Twitter and top executives from Google and video game company Supercell are among those backing a London venture capitalist’s new fund dedicated to investing in early stage startups with artificial intelligence at the heart of their business models.
Air Street Capital, a boutique venture capital company founded and run by Nathan Benaich, said Friday that it had closed a new $17 million fund.
Benaich, Air Street’s founder and sole general partner, is a veteran early-stage investor who has previously worked for venture firm Playfair, in London, and Berlin’s Point Nine Capital. He was a seed investor in Mapillary, a Swedish company that collected street-level imagery to build highly detailed digital maps, which was acquired by Facebook in June for an undisclosed amount.
Benaich has a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in using advanced computational methods, including machine learning, in cancer research. He is well known in U.S. and European technology circles for cofounding two annual conferences that bring together academic machine learning researchers with those applying the technology in commercial settings: the Research and Applied Artificial Intelligence Summit (RAAIS) and London.AI. He also coauthors an annual “State of A.I.” report that many consider an important barometer of the technology’s adoption and impact.
In addition to Twitter, which is investing in Air Street Capital directly from its own balance sheet, investors in the new fund include, among others: Ilkka Paananen, the billionaire founder and chief executive of Finnish video game company Supercell, maker of the popular game Clash of Clans; Jeff Dean, a senior vice president at Google’s research and health divisions; and Shakil Khan, a London investor known for his early backing of Spotify. The European private equity firm Vitruvian Partners is also investing in the new fund.
Air Street invests primarily in what is known in venture capital as the “seed stage,” when startups are first getting up and running. The new fund will make between 20 and 25 investments, each averaging about $700,000, Benaich said. The investments will be split about 50/50 between startups in the biomedical industry and those using A.I. in other industry niches.
Benaich told Fortune that the thesis behind his new fund is that more generalist venture capital firms cannot properly assess very early stage artificial intelligence companies, because the business models and metrics for success are new. “The playbook for what ‘great’ looks like in this category of companies is still being written as we speak,” he said.
He also said that many venture capital firms, which invested in a wide range of different sorts of technology companies, did not fully understand the cutting edge of A.I. technology and what kinds of businesses these new methods enable. “Generalism for technical fields like machine learning is dead,” he said.
He described Air Street’s job as finding A.I. startups—in some cases talking to academic researchers when they are just beginning to think about becoming entrepreneurs—and nurturing these very young startups until they are mature enough to start to resemble a traditional software as a service (SaaS) or enterprise software or biotech company. These companies will then “graduate” on to larger venture capital investors who specialize in those kinds of business models.
Although Benaich is Air Street’s sole general partner, he has recruited several entrepreneurs who have previously built successful A.I.-enabled businesses to serve as “operational partners,” or advisers to the fund’s startups. These include Luc Vincent, an executive vice president at ride-hailing company Lyft who leads its self-driving initiatives, and Phil Keslin, a Google alum who is a cofounder and chief technology officer at Niantic, the company that created Pokémon Go.
Ryan McDermott, the managing partner of San Francisco–based Resolute Partners Group, an asset manager that invests money for several prominent entrepreneurs in the computer gaming industry, told Fortune he had put money into Air Street Capital’s new fund because he concurred with Benaich’s views on the impact A.I. will have on certain industries, particularly in life sciences.
“We are seeing the complete re-creation of how we see therapies coming to market and the speed and the novelty of those drugs,” McDermott said.
But he also praised Benaich’s connections among A.I. company founders and his sharp eye for spotting emerging trends in the field. “He has got this amazing network, and he is going to be the go-to guy for a lot of people,” McDermott said.
Air Street Capital has already made eight investments from the new fund, Benaich said. These include LabGenius, a London company using robotics and machine learning to discover new drugs; Mission Barns, a San Francisco company that, similar to Memphis Meats, is growing meat in cell cultures; and Allcyte, an Austrian startup that is using machine learning to predict how blood cancer patients will respond to certain therapies based on analysis of images of their cells. It also has a stake in Graphcore, a U.K. company creating computer chips that are specifically designed for artificial intelligence.