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Google is looking for African artificial intelligence (AI) startups to taken on for coming Launchpad Accelerator Africa cohorts, the tech giant’s head of startup success and services Fola Olatunji-David has revealed.
Speaking with Ventureburn on the sidelines of a Google Launchpad Accelerator Africa Alumni dinner held in Cape Town last week Thursday (15 August), Olatunji-David (pictured above) said that the accelerator had started to experiment with AI as a core part of its programme focus in its third cohort.
Google Launchpad Accelerator Africa’s fourth cohort will kick off in September
Olatunji-David pointed out that the accelerator’s alumni like SA insurtech Pineapple and Voyc.ai “are like core AI companies”.
“Now what we are doing is doubling down. We figured that look this AI thing kind of actually works, there are interesting use cases. So now we are just doubling down,” he said.
Last month the accelerator closed applications for its fourth cohort, which kicks off next month. Olatunji-David said the fourth class will be announced “in about a week”.
‘Programme now more technical’
He said the programme’s curriculum will become a lot more technical than before, while still focusing on five core elements of business. These he said are the technology, leadership, product, growth and operations.
“We are looking at their growth, and on that growth is also fundraising. So, we are spending some time educating them on how to go over the fundraising process, how to do a valuation.
“Before now we didn’t care about that. We were just like build a great product and when you’re ready to fund raise, let us know. Now we are more deliberate about it,” he said.
The business operation element of the programme will now cover taxes, hiring, staff retention as well as dealing with in-fighting, among other issues.
Why the focus on AI?
So why is accelerator is shifting its focus on AI, and not other key verticals like healthtech or fintech?
Olatunji-David explained that AI is a representation of technology right now that “actually does everything for us”.
Google, he said, has seen that the best form of that synergy happens when smart thinking humans use the power of the machine.
“The reason why the unbanked can still get a loan is because an AI machine or system says oh this guy while he’s un-banked, he’s bought airtime worth XYZ, he has a farm, so we can quantify that.
“So AI is essentially just harnessing the power of technology, true data, which we have tonnes of, to either predict people’s patterns and behaviour or to predict outcomes in terms of what a software should do in certain instances,” he said.
He said while there are “one or two companies” that are just using AI for the sake of using AI, outside of South Africa there are startups that are using the technology in healthcare and financial inclusion.
Inclusion of more North African, Francophone startups
Google Launchpad Accelerator Africa currently takes applications from 17 African countries.
These are: Algeria, Botswana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
When asked why the programme is yet to expand to the continent’s other 54 countries, particularly to include more North African and Francophone countries, Olatunji-David explained that the accelerator considers the availability of support systems.
He said that “there is no point” selecting a startup from South Sudan if the accelerator has “no way to support them”.
“The way we have done this for the South African based startups is that when we come into the country there is a community of press, mentors and startups. You heard them talk about how they meet each other at events, and that’s what we want,”
“So rather than having isolated people where we can’t support them. We would rather work with a model where we build communities around so that’s the way we have looked at it,” he explained.
“So, even the 17 countries that we picked, where we can accept applications from, it’s because they are either primary communities that Google has or third parties that are affiliated to Google or they are close by,” he said.
The same rule, he said, applies to the East African, West African and North African clusters.
“We’ve actually selected two startups from Egypt. In the past two cohorts we had one from Senegal, We’ve had finalist from a lot of countries.
‘Makes great business case for us’
So what then does Google get out of CEO Sundar Pichai’s 2017 commitment to spend at least $3-million to assist 60 African startups (see this story)?
Olatunji-David explains that helping startups in Africa is a long-term play for the tech company.
He pointed out that the Silicon Valley giant believes that if it can strengthen the ecosystem, then everyone is “better for it”.
“As we think about the people who are creating jobs, as we think about the people who are building stuff, our role as Google is to encourage them,” he explained.
Olatunjio-David pointed that Google wants to create an environment where founders can use the tech company’s various tools (such as Google Maps and others) and monetise them better so that in the long run they see Google as an ally.
“And if one of these guys become a billion-dollar company, I mean you heard them how they said this was really helpful, this was really helpful.”
For the tech giant’s accelerator head helping African startups that will then further monetise the company’s products makes business sense.
Adds Olatunjio-David: “And who better than a trillion-dollar company committed to Africa?”
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Featured image: Google head of startup success and services Fola Olatunji-David (Supplied)