Anita on AIs, thick skin and everything in between
Interview with Anita Brede, Co-founder & CEO at Iris AI
Anita Berde tells us about the career journey which led her to becoming the CEO of a startup AI company. From heading her own Drama company to building cars Anita has done most of it. She lets us in on the layman version of the science behind AI, and lists the challenges faced by start-ups, including her own, as well as mentioning why she thinks startups are the future and giving her own piece of personal advice to potential women entrepreneurs.
Thank you very much for your time Anita. Can you please fill us in briefly on your background. From what I understand you now mix art, psychology and tech!
With doing serious business on top of all of that! After high school I started out in theatre school. When I graduated there were no jobs, so my friend suggested that we start a company. I was like ‘Yes!’ So we started a company, had no idea what we were doing, but it was fun and I really enjoyed it. And we got a little bit of success. Acting like a consultancy, we did team building, and we got some of the biggest companies in Norway onboard. Like I said we had a lot of fun. But then 2008 came, no one had money for theatre stuff anymore, so I applied for this program which took me to Silicon Valley, and I kind of dove head first into the tech industry. I haven’t really looked back on theatre since. While in Silicon Valley I did an internship and then I told them to hire me, and they did.
How many years did you stay in Silicon Valley?
For 2 years, working for a startup doing an e-learning platform. Kind of the precursor to Coursera, and Udacity. It failed dramatically, it is one of the living dead today, but it was fun too, and I learned a lot. I also went to Stanford during my time in California for a summer session. I did some classes on international investments – calculating derivatives for a summer!
Did you want to pursue this as a career path or did you just want the knowledge?
I had a little bit of flexibility over the summer so I decided to sign up for classes twice a week at Stanford. Just for the fun of it really, I picked a couple of course that I thought were interesting. But as I said, calculating derivatives when you haven’t done maths in 8 years was a little hard! But it was enjoyable. I love doing things that I don’t know how to do and try to understand them. And then after that I moved to Sweden, and got a master’s degree. During my master’s degree I was like ‘Now I am going to focus only on school.’ And the first thing that happens is that I sign up for a project where we are going to build a race car. So instead of studying, I built a race car, and then we did a solar light project in Kenya, and then I put up a couple of conferences in entrepreneurship. Then the second year we started a company as part of our thesis. We did energy optimization of heat exchanging networks and the processes involved – ha-h! Very heavy technical project. It was a new industry, new type of customers, who tend to be very heavy as well. I learned a lot from that, working with older engineers etc. I decided to leave after the year, and then started a company with a guy who I knew and respected. We were doing automated matchmaking between students and internships, so trying to disrupt the recruitment industry. Suddenly I was in a completely different industry, but slow as well. HR is really slow. But that was also interesting. The product market fit wasn’t right and so I left. I then went to Singularity University, at NASA Research Park in California. There I learned a lot about exponential technology, and how to improve lives through technology, and that is how I started Iris, which is my current AI company.
What is your speciality on which you are speaking on today?
I was invited to talk about AI. Since startup, Iris has been running for merely a few months, but we have our early funding, we have our first paying customers, and we are experiencing success. I am not an AI expert myself, but I started and am running an AI startup, so I was invited to come here and talk about that.
Why is AI so trendy? It is feels as if it is booming everywhere.
The technology is at a place where what we are going to see over the next 5 years is going to be absolutely mind blowing. The field of AI is just going to explode. Now we are still going to talk mainly narrow AI’s solving specific problems, but there are things that are going to drastically revolutionise a lot of different industries. For that reason it is really exciting. Unfortunately a lot of people use AI as a buzz word, and say things like ‘Yea we are doing AI for dog walking.’ and I’m like ‘hmmm..’ I do think that every project today should look at machine learning, algorithms etc, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are using AI.
How would you explain the definition of AI for those out there who don’t know?
AI is a software program or a system that learns from its own interaction, or user’s interactions with it. It is not just machinery. The way we go about it is that you need three kinds of learning. Firstly, unsupervised learning. Just the machine learning from statistics. Then you need human input. This is supervised learning, which is the second layer. Is basically consists of humans going ‘nope, that’s wrong. Yes that’s correct. Nope, that’s wrong etc.’ The third part is reinforcement learning where the AI will learn from itself, or other AIs. This is what Alphago did, with the school program, where you basically create two versions of it and let it compete against itself. And we believe that if we can get these three components in place and then a decision engine and a few other things, that’s when you have a full AI.
