In the ‘Hot Seat’ with David Rajan

CEO of Opteran

This week we interviewed David to understand all things Opteran and where it all began. Opteran reverse-engineers biological systems onto silicon, enabling machines to see, sense, navigate and make decisions better than existing AI approaches, calling it ‘natural intelligence’. It’s fascinating, science fiction in reality, David can explain all below.

  1. Can you give us an overview of Opteran and what do they do?

Opteran is pioneering a radical small, lightweight, and ultra-low powered silicon-based approach to autonomy called Natural Intelligence. Based on eight years of research by Professor James Marshall and Dr. Alex Cope into insect brains, Opteran is reverse-engineering nature’s solutions for autonomy onto silicon chips to produce high performance algorithms requiring no data centre processing or extensive pre-training. By mimicking how insects use optic flow Opteran can complete tasks such as seeing, object sensing, obstacle avoidance, navigation and decision making in a much more transparent and compliant way compared to deep learning models. It also weighs approximately 30g and draws less than a watt of power, meaning it can operate at the network edge opening up a wide range of use cases

2. What’s the next big idea that nobody is thinking about yet? Why is this so important?

Today, everyone is focused on Deep Learning based AI. Whereas, we believe there is an emerging paradigm shift which is alternatively focused on techniques for directly understanding and reengineering how real brains function. This opens a whole new vista, understanding and applying natures solutions for machine autonomy, or Natural Intelligence, where today’s Artifiical Intelligence approaches have been running out of steam, to herald the third wave of AI.

Opteran is leading this by moving beyond today’s Deep Learning AI to re-engineer 600 million years of evolution in insect brains onto a silicon chip. This breakthrough enables machines to see, sense, navigate and make autonomous decisions based on what we have reverse engineered from fruit flies and honeybees.

Next, we’re increasing our capability beyond observing, moving and navigating to understanding and interacting with the world, based on what we can reverse engineer from other insects and in the future vertebrate brains

3. Looking back to the day you founded the company, what is the one thing you wish you had known before starting off?

I don’t think there was one thing that surprised me launching Opteran as I’ve been involved with several start-ups. But given the context in which we launched, i.e. during a pandemic, it did reinforce a key learning around how important it is for a start-up to be agile and responsive to whatever happens. Even in normal times, surprises and uncertainty are a constant, so you also need the resilience to cope with such inevitable change. Focus is key, concentrating on what you can control and delivering against your goals, and ignoring the rest. This has allowed us to be agile and we maintain our progress in product development and R&D

4. How do you define success for you / your company?

In the short term, to be commercial… deliver our product and enable our early adopter customers to differentiate their own products on-top of our capabilities. These early pilot projects with clients using our Opteran Development Kit are giving us great insight into our customers and the market/s within which we see early opportunity. In turn, this will also allow us to develop the evidence we require to complete our Series A funding round.

Longer-term, as the ‘Natural Intelligence’ company, we aim to pioneer a paradigm shift to make naturally intelligence fully autonomous machines ubiquitous. And be the go-to company that enables machines to think naturally with a bio-inspired brain at their core.

5. What behaviour or personality trait do you most attribute to your ability to achieve what you have achieved so far?

I believe it is a combination of having a deep fascination with technology and engineering, and an ability to identify and explain how innovative technologies can become strategic opportunities with the potential to generate significant new markets. Having worked in engineering, product development, strategy and business leadership roles I’m happy to say I’m a geek at heart, but passionate about translating the value of innovation into solutions that will make a difference to society and business

6. What’s your top idea to improve diversity in the workplace?

No simple answer. Though for me change comes with simple steps of direct action. Don’t wait to be told, do it yourself, at the grass roots. So, we simply hire people from diverse backgrounds and have quite a mixed team. Gender is proving much harder and we are actively trying different approaches to impact that. Naturally, its more complex and for our industry, we have to do more to inspire more young people from diverse backgrounds to see how exciting engineering can be as a career. If we do not expand the pool of potential recruits diversity is always going to be a challenge.

7. What is the best advice you have ever been given and by whom?

Two things… first seek to understand the fundamentals of how a thing works — my Uncle who was in the experimental dept., in the auto-industry, at Longbridge. And second… ask yourself how to empower a person or team to do something without asking them — my old boss at Oracle.

8. What was the most useful resource (networks/books/websites/blogs) you used when starting out?

None of those — people. I like to ask people how they do a thing, learn firsthand, understand and then think very deeply. Most books or website can convey the basic idea of a thing in a couple of sentences, I hate having to read the whole book, for me it’s all about thinking about the thing, making connections and reapplying it somewhere else

9. What is the single most important thing you’ve done to increase the value of your business?

We hired very quickly, bringing on the first team of 14 within the first quarter after raising our seed round. You won’t move the needle on anything without the people to do the work. This gave us the most tremendous boost.

That and working with some great minds. At Opteran, I’m surrounded by experts in their fields, who have been through this process before in fields related to ours. For example, Dave Murray has joined us as chief product officer, who was previously at Movidius. Our VC partners all have specific industry and go-to-market expertise that is invaluable to us and it is why we’re delighted to be working with Episode1!

10. What has been the hardest decision you’ve had to make in your entrepreneurial journey?

Stop procrastinating and make a start. I got over the fear of failure and just got on with it… and I never looked back. The real failure is not actually trying.

11. What will be the biggest change to how we lead our lives in 15 years? And what won’t have changed?

What will have changed is that we will start to see autonomous machines interacting with us in our daily lives, doing tasks for us in work, heath and social lives… they will be busy getting on with their business like insects and birds do today, and we take as little notice of them as we do the kettle or electric light bulb.

And Deep learning won’t be the answer to achieving artificial general intelligence. I would go as far as predicting that artificial intelligence won’t be the end game for most successful AI companies in 15 years time.

12. Tell us something we don’t know about you?

My first degree is a BA (Hons) in Peace. I did it as I was slightly obsessed about Gandhi’s thinking. It had a great appeal for me, as it was so open minded and completely captivated me. Gandhi’s grandson was even the first person to stay with me in my very first flat. He bought the frying pan as I hadn’t anything to cook on!

13. If you could be offline for 3 days — where would you go and what would you do?

Actually, I’ve been planning a road trip to Paris to visit the flea markets in an old 1970s Mercedes… listening to an old crackly radio, having a good mooch and potter… good food, a nice drink, and lots of old technology to keep me entertained

Leah Martin
Marketing, Communications & Events Manager
Events and Marketing and Communications. Platform and network, supporting our portfolio companies with events, PR and community. I love cooking and entertaining for my family and friends, discovering the tastiest and best restaurants. Travelling and enjoying walking in nature.



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