Machine learning startup Weights & Biases raises $15M

Weights & Biases, a startup building development tools for machine learning, has raised $15 million in its second round of funding.

The company was started by CrowdFlower founders Lukas Biewald and Chris van Pelt, along with former Google engineer Shawn Lewis. (Under its new name Figure Eight, CrowdFlower was acquired by Appen for up to $300 million in March.)

When Weights & Biases launched last year, Biewald (who I’ve known since college) said he wanted to create the tools needed to “build and deploy great deep learning models.” Its initial product allows companies to monitor those models as they develop and train them.

“When people build machine learning models they need to track everything that happens — the code that went into the model, the hyperparameters that go into the model and then basically how well the model does,” Biewald told me this week. “You add a couple lines of code to your … training code and then every time your model runs, it reports what happens to the server.”

Customers include OpenAI, GitHub, Qualcomm and Toyota Research Institute, as well as research institutions like Stanford and Columbia. The new round — led by Coatue Management, with participation from angels including GitHub CEO Nat Friedman and Salesforce Chief Scientist Richard Socher — brings Weights & Biases’ total funding to $20 million.

Weights & Biases

The company has also launched Benchmarks, a new product that allows practitioners to collaborate on the same machine learning models. Biewald acknowledged that commercial enterprises probably won’t want to take this approach, but he suggested that researchers can use this so they “don’t have to rerun lots of training examples” and “just to move the state of the art forward.”

Looking at how the industry has evolved, Biewald said, “It’s gone really mainstream. What people don’t realize is how much machine learning is actually used in real companies today … Almost any company of reasonable size is doing machine learning. A lot of the applications are kind of boring but important to the company that’s doing them.”

Nor does Biewald think we should be discouraged by headlines like the news that Google’s Duplex service for restaurant reservations often relies on humans rather than bots.

“I don’t think it’s smoke and mirrors to combine humans and machine learning algorithms,” he said. “Every credit card company is using machine learning to prevent fraud, or whatever they do, they have humans check a lot of it … I don’t know why people feel it needs to be so binary, like we either automate everything or nothing. If you can automate half of it, that’s pretty good.”

Pillar launches with $5.5M from Kleiner Perkins and others to tackle your student loan debt

A new startup aims to help you get your student loans under control. Today, an app called Pillar, backed by $5.5 million in seed funding led by Kleiner Perkins, is launching a simpler way for consumers to better understand their student loan debt — and even pay it off early.

To do so, the app connects with your student loan servicer and bank, then makes personalized suggestions based on your loans, your income and your spending. When it finds a way you can make a bigger dent in your overall student loan debt, it will send an alert to your smartphone.

Pillar co-founder and CEO Michael Bloch, an early DoorDash employee, said he came up with the idea after his wife graduated from law school with around $300,000 worth of student loans.

“We struggled to figure out the right way to pay them back,” he explains. “We read blog posts and articles. We made spreadsheets. We even talked to a financial advisor. But there really was no easy way for us to figure out what was the right thing for us to do. And I realized there are 45 million people with loans, and millions of those people have had the exact same experience as I did.”

Bloch decided then to drop out of Stanford Business School to instead focus on building Pillar along with co-founder and CTO Gilad Kahala.

Above: Michael Bloch (L) and Gilad Kahala (R)

The problem they’re attacking is massive. Student loan debt is the second largest type of consumer debt in the U.S., with 45 million borrowers owing more than $1.5 trillion in student loans. Seven out of 10 students take out loans to pay for college, and the average person graduates with $30,000 in debt, which takes 20 years to pay off. For those with $60,000 in debt, it can take more than 30 years to pay off. And nearly 20% of borrowers have more than $100,000 in debt.

In addition, women are disproportionately affected by this problem, notes Bloch. Women hold two-thirds of student loan debt, he points out. This is because there are more women (around 56%) than men attending college these days, and because of the gender pay gap — which means it takes longer for women to pay back their loans.

