LEARNING CURVE: AFTER STEPPING AWAY FROM HIS FIRST SUCCESS, ROBBIE ALLEN IS BACK AS CEO OF A BETTER-FUNDED, HIGHLY TOUTED DURHAM STARTUP.

Author:Ranii, David
Position:NC TREND: Tracking tech
 
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Having hit it big with the reported $80 million sale of his Durham-based artificial-intelligence company Automated Insights Inc. in 2015, Robbie Allen recognizes that even more is expected of him in his new role as CEO of Infinia ML. The Bull City-based company, spun out of Duke University, deploys machine learning that enables its big corporate customers to reduce costs or boost revenue.

"The first time around, there were no expectations because I had never done it before," says Allen, 4L "This time it's different. I feel that I've been given raw materials that are very hard to come by ... on a silver platter. If anything, I feel more pressure because I don't want to screw this up."

The tales of the two startups led by Allen are starkly different. Automated Insights, which provides automated news stories for Associated Press and Yahoo!, was sold to an Austin-based private-equity firm in 2015. It wasn't a snap: Allen spent three years and $100,000 nurturing the technology from scratch before raising $1.3 million in seed capital. That enabled him to leave his job as a distinguished engineer at Cisco Systems Inc. and devote all of his time to the venture.

By contrast, when he joined Durham-based Infinia in November, the business had already raised $10 million from San Francisco private-equity firm Carrick Capital Partners, which co-founded the company just two months earlier. The company possessed a library of machine-learning technology amassed by a team led by co-founder Lawrence Carin, vice provost for research and professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke University.

At Automated Insights, Allen was both the technology and the business guru. Now, when he and Carin meet with customers, he says, "it is maybe best I don't talk. Larry is going to say it better than me. He knows way more than I do." Carin has published more than 350 scientific papers and is, in Allen's words, "a luminary" in the machine-learning field.

On the business side, Allen leans on Executive Chairman Mike Salvino, a Carrick Capital managing director based in Charlotte who spearheaded Infinia's formation. Salvino previously was group chief executive at a unit of Ireland-based management consultant Accenture that has more than $7 billion in annual revenue and 100,000 employees. Salvino "has run larger organizations than 99% of the CEOs out there," Allen says.

Allen's own accomplishments include two master's degrees from Massachusetts Institute of...

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