2020 – the year a world-altering pandemic spread across the globe. The year decisions, which would have ordinarily taken years of deliberation, were made in a matter of hours: moving schools online, switching to remote working, picking a Netflix film!

No surprises, then, that it was also the year that we doubled our digital consumption, or that because cloud solutions and digital entertainment became ever-more critical to our lives, the biggest beneficiaries were in Big Tech. But how have AI startups fared in during Covid time? With the world economy predicted to shrink by over 4% by the end of this year, have they been crushed by incumbents that have the resources to wait it out? Or do they belong to another part of the economy, “where technological change seems to have been speeded up” and “the running is being done by new entrants.” Papercup spoke to some friends in the AI startup community to get the measure of their year.

We spoke to…

Camille Rougié, Co-founder and CEO of Plural AI, a startup that extracts and makes sense of messy company data at scale, to help generate complex insights.

Sarah Grisman, Operations & People Lead at Nplan, a startup that predicts the outcomes of construction projects to help clients understand complexity and risk.

Rafie Faruq, CEO of GenieAI, a startup that lets lawyers and business people share intelligence via Genie Docs which recommends anonymised clauses from relevant contracts.

Boris Ploix, Co-founder and CTO at Calipsa, a false alarm filtering platform that delivers a unique video analytics solution for security companies, improving false alarm reduction by over 90%.

Are you closing your offices or keeping them open in 2021?

Camille Rougié: “We’ve ditched our office and have gone fully remote!”

Sarah Grisman: “Pre-pandemic, we supported flexible and remote working, and have stuck to a policy of being one step more cautious than government advice this year. Currently all staff are working full-time remote, and we will very happily support how people work best in the future by continuing to offer flexible and remote working.”

Boris Ploix: “We’ve gone permanently remote.”

Rafie Raruq: “We’ll be in the office two days a week from March. We were in the office full-time, pre-pandemic.”

Have you maintained, reduced or increased your staff in 2020?

CR: “We’ve maintained it but we’re in the process of increasing.”

SG: “Increased! We’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able to keep everyone employed full-time and actively grow our team during 2020.”

BP: “We’ve doubled our staff this year.”

RF: “We’ve increased our staff this year.”

Have you increased or decreased your revenue this year?

CR, SG, BP: “Increased”

RF: “Our measurement of progress is not revenue, it’s data, and we have increased our data banks.”

How will you apply any learnings from the pandemic to 2021?

CR: “Remote working is definitely something we’re keeping – it allows us to be more focused and productive, and so far it hasn’t slowed us down in our growth.”

BP: “The massive change has been remote working. And that’s something we’re carrying into the new year.”

RF: “Assume constant change. Our office was flooded in January which was quite a boon really because we trained for not having an office. If you assume things aren’t going to stay the same all the time, you’re able to deal with any situation.”

Have you founded any new side projects as a result of the pandemic?

CR: “Not quite a side project, but the pandemic was the moment for us to pause and reevaluate what we were doing and as a result we ended up executing a product pivot (to be launched soon!)”

SG: “Not side projects per se, but we have a government ‘de minimis’ grant which is related to COVID-19.”

BP: “No, but we were approached by 10 Downing Street during the pandemic to help with social distancing monitoring. We declined because applying our product in a different way during a pandemic wouldn’t give us the longevity we need as a business. We, hopefully, won’t be socially distancing in the near future.”

RF: “Not internally, although more initiatives have come online during the pandemic. For example – there’s more collaboration and more openness between industry players. We’re in the legal sector, which is pretty far behind in terms of digitization, this period has been an opportunity for anyone who’s been dragging their heels to digitize.”

What has been your company’s greatest challenge in 2020?

CR: “Executing a pivot in the midst of a pandemic was somewhat daunting, but actually a great environment to do it in – it felt as though all bets were off and we could experiment much more freely.”

SG: We’re a very close-knit team and care about each other deeply. Maintaining this whilst remote takes a lot of work!

RF: “Keeping people aligned on everything which is a greater challenge with remote work: there’s less osmosis of ideas and obviously very little non-verbal communication.”

What has been your company’s greatest achievement in 2020?

CR: “Coming out of 2020 with a much stronger vision and a re-energized team, and signing up new clients during the pandemic.”

SG: “The flipside of the above: managing to maintain a close-knit team during this time.”

RF: “Raising investment, releasing our product, acquiring new users, but the biggest achievement is becoming more organised and achieving our goals; remote working forces you to write everything down, create processes and it creates real transparency.”

Have you identified any trends in your field this year?

CR: “In our field, many clients are asking about GPT-3 applications. More generally, clients are a lot happier to do meetings and sign deals over Zoom – I haven’t had a single face-to-face business meeting in nearly a year! Finally, I reckon the recent hacking issues are going to prompt a lot of cybersecurity concerns.”

BP: “People used to ask a lot of questions about where our data was processed. They didn’t really believe in Cloud, but now they trust it a lot more. Secondly, people are used to doing business on Zoom now; closing a customer over Zoom was just unthinkable three years ago, but now it’s standard. Also an understanding that AI is not going to replace people, it’s just going to make them productive. The human element is always going to be important.”

RF: “Esign has gone through the roof, which is a big one in the legal sector.”

Sum up 2020 in a word…

CR: “Rebirth or reset.”

SG: “Collaborative.”

BP: “Two words: Covid-19 and remote!”

RF: Fun! Having said that, I know it’s been a terrible year for some. I like chaos though! It’s what my brain is made from.