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Nhost is an open source Firebase rival backed by GitHub’s founders

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In a world where technical talent is at a premium, businesses have to tap into the broader technology ecosystem to help build and scale their digital products. In truth, most companies probably don’t care much how their software is constructed — as long as it has all the features and functionality needed to satisfy their target market.

Against this backdrop, Swedish startup Nhost is setting out to expedite the development process with an open source backend-as-a-service (BaaS) platform that lets developers forget about the infrastructure and focus purely on the customer-facing frontend.

With Nhost, companies can automate their entire backend development and cloud infrastructure spanning file storage, databases, user authentication, APIs, and more.

“We remove a considerable amount of ongoing effort, time, and resources for tasks that are not directly related to the product our customers want to build,” Nhost CEO and cofounder Johan Eliasson told VentureBeat. “With Nhost, they can start building their customer-facing products after only one minute.”

To help fund its next stage of growth, Nhost today announced it has raised $3 million in a round of funding led by Nauta Capital, with participation from some prominent angel investors, including GitHub founders Scott Chacon and Tom Preston-Werner and Netlify founders Christian Bach and Mathias Biilmann. Existing investor Antler also participated in the round.

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Above: Nhost’s website

Offload

Even the biggest technology giants with the deepest pockets look externally to boost their technology stack. Open source software, for example, allows them to benefit from the scalability of community-driven projects. And using third-party APIs (application programming interfaces) also saves them having to develop every component of their application internally.

Nhost and its backend infrastructure are a different proposition, but the idea is the same — to help companies offload some of their requirements to a third party with domain-specific expertise.

The Stockholm-based startup was created in late 2019 with Johan Eliasson as the sole founder, though he soon realized that building what is effectively an open source alternative to Google’s Firebase would be a tall order. After he met software engineer Nuno Pato at a startup accelerator program in early 2020, the duo officially became cofounders.

The global backend-as-a-service market was pegged at $1.6 billion in 2020, according to some estimates, a figure that’s projected to rise to nearly $8 billion by 2027. Existing players such as Firebase claim major clients like Alibaba, the New York Times, Duolingo, Venmo, and Trivago, highlighting that it’s not just cash-strapped startups that want to outsource their backend management.

Open for business

One of Nhost’s major selling points is that it’s an open source project, meaning companies can do with it as they please, though Eliasson notes that the main benefits of its open source status are around “collaboration and transparency.”

There are, of course, other players in the open source BaaS space, such as Back4App, Parse, Kinvey, and Kuzzle. But Nhost considers itself distinct on a number of grounds, chief among them the scope of its single-platform offering.

Nhost offers all the required building blocks for modern software, including a PostgreSQL database, real-time GraphQL API (which is available for most major front-end frameworks, such as React, Flutter, and Vue), authentication, storage, and serverless functions that allow companies to deploy custom code. On top of that, Nhost offers a managed cloud incarnation with plans spanning hobbyists, professionals, and enterprises.

“Our tech stack offers a unique combination of open source tools we haven’t seen anywhere else, plus a tremendous focus on the developer experience,” Eliasson said. “We believe that building robust and highly scalable applications should be fun, fast, and easy for everyone.”

Target market

For now, Eliasson said most Nhost customers are “indie-hackers, startups, and agencies,” and it counts around 110 paying customers. However, it has aspirations on the enterprise front, something that its seed round should help support.

“Our approach is bottom-up — indies, developers, startups, small and medium-sized teams first,” Eliasson explained. “Enterprise will have its own sales channel when the right time comes.”

Nhost is in the process of rolling out enterprise-grade features, including support for single sign-on (SSO), audit logs, and ISO certificates, which have “already been requested by larger customers,” according to Eliasson.

It’s easy to see why Nhost could prove popular for developer teams looking to spin up a quick prototype or minimal viable product (MVP) given that it removes much of the friction involved in launching even a semi-functional app. However, it’s worth noting that prototypes or MVPs are how most modern software starts out — which puts Nhost in a favorable position when the time comes for developers to ramp things up.

