Monthly Archives: December 2018

Salesforce keeps rolling with another banner year in 2018

Posted by on 24 December, 2018

This post was originally published on this site

The good times kept on rolling this year for Salesforce with all of the requisite ingredients of a highly successful cloud company — the steady revenue growth, the expanding product set and the splashy acquisitions. The company also opened the doors of its shiny new headquarters, Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, a testament to its sheer economic power in the city.

Salesforce, which set a revenue goal of $10 billion a few years ago is already on its way to $20 billion. Yet Salesforce is also proof you can be ruthlessly good at what you do, while trying to do the right thing as an organization.

Make no mistake, Marc Benioff and Keith Block, the company’s co-CEOs, want to make obscene amounts of money, going so far as to tell a group of analysts earlier this year that their goal by 2034 is to be a $60 billion company. Salesforce just wants to do it with a hint of compassion as it rakes in those big bucks and keeps well-heeled competitors like Microsoft, Oracle and SAP at bay.

A look at the numbers

In the end, a publicly traded company like Salesforce is going to be judged by how much money it makes, and Salesforce it turns out is pretty good at this, as it showed once again this year. The company grew every quarter by over 24 percent YoY and ended up the year with $12.53 billion in revenue. Based on its last quarter of $3.39 billion, the company finished the year on a $13.56 billion run rate.

This compares with $9.92 billion in total revenue for 2017 with a closing run rate of $10.72 billion.

Even with this steady growth trajectory, it might be some time before it hits the $5 billion-a-quarter mark and checks off the $20 billion goal. Keep in mind that it took the company three years to get from $1.51 billion in Q12016 to $3.1 billion in Q12019.

As for the stock market, it has been highly volatile this year, but Salesforce is still up. Starting the year at $102.41, it was sitting at $124.06 as of publication, after peaking on October 1 at $159.86. The market has been on a wild ride since then and cloud stocks have taken a big hit, warranted or not. On one particularly bad day last month, Salesforce had its worst day since 2016 losing 8.7 percent in value,

Spending big

When you make a lot of money you can afford to spend generously, and the company invested some of those big bucks when it bought Mulesoft for $6.5 billion in March, making it the most expensive acquisition it has ever made. With Mulesoft, the company had a missing link between data sitting on-prem in private data centers and Salesforce data in the cloud.

Mulesoft helps customers build access to data wherever it lives via APIs. That includes legacy data sitting in ancient data repositories. As Salesforce turns its eyes toward artificial intelligence and machine learning, it requires oodles of data and Mulesoft was worth opening up the wallet to provide the company with that kind of access to a variety of enterprise data.

Salesforce 2018 acquisitions. Chart: Crunchbase.

But Mulesoft wasn’t the only thing Salesforce bought this year. It made five acquisitions in all. The other significant one came in July when it scooped up Dataorama for a cool $800 million, giving it a market intelligence platform.

What could be on board for 2019? If Salesforce sticks to its recent pattern of spending big one year, then regrouping the next, 2019 could be a slower one for acquisitions. Consider that it bought just one company last year after buying a dozen in 2016.

One other way to keep revenue rolling in comes from high-profile partnerships. In the past, Salesforce has partnered with Microsoft and Google, and this year it announced that it was teaming up with Apple. Salesforce also announced another high-profile arrangement with AWS to share data between the two platforms more easily. The hope with these types of cross pollination is that the companies can both increase their business. For Salesforce, that means using these partnerships as a platform to move the revenue needle faster.

Compassionate capitalism

Even while his company has made big bucks, Benioff has been preaching compassionate capitalism using Twitter and the media as his soap box.

He went on record throughout this year supporting Prop C, a referendum question designed to help battle San Francisco’s massive homeless problem by taxing companies with greater than $50 million in revenue — companies like Salesforce. Benioff was a vocal proponent of the idea, and it won. He did not find kindred spirits among some of his fellow San Francisco tech CEOs, openly debating Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Twitter.

Speaking about Prop C in an interview with Kara Swisher of Recode in November, Benioff talked in lofty terms about why he believed in the measure even though it would cost his company money.

“You’ve got to really be mindful and think about what it is that you want your company to be for and what you’re doing with your business and here at Salesforce, that’s very important to us,” he told Swisher in the interview.

