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Betaworks’ new ‘camp’ aims to fund transformative early-stage AI startups


In a sign that the seed-stage AI segment is still alive and kicking, Betaworks, the startup studio and VC firm, is launching a new program that’ll award $500,000 in funding to approximately 10 companies working on AI.

Scheduled to run from mid-June until mid-September, Betaworks’ program — the ninth of its kind — will provide startups access to benefits including a business-building curriculum and accelerated compute from companies including Hugging Face and Stability AI. That’s in addition to one-on-one mentorship time, events and activities, plus “collaboration opportunities” with other Betaworks cohort ventures.

The program isn’t quite an accelerator; Betaworks describes it like a “camp.” Rather than writing a small check into companies across a range of categories, the firm’s looking at the “evolution” of technology and betting on a cohort that’s creating or defining a new category.

“This is the biggest change in technology in my lifetime,” Betaworks CEO John Borthwick told TechCrunch in an email interview. “We’ve been building, accelerating and investing in and around machine learning for the last decade, and in the last 12 months, everything’s changed — the launch of generative visual models like [OpenAI’s] DALL-E 2 last year, the open and affordable access to these models with the availability of stability and GPT. AI has the potential to affect every sector, and every part of how we live, work, play and even die.”

With the new “camp,” which is also being underwritten by Mozilla Ventures, Greycroft, and Differential Ventures, Betaworks is specifically looking to recruit companies creating AI tools that “augment the way humans behave, create, play, work and think.” For example, Borthwick says, this could be startups thinking about UIs that focus on the context of interactions over time, or ventures exploring the infrastructure required to allow for human collaboration alongside AI tools.

“The AI stack hasn’t been fully defined yet,” Borthwick said. “Just like the early days of the internet, there will be extraordinary companies built, providing infrastructure and foundational tools, and there will also be middleware and applications that become embedded in our lives and augment pretty much everything we do.”

When asked about the legal challenges facing some AI tech, particularly generative AI, and how it might affect the startups that Betaworks intends to fund, Borthwick didn’t shy away from answering. He expects copyright, intellectual property and attribution model ownership issues will play out over the next few years and ultimately not to have an adverse impact on startups in the space — or their business models.

“Some laws and frameworks that we have today will apply and others will need to be made,” Borthwick added. “This is like the beginning of the internet where, for example, a ‘right to be forgotten’ rule hadn’t been considered yet because the technology hadn’t demanded it.”

That might be optimistic. But Betaworks hasn’t let potential legal headwinds around AI get in the way before.

The firm is funding Stability AI, which is currently embroiled in a legal battle over whether the company infringed on the rights of millions of artists by developing its text-to-image tools using web-scraped, copyrighted images. Stock image supplier Getty Images has also taken Stability AI to court for reportedly using images from its site without permission.

Suffice it to say, Betaworks has an appetite for risk — and anticipates that the reward will be worth the struggle, apparently.

“AI cleaves open the possibility space around any problem,” Borthwick said. “That was one of the big lessons of [DeepMind’s] Alpha Go for us — the tech found solutions that nobody had ever considered before, and that was on a simple game board.”


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