With InstaDeep, Tunisia’s Karim Beguir and Zohra Slim take on tech giants

By Quentin Velluet
Posted on Monday, 5 September 2022 13:19

Specialising in artificial intelligence, InstaDeep raised $100 million in early 2022. ©Peter Steffen/dpa/MaxPPP.

“The kings of business” (2/5). With Google, BioNTech and the Emirati government among its clients, the London-based start-up has, in just a few years, earned itself a place in the select club of artificial intelligence and machine learning companies.

Despite all his good will, the man is too busy to give his time to anyone who wants to talk to him for five minutes. Hardly stingy with interviews, open to debate and adept at discussions on the fly, Karim Beguir is a hurried but affable start-upper. He knows it. His image and that of his company count in the war that companies of his calibre are waging to attract the best talent.

With his partner Zohra Slim – 39 years old, more in the background – the man, who will be 46 in a few months, presides over a company that relies upon the best mathematicians and developers on the planet. In its eight years of existence, InstaDeep has become a global reference in deep tech. What makes it special? It develops disruptive solutions based on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (image, sound and text analysis), capable of solving specific and very complex problems within companies and for various sectors.

Logistics, traffic prediction, connected factories

In addition to Google, with whom it works on artificial intelligence research projects, InstaDeep’s main achievement has been its partnership with BioNTech. Together, they have enabled one of the first pharmaceutical companies to deliver a vaccine against Covid-19 to develop an intelligent system capable of rapidly detecting the variants of the virus that caused the global pandemic, as well as their characteristics.

The start-up’s fields of intervention are as broad as the databases it operates or creates. From logistics to help companies with last-mile delivery, to traffic prediction for driver applications, to energy or even connected industry with its inventory management, supply chain and inspection systems managed via connected sensors, the objective is always the same: creating an autonomous system capable of making decisions on its own based on complex calculations beyond human reach.

A $100 million fundraising round

Headquartered in London with offices in Tunis, Lagos, Paris, Cape Town and Dubai, InstaDeep has 45 researchers in France and a majority of its developers in Tunisia.

On the strength of profitable results starting in 2020, with nearly €42,000 euros in profits for a turnover of nearly €2m, the young start-up led from France by Isabelle Levard easily managed to complete a second record fundraising round of $100m in January 2022.

This round included renowned investors such as Google, BioNTech, the German rail network Deutsche Bahn, for which the start-up is developing an autonomous rail routing system, and the Luxembourg-based investor Alpha Intelligence Capital, which specialises in AI and machine learning start-ups.

Following this operation, which followed a first round of financing of $7m in 2019, Karim Beguir still holds a little more than 30% of his company, compared to nearly 33% for Zohra Slim. The rest is diluted among the new shareholders but also among historical backers such as the pan-African investor AfricInvest, which led the 2019 Series A with Ancora Investment Limited, as well as British financier Adam Sadiq and Tunisian Malek Meslemani, Ancora’s CEO and early business angel.

African mentors

Beyond their role as entrepreneurs and always cultivating the image of African mentors, the two co-founders, who claim to have started from nothing – “two computers and $2,000″, as Karim Beguir likes to say –, also want to help the continent and its talents find their place in the development of these advanced technologies.

By communicating and getting involved, for example, in the organisation of events such as Deep Learning Indaba, the great pan-African rave of artificial intelligence and machine learning, which was held at the end of August at the École supérieure des communications de Tunis (Sup’Com), Zohra Slim showed that her company is on a par with the likes of DeepMind, a British branch of Google devoted to AI, whose experts were invited to take part in round tables at the 2022 edition of Deep Learning Indaba. A few years earlier, InstaDeep had the opportunity to meet the Google AI teams for the first time.

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