TotemInteractive: Make Ads People Love

TotemInteractive, StartupYard’s first Polish startup team, came to StartupYard with a novel concept, and has executed on a broad vision to change digital outdoor advertising in a major way. The team, experienced in digital media and cloud systems, is creating a platform into which marketers and advertisers can put their creative energy to generate meaningful, lovable, interactive display ads in place of boring, old fashioned posters and billboards.

I caught up with Piotr Piekos, CoFounder and CEO at TotemInteractive, to talk about the future of outdoor digital advertising, and cloud based marketing. Here’s what he had to say:


Hi Piotr, tell us a bit about TotemInteractive and your team. How did you come up with the idea?

TotemInteractive

Pietor Piekos, CoFounder and CEO at TotemInteractive

TotemInteractive is a software platform that aims to help marketers with deployment and performance measurement of cross-platform, interactive marketing campaigns launched on electronic screens in public and in-store locations. Basically, interactive display advertising, instead of boring old posters.

The idea came from our observation of two trends: the propagation of digital screens in public spaces, and the fact that mobile devices have become an inseparable part of almost every activity that we do outdoors. TotemInteractive believes that digital advertising outdoors as often depicted in scfi movies in not just an imaginary future. We think that it is a natural consequence of the mobile and IoT revolution. TotemInteractive’s plaform aims to be among the first players on that market.

You have a background working with digital agencies. How does that help you when it comes to creating a platform for digital interactive ads?

Throughout my professional career I had seen a number of solutions aiming to resolve the problem of unified and streamlined visual communication across different devices. Some of them already succeeded in industries like gas and oil (crisis centers) or places like decision-support systems for high-level corporate executives.

Budget constraints are less of a worry for these types of businesses, allowing the vendors to reach high complexity and sophistication with the systems they deploy. I have been involved with several dozen such products. Knowing exactly what our target market (advertisers) expects, we are able to provide a lean and user friendly answer to the market demand. In short: we want to move what is already possible with multi-million dollar equipment to the world of advertising, where price is always a consideration.

What about your team? How are you uniquely qualified to bring display ads into the modern age?

To answer this question, I will first need to explain a bit about the requirements for the platform. We had composed a team with very technical specific requirements in mind: such as quality of service (your ad has to be there at all times),  and scale (platform needs to work on hundreds of screens simultaneously).

Our team consists of people who are experts in building complex, distributed systems. Michal is a system-engineer who is a specialist in cloud based deployments. Kamil and Piotr have been working on large scale deployments of tailored B2B systems for years.

 

Leszek Knoll

Leszek Knoll

TotemInteractive

The TotemInteractive Team

TotemInteractive

The Totem Interactive Team Hard at Work

 

On the business side: Leszek Knoll, my CoFounder and COO, brings startup entrepreneurial experience on board. He had built startups in the past and knows well the rules of the game.

I have been working in professional audio-visual industry for several years: my expertise is based on several dozen deployed, consulted and rescued projects related to large scale visualization systems. Lastly, we are backed by several mentors who hold strategic positions in advertising segments: in agencies, brands, and large media-house conglomerates.

Tell us a little about how the TotemInteractive platform works. What does it enable advertisers to do?

TotemInteractive makes it possible to directly interact with a big digital screen in public spaces using your mobile phone. It can be a game, where you use your mobile as a controller, or a socially engaging voting system for your favourite band during the music festival. Whatever you can image.

Our platform stays hidden behind the scenes, a cloud based system that supports various applications for live screens. It’s a sophisticated enabler, allowing marketers to very easily create and deploy interactive campaigns, without a need to engage substantial resources to prepare, code, test and deploy their own cloud based or local solutions.

How is TotemInteractive different from traditional static display ads?

It is not boring! Our platform transforms traditional ads into something that delivers real value to the consumer. Suddenly, those displays become engaging, fun and an experience sharable with others.
TotemInteractive

You’ve already run a few pilot campaigns. Can you tell us a little about how these worked, and what the results were?

Even though our MVP is still in development phase, we had done a proof of concept campaign during a job fair, at Silesian University of Technology. Our results show that, first of all: people are really keen on interacting with this new type of medium, when the motivation for doing so is clear.

Registering more than 10 engagements per hour, per screen, gives us good reason to believe that such advertising can be much more effective than traditional display ads. Not to mention, that 42% of the people who played our game were willing to share their Facebook data with us through the platform. Try doing something like that with a poster.

You have spent quite a bit of time identifying market needs and exploring different approaches to the market. What has the exploration process revealed that you didn’t know a few months ago?

Major conclusion was that a seed-stage startup will have very hard times when it comes to deployment of a platform across multiple screen networks. We had found out that it is a very capital intense goal, that we simply cannot afford to chase at this moment.


What are your immediate plans for expansion? What does TotemInteractive have planned for the next year?

We want to reach the retail market (in-store digital signage, banking, car dealerships). Gradually we also want to move to the events market. In the next year we want to be recognizable by marketers in CEE and western Europe as these guys that can put their creative, potentially viral, ideas into motion.


Long term, where do you want to be in 5 years?

 Market leader in interactive digital signage! We want to provide marketers not only with technology, but with unsurpassed reach (network aggregation), for their digital outdoor campaigns.

How has StartupYard shaped the company’s growth in the past 3 months? Are there any particular mentors who had an outsized impact on your team, direction, or traction?

