Clearview AI told to stop processing UK data as ICO warns of possible fine

Controversial facial recognition company Clearview AI is facing a potential fine in the UK.

It has also been handed a provisional notice to stop further processing of UK citizens’ data and to delete any data it already holds as a result of what the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) described as “alleged serious breaches” of national data protection law.

The ICO has been looking into the tech company — which sells AI-powered identity matching to law enforcement and other paying customers via a facial recognition platform that it trained covertly on photos harvested from Internet sources (like social media platforms) — in a joint investigation with the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC).

The OAIC already, earlier this month, issued an order to Clearview to delete data after finding it broke national laws down under. So the ICO has been the laggard of the two regulators.

But today it issued the notification of a provisional intention to fine Clearview over £17 million (~$22.6M) — citing a range of suspected breaches.

Among the raft of violations the ICO suspects — following what it describes as “preliminary enquiries with Clearview AI” — are failures to process people’s information fairly or in a way they expect, in line with requirements to have a valid legal basis for processing personal data and to provide adequate information to those whose data is processed; along with a failure to have a process in place to prevent data being retained indefinitely; a failure to meet higher standards required for processing biometric data — which is considered special category data under the European standard (the GDPR) that’s transposed into UK law; and also for applying problematic processes when people object to its processing of their information — such as asking for more personal data (“including photographs”) in response to such objections.

Clearview was contacted for comment on the ICO’s provisional findings.

A spokesperson sent this statement (below), attributed to its London based attorney, Kelly Hagedorn (a partner at Jenner & Block London LLP) — who describes the ICO’s provisional finding as “factually and legally incorrect”; says Clearview is considering an appeal and “further action”; and claims the company does not do business in the UK (nor have any UK customers currently).

Here’s Clearview’s statement in full:

“The UK ICO Commissioner’s assertions are factually and legally incorrect. The company is considering an appeal and further action. Clearview AI provides publicly available information from the internet to law enforcement agencies. To be clear, Clearview AI does not do business in the UK, and does not have any UK customers at this time.”
Whether the ICO’s preliminary sanction will go the distance and turn into an actual fine and data processing cessation order against Clearview remains to be seen.

For one thing, the ICO’s notification is timed a few weeks ahead of the departure of sitting commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, who is set to be replaced by New Zealand’s privacy commissioner John Edwards in January.

So a new broom will be in charge of deciding whether the provisional findings hold up in the face of Clearview’s objections (and potential legal action).

In its statement today, the ICO is careful to note that Clearview will have the opportunity to make representations — which it says it will consider before any final decision is reached, and which it furthermore suggests may not happen until mid-2022.

Under Denham, it’s also notable that the ICO has substantially shrunk a number of provisional penalties it handed out in relation to other breach investigations (such as those to British Airways; and Marriott).

The ICO also settled with Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica scandal after the tech giant appealed its provisional sanction.

And while Facebook agreed to pay the ICO’s £500k fine in full in that case it did so without admitting any liability and also got the ICO to agree to sign a non-disclosure agreement over the arrangement (which has limited what the commissioner can say in public about its correspondence with Facebook). So, in all, that ended up looking like a sweet deal for Facebook — agreed to by a regulator apparently concerned at being challenged in the courts over its decision-making processes.

There is fresh complexity on the horizon around enforcement of the UK’s data protection regime too, now — in that the government is in the process of consulting on making changes to national law that could see ministers reduce protections wrapping people’s data — such as by removing or altering requirements around transparency, fairness and what constitutes a valid legal basis for processing people’s data — as part of a claimed ‘simplification‘ of the current laws.

So the ICO’s caveat on its provisional “view to fine” Clearview — which it specifies may be “subject to change or no further formal action” — looks like more than just a reminder to recall its own recent history of enforcements not standing up to its earlier convictions.

Why is it acting at all now if there’s a risk of ministers moving the goalposts? Denham may have an eye on amplifying her legacy as she departs for pastures new. Or she may hope to try and bind the hands of her successor — and limit the reformist zeal of DCMS to downgrade UK data protection — or, indeed, a little of all of the above.

