8 hot mobile startups to watch

More users want to use their mobile devices at work, but IT is having trouble controlling the security.

Just how big of a deal is mobile? Three years ago there were an estimated 400 venture capital deals for mobile companies, with about $3 billion invested in the industry. Last year, according to Rutberg & Co., which tracks mobile investments, VCs poured more than $6.85 billion into mobile startups across about a thousand deals. Mobile companies captured 40% of venture capital funding last year, Rutberg found.

“Mobile is redefining everything,” says Rajeev Chand, head of research at Rutberg.

With this increased emphasis on mobile startup companies, Chand says the investments are focusing on a handful of key sectors. The two biggest, each receiving more than $2 billion last year, are mobile infrastructure and applications (both consumer and enterprise-focused). While initial waves of mobile startups focused on enabling mobile advertising, new markets have sprung up around mobile payments and application development platforms to support this mobile boom.

To try to capture a taste of this momentum, Network World searched for some of the most interesting early-stage enterprise-mobile startups. We found platforms for building new apps, services that enable workers to use their mobile phones in a corporate setting, and new forms of communication made possible by mobile devices. This list is not meant to be all-encompassing of the mobile startup scene, but rather give a preview of what some of the most interesting companies to watch in this market are up to.

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AppMesh: CRM for the mobile device

AppMesh

There is no shortage of tools to help businesses manage customer relationships. After all, Salesforce.com, Oracle and SAP make billions of dollars doing this.

But two former Salesforce executives say the process of managing customer relations has not yet been optimized for mobile device or end users. “None of them are focused on the individual sales rep,” says co-founder Leo Tenenblat, a co-founder of AppMesh, arguing that the enterprise systems from big-name companies are deployed business-wide by the IT department, and have not focused on the people actually interacting with the customers in the field. Tenenblat may know what he’s talking about: He and co-founder Thomas Tobin each spent more than five years in senior product management roles at Salesforce.com before founding AppMesh.

But the bigger draw is the mobile angle. “Mobile isn’t about taking a web app and putting it on a device with no keyboard. We see it as an opportunity to really rethink the experience where there’s a device with a bunch of sensors that is deeply intertwined with what you use every day, like calendar, e-mail, the phone itself, all those things,” he told Robert Scoble in an interview on YouTube demonstrating AppMesh.  

AppMesh is an Apple iOS application (Android support is coming soon) that allows sales reps to manage their entire customer relationships. Upon installation it can integrate with iOS apps such as contacts and e-mail, becoming a hub for sales reps to manage their work. The company started last year in San Francisco and made its product generally available in April 2013.

A key to the system is that it stores data locally on the device, instead of using some sort of cloud-based or mainframe service. This allows the device to constantly have all the information that the sales rep needs, without relying on an online connection. A review of AppMesh at CITEWorld by Nancy Gohring found the connectivity issue to be somewhat of a double-edged sword though. The app could be difficult to scale across a company with hundreds or thousands of employees if all that information needs to be stored on the device, she points out. AppMesh says it’s got workarounds, such as only taking certain chunks of the necessary data, and not holding e-mail attachments in the application.

AppMesh is free for up to five users at this point. The company has received about $1 million from InterWest and Opus Capital, in addition to some seed funding from angel investors.

Built.io: PaaS and Mobile, finally together

Built.io

The platform as a service (PaaS) market is a fast-growing one in the cloud computing industry, and the demand for mobile applications is white hot right now.

Built.io is trying to tap into those two trends with its platform geared specifically for developing mobile applications. The company provides the servers, cloud infrastructure and integration tools to developers, allowing them to focus just on developing the user experience.

The service is a product spinout from 2007 startup Raw Engineering, a San Francisco-based web development group that focuses on mobile, web and cloud applications. It’s led by CEO Neha Sampat, who has built a variety of mobile applications, including a finalist app at the Tech Crunch Disrupt 2012 Battlefield competition that helps users find open parking spots in San Francisco. Nishant Patel, who serves at CTO of Raw Engineering, is also on the team.

While there are a variety of web and application platforms on the market, few have targeted operations specifically for mobile users, Sampat says. For example, built.io has plugins that allow developers to easily install scheduled and targeted push notifications into their apps, and it provides users with file storage that’s integrated with Raw Engineering’s cloud services. Built.io also offers automatic integration with Active Directory for security and authentication, and it can be used to build applications on top of social platforms like SocialCast and Chatter from Salesforce.com.

Built.io also has an analytics system integrated into its backend, allowing developers to track how their apps are being used. Apps can be deployed using either a SaaS-based model where it is hosted by Built.io through one of its public cloud integration services, or developers can host it themselves on their own hardware or cloud provider of their choice. Built.io offers integrations to deploy the apps to iOS and Android platforms. A free pro trial with 5GB of storage and up to 5 million API calls is available free, with enterprise plans costing extra beyond that.

