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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

Enterprise And Traceable Tea From Tanzania

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Tahira Nizari; images supplied

How this Tanzanian entrepreneur’s tea startup is weathering the Covid-19 storm.

When Tahira Nizari started her social enterprise Kazi Yetu in Tanzania’s bustling city, Dar es Salaam, with her business partner and husband, Hendrik Buermann, almost two years ago, she didn’t anticipate the sheer scope of her big idea.

But she also didn’t expect that, because of an employee’s exposure to the coronavirus in April, she and her entire team would be quarantining for two weeks, stalling work in a year that she had projected growth for her company. With the pandemic’s onset, she lost most of her customer base in Tanzania, albeit temporarily, and was forced to come up with a game-plan and quickly pivot.

“It’s been an economic recession overnight, more or less,” says Nizari.

With family roots in Tanzania, and armed with formal degrees from Dubai and Canada, and experience in economic inclusion in the non-profit development sector, Nizari aimed to set a benchmark in the agribusiness sector in Tanzania through value-addition and by employing local women in her factory based in Dar es Salaam to produce “a traceable product” for the local and international market.

“Right now, tea is just exported in bulk completely (from Tanzania) and then all the jobs thereafter in that value chain are done abroad. So what we said was ‘let’s redistribute that job creation, let’s bring it back to Tanzania and let’s create a facility in which we can hire workers all locally and have a product that is 100% made in Tanzania’,” says Nizari. After extensive research in multiple target markets, both locally and abroad, building relationships with 250 Tanzanian farmers, setting up a factory exclusively employing local and previously-unemployed women, and many iterations of the seven blends of its flagship Tanzania Tea Collection using local flavors and spices, Kazi Yetu was ready to expand its scope in 2020.

“We were following our business plan… but we were really cautious and risk-averse (in 2018 and 2019). And then, we said, ‘you know what, when 2020 hits, it’s going to be growth’.”

Nizari was planning on reaching up to 4,000 farmers, buy machinery from China, grow the local B2B customer base, permanently employ all the women at the factory and begin to export on a larger scale after the launch of Kazi Yetu’s online store.

But when the coronavirus hit the local and international markets, things started looking very bleak, especially since Kazi Yetu is currently fully self-funded.

 Not only did it lose almost all of its monthly income, but the farmers stopped meeting in groups for the training, so the supply chain was disrupted.

“In Europe, people are all sitting at home. They’re looking for products to build their immunity – tea is a great solution.”

The factory also had to introduce safety protocols for employees at work and at home, as well as reduce the number of people working at any given time in order to adhere to social distancing.

An employee’s father also died of the coronavirus, which forced Nizari to ask everyone involved with Kazi Yetu to quarantine at home for 14 days.

“So what we said was, ‘look, we don’t want to risk their safety, but we also don’t want to risk their economic well-being’. So we just paid all of them their full-time salary,” says Nizari.

“Generally, our operational costs have been really hard to cover right now… but it’s okay, because it made us pivot.”

It inspired Nizari to expedite Kazi Yetu’s plans to export, kickstart the online store sooner than anticipated and build up stock to send to Germany, rather than just focus on the Tanzanian market, which is temporarily quite small. Exporting has been an issue, given limited shipping at the moment, but the European market proved to be a pleasant surprise for Nizari.

“In Europe, people are all sitting at home. They’re looking for products to build their immunity – tea is a great solution,” she says.

Slowly, the factory is moving back to normal operations and Nizari is trying her best to ensure a steady income for the employees. Kazi Yetu is also now available on local delivery applications in Tanzania, so people can order tea to their doorsteps.

Looking ahead, Nizari hopes to scale up exporting through the online store and retailers, whether in Europe, or also in markets like South Africa where products from sub-Saharan Africa are popular, and North America where innovative African products are in demand.

“We want our product to be competing with products made in Europe, and for example, Sri Lankan tea, Indian tea and Chinese tea. We want Tanzanian products to be well-regarded,” she adds.

Since the teas are traceable, which is a unique selling point, Kazi Yetu is also working on an app that uses blockchain to allow customers to access data on the tea they purchase, from the farm level, all the way to their cups. This way, they will know first-hand the impact the product has.

In addition, Nizari is working on a farm-hub model to build Kazi Yetu’s supply chain by helping them produce better raw products through a no-interest investment that can be paid back with their final product over time.

“The whole ‘economy versus safety’ debate… it’s something we have to think about moving forward… You can’t just operate as a business that makes money, you have to think about… the well-being of your workplace, the well-being of everyone in your supply chain… And I think this is where social enterprises really come in,” Nizari adds.

And a hot cup of locally-produced tea can certainly help take forward any such deliberations.

By Inaara Gangji

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Farmer Forays: ‘Creating A New Line Of Business’

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Shola Ladoja; image supplied

Nigerian agripreneur Shola Ladoja, the founder of Simply Green, says the pandemic-induced lockdown brought with it logistic adversity, but also more local sales.  

