QLD AI Labs takes collaborative tech development to the masses

QLD AI Labs takes collaborative tech development to the masses

Blackbook.ai founder Thuy Lam has created a new non-profit initiative in Queensland that aims to de-risk AI-based problem solving for businesses, drawing on the expertise of the state's creative minds and the backing of corporate sponsors.

Queensland AI Labs turns traditional hackathons upside down, helping corporates better address their needs while giving the public - whether it be startups, scale-ups, consultancies or individuals - the chance to develop and commercialise new solutions.

"A lot of the incubators try to bring skilled staff together and then they create a solution for a potential problem," says Lam.

"We look at it from the reverse perspective. We bring people with problems together - they present the problem and validate the solution."

Lam says this approach, to be launched for the first time with corporate sponsor Heritage Bank on 28 August, creates a community of problem solvers who own the IP of what they develop in the process.

"When you've got a corporate that's willing to fund the solution then you're going to attract more types of people who are going to solve the problem because the risk profile is very limited, as opposed to incubating a solution that might not have a problem to solve," he says.

He clarifies the cost of entry for corporates - also including the likes of Super Retail Group, InStyle Solar, BITS Technology Group, Workpac, RACQ and more - is small, essentially a "try before you buy" scenario.

"If they think they have a problem, they'll have the ability to work with individuals and startups to ask is it a real problem? Is it tangible? Do we have enough data to actually solve it and then move forward?

"All of that discovery work is done pro bono prior to them actually investing in the solution itself.

"The majority of the time these corporates get lost with all the big consultancies, and they end up spending half a million dollars just doing discovery itself."

The nonprofit's founder says there are around 50 people involved proactively in the program including entrepreneurs, mentors, volunteers and some Blackbook.ai staff.

"The aim is for the sponsors to take control of their challenge, to engage the community, to assess the community's solutions, to present their problems and run with it," he says.

"If there's an individual who has come up with a brilliant solution, then there's nothing stopping them engaging the entrepreneurs such as Karl [Brown, of InStyle Solar], or Kane [Sajdak] from BITS to commercialise their solution.

"We see it as a six-week Shark Tank where people come in, they talk to various people and they present their solution, and the good news is that their solution is validated because the corporate sponsor says 'that works for me, I'm going to pay for it'."

Speaking of Shark Tank, one of the show's investors and Greencross Vets founder Glen Richards is also involved in QLD AI Labs.

Lam emphasises entry into the challenges is free, and he looks forward to Heritage Bank announcing its real-world problem that enthusiasts will try to solve.

And in an industry so often confined to large metropolitan centres, QLD AI Labs has sought to be true to its state-wide name by linking hubs in the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Mackay, Toowoomba, Rockhampton and Townsville to create a single ecosystem of innovation that spans Queensland.

Usually, similar "hackathon" challenges in the state are focused on Brisbane, but this one will open up the stage for regional AI enthusiasts to take part.

From the launch date, participants will have four weeks to solve the problem conceptually with help and advice from experienced mentors.

"I am very honoured to launch this in conjunction with Heritage, one of the most reputable regional banks in Australia," says Lam.

"I encourage entrants from all walks of life, whether they are a student, individual entrepreneur, start-up, scale-up, established company, or even employers who want their employees to work on solving exciting problems.

"But quietly I'd like to see someone from Toowoomba or regional Queensland take it out."

Heritage Bank CEO Peter Lock echoed those sentiments.

"Heritage Bank might have been around for more than 100 years, but that hasn't stopped us from being at the leading edge of using technology like robotics software and artificial intelligence to improve the way we operate," says Lock.

"We're delighted to partner with Queensland AI Labs in setting this challenge, which we hope will encourage talented enthusiasts across the state to show us what they can achieve."

Lam is hopeful that eventually the concept will be expanded into other states where corporate sponsors are willing to give it a go. But a determining factor in QLD AI Labs success will also likely be its strong network of entrepreneurs, who the founder says are vital in making it work.

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