In a statement, the outgoing commissioner said: “I have significant concerns that personal data was processed in a way that nobody in the UK will have expected. It is therefore only right that the ICO alerts people to the scale of this potential breach and the proposed action we’re taking. UK data protection legislation does not stop the effective use of technology to fight crime but to enjoy public trust and confidence in their products technology providers must ensure people’s legal protections are respected and complied with.”

“Clearview AI Inc’s services are no longer being offered in the UK. However, the evidence we’ve gathered and analysed suggests Clearview AI Inc were and may be continuing to process significant volumes of UK people’s information without their knowledge. We therefore want to assure the UK public that we are considering these alleged breaches and taking them very seriously,” she added.

On the investigation findings itself, the regulator’s press release on its provisional view and potential fine offers only tentative conclusions, with the ICO writing that: “The images in Clearview AI Inc’s database are likely to include the data of a substantial number of people from the UK and may have been gathered without people’s knowledge from publicly available information online, including social media platforms.”

It adds that it “understands that the service provided by Clearview AI Inc was used on a free trial basis by a number of UK law enforcement agencies”, and further specifying that this trial “was discontinued and Clearview AI Inc’s services are no longer being offered in the UK” — without offering any details on when the tech was being used and when usage stopped.

Clearview has faced regulatory pushback elsewhere around the world too.

Earlier this year Canada’s privacy watchdog concluded its own investigation of the AI firm — finding multiple breaches of national law and also ordering it to cease processing citizens’ data.

Clearview rejected the findings — but also said it no longer offered the service to Canadian law enforcement.

Update: The company has now sent an additional statement on the ICO’s provisional findings, attributed to CEO Hoan Ton-That, in which he expresses “deep” disappointment at what he claims is a misinterpretation of the technology — and goes on to imply that Clearview AI might have been useful for UK law enforcement investigations into child sexual abuse (an area where the UK government is currently spending taxpayer money to try to encourage the development of novel detection technologies).

Here’s Ton-That’s statement [emphasis his]:

“I grew up in Australia and have long viewed the UK as an important, majestic place—one about which I have the deepest respect.  I am deeply disappointed that the UK Information Commissioner  has misinterpreted my technology and intentions. I created the consequential facial recognition technology known the world over.  My company and I have acted in the best interests of the UK and their people by assisting law enforcement in solving heinous crimes against children, seniors, and other victims of unscrupulous acts. It breaks my heart that Clearview AI has been unable to assist when receiving urgent requests from UK law enforcement agencies seeking to use this technology to investigate cases of severe sexual abuse of children in the UK. We collect only public data from the open internet and comply with all standards of privacy and law.  I am disheartened by the misinterpretation of Clearview AI’s technology to society.  I would welcome the opportunity to engage in conversation with leaders and lawmakers so the true value of this technology which has proven so essential to law enforcement can continue to make communities safe.”

Particular Audience takes in $7.5M to give retailers way to take on Amazon

Being in control of customer data is one of the ways retailers, like Amazon, Spotify and Netflix, are able to tap into consumer behavior and create customized experiences whenever a user logs in.

Those are some of the reasons Amazon, in particular, is poised to grab 50% of the U.S. e-commerce market this year, and why Sydney-based Particular Audience wants to break down the data silos going on within e-commerce to give any retailer a chance to gather similar data on their customers to personalize experiences.

Particular Audience provides product discovery tools for retailers that are powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning. In fact, the company wants to go further and offer personalization based on anonymity and without compromising personal data, CEO James Taylor told TechCrunch.

Taylor launched Particular Audience in 2019 after taking a few years to work out the technology. The global pandemic threw a wrench in some plans, with Taylor and a handful of executives taking a pay cut so as to not have to let any employees go. However, with the e-commerce industry growing over the past 18 months, the company was able to get back to where it was, he said.

The company has now amassed a real-time data set on product search, sales, pricing and availability from across the internet, from its browser plugin SimilarInc.com, which gathers the data from its online shopper community without tracking or cookies. Retailers can analyze that data to tell them, for example, how better to promote high-margin or overstocked items.

“Data IP is the current frontier,” he said. “It is data that is going to improve predictions to personalize inventory and reduce waste while also helping with supply chain management. The goal is to create website data visibility that would benefit all of the other merchants other than Amazon.”

