The Voter Formation Project puts an experimental spin on reaching Black and brown first-time voters

Victories notwithstanding, the 2020 election blew up many of the assumptions Democrats have long held about the American electorate.In Florida, Arizona and elsewhere, Latino voters broke for Trump in unexpected numbers, upending conventional wisdom that the growing Spanish-speaking population will reliably vote the same way — and vote blue. Polling again failed to capture contours of races around the country, proving that pollsters’ inability to predict Trump’s 2016 win wasn’t a fluke. And with all eyes on Texas, Georgia flipped blue for the first time in two decades.

Tatenda Musapatike, a former political ad specialist at Facebook who left the company in 2019 to lead civic engagement campaigns, believes that the relative tabula rasa in American politics right now is an opportunity to double down on expanding the electorate.

This month, Musapatike is leaving her role directing campaigns at the Democratic nonprofit Acronym to launch the Voter Formation Project, a 501(c)3 laser-focused on reaching Black and brown first-time voters using every trick in the digital toolbox.

One answer to Trump’s surprise win in 2016, Acronym emerged as a nonprofit strategy group aiming to lay a Democratic digital groundwork that could match or surpass Republican digital campaigns.

The group stumbled in 2020 when an untested and probably ill-advised vote tabulation app delayed results in the Iowa caucuses, creating chaos and casting doubt on the Democratic party’s technical prowess. The app was created by Shadow, a tech company Acronym acquired the year prior but then scrambled to distance itself from.

But Acronym had a lot of irons in the fire. One of those was a 2019 voter drive called the “People’s Power Grab” led by Musapatike that mobilized unregistered voters of color in eight states including Arizona, Florida and Georgia.

With the Voter Formation Project, Musapatike can both extend and hone the same work. And with Georgia as a proof-of-concept and major legislative voting rights reform on the table, the political stakes of that mission are clearer than ever.

Musapatike is well-positioned for the task at hand. Prior to her work on voter outreach at Acronym, she spent three and a half years at Facebook working with progressive super PACs and nonprofits on their digital ad campaigns. (Mired in myriad political controversies following the 2016 U.S. election, including accusations that the company gave the Trump campaign special treatment, Facebook dissolved those teams.)

Tatenda Musapatike

Tatenda Musapatike of the Voter Formation Project

Musapatike told TechCrunch that the Voter Formation Project will fill an existing gap for digital-only voter outreach in at least a few ways. For one, it will be the first digital-only operation helmed by a Black woman in the space. Its mission is also uniquely targeted and the organization will be looking to raise at least $4 million this year to make it happen.

“I’m really excited about the sea change that we’re seeing in terms of valuing the work, and trusting Black women to do the work,” Musapatike said.

Practically, the Voter Formation Project will look like a lot of digital advertising. Musapatike believes that by embracing the chaos of so many upended assumptions, she can reach more first time voters from communities of color.

“Oftentimes, I think a lot of groups that do digital work predominantly focus on either young people or individual communities of color,” she said. “We’re really focused on the digital piece, and then targeting people of color to figure out what works for our different communities.”

But it won’t all be ads. Musapatike expects digital advertising to be half of the fledgling group’s budget in its first year, but also emphasizes the need for digital training and education for other voter outreach programs, particularly smaller ones at the state level and other organizations with more traditional in-person operations that lack the resources for deep digital expertise.

The final piece is advertising tech that the organization developed to guide new voters through getting registered and creating a plan to vote, keeping track of them along the way so they can be re-targeted if they don’t complete the process.

Around the time she was leaving Facebook, Musapatike started thinking about how ad operations targeting first-time voters were stuck repeating the same patterns.

“We saw the same type of assumptions about what moved people, what inspired people, what got people to register being repeated,” Musapatike said. “I rarely had the opportunity to see really different and experimental thought coming to campaigns. And I wanted to be able to run the campaigns that I dreamed about in my head.”

One example is the belief that ads seeking to register new voters should look kind of dry and official, like they might have come from the government itself.

Her teams ran tests of “official-looking” ads against what she calls “culturally relevant” ads that looked like organic content anyone might run into on social media, with a careful eye to be sure the people featured in the more modern ads looked and spoke like the communities being targeted. They found that the official-looking ads indeed resonated more with older voters, but younger people of color were much more likely to register to vote when targeted with the culturally relevant ads.

