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Anyscale adds $40M to bring its Ray-based distributed computing tech to the enterprise masses

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The world of distributed computing took on a new profile this year when Folding@home, a 20-year-old distributed computing project, found itself picking up thousands of new volunteers to help Covid-19 researchers generate more computing power to fold proteins and run other calculations needed for screening potential drug compounds to fight the novel coronavirus. Today, a startup that is also tapping the potential and opportunity in distributed computing is announcing a round of growth funding to continue its own work.

Anyscale, a startup founded by a team out of UC Berkeley who created the Ray open-source Python framework for running distributed computing projects, has raised $40 million.

It plans to use the capital to continue developing Anyscale, a platform built on Ray that will make Ray usable not just by high-level developers and computing specialists, but any technical people who are looking to run projects that require large amounts of computing power.

Ion Stoica, Anyscale’s executive chairman who co-founded the company with Robert Nishihara, Philipp Moritz and Berkeley professor Michael I. Jordan, said in an interview that the company is tapping into a moment spurred not just by the events of 2020 but by the bigger demand from companies — spurred by the growth of cloud computing, major digital transformation of their systems, and a need to go that extra mile to remain competitive. Organizations are becoming more ambitious in their technology strategies and goals, whether they are tech companies or not.

“At a high level, the trend that we see is that all applications are distributed and running on clusters, but building these applications is incredibly hard and requires teams with the right expertise,” said Stoica. “What we are trying to build will make it as easy to build a distributed computing project as it would be to run a program on your laptop. It will mean ordinary developers will be able to build scalable applications just like Google can build today.”

The company’s first build of Anyscale — which will let organizations build multi-cloud applications from a single machine and use serverless architecture that scales up and down to meet application demands –
 has yet to launch commercially: it is in a private beta and the plan is to launch it fully next year.

There has been interest from financial services, retail, and manufacturing companies, Stoica said, with companies working in design, informatics and medical research (and Covid-19 vaccines) also using the private beta.

The Series B is being led by previous investor NEA, with Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), Intel Capital, and Foundation Capital also participating. A16z led the company’s Series A less than a year ago (a $20 million round in December).

Intel, meanwhile, is a strategic investor. Along with other tech giants like Microsoft, Intel is using Ray’s distributing computing model to run projects.

Stoica — who also co-founded Databricks, Conviva and was one of the original developers of Apache Spark — and Nishihara declined to comment in an interview on Anyscale’s valuation, but Stoica confirmed that the round was oversubscribed. The company has now raised just over $60 million.

While the startup continues to build out Anyscale, in the last year it has also been making more headway with Ray, which they also maintain.

At the Ray Summit — Anyscale’s conference for developers run as a virtual event at the end of September —  Anyscale released Ray 1.0, which provides, in addition to a universal serverless compute API, an expanded library to use on Ray 1.0. Nishihara described it as a “huge milestone,” not least because it is one step along the path for the bigger vision they have for Anyscale to be used by non-tech companies for tech work.

A typical example was a recent recommendation algorithm built by Intel for Burger King. “The thing that is hard to do is not making the recommendations but learning from the interactions that users are having, and the choices they are making, and having that experience reflected back very rapidly,” he said. It’s a process that can be done in other ways, but with a far less good user experience due to lags.

This past year Nishihara said that interest in Ray has seen “tremendous growth,” but that it’s hard to say whether that is because of people working from home or just wider computing trends.

“It’s clear if anything that the pandemic is accelerating the transition,” said Stoica. “Ray has good support for the cloud, including Azure, Google Cloud Platform and others, which makes it quite compelling.”

We’ve seen an interesting trend in enterprise IT, where startups are finding an opportunity in the market by making it possible for non-technical organizations to bridge the digital divide, by providing better access to the most technical advances in computing to organizations beyond those that can build and operate such tools themselves. Just as groups like Element AI are working on ways to democratize advances in AI, the same kind of tech built, acquired and used by the likes of Apple, Google and Amazon, so too is Anyscale looking to do the same in enterprise computing.

And the two areas of AI and computing, of course, are interconnected: these days you need vast amounts of computing power to run AI applications, something the average company typically lacks.

“The demand for distributed computing continues to increase with the widespread adoption of AI and machine learning in application development,” said Pete Sonsini, General Partner at NEA, in a statement. “Still, scaling applications on clusters remains extremely challenging. Serverless computing is emerging as the preferred platform for developing distributed applications. Unfortunately, today’s serverless offerings support only a limited set of applications, and most of them are cloud-specific—but not Ray and Anyscale. The company’s path thus far bears the hallmarks of a standout technology pioneer, and we’re thrilled to partner with the team through this next phase bridging their open source and commercial offerings.”

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Teardown of “Dishy McFlatface,” the SpaceX Starlink user terminal

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The outer part of

Enlarge / Ken Keiter gets ready to tear apart the SpaceX Starlink user terminal, “Dishy McFlatface.” (credit: Ken Keiter)

Engineer Ken Keiter recently came into possession of one SpaceX Starlink user terminal, the satellite dish that SpaceX nicknamed “Dishy McFlatface.” But instead of plugging it in and getting Internet access from SpaceX’s low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, Keiter decided to take Dishy apart to see what’s inside.