To continue developing its technology, the company secured $7.5 million in Series A funding in a round led by Equity Venture Partners and that included existing investors Carthona Capital and a group of angel investors. This latest investment gives the company $9.5 million in total funding raised to date, which includes $1.3 million in seed funding raised in 2019.

Particular Audience

How Particular Audience works on a website. Image Credits: Particular Audience

Particular Audience is working with approximately 100 websites currently. In addition to Sydney, the company also has an office in London. Europe makes up more than 50% of Particular Audience’s global revenue, and the new funding enables the company to open a new office in Amsterdam next year.

North America is also a growth territory for the company, where it has already opened an office in Vancouver, with plans to open a New York office in 2022 as well. The company has 60 employees, up from 20 last year, and Taylor expects to add 40 more in the next year, including rounding out its leadership team with a head of product.

The funding will also be invested into building out an API-first product suite and retail media platform so retailers can gain a revenue stream from cost per clicks. Meanwhile, the company saw 460% year over year in revenue growth and expects to hit $100 million in gross merchandise value through its products this year, up 19 times in the last two years, Taylor said.

As part of the investment, Daniel Szekely, partner at Equity Venture Partners, will join the board.

“Personalization of the internet is a critical frontier for e-commerce retailers, and in a world of growing online shopping options and diminishing consumer attention spans, delivering an experience that meets individual consumers’ needs is absolutely critical,” he said in a written statement. “James and his outstanding team have tackled this issue in a novel way, and the important need for their solution has been made obvious as the business gets pulled into multiple geographies. We’re thrilled to back them in their Series A and know this is just the beginning of the journey.”

 

Bolt makes first acquisition with Tipser, launches ‘Remote Checkout’

The ability to purchase something at the point of discovery from digital content exists, but checkout technology company Bolt has the opportunity to give that its “one-click” treatment. It announced Monday that it made its first acquisition in Tipser, a Swedish-based technology company enabling direct checkout on any digital surface.

San Francisco-based Bolt is fresh off of raising $393 million in Series D funding in October, bringing total capital raised to date to $600 million. And though the Tipser acquisition is in line with the company’s plans of what it wanted to do with the new capital, Ryan Breslow, founder and CEO of Bolt, told TechCrunch the deal “had been in the works for a while.”

Tipser’s technology enables consumers to purchase products natively from sites like online publications, mobile marketplaces, price comparison sites, social media platforms or search engines. The company is led by Marcus Jacobsson, co-founder and CEO, who started the company in 2012 with Axel Wolrath and Jonas Sjöstedt.

In fact, when Bolt initially began talking to Tipser, the company was not in a place to sell, and was actually working on their next investment round (they raised just over $14 million), but the two companies ended up going into deeper conversations and found their cultural resonances worked better together, Breslow said.

“We saw how significant Tipser could be for Bolt,” he added. “They had been perfecting their embedded commerce technology for a decade and were the only formidable player. They were stronger than us in areas where we were weaker. It is very strategic to have them on our team.”

Exact transaction figures were not disclosed, but Breslow did reveal to TechCrunch that the acquisition, which was an all-stock deal, came in “just shy of $200 million.” The entire Tipser team is staying put, so Bolt will be adding 100 more people to its team. Tipser’s presence in Sweden will now also serve as Bolt’s European headquarters to go with the company’s recent announcement of expanding into Europe.

In addition to the acquisition, Bolt is launching Remote Checkout, a tool for shoppers to make a purchase from the exact point of discovery. Instead of seeing something on social media — where 84% of shoppers look for reviews, according to Pew Research Center — then going to another website to make the purchase,

The new tool is one that Bolt was working on internally for over a year and was inspired by Instagram Checkout, also a tool where you can discover a product and check out directly from the app, Breslow said.

“With the death of tracking and cookies, we could see the need for native checkout so retailers can track conversion,” he added. “It’s better for consumers to not have to click a million things.”

Bolt’s Remote Checkout features include the direct one-click checkout, engagement with Bolt’s network of shoppers and the ability for merchants to boost conversion rates while receiving orders through multiple channels and building direct relationships with visitors. It also turns anonymous visitors into logged-in account holders and monetizes traffic on-site.

