What does it mean to make it in the north? This is part of a series of portraits of local people, organisations, and companies working to further internationalise Groningen, Friesland, and Drenthe. This time we spoke to Ioannis Katramados, founder of COSMONiO, a company that designs AI systems, which automate the process of extracting visual information from images.
By Erin Goedhart-Stallings
As computers have proliferated in recent decades, so has the amount of digital data. That has fostered the creation of large image databases in fields as different as medicine, agriculture, and natural history. However, it has been difficult to teach computers to do the sort of complex pattern recognition that people can. COSMONiO has developed an interactive deep learning platform that anyone can teach to quickly annotate and analyse image data.
COSMONiO is the brainchild of Ioannis Katramados, a Greek data scientist who moved to Leeuwarden while completing his PhD at Cranfield University in England. ‘The first incarnation of COSMONiO was a consultancy business I founded in 2012. I wanted to use my expertise in computer vision and machine learning to help companies solve their image analysis problems. The difficulty is that to help anyone who is an expert in a field, you have to become a bit of an expert yourself. For instance, doctors spend years learning to accurately identify cancerous tumours in medical images. For me to create a pattern recognition system, I first had to learn things like what a tumour is, where it appears, and how doctors detect them. After doing that for two years, I realized that if machine learning and AI were to be successful, we needed to build tools that allow experts to train their own intelligent systems.’
‘So, in 2015, I started COSMONiO Imaging B.V. here in Groningen with a focus on developing one interactive AI product. It would allow the expert to take control of the AI system and interactively train it to analyse images. A doctor here at UMCG called it the “virtual resident”. Experts in the hospital teach human residents to diagnose diseases; likewise, the system learns from the expert in an interactive way.’
That product, NOUS, was released last year. ‘We are the first company in the world to have a functioning interactive AI system. That creates so many possibilities! We no longer have to become experts ourselves; using our tools, the people who have the knowledge can download it into the system and the system can help them diagnose or analyse faster. We can use it in a research lab one day and at a pig farm the next.’
COSMONiO is growing quickly. ‘We have 21 employees in Groningen, three times more than we had at this time last year. And we are in the phase of very fast growth, so I think we’ll be expanding. Our staff are very international: the last few employees we recruited came from Indonesia, Egypt, and Morocco. We also have a lot of British and Dutch staff, given our offices in the UK, Leeuwarden, and Groningen. I enjoy working in this multicultural environment. People from different cultures look at problems in different ways, which helps us find solutions to very difficult problems. Combining people from more conservative and free-thinking cultures gives us the right mix of ideas. I think variety is good for the culture of the company.’
Katramados had a lot of help in setting up COSMONiO. ‘Initially, I was a member of Inqubator Leeuwarden and learned a lot from their founder, Lennard Drogendijk. Once I moved the headquarters to Groningen to work with the UMCG, I got a lot of support from the Healthy Ageing Network. I’m very grateful for all of it.’
Despite the support, founding a business is a risky endeavour. ‘It requires great personal effort and personal risk, and there are a lot of scary moments when you think it’s all over. Although I had good support, I still felt like I had to rely a lot on randomly meeting the right people to help me move forward. I wish there were a better recipe for turning an idea into a successful company without having to invest so much time in networking. When you’re combining innovation with technology, it’s very important to be quick because you’re competing with people worldwide.’
Katramados sees a lot of advantages to working in the north. ‘One great advantage is that it is less crowded than cities like Amsterdam. I bring employees here from all around the world and they don’t have to struggle to find a house. The north also offers companies many opportunities for projects and subsidies. Since it’s a less crowded region, you can be more creative and reach out to people more easily. My plans are to continue growing here.’
COSMONiO just released Learner, the world’s first interactive deep learning workstation, at the 2019 Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition in California. ‘And we made it here, in the north of the Netherlands! It really proves that you don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to do something techie. And these days, with the Netherlands having such good internet and technological infrastructure, there’s nothing you can’t do here if you put your mind to it.’
For more highly-skilled jobs at companies such as COSMONiO, just visit www.makeitinthenorth.nl