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!

Coming up: The National course on AI & Ethics

The National AI course will be continued! More than 300,000 people have been reached since its launch in 2018. This course explains the basics of artificial intelligence in an understandable way. A special course on AI and Ethics will be launched after this summer.

This new course focuses on topics such as algorithmic bias, combating disinformation, the power of tech companies and the importance of human rights in the digital world.

With experts from many walks of life the course wants to raise awareness around the pitfalls of digitization and stimulate the debate on human-centered AI. Experts include Sennay Ghebreab (ICAI), José van Dijck (Utrecht University), Mieke van Heesewijk (SIDN Fund), Merel Koning (Amnesty International), Quirine Eijkman (College for Human Rights) and Sander Duivestein (author of Echt Nep).

Upon completion of this free online program, the student will receive a certificate.

After summer, the course can be found at https://ethiek.ai-cursus.nl.

TTT-AI Workshop: Setting up an AI Startup

On July 5th, 2022, The Thematic Technology Transfer – Artificial Intelligence (TTT-AI) will organize a two-hour workshop on setting up an AI startup.

TTT-AI offers a specialized venture-building program and investment fund for knowledge/research-based AI startups. During this two-hour workshop at the University of Amsterdam, you’ll get a clear understanding of the different aspects an AI startup will go through. Topics include technology development, product-market fits, team formation, customer relations, IP protection, the startup lifecycle, funding, and many more. During the workshop, the presenters will not only teach you some important tools, but will also use and experiment with them. To end the workshop, TTT-AI invited two successful startups to share their best practices and answer some of your questions.

Please send an email to Giulia Donker (g.donker@uva.nl) if you want to come to the workshop.

Registration for ICAI Day: AI Entrepreneurship is open!

On June 1st, 2022, ICAI organizes the ‘ICAI Day: AI Entrepreneurship – From the lab to the market.’ This hybrid event will take place on location in Amsterdam and online. Registration is now open for everybody interested.

During the first part, the Lunch Table Discussion, from 12:00 to 13:30 hrs, you will have the opportunity to talk to others in small table settings during a catered lunch. Each table revolves around one sector on “The life cycle of a Startup.” You can choose from five sectors: healthcare, service industry, robotics, public domain, and transportation/mobility. There is a maximum amount of seats available for this part, so sign up quickly.

The second of the ICAI Day, the Plenary Session from 13:30 to 17:30 hrs, will be a hybrid event moderated by Desiree Hoving. You can sign up for this plenary program both physically and online. Keynote speakers Chris Slootweg (UvA) and Hinda Haned (Civic AI lab, UvA) will share their insights on going from lab to market. There will be talks by TTT-AI, Venture Capital, and TechLeap.nl. We will end the event with a panel discussion and closing drinks.

Find the program here and register here.

Kick-off POP-AART lab

On Wednesday April 20, the Netherlands Cancer Institute, University of Amsterdam (UvA), and Elekta will officially launch their partnership for Online Personalized AI-driven Adaptive RT (POP-AART), one of ICAI’s newest labs. Within the POP-AART lab the partners collaborate on the development of new AI strategies for the further improvement of precision radiotherapy. This concerns the personalization of treatment by improving the quality of imaging used during treatment, predicting and accounting for changes in the patient’s anatomy over time, and automatically adapting radiation delivery each time a patient is treated.

During this kick-off there will be talks of prof. David Jaffray (Chief Technology and Digital Officer at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center), ir. Maurits Wolleswinkel (Chief Product Officer Elekta), prof. Mihaela van der Schaar (John Humphrey Plummer Professor of ML, AI and Medicine at University of Cambridge) and more.

Date: April 20, 2022
Time: 15:30 – 17:00 hrs
Location: Online

Find more info on the program here and sign up here.

ICAI Interview with Rianne Fijten: Tightening the relationship between medical clinics and commercial parties

In order to implement new AI technology in medical clinics in a sustainable way, close collaboration between the clinic and commercial parties is crucial, argues Rianne Fijten. ‘You need to make sure that if the grant money runs out, which it always does, the product that you built is not just lost.’

Rianne Fijten

Rianne Fijten is one of the scientific directors of Brightlands Smart Health Lab, assistant professor and senior scientist of clinical data science at Maastro clinic.

Brightlands Smart Health Lab is a collaboration between Maastricht University, Brightlands Institute for Smart Society, Zuyd University of Applied Sciences, Maastro Clinic, Maastricht UMC+, ilionx and Netherlands Comprehensive Cancer Organization.

Could you tell me about the research happening in the lab? What makes this research unique?

‘What is interesting about our lab, is that we really go from technology to the clinic. That’s a concept I’ve not seen anywhere else. Usually a research group focuses on a very specific part of a pipeline, problem or societal issue. Within the lab we have three pillars: data infrastructure, data science and clinical implementation. It is a pipeline from start to finish: we set up the infrastructures to get the data out of the hospitals, extract the data, build AI models and then implement it into the clinic.’

‘Another important thing is that we are close to business. Getting data science into a medical clinic is difficult, but getting it into the clinic without a commercial party involved, is even more difficult. To make sure that the new techniques are supported and maintained, it is crucial to connect the clinic to commercial parties, because researchers will not sustain it after their research is done. They have other research to do.’

What is your personal mission within this lab?

‘My main focus is on the last pillar. Since AI is booming business, so many AI-models have been built. But what you see in healthcare is that implementing those in the clinic is the difficult part. So we try to implement clinically relevant tools, but also find out why research doesn’t end up in the clinic, and what the problems and issues are in that process.’

What kind of clinical needs are you addressing?

