Hoping to spur innovation, Nest joins forces with Google’s hardware team

Since Google’s parent company Alphabet acquired Nest Labs for $3.2 billion in 2014, the smart appliance company has become well known in the smart home industry for its smoke and carbon monoxide detector, learning thermostat, and indoor and outdoor security cameras, such as the Nest Cam Outdoor. The Mountain View, California-based Alphabet recently announced that Nest will be joining Google’s hardware team, putting the smart appliance company under the helm of Rick Osterloh, the head of Google’s hardware division that generates Pixel smartphones and Google Home speakers, among other products.

According to a Google blog entry from Osterloh, the union will help both Nest and Google Hardware build on their current momentum. Nest sold more units in 2017 than it did during the previous two years combined. Google sold tens of millions of smart home products in 2017, and “more people use the Google Assistant to listen to their favorite music, control their connected devices, and get useful information about their day,” writes Osterloh.

The entire line of Nest’s smart home devices is already compatible with the Google Home, the company’s speaker and voice assistant which is sold at the Google Store for $99. Using the Google Home, users can call friends, play music, find out the weather, and control other smart home devices — all by voice command. By combining the minds of two teams which specialize in smart products, Google hopes to elevate its products above the competition (for instance, Amazon’s line of Alexa-enabled Echo products, including the Echo Dot, Echo Show, and Echo Plus).

“The goal is to supercharge Nest’s mission: To create a more thoughtful home, one that takes care of the people inside it and the world around it. By working together, we’ll continue to combine hardware, software and services to create a home that’s safer, friendlier to the environment, smarter and even helps you save money — built with Google’s artificial intelligence and the Assistant at the core. We’ve had a head start on collaborating since our teams already work closely together, and today we’re excited to make Nest an integral part of Google’s big bet on hardware,” Osterloh wrote in the blog post.

Editors’ Recommendations

ClearBrain uses AI to help advertisers target the right users

The team at ClearBrain has a big goal: “Our mission is to democratize AI for marketers.”

That’s how CEO Bilal Mahmood put it, though Mahmood (a former product manager at Optimizely) and his co-founder Eric Pollmann (a former engineer on Google’s ad team) aren’t trying to do all that democratizing at once. Instead, they’re tackling a more specific challenge — helping companies target ads toward the users most likely to (say) sign up for a subscription, buy a product or cancel their account.

Mahmood said that this kind of targeting has been available to larger companies, but was too expensive for everyone else, regardless of whether they wanted to buy or build it internally. With ClearBrain, on the other hand, pricing starts at $499 per month, and it’s taking advantage of what Mahmood described as “this growing trend in terms of different API data layers” — namely, the rise of tools like Segment, Optimizely and Heap.

“There was an opportunity to be this intelligence layer on top of the data layers,” Mahmood said.

So ClearBrain pulls data from the tools that businesses are already using, then deploys artificial intelligence to analyze and group users based on how likely they are to perform a specific action. Customers can then use that data to target their Facebook ads, emails or other messaging.

clearbrain screenshot

“We’re sort of like the Switzerland of AI,” Mahmood said, because ClearBrain serves as the neutral coordinator between “the data layers and the action layers” that a business might use. As the company adds more capabilities to the platform, he’s hoping it can become “the central nervous system for every marketing team.”

The startup is already working with InVision and theSkimm, among others. There might not seem to be much connection between a design software-maker and a media company centered on newsletters, but Mahmood said the product has been particularly useful to businesses with subscription products, because they have easy-to-follow customer funnels.

ClearBrain is part of the current class of startups at Y Combinator, and it’s also raised $1.2 million in funding from YC, Pear VC, Industry Ventures and Dan Hua Capital, as well as Optimizely founders Dan Siroker and Pete Koomen.

Featured Image: ClearBrain

Facebook Messenger’s ‘Your Emoji’ status tells friends what’s up

Want to let friends know you’re trying to party, hit the gym, focus on work or grab a drink? That’s the idea behind a powerful new feature Facebook Messenger is testing called Your Emoji. Akin to offline meetup app Down to Lunch, it lets you overlay a chosen emoji on your Messenger profile pic for 24 hours as a way to spur conversation and hang outs, or just let people know what you’re up to without a dramatic post or Story. It’s a bit like AOL Instant Messenger’s old away messages.

