Journey launches its real-time group ‘Peloton for Meditation’

Sitting silently with your eyes closed isn’t fun, but it’s good for you… so you probably don’t meditate as often as you’d like. In that sense, it’s quite similar to exercise. But people do show up when prodded by the urgency and peer pressure of scheduled group cycling or aerobics classes. What’s still in the way is actually hauling your lazy butt to the gym, hence the rise of Peloton’s in-home stationary bike with attached screen streaming live and on-demand classes. My butt is particularly lazy, but I’ve done 80 Peloton rides in four months. The model works.

Now that model is coming to mindfulness with the launch of Journey LIVE, a subscription iOS app offering live 15-minute group meditation classes. With sessions starting most waking hours, instructors that interact with you directly and a sense of herd mentality, you feel compelled to dedicate the time to clearing your thoughts. By video and voice, the teachers introduce different meditation theories and practices, guide you through and answer questions you can type in. Each day, Journey also provides a newly recorded on-demand session in case you need a class on your own schedule.

” ‘I tried Headspace’ or ‘I tried Calm .’ With a lot of the current meditation apps, people go on but they drop off very quickly,” says Journey founder and CEO Stephen Sokoler. “It means that there’s an interest in meditating and having a better life but people fall off because meditating alone is hard, it’s confusing, it’s boring. Meditating with a live teacher who can connect with you and say your name, who makes you feel seen and heard makes a huge difference.”

Journey subscriptions start at $19.99 per month after a week-long free trial. That feels a bit steep, but prices drop to $7.99 if paid annually with the launch discount, or you can dive in with a $399 lifetime pass. The challenge will be keeping users from abandoning meditation and then their subscription without resorting to growth hacking and annoying notifications that are antithetical to the whole concept. Journey has now raised a $2.4 million seed round led by Canaan and joined by Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, Betaworks and more to get the company rolling.

Sokoler’s own journey could set an example of the possibilities of sticking with it. “Meditation changed my life. I was fortunate enough to move to Australia, find a book on Buddhism, and then I had the willpower to start practicing meditation every day,” he tells me. “I lost 85 pounds. People ask me how I lost the weight and they expect me to say a diet like keto or Atkins, but it was because of the program I was in.” Suddenly able to sit quietly with himself, Sokoler didn’t need food to stay occupied or feel at ease.

The founder saw the need for new sources of happiness while working in employee rewards and recognition for 12 years. He built up a company that makes mementos for commemorating big business deals. Meditation proved to him the value of developing inner quiet, whether to inspire happiness, calm, focus or deeper connections to other people and the world. Yet the popular meditation apps ignored thousands of years of tradition when meditation would be taught in groups that give a naturally ethereal activity more structure. He founded Journey in 2015 to bring meditation to corporate environments, but now is hoping to democratize access with the launch of Journey LIVE.

“You could think of it as a real-life meditation community or studio in the palm of your hand,” Sokoler explains. Instructors greet you when you join a session in the Journey app and can give you a shout-out for practicing multiple days in a row. They help you concentrate on your breath while giving enough instruction to keep you from falling asleep. You can see or hide a list of screen names of other participants that make you feel less isolated and encourage you not to quit.

Finding a market amidst the popular on-demand meditation apps will be an uphill climb for Journey LIVE. While classes recorded a long time ago might not be as engaging, they’re convenient and can dig deep into certain styles and intentions. Calm and Headspace run around $12.99 per month, making them cheaper than Journey LIVE and potentially easier to scale.

But Sokoler says his app’s beta testing saw better retention than competitors. “If you’ve ever been to the New York Public Library, there’s so many books versus going to a local curated bookstore where something is right there for you. This is much more approachable, much more accessible,” Sokoler tells me. “There’s a paradox of choice, and having so many options makes it hard for people to stick with it and come back every single day.”

