AIis one of the buzzwords of the moment in the world of tech, with startups coming at the concept from all angles computer vision, machine learning, unstructured data inference and natural language processing being just a handful in a wider effort to create more intelligentmachines. Now comes a new organization that hopes to find and foster the next wave of AI businesses and products, co-founded by the ex-CEO of Evernote, Phil Libin (pictured above), who has left his role as a managing director at General Catalyst to build it (but he tells me hell stay on as an advisor).
All Turtles, as the new company is called, is not your traditional startup incubator. In an interview with TechCrunch earlier, Libin (whose other co-founders are Jessica Collier (Product Design) and Jon Cifuentes (Research and Operations)describedit as startup studio, more akin to Netflixs push to develop original content than to 500 Startups.It will start out with locationsin San Francisco, Tokyo and Paris.
The idea with All Turtles is not necessarily to seek out fully formed businesses, but to find and develop interesting concepts en route to them possibly becoming businesses (or at least goodideas that other businesses might like to buy), with people and startups collaborating together to collectively grow. (This is also where the All Turtles name comes from: an apocryphal story about how the world is formed on the back of others work, that its a group effort in the end.)
This is not Libins first attempt to foster a group of AI startups: last year, after he parted ways with Evernote, Libin joined General Catalyst and kicked off a new project there to find, fund and grow startups building bots tools that chatted with you, ahuman, using conversational artificial intelligence, to help you find information, solve a problem, order a sofa, and much more.
In case you are wondering (I was), Libin said that his departure from General Catalyst and subsequent move to develop the idea further in a separate studiowas his decision a way to dive deeper into the development angle beyond the primary financial one of VCs.
Phils an incredible product guy and were excited to back him at All Turtles where he can focus on bringing awesome AI-driven products to market, a spokesperson from General Catalyst told TechCrunch in an email. Phil will continue on with General Catalyst as a senior advisor and will continue to work with many of the young bot companies he funded as an investor here.
There will also remain several strands connecting Libin, the startups and GC.
For starters, several startups that Libin backed as part of that bot effort at General Catalyst are now joining All Turtles as foundation members.
The list of foundation membersincludeButter, a teams assistant bot that works in Slack that helps you find information across multiple files as you need it;Growbot, a recognition bot to commemorate achievements and milestones at work;Edwin, aFacebook Messenger bot that tutors you in English vocabulary; Replika, an AI friend that acts as a companion and journal; robot lawyerDoNotPay; Loic Le Meurs talent finderLeade.rs; social selling botOctane AI; and home security and drone startupSunflower Labs. There will be more coming on that will be announced soon, Libin told me.
On top of that list, General Catalyst, along with Japans Digital Garage, are coming on as backers of All Turtles. Libin declined to disclose the amountthey are investing, or any numbers: more backers are going to be revealed later in the year, when All Turtles will also disclose more details as well.
Libin saidthat as part of staying on as an advisor at General Catalyst, hell also continue to be involved in the investments that he led for the company.
I had a conversation with Libin about what led to him starting All Turtles, what he hopes to achieve, and what he thinks about AI today. An edited version of it is below:
Why exactlydid you decide to leave General Catalyst? You were already running a seed fund forbots, so didnt you just develop this within that existing structure?
Id been thinking about this for a while, for years really. Its the job I thought I would have when I joined General Catalyst. I want to expand what entrepreneurship is. Toptier VCs are not the best place to do that, being adjacent to VC is best. I think this hasworked out great. Many of the portfolio and studio companies arethe ones I invested in General Catalyst, so its a natural progression.
It was my decision to do this and they supported me as primary backers of thecompany. I just realised that its more than investing. Just investing is not really enough to change how the industry works. I wanted to create a hands-on, more hybrid model.
You started with an effort to seek out bots. Now this has moved to AI but you are still primarily listing bots in All Turtles initial list. What is the roadmap here?
The first theme for us is practical AI bots,and conversational AI is a starting point. But I think this will moves quickly. Sunflower for example ismaking AI-based sensors and drones for security. So there is also a hardware component there. There are alsoa couple of others that havent been announced yet that we will be backing.
Do you feel like AI has become too hackneyed?
AI is a buzzword similar to what mobile feltlike to me when we started Evernote. Today, everyone is still talking about AI in a way that is similar to how people used to talk about mobile. Years ago, it wasstill possible to seek out and invest in companies building mobile apps. Now mobile is a part of everything and every company develops a mobile version.
I think something similar is happeningwith AI. Itmeans a specific set of algorithms and technology, but within three to five years it wont be AI companies anymore. It will fundamentally be baked into everything.
And thats what this is about for us: we want to catch something before it goes mainstream.
You are opening from the start in three geographies, San Francisco, Tokyo and Paris. A lot of VCs in Silicon Valley tend to like to invest more locally.Whats the story there?
I wantedto do this internationallyfrom the beginning. I missbeing in other parts of the world and talking to entrepreneurs there. We wanted to be in more than just San Francisco, andit was important to get great investors in Japan and Europe and Asia to go into all those areas.
Do you see other studio models a la Betaworks or Science or Expa as your models for this?
We are tryingto learn as many lessons from the likes of them as we can but I thinkwhat were doing is pretty different. Were modelling ourselves after Netflixrather than startupincubators. But rather than makingthe worlds best original TV shows, we want to makethe best AIproducts. We want to attractthe best people toproduce these in a professional setting and help them with the distribution. Its probably more Hollywood than Silicon Valley.
The other thing is that the goal in the tech industryis still to make companies. Acceleratorsand incubators have acompany fetish. Itsall companies and a company-first mentality. Butin AI, the company isnt necessarily theinteresting thing, its the product. We want tofocuson that first. Some will become companies, and some will not. We want the best.