RALEIGH – Pryon, an AI startup led by veteran entrepreneur Igor Jablokov, has 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.

And now it’s getting ready to scale quickly.

WRAL TechWire’s Chantal Allam had the chance to sit down with him for a chat in his Raleigh home. Here’s what he had to say:

TechWire: Congrats on the raise. Why now and what for?

Igor: It’s such a green-field opportunity, now that we found the intersection between artificial intelligence and knowledge management. We have a unique product-market fit with a  focus on cross industry solutions. The time is now for us to build up our go-to-market team.

Knowledge Management is the crown jewel of enterprise software. It’s what everybody will attempt to corner – Amazon, Microsoft, Salesforce.  We’re finding that companies like General Electric and Koch Industries constructed legacy knowledge platforms of their own, and they haven’t worked well.

Alexa on steroids: Raleigh startup Pryon explores new frontiers for smarter assistants

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. Nobody owns the knowledge management space, and we’re going to become the category leader.

TechWire: What is Pryon planning to do with the $12 million recently raised as part of a Series B?

Igor: This was mostly a strategic access round with a number of entities participating that want to leverage Pryon’s capabilities for themselves as users and also wanted to invest in the company long-term. We plan to accelerate product development to support the immense scaling necessary for the solutions, and to build up our go-to-market functions to address increasing customer and partner demand elsewhere for Pryon’s AI platform.

TechWire: Twenty-eight investors contributed to the round. Can you give us more details? Who led the round? Any big Raleigh investors?

Igor: There are indeed some significant Raleigh investors who are part of this round, reinforcing the previous point, and over the next month or so we will have more news coming out about Pryon’s continuing growth.

TechWire: Has Pryon signed on any major clients that it can share?

Igor: In January, we announced that Georgia-Pacific is using Pryon’s natural language processing platform to help streamline access to safety information in their manufacturing operations.

We also have more enterprise pilots than employees in this company, with a number of them rotating into production before the end of this year.

TechWire: What’s the team headcount as it stands now? Is Pryon hiring? If so, for what and how many? Will employees work remotely or in the office?

Igor: The headcount is around 30. We are hiring in support of our growth plan, focusing on engineering, marketing, and sales.

Pryon always had a flexible working environment, even pre-pandemic, and we were already accustomed to using remote collaboration tools — including Pryon’s own platform — to conduct our work, so we took that shift in stride. Today, most staff members are working remotely, with some starting to go back into our offices. We just leave it up to what works for them.

TechWire: Realistically, how quickly do you think it’s going to take off?

Igor: Holy smokes, we had one venture capitalist look at the list of pilots that we’re working with. They’re literally the biggest companies in aviation, automotive, banking, energy, pharma, just about any industry that you can think of. Just landing one is going to be a company maker. Just one, and there’s dozens of them in front of us.

We’ll have additional customers and partners to announce throughout the fourth quarter.

TechWire: Where are you guys at in terms of annual revenue? Do you disclose that?

Igor: This year is our first production revenue year, and next year will add annuity streams.

TechWire: You don’t have any desire to stage an exit?

Igor: I remember some of our early investors asked: “Do you want to build a company that’s making $1 million in revenue or $100 million in revenue? Do you want to build a company that’s worth $10 million or a billion?” I replied that our company could earn the latter.

Entities are already approaching us to exit. But I think there’s an opportunity to build an independent, category-leading company with everything that we’re seeing for this market. Especially to provide differentiation to regional industries.

I’m certainly looking at our team and looking at our backers and saying, I think we should go for it. I mean, what else would I do? There’s literally no glass ceiling for how far this type of technology can go in terms of business impact.

One of the things that really makes it special is, it’s not just the AI. It’s working on AI to solve top flight knowledge management problems, but even that’s not enough. It’s also thinking about the user experience and democratizing access to AI to fully engage every worker.

TechWire: It’s clear that you’re in it for the long haul. At what stage with your last company Yap did you exit?

Igor: That’s interesting. I was already raising our Series B. So yes, we were in a similar situation. Once we started getting term sheets for our growth round, parties like Amazon and Google jumped tracks and wanted to acquire us. At that time, some of the other companies of our backers weren’t doing as well because of the 2008 downturn. So it became obvious to them that, hey, it’s nice to get this win on the board. That’s not an aberration but normal for how they manage portfolios.Now we’re in the same boat, right? Yes, there are these merger and acquisition signals starting to happen like before. It just means we’re on the right path and many of the unicorns we know of had similar interest during their rises. I think the environment is different than a decade ago. It’s a lot more supportive to building for growth.

