Microsoft brings new robotic process automation features to its Power Platform

Earlier this year, Microsoft acquired Softomotive, a player in the low-code robotic process automation space with a focus on Windows. Today, at its Ignite conference, the company is launching Power Automate Desktop, a new application based on Softomotive’s technology that lets anyone automate desktop workflows without needing to program.

“The big idea of Power Platform is that we want to go make it so development is accessible to everybody,” Charles Lamanna, Microsoft’s corporate VP for its low-code platform, told me. “And development includes understanding and reporting on your data with Power BI, building web and mobile applications with Power Apps, automating your tasks — whether it’s through robotic process automation or workflow automation — with Power Automate, or building chatbots and chat-based experiences with Power Virtual Agent.”

Power Automate already allowed users to connect web-based applications, similar to Zapier and IFTTT, but the company also launched a browser extension late last year to help users connect native system components to Power Automate. Now, with the integration of the Softomotive technology and the launch of this new low-code Windows application, it’s taking this integration into the native Windows user interface one step further.

“Everything still runs in the cloud and still connects to the cloud, but you now have a rich desktop application to author and record your UI automations,” Lamanna explained. He likened it to an “ultimate connector,” noting that the “ultimate API is just the UI.”

He also stressed that the new app feels like any other modern Office app, like Outlook (which is getting a new Mac version today, by the way) or Word. And like the modern versions of those apps, Power Automate Desktop derives a lot of its power from being connected to the cloud.

It’s also worth noting that Power Automate isn’t just a platform for automating simple two or three-step processes (like sending you a text message when your boss emails you), but also for multistep, business-critical workflows. T-Mobile, for example, is using the platform to automate some of the integration processes between its systems and Sprint.

Lamanna noted that for some large enterprises, adopting these kinds of low-code services necessitates a bit of a culture shift. IT still needs to have some insights into how these tools are used, after all, to ensure that data is kept safe, for example.

Another new feature the company announced today is an integration between the Power Platform and GitHub, which is now in public preview. The idea here is to give developers the ability to create their own software lifecycle workflows. “One of the core ideas of Power Platform is that it’s low code,” Lamanna said. “So it’s built first for business users, business analysts, not the classical developers. But pro devs are welcome. The saying I have is: we’re throwing a party for business users, but pro devs are also invited to the party.” But to get them onto the platform, the team wants to meet them where they are and let them use the tools they already use — and that’s GitHub (and Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code).


By Frederic Lardinois

UIPath reels in another $225M as valuation soars to $10.2B

Last year, Gartner found that Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is the fastest growing category in enterprise software. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that UIPath, a leading startup in the space, announced a $225 million Series E today on an eye-popping $10.2 billion valuation.

Alkeon Capital led the round with help from Accel, Coatue, Dragoneer, IVP, Madrona Venture Group, Sequoia Capital, Tencent, Tiger Global, Wellington and T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $1.225 billion, according to Crunchbase data.

It’s worth noting that the presence of institutional investors like Wellington is often a signal that a company could be thinking about going public at some point. CFO Ashim Gupta didn’t shy away from a future IPO, saying that co-founder and CEO Daniel Dines has discussed the idea in recent months and what it would take to become a public company.

“We’re evaluating the market conditions and I wouldn’t say this to be vague, but we haven’t chosen a day that says on this day we’re going public. We’re really in the mindset that says we should be prepared when the market is ready, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s in the next 12-18 months,” he said.

One of the factors that’s attracting so much investor interest is its growth rate, which Gupta says is continuing on an upward trajectory, even during the pandemic as companies look for ways to automate. In fact, he reports that recurring revenue has grown from $100 million to $400 million over the last 24 months.

RPA helps companies add a level of automation to manual legacy processes, bringing modernization without having to throw out existing systems. This approach appeals to a lot of companies not willing to rip and replace to get some of the advantages of digital transformation. The pandemic has only served to push this kind technology to the forefront as companies look for ways to automate more quickly.