With our phones and Netflix erasing the downtime we used to rely on to give our brain a break or reflect on our day, life is starting to feel claustrophobic. We’re tense, anxious and easily overwhelmed. Meditation could be the antidote. Unlike with cycling or weightlifting, you don’t need some expensive Peloton bike or Tonal home gym. What you need is consistency, and an impetus to slow down for 15 minutes you could easily squander. We’re a tribal species, and Journey LIVE group classes could use camaraderie to lure us into the satisfying void of nirvana.

Serverless monitoring startup Epsagon expands to cover broader microservices

When Epsagon launched last fall, the Israeli startup had an idea to monitor serverless architectures, specifically AWS Lambda. But the company didn’t want to confine itself to monitoring a narrow class of applications, and today it announced it is now able to monitor a broader set of microservice development approaches.

CEO and co-founder Nitzan Shapira says when it launched, the startup wanted to take aim at serverless and Lambda seemed to be the prime tool for doing that. “Our product was basically a tracing, troubleshooting and monitoring tool that was automatically doing all of that for the Lambda ecosystem. And since then, we’ve seen actually a bigger shift [beyond] just Lambda,” he said.

That shift was to a broader view of this kind of deployment across a set of modern applications involving microservices. When developers move to these modern approaches, it becomes impossible to launch an agent to help monitor what’s happening. Yet the developers still need visibility into the applications.

To help, the company is launching a tracing and logging tool together, a first for this type of monitoring, according to Shapira. “Today, with engineering and DevOps working closer than ever, being able to automatically trace microservices applications without using an agent and combine the tracing and the logging in one platform is extremely valuable,” he said.

Shapira says that over time the company plans to expand this idea and support more frameworks out of the box to allow this kind of open tracing across different tools. “We need to provide support for more and more frameworks becoming popular. Lambda is just one framework,” he explained.

Serverless is somewhat of a misnomer. The servers are still there, but instead of programming to launch on a particular server, virtual machine (VM) or set of VMs, the cloud infrastructure vendor provides whatever infrastructure resources a developer requires at any given moment automatically.

Microservices encompass the idea that instead of building a monolithic application, you break it down into a series of smaller services, typically launching them in containers and orchestrating the containers in a tool like Kubernetes.

The company only came out of stealth last October, so it’s still early days, but it is already expanding, opening a sales office in the U.S. with a four-person staff. The engineering team remains in Israel. It is approaching 20 employees in total.

Shapira wouldn’t talk about exact customer numbers, but says the company has hundreds of users now and is doubling the number of paying customers every month.

K-Zen Beverage, a nascent cannabis-infused drink brand, has raised $5 million in seed funding

There’s a new cannabis-infused drink company coming together, helped along by the venture firm DCM, which just plugged $5 million in seed funding into the company.

Called K-Zen Beverages, the months-old startup represents the second cannabis-related investment for DCM after Eaze, the on-demand cannabis delivery platform.

So what’s the appeal? The opportunity to unlock a new market, it seems. Though Bay Area-based K-Zen has yet to roll out its first product — it’s working on three drinks that will be sold as shots and come in lemon chamomile, pink lemonade and wild berry flavors — there aren’t yet throngs of cannabis-infused brands. At least, it remains an open playing field, and the opportunity that K-Zen is chasing looks to be big.

According to one of the boldest predictions so far — unsurprisingly, it’s one that cannabis startups and investors love to cite — the investment bank Canaccord Genuity recently posited that marijuana-infused beverages could hit $600 million in the U.S. by 2022.

Currently, many cannabis-infused beverages, including beer, still lack the psychoactive compound THC because of regulations around it. Companies have instead been infusing their drinks with CBD, a compound that can be derived from both cannabis and hemp plants and that has taken off since industrial hemp cultivation was made legal in the United States last year.

But things are changing quickly. Though pot remains illegal at the federal level, 34 states have now legalized medical or recreational marijuana, and more are expected to join their ranks. That largely explains the timing of a startup like K-Zen — whose name blends “kaizen,” a Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement, and “zen,” a state of calm originally associated with Zen Buddhism. More to the point, it explains why K-Zen isn’t steering clear of THC but will instead sell one drink that features it exclusively, and blends of CBD and THC with the others.

