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Mozilla acquires Active Replica to build on its metaverse vision

An automated status updater for Slack isn’t the only thing Mozilla acquired this week. On Wednesday, the company announced that it snatched up Active Replica, a Vancouver-based startup developing a “web-based metaverse.”
According to Mozilla SVP Imo Udom, Active Replica will support Mozilla’s ongoing work with Hubs, the latter’s VR chatroom service and open source project. Specifically, he sees the Active Replica team working on personalized subscription tiers, improving the onboarding experience and introducing new interaction capabilities in Hubs.
“Together, we see this as a key opportunity to bring even more innovation and creativity to Hubs than we could alone,” Udom said in a blog post. “We will benefit from their unique experience and ability to create amazing experiences that help organizations use virtual spaces to drive impact. They will benefit from our scale, our talent, and our ability to help bring their innovations to the market faster.”
Active Replica was founded in 2020 by Jacob Ervin and Valerian Denis. Ervin is a software engineer by trade, having held roles at AR/VR startups Metaio, Liminal AR and Occipital. Denis has a history in project management — he worked for VR firms including BackLight, which specializes in location-based and immersive VR experiences for brands.
With Active Replica, Ervin and Denis sought to build a platform for virtual events and meetings built on top of Mozilla’s Hubs project. Active Replica sold virtual event packages that included venue design, event planning, live entertainment and tech support.
Prior to the acquisition, Active Replica hadn’t publicly announced outside funding. Ervin and Denis have assumed new jobs at Mozilla within the past several weeks, now working as senior engineering manager and product lead, respectively.
“Mozilla has long advocated for a healthier internet and has been an inspiration to us in its dedication and contributions to the open web. By joining forces with the Mozilla Hubs team, we’re able to further expand on our mission and inspire a new generation of creators, connectors, and builders,” Ervin and Denis said in a statement. “Active Replica will continue to work with our existing customers, partners and community.”
Mozilla launched Hubs in 2018, which it pitched at the time as an “experiment” in “immersive social experiences.” Hubs provides the dev tools and infrastructure necessary to allow users to visit a portal through any browser and collaborate with others in a VR environment. Adhering to web standards, Hubs supports all the usual headsets and goggles (e.g. Oculus Rift, HTC Vive) while remaining open to those without specialized VR hardware on desktops and smartphones.
Hubs recently expanded with the launch of a $20-per-month service that did away with the previously free service, but introduced account management tools, privacy and security features. According to Mozilla, the plan is to roll out additional tiers and reintroduce a free version in the future, along with kits to create custom spaces, avatar and identity options and integrations with existing collaboration tools.
Mozilla’s forays into the metaverse have been met with mixed results. While Hubs is alive and kicking as evidenced by the Active Replica acquisition, Meta shuttered Firefox Reality, its attempt to create a full-featured browser for AR and VR headsets, in February 2022. In explaining why it decided to close up Firefox Reality, Mozilla said that while it does help develop new technologies, like WebVR and WebAR, it doesn’t always continue to host and incubate those technologies long-term.
Mozilla acquires Active Replica to build on its metaverse vision by Kyle Wiggers originally published on TechCrunch
Mozilla acquires Active Replica to build on its metaverse vision

Nufa lets you live up to unrealistic beauty standards at the tap of an app

It isn’t like Instagram is a beacon of truth as it is, but things are about to get a lot worse, as Nufa takes any image and sculpts you into the “after” picture dream that every gym owner wants to project into our souls as they continue on their mission to make us all look like body-building beasts with cleavage out the wazoo and abs for days.
The new mobile app “seamlessly transforms the human body into a picture in one click,” as it considers muscle structure, body type, skin color, body position and even tattoos to provide a “digital experience that hardly differs from real body transformation pics.”
“For women, we have an additional feature of transforming the breast from the 1st to the 5th size that works even with neckline clothes,” Nufa’s head of Analytics, Artem Petrikeev, said in an email to TechCrunch. “We are changing body pics similar to how Faceapp changes selfies.”
Can we be done making ourselves feel less than already?
But hey, if this is your jam, I guess you, too, can see what you’d look like if you conformed to completely unrealistic beauty standards. You do you, boo, but if you install this app, perhaps think about what it is you’re buying into. You’re perfect as you are, and if you don’t believe that, think about where that belief came from.