The company raised some eyebrows in the fall when it announced it was laying off 400 employees just 6 months after raising $568 million on a $7 billion valuation, but Gupta said that the layoffs represented a kind of reset for the company after it had grown rapidly in the prior two years.

“From 2017 to 2019, we invested in a lot of different areas. I think in October, the way we thought about it was, we really started taking a pause as we became more confident in our strategy, and we reassessed areas that we wanted to cut back on, and that drove those layoff decisions in October.

As for why the startup needs all that cash, Gupta says in a growing market, it is spending to grab as much market share as it can and that takes a lot of investment. Plus it can’t hurt to have plenty of money in the bank as a hedge against economic uncertainty during the pandemic either. Gupta notes that UIPath could also be looking at strategic acquisitions in the months ahead to fill in holes in the product roadmap more rapidly.

While the company doesn’t expect to go through the kind of growth it went through in 2017 and 2018, it will continue to hire, and Gupta says the leadership team is committed to building a diverse team at all levels of the organization. “We want to have the best people, but we really do believe that having the best people and the best team means that diversity has to be a part of that,” he said.

The company was founded in 2005 in Bucharest outsourcing automation libraries and software. In 2015, it began the pivot to RPA and has been growing in leaps and bounds ever since. When we spoke to the startup in September 2018 around its $225 million Series C investment (which eventually ballooned to $265 million), it had 1800 customers. Today it has 7000 and growing.


By Ron Miller

Cathay Innovation leads Laiye’s $35M round to bet on Chinese enterprise IT

For many years, the boom and bust of China’s tech landscape have centered around consumer-facing products. As this space gets filled by Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, and more recently Didi Chuxing, Meituan Dianping, and ByteDance, entrepreneurs and investors are shifting attention to business applications.

One startup making waves in China’s enterprise software market is four-year-old Laiye, which just raised a $35 million Series B round led by cross-border venture capital firm Cathay Innovation. Existing backers Wu Capital, a family fund, and Lightspeed China Partners, whose founding partner James Mi has been investing in every round of Laiye since Pre-A, also participated in this Series B.

The deal came on the heels of Laiye’s merger with Chinese company Awesome Technology, a team that’s spent the last 18 years developing Robotic Process Automation, a term for technology that lets organizations offload repetitive tasks like customer service onto machines. With this marriage, Laiye officially launched its RPA product UiBot to compete in the nascent and fast-growing market for streamlining workflow.

“There was a wave of B2C [business-to-consumer] in China, and now we believe enterprise software is about to grow rapidly,” Denis Barrier, co-founder and chief executive officer of Cathay Innovation, told TechCrunch over a phone interview.

Since launching in January, UiBot has collected some 300,000 downloads and 6,000 registered enterprise users. Its clients include major names such as Nike, Walmart, Wyeth, China Mobile, Ctrip and more.

Guanchun Wang, chairman and CEO of Laiye, believes there are synergies between AI-enabled chatbots and RPA solutions, as the combination allows business clients “to build bots with both brains and hands so as to significantly improve operational efficiency and reduce labor costs,” he said.

When it comes to market size, Barrier believes RPA in China will be a new area of growth. For one, Chinese enterprises, with a shorter history than those found in developed economies, are less hampered by legacy systems, which makes it “faster and easier to set up new corporate software,” the investor observed. There’s also a lot more data being produced in China given the population of organizations, which could give Chinese RPA a competitive advantage.

“You need data to train the machine. The more data you have, the better your algorithms become provided you also have the right data scientists as in China,” Barrier added.

However, the investor warned that the exact timing of RPA adoption by people and customers is always not certain, even though the product is ready.

Laiye said it will use the proceeds to recruit talents for research and development as well as sales of its RPA products. The startup will also work on growing its AI capabilities beyond natural language processing, deep learning, and reinforcement learning, in addition to accelerating commercialization of its robotic solutions across industries.


