7 Startups Using AI for Robotic Process Automation
Artificial intelligence is one of the sexiest, most disruptive technologies out there today. One day (very soon) machines will be able to predict diseases like Alzheimer’s or discover new therapeutic drugs that might cure cancer. We’re perhaps only decades away from the Singularity, the moment when the machines become exponentially smarter than us and everyone goes on the dole with universal basic income. Until those golden years, AI is being applied in more mundane but increasingly lucrative ways. One of those is robotic process automation.
What seemed like just some clever marketing to repackage software automation has apparently turned into a real business. Suddenly, everyone and their geeky brother seems ready to wed AI to robotic process automation, which is corporate-speak for sophisticated software (i.e., “robots” in the nonphysical sense) doing the sort of rule-based work once outsourced to places like India and the Philippines—repetitive tasks like filling out invoices or processing insurance claims. It’s actually becoming one of the more apparent ways that automation—smart (AI) and dumb (RPA)—is chipping away at low-level white collar jobs, though most firms will argue that they’re freeing employees for other value-added tasks, such as smoking a bowl at morning break.
We’ve covered this topic before, but with the rapid rise of a startup called UiPath, which has raised more than $180 million in less than a year to achieve unicorn status, we thought it was a good time to jump back into the mind-melding of AI and robotic process automation.
Path to a Billion-Dollar Valuation
Though officially founded in 2012, New York-based UiPath is one of those startups that seems to have burst on the scene overnight. The company raised its first disclosed round, a $30 million Series A, last April. It then added a staggering $153 million Series B this month, to bring total disclosed funding to $183 million. The list of investors include top VC firms like Accel Partners (lead on both rounds) and Kleiner Perkins, as well as Google, among others. The company has headquarters around the world, with plans to expand even further with the new infusion of cash. Last year, UiPath grew its enterprise customer base from less than 100 to more than 700.
The obvious question: Why is everyone so hot on UiPath? The company claims its robots can automate 99 percent of many of the tasks they’re asked to perform, without sleeping or complaining about the quality of the breakroom coffee. The video below runs you through how a scenario in which the robot processes invoices from external parties into an SAP system in just minutes:
UiPath works across a number of industries, from financing and insurance to healthcare and manufacturing. For example, robots can help prevent bank fraud by reducing the time it takes to review requests for audits from 45 to 20 minutes. In another case study, robotic process automation was used to manage a company’s vendor management system throughout 28 countries that involved all of the headaches you might imagine by juggling all of that data and work manually. The robots that never sleep achieved a 100 percent reduction in errors and rework.
The company calls its melding of AI and RPA intelligence process automation, where it leverages third-party applications such as IBM Watson and employs technologies like computer vision to help its robots to see like humans. UiPath’s robots have intelligent eyes to “see” screen elements using contextual relationships just as humans do. UiPath says that makes its robots up to four times faster because it can process screen changes much quicker. Obviously, a lot of people see UiPath as the path to the future of back-office automation.
Update 09/20/2018: Two days ago, UiPath raised another $225 million from a Series C Round reaching a $3 billion valuation. This brings the company’s total funding to $408 million so far.
Update 11/17/2018: UiPath has raised $40 million in additional Series C financing to provide “one robot for every person,” essentially doubling a company’s workforce without the need to hire more people. This brings the company’s total funding to $448 million to date.
An Intelligent Assistant
Another robotic process automation startup out of New York (well, New Jersey; close enough, right?), Kryon Systems was founded in 2009 and has raised $13 million, most of it from a $12 million Series B last October. The company offers three flavors of robotic process automation: unattended, attended or some sort of cyborg hybrid. The big difference seems to be in the level of automation, so that unattended automation involves the software robot toiling away without human intervention. The hybrid model allows a human to start a job and pass the task to one of the robots while he hits the burnt coffee in the breakroom. Didn’t Microsoft invent something similar years ago with Clippy (aka, Office Assistant)?