At launch, Pillar walks new users through a quick sign-up process where you authenticate with your loan provider and bank account. (The company says it uses security best practices, and doesn’t store any login information or passwords on its own servers.)

As Pillar analyzes your spending and pay schedule, it can figure out when you can start making an extra payment toward your loans. It also calculates what that means in terms of paying off your loan earlier. This is especially useful for those who don’t necessarily receive a steady paycheck, or whose income fluctuates for other reasons — they may have trouble determining how much they can actually afford to chip in.

The company does not offer to refinance loans, to be clear, nor will it point you toward those options. In fact, it expects many of its users wouldn’t be able to take advantage of refinancing options, anyway.

“Companies like SoFi actually turn away around 97% of everybody who applies for refinancing, because they’re too high a credit risk — they look at your credit scores, your income, the type of job you have — most people don’t qualify for lower rates on refinancing,” Bloch says.

Instead, Pillar targets the larger majority who make less than $100,000 per year and have fewer options.

“What we found is that these small actions that people can take — where it’s not necessarily a hundred dollars this month. But even making a $5 a week extra payment can make a really big difference to somebody’s financial life in the long run,” he explains.

Users can opt to make these additional payments through Pillar itself, instead of having to go through the sometimes clunky student loan provider’s website.

Pillar works with nearly all major student loan servicers — including Nelnet, Navient, Great Lakes, Fedloan Servicing and others.

Prior to today, the company had been running a private beta with an undisclosed number of users who are now using Pillar to manage their collective $50 million-plus in loan debt. During this period, the average borrower saved around $6,000 and about four years on repayment, Bloch claims.

What Pillar does not do, at this point, is help borrowers navigate student loan forgiveness programs. That’s on its roadmap, however. It plans to offer tools and automation to help its users navigate those programs in the future. Longer-term, Pillar wants to do for all consumer debt — including credit cards — what it’s now doing for student loans.

While Pillar is attacking a real problem, it’s not yet a comprehensive solution — or even the best way for a consumer to handle their overall debt.

As Genevieve Dobson, founder and CEO of debt management company Degrees of Success, points out, the interest rates on consumers’ student loans may be lower than the high interest rates on their credit cards and other debt that should be paid down first.

Plus, she notes, “it would not be suggested for anyone who qualifies for an income-based repayment or other lower payment option. It’s also not a good option for those who qualify for any of the forgiveness programs. And unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to tell people to utilize the income-driven repayment options instead, which could end up harming someone rather than helping them.”

In time, hopefully, Pillar will become more comprehensive to address the needs of all borrowers. For now, however, it makes the best sense for those who only hold student loan debt and are looking to pay it down more quickly.

Pillar says it will keep all its advice free, but will charge a low (around $1 per month) subscription fee for premium features at some point in the future. The company will also provide (not sell) anonymized loan data to nonprofits and research institutions who are working to advance the national conversation and policy around student loans.

In addition to Kleiner Perkins, other seed round participants include Rainfall Ventures, Great Oaks VC, Financial Venture Studio, Kairos and Day One Ventures. Individual investors include Adam Nash, the former CEO of Wealthfront and Acorns board member; Noah Weiss, former SVP of Product at Foursquare; Zach Weinberg and Nat Turner, co-founders of Flatiron Health; Misha Esipov, CEO and co-founder of Nova Credit; and Robinhood’s head of International, Patrick Kavanagh, and head of Finance, Nadia Asoyan.

The Pillar team is currently 10 people in New York, and looking to double the size of the team over the next year with a particular focus on hiring engineers.

Pillar is available on iOS and Android. You will still need to join the waitlist, as people are being allowed into Pillar in stages as it launches.

Enterprise cybersecurity startup BlueVoyant raises $82.5M at a $430M+ valuation

The pace of malicious hacks and security breaches is showing no signs of slowing down, and spend among enterprises to guard against that is set to reach $124 billion this year. That’s also having a knock-on effect on the most innovative cybersecurity startups, which continue to raise big money to grow and meet that demand.