What are your biggest challenges today?
Regular startup challenges, getting funding in place, getting product market fit, finding our way through the maze of big corporations, building the right tech team etc.
And what are your greatest achievements so far?
Being an AI company, launching a product within three months, selling it within four. We have had a lot of progress quickly. We have a really sharp team, so we are moving fast! Our technology isn’t actually groundbreaking at this moment, but our 2.0 version that comes out in September and for which we are working on a really exciting algorithm, will be novel. Looking a couple of years into the future, that is when we can build things that are really cutting edge in our sector.
Where is your team based?
We are all over Europe. Sweden, Finland, Norway, Germany, Spain and Ukraine.
And has this worked well?
It works well, we hang out on Google Hangouts, and then we meet up about every six weeks.
Which conferences would you specifically recommend that AI startup founders should attend?
I am in Norway, there is very little happening. But here in London I know there is a monthly or bi-monthly AI meet-up, there is one in Helsinki, Stockholm probably has one. They are usually held at the universities, which is a very different environment to the startup community, but you meet a lot of great people there, especially with what we do. We get to interact with scientists who are involved in AI core scientific research, or applied to scientific research, who distribute it to us mere mortals that don’t work at Universities. We get researchers who are engaged and interested in what we do, and that is really cool.
It seems that one has to strike a balance between event attending conference/events and time spent on other work. How do you handle this?
I only go if I have a specific reason to go. Pioneers I was invited to be onstage, and we needed to do user interviews with tech startups. So for us it was a good event to go to and we got free tickets. The Europa’s I was asked for a panel which is great exposure as I was talking about AI, and I was already in London for an event the day before where we were pitching to investors. So it all worked out really well.
So you always pick an important reason for attending an event?
Otherwise I could do nothing but go to events! I love being on stage, I love being in the spotlight, I love talking, but the thing is what I do is run a company. Sometimes I need to be that face, and that is part of my job. But part of my job is also making wireframes and working with my CTO on product, and talking to customers, and hiring people. If I went to every event that was interesting and cool, I wouldn’t do anything else. So within our company we are very strict with ‘Why are you here, why are you there etc.’
What do you think about the startup bubble in general right now, and what do you foreseen in a couple of year’s time?
I think it is great. Coming from Norway and having seen the change from a completely non-existent startup scene, to a tiny little startup scene that is growing…. it is still very small, but it is cool to see. I think it is super vital. I think that the big incumbents aren’t really able to keep up. I was recently elected onto the board of a big, three generation, 100 year company, because they are like ‘We need to think differently!’ There needs to be startups and fast moving small companies. What I would like to see is companies working more on real problems. There is so much bullshit.
Do you think there is a capital or a country where there is more ‘bullshit’ than other places?
Well Silicone Valley has the best and the worst! So I’d have to say there. Even Uber is not really a serious problem addresser. The interesting thing is that the industry where Uber can really have a massive impact is not on the taxi industry, but on car ownership. And when you connect Uber with self-driving cars – nobody is going to own a car in the future. No one is going to be allowed to drive one either. That is where they can have some cool impact. I do not know if that is the direction in which they are going, but I think so. There are a lot of people working on really big serious problems, hunger, health etc. But there is also this program; it is basically 25 year old white men working on solutions to make the lives of the wives of 25 year old white men a little easier.
Do you have any tips for women entrepreneurs? Are you part of any women’s entrepreneurial networks?
It is hard. I think pioneers who are coming in now need to be thick skinned. I have had to try work on not caring about what other people think of me. I have my short hair, I swear, I have tattoos, and some people are going to think that is weird, and they don’t understand, and that is ok. I was talking to a friend of mine. She is so smart, she is so talented, she is so driven. She is also amazingly beautiful. And she was telling about how she had gotten a comment along the lines of ‘Oh, so you are smart too!’ from a man. I told her, don’t f****** change, wear your makeup, rock those curls. Be your beautiful self. But then you have to let those comments slide on. You have to have that mentality.
For sure, what a good way to conclude! Thank you so much for joining us, much appreciated and all of the best.