All posts in “Startups”

Index has backed Immersive Games Lab, a new startup from founder of Tough Mudder

Immersive Games Lab, a new venture from Tough Mudder co-founder and Chairman Will Dean, has picked up around £2.5 million in seed funding, TechCrunch has learned. According to sources, London-based Index Ventures has led the round.

In a call confirming the close, Dean told me Sweet Capital, and JamJar Investments (the VC fund set up by the 3 Innocent Drinks founders) also participated.

Developing the “next generation” of immersive group gaming, Immersive Games Lab describes itself as “part indoor theme park, part video game, part escape room” and says it will launch a new breed of “captivating group experiences” in London in early 2019.

Little else is known regarding what Immersive Games Lab’s first experience will be, although Dean told me it will be sold in retail spaces, in ticket form, and will be a blend of technology and in-person group activity. It is currently being prototyped and tested in a warehouse in North London.

More broadly, he said the idea of creating a new kind of immersive gaming experience is partly based on the sentiment that we spend too much screen time on our devices, consuming social media in a way that isn’t always good for our mental health.

His previous and hugely successful venture Tough Mudder was all about creating a new, fun experience around exercise — and ultimately helping people become more physically active. Dean says he is keen for Immersive Games Lab to also make a positive dent on people’s lives.

The new venture also builds nicely on Dean’s track record building an experience and community-led consumer proposition — and the type of go-to market strategy that requires. Which is undoubtedly what caught the interest of Index and other investors, in what I understand was an oversubscribed round.

Immersive Games Lab’s other co-founder is David Spindler, who also played a key role at Tough Mudder.

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.

On-demand workspace platform Breather taps new CEO

Breather’s new CEO Bryan Murphy / Breather Press Kit

Breather, the platform that provides on-demand private workspace, announced today that it has appointed Bryan Murphy as its new CEO.

Before joining Breather, Murphy was the founder and President of direct-to-consumer mattress startup, Tomorrow Sleep. Prior to Tomorrow Sleep, Murphy held posts as an advisor to investment firms and as an executive at eBay after the company acquired his previous company, WHI Solutions – an e-commerce platform for aftermarket auto parts – where Murphy was the co-founder and CEO.

Breather believes Murphy’s extensive background scaling e-commerce and SaaS platforms, as well as his experience working with incumbents across a number of traditional industries, can help it execute through its next stage of global growth.

Murphy is filling the vacancy left by co-founder and former CEO Julien Smith, who stepped down as chief executive this past September, just three months after the company completed its $45 million Series C round, which was led by Menlo Ventures and saw participation from RRE Ventures, Temasek Holdings, Ascendas-Singbridge, and Caisse de Depot et Placement du Quebec.

In a past statement on his transition, Smith said: “As I reflect on my strengths and consider what it will take for the company to reach its full potential, I realize bringing on an executive with experience scaling a company through the next level of growth is the best thing for the business.”

Smith, who remains with the company as Chairman of the Board, believes Murphy more than fits the bill. “Bryan’s record of scaling brands in competitive markets makes him an ideal leader to support this momentum, and I’m excited to see where he takes us next,” Smith said.

In a conversation with TechCrunch, Murphy explained that Breather’s next growth phase will ultimately come down to its ability to continue the global expansion of its network of locations and partner landlords while striking the optimal balance between rental economics and employee utility, productivity and performance. With new spaces and ramped marketing efforts, Murphy and the company expect 2019 to be a big year for Breather – “I think this year, you’re going to start hearing a lot about Breather and it really being in a leadership role for the industry.”

Breather’s workspace at 900 Broadway in New York City is one of 500+ network locations accessible to users.

On Breather’s platform, users are currently able to access a network of over 500 private workspaces across ten major cities around the world, which can be booked as meeting space or short-term private office space.

Meeting spaces can be reserved for as little as 2 hours, while office space can be booked on a month-to-month basis, providing businesses with financial flexibility, private and more spacious alternatives to coworking options, and the ability to easily change offices as they grow. For landlords, Breather allows property owners to generate value from underutilized space by providing a turnkey digital booking system, as well as expertise in the short-term rental space.

Murphy explained to TechCrunch that part of what excited him most about his new role was his belief in Breather’s significant product-market fit and the immense addressable market that he sees for flexible workspaces longer-term. With limited penetration to date, Murphy feels the commercial office space industry is in just the third inning of significant transformation. 

Murphy believes that long-term growth for Breather and other flexible space providers will be driven by a heightened focus on employee flexibility and wellness, a growing number of currently underserved companies whose needs fall between coworking and traditional direct leasing, and the need for landlords to support a wider variety of office space options as workforce demographics and behaviors shift. 

Murphy believes that the ease, flexibility and unlocked value Breather provides puts the platform in a great position to win share.

“Breather has built a remarkable commercial real estate e-commerce and services platform that offers one-click access to over 500 workspaces around the world,” said Murphy in a press release. “To our customers, having access to workspace that is turnkey, affordable, beautiful, productive and that can flex up and down based on needs is a total game changer.”