Well, StartupYard was immensely helpful in terms of momentum that our business reached during this time. Definitely, mentoring was a revealing and beneficial experience for us. It was about knowledge sharing, feedback (both positive and negative), but also some of the mentors allowed us to enter real sales opportunities that we are chasing at the moment.  Without SY it would not be possible. But not only that: I believe that our business development potential is now multiplied by your expertise in marketing and the power of your network.

boatify

Boatify: Your Boating Experience Platform

The boatify team joined StartupYard this year as our very first team representing Switzerland, and its emerging startup scene. Found and CEO Johannes Röhrenbach is passionate about boating, and lives the dream by making his home a boat on Lake Zurich.

Johannes Röhrenbach, Founder and CEO at Boatify

Johannes Röhrenbach, Founder and CEO at Boatify

The team has set out to build the world’s leading boat-sharing platform, centered around building enjoyable experiences for average people in Zurich, and in ports and harbours around the world. I caught up with Johannes this week to talk in detail about his dreams for the boatify platform.

Hi Johannes, tell us a bit about boatify. How did you come up with the idea?

Well, at the very end of August 2014 a friend of mine invited me on a short cruise on the Lake in Zurich, in the evening´s magic night atmosphere only a lake can have. It was a very old boat – 45 years old -, full of wood, lovely details and a breathtaking charm. And I immediately fell in love.

My friend was living on the boat – the Blue Ocean -, together with his family since the beginning of the summer. But they were considering selling it, since for four people it would have been too small to stay throughout autumn and winter. So I decided to buy it.

Boatify Flagship, The Blue Ocean

Boatify Flagship, The Blue Ocean

It was a quick and spontaneous decision, all of a sudden. I needed to hurry up a lot, doing my skippers’ license and preparing everything to resettle. In the end of September I finally moved onto the boat myself.

Since then I´ve experienced the most magical moments one can imagine: the early morning´s dawn on the lake with the particular calmness the water only has in these hours, playing guitar in softly shaking sunsets, poker session with whisky and cigars – on a boat in the very center of the town. Most of that I experienced only on my own or with good friends – and with a strange feeling that these experiences should really be available for others. This is how I came up with the idea to start a platform, where people can share boating experiences: boatify.

What are some of the other ways that people can currently book boating experiences? Why is boatify better?

See, if you want to go on boat around Zurich, you can whether take a passenger boat, you can rent a pedalo, and in case you have a skipper’s license you can rent a motorboat from one of the few commercial providers – not very nice boats actually, without any charm, and for horrendous prices. There’s basically no access to these thousands of unused private boats around – and no platform offering easy and affordable experiences on boats.

In other locations, yacht charter platforms provide access to boats. But they don’t solve the problem of finding the perfect crew. So sailors use old school forums to connect and plan their trips together. We add the community dimension to the boats: boatify is a service to bring people together onboard. Boat lovers and those who might be ones in the future.

What sorts of features will boatify have in the first year? What can people do with the platform?

It´s all about the experience and the social interaction. Our key approach is to show impressions of interesting boat experiences on the very first visit – and to the right people. On our own website, but also in social networks and further platforms such as Eventbrite or Groupon. You will firstly show interest in an experience, later you can confirm your reservation. If you find something interesting, share it with your friends on Facebook and Co.

Boatify is all about connecting the right people and bringing them together on board, hence user generated content and user profiles play an important role: as boat owner you can find mechanics or other experts – and trusted officers, who care for your boat and the maintenance when you’re away. As officer you can list your own experiences and earn better ranks the more five-star ratings you get, and for the more boats you´ll become accredited for.

And also as a normal user, you can pin outstanding boating spots on the map, suggest itineraries and tell your last unforgettable boating story to the crowd.

We merge the schedules of the boats with the schedules of the experiences and integrate with further booking systems of our partners such as charter companies, so every involved stakeholder can easily manage his/her upcoming bookings.

Building a community around boating is an important part of your mission. Can you tell us more about how you plan to accomplish this?

Johannes in conversation with Executive in Residence Viktor Fischer

Johannes in conversation with Executive in Residence Viktor Fischer

It´s all about visibility. Boat lovers must understand that there’s finally someone bringing their community online.. So we must be on everyone’s mind. We’ll be present at boat clubs and magazines – and on the water of course: In Zurich with the wonderful Blue Ocean and in Berlin with the even more wonderful MS Fitzgerald. We’ll organize outstanding activities like a fleet parade or a boat sharing day, so everybody will talk about us.

It is our magic story we will tell. To build a particular atmosphere and to convince everybody to jump on board with us – as our first 23 early bird officers already did. It´s all about living the boating dream.

To leverage that, this summer we will start the craziest project ever: a Boat-Road-Show. As an international startup and the digital nomads we are, we will prove that it is in fact possible to run a company from wherever you are in the world – even from a boat!

So this is what we’ll do: starting in Barcelona, from July on, we will travel the coast line from Spain and France, to Italy and Sicily, hopping over from harbour to harbour, telling our story, organizing parties and other experiences – and convincing boat owners, skippers and all the others to follow the boatify dream and to continue to start their own boatify businesses.

We need to find the perfect sponsors and we will engage an army of talented interns to come with us to make this blueprint of experience come true.

You’re launching in Zurich. That seems an odd choice for a boating platform. What’s your reasoning, and what’s your growth strategy over the next year or so?

The boat stock in Zurich and the many lakes around is bigger than you think! There are more than 100.000 private boats of all classes existing in Switzerland; additionally Lake of Constance on its own (together with the bigger German and Austrian part) already contains over 65.000 private boats.

Additionally, Zurich is very attractive as a market, not just because it is one of the richest cities in the world, but in particular because the very city center embraces the lake. In summer, there are thousands of people spending time all around on the shore: a great chance to get visibility – especially on an eye-catching boat like the Blue Ocean. Adding some special attractions nobody has seen before, like small concerts from boat to shore, or a Boat-Sharing-Day in addition to the very popular Rooftop-Day will get us a lot of attention.

