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Battling Giants

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In the summer of 2013, as Matthew Zeiler was close to finishing a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence at New York University, he seemed to have every tech giant in the palm of his hand. Zeiler had left an internship with a Google AI group a few weeks earlier when he got a call from an unknown number while he was running along the Hudson River. It was Alan Eustace, then a senior vice president of engineering at Google, who had heard about Zeiler’s AI chops. Eustace wanted Zeiler to join permanently. To entice him, Eustace told him he would make an offer that was among the highest Google had ever made to a new graduate, Zeiler recalls. Zeiler won’t say how much he was offered, and Google declined to comment. But offers for top recruits with specific expertise can add up to several millions of dollars over four years, according to people with knowledge of the matter. Regardless, Google’s offer kicked off a bidding war for Zeiler and his know-how in deep learning, the vaunted branch of AI that’s driving major breakthroughs in computing.

Within days, Zeiler received a bigger offer from Microsoft, which Google promptly matched. Apple also wanted to chat, and when Zeiler flew out to Silicon Valley, Mark Zuckerberg personally sought to persuade him to join a new AI research group at Facebook. Zeiler respectfully turned them all down, deciding instead to start a company with an audacious goal: to compete with the giants that were courting him. “It was a crazy period,” Zeiler remembers. “I had this low-risk opportunity of joining a tech giant versus doing my own startup.”

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Zeiler says he knew that some of his algorithms worked better than Google’s on certain AI problems. “I knew I had to follow my gut,” he says.

Four years later, Zeiler’s New York City-based startup, Clarifai, is widely seen as one of the most promising in the crowded, buzzy field of machine learning. Clarifai offers image- and video-recognition tools for developers that rival those from Google, Microsoft and others. Much as Stripe and Twilio make it easy for programmers to tap into payments and communications capabilities, Clarifai gives its customers access to cutting-edge AI techniques that would cost millions to replicate. Companies like Unilever, BuzzFeed, Ubisoft and Staples U.K., as well as makers of medical devices and drones, use Clarifai to automatically analyze millions of images and videos. One of the company’s 100 or so customers, i-Nside, makes a smartphone accessory for imaging the inside of an eardrum and diagnosing ear diseases. Revenue, while still small, is expected to reach $10 million as early as next year, according to people close to the company.

That Clarifai has made it this far is, in and of itself, remarkable. In the past few years, AI – in particular a form of it called deep learning or deep neural networks – has emerged as the Next Big Thing in tech. Deep-learning techniques work loosely like the brain, with layers of “neurons” connected with “synapses.” The techniques are leading to substantial breakthroughs in areas like image and speech recognition, which in turn are ushering in advances in everything from medicine to self-driving cars to robotics.

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But there’s a problem: Amid the scramble for talent, the richest companies in tech have consumed entire university departments and acquired just about every AI startup they could get their hands on. Google has been the hungriest, with at least 11 AI-related acquisitions, spending upwards of $1 billion for just two of those, DeepMind and api.ai. Nearly all the upstarts that competed with Clarifai have been bought: Amazon acquired Orbeus; Salesforce got MetaMind; IBM snapped up AlchemyAPI. When it comes to image recognition, Clarifai is perhaps the only one left that can compete with Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft, all of which offer AI image-recognition tools to their cloud-computing customers. Clarifai has already rebuffed several multi-million-dollar acquisition offers, according to an early employee. Zeiler says he is determined to keep the company independent.

Clarifai has none of the might or reach of its rivals, but Zeiler insists, convincingly, that playing Switzerland in a global AI war is a valuable asset. Many large companies that want to incorporate AI into their products are fearful of handing over their data to giants like Google and Amazon. Photobucket is a case in point. After assessing competing tools from Amazon, Google and IBM, the image- and video-hosting service became one of Clarifai’s largest customers in terms of image volume. “Any time you’re dealing with Google, you have to wonder if they’re taking your data and training their own system,” says Mike Knowles, senior infrastructure developer at Photobucket. With its Photos app, Google competes with Photobucket. Zeiler says many other potential customers are at risk of colliding with the ever-expanding ambitions of tech’s biggest companies. “They open new divisions that compete with their customers,” Zeiler says. “That’s what we don’t do.”

At 30, Zeiler, who grew up in Beausejour, a small town in Canada some 40 miles northeast of Winnipeg, seems an unlikely challenger to tech’s powerhouses. With slicked-back hair that he cuts only a couple of times a year, he retains the disheveled air of a college student.

