Igor Jablokov is used to people not quite “getting” what he’s working on. The Raleigh, NC-based entrepreneur and computer engineer was one of the first minds behind very early (we’re talking the ’90’s) artificial intelligence experiments that have led to some of the most well-known technologies today.
Jablokov began delving into AI while at IBM, leading a multimodal research team “working on early experiments that felt like baby versions of [IBM] Watson and [Amazon] Alexa, trying to figure out how to commercialize those things.” After about a decade, he wanted to accelerate the pace of his technology development, so he left the corporate world to found AI startup Yap.
The company began working on what Jablokov describes as a “baby version of Alexa on a flip phone,” — and they quickly began garnering attention for their never-before-seen voice technology. They were the first Southeastern company ever to exhibit at TechCrunch Disrupt, and landed dozens of enterprise customers fairly quickly.
In 2011, Yap became Amazon’s first AI-focused acquisition (though Jablokov notes that Google was also interested). Yap’s R&D team folded into the Amazon umbrella and formed the nucleus of what would become the Echo research team.
Though Jablokov was excited for his team and notes that Amazon quickly went from “nobody in our industry, to probably the most significant player,” he was ready for a break. He explored other pursuits, including becoming a Techstars Alexa Accelerator mentor and a Blackstone NC Entrepreneur-In-Residence.
But Jablokov — and his curiosity about the artificial brain — have returned to fill a gap he sees in enterprise adoption of AI. With a new startup, Pryon, he’s aiming to create a voice-based AI cloud platform for employees at large companies.
The inner workings of exactly how Pryon works is still under wraps while the startup conducts several pilots, but Jablakov gives some hints. First of all, he wants to be clear that this is a “friendly tool.” Unlike automated AI, which covers machines that do things like drive cars or replace manual data entry work, Jablokov says Pryon plays in the realm of “Augmented Intelligence.” It seeks to improve human function with machine intelligence, rather than replace it.
“We have a tongue in cheek saying, which is: augmented intelligence is going to take some tasks away from you, but don’t worry, your boss will find more work for you,” he says. The company says the tool can perform tasks like “superhuman” reading, processing and calculating or quickly tracking down information.
Next, Pryon is a B2B play, solely aimed at enterprises. Jablokov doesn’t want to compete with the Amazons, IBMs and Google’s of the world. “As far as what we’re doing, it’s not like they [current leading companies in the AI field] couldn’t achieve this accuracy and security. We’re just doing it in a completely novel and new way that I think is very appropriate for enterprise deployment,” Jablokov says.
Another thing that’s clear: Pryon will be a voice-based tool, similar to a Siri or Alexa. And the startup is focused on the software side of things, though Jablakov says they will “work with hardware companies as necessary.”
It would be easy to brand Pryon as the “Alexa for businesses,” or some other generalization, but that won’t cover the wide-ranging use of the tool, according to Jabloakov. He is aiming to build a business assistant to improve employee productivity, performance, and speed. “I think frankly speaking, this is going to touch every element of someone’s business life.”
Beyond the product hints, what else do we know about the company? Jablokov has assembled a team whose LinkedIn profiles read like the who’s who of AI. Beyond experience at Amazon, other members of the small group worked with Apple in the pre-Siri days and with the IBM Watson team.
“We’re definitely building a deck so we can grow as large as possible,” says Jablakov.
They’ve also landed initial funding, a robust seed round of $4.5 million that was announced this week from Greycroft Partners, Two Sigma Ventures, BootStrap Labs, Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, and Engage Ventures.
“The vast majority of AI startups are focused on the consumer market,” said Ian Sigalow, co-founder partner at Greycroft, in a statement. “With Pryon, we saw the opportunity to build something even greater for the enterprise. While this will require overcoming security, reliability, and availability challenges, we believe Pryon has a significant head start with its Augmented Intelligence platform.”
As mentioned, Pryon is currently engaged in or about to begin several enterprise pilots. Many of those conversations about use cases came out of Engage, the Atlanta-based venture fund and startup growth program that counts 11 major corporations and the state of Georgia as its partners. Pryon was part of Engage’s second round of investments earlier in 2018.
Though Pryon was still early in development during the three-month program, Jablokov spent a good deal of time talking to those corporate partners.
“To be able to go and work on product-market fit, not just with one major company, but all 11 [in the Engage program], in a very time- and space-efficient process, I cant even describe how valuable that was,” he says about why the company joined Engage at such an early stage. He tells Hypepotamus that the feedback he garnered was vital in developing the company.
“[Engage] meant getting feedback from a myriad of industries — one of them is a retailer, one is a financial services company, another a media company, fast food, logistics and transportation. What we’re building is cross-industry,” he says. Though he doesn’t disclose which companies are piloting Pryon, one of the main goals of the Engage program is to connect the corporate backers with portfolio startups to catalyze those proof-of-concepts.
Jablokov says they may be ready to publicly launch the technology in the first quarter of 2019, but for now, the team is focused on signing clients, implementing pilots and measuring results.