DeepMind exec Andrew Eland has left his role at one of the world’s leading artificial intelligence labs and founded a new startup that aims to find ways to improve towns and cities.

Eland was an engineering director on the DeepMind health team, which was absorbed by sister-company Google in September.

Prior to DeepMind, Eland worked at Google for over 11 years. While there he led teams in Silicon Valley working on Google Maps, among other projects.

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“The DeepMind Health team moving into Google seemed like the chance for a natural change,” Eland told Sifted.

“I spent a long time at Google and didn’t think I’d learn anything by going back — and DeepMind operated independently enough that it really did feel like it would be going back. I decided instead to focus on sustainability and improvement in the urban and built environment, which has interested me in a long time (hence Google Maps) and Google isn’t the place to do that.”

Launched in September, Eland’s new startup is called Diagonal Works. It’s still in the very early stages, with next to no information on the website, but Eland gave Sifted a taster of what Diagonal Works will focus on.

“We’re looking at ways software can help address equity/health outcomes/climate adaptation through the lens of cities and the urban environment.”

He added: “Obviously software is a just a tiny part of that space. We have not officially raised anything right now, still working on strategy.”

Ex-DeepMinders in demand

If Eland does decide to raise capital then it might not be too hard to convince investors to back the company. Last month, Sifted reported that venture capital funds are lining up to back ex-DeepMinders.

“I think it’s a great training ground for people who are interested in founding their own business,” said Chris Smith, a partner at Playfair Capital. “I don’t think we’ve backed any [ex-DeepMinders] yet but we’re certainly starting to see founders coming through.”

DeepMind was acquired by Google in 2014 for around £400m but today it sits as part of Google parent company Alphabet.

In February 2016 The Guardian reported that no one had ever left DeepMind, but fast forward to 2019 and it’s a different story.

DeepMind now has around 1,000 staff and this year there were a number of high-profile departures, with the most notable being DeepMind cofounder Mustafa Suleyman, who went on leave for several months before announcing last week that he plans to join Google in 2020.

Overall, churn remains low at DeepMind and relatively few people have left (which may have something to do with the six-figure salaries there), but ex-DeepMinders do exist now.

Other notable DeepMind exits this year include Jack Kelly, who left in January to run a non-profit product development lab called Open Climate Fix, which aims to develop technologies to combat climate change.

“Open Climate Fix is entirely focused on using open-science to mitigate climate change,” Kelly told Sifted. “The aim of our first project is to reduce emissions from the electricity system by building the best near-term solar electricity forecasting system. We’re using machine learning, satellite imagery and numerical weather predictions.”

Research scientist Edward Grefenstette also left in January to join Facebook’s Artificial Intelligence Research (FAIR) division as a research scientist. Grefenstette was one of the most senior researchers at DeepMind.

“People who worked there a few years ago felt they were having massive impact,” says Smith. “Now it’s sort of a little bit like walking through treacle and it makes life a little bit more difficult.”

DeepMind did not provide a comment.

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