Startup CoTap wants to revolutionize how corporate employees communicate

CoTap

CoTap is a company that wants to bring one of the dominant forms of communication in people’s personal lives – text messaging – into the business setting.

Founded by two of the masterminds behind social collaboration company Yammer – which exited via a $1.2 billion payday when Microsoft bought it in 2012 – say mobile texting is a perfect form of business communication that has just not been executed correctly yet. Sure there is e-mail – but email today can be formal, requiring some sort of salutation such as a hello, how are you, etc. Then there is the phone call, which is a very direct form of communication. Text messaging can fulfill some sort of role in-between these two forms of communication: Quick conversations that are delivered in real time to the one device that almost everyone has on them at almost all times – the phone.

“Texting is simply a more efficient way of communication than an email or phone call,” says founder and CEO Jim Patterson. Even though it’s a communication form many are comfortable with in their personal lives, it is not widely used in businesses. Many workers don’t have each others’ phone numbers, for one. There are costs that come along with using data plans too. CoTap hopes to solve this by having mobile-first designed apps that integrate with company directory systems, and would not eat up text message limits on phones. Instead, workers communicate via the CoTap app, which would provide instantaneous alerts of new messages via push notifications. For something as simple as asking if a coworker wants to grab a coffee, if they can send a document, or respond to an email, texting is the ideal medium, Patterson says.

CoTap founders plan to launch a mobile application, first optimized for the iOS and Android platforms, later this year. The San Francisco-based company, which started just this year, has already secured $5.5 million in venture financing from some of the same investors who bet on Yammer’s success, including Charles River Ventures, with participation from Emergence Capital Partners.

CoTap plans to operate on a freemium model, meaning it can be used for free, or through a paid version that would include additional features, such as integrations and policy settings. While iOS and Android may be the first apps, CoTap founders say future apps could be optimized for a range of devices, not only desktops, but potentially wearable computers, such as glasses and watches.

Feed Henry: Irish infusion of mobile app dev

Feed Henry

Cathal McGloin is an Irishmen who loves bringing mobile startups to America.

FeedHenry is his latest venture, and like the two other companies he’s helped launch, this one was started in Ireland, it saw some success in the European market, and now he’s brought it to America.

The company is a mobile application development platform that has baked in security processes. FeedHenry has developed what it calls a “secure mobile proxy layer” that allows internal systems, for example servers holding sensitive employee or financial data, to access a mobile front end. As McGloin describes it, such systems were not originally developed to have public-facing IP addresses – normally they have web servers sitting in front of them to act as a gateway before users access them. FeedHenry’s proxy system places a security layer between the application and those back-end systems, protecting data from being shared out as a public IP address, and allowing those legacy enterprise apps to interact with new mobile ones that are built on the FeedHenry platform.

In addition to the mobile proxy, the system has a variety of other features, including the ability to host the mobile apps in either FeedHenry’s cloud, or almost any other public cloud from Amazon, Rackspace or HP. It also provides the ability for developers to create HTML5, iOS or Android applications. McGloin says FeedHenry is designed to be a complete system for developing mobile applications, from the platform, to the hosting to the security features all in one spot.

Feed Henry was born out of the Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland, where researchers developed the mobile proxy layer. From there, the company was born in 2011, and came to America in 2012. It’s not unlike the other two companies McGloin has helped bring across the Atlantic; Performix Technologies, sold to Nice Systems in 2006, and Arantech, sold to Tektronix Communications in 2010.

Earlier this year FeedHenry secured a $9 million funding round from VMware, Intel Capital and other partners. It has about 50 employees now in three countries, but McGloin hopes to be hiring about 30 more in the U.S. before year-end, mostly in the company’s Burlington, Mass., offices outside of Boston.

Mobile Helix: Why reinvent the wheel for mobile?

Mobile Helix

There are a variety of platforms for building mobile applications – just look elsewhere on this list.

But Mobile Helix is taking a different approach: Instead of just providing a platform for building mobile apps, this company offers a broad set of tools and services to optimize existing applications for mobile use.

The company uses software named Link, which creates a secure container on the end-user devices, allowing applications to be deployed through a browser window, eliminating the need for users to download an app from a catalog, and access it from virtually any device. It also provides device-independent encryption, and the ability to centrally manage these applications using various policies. It currently works across iOS and Android platforms, with more to be rolled out later this year.

This means that users can either develop new applications using the Mobile Helix platform geared specifically for mobile devices, or existing applications can be transformed into mobile-friendly ones. So, for example, a company could have a customer relationship management tool it uses across the organization. To enhance it, Mobile Helix would allow users to access the app via a mobile device, and then also add geographic tracking features to it, for example.

Maribel Lopez, who tracks the mobile enterprise market, says this is a smart approach. “There are a bunch of apps out there that companies are already using, but they’re not quite ready to be used on mobile devices,” she says. Mobile Helix provides a way to bridge those apps from desktop use into the mobile world using HTML5 coding techniques.

