April 23, 2019

Oracle turns to innovation hubs to drive cultural and business shift to cloud

Oracle was founded in 1977. While it’s not exactly IBM or GE, both of which date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries respectively, it is old enough to be experiencing a fair bit of disruption in its own right. For a good part of its existence, it sold databases to some of the biggest companies in the world, but today as the market changes and shifts from on-prem data centers to the cloud, how does a company like Oracle make that transition?

Of course, Oracle has been making the shift to the cloud for the last several years, but it would be fair to say that it came late. Plus, it takes more than building some data centers and pushing out some products to change a company the size of Oracle. The company leadership recognizes this, and has been thinking at the highest levels of the organization about how to successfully transform into a cloud company from a cultural and business perspective.

To that end, Oracle has opened 5 innovation hubs over the last several years with locations in Austin, Texas; Reston, Virginia; Burlington, Massachusetts; Bangalore, India and Santa Monica, California. What are these centers hoping to achieve, and how will it extend the lessons learned to the rest of the company? Those are big questions Oracle must answer to make some headway in the cloud market.

Understanding the problem

Oracle seems to understand it has to do something different to change market perception and its flagging market position. Synergy Research, a firm that tracks cloud marketshare reports that the company is struggling

“For cloud infrastructure services (IaaS, PaaS, hosted private cloud services) — Oracle has a 2 percent share,” John Dinsdale, chief analyst and managing director at Synergy told TechCrunch. He added, “It is a top ten player but it is nowhere near the scale of the leading cloud providers; and its market share has been steadily eroding.”

The news is a bit better when it comes SaaS. “Along with SAP, Oracle is one of the leaders in the ERP segment. But enterprise SaaS is much broader than ERP and across all of enterprise SaaS it is the number 4 ranked provider behind Microsoft, Salesforce and Adobe. Oracle worldwide market share in Q4 was 6 percent,” Dinsdale said.

The company knows that it will take a vast shift to change from an organization that mostly sold software licenses and maintenance agreements. It pushed those hard, sometimes so hard that it left IT pros with a sour taste in their mouths. Today, with the cloud, the selling landscape has changed dramatically to a partnership model. The company knows that it must change too. The question is, how?

That will take an entirely new approach to product development, sales and marketing; and the innovation hubs have become a kind of laboratory where engineers can experiment with more focussed projects, and learn to present their ideas with goal of showing instead of telling customers what they can do.

And the young shall lead

One way to change the culture is to infuse it with fresh-thinking, smart young people and that’s what Oracle is attempting to do with these centers, where they are hiring youthful engineers, many right out of college, to lead the change with the help of more seasoned Oracle executives.

They are looking for ways to rethink Oracle’s cloud products, to pull the services together into packages of useful tools that helped solve a specific business problems from prescription opioid abuse to predicting avocado yields. The idea isn’t just to have a some section of the company where people work on dream projects. They want them to relate to real business problems that results eventually in actual sales and measurable results.

Hamza Jahangir, group vice president for the cloud solution hubs at Oracle says they look for people who want to dig into new solutions, but they want a practical streak in their innovation hub hires. “We don’t want just tinkerers. If the only problem you’re solving is that of your own boredom, that’s not the type of person we are looking for,” he said.

Executive buy-in

The idea of the innovation center actually began with co-CEO Mark Hurd, according to Jahangir. He had been working for several years to change the nature of the sales force, the one that had a reputation of strong-arming IT pros, with a new generation by hiring people right out of college with a fresh approach.

Hurd didn’t want to stop with sales though. He began looking at taking that same idea of hiring younger employees to drive that cultural shift in engineering too. “About two years ago, Mark challenged us to think about how can we change the customer-facing tech workforce as the business model was moving to the cloud,” Jahangir said.

Hurd gave him some budget to open the first two centers in Austin and Reston and he began experimenting, trying to find the right kinds of employees and projects to work on. The funding came without of a lot of strings or conditions associated with it. Hurd wanted to see what could happen if they unleashed a new generation of workers and gave them a certain amount of freedom to work differently than the traditional way of working at Oracle.

Changing expectations

Jahangir was very frank when it came to assessing customer’s expectations around Oracle moving to the cloud. There has been a lot of skepticism and part of the reason for the innovation centers was to find practical solutions that could show customers that they actually had modern approaches to computing, given a chance.