Nufa lets you live up to unrealistic beauty standards at the tap of an app by Haje Jan Kamps originally published on TechCrunch
Nufa lets you live up to unrealistic beauty standards at the tap of an app

SponsorUnited secures $35M investment to build out its database of brand sponsorships

Sponsorships are a multibillion-dollar industry. But data on sponsorships, like who’s sponsoring who, can be tough to come by because of the various forms they take — and channels on which those sponsorships take place (think not only websites and social media posts but also physical signage and even sports team jerseys). For both brands and the recipients of sponsorships, the lack of data presents a challenge. Brands don’t always know how much to charge sponsors, while sponsors aren’t consistently aware of sponsorship deals currently in place.
Frustrated by the sponsorship space’s opaqueness, Bob Lynch, the former VP of corporate partnerships for the Miami Dolphins, in 2017 founded SponsorUnited, a software-as-a-service platform that provides analytics data on the sponsorship industry. SponsorUnited claims to track over a million sponsorships across 250,000 brands, including every U.S.-based major league sports team.
“When I joined the Miami Dolphins after a decade in media, I immediately realized there was significant complexity and a lack of transparency and standardization within sponsorships, making it hard for brands and teams to optimally partner,” Lynch told TechCrunch in an email interview. “Noticing a similar trend in the NBA and arena events while with the Brooklyn Nets, I realized that if you could democratize access to previously inaccessible sponsorship deal data that the entire industry would want access to it.”
Lynch says that SponsorUnited is serving roughly 2,900 brands and properties, including Fortune 500 firms, talent and brand agencies and media companies — and investors seem pleased with the growth so far. SponsorUnited today closed a $35 million Series A funding round led by Spectrum Equity at a postmoney valuation “north of” $100 million. Paired with previous investments from Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc Lasry and San Diego Padres co-owner Ron Fowler, the infusion brings the startup’s total raised to $38.6 million.
“Up to this point, SponsorUnited had raised minimal capital, preferring to stay lean while building our data capture infrastructure and platform,” Lynch said. “But as we’ve gained critical mass beyond properties (e.g., teams and events) with brands, media, agencies and international expansion, we saw an opportunity to further accelerate growth by automating and scaling valuable data.”
Lynch describes SponsorUnited as “the Bloomberg terminal of marketing partnerships.” It’s essentially a search layer on top of a database of sports, esports, music, entertainment and media sponsorship deals, brands and properties. SponsorUnited acquires all the data directly without tapping into third-party sources, and it serves it in a way that allows companies to combine it with other data around sponsorship, including internal spend, return on investment and engagement.
A cursory Google search reveals several companies attempting to solve the same problem as SponsorUnited. There’s GlobalData, the sports-focused SportBusiness and SponsorPitch, to name a few. When asked about these rivals and others, Lynch pointed out that SponsorUnited tracks more categories of sponsorships than most and has invested heavily in its tech stack, which uses both automated and manual methods to compile sponsorship data.
“We have cultivated, refreshed, and expanded a vast repository of information — over five million data points on more than 500 asset types,” Lynch said. “We continue to invest in technology to scale and replicate the processes by which sponsorship data is tracked.”
So what’s next for SponsorUnited? Lynch says he’s tracking trends like sponsorships in the metaverse (to the extent they’re a thing), college athlete deals enabled by last year’s Supreme Court decision, and TikTok’s growing reach with younger audiences. The pandemic was and continues to be a boon for SponsorUnited, he says, as marketing organizations seek to track how deals shift from live events to digital.
In potentially good news for SponsorUnited, a 2021 survey from Caravel Marketing found that 52% of corporations planned to increase their budgets for sports team sponsorships in 2022, with only 16% projecting a decrease in spending. Lynch makes the case that these spenders will be inclined to subscribe to SponsorUnited’s services even if the economy ultimately takes a dip; when budgets tighten, it becomes imperative to discover the right partnerships and “optimize” current sponsorships, he asserts.
“The complexity and number of marketing assets and platforms being bought and sold in this industry is rising at an exponential pace,” Lynch said. “Our data provides valuable insights not only to IT but across the C-suite — chief marketing officers, chief revenue officers, chief customer officers and others.”
Stamford, Connecticut–based SponsorUnited — which isn’t revealing revenue figures — expects to have 100 employees by the end of the year, Lynch added.
SponsorUnited secures $35M investment to build out its database of brand sponsorships by Kyle Wiggers originally published on TechCrunch
SponsorUnited secures $35M investment to build out its database of brand sponsorships

Pliops lands $100M for chips that accelerate analytics in data centers

Analyzing data generated within the enterprise — for example, sales and purchasing data — can lead to insights that improve operations. But some organizations are struggling to process, store and use their vast amounts of data efficiently. According to an IDC survey commissioned by Seagate, organizations collect only 56% of the data available throughout their lines of business, and out of that 56%, they only use 57%.

