Editor’s note: This article is part of a multimedia series called “Tomorrow’s Unicorns: A look inside Raleigh’s $1B startup pipeline,” produced in conjunction with Innovate Raleigh. The series aims to spotlight some of the region’s homegrown startups tipped to hit the $1-billion valuation mark, thus becoming a so-called “unicorn” in the language of investors, in the near future.
RALEIGH – The robots have arrived.
Not the clunky Star Wars “droids” that we imagined in Hollywood films, but a more subtle kind. Think interactive digital assistants and chatbots supported by artificial intelligence (AI).
And they’re coming from one of Raleigh’s most promising startups.
Pryon, an AI startup led by veteran entrepreneur Igor Jablokov, already launched its first commercial product, a natural language processing (NLP) platform earlier this year. It helps companies “read, organize, and retrieve information,” so that their AI assistants and chatbots – the modern-day “robot” — can answer “millions of natural language questions” in seconds.
Now it’s getting ready to scale quickly.
Last week, Pryon confirmed that it had added another $12 million from 28 investors to its coffers as part of a Series B raise to fund its expansion. That brings its total raised to around $37 million since it launched in 2017.
Among its backers: the Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, a creation of AOL founder Steve Case’s Revolution, along with Breyer Capital and Greycroft, as well as Digital Alpha Advisors.
“Time is ripe for us,” Jablokov told WRAL TechWire during a recent sit-down interview at his home in Raleigh. “This year should be our first multi-million revenue year, and then everything is supposed to go like crazy.”
Back in 2011, he sold his company, Yap, to Amazon. Its technology is now incorporated into smart speakers Alexa and Echo. This time around, however, he has other plans.
“Entities are already approaching us to exit, but [I’m not interested],” he said. Instead, he and his team are focused squarely on building “an independent, category-leading company” in the knowledge management space.
Jablokov said the funds would go towards “accelerating product development, supporting immense scaling and building up our go-to-market functions” to address increasing customer demand.
For those not in the know, knowledge management, or KM, is the process of identifying, organizing, storing and disseminating information within an organization. It converts raw data into digestible information that everyone can access.
“Knowledge Management is the crown jewel of enterprise software,” Jablokov explained. “It’s what everybody will attempt to corner – Amazon, Microsoft, Salesforce. Nobody owns the knowledge management space, and we’re going to become the category leader.”
AI and knowledge management
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, KM’s global is projected to reach a revised size of $1.1 trillion by 2026, growing around 19.8% annually.
The reality is, Jablokov said, many enterprises lack an efficient way to process, share and use their treasure trove of data.
“We’re finding that companies like General Electric and Koch Industries constructed legacy knowledge platforms of their own, and they haven’t worked well. The reason why is because they are missing a critical piece of technology to help them reduce the distance between knowledge and people. That’s what AI can do, and that’s why it’s such a big opportunity for us.”
Using Pryon’s platform, he said, companies can now have AI assistants working side-by-side with employees, giving them “superhuman” powers by performing support tasks and processing the ever-multiplying reams of data that threatens productivity.
The benefits are many, including saving costs.
Juniper Research predicts interactive virtual assistants and chatbots will bring an $11 billion savings across banking, retail, and healthcare by 2023.
It’s also democratizing access to AI by making it “approachable,” Jablokov said. “There’s literally no glass ceiling for where this type of technology can go.”
Some, however, fear this is just the beginning of workers losing their jobs to AI and machines. Jablokov thinks otherwise. “It’s more an augmentation. The folks that are going to be disrupted are the ones who won’t know how to use AI in their workflows.”
Earlier this year, Pryon landed on private equity and venture capital firm CB Insights’ AI 100, a ranking of the most promising AI companies in the world selected from a “pool of over 6,000.” It’s the only company from North Carolina to appear on the list.
It also secured a major client with Atlanta-based consumer manufacturer Georgia-Pacific.
Jablokov believes it’s just the beginning. “We have more than two dozen enterprises in active trials. It’s growing at a fast clip. It’s some of the largest Fortune 500 companies that you can think of across a myriad of industries.”
Rex Health Ventures, a corporate venture capital arm of UNC REX Healthcare based in Raleigh, is among its supporters.
“Given the caliber of the team and Igor’s leadership, we believe Pryon is the right partner to pave the pathway for knowledge operations in healthcare,” its managing director Anita Watkins told TechWire.
An immigrant success story
Jablokov is a Raleigh transplant and an immigrant success story.
He was born on “a little island by the name of Poros” in Greece. When he was six years old, his family moved to Philadelphia in 1979. Later, he spent his formative years in Montreal, where he said he showed a love for computer engineering early on.
“Both my parents were artists, which influences our ‘art and science’ way of making an organization’s knowledge more accessible,” he said.
Later, he got his undergraduate degree in computer engineering at Pennsylvania State University and went on to get a master’s in business administration at UNC-Charlotte. He worked at IBM for 13 years before founding Charlotte-based Yap in 2006. Five years later, Amazon acquired the company for an undisclosed amount.
Eventually, Jablokov relocated to Raleigh to serve as Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network’s entrepreneur in residence, and never left. He founded Pryon in 2017.
“We had an early belief that our region would become a focus area for AI innovation so that’s why Pryon’s official headquarters is in Raleigh,” he said. “The academic environment and talent pipeline underpinning that potential is undeniable. We specifically look for places that allow us to collaborate and be part of emerging developments in technology and community.”
Pryon has a space on NC State University’s Centennial Campus and at the Gateway Plaza as part of Raleigh Founded. It also maintains a presence in Boston and Seattle, and is part of New York University’s Data Futures Lab in Brooklyn.
At present, the team stands at around 30 and is expanding quickly. It’s hiring across the board, including engineering, research, marketing, and sales.
Does Jablokov like being earmarked as a possible $1-billion value company, otherwise known as a unicorn?
“For me, it’s a little bit peculiar, because I feel the gravity of the responsibility when these funds flow in,” he said. “We didn’t create this company to be described as a unicorn. We create these amazing products that have a very real need in communities. Everything else is secondary.”
This editorial package was produced with funding support from Innovate Raleigh and other partners. WRAL TechWire retains full editorial control of all content.