“Nhost really shines for MVPs because the stack we chose makes that easy,” Eliasson explained. “That is important for us because there is very low friction for developers to start building, while the platform is scalable, flexible, and performant enough for when their apps get successful and need to scale.”

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Google killing Stadia’s studios may make crossplay gaming better for everyone

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Google’s recent decision to close its dedicated game studiosopened to much fanfare just two years ago — has been seen by some as an admission of failure; another big tech brand that doesn’t quite “get” gaming.

It can’t have been an easy decision, and thoughts naturally turn to the 150 developers now looking for new jobs in a challenging market. But the existing strategy was trying to be all things to all people. This pivot could see Stadia become a proper games-as-a-service business, rather than a console that happens to be in the cloud.

Google may have only been aping the approach of platform holders by using exclusives as a way to tie gamers in for several years, but do we really need more of the same?

The quad-opoly of Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, and PC games is already fragmented enough. One of the big benefits of cloud gaming is that the hardware becomes less of an issue, with the focus instead on consumer convenience and recurring subscription revenues for the providers. By closing its studios, Google can now focus on growing its subscriber base without the expensive distraction of making its own triple-A games.

‘True’ cloud gaming vs console-in-the-cloud

Streaming games via the cloud is not as simple as merely uploading a game to a remote server. The amount of work needed to prepare a game to run from the cloud varies depending on the platform you are porting from and the game’s technical requirements.

In the case of Stadia, porting becomes even more expensive and complex if you want the game to make use of Google’s “exclusive” features like State Share, Crowd Choice and Screen Connect. If your objective is to launch a crossplay game on as many platforms as possible, platform-specific features are a problem that adds cost and complexity and narrows your potential audience.

But the whole point of cloud gaming is to broaden the audience. Clever features are fine if you want to offer something unique, but your customers need to be able to experience them in the first place, and publishers need to see the benefits to any extra cost and time to port their games.

If we look at some of the most successful games of the past couple of years, they are designed to allow owners of different gaming platforms to play together seamlessly. In short, they are designed to be played by as many people as possible, and depend on the scale of player numbers to generate revenues.  That’s essentially the same games-as-a-service model as cloud gaming services.

So if game publishers are becoming less tied to specific hardware, and cloud gaming is about trying to be platform-agnostic, what does this mean for the games industry in the near future?

Cross-play games and services mean a change to traditional game licensing

Remember Sony trying to block console crossplay on Fortnite before a backlash forced it into a U-turn?

It’s a good job Sony did, considering the impact Fortnite and other games like it have had on a new generation of gamers. In 2018, Fortnite got credit for enormous revenue leaps seen for both Sony and Microsoft. And one of the hit games of 2020, Genshin Impact, offers the most comprehensive cross-play we’ve seen so far, with support PC, PS5, PS4, iOS, and Android. Crossplay helps everyone win.

Some, though, are still holding onto the traditional licensing model for dear life. Ubisoft’s Immortals: Fenyx Rising is a great example of where forward-looking ideas of cross-play meets old fashioned, backwards-looking restrictive licensing.

Fenyx Rising was promoted as being cross-platform video game on its launch thanks to its Ubisoft Connect system which uses the cloud to store progress. Players can save their progress on one device, and pick it up again on another. But If you want to replicate the above scenario yourself and continue playing on a different console when travelling, then you’ll still have to own another copy of Fenyx Rising for that particular platform.

Sure, gamers are being given the ability to keep their progression across different platforms as promised- but only if they want to buy multiple copies of the same game.

Ubisoft also highlights on its website that some content purchases can’t be shared cross-platform such as credits purchased, DLC, season passes and more. Many were quick to highlight this across social media, questioning whether Fenyx Rising could really be called a true crossplay experience.

