Tokyo-based AOS Mobile has raised close to US$2.7 million in a funding round led by Fenox Venture Capital. Mitsubishi UFJ Capital, Accord Ventures, Voyage Ventures, Ibis Capital Partners, and Evolable Asia also invested.
AOS uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help enterprises communicate through mobile with their customers. Some of the larger brands that use AOS solutions include airline ANA, taxi firm Nihon Kotsu, telco Freetel, ecommerce site Zozotown, pawn shop app Cash.jp, which was recently acquired (link in Japanese) by ecommerce player DMM.com.
Its products include AOSSMS, which enables businesses to send SMS text messages simultaneously and securely to multiple recipients, who are then able to respond via SMS. This platform has been used for purposes such as advertising, or to conduct customer surveys.
Another AOS product is InCircle, a high-security messenger that can be used as an office chat app.
The company also creates chatbots that can handle customer service interactions, freeing up human personnel and other resources that can be re-assigned to more complex tasks.
These products have their roots in evidence restoration technology developed by AOS Mobile’s former parent company, AOS Technologies, from which it was spun-out in March 2015.
AOS Technologies – which holds a 39 percent stake in AOS Mobile following the Fenox-led round – engineered a variety of tech solutions for use in legal services and law enforcement, including forensics and “ediscovery” tools.
These essentially involve identifying and extracting information that is hidden or difficult to access. The expertise AOS gained in this area gave it deep insights into digital security, and AOS Mobile was established to commercialize these technologies for customer services purposes.
“We had been analyzing and investigating SMS, consumer-based chat, email, and other forms of data on behalf of police departments and prosecutors’ offices when lawsuits happen,” AOS Mobile CEO Noriko Harada tells Tech in Asia. “So we knew the weak point of consumer-based chat and we knew that information can leak if an enterprise uses these tools.”
AOS, of course, is not the only Asian startup offering an office chat app or AI-driven customer service chatbots. Looking only at the latter cateogry, three others that have raised funding in recent months are Indonesia’s Kata.ai, and Singaporean outfits Active.ai, and Pixibo.
However, Harada suggests that AOS Mobile’s integration of SMS messaging with office chat and chatbot technology is what sets it apart. “There are many competitors in business chat market,” she says. “Also, there are many in SMS aggregator platforms. But there are no direct competitors who have both, which makes our position unique in the market.”
Challenging the status quo
Former SAP consultant Harada, who joined AOS Technologies in 2002 and spent several years in the US building the company’s business there, is one of those extremely rare things in Japan – a female CEO. According to nonprofit Catalyst, only 7 percent of senior executive positions in Japan are occupied by women, and nearly three-quarters of Japanese businesses don’t have any women in senior management.
But Harada thinks that tech startups have a major role to play in bucking the trend. And AOS Mobile isn’t the only one. Satellite-sharing platform Infostellar is another female-fronted Japanese startup to have secured funding recently, raising US$7.3 million in its September series A round. Its co-founder and CEO is Naomi Kurahara, a graduate of France’s International Space University.
I didn’t feel any gender issues until I got married and had a child.
Harada says that startups’ typically open-minded approach to things like flexible schedules, remote working, and using technology gives mothers like her a chance to challenge the traditional barriers they face in corporate Japan.
“I didn’t feel any gender issues until I got married and had a child. I took maternity leave for four months, but I worked remotely by Skype and email,” she says, adding as an aside that this was the time she really began to see the value in office chat apps.
Harada says she wanted to return to work earlier, but her inability to find babysitters or daycare centers hampered her plans. She says she visited almost 100 daycare centers, including private ones and government-run institutions, all of which had extremely long waiting lists.
“In Japan, there are not enough daycare centers, so many women have to give up their career after having children. This really is an issue. I was luckily selected by a public daycare center which is located close to my office.”
But the problems didn’t end there. According to Harada, public daycare centers can’t take care of children who have a temperature above 37.5 degrees celsius – which indicates they have a fever, a fairly commonplace occurrence among children of that age. Harada faced regular dashes between her home, the office, and the daycare center in the middle of the working day whenever her child registered a high temperature. But AOS Mobile’s flexible working practices allowed her to manage the situation.
“All these kinds of things prevent working mothers from getting executive positions in Japan,” she says. “But our company let employees select working at home remotely and on flexi-time. I believe tech companies should take the lead to offer various work styles which can really help for working women, especially those who have children.”
We cannot determine how talented someone is by their gender.
Harada says that Japanese companies should evaluate employees by their performance, regardless of how much time they spend in the office.
“Still, many companies evaluate employees by amount of work, by long hours, and not by results. We really need to forget about gender. We cannot determine how talented someone is by their gender.”
Ultimately, it is Japanese industry that loses out, she argues.
“Many talented female employees, especially those having children, give up their career. So if you consider supporting them with daycare, for example, they will really appreciate that and contribute to the business. Companies should also let male employees help their families. Many people still think it is a female’s work to take care of children and do housework.”
AOS Mobile said in a statement that it will use the funds it has raised to enhance the AI of its chatbot and further develop data tools so that clients can analyze interactions between their customers and the chatbot.
The company will also invest in new management and sales hires, with an eye on entering other Asian markets and an IPO. It currently operates in South Korea, Thailand, and the US, alongside its native Japan. Harada says that India is a key expansion target for AOS Mobile in the months to come.
Converted from Japanese yen. Rate: US$1 = JP¥111.
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