WhatsApp blog WABetaInfo shared a screenshot of the test with Matt Navarra. Now a Messenger spokesperson has confirmed this test and how it works to TechCrunch:

We’re testing the ability for people to add an emoji to their profile photo in Messenger to let their friends know what they’re up to or how they’re feeling in the moment. We’re interested to see if people enjoy this feature, but we don’t have any additional information to share at this time.

For now, users will only see people’s emoji in the Active tab on Messenger, which is also where users in the test group can change their emoji as often as they’d like. But if the test proves popular, Messenger could potentially expand Your Emoji to appear in the inbox and message threads where it would be much more visible.

There’s a ton of potential for emergent behavior here. Users could make up their own inside jokes and secret meanings to certain emoji. A red circle could mean don’t talk to me. A GPS dot-style blue diamond could mean you’re out on the town. Or a moon emoji could signal an after party is going down later.

A chance to cure loneliness

Messenger is perhaps the best-poised app to make an offline meetup tool, with Snapchat being a runner-up. I wrote about the opportunity in my 2016 article The quest to cure loneliness, and I even helped build a failed app called Signal with the same purpose. People often spend leisure time alone because they aren’t sure which of their friends are free to meet up in person, but asking people directly or broadcasting “anyone want to hang out tonight?” can make you feel desperate and uncool.

I believe the answer is to bake an offline availability indicator into a ubiquitous app. Signal, Down to Lunch, Foursquare’s Swarm and other apps in the space have flopped because not all your friends are on them, and there isn’t a reason to open them frequently. Messenger tried to let people share what they wanted to do via Messenger Day/Stories, but the feature was clumsy and never caught on. Facebook’s Nearby Friends, Snapchat’s Snap Map, Foursquare and more try to use maps to drive meet ups, but it turns out someone’s location doesn’t matter if they’re not actually available to see you.

Down to Lunch’s innovation that briefly saw it rise to the No. 2 app was replacing long-winded text posts and visual Stories about what you want to do with a simple emoji. But a year and a half ago, the Down to Lunch team abandoned V1 of its app and started working on a new version in secret before looking into other projects.

Now Messenger is borrowing the emoji idea. With 1.3 billion monthly actives, a social graph borrowed from Facebook and non-stop usage, Messenger has the omnipresence to facilitate spontaneous connections between people looking for something to do.

You could be messaging someone else about an unrelated topic, and not even be thinking about your after-work plans. But if you happened to see a close friend with the beer Your Emoji, you’d know you could message them to try to go knock back a few cold ones.

Facebook’s new mission is getting you to have meaningful interactions, not just passively consume social media. Using Messenger to get people off their phones and hanging out in person might be the best way to remind us of what’s good about the social network.

Elon Musk’s pretty good week keeps rolling as Tesla slides through Q4 with same production targets

Tesla CEO Elon Musk managed to send his Tesla Roadster into space — because why not? — earlier this week, and it looks like his week (and Tesla’s) is still looking up for now following the company’s fourth-quarter results.

The company slightly beat Wall Street’s expectations on the financial front, and said it’s still targeting producing 2,500 Model 3 vehicles by the end of the first quarter. Tesla previously stated this target, but as it starts to ramp up a new vehicle that’s geared toward a larger market, it’s had to deal with the production headaches that come with that. The company still said that it’s not an exact science regarding that target, but it didn’t seem to tune down the expectations, and the stock was slightly up as a result. What’s probably more important is that it’s not spiraling downward (yet), which means Wall Street at first blush is alright with what it sees and is going to continue to be patient with the company.

“We continue to target weekly Model 3 production rates of 2,500 by the end of Q1 and 5,000 by the end of Q2,” Tesla said in its statement. “It is important to note that while these are the levels we are focused on hitting and we have plans in place to achieve them, our prior experience on the Model 3 ramp has demonstrated the difficulty of accurately forecasting specific production rates at specific points in time. What we can say with confidence is that we are taking many actions to systematically address bottlenecks and add capacity in places like the battery module line where we have experienced constraints, and these actions should result in our production rate significantly increasing during the rest of Q1 and through Q2.”