He also talked about how employees at other tech companies were driving their CEOs to change their tune around social issues, including supporting Prop C, but Benioff had to deal with his own internal insurrection this year when 650 employees signed a petition asking him to rethink Salesforce’s contract with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in light of the current administration’s border policies. Benioff defended the contract, stating that that Salesforce tools were being used internally at CBP for staff recruiting and communication and not to enforce border policy.

Regardless, Salesforce has never lost its focus on meeting lofty revenue goals, and as we approach the new year, there is no reason to think that will change. The company will continue to look for new ways to expand markets and keep their revenue moving ever closer to that $20 billion goal, even as it continues to meld its unique form of compassion and capitalism.

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Cinven acquires One.com, one of Europe’s biggest hosting providers with 1.5M customers

Posted by on 20 December, 2018

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One of the biggest providers of domain names and web hosting in Europe is changing hands today. One.com, which has around 1.5 million customers mainly across the north of the region, has been sold by private equity firm Accel-KKR to Cinven, another PE player that focuses on investments in Europe.

Terms of the deal are not being disclosed, but as a rough guide, Cinven once owned and sold another European hosting provider of comparable size: it acquired Host Europe Group in 2013 for $668 million and then sold it in 2016 for $1.8 billion to GoDaddy two years ago almost to the day. At the time of the sale, Host Europe Group also had about 1.5 million customers.

One.com and its business segment represent a significant, if not wildly evolving, part of the tech landscape: for as long as businesses and consumers continue to use the web, there will be a need for companies who sell and host domain names and provide services around that.

With a catchy domain name of its own, One.com has been riding the wave of that solidity of purpose for several years already. KKR-Accel says that organic growth at the company has been accelerating at a rate of 20 percent and that revenues under its four-year ownership doubled to €60 million ($69 million) with profitability growing 50x on a marketing pitch in which it positions itself as the ‘budget’ option to businesses.

“The vision of One.com since its founding has been to deliver value-added and easy-to-use solutions to small- and medium-sized businesses and prosumers,” said Jacob Jensen, Founder and CEO of One.com, in a statement. He is staying on to continue leading the company.

Cinven says it is interested in growth the business by way of acquisition, specifically: “There are opportunities to accelerate the growth of the business organically and through acquisition.”

In other words, expect some consolidation moves in the future where some of the smaller providers in Europe potentially get gobbled up to create a bigger entity with better economies of scale. That’s needed not just because GoDaddy has ramped up its presence here, but because the likes of Amazon has only grown in stature and provides a number of other services to users to make its offerings more sticky.

“We are very excited to invest in One.com alongside Jacob. It is a high quality business with an attractive brand and scalable technology platform, operating in a market with structural growth drivers,” said Thomas Railhac, Partner at Cinven, in a statement. “This is a subsector we know well through Cinven’s successful investment in HEG in Fund 5, continuing to invest in both the organic growth story and targeted acquisitions.”

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Crew, a Workplace and Slack messaging rival for shift workers, raises $35M, adds enterprise version

Posted by on 19 December, 2018

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When it comes to shift workers communicating with each other in the workplace when they are not face-to-face, gone are the days of cork announcement boards. Now, the messaging app is the medium, and today one of the startups tackling that opportunity in a unique way has raised a round of funding to get to the next stage of growth.

Crew, a chat app that specifically targets businesses that employ shift workers who do not typically sit at computers all day, has now raised $35 million in Series C funding from DAG Ventures, Tenaya Capital, and previous backers Greylock Partners, Sequoia Capital, Harrison Metal Capital and Aspect Ventures. With the funding news, it’s also announcing the launch of a new feature called Crew Enterprise, which helps businesses better manage messaging across large groups of these workers.

The funding and new product come on the heels of the company hitting 25,000 organizations using its service — many of them multi-store retailers with an emphasis in the food industry, household names like Domino’s Pizza and Burger King — with some strong engagement. Its users are together sending some 25 million messages or responses to other messages each week, on average six times per day per user, with more than 55 percent of its whole user base logging in on an average day.

There are quite a lot of messaging apps out in the market today, but the majority of them are aimed at so-called knowledge workers, people who might be using a number of apps throughout their day, who often sit at desks and use computers alongside their phones and tablets. Crew takes a different approach in that it targets the vast swathe of other workers in the job market and their priorities.

As it turns out, co-founder and CEO Danny Leffel tells me that those priorities are focused around a few specific things that are not the same as those for the other employment sector. One is to get the latest shift schedules for work, especially when they are not at work; another is to be able to swap those shifts when they need to; and a third, largely coming from the management end, is to make sure that everything gets communicated to the staff even when they are not in for work to attend a staff meeting.