The company told TechCrunch that it hoped to build out its platform so that it can autonomously identify other tasks that could be automated, perpetually creating more work for itself and allowing humans to perfect their coffee-making skills.
Update 2/26/19: Kryon has raised $40 million in Series C funding to “maintain its leadership position” with “continued development of … innovative technology” and to expand into new territories by growing its sales and marketing teams. This brings the company’s total funding to $53 million to date.
Follow the Leader
Autologyx is the English entrant into our list of robotic automation process startups. The company, founded in 2011, has raised more than $5 million over three seed rounds, including one last November. Like others in the space, it hits all the buzzwords, like adding “intelligent” in front of robotic process automation. That implies that machine learning is somehow in play with how its Fabric Automation platform performs repetitive office tasks, thereby “freeing people to allow them to be deployed where they can add the most value.” The company has publicly said that it hopes to capitalize on the success of Blue Prism (LON:PRSM), a U.K.-based company whose stock has gone absolutely bonkers of late:
Auologyx recently scored a sizable client in the global law firm Eversheds Sutherland, which used the startup’s robotic process automation platform in one case to produce 3,000 leases that involved sifting through countless emails. Eversheds Sutherland’s client saved an hour per transaction; we’re guessing an hour of their time doesn’t come cheap.
Founded in 2015, Melbourne-based CiGen appears to be mostly a middle man for UiPath. If you go to the company’s website product page, all of its offerings are from UiPath. This begs the question: Why not just work directly with UiPath? It’s unclear what value CiGen adds to the big picture, except to be able to translate words like “barbie” into “bbq”, and explain to Americans what a “ute” is. The two companies joined forces in 2016, according to CiGen, because the Australian startup was “inspired by UiPath’s vision to strategically evolve beyond purely rules-based automation and towards cognitive and machine learning automation.”
LarcAI out of South Africa is another international robotic process automation startup that seems to lean heavily on UiPath, IBM Watson and other third-party products for its services. The company liberally peppers its website with terms like “artificial intelligence,” “machine learning,” “cognitive automation” and “computer vision.” Again, we wonder what value LarcAI brings to the table, aside from a slightly tweaked English accent and some delicious biltong.
A Smart Scanner
A Japanese company called Cinnamon was founded in 2016 but it’s unclear when the startup pivoted from developing photo-sharing apps (then called Spicy Cinnamon) to robotic process automation. The Bridge reported that the company raised an undisclosed sum this month from a bevy of angel investors. The company’s flagship product appears to be a smart scanner. The Flax Scanner can reputedly extract information from a document such as an email or contract and understand the data well enough to digitize it and autopopulate a database or other system with a high degree of accuracy.
Founded in 2016, New York-based RapidRPA (aka, Echelon | RPA) combines AI, robotic process automation and that buzziest of corporate buzzwords from the 1990s, Lean Six Sigma (as opposed to Obese Six Sigma). The startup had reportedly been trying to raise a Series A last year but no news how that turned out. In fact, not much news on the company since it “emerged from stealth mode” in 2016. Not surprisingly, given the emphasis on Six Sigma, its cloud-based solutions, a lot of talk about process improvements, with a heavy dose of human consultation throw in. The company promises 500 percent ROI on productivity from Day 1 – which is about as vague as you could possibly get, but at the same time somewhat intriguing.
Technically speaking, RPA and AI are distinct types of software. One is kind of “dumb” in the sense that it is mainly rules-based automation that mimics human behavior and the other involves machines capable of mimicking human senses (for example, computer vision) and the abilities to analyze, predict, communicate and even learn, all while saving on the monthly coffee bill. There is certainly a use case for the two to work together as complementary technologies, but it’s not always obvious to us which companies are making a distinction or just throwing terms into a blender. UiPath certainly seems to be on the rapid path to success (remember, follow the money; also remember, that doesn’t always work). In an upcoming article, we’ll profile a stock that has gone all-in with AI in robotic process automation, as well as other office solutions such as customer relationship management.
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