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Ushur raises $25M for its no-code platform to build customer communication flows

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No-code is the name of the game in enterprise software, and today a startup called Ushur that has built a platform for any business to create its own AI-based customer communication flows with no coding required is announcing some funding to help fuel its growth.

The startup has picked up $25 million in a Series B round of funding led by Third Point Ventures (the fund founded and led by activist investor and hedge fund supremo Daniel Loeb), with previous investor 8VC (Joe Lonsdale’s fund) also participating. It brings the total raised by Ushur to $36 million.

Ushur is not disclosing its valuation but it’s growing fast. As a mark of how it is doing, the startup is currently focusing on the insurance sector (a big one when it comes to speaking with customers and amassing data during the conversation) and it counts Aetna, Irish Life, Tower Insurance and Unum among its customers building chatbots (dubbed Virtual Customer Assistants by Ushur), automated email response flows (branded SmartMail), and tools to help customer service agents serve people more quickly (Flowbuilder). It has APIs for those who need them, with integrations into Slack, ServiceNow, Salesforce and Jira, and works in 60 languages (not just English).

It’s now widening the net to also target financial services and telecoms companies, with the plan being to use the funding primarily to expand Ushur’s sales and marketing to keep growing its business after seeing a rise in demand during the Covid-19 pandemic, CEO and co-founder Simha Sadasiva said in an interview.

As companies — not just e-commerce or other online companies, but all companies — have turned to having more virtual interactions with their customers, solutions like Ushur’s have come into their own.

That’s been especially true for companies that are not “tech” at their core. They may lack the in-house talent and other resources to build and run tech-based services from the ground up, but at the same time also are looking for solutions that don’t involve the cost (and time) of working with third-party system integrators to implement them. This is the case, Sadasiva said, with RPA (robotic process automation) solutions, which he described as a competing approach that typically requires technical expertise or systems integrators to create and implement software.

Enter no-code: solutions — software platforms really — that are built with all the nitty gritty coding behind the scenes, and easy-to-use interfaces at the front for users to knit together programs, query databases and run calculations without needing to know how to do these at the coding level, at a typically lower cost.

“For every dollar you spend on RPA tool you have to spend $3-4 more to deploy it so we are very competitive,” Sadasiva said. One email service developed by Irish Life for its agents reduced typical enquiry processing times from between 3 hours – 2.5 days to “less than a second” with 40% fewer resources, the company claims.

To be clear, these are not off-the-shelf pieces of software, but flows that are customised by the customers based on what they need and then powered by natural language processing (which is also baked in behind the scenes).

“We have hundreds of templates already created,” Sadasiva said. “But the key thing is that they are like Lego pieces, or building blocks. We provide the assembly kit to make lots of new shapes and objects.”

Although there are a lot of companies marketing themselves a no-code and low-code, and indeed there is a big demand for more productivity and communication tools that don’t require you to be a programmer to use them but give you the flexibility of building what you need, not what a software company thinks you need, Ushur is finding a lot of traction with investors and customers.

“They’re right at the intersection of some of the biggest developments in enterprise software,” said Third Point Ventures Managing Partner Robert Schwartz in a statement. “Automation that feels personal yet delivers tremendous efficiencies to the enterprise. No-code design that allows customers to get to deployment and benefit easily and incredibly fast. Customer experiences that actually favor the customer. And they’re doing an incredible job with execution.”

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Databand raises $14.5M led by Accel for its data pipeline observability tools

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DevOps continues to get a lot of attention as a wave of companies develop more sophisticated tools to help developers manage increasingly complex architectures and workloads. In the latest development, Databand — an AI-based observability platform for data pipelines, specifically to detect when something is going wrong with a datasource when an engineer is using a disparate set of data management tools — has closed a round of $14.5 million.

Josh Benamram, the CEO who co-founded the company with Victor Shafran and Evgeny Shulman, said that Databand plans include more hiring; to continue adding customers for its existing product; to expand the library of tools that its providing to users to cover an ever-increasing landscape of DevOps software, where it is a big supporter of open source resources; as well as to invest in the next steps of its own commercial product. That will include more remediation once problems are identified: that is, in addition to identifying issues, engineers will be able to start automatically fixing them, too.

