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The venture using AI to breathe new life into Kiwi businesses

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15 March 2021

A venture founded by University of Auckland engineering alumni Daniel Xu and Ming Cheuk is helping organisations improve their processes and customer experience by taking advantage of innovative technologies like machine learning, computer vision, and conversational AI.

Spark 64 is an artificial intelligence (AI) agency on a mission to help organisations leverage cutting edge applied AI in their operations. They empower businesses to unlock the power of AI to increase productivity, save costs, and create new competitive advantages. In the last eight years, they have worked with a number of high profile companies like The Warehouse Group, Southern Cross, Cove Insurance, and Edgewell Personal Care (who owns brands like Schick and Banana Boat). They have also partnered with Google, IBM, Intercom and UneeQ Digital Humans to bring the latest technologies to their clients.

The idea for Spark 64 came to Daniel and Ming while they were completing their PhDs in Bioengineering. “We always wanted to do something cool with tech, and happened to stumble across a technology competition called Microsoft Imagine Cup. We ended up winning with our idea of UVLens, a sun exposure management app designed to protect people from skin cancer. A couple of years later, we moved into the AI space because we noticed an increasing gap between AI research and adoption by industry. Hence, the latest version of Spark 64 was born,” says Daniel.

In 2014, UVLens worked to protect preschool children from the sun by partnering with Banana Boat sunscreen to install over 100 UV sensors in schools around New Zealand. They also distributed additional tools and educational content to teach Kiwis about sun safety and the effects of UV. Their work received positive feedback on a global scale and got attention from the likes of the BBC and the New York Times. Daniel says, “I think it was a combination of good luck and hard work. We were lucky to find a genuine problem that people had, which helped with things like word of mouth and organic growth. People wrote about and shared our app and we never had to spend any money on marketing!”

Thinking about the next big thing in the world of AI, Daniel sees a few things on the horizon. “Firstly, AI is going through the democratisation process where all the major IT companies are building out-of-the-box AI solutions. Many of these don’t even require you to code. This is going to greatly increase accessibility of AI for the world. Pricing is also coming down – it used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a chatbot. Now, there are SaaS platforms that cost less than your power bill. Another thing driving the democratisation of AI is the rapid sharing of knowledge and movement to Open Source.

“Secondly, AI is moving more and more to the edge as hardware continues to improve and there is increasing need for privacy and data security. For example, the AI that runs locally on your device no longer needs to be hooked up to the cloud.

“Thirdly, there is a stronger push for building AI that is explainable. Traditionally, AI models were treated as black boxes. But today, there is an increasing expectation for AI to be able to explain its decisions.”

Growing recognition of the value of AI has helped Spark 64 grow despite the disruptions of Covid-19. Daniel says, “It was quite strange because when New Zealand first went into lockdown, we were all thinking ‘This is going to be super bad’, but we actually got quite busy. I think this was because we are across a number of different industries and it was a crucial time for clients to reduce cost and increase efficiency. I realised that while the world was going through a health crisis, people still needed their food, utilities, and online shopping capability, so businesses had to carry on too.” Spark 64 is now looking at taking their technology global. He says, “We’re starting to get a footprint in the US and are finding really great people to join the team!”

As a student, Daniel participated in a number of events and challenges run by Velocity, the University of Auckland’s student entrepreneurship development programme, delivered through the Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He graduated in 2015 with a PhD in Bioengineering and a Bachelor of Engineering (First Class Honours), and is still actively involved with innovation and entrepreneurship as a mentor and judge.

Daniel believes that a curious mindset is the most essential skill needed to be a successful entrepreneur. “Most people would say ‘problem solving’, but I think entrepreneurs need to be good problem finders too – have a nose for uncovering pain points and be able to create new ways of doing things.” He suggests students reach out to start-ups they are interested in and ask about volunteering their time and skills. “I’ve found the best way to learn something is through doing and spending time with entrepreneurs in a real business. That’s the way to get a truly front row seat.”