As explains co-founder and co-CEO Judy Yee — a veteran of numerous packaged goods and health and wellness companies — K-Zen is looking to target people like herself, a busy working mother who was looking for new ways to “bring joy into an active lifestyle” and had become “cannacurious” by last year.

In fact, it was after Yee tried topicals, then some experimental beverages, that she began discussing the emerging trend with a friend who Yee had crossed paths with at numerous jobs over the years. As luck would have it, that friend, branding expert Soon Yu, was once funded by DCM. Convinced that he could help Yee sell a product like K-Zen, Yu picked up the phone, shared K-Zen’s vision, and voilà, a check was written.

Now, Yee and Yu just have to have the product made — then sell it.

Yee says K-Zen is on target to roll out its beverages this summer, where they will be made available in dispensaries, beginning in California, and directly to consumers via its site.

The five-person startup may have to educate customers first. The reason: marijuana-infused foods typically take at least an hour to kick in, making it harder for consumers to anticipate how they will feel and what the impact will be of the THC they ingest.

Yee readily acknowledges the challenge and says K-Zen is already considering how to help its customers. “People know what a glass of wine does to them, but [we may] create a pictogram” that helps people understand what to expect and when, depending on the amount of THC in the product.

Very possibly, by summer, more of its future customers will have least tried one cannabis drink, given how quickly people are gravitating to new cannabis products.

Though K-Zen is early to the game, it is not alone. As the outlet Eater recently pointed out, among other upstarts, a Seattle company called Trukino already makes both THC and CBD varieties of apple cider. Another company, California Dreamin,’ sells THC-infused sodas that taste like tangerine.

Hubtype raises $1.1M to help developers build richer chat support

Barcelona-based Hubtype has raised a €1 million (~$1.1M) seed round led by Madrid-based early stage VC firm, K Fund. The team last raised when the business was founded, back in February 2016, when they took in €235,000 in a mix of public and angel funding.

Hubtype targets enterprises and developers with customer service focused tools to help build and scale what it describes as “conversational messaging experiences” — aka messaging interfaces that go beyond more basic chatbot-style offerings to support richer interactions and ‘smart’ automation, such as knowing when to hand off to a human agent.

“We know very well that chatbots aren’t enough on their own, as we’ve been building bots for three years. To provide effective and meaningful interactions, companies need to go beyond bots and provide conversational experiences: Micro-apps within the messaging channels that everyone uses daily,” say co-founders, Eric Marcos and Marc Caballé, explaining the wider context around the space as they see it.

“Conversational experiences take the best of chat (conversational user interfaces) and combine elements of graphical user interfaces like websites, apps, etc. Effective ones aggregate AI, decision trees, webviews, human agent hand-off and more. Furthermore, enterprise companies need integration with other APIs and systems, from back-end inventory and order tracking to booking engines, analytics, NLP services and more.”

They argue that orchestrating all these different elements can be “extremely difficult and time-consuming” for businesses lacking a dedicated tech team to handle building and maintaining smooth chat-based customer interactions.

That’s where Hubtype sees an opportunity to elbow in, starting with a b2b focus but aiming to tilt fully at developers over the long term.

Hubtype’s opensource framework for building conversational apps, called Botonic, is based on React.js. Using this it claims a single developer can build, deploy and scale conversational apps across multiple messaging channels (including webchat) — doing away with the need for a full dev team to build and maintain everything.

The team’s goal is to become “the reference platform” for developers to create conversational apps using React.js. Some of the seed funding is therefore pegged for building out Hubtype’s developer relationship program, as well as ploughing into product development and scaling the sales team.

