Facesoft is paving the way for live facial recognition, with its ethical code as a key priority. Allan Ponniah tells us about the origin of Facesoft, how running a startup is “quite relaxing” when you’re a surgeon and how London’s connections mean a worldwide potential for a company.
What was the original idea behind the creation of the company? What problem or question were you trying to answer?
As an NHS plastic surgeon, I was designing ways to reconstruct faces for children with facial deformities, and needed a vast amount of 3D images of the face to design the ideal facial model for a specific young patient. Having collected a large quantity of data, I realised I had to get in touch with a specialist in the machine learning field, to analyse it. I contacted Dr Stefanos Zafeiriou, a reader of Machine Learning and Computer Vision at Imperial College who helped me develop a realistic 3D model. After creating the powerful technology that was required for this project, we realised it was applicable for many other areas such as face recognition. There seemed to be a gap in the market for ethical face recognition, furthermore from a UK based company. This is when Stefanos and I realised this market gap presented a great opportunity to commercialise.
How has your background influenced the creation and direction of the company?
As a surgeon I am used to high levels of stress and find running a startup can be quite relaxing in comparison. Being a surgeon I have a high level of focus and this is important in choosing the correct direction for a company to follow. I feel that as a doctor, I would like to create the most ethical face recognition company and my ethical code is a priority for me in life.
What would you say is the most challenging aspect of being a founder?
I think there are several aspects of being a founder that are equally difficult but in different ways. Balancing surgery whilst starting a business means you are constantly having to switch between mindsets, not to mention the hectic timetable from merging two jobs, where no week is the same. Then there is the uncertainty of running a startup, where even a small decision can make or break the whole company.
As someone with a scientific background or area of work, what aspects of the startup environment are the most interesting to you?
For many years I had been interested in artificial intelligence and its potential applications in the medical field, so the possibility of being able to merge my expertise and my interests into a startup was always very appealing. Performing surgery to save a person’s life and creating software that can potentially prevent people from danger, are similar in the sense they can both completely change lives; however, the whole startup environment is completely different. This means I am always learning new strategies and concepts that I perhaps would not learn in the medical field.
How do you view the UK investment and startup ecosystem as an opportunity for deep tech entrepreneurs?
The UK investment and startup ecosystem is fascinating and I believe that even during these uncertain political and economic times, the AI industry will continue to thrive. We receive a great amount of guidance and industry expertise from our investors on how to expand and continuously stay ahead of the competition with continuous research and development. Founding a startup in London means we are surrounded by investors of such a high calibre that believe in and are willing to support our vision. London has connections all around the world so even the smallest of startups can catch the attention of larger VC’s from another continent, such as the US. For example, AI lab DeepMind caught the attention of Google in 2014, shortly after being acquired by them for £400m. Knowing we have the potential for global visibility hugely motivates us as a company.