Crate.io, the winner of our Disrupt Europe 2014 Startup Battlefield competition, today announced that it has raised an $11 million Series A round. In addition, the company also launched its ‘Crate Machine Learning Platform’ today, a new hosted solution for businesses that want to use the company’s SQL-based database platform for working with IoT data.
The new funding round was led by Zetta Venture Partners and Deutsche Invest Equity, with participation from Chalfen Ventures, Momenta Partners and Charlie Songhurst. Existing investors, including Draper Espirit, Vito Ventures and Docker founder Solomon Hykes also participated.
Crate co-founder and CEO Christian Lutz told me that over the course of the last year or so, the company has seen a large increase in paying customers, which now tally up to about 30. That has also allowed Crate to grow its revenue beyond $1 million in annual run rate. He attributed the current success of the startup to its renewed focus on machine data, something the team wasn’t really focused on when it first launched its product.
It was also this focus that made fundraising easier, Lutz told me. “What made the difference no is that very strong focus on machine data — in combinate with delivering sales,” he said. The fact that Crate now also has a number of well-known reference customers, including the likes of Skyhigh Networks and ALPLA, a packaging manufacturer that you have probably never heard of but that produces virtually all the bottles for Coca-Cola and Unilever for the U.S. market (as well as a bunch of other bottles that you probably have at home).
Unsurprisingly, the company, which now has over 30 employees, plans to use the new funding to expand its marketing and sales efforts, as well as to expand its core engineering team.
Talking about engineering. With its Machine Platform, Crate also today launched its first hosted offering, which lives on Microsoft’s Azure platform. That’s not a major surprise for two reasons: a) many of Crate’s industrial customers are already betting on Azure anyway and, b) Crate was part of the 2017 class of the Microsoft Growth Accelerator in Berlin. The focus of the new platform is to provide businesses with a single solution for ingesting large amounts of data from IoT devices. The platform supports real-time analytics and allows users to set up their own rules to trigger workflows and alerts as necessary. The platform itself handles all of the scaling (which is handled by the popular Kubernetes container orchestration tool), as well as backup, archiving and the usual role-based security functions.
Crate also today launched version 3.0 of its open source offering. While the company’s commercial focus is obviously on the value-added features for enterprises, it continues to actively develop the open source version, too and Lutz noted that this new version offers a 100x performance increase for some types of queries.
Peek, a U.S. startup aiming to digitize the travel activities industry, has pulled a $23 million Series B round of financing and uncorked a partnership with Google that will help increase its visibility.
Founded in 2012 by Ruzwana Bashir (CEO) and Oskar Bruening (CTO), the San Francisco-based startup describes itself as “OpenTable for the activities market” in that it aims to make booking activities as seamless and straightforward as a restaurant or even a flight.
Peek raised $10 million two years ago, and this new round is led by Cathay Innovation with participation from existing backers that include ex-Yelp COO Geoff Donaker, Kayak founder Paul English, I2BF and Manta Ray. Peek has plenty of well-known angel backers, including Pete Flint — founder of Trulia and NFX — former Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. This new round takes it to $40 million from investors to date.
In addition to the money, the startup has announced a tie-up with Google that will see its inventory added to Google Search, Google Maps and Google Trips. That’s sure to help visibility and spike bookings, and it adds to other partnerships that Peek has struck with platforms that include Yelp.
Peek is taking aim at the global activities market which Bashir estimates is worth some $150 billion, with the U.S. being the most lucrative market on the planet.
“It hasn’t gone through the analog-to-digital transition like other industries,” she told TechCrunch in an interview. “So we’re building the infrastructure and software that emerged in other industries ten years ago.”
“When you look at businesses in the U.S., over 70 percent don’t have real-time online booking, you still have to call the business or email them,” she explained.
That’s an important point, and it underlines the approach that Peek has taken. Unlike its Asia-based rivals, the company has a double-sided business which starts by offering booking software that allows travel companies to enable bookings and sales on their own website. It also allows them to run their businesses from mobile, which is increasingly important for businesses that exist outdoors, as is common in travel and activities.
