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The Role of Corporates in AI Ecosystems

08 April 2020
- by Max Welling, Professor of Machine Learning at the University of Amsterdam and Vice President Technologies at Qualcomm

AI technologies and their applications are transforming our society and economy. A key to benefitting from this transformation is to build strong AI ecosystems where the most important ingredient is talent – of which there is a world-wide shortage. Other important ingredients are knowledge institutions, startups and scaleups, the availability of venture capital, and finally the presence of research labs of large, internationally recognised corporations, such as Google, Facebook, Bosch, Qualcomm, Microsoft, Philips and Amazon.

Perhaps the most important role of international corporations in a regional ecosystem is to attract and retain talent. A number of my top PhD students and postdocs have decided to stay in Amsterdam because of the presence of the international giants, working at, for instance, Google Brain or Qualcomm AI Research. The presence of these talented researchers in Amsterdam will in turn attract more talent to the region. A certain fraction of this talent pool will eventually pursue other opportunities, such as getting involved in startups and scaleups, maybe return (partially) to academia, or become leaders of Dutch or European companies. Talent is, and should be, constantly flowing through the ecosystem keeping it healthy.

Helping to Fill the Startup Gap

A second role for big companies in AI ecosystems is that of buying startups. While one may frown upon local startups being acquired by foreign companies (because of the technology and know-how drain to other continents) one should also consider the positive effect it has on other startups. In an ecosystem where the chances are high that your startup will be acquired, it is attractive to create new startups, invigorating the ecosystem.

One of the biggest weaknesses of the European AI ecosystem is the lack of venture capital to start and, more crucially, to scale startups. It is true that startups might not grow into scaleups because they get acquired by large corporations before they get a chance to grow. International corporations, however, have investment arms with funds that can contribute to the growth of startups and scaleups.

Corporates are also likely to invest in fundamental research at knowledge institutions. In Amsterdam, under the flag of the Innovation Center for AI (ICAI), we now have a dozen or so labs financed by industry, ranging from international companies such as Bosch and Qualcomm to Dutch companies including TomTom, ING and Ahold Delhaize. Research in these labs is often less constrained than funding from many of today’s Dutch research council (NWO) grants. All research is published and companies have the opportunity to buy IP at a fair price: a win-win for both parties.

Finding the Balance for a Healthy Ecosystem

A healthy AI ecosystem in equilibrium has all these processes running in parallel. Many startups are founded, some are funded to grow and some are acquired, and talent moves among all the opportunities the ecosystem has to offer.

As an illustration of how these processes may play out let me briefly describe my own adventure at the Amsterdam Science Park. I co-founded the startup Scyfer in 2013, which was acquired by Qualcomm in 2017. A couple of years earlier, the University of Amsterdam (UvA) spinoff EUVision was acquired by Qualcomm, which resulted in the first industry funded research lab at the UvA, called QUVA, and a Qualcomm office at Amsterdam Science Park. After the acquisition I had a split appointment at both Qualcomm and the UvA. (Split appointments between academia and industry are now gaining traction under the Kickstart AI program.) This concept proved so successful that we now have 11 such industry funded labs under the ICAI flag and the Qualcomm office at Amsterdam Science Park has expanded into a world class research lab under the name Qualcomm AI Research.

In conclusion, just as talent, knowledge institutes, startups and venture capital are vital ingredients for a thriving AI ecosystem, the presence of international corporates and their consequent research labs is essential. Let’s encourage them to join us in Amsterdam!

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