Amazon’s Alexa Fund invests in edtech startups, Zoobean and Unruly Studios

Two edtech companies, Zoobean and Unruly Studios, are the latest to receive investment from Amazon’s Alexa Fund — Amazon’s corporate venture fund focused on fueling innovation in voice technologies, and specifically, integrations with Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa. Zoobean, which you may recall from its Shark Tank appearance a few years ago, offers reading software to schools and libraries. And Unruly Studios, a 2018 Alexa Accelerator alum, connects STEM learning for kids with physical play.

Zoobean makes a software platform called Beanstack, which helps educators and librarians run reading challenges and learn from data-driven insights about participants’ progress.

Following its initial debut on Shark Tank, where it received investment from Mark Cuban, the company has continued to develop its software and expand its footprint. Today, Beanstack is licensed to over 1,200 public libraries and schools worldwide, and is often referred to as the “Fitbit for reading” because of how it tracks and rewards progress.

Along with Alexa Fund, Cuban has also re-invested in the platform, joined by EAI Technologies, Jo and Elizabeth Tango, Pamela Bass-Bookey and Harry Bookey, and Neil Jaffe of Booksource. The company didn’t share the round’s size, and Amazon declines to share the size of its Alexa Fund investments.

Zoobean is now exploring ways to integrate Alexa into Beanstack so readers can ask Alexa to track their progress or sending them reminders about reading time.

Unruly Studios, meanwhile, is approaching learning through play. Led by Bryanne Leeming, the team includes gaming veterans from Mattel, Nickelodeon, iRobot, Hasbro, and elsewhere, who have designed a product called Unruly Splats — a programmable floor tile that pairs with an app in order to allow kids to play recess-style games. For example, the tiles can be used for things like musical chairs, whack-a-mole, relay races and more.

The company participated in the Alexa Accelerator last year — in fact, they even connected Zoobean founder Felix Lloyd with the Alexa Fund, as it turns out. Unruly Studios is now exploring ways to connect its “Splats” with Alexa to make the experience more engaging, while also teaching kids programming fundamentals and voice design.

The Alexa Fund investment was part of its seed round of $1.8 million, also announced today. The round was led by eCoast Angels, and saw participation from new and existing investors including AT&T, Rough Draft Ventures powered by General Catalyst, TechStars, LearnLaunch, and NextFab.

“We were so impressed by Unruly Studios during their time with the Alexa Accelerator last summer, and we’re thrilled to be reinvesting here as part of their seed round,” said Paul Bernard, director of the Alexa Fund, about Amazon’s investment. “Their ability to combine STEM education with physical games is inspiring on its own, and we see voice as a way to make that experience even more fun and engaging. We can’t wait to see what they build in the future.”

These aren’t the Alexa Fund’s first investments in edtech, however. Last fall, the fund invested in voice-based software and services company Bamboo Learning, for example. It also invested in Sphero, which more recently pivoted to education with Sphero Edu.

“One of the reasons I’m so optimistic about voice technology is because it creates this communal experience where multiple people can share in the interaction,” said Mark Cuban, in a statement about the Alexa Fund investments. “Every startup founder should be looking at how voice services like Alexa fit into their business model, and it’s great to see companies like Zoobean and Unruly take that to heart. I’m excited to see them evolve their products and use voice to make reading and STEM accessible to more people.”

Seraphim Space Camp launches its latest mission, with 7 SpaceTech startups

U.K. space accelerator Seraphim Space Camp appeared last year as the first ever UK SpaceTech accelerator and being, frankly, the only accelerator of its type, it has quickly shored-up a number of partnership links and hoovered up many of the startups in the… space.

As is traditional with accelerators, it’s unveiled its latest cohort of startups.

The “Mission 3” accelerator programme, consists of seven new startups and will be a nine-week programme, culminating in an Investor Day. The first two cohorts (16 companies) have, says Seraphim, now collectively raised or had offers of around £20m in private investment and grants over the last nine months and have created 58 job opportunities since completing the programme.

The initiative has a number of high profile partners such as MoD’s Defence Science and Technology Lab (Dstl), unmanned aircraft systems company AeroVironment, ground station services provider Kongsberg Satellite Services and leading satellite provided Eutelsat. They join returning partnersAirbus, Rolls-Royce, Dentons, Cyient, Inmarsat, the European Space Agency and SA Catapult.

