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June 16, 2019
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Algorithmia raises $25M Series B for its AI automation platform

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Algorithmia, a Seattle-based startup that offers a cloud-agnostic AI automation platform for enterprises, today announced a $25 million Series B funding round led by Norwest Partners. Madrona, Gradient Ventures, Work-Bench, Osage University Partners and Rakuten Ventures also participated in this round.

While the company started out five years ago as a marketplace for algorithms, it now mostly focuses on machine learning and helping enterprises take their models into production.

“It’s actually really hard to productionize machine learning models,” Algorithmia CEO Diego Oppenheimer told me. “It’s hard to help data scientists to not deal with data infrastructure but really being able to build out their machine learning and AI muscle.”

To help them, Algorithmia essentially built out a machine learning DevOps platform that allows data scientists to train their models on the platform and with the framework of their choice, bring it to Algorithmia — a platform that has already been blessed by their IT departments — and take it into production.

“Every Fortune 500 CIO has an AI initiative but they are bogged down by the difficulty of managing and deploying ML models,” said Rama Sekhar, a partner at Norwest Venture Partners, who has now joined the company’s board. “Algorithmia is the clear leader in building the tools to manage the complete machine learning lifecycle and helping customers unlock value from their R&D investments.”

With the new funding, the company will double down on this focus by investing in product development to solve these issues, but also by building out its team, with a plan to double its headcount over the next year. A year from now, Oppenheimer told me, he hopes that Algorithmia will be a household name for data scientists and, maybe more importantly, their platform of choice for putting their models into production.

“How does Algorithmia succeed? Algorithmia succeeds when our customers are able to deploy AI and ML applications,” Oppenheimer said. “And although there is a ton of excitement around doing this, the fact is that it’s really difficult for companies to do so.”

The company previously raised a $10.5 million Series A round led by Google’s AI fund. It’s customers now include the United Nations, a number of U.S. intelligence agencies and Fortune 500 companies. In total, over 90,000 engineers and data scientists are now on the platform.

Market map: the 200+ innovative startups transforming affordable housing

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In this section of my exploration into innovation in inclusive housing, I am digging into the 200+ companies impacting the key phases of developing and managing housing.

Innovations have reduced costs in the most expensive phases of the housing development and management process. I explore innovations in each of these phases, including construction, land, regulatory, financing, and operational costs.

Reducing Construction Costs

This is one of the top three challenges developers face, exacerbated by rising building material costs and labor shortages.

Kargo is disrupting logistics in Myanmar, one of the world’s most challenging countries

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Founders in Seattle recently bemoaned a lack of capital and support when compared to Silicon Valley — what about those building startups in more remote markets?

Kargo, a company that takes the spirit of Uber and brings it to the disorganized world of trucking, has raised a SG$800,000 (US$580,000) round of funding, giving TechCrunch an excuse to delve into the world of startup development in Myanmar, one of the world’s most curious countries.

Ostracized from the world until its first free general election in 2015, Myanmar — which was previously known as Burma — has seen the world’s most radical digitization. Ruled by the military from 1962 until 2011, the price of a SIM card in the country was $250 as recently as 2013 (a big jump on $3,000-odd in the early 2000s) but that all change around the elections in 2015 when the country opened its doors to outside investment and global companies. Telecom companies rushed in, reducing the price of a SIM card to mere dollars, in U.S. terms, and giving those who bought them gigabits of data to use each month.

That rush saw services like Facebook go from non-existent to the key digital space overnight as Myanmar’s 55 million people poured online — the U.S. social network has failed to cope with that crazy growth. Today, some 46 million people are estimated to be online in the country, with mobile the dominant platform and Facebook the top browser — yep, the social network is that big.

Myanmar is getting its first 4G rollouts and the seeds have been sown for internet businesses and startups.

Simplifying logistics

Kargo — which is not to be confused by the Indonesia company of the same name that’s backed by Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick — was started in 2016 by Alexander Wicks, an Australian expat who had previously run digital marketing businesses.

