Generation Start-up: How ASI delved into generative AI before it became cool

Founded by a teenager, the Dubai-based company earned a spot on Microsoft boss Satya Nadella's 'favourite examples'

Quddus Pativada, founder and chief executive of Dubai-based AI start-up ASI, believes the disparity in education can be addressed by equipping students with the right digital learning. Photo: ASI
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It is November 2023 and Quddus Pativada is calm and confident as he waits to introduce the artificial intelligence platform he developed through his start-up, ASI – which he launched long before the emergence of ChatGPT – to Satya Nadella.

The chairman and chief executive of Microsoft – the biggest backer of ChatGPT's creator OpenAI – was in Abu Dhabi for a private event, and ASI was one of only two UAE start-ups given an audience with him.

For a 20-year-old entrepreneur once doubted for his perceived lack of experience and, of course, his age, their conversation turned out to be more than what Mr Pativada expected.

“Our conversation was incredibly technical … at least the bulk of it was. He was asking engineering questions and about the model's architecture,” he says.

That encounter was enough for Mr Nadella to name ASI one of his “favourite examples” of AI innovation.

“It was great … he was really curious to hear how we were doing some of the things we were doing.”

ASI, formerly known as DigestAI, is large language model-powered platform founded by Mr Pativada in 2017, six weeks short of his 18th birthday – and about five years before ChatGPT and generative AI became cool and sent the world into a frenzy.

The roots, however, go farther back. At 14, he dreamt of having something – anything – that could summarise his textbooks for him.

“When we started the company, generative AI wasn't a thing. From the beginning, we've always been an AI company, but we could have just capitalised on the hype itself,” he says.

But the inspiration stemmed more from what he describes as “disparities in education”, the most glaring example of which is the notion that only students in top schools have access to the best educators and, critically today, digital tools.

Mr Pativada believes that AI can help level the playing, or, in this case, studying field.

Generative AI is now widely used in education, and numerous other sectors. It has been used for its convenience, ease and accuracy – even though it is admittedly flawed and comes with certain risks.

Which is what ASI is trying to address with its platform, underpinned by responsible AI – and the start-up's emergence has caught the attention of not only Mr Nadella and the world's biggest software company.

Last November, the UAE Ministry of Education announced a partnership with ASI to develop an AI-powered tutor, “because the UAE-based pioneering educational technology company has achieved remarkable success in developing AI-based tutoring solutions”.

This is also aligned with the ministry's initiative to incorporate AI into the local educational sphere and boost the system, which it announced during last year's World Government Summit. The tutor platform was soft-launched in December.

The advent of AI-powered tutors are deemed to play a “significant role in integrating the role of teachers with AI”, Dr Ahmad Al Falasi, Minister of Education, said at the time.

For Mr Pativada, that was a big vote of confidence.

“We're looking to scale up the work that we're doing with the ministry … [which] itself has a very forward-looking vision on AI and its specific use in education, which was very different to what we were seeing internationally,” he says.

And, apparently, more established companies are taking notice – with a good number pitching an acquisition offer. But, would Mr Pativada cave in to something worth, let's say, billions of dollars?

“We had some pretty big companies approaching us for that – but we said no to all of them. I think our reputation among the corporate development teams now is that we're not for sale,” he says.

“We're mission-driven. We want to realise that mission, and we don't believe that mission is possible in legacy institutions. I think that requires a new way of looking at things.”

ASI has raised more than $3 million from investors in the UAE and the US, including US-based GSV Ventures, AI company Character and Mark Cuban, the billionaire entrepreneur and owner of the National Basketball Association's Dallas Mavericks, who has also taken on the role of ASI's adviser. A number of angel investors and smaller funds have also contributed.

The Mark Cuban Companies website says its aim with ASI is “to develop a personalised, cognitive tutor that helps every student learn faster, make better connections between information they already know and new concepts, and remember material for a lifetime”.

That's a modest amount compared to a good number of its start-up peers – and not bad either for being the result of sending a cold email to Mr Cuban at 9am, the time the investor checks his inbox, as Mr Pativada told TechCrunch in 2022.

