Philipp Vorst Project leader of the Industrial AI Accelerator program
AR Philipp, thank you for talking to us. Perhaps, you could describe the idea behind the ABB’s Industrial AI Accelerator program?
PV I’d be delighted to! ABB firmly believes that the future of innovation lies in open innovation – which means innovation that includes collaboration with external partners – universities, research organizations, startups and the like. One technology that is moving really fast and where an external alliance is, therefore, essential is AI. So, a year or so ago, we ran this program to foster collaborations in that area, with strong participation of the local business and great management support, particularly in Germany and Poland. The ABB research centers in Germany and Poland were heavily involved, due to a wide experience in open innovation, as were ABB Technology Ventures – which we call ATV – and ABB around the world, which ensured global reach.
AR What is AI? Is it the same as machine learning?
PV Simply stated, AI is represented by computer systems or machines that can imitate intelligent human behavior – such as learning, reasoning and self-correction – in different environments. While machine learning is often used synonymously, it is actually a branch of AI. Machine learning simply means algorithms that are designed to learn from data. AI can greatly enhance the power of humans in many industrial settings – in control systems and robotics, for instance. AI is a fertile sector for startups – many are extremely active in this field. Because ABB’s interests coincide with those of some of these startups, they make excellent partners with whom we can work to achieve our goals more quickly.
AR ABB already has a couple of initiatives aimed at fostering collaboration with startups, doesn’t it?
PV Yes, we have ATV, our corporate venture capital arm, which we already mentioned but also SynerLeap, which is our Sweden-based growth hub for startups. We also have various activities running throughout ABB.
AR What does ATV do?
The ATV team supports ABB in assessing and investing in startups and promotes collaborations with ABB’s businesses. Using strategic venture capital, ABB invests in breakthrough technology companies that are aligned with ABB’s purpose and mid- to long-term strategic objectives. By investing in these companies, ABB gets access to new technologies, obtains insights into new sectors, learns about new business models and ensures the company stays on top of innovations happening outside of its own walls.
AR And what about SynerLeap?
PV SynerLeap – which helps companies from around the world reach a global market and scale up their business – is our other major collaboration initiative. SynerLeap partners with entrepreneurs and startups, and enables them to benefit from the resources, internal networks and competences available to a major multinational like ABB. As I learned recently, SynerLeap has accelerated over 90 companies within three years, which is a great result and effort, I think.
AR How did you pick suitable startups for the accelerator program?
PV In a two-month review process, we selected seven startups out of more than 100 screened companies. We evaluated criteria such as how the activities of the startups matched ABB target use cases and looked at the technical solutions offered and the teams themselves. By the way, two of the selected companies came through the SynerLeap network.
AR What happened then?
PV At the end of January, the selected startups joined the four-month program with ABB. During the program, each startup worked with a dedicated partner at ABB on a specific use case. Example use cases were anomaly detection for control systems or machine vision for robotics. An initial milestone was the Hannover Fair in early April 2019, where we ran one of the face-to-face workshops with the selected cohort and where the startups had an opportunity to pitch their solutions at ABB’s booth during a special event. With Sweden being the fair’s partner country, SynerLeap had an active role in the innovation lab at the Swedish pavilion. SynerLeap joined ABB’s pitch event to share successes from their own corporate/startup engagement in front of ABB experts, customers and partners. The event was an excellent teaser for the final “Demo Day” later in May in Berlin. At Demo Day, the accelerator startups presented the final results of their collaboration projects and one of the startups – Greenlytics – was selected as the winner by a jury.
AR How did the startups approach AI and how did the accelerator program assist them?
PV Startups participating in the accelerator used AI components – such as machine learning or visual perception – to power promising solutions and deploy them in an industrial setting. In joining the ABB Industrial AI Accelerator program, startups received coaching, technical support, the opportunity to tailor their solutions further to industrial needs and the chance to win customers to grow and commercialize their solution on a global stage.
AR Was the accelerator program a success?
PV Undoubtedly! The program has set in motion collaborations that are valuable for all parties concerned. Without the program, these collaborations might have taken much longer or not happened at all. It was very important that the ABB Divisions were committed to the success of the collaborations, that they supported the startups and that they worked together on predetermined, business-relevant, AI-related use cases. Kudos to all the teams for their involvement, both on the startup side and ABB’s side! Let me add that, apart from the seven startups we picked, there were many others with very fertile ideas – a great omen for the future!
AR Philipp, thank you very much for the interview.