Our growth strategy: The Boat-Road-Show will give us a lot PR, but it´ll probably take another season until we will have serious operations going on in the Mediterranean Sea. For this summer, we focus our operations towards Lake of Zurich and Lake of Constance, where we want to sell 3000 experiences throughout the year. Our marketing activities all around Europe will bring as a lot of awareness online – and we’ll convert it to business back home in Zurich.

The key for being successful is an interesting portfolio of offers on the supply side, which is why we´ve already gathered most commercial providers of this region on the platform. Now we need to add the experiences on top of the boats, and there we go.

At the same time, we’re preparing to launch in the Mid-East. Our lead officer in Dubai has already organized the first partnerships with charter companies, so that we can test the market in the coming months and start serious operations there from October on – with the beginning of the season.

As with AirBnB and Uber, there are always legal concerns about liability and insurance. How will you give your users and boat owners peace of mind?

I´m a strong believer in and warrior for the Shared Economy! However, many liability and insurance questions still remain unclear across all kinds of solutions. Additionally, traditional businesses such as taxi companies or hotels suffer from smart peer-to-peer platforms all over the world – AirBnB and Uber are the blueprints for it.

But also in our case there´s already a lobby of commercial boat trip companies existing in Berlin, fighting against smaller boat businesses. And that´s not okay! There is so much unused property in this world and it´s not right not to let the majority of society access it – whereas nowadays technologies can make it so easy for us to share.

There remains a lot of work to do to clarify and solve all the open questions and issues. For us and for other shared economy pioneers. But the time has come to make the world a better, fairer and more efficient place – so let´s do it!

Can you talk about some kinds of experiences that users can have on your platform?

Sure! I´d love to! As I´m a hobby musician and play a lot of instruments, the first official boatify experience has been a Jam Session on board a river boat in Prague – three weeks ago. But there can be so much more: Dinner Cruises, for companies or privately, other cultural events like lectures, concerts, maybe even vernissages. On boatify you can buy a ticket for a trip or a venue, like for a boat party or something more special like a speed dating on a boat. Or, you can book entire packages, to celebrate your birthday – or even your wedding on board. Our vision: to enable you to do everything on the water that you could do on land – we want to bring life from land to water! This is also why we’re organizing our Boat-Road-Show: we basically live our idea.

At the same time an experience does not necessarily need to be something outstanding. If you like the water and you want to run your small business as boat skipping teacher without being dependent on a company, or if you want to offer fishing, diving or snorkeling trips, waterski, sightseeing tours, or even just spend your evenings in an exclusive surrounding with some hand picked people: do it with boatify.

It is up to the creativity of our officers: whatever concept you would like to offer on boatify, whatever is most requested in your home region, we’ll give you the tool to realize it.

What opportunities does boatify offer for boating professionals? What about boat owners?

Beside our customers, the two main roles interacting on our platform are boat owners and officers. Boat owners own the property, but often they don’t have time to use their boats. So the boats sit unused – which is actually not very good for a boat. Boats need to be aired, they need to be moved and they need to be continuously run to keep machinery and equipment in proper shape. So what boat owners normally do is to engage marinas or other professional providers to look after their boats, for a lot of money – and in addition to the high maintenance and docking costs.

Owning a boat is almost always a financial drain- sometimes unnexpectedly so. This is what we want to turn around: we want to make a boat not only financially feasible, but even profitable.

And we do it via our officer approach. In building a community of experienced boat enthusiasts, who don’t necessarily need to own a boat themselves, we bring the boat owners in contact on our platform with all the knowledge and capacities they’re lacking. They can get in touch with mechanics and other experts, who will always care for the boat, when the boat owner doesn’t have time himself.

In return, these boat enthusiasts get access to the boats: as soon as an officer becomes certified by us, he can get in contact with all the boat owners in his region; the ones already registered on our platform and new ones he can approach by himself, supported by the boatify team and other officers around. When a boat owner trusts an officer, he can accredit him for his boat and the officer is allowed to operate the boat, to create experience offers and to run his own business with it.

How do you plan to grow usership of your platform in the early stages?

We will provide the best tool to organize yourself around boating, but we must succeed building a particular movement around our platform. We do this gathering as many boat enthusiasts as possible around us and incentivizing them to do so themselves. It will feel extremely cool, to be part of the boatify crew – the more you contribute, the higher your officer rank gets and the greater benefits you get: it´s a kind of gamification factor we use here.

As soon as we´ve proven our concept, we´ll start with our „officer academy program“, hence we will provide the entire life cycle for want-to-be boat lovers: we offer young people the chance to do their skipper license with us for free, training them in all relevant aspects of security and safety and teaching them how to realize the most amazing boat experiences. Then we give them the boats and there they go.

In each region we´ll be active, we’ll employ a lead officer – the Fleet Admiral – organizing all activities and building the community himself: you can partly compare this to the Uber approach, they are an important example for us.

Where do you hope boatify will be in 5 years time?

The overall goal is to create the world´s biggest boating community. In five years we want to be active worldwide, mainly covering our starting market in Europe. We want to become the one tool whenever you think to start or organize something on board. We want to make boating accessible for everyone, to overcome its exclusivity and to take usage of the millions of private boats sitting unused all around the world.

With a properly implemented Sharing Economy concept we want to set an example against unfair distribution of goods and become an important player with a clear code of conduct in an industry that is not organized sustainably at all. The dream is to gain enough power to engage in some of the world´s biggest environmental problems like the pollution of the seas.