In the latest development, a New York startup called BlueVoyant — which provides managed security, professional services and, most recently, threat intelligence — has picked up $82.5 million in a Series B round of funding at a valuation in excess of $430 million.

The funding is coming from a range of new and existing investors that includes Fiserv, the fintech giant that’s acquiring First Data for $22 billion. (The startup is not disclosing any other names at this time, it said.) It has raised $207.5 million to date.

BlueVoyant has a notable pedigree that goes some way to explaining how the idea for the startup first germinated.

Co-founder and CEO Jim Rosenthal met his co-founder Tom Glocer (the former CEO of Thomson Reuters) when Rosenthal was COO of Morgan Stanley and Glocer was a director at the financial services giant (Glocer is still on the board). Glocer said that in 2012 and 2013, a fair amount of Rosenthal’s work involved cyber defense, and he came into close contact there with Glocer, who was chairing the operations and technology committee at the time.

“Here was an incredibly strategic, smart fellow in charge of operations,” he said of Rosenthal. “When it came time for him to retire, he told me he wanted to do one more big thing, but in a more entrepreneurial fashion. I suggested to him that the next step could be to work on [cybersecurity], which we were focusing on at Morgan Stanley.”

Glocer noted that the bank was spending some $300 million annually on cybersecurity at the time. It effectively had all the resources of the world at its disposal to invest in tackling the risks, but the two were all too aware of how even that could prove not to be enough — and of course for any company with fewer resources, or that wasn’t billed as a tech company or with technology as part of its DNA.

BlueVoyant was built with those kinds of challenges in mind.

The startup has amassed talent from the world of private enterprise, but also a number of government organizations such as the NSA, FBI, GCHQ and Unit 8200 — which are alternately renowned and somewhat notorious for their work in cybersecurity and hacking. Its offices span a multitude of geographies that speaks to the customers that it has picked up in its quiet growth to date (which also gives some color to its valuation, too). In addition to the U.S., it has operations in Israel, the United Kingdom, Spain and the Philippines.

Tapping that talent pool, the company focuses on three areas of service for its customers: threat intelligence, managed security and professional services (with the latter focused specifically on those related to security implementations and operations).

Within these, Rosenthal said in an interview that it both builds its own IP, and also brings in software from a range of trusted partners (which include many of the biggest security software companies around today). Key to the proposition, though, is also the implementation of that technology. The theory is that technology will only get a company so far: you need a multi-level strategy when it comes to cybersecurity, and part of that will involve people able to identify vulnerabilities and figuring out how to fix or defend around them.

BlueVoyant believes the opportunity for it is twofold: targeting small and medium enterprises — the pitch being that it can provide the same kind of software and level of services that large enterprises enjoy; and targeting larger enterprises that may already have large IT budgets and teams tasked with cybersecurity, but could still use supplementary work from a world-class team of experts that would be a challenge to amass directly.

“My view is that for firms with very good cyber defenses, external cyber intelligence is important because you can’t defend everything equally,” Rosenthal said. “Having good actionable defense makes it better.

“Then for firms that are unable to afford an excellent cyber defense instructed by themselves and may not be able to attract the talent necessary, a managed security service is the right and important answer,” he continued. “That kind of managed security now needs to be available to companies of all sizes, not just the big ones but small and medium organizations, too. We have created a tech stack and level of talent capable of providing those.”

The formula appears to be working. Since launching the first tranche of its offering, managed services, in 2018, BlueVoyant has picked up some 150 customers in verticals like financial services, manufacturing, municipal government and education.

Working with partners is one way that BlueVoyant plans to expand that customer base over time. Fiserv is backing the startup as a strategic investment and the two will collaborate on providing respective services to each other’s clients. Specifically, Glocer noted that many of the banks that Fiserv currently works with are typical targets: businesses that have a lot to lose in a breach, but may lack the size to ever adequately secure its infrastructure and other assets.

“The strategic alliance between Fiserv and BlueVoyant brings advanced cyber defense capabilities to banks and credit unions of all sizes,” said Byron Vielehr, chief administrative officer of Fiserv. “Our continued investment in BlueVoyant underscores the value these capabilities can bring to our clients.”

