PolyAI secures near $500mn valuation in boost to UK’s AI ambitions

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London-based PolyAI has secured a valuation of close to $500mn from new investors including chipmaking giant Nvidia, in the latest successful fundraise by an artificial intelligence start-up based in the UK.

The company, which produces AI voice assistants for call centres, said it has closed a new $50mn funding round led by Hedosophia, a group run by investor Ian Osborne, and NVentures, the venture capital arm of Silicon Valley heavyweight Nvidia.

There was also participation from existing investors in PolyAI, including Khosla Ventures, an early backer of OpenAI, and Steve Cohen’s Point72 Ventures.

This investment is another boost for the UK’s ambitions of becoming a global hub for AI research and development, having so far failed to grow and retain many of its most promising companies in the sector. Last week, UK self-driving car start-up Wayve raised $1bn from investors including Japan’s SoftBank, marking Europe’s largest AI deal to date.

PolyAI chief executive and co-founder Nikola Mrkšić, who previously worked on Apple’s Siri voice assistant, said the company’s technology will address call centre worker shortages with customer support AI assistants that are able to conversationally guide customers through complex inquiries.

“We want to make people fall in love with voice assistants because [calling] is still the main way people interact with businesses”, said Mrkšić. “It’s been very sticky and has stayed past a digital transformation elsewhere.” 

Mrkšić founded PolyAI in 2017 with Tsung-Hsien Wen and Pei-Hao Su, who he met at Cambridge university’s Dialogue Systems Group, part of the institution’s Machine Intelligence Lab.

The start-up uses its own proprietary large language model as well as technology from ChatGPT maker OpenAI. The company said it worked with linguists to build voice assistants that reflect human speech patterns, such as by lengthening vowels when checking a reservation.

PolyAI made more than $10mn in revenue in 2023 and is on track to triple that figure this year, according to a person familiar with the company’s finances.

It typically charges clients per minute of calling time and has worked with businesses ranging from casino groups to utility companies, logistics firms, and banks, according to Mrkšić.

One of the company’s biggest challenges for growth will be overcoming consumers’ anger over previous attempts to bring automation to customer support. “People are still not in love with these things,” said Mrkšić.

A report from the UK’s Institute of Customer Service in January found that customer satisfaction levels had fallen to their lowest since 2015 — in part due to complaints about automated chatbots.

Other start-ups competing in the sector include German company Parloa, which said in April it had raised $66mn to expand its own conversational customer service platform, and San Francisco-based Rasa Technologies, which raised an additional $30mn in February to further develop its software for building text and voice-based AI assistants.


Business Asia
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