Lexion raises $4.2M to bring AI to contract management

Contract management isn’t exactly an exciting subject, but it’s a real pain point for many companies. It also lends itself to automation, thanks to recent advances in machine learning and natural language processing. It’s no surprise then, that we see renewed interest in this space and that investors are putting more money into it. Earlier this week, Icertis raised a $115 million Series E round, for example, at a valuation of more than $1 billion. Icertis has been in this business for ten years, though. On the other end of the spectrum, contract management startup Lexion today announced that it has raised a $4.2 million seed round led by Madrona Venture Group and law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, which was also one of the first users of the product.

Lexion was incubated at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2), one of the late Microsoft co-founders’ four scientific research institutes. The company’s co-founder and CEO, Gaurav Oberoi, is a bit of a serial entrepreneur, whose first startup, BillMonk, was first featured on TechCrunch back in 2006. His second go-around was Precision Polling, which SurveyMonkey then acquired shortly after it launched. Oberoi founded the company together with former Microsoft research software development engineering lead Emad Elwany, and engineering veteran James Baird.

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“Gaurav, Emad, and James are just the kind of entrepreneurs we love to back: smart, customer obsessed and attacking a big market with cutting edge technology,” said Madrona Venture Group managing director Tim Porter. “AI2 is turning out some of the best applied machine learning solutions, and contract management is a perfect example – it’s a huge issue for companies at every size and the demand for visibility into contracts is only increasing as companies face growing regulatory and compliance pressures.”

Contract management is becoming a bit of a crowded space, though, something Oberoi acknowledge. But he argues that Lexion is tackling a different market from many of its competitors.

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“We think there’s growing demand and a big opportunity in the mid-market,” he said. “I think similar to how back in the 2000s, Siebel or other companies offered very expensive CRM software and now you have Salesforce — and now Salesforce is the expensive version — and you have this long tail of products in the mid-market. I think the same is happening to contracts. […] We’re working with companies that are as small as post-seed or post-Series A to a publicly-traded company.”

Given that it handles plenty of highly confidential information, it’s no surprise that Lexion says that it takes security very seriously. “I think, something that all young startups that are selling into business or enterprise in 2019 need to address upfront,” Oberoi said. “We realized, even before we raised funding and got very serious about growing this business, that security has to be part of our DNA and culture from the get-go.” He also noted that every new feature and product iteration at Lexion goes through a security review.

Like most startups at this stage, Lexion plans to invest the new funding into building out its product — and especially its AI engine — and go-to-market and sales strategy.

Peer-to-peer car sharing marketplace Turo raises $250M at over $1B valuation from IAC

Car-sharing startup Turo has raised $250 million in a Series E round of funding from IAC, the internet media company that owned and spun out Match.com, and OKCupid. This round pushes Turn into Unicorn territory, with its valuation now “past the billion-dollar” mark according to Turo CEO Andre Haddad.

This late round of funding brings the company’s total to nearly $450 million, raised across multiple rounds since its founding as Relay Rides in 2009. The company plans to use the investment to fuel its growth, further refine the customer experience aspect of its product and generally support its overall mission of increasing utilization rates for the over one billion cars currently estimated to be on the road around the world today.

IAC makes sense as a strategic partner for Turo because of its proven track record of helping companies scale to “household name” recognition status, Haddad said in a blog post. The company now has almost 400,000 vehicles available on the platform, with over 10 million users across both those listing their cars and those renting. Turo says its growth rate overall has been at around 2x over the past two years, and at 8x in its bourgeoning international markets, including the UK and Germany (where it took over Daimler’s car-sharing business alongside a strategic investment deal and officially launched last year).

AlphaSense, a search engine for analysis and business intel, raises $50M led by Innovation Endeavors

Google and its flagship search portal opened the door to the possibilities of how to build a business empire on the back of organising and navigating the world’s information, as found on the internet. Now, a startup that’s built a search engine tailored to the needs of enterprises and their own quests for information has raised a round of funding to see if it can do the same for the B2B world.

AlphaSense, which provides a way for companies to quickly amass market intelligence around specific trends, industries and more to help them make business decisions, has closed a $50 million round of funding, a Series B that it’s planning to use to continue enhancing its product and expanding to more verticals.

Today, the company today counts some 1,000 clients on its books, with a heavy emphasis on investment banks and related financial services companies. That’s in part because of how the company got its start: Finnish co-founder and CEO Jaakko (Jack) Kokko he had been an analyst at Morgan Stanley in a past life and understood the labor and time pain points of doing market research, and decided to build a platform to help shorted a good part of the information gathering process.

