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Twitter bags deep learning talent behind London startup, Fabula AI

Twitter has just announced it has picked up London-based Fabula AI. The deep learning startup has been developing technology to try to identify online disinformation by looking at patterns in how fake stuff vs genuine news spreads online — making it an obvious fit for the rumor-riled social network.

Social media giants remain under increasing political pressure to get a handle on online disinformation to ensure that manipulative messages don’t, for example, get a free pass to fiddle with democratic processes.

Facebook, Google and Twitter told to do more to fight fake news ahead of European elections

Twitter says the acquisition of Fabula will help it build out its internal machine learning capabilities — writing that the UK startup’s “world-class team of machine learning researchers” will feed an internal research group it’s building out, led by Sandeep Pandey, its head of ML/AI engineering.

This research group will focus on “a few key strategic areas such as natural language processing, reinforcement learning, ML ethics, recommendation systems, and graph deep learning” — now with Fabula co-founder and chief scientist, Michael Bronstein, as a leading light within it.

Bronstein is chair in machine learning & pattern recognition at Imperial College, London — a position he will remain while leading graph deep learning research at Twitter.

Fabula’s chief technologist, Federico Monti — another co-founder, who began the collaboration that underpin’s the patented technology with Bronstein while at the University of Lugano, Switzerland — is also joining Twitter.

“We are really excited to join the ML research team at Twitter, and work together to grow their team and capabilities. Specifically, we are looking forward to applying our graph deep learning techniques to improving the health of the conversation across the service,” said Bronstein in a statement.

“This strategic investment in graph deep learning research, technology and talent will be a key driver as we work to help people feel safe on Twitter and help them see relevant information,” Twitter added. “Specifically, by studying and understanding the Twitter graph, comprised of the millions of Tweets, Retweets and Likes shared on Twitter every day, we will be able to improve the health of the conversation, as well as products including the timeline, recommendations, the explore tab and the onboarding experience.”

Terms of the acquisition have not been disclosed.

We covered Fabula’s technology and business plan back in February when it announced its “new class” of machine learning algorithms for detecting what it colloquially badged ‘fake news’.

Its approach to the problem of online disinformation looks at how it spreads on social networks — and therefore who is spreading it — rather than focusing on the content itself, as some other approaches do.

Fabula has patented algorithms that use the emergent field of “Geometric Deep Learning” to detect online disinformation — where the datasets in question are so large and complex that traditional machine learning techniques struggle to find purchase. Which does really sound like a patent designed with big tech in mind.

Fabula likens how ‘fake news’ spreads on social media vs real news as akin to “a very simplified model of how a disease spreads on the network”.

One advantage of the approach is it looks to be language agnostic (at least barring any cultural differences which might also impact how fake news spread).

Back in February the startup told us it was aiming to build an open, decentralised “truth-risk scoring platform” — akin to a credit referencing agency, just focused on content not cash.

It’s not clear from Twitter’s blog post whether the core technologies it will be acquiring with Fabula will now stay locked up within its internal research department — or be shared more widely, to help other platforms grappling with online disinformation challenges.

The startup had intended to offer an API for platforms and publishers later this year.

But of course building a platform is a major undertaking. And, in the meanwhile, Twitter — with its pressing need to better understand the stuff its network spreads — came calling.

A source close to the matter told us that Fabula’s founders decided that selling to Twitter instead of pushing for momentum behind a vision of a decentralized, open platform because the exit offered them more opportunity to have “real and deep impact, at scale”.

Though it is also still not certain what Twitter will end up doing with the technology it’s acquiring. And it at least remains possible that Twitter could choose to make it made open across platforms.

“That’ll be for the team to figure out with Twitter down the line,” our source added.

A spokesman for Twitter did not respond directly when we asked about its plans for the patented technology but he told us: “There’s more to come on how we will integrate Fabula’s technology where it makes sense to strengthen our systems and operations in the coming months.  It will likely take us some time to be able to integrate their graph deep learning algorithms into our ML platform. We’re bringing Fabula in for the team, tech and mission, which are all aligned with our top priority: Health.”