The added feature of publishers and creators being able to monetize traffic coming to their sites was one that Jason Wagenheim, president and CRO at media publisher BDG (formerly known as Bustle Digital Group), found particularly interesting. BDG’s brands include Bustle, EliteDaily and Fatherly.

He was a bystander of sorts for the merger, having signed up with Tipser in January as the company’s first U.S. publisher, going live with the product in April on two of BDG’s 13 sites, Wagenheim said in an interview.

“What I love most about this acquisition is that we can accelerate the onboarding of hundreds of more merchants onto our platform,” he said. “This is a marriage of content and commerce.”

Before social media and companies like Bolt and Tipser, shopping directly from a magazine page meant utilizing QR codes, but that didn’t take off like people thought it would, Wagenheim said.

Other publishers tried to crack the code, and he noted Goop being one of the few able to do it. Now with these new technologies, any publisher or creator can close the gap between the upper and lower funnels and drive awareness because its commerce is shoppable and one click away.

He considers BDG’s project with Tipser still in the beta phase, but there are plans to roll out the technology on all of its sites next year. The company already had its audience engage in over 25 million sessions with people, on average, seeing 10 products per session, a metric Wagenheim says means the process is working: people are spending time with the products, are engaged and adding products to carts.

“With hundreds more merchants for editors to write about, and the one-click transaction happening, that is a game-changer,” he added.

Robotics startup FJDynamics raises $70M to make manual labor easier

FJDynamics, founded by DJI’s former chief scientist Wu Di, just closed a Series B round of $70 million as it advances its goal to empower workers in the harshest environment with robotic technologies.

When I asked Wu what’s special about his company’s farming robots, he gave an answer that would make any publicist sweat: “I don’t think our technology is that special.” The startup’s vision, he said, is to make useful and affordable robots for the most labor-intensive industries.

“You can have the most advanced AI algorithms,” he continued, “But if the technology doesn’t work on the production line or the farm, because you don’t have any industry experience, then how does your technology benefit people?”

The technologies that Wu worked on before FJDynamics were cutting-edge in every sense. At DJI, he served as the chief scientist and oversaw the drone giant’s acquisition of the 180-year-old Swedish format camera maker Victor Hasselblad AB in 2017. Before returning to China, he spent a decade in Sweden, during which he earned a PhD in domain-specific processor design. He also worked as a vice principal at fabless semiconductor company Coresonic AB and a director at the Swedish luxury sports car maker Koenigsegg AB.

“After seeing all these first-class technologies, it’s a stretch to say we [FJDynamics] are a high-tech company,” said the founder, who donned a slightly faded checkered shirt and a pair of thin-rimmed glasses on the morning of our interview.

We were sitting in a makeshift meeting room, a partition comprising a few desks separated from the rest of the open-plan office by movable walls. The company, located in Shenzhen’s bustling tech hub Shenzhen, was fast expanding and approaching 1,000 employees.

Wu Di, founder and CEO of FJDynamics

In 2019, Wu left DJI to start FJDynamics. The company set out with a focus on agricultural robots, building tools like unmanned lawnmowers, orchard sprayers and feed pushing machines. It has since ventured into other fields that depend heavily on manual work, such as construction and manufacturing.

As Beijing invokes a digital upgrade in the country’s traditional industries, Chinese companies like FJDynamics are in hot demand by investors. FJDynamics itself has attracted a rank of heavyweight financiers, including Tencent and state-owned automaker Dongfeng Asset Management. DJI had a stake in the company early on but has since sold off its shares.

It declined to name its sole investor in its latest Series B round and only said it is a major internet firm in China. The funding, the company said, will allow it to “grow its suite of robotics automation technology across agriculture, facility management, construction and gardening, along with supporting the increasing demand of the company’s ESG product offerings in over 60 countries.”

Over the years, a handful of engineers have left DJI to set up their own shops or join others’ fledgling projects. Portable battery maker EcoFlow, hairdryer Zuvi, electric toothbrush brand Evowera are among the most high-profile ones. For Wu, what drove him away from a prestigious position at the world’s largest drone company was a sense of disconnection he felt making “luxury” hardware.

