Humane, a secretive AI startup founded by ex-Apple employees, raises another $100M
A startup founded by ex-Apple design and engineering team Imran Chaudhri and Bethany Bongiorno, Humane, today raised another $100 million to build what it calls an "integrated device and cloud services platform" for AI.
Humane's work is shrouded in mystery. But its latest round of funding, a Series C, attracted a laundry list of notable investors, including Kindred Ventures (which led the round), SK Networks, LG Technology Ventures, Microsoft, Volvo Cars Tech Fund, Tiger Global, Qualcomm Ventures and OpenAI CEO and co-founder Sam Altman.
To date, Humane has raised $230 million from existing and previous investors, including Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. Its workforce has grown correspondingly larger, now numbering exactly 200 employees.
"This Series C round presented an opportunity to raise money through equity, and to bring on board great VCs and strategic partners who would like to participate in equity as the company grows," Chaudhri told TechCrunch in an email interview. "At Humane, we're building a first-of-its-kind device and services platform -- we're growing fast, and we’ve been focused on innovation, research and development."
Those lofty promises are characteristic of Humane, which generated buzz after bringing on dozens of decorated ex-Apple employees responsible for the iPhone’s touchscreen keyboard, elements of Apple's industrial design and infrastructure for Apple services like iCloud, Apple Pay and Home. Chaudhri himself spearheaded the design of the iPhone's home screen, while Bongiorno helped to lead software development for iPhone, iPad and later the Mac.
Neither Chaudhri nor Bongiorno are ready to talk about what Humane's been building for the past five years -- yet. The husband-wife duo promise a reveal this spring. But Humane's patent portfolio and hiring reveals some clues.
In 2020, Humane filed an application with the USPTO (spotted by 9to5Google) for a "body-worn device" that uses a "laser projection system" instead of a display -- essentially projected AR glasses that can identify objects in the real world and apply digital imagery to them. And as recently as three years ago, Humane was hiring Android developers to create apps for "personal live broadcasting" as well as "senior monitoring," "memory recall" "and "personal guide."
Noted blogger John Gruber paints a slightly different picture -- one informed by a leaked copy of Humane's 2021 pitch deck. He writes: "The deck describes something akin to a Star Trek communicator badge, with an AI-connected always-on camera saving photos and videos to the cloud, and lidar sensors for world-mapping and detecting hand gestures."
Peeling back the curtains on its process somewhat, Humane did reveal several strategic tie-ups with its investors today.
Humane co-founders Bethany Bongiorno and Imran Chaudhri. Image Credits: Humane
Humane says that it's partnering with SK Networks and Microsoft to bring its platform and services to market, with Microsoft supplying the cloud processing power and SK Networks handling distribution. Meanwhile, Humane's collaborating with OpenAI to integrate its tech into the startup's device -- whatever form it ends up taking, exactly. LG, for its part, is working with Humane on R&D projects for the next phase of its product lifecycle as well as adapting Humane's tech for smart home devices. And Volvo's teaming up with Humane on a potential automotive industry offering.
Qualcomm is also a partner, Chaudhri says, which would make sense if the aforementioned patent is anything to go by. In addition to the laser projection system, the patent diagrams show a Qualcomm Snapdragon chip paired with a camera, 3D camera, depth sensor, heart rate sensor and a wearable battery.
If that all sounds rather vague, it is, from the caveated language (e.g. "potential automotive industry offering") to the lack of concrete practical details. Is the collaboration with OpenAI merely a customer-vendor relationship or something deeper, given Altman's personal involvement? How could Humane's tech find a fit both in the smart home and automotive spaces?
Beyond asserting that Humane is focused on "trust and privacy from day zero," the company isn't saying. Chaudhri emphasized, repeatedly, Humane's investment in AI.
"AI can have a transformative impact on most aspects of our everyday lives, but it does require a large amount of data to do so," she said. "We are effectively building devices and platforms for a new era, which means an ongoing process of development and redevelopment."
Call me cynical, but I'm wary of startups with huge war chests of capital but no commercialized product to speak of.
One that comes to mind is Magic Leap, which generated enormous hype years before revealing its first prototype but ultimately fizzled and very nearly died. Like Humane, Magic Leap had impressive investors attached to it, including AT&T, Google and Alibaba Group, and partnerships with content creators like Disney's Lucasfilm. But the company's tech disappointed, leading backers to cut Magic Leap's valuation and company leadership to pivot from the consumer market to enterprise.
Magic Leap's not the only high-profile hardware misfire in recent years. Android founder Andy Rubin's Essential shut down after promising an entire ecosystem of products but delivering only a single Android smartphone. Nothing, started by ex-OnePlus CEO Carl Pei, has been marginally more successful -- but experienced its own challenges.
Then, there's this from Gruber's blog:
"Apple, I am reliably informed, wants nothing to do with Humane. Bongiorno and Chaudhri did not leave on good terms, with Chaudhri in particular being perceived as taking excessive personal credit for work done by a larger team. I don’t know if that’s true or not, only that that’s how he’s seen, by some, in Cupertino."
I'm not suggesting Humane will go the way of Magic Leap, Essential or Nothing. It's been managing expectations better, for one. But even successful hardware startups have eventually come down to Earth. Look at Pebble, or another company founded by a pedigreed ex-Apple team, Nest.
In short: history has shown us that there are no guarantees, the best tech talent under one roof or no.
I'll leave you with this quote from Steve Jang, the founder and managing partner at Kindred:
"When I originally met the Humane team and led their seed round in 2019, we were blown away by the vision of AI and contextual computing. The founders, Bethany and Imran, and much of the team also led by Patrick Gates, CTO, had come from Apple and served as an integral part of designing and building the iPhone, iPad, Watch and iOS platform. In their time and work there, they experienced the power and the limitations of the smartphone era. In our very first discussion, we were excited by their vision to bring a more humane and personalized computing experience. The Humane team continues to make great progress toward a future of AI that is human-centric and enabling."
A tantalizing prospect? Sure. I'll believe it when I see it, though.