Niki.ai, a two-year-old Bengaluru-based artificial intelligence (AI) startup on Wednesday announced that it had secured $2 million in Series A funding from San Francisco-based fund SAP.iO (an early-stage enterprise focused fund) and existing investor Ronnie Screwvala's Unilazer Ventures.
The funding also saw participation from other Indian investors including Haresh Chawla (partner at True North) and Arihant Patni, along with some US and German investors.
Started in June 2015 by four IIT Kharagpur alumni—Sachin Nitin Babel, Shishir Modi, and Keshav Prawasi—Niki.ai was launched to the public at YourStory’s TechSparks, where Niki was one of the Tech30 companies. At this stage, the venture also raised a seed round of funding from Ronnie Screwvala's Unilazer Ventures. Then in May 2016, Ratan Tata invested an undisclosed amount in Niki.
In 2015, Niki had two main use cases and would let users make cab bookings and mobile recharges through a chat-based interface. Fast forward to 2017, and Niki now consists of a 32-member team and supports over 20 categories, including entertainment, travel, daily utilities, with partners such as BookMyShow, Redbus, OYO, Ola, Uber, JustRechargeIt and others.
Niki claims to have more than 4,00,000 customers. But the company's long-term aim is to be ubiquitous: 'Everywhere and for everything commerce'. So in line with that vision, Niki had released an enterprise-facing product called Chatbot SDK in early 2017.
The SDK acts as a plug-and-play technology that can be integrated in what Niki claims to be less than an hour of development effort. It is currently live across multiple banks, OEMs and wallets, such as HDFC Bank, Intex, Oxigen wallet, Zopo Mobiles (as a widget in its latest series), to name a few. Additionally, 40+ SDK partnerships are going to be live soon.
Related read from February 2017: Are machine-human interactions the future of online-commerce? Creating smaller Niki-powered worlds?
With a 35 percent month-on-month revenue growth, Niki claims to have over 50 partners on board, with many more in the pipeline. Speaking on the occasion, Sachin, CEO, Niki.ai, noted that they have focused on building the product for the past two years and believes that they have the capability to disrupt the AI and bot space. He noted that this funding round from Indian and foreign investors is a validation and vote of confidence for them. On fund allocation, Sachin said,
The injection of the new capital will be used in further strengthening our machine learning capabilities, building voice and multilingual functionalities and expanding our distribution network.”
Speaking on the investment, Screwvala, Managing Partner, Unilazer Ventures said that in the last year he did three follow-up rounds with Niki given their progress, track record and the entrepreneur-founders at the helm. He believes that Niki is uniquely positioned and based on the progress made in terms of diversified relationships and product roadmap, he feels that Niki is ready for the global market too. He noted,
'Unicorn' is a derived word for what is happening in the new economy ecosystem for the last decade, but if I were to take that even further - if the Internet, e-comm and mobile created Unicorns, then AI will create the next 'Tricorn' for sure. We are just at the basic level of AI where focus is to cut time, complexity and costs in every sector, and from here we will see exponential innovation, more than we have seen in any sector till date.
Having gathered data of over 75 million interactions over the past two years, Niki is looking to bolster its machine learning engine to better personalise a customer's purchase experience. To further enhance the convenience for a mobile user, the company is soon going to add the feature of voice communication, which is already being beta-tested. Furthermore, to tap deeper into the Indian market, Niki.ai aims to train its NLP engine to interpret Indian languages, starting with Hindi and then eventually being multilingual.
Niki is SAP.iO's first investment in India. Ram Jambunathan, Managing Director, SAP.iO said in a statement,
We believe that Niki.ai has an innovative technical approach and is building a scalable product that can change the commerce industry. We are very impressed with how Niki.ai is leveraging AI to help businesses fulfill the needs of consumers. There is a huge opportunity globally yet to be captured.
The year 2017 is being predicted as the year of AI, because of the potential it has on multiple sectors and also the global market. Tech giants like Amazon and Flipkart have invested heavily in machine learning and AI to make the customer experience more personal and keep people hooked to e-commerce. Visual search tools and conversational assistants seem to be two prominent focus areas, right now. Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant are examples of the latter.
Closer home in India, apart from Niki, we have players like Haptik and Tapzo that are looking to make e-commerce transactions and processes easier. Haptik leverages human-augmented intelligence, which means that chatbots answer the most frequently asked questions and humans take over if things get too complex. Haptik also recently open-sourced a key piece of its proprietary tech, Named Entity Recognition (NER) System, to let developers tinker with and build on top of it (Github Link). Tapzo, on the other hand, focuses on UI and aggregation to provide a 'tap-based' interface to make transactions easier.
App link: niki.ai/app