Allen-backed AI2 incubator aims to connect AI startups with world-class talent

You can’t swing a cat these days without hitting some incubator or accelerator, or a startup touting its artificial intelligence chops — but for some reason, there are few if any incubators focused just on the AI sector. Seattle’s Allen Institute for AI is doing just that, with the promise of connecting small classes of startups with the organization’s formidable brains (and 250 grand).

AI2, as the Paul Allen-backed nonprofit is more commonly called, already spun off two companies:, which has made major advances in enabling AI tasks to run on edge devices, is operating independently and licensing its tech to eager customers. And, a (profitable!) natural language processing platform, was bought by Baidu just last month.

“We’re two for two, and not in a small way,” said Jacob Colker, who has led several Seattle and Bay Area startups and incubators, and is currently the Entrepreneur-in-Residence charged with putting AI2’s program on the map. Until now the incubation program has kept a low profile.

Startups will get the expected mentorship and guidance on how to, you know, actually run a company — but the draw, Colker emphasized, is the people. A good AI-based startup might get good advice and fancy office space from just about anyone — but only AI2, he pointed out, is a major concentration of three core competencies in machine learning, natural language processing, and computer vision.

YOLO in action, from the paper presented at CVPR., still partly run out of the AI2 office, is evidence of that. The company’s latest computer vision system, YOLO, performs the rather incredible feat of both detecting and classifying hundreds of object types — on the same network, locally and in real time. YOLO scored runner-up for Best Paper at this year’s CVPR, and that’s not the first time its authors have been honored. I’d spend more time on the system but it’s not what this article is about.

There are dozens more PhDs and published researchers; AI2 has plucked (or politely borrowed) high-profile academics from all over, but especially the University of Washington, a longstanding presence at the frontiers of tech. AI2 CEO Oren Etzioni is himself a veteran researcher and is clearly proud of the team he’s built.

“Obviously AI is hot right now,” he told me, “but we’re not jumping on the bandwagon here.”

The incubator will have just a handful of companies at a time, he and Colker explained, and the potential investment of up to $250K is more than most such organizations are willing to part with. And as a nonprofit, there are fewer worries about equity terms and ROI.

But the applications of supervised learning are innumerable, and machine learning has become a standard developer tool — so ambitious and unique applications of AI are encouraged.

“We’re not looking for a doohickey,” Etzioni said. “We want to make big bets and big companies.”

AI2 is hoping to get just 2-5 companies for its first batch. Makes it a lot easier for me to keep eyes on them, that’s for sure. Interested startups can apply at the AI2 site.