That’s the hook that gets them into Peek, and from there the company offers more services under its ‘Pro’ service and also the consumer-facing platform that service providers can join. That’s the platform that travelers (or, rather, action-seekers) use to book activities. That distinction on ‘travelers’ is important since Bashir said that around one-third of Peek bookings come from people doing things in their own town, so not everyone is traveling.
Peek founders Oskar Bruening and Ruzwana Bashir.
Peek claims to offer 10,000 experiences in the U.S. and Mexico, as well as spots like Paris and London. It has 500,000 reviews and ratings, each of which is verified since users can only leave them if they have booked, paid-for and completed their activity.
Bashir said, in addition, that the company’s software has scaled to handle “hundreds of millions of dollars” in booking volume. She declined to give specific financial details, including revenue and profit/loss, but did say that the company’s unit economics are “highly profitable” but it is seeking growth right now.
“Part of this round is allowing ourselves to go out and reach more businesses,” she added.
For now, Peek is keeping its focus on the U.S. but it has also expanded into Mexico since that is a well-trodden destination for U.S.-based travelers. That focus will continue following this round, with Bashir adamant that with an estimated two percent of activity spend booked online, there’s plenty of potential growth to be had at home before tackling international markets.
Dubbed ‘Team Access,’ the new feature — which affords similar functionality to the likes of Pleo, Spendesk, and Soldo — lets business owners issue multiple MasterCards to employees who need to make purchases on a company’s behalf.
Each card is linked to a business’ Penta account but can have custom rules and permissions per card/employee, in terms of how much money can be spent and where. More broadly, the feature is designed to cut down the time and cost of expense management for SMEs.
“As business owners know, it can take weeks of daunting paperwork to get another debit card from a legacy bank. The alternative solution for a business owner is to apply for a business credit card which has a predefined credit limit. Most early stage businesses aren’t credit-worthy, and therefore can’t get a second card,” explains the company.
To help with expense management, Penta already lets you categorise transactions and export them to various accounting software. On the public roadmap is “automated accounting,” which will offer the ability to sync your account to third-party accounting tools.
Meanwhile, Team Access is being rolled out in two stages. As of today, users will be able to issue team debit MasterCards and give account access to founders/Managing Directors. In the “coming weeks,” the option to issue Penta cards and give account access to all employees will be added.
The two-stage roll out is likely related to Penta’s recent scaling issues that saw it initially struggle to open new accounts in a timely manner due to high demand. The fintech startup runs on top of Banking-as-a-Platform solarisBank (rather than holding a banking license of its own), and I understand the bottleneck, which has now been cleared, was related to solarisBank’s account verification processes.
Amid calls for a boycott and employee dissent over its cloud-computing deal with the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Microsoft issued a statement saying that the company “is dismayed by the forcible separation of children from their families at the border.” The ICE is currently under fire from both sides of the political spectrum for separating migrant parents from their children at the United States-Mexico border.
The controversy over Microsoft’s involvement with the ICE stems from an Authority to Operate (ATO) that the agency granted to Azure Government earlier this year. In a January blog post, Microsoft said the ATO would help the ICE deliver cloud-based identity and access services and “help employees make more informed decisions faster.” It also said that the use of its government compliant cloud computing software would enable ICE to “process data on edge devices or utilize deep learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification.”
In its statement, however, Microsoft said it is not working with ICE or U.S. Customs and Border Protection on “any projects related to separating children from their families at the border” and that it is unaware of Azure being used for that purpose. It also “urged” the Trump administration to change the policy.
Microsoft’s full statement is below. TechCrunch has contacted the company for more information.
In response to questions we want to be clear: Microsoft is not working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or U.S. Customs and Border Protection on any projects related to separating children from their families at the border, and contrary to some speculation, we are not aware of Azure or Azure services being used for this purpose. As a company, Microsoft is dismayed by the forcible separation of children from their families at the border. Family unification has been a fundamental tenet of American policy and law since the end of World War II. As a company Microsoft has worked for over 20 years to combine technology with the rule of law to ensure that children who are refugees and immigrants can remain with their parents. We need to continue to build on this noble tradition rather than change course now. We urge the administration to change its policy and Congress to pass legislation ensuring children are no longer separated from their families.
