Michigan Startup Gets Customer Traction for Conversational AI Research

Clinc sees ongoing interest for its voice AI that emerged in the wake of Alexa.
by Scott Martin

In the wake of Amazon’s boffo Alexa voice debut, a University of Michigan team published pioneering research on building conversational AI, attracting a wave of customer interest.

Jason Mars, a professor advising them, suggested they form a startup. And with that, Ann Arbor, Michigan-based conversational AI startup Clinc was born.

Clinc’s conversational AI platform enables customers to build voice applications — like in-car voice features, fast-food restaurant order services or personal banking assistants.   

“What really tipped the scales to start something even bigger was that the industry was reaching out saying we want to commercialize it,” said Johann Hauswald, chief product officer and co-founder at Clinc, who recounted the company’s start five years ago.

Fast forward to today, and that’s turned into a big opportunity: Clinc has attracted a flood of customers and revenue.

The startup’s financial customers include Barclays, US Bank, S&P Global, and Turkey’s Ishbank, which taps Clinc to offer a personal finance assistant, dubbed Maxi, to 6 million users.

Large financial institutions are well-aware of Clinc, which has been “dominating the space,” said Mars, Clinc’s CEO, speaking on stage last year at TechCrunch Disrupt.

The company’s roster of customers doesn’t stop at finance. Clinc’s AI platform — built to handle voice assistants for any stage startup to a Fortune 500 company — can provide services for call centers, drive-thru restaurants, in-car systems, gaming and healthcare applications.

Breakthrough performance from NVIDIA’s AI platform has helped enable Clinc to push the boundaries on conversational AI to “deliver revolutionary services,” according to Mars.

Conversational AI Boom

To be sure, Clinc’s application-focused research stands out. It’s a mix of academic AI and how-to information for solving specific industry problems, which has attracted interest from some of the customers it’s landed to date.

Clinc raised a $52 million Series B round of funding earlier this year to help scale up to meet its customer demand.

Research firm Gartner forecasts that 15 percent of all customer service interactions will be handled by AI in 2021, a 400 percent jump from 2017.

Clinc: Talking Model Research

Academic discoveries are common launch pads for startups. But Clinc’s team at the University of Michigan built working models and provided the details for companies to develop their own voice models as well as spelled out the data center requirements to deliver the compute resources.

Clinc offers research, outlined in a published paper, on its Sirius voice personal assistant and an in-car assistant that it worked on with Ford aimed at applications for automakers.

Today it offers conversational AI in 80 languages and has production deployments on three continents.

Hardware to the Core

The Clinc team several years ago ran a cost-benefit analysis, finding that NVIDIA GPUs were the right choice for accelerated computing in the data center.

“GPUs were a big story in our research lab at the university,” said Hauswald.

Often times, complex applications require a multitude of complicated algorithms and optimizations to create the best performance possible, which is also the most compute intensive, he said.

“We want to be able to train our models in a way that doesn’t take days to train or then our customers are unable to iterate on the quality of them,” said Hauswald.