“And so that said to us we need to do a lot more digging into what works for who, and not necessarily say that same tactic works for everyone, because we just don’t know if that’s true or not,” Musapatike said.

Democrats could wait patiently for for shifting demographics to move the country left — or they could get experimental in order to tap into a powerful well of potential votes sitting out in the open. Pockets of unregistered voters are particularly concentrated in the South, and the Voter Formation Project names Texas and Virginia as two states of particular interest.

“These are places where we have failed in elections that are occurring either at the municipal or the state level,” Musapatike said, pointing out that while the South appears to skew heavily conservative, it’s also the region most afflicted by efforts to disenfranchise voters.

“For that we are running programs in states where there are disproportionately fewer people of color voting compared to their older, whiter counterparts,” Musapatike said. “Because once those people have access to voting, it could change the outcomes.”

Asked if she has any qualms about pumping advertising dollars into a social media platforms that are known to amplify voter suppression efforts and other strains of political misinformation, Musapatike was crystal clear. “I just don’t believe in bringing a knife to a gunfight,” she said.

In the 2020 presidential race, Democrats prevailed by around 12,000 votes in Georgia. For state and local elections, even small bumps in the voting population can have a huge impact. To that end, from day one, the Voter Formation Project is setting out with a measurable goal: to register and mobilize half a million voters before the 2022 midterm elections.

“When there are a significant amount of people who don’t have access to the ballot box, [elections] are no longer a fair contest of ideas,” Musapatike said. “It becomes a game of suppression, which is not what the United States is about.”

Writing helper Copy.ai raises $2.9M in a round led by Craft Ventures

Copy.ai, a startup building AI-powered copywriting tools for business customers, announced a $2.9 million round this morning. The investment was led by Craft Ventures. Other investors took part in the deal, including smaller checks from Li Jin’s newly-formed Atelier Ventures, and Sequoia.

The startup is notable for a few reasons. First for its model of building in public. I initially heard of the company through its monthly updates that it posts on Twitter. Thanks to that, I can tell you that Copy.ai generated monthly recurring revenue (MRR) of $53,600. That figure, up 46% from January, works out to annual recurring revenue (ARR) of $643,200.

Copy.ai also shares usage numbers, and, humorously, the number of Twitter followers that its founder Paul Yacoubian picked up in the last month.

The startup is also worth watching because it is part of a growing cohort of companies building atop GPT-3, what its progenitor the OpenAI project describes as an “autoregressive language model with 175 billion parameters.” More generally, it’s a piece of AI that can generate words.

Some investors are rather bullish on startups using the technology. Recently on TechCrunch, for example, Madrona’s Matt McIlwain wrote that “the introduction of GPT-3 in 2020 was a tipping point for artificial intelligence” that will lead to “the launch of a thousand new startups and applications.”

So far that’s holding up. Not only has Copy.ai managed to find early in-market traction, TechCrunch has covered a number of other startups busy leveraging GPT-3, including OthersideAi which raised $2.6 million back in November of 2020, and an “AI Dungeon-maker” called Latitude that also employs GPT-3 and raised $3.3 million this February.

But enough about its cohort. Let’s get into how Copy.ai got built.

Origins

Before founding Copy.ai, Yacoubian was an investor and, it seems, a tinkerer. He played with GPT-3 predecessor GPT-2 when it came out, telling TechCrunch in an interview that he discovered that the tool generated lots of “nonsense,” with the occasional “flash of brilliance.” GPT-3 proved even better in his view, providing something akin to a “50x” improvement on the generation that came before it.

Leaning on Twitter as a distribution method — Copy.ai uses Twitter as distribution channel, hence its reporting on social media metrics — Yacoubian and his co-founder Chris Lu launched a few different draft-projects using GPT-3. Simplify.so did text condensing, a slackbot was built but never made it to the outside world, and taglines.ai was put together to help companies come up with slogans.