“My experience as an analyst on Wall Street showed me just how fragmented information really was,” he said in an interview, citing as one example how complex sites like those of the FDA are not easy to navigate to look for new information an updates — the kind of thing that a computer would be much more adept at monitoring and flagging. “Even with the best tools and services, it still was really hard to manually get the work done, in part because of market volatility and the many factors that cause it. We can now do that with orders of magnitude more efficiency. Firms can now gather information in minutes that would have taken an hour. AlphaSense does the work of the best single analyst, or even a team of them.”

(Indeed, the “alpha” of AlphaSense appears to be a reference to finance: it’s a term that refers to the ability of a trader or portfolio manager to beat the typical market return.)

The lead investor in this round is very notable and says something about the company’s ambitions. It’s Innovation Endeavors, the VC firm backed by Eric Schmidt, who had been the CEO of none other than Google (the pace-setter and pioneer of the search-as-business model) for a decade, and then stayed on as chairman and ultimately board member of Google and then Alphabet (its later holding company) until just last June.

Schmidt presided over Google at what you could argue was its most important time, gaining speed and scale and transitioning from an academic idea into full-fledged, huge public business whose flagship product has now entered the lexicon as a verb and (through search and other services like Android and YouTube) is a mainstay of how the vast majority of the world uses the web today. As such he is good at spotting opportunities and gaps in the market, and while enterprise-based needs will never be as prominent as those of mass-market consumers, they can be just as lucrative.

“Information is the currency of business today, but data is overwhelming and fragmented, making it difficult for business professionals to find the right insights to drive key business decisions,” he said in a statement. “We were impressed by the way AlphaSense solves this with its AI and search technology, allowing businesses to proceed with the confidence that they have the right information driving their strategy.”

This brings the total raised by AlphaSense to $90 million, with other investors in this round including Soros Fund Management LLC and other unnamed existing investors. Previous backers had included Tom Glocer (the former Reuters CEO who himself is working on his own fintech startup, a security firm called BlueVoyant), the MassChallenge incubator, Tribeca Venture Partners and others. Kokko said AlphaSense is not disclosing its valuation at this point. (I’m guessing though that it’s definitely on the up.)

There have been others that have worked to try to tackle the idea of providing more targeted, and business focused search portals, from the likes of Wolfram Alpha (another alpha!) through to Lexis Nexis and others like Bloomberg’s terminals, FactSet, Business Quant and many more.

One interesting aspect of AlphaSense is how it’s both focused on pulling in requests as well as set up to push information to its users based on previous search parameters. Currently these are set up to only provide information, but over time, there is a clear opportunity to build services to let the engines take on some of the actions based on that information, such as adjusting asking prices for sales and other transactions.

“There are all kinds of things we could do,” said Kokko. “This is a massive untapped opportunity. But we’re not taking the human out of the loop, ever. Humans are the right ones to be making final decisions, and we’re just about helping them make those faster.”

48-hour, buy-one-get-one sale — TC Sessions: Enterprise 2019

Every startupper we’ve ever met loves a great deal, and so do we. That’s why we’re celebrating Prime day with a 48-hour flash sale on tickets to TC Sessions: Enterprise 2019, which takes place September 5 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

We’re talking a classic BOGO — buy-one-get-one — deal that starts today and ends tomorrow, July 16, at 11:59 p.m. (PT). Buy one early-bird ticket ($249) and you get a second ticket for free. But this BOGO goes bye-bye in just 48 hours, so don’t wait. Buy your TC Sessions: Enterprise tickets now and save.

Get ready to join more than 1,000 attendees for a day-long, intensive experience exploring the enterprise colossus — a tech category that generates hundreds of new startups, along with a steady stream of multibillion-dollar acquisitions, every year.

What can you expect at TC Sessions: Enterprise? For starters, you’ll hear TechCrunch editors interview enterprise software leaders, including tech titans, rising founders and boundary-breaking VCs.

One such titan, George Brady — Capital One’s executive VP in charge of tech operations — will join us to discuss how the financial institution left legacy hardware and software behind to embrace the cloud. Quite a journey in such a highly regulated industry.

Our growing speaker roster features other enterprise heavy-hitters, including Aaron Levie, Box co-founder and CEO; Aparna Sinha, Google’s director of product management for Kubernetes and Anthos; Jim Clarke, Intel’s director of quantum hardware; and Scott Farquhar, co-founder and co-CEO of Atlassian.