“We’re currently a b2b company and our target customers are enterprise-level companies mainly in banking, insurance and e-commerce/retail,” the co-founders note, adding: “Eight out of more than 20 customers are in the Forbes Global 2000 List, with some ranking in the top 20 such as Volkswagen, Inditex, HP, and Bankia.”

“With this funding round we’re investing in further developments of our framework, including AI capabilities which will allow clients to train their chatbot in one language and roll out automatically in about 100 languages. We’ll also be building our developer relationship program and scaling our sales team,” adds  Caballé in a statement.

Hubtype tells us it expects to reach 100 customers this year — though they’re not disclosing exact customer numbers yet.

“We have a strong presence in the Spanish enterprise ecosystem and within international brands that operate in Europe. We provide our service globally but we’re currently focused on the EU and testing some emerging markets where WhatsApp is prevalent, as we are one of the few official solution providers for the platform globally,” the co-founders add.

Asked about the competitive landscape, Hubtype names Accel-backed Rasa as an “AI centric” bot-builder framework rival with a similar “bottom up” focus on marshalling developers to build adoption.

Another competitor the co-founders point to is Botpress, saying it has a somewhat similar approach while flagging a different business model (focused on “consulting/services centric”).

Microsoft Bot Framework and Dialogflow are two other rival frameworks they name — but again the suggestion is both are AI centric, rather than supporting a richer mix of conversational components.

“The difference between us and our closest competition is that we have a very clear niche (React developers) and we are pioneers in advocating for conversational apps (text+GUI and using NLP and AI as elements) rather than AI or NLP-centric experiences. Most of our competitors are focused on AI and NLP,” they add.

“Our tools focus on building applications that sit at the intersection between text-based and graphic interfaces. We take into account NLP, AI, interactive messages, webviews, managing context, human handoffs and multichannel integrations. Additionally, we aggregate more messaging channels than all or most competitors.”

Commenting on the seed raise in a statement, Jaime Novoa, associate at K Fund, added: “The chatbot industry has undergone a major transformation from text to conversational apps, and Hubtype is leading enterprise companies to build the best customer experiences in a scalable way by using automation. Companies must move from traditional phone and email communication and into a new era of multichannel conversational messaging. Hubtype is an important addition to our investment portfolio, and timing is key.”

Nokia Chairman Risto Siilasmaa backs machine learning startup Aito.ai

Aito, a Helsinki-based machine learning startup that is developing “predictive database” technology, has raised €1 million in pre-seed funding, including from Nokia Chairman Risto Siilasmaa (via his investment company First Fellow Partners).

Others backing the round are Hermitage and UMO Capital, with funding from Business Finland. Previous Aito investors include Futurice and the company’s own founders Vesa-Pekka Grönfors, Antti Rauhala, Kai Inkinen.

Aiming to replace current machine learning tools that have a steep learning curve and generate only single-purpose models, Aito has built a predictive database for developers. Specifically, it lets users search existing information, make predictions and find hidden correlations.

Crucially, the results are said to be fully explainable and the tech can be integrated into existing software as easily as integrating a SQL query.

“The idea of an unconventional approach to AI and machine learning dates back for more than 10 years,” Grönfors tells me. “Antti, co-founder and chief scientist of Aito, started working with the concept already at the end of his studies and continued through the following years as a lead data scientist at Futurice [the European consultancy company].”

More broadly, Aito is founded on the premise that software developers are the new AI developers. There are some 23 million software developers in the world, and they increasingly work with machine learning or AI-related features, meaning it’s no longer only the domain of data scientists only.

“They require tools that are quick to adopt, support agile workflows and are familiar without specific knowledge of data science,” adds Grönfors.

“Aito.ai is a predictive database for developers who value quick time to market. It’s familiar as a database, yet provides the intelligence of machine learning… Predictions, recommendations, and explanations are provided in milliseconds over a beautiful API, using the entire Aito database as training data. Where traditional database gives the user, for example, five past purchases of an e-commerce customer, Aito can automatically predict the next likely purchases and explain what lead to such prediction.”

