California-based AI firm to set up new R&D hub in Edinburgh

From Silicon Valley to the ‘data capital of Europe’, Rasa’s Chief Technology Officer, Alan Nichol shares the company’s ambition behind its new technology hub in Edinburgh and the talent to match.

'We wanted to be in Scotland'

Rasa was co-founded by Alan Nichol and Alex Weidauer in late 2016. The company began life as an open source, natural-language understanding platform for chatbots and voice assistants and has expanded to include other features, including tools for testing and improving assistants built with Rasa Open Source.

Rasa is headquartered in San Francisco with an R&D hub already in Berlin. After showing strong growth within the first few years, it secured $26 million Series B funding in 2020, from Accel, Andreessen Horowitz, Basis Set Ventures among others, to continue that growth.

“Edinburgh was the only location we considered for our new tech hub. To us it was clear that we wanted to be in Scotland, particularly Edinburgh, as we’ve always had strong connections to the city and the University.”

Alan Nichol, Chief Technology Officer, Rasa

Rasa’s mission is to empower all makers to build AI (artificial intelligence) assistants that work for everyone. The company is working with product teams at some of the world’s leading firms such as Adobe, Deutsche Telekom, BMW, Airbus, ENGIE, HCA Healthcare, Orange, and more.

Pictured: Rasa co-founders Alan Nichol and Alex Weidauer

Rasa co-founders Alan Nichol and Alex Weidauer

Why Edinburgh?

Since Alan has roots in Scotland and studied at the University of Edinburgh, the company has always felt a deep affinity to Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh.

The Edinburgh R&D hub will be focused on machine learning research and software development. Rasa’s machine learning research team works on advancing innovation in conversational AI—specifically solving challenges related to natural-language understanding and dialogue modelling.

Rasa’s Scottish hub will be led by Adam Lopez, a researcher from the University of Edinburgh who brings two decades of solving hard problems in natural language processing (NLP).

Rasa has worked with Adam for the last three years. Alan explained: “Early on, we began co-supervising Masters’ students, and the University of Edinburgh was a natural choice because of its reputation in NLP. Adam was interested in the projects we proposed, and that’s how our collaboration started.” 

“While Adam Lopez is our most senior researcher, he’s not the only person Rasa has hired from the university,” Alan added.

“We’ve also worked with many great and talented people at Heriot-Watt University. I have given many guest lectures there. Verena Rieser and Oliver Lemon's research group at Heriot-Watt does great work on dialogue.”

“I was first drawn to Rasa’s outstanding research programme and decided to join the company because I believe in its mission. Rasa is making the best conversational AI technology available to everyone, while ensuring data can remain private. I look forward to building a team in Edinburgh to further that mission.”

Adam Lopez, Research Manager, Rasa

Support is always there when needed

While Rasa hasn’t looked out a physical office space yet during the COVID-19 outbreak, we’ve already provided the company with a lot of information that will help the team once it can start looking for a space.

“The conversations with Scottish Development International helped us to form a better picture and set up an actionable plan. We also reached out to a tax accountant who was recommended to us for help setting up the entity.”

Alan Nichol, Chief Technology Officer, Rasa

Sourcing talent to grow the team

Rasa’s plan is to grow the Edinburgh office into a dedicated research and development office, with a focus on machine-learning research. It will also have two frontend developers, who have been with Rasa for some time, and one machine-learning researcher. The company is likely to be looking for 3-5 additional machine-learning researchers to start this fall and winter.

“As we have close connections with the University of Edinburgh and a good network in the city, we’ve found it relatively easy so far to find great new team members.”

Alan Nichol, Chief Technology Officer, Rasa

'Remote-first' approach

As a distributed team, with staff in San Francisco, Berlin and Edinburgh, the company has invested a lot of energy into building good habits around remote work and communicating across time zones. This includes using asynchronous communication when possible and documenting decisions and conversations in the Slack platform.

“This has become even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, as our team has shifted from being remote-friendly to what we’d term remote-first,” said Alan.

“Our remote-first approach includes making sure team members have an equal chance to be heard, regardless of whether they’re physically present in the office, and finding ways to connect across geographies. We expect the Edinburgh office to be a continuation of these practices.”

Edinburgh life and affordability

Rasa has two frontend engineers who are already based in Edinburgh. Both cite Edinburgh’s beauty and walkability, as well as its rich cultural offerings and affordability, compared to other tech hubs.

“Edinburgh is small, walkable, very affordable compared to other tech hubs, friendly, close to nature, and punches far above its weight for culture and entertainment due in part to the festival culture.”

Sam Gaus, Senior Software Engineer, Rasa

“Edinburgh is a very beautiful city. The old railway paths provide a great network of walking and cycling routes in amongst the trees and let you cross a lot of the North side of town without ever hitting a road. You don't think of Edinburgh as a seaside town, but there's also a variety of beaches along the Firth of Forth, and plenty more sites of natural beauty accessible by bus or train. There's been no shortage of public parks to get out and about in during lockdown.”

Emma Brownbill, Frontend Engineer, Rasa

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