There’s a growing consensus that remote work is here to stay. And that means business practices will need to adapt to a virtual setting. One of the hardest things to do over video calls, however, is build relationships — either within a team or with clients. The lack of body language and social cues in virtual settings can make sales and deal completions especially challenging.
Enter ChipBrain. Through the use of emotionally intelligent AI, ChipBrain wants to provide a tool that allows users to tap into the emotional subtext of a virtual conversation. We spoke to co-founders Lisa Vo and Curtis Northcutt to learn more about empathy AI and their vision for what ChipBrain can do.
Note: This interview was conducted over phone and email. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Can you give us a brief elevator pitch for your company?
Lisa & Curtis: We believe that most conversations will take place virtually via voice and video calls within 5 years, and we are on the cusp of this massive transition. The company that wins in this future is the one that gives people the tools to be more connected, empathetic, and persuasive even through the disconnect of telecommuting.
ChipBrain trains empathy AI to detect emotional and conversational cues in text, voice, and video calls. We help tailor and track the effectiveness of your messaging by revealing key turning points in your live conversations: a subtle shift in the client’s tone of voice or an approving head nod. Our goal is to empower communicators with augmented capabilities in persuasion and emotional intelligence. Our first product pioneers the field of persuasion AI by providing real-time feedback and coaching to business professionals during client calls. Ultimately, our mission is to empower anyone with a personalized, emotionally intelligent AI that can help them build better relationships by understanding their audience more deeply.
What inspired you to take the leap and build this company?
Curtis: I’m fascinated by the synergy of machine learning and human learning, by the feedback loop that occurs as we combine artificial intelligence with our human intelligence. Over the last three decades, we’ve seen leaps in computation, connectivity, and artificial intelligence — speech assistants, global satellite internet, AR glasses that see through walls… These technologies enhance our lives, but what about our humanity? With education, work, and communication becoming increasingly virtual, ChipBrain is perfectly positioned at the forefront of augmenting human capabilities in communication. At its core, ChipBrain empowers us to do one of the most humanistic things we do: communicate with each other. I can’t think of a better time to build this company.
Lisa: I actually quit my software engineering job at Palantir Technologies to go lead ChipBrain full-time. It was a leap of faith, but a no-brainer. This technology — whether we build it or not — is inevitable. Someone is going to build it. We have a stellar, talented team staying on top of the latest research. Nascent technology takes time to adopt and commercialize, so we have an early mover’s advantage and the team to make it happen.
The second reason is that remote work is here to stay. The pandemic has expedited its widespread adoption by about 10 years. In our customer development interviews, we repeatedly heard that client meetings come down to building relationships, which was usually done face-to-face. And the best salespeople are also the best relationship builders — they respond empathically to whatever emotional response the client is giving off. Well, the forward-thinking businesses are realizing that strong client relationships can be built via Zoom calls, too. Teams are collaborating via video without having ever met in person, startups are pitching via video, and deals are closing via video. The problem is that it’s harder to connect when you’re not face-to-face. And that’s where ChipBrain comes in. When you transpose an in-person conversation onto the flat screen of a video call, it’s a much less sensory experience — so you end up missing a lot of verbal and nonverbal signals that are opportunities to connect with and understand your audience. We believe a human conversation isn’t just a transcript of what was said, but also how it was said. And that’s exactly the sort of data we’re capturing.
What past experiences prepared you to start, build, and lead your company?
Curtis: At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I co-invented confident learning, a family of theory and algorithms that enable AI and machine learning to work with real-world, noisy data. I use these methods to augment human learning. So, in many ways, I spent my entire life preparing to build this company. I’ve also had the pleasure of serving as Chief AI Scientist at Knowledge AI since early 2019, lead multiple teams while at MIT, and have previously worked at many of the world’s top AI labs including Google AI, Amazon AI, Microsoft Research, Facebook AI Research, Oculus Research, NASA, among others. I look forward to bringing these experiences to make ChipBrain a global leader in empathy AI and conversational technology.
Lisa: I’m a first-generation immigrant from Vietnam. I think for many immigrants, it’s in our genes to be entrepreneurial. My amazing mom certainly fits that profile — she’s a small business owner with a loyal customer following. I guess for me, ChipBrain is an ode to her. She had a magic touch in making people feel seen, heard, and taken care of. If I can recreate some part of that, that would be something special. I didn’t know I wanted to be an entrepreneur until I got to Harvard, my alma mater. The world can seem small when you’re an immigrant, but at Harvard I had the fortune of meeting people who inspired me to see that there are no limits to what you can do. I have the privilege of an excellent education and a safety net, and I see it as a duty to take on greater risks by building things for the world. I’ve held a number of entrepreneurial leadership positions. In 2018, I co-led a group of 20 computer science students in building tools for Beto’s senate campaign. That led to me taking a semester off to co-found Bluebonnet Data, a nationally recognized nonprofit, where I directed engineering. That organization now operates in 33 states with over 300 technical volunteers. Most recently, I was the co-founder and CTO of GrassRoutes, a political tech startup that we’ve brought to market and is now post-revenue. I’m a computer scientist by training and have also worked at Microsoft and Palantir — these experiences prepared me to lead and support our team here at ChipBrain.
What is your vision for the future of the industry you are operating in?