But Zeiler’s obsession with AI put him on a path to be mentored by some of the field’s biggest luminaries. Oddly enough, his interest in the field started with a video of a flickering flame that he saw while an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. The video, shown to him by a grad student, looked startlingly real, yet it was generated by a computer using an AI technique. Zeiler had just learned the basics of computer programming but hadn’t taken to it. The flame represented something different. No human had explicitly programmed it to move around in predetermined ways. Instead, a computer had been fed video data, deduced a pattern and generated the video on its own. “I was completely blown away,” Zeiler says. “It was a whole new way to get computers to do what you wanted. I had to learn more.”

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Graham Taylor, the Ph.D. candidate who had shown him the video, brought Zeiler into a research lab that was run by Geoffrey Hinton, widely considered one of the godfathers of neural networks. Taylor liked the ambitious yet amiable Zeiler. “He was smart but wasn’t a jerk,” Taylor says. In Hinton’s lab Zeiler worked on using AI techniques to track pigeons’ mating rituals, resulting in his first paper, “Learning Pigeon Behaviour Using Binary Latent Variables.” He graduated at the top of his class.

Zeiler then headed to NYU for a Ph.D., following Taylor, who was a postdoctoral student there. Taylor worked under Yann LeCun, another pioneer in deep learning, who now heads Facebook’s AI efforts. Eventually, Zeiler did two internships at Google and worked for Jeff Dean, the head of a then-new deep-learning research group called Google Brain. Hinton, who now works at Google and retains a position at the university, was part of that 20-person AI skunkworks. (Google Brain has since grown into one of the most high-profile and vital groups within Google.)

Zeiler founded Clarifai in November 2013 after his second internship, just as he was finishing his Ph.D. The company got off to an auspicious start. Zeiler tested his image-recognition algorithms in a highly regarded contest called ImageNet. The 2012 ImageNet had shaken the AI world when a team from Hinton’s lab in Toronto, using deep-learning techniques, cracked a huge barrier in accuracy: Its error rate was 15%, far better than the 25% attained with earlier AI approaches. In 2013, Zeiler beat out the competition with an error rate of just 12%.

For the next few months, Zeiler worked alone, pushing the limits of his neural networks and rewriting the code to turn it into a commercially viable product. He installed four servers in his apartment to crawl the Web for images to train his algorithms. At one point, his apartment got so hot that he had to leave his windows open in the middle of winter. By April 2014, Zeiler hired a second employee, and the two moved the servers to a New Jersey data center, where Clarifai continues to expand. In October 2014, he made the service available to developers. His first customer was a wedding lifestyle website called Style Me Pretty, which uses Clarifai to identify and categorize thousands of user-uploaded pictures and serves ads based on what’s in an image.

In 2015, Clarifai landed its first sizable investment: a $10 million round led by Union Square Ventures. The corporate coinvestors, who clearly understood the potential of what Zeiler was building, included Qualcomm, AI chip specialist Nvidia and, interestingly, Google’s venture arm. The following year, in a round led by Menlo Ventures, Clarifai raised another $30 million, at a valuation of $120 million, according to PitchBook. “Tech giants are working on similar products, but they don’t wake up every day living and dying on building the best image-recognition service,” Menlo partner Matt Murphy says. Clarifai now has 55 employees, including 10 dedicated to digging through the latest AI research so the company can stay current. Last year, it hired a veteran sales executive from Google’s enterprise unit as its chief customer officer.

A recent study by the consulting firm CapTech shows Clarifai remains competitive with, and in some cases outperforms, tech giants like Amazon, Google and Microsoft in image recognition. But finding and keeping AI talent to maintain that position–let alone expand into new areas like audio recognition and beyond–won’t be easy. In February, Clarifai scored a longtime Google AI researcher, Andrea Frome, as its head of research, but she abruptly departed after only four months. Frome declined to speak about her departure, and Zeiler says it was the result of differing priorities. Access to data–lots of it–to “train” algorithms is also an area where Clarifai is likely to find itself at a permanent disadvantage compared to its much-larger rivals.

Clarifai’s latest tool trains AI models on smartphones, not in the cloud, where most AI systems do the bulk of their computing. On a recent day, in a San Francisco hotel lobby, Zeiler pulls out his cracked iPhone 6. As he moves the camera, the phone identifies all the objects around it–chairs, a fireplace, people, cars, as well as a MacBook that Zeiler had just trained it to recognize. It’s a tantalizing demonstration of the potential for deep learning as it moves into the most important device in people’s lives. “We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg of what these systems will be able to do,” Zeiler says. – Written by 

Entrepreneurs

The Maverick In Tech

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The founder of some of Nigeria’s best-known startups on the mistakes and the millions that made him click in the technology business.