Here’s a run-down of the companies in their own words:

aXenic is a global leader in the design, development and production of optical modulators for communications and sensing. It has developed a revolutionary optical modulator which is a vital component to transfer high quantities of data through satellite links. Its strongly patented solution is a fraction of the weight and size of existing solutions whilst still providing greater bandwidth.

ConstelIR (Fellowship) is a spin-out from Fraunhofer University. It is the first company to map precise on-earth temperatures from a constellation of satellites it plans to launch. This orbital temperature monitoring system will be 3% of the cost of existing solutions without losing measurement accuracy.

Hawa Dawa combines its proprietary IoT smart sensor data with other sources of data (including satellite data) to give highly accurate data on air quality. Within two years’ traction with Siemens, IBM, SwissCom, Swiss Pos as well as 8 cities in Germany demonstrates that the company’s end-to-end solution is really needed by the market.

Methera Global plans to launch a constellation flexible and dynamic satellites, focusing all of its bandwidth to a small area of target regions from multiple satellites. Providing an increase in capacity which is 10 times greater than planned systems, initial customers are the likes of emergency response services helping communities who don’t currently have access to the internet – 4B of the world’s population.

Trik is an enterprise drone 3D mapping software for structural inspection with a unique platform. Its platform transforms the data into a customisable 3D model which can be updated on a regular basis.

Xonaspace (Fellowship) uses an XPS and LEO satellite constellation for extremely precise GPS systems, with early end applications including autonomous vehicles

Veoware’s vision is to industrialise the space sector so that hardware, software and data become easily accessible and rapidly available for the benefit of humankind. This is made possible due to its team of world renowned experts with 100+ years of experience

Microsoft makes a push for service mesh interoperability

Services meshes. They are the hot new thing in the cloud native computing world. At Kubecon, the bi-annual festival of all things cloud native, Microsoft today announced that it is teaming up with a number of companies in this space to create a generic service mesh interface. This will make it easier for developers to adopt the concept without locking them into a specific technology.

In a world where the number of network endpoints continues to increase as developers launch new micro-services, containers and other systems at a rapid clip, they are making the network smarter again by handling encryption, traffic management and other functions so that the actual applications don’t have to worry about that. With a number of competing service mesh technologies, though, including the likes of Istio and Linkerd, developers currently have to chose which one of these to support.

“I’m really thrilled to see that we were able to pull together a pretty broad consortium of folks from across the industry to help us drive some interoperability in the service mesh space,” Gabe Monroy, Microsoft’s lead product manager for containers and the former CTO of Deis, told me. “This is obviously hot technology — and for good reasons. The cloud-native ecosystem is driving the need for smarter networks and smarter pipes and service mesh technology provides answers.”

The partners here include Buoyant, HashiCorp, Solo.io, Red Hat, AspenMesh, Weaveworks, Docker, Rancher, Pivotal, Kinvolk and VMWare. That’s a pretty broad coalition, though it notably doesn’t include cloud heavyweights like Google, the company behind Istio, and AWS.

“In a rapidly evolving ecosystem, having a set of common standards is critical to preserving the best possible end-user experience,” said Idit Levine, founder and CEO of Solo.io. “This was the vision behind SuperGloo – to create an abstraction layer for consistency across different meshes, which led us to the release of Service Mesh Hub last week. We are excited to see service mesh adoption evolve into an industry level initiative with the SMI specification.”

For the time being, the interoperability features focus on traffic policy, telemetry and traffic management. Monroy argues that these are the most pressing problems right now. He also stressed that this common interface still allows the different service mesh tools to innovate and that developers can always work directly with their APIs when needed. He also stressed that the Service Mesh Interface (SMI), as this new specification is called, does not provide any of its own implementations of these features. It only defines a common set of APIs.

Currently, the most well-known service mesh is probably Istio, which Google, IBM and Lyft launched about two years ago. SMI may just bring a bit more competition to this market since it will allow developers to bet on the overall idea of a service mesh instead of a specific implementation.

