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Business as Usual: Gecko Robotics

Business as Usual
Tech Companies

We are excited to have one of Pittsburgh's fastest-growing robotics companies stop by Business as Usual -- Gecko Robotics!

Company Founder and CEO Jake Loosararian has an amazing story of starting and scaling the company while still in college. Gecko Robotics develops and operates robots to automate infrastructure inspections.

Jake will detail how Gecko is focusing on industrial plant inspections using non-destructive testing technology. Every year, over $100 Billion is spent on industrial maintenance. Gecko has developed wall-climbing robots that dramatically reduce downtime resulting in millions of dollars saved.

 

Transcription: 

So good afternoon everyone, this is Audrey Russo president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council. Welcome to business as usual. And today's Thursday, I always have to say that out loud, because I never remember what day it is of the week. And I'm joined here today with Jonathan Kersting. He's vice president of all things media and marketing. And we're gonna have some fun as we try to do each and every day. And I'm very thrilled to have the CEO and co founder, Jake Loosararian,. And he is at the helm of Gecko robotics, and I'm gonna, I'm gonna bring him to the forefront in a moment, just want to get some housekeeping out of the way. And then we can dive in and have some fun, I want to give special thanks to Huntington bank, and they've been our partners and friends and doing all things innovative, and particularly as we pivoted during COVID. I believe we're, you know, doing about 160 sessions, you know, is that where we are right now, Jonathan, about 100.

And we're like, deep into the 160s. Now, honestly,

right. So each and every day, we're trying to bring you relevance and shine the spotlight on people who are doing amazing things in our region, and bringing the world to Pittsburgh, and vice versa. So we're pretty excited about today's guest, because this is a company that has really grown and doing some really interesting things, and changing the face of the businesses that they're involved in. So we've muted your microphones just so that there's no noise in the background. And we've allowed for a chat, don't you know, the chat is used so that we can talk to Jake, it's not used to sell your wares. That's not what today is about. And then the other thing is, you can see I have my tech 50 screen up. And there's still time to join us today. We're pretty excited about tech 50. It is the first time in 24 years that tech 50 has ever been virtual. And the team has done an amazing job, lots of opportunities. And you'll be joined by hundreds of people who are participating in celebrating the winners, the finalists, Pittsburgh and just trying to have some fun, as we're, you know, entering the winter months and COVID. So we've put the registration out there for tech 50. So please join us. So I mentioned our guest today is Jake, he is the founder and CEO of Gecko robotics. And I think Lexi will put the link up just so that maybe you can multitask and see what they're up to. And so Jake, good afternoon, thank you so much for taking the time of joining us today. We are very excited to talk with you. I know that it's been an intense time for most companies. But it's really exciting to just take 30 minutes and do a little bit of a dive with you and what you've been up to. So before we start, let's just talk about Jake, who is Jake, what is Jake's journey, Ben? And then we're gonna talk about Gecko. Awesome, thanks,

Audrey. Great to be on the show. And what are you guys doing in the city of Pittsburgh and beyond this is a it's exciting to, to know you and the team and be a part of it. So yeah, it's great to be here a little bit about me. I'm an engineer, by training, went to crif City College, actually an hour north of here, and there sort of lecture engineering, and learn about like, my journey as an entrepreneur. Started, get going college. And basically the impetus of solving the problem comes the company was there was a alumni of the school was a power plant manager nearby, who 40% of the year was having plant shutdowns and not being able to make power. And I've always been kind of interested in power and renewables. And this was an interesting way to try to contribute to solving an important problem for this engineering manager. And so I bought a wall climbing robot forum as you do, and, and began to learn about the industry. And I learned about the different kinds of problems in the industry what they face from, but most of it are revolving around infrastructure integrity, and what happens you know, infrastructure fails, the things that we rely on, whether it's a bridge or a dam, a power plant, refinery, manufacturing sites, etc. They all have infrastructure, it's critical to their process and when those pieces of infrastructure don't work like there should they they end up causing these these massive amounts of both environmental safety and, and also large, large opportunity cost loss the customers as well as the repair side And so it was a pretty compelling mission to begin to try to take these industries in the ways that they traditionally do things, which is with humans in dangerous environments, with little amounts of data and do the universe. And so that's what we that's what I did. And, and for it, I ended up becoming basically homeless and broke. Really, yeah. So ended up becoming very poor spent my whole life savings and imagism 15 was bootstrapping the cup to the time. My, my co founder, Troy, said, we should, we should check out this thing called Y Combinator. And I didn't really know what combinator was. And I met, I met a couple of the a couple people at CMU, baramulla combinator, and around the same time, I got an offer to go out to do Y Combinator, I got an acquisition offer. And so at this point, you know, very poor hundred dollars to my name, but you had a pretty interesting decision. And I decided to stay poor. And we continue on the journey to pursue the vision of deca. Wow. And then from there, we raised a little over 2 million after Demo Day, and came out of yc as the as the odd duck from Pittsburgh, hey, doing hardware, and in the, you know, in the industrial sector, as the top company coming out of Y Combinator for a batch, and since then have raised about 60 $62 million.

