Adobe’s Photoshop celebrates its 30th birthday today. Over that time, the app has pretty much become synonymous with photo editing and there will surely be plenty of retrospectives. But to look ahead, Adobe also today announced a number of updates to both the desktop and mobile Photoshop experiences.
The marquee feature here is probably the addition of the Object Selection tool in Photoshop on the iPad. It’s no secret that the original iPad app wasn’t exactly a hit with users as it lacked a number of features Photoshop users wanted to see on mobile. Since then, the company made a few changes to the app and explained some of its decisions in greater detail. Today, Adobe notes, 50 percent of reviews give the app five stars and the app has been downloaded more than 1 million times since November.
With the Object Selection tool, which it first announced for the desktop version three months ago, Adobe is now bringing a new selection tool to Photoshop that is specifically meant to allow creatives to select and manipulate one or multiple objects in complex scenes. Using the company’s Sensei AI technology and machine learning, it gives users a lot of control over the selection process, even if you only draw a crude outline around the area you are trying to select.
Also new on the iPad are additional controls for typesetting. For now, this means tracking, leading and scaling, as well as formatting options like all caps, small caps, superscript and subscript.
On the desktop, Adobe is bringing improvements to the content-aware fil workspace to the app, as well as a much-improved lens blur feature that mimics the bokeh effect of taking an image with a shallow depth of field. Previously, the lens blur feature ran on the CPU and looked somewhat unrealistic, with sharp edges around out-of-focus foreground objects. Now, the algorithm runs on the GPU, making it far softer and foreground objects have a far more realistic look.
As for the improved content-aware fill workspace, Adobe notes that you can now make multiple selections and apply multiple fills at the same time. This isn’t exactly a revolutionary new feature, but it’s a nice workflow improvement for those who often use this tool.
BluBracket, a new security startup from the folks who brought you Vera, came out of stealth today and announced a $6.5 million seed investment. Unusual Ventures led the round with participation by Point72 Ventures, SignalFire and Firebolt Ventures.
The company was launched by Ajay Aurora and Prakash Linga, who until last year were CEO and CTO respectively at Auroa, a security company that helps companies secure documents by having the security profile follow the document wherever it goes.
Aurora says he and Linga are entrepreneurs at heart and they were itching to start something new after more than five years at Vera . While both still sit on the Vera board, they decided to attack a new problem.
He says that the idea for BluBracket actually came out of conversations with Vera customers, who wanted something similar to Vera, except to protect code.”About 18-24 months ago, we started hearing from our customers, who were saying, ‘Hey you guys secure documents and files. What’s becoming really important for us is to be able to share code. Do you guys secure source code?’”
That was not a problem Vera was suited to solve, but it was a light bulb moment for Aurora and Linga, who saw an opportunity and decided to seize it. Recognizing the way development teams operated has changed, they started BluBracket and developed a pair of products to handle the unique set of problems associated with a distributed set of developers working out of a Git repository — whether that’s GitHub, GitLab or BitBucket.
The first product is BluBracket CodeInsight, which is an auditing tool, available starting today. This tool gives companies full visibility into who has withdrawn the code from the Git repository. “Once they have a repo, and then developers clone it, we can help them understand what clones exist on what devices, what third parties have their code, and even be able to search open source projects for code that might have been pushed into open source. So we’re creating what’s called a we call it a blueprint of where an enterprise code is,” Aurora explained.
The second tool, BluBracket CodeSecure, which won’t be available until later in the year, is how you secure that code including the ability to classify code by level importance. Code tagged with the highest level of importance will have special status and companies can attach rules to it like that it can’t be distributed to an open source folder without explicit permission.
They believe the combination of these tools will enable companies to maintain control over the code, even in a distributed system. Aurora says they have taken care to make sure that the system provides the needed security layer without affecting the operation of the continuous delivery pipeline.
“When you’re compiling or when you’re going from development to staging to production, in those cases because the code is sitting in Git, and the code itself has not been modified, BluBracket won’t break the chain,” he explained. If you tried to distribute special code outside the system, you might get a message that this requires authorization, depending on how the tags have been configured.
This is very early days for BluBracket, but the company takes its first steps as a startup this week as it emerges from stealth at the RSA security conference in San Francisco. It will be participating in the RSA Sandbox competition for early security startups at the conference, as well.