How has StartupYard impacted boatify’s development? Have any particular mentors been especially important in getting you to where you are today?

At StartupYard we finally learned to outline the boating experience as the core product on our platform. We had these visions in our minds from the very beginning, but were always pitching boatify as a marketplace solution for boats. With your continuous challenge of our positioning and its execution, Lloyd and Cedric´s, of course, Michal´s and Viktor´s, we’ve now become extremely focused and well-prepared on how to bring our vision to reality.

We had to face some major problems during our time at StartupYard as well – starting development over from scratch after one month. Our dear mentor Vladimir Kozak has helped us a lot in this time and he still is, continuously structuring and challenging all our development approach. We’ve profited a lot from personal introductions and the support of a lot of our mentors, especially Ladana Edwards with her unbeatable supportive friendliness, Daniel Hastik continually feeding us with valuable startup insights and Wallace Green, who helped us in building greatest visions with his endless creativity and enthusiasm.

Stream.Plus: Netflix for Brands

Stream.Plus is the last video platform brands will ever need, according to Founder Marek Novy. Late of Seznam.cz and also a longtime StartupYard mentor, now turned StartupYard member, Marek has spent his career in digital media, and says that the current video advertising market is fundamentally broken.

Stream.Plus is designed to offer brands, as well as viewers and video curators, a better model for monetization of high quality branded video, and the growth of MCNs (Multi Channel Networks). Stream.Plus is based on a viewer-centric approach to online video, and bills itself as “Netflix For Brands.” I caught up with Marek this week to talk more about his startup: Stream.Plus


Hi Marek, Tell us a little bit about yourself and Stream.Plus.

My passion is learning and building new things, it is my name anyway- [Novy means “new” in Czech]. I quit my job at Seznam.cz, because I feel I have to do much more learning and building than I was able there. But it get me thinking about future of media and I also met my cofounders there. Stream.Plus is the materialization of our vision of where media, and specifically video, is going.

 

stream-plus

Marek Novy, Founder and CEO at Stream.Plus

 

What makes Stream.Plus different from other streaming video platforms? What can you do that can’t be found on YouTube or Facebook?

The most important difference for me is the purpose, even though it might be not so obvious. Our purpose is to help organizations, brands or individuals to build and operate their own media properties so they can have a direct relationship with their customers. The real business purpose behind YouTube or Facebook is to be a middleman between users and brands so they can sell user’s attention to advertisers.

That’s a basic conflict between brands and companies like Alphabet and Facebook. The interest of the brand is more and more in building an audience for their product- not just selling products one by one, but developing customer loyalty around the brand and the ideas and culture it is a part of. But YouTube, as a particular example, has more of an interest in moving customers between channels- from one video to the next, in order to display their direct advertising.

For YouTube, it is of more value to have a user not remain in one particular stream of content- but instead to jump around to allow different ad-impressions to be sold at higher prices. Basically, the user is the product, and advertisers are the customer. That model is becoming quite unsustainable- especially when you consider that typically, YouTube users now skip video ads within seconds- which drives YouTube to make their ads more aggressive, and more pervasive.

On a product level Stream.Plus is primarily about human-created playlists. They are important, because they drive a type of user experience which is really missing in online video. Human-created playlists are trending in streaming music and they have even stronger value in video. We improve playlists to combine short and long form content so that users can choose how much time they spend on a topic.

The big difference here is that we preference real users’ interests, and not that of advertisers. The media companies and brands on our platform will compete for eyeballs with their high quality content, not for the cheapest ad space available.

We also think that a video is a great tool for direct in-video shopping and lead generation. We provide conversion buttons in videos and eventually we want the whole buying process to happen inside a video. This keeps the customer’s interests as the main priority- people don’t want to be taken away from content they enjoy, and people want to have a relationship with the brands they buy from. We can accomplish both with Stream.Plus.

More and more, brands are becoming direct content providers, through Social Media, Youtube, and elsewhere. How can brands use Stream.Plus to help them build their audience?

Social media and YouTube are great places to be present in order to attract users. But sound brand strategy has to go beyond that. Otherwise a brand is being used by social media instead of using it.

Stream.Plus provides tools covering a complete user journey starting on branded social media channels or the social media channels of an influetial person, going through branded online tv properties, then mobile apps, and finally reaching a point when a user is ready to buy or provide a lead. This journey is about gradually building trust and earning permission to give a user a business proposal.      

Brands have to accomplish that by creating content people want to see- not by forcing them to see content that they haven’t asked for.

How have MCNs (Multi-Channel-Networks), evolved in the past decade, and in what direction do you see the industry growing now?

MCNs are my favorite subject. They are essentially the most recent evolution of the media industry.

I think both traditional media and marketers can learn a lot from them. They’ve kind of organically grown out of the YouTube ecosystem. They started as pure aggregators of channels to get better deals from advertisers. Later they built various analytical tools and technology to help creators to be more successful. The most successful ones are actually those who thought beyond YouTube. They are building full-scale media companies potentially totally independent from YouTube, using the platform to their advantage instead of being used.

Multi-Channel Networks are not a small industry anymore. Many of the networks that were originally built on YouTube are now worth hundreds of millions of dollars as media companies, with their own loyal followings, products, and diverse revenue streams. We want to create a way for brands to jump into this next cycle of evolution in media, and grow where their audiences now live.

Let’s talk a bit about the service. What are some of the features that users can experience? What kind of content and experience are you going to provide?

