India call centre start-up Uniphore Software raises US$51 million

BANGALORE: An Indian start-up that aims to use artificial intelligence to deliver faster and more personalised customer support for corporate clients is raising US$51 million in funding from investors including March Capital Partners and Chiratae Ventures.

Uniphore Software Systems Pvt, based in Chennai and Palo Alto, California, plans to use the emerging technology to change the labour-intensive business of call centres, displacing workers with machines.

Former Cisco Systems Inc Chief Executive Officer John Chambers’ JC2 Ventures owns about 10% of the startup.

Existing backers also include Analog Devices Inc founder Ray Stata and Infosys Ltd billionaire co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan.

Umesh Sachdev, 33, founded the company in 2008 with his engineering classmate Ravi Saraogi.

They are competing with technology giants like Google, Microsoft Corp and International Business Machines Corp as well as at least a dozen AI startups to automate the US$350 billion call centre industry, helping agents deliver more useful support while decreasing the number of infuriating and ineffectual experiences.

“This is one of the largest rounds in an area of deep tech already seeing a lot of investor activity,” CEO Sachdev said in a telephone interview.

“It represents the coming of age of conversational AI.”

He declined to reveal the start-up’s valuation, but said it is “one step away from turning into a unicorn,” the tech industry’s term for a value of US$1 billion or more.

Voice bots and automated messaging systems are already changing the world of call centres, and experts reckon the majority of human workers will be driven to obsolescence by artificial intelligence.

By 2021, about 70% of organisations will integrate AI to assist employee productivity, researcher Gartner Inc forecast earlier this year.

Using messaging apps, chatbots and speech-based assistants, so-called conversational artificial intelligence automates communication and delivers personalised experiences.

“Virtual agents are gaining ubiquity via smartphones and messaging platforms to support customer care, marketing and employee efficiency,” said Dan Miller, the lead analyst with Saint Paul, Minnesota-based Opus Research.

Sachdev estimates that the US alone has 3.9 million call centre workers and those numbers will steadily diminish as companies adopt new technologies.

“Humans will shift from taking mundane calls to enhancing knowledge and teaching AI what is the good answer and how to resolve issues,” he said.

Uniphore will use the funds to hire talent, invest in research and development and accelerate expansion, particularly in its primary market in North America.

The startup plans to increase its engineering and development operations to 200 employees in India by the year end, while another 60 will be based in the US and 40 in Europe and Asia Pacific.

Its customers include BNP Paribas SA, Genpact Ltd, NTT Data Corp, and PNB MetLife.

“Indian entrepreneurs are going from slow-followers to fast-innovators,” said Chambers in an interview earlier this year, explaining why he’s backing Uniphore.

“I see a young breed of founders who are hungry for a piece of the future.”