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Tech in the Biden era

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President-elect Joe Biden may have spent eight years in an administration that doted on the tech industry, but that long honeymoon, punctuated by four years of Trump, looks to be over.

Tech is on notice in 2020. The Russian election interference saga of the 2016 election opened the floodgates for social media’s ills. The subsequent years unleashed dangerous torrents of homegrown extremism and misinformation that either disillusioned or radicalized regular people. A cluster of tech’s biggest data brokers further consolidated power, buying up any would-be competitor they stumbled across and steamrolling everything else. Things got so bad that Republicans and Democrats, in uncanny agreement, are both pushing plans to regulate tech.

Suddenly, allowing the world’s information merchants to grow, unmolested, into towering ad-fed behemoths over the last decade looked like a huge mistake. And that’s where we are today.

Biden and big tech

Biden didn’t make attacking tech a cornerstone of his campaign and mostly avoided weighing in on tech issues, even as Elizabeth Warren stirred the big tech backlash into the campaign conversation. His attitude toward the tech industry at large is a bit mysterious, but there are some things we do know.

The president-elect is expected to keep the Trump administration’s antitrust case against Google on track, potentially even opening additional cases into Facebook, Amazon and Apple. But his campaign also leaned on former Google CEO Eric Schmidt for early fundraising, so the relationship to Google looks a bit more complex than the Biden team’s open contempt for a company like Facebook.

As Biden picked up the nomination and the months wore on, it became clear that Mark Zuckerberg’s chumminess with Trump’s White House was unlikely to continue into a Biden administration. By September, the Biden campaign had penned a scathing letter to Mark Zuckerberg denouncing Facebook as the “foremost propagator” of election disinformation, and that frustration doesn’t seem to have dissipated. His deputy communications director recently criticized Facebook for “shredding” the fabric of democracy. It appears that Facebook could come to regret the many decisions it’s made to stay in the Trump administration’s good graces over the last four years.

Still, it’s not doom and gloom for all tech — big tech isn’t everything. There are plenty of potential bright spots, from Biden’s climate plans (lack of Senate control notwithstanding), which could crack open a whole new industry and shower it in federal dollars, to his intention to revitalize the nation’s infrastructure, from telecommunications and transportation to energy-efficient housing. 

And antitrust legislation, usually framed as an existential threat to “tech” broadly, actually stands to benefit the startup scene, where the largest tech companies have walled off many paths to innovation with years of anti-competitive behavior. If Congress, states and/or the Justice Department manages to get anywhere with the antitrust actions percolating now — and there are many things percolating — the result could open up paths for startups that would prefer a more interesting exit than being bought and subsumed (best case) or shuttered (worst case) into one of five or so tech mega-companies.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is another wildcard. Hailing from tech’s backyard, Harris brings a distinctly Bay Area vibe to the office. Most interesting is Harris’s brother-in-law Tony West. West is Uber’s chief legal officer and played a prominent role in pushing for California’s Proposition 22, which absolved gig economy companies like Lyft and Uber from the need to grant their workers benefits afforded to full-time employees. Siding with organized labor, Harris landed on the other side of the issue.

The extent of her relationships in the tech world isn’t totally clear, but she apparently has a friendly relationship with Sheryl Sandberg, who was a frontrunner for a Treasury or Commerce position four years ago in the advent of a Hillary Clinton win. 

The Biden administration will also have all kinds of quiet ties to power players in the tech world, many of whom served in the Obama years and then made a beeline for Silicon Valley. Apple’s Lisa Jackson, formerly of Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency, and Jay Carney, a former Obama spokesman who sits comfortably as SVP of global corporate affairs at Amazon, are two examples there.

Transition names from tech

The Biden administration’s transition list is generously peppered with names from the tech industry, though some of them are likely grandfathered in from the Obama era rather than pulled directly for their more recent industry experience. The list named Matt Olsen, Uber’s chief trust and security officer, for his prior experience in the intel community under Obama rather than his ridesharing industry insights, for example.

The list doesn’t include any names fresh from Facebook or Google, but it does include four members from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and one from Eric Schmidt’s philanthropic project Schmidt Futures. The list also suggests a degree of continuity with the Obama era, with the inclusion of Aneesh Chopra, the first U.S. CTO, and Nicole Wong, a former deputy chief technology officer under Obama who previously worked at Twitter and Google. The transition also includes a smattering of names that served in the digital services agency 18F and some from the USDS, which borrows talent from the tech world to solve public problems.

Other names from the tech world include Airbnb’s Divya Kumaraiah and Clare Gallagher, Lyft’s Brandon Belford, Arthur Plews of Stripe, Dell CTO Ann Dunkin and quite a few more. These transition figures will help the administration fill the many open slots in a new government, but they’re less telling than who gets called to the cabinet. 

Tech in the cabinet? Maybe.

Beyond reading the tea leaves of the transition team and Biden’s previous statements here and there, we’re in for a wait. The administration’s picks for its cabinets will say a lot about its priorities, but for now we’re mostly left with the rumor mill. 

What does the rumor mill suggest? Meg Whitman, the former HP and eBay CEO most recently at the helm of failed short-form streaming platform Quibi, keeps coming up as a symbolic across-the-aisle pick for the Commerce Department, though Quibi’s spectacular dive probably doesn’t bode well for her chances.

Eric Schmidt’s name has bubbled up to lead some kind of White House tech task force, but that seems ill-fated considering the federal antitrust case against Google and the broader legislative appetite for doing something about big tech. But Alphabet board member Roger Ferguson, whose name has been floating around for Treasury Secretary, just stepped down from his current position at a finance firm, kicking up more speculation.