Sometimes, the simplest business ideas can come from strange places, or even strangers.

In his first year studying law at Waterloo University in Canada, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji was approached by a stranger who asked to stay in his house.

 “I was like ‘I don’t know you, you have long hair and you are white; I don’t know about this’, but I said, ‘ok cool’, and he stayed over and we became good friends.”

About a year later, Pierre, the friend, decided to head to Silicon Valley for his cooperative education term.

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“He told me about this amazing world of Silicon Valley, tech and investments, and I was sold. A few months later, we decided to start our own tech company called bookneto.com,” says Aboyeji.

It was a platform that enabled students to download past examination questions and work with a team of people at the school to help answer them.   

The company did decently for three years until it got sued by the university, but at least that marked a turning point in Aboyeji’s entrepreneurial life.

It turned out that the intellectual property for past examination questions belonged to the professors at Waterloo University, a fact that was “unknown” to the pair of entrepreneurs and they were found “guilty of piracy”. The venture was eventually sold to a professor who wanted to teach students not enrolled on campus, for a small fee.

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“We had it for three years, and by this time, I had graduated and looking for a new adventure and I was pretty sure I did not want to run another business in Canada, so I had started looking at other markets and Africa was a big one for me, Nigeria in particular,” says Aboyeji.

After graduating, he returned to Nigeria in 2013.

His proclivity for identifying opportunities inducted him into the world of massive open online courses (MOOCs). The dominant players at the time were Coursera and Udacity.

According to a report by Component, globally, the MOOCs market is estimated to hit $20.8 billion by 2023. Aboyeji wanted in. He set up a company in Abuja called Fora.com focused on incorporating MOOCs into the university environment especially for courses that were relevant but not provided by Nigerian universities due to a lack of quality resources.

“I was very naïve. I imagined that it would be a breeze to build that business and learned the hard way that anything regulated doesn’t operate rationally. So, the regulators didn’t give me any approvals and universities were skeptical and didn’t want to be laid off so it didn’t work out. We ended up pivoting that business and ended up selling online MBAs instead. Our typical clients were young bank managers who wanted to get an MBA or advanced degree courses to improve their chances of being promoted,” says Aboyeji.

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The firm began to gain some traction. People were paying for the application courses and Aboyeji decided to pilot a loan program where financial institutions would offer loans to students.

“So, we were making money but it wasn’t popping off. I went to New York with the team because we had just gotten some new funding and we had to meet the new investors. I had met a guy named Jeremy Johnson when he was in Nigeria earlier so I pinged him and told him what we wanted to do. I wanted to learn from his experiences. He agreed to meet for coffee in New York.”

During their meeting, Johnson expressed his idea about a new form of education geared towards skills rather than degrees. Aboyeji also talked about unemployment in Nigeria and how that represented a massive opportunity.

It was a match made in heaven.

“One of the things he told me was that he could not find a sales force engineer for $150,000 in New York. They just didn’t exist so I said, ‘man, I can train you sales force engineers’. And he said ‘if you decide you are going to pivot, what you are doing or adding to it… I would fund you and I will be chairman and we can do this together’. So, I said ‘someone is going to fund you to do a new business, why not’.”

Aboyeji had just stumbled on a new gold mine and Andela was born. He started with one person and began teaching him how to code. He repurposed the team from Fora into coding masters, bid masters and operational staff, and shifted the focus of Fora because they had the flexibility to do it.

“I don’t think at the time we had any idea how big what we were doing was. We did the first one, it was semi-successful, we trained the next four, which was really good. We put out a job description saying no experience required, we will pay you to learn how to program and we had over 700 applicants off Twitter and we knew we had something.”

They whittled down to about four or five people that completed that program. To find work for his new coders, Aboyeji used Upwork, the popular freelance jobsite, to bid for jobs.

“We didn’t know anybody, so we bid for jobs, executed it and before we knew it, we had about 150 people in the room. That was how the transition happened from Fora to Andela,” says Aboyeji.

The company has since gone on to raise $180 million in venture funding from the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and other notable investors from Silicon Valley. Aboyeji left the company after three years in search of his next adventure but is still a major shareholder in Andela.

That voyage led him to co-found Flutterwave, an integrated payments platform for Africans to make and accept any payment, anywhere from across Africa and around the world. Under his watch, the company processed 100 million transactions worth $2.5 billion.

Turning his eyes firmly on future opportunities has led Aboyeji to set up his own family office called Street Capital, with a focus on identifying passionate and experienced missionary entrepreneurs with the integrity and courage to flawlessly execute in Africa.