In addition to SMI, Microsoft also today announced a couple of other updates around its cloud-native and Kubernetes services. It announced the first alpha of the Helm 3 package manager, for example, as well as the 1.0 release of its Kubernetes extension for Visual Studio Code and the general availability of its AKS virtual nodes, using the open source Virtual Kubelet project.

 

FlareAgent, a platform that automates real estate transactions, launches out of YC

The real estate industry is experiencing a bit of a rejuvenation. After years resisting the influence of tech, the industry is now feeling the entrance of e-buyers, as well as a variety of software to streamline the process. One such tech company looking to infiltrate real estate is FlareAgent, which launches today out of Y Combinator.

FlareAgent was founded by Abhi CKV and Rashid Aziz. The duo, who just graduated out of NYU, first built FlareAgent when Rashid’s dad, a real estate agent, was asked by his boss (Mr. Brown) about finding software that might speed up the process of completing a transaction.

Abhi and Rashid built something that ended up helping grow the real estate firm from 20 deals per month to over 100 deals/month. How?

FlareAgent lets all parties collaborate on a transaction from the comfort of their own home or office. From purchase offers to escrow documents to the closing agreement, FlareAgent allows brokers and clients to view and interact with various documents to speed up the time to close.

This used to be done manually by brokers, who’d have to fax or mail or hand-deliver documents to and from various parties in the transaction. If changes take place to the paperwork, this process may start over from scratch.

With FlareAgent, all the time spent changing and sharing documents manually can be done online.

To be clear, a transaction doesn’t actually go through FlareAgent. In other words, the money changing hands from buyer to seller doesn’t flow through the FlareAgent platform. But all the documents that need to be reviewed, amended, and signed can be handled on FlareAgent.

To make money, the company charges a monthly subscription to brokers using the platform.

Thus far, FlareAgent says it has around 100 active agents on the platform and has processed more than 2,500 transactions (worth $550 million in property value) since its inception.

People.ai, the predictive sales startup, raises $60M at around $500M valuation

The best salespeople like to pride themselves on having both a sixth sense when it comes to closing a deal, and a healthy amount of persuasive magic to get a sale over the line. Now, a startup that says it can help any salesperson be like those top people, and help those top people be even better, has raised a large round of funding to to take its own company to the next level.

People.ai, which has built a platform to ingest all the data that salespeople generate in the course of their work, and then use it to provide guidance to them to help source and close more deals, is today announcing that it has raised another $60 million in funding, which it will use to continue growing the business and building partnerships with new channels such as system integrators to target bigger enterprises.

Alongside this, it is also launching a new product that it calls “The Wire” — a feed of insights that salespeople can access to find leads, pick up tips on how to approach them and ultimately to sell to them.

“Some people say it’s what LinkedIn should have been,” Oleg Rogynskyy, People.ai’s founder and CEO, said in an interview. It helps, he said with a little laugh, that People.ai had managed to recruit David Flink to lead up project management at the startup. Flink joined earlier this year, having worked for nearly three years at LinkedIn on areas like search and discovery. 

The startup is not disclosing its valuation but sources tell us it is around $500 million — specifically in the “mid-nine-figures”. The big number is partly the result of the startup’s strong growth so far: it has already ingested 350 million sales activities, 40 million contacts, a sales pipeline of $300 billion and $100 billion in closed and won deals. Its revenues have been growing 5X year-over-year with customers squarely so far in the tech camp that surrounds the San Francisco-based startup. They include Red Hat, Lyft, Zoom, New Relic and Splunk.

This latest round is being led by Iconiq, the VC that includes the family office of Marc and Pricilla Zuckerberg, among others, with participation from previous investors Andreessen Horowitz (which led its previous round just seven months ago), Lightspeed Venture Partners, GGV Capital and Y Combinator (where it was in a cohort in 2016).

There have been a number of startups and tech giants (Oracle and Microsoft being just two) that have been applying AI mechanics to the world of sales — specifically to help improve one aspect or another of the process. Startups range from those that use Robotic Process Automation to do some of the mundane work around data entry, to those that analyse conversations to parse them for clues to help close deals, to those that offer predictive analytics, and those that are using AI to replicate sales agents altogether.