Co-founders Seth Hallem and Matt Bancroft have bootstrapped the company with angel investments and their own funding. Hallem is the former CEO of Coverity, a software development testing platform, while Bancroft is a former vice president of Flarion Technologies, which Qualcomm purchased in 2006 to build out its 4G networking capabilities.

Mobile Span: Microsoft apps plus Google Chrome functionality brought to mobile devices

MobileSpan

To get a true sense of what Mobile Span, a company founded in 2011 is doing, it’s helpful to look at how the company got started.

Nils Bunger, the CEO and co-founder, really likes doing startups; he’s already founded desktop virtualization company Pano Logic, and then he spent time as the entrepreneur-in-residence at Foundation Capital, where he advised other startups. His two MobileSpan co-founders had a company that Google acquired and they went on to help develop Chrome.

Taking that expertise, MobileSpan was founded as a way to enable Microsoft apps to run on mobile devices, while providing security controls to the IT department. Through a combination of an on-premises gateway and an iOS application, users can access Microsoft applications like SharePoint and others, granularly control which documents are available online or offline, set security controls related to access of that data. The app basically enables mobile devices to use those Microsoft apps, while providing DropBox-like functionality to storing and synching data across devices. On the front end, it uses many of the VDI-type capabilities Bunger has worked on, while the back end is based largely off of Google Chrome.

Microsoft apps are used commonly throughout the enterprise, but today their functionality is not optimized for mobile devices. There are web-based versions of the apps, but those don’t provide IT departments with the control they need to dictate which data is available to which devices. On top of that, MobileSpan gives synching and sharing capabilities across devices as well. The company has received about $2.3 million from True Ventures, Greylock, K9 Ventures and Alchemist Accelerator.

Sky Giraffe: Big data for little devices

Sky Giraffe

There are business intelligence tools on the market optimized for mobile usage, but those have a problem, says Boaz Hecht, co-founder of Israel-based Sky Giraffe.

A complete BI product usually requires a company to upload all of its data into the system, creating a logistical nightmare for configuring the system with legacy data storage and business process applications.

Hecht saw an opportunity in the market to provide a mobile-optimized and simpler BI product. Sky Giraffe provides a software overlay, with the added ability to edit content. This allows businesses to easily – within hours, he says – configure their existing data storage systems, including SQL and Oracle databases as well as enterprise apps, for viewing and editing on mobile devices.

Say, for example, that a services company with offices across the U.S. sends out a daily log of order requests along with an automated system for ordering parts to replenish the stock. Sky Giraffe is able to plug into this environment, allowing the data sets to be presented on mobile devices using the company’s native iOS, Android and Windows applications. Users can view the charts and data from these systems in the mobile app, and even edit the documents in the system. After a quick install, the daily request and orders for that company would be available to view in a nifty graphical user interface. Using Sky Giraffe, the IT department of small and midsized enterprises can configure which employees have access to which data to ensure they only see information that is relevant to them.

Founded in February 2012, Sky Giraffe is growing up quickly in Israel’s tech hub. The company has received an undisclosed amount of seed funding after being self-funded by its two co-founders, who have experience in BI, cloud, application and mobile consulting. As part of the Microsoft Accelerator program in Tel Aviv, Hecht has been exposed to a variety of startups and industry executives, which he says will help fuel additional partnerships down the line.  

Workspot: BYOD without heavy-handed mobile device management

Workspot

Ty Wang, one of the founders of  Workspot, say his company is getting right in the middle of the power struggle between IT departments, who want control of user devices, and end users, who want to keep the privacy of their own personal devices but still use them for work.

Workspot is an application that sits on an Apple iPad and allows connectivity through an SSL VPN to enterprise applications. Because it’s an application, it allows users to keep control over the rest of their devices, while at the same time providing IT the ability to monitor and manage what the user does in the application.

Right now, Workspot provides integration with a variety of enterprise apps from Oracle, SAP and Microsoft, with more to come. Users can view documents and browse programs, but the app does not yet provide the ability to make changes to the applications.

Another key to Workspot are the analytics that come baked in. The application sends data back to a central cloud-based repository, which can then be accessed by IT managers, allowing them to control access policies for users, and track the usage of certain applications on the device. This gives IT operators powerful control into the devices, including the ability to wipe the application from the device if a user leaves the company, all while allowing the user to maintain control of their own devices outside of the Workspot app.

WorkSpot runs on a freemium model in which the application allowing the access to the business applications is free, but the tools for IT to monitor and manage the application costs about $4 per user per month. Founded in the summer of 2012, the company launched out of stealth mode earlier this year and has raised about $2 million from venture firms Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Norwest, Redpoint, along with some angel investments as well.  

Wang and his co-founders have established a small but experienced team to launch the company, including former executives from Citrix, VMware and Twilio.

Network World senior writer Brandon Butler covers cloud computing and social collaboration. He can be reached at BButler@nww.com and found on Twitter at @BButlerNWW.

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