We sat down with Chelsea Chen, Co-founder of AI start-up Emotech, which is based at Workspace’s Wenlock Studios near Silicon Roundabout. Emotech has won several awards for its hero product, Olly, a home-assistant robot with an evolving personality
What have you been up to at Emotech since you launched Olly?
We are licensing the software behind Olly to other big tech companies, so more consumers can benefit from it. Aside from the internet of things, we’re putting resources into AI solutions for English-language learning. China, for example, is one of the world’s biggest markets for English-language learning. Improving speaking and listening skills is expensive because local teachers may have accents, and qualified native English teachers are very limited. Our aim is to use AI to partly replace human teachers, reducing the cost of English learning and helping to narrow the gap between rich and poor families.
Above: Emotech's Olly robot
How do you manage public concerns about AI?
I did a panel talk at The Guardian recently and realised how much people are worried about AI taking people’s jobs. Of course, some jobs will be replaced by AI but, just like in previous industrial revolutions, new ones will be created as well. I am sure we will find a way to work together with AI. Humans are so good at adapting to new technologies. We are also the first British company to participate in Unesco’s AI programme, aimed at using artificial intelligence for sustainable purposes and helping poor countries gain access to AI resources.
Tell us about your investment journey with Emotech.
We launched in 2015, which was fairly early for an AI start-up, before AlphaGo and Amazon Echo. It wasn’t the best time for AI investment but we were lucky to get two angel investors on board who trusted us and believed in what we were doing. After that we sought investment exclusively from professional venture capital (VC) firms rather than “industrial” VCs – departments of big companies.
We thought that if we got involved with tier one tech companies too early we would lose control of the company and become little more than a third-party research lab. In hindsight, this may have been a mistake. The more we got involved with the commercial world, the more important supporters we got from big tech companies. At the end of last year we changed our investment strategy and started to collaborate with industrial partners. We’re about to announce a big strategic partnership soon.
Do you have any tips on pitching to investors?
Do your homework. However good your technology or idea is, you should research the people you meet. Even if you don’t get funding, at least you’ll have a successful meeting. Meet as many investors as possible. It’s not just about money, it’s also about hearing different opinions on your business, gaining inspiration and being challenged. If you get rejected, don’t get frustrated or take it personally.
Are you a shareholder in Emotech?
Yes, we all are. We believe the success of Emotech comes from every team member.
Do you invest your money elsewhere?
My degree was in art management, so I invest in contemporary art: photography, paintings and installations from David Hockney to old Impressionism pictures to contemporary Chinese art. I do a bit of art dealing as well; when I plan to buy a big painting I may sell some smaller ones. The pain is the increase in my taste cannot follow the increase in my income at all! I also buy stocks, mainly in tech companies. I bought Tesla and Nvidia when they were really cheap. It’s all based on my own knowledge from working in the sector. I don’t touch stuff I don’t understand.
What’s the worst investment you’ve ever made?
Facebook – I’ve been planning to sell my shares for a while now. Instagram’s doing well so I’m holding on to them for the moment. I don’t hold out much hope but Libra [Facebook’s new digital currency] could change things. Then again, if a company can’t keep people’s information safe, how is it going to fare with their money?
What’s the best money decision you’ve ever made?
I bought an apartment in London when the pound was low and anxieties over Brexit were starting to bite. But I believe in the future of London. Even outside the EU, London will still be best placed to attract the world’s talent. English will still be the world’s major language. Wherever in the world the new money comes from, London will be able to attract it.
What was your first job?
Ogilvy and Mather in China. I oversaw Johnnie Walker and Baileys for the whole Asia-Pacific region. Advertising was my first passion, before AI.
What’s the one luxury you allow yourself?
Designer hotels. I love travelling, especially to places I’ve never been, and visiting museums. One place I go back to is Japan for the art, culture and food!
What’s the first thing you would do as Chancellor of the Exchequer?
Increase tax on the big companies and use the money to invest in education and incentivise teaching as a profession.
Why did you choose Workspace?
Effy, our super operation lead, chose Workspace, and everyone loves her decision. The different locations, and being able to switch rooms and venues, is very convenient for fast-growing start-ups.
Find out more about Olly the robot in our feature on what makes London such a great place to do business, Tech and Talent in London.
Don’t forget to pick up your copy of homeWORK magazine in the lobby area of your local Workspace centre. Either that, or you can read homeWORK online where we speak to businesses at the forefront of their fields on subjects such as finance, AI, wellbeing, and much more.