By Paul McBeth
Oct. 29 (BusinessDesk) - Auckland University's UniServices has joined Mercedes-Benz in the latest Soul Machines fund-raising round, injecting US$2 million into the local artificial intelligence firm.
Soul Machines' chief business officer Greg Cross said the AI research firm was seeking to raise about US$20 million in the latest round, with Mercedes-Benz chipping in US$7 million through a convertible note on Oct. 1. UniServices, an initial shareholder in the firm, invested as part of a wider US$8 million offer. Soul Machines raised another US$5 million in June from two existing investors.
The AI research firm had 12 staff when it was spun out of Auckland University in 2016 and has since grown to 87. It has sales offices in Melbourne, San Francisco, New York and London, and Cross said it will be opening an office in Asia in the next month. The majority of its research team is Auckland-based, although other specialists are scattered around the world, he said.
UniServices made the investment using the university's Auckland Inventors Fund, which is typically an early investor in start-ups spun out of the university.
"Soul Machines is exactly the kind of company that the Inventors Fund is designed to support," UniServices chief executive Andy Shenk said in a statement. "It has world-leading, deeply transformative IP, with a long-term vision that will require patient capital to, potentially, deliver superior returns in the long run."
Speaking before today's UniServices announcement, Cross told BusinessDesk the Mercedes-Benz investment was part of a wider fund-raising round and a "huge endorsement" of the artificial intelligence business.
"Our objective is to solve problems, deliver solutions, and build scalable markets. We have a very strong focus on that," he said. "The industries we tend to focus on are the ones that understand the huge amount of change coming at them."
Soul Machines differs from other AI research companies in that it has developed cognitive models to simulate human thought processes exemplified by its emotionally responsive digital avatars. That differs from deep learning AI, where a network of processes are built to replicate a brain in the way it analyses data.
Cross said he believes cognitive models are going to be a central element of the wider AI standard. Because the technology gets smarter the more it's used, Soul Machines expects its value will track that trend, with Cross pointing to DeepMind and Siri as examples.
"We have no question in our minds that we have that potential to be valued as some of those $1 billion-plus companies," he said.