That last one found early traction, generating around 700 sign-ups in two days. That was enough of a user base, the co-founders decided, to begin monetizing their tool. Then they decided that the initial could be extended to other writing use cases, helping people with myriad distinct writing projects. Copy.ai was formed out of that concept.

The product can now generate text for blogs and products and headlines and the like, based on user-provided word inputs.

What’s odd and nearly antithetical to your humble servant as a writer is that Copy.ai doesn’t want to save you word count, per se. Instead, it generates a number of possible text results that the customer then chooses from. Recall the flashes of brilliance that Yacoubian said GPT-2 could generate? GPT-3 is even better, giving users of Copy.ai even better possible text formulations for their needs. And then the human-in-the-loop plays the editor role, choosing which they want the most and, I presume, tweaking from there.

When it was released back in October of 2020, Copy.ai snagged 2,000 sign-ups in its first two days. Then investors started reaching out.

Quitting their day jobs, Copy.ai became a full-time affair. The unorthodox startup also put together an unorthodox round, raising from what Yacoubian described as “as many people as [they] could.” That wound up being 80 people, give or take.

The round was raised as a capped SAFE, the Y Combinator-favored investing instrument that allows startups to accrete capital from external sources without a formal pricing; instead, SAFEs are often “capped” at a maximum valuation. Copy.ai raised its cap as its fundraising process trundled along.

David Sacks, founder of Craft Ventures, told TechCrunch that he thinks that “natural language generation powered by AI is going to change the way that marketing teams write copy,” adding that amongst startups it is “rare to see such strong bottom-up adoption in so short a time.”

I am honestly a bit excited to see what Copy.ai can do, not because I will use its product — it’s not precisely in my wheelhouse — but because I am rather excited about GPT-3 as a technology. And the startup is an in-market experiment regarding AI and writing. Two things I care quite a lot about.

New Relic expands its AIOps services

In recent years, the publicly traded observability service New Relic started adding more machine learning-based tools to its platform for AI-assisted incident response when things don’t quite go as planned. Today, it is expanding this feature set with the launch of a number of new capabilities for what it calls its “New Relic Applied Intelligence Service.”

This expansion includes an anomaly detection service that is even available for free users, the ability to group alerts from multiple tools when the models think it’s a single issue that is triggering all of these alerts and new ML-based root cause analysis to help eliminate some of the guesswork when problems occur. Also new (and in public beta) is New Relic’s ability to detect patterns and outliers in log data that is stored in the company’s data platform.

The main idea here, New Relic’s director of product marketing Michael Olson told me, is to make it easier for companies of all sizes to reap the benefits of AI-enhanced ops.

Image Credits: New Relic

“It’s been about a year since we introduced our first set of AIops capabilities with New Relic Applied Intelligence to the market,” he said. “During that time, we’ve seen significant growth in adoption of AIops capabilities through New Relic. But one of the things that we’ve heard from organizations that have yet to foray into adopting AIops capabilities as part of their incident response practice is that they often find that things like steep learning curves and long implementation and training times — and sometimes lack of confidence, or knowledge of AI and machine learning — often stand in the way.”

The new platform should be able to detect emerging problems in real time — without the team having to pre-configure alerts. And when it does so, it’ll smartly group all of the alerts from New Relic and other tools together to cut down on the alert noise and let engineers focus on the incident.

“Instead of an alert storm when a problem occurs across multiple tools, engineers get one actionable issue with alerts automatically grouped based on things like time and frequency, based on the context that they can read in the alert messages. And then now with this launch, we’re also able to look at relationship data across your systems to intelligently group and correlate alerts,” Olson explained.

Image Credits: New Relic

Maybe the highlight for the ops teams that will use these new features, though, is New Relic’s ability to pinpoint the probable root cause of a problem. As Guy Fighel, the general manager of applied intelligence and vice president of product engineering at New Relic, told me, the idea here is not to replace humans but to augment teams.

“We provide a non-black-box experience for teams to craft the decisions and correlation and logic based on their own knowledge and infuse the system with their own knowledge,” Fighel noted. “So you can get very specific based on your environment and needs. And so because of that and because we see a lot of data coming from different tools — all going into New Relic One as the data platform — our probable root cause is very accurate. Having said that, it is still a probable root cause. So although we are opinionated about it, we will never tell you, ‘hey, go fix that, because we’re 100% sure that’s the case.’ You’re the human, you’re in control.”