The teardown process destroyed portions of the device. “I would love to actually test out the [Starlink] service and clearly I didn’t get a chance to, as this went a little bit further than I was intending,” Keiter said toward the end of the 55-minute teardown video he posted on YouTube last week.

Keiter, who lives in Portland, Oregon, was impressed by the Starlink team’s work. “It’s rare to see something of this complexity in a consumer product,” he said in reference to the device’s printed circuit board (PCB), which he measured at 19.75″ by 21.5″.

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Salesforce applies AI to workflow with Einstein Automate

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While Salesforce made a big splash yesterday with the announcement that it’s buying Slack for $27.7 billion, it’s not the only thing going on for the CRM giant this week. In fact Dreamforce, the company’s customer extravaganza is also on the docket. While it is virtual this year, there are still product announcements aplenty and today the company announced Einstein Automate, a new AI-fueled set of workflow solutions.

Sarah Franklin, EVP & GM of Platform, Trailhead and AppExchange at Salesforce says that she is seeing companies facing a digital imperative to automate processes as things move ever more quickly online, being driven there even faster by the pandemic. “With Einstein Automate, everyone can change the speed of work and be more productive through intelligent workflow automation,” she said in a statement.

Brent Leary, principal analyst at CRM Essentials says that combined these tools are designed to help customers get to work more quickly. “It’s not only about identifying the insight, it’s about making it easier to leverage it at the the right time. And this should make it easier for users to do it without spending more time and effort,” Leary told TechCrunch.

Einstein is the commercial name given to Salesforce’s artificial intelligence platform that touches every aspect of the company’s product line, bringing automation to many tasks and making it easier to find the most valuable information on customers, which is often buried in an avalanche of data.

Einstein Automate encompasses several products designed to improve workflows inside organizations. For starters, the company has created Flow Orchestrator, a tool that uses a low-code, drag and drop approach for building workflows, but it doesn’t stop there. It also relies on AI to provide help suggest logical next steps to speed up workflow creation.

Salesforce is also bringing Mulesoft, the integration company it bought for $6.5 billion in 2018 into the mix. Instead of processes like a mortgage approval workflow, the Mulesoft piece lets IT build complex integrations between applications across the enterprise, and the Salesforce family of products more easily.

To make it easier to build these workflows, Salesforce is announcing the Einstein Automate collection page available in AppExchange, the company’s application marketplace. The collection includes over 700 pre-built connectors so customers can grab and go as they build these workflows, and finally it’s updating the OmniStudio, their platform for generating customer experiences. As Salesforce describes it, “Included in OmniStudio is a suite of resources and no-code tools, including pre-built guided experiences, templates and more, allowing users to deploy digital-first experiences like licensing and permit applications quickly and with ease. ”

Per usual with Salesforce Dreamforce announcements, the Flow Orchestrator being announced today won’t be available in beta until next summer. The Mulesoft component will be available in early 2021, but the OmniStudio updates and the Einstein connections collection are available today.

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Virta Health’s behavioral diabetes treatment service is now worth over $1 billion

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A new $65 million investment led by the growth capital and public investment arm of Sequoia Capital will give Virta Health, a developer of a behavioral-focused diabetes treatment, a valuation of over $1 billion.

Virta’s approach, which uses a combination of approaches to change diet and exercise to reverse the presence of type 2 diabetes and other chronic metabolic conditions, has shown clinical success and attracted 100 health care payers to endorse the company’s treatments.

“We partnered with Virta for their ability to deliver unmatched health improvement and cost savings—two clear differentiators from other offerings on the market,” said William Ashmore, CEO of the State Employees’ Insurance Board of Alabama, in a statement. “Especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s vital that we provide our members the life-changing results Virta is known for delivering, through expert, virtual care delivered right to their home.”

The company said it would use the funding to expand sales and marketing efforts for its services as well as expand its research and development into other non-pharmaceutical therapies for metabolic conditions.

The financing came from Sequoia Capital Global Equities and Caffeinated Capital and brings the company’s total funding to over $230 million and gives it a $1.1 billion valuation, according to a statement.

Alongside Sequoia Capital Global Equities, Caffeinated Capital participated in the round, which brings total funding to more than $230 million and values Virta Health at over $1.1 billion.

Diabetes has long been an attractive condition for startups and has been the first target that companies focused on behavior changes to influence metabolic conditions aim to address. The reason why there are so many diabetes-focused businesses is because of the prevalence of the disease in the U.S. Almost half of adults in the U.S. suffer from obesity, pre-diabetes, or type 2 diabetes and the disease kills thirty people every hour. Diabetes also doubles the risk of death from COVID-19 infections.

Beyond the risks, the costs of treatment are skyrocketing. According to data from the American Diabetes Association released in March 2018, the total costs of treating diagnosed diabetes have risen to $327 billion in 2017 from $245 billion in 2012, when the cost was last examined.

“Given the scope of the metabolic crisis in the U.S. and globally, it cannot be understated how game-changing Virta’s results and care delivery are,” said Patrick Fu, managing partner at Sequoia Capital Global Equities, in a statement. “Virta’s technology-driven, non-pharmaceutical approach has fundamentally changed how diabetes is cared for, and our collective belief in what is possible for population health improvement. This is the future of chronic disease care.”

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