(Photo by April Joyner)
NYU Tandon School of Engineering is making a power play into the artificial intelligence space by doing something that no university has done before, according to dean Katepalli Sreenivasan: partner with a venture capital firm to launch an accelerator.
On Wednesday morning, at NYU Tandon’s Data Future Lab incubator on Varick Street in SoHo, Sreenivasan announced the launch of the AI NexusLab, a four-month program for AI startups. The accelerator will be jointly run by the Downtown Brooklyn-based engineering school, though it will be headquartered out of the Data Future Lab, and ff Venture Capital, the Midtown venture firm whose portfolio companies include Indiegogo and Klout. (The accelerator will be based at the Data Future Lab because its AI focus aligns with the Data Future Lab, which already houses some AI startups, said NYU spokesman Karl Philip Greenberg.)
Only five companies will be chosen for the program, which kicks off in November. Each company will receive $100,000 in funding from ffVC, plus services like legal consulting and cloud storage. In exchange, ffVC will get six percent equity and NYU will get two percent equity.
As with other accelerator programs, the participants will work with mentors, from NYU, ffVC and elsewhere, including famed investor Fred Wilson. They will also have access to supercomputers and gigabit broadband at NYU’s Data Future Lab. After the program ends, the participating companies can take residence in the Data Future Lab. AI NexusLab is also partnering with Tech:NYC to provide support to international companies that would like to remain in the city.
Cool job alert: NYU Tandon plans to hire someone to run the accelerator. Interested? Reach out to Steve Kuyan, who runs the Data Future Lab.
The accelerator is looking for companies that “have the capability to make transformative changes,” said Kurt Becker, Tandon’s vice-dean for research, innovation and entrepreneurship.
Attracting those standout companies will likely become a tougher task as the AI market heats up. That’s why now is the perfect time for New York City to mark its territory, according to John Frankel, ffVC’s founding partner.
“I think that AI today is at a very interesting juncture,” he said. “It’s been on the cusp of mainstream for decades. But the advances in tech we’ve seen recently are now enabling a lot of what we call ‘magic moments.'”
For instance, Waze’s ability to steer you clear of traffic so that you can get to work on time.
NYU already has a firm foundation in AI research. The difficulty has been bringing those breakthroughs to market.
“It’s not as easy as having a desk and a laptop, like traditional tech startups,” said Kuyan, NYU Tandon’s managing director of incubators and entrepreneurship.
The university has made some headway, though. Its Data Future Lab incubator is home to several AI companies, including Rollio, a natural-language processing company that makes applications for sales; Clarifai, an image-recognition company and Findmine, which makes a product recommendation engine for clothing retailers. All three companies gave demos at the event, along with Julian Togelius, a NYU Tandon professor who specializes in AI for video game development.
Clarifai’s CEO, Matt Zeiler, who is from Canada, told the audience he moved to New York City specifically because of NYU’s research strengths. He founded Clarifai after completing a PhD in neural networks at NYU, where he specialized in computer vision, the process of enabling computers to decipher static images and video.
“NYU was only one of four schools I found that focused on the field,” he said. “There’s a lot of talk about New York becoming a hub for AI. From my experience, that’s definitely true.”
With so much focus on the Data Future Lab location in SoHo, will the accelerator also be good for Brooklyn’s tech scene? Likely. Having NYU Tandon, arguably the borough’s biggest tech player, associated with AI can’t hurt. Plus, it’ll be interesting to see if other Brooklyn tech startups and community members get involved with the accelerator.