Microsoft continues to bet on artificial intelligence technology and on Monday unveiled a new Microsoft Ventures fund that focuses strictly on AI startups.
The fund, part of the company’s investment arm that launched in May, will back companies developing AI technology that are committed to “inclusive growth and positive impact on society,” wrote Nagraj Kashyap, the former Qualcomm Ventures leader who joined Microsoft earlier this year.
“Companies in this fund will help people and machines work together to increase access to education, teach new skills and create jobs, enhance the capabilities of existing workforces and improve the treatment of diseases, to name just a few examples,” Kashyap wrote in a blog post.
In September, Microsoft announced a major reshaping of the company’s internal structure and formed a new 5,000-person engineering and research team to focus on its artificial intelligence products. The new Microsoft AI and Research Group, led by Microsoft Research chief Harry Shum, established a fourth engineering division inside the company, along with the Office, Windows and cloud groups.
The Redmond tech giant, part of AI groups like OpenAI and Partnership on AI, is committed to “democratizing AI,” as CEO Satya Nadella explained at Microsoft’s Ignite conference, and the Microsoft Ventures fund fits into that goal.
The new fund includes Element AI, an incubator based in Montreal that helps other companies embrace AI.
“With today’s news, Microsoft Ventures expands our original mandate of supporting cloud companies that help enterprises navigate digital transformation,” Kashyap wrote. “This new fund will make investments of similar size to previous Microsoft Ventures investments, and will only include businesses with promise for strong financial returns (as opposed to non-profits or NGOs). We expect our overall pace of investments will accelerate.”
These companies have announced their own investment rounds in the past few months. On Monday, Dynamic Signal announced a $25 million round while Tact said it raised $15 million. xAd announced a $42.5 million round last month; Paxata raised $33.5 million in October; Seattle-based Zipwhip announced a $9 million round in October as well. And earlier this month, i3 Equity Partners revealed a new consortium that includes Microsoft Ventures and just established a $20 million fund.
Microsoft did not reveal exactly how much it is investing in each startup.
Microsoft Ventures has now invested in 19 startups since launching in late May as Microsoft’s first formal venture fund. The company is backing up-and-coming startups in areas including cloud infrastructure, software as a service, machine learning, security, AI, productivity, and communications.
Microsoft Executive VP of Business Development Peggy Johnson, who helped start the Microsoft Ventures fund this year along with Kashyap, spoke at the GeekWire Summit in October and noted how the investment arm is focusing in part on artificial intelligence and machine learning.
“That’s one of the pillars of our strategy, infusing AI,” she said. “It’s the infusion of AI into everyday services that I’m really excited about. Any app or service I see, I wonder, ‘what would AI do for this?'”
Microsoft Ventures is part of a broader effort, led by Johnson’s business development group, to open Microsoft up to new strategic partnerships and relationships with companies in Silicon Valley and other parts of the tech world. The initiative reflects Nadella’s approach of working more closely with companies across the industry even in situations where Microsoft would otherwise be viewed as a competitor.
Microsoft Ventures consists of a small team with an initial presence in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Seattle area, New York and Tel Aviv. The Redmond company had previously taken a less structured approach to investing in startups, which was in contrast with other tech companies such Intel and Google, which have their own formalized venture programs. The company has declined to disclose the total size of the Microsoft Ventures fund.