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December 10, 2018
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Krisp reduces noise on calls using machine learning, and it’s coming to Windows soon

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If your luck is anything like mine, as soon as you jump on an important call, someone decides it’s a great time to blow some leaves off the sidewalk outside your window. 2Hz’s Krisp is a new desktop app that uses machine learning to subtract background noise like that, or crowds, or even crying kids — while keeping your voice intact. It’s already out for Macs and it’s coming to Windows soon.

I met the creators of Krisp, including 2Hz co-founder Davit Baghdasaryan, earlier this year at UC Berkeley’s Skydeck accelerator, where they demonstrated their then-prototype tech.

The tech involved is complex, but the idea is simple: If you create a machine learning system that understand what the human voice sounds like, on average, then it can listen to an audio signal and select only that part of it, cutting out a great deal of background noise.

Baghdasaryan, formerly of Twilio, originally wanted to create something that would run on mobile networks, so T-Mobile or whoever could tout built-in noise cancellation. This platform approach proved too slow, however, so they decided to go straight to consumers.

“Traction with customers was slow, and this was a problem for a young startup,” Baghdasaryan said in an email later. However, people were loving the idea of ‘muting noise,’ so we decided to switch all our focus and build a user-facing product.”

That was around the time I talked with them in person, incidentally, and just six months later they had released on Mac.

It’s simple: you run the app, and it modifies both the outgoing and incoming audio signals, with the normal noisy signal going in one end and a clean, voice-focused one coming out the other. Everything happens on-device and with very short latency (around 15 milliseconds), so there’s no cloud involved and nothing is ever sent to any server or even stored locally. The team is working on having the software adapt and learn on the fly, but it’s not implemented yet.

Another benefit of this approach is it doesn’t need any special tweaking to work with, say, Skype instead of Webex. Because it works at the level of the OS’s sound processing, whatever app you use just hears the Krisp-modified signal as if it were clean out of your mic.

They launched on Mac because they felt the early-adopter type was more likely to be on Apple’s platform, and the bet seems to have paid off. But a Windows version is coming soon — the exact date isn’t set, but expect it either late this month or early January. (We’ll let you know when it’s live.)

It should be more or less identical to the Mac version, but there will be a special gaming-focused one. Gamers, Baghdasaryan pointed out, are much more likely to have GPUs to run Krisp on, and also have a real need for clear communication (as a PUBG player I can speak to the annoyance of an open mic and clacky keys). So there will likely be a few power user features specific to gamers, but it’s not set in stone yet.

You may wonder, as I did, why they weren’t going after chip manufacturers, perhaps to include Krisp as a tech built into a phone or computer’s audio processor.

In person, they suggested that this ultimately was also too slow and restrictive. Meanwhile, they saw that there was no real competition in the software space, which is massively easier to enter.

“All current noise cancellation solutions require multiple microphones and a special form factor where the mouth must be close to one of the mics. We have no such requirement,” Baghdasaryan explained. “We can do it with single-mic or operate on an audio stream coming from the network. This makes it possible to run the software in any environment you want (edge or network) and any direction (inbound or outbound).”

If you’re curious about the technical side of things — how it was done with one mic, or at low latency, and so on — there’s a nice explanation Baghdasaryan wrote for the Nvidia blog a little while back.

Furthermore, a proliferation of AI-focused chips that Krisp can run on easily means easy entry to the mobile and embedded space. “We have already successfully ported our DNN to NVIDIA GPUs, Intel CPU/GNA, and ARM. Qualcomm is in the pipeline,” noted Baghdasaryan.

To pursue this work the company has raised a total of $2 million so far: $500K from Skydeck as well as friends and family for a pre-seed round, then a $1.5 M round led by Sierra Ventures and Shanda Group.

Expect the Windows release later this winter, and if you’re already a user, expect a few new features to come your way in the same time scale. You can download Krisp for free here.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Payment service Toss becomes Korea’s newest unicorn after raising $80M

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South Korea has got its third unicorn startup after Viva Republica, the company beyond popular payment app Toss, announced it has raised an $80 million round at a valuation of $1.2 billion.

This new round is led by U.S. firms Kleiner Perkins and Ribbit Capital, both of which cut their first checks for Korea with this deal. Others participating include existing investors Altos Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, Goodwater Capital, KTB Network, Novel, PayPal and Qualcomm Ventures. The deal comes just six months after Viva Republica raised $40 million to accelerate growth, and it takes the company to nearly $200 million raised from investors to date.

