Workday bets on machine learning with new venture fund

It has already invested in four data-science startups

Workday headquarters in Pleasanton, California.

Workday headquarters in Pleasanton, California.

There's no shortage of software vendors paying lip service to data science in this analytics-infused era, but Workday is putting its money where its mouth is.

On Tuesday, the company is announcing the launch of Workday Ventures, a new fund it will use to identify, invest in and partner with young startups that apply data-science and machine-learning in the areas of analytics, applications, security and platform technologies.

"We believe the last 10 years of enterprise software have been about migration to the cloud," said Dan Beck, senior vice president of technology products at Workday. "We think the next 10 years is going to be about machine learning and companies making sense of data."

Workday aims to invest in between 10 and 12 startups by the end of the year, according to Adeyemi Ajao, vice president of technology product strategy. The company says it has no particular goal in mind for how much it will spend.

The company also disclosed Tuesday the first four companies that will benefit from the fund: Jobr, a mobile-only job aggregator; Metanautix, which focuses on the big-data supply chain with a dedicated compute engine; security platform ThinAir; and Web translation service Unbabel.

"They're all very different companies, but they all describe themselves as machine-learning, data-science companies," Ajao explained. "What we bring to the table is not just our expertise and ability to understand what the companies are doing but also our experience in taking products to market."

Last fall, Workday announced Workday Insights, a new suite of applications designed to tap data science and machine-learning algorithms to help users make smarter financial and workforce decisions. In April it rolled out Workday Talent Insights, the first in that new line.

Beck and Ajao declined to specify how much Workday invested in the first four companies. They stressed that the investment fund is strategic and free of many pressures that afflict traditional venture-capital funds.

"We're not interested in board seats," Ajao said. "We want to be very flexible and nimble. We want to focus on the relationship with the entrepreneurs."

Workday Ventures has analyzed more than 100 companies on connections made largely through its own networks. It zeroed in on 60 and did due diligence on about 30 of them.

In addition to funding, selected companies will have access to guidance from Workday executives, board members, engineers, customers and partners.

"We like to believe that Workday Ventures will bring a different perspective than a typical VC fund," Beck said.

While Workday's investors will assume no formal role in the companies they invest in, the company is open to the possibility of tapping those startups' innovations for its own offerings, Beck and Ajao said.

"Over the next 10 years, winners and losers will be delineated by who's doing the best machine learning," Beck said. "Workday wants to stay at the forefront -- that's a real opportunity for us."

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