Tech Spark AI raises $1.4 million to create ChatGPT alternative

Artificial intelligence company Tech Spark AI announced on Wednesday a $1.4 million pre-seed round to build out a new generative AI platform called Spark Plug. The round was led by TD Bank, with participation from Salesforce, Canada’s government and NBA Canada.

Tech Spark AI is based in Toronto and was founded by Tamar Huggins eight years ago to develop school curricula for Black and brown students across North America. This eventually led to the idea of creating a more personalized experience for students.

She created the product with her 13-year-old daughter, Talia Grant. It seeks to be a Black-owned alternative to current AI search platforms, mainly ChatGPT. Spark Plug has partnered with educational institutions in the U.S. and Canada, with a particular focus on schools within underserved Black and Brown communities.

The product’s first iteration allows users to translate classic literature text into modern language, with Gen Z as its target audience. More specifically, the text translation is from standard text to African American Vernacular English (AAVE), a dialect that originated in the Black American community and is now used broadly by Gen Zers on the internet.

Spark Plug

Product imagery of Spark Plug. Image Credits: Spark Plug

“Oftentimes, technology is designed without the lens of Blackness, and therefore, the impact on Black communities can be quite negative, especially when it comes to AI in general,” Huggins told TechCrunch. “It’s really about how we can identify the problems that exist within our own communities using technology to create meaningful, safe-tailored solutions that generate impact.”

Huggins said Spark Plug’s language model was trained by her daughter, a member of Gen Z, as well as authors from the Harlem Renaissance and activists from the Civil Rights Movement. Despite its focus on students, the product is available for everyone to use as a web application, functioning similarly to ChatGPT. The goal is for it to be known as a leader in inclusive generative AI.

“Historically, Black people haven’t always felt like they belonged, and as a result, we’ve had to create our own spaces. Technology is no different,” she said. “As long as we are including the voices of those systematically left out of the conversation, AI can take us in the right direction.”

Fundraising was challenging, though. Huggins came up with the idea in 2019 and started developing the product while she was pregnant with her youngest child in 2020. After the murder of George Floyd, many investors said they were interested in backing more Black founders, including those in the ed-tech space, though Huggins, like many Black founders, found most of these promises fruitless. Things changed, however, after Spark Plug received an investment from TD Bank late last year. “The floodgates opened for other investors who were now like, ‘Oh, let me see how we can also be a part of this round,” she said.

Huggins also received funding from the Investment Readiness Program by the Foundation for Black Communities. Omar Omar, the director of community investments at the Foundation, told TechCrunch that the Spark Plug platform “tapped into the undervalued knowledge and ideas that have allowed Black communities to thrive in the most adverse conditions.”

“Instead of viewing racialized communities as empty vessels in need of capacity building, Spark Plug has placed the perspectives of these communities at the center of their work and, in doing so, has unlocked the true potential of the future of technology,” he said. “Our investment in Spark Plug is an investment in making our youth leaders in the development of diverse and pluralistic technology solutions.”

In addition to its language translation, Huggins said Spark Plug has created an assessment tool called LearningDNA to help educators understand how students learn best. For example, if a student learns best by listening, Spark Plug will present a concept to them with a hip-hop melody. The product also wants to expand how many dialects it can translate, especially since Black voices throughout the world are very different.

“A Black child in Canada is very different from the U.S., and it’s very different in Haiti or Jamaica,” Huggins said. “We believe to see the changes we want to see in our community, we have to redesign the learning experience, and in order to redesign it, we have to personalize it.”

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