Toss was started in 2013 by former dentist SG Lee who grew frustrated by the cumbersome way online payments worked in Korea. Despite the fact that the country has one of the highest smartphone penetrations rates in the world and is a top user of credit cards, the process required more than a dozen steps and came with limits.

“Before Toss, users required five passwords and around 37 clicks to transfer $10. With Toss users need just one password and three steps to transfer up to KRW 500,000 ($430),” Lee said in a past statement.

Working with traditional finance

Today, Viva Republica claims to have 10 million registered users for Toss — that’s 20 percent of Korea’s 50 million population — while it says that it is “on track” to reach a $18 billion run-rate for transactions in 2018.

The app began as Venmo -style payments, but in recent years it has added more advanced features focused around financial products. Toss users can now access and manage credit, loans, insurance, investment and more from 25 financial service providers, including banks.

Fintech startups are ‘rip it out and start again’ in the West –such as Europe’s challenger banks — but, in Asia, the approach is more collaborative and assistive. A numbe of startups have found a sweet spot in between banks and consumers, helping to match the two selectively and intelligently. In Toss’s case, essentially it acts as a funnel to help traditional banks find and vet customers for services. Thus, Toss is graduating from a peer-to-peer payment service into a banking gateway.

“Korea is a top 10 global economy, but no there’s no Mint or Credit Karma to help people save and spend money smartly,” Lee told TechCrunch in an interview. “We saw the same deep problems we need to solve [as the U.S.] so we’re just digging in.”

“We want to help financial institutions to build on top of Toss… we’re kind of building an Amazon for the financial services industry,” he added. “We try to aggregate all those activities, covering saving accounts, loan products, insurance etc.”

Former dentist SG Lee started Toss in 2013.

Lee said the plan for the new money is to go deeper in Korea by advancing the tech beyond Toss, adding more users and — on the supply side — partnering with more companies to offer financial products.

There’s plenty of competition. Startups like PeopleFund focus squarely on financial products, while Kakao, Korea’s largest messaging platform, has a dedicated fintech division — KakaoPay — which rivals Toss on both payment and financial services. It also counts the mighty Alibaba in its corner courtesy of a $200 million investment from its Ant Financial affiliate.

Alibaba and Tencent tend to move in pairs as opposites, with one naturally gravitating to the rivals of the other’s investees as recently happened in the Philippines. It’s tricky in Korea, though. Tencent is caught in limbo since it is a long-standing Kakao backer. But might the Ant Financial deal spur Tencent into working with Toss?

Lee said his company has a “good relationship” with Tencent, including the occasional home/away visits, but there’s nothing more to it right now. That’s intriguing.

Overseas expansion plans

Also of interest is future plans for the business now that it is taking on significantly more capital from investors who, even with the most patient money out there, eventually need a return on their investment.

Lee is adamant that he won’t sell, despite Viva Republica increasingly looking like an ideal entry point for a payment or finance company that has missed the Korean market and wants in now.

He said that there are plans to do an IPO “at some point,” but a more immediate focus is the opportunity to expand overseas.

When Toss raised a PayPal-led $48 million Series C 18 months ago, Lee told TechCrunch that he was beginning to cast his eyes on opportunities in Southeast Asia, the region of over 650 million consumers, and that’s likely to see definitive action next year. The Viva Republica CEO said that Vietnam could be a first overseas launchpad for Toss.

“We’re thinking seriously about going beyond Korea because sooner or later we will hire saturation point,” Lee said. “We think Vietnam is quite promising. We’ve talked to potential partners and are currently articulating ideas and strategy materialized next year.

“We already have a very successful playbook, we know how to scale among users,” Lee added.

While the plan is still being put together, Lee suggested that Viva Republica would take its time expanding across Southeast Asia, where six distinct countries account for the majority of the region’s population. So, rather than rapidly expanding Toss across those markets, he indicated that a more deliberate, country-by-country launch could be the strategy with Vietnam kicking things off in 2019.

The Toss team at HQ in Seoul, Korea

Korea rising

Toss’s entry into the unicorn club — a vaunted collection of private tech companies valued at $1 billion or more — comes weeks after Coupang, Korea’s top e-commerce company, raised $2 billion at a valuation of $9 billion.

While that Coupang round came from the SoftBank Vision Fund — a source of capital that is threatening to become tainted given its links to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — it does represent the first time that a Korea-based company has joined the $100 billion mega-fund’s portfolio.

Some milestones can be dismissed as frivolous, but these two coming so close together are a signal of increased awareness of the potential of Korea as a startup destination by investors outside of the country.