So wait, so let's just pause for a second. Were you homeless?

I was living on the floor of my best friend's apartment so

long for

probably about nine to 12 months.

Wow. Okay, so I just I just wanted to be sure, okay. You weren't living in your car, but you close to it too far.

Yeah. I did. I did. Yeah. It was a nice hanging out from my, from my father. So that was that was really,

so when you um, so here you are, you leave Y Combinator. And then you say, okay, you're gonna come back to Pittsburgh? Are you native? pittsburgher?

I'm not No. I. So I'm originally from the Columbia, Maryland area near DC. And, you know, went up here for for university and then worked, worked in the area, and then moved out to California. And to be honest, I wasn't sure if I was going to come back. I'd love to CMU we had hired a couple people out of CMU in the robotics sector, and I knew, you know, some some amazing investors and business leaders in the city. But, you know, my whole, my whole network became Silicon Valley. And so, you know, after we launched, you know, I had to think really hard about Okay, well, what are the competitive advantages that could help Gecko succeed and become the next unicorn and beyond. And one of the competitive advantages is actually cost of living. The other competitive advantage is CMU. And the other competitive advantage is close to customers. And for those that are advantages, Pittsburgh made some sense. The thing that was going to be hard to give up was the knowledge sharing of the valley and the talent of the valley. Those were difficult trade offs. But we decided to come back to Pittsburgh in April or May have chosen 16. And, and so we're actually nearby bakery squared now. And, you know, we're about seven people at that point or Sunday, and never got 115 employees

in Pittsburgh.

We have offices in Austin, that has been expanding our Austin office as well as our and then also.

So how many people are in are the two, the two hubs for deco?

So without? Probably about 8583 of the employees? Here, here in Pittsburgh.

Okay. And so talk about the local customers, you're close. We were talking about one of the advantages.

So we actually started in the, the power industry when we launched of yc. And so we were our tagline was we we build robots, we're putting robots for industrial inspection starting in the power space. And just what we did we make these robots that collect infrastructure data that helps detect when things will break. And in the power space. You know, we have a lot of power plants in Pennsylvania, a lot of power plants and West Virginia and the shopping tri state area. So that was helpful. To live with these power plants, whether it be gas or coal, and just began to learn about the problems that these industries face and the different types of applications that our robots could be used for, it actually accelerated our ability to develop robots that didn't stop.

And so what's going on in? So you have people in Austin, right? So you, you have customers all over the world? Because I believe that when we were in Japan, that someone from your team went to Japan, right?

That's correct. Yeah, we work with plug and play. It's an it's a program in Japan. We're actually doing a job right now, in Seoul, Korea. We do jobs in South America pretty pretty often. And we are in, you know, pretty deep discussions with your middle east, but but because of the pandemic, we're not, we're not our international is a lot less than, than we were planning on this year, for obvious reasons.

