All posts in “funding”

Former Facebook engineer picks up $15M for AI platform Spell

In 2016, Serkan Piantino packed up his desk at Facebook with hopes to move on to something new. The former Director of Engineering for Faceboook AI Research had every intention to keep working on AI, but quickly realized a huge issue.

Unless you’re under the umbrella of one of these big tech companies like Facebook, it can be very difficult and incredibly expensive to get your hands on the hardware necessary to run machine learning experiments.

So he built Spell, which today received $15 million in Series A funding led by Eclipse Ventures and Two Sigma Ventures.

Spell is a collaborative platform that lets anyone run machine learning experiments. The company connects clients with the best, newest hardware hosted by Google, AWS and Microsoft Azure and gives them the software interface they need to run, collaborate, and build with AI.

“We spent decades getting to a laptop powerful enough to develop a mobile app or a website, but we’re struggling with things we develop in AI that we haven’t struggled with since the 70s,” said Piantino. “Before PCs existed, the computers filled the whole room at a university or NASA and people used terminals to log into a single main frame. It’s why Unix was invented, and that’s kind of what AI needs right now.”

In a meeting with Piantino this week, TechCrunch got a peek at the product. First, Piantino pulled out his MacBook and opened up Terminal. He began to run his own code against MNIST, which is a database of handwritten digits commonly used to train image detection algorithms.

He started the program and then moved over to the Spell platform. While the original program was just getting started, Spell’s cloud computing platform had completed the test in under a minute.

The advantage here is obvious. Engineers who want to work on AI, either on their own or for a company, have a huge task in front of them. They essentially have to build their own computer, complete with the high-powered GPUs necessary to run their tests.

With Spell, the newest GPUs from NVIDIA and Google are virtually available for anyone to run their test.

Individual users can get on for free, specify the type of GPU they need to compute their experiment, and simply let it run. Corporate users, on the other hand, are able to view the runs taking place on Spell and compare experiments, allowing users to collaborate on their projects from within the platform.

Enterprise clients can set up their own cluster, and keep all of their programs private on the Spell platform, rather than running tests on the public cluster.

Spell also offers enterprise customers a ‘spell hyper’ command that offers built-in support for hyperparameter optimization. Folks can track their models and results and deploy them to Kubernetes/Kubeflow in a single click.

But, perhaps most importantly, Spell allows an organization to instantly transform their model into an API that can be used more broadly throughout the organization, or or used directly within an app or website.

The implications here are huge. Small companies and startups looking to get into AI now have a much lower barrier to entry, whereas large traditional companies can build out their own proprietary machine learning algorithms for use within the organization without an outrageous upfront investment.

Individual users can get on the platform for free, whereas enterprise clients can get started for $99/month per host you use over the course of a month. Piantino explains that Spell charges based on concurrent usage, so if the customer has 10 concurrent things running, the company considers that the ‘size’ of the Spell cluster and charges based on that.

Piantino sees Spell’s model as the key to defensibility. Whereas many cloud platforms try to lock customers in to their entire suite of products, Spell works with any language framework and lets users plug and play on the platforms of their choice by simply commodifying the hardware. In fact, Spell doesn’t even share with clients which cloud cluster (Microsoft Azure, Google, or AWS) they’re on.

So, on the one hand the speed of the tests themselves goes up based on access to new hardware, but, because Spell is an agnostic platform, there is also a huge advantage in how quickly one can get set up and start working.

The company plans to use the funding to further grow the team and the product, and Piantino says he has his eye out for top-tier engineering talent as well as a designer.

Opendoor competitor Knock raises $400M

Home trade-in platform Knock has brought in a $400 million investment to accelerate a national expansion and double its 100-person headcount.

Foundry Group has led the Series B funding round in New York-based Knock, with participation from Company Ventures and existing investors RRE Ventures, Corazon Capital, WTI and FJ Labs . Knock co-founder and chief executive officer Sean Black declined to disclose the startup’s valuation.

Founded in 2015, Knock helps its customers find a new home, then buys it for them outright in cash. That way home-buyers — who are often in the process of selling an old home and purchasing a new home at the same time — are able to move into their new home before listing their old one. Knock doesn’t purchase your old home but it does help with repairs in hopes of getting its customers the most value out of the sale. Ultimately, Knock receives a 3 percent commission from both the buyer and the seller of the original home.

