Revoco Talks…explainable AI with Cognino’s Priti Padhy
Harry recently caught up with Priti Padhy, Co-founder and CEO of AI start-up Cognino.
Cognino enable organisations to leapfrog into the future with the help of cutting-edge innovation with the world’s first explainable AI.
They are innovative, global and a very dynamic company that has bold ambitions to democratize AI.
Based in London. Cognino are a team of AI researchers and deep learning experts with research partnerships with multiple Universities and academia.
Here Priti talks more about how the Cognino dream came to life, their recent funding and things he’s learnt along the way in his career, having worked for giants such as Microsoft and KPMG. Have a read below…
HB: Hi Priti, thanks so much for being here with us today. Could you start off by giving everyone a quick introduction to yourself and who Cognino are, please?
PP: Sure. So, this is Priti Padhy. I’ve been building products and incubating high value, complex and disruptive technology innovations with global engineering talent over 26 odd years. I spent more than a decade at Microsoft in data and AI research and I was also the CTO at KPMG. My co-founder Igor Moraes, connected while I was at Microsoft and started to develop the building blocks of Cognino in 2016.
Cognino is an Artificial Intelligence first organisation. We have a clear purpose to democratise AI and we are truly mission lead, looking to transform data into intelligence. We have innovated a unique explainable AI engine that adapts, learns and explains outcomes from a vast amount of data and creates contextual knowledge and intelligence. We’re extremely proud of the fact that we were featured as part of ‘The Top 25 AI start-ups of 2021’ by Forbes, which is a really exciting for us.
HB: What an amazing achievement. So, what was the story behind starting Cognino? How did it all start and how did the idea flourish?
PP: While I was at Microsoft I met Igor briefly, who was doing AI research independently over last 20 years. We discussed various foundational approach towards creating contextual understanding from real world data. The current generation AI is extremely powerful of solving speech recognition, sentiment analytics, driverless car, genomics study and many more. But there are some fundamental flaws in the statistical learning AI. There is little contextual understanding, and none of the decisions can be explained. The core of our thinking was we wanted to redefine AI and the approach of building it. We were very much aware of the fact that this redefinition and reimagination of AI in general is not going to come from large organisations, it had to come from people who are going to go in a very different direction. It had to be started with a deep conviction, that the current set of AI doesn’t give us all the foundational elements to truly rely on it – such as explaining what the engine takes and how the engine makes the decision. If you cannot really explain it, you can’t use for anything especially in health and financial services – it can’t be a blackbox engine.
Our core motivation was twofold. The current world of AI is limited and they don’t have the building blocks of contextual knowledge building and intelligence. The second is they cannot be explained. So, we wanted to redefine that.
HB: You’ve had a very accomplished career, working for the likes of Microsoft and KPMG. What made you finally make the jump into doing it yourself?
PP: While I had the idea of Cognino for over a decade, the timing had to be right. Meeting Igor was that defining moment, as interestingly he had the same purpose and mission to re-establish foundational AI. I continued to work at KPMG to enable us to bootstrap our development. Once we started to achieve breakthroughs, it was clear that both of our energies were needed and so Cognino was formed. We are in the third wave of AI where many of the earlier noise is disappearing. Many organisations are struggling to make the real-world difference using the existing set of AI innovations. So, it is the right time to bring our innovation together and make a difference.
HB: As people may be aware, you’ve recently raised funding. What was the reason behind choosing private investors rather than the more traditional VC route that many founders go through?
PP: We spoke to a few VC’s last year and if I am honest, we were perhaps too early stage for them. We didn’t fit into a defined comparator of other ai businesses. We were very clear about being innovation led and having time to develop IP which was truly differentiating. Patient capital was crucial for us to hit milestones in terms of development and proposition development. Its great that we were able to demonstrate to our shareholders the potential of Cognino and I am grateful to each of these investors for placing confidence in the technology and our ability to execute. We continue to have an on going dialogue with VC’s and I am sure they will play an important role in helping us grow in the future.
HB: I think a lot of start-ups face a lot of pressure from VC’s for an exit, which is when I think a lot of bad business decisions can be made – especially when it comes down to AI. It’s always really cool to see companies going through the private investment route because there’s a lot more organic growth.
PP: Our focus is on bringing ai to the masses, democratising it if you will. Ai should not be something that is the preserve of data scientists. This means developing our technology and solutions in a particular way with a longer term view. This is why patient capital was important to us.
(For more info on start-up funding, check out our recent Revoco Talks with Playfair Capital, click here.)
HB: Going back to your career, what are some of the things that you’ve learnt whilst working for the likes of Microsoft and KPMG, that you’ve taken on board as a founder that have massively helped you?