The AI system also asks users for feedback, so that the model gets refined with every new incident, too.

Fighel tells me that New Relic’s tools rely on a variety of statistical analysis methods and machine learning models. Some of those are unique to individual users while others are used across the company’s user base. He also stressed that all of the engineers who worked on this project have a background in site reliability engineering — so they are intimately familiar with the problems in this space.

With today’s launch, New Relic is also adding a new integration with PagerDuty and other incident management tools so that the state of a given issue can be synchronized bi-directionally between them.

“We want to meet our customers where they are and really be data source agnostic and enable customers to pull in data from any source, where we can then enrich that data, reduce noise and ultimately help our customers solve problems faster,” said Olson.

OctoML raises $28M Series B for its machine learning acceleration platform

OctoML, a Seattle-based startup that offers a machine learning acceleration platform build on top of the open-source Apache TVM compiler framework project, today announced that it has raised a $28 million Series B funding round led by Addition Captial. Previous investors Madrona Venture Group and Amplify Partners also participated in this round, which brings the company’s total funding to $47 million. The company last raised in April 2020, when it announced its $15 million Series A round led by Amplify

The promise of OctoML is that developers can bring their models to its platform and the service will automatically optimize that model’s performance for any given cloud or edge device. The founding team created the TVM project, which

As Brazil-born OctoML co-founder and CEO Luis Ceze told me, since raising its Series A round, the company started onboarding some early adopters to its ‘Octomizer’ SaaS platform.

Image Credits: OctoML

“It’s still in early access, but we are we have close to 1,000 early access sign-ups on the waitlist,” Ceze said. “That was a pretty strong signal for us to end up taking this [funding]. The Series B was pre-emptive. We were planning on starting to raise money right about now. We had barely started spending our Series A money — we still had a lot of that left. But since we saw this growth and we had more paying customers than we anticipated, there were a lot of signals like, ‘hey, now we can accelerate the go-to-market machinery, build a customer success team and continue expanding the engineering team to build new features.”

Ceze tells me that the team also saw strong growth signals in the overall community around the TVM project (with about 1,000 people attending its virtual conference last year). As for its customer base (and companies on its waitlist), Ceze says it represents a wide range of verticals that range from defense contractors to financial services and life science companies, automotive firms and startups in a variety of fields.

Recently, OctoML also launched support for the Apple M1 chip — and saw very good performance from that.

The company has also formed partnerships with industry heavyweights like Microsoft (which is also a customer), Qualcomm, AMD and Sony to build out the open-source components and optimize its service for an even wider range of models (and larger ones, too).

On the engineering side, Ceze tells me that the team is looking at not just optimizing and tuning models but also the training process. Training ML models can quickly become costly and any service that can speed up that process leads to direct savings for its users — which in turn makes OctoML an easier sell. The plan here, Ceze tells me, is to offer an end-to-end solution where people can optimize their ML training and the resulting models and then push their models out to their preferred platform. Right now, its users still have to take the artifact that the Octomizer creates and deploy that themselves, but deployment support is on OctoML’s roadmap.

“When we first met Luis and the OctoML team, we knew they were poised to transform the way ML teams deploy their machine learning models,” said Lee Fixel, founder of Addition. “They have the vision, the talent and the technology to drive ML transformation across every major enterprise. They launched Octomizer six months ago and it’s already becoming the go-to solution developers and data scientists use to maximize ML model performance. We look forward to supporting the company’s continued growth.”

Unagi expands e-scooter subscriptions with $10.5M in new funding

Unagi, the startup behind the portable, design-centric electric scooters, is launching its subscription service to six more U.S. cities in an expansion fueled by $10.5 million in funding.

The startup, launched in late 2018 by former Beats Music CEO David Hyman and Mog co-founder, said Wednesday it is bringing its subscription service to Austin, Miami, Nashville, Phoenix, San Francisco and Seattle. Unagi will also be expanding its service in New York and L.A. metropolitan regions, including all five NYC boroughs, Long Island, Westchester and Northern New Jersey, as well as the Westside, Southeast L.A., the San Fernando Valley and Orange County. 

