All posts in “Venture Capital”

Andrew Ng is raising a $150M AI Fund


We knew that Andrew Ng had more than just a series of deep learning courses up his sleeve when he announced the first phase of his deeplearning.ai last week. It’s clear now that the turn of Ng’s three part act is a $150 million venture capital fund, first noted by PEHub, targeting AI investments.

Ng, who formerly founded Google’s Brain Team and served as chief scientist at Baidu has long evangelized the benefits AI could bring to the world. During an earlier conversation, Ng told me that his personal goal is to help bring about an AI-powered society. It would follow that education via his deep learning classes is one step of that and providing capital and other resources is another.

2017 has been a particularly active year for starting AI-focused venture capital funds. In the last few months we have seen Google roll out Gradient Ventures, Basis Set Ventures hall in $136 million, Element.AI raise $102 million, Microsoft Ventures start its own AI fund and Toyota corral $100 million for AI investment.

It’s unclear at this point how Ng’s AI Fund will differentiate from the pack. Many of these funds are putting time and resources into securing data sets, technical mentors and advanced simulation tools to support the unique needs of AI startups. Of course Ng’s name recognition and network should help ensure solid deal flow and enable Ng to poach and train talent for startups in need of scarce deep learning engineers.

I’ve sent a note to Andrew and we will update this post if and when we get more details.

Featured Image: Dawn Endico/Flickr UNDER A CC BY-SA 2.0 LICENSE

betaworks ventures is a not-so-new $50 million early-stage fund


betaworks, the startup studio responsible for companies like Giphy, TweetDeck, and Dots, is today formally announcing the launch of a $50 million early-stage fund called betaworks ventures.

betaworks ventures has actually been active in the market for the last year, though operating somewhat under the radar, and betaworks has been making investments long before that from the over-arching betaworks holding company. The $50 million fund allows betaworks to invest across all three of its main interests, including betaworks studio (the arm that launches home-made companies), betaworks camps (theme-based accelerators) and external investment (outside companies).

Borthwick explained to TechCrunch the way that betaworks ventures will divvy up resources across all three divisions of the company.

Like everything betaworks does, the fund will be focused specifically on a few categories of technology, including conversational interfaces, spatial computing, native media, playable media, and emergent behavior in legacy systems.

In terms of number of companies, the majority of investments will go toward companies launching out of betaworks camps — previous camps include BotCamp and VoiceCamp — while a relatively small number of investments will go toward studio companies, as only two or three launch each year. Outside investments will fall somewhere in the middle.

That said, the actual amount of cash will break down a bit differently, with outside investments seeing around 50 percent of the fund’s investment capital. Studio companies will receive larger investments, taking up about 25 percent of capital, with a large number of small seed and pre-seed investments going to camp graduates.

Partners in the fund include betaworks boss John Borthwick, Matt Hartman, and Peter Rojas. betaworks ventures will also benefit from a fellowship program, letting folks from the betaworks community scout startups that may be of interest to the fund. Those fellows will receive a share of the economics on deals they bring in, but not of the fund as a whole.

Though the fund is focused on pre-seed and seed stage funding, the new structure of betaworks as a whole will allow for more flexibility for Series A, Series B, and follow-on rounds.

“Our ability to do follow-ons was so restricted,” said Borthwick. “Giphy grew extraordinarily fast, along with some others, and we couldn’t double down as those things grew up because our source of capital was exclusively through the holding company.”

Borthwick said he’s mulled starting a fund for the past five or six years, but last year he eventually put his foot down and made it happen.

We reported on the story last year, and though Borthwick wouldn’t confirm or deny whether Twitter invested in the fund, he did confirm that both the New York Times Company and Guardian Media Group have joined as LPs.

To date, betaworks ventures has made around 30 investments from the fund.

A running list of every company backed by the $93B SoftBank Vision Fund

When SoftBank announced the first close of its $93 billion Vision Fund back in May, it was hard to understand how the company would even manage to deploy so much capital in an already saturated ecosystem. Two months have passed and we’re starting to get a taste of the strategy of the fund — bet big and bet often and you just might be able to influence who wins and loses in the technology industry.

It’s far too early to evaluate the viability of such a fund. This is the first time such a fund has been raised and there is zero precedent for the manner in which the capital is being deployed. But, for starters, it seemed like a good idea to keep a running list of all Vision Fund investments for reference. We will update this list on a regular basis as more deals are made public.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-driving truck startup Embark raises $15M, partners with Peterbilt


Self-driving trucking startup Embark has raised $15 million in Series A financing, the company announced on Tuesday. Embark first broke cover back in February, when it revealed trucks equipped with its neural net-based deep learning approach to autonomous trucking. The startup’s also revealing a team-up with heavy equipment manufacturer Peterbilt today, which will help it roll out its new group of test trucks.

The funding is led by Data Collective, and includes participation by YC Continuity, Maven Ventures and SV Angel. It will help Embark hire new talent for their engineering team, and add more trucks in order to help expand their test fleet across the U.S., with the aim of gearing up for a broad commercialized launch. Embark’s post-money valuation following this round is $75 million.

Embark originally built its test prototype on a Peterbilt 579 truck, and so the formal partnership with the semi truck maker is an exciting development, according to Embark CEO Alex Rodrigues. Peterbilt will be building the new test trucks for Embark’s fleet custom at its Denton, Texas factory, in order to help better tailor them to the startup’s needs.

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The advantage of Embark’s approach, according to DCVC Managing Partner Matt Ocko in a statement, is that they’re “producing top-notch real-world driving results far more quickly and on far less capital than anyone else.” Embark’s solution offers great performance without requiring advance exhaustive mapping of all U.S. roads, he notes, which will cut down the time it takes to bring it to market.

Embark is also focusing on handling freeway driving, with a human driver on board who navigates city streets. Still, taking the freeway scenarios out of their hands should eventually mean that drivers can do more loads per day, increasing efficiency, cutting cost and addressing demand for trucking that is outpacing driver supply. This, combined with the relatively low cost of Embark’s tech, should help U.S. truckers essentially purchase themselves a virtual “employee” in the form of semi-autonomous trucks, while still retaining work, the company says.