Phil Libin is refocusing his startup incubator from AI to health tech because there's no need to 'shove' artificial intelligence into everything

Phil Libin, CEO of All Turtles, as seen in the company's offices in July 2019.

  • All
    Turtles
    , an incubator launched and run by Evernote
    cofounder Phil
    Libin
    , has shifted its focus.
  • Libin launched it with the idea that it would foster
    applications and products based on artificial
    intelligence
    .
  • Now, All Turtles’ focus is on developing products that help
    improve the health of individuals or workplaces.
  • Libin still thinks AI will be important for most of the
    products the company develops — just not all of them.

  • Click here for more BI Prime stories
    .

It’s well known that startups quite often have to make a pivot
— tweaking their business models or even completely revamping
their whole market theses.

It turns out that startup incubators sometimes have to shift
their focus also.

In the case of All Turtles, its pivot has been somewhat subtle,
but still significant. Phil Libin, the company’s CEO and founder,
has shifted the focus of the incubator from fostering artificial
intelligence applications and products to developing apps that
improve people’s health.

“We were always focused on solving what we thought were
worthwhile problems, and the more we started looking at things, the
more we realized that there’s this common thread running through a
lot of the problems in the world,” he said. “The way that we live
is mal-adapted,” he continued. “It’s not how we evolved to
live.”

All Turtles isn’t abandoning artificial intelligence, by any
means. One of the first applications to come out of its studio —

Spot
— is an AI-based chatbot that designed to make it easier
for those who have experienced workplace harassment or
discrimination to report what happened to them.

Read this:
How an academic specialist in human memory created a chat app
that’s helping companies fight harassment and
discrimination

Similarly, it’s backed and is working with a startup called
Tellus that’s
developing a device that’s designed to monitor the vital signs and
activities of elderly people using precision radar. Tellus’ service
relies on AI to make sense of the data coming from its radar-based
sensor and to highlight notable changes.

All Turtles ditched a planned AI editor for its Sift app

Screenshot of All Turtles' Sift news appBut Libin is also open
to having All Turtles work on projects that don’t include any kind
of AI at all. Last fall, for example, the company launched
Sift
, an app designed to provide users a deeper understanding
of issues in the news without making them feel stressed or
overwhelmed. The app covers topics including immigration, gun
rights, and healthcare and offers a nonpartisan perspective with
historical background and data to help explain the policy debate
over such issues.

Originally, All Turtle planned to use AI to serve as a kind of
editor for Sift. It would determine which topics were the most
contentious, do some initial research on them, and even assign
reporters to follow up and put together modules about them. But
Libin and his team quickly realized that the AI was
unnecessary.

“Humans are perfectly capable of knowing what people are yelling
at each other about,” he said. “It just felt better as a
hand-crafted thing.”

Libin insists the thesis he had when he launched All Turtles
hasn’t really changed. That assumption was that there are real
problems in the world that haven’t been solvable in the past that
can now be solved because something is fundamentally different.
Previously, his assumption was that the thing that was
fundamentally different was going to be artificial intelligence or
technology more broadly.

He still thinks that’s going to be true most of the time. But
he’s open to the idea that some problems may now be solvable for
reasons other than technology.

“Our goal is not to shove AI into things. Our goal is to make
make products that make people healthier,” he said. “I think a lot
of them will benefit significantly from AI, but if they don’t, they
don’t.”

Changes other than just technological ones offer opportunities

Sift, for instance, is trying to address the problem of people
feeling anxious and outraged and stressed out by the news. What’s
changed — what’s created an opportunity for Sift —is the
concern being raised by people such as former Google engineer
Tristan Harris about how Internet services are stoking that outrage
and how harmful that constant agitation can be to a democratic
society that depends on informed citizens who can engage in
reasoned, rational discussion, Libin said.

Similarly, while Spot depends on AI, it’s also benefitted from
the spotlight that’s been placed on sexual harassment in the
workplace by the MeToo movement and the massive employee walkout at
Google last year.

“If you were doing something to combat workplace harassment and
discrimination a few years ago, I think most companies would have
said, ‘We don’t have that problem.’ Now no one says that,” Libin
said.

“So, it’s a combination of the technology getting better, but
also the problem becoming much more obvious and acknowledged.”

Even if All Turtles focus has shifted a bit, it’s strategy
hasn’t. Libin is building out a global incubator; the company
already has offices in Paris and Tokyo. It plans to open an office
in Mexico City and other places around the world, although it’s
pushed back further expansion from this year until next.

Libin still believes in All Turtles’ model

Libin also still believes in and is building All Turtles around
another part of his thesis —
that the way that technology and innovation is being fostered is
fundamentally broken
. Instead of focusing exclusively on using
startups as the sole vehicles to develop technologies, All Turtles
has taken a more eclectic approach.

In some cases it does back startups or develops technologies
that will be spun off as separate companies. In other cases, it
partners with existing companies to work on new products together.
In still other cases, it develops technologies in-house that it
plans to keep and offer as its own products.

“This idea that you can only innovate in startups is just a dumb
idea,” Libin said.

His only frustration with that thesis and All Turtles’ model is
that he keeps having to explain them to potential funders.

“Anytime you’re explaining the model, you’re not talking about
the right thing,” Libin said. “I am anxious to be at the point,” he
continued, “where no one cares about that anymore.”

Got a tip about venture capital or startups?
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SEE ALSO: This
tech VC is based in Singapore, not Silicon Valley. And the startups
she’s seeing are solving problems Silicon Valley isn’t even aware
of.


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Phil Libin is refocusing his startup incubator from AI to health tech because there's no need to 'shove' artificial intelligence into everything