Teaching machines to think: An inside look at the journey of Velocity alumni Maluuba
January 26, 2022: As you start the day, you begin a conversation with Aaron, chatting about what’s in the news, the day ahead of you, and bouncing around ideas for a problem you’re stuck on. But Aaron is not human. More than an app like Siri, this artificial intelligence has learned how to think and digests the endless stream of data around it, fuelling its understanding and interaction with the world in a seamless way. This is what Sam Pasupalak and Kaheer Suleman, the Co-founders of Maluuba, get excited about when they share their vision of the future of machine learning.
This is not a pipedream, it’s a vision shared by Microsoft, so much so that the tech company recently acquired Maluuba, a Waterloo and Montreal based startup at the forefront of machine learning, with a commitment to doubling its 50 person team within two years. We connected with Pasupalak and Suleman, two University of Waterloo alumni who won the Velocity Fund Finals in 2011 before incubating their company at the Velocity Garage, to understand how two students who were passionate about solving a problem, became key players in the race to teach machines to think.
“When we started, we never thought about building a business. We were very passionate about solving a problem, building this interface where people could interact very naturally, and get results to whatever question they had. It turned into a business afterwards, but we were always very passionate about solving the technology problem.”— Sam Pasupalak, CEO of Maluuba
The idea for Maluuba came about as a project to change the way people interact with machines through interfaces. At the time, Pasupalak and Suleman had heard that natural language interfaces, controlled by voice or gestures, were the next evolution of the command land, and the graphical user interface that was ushered in by Microsoft. Inspired by classes in computer science at the University of Waterloo, the two started to tackle voice control. In late 2011, while still in school, they incorporated Maluuba, and won a $25,000 grant from the Velocity Fund Finals before moving into the Velocity Garage incubator. At the same time, Apple debuted Siri, and the two co-founders knew they were on to something. The company continued to build momentum, raising $2 million in seed funding, and moving into their first office in Communitech in 2012, before moving to new Waterloo headquarters a year later. By 2015, Maluuba had opened an office in Montreal, a burgeoning centre for artificial intelligence research, to lead its R&D initiatives, while the Waterloo office continued to develop applications for its technology.
“We can do all the cool research, but the application matters a lot.”
— Sam Pasupalak
When reflecting on their time at the Velocity Garage, the co-founders emphasized the importance of having mentors who can guide you and provide business insight, with Suleman noting “When we started, we were University of Waterloo students, we knew something about technology, but not a lot about business. We learned a lot in our formative years here at Velocity.” The two highlighted the importance of being part of a community of startups to help support each other, and how the $25K they won at the Velocity Fund Finals played a crucial role in allowing them to continue to build their business.
“[Velocity] gives you office space and funding for when you don’t have anything; support from people who have done it before, experts in the field that you can talk to. If you’re starting from scratch, in your own garage, literally in your own garage, you wouldn’t have any of that.”— Kaheer Suleman, CTO of Maluuba
When asked what advice they had for current and prospective entrepreneurs, the two co-founders stressed that it’s important to build a solution to a problem that has a market opportunity. “I think if I was going to start all over again, I would focus on the right product market fit, where the product that you’re building has a big market opportunity and it exists right now, not in the future,” noted Pasupalak. “Once you have product market fit, everything falls into place, funding, hiring, everything.”
“Focus on a problem rather than the solution.”— Kaheer Suleman
Maluuba continues to develop research and applications for machine reading comprehension, dialogue understanding, and general human intelligence capabilities such as memory, and common-sense reasoning. But the two founders recognize that other entrepreneurs will have a different journey, and it’s not always easy. “When you build a startup, you believe in what you’re doing, and if you believe strongly in what you’re doing you need to be able to persevere. There are going to be down times, when things don’t go right, but as long as you believe in the vision, you can keep going” shared Suleman.
Photo credit: Phil Froklage