With a solid track-record of unearthing diamonds in the rough, Aboyeji hopes to empower the next generation of African entrepreneurs to achieve their fullest potential and help build some of Africa’s fastest-growing and most-impactful tech businesses.

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Entertainment

The Movie Buff With A Happy Ending In Business

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Kene Okwuosa continues to make profit selling the immersive cinema experience across movie halls in Nigeria.


If trailers of Simon Kinberg’s upcoming X-Men: Dark Phoenix have whetted your appetite for more action-packed cinema, you could take your pick from the likes of Hobbs & Shaw, John Wick 3: Parabellum or Avengers: End game. But as any film buff would tell you, watching these adrenaline rushes on DVD or TV is no match for a full-throttle cinema experience.

Kene Okwuosa is bullish about letting Nigeria’s 190 million population experience the thrilling excitement of the celluloid world. Using the theater to extract a sizeable profit from the Nigerian culture of socializing and communal engagement, his Filmhouse Cinemas has grown from just three screens to multiple locations across the country.

As part of the company’s strategic expansion plans, Okwuosa signed a pioneer deal to bring IMAX, the world’s most immersive cinematic experience, to West Africa in 2016. In doing so, Filmhouse has flipped a switch not just to beat competition from other local cinema chains, but also become one of the fastest-growing IMAX businesses in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

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Quite a feat considering Okwuosa’s first stint at the cinema business did not have a happy ending.

The year was 2008 and Okwuosa and his partner at the time, also named Kene, were desperately looking for greener pastures beyond the borders of the United Kingdom (UK), where they were both employed as assistant general manager and general manager respectively at Odeon Cinemas.

“I had a conversation with Kene on the first of December 2008 and he was saying there is an opportunity with a friend of his who was an investor in Nigeria and we could go back, set up a company and create a great product in Nigeria. I resigned from my job on the second of December, I saw my family on the third of December and I caught a flight on the fourth of December after not being back in Nigeria for 11 years,” says Okwuosa.

And their voyage back home was favored by lady luck. A South African company at the time was exiting the Nigerian market and their assets were up for grabs. With the help of their investor, the pair bought up the assets and just like that, Genesis Deluxe Cinemas was born. It was a magical moment in the lives of the newly-minted entrepreneurs.

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With three chains of Genesis Cinemas under their belt, the pair were ready to reap the profits of their entrepreneurial pursuits until everything went belly up.

“A year later, that deal went so bad we had to exit. Myself and Kene exited the company to our dismay.  The private investor owned most of the business and there were issues between the investor and my partner relating to a slight misalignment of the company. We were torn between either staying in Lagos or going back to the UK. We decided to stay and tug it out,” says Okwuosa.

The pair had to downsize from the guest house they were staying in to a smaller flat and survived on noodles, while they hatched their next plan. They turned their living room into an office and went back to the drawing board.

Okwuosa believed there was still a market in the cinema theater business and he was not wrong. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Nigerian film industry is globally recognized as the second-largest film producer in the world. Total cinema revenue is set to reach $22 million in 2021, rising at 8.6% CAGR over the forecast period.

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The cinema industry is one of the priority sectors identified in the economic recovery growth plan of the federal government of Nigeria with a planned $1 billion in export revenue by 2020. Furthermore, the National Film and Video Censors Board estimates the Nigerian movie industry needs at least 774 cinemas across the country for it to tackle the menace of piracy.

“So, for two years, I was literally waking up and going to every single office trying to pitch and raise money. We didn’t know anybody and we are not sons of rich men, we had already failed with Genesis, we had no assets or collateral. We were literally telling people we were going to modernize Nigeria’s entertainment scene and everybody was looking at us like we were crazy.”

In 2009, the Intervention Funds, created by then president Goodluck Jonathan to boost the Nigerian creative industry, would prove to be the lifeline Okwuosa and his partner so badly needed.

“I am proud to say we were the very first to access that fund in 2012, which was about N200 million at the time which, when you look back is not that much but considering the exchange rate, it was over $1 million. It was enough to help us kickstart Filmhouse. We had nothing, so that particular facility was largely uncollateralized,” says Okwuosa.

The fund took a bet on Okuwosa and his partner and it paid off. The loan was used to open their first three-screen cinema in Surulere, Lagos.

“It had a slow start but ultimately grew to be one of the biggest locations in the country and that organic growth led us to open two more cinemas prior to our second round of investors, which was private equity money from African Capital Alliance.”

