In his youth, Shawn Tan was a college drop-out who loved to party. At the tender age of 18, he ditched his UCL law degree after two months and returned to Malaysia to tell his unsuspecting parents that, with hindsight, being a lawyer was not for him. Within months, the teenager had launched his first business. And – an inspiration to uni quitters the world over – two years later his printing company, which he co-launched with a $500 investment, was pulling in $600,000 a year.

Crash and burn

Today, Skymind’s CEO is less of a party animal. He got that out of his system when his lucrative printing company crashed and burned after four years of high-rolling, youthful exuberance. However, his entrepreneurial determination and instinct remained intact, leading to a career that’s seen many successes. And now Shawn’s gaze has turned to the UK and Europe where he is determined to repay the gods of entrepreneurial fortune by bringing opportunities to fellow founders (while also, of course, securing a return on his investment).

AI and an $800m fund

His tools for achieving his aims are twofold: open-source artificial-intelligence (AI) software and $800m. Let’s look at Skymind’s AI software first. Called Deeplearning4j, its key attribute is that it is open-source. Therefore, anyone can use it for free, and whatever they build with it, they own. Shawn says: “Skymind is like Android for AI. It’s available for anyone to use. It’s also the only full-stack AI platform you can deploy on-site. In other words, you don’t have to connect to the cloud to use it. Lots of organisations prefer open-source because they have complete control over all the codes.”

So, in essence, Skymind is a free but powerful tool-box for tech entrepreneurs who want to build exciting AI businesses. The software is also available for existing businesses and organisations. For example, according to Shawn, around 20 governments use Deeplearning4j, alongside more than 350 Fortune 500 companies. 

Seeking the best AI businesses

Now, let’s consider Shawn’s other tool – his $800m fund. That is the amount of cash Skymind has earmarked to invest solely in tech companies. 

The CEO says: “Through our open-source ecosystem we have access to millions of Skymind users. We plan to find the best start-ups and invest in them. By the best, we mean brilliant, practical AI solutions. We find many companies that have wonderful, pretty presentation, but not a great deal behind that. We want start-ups with substance.”

Focusing on the UK

Shawn continues: “We’re now looking at the UK in particular because we see lots of talent here. Many people at UK universities use Skymind and, so far, the UK government’s policies in our sector look good, but time will tell. We are risk-takers and we believe things could work out well for us in Britain.”

Shawn is no stranger to funding start-ups. Alongside his role at Skymind CEO, he is also executive chairman of Hong Kong-based Jetset International, through which he has invested more than $500m in 80 companies. “We have real estate, hotels, and lots of other investments. But AI is the most interesting,” he says.

Destroy the world? No chance

However, Shawn is not someone who romanticises artificial intelligence, saying: “When you understand AI, you realise that it’s quite dull compared to the stuff you see in sci-fi movies. You see all the media hype – that robots will eventually replace humans, and that AI will ultimately destroy the world! But in reality AI solves stupid problems and provides practical solutions. It crunches big data; it replaces the tiny keyboard on your phone; it does monotonous tasks quickly and efficiently. It also creates jobs. For example, to crunch big data you need to label it correctly first. In Malaysia we have a company of 60 staff that trains data-labellers. We are now looking for 2,000 data-labellers.”

Empowering entrepreneurs

So what is Shawn’s motivation, precisely? He is an entrepreneur who has achieved enough to put his feet up – should he want to. But here he is in the UK determined to fund more start-ups and to distribute his AI software far and wide. So, why suffer the aggravation?

He explains: “For me it’s about creating a legacy. I’m particularly passionate about empowering small businesses and I want to see people succeed by doing what they believe in. I’ve done it and they can do it too. We can help them – through capital funding and our open-source software – to build something fantastic without lining the pockets of tech giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook. We give people independence and the ability to forge their own entrepreneurial journey. It’s not so much about the money for me, more about the fun and excitement.”

Seeking a future tech titan

It was all about the fun and excitement in Shawn’s youth, too. Those party-filled days are in the distant past, but Skymind’s CEO has retained his passion for enjoying himself. Today however, with a wiser head on his shoulders, he gets his kicks in more constructive ways. And for a thrill-seeker, his company is a great place to work. Its open-source AI software is not only empowering thousands of high-potential businesses around the world, but also pulling them towards it like bees to a hive. With $800m available to discover and nurture a future AI Titan, it’s no wonder that Shawn Tan is loving life like an ebullient 18-year-old at a fresher’s ball.