“Some of the older practices feel like versions of a Rube Goldberg machine,” he said. “The stories we hear are quite insane.” Shift schedules, he said, are an example. “Lots of workplaces have rules, where you can’t call in to check the schedule because it causes employees to come off the floor. One hotel manager told us he couldn’t hold staff meetings with everyone there because he runs a 24/7 workplace so some people would have to come in especially. One store GM from a supermarket chain told us that the whole store has only one email address, so when an announcement goes out, the GM prints that and hands it to everyone. And the problems just compound when you talk to them.”

Crew is by no means the only business internal messaging service that is aiming to provide a product specifically for shift workers. Workplace, Facebook’s own take on enterprise communications, has also positioned itself as a platform for “every worker,” and has snagged a clutch of huge clients such as Walmart (2.2 million employees globally) and Starbucks (254,000) to fill out that vision.

Leffel, however, paints a sightly different picture of how this is playing out, since in many cases even when a company has been “won” as a global customer that hasn’t translated to a global roll out.

“Starbucks is theoretically using Workplace, but it’s been deployed only to managers,” he said. “We have almost 1,000 Starbucks locations using Crew. We knew we had a huge presence there, and we were worried when Facebook won them, but we haven’t seen even a dent in our business so far.”

Leffel has had previous some experience of getting into the ring with Facebook — although it hasn’t ended with him the winner. His previous startup, Yardsellr, positioned itself as the “eBay of Facebook,” working as a layer on top of the big social network for people to sell items. It died a death in 2013, when Facebook took a less friendly turn to Yardsellr using Facebook’s social graph to grow its own business (it was a time when it was cutting off apps from Zynga for similar reasons). Today, Facebook itself owns the experience of selling on its platform via Marketplace.

Crew seems to have found a strong foothold among enterprises in terms of its usefulness, not just use, which is one sign of how it might have more staying power.

survey it conducted among 50,000 of its users found that 63 percent of leaders who use Crew report fewer missed shifts and 70 percent see increased motivation on their team. Crew worked out that among respondents, it is generating time savings of four or more hours per week for 93 percent of surveyed managers. And because of better communication, people are working faster when handing off things to each other on the front line, with a Domino’s Pizza franchisee sped up delivery punctuality by 23 percent as one example. (The company offers services on three tiers, ranging from free for small teams, Pro at $10 per month per location, to Enterprise priced on negotiation.)

Crew’s new enterprise tier is aiming to take the company to the next step. Today, Leffel says that a lot of its customers are buying on a location-by-location basis. The idea with Crew Enterprise is that larger organizations will be able to provide a more unified experience across all of those locations (not to mention pay more for the functionality). Managers can use the service to message out details about promotions, and they have a better ability to manage conversations across the platform and also get more feedback from people who are directly interacting with customers. Meanwhile, admins also gain better ability to manage compliance.

If some of this sounds familiar, it’s not just because Workplace is the only one who is also targeting the same users. Dynamic Signal and Zinc (formerly Cotap) are two other startups that are also trying to provide better messaging-based communications to more than just white-collar knowledge workers. Crew will have its work cut out for it, but there is a lot of room for now for multiple players.

“We are seeing a shift in the marketplace, going from absolutely don’t use your phone at work to don’t use it when customers are present,” Leffel said of the opportunity. “Some have started to change the rules to allow workers to use their own phones to perform price checks. We are solving for this evolving workflow.”

Posted Under: Tech News
These 10 enterprise M&A deals totaled over $87 billion this year

Posted by on 19 December, 2018

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M&A activity was brisk in the enterprise market this year, with 10 high-profile deals totaling almost $88 billion. Companies were opening up their wallets and pouring money into mega acquisitions. It’s worth noting that the $88 billion figure doesn’t include Dell paying investors more than $23 billion for VMware tracking stock to take the company public again or several other deals of over a billion dollars that didn’t make our list.

Last year’s big deals included Intel buying MobileEye for $15 billion and Cisco getting AppDynamics for $3.7 billion, but there were not as many big ones. Adobe, which made two large acquisitions this year, was mostly quiet last year, only making a minor purchase. Salesforce too was mostly quiet in 2017, only buying a digital creative agency, after an active 2016. SAP also made only one purchase in 2017, paying $350 million for Gigya. Microsoft was active buying nine companies, but these were primarily minor. Perhaps everyone was saving their pennies for 2018.