While Lee admitted that the unicorn valuation “doesn’t change a lot” in daily terms for his business, he did admit that he has seen the landscape shift for Korea’s startup ecosystem — which has only two other privately-held unicorns: Coupang and Yello Mobile.

“More and more global VCs are aware that South Korea is a really good opportunity to do a startup. It is getting easier for our fellow entrepreneurs to pitch and get access to global funds,” he said, adding that Korea’s top 25 cities have a cumulative population (25 million) that matches America’s top 25.

Despite that potential, Korea has tended to focus on its ‘chaebol’ giants like Samsung — which accounts for a double-digital percentage of the national economy — LG, Hyundai and SK. That means a lot of potential startup talent, both founders and employees, is locked up in secure corporate jobs. Throw in the conservative tradition of family expectations, which can make it hard for children to justify leaving the safety of a big company, and it is perhaps no wonder that Korea has relatively fewer startups compared to other economies of comparable size.

But that is changing.

Coupang has been one of the highest profile examples to follow, alongside the (now public) Kakao business. But with Viva Republica, Toss and a charismatic dentist-turned-founder, another startup story is being written and that could just inspire a future generation of entrepreneurs to rise up and be counted in South Korea.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Contentful raises $33.5M for its headless CMS platform

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Contentful, a Berlin- and San Francisco-based startup that provides content management infrastructure for companies like Spotify, Nike, Lyft and others, today announced that it has raised a $33.5 million Series D funding round led by Sapphire Ventures, with participation from OMERS Ventures and Salesforce Ventures, as well as existing investors General Catalyst, Benchmark, Balderton Capital and Hercules. In total, the company has now raised $78.3 million.

It’s only been less than a year since the company raised its Series C round and as Contentful co-founder and CEO Sascha Konietzke told me, the company didn’t really need to raise right now. “We had just raised our last round about a year ago. We still had plenty of cash in our bank account and we didn’t need to raise as of now,” said Konietzke. “But we saw a lot of economic uncertainty, so we thought it might be a good moment in time to recharge. And at the same time, we already had some interesting conversations ongoing with Sapphire [formeraly SAP Ventures] and Salesforce. So we saw the opportunity to add more funding and also start getting into a tight relationship with both of these players.”

The original plan for Contentful was to focus almost explicitly on mobile. As it turns out, though, the company’s customers also wanted to use the service to handle its web-based applications and these days, Contentful happily supports both. “What we’re seeing is that everything is becoming an application,” he told me. “We started with native mobile application, but even the websites nowadays are often an application.”

In its early days, Contentful also focuses only on developers. Now, however, that’s changing and having these connections to large enterprise players like SAP and Salesforce surely isn’t going to hurt the company as it looks to bring on larger enterprise accounts.

Currently, the company’s focus is very much on Europe and North America, which account for about 80% of its customers. For now, Contentful plans to continue to focus on these regions, though it obviously supports customers anywhere in the world.

Contentful only exists as a hosted platform. As of now, the company doesn’t have any plans for offering a self-hosted version, though Konietzke noted that he does occasionally get requests for this.

What the company is planning to do in the near future, though, is to enable more integrations with existing enterprise tools. “Customers are asking for deeper integrations into their enterprise stack,” Konietzke said. “And that’s what we’re beginning to focus on and where we’re building a lot of capabilities around that.” In addition, support for GraphQL and an expanded rich text editing experience is coming up. The company also recently launched a new editing experience.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Rideshare advertising startup Firefly launches with $21.5M in funding

in Advertising Tech/Delhi/firefly/funding/India/Politics/Startups by

Firefly, a startup that allows rideshare drivers to make money through digital advertising, is officially launching today. It’s also announced that it has raised $21.5 million in seed funding.

The idea of sticking advertising on a cab isn’t new, but Firefly offers drivers what it calls a “digital smart screen,” allowing advertisers to run targeted, geofenced campaigns. The company has apparently run more than 50 ad campaigns already, during a beta testing period in San Francisco and Los Angeles, with hundreds of cars on the road.

“Being the first at building out the IP is going to be the main differentiator,” said co-founder and CEO Kaan Gunay. “Over half our team are engineers, and we have been extremely focused on developing core IP to make sure it’s scalable.”

In addition, Gunay said that thanks to the combination of Firefly’s targeting capabilities with its “strict” advertising policies (it won’t accept ads for strip clubs, tobacco and cannabis companies, among others), “We’re working with a lot of advertisers who might not even have advertised outdoors before. We believe we are expanding the market.”

