Investment activity picked up for the first full week of the new year as measured against the last week of December, logging a total of just under $519 million. This time around, the B2B sector led FinTech as the area where the most funds flowed, with about $456 million.
As had been seen in the last few weeks of the year, the total amounts invested were dominated by a few outsized deals, with two triple-digit transactions. The biggest announcement came as Magento Commerce, spun out from eBay two years ago, got $250 million from Hillhouse Capital, one of China’s largest investment firms. The implied valuation here is $700 million. The new capital will help fund global expansion, with focus, as the name implies, on eCommerce. This eCommerce deal marks the first one of size seen in our Investment Tracker in several weeks.
The second largest deal of the week also involved China, this time as Didi and a number of fellow investors sank a reported $100 million in 99, the Brazilian ride-hailing company, which now ups the competitive ante against Uber, of course, in that region.
Moving much further down the ladder, and shifting geographic focus a bit, British Business Bank said this past week that it had expanded its relationship with Funding Circle, with intent to lend a further £40 million to small businesses through that platform.
AI Platform By Conversica Automates Business Conversations
The future of sales — and any number of other business conversations — will likely be left in the digital hands of artificial intelligence, especially if AI innovator Conversica has anything to do with it.
Conversica recently raised $34 million in a Series B venture capital funding round led by Providence Strategic Growth Capital Partners, along with Toba Capital, Wellington Financial LP and Recruit Holdings, with additional funding from existing investor Kennet Partners and Founder Ben Brigham.
Founded in 2007, Conversica began as a lead-generating business, selling sales leads to other companies. “But by 2009,” said Alex Terry, CEO of Conversica, “we realized that a lack of thorough follow-up on leads presented a much larger opportunity than the original lead-generation business.”
By 2010, Conversica had developed AVA — the automated virtual assistant. “Conversica built a conversational AI platform,” said Terry. “We use this platform to create AI assistants, which we deploy these to help our customers solve specific business problems.”
The company’s flagship product, the Conversica AI Sales Assistant, is currently at work in more than 1,000 companies worldwide, including at IBM and Epson, said Terry, to optimize sales productivity, along with finding, securing and engaging with customers via email.
“The AI assistant becomes part of our client's sales team. We mean that literally,” Terry said. “The AI gets a name, a title, an email address, and joins the sales team. Using our AI technology, the AI assistant contacts, engages, qualifies and follows up with sales leads using natural two-way email conversations until that lead converts into a sales opportunity or chooses to opt out.”
Creating AI that both generates life-like, meaningful email interactions and that can comprehend text is no simple feat. “We need four intelligences to be successful,” Terry said. “Three different kinds of AI and one human intelligence.”
Conversica's AI combines a knack for natural language processing, an inference engine, which translates the meaning of emails into a series of actionable next steps, and natural language generation that creates life-like human messages to keep that conversation going in a meaningful, helpful way.
And it seems to be working. “People love interacting with the AI,” said Terry. “We've designed it to be very personable, as well as effective. We've even had companies trying to hire, to recruit away the AI.”
The fourth intelligence, said Terry, is human intelligence. “We have a team of humans who are backing up the AI,” he said. “No matter how good your AI is, there are always going to be situations where the AI doesn't meet a confidence threshold.”
In that scenario, the human team reads the message and selects how to respond. “It makes the entire system smarter,” said Terry. “Every time we run into a situation where the AI isn't sufficiently confident, humans step in, and we tag that information in a way that allows us to make our system smarter.”
With the funds brought in from the Series B, Terry said Conversica has a few different plans in mind. Conversica plans to increase its own sales and marketing and to develop the platform, augmenting its capabilities to automate more business tasks.
“There are a number of different business conversations that could benefit, at least in part, with help from an AI,” Terry said. “Our approach is to find opportunities where there's an 80/20. No conversation is ever entirely routine. We can leverage our technology to help the people inside businesses by covering the routine parts of those conversations, letting them focus on the unique parts.”
The company also plans to increase the number of technical integrations on the platform from the 47 at present, said Terry. “We try to make it very easy for businesses to connect our AI assistant. To continue expanding, we'd like to support additional technical integration.”
Finally, said Terry, Conversica plans to increase the number of languages its AI Sales Assistant can speak. “We're up and running in a number of countries outside the U.S., but the AI assistant currently only speaks English,” he said. “This investment is going to allow us, in the next year or two, to build out the platform and support additional languages.”
As Conversica's offerings cover more of the globe and reach out into more facets of business, Terry noted that the humans involved shouldn't be too concerned about losing their jobs to AI.
“People assume that using AI will cause layoffs,” he said. “It's certainly possible that that's true at some companies, but the majority of companies using Conversica have told us that they've actually had to hire more people. They've got a more efficient sales funnel, so they need more people to follow up with those customers and close those deals.”