“We are trying to make it as easy to trade in your house as it is to trade in your car,” Black told TechCrunch.

Knock is led by founding team members of Trulia, a platform for real estate listings, including Black and co-founder and chief operating officer Jamie Glenn. The pair wanted to build an end-to-end market place where people could trade in their homes at a reduced cost, with less stress and uncertainty.

“Good luck finding anyone who’s bought or sold a home and said they had a great experience doing it,” Black said. “It’s something people just hate and dread. We can make it better and faster and transparent and stress-free.”

The investment in Knock comes amid consistent year-over-year growth in venture capital deals for real estate technology companies. According to PitchBook, deal count in the sector has been increasing since 2010, with 351 deals closing in 2018 — a record for the space. Capital invested looks to be leveling out, with $5 billion funneled into global real estate tech startups in 2017 and $4.65 billion invested last year.

“We are at that part of the evolution cycle of the internet; the low-hanging fruit has been taken,” Black explained. “[Real estate] is so inefficient. Mostly consumers have no idea what is going on. They have no sense of control or empowerment. I just think it’s ripe for disruption.”

SoftBank is responsible for the largest deals in the space as an investor in Knock’s biggest competitors. The Vision Fund has deployed capital to both Compass and Opendoor in rounds that valued the companies at $4.4 billion and north of $2 billion, respectively. Katerra, a construction tech startup also backed by the Vision Fund, is said to be raising an additional $700 million from the prolific Japanese investor at a more than $4 billion valuation, per a recent report from The Information.

Knock previously raised a $32 million Series A in January 2017 in a round led by RRE Ventures, and is currently active in Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Dallas and Fort Worth.

For $5,800 per year, Chief helps women reach the C-suite

For decades, women in business have lacked the resources necessary to navigate to or sustain executive roles. Finally, venture-funded projects have emerged to fill this gap.

The latest is Chief, a private network for New York-based women in senior roles in tech, retail, enterprise, finance, media and more. The company launches today with $3 million in venture capital funding to provide its 200 members access to a Tribeca clubhouse, monthly executive coaching and leadership development sessions and a salon series, which includes “intimate dinners with captains of industry” and celebrity fireside conversations.

The catch? Chief membership costs $5,800 per year for members with a vice president-level job title and even more for those in the C-suite at $7,800. Its founders, Carolyn Childers and Lindsay Kaplan, say the ideal is for companies to pay the way for members, similar to how a startup might pay to send one of its employees to a conference.

Chief and its investors, Primary Venture Capital, Flybridge Capital Partners, Accel, Box Group, Able Partners, XFactor Ventures, Silas Capital and BBG Ventures, are betting the company’s coaching sessions, clubhouse, mobile application and network of successful women will keep its members coming back every year — $5,800 check in hand.

“Companies are looking for something like this,” Kaplan, the former VP of communications at Casper, told TechCrunch. “They have these amazing women, they know there is a problem with equality up top and this isn’t something they can provide within their own four walls.”

Though Chief’s initial 200-person cohort does not include any men, the group is open to all genders. Given the controversy surrounding The Wing’s former membership policy, which barred men from entry, Chief’s decision to accept anyone ready “to fight the 200-year gap in gender equality,” in the words of Kaplan, will probably save them a headache down the line.

“We are a very mission-based company,” Childers, the former VP of operations at household services marketplace Handy, told TechCrunch. “If a man is inspired to help women get to the C-suite, they can apply and become a part of Chief.”

Though Chief wasn’t able to provide specific data on membership diversity, Childers and Kaplan did say its “top of mind” and when I first spoke with the pair this fall, months before launch, they said they planned to offer grants to members who are unable to pay the annual fee.

“We don’t want to see a 1 percent increase in female management in 10 years,” Childers said. “We want to close that gap as quickly as possible.”

The startup seems to have the best of intentions, though what Chief appears to be is an expensive networking opportunity for New York’s existing elite. With that said, if Chief only helps the existing 1 percent of women in business maintain executive roles, at least its helping move the needle ever so slightly.