Here’s the final slash line for the company:

  • Q4 revenue: $3.29 billion, compared to $3.28 billion analyst estimates
  • Q4 earnings: Loss of $3.04 per share, compared to analyst estimates of a loss of $3.16 per share
  • Q4 Model S/X deliveries: 28,425 vehicles (up 28 percent compared to Q4 2016)
  • Q4 Model 3 deliveries: 1,542 vehicles
  • Total Q4 deliveries: 29,967 vehicles
  • Cash balance: $3.4 billion

Tesla also said it expects to begin generating positive quarterly operating income on a sustained basis “at some point in 2018,” and that its rate of revenue growth in 2018 is “poised to significantly exceed last year’s growth rate.”

That patience is going to continue to be critical if the company finds itself looking to raise additional capital as it tries to hit those targets. Tesla also said that despite delays, net reservations for the Model 3 remained stable. As Tesla starts rolling out plans for new vehicles and tries to ramp that up, reservations are a big part of that equation as a gauge for demand and how the company is going to continue to operate with its tremendous cash burn. That the stock hasn’t taken a significant hit (and is actually slightly up following the report) signals the limited red flags in the company’s report — which is going to be a challenging one as it’s in a heavy ramp phase.

Tesla has often been gauged on its production output as Wall Street looks for signs that it can deliver on the promise of ramping up production for its more mass-market electric vehicle, the Model 3. The company in January said it produced 2,425 Model 3 vehicles in the fourth quarter, and wants to make around 2,500 cars every week by the end of Q1 this year.

Featured Image: Darrell Etherington

The maker of the Turing Phone files for bankruptcy and suspends manufacturing

Turing Robotic’s CEO says the company isn’t done. But it’s definitely hit another significant roadblock in its quest to bring some fun alternative handsets to the market. The Finnish phone maker’s story so far is one of delay after delay, and now it’s announced, via Facebook post, that it’s suspending manufacturing.

CEO Syl Chao didn’t offer up much in the way of information with regard to what this all means or why it’s happening, but there does appear to be plenty of insight floating around with regard to the company’s health. As the Verge handily notes, Finnish media has been reporting some major money woes for the smartphone startup.

The company set up shop in Nokia’s old stomping ground of Salo, Finland, hiring some of the phone giant’s engineers in the wake of its implosion. Turing also scored financial backing and a manufacturing partnership with Chinese smartphone giant, TCL.

In 2016, it switched from Android to Sailfish, adding that “We fully anticipate the Turing Phone to be shipped in the month of April 2016.” The company eventually addressed delays by sending out a pre-production model of the handset, promising to replace them with final versions.

A local publication recently broke the news that the company had declared bankruptcy, prompting the update. It was the first post to the company’s Facebook page to discuss its own product since August of last year.

“A recent news about TRI’s Salo company filing for bankruptcy may have sent an uneasy feeling to some of you,” the CEO writes. “We want you to know that this filing was initiated to temporarily suspend our manufacturing intentions in Salo, however it doesn’t mean that TRI is bankrupt.”

Chao certainly sounds hopeful in the post, but thus far, the company hasn’t given customers much reason to share in that feeling. Like other recent posts from the company, it’s littered with comments from frustrated backers awaiting a handset or a refund.

Fitness startup Studio is bringing its audio running classes to Life Fitness treadmills

Studio, a startup that delivers coaching, music and competition to treadmill runners’ smartphones and smartwatches, is getting a boost from treadmill maker Life Fitness.

Studio founder and CEO Jason Baptiste explained that through this partnership, Studio’s classes will be available on Life Fitness treadmills in gyms, starting with the ones that are equipped with the company’s Discover SE3 HD consoles. (The classes are audio-only, but the screen can be used for things like displaying the leaderboard.)

When Studio launched last year, Baptiste compared Studio’s compared to Peloton’s live-streaming cycling classes. And while Peloton has plans to ship a treadmill this fall, Baptiste said deals like this give Studio the benefits of hardware integration without having to build and sell its own equipment, while also allowing Life Fitness to experiment with digital fitness.

“What does this mean for gyms and Life Fitness? We’re bringing them an awesome group of the running world’s best instructors,” Baptiste said.” “What does this mean for us? Over the coming months, we’re going to get in front of more people than anybody else with the number one equipment manufacturer.”

And the integration goes beyond content delivery — the app can pull distance and biometric data from the treadmills, which determines users’ rankings on the leaderboard.

