by Tess Postema

In a small, brick-walled office above Arbor Brewing Company, Dr. Jason Corso is quietly at work, converting oceans of raw video into useful metadata — insights that could help prevent a car from hitting a cyclist in its blind spot, or identify the location of a stolen vehicle minutes after it was taken.  

Or, rather, he is designing sophisticated machine learning algorithms that do the job for him.  Dr. Jason Corso

This is what artificial intelligence looks like at Voxel51, an Ann Arbor startup founded in 2016 by Dr. Corso, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering, and Dr. Brian Moore, a former student of Dr. Corso’s who holds a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering.  Named after the term for a 3D pixel (think the building blocks in Minecraft) and the infamous Area 51, Voxel51 develops custom computer vision models for applications in automotive sensing and public safety.

More succinctly: AI for video.

The human brain is good at absorbing and understanding video.  But in the age of big data, it’s too expensive to have a human analyze hundreds or thousands of hours of it.  Voxel51’s software tackles this problem. It can single out scenes in a video, identify specific objects, and then translate what it “sees” into human language.

Voxel51’s clients range from automotive companies to government agencies and cities like Detroit.  A project might entail designing an algorithm able to analyze footage from thousands of surveillance cameras, automatically detect criminal activity, and then prioritize that specific video feed on a security analyst’s monitor for immediate response.  Another might consist of mining a huge database of road video to identify intersections with a higher prevalence of accidents.

Though hardly novel in academia, the intersecting fields of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and autonomous vehicles have caught fire in both the public’s imagination and the commercial sphere.  

As a leader in these areas of research, including Voxel51’s specialty, computer vision — broadly defined as the ability of artificial systems to process, analyze, understand, and extract information from digital images– U-M has become a breeding ground for innovative technologies that often spawn spin-out enterprises.

But how does a startup with just three employees, one with a professor’s workload, attract U-M’s top software engineering graduates away from the lure of (admittedly sunnier) Silicon Valley?  How do small businesses in the state retain the talent produced by its elite public universities?

Across the room from Dr. Corso’s standing desk, Benjamin Kane, an undergraduate studying computer science, sits at an otherwise empty row of desktop computers, coding intently.  

Benjamin is one of Voxel51’s two college interns who received a Small Company Internship Award (SCIA) this summer from the Michigan Corporate Relations Network (MCRN), a consortium of Michigan’s fifteen public universities,[1] funded by the Michigan Strategic Fund of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC).

The SCIA program provides funds to small Michigan businesses in STEM fields that hire students from any of the MCRN universities for summer internships.  SCIA matches half of the intern’s total wages, up to $3,500–an amount that at a nascent startup can be the difference between hiring an intern or going without.

Benjamin, a recent transfer from Wayne State to U-M, worked on a web development project for Voxel51 and is continuing in a part-time capacity this fall.

Jeffrey Dominic, Voxel51’s second U-M SCIA intern focused on computer vision, a Master’s student in Electrical and Computer Engineering, devised code that was integrated into final products.

“This internship experience was phenomenal.  I was able to directly work on a real-world product for clients. Since this company is a startup, I felt I was given more responsibility and more tasks than a regular intern at a large company,” he says.

Working side by side with the CEO certainly beats running for coffee.  

Andrew Israel, Data Lead and the third permanent member of Voxel51’s team, adds:

“We have added several new customers based on the work Jeffrey accomplished this summer.  His work was extremely valuable and there will be lasting impact moving forward.”

The bar for companies to qualify for SCIA internships is set intentionally high to ensure that students like Benjamin and Jeffrey are not only engaged in their work, but also exposed to innovative companies they might not have otherwise known existed in Michigan.

In 2017 alone, SCIA funded 133 internships at 117 such companies, from Ann Arbor to Grand Rapids to Houghton; 83 of those interns continued at their company after the summer ended.  A third of those jobs (27) were full-time positions.

Startup by startup, student by student, SCIA helps to retain highly-skilled graduates in state, and to build on Michigan’s economic growth of the last decade.

As this entrepreneurial ecosystem continues to flourish, Voxel51 is expanding as well, looking to hire up to nine more employees.

“The mobility sector in Ann Arbor and Michigan is not only thriving, but extremely collaborative,” states Dr. Corso.  Public-private partnerships, like U-M’s Mcity and the America Center for Mobility, together with a robust startup community, look to be key to harnessing mobility technology for societal good.  In that case, Voxel51 won’t be stepping on the brakes anytime soon.