December 11, 2018
Adventures of an unlikely entrepreneur
Computer science alumnus Sam Pasupalak makes leaps in artificial intelligence, and creates opportunities for others at Waterloo to achieve ambitious goals
Computer science alumnus Sam Pasupalak makes leaps in artificial intelligence, and creates opportunities for others at Waterloo to achieve ambitious goalsBy Staff Office of Advancement
In February 2008, while working towards his degree in computer science, Sam Pasupalak (BCS ’12) found out that Bill Gates was speaking at the University of Waterloo. He had no ticket, but that didn’t stop him. Carrying t-shirts and bags to appear as a volunteer, he got past security and received a pink wristband. He pulled off his first hustle to seize the one remaining seat.
After that talk, Sam felt so inspired that he decided to start his own company as soon as he graduated. He took the next step of that journey in 2010, in Professor Chrysanne Di Marco’s artificial intelligence class. Sam and his future business partner, Kaheer Suleman (MMath ’14), built a piece of software that allowed robots to understand natural human language commands. That prototype became the basis of their future business, which Sam named Maluuba.
The next year, at the Velocity Garage incubator, Sam and his team – which now included his best friend, James Simpson (BCS ’13) – continued work on the algorithms Sam developed in Chrysanne’s class.
“We were razor focused on solving the problem of language understanding,” Sam says.“We didn’t care if technology giants like Google or Facebook were pouring billions of dollars into developing this technology. We just wanted to be the best at any cost."
Maluuba won the Velocity Venture Fund in the fall of 2011. With $25,000, the company developed training data and built a prototype to show investors. They graduated from the Velocity Garage and raised $2 million in seed funding from Samsung.
Sam and his team faced rejection as well – by hundreds of investors in their first few years. They almost went bankrupt three times, but Sam never gave up hope. He flew more than half a million miles around the globe, attending thousands of meetings, signing business deals, and raising funds for his company. The hustle paid off handsomely when Microsoft purchased Maluuba and the entire 50-person team for approximately $200 million in 2017.
“Building Maluuba was quite the adventure,” says Sam. “It required a tremendous amount of guts, determination, and perseverance. We had to believe there was light at the end of the tunnel, and if there wasn’t, we had to create it ourselves.”
Selling his company allowed him to give back to the University of Waterloo – the place that inspired him to be an entrepreneur. Last year, Sam donated $500,000 to create scholarships in support of robotics and women in computer science, Velocity awards for emerging innovators and business founders, an artificial intelligence lab in the Cheriton School of Computer Science, and a computational rhetoric project in honour of Chrysanne DiMarco.
“I would never be where I am today if it weren’t for the University of Waterloo,” explains Sam. “I was surrounded by people who inspired me and pushed me out of my comfort zone. Waterloo also has an ecosystem of entrepreneurship that isn’t available at other universities. These things all contributed to Maluuba and our success.”