Microsoft Ventures Focusing Investments on Artificial Intelligence

Microsoft sets up a fund specifically for artificial intelligence companies that are setting out to solve societal problems.

Microsoft AI Investments 2

Microsoft Ventures, the Redmond, Wash. software maker's venture capital arm, announced a strategic investment in Element AI, a Montreal-based artificial intelligence (AI) research lab and incubator whose aim is to help build commercial-grade AI systems. Financial terms were not disclosed.

The financing is part of a new fund earmarked for "AI companies focused on inclusive growth and positive impact on society," said Nagraj Kashyap, corporate vice president of Microsoft Ventures, in a Dec. 12 announcement. Kashyap joined Microsoft this year after leading Qualcomm's venture capital unit for 12 years.

"Companies in this fund will help people and machines work together to increase access to education, teach new skills and create jobs, enhance the capabilities of existing work forces and improve the treatment of diseases, to name just a few examples," he continued.

In Element AI's case, the investment comes with access to Microsoft's massive cloud and the company's own researchers, revealed Jean-François Gagné, CEO of Element AI.

"This new collaboration will allow Element AI partners to leverage Microsoft strategic resources including the Azure environment, which will further enable world-class entrepreneurs and large corporations to tackle hard problems and solve artificial intelligence needs," wrote the AI startup's chief executive today in a blog post.

He also noted that under the terms of the deal, Element's research center will enjoy "a direct connection to Microsoft Research."

Seeking to democratize AI, Microsoft is working to infuse practically its entire product portfolio with intelligence. Those efforts include building a so-called AI supercomputer and expanding the company's Cortana Intelligence suite, enabling developers to build intelligent applications.

Microsoft Research, meanwhile, has been advancing the field by, among other things, helping machines conceptualize.

Last month, Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing, China announced the public release of the Microsoft Concept Graph, a collection of over 5 billion concepts generated by machine-learning algorithms. Derived from billions of webpages and search queries, the concept data (English-only for now) can help researchers develop systems that understand natural human language and the concepts people intend to convey when they write.

In addition to Element AI, Microsoft recently invested in six other startups, said Kashyap.

Among those is Redwood City, Calif. Paxata, makers of a self-service business data preparation platform that employs machine-learning and natural-language processing to help businesses unearth actionable and insightful information. The Intel-led round of financing raised $33.5 million.

Microsoft Ventures also invested in Tact, a AI-powered assistant for salespeople, and Zipwhip, a software-as-a-service provider of text messaging services that support landlines, toll-free numbers and Voice over Internet Protocol numbers.

Other funding recipients include xAd, a location-enabled marketing software company that specializes in offline retail and Dynamic Signal, a multi-channel communications platform that businesses can use to foster employee engagement and increase productivity.

Finally, some funds are filtering into the Israeli internet of things (IoT) startup community after Microsoft invested in i3 Equity Partners, which is focusing investments in industrial and commercial IoT applications. In total, Microsoft Ventures has made 19 investments since it was founded in the spring.

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the Internet.com network of...