I can best illustrate it with some examples. Let’s say you saw a post on FaceBook with a video that your friend shared about a musical. You click on the video to see what it’s about. You will end up on our platform watching a large, almost full screen teaser video about the musical, which is typically 20 seconds long. If you don’t respond to it, we will show you another teaser video, for instance, a Lion King. It is a great one, you actually want to really see it after watching that video. You can now directly book a ticket from the video or choose to learn more about show by watching more videos about it.

People want to be in control of their buying experiences more and more. They want the joy of discovery, not an advertising hammer, pounding on them to buy, buy, buy. We have to help brands evolve into the free-media space, so that they’re speaking the same “language,” as their customers.

Entertainment is a great vertical for us because trailer videos are often a joy to watch anyway. Interviews with actors, backstage videos, etc are all very interesting content to watch. This can be linked directly to ticket booking. Cars are another interesting vertical with videos like car reviews, tuning and car improvement tips, auto sport videos, drifting shows, etc. Fashion is another area we will explore by working with fashion retailers to essentially build a small MCN for them with selected creators to run many shopping channels in parallel for different audiences.

How do you plan to monetize Stream.Plus?

We have a free plan if you don’t need video hosting from us. Your channel will be a part of stream.plus web and mobile apps. This is a great option if you want to create a channel that is your own personal selection from other people’s videos on our platform or from YouTube. You can build an audience there and upgrade later without losing them.

Then we provide a subscription plan based on how many monthly active users you have. It includes video hosting and your own branded web and mobile apps. You can choose to integrate it into your main website or run it on a separate domain like “brand.tv.”

Next  you can decide whether you want to work with our network of creators and social media influencers. They will either promote your product in their videos or recommend your content to their audiences. You provide them with your marketing brief and a reward for them which is typically a CPC or CPA model. We take a share of this revenue.

Can you talk more about the E-commerce potential in Stream.Plus? How can consumers use the platform for a better shopping experience

There are some categories of products which can be sold much better from video than webpages. In-video shopping is the next big thing in e-commerce. Honestly, there have been many attempts to do it, it is a kind of obvious, and they have all failed.

As usual, I think, there is no single key to break it, it will come from a right combination of several factors. YouTube is an obvious place, they have actually tried several times, but it is simply not compatible with their goals as a platform. There are so many distractions in YouTube’s UI, that a new buy button is yet another distraction. Our approach is no distraction besides call-to-action buttons during video viewing, to make it much more powerful. Affiliate programs for creators and influencers is another ingredient to make it work.   

stream-plus

The StreamPlus Team

What’s been the biggest challenge for the Stream.Plus team since joining StartupYard? Why?

 

We are shaping our product offering into something our customers can easily understand and relate to. I have to thank StartupYard and all mentors that they have been a great help. Due to my online media background I tend to unconsciously expect that people have insight into media mechanics and that some trends are rather obvious. StartupYard and the mentors have opened my eyes to how important it is to be able to clearly communicate our vision and story.

People are currently obsessing about media ownership, but media was kind of “owned” by advertisers from the beginning.    

Are there any particular mentors who had a disproportionate impact on your company’s development? How so?

There have been a bunch of mentors who provided valuable contacts and insights to us. I am currently waiting for a meeting in a big agency network, this type of partnership can have disproportionate impact on our development, but we don’t know yet.
SY2016_photoshoot (70 of 83)

Where do you hope Stream.Plus, and branded video content in general, will be in the next 5 years?

The next 5 years will be quite dramatic for the TV industry, which is the last media sector to be really disrupted by online world realities, especially in the US, where the TV industry has been able to prolong the business status quo most successfully.

Stream.Plus wants to be a leader in permission based video content marketing. We want to define a new balance point between users as content consumers and marketers who are paying for the content. I think this relationship has to build from permission marketing principles (defined by Seth Godin in 1999) and transparency. Branded content channels are actually more transparent than “native” advertising on 3rd party media.  

Are you currently looking for partners or pilot customers? How can people get in contact with Stream.Plus?

We are looking for forward thinking brands who are essentially willing to transform into media companies. We are also looking for agency partnerships, because in our vision of the future, creative agencies will create content and grow audiences for many brands at once.  

Don’t forget to sign up for StartupYard’s 2016 Demo Day, April 6th, at the Royal Theater in Prague. Tickets available and going fast!

Neuron SoundWare: Making Sense of Sound

Neuron Soundware is what we often call a “deep tech” startup. Like several of StartupYard’s alumni companies, they are unique in that they are operating at the edge of current technology, and developing processes and software that have never been tried before.

Neuron Soundware’s mission is bring machine learning and neural networks to sound and voice analysis- creating interfaces between machines and people, and between machines and mechanical devices, that are highly intelligent and adaptable to many applications. I caught up with CoFounder and CEO Pavel Konecny this week to talk about the company and its mission to understand and process sound:

Hi Pavel, tell us a bit about Neuron Soundware, what you do, and how the company came to be.

We build and train software that understands audio. Our technology is practically an auditory cortex in a computer- a digital brain. It’s all based on deep learning – the fastest-growing field in machine learning. That’s the kind of technology, that has just recently beaten the best human player in Go. It is all enabled by the increasing power of computing – especially thanks to GPU advances.

We started working on some prototypes in October last year. I worked for a global IT firm for the past 12 years, and I just returned to Prague after spending over 3 years in the Sydney office. It was a great time, but I felt that I needed to follow my passion for AI. So I convinced my friend and high school classmate. We initially worked on some of my ideas around data compression using neural networks. In November, we applied for StartupYard. It was a good decision, and it helped us to find the right business field for our technology.