More investors are betting on virtual influencers like Lil Miquela

Brud, the company behind the virtual celebrity Lil Miquela, is now worth at least $125 million thanks to a new round of financing the company is currently closing. Meanwhile, new venture-backed companies like the superstealthy Shadows, SuperPlastic and Toonstar are all developing virtual characters that will launch via social media channels like Snap and Instagram, or on their own platforms.

It’s all an effort to test whether audiences are ready to embrace even more virtual avatars — including ones that don’t try to straddle the uncanny valley quite as blatantly as Miquela and her crew.

The investors backing these companies say it’s the rise of a new kind of studio system — one that’s independent of the personalities and scandals that have defined a generation of Vine, YouTube and Instagram stars — and it’s attracting serious venture dollars.

“The way I look at it… a lot of it is going to be like any kind of content studio,” says Peter Rojas, a partner at the New York investment firm Betaworks Ventures. “In 2019 and 2020 we’re going to see a lot of these… we’re going to see a lot of people putting out a lot of stuff.”

Los Angeles-based Brud is by far the most established of this new breed in the U.S. (at least in terms of the amount of money it has raised). Last year the company scored at least $6 million from investors, including Sequoia Capital, BoxGroup and other, undisclosed, investors.

And the company has done it again, and is in the process of closing on somewhere between $20 million and $30 million at a pre-money valuation of at least $125 million led by Spark Capital, according to people with knowledge of the round. Miquela “herself” teased that “she” had something to “share” with her roughly 1.5 million followers. Brud declined to comment.

If Miquela is arguably the most successful U.S. version of this new breed of entertainer, the collective behind the account is far from the only one.

Experiments in avastardom have been percolating in popular culture since at least the rise of the Gorillaz — the Damon Albarn assembled musical supergroup that released their first EP “Tomorrow Comes Today” in late 2000. Or, depending on your definition, perhaps as early as Space Ghost Coast to Coast, the mid-1990s Cartoon Network series featuring an animated superhero interviewing real celebrities.

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And that success spawned imitators like Hatsune Miku, who’ve capture the imagination and hearts of audiences globally. In November, a Japanese fan named Akihiko Kondo spent $18,000 to wed the avatar. And he’s not alone. Gatebox, the company that manufactures hardware to display holograms of various anime characters in homes, has issued at least 3,700 marriage licenses to fans like Kondo. 

At Betaworks, the firm is exploring the popularity of these virtual characters — and the role that artificial intelligence and new content creation technologies will play in reshaping entertainment and social media platforms. The company’s Synthetic Camp, which launches in mid-February, is around what Rojas calls “synthetic reality,” including the rise of avatar-driven media like Miquela.

“We’re looking more broadly at the issues around manipulated or faked content and how do you address that,” says Rojas. “Algorithmically generated content and how things like generative adversarial networks are being used to create and synthesize new photo and video content.”

For Rojas, the development of powerful new tools that enable the creation of new characters in minutes that, in the past, would have taken humans hundreds of thousands of hours, can unlock all sorts of possibilities for entertainment.

“The celebrity part comes into play where we’re now at a point where you can create these photorealistic avatars and put them into videos and have them wearing clothes without having to spend millions of dollars on CGI,” he says. 

Betaworks is betting on the content studio aspect through companies like SuperPlastic, a new startup launched by Paul Budnitz, the founder of the alternative social network ello and Budnitz Bicycles. Budnitz is perhaps best known for Kidrobot, a manufacturer of branded collectibles and toys for adults and kids everywhere. But the company also believes there are opportunities in backing the content creation toolkits that can power this new kind of media star, like its investment in the media creation tool, Facemoji.

“There’s no reason why you won’t see it across the board. Our appetite for fresh content and this stuff is kind of limitless,” says Rojas. “And I don’t see it as zero sum. YouTube didn’t kill television, it just became Netflix… Things can move in two different directions at the same time. More high brow and more complex and higher level and also more democratized and lowbrow and dumb. There’ll be avatar tools and apps and games and then we’ll see stuff that’s top of the pyramid stuff like Lil Miquela and Shudu.”

At Toonstar, co-founders John Attanasio and Luisa Huang went from developing a platform to developing a studio. The two met at the Digital Media Group within Warner Brothers and were tasked with trying to experiment with technologies at the intersection of media generation and distribution.

