Heriot-Watt spin-out company Alana

ALANA, a Heriot-Watt University spin-out developing artificial intelligence (AI) software that can understand and respond to human conversation, marked its official launch as a new company last week with the founding team seeing high demand for its technology amid an already exponential increase in sales of touch-free devices worldwide that are expected to speed up in the wake of coronavirus. 

A market differentiator for Alana, whose name pays homage to the father of AI, Alan Turing, is the software’s ability to manage conversations during long interactions, while learning about the user’s interests. In turn, this allows the AI to proactively suggest new and relevant subject matter. Alana can converse about a wide variety of information sources, and these abilities make Alana the perfect assistant across sectors where users want to access large amounts of information in an efficient and user-friendly way. 

The pioneering conversational technology developed by Alana has already been recognised as a two-time finalist (2017, 2018) in the Amazon Alexa Prize, and the company is now working with clients across a range of sectors including education, healthcare, and finance: in education, it can serve as a personal tutor; in healthcare, it can help reduce isolation for patients and support carers when human interaction is not possible; and in finance, it can help streamline front and back-office processes which are often prone to human error. 

The founding team at Alana includes some of the world’s leading experts on conversational AI, machine learning, human-robot interaction, and multi-modal interfaces, including Verena Rieser who is considered one of the UK’s leading experts on AI. The team plans to make further hires this year as it moves into the next phase of commercialisation.  

Verena Rieser, Director of the Natural Language Processing lab at Heriot-Watt and a co-founder of Alana, said: “Alana is different from the voice-activated assistants on the market today, such as Alexa and Siri, as the software enables long, extended conversations over many turns.  Alana achieves this by combining the latest developments in machine learning research with well established solutions for customer facing interfaces.”

Professor Oliver Lemon, Director of the Interaction Lab at Heriot-Watt University and Chief AI Officer and co-founder of Alana, said: “Conversation is the operating system of everyday life.  Even 10 years ago, the idea that we could converse with machines was science fiction. Now, we can build AI that is both engaging and useful, supporting humans in their daily lives at work, during leisure time and in the home. We are already working with clients in education, healthcare, and finance – but Alana’s applications are almost limitless.”

Alana continues to be supported by the Enterprise team at Heriot-Watt University, now based at the university’s £19 million Global Research, Innovation and Discovery (GRID) facility which is fully up-and-running ahead of its official launch later this year.  GRID at Heriot-Watt opened its doors in September 2019 to drive the university’s capabilities including around immersive technology, artificial intelligence, cyber security and 3D visualisation, and features a Business & Enterprise Hub that serves as an incubator for spin-outs and startups and entrepreneurs to co-locate and commercialise.

Paul Devlin, Director of Commercialisation at Heriot-Watt University, said: “Alana has developed cutting-edge technology that is targeting a fast-growth global market, something that plays to the strengths of Heriot-Watt and for that reason the company is a great advert for how our Enterprise team at GRID can help take a spin-out company through to the commercialisation stage.”