VC giant Sequoia China backs AI data scientist start-up Hyper Anna in $16m round
Highly-rated two-year old Australian start-up Hyper Anna has attracted investment from one of the biggest names in technology venture capital, with Sequoia China leading a $16 million round aimed at fuelling international expansion.
The start-up is in the centre of two of the technology industry’s hottest areas, artificial intelligence and fintech, and has already signed on clients including Westpac and IAG for its virtual data scientist, which is best described as being like Apple’s Siri for company systems.
The Series A funding round follows on from a $1.25 million seed round from Westpac’s venture capital arm, Reinventure and AirTree Ventures, which it closed late last year.
Both Reinventure and AirTree have increased their investments in the fresh round, and have been joined by IAG’s investment arm IAG Ventures.
Hyper Anna co-founder and chief executive Natalie Nguyen told The Australian Financial Review that the round, one of the largest in Australian tech start-ups this year, had been closed quickly and had come about after Sequoia approached the company looking to invest.
She said the money would be used to hire people needed to enable imminent expansion plans in Asia, and longer term moves into the US. Hyper Anna will open an office in Hong Kong in September and also has intentions to start working with clients in Singapore and China.
“We are now serving some of the largest enterprises in the financial services industry, and we want to take the model overseas,” Ms Nguyen said.
“It is a bit too early for us to make a prediction of whether China or US is going to go first, we have just secured our first proof of concept with a very large bank in Hong Kong, so that is really going to help us understand how our expansion is going to work, and help us understand more about the Asian market.”
The concept behind Hyper Anna is that organisations of all sizes are trying to hire data scientists to derive strategic insights into the vast amounts of data they create. These skills are expensive to hire and in too scarce supply to meet the demand, so an AI data scientist who can work around the clock is an appealing pitch.
Ms Nguyen founded the company at the start of 2015 with its chief technology officer Sam Zheng. Both were former employees at Quantium, the data analytics firm that Woolworths bought a 50 per cent stake in 2013.
Like Siri or increasing familiar digital assistants like Microsoft’s Cortana or Google Assistant, Hyper Anna’s AI agent “Anna” interacts through natural language, meaning it can be used by workers who would previously have been stumped by analytics software.
“Machines have historically struggled with understanding true intention in conversation. These nuances, which humans describe as ‘reading between the lines’, are incredibly important in a business context,” Ms Nguyen said.
“Anna allows you to communicate as if you were speaking to a colleague. Rather than taking what you say in isolation, it understands it in the context upon which you operate. It doesn’t just provide data analytics, but situational insight.”
Focus on financial services
Despite the relevance of data science to many industry sectors, Ms Nguyen said the company would continue to focus only on financial services clients for the time being. She said the company had signed on big names in the local financial services sector in addition to Westpac and IAG, but was not able to name them due to client confidentiality.
She said its work at both Westpac and IAG was being well received and both clients had increased the usage and number of licenses by close to tenfold since the close of its seed funding round.
As part of the funding round Sequoia Capital China partner Steven Ji will take a seat on the company board.
“Steven has a wealth of experience in running much larger scale start-ups from having been on their boards,” Ms Nguyen said.
“Sequoia China is obviously one of the biggest funds in the world and will be a lot of help in us getting into the Asian market.”
Co-founder and partner at Australia’s largest tech fund, AirTree Ventures, Daniel Petre said Hyper Anna’s early performance had been exceptional and his fund had high hopes for its future expansion.
“Hyper Anna has shown growth into large-scale enterprise clients at a rate I have never seen before,” Mr Petre said.
“Natalie and Sam have created an amazing product set that is already global best in class and they have significant potential for massive growth and we are excited to be foundation investors.”