The Series A is being led by Accel with participation from Blumberg Capital, Lerer Hippeau, Ubiquity Ventures, Differential Ventures, and Bessemer Venture Partners. Blumberg led the company’s seed round in 2018. It has now raised around $18.5 million and is not disclosing valuation.

The problem that Databand is solving is one that is getting more urgent and problematic by the day (as evidenced by this exponential yearly rise in zettabytes of data globally). And as data workloads continue to grow in size and use, they continue to become ever more complex.

On top of that, today there are a wide range of applications and platforms that a typical organization will use to manage source material, storage, usage and so on. That means when there are glitches in any one data source, it can be a challenge to identify where and what the issue can be. Doing so manually can be time-consuming, if not impossible.

“Our users were in a constant battle with ETL (extract transform load) logic,” said Benamram, who spoke to me from New York (the company is based both there and in Tel Aviv, and also has developers and operations in Kiev). “Users didn’t know how to organize their tools and systems to produce reliable data products.”

It is really hard to focus attention on failures, he said, when engineers are balancing analytics dashboards, how machine models are performing, and other demands on their time; and that’s before considering when and if a data supplier might have changed an API at some point, which might also throw the data source completely off.

And if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of that data, you know how frustrating (and perhaps more seriously, disastrous) bad data can be. Benamram said that it’s not uncommon for engineers to completely miss anomalies and for them to only have been brought to their attention by “CEO’s looking at their dashboards and suddenly thinking something is off.” Not a great scenario.

Databand’s approach is to use big data to better handle big data: it crunches various pieces of information, including pipeline metadata like logs, runtime info, and data profiles, along with information from Airflow, Spark, Snowflake, and other sources, and puts the resulting data into a single platform, to give engineers a single view of what’s happening better see where bottlenecks or anomalies are appearing, and why.

There are a number of other companies building data observability tools — Splunk perhaps is one of the most obvious, but also smaller players like Thundra and Rivery. These companies might step further into the area that Databand has identified and is fixing, but for now Databand’s focus specifically on identifying and helping engineers fix anomalies has given it a strong profile and position.

Accel partner Seth Pierrepont said that Databand came to the VC’s attention in perhaps the best way it could: Accel needed a solution like it for its own internal work.

“Data pipeline observability is a challenge that our internal data team at Accel was struggling with. Even at our relatively small scale, we were having issues with the reliability of our data outputs on a weekly basis, and our team found Databand as a solution,” he said. “As companies in all industries seek to become more data driven, Databand delivers an essential product that ensures the reliable delivery of high quality data for businesses. Josh, Victor and Evgeny have a wealth of experience in this area, and we’ve been impressed with their thoughtful and open approach to helping data engineers better manage their data pipelines with Databand.”

The company is also used by data teams from both large Fortune 500 enterprises to smaller startups.

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WhatsApp is upping its wallpapers and stickers game

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WhatsApp is finally upping its wallpapers and stickers game.

The instant messaging service said on Tuesday that it will now allow users to set custom wallpapers for different chats in a bid to make it easier for users to easily distinguish the dozens or hundreds of chats they are simultaneously engaging with. There’s no limit on how many custom wallpapers a user could choose to assign to different chats, it said.

“Make your chats personal and distinguishable by using a custom wallpaper for your most important chats and favorite people, and you never need worry about sending the wrong message in the wrong chat ever again,” the Facebook -owned service said.

WhatsApp, used by over 2 billion users, is also rolling out doodle wallpaper — the default wallpaper currently — in more colors, and is bulking up the selection of wallpapers with more images of nature and architecture from around the world, it said. Additionally, users can now also set a separate wallpaper which activates when their phone switches from light to dark mode.

Moving on from wallpapers, the messaging app said it is also making it easier for users to quickly search and find stickers with text or emoji, or browse through common categories.

The firm urged sticker creators to tag their stickers with emojis and text moving forward so that their stickers become more easily searchable for WhatsApp users. A company spokesperson declined to share the kind of traction stickers have received on WhatsApp, or how many sticker creators have contributed.

