Microsoft just bought a startup it invested in -- and it built its business on a key Google technology

Mark Hammond/BonsaiBonsai CEO Mark Hammond
  • Microsoft has purchased Bonsai, an artificial intelligence startup based in Berkeley, CA.
  • Microsoft was actually an investor in Bonsai, through its M12 corporate arm.
  • Notably, Bonsai’s tech is built on top of TensorFlow – an AI technology originally developed at Google. Microsoft doesn’t seem to mind very much.

First, Microsoft invested. Then, Microsoft acquired.

On Wednesday, Microsoft announced the acquisition of Bonsai, an artificial intelligence startup based in Berkeley, California.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed. All told, Bonsai had raised a relatively modest $US13.6 million since it started up in 2014.

There are a few notable things about this acquisition. First,Bonsai was an investment from Microsoft Ventures, which has since renamed itself M12. Plus, Bonsai CEO Mark Hammond is himself an ex-Microsoft employee, working on Windows 95 and the first-ever version of Internet Explorer.

Second, Bonsai’s whole business is built on TensorFlow – a free, open source artificial intelligence technology originally created at Google, which has gone on to become mega-popular with software developers. TensorFlow is actually an alternative to Microsoft’s own CNTK toolkit for AI developers.

Still, when Bonsai raised its last funding round in 2017,Hammond told Business Insider that Microsoft didn’t consider the fact that it was powered by Google to be a dealbreaker. Microsoft is more interested in serving its customers than pushing any one technology, Hammond said.

“The barrier for them is the objective,” he said at the time. “Microsoft’s vision and messaging match with ours surprisingly well.”

Specifically, Bonsai specialises in what Hammond has called “machine teaching,” which is basically technology for training AI and other autonomous systems, figuring out how to fine-tune them for better performance. Late last year, Bonsai beat Google’s DeepMind in training a robot arm how to stack up blocks.

In doing so, Bonsai says that it can help developers build more AI, faster.

This jibes with Microsoft’s overall push into artificial intelligence, as it tries to make its Azure cloud platform the premiere home for developers building smarter apps for consumers and businesses. Indeed, Hammond and the entire Bonsai team is expected to stay on through the acquisition.

As far as working with Google’s TensorFlow goes, this isn’t the first time that Microsoft has purchased a startup in a similar boat. In 2017, Microsoft purchased Deis, a startup building on Kubernetes – a software tool that was, again, created by Google and that became an open source phenomenon. Last we heard, Deis is still at it, helping Kubernetes run better on Azure.

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