Microsoft has announced it will work with several venture capital firms to provide over £3m in specially targeted funding to empower women’s innovation and entrepreneurship.
The company’s corporate venture fund, named M12, is to partner with startup investors SVB Financial Group and EQT Ventures to create the Female Founders Competition.
Executive Vice President for Business Development Peggy Johnson wrote on Microsoft’s official blog that the competition will “accelerate access to capital for women entrepreneurs”. Citing recent research on funding for new tech startups, Johnson said only 2.2% of total global venture capital funding went to women in 2017. She said the numbers do not reflect the fact that increasing gender diversity among tech company founders correlates with greater long-term profitability.
Microsoft has already reaped tangible rewards from finding innovative startups through funding competitions. Late last year, it sought applications from new firms in the business of researching and developing artificial intelligence technology. It eventually handed out over £2.65m. Some startups funded through global startup competitions, such as AI developer Bonsai, have eventually been wholly acquired by Microsoft.
Microsoft’s goals with the Female Founders Competition go beyond searching for the latest in tech ideas, however. Citing diversity as an important part of its culture, Johnson believes the company has a responsibility as an industry leader to:
“…support entrepreneurs with new thinking, fresh voices and diverse points of view.”
M12 and its partners are asking tech startups from North America, Europe and Israel with at least one woman on their executive team to enter the Female Founders Competition. Applicants will firstly compete for the chance to participate in initial pitch meetings late in 2018, where they will present their ideas as a solution to a critical business problem. From there, 10 finalists will be selected, with two winners each receiving over £1.5m in venture funding from Microsoft and its partners.
Another of Microsoft’s seed programs, the Imagine Cup, recently reported it had gifted almost £100,000 to two students from Canada who have invented smartARM, a robotic arm capable of adjusting its grip via an AI algorithm. After competing with around 3,000 other teams from 33 countries, the mechatronics engineering and computer science students from the University of Toronto won first place with their 3D printed device.
The smartARM has a camera mounted in its palm to assess whatever it is holding and adjust its grip accordingly. Its machine learning algorithm means its ability to handle objects improves with each use. With its object handling history automatically uploading to the cloud, users can switch to a completely different device and expect the same performance.
The students were able to meet with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, along with the two runners up. The next best teams had built a translation device to help parents of newborns understand their baby’s needs from its cries, and developed software to help those with impaired hearing to isolate voices in crowded environments.
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