CEO of InstaDeep brings AI from Tunis to London

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Karim Beguir, the founder and CEO of InstaDeep, says artificial intelligence offers an opportunity for African economies to go beyond just exporting raw materials.

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Karim Beguir, the founder and CEO of InstaDeep, says artificial intelligence offers an opportunity for African economies to go beyond just exporting raw materials.

Karim Beguir launched the artificial intelligence startup InstaDeep in Tunisia in 2014 with just two computers and $2,000.

In 2023, it was an international operation bought by the German laboratory BioNTech for $700 million.

“For the first time we saw that a start-up launched in Africa with very limited resources could become a major international player,” says the French-Tunisian CEO, who co-founded the company with Tunisian self-taught IT enthusiast Zohra Slim . told AFP.

It gives young Africans the “hope to be part of the innovation and technology of tomorrow,” he said.

InstaDeep specializes in artificial intelligence (AI) for decision-making, which helps companies develop applications to optimize costs and efficiency.

It made a name for itself at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic by working with BioNTech — which developed one of the first COVID vaccines — to create a system to identify dangerous variants “an average of two months before they are reported,” according to published data . in scientific journals.

InstaDeep has “put Tunisia and Africa on the map (in AI). It showed that these kinds of stories were possible,” added Beguir, 47, CEO of the company now based in London.

“When I said at the time that we were going to do things on the level of the big boys like Meta, Google, DeepMind and others, everyone laughed at me,” Beguir said of the initial launch.

In addition to research into personalized cancer vaccines with BioNTech, InstaDeep is working on projects to fully automate routing for Germany’s national railways, improve operations management at Frankfurt Airport and predict cricket invasions in Africa.

The company claims to be “already profitable” with sales of more than 10 million euros ($11 million), although the company declined to reveal the precise figure.

From Tunis to Cape Town

InstaDeep grew from 60 employees in 2018 to 350 employees in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and America.

It has offices in Tunis, Lagos, Cape Town and Kigali, along with London, Dubai, Paris, Berlin, Boston and San Francisco.

“Thanks to the movement we have helped create, young Africans can hope to be part of the innovation and technology of tomorrow, and in particular AI, the technology of our generation,” Beguir said.

He said artificial intelligence presents an opportunity for African economies to go beyond exporting fuels and minerals and into higher value-added activities.

“Selling raw natural resources is not enough. We really need to create things with much greater added value,” he said.

Beguir grew up in the southern Tunisian town of Tataouine before studying in France and then the United States.

He then worked in financial engineering for major US players such as JPMorgan and Bank of America, before turning to entrepreneurship in Africa.

The future of AI?

Senegalese lecturer and AI researcher Seydina Ndiaye, one of 38 experts selected by the UN to form an AI think tank, has said Africa must be more involved in AI development or “the largest the threat is colonization by AI.”

Experts have regularly pointed to gender and racial bias in models designed by major tech companies.

“When young Africans develop applications for African communities, prejudice against these populations is much less likely to arise than if they were developed in Silicon Valley or Asia,” says InstaDeep’s Beguir.

When can Africa expect to see other AI champions emerge?

“If we manage to channel this living force into high-level innovation, I would say that in ten years we will have ten InstaDeeps,” Beguir predicted, provided we solve obstacles such as freedom of movement for researchers across the continent .

“As strange as it may seem, in some cases it is easier for a young African with technological skills to come and work in France than to go to another African country,” he warned.