The general customer stance has been, “We don’t believe you have anything real, and we need to see true value realized by us before we pay you any money,” he said. That took a fundamental shift to focussing on actual solutions. It started with the premise that the customers shouldn’t believe any of the marketing stuff. Instead it would show them.

“Don’t bother watching a Powerpoint presentation. Ask us to show you real solutions and use cases where we have solved real material problems — and then we can have a discussion.”

Even Chairman and company founder Larry Ellison recognizes the relationship and selling model needed to change as the company moves to the cloud. Jahangir relayed something he said in a recent internal meeting, “In the cloud we are now no longer selling giant monolithic software. Instead we are selling small bites of the apple. The relationship between the vendor and the buyer is becoming more like a consumer model.” That in turn requires a new way of selling and delivering solutions, precisely what they are trying to figure out at the innovation hubs.

Putting the idea to work

Once you have a new way of thinking, you have to put it to work, and as the company has created these various hubs, that has been the approach. As an example, one that isn’t necessarily original, but that puts Oracle features together in a practical way, is the connected patient. The patient wears a Fitbit-like monitor, uses a smart blood pressure cuff and a smart pill box.

The patient can then monitor his or her own health with these tools in a consolidated mobile application that pulls this data together for them using the Internet of Things cloud service, Oracle Mobile Cloud and Oracle Integration Cloud. What’s more, that information gets shared with the patient’s pharmacy and doctor, who can monitor the patient’s health and get warnings when there is a serious issue, such as dangerously high blood pressure.

Another project involved a partnership with Waypoint Robotics, where they demonstrated a robot that worked alongside human workers. The humans interacted with the robots, but the robot moved the goods from workstation to workstation acting as a quality control agent along the way. If it found defects or problems, it communicated that to the worker via a screen on the side of the unit, and to the cloud. Every interaction between the humans, goods and robot was updated in the Oracle cloud.

Waypoint Robotics Robot inspecting iPhones. Information on the display shows it communicating with the Oracle cloud. Photo: Ron Miller

One other project worked with farmers and distributors to help stores stay stocked with avocados, surely as good a Gen Z project as you are likely to find. The tool looks at weather data, historical sales and information coming from sensors at the farm, and it combines all of that data to make predictions about avocado yields, making use of Oracle Autonomous Data Warehouse, Oracle Analytics Cloud and other services from Oracle cloud stack.

Moving beyond the hubs

This type of innovation hub has become popular in recent years as a way to help stave off disruption, and Oracle’s approach is actually in line with this trend. While companies sometimes isolate them to protect them from negativity and naysayers in an organization, leaving them isolated often prevents the lessons learned from being applied to the broader organization at large, essentially defeating the very purpose of creating them in the first place.

Jahangir says that they are attempting to avoid that problem by meeting with others in the company and sharing their learnings and the kinds of metrics that they use in the innovation center to measure success, which might be different from the rest of the company.

He says to put Oracle on the customer agenda, they have to move the conversation from from religious battles, as he calls how people support or condemn tech from certain companies. “We have to overcome religious battles and perceptions. I don’t like to fight religion with more religion. We need to step out of that conversation. The best way we have seen for engaging developer community is to show them how to build really cool things, then we can hire developers to do that, and showcase that to the community to show that it’s not just lip service.”

The trick will be doing that, and perhaps the innovation centers will help. As of today, the company is not sharing its cloud revenue, so it’s hard to measure just how well this is helping contribute to the overall success of the company, but Oracle clearly has a lot of work to do to change the perception of the enterprise buyer about its cloud products and services, and to increase its share of the growing cloud pie. It hopes these innovations hubs will lead the way to doing that.

Jahangir recognizes that he has to constantly keep adjusting the approach. “The Hub model is still maturing. We are finding and solving new problems where we need new tooling and engagement models in the organization. We are still learning and evolving,” he said.

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Voiceflow, which allows anyone to make voice apps without coding, raises $3.5 million

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The market for voice apps has opened up — Amazon Alexa’s platform alone has over 80,000 skills as of earlier this year — and there’s little sign of that growth slowing now that smart speakers have hit critical mass in the U.S. To capitalize on this trend, Voiceflow, a startup making it easier for product teams to build voice applications for Alexa and Google Assistant, has raised $3 million in seed funding.

