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Israel AI startup nabs $155m, soars to $1.4b valuation

Israel’s AI21 Labs, a natural language processing (NLP) startup, as been valued at $1.4 billion after raising $155 million in its latest funding round backed by tech giants that include Alphabet’s Google and Nvidia.

The Series C financing round was led by the San Francisco-based venture capital firm Walden Catalyst, Israeli VC Pitango, Thailand’s SCB10X, European venture firm b2venture, Samsung Next, and AI21’s co-founder Prof. Amnon Shashua, who is also the co-founder of Mobileye (an Intel company).

The current investment values AI21 at $1.4 billion and makes the Tel Aviv-based startup a new Israeli unicorn — a company valued at $1 billion and over — and comes a year after the creator of AI generative text models raised $64 million at a valuation of $664 million.

AI21, which has a vision to bring generative AI to the masses, said it will use the funds to fuel R&D and expand the reach of its AI natural language models to more businesses and developers. To date, the startup has raised a total of $283 million from investors, it said.

NLP is the ability of a computer program to understand human language by speech and by text. With the recent hype over ChatGPT, a so-called large language model that uses deep learning to spit out human-like text, other startups such as AI21 Labs have been quick to come out with competing AI models.

Founded in 2017 by Shashua, Ori Goshen, and Prof. Yoav Shoham, AI21 Labs created a software platform where developers can build text-based applications like recommendation engines, chatbots, and virtual assistants. The company launched a text simplification tool called Wordtune, a Google Chrome extension that helps clients improve or streamline content, and Wordtune Read, a tool that analyzes and summarizes documents.

“AI21 Labs is a pure play in AI as it develops and owns foundation models which are served as a platform to developers and enterprises, while developing derivatives, such as Wordtune, directly to end users,” said Shashua. “The current round fuels the growth of the company to reach its goal of developing the next-level of AI with the capabilities of reasoning across many domains.”

“We believe that the impact of AI21 Labs growth plans would be of a global scale and quite soon,” he anticipated.

In March, AI21 Labs rolled out its next-generation language model, the Jurassic-2 family language model, a rival to OpenAI, which is customizable to specific tasks and which the startup says allows developers and businesses to build text-based applications in a number of languages, faster and at a fraction of the cost. The features are part of AI21 Studio, an internal core that offers NLP-as-a-Service products.

“Generative AI is driving a new era of computing across every industry,” said Nvidia founder and CEO Jensen Huang. “The innovative work by the AI21 Labs team will help enterprises accelerate productivity and efficiency with generative AI-based systems that are accurate, trustworthy, and reliable.”

AI21 said that the new funding comes on the heels of recent advances to bring generative AI to enterprises and professionals. The startup said its customers include Fortune 100 companies and that it has recently forged collaborations with the likes of Carrefour, Clarivate, eBay, Guesty, and Ubisoft.

Sharon Wrobel