Suddenly, cross-playing Fenyx Rising looks to be an expensive proposition for the average gamer. As Sony found with Fortnite, there are other ways to make money from cross-play that don’t rely on a very skewed view of the definition of cross-play.

I believe that for big-budget games in the future, true crossplay is essential for longevity and financial success. Bungie’s Destiny 2 has shifted to follow this cross-play model, with cross-play between PC, console and Google Stadia due soon, and GTA5 is another title where cross-play is expected to happen.

With triple-A games costing hundreds of millions to develop even without the cost of updates and ongoing support, a games-as-a-service approach makes financial sense. Although these games are not yet cross-playable on cloud gaming services, it’s just a matter of time.

The cloud brings crossplay without the caveats

This is why I believe that there will be benefits to Google closing Stadia’s development studios. By no longer competing with PlayStation, Xbox, and so on, Stadia can concentrate on licensing third-party games and attracting a broader audience, and it gives publishers like Epic, Rockstar, Bungie and many others an even more compelling reason to make their games playable on cloud services.

There is a huge mainstream audience of gamers out there who are hungry for new cross-play experiences; the type that a well-worked and affordable gaming streaming service can provide.

The data we have from Blacknut subscribers shows those playing across two devices spend almost five times more time more playing, while those playing across four or more devices (so for example across a TV, laptop, mobile and desktop PC) are spending eight times more playing games. Subscribers can access the full catalogue of games valued at over $6,000, for a monthly subscription fee of $16.

After a relatively slow start, we are now finding many more publishers interested in the opportunities offered by cloud gaming services. As cloud gaming subscriptions increase, it can only make the case for true crossplay gaming between console, PC and the cloud much stronger.

It also never hurts to have a company the size of Google endorsing the same business model as Blacknut and other cloud gaming platforms. After all, the more we can all raise awareness of cloud gaming services, the more new gamers we can get buying and playing games.

With over 20 years of experience in digital, data, and performance-based marketing, along with being a digital mum and gamer, Daphne Parot is the chief marketing officer (CMO) for cloud gaming company Blacknut.

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‘Hacktivism’ adds twist to cybersecurity woes

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(Reuters) — At a time when U.S. agencies and thousands of companies are fighting off major hacking campaigns originating in Russia and China, a different kind of cyber threat is re-emerging: activist hackers looking to make a political point.

Three major hacks show the power of this new wave of “hacktivism” – the exposure of AI-driven video surveillance being conducted by the startup Verkada, a collection of Jan. 6 riot videos from the right-wing social network Parler, and disclosure of the Myanmar military junta’s high-tech surveillance apparatus.

And the U.S. government’s response shows that officials regard the return of hacktivism with alarm. An indictment last week accused 21-year-old Tillie Kottmann, a Swiss hacker who took credit for the Verkada breach, of a broad conspiracy.

“Wrapping oneself in an allegedly altruistic motive does not remove the criminal stench from such intrusion, theft and fraud,” Seattle-based Acting U.S. Attorney Tessa Gorman said.

According to a U.S. counter-intelligence strategy released a year ago, “ideologically motivated entities such as hacktivists, leaktivists, and public disclosure organizations,” are now viewed as “significant threats,” alongside five countries, three terrorist groups, and “transnational criminal organizations.”

Earlier waves of hacktivism, notably by the amorphous collective known as Anonymous in the early 2010s, largely faded away under law enforcement pressure. But now a new generation of youthful hackers, many angry about how the cybersecurity world operates and upset about the role of tech companies in spreading propaganda, are joining the fray.

And some former Anonymous members are returning to the field, including Aubrey Cottle, who helped revive the group’s Twitter presence last year in support of the Black Lives Matter protests.

Anonymous followers drew attention for disrupting an app that the Dallas police department was using to field complaints about protesters by flooding it with nonsense traffic. They also wrested control of Twitter hashtags promoted by police supporters.