Your team is probably working on the most complex problems of any startup in our program right now. How is your team uniquely qualified to solve problems using machine learning and neural networks?

All of the co-founders have a strong technical background. I studied cybernetics and biomedical science. And I’ve worked on many projects with different technologies. I did the first Hadoop Big Data project in Australia, and implemented high-performance calculations for smart meters. We were about to digitalize a video archive, so I also built a pilot implementation for the facial recognition of cricket players last year. That was a very exciting experience.

The Neuron Software Team

The Neuron Soundware Team: Pavel and Filip

Filip Sedlak has a Master’s degree in chemistry informatics. He worked many years for pharmaceutical companies. He was in charge of taking an algorithm and building applications for researchers in genetics. He is really brilliant at that. I am very glad that he joined our team.

 

neuron soundware, pavel klinger

Co-Founder and Musician Pavel Klinger

Pavel Klinger is my very good friend. He studied biophysics at Charles University in Prague. He is an excellent coder as he has been programming since his childhood. He is also a musician. So that is one of the reasons we focus on audio. Neural networks are his old hobby. He built his first one when he was at high school. He wanted something to write his school homework instead of him. It did not work that well, but he could type a bit faster as the neural net was predicting the word he was going to type based on the first few letters. So it was an easy task to convince him to start a company using neural networks.

Can you tell us a bit more about how neural networks and machine learning software can help manufacturers and other industries?

Our technology analyzes sounds that machinery makes. We train it to recognize any anomalies or known issues. Sound and vibration are the most efficient way to detect mechanical malfunctions. However, the moving parts acoustics were typically too complex to make it practical. Till now. Our technology can manage these complexities, so we can inspect enclosed parts like gearbox using the sound it makes.

Our software is sort of like a very streamlined, simplified mechanic- but one that never gets distracted or bored. It can learn how an engine normal sounds, and it can learn which sounds signal a mechanical problem.

Neuron Soundware’s technology works just like a human brain- but because of the complexity of a real brain, ours is only about as powerful as the brain of a small bee. But that’s enough, really, to understand quite a bit about complex sounds, and recognize problems by listening to them in a huge range of applications.

Neuron Soundware technology can also learn from “training data,” to reconstruct sounds and even voices, based on what it has already listened to. This has enormous applications in the future, when it comes to anything from call centers, to natural language AIs.

Our technology can eventually be used to generate the voice of a completely artificial mind, with emotion, ability to listen, and detect and understand complex emotions in whomever it’s talking to. It’s difficult to overstate how many applications this technology will have in the next decade. It’s simply enormous. 

For now, we are already able to reconstruct a real voice that the software has listened to, and to reproduce speech without using any sound files. Soon, we will be able to generate original, unique speech as well. I plan to demo this technology on April 6th at the StartupYard 2016 Demo Day.

Don’t forget to sign up for StartupYard’s 2016 Demo Day, April 6th, at the Royal Theater in Prague. Tickets available and going fast!

 

What are some of the other possible applications for your machine learning technology?

In addition to the industry sounds, we are developing some advanced services for call centers. It sounds like magic, but we are getting close to the production stage. For now. we are working on emotion detection and comprehensive voice modulation. 

The way you say something is often more important than what you say. So we can start by modifying a customer service agent’s voice perfectly to the emotional state of the customer. For example, the direct sales team would sound nicer and more trustable. We can change accents, and make many other changes. In time, our technology could completely replace call center agents, with machines that never make mistakes, and never get tired or frustrated.
We also have plans in the area of IoT devices, where we could provide diagnostics and sound recognition in conjunction with other services. We’re currently working on a potential partnership in this area with a major Czech printing and IoT company, who have been incredibly supportive so far.

Q: You’re focusing initially on partnerships with device companies, such as 3D printer manufacturers. What do you hope to accomplish business-wise in the next year?

Industry sounds are quite simple compared to emotional detection in voices. We have achieved extremely high accuracy. Hence, we are planning to first address manufacturers with high-value products and large high quantities, such as car makers.

Neuron Soundware technology could provide a sound “guardian” to any moving part. We could hear that something is broken or even predict that it is going to break. We would license our algorithms and charge fees for every unit equipped with our system.

How about the longer-term strategy? Where do you hope to be as a company in 3-5 years? What kind of things will Neuron Soundware technology be doing further in the future?

Our plan is to master the process of learning. We believe that the next generation of applications will not be coded but “trained.” 

For example, we would replace most of the people working in call centers with programs that learn on the job. We would take a few months of historical data from the call center (voice and screen recording) and process it. Our algorithms would develop a complex customer interaction model that would not only consist of the conversation with the customer but also management the customer data in the backend systems. Call center agents are a kind of interface between calling customer and company systems. With our service in place, the call center traffic will be managed with a fraction of the current staff.

You’re a bit of a futurist, I’ve noticed. How do you think the overall role of AI and machine learning will grow within the foreseeable future?

A lot of our jobs will be done by machines and automated services. For example, it is much harder to make a living as a translator these days, when you are competing with Google translate. You might think that people are still better, but they won’t be forever. The same would happen in a lot of other areas.

Do you want to sort the best photos, videos and create an appealing movie from your vacation? Done. Exploration of what is the best market for my product would be just one click? An automated tool will create a set of ads and test them via Facebook in a day.

It would be a huge impact on the society. New jobs would need to be invented. We might even see taxation of computation time. If Moore’s law stays valid a few more decades, we would all have a choice. Either die or move our minds into machines and then live forever. But that’s all still in the far future. 

For now, AI still needs a way to interact with people and objects.