This year, by contrast, was go big or go home, and we saw action across the board from the usual suspects. Large companies looking to change their fortunes or grow their markets went shopping and came home with some expensive trinkets for their collections. Some of the deals are still waiting to pass regulatory hurdles and won’t be closing until 2019. Regardless, it’s too soon to judge whether these big-bucks ventures will pay the dividends that their buyers hope, or if they end up being M&A dust in the wind.

IBM acquires Red Hat for $34 billion

By far the biggest and splashiest deal of the year goes to IBM, which bet the farm to acquire Red Hat for a staggering $34 billion. IBM sees this acquisition as a way to build out its hybrid cloud business. It’s a huge bet and one that could determine the success of Big Blue as an organization in the coming years.

Broadcom nets CA Technologies for $18.5 billion

This deal was unexpected, as Broadcom, a chip maker, spent the second largest amount of money in a year of big spending. What Broadcom got for its many billions was an old-school IT management and software solutions provider. Perhaps Broadcom felt it needed to branch out beyond pure chip making, and CA offered a way to do it, albeit a rather expensive one.

SAP buys Qualtrics for $8 billion

While not anywhere close to the money IBM or Broadcom spent, SAP went out and nabbed Qualtrics last month just before the company was about to IPO, still paying a healthy $8 billion. The company believes that the new company could help build a bridge between SAP operational data inside its back-end ERP systems and Qualtrics customer data on the front end. Time will tell if they are right.

Microsoft gets GitHub for $7.5 billion

In June, Microsoft swooped in and bought GitHub, giving it a key developer code repository. It was a lot of money to pay, and Diane Greene expressed regret that Google hadn’t been able to get it. That’s because cloud companies are working hard to win developer hearts and minds. Microsoft has a chance to push GitHub users toward its products, but it has to tread carefully because they will balk if Microsoft goes too far.

Salesforce snares MuleSoft for $6.5 billion

Salesforce wasn’t about to be left out of the party in 2018 and in March, the CRM giant announced it was buying API integration vendor Mulesoft for a cool $6.5 billion. It was a big deal for Salesforce, which tends to be acquisitive, but typically on smaller deals. This one was a key purchase though because it gives the company the ability to access data wherever it lives, on premises or in the cloud, and that could be key for them moving forward.

Adobe snags Marketo for $4.75 billion

Adobe has built a strong company primarily on the strength of its Creative Cloud, but it has been trying to generate more revenue on the marketing side of the business. To that end, it acquired Marketo for $4.75 billion and immediately boosted its marketing business, especially when combined with the $1.68 billion Magento purchase earlier in the year.

SAP acquires CallidusCloud for $2.4 billion

SAP doesn’t do as many acquisitions as some of its fellow large tech companies mentioned here, but this year it did two. Not only did it buy Qualtrics for $8 billion, it also grabbed CallidusCloud for $2.4 billion. SAP is best known for managing back-office components with its ERP software, but this adds a cloud-based, front-office sales process piece to the mix.

Cisco grabs Duo Security for $2.35 billion

Cisco has been hard at work buying up a variety of software services over the years, and this year it added to its security portfolio when it acquired Duo Security for $2.35 billion. The Michigan-based company helps companies secure applications using their own mobile devices and could be a key part of the Cisco security strategy moving forward.

Twilio buys SendGrid for $2 billion

Twilio got into the act this year too. While not in the same league as the other large tech companies on this list, it saw a piece it felt would enhance its product set and it was willing to spend big to get it. Twilio, which made its name as a communications API company, saw a kindred spirit in SendGrid, spending $2 billion to get the API-based email service.

Vista snares Apttio for $1.94 billion

Vista Equity Partners is the only private equity firm on the list, but it’s one with an appetite for enterprise technology. With Apttio, it gets a company that can help companies understand their cloud assets alongside their on-prem ones. The company had been public before Vista bought it for $1.94 billion last month.

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Microsoft launches a new app to make using Office easier

Posted by on 19 December, 2018

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Microsoft today announced a new Office app that’s now available to Windows Insiders and that will soon roll out to all Windows 10 users. The new Office app will replace the existing My Office app (yeah, those names…). While the existing app was mostly about managing Office 365 subscriptions, the new app provides significantly more features and will essentially become the central hub for Office users to switch between apps, see their pinned documents and access other Office features.