By Rita Liao

Gartner finds RPA is fastest growing market in enterprise software

If you asked the average person on the street what Robotic Process Automation is, most probably wouldn’t have a clue. Yet new data from Gartner finds the RPA market grew over 63% last year, making it the fastest growing enterprise software category. It is worth noting, however, that the overall market value of $846.2 million remains rather modest compared to other multi-billion dollar enterprise software categories.

RPA helps companies automate a set of highly manual processes.The beauty of RPA, and why companies like it so much, is that it enables customers to bring a level of automation to legacy processes without having to rip and replace the legacy systems.

As Gartner points out, this plays well in companies with large amounts of legacy infrastructure like banks, insurance companies, telcos and utilities.”The ability to integrate legacy systems is the key driver for RPA projects. By using this technology, organizations can quickly accelerate their digital transformation initiatives, while unlocking the value associated with past technology investments,” Fabrizio Biscotti, research vice president at Gartner said in a statement.

The biggest winner in this rapidly growing market is UIPath, the startup that raised $225 million on a fat $3 billion valuation last year. One reason it’s attracted so much attention is its incredible growth trajectory. Consider that UIPath brought in $15.7 million in revenue in 2017 and increased that by a whopping 629.5% to $114.8 million last year. That kind of growth tends to get you noticed. It was good for 13.6% marketshare and first place, all the way up from fifth place in 2017, according to Gartner.

Another startup nearly as hot as UIPath is Automation Anywhere, which grabbed $300M from SoftBank at a $2.6B valuation last year. The two companies have raised a gaudy $1.5 billion between them with UIPath bringing in an even $1 billion and Automation Anywhere getting $550 million, according to Crunchbase.

Chart: Gartner

Automation Anywhere revenue grew from $74 million to $108.4 million, a growth clip of 46.5%, good for second place and 12.8 percent marketshare. Automation Anywhere was supplanted in first place by UIPath last year.

Blue Prism, which went public in 2016, issued $130 million in stock last year to raise some more funds, probably to help keep up with UIPath and Automation Anywhere. Whatever the reason, it more than doubled its revenue from $34.6 million to $71 million, a healthy growth rate of 105 percent, good for third place with 8.4 percent marketshare.

For now, everyone it seems is winning as the market grows in leaps and bounds. In fact, the growth numbers down the line are impressive with NTT-ATT growing 456% and Kofax growing 256% year over year as two prime examples, but even with those growth numbers, the marketshare begins to fragment into much smaller bites.

While the market is still very much in a development phase, which could account for this level of growth and jockeying for market position, at some point that fragmentation at the bottom of the market might lead to consolidation as companies try to buy additional marketshare.


By Ron Miller

Blue Prism to issue $130M in stock to raise new funds

Just this morning robotic process automation (RPA) firm, Blue Prism, announced enhancements to its platform. A little later the company, which went public on the London Stock Exchange in 2016, announced it was raising £100 million (approximately $130 million) by issuing new stock. The announcement comes after reporting significant losses in its most recent fiscal year, which ended in October.

The company indicated that it plans to sell the new shares on the public market, and that they will be made available to new and existing shareholders including company managers and directors.

CEO Alastair Bathgate attempted to put the announcement in the best possible light. “The outcome of this placing, which builds on another year of significant progress for the company, highlights the meteoric growth opportunity with RPA and intelligent automation,” he said in a statement.

While the company’s revenue more than doubled last fiscal year from £24.5 million (approximately $32 million) in 2017 to £55.2 million (approximately $72 million) in 2018, losses also increased dramatically from £10.1 million (approximately $13 million) in 2017 to £26.0 million (approximately $34 million), according to reports.

The move, which requires shareholder approval, will be used to push the company’s plans, outlined in a TechCrunch article earlier this morning, to begin enhancing the platform with help from partners, a move the company hopes will propel it into the future.

Today’s announcement included a new AI engine, an updated marketplace where companies can share Blue Prism extensions and a new lab, where the company plans to work on AI innovation in-house.

