How to scale an AI business in Northern Ireland

Kane Fulton, March 17, 2021 6 min read

Data partnerships and expert support are key to the growing sector 

Scaling an AI company comes with a set of unique challenges – from the need to access computational power and gather large volumes of data to competing for specialist talent.

Based in Belfast, precision medicine company Sonrai Analytics enables health organisations to filter and transform datasets to improve patient outcomes. Cofounder Deva Senevirathne, who develops Sonrai’s analytical tools, emphasises the importance of diverse and balanced skills across the founding team, referencing her partnership with cofounder and CEO Darragh McArt as an example.

“I think it’s really important for cofounders to have a complementary element,” she says. “You also need people in your team who can take an idea and make it happen. Everything is about code for me, whereas Darragh sees that what we create is realistic and actually useful.”

Darragh similarly focuses on “key relationships, strategies and partnerships” but to address data-related challenges that come with the territory of scaling AI work. Sonrai partnered with biotech company Roche and Queen’s University Belfast through an Innovate UK programme that Darragh says gave the company confidence in the integrity and value of their data resources.

“The programme gave us access to enriched cohorts and datasets to which we could apply our AI and deep learning,” Darragh says. “Anyone can go out into the public domain to pick up datasets from various sites and siloes, but we knew ours were faithfully collected and vetted by fantastic partners which gave us a rich resource to apply our cutting-edge technology.”

Collaborations and partnerships are vital for AI companies in Northern Ireland, Darragh says, both with data partners and corporate partners who can support on other elements of a growing business. Sonrai is currently finalising a collaboration with two US computing and graphics processing giants, which have provided Sonrai with hardware to create a virtual sandbox for training its AI algorithms.

“I think it’s about putting yourself out there a little bit, making sure that you’re transparent about how people can help you,” says Darragh. “There is also an element of return for them – relationships and partnerships can’t always be one-sided.”

Credible data

Belfast-based PulseAI has developed an AI-powered platform that automates and visualises data from wearables equipped with ECG sensors used to detect heart arrhythmia. To develop tools for accurate cardiac diagnoses, the company required masses of ECG data from hospitals in its early days, which founder Alan Kennedy says was a challenge working in the UK and EU in particular.

“Hospitals in the UK and European Union aren’t as competent with AI, as it’s a new field for them – they don’t know how to work with companies and be aligned on things like GDPR,” Alan says. “To get hold of the data we needed, we ended up working with American medical institutions who are well accustomed to working and innovating with companies.”

PulseAI signed three clinical data partnerships with US hospitals. Before founding his startup, Alan worked as a research scientist for Philips Healthcare focusing on medical imaging for cancer detection. He says that the credibility of his previous work, which was recognised by its US partners, proved advantageous.

“Thankfully those hospitals were aware of some of the papers I’d done many moons ago, so they were familiar with who I was, which gave me a starting point,” he adds. “In the UK we are now starting to work with NHS trusts who are more forward-thinking and learning with me on how we can make partnerships work.”

Sonrai Analytics’ team

Cluster collaborations

Sonrai Analytics, PulseAI and other AI companies in Northern Ireland could receive scaling support in the future from a proposed AI Competence Centre (or AICC) based in Belfast, aimed at supporting the development of the country’s AI sector.

MATRIX, Northern Ireland’s Science Industry Panel, outlined the business case for the centre in a recent report, which highlighted the potential for AI to benefit many other sectors. It points to a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to support an emerging AI cluster of excellence around Belfast, enabled by incoming public sector investment from city deals.

Digital Catapult NI director Adrian Johnston says that the centre could play a multifaceted role, including helping to drive the adoption of AI in some of Northern Ireland’s biggest sectors where it is currently low – including construction, logistics, and agritech.

The centre would operate as a hub within an AI business cluster, facilitating collaboration between AI-focused companies and research organisations in Northern Ireland and across the UK. For Adrian, community collaboration is essential for the cluster’s development given Northern Ireland’s relatively small ecosystem.

“We don’t necessarily have a certain level of expertise needed to scale and grow the AI cluster in Northern Ireland,” Adrian says. “As such, we need to engage with other research institutions such as the Alan Turing Institute, the Hartree Centre and even within the Digital Catapult network to leverage their capabilities.”

The centre will also collaborate with Belfast’s universities – Queen’s University Belfast and University of Ulster, which both engage in entrepreneurial activity. Fergus Begley, Start Up Manager at Ulster, says that the university allows AI companies to ‘spin in’ and receive support from its academics.

“If you have a good idea but you’re missing a skillset that you need, we can see if we have an academic or key facility before starting a discussion,” says Fergus. “We can also bring money to the table in exchange for equity, so there are processes there that we can take companies through.”

Leveraging a network

The AICC could also help businesses applying AI to unusual contexts, like cattle farming in rural areas. Cattle Eye which joined Tech Nation’s Applied AI 2.0 growth programme back in October, has developed an autonomous platform that uses video analytics powered by deep learning AI to monitor the health of cows.

CEO Terry Canning says the solution, which can scan multiple animals using a single low-cost camera, is more scalable for farmers compared to today’s standard monitoring solutions using neck-mounted sensors fitted to livestock.

To expand the business opportunity, Cattle Eye is targeting the US market, which would increase the number of cows it simultaneously monitors from tens of thousands to millions. Terry sought specialist support for growing an AI business by using his tech network.

“I came from a tech background, but not an AI one,” he says. “I had no idea about AI but because I’ve been around for a while, I knew the right people to signpost me – but not everybody might have a developed network.”

Terry, who has been involved in the planning of the AICC, says that people will be able to visit it for everything from advice on AI to acquiring proof-of-concept grants. He believes that building a network of AI companies is even more crucial for founders now than ever.

“AI has changed – it used to be that just showing somebody that you’re doing it used to open doors to get things going – but now it’s about applied AI,” he says. “If you have a real world problem that can be solved with AI, I think the centre will be brilliant for that because they will be able to signpost you to talent or get a consultant to get things going.”

Attracting talent

Securing the investment needed to grow remains a key challenge for AI companies in Northern Ireland. It is one that Gary Davidson, Tech Nation’s Entrepreneur Engagement Manager for Northern Ireland (and Investment Lead for Entrepreneur Engagement), is currently helping founders with by connecting them to investors based in the UK and internationally.

Ryan McAnlis, Investment Director at Techstart Ventures, which invests in early-stage AI companies based in Northern Ireland, highlights the value of attracting talented people to work in a young startup.

“In building a team, we always encourage AI companies attracting high-calibre people to consider an option pool alongside a salary – it’s that big potential reward for being in a startup,” says Ryan. “We’re seeing that younger developers are much more willing to go to a startup rather than a larger corporate because of the excitement, added to their flexibility, ownership options and attack strategy.”

Ryan says that more mature, revenue-generating AI companies can benefit by forming a board of expertise. Jayne Brady, Digital Innovation Commissioner at Belfast City Council and cofounder at Cattle Eye, advises companies reaching this stage to assess what expertise it will need over a period of time and hire appropriately.

“It can be useful to reevaluate directors after a certain period because you may have got the learning you need after so many months,” says Jayne. “Looking ahead at where you will be scaling in, say, 18 months can be useful – as that may cover events such as a funding cycle. Overall, I would say be ambitious and reach out to your network for the expertise you need on your board.”

With ambitious companies and an evolving support network focused on collaboration, innovation and community, Northern Ireland has solid foundations upon which to build a thriving AI ecosystem.

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