With her oversized hoodie, jeans and make up free face, she could easily pass off as a college student. Her energy is infectious, at times frenetic. She speaks animatedly in between giggles, dancing through a carousel of stories – from the music she loves to running a marathon in North Korea, and competing in hackathons.
Then there was the time she performed with a circus, spinning plates and juggling (yes, you read that right). Mention tech, and her face lights up. She dives into the topic of artificial intelligence (AI) with such astute understanding that it leaves one spellbound. Little wonder that Annabelle Kwok – Her World Young Woman Achiever 2019 – is slaying it on the world stage.
She is the fresh faced 21st-century tech girl who has gone on to the big league on her own, in an industry traditionally reserved for brash, fast-fingered men twice her 26 years.
The whizz-kid even owns the playground: Creating innovative technology, flying the Singapore flag, globetrotting to give talks in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, joining the who’s who of the global tech industry. And she’s just getting started.
The spunky #girlboss aka chief executive of AI firm Neuralbay added another feather to her cap in January: a workshop to help the Obama Foundation design its future Leaders programme in the Asia-Pacific region. Annabelle was one of the young leaders – from 16 countries and territories across the Asia-Pacific region – who took part in the workshop, where participants engaged with former US president Barack Obama as part of their design work.
Despite her stellar resume, Annabelle brushes off any ovations. “I was just there at the right place and the right time, when the AI scene was starting to grow. I was thrust into the limelight very quickly, especially since I was a young Singaporean woman with something tangible to show.”
She adds: “With AI, I want to make it cheap and accessible for those who don’t have the know-how, and for the greater good.”
Her strong sense of social consciousness stems from her upbringing: Her mother sent the then 13-yearold on a Girl Guides trip to Phuket in 2005 to help tsunami victims. She recalls: “The truth only sinks in when you’re there. And once you’ve seen something, you cannot unsee it.” At 16, she volunteered with the Bethesda Care and Counselling Service, tutoring more than 30 primary school children from less privileged backgrounds.
Four years later, Annabelle packed her bags for a six-week programme in Togo, West Africa, travelling to rural villages and working with non-governmental organisations.
Of life lessons, she says: “I realised that if someone’s spirit is broken, it no longer matters how much food or how many goods you give. (What matters more is) the feeling of someone spreading joy.”
A modest start
I run a business. I create tech. I have hobbies to maintain my sanity.
The younger of two siblings, Annabelle lives with her parents in Simei. Her media-shy mum and dad, who are in their 50s, work in the financial sector. Her childhood, she says, was nothing out of the ordinary.
The former student of St Anthony’s Canossian Primary School quips: “I only had one Barbie given to me by a relative.”
She adds gleefully: “My parents got us encyclopaedias, science kits, IQ games, a fully functioning microscope and telescope. And, oh yes, the first edition of Lego Mindstorms, where you can link Lego bricks with electric cables and build robots.”
Musically inclined (she plays the piano, harmonica, drums, saxophone and guitar), she was given ample space to discover and develop her interests, at her own pace. She credits her mother for her independence, as she sometimes threw her into the deep end. On Annabelle’s first day of primary school, her mum told her she would be on her own. “
She told me to take the school bus by myself, but if I needed anything, to look to the back of the bus, because she would be driving behind.”
She excelled academically. At 14, she got into Temasek Junior College’s (TJC’s) integrated programme, which allows highperforming secondary school students to skip the O levels and proceed to junior college for the A levels.
At TJC, she studied software programming. It was there that she pulled her first “stunt”. “I went to school and they blocked my Neopets!” Annabelle says, recoiling in horror as she recounts how she was barred from accessing the virtualpet website. She started looking for ways to bypass the firewall, searching for solutions online and speaking to another techie classmate before cracking it.
From TJC, Annabelle went on to Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to major in mathematics with a minor in entrepreneurship, completing her modules in over three years instead of four. A bookworm she was not. She participated in musical theatre as an undergraduate, taking dance and singing lessons.
She later went on an exchange programme at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for more than 10 weeks to study method acting, harbouring aspirations at one point to be a Broadway musical performer. Annabelle enthuses: “The exchange trip to UCLA gave me a deeper understanding of American culture.
I had the greatest fun singing The Sound of Music with a nun on the hill in Berkeley, dancing with locals I’d just met at the Chicago Blues Festival, and making lifelong friends.”
Raised as an expressive child, Annabelle remembers: “My mum let me argue and debate with her, so my mind would start to question things, like ‘why can’t I do this?’, and all the why nots.”
It honed her razor sharp ability to analyse a situation, break it apart, and understand the rationale behind it – and helped her develop an intellectual range and confidence belying her age.
Today, Annabelle puts it into practice: “If you look at any system and don’t agree with it, there are ways to oppose it: Actively rebel or create a parallel system and go your own way. There is always another path that you can try.”
Photo: The Straits Times
Annabelle’s approach – technical but thoughtful, youthful but sophisticated – has resonated among the “cool uncles of hardware programming”, much to her amusement. She got to know these programmers through hackathons – competitions where participants create a prototype of a sellable product in one to two days.
After graduating from NTU, she bought a mini processor and tinkered with it. When that got “a little boring”, she signed up for the competitions. “When I got to know the community, they asked if I needed help and gave me a lot of guidance.”
The then 19-year-old won second place at her first hackathon, and clinched her first win at her second, the IOT Hackathon 2015, organised by A*Star. After that, organisers and sponsors were more than happy to fund the projects she undertook. It was then that people started to take notice. She was scouted to work on projects for cable channel National Geographic (she built robots used in its shows).
