AI Startup Sentient Raises $103.5 Million in Funding

Sentient Technologies LLC, an artificial-intelligence startup, raised $103.5 million as it develops data-analysis technology that will help companies use software to manage complex tasks like financial trading.

The Series C funding round was led by Access Industries Holdings Inc., with participation from a subsidiary of Tata Communications Ltd., Horizons Ventures and private investors in the finance, consumer, food and beverage and real estate industries, Sentient said today in a statement.

The investment brings the seven-year-old company’s total funding to more than $143 million. Valuation wasn’t disclosed. Sentient has been pursuing partnerships to tailor its proprietary data-analysis and prediction technology for specific uses, Nigel Duffy, chief technology officer for artificial intelligence, said in an interview.

The San Francisco-based company has already made automated financial-trading technology -- which is currently in development with an undisclosed partner, Duffy said -- and worked with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to make tools for analyzing and predicting the likelihood of intensive care unit patients developing sepsis, for example. It plans to team up with India’s Tata Communications to develop customized technologies, such as security products for the company’s large Internet network, Duffy said.

Renewed Interest

Sentient, which has 60 employees, is benefiting from renewed interest in artificial intelligence, technology that has been in development since the 1960s yet has been prone to booms and busts as investors become optimistic about its possibilities, then cynical when companies fail to achieve their goals.

AI has re-emerged in the past decade as consumer Web companies such as Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. collected so much data that they needed to develop new systems to analyze it. The companies turned to various artificial-intelligence research endeavors conducted by academics and applied their findings to modern problems. That approach worked, and has led companies and investors to flock back to the industry.

Google, robot maker ABB Ltd. and Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg are among those investing in or purchasing artificial-intelligence startups or technology in recent years.

Sentient’s software works by running multiple “evolutionary algorithms” over a pile of data at once, then using its own technology to grab all the answers and come up with an optimal solution, Duffy said. It’s like taking the best bits of evolution and combining them, so instead of getting a few animals specialized at specific tasks you end up with one animal that is great all around, he said. This means that its technology is more flexible than typical artificial-intelligence approaches that utilize machine learning, he said.

“Evolutionary algorithms can work with much less formal descriptions of the problem,” he said.

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