So when if you think of just the biggest problems that you're solving right now, I know that you've mentioned a few different things. And then we're going to talk about what's happened in a couple of things that you've done during the pandemic, the biggest problem that you think you're solving, we're in elevator together, you're gonna tell me

Yeah, that's great question. So. So in these really critical industries, these industries don't know when they're going to have a failure of their process or not. And if you're a refinery, and you don't know that, you know, tomorrow, you wake up or middle, the night you wake up, and a pipeline has exploded, and you're really seeing bad emissions into the environment, people are injured or worse. And then also, you have to shut down production. And if you're that refinery, you're losing 25 to $40 million a day, depending on price oil, to really, really rough in terms of the impact to the, to the business, in the environment, humanitarian etc. So, the big impact that we're, what we're trying to solve at its core is, you know, the, in the, the infrastructure integrity, objective, is to try and stop things from breaking, right. And so the, the way that we've always done it to this point, is send humans into these environments, and use handheld sensors to gather introductory integrity, data points, corrosion, erosion, etc. and try to, you know, sample these large amounts of these layers of infrastructure like pipelines, tanks, etc. and try to hope that you're finding the right, the right, you know, point that's going to cause a lead to failure. So you collecting you collecting very little amounts of data point 0000 1%, of potential damage area, you are doing it with a human, which about 100 people a year, either die or injured during these inspections, and then you're also spending a lot of time doing it. So you're, you're spending compared to the robot 10 times 100 times more, to get, you know, 50,000 hundred thousand less data points. So what we're doing is basically flipping on its head and accelerating, how quickly you can capture the data, we're structuring the data, so we can use it on the machine learning and AI side, to predict when things will break and beyond. And we're also doing it safely. So that's kind of the value prop. It's, you know, 10 and beyond safer, 10 times faster, you know, 1000, or more times more effective at finding the damaged area. And then it's also safe. So. So in, in essence, you know, the word, what we're doing is we're, we're gathering data that's never existed before. And you think about like how facilities from themselves, they have all this automation equipment, right to track how efficient the operations are, they don't have any, any way to tell what's happening to the things that are moving, moving gas or moving product from from place to place, and the processing we're doing is we're gathering the data that doesn't exist to help make their processes more efficient and predict, you know, when things will fail.

So do you have a standard robot that can apply across all these different customers? Or do you build custom to solve based on the industry?

That's a really good question. And one of the one of the hard things about robotics is it typically only solves a couple things, a couple of problems. It's not modular. And the trick is making your robots modular, making them cost effective, making them pack repackaged, and traveling to places. And then when you get on site being able to have to do as many things as you possibly can. So our, our team of our hardware team has done an incredible job of paying close attention to architecture, maybe think about hardware architecture, the same way that let's say Tesla thinks about architecture, they use very similar base models to be able to make different kinds of cars, see other similar kinds of trashy drunk trustees and drive trains, and then you know, kind of make the form factors look different with some different with some other changes, it's kind of similar to the way we think about it, if we can make a platform that, you know, that's very good, has very good architecture, and we can adjust its form factor to, you know, whether it's a six inch pipe inspection or, you know, a boiler inspection, you know, we can very quickly iterate. So we have about two main platforms. One's called the toca, four one's called the Toka. Mini. And so we can do about, I think we're up to like 6070 different types of assets, with different form factors on those assets. Okay, so great, very wide.

We have some questions here that I want Jonathan, to just start to grab.

So this is our two great questions here. And thanks for joining us today. Jake. We really appreciate it. So from a Jason hunt is no is good, because work entirely in the inspection space? Or do you also work on other industrial automation? as well? Yeah,

that's a good question. Um, industrial automation is an interesting term, I would like to probably know what that means a little more. But basically, we're in the business of inside think about robots. Robots are very exciting to develop, I love them myself, made them myself. But, you know, IV robots as the vehicle by which we gather data that doesn't exist. And then the ability to take that data and do something helpful with it is, is, is valuable. And our objective is to help our customers immediately by doing the inspections and finding the key areas that have been missed, that will cause major damage, and major health and safety risks. And, but also use that structured information to then provide help with root cause about why things are going wrong, use the data to predict when things will will break into the future, how to extend the life of those assets, and beyond. So it's, it's this idea of, you know, with with companies are doing AI and ml, you know, you think about data from a hiring perspective. And we are basically found that, you know, the data that exists out there, from an integrity standpoint is very, has very low integrity, you know, captured by humans reported on paper, kind of data. And so what we're how we're approaching it is, were we biased towards capturing massive amounts, you know, terabytes of data, and validating those ourselves, then using that information to drive efficiencies that never before been possible, because that data doesn't exist. So we basically found that, right, there's no data, there's no data here that is usable. So we have to create our own. And so robots have been helpful way to go, creator.

Very cool. And so, um, give us a better feel of the work that you do. Um, can you share a specific example of a customer you work with and how you've been able to help them out?

