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Skelter Labs raises $9M to help put Korea on the global AI map

China and the U.S. are the two countries most closely associated with artificial intelligence (AI) technology, but a startup in Korea is out to add its nation to mix after it raised more than $9 million from some big-name investors.

Skelter Labs, which was founded in 2015 by Google’s former chief technical officer in Korea, announced today that it has raised KRW 10 billion ($9.3 million). Korean internet and messaging giant Kakao is a major backer, investing in the round via both its ‘KakaoBrain’ AI unit and its K-Cube VC firm, both of which are existing investors. Stonebridge Ventures and Lotte Homeshopping, the TV and internet shopping business owned by multi-billion dollar retail giant Lotte, also participated.

(Kakao Group CEO Jimmy Rim arrived at Kakao via its acquisition of K-Cube in 2015, before going on to take the top job later that year — so it is a pretty strategic asset.)

Skelter Labs started out as an app development house when it was initially founded by CEO Ted Cho, the former engineering site director at Google Korea, with products that include a flight booking app, chatbot network and point-of-sale software, but, over the past year, it began to focus on AI.

It now works with a range of enterprises and businesses in Korea to bring its artificial intelligence and machine-learning smarts into play. In particular, the company specializes in conversational AI, deep learning — speech recognition and image recognition — and context recognition.

Like many AI startups, which collaborative with third parties on services, the exact scope of its work is fairly secretive. A representative from Skelter Labs declined to name specific customers, but they told TechCrunch that the startup is planning to expand its services overseas following this funding.

While it is working with large enterprise and third parties to refine its core technology, a representative explained that the wider vision is to bring its machine-learning technology to daily life and schedules. That, Skelter Labs explained, could take the form of “intelligent virtual assistant technology that can be widely applied to various areas including smart speakers, smartphones, home appliances, automobiles and wearable devices.”

The startup has more than 50 staff at its office in Seoul, with experience from companies like Google, Samsung, LG and science and technology research university KAIST’s AI division.

Korea is undoubtedly a hotbed for tech talent — with the likes of Samsung and LG employing huge numbers of people — but that is yet to translate a huge number of tech startups, although the progress is promising.

In the AI space, Korea hasn’t received anything like the global attention of China or the U.S.. Indeed, a recent CB Insights report concluded that China took 48 percent of the $5 billion-plus raised by AI startups in 2017. Overtaken by China for the first time, the U.S. placed second on 38 percent, but startups located in ‘the rest of the world’ accounted for only the remaining 14 percent.

Clearly, there’s potential to grow that tiny share. A $9 million round doesn’t move the investment needle on a global basis, but it is a significant sum for a Korean startup and it gives Skelter Labs the potential to accelerate its business.

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Updated: February 21, 2018 — 10:23 am

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