Cloud Communications platform developer, Agora closes Series C Funding.

Earlier this week, developer of Cloud Communication APIs, Agora have announced that they have raised a further $70 million in a series C funding round.  This new investment was led by Coatue Management and has taken the total funding to over $125 million.

Agora were founded by CEO Tony Zhao back in 2014 and as such are a fairly new entrant to the market. At their heart is a core product; a Software Development Kit (SDK) which enables developers to integrate voice and video into their apps, along with group calling and interactive broadcasting features.  However, it recently added SDKs designed specifically for game developers and Facebook’s React Native framework to their portfolio.

The startup’s current customer base includes names such as The Meet Group, Xiaomi, Hike Messenger and Momo; all of whom have used Agora’s product to add features to their apps.  The company is raising capital at a relatively fast pace to support its growth goals. Indeed, recent claims from Agora are impressive. They suggest that it recently surpassed two billion installations of its SDKs and routes through its 200 distributed data centres around the world.  If accurate, this is a huge average…10 billion minutes of live communications each month.

Agora have enjoyed a wealth of funding of late.  Most recently, just 5 months ago when they added a $30million extension to its series B – bringing the total of that round to a total of $50million.

Real-time video and audio communication is a feature in high demand.  The market both wants and needs it in order to remain relevant and keep up with the competition in our digital age.  

Indeed, in a recent statement, Zhao observed that “there’s been a paradigm shift in the way people communicate and engage with [others] across the globe. More and more businesses are realizing that their users and customers desire real-time interaction and have started deploying in-app voice and video calling in droves.”

Such communication channels can be a huge and expensive project though.  To implement it and maintain it well can be a technical challenge. As a result, it’s usually easier to deliver those features via existing infrastructure built by specialist service providers.  Agora are one such provider operating in the background.

It is thought that this latest cash injection will allow Agora to focus on new projects whilst continuing to facilitate developers to build apps based on these strengthening trends of customer interaction.  

Connected car tech company, ‘Lightfoot’ nab £3.2million in funding.

There is never a quiet news week within the world of the connected car, and this one is no exception.   

‘Lightfoot’ are yet another South-West based, Silicon Gorge success story!  They specialise in tech that rewards better drivers, and can boast more exciting funding news this week.  They announce that they have raised a £3.2 million boost to their bottom line.

Their in-car technology has been dubbed ‘the Fitbit for cars’, and allows drivers to monetise their smooth driving style with prizes, discounts and rewards.  This startup was launched in 2013, and current claims from founder and CEO, Mark Roberts cite that upwards of 20,000 drivers use their product.   

This latest injection has come from the Business Growth Fund.  It is thought that it will be used to extend Lightfoot’s fleet business along with its expansion into the consumer market.  They are also looking to grow their current team. Something which will be essential if they are to realise these new exciting new ambitions.

Roberts has underlined his objectives in a statement released earlier this week.  He remarks that the company are;

“…on a mission to change the way people think about driving. And to make it fun again. We want everyone to enjoy the amazing benefits that smoother driving can have on their wallets and our planet. So far, we’ve created a community of Lightfoot drivers who are earning better deals for better driving – now, we’re excited to grow this with more like-minded motorists who believe good driving deserves rewarding” .  He goes on to say that “now is the right time to accelerate our expansion by bringing on board more people and increasing our engineering and sales capacity”.

Lightfoot also sees a structural change this week.  Developments which, it could be argued, go hand in hand with their latest financial injection.  The company will also welcome former CEO of Dyson Martin McCourt as an investor and non-executive chairman while Ned Dorbin of BGF will also join the board.  

Both new faces seem to be relishing the prospect of joining the team at Lightfoot.  

Mr Dorbin has said, “Lightfoot is a vibrant, smart and ambitious business…” and that they “have a strong reputation in the market”,  while McCourt praises the “top class technology and engineering capabilities” of the product.

Such sentiments are only further underlined by Dorbin’s closing remark…that they are “pleased to be backing another fantastic business in the South West”.  

Google helps boost High Street spending.

It’s a fair assessment that the British High Street is in crisis; a victim of our ever-increasing preferences to shopping online.  The ability to product search, click & collect and view a full product range have trumped the see-it-buy-it advantages of bricks and mortar retail.  Ironic then that tech giant, Google has stepped in to help save the dying high street.