Yeah, so there's actually a really good article by BP that came out, you know, week or so ago. And that was describing from the executive level how Gecko has helped them during the pandemic. So basically, what we will do was, we'll take, you know, 234 robots, however, that much the customer wants, will go out to their sites. And we'll work with them as a partner, to not only do the inspection, but help them think about how to solve the problems. And so, you know, we'll do an inspection on let's say, a 32 inch pipe at BP, and do an inspection that you should take, you know, 40 days and do it in one day, and gather, you know, 1030 40,000 times more data and find areas that have been historically missed. And not just the areas that they were always assuming problems existed, but in other areas as well. That's why full coverage is really important. And we, we try to get that to be our standards. And so we're basically going in, we're doing the inspection, and then we are we are looking at it together within our software. We call it the gecko portal. So the gecko portal, will 3d visualize for the customer, their their assets, all their areas of concerns, and then, you know, talk them through how to mitigate.

Very cool. And so what kind of sensors and what kind of defects are the targets of these inspections?

That's a good question. So the defects are difficult to find. And we use a lot of different payloads, lasers, magnetic induction, but we primarily use ultrasonic sensors. For our sensing payload. We've had a team, a really great team that creates sensor payloads. That will be pulsing with high frequency sound waves. And then measuring the attenuation of the signals upon return kind of like, you know, a sonogram. So you're, you're doing that to understand the corrosion and erosion on that surface, any cracks and defects. And then you visually inspecting as well with the robots remotely. And so you're looking for, you know, those kinds of damages that can't be seen, unless you like, destroy the, the infrastructure, and look at it, that we're trying to not cut it open and figure it out. But we also are using, you know, encoders, for localization, as well as integrating other sorts of localization and sensors to understand, you know, where we are in the environment. And we've begun to do autonomous inspections, as well at, you know, some of our customer sites like Exxon. We work with Exxon down Chevron, marathon BP, shell, those kind of company ones right there, that's

for sure. Very good. Okay. Yeah.

All right. Well, I want to I'm gonna people to know that over the COVID, that you guys did a little bit, you jumped right in during COVID. right at the beginning? I mean, you helped hospitals, and health care workers. So explain that. Explain what happened?

Yeah, great question. Um, well, you know, I ended up getting pretty connected to a gentleman that, that I know, through my, my wife's friend who's works at a the one of the top respiratory hospitals in Denver area. And we started talking about some of the problems that they were trying to solve a big problem that at the beginning of COVID, was distribution of PV. And so we actually, you know, we actually use a lot of PV in our business, but through the connections at yc, and other founders that are in my network, I started immediately talking with founders that I knew about how to ask to up UPMC to the color of hospitals are desperately in need of these that are expecting these large waves of COPD patients already have them. We also talked to local ICU doctors, and at UPMC. And one of the big things that they needed was ventilation splitters. And so you know, we were able to create a couple designs for ventilation splitters and open sourced that. So they're able to be used. And it was amazing. The doctor who we were talking to about, he was on the front lines of all this and figuring out how to best software, these loads of patients just kept some he sent me pictures of our IC, our ventilation splitters been used in hospitals, and you're telling me like you guys have saved lives through these through these designs. So we've utilized like rapid prototyping that we had to get good at here. And I go to try to help where we could as well as helping with the distribution of and supply chain. So I was I ended up like, you know, in the day running Gecko, and then in the evening brokering deals with, you know, Chinese manufacturers. It was it was kind of an intense, but you know, it's like, it's one of those things. It's just like, you hate hate, just like standing by and like watching us all happen. And I'm sure everyone, you know, who's listening felt that same way. And it's, I Well, I don't know if I'm helpful, but I'm gonna try and be helpful. And, and so the company responded really well to that. And so it was it was cool. It was a cool thing. I think one of the values of of Gecko is make each other better. And we try to stick to that even beyond just our core business. That's

really great. So, you know, you, you have different locations. Now. So you know, you're in Austin, you're in Dallas, I believe, or Houston. You said, Yeah, Houston. And obviously, you're close to customers, but you're also close to some talent. So you have over 80 people here in Pittsburgh and you're growing and obviously have global clients. What's the difference between you know what you find in some of these other places? Yeah. What's the difference between Austin and Pittsburgh?

