ICAI Trio Interview: AI entrepreneurship and a shared ownership of talent

It has been four years since ICAI kicked off and in the meantime ICAI has grown from 3 to 29 labs. How is ICAI doing so far? We take stock of the situation with a lab manager, a PhD student and the scientific director.

Efstratios (Stratis) Gavves is (former) lab manager of QUVA lab, co-director of QUVA and POP-AART ICAI labs, associate professor at University of Amsterdam and co-founder of Ellogon AI BV.

Natasha Butt is first year PhD student within QUVA lab, has a MA degree in Data Science and a BA degree in Econometrics.

Maarten de Rijke is the scientific director and co-founder of ICAI, professor of AI and Information Retrieval at the University of Amsterdam.

What was ICAI’s original purpose? Has that changed in the last four years?

Maarten: ‘The original vision was that we felt that more needed to be done to attract, train and create new opportunities for AI talent, while at the same time we wanted to work with a diverse set of stakeholders on shared research agendas. The underlying idea was that AI can make a positive contribution in lots of societal areas. We have been trying things out. And you learn by doing; that has been the mantra since day one and that will not change. One thing that is changing though, is that the first ICAI labs have matured and that there is a follow-up contract that is not just about attracting and training talent, but also about retaining talent. With the Launch Pad program we want to help the PhD students find their next opportunity in interesting places, ideally here in the Netherlands. Similarly, as PhD students begin to graduate from their lab, some of them have entrepreneurial plans. With the new Venture program we look at how we can help them connect to the right stakeholders and funding. So it’s still the same mission, but the instruments expand.’

ICAI has grown from 3 labs to 29 labs in the past four years. What is it like to work in a research lab with external partners?

Natasha: ‘What I really like is that you get to meet and collaborate with so many different researchers within industry. For a PhD student starting out this is really interesting and exciting. I can’t really weigh in on the negatives because we haven’t published a paper yet.’

Maarten: ‘Especially in labs where the non-academic partners don’t have a long tradition of research, it can be a challenge to identify good problems that matter academically and industrially. You need good problems that don’t need ten years to solve, but that also cannot be solved in three months. Aligning the horizons and expectations is something that needs attention.’

Stratis: ‘Working with external partners is inspiring and fruitful. The cornerstone for a successful relationship is managing expectations. Generally one could say that companies like stability and structure, while researchers in the university thrive with creative chaos. Finding a good balance between these two can bring great results. In fact, in my experience I have seen this work quite smoothly, because we have been lucky that the people involved are very conscious and open-minded.’

‘From now on funding will be less expected from government structure and instead come from private initiative.’

Stratis Gavves

To what extent do universities and companies or governmental organizations need each other in developing AI that can make us more future-proof?

Maarten: ‘We see a slow change right now in the ownership of big challenges. It is no longer just governmental, academic, or industrial, but much more a shared ownership. We are coming to the realization that the best way to tackle climate, health, energy and logistics problems, is to go after these problems together. All of these big challenges are multi-stakeholder and multi-disciplinary. For example, when you’re working on computer vision, at some point you will run into some legal or ethical questions that are tough. Think of all the deep fakes. On the one hand these generative models are fantastic and creative, but there’s another side. An algorithm developer should hang out every now and then with people who bring a different perspective to the table.’

Natasha, you are from Great Britain. Stratis, you are from Greece. Are there initiatives like ICAI over there?

Stratis: ‘I think ICAI is a very successful experiment that will be followed, one way or the other, by other countries. We had some preliminary conversations in Greece and I think that there is interest for sure.’

Natasha: ‘In the UK I haven’t come across many things like ICAI. But when I studied at UCL in London, there were a lot of AI societies and entrepreneurship societies that would hold events and invite students from other universities. So there’s definitely an appetite for it. Especially in London there are a lot of hubs and all the universities are pushing it.’

‘Collaborating with so many different researchers within industry is really exciting for a PhD student just starting out.’

Natasha Butt

Are there countries that were an inspiration for ICAI?

Maarten: ‘Yes, the Von Humboldt fellowships in Germany for example. And especially the attitude behind it was an inspiration for us: start with talent, bring the talent to the country, and then invest and create opportunities. We also saw the same attitude in France.’

