SoundHound has raised a big $100M round to take on Alexa and Google Assistant

As SoundHound looks to leverage its ten-plus years of experience and data to create a voice recognition tool that companies can bake into any platform, it’s raising another big $100 million round of funding to try to make its Houndify platform a third neutral option compared to Alexa and Google Assistant.

While Amazon works to get developers to adopt Alexa, SoundHound has been collecting data since it started as an early mobile app for the iPhone and Android devices. That’s given it more than a decade of data to work with as it tries to build a robust audio recognition engine and tie it into a system with dozens of different queries and options that it can tie to those sounds. The result was always a better SoundHound app, but it’s increasingly started to try to open up that technology to developers and show it’s more powerful (and accurate) than the rest of the voice assistants on the market — and get them to use it in their services.

“We launched [Houndify] before Google and Amazon,” CEO Keyvan Mohajer said. “Obviously, good ideas get copied, and Google and Amazon have copied us. Amazon has the Alexa fund to invest in smaller companies and bribe them to adopt the Alexa Platform. Our reaction to that was, we can’t give $100 million away, so we came up with a strategy which was the reverse. Instead of us investing in smaller companies, let’s go after big successful companies that will invest in us to accelerate Houndify. We think it’s a good strategy. Amazon would be betting on companies that are not yet successful, we would bet on companies that are already successful.”

This round is all coming in from strategic investors. Part of the reason is that taking on these strategic investments allows SoundHound to capture important partnerships that it can leverage to get wider adoption for its technology. The companies investing, too, have a stake in SoundHound’s success and will want to get it wherever possible. The strategic investors include Tencent Holdings Limited, Daimler AG, Hyundai Motor Company, Midea Group, and Orange S.A. SoundHound already has a number of strategic investors that include Samsung, NVIDIA, KT Corporation, HTC, Naver, LINE, Nomura, Sompo, and Recruit. It’s a ridiculously long list, but again, the company is trying to get that technology baked in wherever it can.

So it’s pretty easy to see what SoundHound is going to get out of this: access to China through partners, deeper integration into cars, as well as increased expansion to other avenues through all of its investors. Mohajer said the company could try to get into China on its own (or ignore it altogether), but there has been a very limited number of companies that have had any success there whatsoever. Google and Facebook, two of the largest technology companies in the world, are not on that list of successes.

“China is a very important market, it’s very big and has a lot of potential, and it’s growing,” Mohajer said. “You can go to Canada without having to rethink a big strategy, but China is so different. We saw even companies like Google and Facebook tried to do that and didn’t succeed. When those bigger companies didn’t succeed, it was a signal to us that strategy wouldn’t work. [Tencent] was looking at the space and they saw we have the best technology in the world. They appreciated it and were respectful, they helped us get there. We looked at so many partners and [Tencent and Midea Group] were the ones that worked out.”

The idea here is that developers in all sorts of different markets — whether that’s cars or apps — will want to have some element of voice interaction. SoundHound is betting that companies like Daimler will want to control the experience in their cars, and not be saying “Alexa” whenever they want to make a request while driving. Instead, it may come down to something as simple as a wake word that could change the entire user experience, and that’s why SoundHound is pitching Houndify as a flexible and customizable option that isn’t demanding a brand on top of it.

SoundHound still does have its stable of apps. The original SoundHound app is around, though those features are also baked into Hound, its main consumer app. That is more of a personal assistant-style voice recognition service where you can string together a sentence of as many as a dozen parameters and get a decent search result back. It’s more of a party trick than anything else, but it is a good demonstration of the technical capabilities SoundHound has as it looks to embed that software into lots of different pieces of hardware and software.

SoundHound may have raised a big round with a fresh set of strategic partners, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s a surefire bet. Amazon is, after all, one of the most valuable companies in the world and Alexa has proven to be a very popular platform, even if it’s mostly for nominal requests and listening to music (and party tricks) at this point. SoundHound is going to have to convince companies — small and large — to bake in its tools, rather than go with massive competitors like Amazon with pockets deep enough to buy a whole grocery chain.

“We think every company is going to need to have a strategy in voice AI, jus like ten years ago everyone needed a mobile strategy,” Mohajer said. “Everyone should think about it. There aren’t many providers, mainly because it takes a long time to build the core technology. It took us 12 years. To Houndify everything we need to be global, we need to support all the main languages and regions in the world. We built the technology to be language independent, but there’s a lot of resources and execution involved.”

Homecare services startup Cera announces $17M Series A

Startup life is nothing if not full of ups and downs. On the up this week is Cera, the London-based homecare startup advised by former Deputy Prime Minister Sir Nick Clegg, which today is announcing $17 million in Series A funding. Investing in the round is Guinness Asset Management (via its EIS fund), Yabeo (which is also the lead investor in Germany’s biggest care supply company Pflegebox), and Kairos. In addition, a number of Cera’s seed backers have followed on.

Contrast that with last week when a Bloomberg report alleged that fake reviews of Cera had been posted to third-party websites, such as TrustPilot — allegedly written by “Cera Care employees or people close to them” — and that at the time of its report some non-existent or expired NHS partnerships were incorrectly listed on Cera’s website.

The same report also revealed that Cera — which makes a virtue of its ability to collect and take actions on client data — wasn’t registered with the U.K. data regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), before February this year, although the company tells TechCrunch it began the process a year earlier. Either way, the startup launched as early as November 2016 and therefore was likely operating for a period without the proper data regulation.

Addressing the alleged fake reviews, and alleged misrepresentation of some NHS partnerships, Cera issued TechCrunch with the following statement:

“We have looked into this, and TrustPilot have removed unverified reviews. We pride ourselves on delivering outstanding, high-quality care, which is demonstrated through our platform’s automated customer feedback, which remains at a 95% satisfaction rate.