Yeah, good question. We find that there's a lot more examples of successful companies in enterprise software side in Austin. So sales and software development.

So that's b2b Enterprise. Okay.

You're not always but

it's okay.

Some of the enterprise software. And I mean, there's other there's other startups as well and larger tech companies that go B to C, there. But yes, we, we really focusing on enterprise software. So we, we find more examples of people who have done it before there. And then, in Houston, you know, that's basically the Silicon Valley for Oji. Oil and Gas. And so, from a talent perspective, it makes a lot of sense. They're like, we're 10 minutes away from Exxon and Dallas headquarters. And so it's really important to be, you know, there for be close to our customers. And then in Pittsburgh, you know, very good on the robotic side. You know, we have good, good business leaders here as well. And we're actually finding that, especially now, people moving from the valley to Pittsburgh is a possibility.

Are you seeing that? Are you seeing that?

Yeah, we just hired, our SVP of product is moving from the part of the valley to Pittsburgh.

Nice, good. Okay. So but what's your advice for Pittsburgh, though? So you're saying do that more? Excuse me,

do that more, bring more talent to Pittsburgh?

I know, well, you're doing your part. And we appreciate that. I mean, are people able to work remotely and work for you?

Yeah, they aren't. We've, we basically have in our policy. And we've iterated a few times, but our policy is, you know, if you have to touch stuff to come in and do your job, you know, come on in, if if not, you know, our you know, work from home, and you will do what we can to help support and iterate how we approached things, but we came out with a with a, you know, COVID response plan, like pretty pretty, you know, soon after things started happening. And, you know, we we basically have said, like, you know, we're we're think it was about two or three months ago that you know, we're working from home, are able to work from home until at least the end of q1 next year, we'll kind of see where things get to. And it's been, it's been interesting, I think the thing that's really helped me is been, as soon as things happen, I immediately started reaching out to founders, you who run work from home companies, actually one of the really helpful people from that vantage is the CTO of GitHub, GitHub is a remote company. There's actually a few yc companies that heard about companies as well. mattermost. For example, there's about three or four founders that run remote remote teams, and basically that just bombarded them with, with emails and calls to try to understand how they make their team successful. Because not it's not like what's the immediate impact of work from home? It's what's the impact in six to nine months? I think that's the thing that a lot of people don't think about. And it's our jobs as, as business leaders to think about, you know, not just the immediate, but you know, longer term, you know, from from all aspects of things, but mental health, as well as, as

well, what advice do you have the raise some money, and and there are a couple of more questions out there. But just quickly, if you could, what some advice in terms of like, do you think Y Combinator was the secret for you in terms of being able to raise money?

Yeah, raising capital is an art. And in order to get good at that art, just like anything, you have to practice a lot, and you have to get really good coaches. Now, for me, ycombinator was my group of coaches. So I had, you know, one or two, and I'd say coaches is like, I don't think about that, outside of more of like one to three people. We I you know, I worked with Paul UK, who's the guy who was employed 23 at Google and founder of Gmail. I think he runs like a recent like a percent of Facebook. Kassar Yunus, who sold his company top into to Google and his was a partner at yc. And he was CEO of yc. I was there. And then Jared Frieden, who was the founder CTO script before it was a partner. So these are people who helped me. So yes, I found this when they are yc was really helpful, but it really only was helpful for like the seed stage, series A and Series B. Right, are is tough. And I think it really just comes down to you building up a resilience and resolve about your company, it was helpful that, you know, I had already gone through like, a lot of low points I get go. And being homeless helps, you know, like, they take it too much worse than that.

That could be like a, you know, a preamp like a requirement a prereq.

Yeah, I wouldn't recommend it. Yeah, it's a startup. So being not being a founders is really painful. And not something I'd recommend to my friends. But, but you know, it does, it's really important to do. But basically, the really important aspects of it is you have to be able to create, you have to be able to create inertia. And you have to be able to ensure that you're controlling the timelines, not the investors. And so I have a lot of opinions on raising capital. And a lot of it comes down to, it's just like fundamentals of sales, but you have to be able to create a reason for them to make a decision. And you have to be able to control the timeline and the flow of information to your investors, when that happens, and then you also have to make sure that you have as many options as possible three new three term sheets to be able to drive your valuations higher, if you don't have if you have to, you can't play off them as well. And so in order to get three term sheets, when you're raising A or B, or C, or D, you need, you need a bunch of partner meetings. So and then you need a bunch of general partner meetings. And so if you're looking to get three or four charities, you need, you know, if you close 20% of the general partner meetings, to a term sheet, you know, you're like 15, you know, 1520 meetings, for general partner meetings. So that means you're talking to a lot of investors, we had to do that in a very condensed period of time. Because again, time is not your friend.

