Samsung's startup arm launches AI-focused fund for early-stage companies

The Q Fund, run by Samsung NEXT in Silicon Valley, won't have an investment cap but will focus on companies early in their operations.

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Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
3 min read

Along with building the Bixby voice assistant, Samsung also plans to invest in AI startups. 

Joshua Goldman/CNET

Samsung's making another big bet on artificial intelligence.

The company on Wednesday said its Silicon Valley-based Samsung NEXT business has launched a new fund to invest in early-stage startups "solving AI problems, as well as those using AI to solve computer science problems." 

The Q Fund doesn't have a cap, but it falls under Samsung NEXT's overall $150 million investment fund. The new AI fund will invest only in seed and series A investments, the earliest stages of a startup's operations. Such investments typically are up to $1 million, though the Samsung NEXT fund managers can invest more, as well. 

Watch this: Siri vs. Google Assistant vs. Bixby

"We want to invest in the people and teams who will try new approaches to lay the groundwork for what AI will be," Ajay Singh, one of the managers of the Q Fund, said in a statement. 

That includes some riskier startups that other VC firms may not consider, he added during a meeting with reporters on Tuesday ahead of the announcement. That largely means technology that's five years or further away.

And instead of looking for companies with clear business plans, Samsung instead plans to seek out startups that are working on tough technical problems -- without necessarily knowing how to make money from their offerings. 

"Once you figure out how to solve the foundational problems in society, the business model is easy," Vincent Tang, the fund's other manager, said Tuesday during a meeting with reporters. 

The new Q Fund is just the latest effort by Samsung to tap into artificial intelligence, a field that has the potential to change the way we use technology and even live. Anyone who carries a modern smartphone uses AI through Apple's Siri or Google's Assistant, and Amazon's Alexa has become popular for speakers and other smart home devices. Samsung itself jumped into the market last year with its Bixby digital assistant that helps you control your Galaxy smartphone, TV or refrigerator

Software struggles

Samsung has had difficulty generating enthusiasm for many of its software products. The company leans on Google's Android software to run the vast majority of its smartphones and tablets, while its own Tizen operating system has struggled to gain a foothold. Meanwhile, Samsung has scrapped many of the services it's created, like the Samsung Media Hub and Milk Video.

Gaining a stronger foothold in software and services is where Samsung NEXT comes in. The group -- run by David Eun, who Samsung last month promoted to the role of chief innovation officer -- partners with and invests in startups working on technology that can help Samsung moved beyond its hardware focus. The group led Samsung's acquisitions of LoopPay, which provides the technology behind the Samsung Pay mobile payments service; and its purchase of SmartThings, the company powering Samsung's smart home strategy. 

While Samsung has just officially launched its new Q Fund, it already has made seven AI investments, including in covariant.ai. The startup, co-founded by former University of California at Berkeley students and a current Berkeley professor, is developing AI software that makes it easy to teach robots new, complex skills. Samsung noted that investment shows its interest in startups that replace "conventional algorithms, data structures and general purpose computer programs with learned systems."

"We're at a critical juncture in the development of robotics -- one where conventional techniques have reached their limits," Pieter Abbeel, a professor at UC Berkeley and a co-founder of covariant.ai, said in a press release. 

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