The round was led by True Ventures, and includes participation from ProductHunt founder Ryan Hoover, Eventbrite founder Kevin Hartz, and InVision founder Clark Valberg. The company has previously raised $500,000 in pre-seed funding.

Explains Voiceflow CEO and co-founder Braden Ream, the idea for a collaborative platform for building voice apps came from direct experience as a voice app developer.

The team — which also includes Tyler Han, Michael Hood, and Andrew Lawrence — had decided to build a voice application offering interactive children’s stories for Alexa, called Storyflow.

But as the team began to build out its library of these choose-your-own-adventure stories, they realized the process wasn’t scaling fast enough to serve their user base — they simply couldn’t build the storyboards with all their branches fast enough.

“At some point, we had the idea to just do a drag-and-drop,” says Ream. “I wished I could build the flow chart, the scripting and the actual coding — I wished this was all one step. That led us to build a really early iteration of what is now Voiceflow. It was sort of an internal tool,” he continues. “And being the nerds that we are, we kept making the platform better by adding logic, variables, and modularity.”

The original plan was to make Storyflow’s platform a “YouTube of voice” so anyone could build their stories easily.

But when the Storyflow community got ahold of what the team had built, they very quickly wanted to use it to build their own voice apps — not just interactive stories.

“That’s when the lightbulb went off for us,” notes Ream. “This could easily be the central platform for building voice apps, and not necessarily interactive children’s stories. The pivot was very easy,” he says. “All we had to do was change our name from Storyflow to Voiceflow.”

The platform, officially launched in November, and today has over 7,500 customers who have published some 250 voice apps using its tools.

Voiceflow is designed to be non-technical for those who don’t know how to code. For example, its two basic block types are “speak” and “choice.” Its blocks are organized on the screen through drag-and-drop, as users design the flow of their app. For more technical users, an advanced section allows you to add logic and variables — but it’s still entirely visual.

For enterprise customers, there’s also an API block in Voiceflow that allows the customer to integrate the business’s own API into their voice app.

What’s also interesting about the product is its collaborative features. While Voiceflow is free for individuals, its business model is focused on allowing teams to work together to build voice apps. Priced at $29 per month in its paid workspaces, voice agencies that have a larger staff — including linguists, voice user interface designers, and developers, for example —  can all work together on one board, share projects, and hand of assets more easily.

With the seed funding, Voiceflow plans to grow the team by hiring more engineers, and continue to develop the platform.

Longer-term, the company wants to help people design better, more human-sounding voice apps through its platform.

“The problem right now is you have documentation and best practices by Google. Then you have the exact same on the Alexa side, but there’s no coherent industry standard. And there’s certainly no tangible base of examples, or easy way to put these into practice,” Bream explains. “If we can help spawn another 10,000 voice user interface designers — we can help train them and give them a platform that’s accessible, where they can collaborate with each other — I think you’re going to see a tremendous uplift in the quality of conversations.”

On this front, Voiceflow has started a program called Voiceflow University, which today includes video tutorials but will later become a more standardized training course.

In addition to the videos, Voiceflow networks with its community directly on Facebook, where over 2,500 developers, linguists, educators, designers, and entrepreneurs actively discuss the voice app design and development process.

This interaction between Voiceflow and its user base was one of the key selling points for True Ventures’ Tony Conrad.

“After I left the [pitch] meeting and I started digging around a little bit, the thing that blew me away was the engagement of the community of developers. That’s unlike anybody else. The single biggest differentiator of this platform is actually Braden and the team’s engagement with the community,” Conrad says. “It reminds me of early WordPress.”

Voiceflow also recently worked with another visual design tool Invocable, which has shut down, to allow its users to transition to Voiceflow’s platform.

There is, perhaps, a cautionary tale in there — Invocable, in its farewell blog post, points out that people continue to use smart speakers mainly for things like music, news, reminders and simple commands. It also says that Natural Language Processing and Natural Language Understanding haven’t developed to the point where they can support higher-quality voice apps. That day will likely come to pass, but there’s a bit of a timing issue when it comes to betting on the right platform to support the voice app development market in the meantime, ahead of widespread consumer adoption.

