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Aura, the frame and photo startup, raises $26M as app users near 3M and frames sold pass 500K



Aura, a startup founded by early Twitter employees that makes digital frames and photo sharing apps that can also be used to update those frames, has pulled in some funding to expand its business as it closes in on three million users of its app and half a million frames sold.

The company has raised $26 million in a mix of debt and equity led by Lago Innovation Fund, money that the company is using to boost manufacturing this quarter and to invest in 2023 plans.

Aura — not to be confused with the meditation and mental wellness app, nor the cybersecurity company, nor the biotech company of the same name — had previously raised around $13 million in equity from investors (per PitchBook) that include Spark Capital, SV Angel, Betaworks and DCVC, as well as a quiet, unreported investment from the Chicago-based Levy Family Office (led by the entrepreneur Larry Levy).

It hasn’t been looking to raise more equity-based funding although CEO and co-founder Abdur Chowdhury said it might do something in the coming year, pending the state of the venture market (it’s been a tough 2021 and investors predict that’s likely to continue for a while, so we shall see).

Meanwhile, the company has been growing at a snappy pace — 100% year-on-year for at least the last three, with app users going from 1 million in December 2021 to 2 million by September 2022 and on track to hit 3 million in January. Sales of frames have numbered around 500,000, with the company’s newest design, the $149 Carver, currently its top seller.

Aura’s frames typically have around four people on average connected to them for adding pictures, which creates a network effect of sorts, Chowdhury said: eventually some of those users get their own frames and build out additional networks of contributors uploading pictures to the new devices, and so on an so forth. He added that its devices currently are collectively showing some 1 billion pictures to people daily.

Twitter’s teachings

Under new owner and CEO Elon Musk, Twitter’s talent pool has been leaking heavily for the last couple of weeks through both layoffs and resignations, leaving a lot of question marks over not just what happens with Twitter itself, but also one another: among the thousands who have left, who will play a part in whatever might be the next chapter? It’s an open-ended question, one that Chowdhury can provide at least one answer by example.

Chowdhury and his co-founder Eric Jensen (pictured above with Jensen on the left), who is Aura’s CTO, are friends that go back a long way in the search for using technology to connect people with information, and to each other. The two first worked together years ago at AOL when it was still a major homepage destination trying to contend with the rising star of Google.

Then after leaving AOL, along with other ex-AOL’ers, Chowdhry and Jensen founded Summize, a search engine taking a new approach to search using content produced by internet users as its guide, which eventually trained its eyes on one juicy dataset in particular, that of the up-and-coming social site Twitter.

Summize was in fact Twitter’s first search engine, and in 2008 Twitter acquired it to integrate that functionality directly into the platform. Twitter had just 12 employees at the time, and Summize has six, so it was a significant deal for the two.

(Worth a read: former Twitter CEO and co-founder Ev Williams’ discussion with TC founder Mike Arrington, after Arrington initially reported rumors of the deal. Ev discloses that Twitter chose to buy and integrate rather than partner with another, larger third party to build and power Twitter’s search. Was that Microsoft? Google? Yahoo!?)

Chowdhury, Jensen and several others stayed on for several years to build the early versions of Twitter’s search and new features like trending topics — Chowdhury has been described as the father of the very concept of trending, as the person who wrote the first algorithm to produce trends on Twitter — and to help the company scale out its engineering operations as it quickly added more users and more browsing activity. Chowdhury was the platform’s chief science officer, and Jensen headed search and relevance.

By 2011 most of the Summize team was through its earn-out period and transitioned out of the company. It was then that the pair started to think of what comes next.

Chowdhury and Jensen may have walked out of Twitter, but they were not fully disengaged from the concepts that got them into Twitter in the first place.

Network concepts — how people connect with each other — is at the core of how Twitter works, and it was something that stayed on their minds. “We started thinking, something is missing here,” Chowdhury said in an interview.

They turned their attention to smaller networking experiments, where people share things that are more personal with smaller groups, unlike the open-ended nature of Twitter, or indeed others like Facebook. They weren’t the only ones — the app Path was a notable attempt to build around the concept of close-knit groups, and Facebook itself started to tailor how users could build sharing groups, too.

“But they were all broken in some way,” he said, either because of privacy reasons, or discovery or engagement challenges.

“We recognized that small networks were very fragile,” he said. “Without a power user, the network usually falls apart. It is also a challenge to monetize these networks.” At the same time, he added, “Smartphones with great cameras were being widely adopted. Photo content and sharing between loved ones were being underutilized.”