One challenge is that if you’re not already a Studio user, you might not feel inclined to sign up for a new app right when you’re getting on a treadmill. However, Baptiste said his team has worked to streamline that process, so that you can just authenticate using the Facebook app on your phone.

And while Studio costs $15 per month, the content on treadmills will be free on initially. Ultimately, Baptiste said he hopes turn those users into paying subscribers.

“Life Fitness knows that technology is central to helping people reach their fitness goals,” said Jason Worthy, the company’s vice president of digital solutions and innovation, in the announcement. “Our partnership with Studio creates an exciting digital experience far beyond what a traditional treadmill offers, and will keep runners coming back to try new workouts, experience new instructors and beat their personal best.”

Studio is also announcing that it raised $1.3 million in funding last year from a long list of investors. On the institutional side, the investors include TechNexus, Techstars, First Round Capital’s Product Co-Op, Gambit Ventures, Full Tilt Capital, Rostrum Capital, Firstrock Capital, HTVentures and Bridge Boys.

And by the way, Baptiste has also been doing hiring to back up that comparison to Peloton — former Peloton head coach Lisa Niren joined Studio in January as director of content and programming.

Featured Image: Studio

SEC, Senators Lean Toward Tighter Cryptocurrency Regulation

Against the backdrop of a recent slide in bitcoin markets and a record drop in the U.S. financial markets, federal securities regulators and Senate Banking Committee members on Tuesday signaled that additional regulation may be necessary in the rapidly growing area of virtual currency.

Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton said in testimony before the committee that virtual currency markets are initial coin offerings, or ICOs, that are trading globally, largely outside the scope of regulatory scrutiny.

While embracing innovation, the agency wants to ensure that Main Street cryptocurrency investors be provided the same level of protection that they would receive when trading standard securities.

“The cryptocurrency and ICO markets, while new, have grown rapidly, gained greater prominence in the public conscience and attracted significant capital from retail investors,” Clayton told the committee.

There have been times in history when a rush to new investment vehicles has benefited the national economy as well as investors who bet on the right offering, he noted, “but when our laws are not followed, the risk to all investors are high and numerous, including risks caused by and related to poor, incorrect or nonexistent disclosure, volatility, manipulation, fraud and theft.”

Clayton cited a recent study that showed 10 percent of proceeds from ICOs, or about US$400 million, have been lost to cyberattacks.

Wild West

Many cryptocurrency platforms are regulated by states under check cashing and money transmission services. However, Clayton and Christopher Giancarlo, chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, last month warned that they too were keeping an eye on the virtual currency industry.

The SEC last month obtained a court order to block an alleged ICO scam by AriseBank, which promised to raise more than $600 million of a $1 billion goal in two months in what it promised was the world’s first decentralized bank.

The court order froze the assets of the bank and appointed a receiver.

Giancarlo on Tuesday testified that regulators were considering a “do no harm” approach, comprised of improved consumer education and some increased regulation over data reporting, capital requirements, cybersecurity standards and measures to prevent fraud and manipulation.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., a member of the Banking Committee, raised concerns that bitcoin lacks inherent value, and no one knows where the true floor is located.

Shelby fears bitcoin and other virtual currencies “could cause systemic risk to our whole financial system,” he said in a Bloomberg television interview.

Free Falling

The testimony came against the backdrop of a precipitous slide in bitcoin prices, which had fallen below $6,000 for the first time since mid-November, and were off nearly 70 percent from all-time highs recorded in December.

“Volatility is more digestible if the general direction is up,” observed Jessica Groopman, industry analyst at Kaleido Insights.

Bitcoin’s dramatic volatility, coupled with the uncertaintly of traditional financial markets, could precipitate a flurry of demands from central banks and governments, she told the E-Commerce Times.

There have been recent moves to crack down on virtual currency trading, Groopman noted, including plans for a joint effort to regulate the activity at the upcoming G20 summit, and an announcement last month that Facebook would ban cryptocurrency ads.

Even before Tuesday’s hearing there were concerns about bitcoin trading and ICOs from federal agencies, said Gabriel Wang, an analyst at Aite Group.

China and other countries recently have moved to crack down on cryptocurrencies, he told the E-Commerce Times.