All together, these areas represent a market of about 30 million potential consumers. The Series A funding round is led by the Ecosystem Integrity Fund with participation from Menlo Ventures, Broadway Angels and Gaingels, among others. 

The expansion comes just six months after the commercial scooter company and piloted its “All-Access” subscription service in New York City and Los Angeles.

Unagi might not be the only scooter company to ever offer a subscription service. It is quickly becoming the best known and the one with the biggest reach in the United States. Bird launched a similar offering in 2019, but has gone quiet about it.

Dubbed by TechCrunch as the “iPhone of scooters” a couple of years ago, Unagi is offering its Model One electric scooter with a dual motor for $49 per month. The aim is to make the scooters accessible to a wider populace that might not want to shell out the $990 to own one outright. Sales of the sleek, sturdy and incredibly lightweight scooters have skewed heavily towards men over 35 years of age, according to Hyman. Unagi’s subscription service, on the other hand, caters more towards the Millennial yuppie who likes nice things but doesn’t like commitment. 

“Our market is purely urban, and our internal corporate mantra is: If you can’t carry our scooter up a three-story walk up, then it’s not something we want to do,” Hyman told TechCrunch. “I think there’s a generation of consumers that prefer access over ownership and don’t want the responsibility and the maintenance concerns.”

This is the same generation that grew up on kick scooters and thus intuitively know how to ride the scooters they’re seeing on the street, which partially explains some of the mighty success e-scooters have seen in recent years, said Hyman.

The global electric scooter market is expected to grow around 8% per year over the next decade, reaching $42 billion by 2030. Based on research conducted by Unagi and Berkeley Haas School of Business, Hyman predicts sharing will account for a third of the total e-scooter market, with ownership and subscription taking up the remainder. He said the subscription model is more attractive than the shared model because it doesn’t entail hunting for an available scooter, or wondering if the last rider coughed Rona germs all over it once you do find it. 

Unagi’s pitch is to create a hassle-free experience with upfront pricing and the ability to cancel a subscription anytime. The monthly fee covers the cost of maintenance and insurance for lost, stolen or damaged scooters. There are some stipulations though. Customers are locked into a three-month minimum and have to pay a $50 set up fee. 

Hyman said he thinks it’ll take some time for the subscription model to ramp up, but once it does, it will be Unagi’s primary revenue driver. From 2019 to 2020, Unagi grew 450% with demand for subscription scooters in the pilot cities going “off the charts,” according to Hyman, but he declined to provide numbers for scaling those charts. 

“I actually think the pandemic only hurt us because one of the primary use cases for our product is commuting,” said Hyman in response to a query about an eventual plateau of e-scooter craze if a vaccinated populace gets back to its regular commuting styles. 

“In a city, the vast majority of people’s rides are under three miles, and having a portable electric scooter just kills everything,” he said. “It’s so much easier to carry around and you don’t have to worry about locking it up outside, don’t have to worry about theft or carrying it up to your apartment or on the subways.”

The scooters weigh about 26 pounds and can balance on either wheel when folded. On a single charge, they can take you eight to 15 miles, depending on your weight and whether you’re cruising on one motor or blasting past the clunky ride-share scooters with both motors. 

The subscription model here works well alongside e-scooter sales because it allows for scooters to be repurposed. Subscribers aren’t guaranteed new scooters. They’re more likely to get one that’s certified pre-owned. And because Unagi is committed to building with high-end materials, the company says regular maintenance keeps scooters alive for an expected three to five years. 

Hyman, who has a track record of creating subscription business models, like the MOG music subscription that eventually turned into Apple Music, has personal reasons for offering Hardware as a Service in the form of electric scooters. He lived in Amsterdam for three years, where biking is far more commonplace than driving. 

“Considering how many commutes are under three miles, the fact that there are so many cars in cities is ridiculous,” said Hyman. “We are hell-bent on getting cars out of cities.”

Swell Energy’s new deal in New York shows how the company plans to spend the $450 million it’s raising

Back in December, Swell Energy said it would be raising $450 million to support the development of distributed power projects in three states. Now, with the announcement of a deal between the venture-backed startup and New York City’s utility, ConEd, industry watchers can get a glimpse of what those projects may look like.