‘A good example is a decision aid for prostate cancer patients that we built with the company Patient Plus. As every treatment has different side effects, this tool gives patients the option to find their personal risks of getting side effects, based on their personal characteristics. Prostate cancer is an interesting choice for a decision aid tool, because this disease has a very high survival rate, which makes it possible for patients to choose between different treatments. Patients answer questions like ‘what is your age?’, ‘do you smoke?’ or ‘are you a diabetic?’ Those are all risk factors for incontinence for example. At the end the patient will get a visualization of their personal risks and learns about the disease along the ride. For this tool we have set up a collaboration with urologists that we know very well. And we then offered it to a company, under certain conditions of course, so that they can make sure it will be used in the clinic in the future.’

The lab collaborates with seven different partners. What is it like to work with so many partners?

‘It gives us a lot of flexibility. Working with this big pool of collaborators allows us to set up different alliances that are suited to answer a specific question or solve a specific problem.’

All nine PhD students of the lab are located physically at the partners and mentored by senior scientists at the partners. Why did you choose that approach?

‘In order to keep the collaborations alive and to keep the relationships good, it is important to work together, even if you don’t have a specific project that you are working on that very moment. I think it is very important to establish long-term relationships and by working together in supervision of these PhD students you achieve that.’

What do you want to have achieved in four years?

‘If anything comes out of our ICAI lab, I hope that it is raising more awareness about closer collaboration with the clinics and industrial partners. What we see a lot within the projects is that at first the people at the clinic don’t really see the need for or are a bit anxious to involve industrial parties. I don’t know why, I think it’s the non-profit versus for-profit problem. I hope that with the projects we are going to do within the ICAI lab, that this is one of the take-home messages that we can deliver. We are currently forming the bridge, and hopefully in the future they can keep finding each other without our help.’

On April 21, 2022, the Brightlands Smart Health Lab will talk about their current work during the lunch Meetup of ‘ICAI: The Labs’ on AI for Radiation Treatment in the Netherlands. Want to join? Sign up!

Human(e) AI and Civic AI Lab launch call for proposals: AI democratisation

Humane AI is launching this seed funding call together with the Civic AI Lab as part of a broader UvA ambition to build communities and stimulate cross-faculty and interdisciplinary research on AI and democratisation. 

With this call, they would like to promote interdisciplinary research into the relationship between AI and democracy and provide a platform for early-career researchers and students to launch their own projects in topics such as countering misinformation and polarization, enabling civic engagement and co-creation, and empowering marginalized and vulnerable groups in society. 

The grants have a duration of max half a year, counting from the starting date. They are available to all postgraduate students (Masters and PhDs) as well as early-career researchers from PostDocs to Assistant Professors (up to 5 years from the PhD) at the UvA.

Deadline for applications is April 21, 2022.

Read more about the call and the application procedure here.

#20 with Maarten Sukel of Municipality of Amsterdam

In episode 20 of the Snoek op Zolder podcast, host Hennie Huijgens talks with Maarten Sukel, AI lead and member of the CTO Innovatieteam at the Municipality of Amsterdam. They talk about cameras on garbage trucks and ‘smart garbage containers’, edge computing as a solution to privacy issues, sensors that no longer store data. They also mention how the Municipality of Amsterdam is a popular organization for internships; the Algorithm Register, and life-long learning. (The podcast is in Dutch.)

UvA and Bosch extend collaboration with new ICAI research lab

The UvA and world-leading technology company Bosch have agreed to extend their established collaboration with the launch of a new public-private research lab. Delta Lab 2 – the follow-up to the successful collaboration Delta Lab 1 – will focus on the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning for applications in computer vision, generative models and causal learning. Delta Lab 2 will form part of ICAI, the national Innovation Center for AI, headquartered on the Amsterdam Science Park. The lab will be headed by the UvA’s Dr Jan-Willem van de Meent and Prof. Theo Gevers. Dr Eric Nalisnick will be the daily lab manager.

‘For Bosch, collaboration and close exchange with academic institutions is an essential component of our efforts in the development of safe, robust, and explainable AI. By expanding and realigning the previously successful collaboration in the UvA-Bosch Delta Lab, we are realizing our ambition of combining cutting-edge research with high application potential,’ says Michael Fausten, Senior Vice President and Head of the Bosch Center for Artificial Intelligence (BCAI).

In the Delta 2 lab, ten PhD students, one postdoc and one lab manager will work on projects over the next five years with a total budget of €5.2 million. aiming for new research on deep (causal and partial differential equation-based) generative models; certainty and causality in machine learning; and 3D computer vision.

Building on success

Gevers: ‘The collaboration between UvA and Bosch in Delta Lab 1 has been a great success. We want to build on that success with new fundamental research into machine learning and computer vision technologies. We are grateful to Bosch for continuing to invest in fundamental research. We also thank the previous directors and researchers for all their efforts, and we will continue to work enthusiastically on unexplored areas of AI.’

Van de Meent: ‘We are excited to continue our productive collaboration. Working with Bosch is a win win. It not only facilitates uptake of AI innovations in industry, but also provides a wealth of use cases that can inspire new innovations, such as incorporating physical knowledge into models, reasoning about their causal structure, and evaluating the level of confidence that can be attributed to predictions.’

More information can be found here.

#19 with Frans van Ette – the impact of AI and why AI is more trendy than blockchain

In episode 19 of the Snoek op Zolder podcast, host Hennie Huijgens talks with Frans van Ette, director of AI at TNO and chair of the Data Sharing working group of the Netherlands AI Coalition, about federated data versus data lakes, involving SMEs in AI developments, the impact of AI on society, the development towards plug-and-play solutions for AI, European Data Spaces, the future of data sovereignty, the Guide to interoperable data sharing for AI applications of the Data Sharing working group of the NL AIC, ELSA-Labs, why AI is more trendy than blockchain and tips for HBO students who want to use data. (The podcast is in Dutch.)