Then There Were Six: AI Startups Get Winnowed Down Ahead of NVIDIA’s Inception Finals at GTC

by Arjun Dutt

Take smart people, add the most disruptive new technology of our time, and inject money. The result: a potentially world-changing business tomorrow, and a peek into the future today.

Welcome to NVIDIA’s AI startup challenge.

In a cascade of quick, highly caffeinated pitches Tuesday, a dozen AI startups vied for a chunk of the $1 million in cash we’re handing out at our GPU Technology Conference later this month.

Of the 12 semi-finalists who gave their pitches — live before an audience of investors and press at NVIDIA’s Silicon Valley campus — six were selected to go on to the finals, to be held on March 27 at GTC, our annual GPU developers conference.  There, the two finalists in three categories — autonomous systems, enterprise and healthcare — will get winnowed down to a single winner, who will get $330,000 each.

Great Companies of the Future

Kicking off the event, NVIDIA founder and CEO Jensen Huang said: “AI is enjoying a revolution: software that writes software, machines that learn by themselves, solving problems that human software engineers had no possibility of addressing until now have finally hit the scene. One of the great companies of the future is in our presence today.”

CrowdAI CEO Devaki Raj

The awards are the highlight of our Inception program, a virtual accelerator that supports more than 2,200 fledgling companies. The prize purse is among the richest for any startup competition.

The kudos — and the cash — could be game-changing. Last year’s winners and nominees — 14 companies in all — have already raised a combined total of $180 million from Sequoia Capital, Data Collective, Khosla Ventures, Lux Capital and others.

Fever Pitch

Between the cameras and the questions from the event’s judges — from Goldman Sachs, Fidelity Investments, Coatue Management and NVIDIA — there was more than a little pressure.

The entrepreneurs had eight minutes to make their pitch, before a four-minute barrage of queries from the judges. And the entrepreneurs — who flew in from Canada, South Korea and the U.K., as well as Silicon Valley — had a lot to say.

“I think it is freaking amazing,” said Rob Enderle, a prominent technology analyst who watched the presentations. “We’re seeing huge advancements in terms of human-machine interfaces, bioengineering and autonomous vehicles.”

Judges and semi-finalists for the 2018 Inception AI startup awards.

Simoleons and Celebrity

Participants said the prize money would let them build out their products, invest in sales and marketing, and bring more talent into AI.

“We’re going to hire another AI engineer, first thing we’re going to do,” said Ghost Robotics CEO Jiren Parikh — whose company was named a finalist Tuesday— when asked what his company will do with their prize money if they win.

Cambridge Bio-Augmentation Systems CEO Emil Hewage said his company, which is building bionic arms, would invest the funds into product development.

Maybe the most novel answer? Build a store.

AiFi CEO Steve Gu dazzled judges with a presentation outlining how his startup is using simulation and sensor fusion to give stores the ability to let customers stroll out with products without the need to wait in line.

After the presentation, Gu said if his team wins, they’ll invest the money in a real store in Palo Alto, where they can continue refining their offering.


Of the 12 AI startups who presented, here are the six finalists who will go on to present at the Inception Awards at GTC:

Autonomous systems:

  • Ghost Robotics – Legged robots able to ramble through terrain of any kind, indoors or out.
  • Kinema Systems – Robotics for logistics and manufacturing


  • CrowdAI – Deep learning for satellite, aerial video and imagery
  • AiFi – Checkout-free systems for stores of all sizes


We’ll announce the winners of the Inception Awards at the GPU Technology Conference, March 26-29, in Silicon Valley. To register for the conference, visit our GTC registration page.