Temasek-backed BasisAI unpacks AI 'black box'

It is building customised platforms that can track data points and monitor performance


ARTIFICIAL intelligence (AI) startup BasisAI is still developing prototypes of its solutions, but it has already assembled a marquee slate of seed investors in Temasek Holdings and Sequoia India.

It helps that the company is going after one of the most important problems in AI, and that its three co-founders have one of the most valuable assets for young deep-tech startups: pedigree.

Liu Feng-Yuan, 37, a President's Scholarship recipient and Oxford University alum, was until last year director of the data science and AI division of GovTech Singapore.

Mr Liu's co-conspirators are twin brothers Linus and Silvanus Lee. Mr Linus Lee was among the pioneer batch of data scientists at Twitter, and was most recently the social media giant's head of data science for Asia-Pacific. His brother was director and head of product data science at Uber following a stint as head of data science at Dropbox. The siblings graduated from Stanford University.

The trio left their jobs to start BasisAI in September last year, with the aim of tackling the thorny problem of accountability in AI.

As AI applications permeate economies, regulators are increasingly laying down boundaries to avoid improper applications. Singapore recently announced a framework for the ethical and responsible use of AI, saying that AI systems should be explainable, transparent and fair.

But ensuring that an AI-generated solution is fair has proven to be extremely challenging because of the complexity of the underlying algorithms and data. A machine learning system could come up with a credit score for an individual, but whether the score was affected by the individual's ethnicity, for example, may not be known.

"There have been cases of biased data being fed into the algorithm and then it churns out certain biased results," Mr Liu said. "But if AI is a black box, then how do you know which data it's being trained on?"

BasisAI is building customised AI platforms for its customers that not only allow users to track data points and monitor AI performance, but also allow them to scale up AI systems quickly and generate real-time predictions.

The startup's engineers have been developing prototypes, and the company is currently looking for enterprises that are willing to run through iterations of solutions, what BasisAI calls "design partners". The company does have some clients whom it is already working with, but Mr Liu declined to name them.

However, he did share that BasisAI hopes to target financial services and consumer Internet companies. There is "tremendous" growth in the latter category within South-east Asia, added Mr Linus Lee.

"Our collective experience developing consumer intelligence data products puts us in a good position to develop technology to use AI to power their business and technology stack," Mr Linus Lee said.

That combination of blue-chip founders and a worthy problem statement has led venture investors to sit up and take notice. Mr Liu said that there were other potential investors that BasisAI spoke to, but the firm eventually decided to receive investments from Sequoia India and Temasek. He explained that there was a strong alignment of interests in developing Singapore's deep-tech ecosystem.

Abheek Anand, managing director of Sequoia Capital Singapore, told The Business Times that Sequoia India's recent participation in BasisAI's S$8.2 million seed round alongside Temasek was based on the quality of the founding team and the "massive" size of the business opportunity.

He particularly noted the success that the co-founders had at their previous jobs. For instance, Uber and Twitter, where the Lee brothers held senior management roles, have "some of the largest and most successful AI and data science teams".

"The background and collective experience of all three founders, and their ability to draw on their learning and apply them at more traditional companies which want to go through a technology transformation, makes BasisAI a particularly promising company," Mr Anand said.

He added that the company has a "large pipeline of potential customers", and that the first set of milestones will be to try and onboard some key anchor customers.

BasisAI said that it expects its headcount to be about 10 by the end of January. This number could double by mid-2019, with hiring focused on machine-learning and software engineers, the company said.

With so much early optimism about the company and its talent, Mr Liu knows that the job at hand is to deliver. "At the end of the day, the proof will be in the pudding when we deploy these live systems," he said.

BasisAI at a glance

  • Founders: Liu Feng-Yuan (CEO), former director of the data science and AI division of GovTech Singapore; Linus Lee, former head of data science for Asia-Pacific at Twitter; Silvanus Lee, former director and head of product data science at Uber
  • Business: Building accountable and scalable AI products for enterprises
  • HQ: Singapore
  • Backers: Temasek, Sequoia India
  • Funding rounds: S$8.2 million (Seed)