ForgePoint Capital has formally announced its new $450 million fund, which it says is the largest fund dedicated to early stage cybersecurity and privacy startups.
The fund, the firm’s second — which it aptly named Fund II — will invest in both early stage and a number of other growth-focused companies.
The aim is to try to cash in early on an increasing number of startups in the cybersecurity space that could go on to become the next Crowdstrike or Cloudflare, both of which saw massive exits last year when they both went public on valuations of several billion apiece. By investing now, it’ll help the firm better position itself to snap up the best talent ahead of an anticipated cybersecurity worker shortage — an estimated 1.8 million workers by 2022.
So far, the fund has already invested in several early stage startups, notably Cysiv, Huntress Labs, and Secure Code Warrior.
“We believe that global prosperity and national security depend upon a commitment to protect the digital world,” said Alberto Yépez, co-founder and managing director at ForgePoint, who will lead the fund.
Much of the decision making will be made by the firm’s Cybersecurity Advisory Council, made up of 60 members (11% are women), made up of industry leaders and investing experts.
ForgePoint previously invested in Qualys, AlienVault, and Appthority to name a few of its high-profile exits.
Ordway, a Washington, DC startup, is building a platform to deal with all of the stuff that happens after you make sale. It starts with the order and goes all the way to revenue, however that revenue manifests itself — as a one time payment or a recurring subscription. Today the company announced a $10 million Series A.
CRV led the round with participation from Clocktower Ventures and existing investors Lerer Hippeau and Revolution Rise of the Rest fund. The company has now raised a total of $12.5 million, according to Crunchbase data.
Sameer Gulati, founder and CEO at Ordway, says the company wanted to build a flexible tool to sit between the CRM and financial systems of a company. “So in that sense, we do everything for post-sales from billing automation, payment collection, revenue recognition, analytics, all the way to cash. We have a streamlined workflow for managing order to revenue,” Gulati told TechCrunch.
It sounds a lot like the Quote-to-Cash space where companies like Apttus (acquired by Thoma Bravo in 2018) or SteelBrick (acquired by Salesforce in 2015) tried to stake a claim, but Gulati says while his company’s solution handles the quote-to-cash workflow, it can do much more than that.
“We absolutely can handle the workflow from quote to billing to payments to revenue, for sure. But the reason Ordway has a niche is because we are a lot more configurable and a lot more flexible to accommodate any workflow out there,” he said.
He says his company’s solution connects to the CRM system on one side and the financial systems on the other. They are compatible with all the major CRM tools including Salesforce and Dynamics 365. And they support a range of financial tools like NetSuite or QuickBooks.
“In fact, we can work with any back-end small system to a large scale ERP system, but our value add is automating the movement of data into the ERP. So we are the operational framework between sales and traditional ERP. We will handle everything in between,” he said.
As for the funding, Gulati has the kind of plans you would expect with a Series A investment. “The core goal is definitely to accelerate all aspects of our business from sales and marketing to product and engineering, and most importantly, customer success. Basically, in a sense we are doubling down on making sure our customers are successful in solving their core sales to finance business challenges,” he said.
The company launched in 2018 and has 25 employees today. Gulati says his company’s goal is to grow 4X in the next 12 months and grow employees at a similar rate.
The internet has, for better or worse, become the default platform for people seeking information, and today one of the companies leveraging that to deliver educational content has raised some funding to fuel its next stage of growth. Udemy, which provides a marketplace offering some 150,000 different online learning courses from business analytics through to ukulele lessons, has picked up $50 million from a single investor, Benesse Holdings, the Japan-based educational publisher that has been Udemy’s partner in the country. The investment values Udemy at $2 billion post-money, it said.
This is a big jump since the startup last raised money, a $60 million round in 2016 that valued it at around $710 million (according to PitchBook data). With this round, Udemay has raised around $130 million in funding.
The plan will be to use the funding to expand all of Udemy’s business, which includes a vast array of courses for consumers that can be purchased a la carte — to date used by some 50 million students; as well as enterprise services, where Udemy works with companies like Adidas, General Mills, Toyota, Wipro, Pinterest and Lyft and others — 5,000 in all — to develop and administer subscription-based professional development courses. Udemy’s president Darren Shimkus describes this as a “Netflix-style” model, where users are presented with a dashboard listing a range of courses that they can take on demand.
