NYU partners with venture firm to make city a hub for startups using artificial intelligence

School and venture capital fund ff Venture Capital to support five startups using computers to mimic human intelligence

By: Matthew Flamm

The future of artificial intelligence may be moving closer to the present.

On Wednesday, the NYU Tandon School of Engineering will announce the launch of an accelerator-style program that will recruit five early-stage AI startups to the school’s Varick Street Incubator. The city’s first accelerator devoted to computer technology that imitates human intelligence, the AI NexusLab will connect the startups to the university’s academic resources while providing the fledgling companies with the marketing and business expertise of a major venture capital firm.

They’ll also be funded to the tune of $75,000 over their four-month stay, with an additional $25,000 to cover the program’s costs. The Manhattan-based firm ff Venture Capital, which will select the startups in concert with NYU, will provide the financing in exchange for a 6% stake in each company. The university will get a 2% stake.

“We’ve seen a number of artificial intelligence companies come through our various programs, and they’re very different from a typical startup,” said Steven Kuyan, NYU Tandon managing director of incubators and entrepreneurship. “They require a much larger traditional support structure.”

The program will provide intensive mentoring as well as access to three supercomputers; to faculty members who specialize in artificial intelligence, and to other companies in the incubator program that could make use of the startups’ technology. The companies, which will be recruited from around the world, will be applying AI technology to sectors related to the New York economy, including finance, healthcare and media and publishing. The goal is to graduate five viable AI companies at a time when the technology is increasingly in demand—and make New York a leader in the sector.

Venture capital financing for AI technology is still relatively small: $310 million globally in 2015, up from $45 million in 2010, according to CB Insights. But estimates for the market for AI related services—which range from voice recognition to insurance-rate calculations, to translation and help-desk services—top $23 billion over the next decade.

With the official title of NYU/ffVC AI NexusLab, the program will be housed in the newly renamed Data Future Lab.

(NYU’s two other incubators are also taking part in the rebranding: its Dumbo Incubator, for digital media, is now the Digital Future Lab; the NYC ACRE incubator in Brooklyn’s Metro Tech has become the Urban Future Lab, for clean tech and smart city startups.)

“There are a lot of businesses that could benefit from an AI layer,” said John Frankel, founding partner of ff Venture Capital, who has been developing the project with NYU over the past three months. “New York should be a hub for AI just as it’s a hub for fashion and finance and media and advertising.”

The program will put out a call for applications in September, and will choose the participants by early November. Their tenure will begin at the end of that month and last until the beginning of April.
Contrary to standard practice at traditional accelerators, there will be no demo day at the end. Instead NYU and ff Venture Capital will see what kind of support the companies need next, and how well the program is working.

“The field is very open,” said NYU Tandon Dean Katepalli Sreenivasan. “Many things are possible. We’ll see how far we go with this.”

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