DeepMind co-founder was investigated by a law firm following staff complaints on his management style

LONDON — The truth about why DeepMind’s Mustafa Suleyman left the company he co-founded with childhood friend Demis Hassabis and New Zealander Shane Legg may finally be coming out.

Suleyman’s departure from the Google-owned and London-based AI lab was announced out of the blue in August 2019 with little explanation. “Mustafa’s taking some time out right now after 10 hectic years,” a DeepMind spokesperson said at the time.

Many assumed the entrepreneur, an Oxford University dropout now in his mid 30s, would return to DeepMind one day, but that never happened. Instead, he took up an AI policy role at Google in December 2019, leaving DeepMind watchers bewildered as to what caused the switch.

A report from The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, that cites people familiar with the matter, claims that Suleyman had most of his management duties stripped away from him in following complaints that he bullied staff.

Google and DeepMind confirmed to CNBC on Wednesday that DeepMind staff raised concerns about Suleyman, and that a law firm was brought in to investigate.

“With the assistance of an external lawyer we looked into concerns that were raised about Mustafa’s management style,” Google and DeepMind said in a joint statement.

“As a result, he undertook professional development training to address areas of concern, which continues, and is not managing large teams.”

The companies declined to say what the unknown law firm concluded from its investigation and a DeepMind spokesperson said it wouldn’t be appropriate for the company to comment on confidential employee processes.

They added that Suleyman is now in an “individual contributor role at Google, where he makes valued contributions on AI policy and regulation.”

Suleyman did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment, but in response to questions from The Wall Street Journal he said he “accepted feedback that, as a co-founder at DeepMind, I drove people too hard and at times my management style was not constructive.”

He added: “I apologize unequivocally to those who were affected.”

A number of complaints were filed to a member of the DeepMind review board that was set up to monitor DeepMind’s health care work, according to a CNBC source familiar with the matter, who wished to remain anonymous due to the private nature of the discussions.

In a brief message in September, Suleyman told CNBC he was “back on Twitter” and splitting his time between London and California. He also said he was “enjoying life.”

Google acquired DeepMind for a reported $600 million in 2014, just four years after the start-up was incorporated.

Following the acquisition, Suleyman was tasked with leading DeepMind’s applied AI division, which set out to find commercial uses for DeepMind’s software in the real world and across Google’s products (Search, Android, YouTube, etc). He also led the company’s ethics work.

He successfully led a project that enabled Google to slash the amount of energy the cooling units in its huge data centers use, but his talks with U.K. utility firm National Grid didn’t materialize.

Unlike Google’s bosses, Suleyman doesn’t have a technical background. He studied philosophy and theology at Oxford University, before dropping out to set up a counselling service for young Muslims. From there, he went on to work for former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, before moving on to set up a consultancy practice called Reos Partners that counted the U.N., the U.S. government, the Dutch government, WWF and Shell among its clients.

Some more technically inclined Googlers see Suleyman as something of an imposter and not very “Googley,” a source with links to DeepMind, who wanted to remain anonymous due to the nature of the discussion, told CNBC.

Many outsiders, however, view him as a passionate and thoughtful leader and he became known as a liberal activist following a number of public talks on how he wanted DeepMind’s AI to tackle the world’s biggest problems including climate change and health care.  

“Obviously claims of staff bullying always need to be taken seriously and I’m glad that DeepMind, Google and Mustafa did that and that he apologized. Based on my own interactions and dealings, I was always a big fan,” said venture capitalist Eileen Burbidge, who was also on DeepMind’s independent review board. “Still am.”

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