“What’s interesting about the current wave of the Parler archive and Gab hack and leak is that the hacktivism is supporting antiracist politics or antifascism politics,” said Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist at McGill University, Montreal, who wrote a book on Anonymous.

Gab, a social network favored by white nationalists and other right-wing extremists, has also been hurt by the hacktivist campaign and had to shut down for brief periods after breaches.

Disrupting Qanon

Most recently, Cottle has been focused on QAnon and hate groups.

“QAnon trying to adopt Anonymous and merge itself into Anonymous proper, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Cottle, who has held a number of web development and engineering jobs, including a stint at Ericsson.

He found email data showing that people in charge of the 8kun image board, where the persona known as Q posted, were in steady contact with major promoters of QAnon conspiracies here.

The new-wave hacktivists also have a preferred place for putting materials they want to make public – Distributed Denial of Secrets, a transparency site that took up the mantle of WikiLeaks with less geopolitical bias. The site’s collective is led by Emma Best, an American known for filing prolific freedom of information requests.

Best’s two-year-old site coordinating access by researchers and media to a hoard of posts taken from Gab by unidentified hackers. In an essay this week, Best praised Kottmann and said leaks would keep coming, not just from hacktivists but insiders and the ransomware operators who publish files when companies don’t pay them off.

“Indictments like Tillie’s show just how scared the government is, and just how many corporations consider embarrassment a greater threat than insecurity,” Best wrote here.

The events covered by the Kottmann indictment here took place from November 2019 through January 2021. The core allegation is that the Lucerne software developer and associates broke into a number of companies, removed computer code and published it. The indictment also said Kottmann spoke to the media about poor security practices by the victims and stood to profit, if only by selling shirts saying things like “venture anticapitalist” and “catgirl hacker.”

But it was only after Kottmann publicly took credit for breaching Verkada and posted alarming videos from inside big companies, medical facilities and a jail that Swiss authorities raided their home at the behest of the U.S. government. Kottmann uses non-binary pronouns.

“This move by the U.S. government is clearly not only an attempt to disrupt the freedom of information, but also primarily to intimidate and silence this newly emerging wave of hacktivists and leaktivists,” Kottmann said in an interview with Reuters.

Kottmann and their lawyer declined to discuss the U.S. charges of wire fraud for some of Kottmann’s online statements, aggravated identity theft for using employee credentials, and conspiracy, which together are enough for a lengthy prison sentence.

The FBI declined an interview request. If it seeks extradition, the Swiss would determine whether Kottmann’s purported actions would have violated that country’s laws.

Disdain

Kottmann was open about their disdain for the law and corporate powers-that-be. “Like many people, I’ve always been opposed to intellectual property as a concept and specifically how it’s used to limit our understanding of the systems that run our daily lives,” Kottmann said.

A European friend of Kottmann’s known as “donk_enby,” a reference to being non-binary in gender, is another major figure in the hacktivism revival. Donk grew angry about conspiracy theories spread by QAnon followers on the social media app Parler that drove protests against COVID-19 health measures.

Following a Cottle post about a leak from Parler in November, Donk dissected the iOS version of Parler’s app and found a poor design choice. Each post bore an assigned number, and she could use a program to keep adding 1 to that number and download every single post in sequence.

After the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riots, Donk shared links to the web addresses of a million Parler video posts and asked her Twitter followers to download them before rioters who recorded themselves inside the building deleted the evidence. The trove included not just footage but exact locations and timestamps, allowing members of Congress to catalogue the violence and the FBI to identify more suspects.

Popular with far-right figures, Parler has struggled to stay online after being dropped by Google and Amazon. Donk’s actions alarmed users who thought some videos would remain private, hindering its attempt at a comeback.

In the meantime, protesters in Myanmar asked Donk for help, leading to file dumps that prompted Google to pull its blogging platform and email accounts here from leaders of the Feb. 1 coup. Donk’s identification of numerous other military contractors helped fuel sanctions that continue to pile up.