PP: I have learned several things over the years that is helping me now. Microsoft taught me so many things at a global level, as it touches every organisation and person in the planet. For example, what it takes at scale to turn an idea into a product, how to translate deep research into solving real world problems and how to create products that can be scaled globally. One really big thing I learnt was how to engage and work with a global talent with deep empathy. For example, when you engage with someone from china, it’s not the same as when you engage with someone from France. Organisations are predominantly made of people, and those learnings were foundational to what I’m doing right now.
How to lead and be led is also a big thing. I’ve led large sets of people globally and it’s a fantastic foundation, because it teaches you to have that real interpersonal skill, which includes deeper empathy and understanding things from a customer side, as well as people whom you’re working to build things with.
Whilst I was at KPMG, I learnt problem solving skills with clients and how to work with so many senior entrepreneurs. Every partner in KPMG can be an entrepreneur because they have to run their own business and generate revenue. So, all that shaped me.
HB: I think one of the biggest things that founders struggle with is the leadership piece – especially when it comes to AI. You’ve got some extremely talented people coming straight out of university and starting companies, and they don’t have that real world experience of dealing with and managing people and customers, which I think is such an undervalued skill set.
PP: I fully agree. As I said, organisations are made of people, nothing else. If you don’t drive people on the basis of their strengths, you are creating a dysfunctional organisation – even if it is two or five people. My suggestion for anybody who wants to start a business, before thinking and starting to manage people, you must develop the skills of engaging people with deep empathy before starting managing them.
HB: I think the ones that don’t have that people management experience have definitely felt it during lockdown with all their staff being remote.
PP: From the start, we opted for everybody to work from home as we believe in virtual work. We are growing every month (almost at a pace that I wouldn’t have liked!), but to manage this, I try to keep at least sometime in a week to connect with everybody one on one. I do this so that I know everyone’s deeper personal goals are aligned and contributing to our organisational mission. My top saying is, ‘Cognino needs to work for you, rather than you work for Cognino.’
HB: It sounds like you’re doing a great job with your team and it’s great to hear that you’re still growing with everything going on!
What would you see as being the hardest thing to adapt to moving from large corporate business to working in a much quicker and agile start-up environment?
PP: Well, you got from being the CEO one moment to setting up the server, backing up the website, sweeping the floor, being an accountant and trying to be a lawyer the next moment! You have almost 10-20 personas every day and you go from one persona to another, which is amazing. As I was telling you, it has been 18 hours per day flat out for many months and years. The reason for that is you don’t have the luxury of a large corporate support network and you don’t have the luxury of taking the baggage of that support. It’s ruthless, but possibly the best learning environment you can have and it’s the most rewarding journey for me. It isn’t for everyone. You must have the passion and ambition to really make an impact, followed with the rigour and tenacity to execute that dream. This is a very hard choice and adjustment you need to do, as you move from a large organisation into a start-up.
HB: And finally, what advice would you give people that are in a similar position as you that have had a very successful career and are thinking of making that jump into starting a business.
PP: First of all, deeply reflect on your core strengths. Life is all about exploring and learning and if you think you really want to do it, then jump on it. Do it as soon as you can when you get the first chance, because when you are early on in your life, you have more appetite to take risk and you have less securities to worry about. I jumped into it quite late in my life and it wasn’t easy, given that I’m married and have two kids.
When you work for 18 hours, they feel sometimes alienated. Without their support, I wouldn’t have made it. They really feel that I’m here to make a real difference and I have always articulated the purpose and mission behind why I want to do Cognino. When there’s a purpose behind it, then everything can be interesting. You need to have clarity on how you will accomplish your goal and you’ve got to have a plan behind it.
Also, finding a co-founder(s) also is very important if you intend to do something like this, because you need to bounce ideas within a trusted environment. Success, to me, is path dependent, but if you don’t start the journey, you’ll never find the destination and outcome. There is no good time to start this journey, you will never have enough money or security. But as I said, the earlier is better and if you have the urge to do it, do it. Even if you fail, you will learn from it. You must enjoy it as the fun must play a huge part of it.
HB: Failure is probably one of the biggest thing’s founders need to get used to. That’s why we launched our Don’t Fear the F word webinar, purely because failure isn’t spoken enough about.
PP: One of our investors told me that ‘you may not see the failures or the hard work that goes on behind a successful person. But the fact is, they’re no different and they go through a huge amount of turmoil – even if you’re a successful entrepreneur, you’ll still do that on a daily basis. People don’t see that.’.
HB: That’s so true. Very little people look at the Elon Musk’s and Jeff Bezo’s of the world and think about how much hard work and failure they’ve gone through.
Priti, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today. It’s been great learning about yourself and Cognino and I look forward to watching you flourish.
To find out more about Cognino, visit their website here.