by Paul Smith, Australian Financial Review
A Sydney-based start-up, which has created an artificial intelligence virtual data scientist to answer questions about information in corporate systems, has signed on financial services giants Westpac and IAG as customers and closed its first funding round.
Hyper Anna is best described as being like Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana virtual assistants, sat over the top of any company’s databases, meaning clients can ask plain English questions about their business’ performance.
It has closed its first external seed funding round of $1.25 million from Westpac’s venture capital arm, Reinventure and AirTree Ventures, which it will use to hire more data scientists and developers ahead of plans to expand to the US.
The company was originally founded at the start of 2015 by its chief executive Natalie Nguyen and chief technology officer Sam Zheng, two former employees at Quantium, the data analytics firm, which Woolworths bought a 50 per cent stake in 2013. The pair were later joined by former Suncorp actuarial analyst Kent Tian who is now its chief data scientist.
The business idea behind the product 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.
How it works
Hyper Anna is designed to automate much of the work conducted in analysing data, and can be used by workers in non-analytical roles, such as marketing or sales.
Staff send a question, for example about sales performance, to firstname.lastname@example.org and get a useful answer back in real time. This includes the system doing the technical work of writing code and analysing data before producing charts and insights in plain English.
Insurance firm IAG is working with a beta version of Hyper Anna on top of one of its data sources, and a project is also underway at Westpac Banking Corporation.
“Even ASX 200 companies are struggling at the moment because of the appetite for data scientists, people can’t hire them fast enough,” Ms Nguyen said.
“And hiring big teams to do all of the basic work is not scalable, this means businesses hire teams of really smart data scientists to do better, more insightful work, rather than day to day tasks.”
The Hyper Anna product is still in beta mode, and will be released as a fully-fledged offering in early 2017. It is intended that people will be able to interact with it by talking to the system, sending an email or texting a question 24 hours a day, with the promise of getting an answer back in three seconds.
It will cost around $99 per user per month, in comparison to a current average annual salary of $150,000 for a human data scientist.
Hyper Anna is hosted on Microsoft’s Azure cloud, which Ms Nguyen said was important for setting up the service quickly, and allowing it to operate effectively.
“The brain of Anna constantly needs to reap feeds of data so it gets smarter – so having a central place for the brain to sit is extremely important and also helps with deployment time compared to an on premise solution. We deploy literally within a day,” she said.
Ms Nguyen said the company received its first external funding offer last April after it won a Friday night pitching competition organised by Sydney start-up co-working space Fishburners.
However, she turned the funding down, believing it was too early to seek funding without the validation of paying customers.
In July she went to Silicon Valley to try and learn more about the start-up ecosystem she found herself in, and also secured meetings in Seattle with teams at Microsoft that were doing work on bots, business intelligence, engineering and cloud computing.
It was these meetings that led the company to lean towards hosting its systems in Azure, rather than rival cloud services like Amazon Web Services, which also aggressively market services to emerging start-ups.
“We found the Azure team shared the same passion and spirit as us for data science, which we thought was really rare for a big organisation like Microsoft, and was why we picked them,” Ms Nguyen said.
“All the big cloud computing players are very friendly with start-ups, but for us it was really the long-term vision and assessing which of the providers actually wanted to go with the data science angle, instead of just pure engineering.”
High demand likely
However, with plans to expand, Hyper Anna commenced its first funding round in late August, which it has now closed.
“It was certainly stressful to balance both running a growing business and still have to find time to work with investors’ enquiries,” Ms Nguyen said.
“But we are passionate about what we are doing so we just pulled through that as best as we could.”
Reinventure managing director Danny Gilligan said he believed the Hyper Anna team has built a product that would offer great productivity gains and be popular with a large, under-served market of corporate employees and small businesses.
“One of the cool things about Hyper Anna is it demonstrates the growing maturity of the data value chain, where two clever ex-Quantium data scientists can build a new company to serve specific problems better than anyone else,” he said.
Airtree partner John Henderson said his company was investing because demand for Hyper Anna would be high from businesses, and the leadership team were impressive.
“We are delighted to be partnering with Nat, Sam and the Hyper Anna team. They are an exceptional group, with deep technical smarts solving meaningful problems,” he said.
“Businesses are yearning for easy-to-use data analytics and visualisation tools. Anna is delivering them already, and will only get smarter over time.”
Read more here