BlueVoyant is not the only big security startup to raise at a high valuation in recent times. Auth0 raised $103 million at a $1 billion valuation last week. In April, Bitglass closed a $70 million round. 2018 had seen a high-water mark for security funding, with startups raking in a record $5.3 billion in the year; it will be worth watching to see whether the ongoing march of breaches will see those figures rise again this year.

LEGO celebrates Apollo 11 with a lovely, bricky Lunar Lander

The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first lunar landing is approaching, and there will be no shortage of fanfare — so why shouldn’t LEGO get in on the fun? This Lunar Lander set looks like a great way to celebrate the missions of the space program’s past, while the space station and launch sets celebrate its present and future.

The Apollo 11 set looks like a real treat for both space-loving kids and parents — and grandparents — who remember or otherwise venerate the historic missions. LEGO worked with NASA to put together a replica Eagle lander that’s a lot like the original, though slightly smaller, of course.

There are two astronauts, a crater and a flag — just like the real landing. And the detailed ascender module actually detaches and fits two minifigs inside. And, inquiring LEGO enthusiasts will want to know, there are some cool new gold-colored bricks that will surely make for lovely additions to your other brick-based space projects.

Apollo is what we’re celebrating, but Artemis is what’s ahead of us. The next moon mission will involve quite a few interesting pieces of hardware, though nothing is finalized yet — so you can excuse LEGO for improvising a bit. (I feel sure the Shuttle design has been ruled out, though.)

The launch control set looks great: an actual mission control area, an astronaut-delivery rail car and a convincing rocket that could be the Space Launch System. There’s also a fairly realistic space station setup, with segments you can connect in various ways and a cool airlock I would have loved to have when I was an avid builder.

I like that these aren’t huge — kids shouldn’t get the wrong idea about space travel. It’s like crawling into a hot can and being rolled down a hill, then you live in the can for months constantly smelling the other astronauts’ breath. At the end of it, you’re at Mars, sure — but it’s not exactly first-class.

Making spaceships out of LEGO is a highlight of my childhood, and one in which I still indulge now and then, but I never felt particularly constrained by reality. I think it’s great that these sets provide that option — even if they’re fantasy, they’re definitely quasi-realistic, and when kids see the Lunar Gateway in a few years they’ll think, huh, looks a lot like what I built a while back. So far that hasn’t happened with any of my ships.

Head over to the LEGO Shop to grab your own set.

Healthcare data integration startup Abacus Insights lands $12.7M Series A

Abacus Insights, an early-stage startup that wants to help coordinate healthcare information across systems, announced a $12.7 million Series A investment today led by CRV. Existing investors 406 Ventures and Echo Health Ventures also participated in the round.

The company is trying to make it easier for health insurance companies to share data with various parties in the healthcare system, with the ultimate goal of lowering costs and helping participants across the system, from doctors to pharmacists and other healthcare practitioners, have a better understanding of the overall patient record.

Company founder and CEO Dr. Minal Patel says they chose insurance companies as the target customer for their solution because they have a greater understanding of a person’s overall healthcare as everything flows through them for payment.

“We launched in 2017 with the purpose of helping our clients, who are typically large health insurance companies, liberate all the data they sit on so that they can help their members become healthier and have better experience with the overall health care system,” he said.

The platform is essentially a data integration play tuned specifically for the healthcare industry. Trying to pull data from the variety of legacy systems in place across the different players in healthcare is challenging, and that’s the problem the company is trying to solve.

“Abacus makes gathering a patient’s healthcare history simpler for insurance companies by using a data management platform that houses their complete medical history in one place. Making it easier for both insurance companies and healthcare providers to look at a patient’s data in real-time and make better medical decisions to treat the patient in the best way possible,” a company spokesperson explained.

The startup has offices in Boston and New York and currently has 40 employees. Using some of the money from this round, it hopes to double that by the end of the year, particularly adding engineering talent to build out the product further.