Stratis: ‘The instrument that ICAI presents, is an innovation by itself. And this success will be broadcasted to other countries, because there is a need for it. This is how things will be working from now on: funding appears to be less expected from government structure and instead come from private initiative. People are searching for alternative sources of funding and I think that ICAI presents a fair way of doing this in such a way that both sides benefit.’

What are the plans for the next four years?

Maarten: ‘We are working on a large new program, funded by NWO, to expand ICAI with 17 new labs. I hope that by the end of this year we will have around 50 labs. Part of the plans is to expand to all academic cities. We would like to reach out and help people there to get going. Another thing is that our colleagues, whom we are heavily involved with in Nijmegen, have set up AI course programs for medical professionals. We are trying to see how we can do similar things, but then for other sectors like logistics and civil servants.’

Stratis: ‘My goal is to get Natasha and her lab mates graduate. And to attract more industries into the concept of ICAI, perhaps export it outside the Netherlands and maybe even to Greece. And of course, to keep doing top-notch research.’

‘More and more people are coming to the realization that the best way to tackle climate, health, energy and logistics problems, is to go after these problems together.’

Maarten de Rijke

Do you have questions for each other?

Natasha: ‘I would like to know what plans there are for the future. What sort of events do you hope to put on, especially from a PhD perspective?’

Maarten: ‘We want to organize as much as possible as the PhD students need. So we should listen to what would help you. The ICAI Launch Pad program helps PhD students who are towards the end of their PhD trajectory. But of course early stage PhD students have different needs, plans and questions. So we’d like to hear how we can help to make this a better experience. So far, we have put a lot of focus on sharing expertise and experiences, but of course there’s more to being an AI PhD student than that. You Natasha, and other PhD students, should be the ones that tell us.’

And where can she go with her ideas?

Maarten: ‘YaSuei Cheng, the ICAI community manager, can help organize things or find the right people to get something going. And here in Amsterdam we have quite some experience in setting up internships. But I’m sure that there are many things that we’re not seeing, so please let us know.’

Stratis: ‘I was wondering, what is the idea on how to get new spin-offs into existence? Is there guidance there? Let’s say that Natasha comes up with a great idea that her lab partner Qualcomm is not interested in. What should she do?’

Maarten: ‘We’ve teamed up with an initiative called TTT-AI. This organization is all about tech transfer and helping people finding out if there’s a market for their ideas. This initiative works around the whole country. It wants to connect the local ecosystem with local researchers, but also share systems across the country.’

The next ICAI Day on June 1st will be about AI entrepreneurship. Stratis, as co-founder of Ellogon AI, you know a thing or two about this. What is it like to launch a company from lab to the market?

Stratis: ‘I’m still learning, so I can’t tell you the full story from A to Z, but maybe from A to F. It is a lot of fun actually. We are the new generation of academics. It is expected, or at least appreciated, if we look at possibilities like this. But I’m not sure that everyone will be cut out for it. In a way we are working double jobs. It’s really rewarding though in many ways. What I found really interesting, is that so many academics and researchers already have moved to industry. And maybe there is something beyond the obvious argument that people only go there because there are better salaries. I can confirm that creating your own company, working on real problems and solving completely different issues, is really interesting.’

Natasha, how do you feel about making the move to industry in the future?

Natasha: ‘I’m pretty open-minded. It would be really nice and useful to hear the experience of people who went to industry and people who stayed in academia. Doing internships would also help.’

Maarten, what would you advise PhD students in finding the next step?

Maarten: ‘I think it’s a great idea, like Natasha says, to try out a few internships. I generally recommend to go to a completely different team and work on different problems. A different experience helps you to shape your thinking about what you’d like to do next. Maybe even consider doing an internship with a NGO. The Red Cross for example has loads of interesting challenges.’

And what can be done to help researchers to set up AI startups?

Maarten: ‘Mentoring is always useful. To hear other voices and to speak with friendly but critical colleagues who can walk alongside you for a while and connect you to potential customers and challenging problems.’

Stratis: ‘Once you’re in a company, you’re living in borrowed time until you really make it. Learning how to run a company, while developing a product, can be hard. So one thing that can be done is to familiarize people with this aspect of entrepreneurship so that they can anticipate the difficulties. And there are so many things that can be quite easily solved that can still make a huge difference.’

Would you like to meet your fellow ICAI members? On June 1st, the hybrid Summer Edition of the ICAI Day takes place. The theme of this edition is ‘AI Entrepreneurship: From the lab to the market’. Sign up!