“If you look at how robotic technology is being applied, there are a lot of companies using drones and autonomous vehicles. But the majority of people on earth aren’t benefiting from it.”

“Agriculture, construction, gardening… Work conditions in these sectors are physically demanding and there are still a lot of us doing this kind of job. The question is how we use robotic technology to improve their work environment, and that doesn’t mean simply replacing them with robots,” said the founder.

Image Credits: FJDynamics’ cow feed pusher, printed with the logo of Sveaverken, a Swedish farming company it acquired

One of FJDynamics’ popular products is the automated feed pusher. To produce high-quality milk, cows need to be fed about ten times throughout the day. The routine requires farms to have staff on-site 24 hours. A farm with 500 cows, for example, needs about three grass feeders to take shifts. But in poorer countries, farms can’t afford to have as many workers and staff could be out tending to the cows all day even in the coldest season.

FJDynamics aims to make farmers’ work easier. Its vision-guided feeder, which costs about 20,000 euros each, can feed up to 500 cows a day. In 2019, it acquired the 110-year-old Swedish farming company Sveaverken, which has helped put the Chinese firm’s feed pushing robots to work.

“I never talk about technology to my customers. The farmer is more interested in whether my product can help improve the crop yield,” said Wu. “Every farmer is an economist.”

Because of the company’s vision in “making tech affordable”, margins are “modest” and the management is vigilant about operational costs.

At the moment, about 40% of the startup’s sales happen outside China across some 60 countries. Many Chinese companies expanding overseas are increasingly cagey about their origin, fearing hostility against anything labeled “Chinese”. Wu takes a more proactive approach.

“Even though I’ve lived in Europe for ten years, I can’t rip off my skin. I don’t think that’s important — whether it’s a Chinese, American or Swedish entrepreneur… As long as you build great products and bring benefits to my customers, there will be users.”

Data compliance is especially key to a company’s global expansion. FJDynamics provides the hardware and software while its local partners help deploy the “system” using the data. Microsoft Azure is its main cloud partner outside China to allow “elastic deployment while meeting data privacy requirements such as GDPR.”

“Our culture is that we don’t want the data,” Wu said.

Unlike smartphones or drones that require sophisticated processors, FJDynamics’ products use relatively simple chips that could be found in China, so the firm is likely immune from the recent supply chain disruptions, the founder reckoned.

While Wu may not be working on the most advanced technology anymore, he looks for ways to impart his knowledge. When he’s not developing the next farming robot, he lectures at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen.

“I live a simple life that focuses on two things — product [FJDynamics] and education,” the founder said. “I’ve seen a lot and realized that money can’t change you or make you happier. So you need a simple goal, and achieving the simple goal makes your life happier.”

Investors: Up your ante at the iMerit ML DataOps Summit 2021

The “oil bidness,” as they say in Texas, is so 20th century. Data, artificial intelligence and machine learning are the power triad fueling the future. If you’re an investor placing bets on the data operations market, you can’t afford to miss the iMerit ML DataOps Summit on December 2, 2021.

This free, one-day virtual conference will explore the AI and ML landscape as it exists today and what it holds for future tech industries across the spectrum including autonomous mobility, healthcare AI and geospatial.

Pro Tip: Attending iMerit ML DataOps Summit is free, but you must register here to attend.

The summit is sponsored by iMerit, a leading AI data solutions company providing high-quality data across computer vision, natural language processing and content that powers machine learning and artificial intelligence applications.

Here are just two presentations that savvy investors won’t want to miss.

Radha Basu, iMerit’s founder and CEO, opens the conference with 2022: The Year of ML DataOps – The Ground Truth of AI. She’ll share why machine learning data operations play a critical role in bringing artificial intelligence to market at scale and unveils why 2022 is shaping up to be the “Year of ML DataOps.”

State of the Industry: Exploring the AI and ML DataOps Market — Join this discussion with Gartner’s Sumit Agarwal, Bessemer Venture Partners’ Ethan Kurzweil and iMerit’s CRO Jeff Mills as they take a deep dive into the current and future state of the artificial intelligence and machine learning data operations market.