Udemy will also be looking at improving how courses are delivered, as well as consider new areas it might move into more deeply to fit what Shimkus described as the biggest challenge for the company, and for the global workforce overall:
“The biggest challenge is for learners is to figure out what skills are emerging, what they can do to compete best in the global market,” he said. “We’re in a world that’s changing so quickly that skills that were valued just three or four years ago are no longer relevant. People are confused and don’t know what they should be learning.” That’s a challenge that also stands for businesses, he added, which are trying to work out what he described as their “three to five year human capital roadmap.”
The investment will also include a specific boost for Udemy’s international operations, starting with Japan but extending also to other markets where Udemy has seen strong growth, such as Brazil and India.
“We’ve worked closely with Benesse for several years, and this investment is a testament to the strength of our relationship and the opportunity ahead of us,” said Gregg Coccari, CEO of Udemy, in a statement. “Udemy is on a mission to improve lives through learning, and so is Benesse. 2020 will be a milestone year where we serve millions more students and enable thousands of businesses and governments to upskill their employees. This growth wouldn’t be possible without our expert instructors who partner with us every step of the way as we build this business.”
Benesse’s business spans instructional materials for children through to courses for adults both online and in in-person training centers — one of the better-known brands that it owns is Berlitz, which operates both virtual courses as well as a network of physical schools — and Udemy has been developing content alongside Benesse both in Japanese as well as English, Shimkus said, targeting both consumer and business markets.
“Access to the latest workplace skills is crucial for success everywhere, including Japan; and Udemy is the world’s largest marketplace enabling professional transformation. With this partnership, we envision a world where more people can continue to learn continuously throughout their lives,” said Tamotsu Adachi, Representative Director, President and CEO of Benesse Holdings Inc., in a statement. “Udemy and Benesse are incredibly synergistic businesses. This investment is the next progression in our business relationship and demonstrates our confidence in what we can accomplish together.”
Udemy’s expansion comes at a time when online education overall has generally continued to grow, although not without bumps.
Among those that compete at least in part with it, Coursera last year announced a $103 million round of funding at a $1 billion+ valuation and made its first acquisition to expand how it teaches programming and other computer science subjects. And in Asia, Byju’s in India is now valued at $8 billion after a quick succession of large growth rounds. We’ve also heard that Age of Learning, which quietly raised at a $1 billion valuation in 2016, is also gearing up for another round.
On the other hand, not all is rosy. Another big name in online learning, Udacity (not to be confused with Udemy), laid off 20% of its workforce amid a larger restructuring; and further afield, Kano — which merges online learning with DIY hardware kits — has also laid off and restructured in recent months. Meanwhile, we don’t seem to hear much these days from LinkedIn Learning, another would-be competitor that was rebranded Lynda.com after it was acquired by the social networking site (itself owned by Microsoft).
Unlike Coursera and others that aim for full degrees that are potentially aiming to disrupt higher education, Udemy focuses on short courses, either simply for the student’s own interest, or potentially for certifications from organizations that either help administer the courses or “own” the subject in question (for example, Cisco for networking certifications, or Microsoft regarding one of its software packages, or the PMI for a course related to project management).
Those courses are delivered by individuals who form the other half of Udemy’s two-sided marketplace. In the 10 years that it’s been in business, Udemy has worked with some 57,000 instructors to develop courses, and in the marketplace model, Shimkus told TechCrunch that those instructors have been netted $350 million in payments to date. (He would not disclose Udemy’s cut on those courses, nor whether the company is currently profitable.)
The company has a lot of areas that it has yet to tackle that present opportunities for how it might evolve. Working with enterprises but with a large base of consumer usage, there is, for example, a lot of scope to develop more data analytics about what is used, what is popular, and how to tailor courses in a better way to fit those models to improve outcomes and engagement. Another area potentially could see Udemy moving deeper into specific subject areas like language learning, where it offers some courses today but has a lot of scope for growing, particularly leaning on what Benesse has with Berlitz. To date, Udemy has made no acquisitions, but that is also an area that Shimkus said could be an option.
Cryptocurrency company has been working with Paysafe to issue the Coinbase Card, a Visa debit card that works with your Coinbase account balance. The company is now a Visa Principal Member, which should help Coinbase rely less on Paysafe and control a bigger chunk of the card payment stack.
