All posts by Moderator

Jaquet Droz is shipping its mechanical signing machine

Watchmaker Jaquet Droz announced its Signing Machine — a mechanical device that will sign your name for you using a series of miniature gears and springs — in 2014. Four years later, the company is ready to ship their miraculous contraption just in time for you to ink the deal you’ve made with Cybereus, lord of the digital underworld.

This exquisitely baroque gadget is essentially a little cartridge full of clockwork. You wind it up, stick a pencil in its tiny retractable claw, and let it go. The gears and levers recreate your signature with a series of flowing strokes generated by the movement of the gears.

Droz, an 18th century watchmaker and automaton manufacturer, was famous for his miraculous contraptions, including a Draughtsman and Writer, two human-shaped robots that could draw and write, along with his beautiful singing birds that used tiny pipes and bellows to recreate birdsong.

The Signing Machine is activated after you enter your four-digit code into the the device, and each unit is individually decorated for the owner.

How much does this bit of titanium jimcrackery cost? It starts at $367,500 and goes up depending on your signature. Too much? Just remember: Making deals with the cryptodemons of the digital underworld isn’t cheap. You’ll need something like this oddly tactical piece of metal to truly widen their hooded, red-shining eyes.

mParticle hires Adobe’s John Sedlak as chief revenue officer

mParticle, which helps companies like Airbnb and Spotify manage their customer data, has hired four new executives — including John Sedlak, most recently a vice president at Adobe, who’s joining the company as chief revenue officer.

In addition, Kiran Hebbar (formerly CFO of Social Tables) is joining as chief financial officer, Will Rogers (previously an engineer at Etsy) has been named chief information security officer and Aurélie Pols (who worked as data governance and privacy advocate at Krux Digital) is the new data protection officer.

Sedlak told me that in his roles at Adobe and Oracle (which he joined through the acquisition of BlueKai), he saw how the big marketing software players are trying to build comprehensive marketing clouds, often created through multiple startup acquisitions.

“They would constantly go to market and tout the benefits of the end-to-end stack, when I began to notice that there were many best-of-breed point solutions out there,” he said. “I got to see the power of standalone companies who are innovating ahead of what the big guys were doing. I’d put mParticle on that list.”

In the years since I first wrote about mParticle in 2014, a handy acronym has emerged to describe what the company does — CDP, short for customer data platform. Basically, CDPs like mParticle allow companies to unify all their first-party data, creating a single view of the customer.

Sedlak contrasted mParticle’s approach with older data management platforms, which he said weren’t built to connect customer data across all their interactions on different devices.

“They were originally built to ingest first-party cookie data coupled with third-party data,” he said. “They never fully contemplated the notion of a true cross-device world and I think [co-founders Michael Katz and Andrew Katz] knew that in 2013 and said, ‘You know we’re going to start solving for that now.’”

As for what hiring Sedlak will do for the company, he said one of his goals is to bring on even bigger customers: “I think mParticle can drive incremental or discrete value … to Fortune 50 marketers who I personally have done business with in the past, where I see an opportunity for us to significantly augment their current investments in the marketing cloud platforms.”

CEO Michael Katz, meanwhile, pointed out that two of these hires are focused on security. With the recent Facebook scandals discussions and Europe’s adoption of GDPR protections, there’s “a really healthy conversation around the importance of data control and governance,” and he said these hires will help mParticle build the tools that allow businesses to “put customer privacy and data security at the forefront of their business practice.”

PlayVS wants every high school to have an esports team

Nearly 200 colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada are actively recruiting for esports scholarships. But unlike other sports, there is currently no real infrastructure for high school esports.

PlayVS, a Science-backed startup out of Los Angeles, is looking to change that.

Founded by Delane Parnell, PlayVS has signed an exclusive contract with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) to provide support in building the infrastructure for high school esports, allowing students to play esports on behalf of their school all the way to the state championship level.

Most of us have participated in high school sports in some way, but many of us aren’t aware of all the moving parts going on behind the scenes. The NFHS, essentially the NCAA of high school sports and activities, handles those moving parts for more than 90 percent of schools in the U.S. across almost every sport.

From writing the rules to referees to building out the districts and conferences to organizing the state playoff tournaments, the NFHS has almost 100 years of experience across hundreds of sports and activities handling organization.

But esports represents a new challenge for the governing body, requiring more technical infrastructure than established sports.

That’s where PlayVS comes in. The company has built a website that handles league organization, scheduling, leaderboards and more. Plus, PlayVS has existing relationships with the game publishers, letting the platform pull stats in real-time from each high school match.

There will be two seasons each year, with students organizing their own teams at their school for a variety of games. High school teams go to the PlayVS website to see their schedule and log on for their game (which is played on the publisher client).

Eight season matches will be played online, with the top teams competing in a LAN tournament in front of a live spectator audience organized by PlayVS.

PlayVS is also partnering with NFHS Network, a live-streaming platform for high school sports, to broadcast some of the games to spectators.

As it stands now, colleges and esports organizations have to rely on relationships with publishers and tournament results to get a clear view of the top young talent. But there are surely many players slipping through the cracks.

