Today, when I watch the ‘pitch video’ that accompanied our application to the Creative Destruction Lab program, I cringe. Truly. At how scattered we were. At our lack of market focus. At our naivety around attracting investors. The plural pronouns in the previous sentence (‘we’ and ‘our’) should really be singular (‘I’ and ‘me’), as the business acumen for our venture – at least, in large part – was supposed to come from me.
That we are a team of 15 people today working vigorously to bring our technology to market is a credit to the CDL program and the vision of its founders.
Our journey from conception to concreteness – along with CDL’s role in the transformation – is an interesting one. As Julie Andrews said in The Sound of Music, let’s start at the very beginning…
The University of Waterloo (UW) is central to this narrative as most of our team, including our founders, are Waterloo alumni. After graduating from UW in 2001, I started a company with five partners called Infusion that developed custom software for corporate clients, initially in the financial services sector. Through much sweat and skill, we grew the company to 650 people before its acquisition by Avanade last year. My role at Infusion was primarily technical, including stints as CTO in various realms of the organization.
Towards the end of my tenure, I began applying deep learning solutions to the enterprise, which caught the attention of Arif Virani (now our COO), who worked at Infusion years prior before pursuing his MBA at Wharton followed by management consulting at McKinsey. Arif, who was an advisor to Darwin at the time, insisted I meet his ‘friend Alex’ who was doing amazing things with artificial intelligence in an academic capacity at Waterloo.
So it was in March 2017 that I found myself in Professor Alex Wong’s lab just off campus. His credentials spoke for themselves: assistant professor, founding member of Waterloo’s Artificial Intelligence Institute and the Canada Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence. But even more impressive than his CV was what he and his team showed me that first day: 20 powerful ‘perception’ networks running simultaneously on a single chip.
As deep learning neural networks require substantial computing resources to run, this demo was truly astounding and, in that moment, I knew I was in the presence of a special team and technology and simply had to get involved.
So how did the team facilitate this dazzling demonstration?
Our technology, which is based on years of scholarship by Dr. Wong and Dr. Mohammed Javad Shafiee (who did his postdoc under Alex and is also a co-founder at Darwin), uses AI itself to observe a neural network during training, which results a deep, mathematical understanding of said network. This understanding is then used to:
- Dramatically reduce the size of the network while maintaining functional accuracy and reducing inference time;
- Facilitate ‘explainable’ deep learning: the ability to understand why the network makes the decisions it does.
Together, these core offerings enable powerful deep neural networks to be deployed in edge-based scenarios where computational and bandwidth resources are limited. What’s more, the technology is truly cutting-edge, achieving compaction and acceleration ratios beyond anything seen in academia or industry.
In the halcyon days of the company, however, our business plan and go-to-market ambitions paled in comparison to the technology behind them. Overwhelmed by the potential of our IP, we lacked focus, precision, and a concrete plan of how to parlay our technical strengths into commercial success.
The Creative Destruction Lab
“It will be intense and frankly a little intimidating.”
So exclaimed Professor Ajay Agrawal, CDL’s founder, on the first day of the program, an orientation of sorts.
And indeed it was: five laser-focused sessions over nine months, in which our business plan was subjected to microscopic analysis from hardened entrepreneurs less impressed with the ‘coolness’ of our technology than by the business potentialities surrounding it.
In those initial meetings, the questions came thick and fast: who are your customers? What pain points does the technology address? How much will people pay for the platform? How is the technology defensible? And, most memorably:
“At the moment, this is a fancy science project. How do you transform it into a sustainable business?”
It was a lot to digest, but it prompted some critical reflection on our side and the beginnings of our market research activities. Our first CDL mentors, including Nan Li from Obvious Ventures (who subsequently helped co-lead our seed round) and Kanu Gulati from Khosla Ventures, provided invaluable advice, introducing us to organizations that were aggressively using deep learning and helping us maximize our time with them.
Several important learnings materialized from those meetings:
- Our messaging, particularly the emphasis on both cloud and edge-based optimization, was muddled and confusing. We should focus on one and develop a concrete business case around it.
- Our proposed SaaS model wasn’t viable, as companies would be extremely reluctant to upload proprietary network models and training data to a public cloud. Any optimization platform we developed would need to run in their private environments.
- We should identify and focus on clients that were using deep learning in a mature and sustained fashion. This included both Autonomous Vehicles and Consumer Electronic verticals.
- The explainability aspect of our offering, peripheral up to that point, had to be fully integrated into our business plan, as it was key to our technical defensibility and long term platform aspirations.
Though it seems obvious in hindsight, the correction of false-steps, problematic assumptions, and naïve expectations are necessary undertakings for any organization. CDL simply accelerated the journey for us in a relentless and exponential fashion.
In sum, CDL was a six week forcing-function in the early days that obliged us to crystalize our product offering and go-to-market strategy. Thereafter, it blossomed into an intensive blend of piercing critiques, fruitful networking and invaluable mentorship. A number of CDL fellows eventually participated in our angel round, and the program was key in introducing us to our institutional co-leads as well. (A special and additional shout-out to Michelle Lau, our venture manager, who tirelessly kept us focused and on-task).
Finally, as a Canadian who has reflected at length about our country’s approach to entrepreneurship, the reputation that now precedes CDL, particularly down south, gives me tremendous pride.
Vinod Khosla, who spoke at the CDL Super Session, was right when he said that “Silicon Valley is not so much a place, as a state of mind”.
I am forever grateful to CDL for instilling this state of mind in my hometown and country. Per my comments during our final presentation at the Super Session:
“I want to thank CDL for challenging us to think big and for forcing us to get our act together. We hope to do you proud in the months and years ahead.”