Artificial intelligence startup Fluent.ai secures $1.8M in seed funding

Company led by Ottawa’s Niraj Bhargava, the former CEO of Energate
Niraj Bhargava
Niraj Bhargava is the CEO of artificial intelligence startup Fluent.ai. He is seen here in a 2013 file photo when he was the CEO of Ottawa-based clean-tech firm Energate. (Photo by Cole Burston)

With the number of appliances and electronic devices connected to the Internet growing every day, Ottawa entrepreneur Niraj Bhargava wonders why we’re still wearing out our fingers and thumbs to operate them.   

“Why can’t we talk to our technology?” says the CEO of fledgling artificial intelligence startup Fluent.ai, which makes a voice-activated interface that allows users to do just that.

“We’ve been talking about voice recognition for a long time, but with machine learning today, it actually can be a reality. I absolutely believe that just about all technology can be voice-enabled.”

Fresh off its graduation from Montreal-based tech incubator TandemLaunch, Mr. Bhargava’s firm is ready to take the world by storm with a product it says will revolutionize the way users operate everything from fridges to phones.

Fluent.ai recently announced it landed $1.8 million in seed funding from a high-profile group of investors that includes Ottawa-based BDC Capital, California’s Danhua Capital and the Toronto-based Creative Destruction Lab and Maple Leaf Angels.

Mr. Bhargava, the firm’s only full-time Ottawa employee and the former CEO of clean-tech firm Energate, says the young company plans to use the cash to ramp up its R&D and marketing teams in anticipation of extending its reach around the world.

The firm only just began generating revenues, he says, and it’s already selling beyond its borders. In fact, he says its first customers aren’t even based on this continent.

“We really do see that there’s a very large opportunity to take our technology to the global markets,” he says, adding he expects the company to pursue a series-A venture capital round in the next 12 to 18 months.

“We see the market as much in Asia and Europe as we do in North America. There’s a very strong appetite right now for voice enablement, so we’re looking for a fast growth path.”

Fluent.ai’s patented software allows users to operate devices with voice commands in any language, Mr. Bhargava says, regardless of accent, how garbled the sound or how much background noise there is.

Unlike other voice-assistance systems such as Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, he adds, it doesn’t have to translate speech into text, making it faster and much more accurate at following instructions.

“It’s pretty instantaneous in understanding what your intent is,” Mr. Bhargava says. “It doesn’t matter what language you’re speaking.”

"I’m encouraging the Ottawa community as well as Montreal get involved as much as possible in this trend."

Mr. Bhargava says the technology is already attracting interest from potential customers in a wide range of industries from automotives and electronics to health care and telecom.

Carmakers, for example, see the interface being used in everything from turning up the heat inside a vehicle to activating the windshield wipers, without a driver’s hands ever having to leave the wheel. In a home, it could instantly turn a thermostat up or down at the sound of a voice. Runners, meanwhile, could tell their smart watch to measure their heart rate without breaking stride.

Fluent.ai’s current team includes three part-time contractors in Ottawa as well as five employees in Montreal. Mr. Bhargava sees vast growth opportunities in both cities, noting Canada is gaining a reputation as an emerging hotbed of AI innovation.

At the end of March, for example, the Toronto-based Vector Institute for artificial intelligence opened its doors, bolstered by $100 million in federal and provincial funding with the goal of becoming a “world-leading centre” for AI research. The federal government announced in its March budget it was investing $125 million into what it calls a “Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy” aimed at beefing up research and talent in the sector.

“This whole direction of artificial intelligence machine learning is opening up some really terrific applications,” Mr. Bhargava says.

“I think there’s an opportunity in Canada to be specialists in the applications of these machine-learning activities, and certainly I’m encouraging the Ottawa community as well as Montreal get involved as much as possible in this trend.”