After making a name for itself detecting anomalies at self-service supermarket registers, Melbourne-based computer vision and automation startup Black.ai will strengthen its market diversification, insights and team thanks to a $5.4 million seed-plus round led by Jelix Ventures.
Founded in 2016, Black.ai’s camera-agnostic software enables users to better understand their physical environments and the complex interactions that happen within them, supported by privacy-first modelling algorithms that create useful datasets with non-identifying information.
A logical place to start was in grocery to make sure retail customers weren't underpaying for their organic avocados or premium apples, while also helping supermarkets with behavioural analytics and shelf replenishment. But Black.ai's expertise expanded to healthcare and mining, for example in monitoring the vital signs of patients or tracking staff and heavy machinery in highly safety-conscious industrial operations.
The latest raise, also including backing from Right Click Capital and several angel investors, takes the group's total funding to $8.55 million and will allow Black.ai to double its local headcount, further build its insights-driven infrastructure, and expand its international footprint including in the USA where the startup supports the innovation hub of a leading global retailer.
Sydney-based Jelix has had an active year in 2022 with investments including Veridooh, Truescope and Floodmapp. According to the venture capital firm's Andrea Gardiner, Black.ai is tapping into a space that to date has only been successfully explored by in-house operators like Amazon Go.
"Black.ai is democratising automation in a way that hasn’t been seen before. It is also addressing an increasingly imperative but difficult technology problem to overcome, the variables of human behaviour," Gardiner explains.
"Software is progressively automating the world. From safety, to scalability and reliability, nothing is off limits.
"Black.ai’s technology is the key infrastructure to support the rapidly growing global demand for smarter environments that react to real-time events. Their software is bridging a need that will fuel future innovations for generations to come."
Gardiner adds that in addition to the Black.ai leadership team’s incredible smarts and deep tech expertise, CEO Keaton Okkonen, CTO Sebastien Collier, director of research Karthik Rajgopal and operations lead Phoebe Collier have an unrivalled respect for the ethical and privacy considerations of the space they are in.
"This can be seen across the business — through the ways in which they operate to how they consider customer challenges," Gardiner says.
"They are actively questioning and challenging their thinking, to ensure their software improves and respects the lives of everyone it touches. This flows through to the businesses who use their tech, which is inspiring to witness. We’re thrilled to be part of the journey."
Okkonen retierates Gardiner's comments, saying that at its core Black.ai is seeking to make everyday behaviours accessible to software so that automation can be leveraged to the benefit of humankind.
"We set out to create a product that gives users a quick and comprehensive understanding of their environmental needs and challenges, without relying on privacy invasive technologies like facial recognition," says Okkonen, who co-founded the company with Sebastian Collier and Karthik Rajgopal. Phoebe Collier was an integral part of the founding leadership team.
"This has since evolved to the business of understanding human behaviour so that organisations can better streamline their operations to the benefit of their people; be it customers, staff, or those in their care and communities."
Okkonen says the team sees automation as the most powerful tool that humans have access to.
"But there is a huge technological gap blocking us from relying on it in dynamic physical environments; especially where the processes we want to automate are unpredictable," he says.
"We also believe that there is a deep responsibility in the curation of software that leverages AI, hence why we are working with an array of industry and consumer experts as we build our business.
"We hold both ourselves and our customers to extremely high standards. Our goal is to always exceed community expectations, especially around privacy, in what is a continuously evolving space."
Right Click Capital advisor and operating principal Ulric Ferner says the "hustle and creativity" of the Black.ai team is absolutely world-class and they’re only just getting started.
"Unlike anyone else we’ve seen globally, black.ai has cracked the notorious ‘multi-camera’ problem, enabling their customers to understand and deploy incredible environmental insights at a massive scale," Ferner says.
"We are deeply thankful for the support of Jelix, Right Click and all those who’ve contributed to our growth to date," Okkonen adds.
"With their help, we’re building a business with global potential in a space that is only just starting to evolve. It’s important that Australia has a strong presence in the AI evolution, and we’re thrilled to be a part of the momentum."
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