Wit.ai Raises $3M Seed Round Led By Andreessen Horowitz, Eyes Opportunity In Korea

As reported by TechCrunch, natural language platform wit.ai has announced a $3M seed round led by Andreessen Horowitz in a deal that has emerged shortly after the team graduated from Y Combinator.

The company is tackling a need for smart speech recognition and natural language processing services, which are becomming a thriving industry thanks in part to the boom in IoT technologies. Wit.ai offers developers an API for building natural language interfaces. For startups that currently develop their own language services in-house, wit.ai offers an intelligent tool that can be integrated with their own technology, making language conversion easier, cheaper and faster.

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Founder Alex Lebrun has taken a very different approach to the development of wit.ai than his competitors, as wit.ai aims to be an “open, distributed, community-based network of developers”. This means developers who use the service can opt in to share their data with everybody on the platform. The service already powers hundreds of apps, wearables and home automation systems and has been adopted by over 4,500 developers.

I spoke with Lebrun, who has spent  a lot of time in Seoul, about his plans for expansion to Asia. He also shared insight from working in the Korean startup environment, that expain why local teams often struggle to make the jump to 'global'. He aims to support their transition to glboal businesses, through wit.ai, and he explained how.

Question: Based on your time working in Korea, why do you feel that Korean startups struggle so much when trying to build a global brand?

Lebrun: "Korean and French startups suffer from the same issue: their local market is actually big enough to sustain their development for a few years. So many of them are building products that are very focused on their home market. When these startups start to seriously look at the global market (especially the US), it might be too late: the product is mature and harder to modify (many customers use it, technical legacy, etc.), and the team is, is some cases, harder to move (the founder started a family, etc.). Israel, for instance, has such a small local market that they have to think global from day one, so they don't suffer from this."
Question: How can Korean startups work early on, to avoid becomming 'stuck' in their home market?
Lebrun: "I believe that it is key to establish strong relationships with foreign partners, customers and users from day one. Founders should travel abroad at least twice per quarter, and must stay open to what's happening outside their home market. It is possible to leverage your local market with short term product wins AND have a global vision that you execute."

Question: Where does your interest in Korea stem from? And whaat are your plans for Korean market entry?

Lebrun: "Korea is a super exciting market for Wit.ai for many reasons. Firstly, Korean users are always one step ahead when it comes to new paradigms. Examples of this are the development of the blogging industry and the adoption of IM technology that doesn't yet exist elsewhere in the world., Secondly, I have a belief that Korea will lead the robotics revolution in years to come. Of course Samsung, LG are of great interest to us.
In terms of market entry, we plan to release wit.ai optimised for Korea by Q1'15 and aim to work with local partners to support and grow Wit.ai usage in Korea."

Question: What benefits can Korean developers expect from wit.ai?

Lebrun: "Large companies like Samsung can afford to either buy or build their own speech and IM interfaces (S-Voice for instance). Smaller startup companies however cannot afford this. Wit.ai will enable developers in startups to get a Siri-like interface in a few hours at no upfront cost. We think this a very important for the next generation of wearable devices, smart homes and connected car."
For a full tutorial of the wit.ai service click here.
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