One of the main goals is to allow drivers for Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services to make more money. In fact, Firefly says the average driver in its network makes an additional $300 per month.

Gunay explained that if the driver meets a certain threshold for hours on the road, the company will pay them a flat fee to carry its advertising — but he also said the company is exploring different ways to “maximize the revenue that we share with the drivers and give the maximum benefit to the drivers.”

It’s an issue on regulators’ minds as well, with New York recently approving new rules around driver compensation.

Earlier this year, Uber partnered with a startup called Cargo to allow drivers to make additional income by selling goods like gum, snacks and phone chargers. Firefly doesn’t have an official relationship with the ride-hailing companies, but Gunay said, “In our conversations with these large companies … they’ve said the drivers are free to do what they want to do. This is why it’s a win for everyone.”

Gunay also said these displays will become the foundation for a “smart city data network.” In other words, they will collect data that Firefly plans to share with local governments and nonprofit groups. For example, he said the company has already been sharing air quality data with the Coalition for Clean Air, and it’s also looking to include temperature sensors and accelerometers.

Apparently Gunay doesn’t plan to make money from this side of the business. He told me, “We want to be able to add value to how cities operate … We’re not planning to monetize that.”

Getting back to the funding, $21.5 million is a huge seed round, but Gunay said the company’s success thus far was able to”justify a larger raise and a higher valuation.” The round was led by NfX, Pelion Venture Partners, Decent Capital (founded by Tencent’s Jason Zeng) and Jeffrey Housenbold of SoftBank Vision Fund (yes, that SoftBank Vision Fund).

News Source = techcrunch.com

Japan’s Sansan raises $26.5M to help Southeast Asia get more from business cards

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The humble business card is a target for disruption in Southeast Asia after Japanese contacts management startup Sansan raised JPY 3 billion ($26.5 million) to expand its business into the region.

Founded way back in 2007, Sansan helps bring business intelligence to companies through a system that helps build connections between users and both internal employees and external contacts using, among other things, business cards.

“Our purpose is to use tech to enhance the utility and value of business cards,” Sansan co-founder and CEO Chikahiro Terada told TechCrunch in an interview. “They are customary for business in most parts of the world, esJapanlly japan, but there’s no easy way to digitize them.”

This new round will bring that focus to Southeast Asia, where Sansan already has an office in Singapore. The capital — which is a Series E round — was provided Japan Post Capital, T. Rowe Price, SBI Investment and DCM Ventures, and it takes Sansan to around $100 million raised to date.

Sansan claims that 7,000 corporations use its core product — also called Sansan — which helps build and organize networks. At its core, users scan another person’s business card which is then digitized, uploaded to the cloud and made part of their database. The Sansan system then allows interactions, such as meetings, calls, notes and more to be added to the entry to help track interactions. The resources are held within companies, rather than employees themselves, which means strategies around sales, marketing and more can be kept organized and centralized.

In addition, Sansan operates a LinkedIn -like service called Eight which is available for free and is linked to the core product, allowing users to update their job, company, etc without having to provide a new business card. Eight has some two million users today, according to Sansan.

Unlike LinkedIn, however, which is commonly used for finding jobs, Terada suggested that Eight and Sansan help maintain networks and increase communication and engagement.

Sansan CEO Chikahiro Terada started the business in 2006 alongside fellow co-founders Kei Tomioka, Joraku Satoru, Kenji Shiomi and Motohisa Tsunokawa

Terada — who previously worked for Oracle in Thailand — said that he sees much potential for the services in Southeast Asia, where the region’s digital economy is expected to triple by 2025, albeit with a greater focus on SMEs rather than Japan-style mega corporations.

Already, Sansan has picked up some 100 or so clients in the region — mostly by targeting Japanese corporations in Singapore — while Eight has reached 100,000 registered users across Southeast Asia since a soft launch in October 2017.

“We want to expand to globally and Singapore is our first step,” said Terada, indicating that there are future plans to look at business in India, Europe and potentially the U.S. further down the line. Elsewhere, the firm is hiring data scientists as it aims to bring additional smarts to its services.

The proposition is interesting — personally speaking I have multiple stacks of business cards sitting idle — but it remains to be seen how open businesses in Southeast Asia will be to paying for the service, even with clear benefits. Saas as a model is still establishing its roots among SMEs while there are already popular options. LinkedIn is, of course, the de facto professional social network while Facebook, which has been ramping up its efforts in that space lately, is also a popular option.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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