Startup Stories: SparkCognition CEO & Founder Amir Husain on His Love of Computers, Humble Beginnings, and More

By Andrew Der

In this month’s ‘Startup Stories,’ Founder and CEO Amir Husain shares how the concept of SparkCognition’s Artificial Intelligence systems was born and the valuable experiences that have shaped where the company is today.

I was four years old, visiting my friend’s house in Lahore, Pakistan, when I saw it for the first time. There it was, sitting on the TV console: the Commodore 64 — the most cutting-edge personal computer on the market in 1982. It was connected to a television screen and running the game Hangman, an early version of the video games we know so well today. The television was a fixture in my home and I knew that it played images and sounds on the screen. But the Commodore 64 was a world away from mere TV. Television was, in a sense, immutable, pre-determined. This machine, however, was acting as a result of my inputs. This was a device I could impact with my own ideas. Ideas that could flow throw my fingertips and end up on that screen.

As soon as we left my friend’s house, I returned home and immediately set to work with the spare pieces of broken and discarded toys and old cardboard boxes and packages.

“Look,” I called out to my parents, “I made a computer!”

The discovery of this machine felt as tactile as holding a paintbrush or a piece of modeling clay in my hand. A computer could serve as my ultimate tool of creativity. This was the means by which I would impact the world (Click to Tweet). Since that day in 1982, I’ve never wanted to do anything else. I never wanted to be a fireman or a doctor or an astronaut. Today, even after 38 years immersing myself in this one pursuit, I am nowhere close to the end. Computing is one of the great drivers in my life.

Building a company of merit

SparkCognition was founded on the idea that the time has come for machines to think independently, solve problems and augment human potential (Click to Tweet). As a computer scientist, I had been working on algorithms that could learn from data of all types, and techniques that could allow machines to automatically build expertise in multiple fields. After extensive market research and conversations with potential customers, I decided that I would apply this technology to the growing industrial Internet and security markets.

I first met with Michael Dell to discuss the concept. Michael was incredibly supportive and agreed to be the company’s first investor.

As I had lived through the dot-com bubble and the 2008 financial crisis, I knew that I did not want to build a company that relied solely upon raised capital (OPM), but rather one that showed true sustainability and business merit.

I willingly embraced the “hard” road; one with very little capital raised, no compensation for myself, working alongside a couple of team members and writing the code, building the prototypes and speaking to each and every customer. After two years of effort, we now have 40 customers — including some of the largest companies in the world — and almost 70 people working at SparkCognition. The company broke even within a year of product launch and ultimately, the effort has paid off.

Startups & Entrepreneurs: what childhood memory helped shape the initial concept of your company?

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