With augmented reality coming in hot and depth tracking cameras due to arrive on flagship phones, the time is right to improve how computers track the motions of people they see — even if that means virtually stripping them of their clothes. A new computer vision system that does just that may sound a little creepy, but it definitely has its uses.
The basic problem is that if you’re going to capture a human being in motion, say for a movie or for an augmented reality game, there’s a frustrating vagueness to them caused by clothes. Why do you think motion capture actors have to wear those skintight suits? Because their JNCO jeans make it hard for the system to tell exactly where their legs are. Leave them in the trailer.
Same for anyone wearing a dress, a backpack, a jacket — pretty much anything other than the bare minimum will interfere with the computer getting a good idea of how your body is positioned.
The multi-institutional project (PDF), due to be presented at CVPR in Salt Lake City, combines depth data with smart assumptions about how a body is shaped and what it can do. The result is a sort of X-ray vision, revealing the shape and position of a person’s body underneath their clothes, that works in real time even during quick movements like dancing.
The paper builds on two previous methods, DynamicFusion and BodyFusion. The first uses single-camera depth data to estimate a body’s pose, but doesn’t work well with quick movements or occlusion; the second uses a skeleton to estimate pose but similarly loses track during fast motion. The researchers combined the two approaches into “DoubleFusion,” essentially creating a plausible skeleton from the depth data and then sort of shrink-wrapping it with skin at an appropriate distance from the core.
As you can see above, depth data from the camera is combined with some basic reference imagery of the person to produce both a skeleton and track the joints and terminations of the body. On the right there, you see the results of just DynamicFusion (b), just BodyFusion (c) and the combined method (d).
The results are much better than either method alone, seemingly producing excellent body models from a variety of poses and outfits:
Hoodies, headphones, baggy clothes, nothing gets in the way of the all-seeing eye of DoubleFusion.
One shortcoming, however, is that it tends to overestimate a person’s body size if they’re wearing a lot of clothes — there’s no easy way for it to tell whether someone is broad or they are just wearing a chunky sweater. And it doesn’t work well when the person interacts with a separate object, like a table or game controller — it would likely try to interpret those as weird extensions of limbs. Handling these exceptions is planned for future work.
The paper’s first author is Tao Yu of Tsinghua University in China, but researchers from Beihang University, Google, USC, and the Max Planck Institute were also involved.
“We believe the robustness and accuracy of our approach will enable many applications, especially in AR/VR, gaming, entertainment and even virtual try-on as we also reconstruct the underlying body shape,” write the authors in the paper’s conclusion. “For the first time, with DoubleFusion, users can easily digitize themselves.”
There’s no use denying that there are lots of interesting applications of this technology. But there’s also no use denying that this technology is basically X-ray Spex.
Pick a category, wager a few dollars and double your money in 60 seconds if you’re smarter and faster than your opponent. Proveit offers a fresh take on trivia and game show apps by letting you win or lose cash on quick 10-question, multiple choice quizzes. Sick of waiting to battle a million people on HQ for a chance at a fraction of the jackpot? Play one-on-one anytime you want or enter into scheduled tournaments with $1,000 or more in prize money, while Proveit takes around 10 percent to 15 percent of the stakes.
“I’d play Jeopardy all the time with my family and wondered ‘why can’t I do this for money?’ ” says co-founder Prem Thomas.
Remarkably, it’s all legal. The Proveit team spent two years getting approved as “skill-based gaming” that exempts it from some laws that have hindered fantasy sports betting apps. And for those at risk of addiction, Proveit offers players and their loved ones a way to cut them off.
The scrappy Florida-based startup has raised $2.3 million so far. With fun games and a snackable format, Proveit lets you enjoy the thrill of betting at a moment’s notice. That could make it a favorite amongst players and investors in a world of mobile games without consequences.
