Neurala raises $14m to expand market for NASA-tested AI into drones and cars

AI company Neurala has secured $14 million from a consortium of investors including Prelion Ventures, Motorola Ventures, and Draper Associates Investments that will aid its expansion into consumer electronics.

Neurala has raised $14 million in a series A round led by Pelion Venture Partners, bringing the total amount raised by the company to $16 million. Additional Series A investors include Sherpa Capital, Motorola Ventures, 360 Capital Partners, Draper Associates Investments, and Idinvest Partners.

The Boston-based company, founded in 2006, had initially developed neural network software for NASA to use in planetary exploration, where resources such as processing power, battery life, and communications are limited.

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Neurala recognised that its software, which mimics the way the human brain learns and analyses its environment, has broader applications. The company is now focused on expanding the market for its software, called the Neurala Brain, so that it can be used in toys, cameras, drones, cars, and other Internet of Things devices to make them more autonomous and interactive.

Co-founder and CEO Max Versace said the Neurala Brain, when embedded into children's toys, would allow the toys to identify their owners and smile at them without communicating with a server. While some might find the illusion of a "thinking" toy frightening -- not helped by horror film characters such as Chucky -- Versace described the capability as "endearing".

The Neurala Brain allows devices equipped with cameras to interpret images and recognise objects, meaning that security cameras can learn to identify threats, drones can learn to diagnose problems at the apex of cell towers, and autonomous cars can learn to avoid obstacles.

Also, the software operates locally on devices, so they're able to function without having to rely on the internet or communicate personal information to a third party, the company explained.

"This is essential for applications like drones and self-driving cars, where reaction time is critical and where you can't always get fast network access," said Versace, who is part of fashion designer Donatella Versace's extended family.

Neurala is able to scale from low-end CPUs to high-end GPUs and pull from a number of open machine learning frameworks such as Tensorflow. The Neurala software development kit works with Android, iOS, and Linux, and supports Nvidia, ARM, and Intel processors.

The company is currently working with Motorola Solutions, one of its early customers, on new applications of video, image, and audio analytics for public safety.

Paul Steinberg, CTO of Motorola Solutions, said one of the reasons Motorola Ventures is investing in Neurala's software is the possibility that it can be used to aid emergency response personnel. Given Motorola Solutions sells products to public safety agencies and personnel, the company is always on the lookout for startups to invest in that could help improve its products.

Looking ahead, Steinberg said the Neurala Brain could be embedded in body cameras and sensors inside police or field worker uniforms and identify potential dangers in a worker's surroundings.

Neurala is not the only tech company looking to make advancements in the field of artificial intelligence. Tech giants Amazon, Google, Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft are all investing in the space, and in September last year, they formed a non-for-profit organisation to educate the public about artificial intelligence technologies and alleviate anxieties around its application.

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