“Given what’s happened most recently, I think it will be a surprise if we don’t have more regulation in terms of who can set up bitcoin exchanges,” Wang said.

Economist Nouriel Roubini has ripped the virtual currency market in recent days, calling them crypto-terrorists in a series of tweets and warning that the market would crash to zero.

Bitcoin is “a combination of a bubble, a Ponzi scheme and an environmental disaster,” said Agustin Carstens, the new general manager of the Bank for International Settlements, in a speech in Frankfurt earlier on Tuesday.

However, investors were pleased by what they saw as a relatively light touch approach to regulation compared to the heightened fears of a crackdown, according to Ronnie Moes, founder of Standpoint Research.

The bad behavior of players at the lower end of the market is not going to get in the way of the more established leaders in the industry, he told the E-Commerce Times.

“I think the market has been overreacting to the headlines,” Moes said. “Everything that happens with these penny names at the bottom of the barrel, and these ICOs — I don’t care about that.”

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain’s New York Business and The New York Times.

NYC-based Notation Capital raises $27 million for second fund

Notation Capital, the NY-based pre-seed fund that launched in 2015, has just picked up a fresh $27 million in capital to invest in to super early stage startup sin the NYC area.

The fund is called Notation II, and it’s still run by Nick Chirls, who led seed investment at betaworks and helped build Alphaworks, and Alex Lines, an architect at betaworks who contributed to products like Digg, Chartbeat, and bit.ly. Alongside the more than tripling in size of the second fund from the first, there’s another distinction to be made: Chirls and Lines want to stay away from the term pre-seed and go with “first-check” investment instead.

“To this day, we find that founders are still confused on how to navigate the early-stage funding landscape,” said Nick Chirls. “The early-stage landscape has splintered into millions of different financing, from seed firms, pre-seed firms, angels, scout funds, and accelerators. It’s brought more questions than it has answers. The clearest messaging for us is that we want to be your first check. You can call it pre-seed or seed or angel or whatever you want.”

When Notation Capital first launched, it was based on a few core premises. The first was that the NYC tech ecosystem would continue to grow. The second was that traditional early-stage firms would continue raising larger rounds and writing bigger checks, moving into later stage rounds. The last was that NYC doesn’t have the same deep pool of angel investors as SV.

As we’ve seen from the Series A Squeeze, that premise seems to be pretty accurate.

With Notation I, the firm wrote 28 checks, with only two financings going outside of the NYC area. The average check size was about $200K as part of a round from $500K to $1 million total. Notation II aims to fund the same amount of companies, but with checks between $350K and $400K for the same size rounds, which will leave reserves for follow-ons.

Notation II also aims to serve other non-SV ecosystems along the Eastern Corridor, investing in talent in Toronto, Boston and D.C. That said, Chirls said he expects between 80 and 90 percent of funding to go to the NYC area.

Thanks Samsung, you’ve ruined Mobile World Congress 2018

Looking forward to a massive, seemingly unending parade of delightful, tantalizing, cutting-edge new smartphones at Mobile World Congress (MWC) this year? Don’t bother.

Samsung has ruined all that. Sure, there will be a quite the number of great phones to see; but a few we’re really looking forward to in 2018 won’t be there. Why? Fear, and it’s all Samsung’s fault.

Samsung has an event on February 25 in Barcelona, Spain, and you don’t need to be a cryptographer to work out the secret in its teaser image. Samsung will announce the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9 Plus, a day before the show actually opens its doors. You’ve probably heard about them. They’re going to be two of the world’s biggest selling phones in 2018. While tech journalists will flock to the event and smartphone fans over the world will ogle the live stream, every other big-name phone company has effectively run from Barcelona screaming.

Three top names that won’t show off a competing flagship phone at Mobile World Congress are Huawei, HTC, and LG. More could follow. If you’re waiting for the rumored LG G7, HTC U12, and Huawei P20, they’ll all come at a later date. How many of the above would have chosen MWC as the launchpad for their flashy new phones if they knew Samsung was turning up with a couple of tablets and not a lot else, like it did last year?

The Galaxy S9 is coming, run away

Okay, it’s not entirely Samsung’s fault. LG is rethinking its mobile strategy, and Huawei had a poor start to the year when AT&T (and now reportedly Verizon) pulled out of a deal to sell its Mate 10 Pro smartphone. HTC also just sold a chunk of its mobile engineering team to Google, but we’re not so sure if that’s affecting its launch plans.