“I could spend $50 for a three-hour experience in a movie theater, or I could spend $2 to enter a Proveit Movies tournament that gives me the opportunity to compete for several thousand dollars in prize money,” says co-founder Nathan Lehoux. “That could pay for a lot of movies tickets!”
Proving it as outsiders
St. Petersburg, Fla. isn’t exactly known as an innovation hub. But outside Tampa Bay, far from the distractions, copycatting and astronomical rent of Silicon Valley, the founders of Proveit built something different. “What if people could play trivia for money just like fantasy sports?” Thomas asked his friend Lehoux.
That’s the same pitch that got me interested when Lehoux tracked me down at TechCrunch’s SXSW party earlier this year. Lehoux is a jolly, outgoing fella who became interested in startups while managing some angel investments for a family office. Thomas had worked in banking and health before starting a yoga-inspired sandals brand. Neither had computer science backgrounds, and they’d raised just a $300,000 seed round from childhood friend Hilt Tatum who’d co-founded beleaguered real money gambling site Absolute Poker.
Yet when he Lehoux thrust the Proveit app into my hand, even on a clogged mobile network at SXSW, it ran smoothly and I immediately felt the adrenaline rush of matching wits for money. They’d initially outsourced development to an NYC firm that burned much of their initial $300,000 seed funding without delivering. Luckily, the Ukrainian they’d hired to help review that shop’s code helped them spin up a whole team there that built an impressive v1 of Proveit.
Meanwhile, the founders worked with a gaming lawyer to secure approvals in 33 states including California, New York, and Texas. “This is a highly regulated and highly controversial space due to all the negative press that fantasy sports drummed up,” says Lehoux. “We talked to 100 banks and processors before finding one who’d work with us.”
Proveit founders (from left): Nathan Lehoux, Prem Thomas
Proveit was finally legal for the three-fourths of the U.S. population, and had a regulatory moat to deter competitors. To raise launch capital, the duo tapped their Florida connections to find John Morgan, a high-profile lawyer and medical marijuana advocate, who footed a $2 million angel round. A team of grad students in Tampa Bay was assembled to concoct the trivia questions, while a third-party AI company assists with weeding out fraud.
Proveit launched early this year, but beyond a SXSW promotion, it has stayed under the radar as it tinkers with tournaments and retention tactics. The app has now reached 80,000 registered users, 6,000 multi-deposit hardcore loyalists and has paid out $750,000 total. But watching HQ trivia climb to more than 1 million players per game has proven a bigger market for Proveit.
Quiz for cash
“We’re actually fans of HQ. We play. We think they’ve revolutionized the game show,” Lehoux tells me. “What we want to do is provide something very different. With HQ, you can’t pick your category. You can’t pick the time you want to play. We want to offer a much more customized experience.”
To play Proveit, you download its iOS-only app and fund your account with a buy-in of $20 to $100, earning more bonus cash with bigger packages (no minors allowed). Then you play a practice round to get the hang of it — something HQ sorely lacks. Once you’re ready, you pick from a list of game categories, each with a fixed wager of about $1 to $5 to play (choose your own bet is in the works). You can test your knowledge of superheroes, the ’90s, quotes, current events, rock ‘n roll, Seinfeld, tech and a rotating selection of other topics.
In each Proveit game you get 10 questions, 1 at a time, with up to 15 seconds to answer each. Most games are head-to-head, with options to be matched with a stranger, or a friend via phone contacts. You score more for quick answers, discouraging cheating via Google, and get penalized for errors. At the end, your score is tallied up and compared to your opponent, with the winner keeping both player’s wagers minus Proveit’s cut. In a minute or so, you could lose $3 or win $5.28. Afterwards you can demand a rematch, go double-or-nothing, head back to the category list or cash out if you have more than $20.
The speed element creates intense, white-knuckled urgency. You can get every question right and still lose if your opponent is faster. So instead of second-guessing until locking in your choice just before the buzzer like on HQ, where one error knocks you out, you race to convert your instincts into answers on Proveit. The near instant gratification of a win or humiliation of a defeat nudge you to play again rather than having to wait for tomorrow’s game.
