Interview with Kunle Olukotun of Mines, a digital credit platform for emerging markets

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Mines began as a research project on high performance artificial intelligence, which you led at Stanford University. Did you ever think you would see the idea through to its current state yourself?

Stanford has a history of commercializing research, examples  of such companies which have become  household names are Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, VMware and  Google.  I have started companies based on my research: Afara Systems in the late 90’s and SambaNova most recently. So, the thought of commercializing the high-performance AI technology we developed at Stanford had certainly crossed my mind.

How was your research funded?

A combination of U.S. Federal funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and
Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) combined with industrial funding from a number of large companies. This is typical for computer science funding in the US.

How would you rate the contribution of the United States’ investment in research to innovation and impactful solutions in the country? What can Africa learn?

All five of the largest companies in the world are in information technology and three of the five companies are based in Silicon Valley. The information technology sector is driven by research and innovation.  It is a sector that requires constant innovation to maintain relevance and this innovation is based on research at universities and industry laboratories. The future of a huge part of the world’s economy and an important component of the solution to many of Africa’s problems (food, education, transportation, health) will come from information technology. Africa must invest in research and innovation in information technology to ensure that we develop the African solutions to Africa’s problems.

How do you think the thriving industrial sector can contribute to the development of research in Africa?

The industrial sector has to engage with the research at institutions of higher learning by providing internship opportunities for students and research funding and problems with the faculty at these institutions. This model has worked really well in the US, but it takes commitment from both the industrial side and the academic side to succeed. The idea is to start with small projects and show tangible success in terms of students who get good jobs and practical solutions to industrial problems, while at the same time protecting the intellectual property of the companies and the academic freedom of the institutions of higher learning.

The success of Mines so far, has proven how far breakthroughs in research can go in providing solutions, if the right people work together. What advice do you have for African researchers, especially on collaboration?

Collaboration and working in teams is the key to having impact. One should not be afraid to collaborate for fear that you will not be recognized for your contributions because I always say credit multiplies rather than divides among multiple people. So, I collaborate extensively with other researchers and of course with my PhD students. This is the key to developing new technology and having academic impact. Having commercial impact also takes collaboration. You have to connect with the right people to bring a technology successfully to market. Ideally, you want people who can really understand the technology and have the  business acumen to match the technology with the market. In the case of Mines, the PhD students who developed the technology became early employees in the company and Ekechi Nwokah, the CEO, provided the critical business insights  to make the technology relevant and robust enough for the Nigerian financial marketplace.

How much do you think the increased availability of credit through tech-enabled platforms provided companies like Mines will help grow economies across Africa?

Let’s take an example. In the US, a large percentage of GDP is driven by consumer spending, most which is on the back of credit facilities via credit cards. There’s no reason to believe that the same will not happen in many African countries as credit systems mature. It’s reasonable to think that if we’re successful we can have significant impact on economies across Africa.

Which other countries in Africa do you plan to expand to?

We aren’t disclosing that publicly but obviously we want to grow our presence in Africa as much as possible.

What do you think the future holds for Mines?

Our goal is to become one of the leading financial platform providers in emerging markets powered by cutting edge AI technology.  We want to enable the next billion people to have affordable access to financial services.

 

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