The investment helped Okwuosa to scale to 10 operational locations across six states. The original vision when Okwuosa started Filmhouse was to be the biggest and best cinema and create an amazing space where people could escape into a different world.

Two years after, the company set up the production and distribution part of the business.

Filmhouse now represents about 50% of tickets sold in Nigerian cinemas, according to Okwuosa. With just a dream to conquer the Nigerian market, today, Filmhouse has a vision to become a media entertainment company.

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In addition to IMAX, the company represents other international brands like Warner Bros and Lionsgate. With the institutional investment, Okwuosa has strengthened his core team, which no longer includes his former partner, as well as providing the company the impetus to scale with the right mind and right trajectory.

With a GDP of $375 billion making the Nigerian economy the 30th largest economy in the world, Okwuosa believes there is still a big chunk of money to be made from the entertainment and media space.

“I think we haven’t even scratched the surface of this industry and we want to position ourselves at the forefront of Nigerian entertainment.”

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Entrepreneurs

Advances In Nigeria’s ‘Burglar Watch’ Industry

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The escalating safety and security issues in Nigeria raised the alarm for this innovative entrepreneur.


Today, organizations not only face escalating risks but also the certitude that they will face a security breach at any time, if proper precautions are not taken. Such was the case for Paul Ajibulu when his office premises were ransacked by thugs in Adeola Odeku, Victoria Island, Lagos.

“We had just got our office fully furnished with MacBook computers and the whole works. When we came in the next day, we found the locks broken and all the office equipment had been looted. I lost about $20,000 in all that day and that set our business back for a couple of months,” says Ajibulu.

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To solve his problems, he reached out to Extreme Mutual Technique, an automated digital systems solution and renewable energy service provider.

The company says it boasts top-tier clients such as MTN, the Embassy of Sierra Leone, South African Breweries, and Africa Finance Corporation, amongst many others.

Akpobome Ojoboh, its founder and Managing Director, is adamant his systems are a must-have for every organization in Nigeria.

“We initially started the business called Extreme Surveillance Systems limited. Coming from my previous background, we decided to focus on CCTV and digital security. Considering the fact that Nigeria was being terrorized by security mishaps, we decided to [resolve] that,” says Ojoboh.

Safety and security have never been discussed in Nigeria as they are now. Threats are from everywhere, and at all places. Routine security checking at offices and shopping mall entrances has become the norm.

The idea of preventing crime is an appealing twist in today’s times and although it’s comforting for many to imagine a competent police officer monitoring every camera in Lagos, the question remains whether CCTV systems really do prevent crimes from happening or do they merely help in nabbing a criminal once a crime has occurred.

In a city like Lagos where you have constant disruptions to power, the long-term success of these systems presented significant hurdles for Ojoboh in the early days.

“There are so many limitations to digital security vis-à-vis the lack of a proper database that even when you have [identified] the culprits, you cannot find them. Furthermore, there were limitations to how people took ownership of their equipment because there was [often] no power. So, you put a system and people say ‘what if there is no power’?”

To combat these challenges, Ojoboh decided to provide another solution, by moving into the world of inverters.

“Then again, these inverters run down when there is no power to charge them so we went into renewable energy called solar to back up our inverters and digital solutions. That is when we changed the business to Extreme Mutual Technique Limited,” says Ojoboh.

Security is one of the largest businesses in the world, according to Ojoboh.

He has seen an increase in more families opting for peace of mind by having big brother watching over their loved ones whenever they cannot be with them.

“When I first became a mum, I would always worry incessantly about my daughter left alone at home with my nanny. Then, we started noticing strange marks on my daughter and I had heard about people mistreating children they cared for but I never thought it would happen to me. I reached out to a security company to install a camera in the house and lo and behold, I saw the nanny hitting my daughter. My whole world crumbled,” says Rebecca Gyan, a grocery store owner in Accra.

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“You have to be prepared because if you are not, then you almost cannot stop any security breach. It helps you to know some proactive measures to protect yourself. If you have a CCTV system and you notice there is a particular group of people visiting your building, you will be able to notice and react,” says Ojoboh.

As organizations become familiar with probable threats and vulnerabilities, they will be able to establish both preventive measures and responsive systems, to decrease the likelihood of intruders and attacks.

Since starting out in 2007, Ojoboh has grown the team to a 40-member business spread across Lagos and Abuja. The company has also moved into IT and engineering services in the areas of energy infrastructure, home automation, fire safety and digital security solutions.

With power still an issue in Nigeria, Ojoboh sees the future of his business in the area of renewable energy to power his systems to provide that all-important peace of mind to his clients. 

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