The Cleveland startup LIFTR uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help companies model how audiences will engage with ads, saving businesses the time and money of traditional A/B testing. Although it just released its first product in January, the company has already attracted a number of significant clients, said co-founder Ted Troxell. Still, as he looks ahead to the next stage of growth, he's worried about attracting talent.
"The difficulty we have establishing an AI company in Northeast Ohio is expanding our talent pool," he said. "There are lots of people who want to learn AI here, but to really see success, we need buy-in from all the stakeholders."
Brendan Mulcahy, a software developer who co-chairs the Cleveland AI meetup group with Troxell, said he believes Troxell is right. He said that Cleveland needs more tech talent who understand AI in order to unlock the full business potential of the technology. "There are a lot of opportunities where companies could be using these technologies, but because there aren't a lot of people who know how to do it, they're not taking advantage of it," he noted.
Nonetheless, these tech leaders say that the success of the AI meetup group, which regularly attracts 70 or more people to its free, open sessions, is a good sign. They also run an online study group called Fast AI that has been regularly attracting 50 or more people.
As more people are trained in AI and more businesses tap into machine learning, Northeast Ohio's tech talent pool will grow, they say.
Heather Hall, entrepreneur-in-residence for software and IT with the Jumpstart Inc. business accelerator, said her organization is seeing more and more AI startups in Northeast Ohio. "I've been in this role for 16 months, and the number of AI companies I have now versus this time last year, it has grown exponentially," she said.
Finding people well-versed in AI is also not just a Cleveland challenge. Tech leaders say there's a global AI skills shortage. "All of these companies have been told for years that data is the answer, and now that they have all this data, they don't have anyone to analyze it," Troxell said.
While companies on the coasts vacuum up top talent by offering higher salaries and better incentive packages, Cleveland's cost of living, amenities and entrepreneurial ecosystem make it attractive, too.
Those factors are very attractive, said Austin Murray, CEO of Prophit.ai, a company that uses machine learning to help businesses avoid paying indirect tax on items they've purchased. "From a startup perspective, you've got a lot of really exciting resources here," he said. "We've felt very much like we're getting a hands-on approach from every expert."
Prophit.ai has found a niche by focusing on manufacturing companies in Ohio and the Midwest. States offer a lot of favorable exemptions for these industries in order to keep them here and incentivize growth. Murray previously worked as a tax attorney, where he saw many manufacturers paying high legal and accounting costs to avoid unnecessary taxes. He started Prophit.ai in order to help solve that business problem through machine learning technology.
Troxell said the entire community needs to get behind AI in order for it to realize its full potential in Northeast Ohio. "It needs to be a community effort, not just from the AI community or the tech or entrepreneurial community," he said. "This is something that could really help us grow.
"If we're able to come together and grow the talent pool here, it really sets us up for a lot of success," he added.
Some of the resistance to AI stems from a false notion that it will take away good jobs. "We spend a lot of time explaining that AI is not what science fiction makes it out to be," said Murray. "I think the way AI should be implemented is for augmentation rather than automation. You use the technology to enable existing professionals to do the work more quickly and professionally."
"It's not a thing where we want to get rid of all of the jobs," Mulcahy added. "We just want to get rid of the jobs that are really boring."
Hall said that as startups like LIFTR and Prophit.ai continue to develop, she'd like to see more Northeast Ohio businesses using their technologies. "The technology needs to be adopted by companies big or small, either through piloting or purchasing these solutions and starting to apply them," she said. "It's that rising tide that lifts all boats. Companies coming in behind startups and putting it into practice is what we really need to drive growth."