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Startup Nervana

The team at Nervana aren’t the only ones using critical thinking to solve problems—and that’s the point. As a deep learning and neural network startup, Nervana is creating an artificial intelligence that’s making an impact in the industry. And co-founder and CEO Naveen Rao knows why the teams’ work is attracting attention.

“It’s the ability to make machines behave like biological brains. You can trace it back to the 1600’s, when we wanted a machine that can behave like humans. Now we can actually perform human tasks at better than human performance,” Rao explained. “It’s this ability that has attracted so much attention.”

Nervana’s expertise also caught the eye of Cisco Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIR), Cisco’s corporate venturing program. Being a part of Cisco EIR was their opportunity to interact with an industry leader who wanted to incorporate Nervana’s technology across their own brand.


Taking Biology’s Lead

After a decade of designing chips and microprocessors, Rao was intrigued by the concept of using processes and structures in the human brain to improve technology. His intrigue was so strong that he quit his job to study neuroscience. Rao’s path is diverse, but at Nervana, it’s not completely unique; several leaders within the organization have both computer and neuroscience degrees and backgrounds.

The team’s initial goal was not to directly mimic biology, but to take useful inspiration from it. As entrepreneurs, they knew to look for market opportunities and that opportunity presented itself in deep learning.  This gave Rao and his team the chance to combine their tech prowess and biocentric learnings.

“Deep learning came on the scene and allowed computers to learn from data better than before,” Rao said. While deep learning came about in the 1980s, Rao says artificial intelligence dates back to the early 1900s. Despite a few early successes in deep learning, Rao says innovation was stagnant for many years.

“The computational requirements were so high and we didn’t have fast enough hardware in the 80s.  In addition data sets were simply not large enough. Today we have the processing capabilities, data sets, and market demand to really drive the deep learning forward,” Rao explained.


Cisco EIR and Acquisition

Once their technology was on the market, Nervana searched for ways to collaborate with partners to grow in scale. This is where Cisco EIR stepped in. This desire for market opportunity was fully supported by Cisco EIR mentors. Rao noted that the mentoring team knew who to talk to for specific problems and were dedicated to getting the Nervana team in front of the right people for co-marketing and press support.

Nervana was recently acquired by Intel for their competitive deep learning technology. Rao credits Nervana’s team, timing, and excitement factor.

During their time with Cisco EIR, Rao says he was inspired by fellow entrepreneurs as well as companies acquired by Cisco. The CEOs of those companies were relevant and relatable for Rao as he entered the acquisition phase with Intel.

“The EIR program is a great way for early-stage startups to interact with a large company. Most large companies don’t have this type of program in a formalized fashion, so it’s tricky for startups to get the right contact to do something really meaningful,” said Rao.

Rao says the team’s future will continue their trajectory. “The mission hasn’t changed,” Rao said. “We are still trying to do what we set out to do.”


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About the Author

Sarah Nguyen
Sarah is the marketing specialist for Cisco EIR.