OpenAI’s crisis will sow the seeds of the next generation of AI startups

The “traitorous eight,” the PayPal Mafia and . . . the OpenAI expats?

OpenAI’s meltdown is likely to become the latest installment in what’s becoming a Silicon Valley tradition: turmoil at a leading company spurring a round of employee departures that ends up seeding a fresh crop of startups.

The drama-filled weekend that’s now spilling into this week saw the ouster of co-founder Sam Altman from his role as CEO; the demotion and departure of co-founder, president and board chair Greg Brockman; and a near company-wide mutiny against the board of OpenAI’s nonprofit parent. The letter of no confidence in the board has been signed by over three-quarters of the company’s employees, including CTO Mira Murati, COO Brad Lightcap, chief strategy officer Jason Kwon, and even Ilya Sutskever, the OpenAI co-founder who helped oust Altman and now says he regrets doing so.

It’s hard to know how this will end. It’s possible that OpenAI’s board will be replaced, new management installed, and the majority of the startup’s employees placated by the moves. But more likely, Altman’s and Brockman’s decampment for Microsoft (and the new division it created for the company) will set the tone, encouraging others to leave, too. Indeed, the executives and workers who signed the open letter said they “may choose to resign from OpenAI and join the newly announced Microsoft subsidiary.”

Joining Microsoft would be an easy move for many employees. Altman and Brockman have been with the organization since the beginning, and their leadership has no doubt influenced the structure and culture of the subsequent for-profit subsidiary. No transition will be seamless, but if Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella follows through on his promise to give Altman and Brockman latitude to create their own identity and culture within the famously cutthroat and bureaucratic tech giant, then it’ll be the closest those former OpenAI employees will get to reclaiming their old gigs.