Meet The AI Pioneer With One Hell Of A Legacy To Fulfill
He once drove from London to Ulaanbaatar in an ambulance, and then rode across Mongolia on horseback, followed by two weeks in India on an auto-rickshaw. But entrepreneur turned venture capitalist Tak Lo's unusual modes of transport are far from the most interesting thing about him.
Born in Hong Kong and brought up between New York, Singapore, Taipei and Houston, Lo is the very definition of a citizen of the world. After attending the University of Chicago, he briefly joined the United States Army before relocating to Britain to study at the London Business School. After that he sourced, invested, and mentored companies in the hugely successful Techstars London seed fund, before relocating to Hong Kong to launch Zeroth.AI, an early-stage funding programme that's helping to shape the region's development in artificial intelligence.
“You could say I’m a little confused nationality-wise,” he says, in his easy East Coast accent, speaking to me on the phone from Tokyo. “I had dinner with a Japanese-American friend last night, who is mixed race, and I wonder if that isn’t a little easier as at least he is visibly half. I grew up feeling half American and half Asian, at least culturally, but genetically I’m not. My wife—who is Korean and who I met in London—and I have decided we have to bring up our two kids up as citizens of the world. Because that’s what we are.”
This global approach to life has helped him grow his company, Zeroth.AI, which builds up AI startups and introduces them to the world’s top investors. As founding partner, Lo runs a team that takes on growing businesses, works with them for three months to iron out any problems and then helps them grow and find global investment. And while his focus is on Asian startups, his partners come from around the globe.
“I think Asia very advanced when it comes to AI, that’s why I moved back to Hong Kong rather than stay in London, which was a city I had really grown to love,” he says. “The way I view it, Europe has a lot of great research and its applications are quite different to Asia, but things don’t move quite as fast. Furthermore, the way AI technology can be applied in Asia, particularly with regards to the growing population, is extraordinary. It's also fascinating to be in a part of the world that has always lagged behind technologically, but which is now growing faster than anywhere else. It’s really energising.”
Zeroth.AI has worked with some of the top AI startups in Asia, and have mentored businesses that provide everything from HR help to private tutoring. And while there is a lot of scaremongering around the AI in the press, Lo insists that machine learning will lead to a more open future, where everyone’s needs are catered to no matter what their social class.
It's fascinating to be in a part of the world that has always lagged behind technologically, but which is now growing faster than anywhere else. It’s really energising
— Tak Lo
“Me and the team are locked in and focused on realising a vision we have of AI and what it can give the world,” he says. “There are tremendous positives to AI that can really allow you to live a life that is better curated to what you like and who you are. It gives freedom to people—and with every fibre of our bodies, we want to create a future that makes this happen.”
Fulfilling this dreams hinges on choosing the right companies to work with—and for Lo, the most important quality is leadership. “I started my career in the US army,” he says, “where leadership is a defining quality. And I’ve never lost that mentality. As a result, I now look at every potential company in terms of the idea itself, and how the product will become an industry leader, as well as the ability and willingness of the team lead as a company.”
Lo has recently discovered that his lifelong fascination with leadership may be genetic. His great-grandfather, Sir Boshan Wei Yuk, was the adopted son of an American missionary and he later became the first Chinese national to receive an education in Great Britain. He was made a Justice of the Peace and a Member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, oversaw British railway expansion into China and helped establish peace in Canton. As a result, he received a Knighthood from Queen Victoria for his services to Hong Kong.
“It was really incredible when I found out about him a few years back,” says Lo, describing how he first stumbled upon his family history after lunch with his great-aunt. “It helped cement my love of both Hong Kong and London, for sure, but it also made me even more certain about my goals. I believe in serving something greater than oneself, and when I look back in history, I see that is the thread that connects all the generations of my family."
"I currently feel the responsibility to continue to exhibit that extraordinary leadership that my grandfather did," he continues. "It was unimaginable for someone of Chinese descent to be a 'Sir' back then, but he did it. And it shows me what you can do if you take risks and are bold and courageous. If he is doing something extraordinary, who am I not to? It gives me courage as an entrepreneur and a father, because I want my grandchildren to talk about me and say, ‘He was a brave man’.”
A look at what Lo has already achieved suggests he can be confident that the conversation taking place around a table filled with his descendants—somewhere in the world in 2070—will be a wholly positive one.