Bathgate isn’t wrong about the market opportunity. Investors have been pouring big bucks into this market for the last couple of years. As we noted, in this morning’s article, “UIPath, a NYC RPA company has raised almost $450 million. Its most recent round in September was for $225 million on a $3 billion valuation. Automation Anywhere, a San Jose RPA startup, has raised $550 million including an enormous $300 million investment from SoftBank in November on a valuation of $2.6 billion.”


By Ron Miller

Blue Prism looks to partners to expand robotic process automation with AI

Blue Prism helped coin the term robotic process automation (RPA) when the company was founded back in 2001 to help companies understand the notion of automating mundane business processes. Today, it’s releasing updates to that platform including an updated marketplace for exchanging connectors to extend the main product, and in some cases, adding a layer of intelligence.

The product at its core has allowed non-technical users to automate a business process by simply dragging components into an interface. All of the process coding has been automated on the back end. You could have a process that scans a check, enters a figure in a spreadsheet and sends an automated message to another employee (or digital process) when it’s done.

Moss sees a world in which companies are looking to digitization to stave off growing competition. Big insurance companies, financial services and other workflow-intensive organizations need to look beyond the automation capabilities his company has given them and that is going to require an intelligence layer.

Today, the company wants to extend its core capability by offering more advanced tools in the Blue Prism Digital Exchange marketplace. The Exchange gives partners and customers the ability to create and share tools to enhance Blue Prism. To encourage those entities to add AI capabilities, the company also announced a new AI engine for building connectors to advanced AI tools from Amazon, Google, IBM and other AI platforms.

But the company doesn’t want to simply leave it to partners to provide the innovation. It wants that happening in-house as well, and to that end it has created Blue Prism Labs, where it will work with these same technologies looking for ways to inject its RPA products with artificial intelligence. This could lead to more sophisticated automated workflows down the road such as using image recognition technology to add metadata about a photo automatically.

While Blue Prism has been a public company since 2016, the market has attracted a slew of startups, which have in turn been attracting big bucks from investors on gaudy valuations. UIPath, a NYC RPA company has raised almost $450 million. Its most recent round in September was for $225 million on a $3 billion valuation. Automation Anywhere, a San Jose RPA startup, has raised $550 million including an enormous $300 million investment from SoftBank in November on a valuation of $2.6 billion.


By Ron Miller

RPA startup Automation Anywhere nabs $300M from SoftBank at a $2.6B valuation

The market for RPA — Robotic Process Automation — is getting a hat trick of news this week: Automation Anywhere has today announced that it has raised $300 million from the SoftBank Vision Fund. This funding, which values Automation Anywhere at $2.6 billion post-money, is an extension to the Series A the company announced earlier this year, which was at a $1.8 billion valuation. It brings the total size of the round to $550 million.

The news comes just a day after one of the startup’s bigger competitors, UiPath, announced a $265 million raise at a $3 billion valuation; and a week after Kofax, another competitor, announced it would be acquiring a division of Nuance for $400 million to beef up its business.

It’s also yet one more example of a one-two punch in funding. It was only in July that Automation Anywhere announced its $250 million raise.

This latest round adds some significant investors to the company’s cap table, specifically from the SoftBank Vision Fund, which counts a number of tech giants like Apple and Qualcomm as LPs, along with others. Specifically, the fund has been under fire for the last few weeks because of the fact that a large swathe of its backing comes from Saudi money.

The Saudi Arabian government has been in the spotlight over its involvement in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its embassy in Turkey. By extension of that, there have been many questions raised in recent weeks over the ethics of taking money from the Vision Fund, with so many questions still in the air over that affair.

In an interview, Mihir Shukla, CEO and Co-Founder at Automation Anywhere, said that while what happened to Khashoggi was “not acceptable,” his conversations started with SoftBank before that and they did not impact the startup’s decision over whether to work with the Fund.

He declined to comment on the timing of the term sheet getting signed, when asked whether it was before or after the news broke of the murder.

What attracted us to SoftBank was that Masayoshi Son” — the CEO and founder of SoftBank — “has a vision and he is investing in foundational platforms that will change how we work and travel,” Shukla said. “We share that vision.”

