AI startup Cresta launches from stealth with millions from Greylock and a16z

As Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs cluster around the worldview that artificial intelligence is poised to change how we work, investors are deciding which use cases make the most sense to pump money into right now. One focus has been the relentless communication between companies and customers that takes place at call centers.

Call center tech has spawned dozens if not hundreds of AI startups, many of which have focused on automating services and using robotic voices to point customers somewhere they can spend money. There has been a lot of progress, but not all of those products have delivered. Cresta is more focused on using AI suggestions to help human contact center workers make the most of an individual call or chat session and lean on what’s worked well for past interactions that were deemed successful.

“I think that there will always be very basic boring stuff that can be automated like frequently asked questions and ‘Oh, what’s the status of my order?,’ ” CEO Zayd Enam says. “But there’s always the role of the person that’s building the relationship between the company and the customer, and that’s a really strategic role for companies in the modern age.”

Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun is the startup’s board chairman and is listed as a co-founder. Enam met Thrun during his PhD research at Stanford focused on workplace productivity. Cresta is launching from stealth and announcing that they’ve raised $21 million in funding from investors including Greylock Partners and Andreessen Horowitz. The company recently closed a $15 million Series A round.

Cresta wants to use AI to school customer service workers and salespeople on how to close the deal.

There’s quite a lot of turnover in contact center jobs and that can leave companies reticent to spend a ton of time investing in each employee’s training. Naturally, there are some inherent issues where the workers interacting with an individual customer might not have the experience necessary to suggest a solution that they might if they had more experience. In terms of live feedback, for many, fumbling through paper scripts at their desk can be about as good as it gets. Cresta is hoping that by tapping improvements in natural language processing, their software can help alleviate some stress for contact center workers and help them move conversations in the direction of selling something else for their company.

Cresta is entering a field where there’s already quite a bit of interest from established software giants. Salesforce, Google and Twilio all operate AI-driven products for contact centers. Even with substantial competition, Enam believes Cresta’s team of 30 can offer its customers a lot more individual attention.

“We’re one of the few technical teams where we’re just obsessed with the customer, to the point where it’s normal for people on our team to fly to the customer and live by a call center in an Airbnb for a week,” Enam said. “When Greylock led the Series A, they had heard that and said that’s what gave them so much conviction that we were the team to solve the problem.”

Sun Microsystems co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim, Mark Leslie and Vivi Nevo are also investors in Cresta.

HPE acquires cloud native security startup Scytale

HPE announced today that it has acquired Scytale, a cloud native security startup that is built on the open-source Secure Production Identity Framework for Everyone (SPIFFE) protocol. The companies did not share the acquisition price.

Specifically, Scytale looks at application-to-application identity and access management, something that is increasingly important as more transactions take place between applications without any human intervention. It’s imperative that the application knows it’s OK to share information with the other application.

This is an area that HPE wants to expand into, Dave Husak, HPE fellow and GM of cloudless initiative wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition. “As HPE progresses into this next chapter, delivering on our differentiated, edge to cloud platform as-a-service strategy, security will continue to play a fundamental role. We recognize that every organization that operates in a hybrid, multi-cloud environment requires 100% secure, zero trust systems, that can dynamically identify and authenticate data and applications in real-time,” Husak wrote.

He also was careful to stress that HPE would continue to be good stewards of the SPIFFE and SPIRE (the SPIFFE Runtime Environment) projects, both of which are under the auspices of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation.

Scytale co-founder Sunil James, writing in a blog post about the deal, indicated that this was important to the founders that HPE respect the startup’s open-source roots. “Scytale’s DNA is security, distributed systems, and open-source. Under HPE, Scytale will continue to help steward SPIFFE. Our ever-growing and vocal community will lead us. We’ll toil to maintain this transparent and vendor-neutral project, which will be fundamental in HPE’s plans to deliver a dynamic, open, and secure edge-to-cloud platform,” he wrote.

Scytale was founded in 2017 and had raised $8 million, according to PitchBook data. The bulk of that was in a $5 million Series A last March led by Bessemer. The deal closed today.

Jenfi wants to solve small business lending in Southeast Asia

Small business lending is a huge market that has attracted massive attention from VC investors in recent years. Startups like Kabbage have raised more than a billion dollars in venture capital and debt to create lending platforms for businesses, and others in the space like Fundbox for lending and BlueVine for banking are trying to build new, digital-first models for helping SMB owners grow their businesses.

While startups targeting the U.S. and European markets have proliferated, other international markets have seen less attention. Portal Finance raised $200 million to help businesses with lending in Latin America, and First Circle raised a $26 million round to do the same in the Philippines.

Now Jenfi wants to enter the mix. The company, founded by Jeffrey Liu, who sold his past startup GuavaPass to ClassPass for a few million, and Justin Louie, who was one of the first employees at GuavaPass, wants to expand access to small and medium business loans for owners in Southeast Asia, starting with their first base of operations in Singapore.

“Even in a market like Singapore which is quite well-established … half of these companies are still underbanked, [and] they don’t have access to credit,” Liu explained to me in an interview. “We realized there was a big problem there.”

The company raised a US$1 million angel round of debt and equity, and is currently going through YC’s accelerator program. So far, the startup has 50 borrowers on its platform according to Liu, and has lent SGD$600,000 so far since launch last year.

In terms of its product, the company either lends directly to a small business, or offers a virtual Jenfi Mastercard that can be used for purchases.

What’s more interesting right now, though, is Jenfi’s model, which is something that you don’t see all the time in the lending space. The company is approaching SMB lending purely from a growth perspective. The startup wants to help owners invest in the growth of their businesses primarily through digital marketing, and takes a small percentage of future revenue in lieu of a fixed repayment schedule.

Liu says that “part of the value-add is that we can help them be more effective in their alternative marketing channels…” He said that the startup doesn’t want to become a service provider, but has been building partnerships with other marketing agencies and services that can help owners find the right growth strategies for them, and then execute on them funded by Jenfi capital. “Our goal is to be able to build a network,” Liu says. “Marketing growth is our initial product focus for this company.”

The timing could be propitious. A study by Google and Bain late last year pegged Southeast Asia as a massive opportunity for digital services, with deep smartphone penetration but still a relatively limited array of digital services across a range of categories. Online marketing channels exist, but are under-optimized, particularly in comparison to the large sums devoted to them in countries like the U.S.

Over the next two years, Liu and Louie hope to expand to more geographies, build out their product offering and continually build long-term partnerships with business owners.