The world is awash with bots these days — applications the run either partly or entirely using natural language processing, machine learning, computer vision and other artificial intelligence technologies to help consumers ask and answer questions, buy things and get other stuff done. In the enterprise equivalent, a company that is building something akin to this for large companies and their back-office functions has raised a sizeable round of funding.
UiPath, a startup out of Romania that builds apps for businesses to automate repetitive functions like processing insurance claims, or going through employee onboarding, has raised $30 million in a Series A round of funding led by Accel. The company has been around since 2012 and until now had not announced any funding. This $30 million also includes a $1.6 million seed round it raised last year from Earlybird, Credo Ventures and Seedcamp.
The money will be used to add more sales staff and build out the product more to meet existing demand. “This investment will allow us to introduce the benefits of intelligent RPA [the abbreviation for robotic process automation] to even more businesses around the world and remain at the forefront of a rapidly-advancing industry,” said Daniel Dines, CEO and founder of UiPath.
In its relatively short time in the market, UiPath has tapped into a window of opportunity, as more companies that employ tens of thousands of employees are looking for ways to cut costs and also reorient staff in a more efficient way.
The darkest view of this is that the humans will all eventually get replaced, creating very big questions about where we are going as a society and economy. The more optimistic is that these companies are looking for ways to free up its workers from more mundane things to focus on tasks that require more human interaction and intelligence.
If the former is a question that we’ll inevitably have to ask ourselves in good time, right now it’s the latter that is driving business opportunities for UiPath, and interest from investors. (“At Accel, we believe in human-aided AI and our investments have been around that topic, very much a combination,” Accel partner Luciana Lixandru stressed to me.)
UiPath currently counts about 200 large enterprises among its customers, including Lufthansa, Generali, Telenor and Dong Energy, and more widely works with companies in a number of verticals: banking and financial services; insurance; manufacturing; utilities; healthcare and government. About 30 percent of its customers are in the US, with another 40 percent in Europe and 30 percent in Asia.
While business process automation is not a new area — IT companies have been building ways of speeding up paperwork and busywork since the start of what we could even call IT, and even before (let’s call the abacus the first example of business process automation) — we can look at what UiPath is doing as the next generation of how these sorts of services are being built. In short, they are bringing more and more “human” features into the equation.
“In the area of finance, for example, a lot of teams spend time creating reports but don’t require them using as much of their judgment skills, leaving the human employees with little time for the analysing part of their jobs,” noted Lixandru. “A software robot that understands what is happening on the screen using computer vision and performs the task as a human would do it becomes a useful tool.”
“We are making work more inspiring and effective for the people that drive our businesses and economies forward, and the potential that remains untapped for organisations is what makes this such an exciting market to work in,” added Dines.
UiPath provides a platform that brings in various AI tools — ranging from computer vision and machine learning through to natural language processing — that businesses can use to start and develop full-blown software bots.
Things like processing insurance claims usually require more than just basic facts, and that is a good example of the kind of task that is increasingly now getting treated as yet another form that can be processed more automatically. These are usually customised to the task at hand, so unsurprisingly, UiPath also has a large network of partners, some 150 companies that help sell and implement its services. They include integrators like Accenture, Deloitte and Capgemini.
Most of these are for internal processes rather than external, customer-facing tasks, although that is obviously an area that UiPath potentially can develop.
While this is all still an emerging area, there is already competition. They include Automation Anywhere from the US, which appears to have never disclosed any funding but has been around since 2003; among a host of others that cover aspects of the same challenge.
To me, there are a lot of opportunities here if you think that the automation trend is an inevitable one. In addition to the host of companies that are out in the market building solutions like UiPath’s, there are also companies like Amazon that are already using processes like this internally and have been increasingly looking for ways of productizing their own internal tools via their AWS business. That spells competition, but also potentially acquisitions, for the likes of UiPath.