One big change from the earlier era of hacktivisim is that hackers can now make money legally by reporting the security weaknesses they find to the companies involved, or taking jobs with cybersecurity firms.

But some view so-called bug bounty programs, and the hiring of hackers to break into systems to find weaknesses, as mechanisms for protecting companies who should be exposed.

“We’re not going to hack and help secure anyone we think is doing something extremely unethical,” said John Jackson, an American researcher who works with Cottle on above-ground projects. “We’re not going to hack surveillance companies and help them secure their infrastructure.”

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AI Weekly: Biden calls for $37 billion to address chip shortage

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Shortly after a meeting with members of Congress on Wednesday, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that launches a review of supply chain vulnerabilities in the United States. COVID-19 made evident gaps in the U.S. supply chain in medical equipment like face masks and ventilators, but in a ceremony carried live by TV news networks, Biden held up a chip, calling it the “21st century horseshoe nail.”

AI research has received military funding from the outset, and government organizations like DARPA continue to fund AI startups, but a global chip supply shortage caused by COVID-19 has hindered the progress of numerous industries. During his remarks, Biden acknowledged that semiconductor chip shortages led Ford to reduce production by up to 20% in Q1 2021.

Smartphone production is also expected to decline as a result of the chip shortage, and earlier this month, business executives from AMD, Intel, Nvidia, and Qualcomm sent a letter to Biden urging support for the CHIPS for America Act and stating that a chip shortage could interrupt progress for emerging technology areas like AI, 5G, and quantum computing. CHIPS stands for Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors. That bill was introduced in Congress in summer 2020 and called for $22 billion in tax credits and research and development funding. The American Foundries Act, also introduced in Congress last summer, called for $25 billion. As part of the executive order signing ceremony Wednesday, Biden pledged support for $37 billion over an unspecified period described as “short term” and pledged to work with ally nations to address the chip bottleneck. The executive order will also review key minerals and materials, pharmaceuticals, and the kinds of batteries used in electric vehicles.

“We need to prevent the supply chain crisis from hitting in the first place. And in some cases, building resilience will mean increasing our production of certain types of elements here at home. In others, it’ll mean working more closely with our trusted friends and partners, nations that share our values, so that our supply chains can’t be used against us as leverage,” Biden said.

A 2019 U.S. Air Force report put the urgency of the matter in context. That report finds that “90% of all high-volume, leading-edge [semiconductor] production will soon be based in Taiwan, China, and South Korea.” The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) finds that 12% of global semiconductor production takes place in the U.S. today.

Analysts who spoke to VentureBeat found a number of factors contributing to the current chip shortage.

Kevin Krewell is a principal analyst at Tirias Research. He attributes the chip shortage to an initial slump followed by unexpected demand increase, not enough advanced semiconductor manufacturers, the fact that more complex semiconductor processes are hard to scale, and that there’s a long lead time on building new semiconductor manufacturing facilities, or “fabs.” Intel and Samsung being slow to get advanced process nodes out in a timely fashion has put more pressure on TSMC to make more chips, but he expects shortages will get addressed as more capacity comes on line and demand returns to more predictable levels.

“The $37 billion figure is a small start, but it is a start,” he said. Building a single semiconductor manufacturing facility can cost tens of billions of dollars.

Linley Group senior analyst Mike Demler said a fourth quarter growth in car sales caught auto manufacturers off guard, that high demand for consumer electronics during the pandemic rippled through other industries. He also said that the U.S. semiconductor industry wants to use the shortage to increase domestic semiconductor-manufacturing capacity.

“The semiconductor industry has thrived because of the global supply chain.  Greater investment in R&D could help restore US technological leadership in manufacturing technology, but it would take many years to shift the ecosystem,” Demler said.