Coinbase says it is the only cryptocurrency company that has reached that level of certification. The company will offer the Coinbase Card in more markets in the future. The new status could open up more possibilities and features as well.
While Coinbase originally launched the Coinbase Card in the U.K., it is now available in 29 European countries. It works with any Visa-compatible payment terminal and ATM. Users can decide in the app which wallet they want to use for upcoming transactions. This way, you can spend money in 10 cryptocurrencies.
There are some conversion fees just like on Coinbase. In addition to those fees, there can be some additional fees if you withdraw a lot of money or make a purchase abroad. More details here.
Still, half of users who ordered a card are actively using it. The U.K., Italy, Spain and France are the main markets so far. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies might not replace Visa and Mastercard just yet, so traditional debit cards represent a good alternative for now.
Unacademy, one of India’s fastest growing education startups, has just received the backing of a major technology giant: Facebook.
The social juggernaut has participated in the four-year-old Indian startup’s Series E financing round, sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.
General Atlantic is leading the round, the size of which is about $100 million, the sources said. It wasn’t immediately clear to us exactly how big of a check Facebook has cut, but one of the sources said it was under $20 million. The round values the startup, which had raised $90 million prior to the ongoing round, at over $400 million, the source said.
Unacademy is aimed at students who are preparing for competitive exams to get into a college and those who are pursuing graduation-level courses. It allows students to watch live classes from educators and later engage in sessions to review topics in more detail.
A year ago, the startup launched a subscription service that offers students access to all live classes. Gaurav Munjal, co-founder and chief executive of Unacademy, tweeted earlier this month that the subscription service had become a $30 million ARR business.
This is the second time Facebook is investing in an Indian startup. Last year, it participated in social commerce Meesho’s $125 million financing round led by Prosus Ventures.
Facebook and Unacademy did not respond to a request for comment.
Ajit Mohan, VP and managing director of Facebook India, told TechCrunch in an interview last year that the company was open to engaging with startups that are building solutions for the Indian market.
“Wherever we believe there is opportunity beyond the work we do today, we are open to exploring further investment deals,” he said.
Indian newspaper Mint first reported in December that Unacademy was in talks with General Atlantic and GGV Capital to raise as much as $100 million. TechCrunch understands that GGV Capital, which earlier this month invested in edtech startup Vedantu, is not participating in Unacademy’s funding round.
Vedantu and Unacademy compete with Byju’s, an Indian startup that counts General Atlantic as an investor and is valued at $8 billion. Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has invested in Byju’s, but has sold at least some of its stake, according to a regulatory filing analyzed by business outlet Entrackr.
As India’s startup ecosystem begins to mature, it has started to attract corporate giants. Google, Amazon and Twitter also have made investments in Indian startups. While Twitter has backed social platform ShareChat, Google has invested in hyperlocal concierge app Dunzo.
Elon Musk is not one to mince words, but he may have just lost a potential customer because of a cutting tweet.
That customer is renowned big deal Bill Gates, who sat down recently with YouTuber Marques Brownlee, who joined the platform in 2009 and has amassed more than 10 million viewers. Gates and Brownlee have met before, and the idea was to have Gates discuss some of what the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has planned for this year, which marks the 20-year-anniversary of the organization.
Unsurprisingly, the conversation touched on climate change and in pretty short order sustainable transportation, with Brownlee bringing up Tesla and asking if, when “premium” electric cars grow more affordable, they’ll also become more ubiquitous.
Gates didn’t exactly malign Tesla with his answer, telling Brownlee: “The premium today is there, but over the next decade — except that the [mileage] range will still be a little bit less — that premium will come to zero. [When we look at all the sectors addressing climate change] passenger cars is certainly one of the most hopeful, and Tesla, if you had to name one company that’s help drive that, it’s them.”
What Gates did next, however, did not sit well with Musk, apparently. He expressed excitement about his first new electric car, which happens not to be a Tesla.
Said Gates: “Now all the car companies, including some new ones, are moving super fast to do electric cars. The biggest concern is, will the consumers overcome that range anxiety? I jut got a Porsche Taycan, which is an electric car. I have to say, its a premium price car, but it’s very, very cool. That’s my first electric car and I’m enjoying it a lot.”