Lisa: Sales has remained insulated from data-driven technological advances and continues to rely on generalized best practices taught in classroom-style seminars. Compare this to the marketing data revolution. In the 1960s, marketing campaigns were conducted at the mass, untargeted broadcast level. Now we have a $240 billion industry called adtech dedicated to data-driven digital marketing that hyper-personalizes ads based on an array of user data like clicks, browsing history, and behavior. I expect a similar revolution in sales to happen within the next 10 years. The effectiveness of an ad campaign can easily be measured nowadays, but what about long, free-form conversations? With ChipBrain, the way people negotiate, deal-make, and sell will soon be perfectly tailored to their audience.
Curtis: The vision is crystal clear: I see a world where everyone is empowered with a personalized, emotionally intelligent AI that makes them more persuasive and effective in all forms of communication. When you write an email asking for a raise, ChipBrain lets you know the most convincing language to use. When you have a fight with a partner, ChipBrain helps find out where it went wrong. When you start your new business, ChipBrain helps you close your first deals with customers. That’s an empowered future that I look forward to building with our team.
Who is on your team and how did you come together?
Curtis: Our founders include Lisa Vo (Harvard, B.A. 2019), Curtis Northcutt (MIT, M.S. 2017, PhD 2021), and John Fanning (founder and former CEO of Napster). We are lucky to have an incredible team of MIT engineers and scientists with deep expertise in AI, product design, and engineering: John Heyer (MIT, B.S. & M.S. 2020), Harrison Wang (MIT, B.S. & M.S. 2019), Harry Rein (MIT, B.S. & M.S. 2016), and Ken Acquah (MIT, B.S. 2020). Our shared experiences at MIT and Harvard and our shared vision to build unrivaled technologies that empower people was the soil that sprouted ChipBrain.
Lisa: Curtis and I met well before we founded ChipBrain together. We quickly discovered that we shared a common vision and dream, and often enjoyed talking about technology, innovation, and startup ideas for hours on end. From the beginning, we knew we wanted to become co-founders and build something meaningful together. Our team of engineers have also known each other for years, and they’re a tight crew who are wonderful to work with. Building a great team that not only works well together, but is motivated by the same mission, is one of the hardest things to get right. I am very proud of our gang here at ChipBrain.
Do you have any competition, if so, how do you differentiate?
Lisa & Curtis: Many companies will claim they use AI when there is actually very little meaningful AI involved. We’re proud to be a technology-first company with a true focus on AI. We are at the intersection of several fields of AI research that are still quite nascent, and the sales software market has not seen anything like this yet. The good thing is that sales conversation technology has seen exciting growth and adoption. However, the focus of our closest competitors has been on capturing what was said, while we are focused on capturing how it was said. This means that the technology out there supports basic features like keyword detection. Our competitive advantage is that our work requires state-of-the-art research, and it won’t be easy to copy without a team like ours. Our team of MIT and Harvard scientists and engineers have decades of experience in artificial intelligence, hundreds of citations on publications in human learning and machine learning, and three decades of founder experience in business and sales. This combination lets us stay at the forefront of the latest research, as we have the expertise to implement and train the newest machine learning models.
What does your business model look like?
Lisa & Curtis: We are a B2B SaaS company with a subscription-based pricing model, offering integration with major CRMs and communication platforms.
What brought you to equity crowdfunding and how do you intend to use the money you raise this round to scale the business?
Lisa & Curtis: We opted to raise funds on Netcapital before going to VCs in order to provide friends and family the opportunity to participate and share in our success while our valuation is still low. The money from this round will provide us with a runway of about 18 months, and it will be used to pay our fantastic engineers, who are the core of this company.
What do you want potential investors to know about you and/or your company?
Lisa: ChipBrain’s product comes at a time when more sales teams are going virtual and embracing AI in an already robust sales software market. In fact, the global market size of customer experience and relationship management software is $48.2 billion (Forbes), and the $1.1 billion sales enablement software market is expected to grow 20% over the next four years (MarketsandMarkets Research). In the US alone, companies spend $15 billion annually on sales training (LinkedIn). For businesses, McKinsey estimates that AI technology could generate an additional $2.6 trillion of value in marketing and sales.
Curtis: The real question is… when we are working to close deals with investors, are we actually pitching ourselves or are we using ChipBrain?
As you think about the business 5-10 years down the road, what do you see exit opportunities looking like? Have you set any future goals for the company?
Curtis: A company like ChipBrain has a number of exit opportunities. We have an exceptional team that creates a strong potential for an acquisition. We have a unique empathy AI technology that will likely open a number of opportunities. We also are working toward strong partnerships with our first customers, and we’ll see where that leads. But today, our focus is on building the best technology in the world for empowering people to be more persuasive and effective in communication, with our first product focused on helping sales teams close deals.
We at KingsCrowd are excited to see where Lisa, Curtis, and their team take the company. ChipBrain is currently raising on Netcapital.
About: Olivia Strobl
Olivia comes to KingsCrowd with a background in venture capital and technology. She spent time at Glasswing Ventures, an AI-focused venture fund in Boston, before joining the KingsCrowd team. There she helped develop machine learning algorithms for the opportunity qualification of preseed and seed-stage startup companies. Prior to her time at Glasswing, Olivia worked in a lab studying the neural correlates of attention. She holds a degree in Neuroscience from Wellesley College.