What’s the secret to standing out as an AI start-up?

NovaUCD’s Michelle Doyle and Enterprise Ireland’s Marina Donohoe discuss Ireland’s new AI accelerator and what start-ups need to know.

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There has been so much evolution in the world of AI over the last few years that we have a bank of articles mapping its growth, from the explosion of generative AI models to the rapid investment in AI start-ups.

There’s no denying that AI continues to be a critical area of technology that stands to shape much of the next generation of tech. And so, deep-tech AI start-ups must be nurtured in order to bring about the very best AI products.

This is one of the reasons the AI Ecosystem Accelerator has come to be. Run by NovaUCD and CeADAR, Ireland’s research centre for applied AI, the programme is being funded through the European Digital Innovation Hubs (EDIH) framework and is also supported by Enterprise Ireland.

Michelle Doyle, senior manager for strategic innovation partnerships at NovaUCD, said that what sets this accelerator apart is the dual partnership with CeADAR and NovaUCD. “It’s bringing that tech and commercial support, and that’s needed,” she said. “Stepping beyond that, there’s the whole mentorship piece from entrepreneurs from our alumni programme.”

She added that advising start-ups around funding is another key piece of the accelerator and highlighting funding opportunities beyond VCs.

Is it a vitamin or a painkiller?

Accelerators such as this are a vital part of the start-up ecosystem and one dedicated to AI start-ups is incredibly timely. But for the entrepreneurs who are working on their so-called ‘solution’ or AI product right now, what are some of the key things to consider?

Doyle said with so much market saturation, you need to ensure you’re going back to basics when it comes to creating a start-up and asking the simple question of: Is there are a problem that you’re solving and if so, how much of a problem is it?

“I always come back to the analogy that Aidan Corbett from Wayflyer uses, is it a vitamin or is it a painkiller? So, is it a ‘nice-to-do’ solution that you have that is a nice add-on or is it a painkiller solution to something that’s keeping someone up at night?”

Standing out from the crowd

While every start-up comes with challenges, some industries have their own unique set of obstacles. Marina Donohoe, Enterprise Ireland’s head of research and innovation, said one of the biggest challenges facing AI start-ups is the sheer speed of acceleration within the space.

“The pace of changes that we’ve seen in the last three years is the fastest it’s ever been, but it’s the slowest it’s ever going to be.” She said the urgency at which companies have to get to market is so strong that it can be a real challenge for those start-ups.

Another challenge Donohue highlighted was the obvious crowded space in which AI start-ups have to operate right now. “Be very clear and specific on what is the value proposition and what is the competitive advantage that this company has,” she said.

Regulatory challenges and AI washing

A third challenge that has sprouted up within the AI industry, according to Doyle, is the regulation of AI. “I was at a conference late last year and it was the debate between – do you go down the European route of the really regulated path or do you try and go to the US – and there’s different schools of thought and there’s merit to both depending on what your business is, but I certainly think that’s something that any start-up working in AI is going to need to be cognisant of now,” she said.

She also said that investors are looking for start-ups that really have AI technology at their core, rather than what has now been dubbed ‘AI washing’ – adding AI to your business plan because it seems important right now.

“Every company is kind of coming to the fore with AI, but actually once you get a little bit under the hood and delve a little bit deeper, there’s a number of parameters that investors will be looking for that they’ll be deeming a core AI percentage of your business or your solution,” she said.

Ireland’s reputation

Donohoe said there’s a lot to be optimistic about in terms of Ireland’s success in the AI space. “We constantly have delegations coming into Ireland to look at what’s happening here and try to replicate it,” she said. “There’s a lot to be confident about but we can’t be complacent, we need to continually invest and keep the pressure on.”

Speaking about the accelerator, Donohoe added that she hopes entrepreneurs will be enthusiastic about getting involved. “It’s a win-win for us to be working with CeADAR on it. It’s a win-win to have access to the European Union to bring the EDIH into CeADAR because it gives that fire power, it gives that extra energy and that boost to really try and do a hell of a lot more in this area.”

Those that are interested in applying for the AI Ecosystem Accelerator can do so on the UCD website. The closing data for applications is 16 February 2024.

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