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The retired U.S. Intelligence Officer who started an AI business in Southeast Asia

Entrepreneurs are often eager to talk about their startups. Drew Perez, founder of artificial intelligence (AI) startup Adatos, seems like an exception to the rule. As I asked about Adatos, he seemed to steer clear of discussing it.

Photo credit: Cyril Ng and SGInnovate

“Talking about the history of the company – that’s so myopic, right?” he says, preferring to discuss the big picture.

But it’s hard to ignore him and his company. Started three years ago, Adatos is one of the rare AI startups based in Singapore that focuses on agriculture. Starting an AI company isn’t a typical retirement plan for most, but Perez isn’t typical. His goal is to find the right use case for artificial intelligence within Southeast Asia. To do that, his team has automated the process of creating machine learning models – essentially an AI that builds its own AI to solve the problems specified by a human. The technology essentially takes on the role of a data analyst. It was only in their third year that Adatos zoomed into its vertical of choice: agriculture. The startup acquires satellite imagery of farmland and processes them to produce data that can advise farmers on crop management.

Focusing on agriculture helps Adatos address a genuine need in the world — food security. With the world population rising, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimate that the number of people undernourished in the world has been on the rise since 2014, reaching 815 million in 2016. With the population increasing, farmers are struggling to keep up. Perez thinks data can help. Farmers can use satellite data to evaluate what land to buy, or how to manage their water and fertilizer better. They can help predict potential risks to crops, such as floods or soil fertility decline.

“If we can move the needle 0.0001 percent on getting more yield out of the land, it’s more than any of us could hope for in making an impact in the world, right? It’s a huge difference.”

Agriculture may not be the “sexiest” application of AI, says Perez, but it has a long-term impact. When building a startup in Asia, this trait is more important than valuations or a potential exit. Asian startups, notably those serving business clients, can’t play by “Silicon Valley rules.”

“The moment you are a startup with venture capital, it’s very difficult for you to establish rapport or trust with large enterprises if you are business-to-business. That’s because they know that once they sign a contract with you, your valuations would go up, and you’re probably gonna exit,” says Perez. “This does not align with traditional old family businesses that go on for multiple generations.”

Focusing on exits and valuations is “quite temporary and – almost arguably depending on who you ask – irresponsible,” he adds. Therefore, to align his company with these family-owned firms, he spares no effort in demonstrating that he has long-term business plans and a commitment to the client and the local market.

“Singaporean startups that target the Indonesian market are viewed with suspicion if they don’t demonstrate that the majority of their operations are in Indonesia,” he says.

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