Business

His technology helped create Amazon’s Alexa. Now he wants to build something better.

“When my appearance starts looking rougher that means I am up to something,” Igor Jablokov, sporting a somewhat unkempt beard, said over coffee late last month.

“It’s a telltale sign that we’re in labs and we’re getting crazy.”

To say Jablokov has been “up to something” might be a bit of an understatement.

The serial entrepreneur, who made his name by selling his previous company to Amazon, has made a forceful return to the startup world in the past year.

In June, his company, Pryon, raised $20 million from investors like AOL founder Steve Case, “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, Two Sigma Ventures and the Stanford University Venture Fund. That was on top of an earlier round that brought in $4.5 million.

Jablokov is an expert in voice-recognizing artificial intelligence. It’s a realm of expertise that has guided his career from the innovation labs at IBM to starting his own company called Yap, a Charlotte-based company whose technology translated voice to text.

Amazon bought the startup in 2011, incorporating it into what would become the Alexa smart speaker.

The deal was shrouded in secrecy at the time — as Amazon was quietly competing against Apple and Google — but it set up Jablokov comfortably and allowed him to become a Blackstone entrepreneur-in-residence at UNC-Chapel Hill, transplanting him from Charlotte to the Triangle.

Now, as he puts its, he’s moving his new company and his big idea out of “stealth mode” and into the public spotlight.

Augmented decision-making

The big idea, this time, is to build a reliable and trustworthy voice recognition platform that business leaders could use to become more efficient with their time and in making decisions. While Alexa aims for a mass audience, this technology would be made specifically for business uses, with the promise of being faster, more accurate and more secure than other voice-activated AIs.

Imagine you’re the CEO of a corporation, Jablokov told a group of potential investors with the Carolina Angel Network last year. What if you wanted to know how your West Coast office was doing in the first three weeks of this quarter compared to the same time last year?

For most CEOs, you’d have to call in your accounting people and they would go off for a day or two and prepare reports. But Jablokov pitched: What if you could ask that same question to your desktop and the results immediately popped up on your screen?

With Pryon, the goal is that you’ll be able to ask any question about your company and an answer will be found instantly. Pryon would take data and translate it into actionable information from around the web and also from disparate places like private clouds and databases.

“AI you can view as two major buckets: automated intelligence and augmented intelligence,” Jablokov said. “What automated intelligence is trying to do is remove humans from the equation, like self-driving cars.”

Augmented intelligence is meant to help you make key decisions more efficiently, he added, rather than replace you. “I believe nobody’s going to be more creative than you,” he said. “And nobody can have insights and intuitive leaps like you.”

Already, companies such as AT&T, Delta, Georgia-Pacific and Goldman Sachs are working with Pryon through a venture capital fund in Atlanta called Engage Ventures.

Dreaming of AI

Jablokov eats, sleeps and breathes artificial intelligence.

He’ll tell you that he works seven days a week on Pryon, not just because he is a workaholic, but also because it’s one of the few things he is interested in doing with his time. A question about hobbies returned a blank stare.

“I love doing this stuff,” he said. “Hell, we were doing this before there was any money in it.”

Jablokov often wakes up early in the morning and works till late in the evening, alternating between cups of coffee and water. He said that he generally doesn’t think a startup will make it if a founder isn’t working around six days a week.

He said his background as an immigrant — he’s half Russian and half Greek and moved to the U.S. when he was a young child — is one reason he keeps a long schedule. The 45-year-old said he spent his earliest years on a tiny Greek island with no television or radio, something that stands in stark contrast to his uber-connected digital life today.

“This isn’t hard work compared to what our grandparents had to do,” he said. “I’m just sitting in front of a computer all day.”

The inner workings behind Pryon aren’t completely ready for commercialization, but it’s been making great strides. Months ago, he had an aha moment, when he instinctively turned to Pryon to ask a question rather than Alexa. It was a sign that he now trusted his own burgeoning technology more than the one he helped established years ago.

“I got tired of Alexa giving me the wrong answer,” he said.

Lately, he’s even been dreaming about new ways to implement artificial intelligence. He looked down at his coffee cup and said, “One day, I’ll be able to ask this cup where these coffee beans came from, and if I really liked the coffee, I could ask it to increase my tip.”

“Igor is very bold. He doesn’t lack for vision or doing something interesting,” said Robbie Allen, the CEO of another locally based artificial intelligence company called Infinia ML.

Allen first met Jablokov at a conference on artificial intelligence and the two immediately bonded over their shared expertise and connection to the Triangle and UNC-Chapel Hill. Allen, in fact, became one of the first investors in Pryon, putting money into the company during its earliest round of funding.

“He stands out in the Southeast, where you tend to have more conservative entrepreneurs,” Allen said. “He is one to think of big ideas and approach things in more of a West Coast style.”

Allen and Jablokov are now two of the more prominent faces in the Triangle when it comes to artificial intelligence. Allen said he used to joke with Jablokov that Infinia had raised more than Pryon — $10 million at the time. But after Pryon’s recent haul, he no longer has the upper hand when it comes to friendly banter.

The fact that Jablokov already has one successful exit under his belt gives people a lot more confidence in Pryon, said Randy Myer, managing director of the Carolina Angel Network, which helped organize part of an investment round for the company.

Investing in talent

That probably gave Jablokov leeway when it came to how he planned to spend money from his investors.

Many startups take their funding and invest it in things that will grow revenue, like hiring more salespeople. But in Pryon’s case, the money will be mainly going toward acquiring the brightest talent in the realm of AI.

That’s rare, Myer said, but not unreasonable for a space like artificial intelligence.

“It would be the equivalent of something like a life science startup with very narrow discipline, like thrombosis,” Myer said. “And there were only five people that are completely talented and know the biotech world for thrombosis. So you might be investing in a company where their goal is to go get the five best people and wait for the best and brightest to come up with something new.”

Jablokov said he is willing to go all in when it comes to investing in talent. “We’re going to spend our money on people and microchips,” he said.

Pryon’s Raleigh office — which technically doesn’t exist yet, as the company is still looking for a permanent space — has six employees, though that number could increase significantly depending on how quickly revenue comes in. The company has a total of around 20 employees right now, with some based remotely around the country.

Jablokov said several customers have already been sent concepts and a finished product could be ready by the end of this year or early next year. That’s when he expects customers and revenue to start growing quickly — and the company might need to attract more fundraising to reach that growth.

“2020 is going to be a big year for us,” he said.

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.
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