Musk felt compelled to weigh in with a tweet after learning about the exchange.
Specifically, after a Twitter account associated with an unofficial Tesla newsletter tweeted “a lot of people are going to watch the interview and they are going to trust Bill’s word for it and not even consider EVs. Why? Because Bill Gates is a really smart guy!” Musk responded, “My conversations with Gates have been underwhelming tbh.”
It’s funny, because they are both billionaire geniuses and it’s unexpected.
It’s also nasty enough that you can guess Gates won’t be buying a Tesla or speaking in a positive way about the company any time soon.
Over the last year or so, much-to-most of the cryptocurrency world has pivoted from the failure of “fat tokens” and ICOs, and the faltering growth of “Layer 2” payments like Lightning and the late Plasma Network, to the new hotness known as “DeFi,” which this week was used to … hack? acquire? steal? It’s pretty ambiguous … a cool million dollars.
DeFi stands for Decentralized Finance. It’s supposed to be an entire alternative financial system. One day, its visionaries say, you will be able to use DeFi to borrow and lend, to buy and sell all kinds of exotic securities, and to acquire insurance and make claims, all via completely decentralized networks and protocols, no banks or brokers or trusted third parties required, just irrevocable and implacable software, “code as law,” with no human beings involved except for you and (maybe) your counterparties, while never having to fill out any paperwork or apply for permissions, and trusting your money to no entity except whoever holds your private key(s). One day.
Many people find this a stirring, inspiring vision. However, DeFi today is very few of those things. Today it allows you to borrow crypto using crypto as collateral; use that lending market to earn interest on your crypto holdings; trade crypto via decentralized exchanges, or DEXes; commit your crypto to liquidity pools, in exchange for a percentage of fees; insure yourself against hacks somewhat; and, well, that’s pretty much it.
Some people also call stablecoins, prediction markets like Augur, and security tokens (aka stocks / real estate On The Blockchain) part of DeFi. The first two seem pretty separate to me, though, with the exception of the Dai stablecoin. Security tokens should be DeFi, but are currently an awkward fit because of their strict regulatory requirements, and anyway haven’t exactly taken the world by storm.
I should know; I spent some weeks eighteen months ago coding a security token. I’ve been writing about cryptocurrencies here for nine years. And I have followed the growth of DeFi with … well … eye-watering boredom, along with some dismay, until this week.
DeFi seems to me more like cosplaying a financial system than an actual viable alternative. I don’t see it crossing that divide any time soon, if ever. It even cosplays the De in its name, too, since very few of today’s DeFi offerings (beyond its base layers) are actually decentralized — as in, beyond the control of some kind of centralized administration — or has any real schedule for becoming so.
Technically it’s all pretty cool, I concede. But what is the point of “borrowing money using money as collateral” for the 99.9% of people who aren’t true-believer HODLers loath to even consider simply selling their crypto? Even if you accept the “floating cryptocurrencies are like gold, stablecoins are like money” analogy, this entire system only really benefits the vanishingly small number of whales who own sizable amounts of cryptocurrency already. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that they who hold that gold have made the new rules, but it’s a bit much to ask that the rest of us genuflect in awe and call them the future.
Similarly, it’s nice that you can earn a little interest on your crypto holdings, but for floating cryptocurrencies, that trickle will be drowned out by the rogue-wave-like price swings in their valuations for the foreseeable future. (For instance, much of the credit for the “more than $1 billion locked into DeFi contracts,” much cited across the industry, should go to the recent rise in valuations rather than increasing participation.) Even for stablecoin collateral, no reasonable analyst would consider the interest rates commensurate with the risk —
— because, as the events of this week point out, that risk is immense. Credit where it’s due: those events were made possible because of a genuinely novel innovation, a “flash loan,” wherein an anonymous party can borrow an arbitrary amount of money — yes, you read that correctly — providing that they ensure it’s all paid back by the end of a single smart-contract transaction. Think of it as an ATM giving you all the money you want, but locking the door until you deposit it all back.
That may seem surreal and pointless, but the thing about DeFi is, a single transaction can include many different steps between the borrow and the payback. This week’s two hacks took advantage of that fact. The first used half the flash loan to short the price of bitcoin, and the other half to borrow a lot of bitcoin, which it sold to temporarily lower its price — then claimed the short profits. It also took advantage of a bug in a smart contract intended to catch such transactions.
