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Duke professor's artificial intelligence startup receives $10 million investment

A new startup led by a Duke professor recently received $10 million to develop practical applications in the growing field of machine learning.

Lawrence Carin, vice provost for research and professor of electrical and computer engineering, received the funding from investment firm Carrick Capital Partners in September. Unicorn ML—the company's temporary name—will be dedicated to developing practical applications of machine learning, a subfield of artificial intelligence.

“I was not dreaming of starting a company,” Carin said. “But the world has told me I have to have a company because the work that we’re doing is increasingly valued by people who see practical applications for it.”

Carin said machine learning involves teaching machines to learn relationships and recognize patterns in data. Having worked on machine learning at Duke for 15 years, he noted that companies have asked his research team to use the technology for specific applications.

“At a university like Duke we focus on basic research, so there’s no specific application in mind. We study the field itself,” he said. “The work [these companies] want to do is not really consistent with the mission of a university like Duke. So consequently, the formation of a company is in fact a natural evolution and almost a requirement.”

Carrick Capital Partners—an investment firm located in San Francisco and Newport Beach, Calif.—invited Carin to San Francisco, where he delivered a presentation explaining machine learning and its functionalities.

“I did not pitch them, I did not ask for money, I just told them what we can do,” Carin said. “The next day when I got back, I got a phone call from them. They wanted me to do a company, and that they would invest in it. In reality, the company was their idea and not my idea.”

This investment of $10 million will help establish the company, Carin noted.

“The $10 million in some sense is our house,” he said. “It’s the environment where this is going to live.”

The company—which will "deliberately enter the market as a technology service company," according to a Carrick Capital Partners press release—has currently narrowed down the CEO search to several candidates.

Mike Salvino, operating partner of Carrick Capital Partners, called Carin’s expertise in machine learning and his team of researchers “unparalleled.”

“[Carin's team has] a track record of empowering companies to reduce required resources, increasing efficiency, achieving breakthrough thinking and predicting market conditions impacting business decisions,” Salvino said.

Carin explained that the development of machine learning technology in the last half decade has led to much of the interest from companies.

“Over the last five years, the technology has gotten so good. There’s this new field called ‘deep learning’ that we’ve been focusing on very strenuously,” he said. “What’s happened over the last few years is we’ve been funded by organizations who are not just interested in the fundamental aspects of machine learning but are interested in applying them to various problems.”

Still, Carin said general machine learning conducted at Duke continues to be in high demand.

“We still don’t understand everything. We still have a lot of fundamental research,” he said. “We’re going to do fundamental research, and we’re going to do applied research. My research program at Duke continues to be quite active.”


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