But at the end of the day, Samsung has the Galaxy S9. Everyone knows it’s going to be a huge deal, and likely a very good phone indeed. The leaks surrounding the Galaxy S9 indicate it’s going to correct a major issue with the Galaxy S8 — the camera. It wasn’t bad, but it was soon eclipsed by other 2017 phones because it wasn’t too different from the Galaxy S7.

thanks samsung youve ruined mwc 2018 jung yeon je

Jung Yeon-Je/Getty

Samsung proved it could make a brilliant camera with the Galaxy Note 8, and we’re expecting the Galaxy S9 to be even better — at least on the Galaxy S9 Plus. Samsung’s most definitely not copying Apple by making its larger phone more desirable by giving it a dual-lens camera, and lumping a single lens on the smaller, cheaper Galaxy S9. The design looks very similar to the S8, but that doesn’t matter because it’s gorgeous.

Every other big-name phone company has run from Barcelona screaming.

Then there is the launch event itself. Spectacular doesn’t quite come close to describing it. Samsung always goes all-out to make an impression at its “Unpacked” events, and given the importance of the Galaxy S9, this one won’t be any different. February 25 will be Samsung Day, and we doubt anyone could steal the limelight if they tried.

That’s the problem. If Mobile World Congress is a horror movie, Samsung is the monster in the closet everyone is too terrified to take on.

Dollars, eyeballs, and column inches

HTC won’t bring the U12, or any other major phone release, to MWC and will hold its own event at a later date. Huawei has already chosen Paris for its next big phone launch in March, which we expect to be the Huawei P20. It will still likely launch a product or two at the show — perhaps a successor to the Huawei Watch 2. LG isn’t holding an MWC press conference at all, so the G7 definitely won’t be there; however like Huawei, we’re expecting it to put on a brave face and give us something to gawk over.

best phones mwc 2017 huawei p10

It costs a lot to put on a massive show at Mobile World Congress, and promotion is everyone’s goal. Samsung’s marketing budget for the Galaxy S9 is sure to be gigantic, and Digital Trends, along with every other publication, tech-centric and otherwise, will be writing about the phone.

Sharing space with any other company is already bad news, but sharing space with Samsung is really, really bad news. Outspending Samsung also seems like a very poor use of anyone’s budget. It’s much more sensible to hold your own event later on, when Samsung won’t be looming over it like a Bixby-controlled Dementor.

We get it. It makes good business sense. But we can’t help feeling a little robbed.

The brave few

Is it going to be ‘Samsung Presents: Mobile World Congress 2018?’ No, not quite. In addition to whatever Huawei and LG show, there are several companies bringing new phones. Sony, Motorola, and Nokia will undoubtedly announce a handful of phones, and there will be plenty of other surprise devices to find in MWC’s cavernous halls too. It just won’t be the flagship phone shootout it could have been.

We’ll get to see awesome new phones spread over the next few months.

On the bright side, it also means we’ll get to see awesome new phones spread over the next few months, rather than all in one go at the end of February. It also gives us a better chance to properly assess releases, as we’re blessed with more time to do so. So while we complain, it’s actually not a bad thing — but modern life is all about urgency and instant gratification; we want everything now, thanks very much.

But it’s also a dangerous game to play. People only have so much money to spend, and if it gets spent on the Galaxy S9 because it’s the only new game in town during March or April, then sales will be lost for everyone else.

If at the end of February you’re wondering how the new Galaxy S9 stacks up against the new phones from every other manufacturer, you won’t know, because they’re all hiding in the corner, quivering. You’ll know when they emerge over the next few months. We won’t be quivering though, we’ll be in Barcelona to courageously take on the Galaxy S9, and everything else at the show, then tell you all about it. We can’t wait.

Editors’ Recommendations

‘Instagram for classwork’ Seesaw in 1/2 of US schools

Kids don’t try their hardest unless they think someone’s watching. Overcrowded classrooms and distracted parents can make pouring effort into school work feel pointless. But Seesaw‘s app turns their assignments into social media they share with teachers, peers and mom and dad. Now it’s invading schools across the country and just raised a Series A round from LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner and others.