By partnering with startup NearSt, Google have managed to somewhat replicate the advantages that online shopping can provide. NearSt provide retail technology which help to connect products in shops to customers searching nearby.

The aim of the search is to make it as easy to shop locally as it is to buy online.  The online inventory system will also inform customers of the finer details that may influence a purchase.  The distance to the shop, for example and the price they can expect to pay once they get there.

NearSt was founded three years ago by digital brand experts Nick Brackenbury and Max Kreijn.  The pair developed technology which is able to connect to a retailer’s point of sale system. By extracting the data it can show in real time the availability of a product and at what price it is being sold for.

Initially, the product was limited to London retailers, but this latest Google team up will enable the company to extend their reach further into the UK.  Over the next twelve months, it is hoped that the tech will dramatically improve the fortunes of small, independent retailers. These minnows of our high street are not only subject to the predatory nature of their big-name neighbours, but also from our online shopping habits.  

Nathalie Walton, global head of local shopping at Google, said of the partnership: “It gives small retailers the ability to compete effectively in the online world, without needing any of the technical and financial firepower of their online competitors.”

This was supported by Nick Carroll, a senior retail analyst at research firm Mintel, when he cited the deep pockets of major retailers as the main point of difference between the High Street sharks and their smaller counterparts;

“It has been easier for major retailers to integrate technology, so partnerships like this are important to support local independent stores, which make the High Street unique and provide its backbone. Using this type of tech, they can fight back.”

News such as this is particularly timely as we ramp up to Christmas.  To many, the High Street is undesirable at this time of year, more so than any other.  Crowded and cold, you can certainly appreciate the ease, comfort and practicality of shopping online.  Maybe if we were able to guarantee the availability of products once we stepped onto the high street, we may be more inclined to brave the crowds and head there in the first place!

UK Government advised that Google and friends must share mapping data.

The UK government have been warned that we run the risk of damaging the emerging UK technology market if the likes of Google, Apple and other tech giants do not become more open with their data.  

The Open Data Institute, a campaign group co-founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Sir Nigel Shadbolt, said the government should work with companies to make the vast wealth of mapping data which they collect more accessible to others.

These companies use what is known as “geospatial” data to provide services for their customers.  Information of this nature covers details such as city boundaries and addresses. It also allows customers to do things like track their journeys or see where businesses are located.

The Open Data Institute remarked it is hard to get hold of such data from both public and private institutions, however, despite the fact that it is “crucial” to the UK’s national infrastructure.  Access to this information could improve access to services such as healthcare and schools if used properly. Quite apart from this, the data is also valuable. It is estimated that maximising geospatial data could generate between £6bn and £11bn for the UK each year.

If large organisations do not share this data, however, it may hold heavy consequences for the startups that the growing tech industry in the UK needs in order to continue to thrive.  

Indeed, sources from The Open Data Insitute have commented that  “Government agencies charge fees that make it hard …rights over UK address data were privatised with the Royal Mail, and Google Maps recently increased its pricing by over 1000pc.”

The connected car market is just one area that the UK is working hard to dominate.  It goes without saying that limited access to such data, will cause these companies to struggle.  Geo spatial data is needed for navigation and driver assistance systems. Progress by drone makers and transport service businesses will also suffer.

To date though there has been growing pressure on tech companies to release their geospatial data.  In February for example, Transport for London introduced new regulations requiring private hire companies to share travel pattern data.  As a result, some companies have begun to allow their data to be used by others. Google and its Waze travel planning business are one such example.  They have taken steps to work more closely with Transport for London, alerting them to collisions and other incidents in the city. It is alarming that this information is often relayed faster using the real-time data than the time it takes for a 999 call to be placed and diverted to the authority’s call centre.

Perhaps the final word on this one should lie with Jenni Tennison, Chief Executive of The Open Data Institute.  She remarks that failing to share this crucial data will cause the UK to “fail to meet commitments to industries that rely on new technology”, and that we need to make efforts to “explore how that data can benefit everyone”.

Brexit and Hammond’s digital tax have been well documented as predatory beasts; ones that will be detrimental to to the growth of the UK tech scene.  It seems that in these uncertain times it is crucial we do all we can to ensure that our promising startups are no further hindered by cost, financial burden or indeed a lack of information.   

Stanford Scientists develop Robotic hands.

