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Snips lets you build your own voice assistant to embed into your devices

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French startup Snips is now helping you build a custom voice assistant for your device. Snips doesn’t use Amazon’s Alexa Voice Service or Google Assistant SDK — the company is building its own voice assistant so that you can embed it on your devices. And the best part is that it doesn’t send anything to the cloud as it works offline.

If you want to understand how a voice assistant works, you can split it into multiple parts. First, it starts with a wakeword. Snips has a handful of wakewords by default, such as “Hey Snips,” but you can also pay the company to create your own wakeword.

For instance, if you’re building a multimedia robot called Keecker, you can create a custom “Hey Keecker” hot word. Snips then uses deep learning to accurately detect when someone is trying to talk to your voice assistant.

The second part is automatic speech recognition. A voice assistant transcribes your voice into a text query. Popular home assistants usually send a small audio file with your voice and use servers to transcribe your query.

Snips can transcribe your voice into text on the device itself. It works on anything that is more powerful than a Raspberry Pi. For now, Snips is limited to English and French. You’ll have to use a third-party automatic speech recognition API for other languages.

Then, Snips needs to understand your query. The company has developed natural language capabilities. But there are hundreds, or even thousands of different ways to ask a simple question about the weather for instance.

That’s why Snips is launching a data generation service today. I saw a demo yesterday, and the interface looks like Automator on macOS or Workflow on iOS. You define some variables, such as “date” and “location”, you define if they are mandatory for the query and you enter a few examples.

But instead of manually entering hundreds of variations of the same query, you can pay $100 to $800 to let Snips do the work for you. The startup manually checks your request then posts it on Amazon Mechanical Turk and other crowdsourcing marketplaces. Finally, Snips cleans up your data set and sends it back to you.

You can either download it and reuse it in another chatbot or voice assistant, or you can use it with Snips’ own voice assistant. You can also make your capability public. Other Snips users can add this capability to their own assistant by browsing a repository of pre-trained capabilities.

  1. Step 1. Create Intent

  2. Step 2. Choose datagen package

  3. Step 3. Confirm results

A Snips voice assistant typically requires hundreds of megabytes but is quite easy to update. After installing the Snips app on your device, you just need to replace a zip library file to add new capabilities.

You also need to implement the actual actions. Snips only translates what someone is saying into a parsable query. For instance, Snips can understand that “could you please turn on the bedroom light?” means “light + bedroom + on.” A developer still needs to implement the action based on those three parameters.

Developers are already playing with Snips to test its capabilities. But the company hopes that big device manufacturers are going to embed Snips into their future products. Eventually, you could think about a coffee maker with a Snips voice assistant.

Compared to Amazon’s or Google’s wide-ranging assistants, Snips thinks that you don’t need to embed a complete voice assistant into all your devices. You only want to tell your Roomba to start vacuuming — no need to let you start a Spotify playlist from your vacuum cleaner.

This approach presents a few advantages when it comes to privacy and network effects. Big tech companies are creating ecosystem of internet-of-things devices. People are buying lightbulbs, security cameras and door locks that work with the Amazon Echo for instance.

But if you can talk to the devices themselves, you don’t need to hook up your devices with a central home speaker — the central hub disappears. If voice assistants are more than a fad, Snips is building some promising technology. And Snips could get some licensing revenue for each device that comes with its voice assistant.
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Payments startup iZettle raises $47M, reportedly at a $950M valuation

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iZettle — the payments startup based out of Stockholm that competes against companies like Square, Paypal and SumUp to provide card transactions using smartphones and tablets as well as related accounting services — has raised another €40 million ($47 million), money that CEO and co-founder Jacob de Geer told TechCrunch would be used to expand into more markets beyond the 12 where it currently operates in Europe and Latin America.