Other job offers started pouring in as well. But it wasn’t just because Annabelle’s products were innovative – she was savvy, too.
At one hackathon, she created a smart shoe insole to aid movement, and that resonated with the sponsor’s theme of prioritising health.
In 2015, she landed her first corporate job as an offline community manager at tech startup Garena, where she headed community development for e-commerce venture Shopee. A year later, she left and co-founded hardware start-up Smartcow. There, she designed a plug-andplay deployment device called Tera, a circuit board that could process and store lots of data.
Annabelle went to Canada to have it built when she couldn’t get the support she needed in Singapore. Her return to the city coincided with the launch of government-owned innovation platform SG Innovate, and Annabelle used its office space. That was when Tera got noticed. Companies began knocking on Smartcow’s door, and the start-up became known for offering hardware solutions for companies and businesses that were keen on integrating an AI system. She left Smartcow in 2017.
A month after her departure, she started Neuralbay. The difference between the two: Smartcow is focused on AI hardware, while Neuralbay is an AI software company that specialises in vision analytics. Annabelle has worked with big firms in the aviation and automation industries, and one of her clients is the multinational Ferrero Group.
Asked how much Neuralbay is worth, she says: “Let’s just say that we’re busy with projects for the next two years, and that will help bring revenue to pay for our operating costs and grow the business.” Neuralbay has a team of five in Singapore, and a team of mainly freelancers in Indonesia.
The Singapore team works from the Pixel office at One North, while Annabelle splits her time at work between home and Pixel.
Despite her busy schedule, the go-getter has always found space for charity work, and to pursue other interests. She explains: “There are many elements to what I do. I run a business. I create tech. I have hobbies to maintain my sanity (she has a black belt in taekwondo, and is a licensed windsurfer). When you do the smaller things, you develop better hand-eye coordination. It does something to your brain, too – it keeps you alert.”
How to work the mind and body the Annabelle way? Join the circus, of course. She performed with Singapore’s Bornfire circus troupe at the Chingay Parade 2016. Last year, the avid runner took part in a marathon in North Korea.
Work and play aside, the kid-genius says sensibly: “When you run a start-up, it’s easy to have tunnel vision and worry about money. But when you do charity work, it helps to put life in perspective. It’s a reminder of what’s important.” So for the last seven years, Annabelle has been volunteering at Make-a-Wish Singapore, which grants wishes to children with terminal illnesses. “The kids are the resilient ones; it’s the parents who break down,” she observes. “They are the ones who need support, so I focus on them as well.”
She is quick to point out that as much as she wants to help others, the big picture for Neuralbay is what Annabelle describes as a “Robin Hood model”: taking from those who have, and giving to those who are in need. She recognises that AI has a recyclable element – if you build a technology for one company, you can customise and modify elements for another firm.
For instance, a software developed for body posture can be used for both a big security firm as well as a physiotherapy clinic. “The plan is that when we build models for large companies, and we see an area that can be recycled for a smaller company, we’ll ask them for permission to recycle it for SMEs,” she says. If they agree, Neuralbay would then offer the recycled AI software to SMEs at an affordable cost of $800 to $2,000. However, Annabelle is quick to add that she does accept projects with no recyclable elements – if they offer new things to learn.
Or if she just likes what they have, as in the case of the Ferrero Group. “I like chocolate!” she giggles. The next challenge, she points out, is how to give the AI software to people who aren’t good with technology.
The real deal
MITCH KAPOR!!! WHAT A LEGEND! https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitch_Kapor The guy behind Mozilla Firefox and Electronic Frontier Foundation. Played it cool as we walked around the gardens and realised that he had read my profile!! So… over dinner, we got into a bit of an argument on our views & approach of self-regulation in technological developments. Omg, dream come true. #Fangirl
With her mind ticking all the time, one wonders if she has time for sleep and, perhaps, dating. Annabelle chuckles.
“I’m single, lah,” she declares. “I suppose someone who’s musically inclined would click better with me, someone genuine – and he must be smarter than I am!”
Lifestyle-wise, Annabelle has been on a ketogenic diet for two years, and blogs about it.
She also attends wing chun classes three times a week, training under an instructor who was a disciple of Ip Ching, youngest son of famed martial artist Ip Man. “I try to eat healthy and stay fit so I’m physically and mentally efficient,” she says.
And efficient she is. Besides running Neuralbay, designing new technology and contributing to charity, Annabelle travels the world to give tech talks.
On whether she’s intimidated by the other, much older speakers, she says: “When I get up there, I go straight to the point. People usually worry about how their hair looks or what to wear, but I’m always worried about people getting bored with what I have to say for that one hour!”
Asked how her parents feel about her achievements, she laughs: “My parents don’t praise me. My mum went for one of my talks and I asked her how I fared. She said, ‘You ah, okay lah. The other speaker was good’.” It’s easy to see why people are taken by Annabelle.
Beneath that intellect, she’s fun, approachable, compassionate, and down to earth.
When you run a start-up, it’s easy to have tunnel vision and worry about money. But when you can do charity work, it helps to put life in perspective. It’s a timely reminder of what’s important.
Her remarkable ability to succinctly spell out the stunning labyrinth of AI to the layman underlines her in-depth understanding of the subject and its potential uses.
The #girlboss continues: “Tech has a very great impact – there’s a lot of potential to affect lives and businesses. It’s the reason Neuralbay was created to make technology accessible.”