People.ai’s approach, says, is not to replace salespeople but to “supercharge” the teams by using AI to ingest “high value, low volume activity”. Sitting in the background, requiring no active input from the user, it picks up all the “exhaust” produced in the process of a day, and uses it to produce cheat sheets to salespeople so that they can use them when speaking to clients to help them close deals, providing interesting insights, relevant facts and other details.

That is now going to be augmented with The Wire, which takes some cues from social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn, providing a stream of information to the viewer, and tapping into the concept of “graphs” to source names of people and information that is most relevant to the viewer (without the ads, of course).

Rogynskyy points out that his company currently has more than 65 patents (secured and in progress) on intelligent matching, and the plan longer term will be to take the sales model and apply it to a wider range of industry verticals. These are likely to include areas like real estate, financial services and recruitment (areas where the product is already being used in smaller use cases, he noted). 

“This model is applicable to any area where you are building external, complex relationships at scale,” he said.

 

Future Family launches a $200 membership for fertility coaching

 

Future Family is a startup aiming to make fertility services like IVF and egg freezing more accessible. They work with doctors and clinics to make the pricing of these services more predictable and upfront, then offer monthly payment plans to help customers spread the cost (often in the tens of thousands of dollars) over a few years.

In its recent user research, Future Family found that around 70% of their new customers had yet to see a fertility doctor; they were starting the process online, often without the next steps mapped out. With that in mind, today they’re rolling out a new membership plan that offers users a dedicated fertility coach, and helps them to find a doctor in their area.

The membership will cost $200, which gets you:

  • Two and a half hours with a dedicated fertility coach, who will video chat with you on your schedule and platform of choice to help you figure out what’s next. Future Family CEO Claire Tomkins tells me that their coaches are all registered nurses with clinical fertility experience, many of whom the company recruited from top US clinics. The coach can help you figure out the first steps, prep you to meet with your doctor, and to help understand your lab results.
  • Recommendations on doctors/clinics in your area, based on things like distance, cost, and your personal preferences like the doctor’s gender and whether they’re part of a large hospital or a smaller clinic.
  • Upfront service pricing; as Future Family already works with these doctors, they’re able to tell you how much it’ll all cost before you dive in.

The membership will also offer a way for members to sign up for one of Future Family’s financing plans — but Claire Tomkins tells me that there’s no lock in. If a customer does the video coaching and doctor matching and already has the payment side of things figured out, the promised prices will all still apply.

The new membership program will go live today.

Freshworks acquires customer success service Natero

Customer engagement service Freshworks, which you may still remember under its old name of Freshdesk, today announced that it has acquired Natero, a customer success service with some AI/ML smarts that helps businesses prevent churn and manage their customers.

The acquisition, Freshworks CEO Girish Mathrubootham told me, will help the company complete its mission to provide its users with a 360-degree view of their customers. As Mathrubootham stressed, Freshdesk started out with a focus on customer support and then added additional functionality for marketers and other roles over time. Today, however, companies want this full 360-degree view of a customer and be able to offer differentiated service to their top customers, for example. In many ways, the acquisition of Natero closes the loop here.

“The acquisition extends our ‘customer-for-life’ vision to all teams, including account and customer success managers who require up-to-date customer usage and health data to proactively engage those accounts at risk of churn or ready to buy more,” Mathrubootham said.

Natero founder and CEO Craig Soules echoed this and noted that the only way to do this is to have a rich customer model at the core of these efforts. “More and more people wanted to take data from Natero and take it to sales tools,” he said when I asked him about how his company will fit into the Freshworks portfolio — and why he sold the company. “We Freshworks, we saw a company that was going into this direction and that was doing customer success for a very long it. […] It felt like a very natural fit to leverage this customer model.”

Mathrubootham also noted that Freshworks was actually a Natero customer so when Natero got to the point where it was looking for more capital to expand this focus on its customer model, the two companies started talking.

Natero will continue to exist as a stand-alone product, but it will also become part of the Freshworks 360 suite, Freshwork’s integrated customer engagement suite.

Ahead of today’s acquisition, Natero had raised a total of $3.3 million. That’s not a lot for a startup that launched back in 2012, but Soules noted how he was able to fund the company’s expansion through revenue. The two companies did not disclose the acquisition price.