Explore the full event agenda, and just look at some of the VC companies that will attend the iMerit ML DataOps Summit. Talk about a prime networking opportunity.

  • Insight Partners
  • Accel
  • Bessemer Venture Partners
  • J.P. Morgan
  • Xerox Ventures
  • DNX Ventures
  • Ridge Ventures
  • Sutter Hill Ventures
  • BMW i Ventures
  • Red Ventures
  • First Ascent Ventures

The iMerit ML DataOps Summit 2021 takes place on December 2, 2021. Investors, take this opportunity to expand your knowledge of these rapidly evolving technologies, place more-informed bets on the AI and ML data ops market and move your business forward. Register today for this free, virtual event.

Flowrite is an AI writing productivity tool that wants to help you hit inbox zero

When TechCrunch asks Flowrite if it’s ‘Grammarly on steroids’, CEO and co-founder Aaro Isosaari laughs, saying that’s the comment they always get for the AI writing productivity tool they’ve been building since late summer 2020 — drawing on early access to OpenAI’s GPT-3 API, and attracting a wait-list of some 30,000 email-efficiency seeking prosumers keen to get their typing fingers on its beta.

The quest for ‘Inbox zero’ — via lightning speed email composition — could be rather easier with this AI-powered sidekick. At least if you’re the sort of person who fires off a bunch of fairly formulaic emails each and every day.

What does Flowrite do exactly? It turns a few instructions (yes you do have to type these) into a fully fledged, nice to read email. So where Grammarly helps improve a piece of (existing) writing, by suggesting tweaks to grammar/syntex/style etc, Flowrite helps you write the thing in the first place, so long as the thing is email or some other professional messaging type comms.

Email is what Flowrite’s AI models have been trained on, per Isosaari. And frustration with how much time he was having to spend composing emails was the inspiration for the startup. So its focus is firmly professional comms — rather than broader use cases for AI-generated words, such as copy writing etc (which GPT-3 is also being used for).

“In my previous work I knew that this is a problem that I had — I’d spend several hours every day communicating with different stakeholders on email and other messaging platforms,” he says. “We also knew that there are a lot more people — it’s not just our problem as co-founders; there’s millions of people who could benefit from communicating more effectively and efficiently in their day to day work.”

Here’s how Flowrite works: The user provides a set of basic (bullet pointed) instructions covering the key points of what they want to say and the AI-powered tool does the rest — generating a full email text that conveys the required info in a way that, well, flows.

Automation is thus doing the wordy leg work of filling in courteous greetings/sign-offs and figuring out appropriate phrasing to convey the sought for tone and impression.

Compared to email templates (an existing tech for email productivity), Isosaari says the advantage is the AI-powered tool adapts to context and “isn’t static”.

One obvious but important point is that the user does also of course get the chance to check over — and edit/tweak — the AI’s suggested text before hitting send so the human remains firmly the agent in the loop.

Isosaari gives an example use-case of a sales email where the instructions might boil down to typing something like “sounds amazing • let’s talk more in a call • next week, Monday PM” — in order to get a Flowrite-generated email that includes the essential details plus “all the greetings” and “added formalities” the extended email format requires.

(Sidenote: Flowrite’s initial pitch to TechCrunch was via email — but did not apparently involve the use of its tool. At least the email did not include a disclosure that: “This email is Flowrittenas a later missive from Isosaari (to send the PR as requested) did. Which, perhaps, gives an indication of the sorts of email comms you might want to speed-write (with AI) and those you maybe want to dedicated more of your human brain to composing (or at least look like you wrote it all yourself).)

“We’ve built an AI powered writing tools that helps professionals of all kinds to write and communicate faster as part of their daily workflow,” Isosaari tells TechCrunch. “We know that there’s millions of people who spend hours every day on emails and messages in a professional context — so communicating with different stakeholders, internally and externally, takes a lot of work, daily working hours. And Flowrite helps people to do that faster.”

The AI tool could also be a great help to people who find writing difficult for specific reasons such as dyslexia or because English is not their native language, he further suggests.