The young company initially joined Phandeeyar, a tech accelerator in major city Yangon, before dropping out due to a disagreement on terms, CEO and founder Wicks said. He told TechCrunch that he valued the organization, but decided to “fly solo” with the business.

That is a bet that appeared to pay off, so far at least. Kargo won a grant from the GSM Association Ecosystem Accelerator Fund, a unit associated with the GSMA, and it represented Myanmar at the world Seedstars Summit last year. Now, it has secured this new funding led by Singapore-based early-stage specialist Cocoon Capital.

Wicks said the round is a pre-Series A deal and he hopes that Kargo can go on to raise a Series A to fuel overseas growth within the next year or 18 months.

Alexander Wicks started Kargo in 2016

Kargo works with multinational companies, including Coke and Nestle, to help them navigate the complicated world of logistics in Myanmar. By aggregating multiple fleets through its platform, Kargo becomes a single point of contact for companies moving product, thus simplifying the process massively. In the past, they’d deal with copious numbers of middlemen, who would liaise with truck fleets to add unnecessary levels of complication and cost.

“The market is very big, its a core part of how the whole country runs,” he explained, adding that Myanmar’s freight industry is expected to triple in the coming years.

Wicks said Kargo works with some 2,000-odd drivers mostly via fleet owners, who typically operate 5-50 trucks through their business. It disintermediates the aforementioned brokers and middlemen, to help drivers and fleet owners recoup a higher portion of each order and gain access to potential new clients. A partnership with Yoma Bank will also give the startup access to an SME loan that’ll enable it to make daily payouts to drivers that need more immediate cash flow than its regularly weekly deposits.

Kargo is currently close to $200,000 in monthly order volume, with 20-30 percent growth month-to-month during 2019, Wicks shared.

It is now exploring its first steps outside of Myanmar by covering ‘logistics corridors’ into Thailand. Wicks said the company has seen a high level of requests to move overseas from existing clients, and he intends to use those relationships to begin to step into new markets tentatively, starting with Thailand.

The new funding will also go towards developing Kargo’s new — and particularly improving the web app used by drivers — as well as increased education and training for truck operators and drivers.

“It’s very much a product for Myanmar,” Wicks said in an interview. “It’s an old industry being built with a new mindset.”

Finally, hiring is a key focus for the capital, too.

Kargo currently has a team of 32, most of whom are located in Yangon, and that headcount is forecast to rise to as many as 60 this year. Business development, fleet management and operations are the core areas where the startup plans to hire, and that will include beefing up its new office in Mandalay.

Wicks — center in a cap — with the members of the Kargo team

Building a startup in Myanmar

When asked what the hardest part of operating a startup in Myanmar is, Wicks claimed that dealing with the government is just ahead of raising investment money.

“Bureaucracy… there are no stats or systems here,” he said. “We have to deal with a lot of government issues.”

Still, he said, the arrival of Uber and its regional competitor Grab — which ultimately acquired the U.S. firm’s regional business — in Myanmar in 2017 gave Kargo and other on-demand startups in the country a real foothold in working with governments by educating them on new business models.

“They made it clear what a platform is for the government,” Wicks said.

He believes that their arrival, coupled with growing internet usage and increased speed, have also helped get investors comfortable with the idea of investing in tech in Myanmar, although he insisted that they must still be “patient” over growth.

“It’s certainly a much more positive landscape for founders today,” Wicks said. “That trust has changed for investors, there are a few of us building companies across the country.”

Educating and training drivers is a major focus for Kargo following its fundraising

That’s certainly true for Cocoon Capital — which is currently raising for a $20 million fund having completed a first close last year.

Managing partner Michael Blakey told TechCrunch that Kargo is the firm’s second investment from that new fund. He’s equally bullish that Kargo is well placed to take advantage of both digital growth and the development of logistics as Myanmar continues to appeal to overseas businesses.

“Myanmar is the fastest growing economy in Southeast Asia and logistics is a key industry to support this growth,” Blakey said in a statement. “We believe the Kargo platform has the potential to disrupt the trucking industry, not only in Myanmar, but in the region.”

If ‘Myanmar 1.0’ was the establishment of credible startups, then the second chapter will be the cream of that crop venturing overseas. Kargo is one of the early contenders that is intent on making that move.