IDC analyst Mario Morales said the chip shortage is a real thing but that some businesses may be blaming that shortage to distract from deeper underlying business problems or poor planning. For example, Ford may be reducing inventory due to a lack of chips, but Toyota has a stockpile.

“I think some of this is just not very good business continuity planning, and that some of this is a reaction to that. And others I think they’re using this as an excuse, because there is some underperformance from some of these vendors,” he said.

When discussing what caused the chip shortage, analysts VentureBeat interviewed talked primarily about COVID-19 and made virtually no mention of China, but you could potentially say the opposite about national security interests in the U.S., the other driver of interest in domestic chip production. The final report from the National Security Commission on AI is due out next week. That group was formed by Congress a few years ago and is made up of some of the most influential AI and business leaders in the United States today, like soon-to-be Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, Google Cloud AI chief Andrew Moore, and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

The report calls for the United States to remain “two generations ahead of China,” with $12 billion over the next five years for research, development, and infrastructure. It also supports creation of a national microelectronics research strategy like the kind espoused in the American Foundries Act. The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act created a committee to develop a national microelectronic research strategy.

The report calls for 40% refundable tax credit as well. The CHIPS for America Act also calls for hefty tax credits for semiconductor manufacturers through 2027.

“The dependency of the United States on semiconductor imports, particularly from Taiwan, creates a strategic vulnerability for both its economy and military to adverse foreign government action, natural disaster, and other events that can disrupt the supply chains for electronics,” the draft final report reads. “If a potential adversary bests the United States in semiconductors, it could gain the upper hand in every domain of warfare.”

The draft final report echoes calls from the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) for more public-private partnerships around semiconductors. In testimony before the House Budget committee about how AI will change the economy, NSCAI commissioner and Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) director Dr. Jason Matheny said, “It will be very difficult for China to match us if we play our cards right.”

“We shouldn’t rest on our laurels, but if we pursue policies that strengthen our semiconductor industry while also placing the appropriate controls on the manufacturing equipment that China doesn’t have and that China currently doesn’t have the ability to produce itself and is probably a decade away from being able to produce itself, we’ll be in a very strong position,” he said.

A Bloomberg analysis found that Chinese spending on computer chip production equipment jumped 20% in 2020 compared to 2019. Reuters has recorded Chinese chip imports above $300 billion for the past three years.

Advanced semiconductor manufacturing facilities can be more expensive than modern day aircraft carriers, and fabs are only part of the equation. IDC’s Morales agreed with Krewell that $37 billion is a start, but that becoming a leader in manufacturing could take a decade of investment not just in semiconductor manufacturing plants, but also design, IP, and infrastructure.

“The goal should be to collaborate a lot more with other regions that I would say are more neutral,” Morales said. He added that, based on conversations with manufacturers, he expects an end to chip supply chain shortage issues by Q2 or Q3 2021.

We’ll have to wait a few months to see what the review ordered by the Biden administration prescribes to improve resilience when it comes to chip production, but it seems clear that $37 billion may only be the start.

For AI coverage, send news tips to Khari Johnson, Kyle Wiggers, and AI editor Seth Colaner — and be sure to subscribe to the AI Weekly newsletter and bookmark our AI Channel.

Thanks for reading,

Khari Johnson

Senior AI Staff Writer

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Balan Wonderworld understands America’s infatuation with corn

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Corn! We love the darn stuff here in the United States. Now, of course the crop is important because it enabled humans to grow enough calories in order to fully colonize North America, and that’s great. But it’s also the main ingredient in high fructose corn syrup, which is in ketchup! Now we finally have a game brave enough to examine America’s love affair with this dietary staple: Balan Wonderworld.

Square Enix released a demo for Balan Wonderworld earlier this month, and reviews editor Mike Minotti gave us some insight into actually playing the game. And what he described seemed so bizarre that I had to see for myself.

So I, GamesBeat editor Jeff Grubb, got Mike on a Discord call and played through the Balan Wonderworld demo. And what I found is a game that respects and loves corn in the way that every American loves and respects corn.