Proveit will have to compete with free apps like Trivia Crack, prize games like student loan repayer Givling and virtual currency-based Fleetwit, and the juggernaut HQ.
“The large tournaments are the big draw,” Lehoux believes. Instead of playing one-on-one, you can register and ante up for a scheduled tournament where you compete in a single round against hundreds of players for a grand prize. Right now, the players with the top 20 percent of scores win at least their entry fee back or more, with a few geniuses collecting the cash of the rest of the losers.
Just like how DraftKings and FanDuel built their user base with big jackpot tournaments, Proveit hopes to do the same… then get people playing little one-on-one games in-between as they wait for their coffee or commute home from work.
Gaming or gambling?
Thankfully, Proveit understands just how addictive it can be. The startup offers a “self-exclusion” option. “If you feel that you need to take greater control of your life as it relates to skill-gaming,” users can email it to say they shouldn’t play any more, and it will freeze or close their account. Family members and others can also request you be frozen if you share a bank account, they’re your dependant, they’re obligated for your debts or you owe unpaid child support.
“We want Proveit to be a fun, intelligent entertainment option for our players. It’s impossible for us to know who might have an issue with real-money gaming,” Lehoux tells me. “Every responsible real-money game provides this type of option for its users.
That isn’t necessarily enough to thwart addiction, because dopamine can turn people into dopes. Just because the outcome is determined by your answers rather than someone else’s touchdown pass doesn’t change that.
Skill-based betting from home could be much more ripe for abuse than having to drag yourself to a casino, while giving people an excuse that they’re not gambling on chance. Zynga’s titles like Farmville have been turning people into micro-transaction zombies for a decade, and you can’t even win money from them. Simultaneously, sharks could study up on a category and let Proveit’s random matching deliver them willing rookies to strip cash from all day. “This is actually one of the few forms of entertainment that rewards players financially for using their brain,” Lehoux defends.
With so much content to consume and consequence-free games to play, there’s an edgy appeal to the danger of Proveit and apps like it. Its moral stance hinges on how much autonomy you think adults should be afforded. From Coca-Cola to Harley-Davidson to Caesar’s Palace, society has allowed businesses to profit off questionably safe products that some enjoy.
For better and worse, Proveit is one of the most exciting mobile games I’ve ever played.
BitTorrent, an early mover in concept of building a business around decentralised computing architecture to distribute and store data, is being sold for $140 million in cash to Justin Sun and his blockchain media startup Tron, TechCrunch has learned.
Variety yesterday reported that a sale of the company to Sun closed last week, without naming a price, following rumors that circulated for at least a month that the two were in negotiations.
TechCrunch understands that shareholders have now been sent the paperwork to sign off on the deal. Some are, we understand, still disputing the terms because more than one person claims to have made the introduction between Sun and BitTorrent, and the one who facilitated the deal will get an extra payout. A source says it’s unlikely that the disputes will actually kill the acquisition, given how long BitTorrent has been looking for a buyer.
BitTorrent most recently said it has about 170 million users of its products. Currently, these include its main client and BitTorrent Now. The latter is focused on video, music and other creative content. BitTorrent claims that its protocols move as much as 40 percent of the world’s Internet traffic on a typical day.
Tron is one of the new kids on the block in the wide world of blockchain startups. Founded by Sun, who previously had worked for Ripple (a settlement system built on blockchain tech), Tron says its mission is to build “a truly decentralized Internet and its infrastructure,” which has included (no surprises here) the creation of its own cryptocurrency, the TRX. TRX, loosely, appears to be a cryptocoin for the entertainment industry. Tron has plans to use TRX as a way to pay for content on its network, according to this whitepaper.
Tron is also just intended for trading. The company has launched a MainNet distributed ledger for transactions, with its own TRX migrating to the MainNet starting later this week. Tron says that the market cap for all TRX is currently valued at just under $4.6 billion with the value of a single TRX coin $0.045.