Startups Weekly: VCs are drunk on beverage startups

Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a newsletter published every Saturday that dives into the week’s most noteworthy venture deals, fundraises, M&A transactions and trends. Let’s take a quick moment to catch up. Last week, I wrote about an alternative to venture capital called revenue-based financing and before that, I jotted down some notes on one of VCs’ favorite spaces: cannabis tech. Remember, you can send me tips, suggestions and feedback to kate.clark@techcrunch.com or on Twitter @KateClarkTweets.

This week, I want to share some thoughts — questions, rather — on beverages. Just as my inbox has been full of cannabis-related pitches, it’s also been packed with descriptions of new…drinks. Perhaps the most noted so far is Liquid Death, canned water for the punk rock crowd, because why not? Liquid Death has attracted nearly $2 million in funding from angel investors like Away co-founder Jen Rubio and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. Before I tell you about a few other up-and-coming beverage makers, I must beg the question: Does the beverage industry need disrupting?

Founders say yes. Why? For one, because millennials, according to various studies, are consuming less alcohol than previous generations and are therefore seeking non-alcoholic beverage alternatives. Enter Seedlip, a non-alcoholic spirits company, for example. Or Haus, launching this summer, an all-natural apéritif distilled from grapes that has a lower alcohol content than most hard liquors. Haus, like any good consumer startup in 2019, is shipped directly to your door.

Bev, a canned wine business that recently raised $7 million in seed funding from Founders Fund, thinks marketing in the alcohol industry is the problem. Founder Alix Peabody designed a line of female-focused canned rosé. If you’re wondering why alcohol needs to be gendered in such a way, you’re not alone. Peabody explained most alcohol brands cater to men, and that’s a problem.

“The joke I like to make is there’s a go-to type of alcohol for every type of bro and we just don’t have that for women,” Peabody told TechCrunch earlier this year.

Finally, the wellness movement is taking over, driving VCs toward some odd upstarts. From wellness chat and journaling apps to therapy substitutes to fitness companies, stick wellness in a pitch and investors will take a second look. More Labs, for example, is backed with $8 million in VC funding. The company is readying the launch of Liquid Focus, a biohacking-beverage that claims to “solve modern-day stressors without the negative side effects.” Finally, Elements, “an elevated functional wellness beverage formulated with clinical levels of adaptogens to give your body exactly what it needs in four categories (focus, vitality, calm, and rest) for specific cognitive functions” (damn, what copy), recently launched. It doesn’t appear to be funded yet, but let’s just give it a few months.

There’s more where that came from, but I’m done for now. On to other news.

IPO Corner

I almost skipped IPO corner this week because no big-name companies dropped or amended their S-1s or completed a highly anticipated IPO, as has been the case basically every week of 2019. But I decided I better give a quick update on Luckin Coffee’s tough second week on the stock market. Luckin Coffee, if you aren’t familiar, is Starbucks’ Chinese rival. The company raised more than $550 million after pricing at $17 per share a little over a week ago. Immediately the stock skyrocketed 20 percent to a roughly $5 billion market cap; then came concerns of the company’s lofty valuation, major cash burn and uncertain path to profitability.  Luckin has dropped around 25 percent since closing its debut trading day. It closed Friday down 3 percent.

More changes at Y Combinator

Y Combinator, the popular accelerator program and investment firm announced this week that it has promoted longtime partner Geoff Ralston to president. This comes two months after former president Sam Altman stepped down to focus his efforts full-time on OpenAI. The promotion of Ralston is an unsurprising choice for YC, an organization that employs roughly 60 people, many of whom have been affiliated with it in one way or another for years.

M&A

Automattic acquires subscription payment company Prospress

Shopify quietly acquires Handshake, an e-commerce platform for B2B wholesale purchasing 

Streem buys Selerio in an effort to boost its AR conferencing tech

As Amex scoops up Resy, a look at its acquisition history 

Fundraising

The Los Angeles ecosystem is $76 million stronger this week as Fika Ventures, a seed-stage venture capital firm, announced its sophomore investment fund. Fika invests roughly half of its capital exclusively in startups headquartered in LA, with a particular fondness for B2B, enterprise and fintech companies. The firm was launched in 2017 by general partners Eva Ho and TX Zhuo, formerly of Susa Ventures and Karlin Ventures, respectively. The pair raised $41 million for the debut effort, opting to nearly double that number the second time around as a means to participate in more follow-on fundings.