So if you have a one thing that you have failed at, that you will have to just share that you that you don't really regret. But you know that you failed? Yeah. What do you hold on to? Oh, there's

a lot. A lot. Okay. Oh, yeah, I make a lot of mistakes. Okay, most recent maybe? I think I think I'll try to give any easy answer. So just give me a second.

I think, I think one of the things that's very hard is, is open and transparent. Communication. And whatever you think that should be, basically multiply it by three or four. I think that we are a couple of companies growing fast, a lot of things change, and what used to be the, what used to be thought of as, you know, standard operating, or like, an idea of what you think the company is, changes, like, very quickly, if you're adding, you know, if you're to x in headcount, like every year, kind of like we are, the company is different every six months. And, you know, it, it looks really clear, you know, when it's you and the people around you that are either your direct reports, or you're strategizing with, but it, it gets less clear. The further down you go. And I think one thing that I've done a poor job of is communicating intentions with strategy decisions that I've made. So like, how does this fit into, you know, I refer to this as like our lighthouse or our true north, where we're going and how does this fit into getting there? You know, a lot of times, like, you know, I talk, I've talked a lot with founders and investors. And so we look at the world very, a little bit differently from a valuation perspective, or aspect is caught up in there as well. And, and so there's some terms like, you know, reasons advantages that that I have, that not everyone has. And sometimes it can come across as like, you know, whether it's on the the human side, like the people work side, or just like the technology interaction side, people interpret what they want to interpret. And unless you communicate, and the narrative that you want to make sure is is communicated, then there's going to be like, people's narratives are going to be their own. And so I think, I think like that there exist examples of how I did that with the COVID response, or things like my work from home communication was a little unclear. Because Because we have people who have to literally be at the company to do their job, and people who don't, you know, and that's, and that communication has needs the extra attention. And so a couple tries, I think, got there, and then spending a bunch of time I talk with individuals. Um, so I think, yeah, I think that's one of the things that you don't realize or recognize until you get to a certain point, you're like, Oh, crap, like, no, there's not just five people anymore.

Well, listen, get your candor today has been phenomenal. We have we have run out of time, gave you a little bit more time, because you're, you're just being human, you know, you're just being human. I love that a Grove City grad went homeless living on someone's floor. And that created some drive. But I also appreciate that it's a bumpy journey. And, you know, and I also appreciate your candor on saying, What's the strengths of the region, and the city and how that compares to other places. And that sort of, is what we're trying to do is get better. And it's our responsibility to be as best as we can for you, as you try to as you leave this company to the next iteration. I think you are hiring. So there is a gecko, just go to the gecko site. I know we didn't get to all the questions, but really appreciate everyone joining us here today. And I want to be sensitive to everyone's time. So thank you, Jake, for for just being you and being real and sharing it. And we also did it we've been Jonathan has interviewed Jake a few times, I think and you can go on to tech five radio can hear some other stories as well. And, you know, we're staying close to Jake, we're cheering for you. And anything that we can do. That includes the people who are listening want to want to help. So that was Jake looser. arion from the co founder and CEO of Gecko robotics. Tonight is tech 50. You can still register you can see the link that we have out there and we've put it out there will be hundreds of people joining us tonight celebrating in our own special virtual way. And I'm signing off for now, tomorrow's Friday. Right. I have to say that because I never remember. And we have on the show tomorrow, Jonathan.

Yeah. Hi, Mark, stopping by talking about mental workplace talking about

mental health. Great talking about mental health and the numbers for COVID in Allegheny County have not come out yet. And yesterday was an all time high. So I think there's going to be a press conference this afternoon by our county health department leader. Anyway, I want to stay positive. So thank you, Jake, for the work that you're doing and your candor. We'll be in touch. Thank you, everyone, for joining us today.

Thank you, you guys.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai