Microsoft Plans to Back More AI Startups Through Venture Funding

December 12, 2016, 3:31 PM UTC
Artificial intelligence, cyber brain, illustration
Artificial intelligence, cyber brain, illustration
Photograph by Mehau Kulyk/SPL Getty Images/Science Photo Library RF

Investments in startups specializing in artificial intelligence, the subspecialties of machine learning, and big data analysis are booming. Now Microsoft is expanding its efforts with a new investment fund focused on startups using AI for “inclusive growth and positive impact on society.”

The software giant defined the mission as providing funding for AI companies that will help people work with machines to increase access to education, teach new skills, create jobs, improve treatment of disease, and other world-mending tasks. The fund, part of Microsoft Ventures, will only support businesses deemed to have a chance at making big profits, however, and won’t be backing non-profits or non-governmental organizations known as NGOs.

The new fund is planning to make investments at the same levels as prior Microsoft Ventures transactions, Nagraj Kashyap, who runs the ventures unit, said in a blog post on Monday. “We’ll make investments in startups that are responsibly harnessing the promise of AI to empower people and businesses,” Kashyap wrote.

Microsoft hired Kashyap away from Qualcomm in January, where he had worked on investments in robotics and wireless companies.

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Although artificial intelligence research seemingly made little progress for decades, recent advances using ever-more powerful computing chips have cracked some of the biggest challenges, leading to a flood of startups with new business ideas. Over 250 AI startups collected total venture capital funding of $1.7 billion in the first half of 2016, up from 176 companies and $1.2 billion for the same period a year earlier, according to CB Insights. Among the leading investors were the venture capital units from leading tech companies, including Intel, Google, and Samsung.

Microsoft (MSFT) itself is harnessing AI and machine learning for many initiatives, including adding machine learning features to its Azure cloud platform. The company’s investments will help it gather intelligence on the emerging field and could give it a leg up on making future acquisitions. Before the new fund, Microsoft’s investments mainly backed cloud-related startups, such as Tact, which is developing a “conversational” mobile app that uses artificial intelligence to help retail salespeople interact with their software via voice commands.

The industry-wide figures from CB exclude the very early stage investments from tech incubators. But one of Microsoft’s first moves with its new AI fund was to back Element AI, an incubator based in Montreal and co-founded by Yoshua Bengio, a pioneer in developing neural networks and deep learning.

(Update: This story was corrected on Dec. 12 to note that the only investment by the new AI fund was in Element AI.)

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