As an example, a subscription business could feed their product, financial, user and event data into Aito, and get out various business-critical predictions and insights, such as: predict demand, explain conversion, predict churn, optimise pricing, personalize content, recommend products, maximize lifetime value and more.

Already being tested in the wild, Aito is currently being used to automatically suggest categories for documents uploaded to contract management system; to find relevant movies based on similarity; and to automate conversational UI workflows and provide predictions on which customer complaints will escalate.

“Futurice, where Aito was spun off from, uses Aito to find who knows about a certain topic within an organization. Simply by typing a term, Aito uncovers the people with such knowledge based on several internal data sources, with no taxonomy or tagging needed,” says Grönfors.

Meanwhile, the Aito business model is a classic enterprise SaaS developer play: the pricing model is based on the size of a user’s data set and volume of queries. Pricing starts from €6 per day and there is a free trial period.

Urban Jungle raises £2.5M to make insurance accessible to ‘generation rent’

Urban Jungle, a digital insurance startup targeting so-called “generation rent” with a range of insurance products, has raised £2.5 million in a seed funding round.

The round is said to be backed by a mixture of new and previous investors, including Rob Devey, the former CEO of Prudential UK, and Simon Rogerson, CEO of Octopus Group.

Described as challenging traditional insurance providers by catering to U.K. renters who have historically been underserved by the insurance industry, Urban Jungle offers contents insurance, gadget insurance and tenant-liability policies.

This includes a contents insurance product focused on house and flat sharers. The startup also offers a pay-as-you-go policy, and says it is committed to transparent pricing policy terms.

“We are fixing home insurance, which has a load of problems to work on,” says Urban Jungle co-founder Jimmy Williams. “Of all of the types of personal insurance, it’s still the one most bought and managed offline, mostly through estate agents, banks and mortgage brokers. Prices are high, terms are complex and there are fees for everything.”

Alongside this, Williams says customers are often asked far too many questions about things that are outside their control, which they resent, and are becoming increasingly aware of outdated and unfair pricing. “Much of this is caused by insurers’ inability to use new sources of data appropriately,” he adds.

In contrast, Urban Jungle aims to be cheaper and easier for customers to buy, manage and claim. It also wants to provide cover better suited to customers’ needs.

“All of this is enabled through technology,” says Williams. “We automate the vast majority of processes to make things super quick, and keep our costs very low. We also use data in smart ways to customise the cover we offer to customers, and make pricing fairer.”

To that end, Urban Jungle claims 15,000 plus customers and says it’s growing more than 30% per month. Meanwhile, today’s newly disclosed funding brings the total raised by the U.K. company to £3.7 million to date.

Tourlane raises a $47M C round led by Sequoia and Spark Capital

There still exists an old-fashioned problem in travel: group travel that requires individuals and groups to plan and book personalized, multi-day tours online.

Tourlane is a major player in this sector and has today announced it’s raised $47 million in a round led by Sequoia and Spark Capital, alongside investors from the B round, including DN Capital and HV Holtzbrinck Ventures. This Series C funding comes six months after the B round, and will be used for further international expansion, hiring and product development.

Julian Stiefel, co-CEO and co-founder of Tourlane, said in a statement: “The additional capital will help us strengthen our position and continue our international growth to create the best experience in travel. We’re thrilled to continue working with our high-class investors and are extremely proud of the hard work, commitment and effort of our great team at Tourlane.”

Tourlane works directly with service providers and offers customers flights, accommodations, tours, activities and transfer options in one place, thus saving time when coordinating multiple bookings from different vendors or working with offline travel agents. The platform provides real-time pricing, availability, instant trip visualization and drag-and-drop adjustments to make multi-day trip planning easier.

Andrew Reed, partner at Sequoia, said: “Tourlane’s impressive growth and passionate community of users reinforce the uniqueness of what they’re doing. Tourlane is truly redefining the way people experience travel.”

Tourlane employs more than 200 people.