Velocity Team 2020
Velocity Team 2020

social media

15 March 2021

A venture founded by University of Auckland engineering alumni Daniel Xu and Ming Cheuk is helping organisations improve their processes and customer experience by taking advantage of innovative technologies like machine learning, computer vision, and conversational AI.

Spark 64 is an artificial intelligence (AI) agency on a mission to help organisations leverage cutting edge applied AI in their operations. They empower businesses to unlock the power of AI to increase productivity, save costs, and create new competitive advantages. In the last eight years, they have worked with a number of high profile companies like The Warehouse Group, Southern Cross, Cove Insurance, and Edgewell Personal Care (who owns brands like Schick and Banana Boat). They have also partnered with Google, IBM, Intercom and UneeQ Digital Humans to bring the latest technologies to their clients.

The idea for Spark 64 came to Daniel and Ming while they were completing their PhDs in Bioengineering. “We always wanted to do something cool with tech, and happened to stumble across a technology competition called Microsoft Imagine Cup. We ended up winning with our idea of UVLens, a sun exposure management app designed to protect people from skin cancer. A couple of years later, we moved into the AI space because we noticed an increasing gap between AI research and adoption by industry. Hence, the latest version of Spark 64 was born,” says Daniel.

In 2014, UVLens worked to protect preschool children from the sun by partnering with Banana Boat sunscreen to install over 100 UV sensors in schools around New Zealand. They also distributed additional tools and educational content to teach Kiwis about sun safety and the effects of UV. Their work received positive feedback on a global scale and got attention from the likes of the BBC and the New York Times. Daniel says, “I think it was a combination of good luck and hard work. We were lucky to find a genuine problem that people had, which helped with things like word of mouth and organic growth. People wrote about and shared our app and we never had to spend any money on marketing!”

Thinking about the next big thing in the world of AI, Daniel sees a few things on the horizon. “Firstly, AI is going through the democratisation process where all the major IT companies are building out-of-the-box AI solutions. Many of these don’t even require you to code. This is going to greatly increase accessibility of AI for the world. Pricing is also coming down – it used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a chatbot. Now, there are SaaS platforms that cost less than your power bill. Another thing driving the democratisation of AI is the rapid sharing of knowledge and movement to Open Source.

“Secondly, AI is moving more and more to the edge as hardware continues to improve and there is increasing need for privacy and data security. For example, the AI that runs locally on your device no longer needs to be hooked up to the cloud.

“Thirdly, there is a stronger push for building AI that is explainable. Traditionally, AI models were treated as black boxes. But today, there is an increasing expectation for AI to be able to explain its decisions.”

Growing recognition of the value of AI has helped Spark 64 grow despite the disruptions of Covid-19. Daniel says, “It was quite strange because when New Zealand first went into lockdown, we were all thinking ‘This is going to be super bad’, but we actually got quite busy. I think this was because we are across a number of different industries and it was a crucial time for clients to reduce cost and increase efficiency. I realised that while the world was going through a health crisis, people still needed their food, utilities, and online shopping capability, so businesses had to carry on too.” Spark 64 is now looking at taking their technology global. He says, “We’re starting to get a footprint in the US and are finding really great people to join the team!”

As a student, Daniel participated in a number of events and challenges run by Velocity, the University of Auckland’s student entrepreneurship development programme, delivered through the Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He graduated in 2015 with a PhD in Bioengineering and a Bachelor of Engineering (First Class Honours), and is still actively involved with innovation and entrepreneurship as a mentor and judge.

Daniel believes that a curious mindset is the most essential skill needed to be a successful entrepreneur. “Most people would say ‘problem solving’, but I think entrepreneurs need to be good problem finders too – have a nose for uncovering pain points and be able to create new ways of doing things.” He suggests students reach out to start-ups they are interested in and ask about volunteering their time and skills. “I’ve found the best way to learn something is through doing and spending time with entrepreneurs in a real business. That’s the way to get a truly front row seat.”


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