“Contrary to certain statements in recent press articles, we have partnered with several NHS organisations over the past year, successfully delivering NHS-funded and referred care services. In 2018 we have delivered NHS CCG funded care with the following CCGs: Lambeth, Tower Hamlets, Haringey, Enfield, and previously had partnered with CCGs including Brent, Harrow and Hillingdon, and East London Foundation Trust, in addition to marketing in NHS hospitals including: Central Middlesex, West Middlesex, Northwick Park, Royal Marsden, Whittington and Barnet & Chase Farm. We note that at the time the articles were written, our website was not fully up to date with these materials and have since rectified it – this was in part due to variable contractual expiry dates”.

Meanwhile, Cera says it will use its Series A funding — which is made up of both equity and debt — to expand its services further across the U.K., launching in an additional three cities beyond London, namely Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, via what it is calling a “buy and build” strategy. This will see Cera buy struggling homecare agencies across the U.K. — many of which it says lack the technology to scale and grow independently — as a more rapid means of expanding.

“In a fragmented market of over 8,000 homecare providers, Cera has built the technology to quickly aggregate U.K. homecare businesses in a scalable manner, in what will be a U.K.-first from a startup in this space. This model will also be used to drive Cera’s expansion to Germany,” says the company.

The injection of capital will also support Cera’s continued investment in “AI”. It has been prototyping a chatbot-styled assistant it calls “Martha,” which it claims can successfully foresee deterioration in patient health, based on carer feedback, such as whether a patient hasn’t been eating, has a fever, or isn’t walking normally. The aim is to pre-empt more serious illnesses and avoid unnecessary admissions to hospital.

Related to this, I understand from Cera’s latest investor email report that Cera has grown its data set to “over 1 million data points” — a 90 percent quarter-on-quarter increase — which it intends to feed into its machine learning-powered predictive analytics tool to help improve health outcomes and reduce preventable hospital admissions. “We are taking active steps to ensure GDPR compliance,” says the company, which is just as well.

The same email details a number of business development updates by Cera, including that it is working on a collaboration with NHS 111 that — if it goes ahead — would permit integration of data records between Cera and the NHS 111 service. The startup is also working on Amazon Alexa integration, and has formed an exclusive partnership with the Daily Mail Group, to offer home care to Daily Mail readers and users.

To that end, the U.K. homecare startup space is pretty crowded already and therefore media partnerships and other more direct ways to market could be quite important beyond simply becoming a partner provider to local health and social care authorities. Cera’s direct U.K. competitors include HomeTouch (backed by Rocket Internet’s GFC, Passion Capital, Bupa, and 500 Startups), and SuperCarers.

Groupon acquires UK’s Cloud Savings Company, parent of Vouchercloud, for $65M

Daily deals and local commerce site Groupon has announced an acquisition to ramp up its operations in discount offers and specifically those tied to loyalty programs. The company has acquired Bristol, UK-based Cloud Savings Company, the owner of Vouchercloud and Giftcloud, in a deal that Groupon said has an enterprise value of $65 million.

The deal will give Groupon a boost in two areas: via Giftcloud, building out loyalty programs for brands and retailers who are already using the Groupon platform; and via Vouchercloud, tapping into an extensive network of discount codes — and people who hunt for and use these — to complement and amplify the direct offers that Groupon already offers on its platform today.

Vouchercloud is active in 11 countries and Groupon says its biggest market is the UK, where it has over 5 million subscribers and 12,000 top retailers and brands using its platform. The mobile app is also popular and has clocked up 10 million downloads globally.

Cloud Savings Company was already profitable.

“We’re pleased to add two great, profitable brands and very talented teams to the Groupon family,” said Groupon CEO Rich Williams in a statement. “In Vouchercloud, we’re acquiring one of the most innovative brands in the online discount codes space, which we believe will accelerate our own efforts — particularly in International — and broaden our marketplace for consumers. In Giftcloud, we see interesting long-term potential in creating attractive customer loyalty programs with some of the biggest names in retail, as well as with great local merchants.”

Groupon has been somewhat quiet on the acquisition front lately after a spate of purchases several years ago to help the company move deeper into commerce solutions and working more directly with local merchants, and then a subsequent contraction of the business that saw Groupon move out of some of these newer areas (for example selling off its point-of-sale business) close and sell a number of international operations, and lay off staff.

This acquisition is notable because it’s a turn away from that strategy, focusing instead on offers that can apply irrespective of your specific city location. (Groupon’s core service and daily offers remain banked around a specific city or other location.)

On the side of Cloud Savings Company, the business has been in a transition of its own: gift cards have mainly been designed as physical objects, resembling credit or other payment cards, but as retailers work on ways of both bringing down those costs and better tracking who is buying what, in order to capitalize better on that purchasing history, “cards” are becoming virtual cards in mobile wallets. That is something that Giftcloud is also developing, and plans to continue with Groupon (which has built out its service in part by way of a popular mobile app).

“We’re very excited for Vouchercloud and Giftcloud to join the Groupon family. We recognize the potential in combining our expertise in the coupon sector to enhance our offerings for consumers in the UK and beyond,” said Greg Le Tocq, co-founder and director of Cloud Savings Company, in a statement. “In joining together, we can create even more — and more effective — ways for customers to save and businesses to grow. We equally look forward to working with Groupon to grow the Giftcloud business, as we continue to be at the forefront of innovation while the gift card industry moves from plastic to digital.”

Groupon will be bringing on Cloud Savings’ 100 employees and keeping them based out of their current offices in Bristol. It said that it expects the deal to contribute $5 million to $6 million in Adjusted EBITDA in 2018.