It was also in contrast to his first attempts at securing funds for his start-up: while young entrepreneurs aren't new, the stigma of their age and inexperience tend to put investors off, which is what Mr Pativada had to deal with.

“When we first started trying to raise money, I reached out to over a hundred people on LinkedIn, like executives and angel investors in Dubai,” he says.

Seven people responded; none agreed to invest.

If I was 40 and I saw a 17-year-old pitch me something, I'm not sure I'd invest in them
Quddus Pativada, founder and chief executive of ASI

Even he acknowledges that stigma: “If I was 40 and I saw a 17-year-old pitch me something, I'm not sure I'd invest in them.”

“But I'm glad those who didn't count me out and took a chance on me did that. I'm looking forward to proving them all right and proving the rest wrong,” he adds, stressing he holds no grudge against those who turned him down.

“I think it makes sense why they would discount a 17-year-old.”

While he is planning a series A round early this year, Mr Pativada says he is in no rush to raise more funds and is prioritising finding the right partners.

“There's tonnes of interest. We're just making sure that, like the UAE Ministry of Education, our [potential] investors are aligned with our mission and believe in a world where education is fair and equitable,” he says.

That interest extends beyond the UAE: Mr Pativada says ASI has spoken to companies in the US and UK, specifically those that have made initial public offerings.

He declined to name the organisations, but revealed that they are in industries such as construction and agriculture – epitomising the potential of ASI's platform.

“Even with the other companies we're speaking to, we're still taking the educational angle, such as how to upskill their workforce, make them smarter, or help them reduce the time it takes to understand something new,” he says.

“We don't want to stray too far away.”

Q&A with Quddus Pativada, founder and chief executive of ASI

What are your thoughts on the current state of AI regulation?

I think governments should spend less time regulating and more time innovating. I see the benefits of these new technologies and the aim to embrace and use them for the better. I don't think it's too slow, I don't think it's too fast; I think it is too early to create blanket regulations.

It's fair for a government to be concerned about the impact of this technology – that's something I don't have anything against, because there are risks that should be contained. But credit to the governments that are thinking about innovating rather than just regulating.

What has been your biggest challenge?

The answer to that probably changes on a daily or weekly basis. But I think our biggest challenge by far was definitely getting the company off the ground. I mean, as a 17-year-old, I wasn't even old enough to incorporate a company in most countries.


Company name: ASI (formerly DigestAI)

Started: 2017

Founders: Quddus Pativada

Based: Dubai, UAE

Industry: Artificial intelligence, education technology

Funding: $3 million-plus

Investors: GSV Ventures, Character, Mark Cuban

Also, the technology itself is so incredibly complex, and we're an incredibly small team that every day for us is a stretch on bandwidth, working around the clock.

What do you do in your free time?

In the little, little free time I have, I like to spend with my family, parents and friends, because I care about them. I started ju-jitsu recently and have been doing that quite frequently, trying to get a workout in here and there.

What is your advice to budding entrepreneurs?

I have two: the first is start and the second is don't stop. I think not enough people start, and the people that do start stop too early. You need to start, have a vision for what you want the world to look like and then figure out what your role is in that vision. Once you figure that out, whether that's a company, project, or just something you're passionate about, just don't stop doing it.

One of the benefits of being young, and I know this personally, is there's very little risk. I can go back to university or crash my parents' couch. But people should be trying out new things, figuring out exactly what they're passionate about and keep going at it.

If you hadn't started ASI, what would you have done?

I would try to figure out something that's as impactful as what we're currently doing, whether that's on climate change or assistance for people with disabilities, to see if there's anything that can be done. I have an approach that's pretty diverse and wide.

But, honestly, if I wasn't working on ASI right now, I'd probably be in university, studying computer science or something, and getting my degree. I'm just incredibly fortunate and grateful that I have the opportunity to do I do and have a job as cool as this. And I don't think I'd want anything else.

Updated: January 15, 2024, 4:00 AM

Company name: ASI (formerly DigestAI)

Started: 2017

Founders: Quddus Pativada

Based: Dubai, UAE

Industry: Artificial intelligence, education technology

Funding: $3 million-plus

Investors: GSV Ventures, Character, Mark Cuban