Why did Salesforce Ventures invest in Will.i.am’s enterprise chatbot company?

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Creative Commons Photo: nicolas genin

The venture capital arm of the SaaS CRM giant Salesforce just participated in a major funding round for Will.i.am’s tech startup

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On the first day of Salesforce's Dreamforce conference this year the news broke that Salesforce Ventures had participated in a $89 million investment round in i.am+, the technology startup founded by celebrity Will.i.am, back in March this year.

The startup was founded by former pop star and Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am in 2013, primarily as a hardware company for designing headphones, cameras and wearables, before pivoting into AI voice assistants for enterprise customers with its Omega product as of late.

The startup has been heavily interested in voice interfaces since 2016, when it acquired Israeli machine learning company Sensiya for an undisclosed amount in May that year.

Speaking to Computerworld UK about the investment during Dreamforce, Matt Garratt, vice president at Salesforce's investing arm Salesforce Ventures explained: "We started investing in that a while ago when we announced our wearables initiative and they were doing a lot of interesting things with Salesforce and the initial wearable device.

"Now the company is doing some interesting things around how you engage with voice in both consumer and enterprise applications."

It's hard to imagine i.am+ successfully competing with the major AI assistants in the market already, which are all backed by technology heavyweights like Amazon (Alexa), Microsoft (Cortana), Google, and Apple (Siri).

But Garratt is unfazed: "They are competing with some big players, but what offsets some of that concern is that the pulse they have on the consumer markets and the user experience for consumer and how that bridges the enterprise is pretty interesting.

"There has been precedent set for companies that have gone up against big players, like Beats, that have been successful entering those markets."

The potential strategic value of this comes down to how i.am+ could integrate with the Salesforce platform. As Garratt put it: "They aren't built on the core [Salesforce] platform, it is more how they integrate with our applications and particularly Sales Cloud."

Will.i.am is a Dreamforce regular, having appeared on stage last year to implore inner city kids like himself to go into coding. He also appeared briefly on stage again this year to talk about his passion for technology.

In terms of that relationship between Will.i.am and Salesforce, Garratt said: "We as a company have great relationships with a number of the CEOs that are customers, so I think we want to have tight relationships with these companies and part of our goal when we make an investment is that you may know someone on the product team and we can elevate that to an executive level. We can also just provide tactical operating advice too."

Omega's headline customer is Deutsche Telekom AG, the parent company of T-Mobile, which has adopted the voice app as part of a customer support chatbot. T-Mobile is also a prominent Salesforce customer, having appeared on stage during the day one Dreamforce keynote.

Salesforce Ventures has invested in now-public companies like Box, Twilio and Mulesoft, and UK startups like Qubit and Onfido. It currently has five active funds, each with a specific focus: $50M Salesforce Impact Fund, $50M Salesforce AI Innovation Fund, $50M SI Trailblazer Fund, $100M Salesforce Platform Fund and a $100M EMEA Fund.

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