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Microsoft launches $3.5m search for startups innovating in AI

The Innovate AI contest will see three startups each receive $1 million in venture funding. One prize will go to a North American company, with firms in Europe and Israel taking the other two.
One additional “standout finalist” from any of the regions will receive $500,000 in funding. All four of the awards also come with an additional $500,000 in free Azure resources, giving the startups access to Microsoft’s cloud AI tools.
The competition is backed by Madrona Venture Group, Notion Capital and Vertex Ventures Israel. Microsoft wants to uncover AI startups which aren’t in the public eye, helping them to get established and use AI to benefit society.
Funding small teams
The computing resources and talent required to work at the frontiers of AI make it difficult for smaller teams to bring their ideas to fruition. The funding grants will help startups with ideas for “transformative AI technologies” to put their plans into action.

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“At Microsoft, the future is rooted in the advancement of AI technologies,” said Nagraj Kashyap, corporate vice president and global head of Microsoft Ventures. “We’re excited to launch this competition with a strong group of venture capitalists that recognizes the importance of leveraging these technologies to amplify human ingenuity and power innovation in AI forward.”
Microsoft casts a wider AI net
Microsoft is working to promote the positive impacts of AI. Innovate AI will provide it with more startups to point to as examples of what’s possible. The company has recently expanded its AI for Earth initiative, a scheme which helps organisations using AI to protect the planet. The decision to now make long-term investments in forward-thinking startups at the edge of the technology demonstrates Microsoft’s intention to eventually bring AI to the masses.
Firms have until the end of the calendar year to submit their idea. 10 finalists from each region will be selected to participate in a live “pitch-off” in the spring. This event will be overseen by a panel of experts who’ll evaluate the submissions. They’ll determine the one finalist from each region who receives the prize.
To be eligible for entry, startups must be directly focused on AI or machine learning and can’t have received over $4 million in previous funding. Microsoft wants to be working with early-stage companies that are yet to be noticed elsewhere. The firm intends to help startups move from having an idea to being a successful AI innovator, diversifying the technology’s applications.

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