“Daily, snackable and interactive are the three things that you need to be successful in the world,” says Attanasio. “We saw the impact that the rise of mobile was having on linear. We sat through a lot of meetings where you looked at audience trends and you saw that going in the wrong direction in the wrong color.”

So the two founders began contemplating what a new, low-cost, high-touch media network might look like. “We looked at mobile and we saw the massive animation gap. Animation takes a long time and it’s expensive, the average season can cost $3 million to $5 million and bringing a new series to life can take three to four years.”

For Attanasio and Huang, those timelines were too slow to take advantage of the mobile content revolution. So the two built a platform that initially focused on letting user-generated content flourish — a kind of YouTube for animated, avatar-driven storytelling that could be distributed on any social media platform or on Toonstar’s own site and app.

Since that launch, the company has refined its business model to become more of a traditional animation studio. “We do daily pop culture cartoons… and partner with creators and influencers,” says Attanasio. “Our whole thing is driven by proprietary tech that allows us to do things really fast and at low cost… 50 times faster and 90 percent cheaper than typical animation.”

Attanasio also realized the importance of creative talent. “We had no shortage of content, but it was shitty content,” Attanasio says. “That’s when you realize… what we’re doing… there’s three ingredients… One is tech, one is process and the third is creative… if you have tech and process and you take away creative what you have is an ocean of shit.”

Now, they’re also experimenting with creating their own animated influencer. Leveraging the popularity of the app (now rebranded under its new owner, TikTok), Toonstar launched

“We launched a channel called It was a blue chicken [and] she became musically famous,” Attanasio said. “Within three months Poppy had 300,000 followers and had an avid fan base for Poppy and her cast of characters.”

The content was episodic and ranged from 15 seconds to 30 seconds — and it was based on cartoon music videos. “That validated the thesis of can you create a cartoon influencer and can you have a broad audience be super engaged?… and the answer was ‘Yes,’” said Attanasio. 

Then, taking a page from the early Cartoon Network playbook, Attanasio and Huang made the show interactive in a callback to the “Space Ghost” phenomenon. “We started doing cartoon live streams and the founders of asked us to do a weekly show that they would feature,” Attanasio says. “It was Poppy the Blue Chicken and we would broadcast for an hour every week. Famous musers on come in with a FaceTime… And there were games and all of it was live, in real time.”

It’s hard to overstate the importance of working with virtual characters, according to Attanasio. “We understand how much money you can make from the IP. When we’re working with creators or influencers they understand that you have this shelf life as an influencer, but as IP, that can go on in perpetuity. There is something to be said about building a character. We’re all children of Saturday morning cartoons.”

And Toonstar is building an audience. Its show, the Danogs, has 4.5 million weekly viewers, and the company recently launched Black Santa — a show developed in partnership with the former NBA All-Star and tech investor Baron Davis. The NBA star and studio analyst also committed capital to Toonstar’s recent seed funding, a round led by Founders Fund partner Cyan Banister. In all, Toonstar said it has about 45 million weekly viewers for all of its shows.

Lil Miquela and fellow brud avatar Blawko22

Those kinds of numbers are music to the ears, of Dylan Flinn, a former agent at the Los Angeles powerhouse Creative Artists Agency, who left to start his own company.

Flinn has partnered with the producers of BoJack Horseman on a new venture called Shadows, which has already launched two virtual avatars into the wild.

Flinn got exposure to the virtual media world while at Rothenberg Ventures, the now defunct fund that invested in virtual reality and augmented reality. “I still had that lens of looking at innovation and virtual worlds and I’ve always been fascinated by what social media is doing.”

For Flinn, the virtual element of what’s being created is vitally important to the success of these ventures. “We’re not trying to create humans,” he says. “We look up to the Mickey Mouses and Looney Tunes and the Bugs Bunnies of the world. When I look at these 3D, [computer generated] human-based characters, it’s so close to the uncanny valley. We want to develop characters and we want to tell fictional stories rooted in reality.”

Like Attanasio at Toonstar, Flinn sees the speed at which digital content can be created and brought to market as a critical component of its success. “When I was at CAA you see how much money is wasted on development every year. This was an approach which was like, ‘What if you can develop in public and the best content can win?’” Flinn says.

