It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: Founder of AI company is a technopreneur and a 'chiongster'

At 25, NeuralBay founder has made her mark in AI - and many things besides

Ms Annabelle Kwok hit the road over three weeks last month and boy, was her schedule hectic.

First, she ran a marathon in North Korea. Then, she hopped over to Beijing to check out the artificial intelligence (AI) scene. Next, she gave a talk on AI to students at NYU Shanghai.

From Shanghai, she flew to Iran where she spoke at the Silk Road Conference on Kish Island. She stayed on to have meetings in Teheran and Istanbul.

A speaking engagement at the American Embassy here saw her coming back to Singapore before she hightailed it to Jakarta where she again spoke on AI at the Data Science Weekend.

Ms Kwok, you would have probably worked out by now, is a sought-after professional in AI.

She is the founder of NeuralBay, an AI company which focuses on detection and recognition software related to humans, objects and text, and which offers AI-driven solutions for multinational corporations across the region.

She is also a mathematician, a hardware hacker, a runner, a mixed martial arts (MMA) exponent, a licensed windsurfer, a circus performer, a musician, a filmmaker and a do-gooder.

And she is only 25.

"I'm a chiongster," she says, using the Singlish term for a person who goes all out to create havoc or have fun.

Ms Annabelle Kwok is a dab hand at building things. While she was in university, she invested in some equipment and started to tinker with hardware engineering in her room. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

The younger of two children is an Energiser bunny on steroids who speaks passionately in rapid-fire bursts.

Although their life was comfortable, her parents, both in the banking industry, made sure their children grew up grounded.

"You get the basics but if you wanted anything more, you worked for them," says Ms Kwok.

Grinning, she recalls having only one Barbie doll, given by a relative, in her childhood.

"My parents bought us a lot of science kits, encyclopaedias and IQ games. They also bought us the first edition of Lego Mindstorms where you can connect Lego bricks with electric cables and build your own robots," says the former student of St Anthony's Canossian Primary.

When she was 12, the former girl guide had a life-changing experience. Her mother signed her up for a week-long tsunami relief mission in Phuket. The Thai island was badly affected when the 2004 tsunami struck, killing more than 200,000 people in 14 countries.

The youngest on the trip, she was assigned to play with, as well as bring comfort to, children at three orphanages who had lost their families and whose spirits were broken.

"I really learnt the importance of making people happy. I also learnt that when people work together, they can really overcome some of life's greatest challenges," she says.

Spurred by a desire to help people, she became a volunteer in her teens. On her own accord, she approached the Care and Counselling Centre, offering to counsel and tutor children from broken families.

Having profanities hurled at her took some getting used to. "My job was to help them learn discipline, make sure they do their homework and be there for them emotionally. It was emotionally draining but I didn't give up on them."

She counselled more than 20 children, and later, became a volunteer as well as wish-granter with Make-A-Wish Singapore, an NGO which arranges experiences for children with life-threatening illnesses. She still contributes to the organisation today.

A self-starter, she got into the Integrated Programme (IP) at Temasek Junior College when she was 14. The programme allows secondary school students to proceed to junior college without having to do the O levels. Time freed up from preparing for the O levels is used to stretch IP students in non-academic areas.

"We were given a hall pass to learn things like Aikido and go sailing with national sailors. We also used laptops. Now when you give teens a laptop and expect them to pay attention in class, that's not going to happen," she says with a chortle.

She spent a lot of time playing computer games such as Worms and Rise Of Nations, reading up tabloid news articles and going into German chat forums.

"I picked up German on my own because I wanted to be a spy and somehow I thought all spies needed to know German," says Ms Kwok, who also harboured ambitions of becoming a Broadway musical star.

To avoid getting caught by teachers, she learnt how to use dual systems where "you're running two or three computers concurrently within your computer". She also taught herself programming and hacking so that she could hack into other more powerful systems because the "crappy" graphics card in her laptop was not good enough for the games she was playing.

"I was just exploring the whole universe of what was available. I felt I could learn a lot more from what was available online than I could from school."

She went on to study mathematics at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and completed all her modules in just over three years.

She did not do it by burying her head in her books either. "Maths is something you can study by yourself. If you get it, you get it," says Ms Kwok, who took part in a lot of musical theatre as an undergraduate.

"When you learn acting, you ask yourself: 'Who am I?' and you learn that the way people portray themselves is sometimes very different from their motivations or intentions. That's why I'm not your stereotypical software engineer."

