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Chatbot pioneer Next IT raising $20M to deploy an army of AI assistants

Sgt. Star
Sgt. Star, the virtual assistant that Next IT created for Army.com, can answer questions via smartphones. (Credit: Next IT)

Before Siri, Cortana and Alexa, there was Next IT and its chatbots: The Spokane Valley company made it possible for you to “Ask Jenn” at Alaska Airlines, or “Ask Julie” at Amtrak, or check in with “Sgt. Star” at GoArmy.com.

Now Next IT is raising $20 million to take advantage of the new wave of enthusiasm about conversational AI assistants.

“That’s a wave we’re certainly ready to ride,” Tracy Malingo, Next IT’s president, told GeekWire.

Malingo said $12 million of Next IT’s investment round is in the form of equity, with the remaining $8 million taking the form of debt restructuring. “We are pleased with the response that we’ve gotten,” she said. About $14.5 million has been raised so far, and she expects to hit the $20 million target within 90 days.

She declined to provide details about the privately held company’s valuation or the identity of the investors, other than to say that about 11 are involved in this round.

Next IT was founded in 2002 by Fred Brown, a software pioneer and serial entrepreneur who also lists “rodeo cowboy” on his resume. (His Twitter handle is @TheCowboyCEO.) The company was among the first to harness natural-language recognition for automated phone assistants. Here’s a sample exchange from Alaska Airlines’ website:

Jenn: Hi, I’m Jenn, Alaska Airlines’ automated travel assistant. For help on our website, type your question below.

You Asked: Were you made by Next IT?

Jenn: We worked along with a cutting edge company, Next IT, to create me. I’m the first of my kind in the U.S. airline industry.

Today, everybody seems to be getting into the act: Microsoft is putting Cortana-style chatbots at the center of its AI strategy (even though its experiment with a teenbot named Tay ran into trouble). Facebook is integrating chatbots into its Messenger platform (wooing Expedia away from Next IT in the process). And of course we all know about Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri.

AI assistants may seem to be a new craze, but the way Malingo sees it, “that has been the ground we have beaten since our inception.”

“We think it’s time now for us to really stand up tall,” she said.

Next IT’s strategy isn’t necessarily to compete with all those other bots, but to develop what Malingo calls the “touchpoints and endpoints” that connect general-purpose bots with the specialized virtual assistants that can change your airline reservations, replace your lost debit card or make sure you’re taking your medicine.

“We want to be the experts that all those other organizations hand up to,” Malingo said.

Last year, Next IT released a set of APIs that build upon the company’s Alme software platform and make it easier for businesses to personalize users’ interactions with a virtual assistant. The company also spun off its health-care unit as an independent operating entity.

Malingo said there’s “not a particular magic bullet” that the new investment would go toward. But she does plan to boost Next IT’s workforce, which is currently at around 150 employees. Such moves are aimed at putting the company in a good position to ride the AI wave.

“Everyone who’s interested in finding out how AI can save their company, we want them to leverage our platform,” Malingo said.

So get set, Siri. Look alive, Alexa. There could be a new crowd of bots you’ll need to do business with.

Source: Geekwire Science

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