The company declined to disclose its valuation, which last was at €500 million (about $584 million) in its Series D. “It’s absolutely an upround,” De Geer said in an interview. “We tend to have an internal saying that the valuation of the company is the sum of all the problems that we solved, and we’ve solved millions of those so the valuation should be in line with that.” Swedish publication Dagens Industri, which reported rumors of the funding yesterday, pegged the valuation at the time at $948 million (8 billion Swedish crowns).

“What you see right now is a proof point that the company is doing exceptionally well,” De Geer said. “In the last couple of months, we’ve had significant growth that led to taking the decision to accelerate the business.”

As for which countries it may tackle next, he said that Central and Eastern Europe were “absolutely” in iZettle’s sights alongside more growth in Latin America.

“It’s interesting to see how Poland, for example, is very well advanced in contactless payments,” which many see as a key driver to less cash use and more card use in general. “It’s a big market and very mature.”

This latest equity funding is led by previous backer Dawn Capital, and it also brings a new, solid institutional investor into the mix for iZettle, the Fourth Swedish National Pension Fund, alongside other existing (but unnamed) shareholders.

Past investors into iZettle have included the Spanish banking giant Grupo Santander (whose backing fuelled iZettle’s move into Mexico and Brazil), American Express, MasterCard, Intel, Index Ventures, Northzone, 83North and Creandum, among others. De Geer said that iZettle has raised around €200 million ($235 million) in equity funding to date.

De Geer declined to give any specific numbers on growth — citing the fact that iZettle will soon close accounts for the year and report numbers then in accordance with Swedish law. As a marker, however, the company noted a 60 percent rise in revenues in its last fiscal year and expected to narrow its loss year. In FY 2016 it had revenues of 643 million Swedish crowns ($76 million), up from SKr402 million in 2015; its net loss was SKr228 million versus SKr295 million in 2015.

De Geer said iZettle is strong in the UK in particular — which is notable not just because the UK is a large market for commerce, but because it’s also highly competitive, with Square choosing it earlier this year as its first point of European expansion.

De Geer said one key reason iZettle is growing so much is because it’s doing more than just payments for its primarily SMB customer base. “Our commercial and business platform gives us the possibility of cross-selling other solutions,” he noted.

Those other services include cash advances and invoicing, with more to come. iZettle has been investing this year in machine learning and other AI tech (partly by way of a loan from the European Investment Bank) and that is helping the company run risk assessment for cash advances and potentially will be used more for supplementary products down the line. 

“We are learning!” he said in reference to the company’s push into machine learning. One of the more interesting applications of AI has been in financial services, used to assess risk for loans (this is what another loans platform, Kabbage, has built its business on for example). Now iZettle is looking at how it can use its deep learning technology to develop other services it can cross-sell in areas like customer data and analytics. 

This expanded opportunity, in fact, was what attracted iZettle’s newest investor.

“We invest heavily in companies contributing to sustainable economic growth and are impressed by how iZettle has levelled the playing field for small businesses,” said Per Colleen, head of fundamental equities at The Fourth Swedish National Pension Fund. “We believe in iZettle’s long-term development opportunity through their data-rich technology platform, built for scalability combined with five years of unique insights about the needs of small businesses, which makes it an attractive investment case.”

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Devialet built a car audio system for Renault’s Symbioz concept car

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High-end speaker maker Devialet is branching out of home speakers. The company announced a partnership with Renault for its first ever car audio system. You can’t buy a Renault car with Devialet speakers just yet, but there’s a Renault concept car with those speakers.

Devialet has always said that it wasn’t just a speaker manufacturer. The French startup has worked on its own amplification technology. It is supposed to be much better than everything else out there when it comes to building powerful-yet-compact speakers.

The company first partnered with Sky to build a surround sound TV speaker. And now, Devialet wants to be in your car.

Renault has been demonstrating its Symbioz concept car as the future of autonomous, connected and electric cars. And it seemed like a good playing ground to show off Devialet’s technology.

First, Devialet isn’t using traditional in-door speakers and subwoofers. The company relies on tiny sound modules that are six times smaller than traditional car speakers.