The company notes that this launch is part of its efforts to make using Office easier and help users “get the most out of Office and getting them back into their work quickly.” For many Office users, Outlook, Word, PowerPoint and Excel are basically their central tools for getting work done, so it makes sense to give them a single app that combines in a single place all the information about their work.

Using the app, users can switch between apps, see everything they’ve been working on, as well as recommended documents based on what I assume is data from the Microsoft Graph. There’s also an integrated search feature and admins will be able to customize the app with other line of business applications and their company’s branding.

The app is free and will be available in the oft-forgotten Microsoft Store. It’ll work for all users with Office 365 subscriptions or access to Office 2019, Office 2016 or Office Online.

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Google’s Cloud Spanner database adds new features and regions

Posted by on 19 December, 2018

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Cloud Spanner, Google’s globally distributed relational database service, is getting a bit more distributed today with the launch of a new region and new ways to set up multi-region configurations. The service is also getting a new feature that gives developers deeper insights into their most resource-consuming queries.

With this update, Google is adding to the Cloud Spanner lineup Hong Kong (asia-east2), its newest data center location. With this, Cloud Spanner is now available in 14 out of 18 Google Cloud Platform (GCP) regions, including seven the company added this year alone. The plan is to bring Cloud Spanner to every new GCP region as they come online.

The other new region-related news is the launch of two new configurations for multi-region coverage. One, called eur3, focuses on the European Union, and is obviously meant for users there who mostly serve a local customer base. The other is called nam6 and focuses on North America, with coverage across both costs and the middle of the country, using data centers in Oregon, Los Angeles, South Carolina and Iowa. Previously, the service only offered a North American configuration with three regions and a global configuration with three data centers spread across North America, Europe and Asia.

While Cloud Spanner is obviously meant for global deployments, these new configurations are great for users who only need to serve certain markets.

As far as the new query features are concerned, Cloud Spanner is now making it easier for developers to view, inspect and debug queries. The idea here is to give developers better visibility into their most frequent and expensive queries (and maybe make them less expensive in the process).

In addition to the Cloud Spanner news, Google Cloud today announced that its Cloud Dataproc Hadoop and Spark service now supports the R language, in addition to Python 3.7 support on App Engine.

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Sprout Social raises another $40.5M to double down on social tools for businesses

Posted by on 19 December, 2018

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Sprout Social, a social media monitoring, marketing and analytics service with 25,000 business customers that helps these organizations manage their public profiles and interact with customers across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Google+ (soon to RIP), has raised $40.5 million in funding in order expand its business internationally and add more functionality to its platform.

The money — a Series D led by Future Fund with participation from Goldman Sachs and New Enterprise Associates — brings the total raised by Sprout to $103.5 million to date. We’ve asked the company about its valuation, and we’ll update as we learn more. For some context, Sprout last raised in 2016 — $42 million also from Goldman Sachs and NEA — and at the time it had a post-money valuation of $253 million, according to PitchBook.

That cold mean that the valuation now is just shy of $300 million. But between then and now, there have been some interesting developments that could have shifted that price in either direction.

On one side, multiple sources have told us that Sprout was being courted by Microsoft for acquisition at one point (both companies declined to comment on this for us at the time we were looking into it). One reason, one source told us, that the deal didn’t go through was because they couldn’t reach a deal on pricing.

On the other, one of Sprout’s biggest competitors, Hootsuite (with 15 million users, paid and free), has been rumored to be shopping itself for about $750 million, or potentially going public, while smaller competitors have moved in on some consolidation to bulk up their own presence in the field.

In the meantime, Sprout itself has been growing. The company’s 25,000 customers are up from 16,000 two years ago, with current users including Microsoft, NBCUniversal, the Denver Nuggets and Grubhub and MTV.

One of the reasons for the growth is the larger shift we’ve seen in how businesses interact with the outside world. Social media is today perhaps the most important platform for businesses to communicate with their users: not only has social media helped customers circumvent the often frustrating spaghetti that lies behind the deceptive phrase “contact us” on websites, but social media has become a spotlight, which businesses have to watch lest a sticky situation snowballs into a public relations disaster.

Platforms like Twitter and Facebook, to grow their revenues, have ramped up their efforts to work on social media campaigns and interactions directly with organizations. But there is still a place for third parties like Sprout Social to manage work that goes across a number of social sites, and to address services that the social platforms themselves do not necessarily want to invest in building directly.