Part of the problem is that data-intensive workloads require substantial resources, and that adding the necessary compute and storage infrastructure is often expensive. For companies moving to the cloud specifically, IDG reports that they plan to devote $78 million toward infrastructure this year. Thirty-six percent cited controlling costs as their top challenge.
That’s why Uri Beitler launched Pliops, a startup developing what he calls “data processors” for enterprise and cloud data centers. Pliop’s processors are engineered to boost the performance of databases and other apps that run on flash memory, saving money in the long run, he claims.
“It became clear that today’s data needs are incompatible with yesterday’s data center architecture. Massive data growth has collided with legacy compute and storage shortcomings, creating slowdowns in computing, storage bottlenecks and diminishing networking efficiency,” Beitler told TechCrunch in an email interview. “While CPU performance is increasing, it’s not keeping up, especially where accelerated performance is critical. Adding more infrastructure often proves to be cost prohibitive and hard to manage. As a result, organizations are looking for solutions that free CPUs from computationally intensive storage tasks.”
Pliops isn’t the first to market with a processor for data analytics. Nvidia sells the BlueField-3 data processing unit (DPU). Marvell has its Octeon technology. Oracle’s SPARC M7 chip has a data analytics accelerator coprocessor with a specialized set of instructions for data transformation. And in the realm of startups, Blueshift Memory and Speedata are creating hardware that they say can perform analytics tasks significantly faster than standard processors.
Image Credits: Pliops
But Pliops claims to be further along than most, with deployments and pilots with customers (albeit unnamed) including fintechs, “medium-sized” communication service providers, data center operators and government labs. The startup’s early traction won over investors, it would seem, which poured $100 million into its Series D round that closed today.
Koch Disruptive Technologies led the tranche, with participation from SK Hynix and Walden International’s Lip-Bu Tan, bringing Pliops’ total capital raised to date to more than $200 million. Beitler says that it’ll be put toward building out the company’s hardware and software roadmap, bolstering Pliops’ footprint with partners and expanding its international headcount.
“Many of our customers saw tremendous growth during the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks in part to their ability to react quickly to the new work environment and conditions of uncertainty. Pliops certainly did. While some customers were affected by supply chain issues, we were not,” Beitler said. “We do not see any slowdown in data growth — or the need to leverage it. Pliops was strong before this latest funding round and even stronger now.”
Accelerating data processing
Beitler, the former director of advanced memory solutions at Samsung’s Israel Research Center, co-founded Pliops in 2017 alongside Moshe Twitto and Aryeh Mergi. Twitto was a research scientist at Samsung developing signal processing technologies for flash memory, while Mergi co-launched a number of startups — including two that were acquired by EMC and SanDisk — prior to joining Pliops.
Pliop’s processor delivers drive fail protection for solid-state drives (SSD) as well as in-line compression, a technology that shrinks the size of data by finding identical data sequences and then saving only the first sequence. Beitler claims the company’s technology can reduce drive space while expanding capacity, mapping “variable-sized” compressed objects within storage to reduce wasted space.
A core component of Pliops’ processor is its hardware-accelerated key-value storage engine. In key-value databases — databases where data is stored in a “key-value” format and optimized for reading and writing — key-value engines manage all the persistent data directly. Beitler makes the case that CPUs are typically over-utilized when running these engines, resulting in apps not taking full advantage of SSD’s capabilities.
“Organizations are looking for solutions that free CPUs from computationally-intensive storage tasks. Our hardware helps create a modern data center architecture by leveraging a new generation of hardware-accelerated data processing and storage management technology — one that delivers orders of magnitude improvement in performance, reliability and scalability,” Beitler said. “In short, Pliops enables getting more out of existing infrastructure investments.”
Pliops’ processor became commercially available last July. The development team’s current focus is accelerating the ingest of data for machine learning use cases, Beitler says — use cases that have grown among Pliops’ current and potential customers.
Image Credits: Pliops
The road ahead
Certainly, Pliops has its work cut out for it. Nvidia is a formidable competitor in the data processing accelerator space, having spent years developing its BlueField lineup. And AMD acquired DPU vendor Pensando for $1.9 billion, signaling its wider ambitions.
A move that could pay dividends for Pliops is joining the Open Programmable Infrastructure Project (OPI), a relatively new venture under the Linux Foundation that aims to create standards around data accelerator hardware. While Pliops isn’t a member yet — current members include Intel, Nvidia, Marvell, F5, Red Hat, Dell and Keysight Technologies — it stands to reason that becoming one could expose its technology to a larger customer base.
Beitler demurred when asked about OPI, but pointed out that the market for data acceleration is still nascent and growing.
“We continue to see both infrastructure and application teams being overwhelmed with underperforming storage and overwhelmed applications that aren’t meeting company’s data demands,” Beitler said. “The overall feedback is that our processor is a game-changing product and without it companies are required to make years of investments in software and hardware engineering to solve the same problem.”
Pliops lands $100M for chips that accelerate analytics in data centers