Veteran software engineer launches AI startup Hal9 while battling long COVID and pandemic concerns – GeekWire
Is there ever really a good time to launch a startup?
That’s the question Javier Luraschi was asking and sort of answering for himself in discussing his effort to “democratize artificial intelligence” through his new company called Hal9.
And while getting a startup off the ground is challenging enough under normal circumstances, Luraschi made his move during the COVID-19 pandemic and while suffering the effects of and searching for answers to long COVID, a condition in which people experience symptoms of the illness for extended periods of time.
So what was the tech veteran — who spent eight years at Microsoft and another five at software makers RStudio — thinking when he made the leap to startup founder?
“It sounds like it was a really bad idea at the time, right?” Luraschi said, smiling at the other end of a video call. “I remember talking with family members and they were like, ‘You’re crazy. What are you going to do? There’s not going to be jobs.’”
Last fall when his plans for Hal9 started to take shape, there wasn’t even a COVID vaccine. People were paranoid, for good reason. But rather than scare Luraschi off, that mindset made him more determined to try something new.
“You always know that you cannot take health for granted and we all know that we only live once. But I think the pandemic put things in perspective,” he said. “I think everyone was in the mode of reevaluating their priorities in life and it was a great time to rethink everything, and to me that was about starting a startup.”
Luraschi immigrated from Mexico in 2006, hired at Microsoft out of college. A software engineer his entire career, he worked on such things as Microsoft Access, Office 365, database software and consumer productivity experiences at the company.
He made another leap in 2016 when he left the tech giant to work remotely for Boston-based RStudio. He even left Redmond, Wash., and moved his family to the sleepier town of Carnation, 40 minutes from Seattle.
He said that move, too, was an “unpopular choice” among friends.
“But we’re very happy, Carnation is beautiful,” Luraschi said.
The struggle with long COVID — which scientists describe as COVID that doesn’t end after 12 weeks — has been a long, puzzling and sometimes painful one. Luraschi has experienced muscle pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, GI issues and insomnia — but no actual fever nor loss of smell. Symptoms came in waves and a few new ones developed like lung pain and a dry cough.
Sixteen months later, Luraschi still experiences shortness of breath and irregular heartbeat. He said a lot of the pain was from the unknown and lack of information more so than from specific symptoms.
“The good news is, I have definitely improved month over month,” he said. “I can currently control the remaining lingering symptoms with a strict diet and supplements; this makes me feel ‘fully recovered’, but I know from recent lab work I’m still not.”
Starting Hal9 with a small team has clearly brightened Lurachi’s outlook. He’s raised $60,000 in pre-seed funding from angel investors and friends he met through Microsoft. And his greater purpose behind his tech sounds especially worthwhile — to bring more tools to more people and subsequently shrink the wealth inequality gap.
“I think in general there’s an aura that artificial intelligence is here to automate jobs and displace people and create a higher wealth inequality gap between people,” Luraschi said. “It really comes down to who is automating what. Who has access to those resources?”
Hal9 empowers web developers to create, visualize and deploy AI solutions using web technologies such as TensorFlow.js and Node.js. The startup provides an integrated environment that combines drag and drop, a code editor, and an open source library of components to accelerate the development of AI on the edge, mobile and the web.
Tools are designed to help customers easily import and visualize data, create immersive experiences and lower AI project costs. And help average people jump into artificial intelligence.
“That’s reason enough for me to really give this a shot,” Luraschi said.