Looking for in-depth information on technical enterprise topics? You’ll find them in our workshops and breakout sessions. Check out the exhibiting early-stage enterprise startups focused on disrupting, well, everything. Enjoy receptions and world-class networking with other founders, investors and technologists actively building the next generation of enterprise services.

TC Sessions: Enterprise 2019 takes place September 5, and we pack a lot of value into a single day. Double your ROI and take advantage of our 48-hour BOGO sale. Buy your ticket before July 16 at 11:59 p.m. (PT) and get another ticket free. That’s two tickets for one early-bird price. And if that’s not enough value, get this: we’ll register you for a free Expo-only pass to Disrupt SF 2019 for every TC Sessions: Enterprise ticket you purchase (mic drop).

Interested in sponsoring TC Sessions: Enterprise? Fill out this form and a member of our sales team will contact you.

Petcube’s Bites 2 and Play 2 amuse pets and humans alike with Alexa built-in

Petcube’s original Bites smart treat dispenser and Play pet camera with a built-in laser pointer were great for pet parents who couldn’t always be around to hang out with their furry charges, but the new Bites 2 and Play 2 come with one big new upgrade that make them far more versatile than the original: They both double as Alexa-powered smart speaker devices.

Both the Bites 2 and Play 2 can hear and respond to Alexa requests, with a four-microphone array that in my limited testing actually outperforms the Alexa mics built into my Sonos One and Sonos Beam speakers, which is pretty impressive for devices whose main features are serving up treats and keeping an eye on your pets. That’s on top of the Bites 2 being able to remotely dispense treats for your pet, and the Play 2 providing playtime away from home with a built-in laser pointer you can direct from your phone.

The Bites 2 and Play 2 also feature other improvements, including new wider angle lenses that offer full 180-degree views of your home for more likelihood you’ll spot your pets wandering around, and better Fi-Fi connectivity support with additional 5GHz networking, plus night vision and full HD video. Currently, the field of view is limited to 160-degrees, with an update to follow that will unlock the full 180, but for most users, the 160 FOV is going to show you an entire room and then some.

With the Bites 2, you can also initiate video calls and chat with your pet, though my dog Chelsea basically is just confused by this. It is handy if I need to ask my partner if there’s anything else I’m forgetting to pick up from the store, however. And the treat-flinging feature definitely does appeal to Chelsea, especially now that it’s Alexa-integrated so that I can easily issue a voice command to give her a well-earned reward.

This has actually proven more than just fun – Chelsea suffers from a little bit of separation anxiety, so when we leave our condo she usually spends a few quick minutes complaining audibly with some rather loud barks. But since getting the Petcube Bites 2 to test, I’ve been reinforcing good behavior by reminding her to keep quiet, waiting outside the door and then flinging her a treat or two for her troubles. It’s pretty much done away with the bye-bye barking in just a short time.

The Play 2 doesn’t fling treats, but it does have a built-in laser pointer (which the company says is totally safe for your pets eyes). Chelsea straight up does not understand the laser or even really acknowledge it, so that’s a bit of a miss, but with a friend’s cat this proved an absolute show-stopping feature. I’ve also known dogs previously who loved this, so your mileage may vary, but if you’re unsure it’s probably worth picking up a dollar store laser pointer keychain first to ensure it’s their jam.

The $249 Bites 2 and $199 Play 2 offer a ton of value in just the image and build quality upgrades over their original incarnations, and their basic features are probably plenty enough for doting pet parents. But the addition of Alexa makes these both much more appealing in my opinion, since it essentially bundles an Echo in each device at no extra cost.

T-Mobile quietly reported a sharp rise in police demands for cell tower data

T-Mobile has reported a small decline in the number of government data requests it receives, according to its latest transparency report, quietly published this week.

The third-largest cell giant in the U.S. reported 459,989 requests during 2018, down by a little over 1 percent on the year earlier. That includes an overall drop in subpoenas, court orders, and pen registers and trap and trace devices used to record the incoming and outgoing callers; however, the number of search warrants issues went up by 27 percent and wiretaps increased by almost 3 percent.

The company rejected 85,201 requests, an increase of 7 percent on the year prior.

But the number of requests for historical call detail records and cell site information, which can be used to infer a subscriber’s location, has risen significantly.

For 2018, the company received 70,224 demands for historical call data, up by more than 9 percent on the year earlier.