That is what led Chowdhury and Jensen to building both software — a photo sharing app that connected users and their pictures together — complemented with a piece of hardware, the frame, to view those pictures but also hit a couple of the other challenges:

“A Wi-Fi-connected frame actually acts as the ‘power user’ — keeping content fresh without requiring constant engagement or interaction by the network — all with the goal of connecting family members and enjoying photos.” And critically, selling a frame means building a monetization stream without resorting to advertising and all that data mining that comes with it, which no one really wants in personal, close experiences.

“We realized we could build a nice, private network for photos captured in the app, but living on in an evergreen way in the frame that could bring joy,” he said.

The company’s original name was Pushd. Chowdhury said that was because the startup wanted to work around push notifications to keep people connected — prescient considering that this is the core of how a lot of apps, including the likes of BeReal, remind users to engage today. Chowdhury added that “a lot of the learnings from Pushd formed into what is Aura today.” The startup was renamed prior to the first frame launch in 2016.

Opening up the digital shoebox

In these days of tablets and video-screen-fronted digital assistants in the home, it may sound a little anachronistic to focus on a digital picture frame. They were, after all, some of the earliest digital products to enter the domestic environment. By 2011, when Aura was getting off the ground, there were already 12 million digital frames sold, working out to 15% of all homes in the U.S.

Yet as Chowdhury and Jensen saw it, digital frames were quickly hitting a wall in terms of their development: not only were smartphones and tablets taking over the digital photo taking and consumption experience, but frames were clunky and fundamentally disconnected from those smartphones, relying on thumb drives and other means to be updated.

But frames weren’t the only digital relic hitting a wall. Photo libraries have been growing exponentially across the wider consumer market. Back in 2011, there were already some 300 billion digital photos taken in aggregate on phones, spurring a question for Aura’s founders: “How do you get back to all that content?” Chowdhury asked.

That question has only become more persistent: Apple said in September 2022 that more than 3 trillion photos were taking on iPhones in 2021 alone. The proverbial shoebox of photos we never manage to organize suddenly sounds kind of quaint.

Putting that together, Aura’s founders saw that there could be an opening in the market for a better frame, one that worked better with the devices now being used to capture pictures, without pulling users in the different directions (and different price points) that tablets do, and by making it easier to consume and enjoy the pictures we and others have taken.

The company at its heart is a technology player.

Among its work, Aura has built its own privacy-focused facial recognition (based on meta data not faces themselves) and computer vision algorithms in order to create intelligent picture clusters, which sit within its apps. It is building better “scanning” technology to capture artwork and other two-dimensional objects its users might want to see displayed in their frames. And it’s working on ways to potentially add temporary frame picture contributors, as well as more sharing between trusted, but not necessarily close, groups within the app that might not be connected to a single frame at all,

“How do you make it easier to collect and share photos, say, from a wedding,” he asked. “Beyond your close friends and family, it’s all about the continuation of telling a story, capturing those pictures and seeing them in your home.”

I found that Aura is currently sitting on a number of patents, around 50 when you count those issued and in progress. But not all of them are related to frames, photo sharing and social networking: several filed in the last couple of years are related to health and medical monitoring, in particular during pandemics and epidemics.

“This goes back to the Pushd days,” Chowdhury said. Some of the startup’s early work on small networks “had to do with location notifications of people in your private network.” In the case of healthcare, he said, it could help inform caretakers if an elderly parent did/did not leave their home for safety/well-being purposes. “This never became a product that Pushd launched and was not used in the creation of Aura, but the team’s early work and ideas were patented, Covid-19 perhaps being the spur for that, given that the filings are relatively recent.


Mozilla acquires the team behind Pulse, an automated status updater for Slack



Firefox developer Mozilla is making a rare foray into the world of mergers and acquisitions, with news that it has snapped up recently-shuttered California-based productivity startup Pulse.

Terms of the deal haven’t been disclosed, but the deal is tantamount to an “acqui-hire,” with Mozilla looking to deploy the Pulse team across an array of machine learning (ML) projects.

“We’re acquiring Pulse for the incredible team they have built,” Mozilla chief product officer Steve Teixeira told TechCrunch. “As we look to continue to improve user experiences across all of our products, ML will be a core part of that.”

Feel the pulse

Founded out of Menlo Park in 2019, Pulse in its initial guise was a “virtual office” platform called Loop Team, but after honing the idea for a couple of years it pivoted and rebranded last November. Pulse, essentially, was an automated status-updating tool that used signals based on pre-configured integrations and preferences set by the user.

For example, users could synchronize Pulse with their calendar and Slack, setting rules to stipulate what their status and corresponding emoji should be based on keywords in their calendar event title. If their schedule for a particular time says “hair appointment” from 12-1pm, then the person’s Slack status update might display a scissors emoji alongside the word “haircut.” Or, it might say “birthday” alongside a cake emoji if that’s what is in their calendar.