The second used some of the loan to borrow a lot of a cryptocurrency, then the rest to bid that up in value, then used that increased value as collateral to borrow even more, then paid back the loan and kept the increased value. It didn’t appear to take advantage of any bugs at all. Combined, they reaped roughly a cool million dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency.
Were these thefts? Were these totally legitimate arbitrage plays, using the system(s) as programmed, and, at least in the second case, apparently as designed? You can at least make a reasonable case either way.
The risks certainly do not stop there. People have even floated compelling-sounding theories suggesting how a hacker could extract the entire reserves of MakerDAO, the system behind the Dai stablecoin, which represents more than half of the combined committed value of all DeFi. In fairness, the responsible people involved will cheerfully tell you that these are bleeding-edge systems with fairly broad attack surfaces, and you probably don’t want to commit money to them that you can’t afford to lose.
But all this cosplay, clever as it is, doesn’t help solve any of the hard problems preventing cryptocurrencies from mattering to most. The oracle problem: if you rely on third parties to tell the blockchain what to do, then why not just rely on third parties to manage your money? (While also offering valuable things like a help number and recourse in the case of erroneous transactions.) The identity problem: how can you implement decentralized identity and reputation, so that you can offer credit based on someone’s history and status, rather than current cryptocurrency holdings?
Working on those problems would actually help to “bank the unbanked,” something that many cryptocurrency people used to pretend to care about. They would actually reduce the power that gargantuan centralized financial establishments hold over ordinary people. They could lead to an actual decentralized financial system which, even if only 1% of the population actually use it, would keep the giants honest simply by providing a viable alternative in case they became too draconian.
Please don’t start talking about Venezuela or Zimbabwe. Unlike you, I actually spent time in Zimbabwe during hyperinflation. If we wanted to use cryptocurrencies to help the masses suffering under profligate governments using increasingly worthless fiat currencies — which I absolutely agree is a noble goal — we wouldn’t be spending our time, effort, and intellectual horsepower on the ability to use cryptocurrency A as collateral for loans denominated in cryptocurrency B. They are completely orthogonal.
Instead of tackling the hard problems, or bringing crypto to people who need it, DeFi today seems to be mostly about creating an alternative financial system which makes life mildly more convenient for those whales who happened to wind up holding a big bag of cryptocurrencies after the first few booms. And as this week’s events show, it may not even be good at that. Please can we get back to the important problems?
Last week, we interviewed Brendan Wallace, a real estate-focused venture capitalist whose portfolio companies include Opendoor, which buys and sell homes, and scooter company Lime, which helps building owners navigate around parking requirements by installing docking stations instead.
We first talked with Wallace almost exactly three years ago when he and partner Brad Greiwe took the wraps off their venture firm Fifth Wall Ventures and its $212 million debut fund. What really stood out to us at the time is that it was backed by a long list of real estate heavyweights. They’re understandably eager to get a peek at up-and-coming technologies and, in some cases, deploy them.
Wallace and Greiwe have been awfully busy since that initial conversation. Last year, they closed a second flagship fund with $503 million in capital commitments. Fifth Wall is also working to close two other funds, including a $200 million retail fund focused on matching online brands with real-world real estate and a reported $500 million carbon impact fund whose capital will enable its limited partners to expressly invest in sustainable technology.
Wallace declined to discuss the last two funds, presumably owing to SEC regulations, but he did talk with us about what he says is the biggest thing to shake up the real estate industry in “the last five decades.” We also chatted about how the coronavirus impacted a recent fundraising trip to Singapore and how WeWork’s public retrenching has affected how investors feel about real estate startups right now (he suggests WeWork’s fall definitely made an impression). Some excerpts from our conversation follow, edited lightly for length and clarity.
TechCrunch: We’d read that you were recently in Singapore meeting with new investors.
Brendan Wallace: Yes, I was in Singapore meeting with our existing investors and it was a pretty unique time to be there. When I went, which was about two weeks ago, the outbreak of coronavirus was fairly contained in China. But then as you probably read, it spread pretty rapidly in Singapore, so at the moment, I’m actually kind of self-quarantining myself in my own house.