Navigating 2020: An AI startup story

Original article was published by Massimiliano Versace on Artificial Intelligence on Medium

Navigating 2020: An AI startup story

Building an AI business in the middle of a Pandemic

Image courtesy of Pixabay

On the morning of March 12th, it was with a heavy heart, that I spoke with my management team about our decision to not renew the lease of our Seaport headquarters of Boston-based AI startup Neurala.

Born and raised in Italy, I had heard enough real-life stories from my friends and family. What many were hoping was a bad flu impacting only other corners of the world, turned out to be a global pandemic wreaking havoc in my home country, and on its way to Boston.

Little did I know then, this was not only a matter of “working from home for a bit,” but the beginning of a new phase in life, where all aspects of our business would need to be reconsidered completely.

The AI Balancing Act

AI startups are not for the faint of heart — new tech entering new markets, seeking a repeatable business model. AI is far from being a “slam dunk,” and running a small startup competing with giants like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, is a challenge in and of itself — without a global pandemic to contend with.

In March 2020, this became even harder. After founding Neurala, we began working with DARPA and NASA to design innovative AI able to run and learn on small compute hardware. We were learning every step of the way, so we entered 2020 with the conviction that we had found our sweet spot — the right product for the right market.

After some successful proofs of concept, where we helped manufacturing companies deploy smart cameras to augment the human eye in spotting defects in products at staggering speeds, we geared up to launch our new software that would enable anybody — without AI expertise — to implement AI directly on the production line, without writing code, in minutes.

Launching a product in March 2020 turned out to be problematic.

The irony of a totally remote organization trying to launch — for the first time — a product intended for installation on premise, was not lost on us. Our customers, manufacturers in countries like Japan and Italy, were shutting down in rapid succession, with no re-opening in sight. Without the ability to travel, meet with customers, and troubleshoot the software, we decided to “hibernate”. We all took pay cuts to preserve jobs, set up our offices in our Boston homes to focus on product development, and feverishly geared up for a later launch.

Those were tough months. For many, work challenges were compounded by family obligations (i.e. managing young children who were also home from school). With my wife, co-founder and COO of the company we founded, we have four children ranging from 1 to 9 years old, so the difficulties were not lost on us. But we persevered and remained laser-focused on the road ahead. As a team, 100% of our activities converged on our product launch which we successfully completed in June.

“Eureka!” Moment

By that time, something unexpected happened. At no point in my 25-year-career in AI had I felt such a turn of the tide on the dialogue around AI, robotics and automation. Instead of “Aren’t you afraid you are building Terminator?”, the questions I was being asked were more along the lines of “When do you think we can get enough AI to help solve this pandemic?”

It was as if, all at a sudden, there was a collective realization that the lack of automation and AI was actually hurting humanity at a time when these technologies were needed most. With factories unable to operate because of the lack of available workforce, and with automation nowhere near the level to be able to work without human supervision, companies were now asking when they could test our product and automate quality inspection in order to build and ship the products their customers needed.

Changing of the Tide

In the span of a few months, the demand for AI in manufacturing — and fortunately, our software — has grown to a point where we have decided it is time to re-open a Boston office. Despite anything positive bringing a strange feeling in 2020, in August we pulled the trigger and rented space to accommodate 10 people (out of 40+).

My favorite definition of Einstein’s relativity is: “How Long A Minute Is Depends On Which Side Of The Bathroom Door You’re On”. The past six months have definitely felt like an eternity to me, with each day filled with uncertainty dilating the sense of passing time.

I believe these challenging days are the ones where people who bond around a common goal can rally and find a way forward that might not have been found in ordinary times.