Dr Iris Kramer is the founder and CEO of ArchAI, a company that uses AI models to automate the detection of archaeological sites. Iris was the first person to do a PhD in deep learning for the detection of archaeological sites on earth observation data. ArchAI’s pre-trained AI models can assess thousands of images instantly, providing rapid, accurate feedback to developers and project planners.
“I found that starting my own company would give the potential to scale fastest and we would be able to have the most impact to protect archaeological sites from unnecessary destruction.”
From the Netherlands to the UK (and back again)!
I firstly took my undergraduate course at Leiden University, the Netherlands, in archaeology. Then, for my master’s degree, I wanted to do archaeological computing, which wasn’t offered in the Netherlands. Therefore, I chose the best university that offered a geospatial course: the University of Southampton.
For my dissertation, I thought it would be interesting to explore automation for the detection of archaeological sites on remote sensing images. The opportunities there really exceeded my expectations, and I was able to create a simple approach to detect burial mounds with good accuracy.
I was very encouraged and wanted to explore the most advanced AI techniques that were just starting to be applied for self-driving cars – deep learning. Because it was such new technology, I knew I had to do a PhD to be able to explore it. However, I didn’t have any coding skills, so I went back to the Netherlands, where I did a government-funded coding course at B. Startup School Amsterdam (BSSA).
With my newly learned skills, I then started looking for PhD funding to apply to. At Southampton, I got in touch with Dr Jonathon Hare, who is an expert in deep learning and has close ties with the Ordnance Survey. He was really excited about my PhD proposal and was able to secure funding for my PhD from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Ordnance Survey.
Combining AI with archaeology
Towards the end of my PhD, I found out that automation with deep learning works extremely well, and I looked at options to scale up my technology to detect sites all over the world. I found that starting my own company would give me the potential to scale fastest and we would be able to have the most impact to protect archaeological sites from unnecessary destruction. Therefore, I founded ArchAI.
Our AI is trained with previously known site locations and earth observation data, such as satellite imagery and LiDAR data. The trained AI can then be used to infer previously unknown sites in unexplored areas, and, within minutes, it will provide a whole lot of potential new archaeological sites.
This significantly reduces the time for new discoveries and all of these new discoveries offer potential new research locations. Archaeologists will be able to get a wider understanding of the landscape patterns and more accurately understand past human occupation.
It also provides a tool for policymaking and protecting landscapes from war and destruction. For example, in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, there is a large wealth of archaeological sites, but often they are unknown and it’s impossible to protect sites that aren’t already known.
Advice for entrepreneurs
If you are contemplating starting your own business the very first thing one should do is find out if there is actually a need for innovation.
Speak to industry leaders, not about your innovation but about the problem you are trying to solve. Figure out if the problem is big enough, if they want to pay to see it fixed, and only then find out for yourself if your product could solve that problem.
The loneliness of being a single founder
I’m the single founder of ArchAI, so I do all the jobs, from business development to product development. I’ve recently started working with two consultants who I know very well, and they are furthering the AI development and create training data. So, I’m now working mainly on the business side, speaking to potential customers, writing grant applications and raising capital.
My company can be run from my laptop, so I wasn’t disrupted by COVID-19 like some of my colleagues who create hardware or require site visits.
The only negative impact has been that the journey became quite lonely, which was again amplified by being a single founder. Luckily, I’ve been a part of several incubators/accelerators, like Future Worlds, the start-up accelerator at the University of Southampton. They have provided a cohort feeling, so I was able to virtually meet with other founders who I could relate to.
At the moment I’m really looking forward to being able to physically go into an office again, meet other founders, and have more spontaneous chats!
The Royal Academy of Engineering has an amazing network of mentors who are the very best in their field, and tapping into this network has really helped with key insights and introductions to my market. They have also provided a range of workshops that have helped me learn essential business skills.
Launching my ideas into a global market
In the last months, we have been working on product development and we are now really excited to start working with commercial clients in the coming months.
I have also taken part in the Future Worlds Demo Day, organised by the University of Southampton team – an intensive programme where experts and mentors support us in our launch and where we pitched our business concepts to a network of high impact, early-stage investors, helping us launch our ideas into a global market.