Lead(H)er: Heather Ames, Co-Founder and COO of Neurala
Most artificial intelligence programs require more hardware, memory, and technology in general than a mobile device can hold. But in today’s increasingly mobile-first world, this limitation could be preventing some major breakthroughs in the AI field.
In 2006, Heather Ames and two fellow graduate students at Boston University decided to do something about it. The team patented a method for running neural networks for AI systems on mobile devices, then founded Neurala to hold the patent and do some consulting work on AI technology.
“We knew we were ahead of the market,” Ames said. “Today, we’ve evolved significantly from a patent holding entity to a company that’s really trying to push the envelope and commercialize AI beyond just service-based companies.”
While the AI market has developed more slowly than Ames would have hoped, Neurala has blossomed into a leader within it. The company’s Brain Builder Platform is making it easier for organizations to rapidly build and deploy AI. Its patented program uses less data and less time to analyze information, provide accurate solutions, and continue learning. It can find a missing child using just one picture, manage drones, help fight elephant poaching, and edit photos.
After several years of offering customized AI solutions to its clients, Neurala is scaling up by giving those clients -- most of which are not AI experts -- the ability to build the technology to meet their exact needs themselves.
“Every customer has its own unique problems and data sets, so providing them with a generalized solution isn’t going to solve the problem. We need to give them the tools to build and maintain those solutions themselves.” Ames said.
It’s one of the many ways that Ames and the Neurala team are working to help people view AI as a resource in their toolkit, rather than the sci-fi nightmare that some may think of instead.
“It’s so far away from anything that’s going be learning to take over cities,” Ames said. “We just need to be mindful of how we use it and always ask ourselves what we’re doing to make sure that the system is approaching the problem in the appropriate way.”
AI trained using historical criminal cases, for example, is likely to carry over racial biases currently at play in the criminal justice system, perpetuating that bias and further ingraining it into the system.
Questions like these have always interested Ames, who began her career as a graduate student at Boston University’s CELEST Science of Learning Center. She eventually worked her way up to become the center’s managing director and, throughout her tenure, focused on increasing diversity and creating mentorship opportunities in the field that would allow graduate students to pursue applied AI opportunities.
“Because we were on the cutting-edge technology side, it was important to me to guide students into career paths that weren’t necessarily just academic, but rather would allow them to see how their work can actually have an impact in products and technology.”
As a co-founder, Ames has been able to continue promoting impact not only with Neurala’s product, but also within the company itself. Through the highs and lows -- Ames was once forced to use her own savings to make payroll after a government shutdown prevented the necessary funds from coming through -- she’s used her role as a co-founder to assemble a talented team and create a company culture that focuses on more than just the tech.
“What I find most rewarding is really being able use my position to focus on the people that work here,” Ames said.
Rapid Fire Questions
What do you like to do in your free time?
Well, I’m eight months pregnant with my fourth child, and between that and balancing the company and my kids, there’s just not a lot of time in between. I don’t have free time, but if I do, I usually sleep!
How do you typically handle stress?
As all responsible adults should, especially if they have highly stressful careers, I have a therapist. I also try to have a sense of humor and a positive attitude, which I think just comes with experience and maturity. I certainly didn’t feel that way when I was 16, but I’m grateful for what I have in my life and try to keep that in perspective. The last thing I do is listen to my favorite podcast during my commute. It’s called My Favorite Murder, but it keeps me calm.
How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?
Unfortunately just one because of the pregnancy, but if it wasn’t for that, I’d drink three or four or five a day.
What do you consider one of your greatest accomplishments?
I think getting this far with Neurala has just been such an amazing journey, but I think the team we’ve hired here is maybe an even bigger accomplishment. My team is so amazing. They’re strong leaders, they make me laugh, and we have a good time together. I wouldn’t want to be here with any other group of people, and I think they can really take it to the next level.
What’s one of your favorite places within the Boston area?
Lately, I just go to work and to my kids’ school, so my favorite place right now is just my bed at home!
Is this where you saw yourself 10 years ago?
Ten years ago, we were in the early stages of Neurala. This trajectory isn’t far off from where I thought I’d be, but it’s surprising that it’s taken a long time for hardware and the AI industry to evolve during that time. It’s gone a bit more slowly than I would like, but that’s okay because we’ve been able to stick it out. So I think that I’m right where I want to be, I just wish that the market was ready earlier.
What’s your advice for recent college graduates?
This is a great time to explore the things that you enjoy. My parents worked because they had to work to take care of their families. They couldn't get a job just because it was motivating. It was just about getting a job. That's very different right now when you can actually get a job doing something that you enjoy. You can and should check in with yourself all the time and ask, am I motivated. am I enjoying my job, do I feel appreciated and respected? That's one of the greatest things I think about today's workplace culture.
The other thing is for the women out there, there’s always this question of waiting until you have an established career to have children. While that’s a viable path to take, it shouldn’t be your only deciding factor. No matter what time in your career that you have children, it’s going to be disruptive, and it does change who you are as a person. Those fears shouldn’t be driving your life decisions. Seek out a culture in a work environment that appreciates women as effective workers and leaders as well as mothers.