According to a Nov. 7 TechCrunch report, Microsoft expanded its Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub program that will provide select startups with free access to high-performance “supercomputing” resources on its Azure cloud platform. The goal is to make it easier for early-stage artificial intelligence startups to develop, train, and run complex AI models by removing infrastructure cost barriers.
The new no-cost Azure AI infrastructure option will provide startups with GPU-powered virtual machine clusters optimized for AI workloads. This includes access to Nvidia-based GPUs that can handle computationally demanding tasks like natural language processing and computer vision model training.
AI Development Will be the Primary Goal of the Startups
According to Microsoft, startups accepted into the program will get time-bound credits equivalent to thousands of dollars of Azure usage per month. The credits can only be used for AI workloads and help startups test and refine their models during initial development phases when resources are most scarce.
Y Combinator, the influential seed-stage startup accelerator, will be the first organization to get private preview access to the new supercomputing clusters. Microsoft said Y Combinator’s strong track record of incubating very early-stage startups makes it an ideal initial partner.
Microsoft will work closely with Y Combinator to prioritize cluster access for AI-focused startups in its current winter cohort, as well as YC alumni developing new AI applications and services.
Removing Barriers, Microsoft Helps Innovators Excel
The goal is to remove barriers to experimentation with innovative but complex AI use cases that require considerable data and computing power, like large language models similar to ChatGPT. Lowering these barriers could help more startups succeed with transformative AI solutions.
Annie Pearl, VP of Growth and Ecosystems at Microsoft, said: “The focus will be on tasks like training and fine-tuning use cases that unblock innovation.” Over time, Microsoft plans to expand preview access to the Azure AI infrastructure through partnerships with additional startup accelerators and venture capital firms in its M12 portfolio.
The longer-term vision is to enable any promising early-stage startup focused on AI development to leverage the cloud resources they need to build and iterate quickly. Microsoft believes Azure’s technical capabilities, like high-speed networking and hyper-scale data storage, can provide startups with the best foundation for creating next-generation AI systems.
The Free Azure Credits Are Time-Limited
While the free Azure credits are time-limited, Microsoft hopes the program will attract more startups to its platform and convert them to long-term commercial customers. Competitors like Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud also offer various startup credits, and accelerator programs focused on AI. However, Microsoft believes its program is unique in targeting very early-stage startups traditionally under-resourced to handle advanced AI workloads.
By removing the infrastructure cost barriers, Microsoft wants to ensure the next wave of AI innovation comes from its cloud platform and not rivals. However, the program is not purely philanthropic. Participating startups will only get temporary access to the Azure supercomputing resources free of charge.
The credits are intended to help startups develop and test their AI solutions, not indefinitely run production workloads. There will be limits on usage time and scope to Azure services. Microsoft’s Annie Pearl acknowledged the strategic business motivations: “We believe that Azure is the best system for building AI solutions, and we’re prioritizing those that are building on Azure.”
Pearl added: “While all the cloud providers offer credits to startups, our approach attempts to address the broader needs of this community by allowing the application of these credits to training and fine-tuning for those earlier-stage startups.”
Ecosystem Leveraging with the Azure Platform and AI
By nurturing relationships with promising startups in their infancy, Microsoft hopes to foster an ecosystem of innovative companies leveraging the Azure platform and AI capabilities. The goal is to firmly establish Azure as the industry leader for developing the AI systems of the future. But the competitive clouds will likely continue vying to attract the same pool of cutting-edge startups.
The program expansion shows big tech firms see AI as the next major computing paradigm and are willing to invest heavily to realize that future. For startups, it provides rare access to advanced resources, enabling them to punch above their weight class technologically.
Originally published on ReadWrite.