Startups Weekly: Will the Seattle tech scene ever reach its full potential?

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Greetings from Seattle, the land of Amazon, Microsoft, two of the world’s richest men and some startups.

I’m always surprised the Seattle startup ecosystem hasn’t grown to compete with the likes of Silicon Valley — or at least Boston and New York City — since the dot-com boom. Today, it’s the strongest it’s has been due to the successes of companies like the newly minted unicorn Outreach, trucking business Convoy and, of course, the dog walking startup Rover. But the city still lags behind, failing to adopt the culture of entrepreneurship that defines San Francisco.

I spent a lot of time wondering why it hasn’t reached its full potential. Is it because Microsoft and Amazon pay their employees so well they don’t have the same urge to build something from the ground up? Is it a lack of access to capital? Is the city not attracting top talent? If you have thoughts, send them my way.

“We think part of the issue is a lack of capital and a lack of help,” Rover and Pioneer Square Labs co-founder Greg Gottesman told TechCrunch earlier this year. “If we can provide a little bit of both of those things, we can really put Seattle where it deserves to be, should be and will be.”

Despite its shortcomings, there is still some action in the city I want to highlight this week. A same-day delivery business, Dolly, is on the rise. The startup told me on Thursday it had raised a $7.5 million round from Unlock Venture Partners, Maveron and Jeff Wilke, the chief executive officer of Amazon Worldwide Consumer. Maveron, if you remember, is the VC fund co-founded by Starbucks founder Howard Schultz.

In other Seattle news, Madrona Venture Group, a well-regarded fund, raised an additional $100 million this week. Typically, Madrona focuses on companies based in the Pacific Northwest, but this fund will deploy capital throughout the entire U.S. Hmmm, that’s not necessarily a good sign for Seattle founders, but great progress for the ecosystem nonetheless.

If you’re interested in learning more about Seattle tech, I’ve covered it a bit because it’s my hometown! Start with this story, which dives deep into a Seattle accelerator that’s working hard to encourage entrepreneurship in the city. Alright, on to other news.

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IPO corner!

WeWork: The co-working giant now known as The We Company submitted confidential IPO documents to the SEC, the company confirmed in a press release Monday. Is this the next massive startup win or a house of cards waiting to be toppled by the glare of the public markets? TechCrunch’s Danny Crichton investigates.

Slack: The business is in its final steps toward a much-anticipated direct listing, with one source telling TechCrunch the listing will be complete within 45 days. The WSJ reported this week that Slack will make an online presentation to potential shareholders on May 13. This week, we dug deep into Slack’s S-1 and decided to evaluate just how well the tech press, us included, did in covering the company. For the most part, the tech press did decently well, except for one curious, $162 million gap.

Uber: Finally! That ride-hailing company is going public next week. That latest news? Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick won’t be ringing the opening bell. Uber would not be where it is today without Kalanick, but him being there would surely be a reminder of Uber’s rocky past.

Beyond Meat: Shares of the company surged up 135 percent in their market opener last week, valuing the company as high as $3.52 billion. Volatility was so high on the company’s stock that the Nasdaq had to pause trading of “BYND” shares.

Micro-mobility instability:

Ofo has run into its fair share of issues, laying off hundreds of workers, shutting down its international division and more. Now, you can buy a piece of the startup’s history.

In other micro-mobility news, Lyft’s head of scooter & bikes Liam O’Connor, who was hired to help transportation company Lyft build its bike and scooter operations, has left after seven months with the newly-public company. TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden has the scoop. Plus, Bird, the electric scooter unicorn doing its best to overcome regulatory barriers, has made its way back to San Francisco. Bird is using its business license in San Francisco to introduce monthly personal rentals in the city. The program enables people to rent a scooter for $24.99 a month with no cap on the number of rides. We’ll how that goes.

WTF?

For some reason, people are giving Magic Leap more money. The company has secured another $280 million in a deal with Japan’s largest mobile operator, Docomo. Do you know what that means? The developer fo AR/VR headsets has raised a total of $2.6 billion. We’re just as confused as you.