“I think there are a bunch of reasons why we don’t build bot experience ourselves,” Jeff Lesser, who heads up product marketing for Twitter Business Messaging, told me when Sprout launched a “bot builder” to be used on Twitter, and I asked him why Sprout shouldn’t worry about Twitter cannibalizing its product. “There are millions of types of businesses that can use our platform, so we’re letting the ecosystem build the solutions that they need. We are focusing on building the canvas for them to do that.”

In other words, while Sprout (and competitors) should always be a little wary of platform players who may decide to simply kick them off in the name of business, there are always going to be opportunities if they have the resources double down on more tech to solve a different problem, or simply execute on fixing an existing problem better.

“Social marketing and social data have become mission-critical to virtually all aspects of business. Sprout’s relentless focus on quality and customer success have made us the top customer-rated platform in every category and segment,” said Justyn Howard, CEO of Sprout, in a statement. “In many ways, social is still in its infancy, and we’re fortunate to help so many great customers navigate this evolving set of challenges.”

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Dataiku raises $101 million for its collaborative data science platform

Posted by on 19 December, 2018

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Dataiku wants to turn buzzwords into an actual service. The company has been focused on data tools for many years, before everybody started talking about big data, data science and machine learning.

And the company just raised $101 million in a round led by Iconiq Capital with Alven Capital, Battery Ventures, Dawn Capital and FirstMark Capital also participating.

If you’re generating a lot of data, Dataiku helps you find a meaning behind data sets. First, you import your data by connecting Dataiku to your storage system. The platform supports dozens of database formats and sources — Hadoop, NoSQL, images, you name it.

You can then use Dataiku to visualize your data, clean your data set, run some algorithms on your data in order to build a machine learning model, deploy it and more. Dataiku has a visual coding tool, or you can use your own code.

But Dataiku isn’t just a tool for data scientists. Even if you’re a business analyst, you can visualize and extract data from Dataiku directly. And because of its software-as-a-service approach, your entire team of data scientists and data analysts can collaborate on Dataiku.

Clients use it to track churn, detect fraud, forecast demand, optimize lifetime values and more. Customers include General Electric, Sephora, Unilever, KUKA, FOX and BNP Paribas.

With today’s funding round, the company plans to double its staff. The company currently works with 200 people in New York, Paris and London. It plans to open offices in Singapore and Sydney as well.

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At cobotics startup Formant, ex-Googlers team up humans & machines

Posted by on 18 December, 2018

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Our distinct skillsets and shortcomings mean people and robots will join forces for the next few decades. Robots are tireless, efficient, and reliable, but in a millisecond through intuition and situational awareness, humans can make decisions machine can’t. Until workplace robots are truly autonomous and don’t require any human thinking, we’ll need software to supervise them at scale. Formant comes out of stealth today to “help people speak robot” says co-founder and CEO Jeff Linnell. “What’s really going to move the needle in the innovation economy is using humans as an empowering element in automation.”

Linnell learned the grace of uniting flesh and steel while working on the movie Gravity. “We put cameras and Sandra Bullock on dollies” he bluntly recalls. Artistic vision and robotic precision combined to create gorgeous zero-gravity scenes that made audiences feel weightless. Google bought his startup Bot & Dolly, and Linnell spent 10 years there as a director of robotics while forming his thesis.

Now with Formant, he wants to make hybrid workforce cooperation feel frictionless.

The company has raised a $6 million seed round from SignalFire, a data driven VC fund with software for recruiting engineers. Formant is launching its closed beta that equips businesses with cloud infrastructure for collecting, making sense of, and acting on data from fleets of robots. It allows a single human to oversee 10, 20, or 100 machines, stepping in to clear confusion when they aren’t sure what to do.

“The tooling is 10 years behind the web” Linnell explains. “If you build a data company today, you’ll use AWS or Google Cloud, but that simply doesn’t exist for robotics. We’re building that layer.”

A Beautiful Marriage

“This is going to sound completely bizarre” Formant co-founder and CTO Anthony Jules warns me. “I had a recurring dream [as a child] in which I was a ship captain and I had a little mechanical parrot on my should that would look at situations and help me decide what to do as we’d sail the seas trying to avoid this octopus. Since then I knew that building intelligent machines is what I do in this world.”

