The Academics of Investing in AI

By Sarah Fay, Managing Director, Glasswing Ventures

Sarah Fay, Managing Director, Glasswing Ventures

The next big wave of value creation in technology is being driven by AI, similar to the advent of the internet in the 1990’s—which brought a tsunami of disruption, behavior change, business opportunities, magical conveniences and unexpected challenges. As the market gears up for this next big shift, there is a sense of déjàvu for those of us who were there before —but we should also prepare for the unexpected…again. It is impossible to know how far technology will take us and how quickly. What we do know is that we are experiencing a dramatically accelerated pace of change which will up the ante for predicting value in AI based business concepts. How can we use lessons learned from previous waves while not missing the growth opportunities unique to this era?

A big imperative is staying on top of early development trends and market movements. As investors in AI, Glasswing taps our ecosystem and environment to stay informed on trends and important developments. Part of that involves maintaining relationships with prominent academic institutions and professors.

Glasswing’s Boston location is an epicenter of AI invention, given our proximity to academic institutions where ideas are being identified, developed and incubated (MIT, Harvard, Babson, Brown, RISD, NYU, Columbia University, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, University of Toronto, MILA, etc.). Some professors in these institutions have reached rock star status in the AI ecosystem. Students reference with pride their programs and courses, which often require additional applications and testing for entry. Of course, the talent being churned out by these programs is essential to the start-up ecosystem, and another good reason for us to stay close to the source—we are always scouting for our portfolio companies.

"By their very nature, professors play a role in vetting and brainstorming solutions, inventions, ideas"

Professors are also making an impact outside the academic world. It is not uncommon for a prominent professor of AI to also have one leg in the corporate world, helping major organizations prepare for what is coming. The eastern U.S. is rich with Fortune 500 companies that house dedicated AI research labs and teams— all hungry to apply the newest techniques and thinking—often brought to them by these same professorial stars. They act as conduits between AI innovation and start-up teams, classrooms, and the corporate world—all three benefiting. The start-up teams gain access to credible beta accounts, the corporations are exposed to new developments in AI, and the professors can bring insights from the real world back to their classrooms.

Finally, as with previous mega technology growth waves, professors at the forefront are seeing opportunities to get in the game with their own AI business ventures. A founder stepping out of academia can bring unique advantage to a business. The creation of new AI technology requires deep knowledge, vision, and access to the very best development talent. By their very nature, professors play a role in vetting and brainstorming solutions, inventions, ideas—and they are magnets for the most brilliant students and former students to seek out. They can cherry pick the very best people to work with them, and they can attract a broader ecosystem of developers and influencers to lift the profiles of their companies.

As investors, our goal is to breathe life into the most promising start-ups that are nurtured in academia and are led or favored by the professors.

Recently, Rudina Seseri led Glasswing’s incubation and investment in Inrupt, founded by Sir Timothy Berners- Lee, famous inventor of the worldwide web, and celebrity professor of computer sciences at MIT and Oxford. Berners- Lee’s vision for his open infrastructure platform, Solid, is massively bold, proposing no less than to decentralize the web and to give users and businesses the power to control their own data. While the undertaking is ambitious, this founder who has mentored and taught thousands of computer science students has the power to galvanize the developer community to turn his gospel of personal data ownership and privacy into the reality of an ecosystem. Inrupt’s story has landed with immediate impact and activation, thanks to Berners-Lee’s following.

Similarly, Rick Grinnell led Glasswing’s investment in a cyber security business called Allure, founded by Dr. Salvatore Stolfo, a prominent professor of AI at Columbia University. In the world of cybersecurity, Stolfo’s name is well known, and he has real world experience in catching cyber thieves. Stolfo’s automatic credibility and voice in security circles allow Allure to punch above its weight, establishing a strong position within a short time after launching.

As AI continues to evolve and change the world as we know it, Glasswing Ventures will keep close to the academic world to stay best in class.

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