TechWire: How so?

Igor: As a technology startup in North Carolina in 2006, it felt pretty lonely. There were a few tech startups, of course; but it just wasn’t the same. There weren’t these accelerators. The Venture Capital Multiplier Fund that Hatteras manages didn’t exist. The Carolina Angels, the Duke Angels and Wolfpack Investors didn’t exist. We didn’t have the Apples, Ciscos and IBMs innovating in mobile, networking, and cognitive computing. There was no cloud computing to lower the cost of such things. It was sparse.

TechWire: What’s the current state of Raleigh’s ecosystem?

Igor: With everything that’s happening in California, I see this this region strengthening. I mean, look at the economics of the housing market; the number of people that we have coming in. It’s not just Apple coming here, think about all the international companies that they partner with, as well as their suppliers, and the fact that they would all start having a presence as well just like the second order effects of the BMW plant to that part of South Carolina.

It’s a whole trickle-down waterfall effect. Then inevitably, companies like IBM and SAS, have these great intrapreneurs that will eventually just start floating out and taking what they know to new category leaders.

It’ll be unfettered growth, it’s not a zero-sum game. Raleigh will get stronger; Atlanta will get stronger; Austin will continue getting stronger. We’re not actually taking anything away from each other. Sure, in a tactical way, at a point in time, as they’re competing for this one branch office, or they’re competing for this other office like Amazon’s HQ2, it feels like one is losing and one is winning. But if you look at it on a long enough time scale, all of these markets will win. Because it’s physics. We can’t grow humans any faster and need everyone fully engaged at a National scale. Read the National Security Commission on AI’s report, chaired by Eric Schmidt, as a stark reminder.

TechWire: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Igor: I was born on a little island by the name of Poros. My family moved when I was 6 years old to Philadelphia. Both my parents were artists, which influences my “art and science” worldview of making an organization’s knowledge more accessible. It’s behavioral science and UX intersecting with engines and platforms. I spent a few of my formative years in Montreal, where I accelerated a passion for computer engineering because of how it presents an opportunity to innovate across a nearly unlimited range of applications in a myriad of industries.

After that, I received an undergraduate degree at Penn State and went on to get my MBA at UNC Charlotte, where I’m happy to see programs expanding to really embrace the spirit of entrepreneurship as part of the undergrad and graduate experiences. After first startinf at IBM as a research engineer in their microelectronics division I led an advanced AI team. Leaving to found startups in the field was to assert control over development timelines, my thinking was that cloud and AI was a closer opportunity than it appeared to them at the time.

TechWire: A lot of people are worried about AI in the workplace, and fear this is just the beginning of workers losing their jobs to AI and machines. Should they be concerned?

Igor: My hypothesis is that when we look at AI coming into the workplace, I don’t think people are going to lose their jobs. 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. That puts responsibility on me as a supplier to make it so approachable, easy to use, and relevant. I want it to be used by a safety supervisor at Georgia-Pacific; a nurse in an ICU; a student in a university context. Those are the tools that are more likely to be absorbed and become large-scale fixtures.

TechWire: Do you think it’s a realistic goal to become a $1-billon value company, otherwise known as a unicorn?

Igor: I was talking to Anita Watkins at Rex Health Ventures, and I’m like, “If Pryon is on this list, does this jinx us?” I know there’s this fascination in the tech industry for these labels signaling growth. For me, it’s a little bit peculiar, because I also feel the gravity of the stewardship when these funds flow in. I obviously want to create jobs and build products for people at work that are positive influences. I’m thrilled that partners can leverage [our technology] in a hospital environment to get a one-second answer so they can help someone in the ICU faster. That’s a pretty good use of our team’s skills, for gosh sakes.

I don’t care if it takes two years or if it takes 20 years to become a prominent venture. I didn’t found this company to be described as a unicorn. We create these amazing products that fill a very real need in communities, for these enterprises that service them. All the economic stuff that happens in terms of how much capital we can attract, and what the valuations end up becoming, and how teams get rewarded, are trailing indicators.