Tech Giants Acquiring Startups At Rapid Pace To Boost Leads In AI

There was a total of 34 artificial intelligence startups acquired in the first quarter of this year, more than twice the amount from the same quarter one year ago.

According to Reuters, research firm CB Insights found that the tech giants looking to strengthen their leads in AI or make up for lost ground have been the most aggressive buyers. Google has acquired 11 AI startups since 2012, the most of any firm, followed by Apple, Facebook and Intel, respectively.

While all of the companies declined to comment on their strategies, a spokesman for Apple did confirm its recent acquisition of Lattice Data, a startup that specializes in working with unstructured data.

The first quarter of 2017 also had one of the largest deals to date, as Ford Motor Co. invested $1 billion in Argo AI, which is founded by former executives on self-driving teams at Google and Uber.

Many of these startups are looking to expand on AI applications to specific fields, such as health and retail, rather than compete with established companies. For example, health care startup Forward is using AI to crunch data that can inform doctors’ recommendations.

“For people who really want to focus on core AI problems, it makes a lot of sense to be in bigger companies,” said Forward’s Chief Executive Officer Adrian Aoun, who previously worked at Google. “But for folks who really want to prove a new field, a new area, it makes more sense to be separate.”

Artificial intelligence companies that choose to remain independent are getting constant offers about acquisition. Matthew Zeiler, chief executive of Clarifai, which specializes in image and video recognition, said he has been approached about a dozen times by prospective buyers since launching the company in late 2013.

But Clarifai believes his company’s narrow focus on AI is a selling point to customers such as consumer goods company Unilever and hotel search firm Trivago.

“(Google) literally competes with almost every company on the planet,” Zeiler said. “Are you going to trust them with being your partner for AI?”