Toronto-based Voiceflow is a team of twelve today and looking to grow.




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DIYguru signed MOU with CMRTC & Hyderabad Institute of Electrical Engineers for Electric Vehicle Training

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Hyderabad: DIYguru, the maker’s learning platform of India on Monday signed an memorandum of understanding (MoU) with CMR Technical Campus, Hyderabad & Hyderabad Institute of Electrical Engineers for imparting classroom training on Electric Vehicle.

It will facilitate the training of trainers, students, course development and the upgradation of the same as per the changes of technology in the automotive sector.

It will also facilitate industry tie-ups which will benefit the  students of Hyderabad  in terms of internships and placements at leading companies of the automotive sector.

Shri C. Gopal Reddy, Chairman, CMR said, “The curricula of all programs offered by CMR is designed in consultation with the industry and the concerned sector skill councils. For programs offered in DIYguru, This MOU will further strengthen the cooperation between CMR and DIYguru and reduce the gap between industry and academia.”

Shri Sreedhar Thokala, CEO of HIEE said ” We are happy to introduce EV training to Electrical Engineering students who are coming at our institute. We will be introducing 3 Months Regular classroom program with placement assistance to EV enrolled students.

Avinash Singh, CEO, DIYguru said, “India is fast becoming a global hub for the Auto sector and with such tie ups, we are certain that we will get the right talent for the automotive sector.”

$35M-funded Omni pivots from storage to rentals via retailers

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Omni simply couldn’t scale storing stuff in giant warehouses while dropping it and off picking it up from people on demand. Storage was designed to bootstrap Omni into peer-to-peer rentals of the goods in its care. But now it’s found a better way by partnering with retailers which will host and rent out goods for Omni that users will pick up themselves.

With that strategy, Omni is now formally pivoting from storage alongside its expansion from San Francisco and Portland into Los Angeles and New York. In SF and its new markets starting today, users can rent GoPros, strollers, drills, guitars, and more for pick up and drop off at 100 local storefronts which will receive 80 percent of the revenue while Omni keeps 20 percent.

“Storage was always meant to supply a rentals marketplace. We launched storage in an Uber-for everything era and now it’s no secret that physical operations are tough to scale” Omni’s COO Ryan Delk telss me. “This new model gives our users more supply, local entrepreneurs a new revenue stream, and us the ability to launch new markets much more quickly than the old model of building rentals on top of the storage business.”

LA Omni users will be able to rent surf equipment for pickup and dropoff from local surf shop Jay’s

To that end, storage won’t come to any more markets, though storage services with delivery will continue in San Francisco. Users there and in Portland will also be able to pick up and drop off rental items from a few Omni-owned locations including its SF headquarter office. Omni will add retailer pickups in Portland and more in San Francisco soon.

“Ownership has a bit of a burden associated with it” Delk tells me, referencing the shifting attitudes highlighted by Marie Kondo and the tidyness movement. Ownership requires you to pay up front for tons of use down the line that may never happen. “Paying for access when you need it unlocks all these amazing experiences.”

Omni discovered the potential for the model when it ran an experiment. “What if we could pick up items directly from Omni?” Delk explains. Omni learned that many people “can’t afford to pay for transit both ways. It was pricing out a lot of people.” But pick-ups unlocked a new price demographic.

Meanwhile, Omni noticed some semi-pro renters had cropped up on its platform whowere buying tons of a popular item like chairs on Amazon, shipping them to its warehouse, then renting them out and quickly recouping their costs. It saw an opportunity to partner with local retailers who could give it instant supplies of items in new markets while handling all the pick up and drop off logistics.

Omni’s retail partners like Adventure 16 Outdoor & Travel Outfitters, Blazing Saddles and Sierra Surf School can choose black-out dates, pause for vacations, and sell items like normal and let Omni know to restock them so rentals don’t cannibalize their sales. Rentals are covered by up to $10,000 in insurance so both the retailers and people who rent from them don’t have to worry. Omni users just show their ID at pick up to verify their identity, but that will soon be part of the app. Last fall, Omni hired Uber’s head of sales strategy and operations who oversaw UberEats to run its retail partnerships as VP of special projects.