So he went to MIT, left a robotics PhD program to build a startup called Sapient Corporation that he built into a 4000-employee public company, and worked on the Tony Hawk video games. He too joined Google through an acquisition, meeting Linnell after Redwood Robotics where he was COO got acquired. “We came up with some similar beliefs. There are a few places where full autonomy will actually work, but it’s really about creating a beautiful marriage of what machines are good at and what humans are good at” Jules tells me

Formant now has SAAS pilots running with businesses in several verticals to make their “robot-shaped data” usable. They range from food manufacturing to heavy infrastructure inspection to construction, and even training animals. Linnell also foresees retail increasingly employing fleets of robots not just in the warehouse but on the showroom floor, and they’ll require precise coordination.

What’s different about Formant is it doesn’t build the bots. Instead, it builds the reins for people to deftly control them.

First, Formant connects to sensors to fill up a cloud with Lidar, depth imagery, video, photos, log files, metrics, motor torques, and scalar values. The software parses that data and when something goes wrong or the system isn’t sure how to move forward, Formant alerts the human ‘foreman’ that they need to intervene. It can monitor the fleet, sniff out the source of errors, and suggest options for what to do next.

For example, “when an autonomous digger encounters an obstacle in the foundation of a construction site, an operator is necessary to evaluate whether it is safe for the robot to proceed or stop” Linnell writes. “This decision is made in tandem: the rich data gathered by the robot is easily interpreted by a human but difficult or legally questionable for a machine. This choice still depends on the value judgment of the human, and will change depending on if the obstacle is a gas main, a boulder, or an electrical wire.”

Any single data stream alone can’t reveal the mysteries that arise, and people would struggle to juggle the different feeds in their minds. But not only can Formant align the data for humans to act on, it can also turn their choices into valuable training data for artificial intelligence. Formant learns, so next time the machine won’t need assistance.

The industrial revolution, continued

With rockstar talent poached from Google and tides lifting all automated boats, Formant’s biggest threat is competition from tech giants. Old engineering companies like SAP could try to adapt to new real-time data type, yet Formant hopes to out-code them. Google itself has built reliable cloud scaffolding and has robotics experience from Boston Dynamics plus buying Linnell’s and Jules’ companies. But the enterprise customization necessary to connect with different clients isn’t typical for the search juggernaut.

Linnell fears that companies that try to build their own robot management software could get hacked. “I worry about people who do homegrown solutions or don’t have the experience we have from being at a place like Google. Putting robots online in an insecure way is a pretty bad problem.” Formant is looking to squash any bugs before it opens its platform to customers in 2019.

With time, humans will become less and less necessary, and that will surface enormous societal challenges for employment and welfare. “It’s in some ways a continuation of the industrial revolution” Jules opines. “We take some of this for granted but it’s been happening for 100 years. Photographer — that’s a profession that doesn’t exist without the machine that they use. We think that transformation will continue to happen across the workforce.”

Posted Under: Tech News
Box releases Skills, which lets developers apply AI and machine learning to Box content

Posted by on 18 December, 2018

This post was originally published on this site

When you have as much data under management as Box does, you have the key ingredient for artificial intelligence and machine learning, which feeds on copious amounts of data. Box is giving developers access to this data, while letting them choose the AI and machine learning algorithms they want to use. Today, the company announced the general availability of the Box Skills SDK, originally announced at BoxWorks a year ago.

Jeetu Patel, Box’s chief product officer and chief strategy officer, says Beta customers have been focusing on use cases specific to each company. They have been pulling information from different classes of content that matter most to them to bring an element of automation to their content management. “If there’s a way to bring a level of automation with machine learning, rather than doing it manually, that would meaningfully change the way that business processes can function,” Patel told TechCrunch.

Among the use cases Box has been seeing with the 300 Beta testers, is using artificial intelligence to recognize the contents of a photo for the purpose of auto tagging, thereby eliminating the need for humans to do that tagging. Another example is in contract management where the terms are pulled automatically from the contract, saving the legal team from having to do this.

Where this can get really powerful though is that the Skill can drive a more complex automated workflow inside of Box. If, for example, the Skill is driving the creation of automated metadata, that can in turn drive a workflow, Patel said.

Box is providing the means to ingest Box data into a given AI or machine learning algorithm, but instead of trying to create those on its own, it’s been relying on partners who have more specific expertise such as IBM Watson, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform and Amazon Web Services. In fact, Box says it is working with dozens of AI and machine learning partners.

For customers who aren’t comfortable doing any of this on their own, Box is also providing a consulting service, where it can come into a customer and help work through a set of requirements and choose the best algorithm for the job.

Posted Under: Tech News
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