With the new high school esports league powered by PlayVS, colleges and esports orgs will be able to use the PlayVS platform to see real-time stats and player profiles. Plus, the PlayVS site allows coaches and recruiters to request an introduction to the student’s parents and/or coach to start talking scholarships.

To start, the high school esports leagues will be PC-only games in three genres: Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, Fighting and Sports games.

The first season will start in the fall.

See you next week in New York

I’ll be helping build a larger meetup focused on pre-ICO companies in New York on April 23 and I’d love to see you there. It will be held at Knotel on April 23 at 7pm and will feature a pitch-off with eight startups and two panels with some yet-unnamed stars in the space. Let’s get together and talk about the hottest — and most controversial — topic in investing.

I’d love to see you there, so please sign up here. Early bird tickets are sold out and the regular tickets are going fast.

The event will be held at 551 Fifth Avenue on the 9th Floor and you can sign up to pitch here. This is still an experimental format and industry so let’s see how it works.

Amazon’s new ‘Alexa Blueprints’ let anyone create custom Alexa skills and responses

Amazon this morning is introducing “Alexa Blueprints,” a new way for any Alexa owner to create their own customized Alexa skills or responses, without needing to know how to code. The idea is to allow Alexa owners to create their own voice apps, like a trivia game or bedtime stories, or teach Alexa to respond to questions with answers they design – like “Who’s the best mom in the world?,” for example.

You could also create a skill that includes helpful information for the babysitter, which could be triggered by the command, “Alexa, open My Sitter,” Amazon suggests.

“Alexa Skill Blueprints is an entirely new way for you to teach Alexa personalized skills just for you and your family,” explained Steve Rabuchin, Vice President, Amazon Alexa, in a statement about the launch. “You don’t need experience building skills or coding to get started—my family created our own jokes skill in a matter of minutes, and it’s been a blast to interact with Alexa in a totally new and personal way.”

To build your own skill or custom Alexa response, users will visit the website blueprints.amazon.com and select a template.

At launch, there are over 20 templates across categories like Fun & Games, At Home, Storyteller, and Learning & Knowledge.

The templates are designed so you can just fill in the bits and pieces that make them personalized to your needs. You won’t need to go through a series of complicated steps, and no technical knowledge is required. The templates are even pre-filled and work as is, if you just want to try them out before making your own.

After you’ve filled in your own content, you name it and publish with a click. This makes the skill or response available to all Alexa-enabled devices associated with your own Amazon account. But it’s not available to the public or the Alexa Skills Store.

Families with Echo devices, in particular, seem to be a heavy focus for Alexa Blueprints. Kids have readily taken to Alexa, and today there are nearly 500 public Alexa skills built for kids alone. Families also often have private jokes and bedtime rituals where Alexa could come in – offering to “tell a Dad joke” or “start Anna’s story,” for instance. Plus, Alexa is designed as a home companion – controlling smart devices, playing music, setting timers, and offering information like news and weather, among other things.

But families aren’t the only ones would could take advantage of Alexa Blueprints. College students could use the flash cards custom skill when studying, while a group of friends or roommates could design their own trivia games. And Airbnb owners could set up a skill for their houseguests.

After you’ve created the custom skill, it will be available in the Skills You’ve Made webpage on the Blueprints site. You’ll also be able to enable, disable and delete your skills.

The feature could give Amazon an edge in selling its Echo speakers to consumers, as it’s now the only platform offering this level of customization – Apple’s HomePod is really designed for music lovers, and doesn’t support third-party apps. Google Home also doesn’t offer this type of customization.

All three are competing to be the voice assistant people use in their home, but Alexa so far is leading by a wide margin – it still has roughly 70 percent of the smart speaker market.

Alexa Blueprints are available today in the U.S. only.

The full list of Alexa Blueprints available at launch is below:

At Home

  • Custom Q&A: Customize responses to your questions
  • Houseguest: Make your guests feel at home with quick access to important info
  • Babysitter: Help your sitter find things, remember steps and get important info
  • Pet Sitter: Help your pet sitter care for your favorite animal

Fun & Games

  • Family Jokes: Create a list of your favorite jokes for when you need a laugh
  • Trivia: Create your own multiple choice trivia game on any topic
  • Inspirations: Curate a list of your favorite inspirational quotes
  • Family Trivia: Play together and brush up on family history
  • Bachelorette Party: Play to find out how well the bride’s friends know her
  • Birthday Trivia: Play to see who knows the birthday girl or boy best
  • Burns: Roast your friends and family with lighthearted burns
  • Compliments: Flatter your favorites with a list of custom compliments
  • Double Trouble: Find out which couple knows each other best with this customizable game
  • First Letter: Play a game of categories starting with a certain letter

Storyteller

  • Adventure: Write an adventure story where your child is the hero
  • Fairy Tale: Customize an interactive prince and princess-themed tale
  • Sci-Fi: Create an interactive story with a far-out theme
  • Fable: Create a short narrative with a moral of the story

Learning & Knowledge

  • Flash Cards: Study, test yourself, and master any subject by voice
  • Facts: Keep a list of facts on your favorite topic, all in one place
  • Quiz: Challenge yourself and others with a customizable quiz