DeepMind prides itself on its retention rate, but cofounder Mustafa Suleyman became the first high-profile departure from the Google-owned artificial intelligence research lab when he left this summer for a mysterious period of extended leave.
Suleyman, however, is not the only one to leave in the last year and investors are watching to see who’s next. According to LinkedIn, dozens of people have left DeepMind in the last couple of years to join other parts of Google, take up positions at rival labs like Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research (FAIR) or to found their own startups.
The departures come as DeepMind’s complex relationship with Google continues to garner headlines. Google paid €464m (£400m) for DeepMind back in 2014 but fuelling the lab’s growth hasn’t been cheap — the losses for Google parent company Alphabet grew to €510m (£470m) in 2018.
According to tech investor Chris Smith, a partner at Playfair Capital, the venture capital (VC) sector is just waiting to snap up ex-DeepMinders and fund their companies. In an interview with Sifted, Smith said: “I think it’s a great training ground for people who are interested in founding their own business. I don’t think we’ve backed any [ex-DeepMinders] yet but we’re certainly starting to see founders coming through.”
Asked if he’s looking forward to seeing who comes out of DeepMind in the next year, Smith said investors have got their cheque books at the ready.
Christian Hernandez, founder of venture capital fund White Star Capital, added: “Given it’s one of the highest concentrations of AI talent in Europe I would certainly assume VCs would be paying attention, just as how talent leaving Facebook or core Google to start companies garners attention.”
Sifted understands that one ex-DeepMinder has been contacted by five different venture capital funds since leaving the Google-owned artificial intelligence lab.
Now almost 1,000 people strong, DeepMind employs some of the smartest scientists in the world and the company is well known for being an academic powerhouse brimming with Oxbridge PhDs.
Tom Hulme, general partner at GV, a venture fund owned by Google-parent company Alphabet, told Sifted: “DeepMind is so strong at hiring technical people that they [DeepMinders] will always be in demand.”
DeepMind no longer has 100% retention
Founded in 2010, London-based DeepMind has a famously high retention rate. In February 2016 The Guardian reported that no one had ever left DeepMind. But skip forward to 2019 and it’s a different story. Churn remains low and very few people have left (which may have something to do with the six-figure salaries there) but ex-DeepMinders do exist now.
“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.”
Beyond Suleyman other notable DeepMind exits 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.”
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 and it’s fair to say his move to FAIR raised a few eyebrows in the artificial intelligence community.
Elsewhere, Julien Cornebise left his position as senior research scientist at DeepMind in February 2016 to head up the London office of Element AI, a research lab set up by Yoshua Bengio, who is known as a “godfather of AI”.
Deepmind did not provide a comment.
Good for Europe
While it may not be good for DeepMind exactly, people leaving could well be beneficial for the wider European startup ecosystem. Often alumni from one successful startup take that expertise and create their own new innovative tech startups.
In Silicon Valley alumni from payments website PayPal went on to found companies including Tesla, LinkedIn, Palantir, SpaceX, YouTube and Yelp. In Europe alumni from Skype have spawned dozens of companies, most notably Transferwise. The same is true for Spotify.
What will the DeepMind alumni do with their talent?