Neuron Soundware is paving the way for machines to be able to interact with the world based on sound- which is an incredibly important sense for a machine to have. Much of our conception of AI today is about natural language processing- programs listening to and understanding us and their environment. But that requires many innovations that are still in the future. We want to lead that effort.

Of any team at StartupYard, Neuron Soundware has had to work hardest on finding a go-to-market strategy. Why do you think that’s so difficult to do with AI and machine learning?

That is the counter-intuitiveness of machine learning. You do not need a lot of coding, but you need good training data sets. We can not build our services without our clients. We initially wanted to focus only on the call centers.  However, the device diagnostics using sound is the low hanging fruit.

As we say, a machine doesn’t have a lawyer! It’s ethically complicated to work with live customers, and that is a part of the legal and business world that has to keep evolving in the next few years. As you can see from many other areas of advancement in AI, such as self-driving cars, new laws and regulations are necessary, and they are coming. We believe the benefits to people far outweigh the short-term drawbacks.

You’ve been working on several potential partnerships. Can you tell us more about those?

We do have a partnership memorandum with some Czech universities. That would help our company in different dimensions. Firstly, we would have access to the latest research and people in our key areas. That would help us to grow our team and knowledge. Secondly, we can fund our product development via cooperation with the university laboratories as it is close to the leading edge of scientific research. So we could leverage their server infrastructure as it will be probably our highest cost. We are also looking for a strong business partner.

How has the StartupYard program affected the development of Neuron Software? Where do you think you would be if you hadn’t joined the accelerator?

It was a really great experience. We gained a lot of contacts, ideas and quick feedback. The mentors from StartupYard are valuable providing support to the Neuron Soundware team. We changed our focus from music to voice and industry sounds, largely due to the input of mentors we met in the program. A long series of workshops gave us an overview of what to expect and master in so many different areas. 

I would personally welcome prolonging the program by 3-4 weeks. So we would have a bit more time to digest all that information, meet more customers and iterate even more on our product.

Has any particular mentor at StartupYard had a particularly strong impact on your company’s development? How so?

Well I think it might be the StartupYard team, You and Cedric Maloux. All of the mentors gave us a lot of valuable input, but the StartupYard team also tells us what *not* to do. And that’s often even more important. So when I’m in doubt, I ask myself: “would Lloyd or Cedric do this?” And that helps me to find the right path.

Salutara, StartupYard

Salutara: Your Health Matters

Salutara is a full-service online platform for medical travel.

Every year, 11 Million people seek medical procedures that are not accessible or affordable in their home countries. With Salutara as a trusted advisor and intermediary, patients can search and compare clinics, arrange procedures, plan, book, and pay for a whole trip in one place.

I sat down recently with the founders, Martin Cvetler and Petr Vankat, to talk about Salutara’s current status, and future plans. Here’s what they had to say:

Q: Hi Petr and Martin! Tell us a bit about Salutara. Where did the idea for a medical travel platform come from?

Petr: I was spending my 2014 New Years in Switzerland with my girlfriend at that time who is a dental hygienist. As we were walking through the center of Thun, I saw a walk-in store saying “Zahn reisen – Dental travel” on the sign above the door. It caught my attention so I came closer and found out they were sending citizens of Thun to Hungary for dental procedures.

They organised trips specifically designed for patients with any kind of dental problem. This whole concept was taking place offline and was aiming at a very limited clientele. I thought why not do this online and globally? There is clearly a demand, with 20 million people traveling every year for treatment. That is when the idea was born.

But I put it in a drawer after my return to Prague and we started seriously discussing it in the summer of 2015 and in August we signed up for the Startupyard FastLane. And you know the story from there. We went through all the steps in the selection process and eventually made it to the accelerator.

Martin: Our first idea was to concentrate on dentistry and our first work name was “Bite´n´Chew” [laugh] Then we started to research, expanded the idea to other treatments and we just could not find a website that would be easy to use for booking a medical treatment abroad. Salutara is for people seeking quality medical care who cannot find affordable and accessible treatment at home. It’s a complicated and time consuming decision-making process, and we want people to have a way to do it all within one platform. We want to become the world’s most innovative medical travel booking platform.

 

Salutara

The Salutara Team: Martin Cvetler and Petr Vankat

 


Q: What are some of the main advantages of traveling abroad for medical treatments? What kinds of treatments are most popular for medical travel?

Petr: One of the most obvious advantages is the price difference between countries and continents.

Just to give you an idea, it is very common that patients for example from the USA are saving up to 80% of their medical costs when traveling for a hip replacement, dental restoration or cancer treatment abroad. Those can add up to huge sums- into the tens of thousands of dollars per treatment. A hip replacement in the US can cost upwards of $80,000, while the same treatment by an equally skilled surgeon in India might cost $10,000. That easily justifies the cost of going abroad.

You know, the number one cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States, believe it or not, is medical bills. That really makes no sense to me in the modern world. But where there is such a clear need, there must to be clear, easy to access alternatives.

But the US isn’t the only place with problems. Waiting times in various countries such as the UK or Poland are also a big issue, as they can go as high as months and in some specific cases including orthopedy or eye surgeries up to years.

On top of that, some countries are facing certain legislative barriers that can be seen in relation to procedures such as In Vitro Fertilisation. At Salutara, we strongly believe that every human being should have a right to access that type of treatment, and we are working hard to provide options and accessibility for all the cases mentioned above.