Startup capital

DoorDash raises $600M at a $12.7B valuation
TransferWise completes $292M secondary round at a $3.5B valuation
Auth0 raises $103M, pushes its valuation over $1B
Canva gets $70M at a $2.5B valuation
Payment card startup Marqeta confirms $260M round at close to $2B valuation
Modsy scores $37M to virtually design your home
Sun Basket whips up $30M Series E
Zero raises $20M from NEA for a credit card that works like debit
Nigeria’s Gokada raises $5.3M for its motorcycle ride-hail biz

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another great week of interesting deep dives. This week, TechCrunch’s Lucas Matney went deep on Getaround’s acquisition of Drivy for his latest installment of The Exit, a new series at TechCrunch where we chat with VCs who were in the right place at the right time and made the right call on an investment that paid off. Here are some of the other Extra Crunch pieces that stood out this week:

Equity

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 I discuss how startups are avoiding IPOs and VC’s insatiable interest in food delivery startups.

Mailchimps Ben Chestnut on bootstrapping a startup to $700M in revenue

The well-known tech startup routine of coming up with an idea, raising money from venture capitalists and other outside investors in increasing rounds as valuations continue to rise, and then eventually going public — or getting acquired — has been around for as long as the myth of Silicon Valley itself. But the evolution of Mailchimp — a notable, bootstrapped outlier out of Atlanta, Ga., that provides email and other marketing services to smaller businesses — tells a very different story of tech startup success.

The company is now closing in on $700 million in annual revenues for 2019, and it seems that it has no intention of letting up, or selling out: No outside funding, no plans for an IPO and no to all the companies that have tried to acquire it (interested parties have included private equity firms as well as big tech players).

As Mailchimp has grown, it has been profitable from day one, a notable contrast not just to many other startups, but those specifically in the area of software-as-a-service for businesses. As a point of comparison, Slack, another provider of communications services to small businesses that is poised to go public, brought in around $130 million last quarter; it is not yet profitable.

This week, Mailchimp is unveiling what is probably its biggest product update since first starting to sell email services almost 20 years ago. It’s launching a new marketing platform that features social media management services, ad retargeting for Instagram and Facebook, domain sales, web development templates; and business intelligence.

There is still a lot of tech left for Mailchimp to tackle, and its model shows that you don’t always need outside funding to do it. The BI foray, as one example, marks an interesting move into artificial intelligence, and tapping the fact that the company is sitting on an intent and interest graph that spans some 4.5 billion people — the aggregation of all the emails that have been sent through Mailchimp’s platform. (Indeed, ‘small business’ for Mailchimp means ‘small number of employees’, but in our digital world, a small business might still be handling millions of customers.)

Adding in those new features will not come free: more pricing tiers, and higher pricing, will take effect from Wednesday for new users. You can read more about that here.

And adding in those new features also comes with another twist: it will catapult Mailchimp into a new arena of competition.

Today, some of the company’s notable competitors are the likes of SendGrid, Intercom and Drip. Tomorrow, that list could expand to include Marketo, Hubspot, InfusionSoft, Hootsuite and many more. While Mailchimp was an early mover and by the company’s own admission was coming into the market at a time when there was very little competition, it will be interesting to see if it can take some of the traction it has picked up to date and bring it to an adjacent — but still entirely new — product segment, and at a higher price, to boot.

I took the opportunity to speak with Mailchimp’s co-founder and CEO, Ben Chestnut — who started the company in Atlanta as a side project with two friends, Mark Armstrong and Dan Kurzius, in the trough of the first dot-com bust — on Mailchimp’s origins and plans for what comes next. The startup’s story is a firm example of how there is definitely more than one route to success in tech.


Ingrid Lunden: You’re launching a new marketing platform today, but I want to walk back a little first. This isn’t your first move away from email. We discovered back in March that you quietly acquired a Canadian e-commerce startup, LemonStand, just as you were parting ways with Shopify. (More on that acquisition here, and the Shopify changes here.)