One obvious limitation is that Flowrite is only able to turn out emails in English. And while GPT-3 does have models for some other common languages, Isosaari suggests the quality of its ‘human-like’ responses there “might not be as good” as they are in English — hence he says they’ll remain focused there for now.

They’re using GPT-3’s language model as the core AI tech — but have also, recently, begun to use their own accumulated data to “fine tune it”, with Isosaari noting: “Already we’ve built a lot of things on top of GPT-3 so we’re building a wrapper on it.”

The startup’s promise for the email productivity tool is also that the AI will adapt to the user’s writing style — so that faster emails won’t also mean curtly out of character emails (which could lead to fresh emails asking if you’re okay?).

Isosaari says the tech is not not mining your entire email history to do this — but rather only looks at the directly preceding context in an email thread (if there is one).

Flowrite does also currently rely on cloud processing, since it’s calling GPT-3’s tech, but he says they want to move to on-device processing, which would obviously help address any confidentiality concerns, when we ask about that.

For now the tool is browser-based and integrates with web email. Currently it only works for Chrome and Gmail but Isosaari confirms the team’s plan is to expand integrations — such as for messaging platforms like Slack (but still initially at least, only for the web app version).

While the tech tool is still in a closed beta, the startup has just announced a $4.4 million seed raise.

The seed is led by Project A, along with Moonfire Ventures and angel investors Ilkka Paananen (CEO & Co-founder of Supercell), Sven Ahrens (director of global growth at Spotify), and Johannes Schildt (CEO & Co-Founder of Kry). Existing investors Lifeline Ventures and Seedcamp also joined in the round.

What types of emails and professionals is Flowrite best suited for? On the content side, Isosaari says it’s “typically replies where there’s some kind of existing context that you are responding to”.

“It’s able to understand the situation really well and adapt to it in a really natural way,” he suggests. “And also for outreaches — things like pitches and proposals… What it doesn’t work that well for is if you want to write something that is really, really complex — because then in order to do that you would need to have all that information in the instructions. And then obviously if you need to spend a lot of time writing the instruction that could be even close to the final email — and there’s not much value that Flowrite can provide at that point.”

It’s also obviously not going to offer great utility if you’re firing off “really, really short emails” — since if you’re just answering with a couple of words it’s likely quicker to type that yourself.

In terms of who’s likely to use Flowrite, Isosaari says they’ve had a broad range of early adopters seeking to tap into the beta. But he describes the main user profile as “executives, managers, entrepreneurs who communicate a lot on a daily basis” — aka, people who “need to give a good impression about themselves and communicate very thoughtfully”.

On the business model front, Flowrite’s initial focus is on prosumers/individual users — although Isosaari says it may look to expand out from there, perhaps first supporting teams. And he also says he could envisage some kind of SaaS offering for businesses down the line.

Currently, it’s not charging for the beta — but does plan to add pricing early next year.

“Once we move out of the beta then we’ll be starting to monetize,” he adds, suggesting that a full launch out of beta (so no more waitlist) could happen by mid 2022. 

The seed funding will primarily be spent on growing the team, according to Isosaari, especially on the engineering side — with the main goal at this early stage being to tool up around AI and core product.

Expanding features is another priority — including adding a “horizontal way” of using the tool across the browser, such as with different email clients.

How Pilot convinced Index Ventures to think long-term about margins

On a recently recorded (and soon-to-be published) episode of the Found podcast, an entrepreneur told my co-host and me that he sees a broad swath of the venture capitalists out there as money managers, more focused on short-term gains and returns than long-term revolutionary technology.

Whether you agree or not, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the multipliers in Silicon Valley and the growth of software businesses have changed the way we think about a startup’s timeline.

“The pressure from [Index] caused us to work a little harder and be a little bit more precise in our instrumentation to be able to prove that the long-term trajectory would achieve certain milestones that would work for everybody.” Jessica McKellar

Pilot, a bookkeeping software service that has raised more than $160 million since inception, is not necessarily a stranger to the shorter-term desires of investors. Index Ventures partner Mark Goldberg, who led the Series A and Series B rounds for the startup, would be the first to tell you that the board and the founders had some early disagreements about how the company should operate.

