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Horizons Ventures backs AI startup Fano Labs in first Hong Kong investment

Horizons Ventures, the VC firm founded by Hong Kong’s richest man Li Ka-Shing, has made a rare early-stage investment after it backed AI startup Fano Labs.

Horizons has invested in the likes of Facebook, Razer, Slack, Improbable, Spotify and more, and now it is putting undisclosed money into Fano Labs, which recently graduated AI accelerator program Zeroth. This deal also marks the firm’s first investment in a Hong Kong-based company.

Founded by academics, Fano Labs uses speech recognition and natural language processing to help out at call centers. No, the robots aren’t taking those jobs (yet) but they are helping call centers to run more efficiently.

That’s to say that Fano Labs’ technology is used to listen back over all recorded call center agent interactions with customers. As anyone who ever called a center knows, “your call may be recorded” and that’s because it is checked over to ensure the agent has performed within the boundaries of the law (particularly around financial services) while recordings are used to evaluate staff, check on customer feedback and train new joiners.

Call center managers don’t have the time to check through them all, and that’s where Fano Labs steps in. Its tech goes through the call center’s entire log to tell the busy manager which ones they should listen to, rather than picking them at random.

“They only listen to one to two percent of all calls, typically,” Fano Labs CEO and co-founder Dr. Miles Wen told TechCrunch in an interview. “Some banks in China claim five percent but they are lying, they can’t do it.”

Even when they do, Wen said that “even the best listeners will miss half” of the points for follow-up. Fano Labs also helps by picking out the key excerpts and helping call center managers ensure they are on top of each call they listen to.

Fano Labs was started in 2015 by Wen, a PhD graduate from the University of Hong Kong (HKU), and Professor Victor OK Li, Chair of Information Engineering and Head of the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at HKU. It began focused on chatbots for customer service but flipped its focus to tackle call centers.

Fano Labs founders Victor OK Li and Miles Wen (left and right)

“It’s a real pain point and there aren’t so many solutions that can do it,” Wen said. “We plan to go very aggressive to call centers — it’s important to establish a market and be the best player — but in the long run, we’ll find new applications before this market gets saturated. We can adapt our technology.”

Initially, the startup is focused on developing its speech recognition technology for more Hong Kong and Mainland China dialects to help with call decoding. Already, it can handle Cantonese, Sichuanese, English and Mandarin, and its clients include property developers, utility companies and hearing companies.

“Horizons has a heritage of investing in industry-shaping speech and NLP technologies starting from Siri, Viv, and now Fano Labs. We love deep-tech companies that apply this AI power to improve critical human communications problems. Fano Labs’ solution for multiple dialects allows for this rewind of the Tower of Babel story,” said Horizons Ventures’ Phil Chen.

“Fano Labs is working on two big problems — analyzing other Chinese dialects and tackling the Chinese market. We think those big problems represent a unique opportunity for growth, and Horizons agreed with our assessment by making Fano their first ever Hong Kong investment. Miles represents the founders that we like at Zeroth — determined to solve hard problems, focused on a market that’s different, and able to learn extremely quickly,” Tak Lo, partner at Zeroth, told TechCrunch.

Fano Labs currently has 12 staff but Wen said it plans to double that number over the next year.


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