Salesforce buys AI specialist MetaMind to avoid being ‘flanked'

MetaMind's founder is now chief scientist at Salesforce

Salesforce.com's automation efforts got a boost Monday with the news it has acquired AI startup MetaMind.

Salesforce will integrate MetaMind's technology into its own services for new marketing-automation and personalization capabilities, according to a blog post from MetaMind founder Richard Socher.

"We'll extend Salesforce's data science capabilities by embedding deep learning within the Salesforce platform," Socher wrote.

Socher's personal Web page now lists his title as chief scientist at the customer relationship management giant.

MetaMind's products will be discontinued on May 4 for users of its free versions, and on June 4 for paid users. The company plans to continue its AI research, however, and will still pursue candidates for its open positions, Socher said.

Salesforce confirmed the deal but declined to provide further details.

MetaMind’s technology is based on deep-learning research done by Socher at Stanford, where he earned his PhD in 2014. The company launched that same year with $8M in funding from Salesforce Chairman Marc Benioff as well as Khosla Ventures.

Machine learning and artificial intelligence are hot technologies for new applications, and Microsoft, Google and Amazon have all made moves in this area, noted Frank Scavo, president of Computer Economics.

Microsoft, for instance, has made advances with Azure Machine Learning and Cortana.

"For Salesforce to keep up, it either needs to partner or acquire technology and people with these skills," Scavo said. "MetaMind looks to me like Salesforce wants to buy its way into these capabilities."

"They need to do this or they could be flanked," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights and Strategy. "They are many years behind."

Salesforce has made a strong of related acquisitions lately. In February, it bought machine learning startup PredictionIO, and last year it bought and then shut down the smart calendar app Tempo AI. It also bought MiniHash in December for marketing intelligence.

Looking ahead, MetaMind's ongoing development should help Salesforce incorporate AI technologies and functions across a broad range of processes and markets, said Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT.

"Overall, this appears to be a wise acquisition with potentially significant long-term benefits for Salesforce and its customers," King said.

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