Ms Kwok, then an NTU student, with local university students at a village in Togo, West Africa. There, she worked with NGOs on projects such as giving women financial advice. Ms Annabelle Kwok is a dab hand at building things. While she was in univer
Ms Kwok, then an NTU student, with local university students at a village in Togo, West Africa. There, she worked with NGOs on projects such as giving women financial advice. PHOTO: ANNABELLE KWOK

At NTU, she also went on a six-week programme to Togo in West Africa, travelling to rural villages and working with non-governmental organisations on several issues, including money-making opportunities for women.

Although malaria was endemic in the country, she discovered that its denizens, including the local university students she was working with, did not have easy access to mosquito sprays and anti-malarial medication.

"People were dying but it could have been so preventable. In Singapore, we always talk about pushing the frontiers of science and technology but what's the point if they don't reach the people who need it most?"

It explains her guiding principle as a tech entrepreneur today.

"One of the reasons why I wanted to do a start-up is a lot of useful technology is locked up in big corporations and doesn't trickle down to smaller businesses. There is a big technical disparity. The rich get richer, the smaller businesses get left out.

"I want a say in who my technology reaches and where it goes. It's one of the reasons why I don't take VC (venture capitalist) money," she says.

More about that later.

In university, she invested in an Arduino board and other relevant equipment and started to tinker with hardware engineering in her room. "I could feel there was a trend towards IOT (Internet of Things) although it hadn't really taken off," says Ms Kwok, who describes herself as a really fast learner.

After two weeks, she joined a hackathon. She built a smart tracker for dogs and came in second.

At her next competition, the IOT Hackathon 2015 organised by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), she nabbed the grand prize with a smart shoe insole which analyses feet movements to help runners prevent injury.

Because she was so good, she was soon barred from taking part in these events but organisers and sponsors like the MBS ArtScience Museum were more than happy to fund whatever project she undertook.

These hackathons opened the doors to a community of makers and before long, she found herself fielding offers from tech titans like Microsoft even before graduation.

Ms Kwok built 27 electricity-generating bicycles for Cable Networks, National Geographic Channel and World Wide Fund for Nature for their Earth Day Event in Singapore in 2016.
Ms Kwok built 27 electricity-generating bicycles for Cable Networks, National Geographic Channel and World Wide Fund for Nature for their Earth Day Event in Singapore in 2016. PHOTO: ANNABELLE KWOK

She also started doing projects for cable channel Nat Geo, building robots for equipment they use in their TV shows.

"Nat Geo has an extensive network and they fly in industry experts so I was learning from all these titans," says Ms Kwok, who also attended conferences such as Defcon. Hackers and IT professionals from all over the world attend Defcon, held in Las Vegas every summer, to absorb cutting edge hacking research.

 

Her first job after graduation was with gaming platform Garena, where she spearheaded offline community engagement. When restlessness set in after nine months, she joined Bonfire, a circus troupe.

"I can spin plates and juggle," she says. "There was no money but I had a lot of savings."

A year later, she decided it was time to earn a proper living.

With help from an angel investor, she set up SmartCow with another computer programmer and came up with Tera, a powerful plug-and-play deployment device which could handle computer vision, deep running and run different types of AI software.

"I couldn't find a device which could do the same so I built my own."

The hardware scene here then was not developed at all and no hardware company wanted to entertain her when she talked to them about building a prototype.

"So I designed everything and went to Canada to build it," she says.

The reception was vastly different when she returned with Tera, and she was feted as a bright star in the tech community and a poster child for AI in Singapore.

Landing contracts was not difficult, and she was soon working with several corporations on various projects, from processing blood tests to tracking rat infestations.

Venture capitalists started knocking on her door but she turned them away because her motive, she says, is not money.

"I wanted the device to be available cheaply to as many people as possible, to be used in as many scenarios as possible. I picked up many skills from the online community, and it was because of cheap technology that I could afford to build things myself."

She left SmartCow late last year when she felt that it wasn't going in the direction she wanted.

When word leaked that she was professionally "single and available", many clients knocked on her door. One major corporation even wanted to make her chief executive of a new subsidiary.

But Ms Kwok opted to start NeuralBay instead. Things have been going swimmingly since it opened its doors last November. Its clients include aviation corporations, and the company even beat big boy competitors like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a project for an international chocolate company.

She runs the company with a partner, and a group of about a dozen enthusiastic techies from all over the world.

Money, she says, doesn't motivate her.

"If it's cool and if it's right, I'll do it," says the feisty young woman who is dating a tech innovator.

Asked if she has any fears that success has come too early, she says: "My only fear is that I get burnt out and mature too quickly.

"I want to do what 25-year-olds do, make stupid but not disastrous mistakes and get wasted," says the MMA and taekwondo black-belter who has taken part in several underground fights.

Her motto is simple.

"I live life. I really live."