Historical cell site location data allows law enforcement to understand which cell towers carried a call, text message or data, and therefore a subscriber’s historical real-time location at any given particular time. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this data was protected and required a warrant before a company is forced to turn it over. The so-called “Carpenter” decision was expected to result in a fall in the number of requests made because the bar to obtaining the records is far higher.

T-Mobile did not immediately respond to a request asking what caused the increase.

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Call records requests by police. (2017 above, 2018 below). Source: T-Mobile.

The cell giant also reported that that the number of tower dumps went up from 4,855 requests in 2017 to 6,184 requests in 2018, an increase of 27 percent.

Tower dumps are particularly controversial because these include information for all subscribers whose calls, messages and data went through a cell tower at any given time. That can include the data of hundreds or thousands of innocent subscribers at any time.

Although T-Mobile says it requires a court order or a search warrant, the Carpenter decision does not affect police accessing data obtained from tower dumps.

T-Mobile currently has 81.3 million customers as of its last earnings call. The company is currently in the middle of a merger with Sprint for $26.5 billion. The Justice Department is reviewing the bid, but several states are looking to block the deal entirely.

Amazon said to be launch new Echo speaker with premium sound next year

Amazon is reportedly looking to offer an Echo that more directly competes with high-end speakers like the Sonos line of device of Apple’s HomePod, according to a new report from Bloomberg. The speaker should be released sometime next year, according to the sources cited in the report, and will be somewhat wider than the existing Echo models (perhaps more akin to the Echo Sub, pictured above), packing in four separate tweeters to help boost the song quality.

It will, of course, also offer access to the company’s Alexa voice assistant, which is what has propelled Echo to its current level of success. Bloomberg notes that it’s also likely to work better for the high-fidelity audio version of Amazon’s music streaming service that has previously been reported to be in the works.

This could make for an interesting working relationship with some of Amazon’s existing partners, including Sonos, since it sounds like this will be a direct competitor. Newer Sonos speakers, including the Sonos One and Sonos Beam, support Alexa voice commands out of the box. While both Echo devices and Sonos support multi-room streaming and speaker grouping, Sonos has always had far superior audio quality when compared to the Echo hardware – albeit at a premium price.

Sonos, meanwhile, is gearing up to launch speakers powered by its technology with Ikea, with the Symfonisk line that is set for release in August. Smart speakers are a busy space with a lot of money and interest from many companies big and small, but Amazon has a lot working in its favor if it can also produce something that wins on high-quality audio at a reasonable price.

Apple disables Walkie Talkie app due to vulnerability that could allow iPhone eavesdropping

Apple has disabled the Apple Watch Walkie Talkie app due to an unspecified vulnerability that could allow a person to listen to another customer’s iPhone without consent, the company told TechCrunch this evening.

Apple has apologized for the bug and for the inconvenience of being unable to use the feature while a fix is made.

The Walkie Talkie app on Apple Watch allows two users who have accepted an invite from each other to receive audio chats via a ‘push to talk’ interface reminiscent of the PTT buttons on older cell phones.

A statement from Apple reads:

We were just made aware of a vulnerability related to the Walkie-Talkie app on the Apple Watch and have disabled the function as we quickly fix the issue. We apologize to our customers for the inconvenience and will restore the functionality as soon as possible. Although we are not aware of any use of the vulnerability against a customer and specific conditions and sequences of events are required to exploit it, we take the security and privacy of our customers extremely seriously. We concluded that disabling the app was the right course of action as this bug could allow someone to listen through another customer’s iPhone without consent.  We apologize again for this issue and the inconvenience.

Apple was alerted to the bug via its report a vulnerability portal directly and says that there is no current evidence that it was exploited in the wild.

The company is temporarily disabling the feature entirely until a fix can be made and rolled out to devices. The Walkie Talkie App will remain installed on devices, but will not function until it has been updated with the fix.

Earlier this year a bug was discovered in the group calling feature of FaceTime that allowed people to listen in before a call was accepted. It turned out that the teen who discovered the bug, Grant Thompson, had attempted to contact Apple about the issue but was unable to get a response. Apple fixed the bug and eventually rewarded Thompson a bug bounty.  This time around, Apple appears to be listening more closely to the reports that come in via its vulnerability tips line and has disabled the feature.

Earlier today, Apple quietly pushed a Mac update to remove a feature of the Zoom conference app that allowed it to work around Mac restrictions to provide a smoother call initiation experience — but that also allowed emails and websites to add a user to an active video call without their permission.