In Quest for Robotics Startups, Qualcomm Accelerator Scouts for AI

At a time when companies like Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), Facebook (NASDAQ: FB), Baidu, and Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) are engaged in an arms race in artificial intelligence, Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) is putting a premium on “deep learning” as it solicits startups for its new robotics accelerator.

Qualcomm unveiled its plans to host the intensive, four-month program for robotics startups in October. The wireless technology giant said it would commit over $1 million in aggregate funding for the 10 startups admitted to its accelerator, which is managed by Boulder, CO-based Techstars and scheduled to begin May 25th. (Each company admitted to the program will get a $20,000 investment by Techstars for a 6 percent ownership stake and an optional $100,000 convertible loan from Qualcomm.)

In December, Techstars named former EcoATM vice president Ryan Kuder as managing director of the robotics accelerator. Since then, Kuder and Houman Haghighi of Qualcomm Ventures have been drumming up interest in the accelerator by giving presentations at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and at tech mixers in Boston, New York, San Diego, and San Francisco.

In an interview before their Feb. 9 presentation in San Diego, Haghighi said the team is looking for applications from robotics teams with “core technologies and non-core technologies in hardware, software, and some kind of core intelligence.”

Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator, powered by Techstars

Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator, powered by Techstars

That core intelligence, Haghighi said, should come from some kind of artificial intelligence or deep learning technology. Haghighi, in particular, emphasized the need for robots with the capability to navigate autonomously, using innovations in computer vision and techniques like “supervised learning” and “unsupervised learning” to avoid obstacles. Haghighi talked about the importance of computer vision in navigation, and the different approaches taken by the University of Toronto’s Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun, who left New York University at the end of 2013 to join Facebook.

Is there a conscious effort at Qualcomm to use its new robotics accelerator to drive innovations in artificial intelligence?

When I put the question to Techstars CEO David Cohen in an e-mail, he replied, “I’m not sure I agree that we are trying to drive it to AI specifically. That’s an area of interest, but not exclusively.

“What you are more likely witnessing is that we are more proactively recruiting companies, in addition to looking at who naturally applies, and that this recruiting may have an emphasis on one or more areas.”

Kuder, who was more circumspect than Haghighi, said the accelerator is seeking startups with a … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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