Visual search startup Clarifai beefs up its AI team with a new San Francisco office

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Clarifai — a startup that gives companies and developers a way to implement visual search into their products — said today it was hiring former Google Brain developer Andrea Frome as the company’s new head of research.

Frome received her Ph. D. from Berkeley and worked at Google for more than seven years — 3 years of which were working on street view figuring out how to blur out faces and license plates among other tasks. Frome then worked on the Google Brain team, which was applying deep learning to computer vision and search. So the problems that she had worked on clearly fit into the same bucket as the ones Clarifai is looking to solve. She will be based in San Francisco, where the company is opening a new office and starting to expand beyond their New York presence.

“Going back to Google or a large company, there’s a lot of exciting things happening, but they’re packed their groups so full it feels like you’re always stepping on someone’s toes and trying to figure out your niche,” Frome said. “One thing that’s exciting about Clarifai, we’re trying focused efforts which I find very exciting as a researcher, it motivates the things I’m gonna pay attention to and focus on. Because it’s a small nimble company it’s possible to get our hands in lots of different spaces.”

Clarifai gives developers tools for tagging metadata to photos and enable the company to algorithmically learn what kinds of objects are in those photos. With that data, developers are able to train algorithms to search for those objects in photos or video or input their own content to search for objects. The company raised $30 million in October last year in a round led by Menlo Ventures, with Union Square Ventures, Lux Capital and others participating, and has raised a total of $41.25 million in financing.

These are problems that larger companies like Pinterest and Google are working on, but for the time being those companies are keeping the tools in-house. Clarifai instead is trying to build a set of products that opens up the kinds of visual search tools those companies have to any startup or larger partner. Clarifai, too, is trying to be a neutral player — giving companies a set of tools they can use without feeling pressure that data is being shared with competitors or forcing companies to duct tape themselves to an experience powered by something like Google in order to have access to visual search.

“Research is a really unique team at Clarifai, it’s differentiated on our organizational structure,” Clarifai CEO Matt Zeiler said. “We have a structure that’s a grid — each row is a skill set. The columns are products. Research is not underneath any of those columns, it’s off the grid and to the right. The reason for that is we don’t want them tied to product and getting customer feedback and only driven by those KPIs. We want it to be much more long-term focus.”

After a brief stint at a healthcare startup and working on the Hillary Clinton campaign she ended up at the top of a pile of photos in newsletter following a dinner event, grabbing Zeiler’s attention and prompting the start of the conversation. Zeiler and Frome briefly overlapped at Google during an internship.