Seth Harris, who served in Obama’s Labor Department, made at least one list suggesting he could land a cabinet position. Harris, who is already involved in the Biden transition, also has the controversial distinction of proposing a “new legal category” of worker “for those who occupy the gray area between employees and independent contractors.” Lyft apparently cited his paper specifically after Prop 22 passed. With labor a hot issue in general right now — and Bernie Sanders himself potentially in the running for the same role — Harris would likely ignite a firestorm of controversy among labor activists if appointed to helm the department. 

On the other side of the coin, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra could be considered for a cabinet-level role in the Department of Justice. Becerra isn’t from the tech world, but as California’s AG he’s been stationed there and his department currently has its own antitrust case against Google simmering. In a recent interview with Bloomberg about antitrust issues under the Biden administration, Becerra denounced “behemoths” in the tech industry that stifle innovation, noting that state AGs have “taken the lead” on pressing tech companies on anti-competitive behavior.

“At the end of the day we all want competition, right?” Becerra said. “But here’s the thing, competition is essential if you want innovation.” Becerra, who succeeded Vice President-elect Kamala Harris when she left the Attorney General’s office for Congress, could also again follow in her footsteps, filling the vacant seat she will leave in the Senate come January.

All told, we’re seeing some familiar names in the mix, but 2020 isn’t 2008. Tech companies that emerged as golden children over the last ten years are radioactive now. Regulation looms on the horizon in every direction. Whatever policy priorities emerge out of the Biden administration, Obama’s technocratic gilded age is over and we’re in for something new.

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

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Vivenu, a ticketing API for events, closes a $15M Series A round led by Balderton Capital

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vivenu, a ticketing platform that offers an API for venues and promoters to customize to their needs, has closed a $15 million (€12.6 million) in Series A funding led by Balderton Capital. Previous investor Redalpine also participated.

Historically-speaking, most ticketing platform startups took a direct to consumer approach, or have provided turnkey solutions to big event promoters. But in this day and age, most events require a great deal more flexibility, not least because of the pandemic. So, by offering an API and allowing promoters that flexibility, Vivenu managed to gain traction.

Venues and event owners get a full-featured ticketing, out-of-the-box platform with full real-time dynamic control over all aspects of selling tickets including configuring prices and seating plans, leveraging customer data and insights and mastering a branded look and feel across their sales channels. It has exposed APIs enabling many different custom use cases for large international ticket sellers. Since its Seed funding in March, the company says it has sold over 2 million tickets.

Simon Hennes, CEO and co-founder of vivenu said in a statement: “We created vivenu to address the need of ticket sellers for a user-centric ticketing platform. Event organizers were stuck with solutions that heavily depend on manual processes, causing high costs, dependencies, and frustration on various levels.”

Daniel Waterhouse, Partner at Balderton said: “Vivenu has built a sophisticated product and set of APIs that gives event organisers full control of their ticketing operations.”

vivenu is also the first European investment of Aurum Fund LLC, the fund associated with the San Francisco 49ers. Also investing in the round are Angels including Sascha Konietzke (Founder at Contentful), Chris Schagen (former CMO at Contentful), Sujay Tyle (Founder at Frontier Car Group) and Tiny VC.

In March 2020, vivenu secured €1.4 million in seed funding, bringing its total funding to €14 million. Previous investors include early-stage venture capital investor Redalpine, GE32 Capital and Hansel LLC (associated with the founders of Loft).

Speaking to TechCrunch Hennes said: “You have to send your seat map to Ticketmaster, and then the account manager comes back to you with a sitemap. This goes back and forth and takes ages. With us you have a seating chart designer basically integrated into the software which you can simply change yourself.”

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Nordigen introduces free European open banking API

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Latvian fintech startup Nordigen is switching to a freemium model thanks to a free open banking API. Open banking was supposed to democratize access to banking information, but the company believes banking aggregation APIs from Tink or Plaid are too expensive. Instead, Nordigen thinks it can provide a free API to access account information and paid services for analytics and insights services.

Open banking is a broad term and means different things, from account aggregation to verifying account ownership and payment initiation. The most basic layer of open banking is the ability to view data from third-party financial institutions. For instance, some banks let you connect to other bank accounts so that you can view all your bank accounts from a single interface.

There are two ways to connect to a bank. Some banks provide an application programming interface (API), which means that you can send requests to the bank’s servers and receive data in return.

While all financial institutions should have an open API due to the European PSD2 directive, many banks are still dragging their feet. That’s why open banking API companies usually rely on screen scraping. They mimic web browser interactions, which means that it’s slow, it requires a ton of server resources and it can break.

“If you’re wondering how we’d be able to afford it, our free banking data API was designed purely with PSD2 in mind, meaning it’s lightweight in strong contrast to that of incumbents. So it wouldn’t significantly increase our costs to scale free users,” Nordigen co-founder and CEO Rolands Mesters told me.

So you don’t get total coverage with Nordigen’s API. The startup currently supports 300 European banks, which covers 60 to 90% of the population in each country. But it’s hard to complain when it’s a free product anyway.

Some Nordigen customers will probably want more information. Nordigen provides financial data analytics. It can be particularly useful if you’re a lending company trying to calculate a credit score, if you’re a financial company with minimum income requirements and more.

For those additional services, you’ll have to pay. Nordigen currently has 50 clients and expects to attract more customers with its new freemium strategy.

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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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