Shadows already has two virtual avatars out in the wild, but he declined to identify which ones they were. Ultimately, he said, the goal is to have 20 characters a year, because once a couple of characters come to market and get traction with an audience, new characters can be introduced to old ones and the universe becomes a discovery engine of its own. That’s a strategy that Miquela and her crew are also employing, with varying degrees of success.

Ultimately, these types of entertainments aren’t going to go away — at least according to the investors and entrepreneurs who are creating the companies that are building them.

People are totally fine with things that are artificial,” says Rojas. “People totally connect with Mario from Super Mario Bros. We always tell stories and have characters in whatever medium are available to us [like] Instagram and Snapchat and YouTube and Twitter. Thirty to 40 years ago it was television and radio and movies. People are going to express themselves and avatars end up being a form expression.”

Startups Weekly: Will Trump ruin the unicorn IPOs of our dreams?

The government shutdown entered its 21st day on Friday, upping concerns of potentially long-lasting impacts on the U.S. stock market. Private market investors around the country applauded when Uber finally filed documents with the SEC to go public. Others were giddy to hear Lyft, Pinterest, Postmates and Slack (via a direct listing, according to the latest reports) were likely to IPO in 2019, too.

Unfortunately, floats that seemed imminent may not actually surface until the second half of 2019 — that is unless President Donald Trump and other political leaders are able to reach an agreement on the federal budget ASAP.  This week, we explored the government’s shutdown’s connection to tech IPOs, recounted the demise of a well-funded AR project and introduced readers to an AI-enabled self-checkout shopping cart.

1. Postmates gets pre-IPO cash

The company, an early entrant to the billion-dollar food delivery wars, raised what will likely be its last round of private capital. The $100 million cash infusion was led by BlackRock and valued Postmates at $1.85 billion, up from the $1.2 billion valuation it garnered with its unicorn round in 2018.

2. Uber’s IPO may not be as eye-popping as we expected

To be fair, I don’t think many of us really believed the ride-hailing giant could debut with a $120 billion initial market cap. And can speculate on Uber’s valuation for days (the latest reports estimate a $90 billion IPO), but ultimately Wall Street will determine just how high Uber will fly. For now, all we can do is sit and wait for the company to relinquish its S-1 to the masses.

3. Deal of the week

N26, a German fintech startup, raised $300 million in a round led by Insight Venture Partners at a $2.7 billion valuation. TechCrunch’s Romain Dillet spoke with co-founder and CEO Valentin Stalf about the company’s global investors, financials and what the future holds for N26.

4. On the market

Bird is in the process of raising an additional $300 million on a flat pre-money valuation of $2 billion. The e-scooter startup has already raised a ton of capital in a very short time and a fresh financing would come at a time when many investors are losing faith in scooter startups’ claims to be the solution to the problem of last-mile transportation, as companies in the space display poor unit economics, faulty batteries and a general air of undependability. Plus, Aurora, the developer of a full-stack self-driving software system for automobile manufacturers, is raising at least $500 million in equity funding at more than a $2 billion valuation in a round expected to be led by new investor Sequoia Capital.

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5. A unicorn’s deal downsizes

WeWork, a co-working giant backed with billions, had planned on securing a $16 billion investment from existing backer SoftBank . Well, that’s not exactly what happened. And, oh yeah, they rebranded.

6. A startup collapses

After 20 long years, augmented reality glasses pioneer ODG has been left with just a skeleton crew after acquisition deals from Facebook and Magic Leap fell through. Here’s a story of a startup with $58 million in venture capital backing that failed to deliver on its promises.

7. Data point

Seed activity for U.S. startups has declined for the fourth straight year, as median deal sizes increased at every stage of venture capital.

8. Meanwhile, in startup land…

This week edtech startup Emeritus, a U.S.-Indian company that partners with universities to offer digital courses, landed a $40 million Series C round led by Sequoia India. Badi, which uses an algorithm to help millennials find roommates, brought in a $30 million Series B led by Goodwater Capital. And Mr Jeff, an on-demand laundry service startup, bagged a $12 million Series A.

9. Finally, Meet Caper, the AI self-checkout shopping cart

The startup, which makes a shopping cart with a built-in barcode scanner and credit card swiper, has revealed a total of $3 million, including a $2.15 million seed round led by First Round Capital .

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