Does that make this the most patriotic game ever? Yes, it does. Which is why I played the game with my hand over my heart the whole time (something that is possible because every button does the same thing).

Go ahead and watch along with us, and look forward to Balan Wonderworld’s March 26 release for $60 in actual human currency.

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Lexer raises $25.5 million to unlock insights from retailers’ customer data

Lexer, a customer data platform (CDP) that helps retailers glean insights by unifying data from multiple systems and sources, has raised $25.5 million in a series B round of funding led by Blackbird Ventures and King River Capital.

The raise comes as businesses across the spectrum rush to capitalize on the accelerated digital transition that has been driven by the pandemic, with retailers in particularly eager to grow their online sales by better understanding who they’re selling to.

The core promise behind CDPs such as Lexer is that it’s designed to expand the utility of data analytics beyond data scientists to enable anyone, such as marketers, to derive key insights from their vast swathes of data.

“Brands are awash with data these days, but it’s siloed, and they have no way of sorting, managing, gleaning insights and taking action from it,” Lexer CEO David Whittle told VentureBeat. “Lexer allows them to collect and enrich fragmented data sources into a single customer view to genuinely understand and engage their customers in personalized ways.”

Indeed, retailers can compare and contrast myriad customer segments by whatever data points they wish to use, such as their engagement with marketing materials, their preferred shopping channels, the products they’ve purchased, their online activities such as social media posts, to figure out how well its marketing activities are performing and unearth new ways to unlock more revenues.

Lexer serves up a vast array of analytics, incorporating customer service, campaign performance, net promoter score (NPS), and customer segment. It also supports more than 120 enterprise integrations, including BigCommerce, Shopify, Sailthru, Google Ads, and Bronto. “Lexer integrates with more than 90% of the systems a typical retailer stores data in or sends data to,” Whittle added.

Lexer's customer data platform (CDP)

Above: Lexer’s customer data platform (CDP)

Founded out of Australia in 2010, Lexer populates a space that includes major players such as Adobe and Salesforce, which launched their own CDPs back in 2019, alongside newer companies such as SoundCommerce, which announced a $15 million raise earlier this week.

Whittle said that Lexer is setting out to differentiate itself by serving as a true end-to-end solution spanning, data, software, and team. “Our customers don’t need to engage expensive and time-consuming third-parties for strategy, implementation, customization and project management,” he said. “Also, our tools are beautifully simple, easy-to-use, accessibly-priced and have been built by one team, rather than a Frankenstein of acquisitions trying to play nice together.”

Prior to now, Lexer had raised around $8 million, and with its latest cash injection the company said that it plans expand its product and hire across its offices in Australia, the U.S., and Southeast Asia — it plans to hire a new person each week for the next year to double its overall headcount.

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Pony.ai raises $100 million more to advance its autonomous vehicle tech

Self-driving car startup Pony.ai today announced that it raised $100 million in an extension of its series C round. The funds bring the company’s total raised to date to over $1 billion at a post-money valuation of $5.3 billion, up from $3 billion as of February 2020.

Some experts predict the pandemic will hasten the adoption of autonomous transportation technologies. Despite needing disinfection, driverless cars can potentially minimize the risk of spreading disease. For example, Pony.ai says it’s delivered more than 15,000 packages of food and health kits in California during the COVID-19 health crises.

Pony.ai BotRide

Former Baidu chief architect James Peng cofounded Pony.ai in 2016 with Tiancheng Lou, who worked at Google X’s autonomous car project before it was spun off into Waymo. The two aim to build level 4 autonomous cars — cars able to operate without human oversight under select conditions, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers — for “predictable” environments such as industrial parks, college campuses, and small towns, with a tentative deployment window of several years from now.