But if stickers are something you enjoy, there are some additional ones you will spot today. The World’s Health Organization’s “Together at Home” sticker pack is now available as animated stickers. (The two began collaborating earlier this year to raise more awareness about the coronavirus pandemic.)

“Together at Home has been one of the most popular sticker packs across WhatsApp, and will now be even more expressive and useful in its animated form. The ‘Together at Home’ sticker pack is available within WhatsApp, including with text localized for 9 languages – Arabic, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Turkish,” WhatsApp said.

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Google Play’s Best of 2020 Awards highlight the stressful year it’s been

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Continuing its annual tradition, Google today announced its Best of 2020 awards — the company’s list of the best apps, games, movies and books for the year. Not surprisingly, the top apps picked by both Google Play users and editors reflect the stressful year that 2020 has been, with a top sleep app, Loóna, winning the title of “Best App” of 2020. Meanwhile, Google Play users picked streaming service Disney+ as their choice.

Loóna is a fitting app to win the award this year. The sleep aid promises a mood-altering experience that helps its users deal with the negative emotions that accumulate during the day and are then processed during sleep. As anxiety and stress grow, people’s sleep patterns and REM sleep be disrupted, Loóna explains. To combat this, its app offers nightly “sleepscapes,” that combined activity-based relaxation, storytelling and sounds to help people shut out their stress and relax.

Unlike other sleep or meditation apps where users close their eyes and drift off, Loóna is intended to help people wind down while still on their phones. Users tap to color images while the sleep story plays. The company also this year introduced music playlists, called soundscapes.

Image Credits: Loóna

In October, the company reported its app — which is also available on iOS — was seeing daily average time spent of 34 minutes from its subscribers. And its average conversion rate from trial to paid subscriber was 52.5%. With version 2.0, Loóna plans to reposition its app from being solely focused on bedtime relaxation to become a broader mood management app that also covers the sleep to wake up cycle, among other things. It also plans to add personalized content recommendations.

In addition to Loóna, Google Play editors selected the free-to-play action role-playing game Genshin Impact as the year’s best game for giving players a “wondrous world to explore” while unraveling mysteries. The game, miHoYo’s first-ever open-world game, features battles with elemental magic, character switching, and gacha game monetization for obtaining new characters, weapons, and other additions.

Google Play users, however, selected SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off as the year’s best game.

Another app that benefitted from coronavirus lockdowns was Disney+, which won this year’s User’s Choice award for Best App. The streaming service helped families stuck at home to keep their kids entertained. Plus, with new shows like the “The Mandalorian,” the service has been a hit for adults in the family, too.

In addition to the top winners, Google gave a shout-out to a few other notable titles in its announcement, including Chris Hemsworth’s training app Centr, behavioral modification app Intellect, as well as games like The Gardens Between, Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells, and Sky: Children of the Light.

The Play Store also awarded various gaming subgenres with awards of their own, like best competitive games, best indies, best pick up and play, and best game changers. These winners include Brawlhalla, Bullet Echo, GWENT: The Witcher Card Game, Legends of Runeterra, The Seven Deadly Sins: Grand Cross, Cookies Must Die, GRIS, inbento, Maze Machina, Sky: Children of Light, Disney Frozen Adventures, DreamWorks Trolls Pop, EverMerge, Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells, SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off, Fancade, Genshin Impact, Minimal Dungeon RPG, Ord., and The Gardens Between.

Other top apps won awards in categories like best everyday essentials, best for personal growth, best hidden gems, best for fun, and best apps for good. These app winners include Calmaria, Grid Diary, The Pattern, Whisk, Zoom, Centr, Intellect, Jumprope: How-to Videos, Paird: Couples App, Speekoo, Cappuccino, Explorest, Loóna, Paperless Post, Tayasui Sketches, Bazaart, Disney+, Dolby On, Reface, Vita, GreenChoice, Medito, and ShareTheMeal.

Movies that won “Best of” for 2020 included Bill & Ted Face the Music, Just Mercy, Miss Juneteenth, Onward, and Parasite; while book winners included A Promised Land by Barack Obama, The City We Became by N.K. Jesmin, Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi, Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh, and You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria,

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