Obviously, it wasn’t enough to stop him or Index from doubling down on the business.

We talked about all this and more on TechCrunch Live.

Doubling down

“It was pretty terrifying,” said Goldberg. “In my gut, I thought, ‘Wow, we better get this right.'”

A few things clicked into place for Goldberg to want to keep investing in Pilot. The first was that it was a real category-creation opportunity, in that bookkeeping was a $100 billion industry that was largely fragmented.

The second was the customer love for the product.

“We started to hear customers proactively calling us from within the Index portfolio saying that they hated doing bookkeeping and back office functions, and now they don’t have to think about it. They said things like ‘Whoever this Pilot team is, they’re doing some wizardry so I can just shut my brain off to the part of the business I didn’t enjoy doing.'”

The third was the conviction and dedication of the team to empathizing with and understanding their customers.

He recalled a time early on when the team was no more than 10 people, most of them engineers, when he visited the office on a weekend. They were all wearing green visors, doing bookkeeping for their customers.

“They weren’t doing it because they needed to for customer support, but because they really wanted to empathize with the customers for the product that they were building,” said Goldberg. “That’s the sort of sweat equity and market recognition that told me, if this continues to grow, there really is no ceiling on what this business could become.”

While that sort of dedication to understanding the user was attractive, it was not without its costs.

Counterintuitive convictions

“Pilot is a technology company wrapped in this lovely human layer of high-touch support for its customers, which is a bit counter-intuitive in Silicon Valley, where most companies don’t want humans in the loop,” said Goldberg. “That’s what I know and understand, and we had a view that this sort of tech-enabled service model could be very valuable, but we wanted to make sure that they could create a financial profile that had gross margins that reflected that of a software company.”

In its simplest form, Jessica McKellar and her co-founders felt very strongly that they wanted to focus on the customer fully and deliver great customer service from the very beginning. In a business where you are onboarding customers by ingesting the entirety of their financials, that can be costly.

Robots and AI assist in designing and building Swiss university’s ‘hanging gardens’

Architecture and construction have always been, rather quietly, at the bleeding edge of tech and materials trends. It’s no surprise, then, especially at a renowned technical university like ETH Zurich, to find a project utilizing AI and robotics in a new approach to these arts. The automated design and construction they are experimenting with show how homes and offices might be built a decade from now.

The project is a sort of huge sculptural planter, “hanging gardens” inspired by the legendary structures in the ancient city of Babylon. (Incidentally, it was my ancestor, Robert Koldewey, who excavated/looted the famous Ishtar Gate to the place.)

Begun in 2019, Semiramis (named after the queen of Babylon back then) is a collaboration between human and AI designers. The general idea of course came from the creative minds of its creators, architecture professors Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler. But the design was achieved by putting the basic requirements, such as size, the necessity of watering and the style of construction, through a set of computer models and machine learning algorithms.

During the design process, for example, the team might tweak the position of one of the large “pods” that make up the 70-foot structure, or change the layout of the panels that make up its surface. The software they created would then immediately adjust the geometry of the overall structure and the other panels to accommodate these changes, making sure it would still safely bear its own weight, and so on.

Computer rendering of what the final Semiramis hanging garden structure will look like.

Computer rendering of what the final Semiramis hanging garden structure will look like. Image Credits: Gramazio Kohler Research

There are many automated processes in architecture, of course, but this project pushes the boundaries out in the level of final control seemingly given to them. The point, after all, is to make it a genuine collaboration, not just a sort of architectural spell-check that makes sure the whole thing won’t collapse.

“The computer model lets us reverse the conventional design process and explore the full design scope for a project. This leads to new, often surprising geometries,” Kohler said in an ETHZ news post.

Having arrived at a final design, the construction is being accomplished by another human-automation team: a set of four robotic arms operating with one mind to hold multiple heavy pieces (each pod has dozens) in place while humans apply the resin used to keep them together. It’s a step above the technique we saw used a few years ago by the same team when they used robots as automated assistants.

Semiramis is being constructed in the workshop then shipped piece by piece to its eventual home at Tech Cluster Zug. It should be fully assembled and ready to accept soil and seeds this coming spring, so stop by if you’re in the area.