Few people know artificial intelligence better than Xabi Uriba-Etxebarria. The Spanish entrepreneur has engineering degrees and diplomas from MIT, Harvard Business School and the Universidad de Deusto in San Sebastian, Basque Country. He is even nearing a master’s degree in architecture, is a mentor at Oxford University and has won numerous awards for his work in the tech world.
Uriba-Etxebarria is also a proven company-builder. He was studying for a natural language processing PhD in 2009 when he built his first firm, ANBOTO, a virtual assistant for chat and email responses. ANBOTO is still going strong.
But Uriba-Etxebarria wasn’t finished, and in 2012 founded Sherpa, a predictive, virtual personal assistant based on AI algorithms. It has been preloaded on Samsung smartphones since 2016, and is the most widely used Spanish-language personal assistant apps in the world.
Sherpa has won over $8 million dollars in funding and has become one of the most promising startups in the fast-emerging AI space. Little wonder Uriba-Etxebarria was recently named among El País’ “Top 100 of the Year” – a list honoring the most influential people in the Spanish-American world.
Sitting aside such personalities as the King of Spain, Mexican premier Enrique Peña Nieto and Sofia Vergara, Red Herring was lucky to catch moment with Uriba-Etxebarria this month. But we did – and Uriba-Etxebarria was keen to tell our reporter all about the future of AI implementation, personal assistance, and how Sherpa is perfectly placed to spearhead one of tech’s newest revolutions.
“By harnessing the power of AI to act on big data, corporations can become more productive, reduce costs, and enter new markets,” says Uribe-Etxebarria, adding that those benefits will soon find their way to the consumer market. For now though, he says, “the money is in the enterprise market.”
Last March analyst Gartner name-checked Sherpa when announcing the vast potential of personal assistance AI – a landscape that, while its headlines are dominated by the likes of Apple, Amazon and Microsoft, are ripe for clear-thinking firms to get ahead of the curve. Sherpa, which is designed for cars, intelligent ear speakers, in-home speakers and appliances, and wearables, is positioning itself well for a coming wave of connectivity.
Tractica, an analyst, predicts that the global AI personal assistant market will swell to $15.8bn by 2021. It is at an inflection point, Uribe-Etxebarria claims: a crossroads between responsive and analytic solutions of the past, and predictive and autonomous ones, the likes of which will enable true AI assistance and driverless vehicles.
It’s no surprise, then, that investors like Mundi Ventures, headquartered in Madrid, have been impressed enough to part with millions of dollars to back Sherpa’s scale – and make connections with a range of partners.
“The key to unlock that market is predictive AI, so that these assistants can be more truly useful by anticipating user needs,” says the CEO. “That’s were we are focusing our research and development efforts…Anything process-oriented is a prime target for AI automation. The Sherpa platform could play a role in many of those apps, by providing an API to access our predictive AI capabilities.”
As the market sits at its current crossroads, Uribe-Etxebarria adds, “I think the biggest headline for 2018 will be about the consolidation of the industry. Large companies will go for partnerships with startups that give them important capabilities and competitive advantage.”
Scale, therefore, is key – but moving too fast is not. Sherpa is based in Redwood City, in the heart of Silicon Valley, and Bilbao, the biggest city of the Basque Country of Spain from where Uribe-Etxebarria comes. Its products are available in Spanish and English, opening huge potential markets worldwide. But, as Uribe-Etxebarria says, it is crucial to “think very carefully about what you are doing, what you want to create, and why you are creating it.
“Building a world class company is very difficult and takes time,” he adds. You have to stay focused on the big goals you want to accomplish, work very hard, and constantly learn how to do better.” As a man in his thirties with more achievements under his belt than most can comprehend, it seems unlikely that Xabi Uribe-Etxebarria is somebody who will lose focus. That puts Sherpa on a good path to capitalize on AI: one of tech’s wild frontiers.