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Binance’s hotly-anticipated Singapore crypto exchange is now live — and underwhelming

Binance, the company widely seen as the world’s largest crypto exchange, has officially set up shop in Singapore after it launched a service in the country.

The new Singapore service, however, bears more of a resemblance to U.S. rival Coinbase than a classic Binance exchange. Binance’s rapid ascent is thanks to a service that lets users trade a range of crypto tokens with very little verification or individual data required. It’s Singapore venture is quite the opposite: it allows customers to purchase Bitcoin only and at fixed prices. Initially, it appeared that purchased Bitcoin could not be moved out of the exchange at this point but that issue seems to be fixed now.

We checked in with Binance for more details, but the company is yet to respond. [Update: Binance’s response is further down — tl;dr it said that the Singapore exchange is a work in progress.]

Binance’s Singapore launch follows an investment from Vertex, a VC firm backed by Singapore’s sovereign fund Temasek, in October. Binance has been testing a ‘beta’ version of its service in the country since late 2018 in communication with Singaporean regulator MAS.

The company has prioritized creating fiat ramps — exchanges that allow customers to buy into crypto using currency — over the past six months as it seeks to gain increased legitimacy and play within regulated jurisdictions. CEO Changpeng Zhao has also stressed the importance of going beyond retail customers to reach institutional money and enable it to enter crypto. As a global financial hub, Singapore is its biggest effort on fiat to date.

The Singapore venture is Binance’s third fiat effort following exchanges in Uganda and Jersey — a joint-venture in Lichenstein is yet to launch — although it remains to be seen just how useful the Singapore offering will be in its current form.

Binance users have long been accustomed to a choice of a vast array of crypto assets on sale, but the Binance Singapore exchange falls short on that count, despite considerable expectation for its launch.

Interestingly, information on the website indicates that the new Binance venture appears to be a partnership with Xfers, a crypto startup in Southeast Asia that helped Coinbase set up its service in Singapore. Coinbase ended the partnership and quit the country last year claiming that Xfers was “not suitable in its current form to handle the growth” it had seen. Let’s see how Binance gets on.

The new Binance Singapore exchange is limited to Bitcoin only

In response to the launch, a Binance spokesperson provided the following comment:

Binance Singapore has full deposit/withdrawal functionality. Any functionality issues may be user-specific and are best addressed by customer service.

The issue Coinbase had with Xfers last year was prior to Xfers obtaining their WASVF license, which they acquired recently. We support our partnership with Xfers and will work together to build a key fiat gateway that will grow the industry.

BTC/SGD is the initial pair Binance Singapore is offering with the soft launch. There may be more pairs added as regulations allow.

Meanwhile, the company made another significant announcement after it officially launched its decentralized exchange, also known as Dex — its other major priority besides fiat.

There are no initial fireworks here — the Dex doesn’t yet include trading pairs or native tokens — but the launch means that blockchain companies are now able to migrate from Ethereum, EOS or other blockchains and begin to issue tokens on Binance Chain. A Binance spokesperson confirmed that the first of those migrations are expected to happen this week. The first is Binance’s own BNB token, which is moving from ERC20 to BEP2.

The Dex has been in testing since February, during which the company said that some 8.5 million transactions have been made. The real test will be when projects begin moving over and (if) traders begin to utilize the platform in large volumes going forward. Binance has always claimed that its Dex will operate as an alternative to its existing centralized exchanges, rather than as a replacement.

Binance draws revenue from over-the-counter (OTC) trading, trading fees on its platform and via BNB. Eventually, the Dex could augment that monetization as Binance will gain a share of network fees when its nodes are used in transactions on the Dex. Likewise, increased usage of the Dex and Binance Chain could raise the value of BNB — which has been on an incredible run this year, outpacing Bitcoin itself.

The value of Binance’s BNB token has quadrupled since the start of 2019, as data from shows

Valued at $6.02 on January 1, BNB broke $25 last week. Today, the price is $24.20, according to data from, and it remains to be seen how these two developments will impact it.

Note: The original version of this article has been updated to reflect that purchased Bitcoin can now be moved out of the Binance Singapore exchange.

The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

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