Headlines on artificial intelligence typically belong to globally renowned tech giants, such as Google, Facebook, and Apple. Asia’s AI and machine learning startups, on the other hand, rarely make it onto the world stage.
“I want a world-competitive AI company coming from Asia,” says Tak Lo, the Managing Director of Zeroth, a funding program for early-stage AI and machine learning startups in Asia. “[Part] of that is taking Asian startups and being able to support them from a global network of entrepreneurs.”
Zeroth, which launched on July 1st, is a three month funding program that offers mentorship and $20,000 USD in capital to early-stage startups. The team is still working out its application process but plans to launch its first batch this winter. Though Zeroth will accept startups from any AI vertical – “Surprise me,” says Mr.Lo – the program is stricter in its focus on Asia. Relevant startups outside of the region are welcome to apply, but for the most part, Zeroth’s emphasis is on Asia.
Part of that is personal. “[I wanted] to kickstart the Hong Kong tech community,” says Mr. Lo, who is a Hong Kong native. “Hong Kong is a blank space because it’s so behind [in tech], [but] by being a blank space you can draw whatever you want on the whiteboard.”
“I’m very, very serious [about] trying to bring everything that I’ve learned to Asia,” he adds.
Mr. Lo, who was previously Director of Techstars, a global startup accelerator, is also eyeing the city’s angel investors. Currently, Zeroth is still raising funds from investors in the U.S, the U.K, and Hong Kong.
In China, tech giants such as Baidu and Alibaba are seen as the leaders of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Baidu, for example, has its own artificial intelligence research lab, which is headed by renowned machine learning expert Andrew Ng, previously an associate professor at Stanford University. Ant Financial, the financial arm of Alibaba, is partnering with Beijing-based startup Face++ to incorporate facial recognition technology into its mobile payment system, Alipay.
However, Zeroth is betting on Asia’s local startups. The program hasn’t explored any partnerships with Asian tech giants, though it’s open to them. For now, Zeroth’s main focus is on recruiting companies and mentoring them. Tech expertise is also a top priority, which is unsurprising given Zeroth’s focus on AI and machine learning. The program has filled its team roster with seasoned AI tech entrepreneurs, such as Jaan Tallinn, the co-founder of Skype. Even Zeroth’s name is tech-related – “zeroth” refers to zero-based numbering, which is used in computer programming.
Other startup programs, such as TechCode, a Beijing-based startup incubator, are also digging into a growing AI and machine learning industry. According to estimates by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, the global market for robotics and artificial intelligence systems is expected to be worth around $153 billion USD by 2020.
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