Blok.Party is unveiling its PlayTable console, which combines elements of tabletop and console gaming.

This isn’t the first time someone’s tried to incorporate real-world objects into video games — for example, there was Disney Infinity, which shut down a couple of years ago. But by using blockchain technology, Chen said he can avoid many of the pitfalls that tripped up previous efforts.

For one thing, instead of manufacturing new toys and pieces for every game, PlayTable uses RFID tags, which can be attached to existing objects. So players can use the tags to incorporate their own toys and cards into the games.

“We’ve been trying to make toys smart for a very, very long time, but all we’ve been doing is stuffing resistors and transistors inside of them, making them incresingly more inaccessible,” Chen said. Blok.Party, in contrast, is “creating a data set that is inexpensive, that can easily attach to the physical object.”

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He demonstrated PlayTable for me using Battlegrid, card-based fantasy duel game developed by Blok.Party, which Chen described as “if Magic the Gathering, Hearthstone and Skylanders had a baby.” I won’t pretend that I followed all the ins and outs of the battle, but I saw that Chen could place different cards and pieces down and the table would recognize them and bring the related characters into play.

“The core of it, the physical manifestation of it that exists only in one space, has proven to be fairly difficult [in the past],” Chen added. “By creating that backend infrastructure, we can make the system a lot more successful. The element that blockchain really enables is this idea of having to a truly unique, open dataset that people can contribute on and can build on top of.”

Chen said Blok.Party is working with third-party developers to create about 25 different titles, some of them based on classic games like poker and mah jong.

The PlayTable is currently available for pre-order at a discounted price of $349. (The company says the regular price will be $599.) The plan is to ship the console in the fourth quarter of this year.