The emergence of the Siri personal voice assistant on Apple’s iPhone has brought a rush of interest to the area of speech recognition and natural language technology, and one beneficiary of that has been Ginger Software, a developer of speech technology that is today announcing a round of $5.4 million, $5 million of which will come from from two big-name backers, Li Ka-shing’s Horizon Ventures and Harbor Pacific Capital. The funding comes less than six months after Ginger announced a round of $6.3 million. Total backing for the company now stands at close to $21 million.
Netanel Jacobsson, CEO of Ginger, tells TechCrunch that the funding being announced today is an extension of that earlier Series D round and will be used to develop more products using the company’s natural language processing platform. As part of the deal, Frank Meehan from Horizons becomes a board member. The remaining $400,000 comes from current investors, says Ginger.
The company, founded in 2007, has built up some well-known services such as its real-time Proofreading grammar and spelling checker, a text-to-speech service and English-as-a-second-language products. These remain the core of its business today. (The company has an “embarrassments avoided” query counter, currently at around 922 million.)
But it is the future of where that technology might go that is potentially most interesting: the existing products work on an intelligent platform that understands crazy accents and nuances in meaning (yes, we’re looking at you, Nuance), with consideration given to things like local idioms and metaphors, “helping you to communicate like a native speaker,” the company says.
It is this technology that Ginger is now implementing in a “number of products” that go beyond the existing ones that Ginger has created and productized today. Jacobsson declined to give a timeline for when these will be hitting the market. But he did confirm that the mobile implementations of existing products like the proofreading one will be coming to mobile “by the end of this year.”
“Currently we only have desktop and browser extensions but there is no question that mobile is where everything is going and we are working on a number or mobile products to address this opportunity,” he told TechCrunch.
The recent round of funding, it seems, was initiated by Jacobsson, who joined at the time of the last round in February. He’d cut his teeth at AOL (owners of TechCrunch) and Facebook, helping the social network build its user base outside of the U.S., and it seems that this round of funding will be used in a strategic way to make bridges for Israel-based Ginger to move to markets further East.
“Ever since I first started to work with Horizon Ventures while still at Facebook back in 2007, I knew that I wanted to work together with them again,” he said in a statement. “Horizon’s unique passion for education and artificial intelligence coupled with a unique global network (especially in Asia) and a very strong ‘can do’ approach, was our main reason for choosing them as an investor.”
For its part, Horizon is carving out a position for itself as a VC willing to put its money onto some of the more cutting-edge areas in tech, using big-data tools to make machines more human-like.
One of Horizon’s more recent investments included a stake in Affectiva, which has developed a technology for reading people’s emotions automatically and parsing that into information that can be used to figure out all sorts of things, such as how content “reads” in different parts of the world, or whether an ad is having the effect that the brand wanted. (In that case, Meehan also joined the board, as he has done here.)
“The Ginger team has developed a very clever natural language processing platform that breaks the context barrier, can understand the probable meaning of a written sentence and interpret the most probable intent of the user,” he said in a statement. “This is not a simple task by any means, and their tech puts Ginger into a very select group of companies leading the intersection of artificial intelligence and learning. “