He also pointed out that getting funding from SoftBank will “naturally” lead to more opportunities to partner with companies in SoftBank’s network of companies, which cover dozens of investments and outright ownerships.

While it feels like artificial intelligence is something that you see referenced at every turn these days in the tech world, RPA is an interesting area because it’s one of the more tangible applications of it, across a wide set of businesses.

In short, it’s a set of software-based “robots” that help companies automate mundane and repetitive tasks that would otherwise be done by human workers, employing AI-based technology in areas like computer vision and machine learning to get the work done.

Competition among companies to grab pole position in the space is fierce. Automation Anywhere has 1,400 organizations as customers, it says. By comparison, UiPath has 2,100 and claims an annual revenue run rate at the moment of $150 million. Shukla declined to disclose any financials for his company.

But in light of all that, the company will be using the funding to build out its business specifically ahead of rivals.

“With this additional capital, we are in a position to do far more than any other provider,” said Shukla in a statement. “We will not only continue to deliver the most advanced RPA to the market, but we will help bring AI to millions. Like the introduction of the PC, we see a world where every office employee will work alongside digital workers, amplifying human contributions. Today, employees must know how to use a PC and very soon employees will have to know how to build a bot.”

Automation Anywhere claims that its Bot Store is the industry’s largest marketplace for bot applications, designed both by itself and partners, to execute different business processes, with 65,000 users since launching in March 2018.


By Ingrid Lunden

‘Software robot’ startup UiPath expands Series C to $265M at a $3B valuation

UiPath, a startup that works in the growing area of RPA, or robotic process automation — where AI-based software is used to help businesses run repetitive or mundane back-office tasks, to free up humans to tackle more sophisticated work — has raised money for the third time this year. The company is today announcing that it has closed out its Series C at $265 million — $40 million higher than the amount it said it was aiming for two months ago.

UiPath is now disclosing new investors in the round — namely, IVP, Madrona Venture Group and Meritech Capital — plus secondary sales for employees to give them liquidity, which made up the difference. The company has confirmed to me that the transactions were done at the same valuation as the rest of the Series C, at $3 billion. The Series C is still led by CapitalG and Sequoia Capital as before.

For some context, earlier this year, the company also raised a Series B of $153 million at a $1.1 billion valuation.

UiPath’s strong valuation hike and the rapid pace of its funding come at a time when both the company and its rivals are all growing quickly, as enterprises rush to capitalise on the rise of artificial intelligence in the workplace. In the case of RPA, the promise is that it will help bring down the cost of doing business and improve organizations’ efficiency. UiPath’s mantra is to provide “one robot for every person,” essentially doubling a company’s workforce without the need to hire more people.

UiPath says that its current annual run rate is now $150 million, up from a $100 million ARR figure it put out just two months ago, with customers now numbering at 2,100 and including the US Army, Defense Logistics Agency, GSA, IRS, NASA, Navy, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. One source at the company tells me that it’s getting approached “almost daily” for more funding at the moment.

At the same time, the competitive landscape is most definitely heating up. We’ve heard that Automation Anywhere, which also just raised money — $250 million — earlier this year, may also be looking to raise more (we’re looking into it). And just earlier this week, we reported that another RPA player, Kofax, acquired a division of Nuance for $400 million to ramp up its image processing business.

“I am honored to have IVP, Madrona Venture Group and Meritech Capital as new investors in UiPath. Their leadership and guidance will no doubt help us continue to define and lead the Automation First era for customers everywhere. UiPath has had many funding options and I believe we have selected the investors that align best with our culture and beliefs. I am humbled as the syndicate of unquestionably top-tier venture capital firms who believe in UiPath and support our future,” said UiPath CEO and co- founder Daniel Dines said in a statement. “Additionally, it is a core UiPath principle to share the success of the company in a meaningful way with our hard-working and long-time employees and we were excited to be able to extend the opportunity, at their personal choice, to realize partial liquidity in this round.”

Updated with clarification about the employee liquidity sales and new investor names.


By Ingrid Lunden