Our Investment in Japan’s Sakana AI 魚 to build nature-inspired AI foundation models

Our Investment in Japan’s Sakana AI 魚 to build nature-inspired AI foundation models

Today, we are unveiling the $30 million founding seed round for Sakana AI, a world-class generative AI research lab in Tokyo, Japan. Lux Capital led the round, and we were joined by our friends at Khosla Ventures alongside leading Japanese companies like NTT Group (the country’s largest telco) and angel investors including Google AI leader Jeff Dean, Hugging Face CEO Clement Delangue and ScaleAI CEO Alexandr Wang.

AI scientists have made extraordinary progress the past decade, developing core techniques for foundation models like generative adversarial networks (GANs) and transformers that now undergird some of the fastest-growing apps in consumer and enterprise. Companies have scaled these models to ever new frontiers, absorbing every GPU the market can find and training models to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

But pushing the frontiers of AI will require more than additional processing power and ever-more parameters. Instead, the next generation of AI will require further fundamental research to uncover more efficient and expressive foundation models.

That’s where Sakana AI is taking the lead. Co-founders David Ha (CEO) and Llion Jones (CTO) are leveraging research innovations like evolutionary methods, collective intelligence and character-level training to build nature-inspired foundation AI models. Sakana AI’s technology will lead to more adaptive and resource-efficient AI systems.

The best researchers — like the best entrepreneurs — don’t settle, but keep lunging toward the unknown frontiers of knowledge. The name Sakana means ‘fish’ in Japanese, represented by the kanji character 魚. Fittingly, Sakana AI’s logo invokes a school of fish coming together to form a coherent entity from simple rules, while including a red fish swimming the opposite direction to illustrate defiance. It nominatively captures Sakana AI’s focus on nature-inspired techniques.

Like that red fish in its logo, Sakana AI’s co-founders are both research mavericks who have ushered the AI field forward through contrarian approaches. David studied Engineering Science at the University of Toronto and became a Managing Director at Goldman Sachs in derivatives trading. In 2012, he started posting some of his early AI projects on his soon-to-be-viral anonymous blog, eventually joining Google Brain in 2016, where he published several papers in deep learning and creative AI. David co-founded the Magenta team at Google, organized the first ML for Creativity and Design symposium at NeurIPS, and led the development of the EvoJAX framework, which enabled evolutionary algorithms to run on neural networks at scale on GPUs and TPUs. We continue to be impressed by David’s infectious excitement for AI innovation, knack for unmatched creativity and magnetic leadership that has inspired builders to collaborate around his vision.

Llion learned to program when he was 14 and joined Google in 2011 conducting research on natural language processing. Later, he worked on and became a co-author of the seminal “Attention is All You Need” paper (and in fact, came up with the paper’s title), which defined the transformer architecture that powers every state-of-the-art AI system today. He fell in love with Japan after spending a holiday there and moved to Tokyo in 2020, where he has honed language model pre-training to develop character-level question answering. Llion is a very talented machine learning researcher who is unafraid of diving deeply into challenging technical problems and assiduously discovering unconventional solutions.

Swimming against the current toward SF’s Cerebral Valley, David and Llion have chosen Tokyo, Japan as their headquarters. In addition to its early adoption of major technologies like Twitter and massive enterprise tech ecosystem, Japan is uniquely positioned to succeed in an era of geopolitical AI competition as indigenous foundation models continue to emerge. Asia needs and will have a world-leading AI trailblazer, and Japan, a powerful democratic nation and a critical ally of the United States, is poised to be that leader.

We see Japan becoming a pivotal hub in a new global axis of AI, drawing exceptional regional and international talent to companies that are leaders in the most competitive fields. With world-class infrastructure, an enviable quality of life, and a high-skilled local workforce, we expect Sakana AI will be the vanguard of a wave of excellent AI startups. Grace lived for part of her childhood in Japan as an expat, and we look forward to many more people taking advantage of Japan’s increasingly open immigration for top technical talent.

We often say at Lux that we believe before others understand, and we’re always embracing contrarian tech companies taking on the world’s most technically challenging problems. That is particularly clear in artificial intelligence, where Lux has led the earliest rounds of some of the most important companies in the field today years before others understood the promise of these new AI models. Our pioneering investments include backing Clem Delangue of Hugging Face at the Series A enabling an open-source AI community; Cris Valenzuela of RunwayML at the seed bringing text to creative video to life; and Naveen Rao as founding investors, first with Nervana which sold to Intel and again with MosaicML, which recently announced its unicorn acquisition by Databricks. We are always seeking the most ambitious technical founders, whoever they are and wherever they are.

Since Sakana AI’s launch, David and Llion have assembled a cutting-edge team of nine, with experience leading research laboratories both within Japan and globally including Google Brain, DeepMind, Stability AI, Preferred Networks, LAION, Tokyo Institute of Technology and the Japanese National Institute of Informatics. Commercially, Sakana AI is led by co-founder Ren Ito, an early employee at Japanese e-commerce leader Mercari, became CEO of Mercari Europe and played a key role in Mercari’s 2018 IPO valuing it at $6 billion. Ren previously spent 15 years in diplomacy, holding key positions in the Japanese Foreign Service including serving as a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and he also served as COO of Stability AI.

In addition to its founding seed round, Sakana AI also announced a major research and development partnership with NTT Group and are working with strategic partners including KDDI and Sony as anchor customers.

We could not be more excited to work alongside David, Llion and the whole Sakana AI team to build the next generation of AI technologies in Tokyo. Sakana AI is hiring! Reach out here to learn more about getting involved.

~ Grace Isford and Brandon Reeves

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As a Partner based in our New York City office, Grace invests in companies innovating at the nexus of the computational sciences – data, AI and ML infrastructure, network and compute infrastructure and cutting edge technological applications especially in healthcare and financial services.

Grace seeks to invest in companies that leverage breakthrough technology to improve individual efficiency and agency. She focuses on data and machine-learning startups that are hyper-personalizing user experiences and transforming legacy industries and fintech and blockchain infrastructure companies building the next-gen developer stack and payment rails.

Every problem is an opportunity. The bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunity. –Dr. Tina Seelig

Before joining Lux, Grace was a principal at Canvas Ventures, where she started as a campus scout while attending Stanford University before becoming a full-time investor in 2019. While there, she sourced 10 investments including real-time data sharing platform Vendia, which was co-founded by AWS Lambda inventor Tim Wagner and Shruthi Rao, who led Amazon Managed Blockchain.

Prior to Canvas, Grace worked on the LP side at the Stanford Management Company, in product at edtech startup Handshake, and in growth equity at Stripes Group. She earned a Bachelors of Science and a Masters of Science in Management Science and Engineering from Stanford, where she was a Mayfield Fellow and served as Co-President of Stanford Women in Business, the campus’s largest pre-professional organization for women. In addition, she is on the board of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, the university’s entrepreneurship center, and is an active member of All Raise, focused on accelerating the success of female and non-binary founders and funders.

Grace is originally from Connecticut, although has lived in Tokyo, Japan, and aspires to re-learn Japanese. She’s an avid runner and cyclist.

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Our Investment in Japan’s Sakana AI 魚 to build nature-inspired AI foundation models

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