OJO Labs Cofounders John Berkowitz and David Rubin. photo by John Davidson.

OJO Labs, an Austin artificial intelligence startup, has raised $20.5 million in venture capital.

The company, founded in 2015, raised the Series B round from new investors Realogy, the Royal Bank of Canada, Northwest Mutual Fund Ventures and ServiceMaster. It also included existing investors LiveOak Venture Partners and Silverton Partners, both based in Austin.

“This Series B round is super unique because we are bringing in all of these huge industry giants,” said John Berkowitz, co-founder and CEO of OJO Labs. “They propel OJO to millions and millions of consumers.”

Previously, OJO Labs raised $6 million in Series A funding from LiveOak Venture Partners and Silverton. At that time, the company only had 11 employees, based at WeWork on Congress.

Since then, OJO Labs, with 33 employees in Austin and 75 employees on the island of Saint Lucia, has moved into new headquarters at 720 Brazos. The company plans to double its workforce in both places, Berkowitz said during an interview at the company’s downtown headquarters on Thursday. For now, OJO has enough office space to accommodate the expanded workforce, he said.

“We’ve been working on this conversational AI platform for three years,” Berkowitz said. “We have applied it to the residential real estate space. So we built an AI assistant to help consumers navigate their home journey – that search for homes, get help with their mortgages, ask questions about specific properties. It’s just kind of a better experience to help consumers make their decisions.”

OJO Labs has several patents pending that are the cusp of being granted, Berkowitz said.

OJO Labs runs a 24/7 operation in the island of Saint Lucia in the Caribbean where it trains the Artificial Intelligence agent using human coaches. Berkowitz’s last company, Yodle, had a huge operation in Saint Lucia. When he launched his latest company, the prime minister of Saint Lucia traveled to Austin to meet with him about setting up a new operation there.

“It’s a really stable government,” Berkowitz said. “And really smart, hardworking people. And it’s below the hurricane belt.”

It’s an incredible advantage in AI to have employees to train the technology, Berkowitz said. It’s what he calls the “blue collar” work of AI.

“No PhDs on the West Coast want to find out that the real way to make the AI work is to do real-time training with huge human operations,” Berkowitz said.

Austin has a real competitive advantage when it comes to the AI race because it does business to business software companies and human operations or call centers, Berkowitz said.

“We’re not scared of thousands of employees integrated into the technology, a lot of companies are,” Berkowitz said.

The machines need help from humans, Berkowitz said.

“Our mission on the wall is to fundamentally improve the way people make their most important decisions through the fusion of machine and human intelligence,” Berkowitz said. “Combining machines and humans
is the real key in our venture and we’re proud of it and we don’t shy away from it.”

OJO Labs is laser-focused on creating an experience humans love, Berkowitz said. Its OJO assistant is free to consumers. It lets homebuyers ask all kinds of questions of the OJO assistant about home features ranging from things like swimming pools, views of downtown, large kitchens, large lots, school districts, etc. The OJO assistant sends the homebuyer texts of potential homes with photos and listings. It learns what the person likes and what the person doesn’t like through the interaction. When the person is ready to buy, it refers them to a human agent to handle the homebuying experience and provides the agent with the background information on the customer’s preferences.

“OJO serves the customer like they have a best friend who is the world’s smartest real estate agent,” Berkowitz said.

Real estate is just the first industry OJO plans to use its AI technology, Berkowitz said. It’s also eyeing financial services, healthcare, and other industries for future applications, he said.

With the latest funding round, OJO Labs plans to expand its product, data science, and engineering teams. In February, Peter Kappler, a former Google engineer who was instrumental in developing the AdWords platform and opening Google’s Austin office in 2007, joined OJO Labs as its Chief Technology Officer.

“I’ve looked at numerous technology startup opportunities since I retired from Google, but none as exciting as OJO Labs,” Kappler said in a news release. “I chose to join and help build this company because this technology and team are tackling serious problems by providing a level of personalization at a scale previously unachievable.”

Photo courtesy of OJO Labs