Neither Tron, Justin Sun, nor representatives for BitTorrent responded to our requests for comment, so it’s not completely confirmed how Tron plans to use BitTorrent. But one shareholder we spoke to says there are two plans. First, it will be used to “legitimise” Tron’s business, which has met with some controversy: it has been accused of plagiarising FileCoin and Ethereum in the development of its technology. And second, as a potential network to help mine coins, using BitTorrent’s P2P architecture and wide network of users.
The acquisition will close off a tumultuous but also interesting life for BitTorrent, founded in 2004 by Bram Cohen and Ashwin Navin to commercialise peer-to-peer networking technology as a way to share and store files.
BitTorrent was a trailblazer in considering how decentralised network architectures using all the machines in a network as nodes — in contrast with the server-based architectures that dominate the tech world today — could be used to share, store and backup data. Some believe this is a more secure system overall because there is no central repository to hack.
Yet the company has also become synonymous with “file sharing” and all the pros and cons that have come with that. Most notably, it has fought long against a bad rap for torrenting technology — which can be used to share copyrighted files illegally — by positioning itself as creator-friendly, buying in content rights, and establishing a range of products built on the P2P protocol. It also used its architecture to take a stand on privacy on the web at the height of the NSA controversy.
And while BitTorrent makes revenues — it hadn’t raised money since 2008 — its strategy to build a long-term larger business on that technology never really took off as investors and others hoped it would. That resulted in a number of management changes and a couple of reshuffles of its product as its leaders looked for the killer app. Some of its earlier product efforts are still around: BitTorrent’s enterprise services were spun off into a standalone company now called Resilio, led by BitTorrent’s former CTO and CEO, Eric Klinger.
(Side note: Interestingly, both Cohen and Navin are still following the trajectory of decentralisation that has led to the rise of blockchain, and that led Tron to BitTorrent. Cohen is building “eco-friendly” cryptocurrency Chia, and Navin, as the CEO of measurement and analytics provider Samba TV, is building a cryptocurrency to incentivise users to share more of their viewership data.)
Despite the current buzz for decentralised architectures around blockchain, we understand that BitTorrent had been looking for a buyer for a while, Long ago, one source told us, both Akamai and Rovi (which is now TiVo) had both considered buying BitTorrent but nothing came to pass. Akamai instead acquired Red Swoosh, a BitTorrent competitor that was Travis Kalanick’s first startup before Uber, and Rovi moved on in its own direction. More recently, offers were less forthcoming. The company had raised around $60 million in funding, according to PitchBook data, which notes that it had been valued around $145 million at its peak. Its investors have included DCM, Accel and DAG.
Time is running out on one of the best ways for an early-stage startup to experience Disrupt San Francisco 2018, September 5-7 at Moscone Center West. We’re designating 60 pre-Series A companies to be a TC Top Pick. If we select your company, you get to experience Disrupt SF in all its techno-glory for free. That’s right, people: F-R-E-E. Applications close on June 29, so get a move on and apply right now.
Here’s the low-down on how the TC Top Pick program works. First off, it’s a highly competitive process. The TechCrunch editorial team carefully evaluates every application before selecting the winning startups to represent each of these 12 tech categories: AI, AR/VR, Blockchain, Biotech, Fintech, Gaming, Healthtech, Privacy/Security, Space, Mobility, Retail or Robotics.
Each TC Top Pick finalist receives a free Startup Alley Exhibitor Package. The package includes a one-day exhibit space in Startup Alley and three Founder passes (good for all three days of the show). You’ll get to participate in CrunchMatch — our investor-to-startup matching platform — to simplify finding and making appointments with potential investors, and you’ll have access to the full event press list.
Earning a TC Top Pick designation also gets you a three-minute interview on the Showcase Stage with a TechCrunch editor — and we’ll promote that video across our social media platforms. That’s promotional gold right there, my friend.
One of the other fabulous opportunities for any startup exhibiting in Startup Alley (including Top Picks) is the chance to be voted the Startup Battlefield Wildcard by Alley attendees and TechCrunch editors. If that happens, you get to compete for the $100,000 Startup Battlefield prize. Yowza! Wait, you don’t think that could happen? Guess again. After being voted the Wildcard at Disrupt NY 2017, RecordGram won the Startup Battlefield.