This startup has aspirations to forge a new deal and protect user privacy through smarter IoT – as well as offer incentives to do so
Internet of Things personalization innovators Neura announced today that they have closed their Series A funding round, pulling in an impressive $11 million in new financing. New investor AXA Strategic Ventures joined with Pitango Venture Capital to lead the round, with Lenovo Group and Liberty Israel Venture Fund also taking part.
With offices in Herzliya and Sunnyvale, the company was co-founded in 2013 by CEO Gilad Meiri and VP of Product Ori Shaashua.
The crew over at Neura wants to bring IoT into the next generation with smarter integrations that learn from the user’s behavior and provide a new level of services and conveniences. It means connecting with the apps and smart devices we use to improve our interactions with them through machine learning of context.
For example, if the user has smart locks on their door, then Neura can learn that when the phone is plugged in overnight, it should lock the door. This automation takes IoT and makes it smarter.
They are now releasing their SDK to developers who can begin to incorporate it into their own consumer-facing products.
Bringing privacy back into the mix
There is a strong element of truth to the idea that ,“If you’re not paying, then you’re the product.” Neura’s business model is to give their users a smart solution for interacting with their IoT space, and selling data gleaned from their actions and preferences to their partners.
Instead, they look to present users with a choice of exactly which data they are willing to share and for what purpose in exchange for incentives. Theoretically, a user that has Neura downloaded on their phone could then receive discounts from an insurance company that would offer better rates in exchange for information from the user’s gym app that logs every time the user shows up. So if the user actually attends the gym twice a week, they could be rewarded with a cheaper insurance policy.
Transparency and trust are the key to their product’s success. Meiri explains their deal with their users to Geektime, saying that, “In exchange for this slice of information, I will deliver tangible value. You need to allow us to make it extremely transparent about what’s not being shared.”
He makes the point that they restrict their partners, letting them access only the information that the user has given them permission to use.
“For us privacy is extremely important,” explains Meiri. “Whenever a solution [partner] uses our technology and seeks to understand the user better, they have to go through three steps. First they have to allow the user what they are looking to know. Take the case of a door lock that knows to lock itself when you fall asleep. They have to tell the user that you’re tracking when they go to sleep. Next is to say why you’re asking why you’re asking.”
If a partner violates this agreement, then Meiri says that they will simply cut them off as it signifies a breach of contract.
In a market where user data has become common currency, Meiri says that their commitment to maintaining their standards of respect for their users has cost them along the way. He tells Geektime that, “We have lost and will lose deals that will not allow us to provide this level of process to the user.”
“If you think about it, this is a big change to the current schemes and structures,” he says. “If you download an app today, you’re asked to provide blanket consent of permissions, essentially agreeing to a zero sum game where you get all the value or none at all.”
“Out of our respect for the users, we want to enable the users to understand what and why they’re being asked to give information, and then enable them to manage it, pulling their permission layer if they choose to.”
Plan of action post-funding
In looking to the future after the round, Meiri says that they plan on expanding their team and preparing the product for rollout.
“Up until now we’ve developed our product, working with a selective group of partners,” he tells Geektime. “Now we are opening the product, putting it on the shelf and inviting the market to implement it. That requires a different set of infrastructure to scalability, stability, etc.”
This process will include increasing their core team, which is predominantly data and machine learning scientists. There will also be growth in their marketing and support staff.
Thoughts and concerns
Neura’s vision of providing great service to their users while putting them in control of their own data represents an important clash in the tech world that should have come a long time ago.
Meiri and his team see Neura as an opportunity to change the relationship between users and the tech world when it comes to the trading of private details for services. He explains that this is in stark contrast to the online world.
“The first thing is that in IoT, the kind of data that we’re being asked to share is different. It’s not just your web data and clicks, it is your body metrics, home security solution, car safety, and other personal details. While we lost the battle over data control in the Internet, the jury is still out on IoT.”
In conversations with Meiri, it is clear that they have placed a serious emphasis on security, which has often been found lacking in the IoT space. The other companies can only access the data within Neura’s secure ecosystem, helping to ensure user privacy. Their CTO Triinu Magi worked at RSA before joining the team, adding an impressive degree of security know-how and talent to their operation.
My only concern at this point is that they face an uphill battle to convince the public of the necessity to negotiate a new deal with the corporate data miners.
As a user of Google, Facebook, and a number of other services, I have understood that I am opening my data for them to use and sell in exchange for access to their products and networks. This arrangement is far from ideal. While a certain level of data for service is and should be acceptable, I want to know who is receiving it and what I should expect it to be used for.
By leading this push to find a more equitable equation, Neura is taking an important step that will hopefully lead to a better landscape for privacy and commerce.