With the marauding coronavirus disrupting lives and businesses in Nigeria, the financial stability of a majority of the country’s 200 million inhabitants has been severely affected.

The significant toll it has taken on economic activities has forced many small and medium enterprises to reimagine new ways of staying afloat. Covid-19 is also set to radically aggravate food insecurity in Africa. In spite of Nigeria’s dependence on oil, agriculture remains an important cornerstone for its economy, providing employment for millions especially in the informal sector.

The threat of starvation is so present that in a public address in May, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, urged Nigerian farmers to produce enough for the country to eat, saying that the country has “no money to import” food.

But every cloud has a silver lining. The food shortage has presented some agripreneurs in Nigeria with serendipitous opportunities.

Shola Ladoja is the founder of Simply Green, which is a farm-to-table company specializing in vegetables, fruits, juices, spices and herbs. The border lockdown has meant that many of the retail and supermarket chains can no longer import foreign produce into the country.

But this hurdle created a new opportunity for Ladoja.

“[Previously], I tried to get my juices into local stores in Nigeria but they all turned me down and most of them wanted to buy imported juices. The lockdown meant that they had to buy a local brand like mine because they could not get them from abroad anymore. We are now able to sell a lot more during this time than previous years,” says Ladoja.

On the logistics side, however, Ladoja has also felt the pinch of the pandemic like most business that require consistent movement of goods and services. The lockdown scenario prevented his workers from coming in and as a result, the company’s daily delivery of juices, has come to an abrupt stop.  

Ladoja has had to start thinking outside the box to make ends meet.

“We have come up with a fruit and vegetable box, which we sell directly on our website to our customers. So, they can now buy lettuce, kale and carrots, which we have never done before. So, this period has forced us to think about how we can expand the business and this time we actually created a new line of business, which was not in the plans for this year,” says Ladoja.

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), even before the Covid-19 crisis, farmers had not been able to satisfy the demands of Nigeria’s population.

“I feel like the government should give out grants and loans and support for small businesses so that they don’t crash. I have friends who have complained they are going to shut down their businesses because they haven’t been paid for two months. A lot of people cannot sell their produce in Lagos because the markets are closed which is going to affect a lot of farmers at this time,” says Ladoja.

Nigeria used to import over a million tonnes of rice from Thailand annually. That number has been significantly reduced with the implementation of high import taxes. This has led to an abnormal increase in food prices in Nigeria since the onset of the coronavirus with the UN estimating the number of people facing acute food security stands to rise to 265 million globally in 2020 as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.

Nigeria has substantially increased domestic rice production in the pandemic but is still a long way from reaching the levels needed for the country to sufficiently feed itself. Coupled with the decline in global oil prices, it is safe to say the adverse economic impact of Covid-19 on Africa’s most populous country is going to be felt for a long time to come.

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All For Grooming Future Leaders

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Katlego Thwane has had to dip into his own savings, with the Covid-19 crisis, to fund his noble cause, teaching the underprivileged in a South African township.

He is in his twenties, yet turning around the destiny of underprivileged young people around him.

Katlego Thwane, a 28-year-old born and bred in South Africa’s lively township of Soweto, is an educator and founder of the Atlegang Bana Foundation here that caters to primary school learners who struggle to keep up at school and need additional help.

“Our foundation also provides for needy learners from underprivileged backgrounds. One of my biggest campaigns at the foundation every year is to give confidence and motivation to learners for the year ahead,” says Thwane.

He has bagged numerous awards and accolades for his work, as a 2017 Young Community Shaper, 2018 Lead SA hero and featuring on live television show Big Up on SABC Mzansi in 2018.

Growing up, he was a “naughty boy”, as he describes himself, but says many are now astonished at the serious, ambitious young man he has become.

“Teaching has always been a passion of mine. I love seeing change, transformation and grooming leaders, and value their education while being innovative in taking our country forward.”

Thwane has recently established a clothing brand, BANA, under the Atlegang Bana Foundation. He is also currently handing out food parcels to the needy in his community, in partnership with Hollywoodbets.

“The virus has affected us immensely with many parents losing their jobs or taking salary cuts, we are not receiving the financial support as before. This has led to me [dipping] into my own personal pocket and [using it] to buy tutors data for teaching virtually,” says Thwane.

Most schools continue operating online because learners haven’t as yet returned to school, however, this has come with its share of setbacks.

Makosha Masedi, a parent of a Grade 4 learner, says her challenges come with network issues and understanding the tasks given to the child.

“Some of the programs that the work is loaded on to is not friendly for all devices, so submitting and retrieving becomes a problem, as also understanding some of the work,” rues Masedi.

But Thwane powers on, hoping for a better tomorrow, for himself and his country.

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