Second, the company uses empty spaces and pipes and make them vibrate. It creates a network of passive speakers to immerse yourself in the music.

Finally, the startup also has some custom software features to route the sound to the right speaker. Passive speakers can be used for background sounds while sound modules can take care of the rest.

This sounds nice on paper, so let’s hope that Renault is going to bring this technology to production vehicles. It’s clear that Devialet wants to go beyond putting its brand on regular speakers. The company wants to control the entire audio experience.
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Mapping company Here buys ATS to boost its over-the-air tech

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Here, the mapping company that powers location services in 100 million cars, is today announcing an acquisition to vastly improve how it distributes and updates its data. The company is buying Advanced Telematic Systems (ATS), a Berlin-based developer of secure over-the-air (OTA) technology, the basis for how wireless devices — including not just cars but smartphones and other hardware — get their systems updated securely — and also, these days, help feed back information to improve how those systems operate.

Here has “only had a limited capability in [OTA technolgy] until now,” a spokesperson tells TechCrunch. “The ATS acquisition will make us a major player in this area.”

Financial terms of the deal — which is expected to complete in the first quarter of 2018 — are not being disclosed.

Founded in 2014 by Armin Schmidt, Dirk Pöschl and Arthur Taylor, ATS had earlier raised over $12 million, Here tells me, from consortium of Japanese, US and Taiwanese VCs. Pitchbook notes they include iD Ventures America (formerly known as Acer Technology Ventures), Japan’s IT-Farm Corporation, and the Taiwanese ODM maker Wistron, formerly the manufacturing arm of Acer before getting spun out.

“This is an exciting opportunity for ATS as we will be able to combine HERE’s deep customer relationships with OEMs and our global client and partner network to deliver new commercial solutions and enhance the existing functionality of HERE products and services,” said Schmidt, ATS’s CEO. “We now look forward to joining a business with an inspirational vision to shape the autonomous world.”

(This is Schmidt’s and Taylor’s second exit; they had previously co-founded Aupeo, a music streaming service that was acquired by Panasonic.)

The significance of this deal is that it is about Here getting with the times and continuing to modernise itself.

Once part of Nokia but spun out in a €2.5 billion deal, Here is now owned by a consortium that includes the carmakers Audi, BMW and Daimler and Intel (an attempted stake purchase by GIC, Tencent and NavInfo was blocked by CFIUS in the U.S.). Today, Here claims that its 100 million installs makes it the world’s largest provider of mapping data to the automotive industry.

Its legacy is an old one: Here originally was formed in part through Nokia’s acquisition of Navteq in 2007, which itself had been around since 1985. That age in part underscores the need for the company to invest in, and acquire, more modern technology.

In the case of OTA, ATS’s solution is built around open source OTA technology. Notably, in June it integrated with Uptane, a security framework backed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security designed specifically for software that runs on autonomous and connected cars — the idea being that vehicles could be especially deadly if they are maliciously hacked, and the aim here is to try to prevent that from happening.

OTA technology has been around for years as a way for mobile carriers to update settings on phones that are on their network, but it’s taken a more proactive turn in more recent times.

Not only are the systems in cars far more complex — covering not just HD maps but real-time pictures of road environments, entertainment services and information, navigation and more — but software engineers are now using the network of devices not so much as dumb endpoints, but as new data gathering tools to continue to feed back information to the central system to improve how it works overall.

This is especially important in the world of mapping, where road conditions and sometimes the roads themselves, are changing constantly, meaning satellite imaging — the basis for a lot of legacy and modern maps — cannot do the full job.

“Data and software delivery is a defining factor for future success within the automotive industry as vehicles are becoming more connected and autonomous,” said Ralf Herrtwich, SVP Automotive of HERE, in a statement. “The acquisition of ATS is a hugely important strategic investment for us to complement our portfolio as a premium automotive cloud provider. I’m excited to welcome Armin and his team into the HERE family.”

Updated with more information about the ownership of Here, and its underlying tech.
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