Brand new venture capital funds:

Unshackled Ventures raised $20 million. 

Jungle Ventures closed on $175 million.

And Toyota AI Ventures launched a $100 million fund.

Startup Capital

Uber investors exit

I have the inside story on Menlo Ventures early Uber stake and TechCrunch’s Connie Loizos goes deep with early Uber backer Bradley Tusk.

Extra Crunch!

This week, we offer TechCrunch Extra Crunch subscribers exclusive tips on building extraordinary teams. Plus, the final piece in TechCrunch’s Greg Kumparak’s series on Niantic, the fast-growing developer of Pokemon Go. If you recall, we’ve captured much of Niantic’s ongoing story in the first three parts of our EC-1, from its beginnings as an “entrepreneurial lab” within Google, to its spin-out as an independent company and the launch of Pokémon GO, to its ongoing focus on becoming a platform for others to build augmented reality products upon.

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase News editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and TechCrunch’s Danny Crichton chat about updates at the Vision Fund, Cheddar’s big exit and more of this week’s headlines.

Vue.ai raises $17M to equip online retailers with AI smarts

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Vue.ai, a U.S/India startup that develops an AI platform to help online retailers work more efficiently and sell more, has announced a $17 million Series B round.

The investment is led by Falcon Edge Capital with participation from Japan’s Global Brain and existing backer Sequoia Capital India. Parent company Mad Street Den was founded in 2014 and it raised $1.5 million a year later, Sequoia then bought into the business via an undisclosed deal in 2016. Vue.ai is described as an “AI brand” from Mad Street Den and, all combined, the two entities have now raised $27 million from investors.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Vue.ai CEO and co-founder Ashwini Asokan — who started Mad Street Den with her husband Anand Chandrasekaran — explained that Vue.ai is a “retail vertical” of Mad Street Den that launched in 2016, she said that the company may add “another vertical in a year or two.”

Vue.ai is solely focused on working with online retailers, predominantly in the fashion space, and it does so in a number of ways. That includes expected areas such as automating product tagging and personalized recommendations (based on that tag library), as well as visual search using photos as input and tailored product discovery.

Areas that Vue.ai also plays in which surprised me, at least, include generating human models who wear clothing items — thus saving considerable time, money and effort on photo shoots — and an AI stylist that doesn’t take human form but does learn a user’s style and help them outfit themselves accordingly.

Tagging and visuals may appear boring, but these are hugely important areas for retailers who have huge amounts of SKUs, items for sale, on their site. Making sure the right person finds the right item is critical to making a sale, and Vue.ai’s goal is to automate as much of that heavy-lifting as possible. Even tagging is essential because it needs to be done consistently if it is to work properly.

Ashwini Asokan, CEO and Founder of Vue.ai

More than just working correctly, Vue.ai aims to help online retailers, who often run a tight ship in terms of profitability, save money and get new product online and in front of consumer eyeballs quickly.

“These are solutions that optimize the bottom line for retail companies,” said Asokan, who spent over a decade working in the U.S before returning home in India in 2015. “We are digitizing products 10X faster than you did before… you cannot afford to lose productivity and efficiency, online retail is not somewhere you can lose money.”

“We want to be that data brain mapping digital products,” she added.

Vue.ai is now pushing into new areas, which include advertising and development of videos and marketing content.

“The future of retail is entertainment and the experience economy is the small start of that era,” Asokan said, reflecting on the trend of social media buying through platforms like Instagram and the rise of live-streaming e-commerce in China.

“The electricity that powers all of these complicated retail interactions is content; we need to understand content and every customer style profile and merchandise,” she added.

Some of Vue.ai’s public customers include Macy’s and Diesel in the U.S, Latin American e-commerce firm Mercadolibre and Indian conglomerate Tata .

Vue.ai is headquartered in Redwood City with an office in Chennai, India. Asokan said it is planning to expand that presence with new locations in Seattle, for tech hires, and Japan and Spain to help provide closer support for customers. The company doesn’t disclose raw numbers, but it said that annual revenue grew by four hundred percent in 2018, which was its third year since incorporation.

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