On Seesaw, instead of racking up likes or receiving comments on a selfie, students get positive reinforcement on their quizzes, drawings and science projects. And for instructors, Seesaw serves as extra eyes, allowing them to focus on managing the classroom, then later watch self-recorded videos of students completing a task or working through a question.

By getting kids to care about classwork and giving teachers a closer look at their students’ process not just output, Seesaw has quietly become one of the most popular learning tools for elementary school students. Now half of all U.S. schools have teachers using Seesaw, up from one-quarter in June 2016 when we profiled the education startup. Millions of students now use Seesaw each month in 150 countries. And the startup has 1,000 schools and districts paying for the premium version of Seesaw.

“Most elementary school products are dumbed-down versions of high school products,” says co-founder Carl Sjogreen. Seesaw’s design relies on big, obvious buttons and the familiar camera feature most kids are already used to playing with. This makes creative projects easier to assign and more rewarding thanks to digital show-and-tell. Kids don’t feel like their assignments just end up in the trash once hastily graded. “Much of the traditional classroom is about getting kids to express themselves through a worksheet. Can you think of a more constraining way to create than fill in the blank on a worksheet?”

Seesaw was founded by Sjogreen, a former Facebook director of product management who had sold it his travel startup NextStop. He launched a social app called Shadow Puppet in 2013 as a way to record voice-over for photo slideshows. This was a cool idea back before Snapchat Stories had even launched, and it raised money from Greylock’s Discover fund.

While Shadow Puppet flopped with consumers, some teachers and students loved using it for showing off class projects. Nine months in, he pivoted Shadow Puppet and Seesaw launched in 2015. Now it’s picking up steam with its Series A of an undisclosed size from investors, including LinkedIn’s CEO, former DFJ partner Bubba Murarka and Wayee Chu of Reach Capital. Some of that cash went to hiring Mike Wu, former CTO of Instagram competitor VSCO, as Seesaw’s VP of engineering.

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Social media for students

Seesaw offers iOS, Android, Kindle, Chromebook and web apps where kids can share photos, videos, drawings, notes, links, files and blogs, and record voice-overs explaining their work. First they go to the teacher, who must approve the content as safe before it’s exposed to other students. Teachers can grade work, send feedback to students and organize it by class, student or topic. Special education students have particularly benefited from the multimedia options that let them work with their different strengths in speaking or drawing as opposed to writing or video.

Parents can also get notified so they actually know what’s going on with their kids, even if no assignments make it home in their backpacks. Sjogreen says, “The magic moment is instead of ‘Lily, how was school today?’ ‘Fine.’ ‘What’d you do?’ ‘Nothing.’ — I can have a jumping off point for a much richer conversation. ‘Tell me about this thing you made?’ ”

Seesaw is free for students and parents, and teachers can get started without paying, too. But schools and school districts pay if they want to sync Seesaw with their student databases and grading systems, and get centralized administration, analytics and more grading features. They pay $5 per student per year. Seesaw’s 1,000 paying clients include schools with 100 kids as well as districts with tens of thousands. They helped the startup triple its revenue year-over-year.

There are a few concerns with giving kids more “social media” in the classroom. I asked what happens if kids leave a mean comment on someone else’s work. But Sjogreen says comments have to go through teacher moderation too, and can produce learning opportunities for kids to understand how to act on the internet.

There’s also the concern that kids spending more time with devices in the classroom could distract them. Most students use Seesaw on school-provided tablets with limited apps and connectivity, though, so there’s no confusing work and play.

Selling to schools is notoriously tough for startups. Luckily, Seesaw’s Dropbox-style bottom-up distribution strategy gives the product away to teachers until a school feels like they might as well bake Seesaw into their systems. Still, the app has to compete with alternatives like FreshGrade, which is focused on older students and a wide set of grading options.

Some teachers and parents might hope to keep kids off social media for as long as possible, especially during the school day. But there’s no avoiding the fact that creating compelling digital content is critical for a wide array of jobs, whether you’re making marketing material, designing a product, or just giving a PowerPoint presentation. By easing children into this experience with strong oversight from teachers, they could get a head start. And if kids feel like their creativity and intelligence is appreciated, they’ll stay tuned in to all the opportunities academia can offer.