Pulse: Calendar rules

But Pulse sported myriad integrations with business tools that brought similar functionality. For example, users could link Pulse with Zoom, so that whenever they start a video meeting, a telephone emoji automatically displays in their Slack status to tell people they are unavailable.

Shutting shop

Pulse had flown largely under the radar since it started rolling out to a small group of users last December, but the company had apparently garnered some fairly big-name customers, including Netflix and 1Password, with monthly premium plans starting at around $3 per user.

The company was among TechCrunch’s Battlefield 200 startups at TC Disrupt in October, and TechCrunch interviewed Pulse cofounder and CEO Raj Singh at the event for a potential future startup profile piece. Singh said at the time that it was planning to raise a seed round of funding early in the new year, something that obviously won’t be happening now. When quizzed on whether Pulse was more like a feature that the big tech platforms could just build themselves, rather than a sustainable business in its own right, Singh was adamant that Pulse could thrive as a standalone product. While he acknowledged that companies such as Microsoft or Google might well want to develop a similar automated status update tool for their own products, they were less incentivised to make it work well as an integrated feature that plays ball with various third-party tools.

Pulse was all about communicating things to colleagues around the world passively, regardless of what tools they were using or what timezone they’re in. This is particularly important with remote work becoming the norm, and Pulse was looking to find its niche at a time when workplace culture is rapidly changing.

“A lot of people actually want to update their status, but it’s tedious,” Singh told TechCrunch in October. “But there’s hundreds of signals, and the thing we realised was status is not just ‘availability’, it’s actually a way to communicate empathy.”

While Pulse did have plans to expand beyond Slack into other workplace communication tools including Microsoft Teams and Google Workspace, the company abruptly announced in late October that it was shutting down. In an email distributed to customers at the time, the company attributed this to “market conditions,” noting that it was finding it difficult to raise fresh capital — but it did confirm that it had found a buyer, the identity of which was unknown until today. Singh also said in the email that there was a chance that the buyer could resurrect Pulse in some form, but there is little indication that Mozilla has such a plan on its radar.

What’s next

To the casual observer, Slack was probably the obvious contender to acquire Pulse. For starters, there is the fact that Pulse had been focused exclusively on Slack status updates. But on top of that, Singh had previously founded a smart calendar app called Tempo AI which he sold to Salesforce for an undisclosed sum in 2015.

Singh then joined Salesforce to help with the initial transition of Tempo AI’s technology into Salesforce’s Inbox app. And as we now know, Salesforce went on to acquire Slack in 2020, so with Singh’s connections to Salesforce and his product’s close alignment with Slack, there seemed like only one possible suitor here. 

Tempo AI Image Credits: Tempo AI

Alas, Slack hasn’t acquired Pulse — the Mozilla Corporation has. It is something of a surprise, if for no other reason than Mozilla isn’t renowned for its M&A endeavors, though it is starting to ramp up its investment efforts after launching its first venture capital fund last month. But its only known acquisition to date was back in 2017, when it snapped up Pocket, a popular read-it-later web-clipping service that Mozilla had already integrated into its Firefox browser two years previous.

As a side point, Pulse itself had been on something of an acquisition spree this year, buying rival status updating service Holopod back in January, followed by audio-based communications platform Commons in March. Then in May, news emerged that Pulse had acquired team communication startup Lounge.

“Our strategy [with M&A] is pretty straightforward — we look for opportunities to bring on talent and technology that helps us improve experiences for our customers,” Teixeira said. “With Pulse, this is about supplementing the skillsets we have here already as a way to speed up our development efforts. We have a high bar for any acquisition, but if we find teams and technologies with incredible talent that share our mission and vision for the future of the internet, we are absolutely open to pursuing a transaction.”

As it happens, Pocket may be an early beneficiary of the Pulse acquisition. While Mozilla ultimately plans to deploy the Pulse team across various projects, Teixeira says that an early focus will be on using ML to improve personalization in Pocket, which presumably means in the form of content recommendations.

It’s worth noting that Mozilla has dabbled with ML a fair bit in the past, including experimental projects inside Firefox that recommend content to users, as well as tracking prices across myriad online stores. The company is also leveraging ML across various voice and speech projects.

“We see opportunity to use ML in virtually all of our products, including Firefox, as a foundation for improving the experience for all of our customers,” Teixeira said.

Mozilla hasn’t revealed how much it’s doling out for the startup, but Pulse had only raised around $4.7 million in pre-seed funding according to Crunchbase data, and given its difficulties in raising fresh capital, it’s safe to assume that Mozilla hasn’t broken the bank here.

What Mozilla is getting for its money is six people, including Pulse’s three founders Raj Singh, Jag Srawan, and Rolf Rando, each bringing significant engineering, ML, and product execution experience to Mozilla’s ML efforts. Singh actually created his previous startup Tempo AI as a project inside SRI International, the Stanford research institute responsible for Siri. He rejoined SRI as executive in residence (EIR) after leaving Salesforce, remaining there until founding Pulse (then Loop Team) nearly four years ago.

