People conduct a lot of research and ask dozens questions before they’re ready to talk to real estate agents and buy a home. They scroll though thousands of photos, crunch numbers on hypothetical mortgages and browse dozens of sites for advice and insights.
Perhaps a personal assistant that uses artificial intelligence and knows how to have natural-sounding conversations could help both homebuyers and the real estate industry cruise through the process a little easier.
That’s the idea behind OJO Labs. The Austin startup, led by a Yodle co-founder, has assembled an experienced team of data scientists and engineers to build AI technology that is continually learning about real estate, homebuyers and more in real-time. It answers consumers questions while letting them remain anonymous, and it provides insights to agents, brokers and others in the real estate industry.
The startup announced on Friday that it has raised a $20.5 million Series B funding round to hire high-level engineers to advance its patent-pending AI-powered assistants. The round was led by strategic investors, including Realogy Holdings Corp., Royal Bank of Canada, Northwestern Mutual Future Ventures and ServiceMaster. Austin’s LiveOak Venture Partners and Silverton Partners also helped fuel the funding.
OJO Labs co-founder John Berkowitz, who previously co-founded Yodle, said his company could have taken on an even larger Series B but that $20 million is the right number to ensure the company has plenty of runway and doesn’t get too diluted.
“There’s no perfect formula, but I think we’re right in the sweet spot,” he told me.
Since launching in 2015, OJO has inked several deals, including client agreements with loanDepot and Realogy. In 2016, it raised a $5.8 million Series A led by LiveOak Venture Partners and Silverton Partners.
At the time, OJO employed 11 people, including co-founder David Rubin who previously led Austin-based ProfitFuel, which was acquired by Yodle. OJO currently has 35 employees with plans to hire about 25 more. But, it’s not easy for OJO, which requires high-level engineers. Berkowitz told me that his company has to interview hundreds of candidates to find the right skill set and vision for many of its senior positions.
“I’ll hire as many of the best engineers we can get,” he said. “The reality is that’s probably 12 to 15 senior engineers by the end of the year and 5 to 6 product people.”
OJO scored one of its biggest hires in February when Peter Kappler joined the company. Kappler was one of the lead developers of Google’s wildly successful AdWords platform, and he was part of the team that helped open Google’s office in Austin in 2007.
“This is complex technology that we’ve built, and his job is to make sure we’re on the cusp of innovation and that we are built to scale,” Berkowitz said.
There are countless AI platforms, as well as AI-powered assistants, including consumer applications like Amazon Alexa and Google Duplex, as well as B2B applications such as those built by Austin’s CognitiveScale and SparkCognition.
OJO Labs differentiates by having an AI platform that is doing deep learning in one specific vertical — real estate. And it does so by learning about images, which are heavily used in real estate research, and text.
The company is focused exclusively on real estate, but, one day, it could branch out into other verticals such as financial planning, healthcare and automotive that require a lot of consumer research.
“The technology, the patents and the processes all apply to the places where consumers spend a lot of time doing research but aren’t ready to be deeply engaged with salespeople,” Berkowitz said.
OJO Labs could also add a voice assistant relatively easily, but it’s focused on images, text and links because that’s where they see the most demand.
Berkowitz said that OJO Labs has already turned down a few “pretty reasonable” acquisition offers. But he wants to grow this company into something even bigger than his prior venture, Yodle, which sold for around $342 million.
“We want to build a really big company,” he said. “Dave and I have built some pretty big companies before. We think this one is on an entirely different scale. I’m planning on a very large organization and don’t see an end in sight. I see this as a marathon, not a sprint.”