Spotlight Series: Interview with Dr Iris Kramer, CEO and Founder of ArchAI

01 Feb 2022

Spotlight Series: Iris Kramer

Hub Member Dr Iris Kramer is the founder and CEO of ArchAI, a world-first technology that she developed during her archaeology studies. With the emergence of AI, Iris saw the opportunity to apply this technology to archaeology, worked very hard to learn how to code – and the rest is history!

In your own words what is ArchAI?

ArchAI is a startup that is de-risking land development by automatically detecting geo-risks including archaeology from earth observation sources.

Engineering is all about solving problems. What problem is your innovation solving?

Geo-risks is used to describe risks connected to working with geomaterials (soils, rocks) in land development . Currently the most cost-effective approach to minimising risk is to conduct slow, phased research to build up accuracy using initial analysis of historic maps, geophysical field assessment, trial trenching and eventually full excavations. This can cause a risk of delay or massive project changes, and is a lengthy process for developers to manage. We believe this problem can be solved by using Arch AI at the earliest planning stages.

What makes your innovation ground-breaking? Can you explain to our readers/the public how it works?

ArchAI uses AI to detect archaeological sites with earth observation data, through LiDAR in forested/rough terrain to detect earthwork remains, and satellite imagery in agricultural fields to reveal sub-soil walls and ditches. We train the AI on known sites and then use it to infer previously unknown sites. Our desk-based solution significantly reduces time (currently around six to 24 months), cost (currently 2-5% of overall construction value) and de-risk development projects.

What was the moment that made you think “I can turn this into a commercial opportunity”?

As I was developing the technology, I quickly realised its potential scalability across the country and globe. I initially considered an academic career but I decided I would rather focus on generating sustainable impact on the world by creating technology to solve real problems.

Wading into unknown territory can be unsettling – what were you most excited by and what was most challenging for you when starting out?

I love meeting entrepreneurs who want to change the world with their ideas. They genuinely care about the problems they are trying to solve and work incredibly hard to make it happen, which makes it an inspiring network to be a part of. The most challenging aspect has been to find the right customer and to run the sales pipeline successfully. As an academic I was fully focussed on the technology, so it took everything step away from that and figure out exactly what the product should be. Developing the product while engaging with the customer has turned out to be our best strategy.

Can you share a time when failure mattered in your business journey?

In the first months of starting ArchAI I thought it was essential to develop a product based on satellite imagery to increase the accuracy.  This proved to be technically challenging, and very expensive, so I had to park those ideas and develop the simplest, cheapest product that customers want to buy and that was the LiDAR based product.  

How did you go about building your team and finding your first team members?

Starting a spinout gave me the opportunity to approach the cleverest student that I knew to take over the technical development so that I could focus on the business development and sales. Other areas are filled with temporary consultants who have the expertise to train our AI or acquire the next customer.

What motivates or inspires you to keep going with ArchAI?

I think it’s important to make a positive impact on the world, and really value our heritage, nature and respect for our local communities. Locating archaeology is essential for the protection of heritage and that drives me to keep going with ArchAI.

What has been the most surprising aspect about your entrepreneurial journey?

I’ve been very surprised with my own resilience. It has not been easy starting a business during the pandemic, and I’ve taken a slower approach to building the business than expected, but I feel like I’m on a very strong path now to building a business that I’m in control of.  

Success is often subjective; it means and looks different to everyone. What do you pride as success so far for ArchAI?

Our first paying customer is the success that I’m most proud of. The validation from our customers, their excitement when seeing our results and their amazement at how quickly we can turn ideas into results is really thrilling.

Is there something you know now that you wish someone had told you when you started?

That I should work to deliver the cheapest, easiest product. I found it really hard to listen to customers without imposing my biases on what I thought they needed. I found it most helpful to discuss my progress and plans with other founders who could spot all the flaws in my approach.

What impact has the Enterprise Fellowships programme had on your business? What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learnt?

As an academic who was really hungry to learn all the details about starting a business with a sustainable model, the programme delivered exactly what I needed. It helped me understand mine and ArchAI’s strengths and weaknesses and what/who I might need to fill the gaps. This really built my confidence to lead a successful startup.

And finally, have you got any tips for potential applicants?

Start early, talk to lots of people about your ideas, find mentors that will help you with your application. Focus on the numbers like the size of the market and how big your share might be, and make sure you can back these up with data and reason. Speak to potential customers and ask how much they would be willing to pay for your product so that you can back up your claims.

Quick fire questions

Who is your role model?

Elon Musk, mainly for his relentless drive to succeed at what he cares about despite the negativity from non-believers and challenges with policy and status quo.

Tell us a random fact not many people know about you

I really like gardening. It’s a form of art and a slow approach to creating beauty that I find very therapeutic and calming.

What’s your guilty pleasure? Dark chocolate almonds

When I was a child, I wanted to be… A hairdresser. I’m from a small village and hairdressing seemed like the most exciting job.

Netflix/Prime show I am currently binging... Call the Midwife

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Truly be yourself. I think differently to most people I know and it took me a long time to make that my strength.

Conversely, what has been the worst piece of advice?

To keep my innovative ideas to myself. People seem to think that sharing ideas will lead to people stealing them but since starting a weekly tweet about our results we have gained two new customers and a lot of great feedback.

I don’t understand why… Cars hate cyclists in the UK

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Alexander the Great, Augustus, Confucius and Jesus. I’m really interested in the creation of culture and these historical figures have transitioned something that was widely accepted in profound ways. I would love to listen in on their conversation.

What are your top three desert island items?

A fishing rod, flower and vegetable seeds and tools to work a garden.

If you were an investor, which Hub Member would you invest in?

Reka Tron from Multus Media, they are creating growth media to the cultivated meat industry. Multus Media has an ethical goal, the technology is proven and there is a big market opportunity so for me that would be a really good investment opportunity.

If you had to start all over again, would you do anything differently? If so, what?

I sacrificed a lot of personal comfort to save money and increase the runway of the business and I think I would have been happier and more productive if I planned my personal life better.

To follow ArchAI's progress, you can check out their website and follow them on Twitter and LinkedIn. You can also learn more about the support we provide through our Enterprise Fellowships programme and sign up for programme opening alerts.

The Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub supports the UK’s brightest technology and engineering entrepreneurs to realise their potential.

We run three programmes for entrepreneurial engineers at different career stages. Each one offers equity-free funding, an extended programme of mentorship and coaching, and a lifetime of support through connection to an exceptional community of engineers and innovators.

The Enterprise Hub focuses on supporting individuals and fostering their potential in the long term, taking nothing in return. This sets us apart from the usual ‘accelerator’ model. The Enterprise Hub’s programmes last between 6 and 12 months, and all programmes give entrepreneurs lifelong access to an unrivalled community of mentors and alumni.

Our goal is to encourage creativity and innovation in engineering for the benefit of all. By fostering lasting, exceptional connections between talent and expertise, we aim to create a virtuous cycle of innovation that can deliver on this ambition.

The Enterprise Hub was formally launched in April 2013. Since then, we have supported over 270 researchers, recent graduates and SME leaders to start up and scale up businesses that can give practical application to their inventions. We’ve awarded over £9.5 million in grant funding, and our Hub Members have gone on to raise over £575 million in additional funding.


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