Pony’s full-stack hardware platform, PonyAlpha, leverages lidars, radars, and cameras to keep tabs on obstacles up to 200 meters from its self-driving cars. PonyAlpha is the foundation for the company’s fully autonomous trucks and freight delivery solution, which commenced testing in April 2019 and is deployed in test cars within the city limits of Fremont and Beijing in addition to Guangzhou.

Pony.ai, which has offices in Guangzhou, China and Fremont, California is one of the few companies to have secured an autonomous vehicle testing license in Beijing. In California, it has obtained a robo-taxi operations permit from the California Public Utilities Commission. The only other companies to have secured such a license in California are Cruise, AutoX, Aurora, Voyage, Waymo, and Zoox.

Last October, Pony.ai partnered with Via and Hyundai to launch BotRide, Pony.ai’s second public robo-taxi service after a pilot program (PonyPilot) in Nansha, China. BotRide allowed riders and carpoolers to hail autonomous Hyundai Kona electric SUVs through apps developed with Via, sourcing from a fleet of 10 cars with human safety drivers behind the wheel.

Pony.ai BotRide

In August, Pony.ai inked an agreement with Bosch to “explore the future of automotive maintenance and repair for autonomous fleets.” Pony.ai and Bosch’s Automotive Aftermarket division in North America plan to develop and test fleet maintenance solutions for commercial robo-taxi programs. Pony.ai says it began piloting a maintenance program with Bosch in the San Francisco Bay Area in early July.

Among other potential advantages, autonomous driving promises the continuous operation of fleets and reduction of downtime. According to a 2017 McKinsey report, robo-taxis could reduce a fleet operator’s total cost of ownership by 30% to 50% compared with private vehicle ownership and by about 70% compared to shared mobility, significantly disrupting the market. But robo-taxis will need vastly different maintenance infrastructure than cars, in part because they might lack regular monitoring, have only minutes between passengers, and sport expensive, sensitive, and unconventional parts like lidar sensors.

Pony.ai has competition in Daimler, which in summer 2018 obtained a permit from the Chinese government that allows it to test self-driving cars powered by Baidu’s Apollo platform on public roads in Beijing. And startup Optimus Ride built out a small driverless shuttle fleet in Brooklyn. Waymo, which has racked up more than 20 million real-world miles in over 25 cities across the U.S. and billions of simulated miles, in November 2018 became the first company to obtain a driverless car testing permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Other competitors include Tesla, Aptiv, May Mobility, Cruise, Aurora, Argo AI, Pronto.ai, and Nuro.

However, only Nuro, Waymo, and Cruise, and Argo rival Pony.ai’s fundraising. With the exception of Argo, all have raised more than $3 billion in venture capital at valuations ranging from $7.5 billion (Argo) to $175 billion (Waymo).

Fortunately for Pony.ai, it has partnerships with Chinese state-owned auto group FAW and GAC Group, a Guangzhou-based automobile maker, to develop level 4 robo-taxi vehicles. It also has a joint collaboration with On Semiconductor to prototype image sensing and processing technologies for machine vision. And Pony.ai has driven over 1.5 million autonomous kilometers (or about 932,056 miles) as of year-end 2019, putting it within striking distance of Yandex (2 million miles) and Baidu (1.8 million miles).

Brunei Investment Agency, Brunei’s sovereign wealth fund, and CITIC Private Equity Funds Management participated in the series C extension. Previous and existing investors in Pony.ai include Toyota, video game publisher Beijing Kunlun Wanwei, Sequoia Capital China, IDG Capital, and Legend Capital. The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board’s Teachers’ Innovation Platform led this latest round, with participation from Fidelity China Special Situations PLC, 5Y Capital, ClearVue Partners, Eight Roads, and others.

“Technological innovation is constantly transforming traditional industries, and autonomous driving will change traditional ways of transportation in the near future,” a CPE spokesperson told VentureBeat via email. “CPE believes that Pony.ai will lead this trend, and will help it seize the opportunity for faster growth.”

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