Eric Risser: ‘We’re in the perfect AI storm’

23 Jan 2017

Artomatix founder Eric Risser. Image: Artomatix

Deep learning, AI and machine learning are the watchwords of 2017. Eric Risser, founder of Dublin-based Artomatix, has his fingers on the pulse.

Eric Risser is a Florida-born, snowboard-loving coder whose life reads like a verse from the Talking Heads song Once in a Lifetime. “I don’t know, for me it’s like you walk into a room with a series of doors and you choose one and that’s where you end up.”

We’re talking about the series of happy coincidences that led to Risser ending up in Dublin, a city he never planned to be in, and running a start-up that now employs 17 people in Grangegorman, after raising €3m in funding.

‘There were a couple of years where I thought I would just stay a year or two and then after I run out of visas, go to Silicon Valley. But I am here and I am an employer’

The one thing he did preordain was that his start-up Artomatix happens to be in the world of artificial intelligence (AI), a subject area Risser has been passionate about long before AI, machine learning or deep learning became fashionable.

But now that passion and love of learning has propelled Artomatix to fill the centre spoke of a Venn diagram that also happens to be where most of the tech world’s focus is today.

The company’s technology makes realistic graphics possible in blockbuster games and Hollywood movies, saving creators and developers massive amounts of time.

The learned machinist

Eric Risser interview: ‘We’re in the perfect AI storm’

Artomatix founder Eric Risser. Image: Artomatix

To get a sense of how hot the area is, Twitter acquired Magic Pony last June, a contemporary company in the same space as Artomatix, for $150m.

Tomorrow night (24 January 2017) Risser will be the guest of Startup Grind Dublin, supported by Bank of Ireland, which will take place at The Foundry at Google in Dublin.

Before this, Risser was a computer science student specialising in the area of computer graphics at Columbia University. He asked his adviser if he could be taken on as a PhD and was told: “No, we have no money for your weird AI arts stuff.”

Down but not out, Risser heard that Trinity College Dublin (TCD) had openings for PhD candidates to support Metropolis, a simulation of the city of Dublin, which suited his vision for the potential uses of AI.

“I was focused on the are of texture synthesis, which would have been considered a fringe field. Very few people at the time were interested in it. But now it has become a global thing with apps like Prisma really capturing the public’s imagination.”

He said that when the opportunity came to move from New York to Ireland, he jumped at it.

“Trinity had a grant and I decided, why not? I came for the opportunity and I stayed for the weather!”

To get a sense of the problem Risser wanted to solve, when the creators of Grand Theft Auto V were building the game, they had to build a virtual model of Los Angeles down to the most minute detail.

“I spent 10 years watching this community and seeing this problem grow exponentially. The gaming industry was losing its middle class and the demand for high-quality graphics was going up. Smaller companies were being acquired or going out of business.”

Another part of the world

Risser said he never envisaged going down the start-up road. “I did the PhD for the goal of pure academic love. When I finished I was at a crossroads; I could join academia as a professor, I could have gone to Wall Street as a quant, and my adviser was pushing me to go to New Zealand to work on The Hobbit movies.

“To my horror, I realised that being a professor was actually harder work than I knew, where you had to constantly write reports and raise funding and then do classes. It was just like being a start-up but with teaching bolted on. I had a choice, one that can give you job security, or go and change an entire industry.”

When Risser completed his studies, a series of spectacular chances found him back in Dublin as an entrepreneur.

He realised his PhD project had led to the creation of a body of work that could be used to solve the problems he perceived in the games industry.

The plan was to go back to the US, borrow a car from his parents in Florida, drive to Texas to catch up with relatives before driving west again to Salt Lake City, where he could snowboard and code and, after a year, head to Silicon Valley.

“Before I went home, I went for a backpacking trip around Europe and a friend from India also living in Dublin, Servesh Muralidharan, suggested I stay by getting a graduate visa.

“I left for the US with a default plan and had driven to Texas to attend a wedding, and all of a sudden I decided to turn around, give the car back to my parents and unpack the snowboards.”

Risser applied to take part in the TCD start-up incubator programme LaunchBox and because his pitch clashed with his PhD graduation, Muralidharan once again stepped into the breach and did the pitch for him.

“LaunchBox was a pivotal moment. It revealed all these supports that I wasn’t aware existed.

“There were a couple of years where I thought I would just stay a year or two and then after I run out of visas, go to Silicon Valley. But I am here and I am an employer. You could say that Dublin’s start-up scene is the reason I am here.”

An evolving canvas

Within just three years, Artomatix has grown to employ 17 people and the company has just struck a deal with a Fortune 500 company in the industrial design space.

“We can’t say who our customers are because we have to sign strict NDAs, but our technology is used in movies by FX houses and video games – [that] would be our main beachhead. In movies or games, wherever you see a 3D object rendered to look real, that’s what our technology does.”

As CTO, Risser gets to dedicate his time purely to the pursuit of technology while CEO Neal O’Gorman takes care of running the business. “Maybe because of my academic background I never had illusions to be anything other than the CTO. I had been working on Artomatix for 18 months before Neal came on board to manage the business side of things.”

With funding in place for the next two years, Risser said the key for Artomatix is to navigate the burgeoning space the company is in.

“The space is so hot and crazy right now. Two years ago, we wouldn’t have predicted this but Artomatix is now in the crosshairs of two big technologies that have sprung up: AI and deep learning. We are in the centre of a Venn diagram of deep learning, AI, creativity, AR and VR. We have had acquisition offers and merger offers and we expect that to continue.

“Our plan is to go a little bit more aggressive than organic growth and we may opt for an A round a year from now. But anything can happen. This stuff changes so quickly. I just try to live day-to-day and do my best every day.

“I take the philosophy that if I really kick ass on whatever I do today, tomorrow will be good too.”

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