The Los Angeles-based company has a new residential solar plus energy storage program for homeowners in Queens that’s going to be rolled out in partnership with ConEd.

It’s a project that will create solar-powered home batteries for eligible ConEd customers.

New York is actually targeting the rollout of 3 gigawatts of installed energy storage capacity by 2030 with a goal of moving the entire state’s electricity grid to zero emissions by 2040.

With the ConEd project, the city is hoping to create backup power for customers in Queens that they can tap independently of the energy grid’s own resources, which should free up power for customers that don’t have the energy storage tech.

Homeowners that participate in the project may qualify for incentives that lower the cost of the systems, which are initially being offered to residents of Forest Park, Glendale, Hunters Point, Long Island City, Maspeth, Middle Village, Ridgewood, Sunnyside, and parts of adjacent neighborhoods in Queens.

The New York virtual power plant differs from other initiatives from Swell in that it provides available capacity to specific distribution circuits on the grid to reduce customer demand on circuits during network overload periods, according to a Swell spokesperson.

With the virtual power plant, ConEd won’t need to build out new transmission and distribution infrastructure, but can still ensure network reliability. It’s what’s called a “non-wires solution” to the demand problem, Swell’s spokesperson said.

By contrast, the company’s Hawaii projects provide system-level capacity and frequency regulation and the California program with Southern California Edison, provide demand-response capacity for baseload energy management and overall load growth in the area where they’re operating.

Pinduoduo steals Alibaba’s crown with 788M annual active users

For the first time, Pinduoduo has surpassed Alibaba in annual active users, marking the Chinese e-commerce upstart’s meteoric rise over the course of five years.

The milestone also indicates Pinduoduo has overcome the early stereotype that it was an app for users in China’s less developed, low-tier cities. Pinduoduo made its name by removing intermediary distributors and selling cheap fruits and daily items, but it has gradually diversified its offerings to be all-encompassing, like heavily discounted iPhones.

The company went public on NASDAQ in 2018 and counts Tencent as a major shareholder and partner. It recorded 788 million annual active users in 2020, according to its Q4 earnings report that just came out. Alibaba lagged slightly behind at 779 million active users through the year.

In terms of monthly active users, though, Alibaba enjoyed a great lead at 902 million in December. Pinduoduo’s MAU of the month was 720 million.

Both companies still have room to grow as China had 989 million internet users as of 2020, according to a report from the country’s top cyberspace authority.

Alibaba, founded 21 years ago, was ahead of Pinduoduo in revenue by a wide margin, partly because of a larger transaction volume and a thriving cloud computing business. Alibaba ended the December quarter with 221 billion yuan or $33.88 billion in revenue, compared to Pinduoduo’s 26.55 billion yuan.

Farm produce remains at the core of Pinduoduo, which was founded by ex-Googler Colin Huang. Huang today stepped down as chairman of the company and will devote his time to research in the food and life sciences, which Pinduoduo believes could drive future growth of its “agriculture platform.”

Pinduoduo doesn’t just want to bring produce from farmers to urban consumers. In recent years, it has also thrown itself into agri-tech by piloting AI-powered farms and training farmers to be savvy online vendors. These strategies are in line with Beijing’s push to boost China’s rural economy, which affects the lives of hundreds of millions.

The e-commerce upstart has a big goal: selling $145 billion worth of agricultural products annually by 2025. It seems to be on track. The firm’s gross merchant volume, an e-commerce metric for transactions, from agricultural products doubled to more than 270 billion yuan or $41.5 billion in 2020. Its marketplace boasted 12 million farmers selling directly to consumers.

“Pinduoduo started with agricultural products,” says Chen Lei, current chairman and CEO at Pinduoduo, in a statement. “[W]e hope that Pinduoduo can one day become the largest grocer in the world.”

While selling grocery isn’t as lucrative as, say, electronics, it could be an effective way for user acquisition as the cost of trying out fruits sold on Pinduoduo is relatively low.

As the firm pursues its agricultural dream, it has yet to turn profitable. Pinduoduo’s net loss shrank to 1.38 billion yuan or $210.9 million in the quarter, compared with 1.75 billion yuan in the same quarter of 2019.