A new breed of robots with humanoid hands have been developed by scientists from Stanford University.  

Chemical engineer, Professor Zhenan Bao and her team have developed a glove which includes sensors in its fingertips.  These sensors are able to measure the intensity and direction of pressure. It allows them to replicate the functionality of the human hand by mimicing the way that layers of skin in the human hand work together which make them sensitive to pressure.

This progressive technology is likely to be useful for companies developing farming robots, which need to be able to handle delicate crops without damaging them.  Fruit picking for example is an industry likely to be reformed by these tech breakthroughs.

Professor Bao is rightly excited and comments, “this technology puts us on a path to one day giving robots the sort of sensing capabilities found in human skin” .

Bao’s gloved “hand” is superior to current robot capabilities.  

So far, Robots have been skilled at basic tasks but have struggled to judge the correct amount of pressure needed to exert when lifting up delicate items. This means that they have been largely unsuitable for use in agriculture, except in some arable cases where crops are well-suited to rough handling.

In contrast, Professor Bao’s glove was able to do both.  It could touch a berry without squashing it and could also lift a ping-pong ball without crushing it.

The current version of the glove developed by the research team requires them to programme robotic hands which are outfitted with the sensors.  However, it is the ambition of Professor Bao to develop a more advanced system in the future.

These developments are exciting to say the very least, and the possibilities of these sensory capabilities are endless.  It is clearly becoming a very real possibility that Robots could replace surgeons in the future, for example. Reconstructive surgery, prosthetic limbs and transplant surgery could also all be revolutionised, transforming the lives of thousands in the process.

LinkedIn launches it’s own Snapchat Stories.

LinkedIn is the go-to platform for professionals.  With such a demographic, it could be argued that the age of the typical LinkedIn user is higher than the average social media visitor.  In an attempt to readdress this balance, LinkedIn have launched their own Snapchat-esque “stories” feature, dubbed “Student Voices”.  Currently, this is just available in the US and is aimed solely at students.  The plan is to extend this to more sets of users in the future.

LinkedIn have confirmed that the product is in testing.  Product manager Isha Patel has confirmed that “Student Voices” has been created to help students connect with one another;  sharing their campus experiences and to create a sense of community. The feature can be accessed from the LinkedIn home screen and lets students post short videos, but not photos to their Campus Playlist.  

In line with the true functionality of the social media platform, students are also able to share more ‘professional’ information; recruitment fair notifications or internship positions for example.  Students would also be able to use it as a showcase of ability. They would be able to post class projects for example as a way of building their profile and show off academic success or professional experience.

Further to this, Patel has remarked that “having these videos live on their profile can help students grow their network, prepare for life after graduation, and help potential employers learn more about them”.

Critics could argue though that having these stories on a professional platform could do students more harm than good.  ‘Stories’ were originally invented for broadcasting off-the-cuff moments that disappear so you DON’T have to worry about their impact on your reputation.  This disparity may confuse users.  It may discourage them from using the voices feature at all, or lead them to believe that these snap-shots will disappear from their profile.  Embarrassing or professionally harmful content may leave them exposed to hiring managers or ‘real’ posts may be replaced with staged videos of self-promotion.

It could be the rise of the “younger” social media platforms on the jobs market that have motivated LinkedIn’s desire to appeal to the millennial market.  “Facebook Jobs” for example, although small at the moment will grow and LinkedIn will need to keep up with them in order to remain relevant. Perhaps in line with this, LinkedIn have also launched other ‘youth-centric’ features.  GIF comments, location sharing in messages and Facebook Reactions-style buttons have been added to support ‘Voices’.

Our Agora story featured earlier in Our Week in Digital reported on the importance of visual communication in capturing customer attention and it seems that professional networking is not immune from the trend.  

Follow this link to view an example LinkedIn “Student Voices” story.  We’d be fascinated to hear your views on using a stories feature.  Are you a graduate who would consider using this as a tool to boost your profile? Or are you a recruiter?  Would you view a “story” as a valuable piece of the puzzle in placing a candidate in their next role, or would it be a distraction from the real skills and experience a candidate can offer?

Leave your comments on this and any of our other stories below!

About the author: I manage the recruitment for a range of digital roles for my clients on both a retained and contingency basis. I specialise in senior and confidential appointments, always giving a first class representation of a client’s employer brand.

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