Microsoft, suffice it to say, is a very big company. But even with its vast resources, it can't go out and talk to every developer working on the next big thing.
"There are many great companies pushing the boundary of [artificial intelligence] that we can't reach, even with our efforts," Microsoft Ventures head Nagraj Kashyap tells Business Insider.
That brings us to today, as Microsoft announces Innovate.AI, a global contest to find the small startup with the biggest idea for how artificial intelligence can solve a real problem. In total, this so-called Innovate.AI contest will offer a $3.5 million prize pool.
Here's how it works. Microsoft is teaming up with three venture capital firms, representing three regions around the world: North America, the European Union, and Israel. In North America, Microsoft is teaming up with Madrona Venture Group, the company's neighbors in Seattle.
Companies can enter the contest through the end of 2017. Ten finalists in each region will be picked to pitch in-person. One winner in each region will get $1 million, plus another $500,000 in credits for the Microsoft Azure cloud service. One additional $500,000 cash prize will be given out to a startup using AI for public good.
The big idea, says Madrona's S. “Soma” Somasegar, is to find the "really really early startups" who today are toiling in relative obscurity, and give them a leg up with money and connections they can use to make it big — "something like American Idol," he says.
To enter, a startup needs to have raised less than $4 million, which is a relative pittance in Silicon Valley terms. In that light, says Kashyap, Microsoft and its VC partners are looking for less of a finished product, and more for a really big idea from founders they can believe in. The only requirement is that it puts AI to work in a practical way.
The real goal, he says, is to push AI forward as a whole. They're looking for startups that are "not just good investments," but that "make AI more accessible," says Kashyap.
And ultimately, the contest's sponsors would like to see these startups push themselves to new heights.
"You should be thinking big," says Kashyap. "Think big, and focus on the problem space you are solving," agrees Somasegar.