Cohere raises $3.1 million for its remote control solution for web apps

Existing remote desktop solutions like LogMeIn and TeamViewer can be complicated to set up and use, and can feel dated. A new startup called Cohere, now backed by $3.1 million in seed funding, aims to improve on the remote desktop and screen-sharing experience. With Cohere’s technology, businesses can help customers in seconds by taking instant control of their screen without any downloads or setup on the customer’s end.

That ease-of-use has already gained the startup over 50 paying customers for its product, including TechCrunch Disrupt 2020 winner Canix, CopyAI, Ramp and others. It also signed its first enterprise client with Podium.

Cohere’s three co-founders, Yunyu Lin, Jason Wang and Rahul Sengottuvelu, first met while attending Duke University. Lin later left to work for corporate card startup Ramp, but the others graduated during the pandemic.

The idea for Cohere actually emerged during the pandemic, during a hackathon focused on remote work. The team won the event and decided to take their project to Y Combinator for further development.

Essentially, Cohere is designed to make it easier for teams, whether small founders or large enterprises, to help solve their customers’ issues. Instead of requiring a software download or complicated install process, customers can just click a button on a website to allow remote control of their screen. This can save time, as the support person on the other end doesn’t have to ask a million questions about which screen the customer is on or what they see, or direct them where to click — they can just take over.

“It lets you see what people are seeing just like that, with no setup,” says Sengottuvelu. “You can just show them — just like you’re sitting next to them.”

Image Credits: Cohere

But what makes Cohere different is it’s not a full remote desktop solution where the person on the other end is taking over someone’s computer — the service instead only forwards the contents of the individual web page the person is currently viewing. The application developer, that is, can only view what a user is doing on their own website. They can’t switch tabs or minimize the browser to poke around in the user’s PC more broadly.

“We don’t operate on the pixel level, like a normal screen share does, where they take a picture of your screen 60 times a second and try to send it over the wire,” explains Lin.

The startup’s technology itself is based on capturing the web page’s state — a picture of the DOM, so to speak, for those who understand the terminology. It then leverages things like MutationObservers and WebSockets to make it possible to quickly see changes to the web pages in real time. Cohere also spent time to make sure it works with a range of web technologies and frameworks, including React, Iframe, Canvas, Vue, Angular and others. In time, it wants to expand support to more platforms and technologies.

“We capture the content of the page,” Lin says. “So, we are able to selectively filter out sensitive information like credit card info, passwords or Social Security numbers — any personally identifiable information,” he adds.

Image Credits: Cohere

The remote viewer also can’t take control until the user accepts, and then the user can boot them at any time with a click of an “X” button at the top of the screen.

In addition to these security controls, Cohere is SOC 2 Type 1, GDPR and CCPA compliant.

At present, Cohere works on both desktop and mobile browsers, including Chrome, Firefox, Edge and Safari. And it’s designed to be integrated with a business’s existing tools, like Zendesk, Slack, Salesforce and Intercom, with more to come.

While the product to some extent competes with older remote desktop apps, its newer Cohere Replay feature allows businesses to go back in time to view their customer sessions retroactively.

Image Credits: Cohere

Because the product is limited to web apps and is not a full remote desktop solution it tends to be used primarily for things like customer support and user onboarding. Early-stage startups have also used it as they give tours to their first customers and learn from how the customers use the product in real time.

The paid service begins at $49 per user per month and is $39 for larger teams.

Cohere first launched around seven months ago, during its Y Combinator batch.

It’s now raised $3.1 million in seed funding, led by Initialized Capital. Other investors in the round include Y Combinator, BoxGroup, Soma Capital, Shrug Capital, Chapter One and various angels like Zach Perret, Elad Gil, Naval Ravikant, Eric Wu, Prasanna Sankaranarayanan, Eric Glyman, Jack Altman, Todd Goldberg, Rahul Vohra, Karim Atiyeh, Vivek Sodera, Dan Romero, Shrav Mehta and Oscar Hong.

New York-based Cohere, currently consisting only of the three co-founders, will use the additional funds to hire in sales, engineering and product. It will also devote some capital to building out the enterprise sales process, and expand its integrations and use cases.

