Start-up of the week: Kami

10 Apr 2017

Kami co-founder Alex Cheung. Image: Brian Morrison

Our start-up of the week, Kami, uses artificial intelligence technology to create literate machines that can think, reason and communicate like humans.

Kami was one of seven companies that took part in the three-month StartPlanetNI programme, fighting off competition from 300 companies from more than 40 countries.

StartPlanetNI has become one of the most coveted accelerators in Ireland, having been developed and delivered as a partnership between Xcell Partners in Belfast and StartPlanet based in Cork.

‘We will be creating seven new roles for data scientists and AI experts in Belfast within the next four months’

At a recent pitching event in front of an audience of international investors, the ‘Most Investible Company’ award went to Kami.

The market

“Kami is initially targeting the BFSI [banking, financial services and insurance] sectors, where trust is essential to effective business relationships,” Cheung explained.

“Kami’s ‘virtual assistants’ automate the intensive customer engagement processes, extracting the subtleties in conversations – be that in sentiment, preference, character or perception.”

The founders

“I set up Kami alongside Simon Ho, Jonathan Chan, Howard Cheng and Barry Au.” Cheung said.

“We originate from Hong Kong and are each deep-tech specialists in the space of artificial intelligence and software engineering.”

The technology

Start-up of the week: Kami

From left: Niall Casey, Invest Northern Ireland; Alex Cheung, Kami co-founder; Diane Roberts, Xcell Partners; and Bill Liao, lead mentor, StartPlanetNI and general partner, SOSV. Image: Brian Morrison

Virtual assistants built on Kami’s AI conversational platform are exceptionally smart and engaging, said Cheung. “They hold meaningful conversations, give personalised replies with relevancy and build trust with humans.

“Kami also assists people in making informed decisions with real-time conversational analytics.”

The company envisions that AI will eventually evolve into a deep reasoning machine with the intimacy, empathy and in-depth understanding of mankind.

“Our vision is to offer technology products that are world-leading in this area,” said Cheung.

Kami is now moving on to the next stage of its journey. “We have just completed a three-month accelerator programme in Belfast – StartPlanetNI.

“We were one of seven start-up teams from across the globe to participate in the programme and we are proud that Kami was named ‘Most Investible Company’. Given the connections we made through StartPlanetNI, we are now planning to retain our base in Belfast, and set up an R&D centre in the heart of the city.

“We will be creating seven new roles for data scientists and AI experts within the next four months.”

Taking on the Goliaths

“Being a start-up is hard and being an AI start-up is particularly so,” said Cheung.

He added that while the start-up scene is exciting, there is a lot of competition to deal with.

“We are often asked how we can compete with big companies that pour billions of dollars into research and development, with 60 to 100 AI experts at their disposal.

“AI, especially machine learning, relies on data and, unlike giant companies like Google, Apple or Amazon, it is hard for start-ups to collect useful high-quality data for training their systems. Successful start-ups in this area provide one or two niche solutions, which gives them access to valuable data to make their technology work smarter.

“It is so important for start-ups to fully understand their industry, so they give their business the best start possible. There is no shortage of available talent in the start-up scene but again, it is a competitive landscape, and great talent comes at a price.”

A world of opportunity

Cheung said that there are many options to explore within the European market.

“For fintech start-ups, the UK is known for the level of access it offers to financial services corporations. We have formed excellent connections with potential investors through our time in Belfast at StartPlanetNI. Combined with the level of talent we secured, it made it the perfect base for Kami at this stage of our business.

“For material tech, smart factory, green tech or energy, Germany offers great opportunities. For IoT and hardware start-ups, south-east China may be an interesting place to consider for European start-ups.

“Asian markets, especially China or Hong Kong, are picking up fast. I recommend start-ups moving east, however, should find a partner that understands the Chinese market and the cultural differences.”

Disclosure: SOSV is an investor in Silicon Republic

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years