Phil Libin is refocusing his startup incubator from AI to health tech because there's no need to 'shove' artificial intelligence into everything


Phil Libin, CEO of All Turtles, as seen in the company's offices in July 2019.

  • All Turtles, an incubator launched and run by Evernote cofounder Phil Libin, has shifted its focus.
  • Libin launched it with the idea that it would foster applications and products based on artificial intelligence.
  • Now, All Turtles’ focus is on developing products that help improve the health of individuals or workplaces.
  • Libin still thinks AI will be important for most of the products the company develops — just not all of them.
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It’s well known that startups quite often have to make a pivot — tweaking their business models or even completely revamping their whole market theses.

It turns out that startup incubators sometimes have to shift their focus also.

In the case of All Turtles, its pivot has been somewhat subtle, but still significant. Phil Libin, the company’s CEO and founder, has shifted the focus of the incubator from fostering artificial intelligence applications and products to developing apps that improve people’s health.

“We were always focused on solving what we thought were worthwhile problems, and the more we started looking at things, the more we realized that there’s this common thread running through a lot of the problems in the world,” he said. “The way that we live is maladapted,” he continued. “It’s not how we evolved to live.”

All Turtles isn’t abandoning artificial intelligence, by any means. One of the first applications to come out of its studio — Spot — is an AI-based chatbot that designed to make it easier for those who have experienced workplace harassment or discrimination to report what happened to them.

Read this: How an academic specialist in human memory created a chat app that’s helping companies fight harassment and discrimination

Similarly, it’s backed and is working with a startup called Tellus that’s developing a device that’s designed to monitor the vital signs and activities of elderly people using precision radar. Tellus’ service relies on AI to make sense of the data coming from its radar-based sensor and to highlight notable changes.

All Turtles ditched a planned AI editor for its Sift app

Screenshot of All Turtles' Sift news appBut Libin is also open to having All Turtles work on projects that don’t include any kind of AI at all. Last fall, for example, the company launched Sift, an app designed to provide users a deeper understanding of issues in the news without making them feel stressed or overwhelmed. The app covers topics including immigration, gun rights, and healthcare and offers a nonpartisan perspective with historical background and data to help explain the policy debate over such issues.

Originally, All Turtle planned to use AI to serve as a kind of editor for Sift. It would determine which topics were the most contentious, do some initial research on them, and even assign reporters to follow up and put together modules about them. But Libin and his team quickly realized that the AI was unnecessary.

“Humans are perfectly capable of knowing what people are yelling at each other about,” he said. “It just felt better as a hand-crafted thing.”

Libin insists the thesis he had when he launched All Turtles hasn’t really changed. That assumption was that there are real problems in the world that haven’t been solvable in the past that can now be solved because something is fundamentally different. Previously, his assumption was that the thing that was fundamentally different was going to be artificial intelligence or technology more broadly.

He still thinks that’s going to be true most of the time. But he’s open to the idea that some problems may now be solvable for reasons other than technology.

“Our goal is not to shove AI into things. Our goal is to make make products that make people healthier,” he said. “I think a lot of them will benefit significantly from AI, but if they don’t, they don’t.”

Changes other than just technological ones offer opportunities

Sift, for instance, is trying to address the problem of people feeling anxious and outraged and stressed out by the news. What’s changed — what’s created an opportunity for Sift —is the concern being raised by people such as former Google engineer Tristan Harris about how Internet services are stoking that outrage and how harmful that constant agitation can be to a democratic society that depends on informed citizens who can engage in reasoned, rational discussion, Libin said.

Similarly, while Spot depends on AI, it’s also benefitted from the spotlight that’s been placed on sexual harassment in the workplace by the MeToo movement and the massive employee walkout at Google last year.

“If you were doing something to combat workplace harassment and discrimination a few years ago, I think most companies would have said, ‘We don’t have that problem.’ Now no one says that,” Libin said.

“So, it’s a combination of the technology getting better, but also the problem becoming much more obvious and acknowledged.”

Even if All Turtles focus has shifted a bit, it’s strategy hasn’t. Libin is building out a global incubator; the company already has offices in Paris and Tokyo. It plans to open an office in Mexico City and other places around the world, although it’s pushed back further expansion from this year until next.

Libin still believes in All Turtles’ model

Libin also still believes in and is building All Turtles around another part of his thesis — that the way that technology and innovation is being fostered is fundamentally broken. Instead of focusing exclusively on using startups as the sole vehicles to develop technologies, All Turtles has taken a more eclectic approach.

In some cases it does back startups or develops technologies that will be spun off as separate companies. In other cases, it partners with existing companies to work on new products together. In still other cases, it develops technologies in-house that it plans to keep and offer as its own products.

“This idea that you can only innovate in startups is just a dumb idea,” Libin said.

His only frustration with that thesis and All Turtles’ model is that he keeps having to explain them to potential funders.

“Anytime you’re explaining the model, you’re not talking about the right thing,” Libin said. “I am anxious to be at the point,” he continued, “where no one cares about that anymore.”

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