Ben Chestnut: We wanted to have a tool to help small business marketers do their initial selling. The focus is not multiple products. Just one. We’re not interested in setting up full-blown e-commerce carts. This is about helping companies sell one product in an Instagram ad with a buy button, and we felt that the people at LemonStand could help us with that.

Capital.com powers Currency.coms world first in tokenising government bonds

With the SEC recently releasing its long-awaited guidance on crypto token issuers, it’s becoming clear that the crypto world is edging closer to the traditional financial world. New players are joining the sector who hail from traditional finance and trading backgrounds.

Until this year, crypto exchanges focused on providing access to ICOs instead of providing access to traditional capital markets with real value and revenues.

When Currency.com launched its beta in January among influencers in the finance, trading and crypto space, it looked to address this deficit. The company says it attracted 150,000 people to the waiting list to test the platform and have since onboarded around 5,000 so far. Now the platform aims to take a further step.

Today it’s launching what it claims to be the world’s first tokenized government bond. This could be construed as a significant move, but it will come down to whether the market welcomes this or not.

Currency.com’s full launch will make 1,000 tokenized securities available to both private and institutional investors globally but will exclude the USA and those on the FATF list.

The underlying tech story here is that Currency.com leverages the technology of Capital.com, its sister platform regulated by the FCA and CySEC.

Capital.com is a fintech startup with an AI-enabled trading platform available on the web and on mobile, which works to detect clients’ trading biases and recommends personalized content to help them trade smarter. The startup is backed to the tune of $25 million by VP Capital, the vehicle of London-based investor Viktor Prokopenya, and Larnabel Ventures.

Currency.com will enable users to trade and invest in tokenized government bonds using fiat money, Bitcoin or Ethereum, and has issued a tokenized version of Belarusian government bonds and plans to include additional tokenized government and corporate bonds over time.

So, if you want to trade in Belarusian government bonds, this is the place for you.

However, there could be enormous regulatory hurdles ahead for something like this, internationally, and bond issuers may well look askance at such a project.

But for now, Ivan Gowan (pictured), Currency.com’s CEO who previous to this led IG Group’s IT function for over 15 years, says he is confident the move will be a big one.

“The arrival of tokenized securities will completely change how investors can use their cryptocurrencies. Linking crypto to the price of stocks and shares provides a tangible way for holders of Bitcoin and Ethereum to access traditional financial markets. Our beta launch proved the appetite is there globally for a service like this and Currency.com’s full launch marks a significant shift in the direction of crypto as it becomes more regulated and starts to move closer towards traditional markets,” he said.

Traditionally, government bonds offer the most secure assets alongside cash — however, they provide a better interest rate.

However, the bonds market and securities that can be tokenized is a market measured in trillions as opposed to billions, because the bond market is a much larger market than that for equities and is harder for retail customers to access.

Furthermore, the risk-adjusted returns and risk of default are totally different to ICOs.

Tokenizing bonds, therefore, could allow retail clients access to a less volatile market to help them grow their wealth without the ups and downs experienced by the normal equities market.

That, at least, is the theory.

What is in favor of Currency.com’s move is the fact that the LSE, Nasdaq and Swiss Stock Exchange are all looking to move into tokenized securities.

If Currency.com steals a march on them, all well and good. If government bond issues take umbrage, however… not so good.

Currency.com may at least benefit from its well-built mobile app, allowing crypto investors to trade more easily on mobile, featuring stops, limits and negative balance protection.

Now, while the platform will be regulated, it must be pointed out that the regulation isn’t coming from a traditional jurisdiction. Currency.com will be regulated by the High Tech Park in Minsk, Belarus.

This claims to be “one of the strictest set of regulations in the world,” covering “strict AML, KYC processes.”

Last year Belarus introduced “Decree 8,” which boosted the country’s laws around the tech sector and crypto.

So, in theory, the wind is at the back of such a launch, given a favorable regulator and government.

Time will tell whether this move will ultimately be a win for Capital.com, the underlying tech company behind this whole enterprise.