“In building Pulse, we enabled a variety of machine learning experiences to make distributed teams feel more connected,” Singh noted. “Finding ways to use AI and machine learning to simplify tasks for users is our passion.”

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Here’s your chance to show off your expertise at TechCrunch’s founder summit



Do you have what it takes to present at TechCrunch Early Stage on April 20 in Boston, Massachusetts? We’re looking for trendsetting, game-changing, later-stage startup founders and ecosystem experts — of every stripe — to apply for the opportunity to share their hard-won expertise at our annual founder summit.

An entrepreneurial bootcamp experience, TC Early Stage connects people in the beginning or early stages of their startup journey with top industry experts for hands-on training. Presenting at this event is an opportunity to align yourself with TechCrunch and position yourself as a thought leader for hundreds of early-stage entrepreneurs. Apply here now.

You have until January 6 to submit an application outlining the content you’d like to present. TechCrunch will vet each application and select the top contenders to participate in an Audience Choice voting round where TechCrunch readers will choose the sessions they want to see most at TC Early Stage.

Our call for outstanding content is officially open, and here are the important dates to keep in mind:

  • Application deadline: January 6
  • Notify Audience Choice participants: January 23
  • Voting period: January 30 through February 17
  • Notify winners: By February  22

If you can deliver content that elicits this kind of attendee feedback, we want to hear from you.

“Early Stage offered a great variety of sessions and speakers — top investors, founders and credible subject-matter experts — who gave unique insights based on personal experience. You get great mentorship through attending the Early Stage sessions. It’s like a mini masterclass in entrepreneurship.” — Ashley Barrington, founder, MarketPearl

Show us your content — apply today!

TC Early Stage, which takes place on April 20, 2023, in Boston, Massachusetts, provides access to essential information, resources and community connections to help nascent entrepreneurs reach their potential. Grab your ticket now — just $149 for the next 30 founders — and join us in Boston!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Early Stage 2023? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

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Amplio helps companies find components when supply chain breaks down



When Covid shut down much of the world down in 2020, it ended up wreaking havoc on the supply chain. Suddenly companies built for just-in-time production couldn’t find parts they needed to build their products.

Even as Covid subsided, the supply chain woes continued. Veterans of supply management like the founder of startup Amplio watched, and figured there had to be a better way to guard against these kinds of disruptions in the future using software to find parts wherever they were.

Amplio launched last year with that goal in mind, and today the startup announced a $6 million seed to build a system to help track parts shortages. Trey Closson, CEO and co-founder at Amplio says his company’s goal is to build more resilience into the electronic components supply chain.

“We help our customers understand the components that are at highest risk of leading to material shortages, and then we connect our customers to alternative sources of supply to mitigate those shortages,” Closson told TechCrunch.

He knows what he’s talking about. He spent his entire career in supply chain management, and he’s seen firsthand how disruptions can have a negative impact on a business’s ability to function. He blames “Just-in-time production” techniques for the problems we are seeing today.

“The supply chains have been designed for 30 or 40 years to optimize for cost and for the best case scenario, but the reality is that we don’t live in a world of best case scenarios. We live in a world of constant disruptions,” he said.

“The way that our platform works is that we’re connected to our customers’ systems of record or their ERP solutions, and we take in in their bill of materials and their operational data, and then combine that with external datasets to be able to show the customer their ability to source their particular components over the next six to 18 months,” he said.

Amplio parts inventory screen showing which parts could be in danger of having supply issues.

Image Credits: Amplio

What’s more, in cases where the customer isn’t able to source the components, customers can go to the Amplio marketplace to find suppliers or other manufacturers who might have surplus inventory they are trying to sell.

Closson’s most recent job was working at Koch Industries, leading international supply chain for Georgia Pacific, where he was on the front line of the Covid-induced toilet paper shortages. But he decided to focus his startup on electronic components.

“So while supply chain resilience is really critical across the market, we want to focus on the electronics industry, because it has such a tremendous impact on the global economy,” he said. He conceived of and incubated the company as part of a program run by Koch and High Alpha Innovation, the program launched by former Exact Target execs to help startups with enterprise-focused ideas.

The company currently has 6 employees, but plans to expand with the funding (which closed in May). He says as he grows the company, diversity and inclusion is a core building block. “Diversity is one of the core principles for our hiring and in decision making processes. So just from a selfish standpoint, diverse organizations make better decisions and have more creative ideas, and are ultimately more successful,” he said.

Today’s round was led by Construct Capital with participation from Slow Ventures, High Alpha Capital, Flexport Ventures, Alpaca Venture Capital and various industry angels.

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