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Gene Farrell, senior vice president of product for Smartsheet. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Smartsheet is making its first acquisition ever as the Bellevue, Wash.-based company aims to integrate artificial intelligence and natural language processing technology into its cloud-based work management platform.

Converse.AI founders Tony Lucas and Gihan Munasinghe.

Smartsheet today announced the acquisition of Converse.AI, a 7-person startup based in Edinburgh, Scotland that develops intelligent chatbots for business communication.

Converse.AI, founded in 2015 by Tony Lucas and Gihan Munasinghe, will continue operating as a wholly-owned Smartsheet subsidiary. Terms were not disclosed.

Smartsheet, meanwhile, will use the startup’s technology within its own work and project collaboration software. This past fall it rolled out a new suite of tools focused on automating repetitive work tasks; the acquisition of Converse.AI is intended to take that initiative to another level.

Smartsheet will soon allow users to integrate new natural language interactions and workflow automation experiences, and link them across third-party platforms like Slack, Workplace by Facebook, Salesforce, and more. Possible use cases include onboarding new customers; cross-departmental reporting; and qualifying leads. The idea is to make this process easy enough for non-technical users to implement with a drag-and-drop interface.

“Many of our customers are already using messaging platforms and other communication tools,” Gene Farrell, head of product at Smartsheet, told GeekWire in an interview this week. “We think those tools do an amazing job at helping teams communicate and stay in sync on what’s happening. But they aren’t great at managing the details of actually executing plans and driving work. We think having a way to more closely align Smartsheet with all the different platforms our customers work on is really powerful.”

Later on, Smartsheet envisions use cases involving voice technology like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, letting users query workflow information or get a project update, for example.

“I have a pretty strong belief that the next wave of user experiences are really going to be driven through natural language experiences, either through voice or intelligent chat,” Farrell said.

In September, Smartsheet released survey results of 1,000 information workers who were asked about automation in their day-to-day activities. The survey found that approximately 40 percent of workers spend significant chunks of time on mundane tasks, and 97 percent say automation innovations could make their organizations better.

Smartsheet is making a big bet on new technologies like AI, machine learning, and natural language processing that help workers be more efficient. Services like Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Assistant have hit the mainstream with consumer use cases inside the home — as we saw at CES last week — but now we’re starting to see how businesses can benefit from the innovation.

Farrell, a former Amazon Web Services executive, said he frequently uses an Amazon Echo at home to ask about the weather or find information — “that’s precisely how a lot of folks interact with Smartsheet,” he noted.

“Looking for data, recording an action that needs to happen, assigning tasks — it’s not that much different than adding something to your shopping list or ordering something in your personal life,” Farrell explained.

Founded in 2006, Smartsheet now runs a $100 million business that was recently valued at nearly $1 billion. With more than 70,000 customers and 760 employees, it has grown large enough to be in a position to acquire other companies; Converse.AI, which last year announced official collaborations with Facebook and Google, fit the bill, particularly given Smartsheet’s focus on automation.

“We view this as a long-term investment and commitment to building capabilities that we think can change people’s lives over the next few years,” Farrell said.

Editor’s note: Smartsheet is a GeekWire annual sponsor.

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