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Should Northeast Ohio’s entrepreneurs consider AI for their startups?

A photo illustration depicts a human hand shaking with a robot hand. Both are extending out of laptop screens.
AI can provide transformative potential for small businesses. The question is how should entrepreneurs best utilize the technology?

Cleveland-based startup Thrivablehelps healthcare organizations gather feedback directly from patient volunteers, a monumental task made easier through the thoughtful use of artificial intelligence, said company founder David Edelman.

Among other things, AI allows Thrivable to find subjects willing to test diabetes-related equipment and medicines from partner companies like Minneapolis-headquartered Medtronic.

“If you told us a couple of things about yourself - you have diabetes and we know your age and where you live - we can use AI tools to guess how likely you are to be on a certain medication,” Edelman said. “If you’re not on the medication, we’re not going to bother you. But if we think you might be, and you want to participate, we’ll send (the invitation) to you.”

The transformative potential of AI for small businesses like Thrivable is undeniable. The question is how entrepreneurs should best utilize the technology, noted Lauren Smith-Petta, director of educational services with the Cleveland venture development organization JumpStart.

“AI right now is the ‘dumbest’ it will ever be,” said Smith-Petta. “It’s accelerating and advancing at such a rate that we find it necessary to have monthly webinars to get everyone caught up. The best recommendation I can give is to hop on the crazy train now so you can grow with the technology.”

Observers including Smith-Petta point to marketing, operations and improvement of the customer experience as key AI use cases for small enterprises. Although the technology has its downsides, these systems take the toil from repetitive tasks so owners can focus on their core business.

“AI can improve every component of a small business, but low-hanging fruit where it’s helpful is productivity and effectiveness,” Smith-Petta said. “(The technology) automatically generates and analyzes data, spitting out outcomes so entrepreneurs can get important metrics and make business decisions more quickly.”

For example, the ability to mimic human conversation and perform routine tasks is making AI-infused chatbots a game-changing tool for customer service. Ideally, businesses using chatbot platforms like ChatGPT will deliver seamless service that reduces wait times and cuts staffing costs, said Cleveland entrepreneur and data expert Cal Al-Dhubaib.

Cal Al-Dhubaib, founder of the company Pandata, works inside the Limelight coworking space in Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Cal Al-Dhubaib, founder of the company Pandata, works inside the Limelight coworking space in Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024.

Generative AI systems like ChatGPT use natural language processing to answer simple inquiries, or complete tasks such as order confirmations or support ticket follow-ups. Some automation tools integrate with customer relationship management software to create a more efficient and streamlined workflow, Al-Dhubaib said.

“The wave of generative AI advancement that includes ChatGPT reduces the amount of effort it takes to draft a report, document or template,” said Al-Dhubaib, whose business Pandataprovides data solutions to corporations, nonprofits and other clients under the banner of “trusted and human-first AI.” “Or it will make a production manual or self-help FAQ available in 20 languages and customize them for 100 different audiences.”

Thrivable owner David Edelman is pleased with his foray into AI, as delving into endless patient data sets would be “impossible” without the burgeoning innovation, he said. “We’re working on how you organize and structure that data and make it accessible through natural language,” said Edelman. “If you think about that conversational access to data, it opens up the ability for everyone in these big companies to understand the patient experience.”

Can I learn it?

About 91% of owners that use AI indicate that the technology has made their companies more successful, according to a national survey conducted by Constant Contact - a small business-focused digital marketing and automation firm. Advantages of AI use highlighted in the study include time-savings and a decrease in manual mistakes.

AI is also utilized to develop personalized marketing campaigns. Collecting data around customer behaviors aims to develop emails and social media ads that more readily resonate with consumers, said Al-Dhubaib.

On the operational side, entrepreneurs can employ AI to prevent supply chain disruptions, a topic of vital importance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tracking vendor shipping patterns via AI allows businesses to find alternative supply sources on short notice. An innovation from German start-up Scoutbee, for instance, scrapes websites for supplier finances, customer ratings, and other key data.

Entrepreneurs daunted by AI don’t have to dive into every application at once, said Smith-Petta of JumpStart. “Our clients are still eking into AI,” Smith-Petta said. “They’re tapping into automating those time-consuming or mundane tasks, like responding to website queries, handling scheduling, or optimizing social media posts.”

While small businesses can make effective use of AI, some owners are uncertain where to begin. Smith-Petta suggests entrepreneurs choose a straightforward “tech stack” of individual applications based on their finances, tech savviness, and employee count. Courseraoffers a comprehensive introduction to generative AI that encompasses both the risks and opportunities the technology presents to businesses.

“The best place to start is with a little education,” said Smith-Petta. “The main barrier is being intimidated, just like when motorized cars came out, and when computers came out. There’s concern about ‘Can I get caught up, can I learn it, can I use it?’ That’s why learning an application is the best place to start.”

A matter of trust

Al-Dhubaib, the Cleveland entrepreneur behind Pandata, warns business owners not to “anthropomorphize” AI. Put simply, don’t treat chatbots like they’re people, he said.

“Human values make it hard for folks to understand what AI is good for,” said Al-Dhubaib. “AI is good when there are consistent patterns and repetitive tasks, like a piece of content for a travel agency where you’re writing about 10 things to do at X destination.”

"AI can improve every component of a small business, but low-hanging fruit where it’s helpful is productivity and effectiveness. (The technology) automatically generates and analyzes data, spitting out outcomes so entrepreneurs can get important metrics and make business decisions more quickly."
Lauren Smith-Petta, JumpStart

Skepticism about performance and an overarching fear that artificial intelligence will take away jobs keeps some business owners from employing the technology. Starting small is one way for entrepreneurs to alleviate their most pressing concerns, said Apostolos Kalatzis, an assistant computer science professor at Cleveland State University.

“You have to look small in the beginning, like implementing an AI strategy around the supply chain,” said Kalatzis. “The best way to identify what is needed is looking around and seeing what other small businesses have implemented and how that has worked.

A software that reacts to patterns is not so keen on replicating empathy and human intuition – at least not yet, noted Al-Dhubaib. AI systems have problems with societal biases – a 2019 study published in the journal Science found that an algorithm used to predict healthcare needs was biased against Black patients. As the algorithm relied on spending to predict future health needs – an area of historical inequity for Black patients– underserved populations had to be sicker to receive extra care under the algorithm.

Entrepreneurs must also consider copyright issues in generative AI, as well as cyber risks where data used to train a system can be misused or unintentionally leaked. Ultimately, business owners weighing the technology’s potential must ask themselves one important question.

“Why AI?” Al-Dhubaib said. “Why would AI be better suited for X task than what I’m doing now? So you have to separate technologies and come up with a good reason for ‘Why AI?’ Just dive in and experiment. There’s merit in getting practice with these tools, and doing it safely.”

Corrected: February 6, 2024 at 5:45 PM EST
The first quote from David Edelman in this story originally indicated that his company would use AI to find subjects to send medication to. It has been corrected to reflect that his company is using AI to identify potential subjects to send invitations to participate in testing diabetes-related equipment or medication.
Douglas J. Guth is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland Heights. His focus is on business, with bylines in publications including Crain's Cleveland Business and Middle Market Growth.