McDonald’s to buy Israeli-founded startup to bring voice tech to drive-thrus

Apprente, based in Silicon Valley, has developed a tech to automate voice orders supporting many languages and accents

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

A McDonald's restaurant in Indianopolis. (Getty Images)
A McDonald's restaurant in Indianopolis. (Getty Images)

McDonald’s Corporation has entered an agreement to buy Israeli-founded, Silicon Valley based startup Apprente, “a leader in the field of conversational voice-based technology,” the fast food giant said in a statement Tuesday.

The technology will allow for “faster and simpler and more accurate ordering” through speech at McDonald’s drive-thru stations, the statement said. According to the deal, Apprente’s employees will become part of the US firm’s global technology team. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The Apprente team – made up of workers with PhDs in machine learning and computational linguistics – will also form the base of a new, internal team at McDonald’s called McD Tech Labs, that will work closely with the firm’s Innovation Center just outside Chicago. The skills of both teams will help McDonald’s meet the changing needs of customers, the statement said.

The Israeli startup has developed a technology that enables the automation of voice ordering, supporting a variety of languages and accents and complicated orders.

Kosher McDonald’s restaurant in Ashkelon, Israel. (Creative Commons via JTA)

Apprente was set up in 2017 by CEO Itamar Ariel, an AI researcher and a former professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Tennessee. He has degrees, BA, MS, MBA and PhD, from Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, Israel. Moshe Looks, co-founder and CTO, is a former AI and software engineer team leader at Google’s Machine Intelligence Group. He has a degree in computer science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a PhD in machine learning from Washington University, according to the Apprente website.

The startup has raised $4.8 million to date by investors including AME Cloud Ventures, Morado Ventures and Greylock Partners, according to Crunchbase. The firm employs 16 workers in their offices in Mountain View, California.

The initial focus of the Apprente team will be to enhance tech for use in the McDonald’s drive-thru, but the applications can be expanded, McDonald’s said.

“The broader voice-based technology also has the potential to reach customers when, where and how they want through incorporation into mobile ordering or kiosks,” the statement said.

The deal follows the fast food giant’s acquisition in March of Israel’s Dynamic Yield Ltd., a startup whose software enables the personalization of content to specific users. The two acquisitions are in line with the firm’s initiatives introduced over the last three years to improve “both the restaurant employee and customer experience.” This includes the expansion of McDelivery, as well as the development of McDonald’s Global Mobile App, Mobile Order and Pay, indoor and outdoor digital menu boards, and self-order kiosks, the statement said.

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