 

 

Vulcan Cyber raises $21M Series B for its vulnerability remediation platform

Tel Aviv-based Vulcan Cyber, a cybersecurity startup that helps businesses prioritize and fix security vulnerabilities, today announced that it has raised a $21 million Series B funding round led by Dawn Capital. Wipro Ventures and existing investors YL Ventures and Ten Eleven Ventures also participated in this round. The company says it will use the new funding to roll out new remediation solutions and launch a free risk-based vulnerability management platform under the Vulcan Free monicker.

With this new round, Vulcan Cyber’s total funding to date is now $35 million. The company says it saw 500% growth in annual recurring revenue and new customer account metrics in 2020, with each user typically having between 10 and 100 users on the platform.

Image Credits: Vulcan Cyber

The company’s emphasis has always been on not just warning its customers about potential vulnerabilities but also helping them prioritize them based on the severity of the risk and the threat to a company’s business assets. Security teams, after all, are often overwhelmed by alerts and not every vulnerability a scanner represents is a high-priority risk for a business. The promise of Vulcan Cyber’s platform is that it helps these teams figure out where to best focus their resources.

While the funding is the headline news today, Vulcan’s new free offering is also worth a closer look.

Cybersecurity pros have used open-source vulnerability scanners like Nessus for almost two decades. More recently, vulnerability management programs have used risk-based vulnerability management tools to prioritize scan results to determine specific risk to the business and focus the remediation effort. The scan and prioritize functions are fundamental, necessary elements of any mature remediation program,” Yaniv Bar-Dayan, Vulcan Cyber’s CEO and co-founder said about the new free offering. “But now the industry has a free vulnerability prioritization engine to complement the scanners. This round of funding allows us to provide the Vulcan Free service to the cybersecurity industry to help businesses achieve cyber hygiene. This move shifts the economics of our market and will push CISOs and CIOs to dedicate more budget and resources not just on simple scan and prioritize paper pushing, but on driving actual remediation outcomes. We hope this will help the industry get fix done more effectively.”

With this new free offering, Vulcan’s freemium portfolio now includes Vulcan Free, which provides some of the company’s core prioritization and vulnerability management features, and its existing free vulnerability intelligence database.

Digitail, an app vets and their customers, raises $2.5M Seed round led by byFounders

Digitail, a cloud service for veterinary surgeries and customers, has raised $2.5M in a Seed round led by byFounders and Gradient Ventures (Google’s AI fund), joined by Partech and a series of angels including as Dr. Ivan Zakharenkov (Smartflow). The startup was already backed (pre-seed round in 2019) by Fast Track Malmo. Digitail is currently used by 2,000 veterinarians in 16 countries.

Digitail says its “all-in-one” practice management system for animal hospitals and veterinary practices “helps vets simplify their workflow, drive automation, and engage with pet parents, even when they are not at the practice.”

For pet owners Digital had a Health Card for pets, a customer app that is directly connected to the PIMS and acts as a digital ID for the pets. This holds the pet’s medical history, and allows the owner to communicate with the vet through the in-app chat, book their next appointment, and store any other important information about their pet.

The founders are Sebastian Gabor (CEO and co-founder), Ruxandra Pui (CPO and co-founder). They are joined by Alexandru Gheorghita, DVM, in-house veterinarian specialist.

Gabor said in a statement: “Pet care is still being run like in the 90s. Because of the lack of a holistic vision and approach, there is no data unification and no collaboration between the key players of the industry. As a result, vets still need to rely on outdated tools while collaboration and innovation is stopped.”

Competitors include Rhapsody.vet which has raised an $8M Series A, Ezyvet, and Hippo Manager, among others. But Digitail says its all-in-one approach has an edge on the others.

According to some estimates, some 39% of pet owners in the United States are millennials. Digitail is thus finding business among veterinarians surfing a new generation of customers who expect to be able to make bookings and arrangements with their vet via an app. Just as with apps aimed at doctor’s surgeries, Digitail’s platform handles that incoming customer data and also allows the surgery to run. The pet care industry is predicted to reach a value of $200 billion by 2025.