The UK’s AI scene is the talk of the town at the moment, with a number of significant startup exits happening over the last few years.
Evi was acquired by Amazon for a reported £18 million in 2013, DeepMind was bought by Google for around £400 million in 2014, VocalIQ was acquired by Apple for an unknown amount in 2015, and SwiftKey was bought by Microsoft for £175 million in 2016.
Saul Klein, a venture capitalist at London-based LocalGlobe, believes there are a number of factors that have led to a general surge in AI.
“Clearly this [AI] has been decades in the making,” said Klein during an interview with Business Insider at LocalGlobe’s office in King’s Cross. “There are conditions that exist now that make mainstream AI and the application of AI possible. Like cloud, like big data, analytics, connectivity as well.”
In terms of what makes the UK so special, Klein believes the Oxbridge-London triangle is playing an important role in the creation of the UK’s best AI companies.
Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, and UCL all have deep expertise in applied mathematics, computer science, and machine learning, according to a blog post by two AI investors. As a result, several of Britain’s best-known AI companies started off as research projects within these institutions before being spun out. Evi and VolalIQ began at Cambridge, for example, while DeepMind has close ties to all four institutions.
There are also a number of organisations in the UK that incubate AI startups in their early days. Entrepreneur First in London, for example, helps deeply technical people to find cofounders to launch a tech startup with; at least half of their last cohort focused on applying machine learning to different challenges.
Then there’s the money. LocalGlobe, which Klein founded with his father Robin, is using its £45 million fund to make a number of investments into UK AI startups, as are VCs like Playfair Capital and White Star Capital.
“There are really amazing AI-driven businesses that are emerging and some of the companies that we will announce investments in are squarely focused in and around that,” said Klein.
In terms of whether AI could one day pose a threat to humanity, as famous scientist Stephen Hawking predicts, Klein said: “I guess the way I would look at it is that there are lots of technologies that we have created over time, including nuclear weapons, that have existential risk. I don’t know if AI is one of them but the best thing to do is to study these things and to be actively engaged, and it’s great that people like [Skype cofounder] Jaan [Tallinn] are doing that in Europe. He’s created the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge with Martin Rees and Stephen Hawking.
“Obviously [LinkedIn founder] Reid Hoffman, [PayPal cofounder] Peter Thiel, and [Y-Combinator president] Sam Altman have put a billion dollars into OpenAI on the west coast. It’s great that people are researching this stuff.”