To date, Breather has served over 500,000 customers and has raised over $120 million in investment.

Alation announces $50M Series C investment as data catalog biz takes off

Alation, a startup that helps crawl a company’s databases in order to build a data search catalogue, announced a $50 million Series C investment today.

The round was led by Sapphire Ventures and Salesforce Ventures. Existing investors Costanoa Ventures, DCVC (Data Collective), Harmony Partners and Icon Ventures also participated. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $82 million, according to Crunchbase data.

The participation of Sapphire Ventures, originally launched by SAP, and Salesforce Ventures, the venture arm of Salesforce, is particularly telling. One of the issues these enterprise software companies face when they go inside large enterprises is helping customer access and understand data wherever it lives. It’s one of the reasons that Salesforce bought Mulesoft for $6.5 billion last year.

This is a problem that employees face, as well. It’s simply inefficient to query multiple databases manually, or to even know what databases exist inside a large organization. Alation uses out-of-the-box connectors to connect to common data sources like Oracle, Redshift, Teradata, Spark and Tableau to create a centralized data catalog.

With that catalog in place, employees can search just as they would with any enterprise search engine with the notable difference that this tool is focussed strictly on structured data inside of supported data sources.

The company goes beyond pure matching to find the data an employee is searching for. Company CEO and co-founder Satyen Sangani says they also use a method to analyze usage to display the most likely result. “What differentiates us in particular is that we look at the logs of how people are using that information,” he explained. This is analogous to how Google uses the PageRank algorithm to measure the popularity of a page based on the number of times people link to a page.

Alation catalog page. Screenshot: Alation

It is certainly not alone in the space with competitors like Alteryx and Informatica, but Alation’s approach seems to be resonating. Sangani reports triple-digit growth 4 years running. The company has soared from 89 employees at the end of last year to around 200 today. It boasts 100 large enterprise customers in production including names like BMW, Hilton, American Express and Salesforce (whose investment arm, Salesforce Ventures, notably also helped lead today’s round).

As the company grows rapidly, Sangani says he wants the capital in place to help fuel the increasing interest. The size and scope of his customers means that he will need to hire not just engineers to keep developing the product and building new connectors, but customer support and sales and marketing. In all, he expects add between 100 and 200 employees in the next year.

He also wants to continue building out partnerships. As an example, Teradata is an authorized reseller, and has helped sell the product in global markets where a startup like Alation might lack the resources to enter.

The company, which is based in in Redwood City, California, launched in 2012 and released the first version of the product in 2014. Its most recent round prior to today was a $23 million Series B in 2017.

German HR and recruiting platform Personio raises $40M Series B led by Index

Personio, the German HR and recruiting platform, has raised $40 million in a Series B funding. Leading the round is London-based Index Ventures, with participation from existing investors Northzone and Rocket Internet’s Global Founders.

Founded in 2015, Munich-based Personio has set out to build a “HR operating system” for small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) ranging from 10 and 2,000 employees. The cloud-based software is designed to power all of a company’s HR and recruiting processes, either via the product’s own core functionality or through its ability to integrate with third-party software.

“We believe in the benefit of a holistic HR solution that covers the entire employee life-cycle, while its functionalities need to adapt to individual customer requirements and processes,” Personio co-founder and CEO Hanno Renner tells me.

“That being said, we distinguish between the bread-and-butter HR activities which every company needs to do (e.g. recruiting, on boarding, time off management, payroll etc.) and those that are either industry-specific or rather nice-to-haves”.

Examples of the latter include hardware-based time tracking, and employee engagement, respectively. “We focus our efforts on providing a best-in-class experience for what we consider bread-and-butter HR,” adds Renner. “For more specific requirements, we let our customers choose from a growing number of integrated vertical solutions based on their needs. Data will be synced so Personio acts as the system of record for all HR information and information only needs to be entered once”.

In addition to “out of the box” third-party software integrations, Personio’s claim to offer a HR operating system is backed up by the company’s open API, which is designed to cover various use cases where accessing data that is stored in Personio can add further value to customers. This includes building something as simple as a Slack bot using Personio data, to connecting Personio to a company’s data-warehouse or deeper integrations with internal systems.

More broadly, Renner says this holistic approach, coupled with Personio’s workflow automation that aims to cut down on time wasted on repetitive tasks, is not only resonating with HR managers and recruiters who typically use the product for several hours per day, but is also finding use with managers, executives and other employees. The end result is that HR and recruitment processes can become much more distributed across a company.

To that end, Personio says its Series B funding will be used to help the company attempt to become Europe’s leading provider of human resources software for SMEs. It boasts more than 1,000 clients in 35 countries, seeing over 150,000 employees and several hundred thousand applicants currently being managed within Personio.

“We believe that now is the right timing to actively expand into further regions and the funding as well as Index expertise will certainly help making that move successful,” adds the Personio CEO. “Apart from that, we consider ourselves a product-driven company and hence want to continue to strongly invest into building the best product for our customers which will mean significantly growing our product & engineering team and potentially even opening a new office to facilitate hiring”.