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An enduring feature of the pandemic will be the increased deployment of automation in the enterprise. A 2020 survey found that 66% of organizations were piloting solutions to automate at least one business process, up from 57% in 2018. Moreover, McKinsey estimates that in about 60% of occupations, at least one-third of workday activities could be automated, leveraging a combination of AI, machine learning, natural language processing, and other complex technologies.

One of the more popular automation technologies is robotic process automation (RPA), a software solution that lets customers build, deploy, and manage robots that emulate certain human actions. RPA can eliminate some manual tasks within office workflows and processes, not to mention specific tasks like payroll, tax compliance, governance, and reporting. 

Underlining the uptake, Gartner expects spending on RPA software — a market that was worth $1.6 billion in 2020 — to have grown nearly 20% in 2021. Unsurprisingly, an expanding number of business process automation services and apps are competing for dominance. RPA vendor Blue Prism has raised over $120 million, Kryon $40 million, and FortressIQ $30 million. Last July, UiPath nabbed $750 million — two years after its chief rival, Automation Anywhere, pulled in $290 million.

But the current state of the automation segment hasn’t discouraged newer arrivals like Montreal, Canada-based Wrk from throwing their hats in the ring. Wrk, which offers a range of tools including bots, API integrations, and RPA to automate business tasks, today announced that it raised $43.56 million ($55 million CAD) across seed, series A, and debt financing rounds from investors including Real Ventures, Desjardins Capital, Web.com CEO Sharon Rowlands and other individual angels.

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Workflow automation

Founded by CEO Mohannad-El Barachi and COO David Li in 2019, Wrk combines automation with a workforce of human experts and app integrations. The company’s “building block”-style platform is designed to allow users to build workflows with a mix of technologies, including preconfigured bots.

Barachi — who holds a Bachelor of computer science — previously co-launched digital marketing platform SweetIQ before going on to cofound Wrk. Li formerly handled strategy and execution operations at SweetIQ and headed up digital transformation at Yellow Pages.

“One of the biggest challenges in the wider automation space is that, despite the sophistication of many automation solutions in the market, certain gaps still exist that make it almost impossible to guarantee end-to-end solutions for their clients. This, allied with a plethora of complex implementation processes and high upfront costs, have, for a long time, prevented many from accessing automation,” Barachi told VentureBeat via email. “We built Wrk to simplify the process of automation-adoption through our fully customizable Wrkflows.”

Wrk partners with clients to refine automations, only charging for workflows once they’re completed. Human workers complete tasks that Wrk’s robots can’t finish themselves, using an in-browser workstation to gain temporary access to the necessary systems. Wrk does quality assurance testing to ensure that the workflows don’t break, which can happen whenever underlying systems change.

“As Wrk is a hybrid delivery engine, it uses human-generated data to generate the datasets necessary to power RPAs, bots, and machine-learning driven automated processes. Every day, Wrk generates tens of millions of human interactions through its community of human workers which are then used to create automated Wrk Actions,” Barachi explained. “Wrk transforms end-to-end processes into ‘Wrkflows’ that consist of individualized units of Wrk, each with a clear input and output. By moving operations from unstructured, manual processes to automated Wrkflows, organizations can move from fixed costs to variable costs, all while collecting valuable unit-based data on the cost of delivery and the steps required to train and refine sophisticated automation.”

Contract workers

Not all tech vendors treat contract workers well. Infamously, the contractors who helped to develop a major AI dataset, ImageNet, made a median wage of $2 per hour, with only 4% making more than the U.S. federal minimum wage. Two years ago, transcription service Rev faced a massive backlash when it slashed minimum rates for its transcribers from $0.45 to $0.30 per word transcribed.

Wrk charges workers a service fee and prices jobs according to the time it takes to complete them, their complexity, the skill level required, and how in-demand they are. But the company claims that its pricing algorithms are “built with a foundational pricing structure that is informed by [a worker’s] region’s minimum living wage.” For example, if workers complete the most basic tasks on the platform for an entire workweek, they would earn no less than a week’s minimum wage for their region.

“It is important to us that Wrkers are paid fairly for the work that they do with us, and are earning enough to support a healthy life in their region,” the company writes. “Payments are made on a monthly basis — with a minimum of $50 USD — and sent to [a worker’s] account. If [they] do not make the $50 USD minimum on any given month, [their] balance will simply be added to the next month.”

An expanding market

The benefits of automation can be significant. According to a Salesforce report, 73% of IT leaders say that employees are saving between 10% and 50% of the time they previously spent doing manual tasks with automation. In an ADP survey, meanwhile, over half of all organizations agree that business process automation minimizes human error in the workflow.

“We have found that our mission to simplify how work is done has really resonated in the past two years as an increasing number of organizations see the value in adopting a flexible form of automation which allows them to accomplish more with limited resources and focus on the tasks, projects, and campaigns that matter most in a remote or hybrid-working environment,” Barachi said. “What’s more, as organizations continue to adapt to a more competitive hiring market, the type of work that an employer can offer future and existing employees is vital as they attempt to attract and retain the best talent.”

But roadblocks often stand in the way. K2, a process automation software provider that was recently acquired by Nintex, reports that businesses find technical complexity and cost to be among the top adoption challenges in realizing the benefits of automation. Executives also see investing in retraining and upskilling workers as a barrier — and increasingly, an urgent priority.

Despite this, 60-employee Wrk says that it’s grown its client roster to a “diverse” set of brands in North American and Europe, including Cision, Gannett, Silicon Valley Bank, and nonprofit Penny Appeal. The company plans to spend the proceeds from the latest funding rounds on developing its platform and hiring engineering talent.

“Given the unique hybrid and innovative nature of Wrk, we fill a gap in the automation market that there’s currently no other solution for,” Barachi said. The combination of the most efficient automation technology with the immeasurable value-add of human cognition means that we really are operating in a unique space right now. Our platform exists to redefine how work is done, and we cannot wait to leverage this round of funding to continue on this exciting journey.”

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