Startups Weekly: Zoom CEO says its stock price is too high

When Zoom hit the public markets Thursday, its IPO pop, a whopping 81 percent, floored everyone, including its own chief executive officer, Eric Yuan.

Yuan became a billionaire this week when his video conferencing business went public. He told Bloomberg that he actually wished his stock hadn’t soared quite so high. I’m guessing his modesty and laser focus attracted Wall Street to his stock; well, that, and the fact that his business is actually profitable. He is, this week proved, not your average tech CEO.

I chatted with him briefly on listing day. Here’s what he had to say.

“I think the future is so bright and the stock price will follow our execution. Our philosophy remains the same even now that we’ve become a public company. The philosophy, first of all, is you have to focus on execution, but how do you do that? For me as a CEO, my number one role is to make sure Zoom customers are happy. Our market is growing and if our customers are happy they are going to pay for our service. I don’t think anything will change after the IPO. We will probably have a much better brand because we are a public company now, it’s a new milestone.”

“The dream is coming true,” he added. 

For the most part, it sounded like Yuan just wants to get back to work.

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IPO corner

You thought I was done with IPO talk? No, definitely not:

  • Pinterest completed its IPO this week too! Here’s the TLDR: Pinterest popped 25 percent on its debut Thursday and is currently trading up 28 percent. Not bad, Pinterest, not bad.
  • Fastly, a startup I’d admittedly never heard of until this week, filed its S-1 and displayed a nice path to profitability. That means the parade of tech IPOs is far from over.
  • Uber… Surprisingly, no Uber IPO news this week. Sit tight, more is surely coming.

$1B for self-driving cars

While I’m on the subject of Uber, the company’s autonomous vehicles unit did, in fact, raise $1 billion, a piece of news that had been previously reported but was confirmed this week. With funding from Toyota, Denso and SoftBank’s Vision Fund, Uber will spin-out its self-driving car unit, called Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group. The deal values ATG at $7.25 billion.

Robots!

The TechCrunch staff traveled to Berkeley this week for a day-long conference on robotics and artificial intelligence. The highlight? Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert debuted the production version of their buzzworthy electric robot. As we noted last year, the company plans to produce around 100 models of the robot in 2019. Raibert said the company is aiming to start production in July or August. There are robots coming off the assembly line now, but they are betas being used for testing, and the company is still doing redesigns. Pricing details will be announced this summer.

Digital health investment is down

Despite notable rounds for digital health businesses like Ro, known for its direct-to-consumer erectile dysfunction medications, investment in the digital health space is actually down, reports TechCrunch’s Jonathan Shieber. Venture investors, private equity and corporations funneled $2 billion into digital health startups in the first quarter of 2019, down 19 percent from the nearly $2.5 billion invested a year ago. There were also 38 fewer deals done in the first quarter this year than last year, when investors backed 187 early-stage digital health companies, according to data from Mercom Capital Group.

Startup capital

Byton loses co-founder and former CEO, reported $500M Series C to close this summer
Lyric raises $160M from VCs, Airbnb
Brex, the credit card for startups, raises $100M debt round
Ro, a D2C online pharmacy, reaches $500M valuation
Logistics startup Zencargo gets $20M to take on the business of freight forwarding
Co-Star raises $5M to bring its astrology app to Android
Y Combinator grad Fuzzbuzz lands $2.7M seed round to deliver fuzzing as a service

Extra Crunch

Hundreds of billions of dollars in venture capital went into tech startups last year, topping off huge growth this decade. VCs are reviewing more pitch decks than ever, as more people build companies and try to get a slice of the funding opportunities. So how do you do that in such a competitive landscape? Storytelling. Read contributor’s Russ Heddleston’s latest for Extra Crunch: Data tells us that investors love a good story.

Plus: The different playbook of D2C brands

And finally, for the first of a new series on VC-backed exits aptly called The Exit. TechCrunch’s Lucas Matney spoke to Bessemer Venture Partners’ Adam Fisher about Dynamic Yield’s $300M exit to McDonald’s.

#Equitypod

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 I chat about rounds for Brex, Ro and Kindbody, plus special guest Danny Crichton joined us to discuss the latest in the chip and sensor world.

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