Martin: We want to inform and educate customers about all possibilities that the medical travel industry offers. One example is the EU Directive 2011/24 that enables all EU citizens have their insurance cover procedures anywhere within EU. Not many people know this, and not many people use it. On the other hand we want to give our clients the opportunity to choose and decide if they want to go abroad or not. They can compare both options, decide and book abroad or at home. We just want to give them the freedom to choose and a tool to make it safe and easy.

Q: What are some of your key challenges in approaching consumers? How will you convince people that medical travel is for them?

Petr: We understand from our own experience that it can be tough to even decide where to go on holiday! Is the food going to be good there? Will it be safe to walk on the streets after dark? Will I be able to charge my iPhone there and get wi-fi? Generally speaking people are not always very open to changes and exploration. Especially when it comes to something so important and precious as human health.

Certain things are easy to sell. Medical travel can be vastly cheaper, and certain treatments will only be available abroad, depending on where a patient is coming from. But it’s about more than that. A person thinking about medical travel is concerned about trust and safety, and building trust is one of our biggest challenges going ahead. People deserve their dignity in medical care, and sadly that’s not something they can always have. So we want to change the way medical care works for those who can’t now get what they deserve.

That is why we are focusing on providing top notch care for our first customers – the early adopters or ambassadors. Sharing and promoting their experience on the website as well as on our social media profiles is going to be crucial- getting the word out through people like that will open up new possibilities for people who haven’t even considered medical travel. Good word of mouth plays an important role in the process of convincing others that it is safe and supremely beneficial to make the decision to pack up a small bag and take off for a treatment abroad.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about Salutara. What features and capabilities will you launch with? Where do you see the product in a year or two?

Martin: Customers will be able to connect directly with clinics and their doctors for unlimited online consultations and price quotes. They will be able to book a treatment and pay the deposit.

Later on we want to provide the whole travel package, including flight and hotel booking. Everything in one place. A lot of patients use medical travel for sightseeing before the treatment or they stay longer after the surgery to recover and come back home all fit.

Most competitors in this market right now are focusing on connecting clinics and patients. That’s great, but we want to provide a whole experience- start to finish. That is what we’re working towards: a platform that you can use exclusively to get reputable, safe, and fairly priced treatment anywhere in the world.

There are plenty of resources now available for medical travel and for patients seeking treatments. There are great services like RealSelf, which provides a community for people to discuss issues around cosmetic surgeries. We want to provide the same value to people- a place where they can find trusted opinions and advice, and also connect with the right doctors and clinics to provide the right treatments.

Q: What will be your focus within the next year? How will you approach the market, and which segments will you focus on in order to grow?

Martin: We will launch small and lean. Just with a couple of procedures, clinics in the Czech Republic and UK market on the patient side. After we optimize our workflow and processes, we will scale up with more treatments and clinics in the same markets and then expand within the EU in the second half of 2016 and globally in 2017. We’re starting with less invasive procedures like cosmetic dentistry, hair transplantation, sleep disorder, cosmetic surgeries, LASIK (laser eye surgeries). Then IVF and life threatening diseases and their treatment like oncology.

Our dream, as Petr said, is to be a trusted platform for patients and clinics the world over- so that people will always know what treatments and doctors may be available to them anywhere in the world. Right now, medical travel is very opaque- it’s run through backchannels, and patients rarely have any sense of who they are dealing with. That’s just not good enough. Fair, open, and trustworthy markets need transparency, and that’s what we will provide.

Q: Obviously partnerships are going to be a key factor in Salutara’s growth and success. Which partners do you view as strategically important, and how do you plan to build these partnerships?

Petr:There are lots of ways to think about partnerships in our case. We believe that the first partners should be charities of all sorts. It is important to give back. And those who are in need or unfortunately suffer from a specific condition deserve our primary attention.

We would like to donate a part of each transaction to a charity of choice for each patient who uses our services. Next in line of common sense, are travel agents both in countries where our patients travel from and in the countries of our clinics. Sport clubs and associations have a natural connection to what we are doing too, especially those where injuries happen often such as rugby or ice hockey.

We encourage anyone reading this to reach out to us with partnership suggestions from their network. We want to hear from you!

Q:  You started at StartupYard with essentially nothing but an idea and a vision, and now you’re almost ready to launch. Have you been surprised by your own speed and execution?

Petr: I am personally naturally very impatient and yesterday was already too late. So until we fulfill our goal of becoming the world’s biggest platform connecting patients with clinics all over the world, and handling medical travel on every continent, I will not be satisfied with the pace of our progress. Nevertheless just being around such amazing influencers as Cedric Maloux or yourself, Lloyd, and having the priceless opportunity to consult with our great mentors helped us speed up the process a great deal. We can never thank them enough.

Martin: I will be very open here. I was a little naive a few months ago. The deeper we are in this industry the more I realize how much more is ahead of us and also what we could have done differently, faster and better. We have decided to make some compromises on the product and market entry in order to launch fast and we have a long list of updates already. The truth is we chose a very complicated product and market. And you just cannot do everything at one moment. You have to prioritize every day, stay focused but be able to pivot at the same time. All of this is very challenging but I enjoy it quite a bit.

Q: How has working with StartupYard affected the development of Salutara? Have any particular mentors had a big impact on your development?

Petr: As I mentioned above StartupYard is like a nitro boost in the Fast and Furious franchise. Being friends with one of the 2015 SY startups (TeskaLabs), we knew what we were going into and busted our bottoms to make it to the 2016 cohort, because we were aware of the impact SY had on TeskaLabs. To be specific at StartupYard you learn a great deal of skills from pitching, creating awesome landing pages to creating meaty content and to confidently ask investors for money. I am sure we will start to fully appreciate the help of StartupYard only after a couple of years from now looking back at the days spent here.

As far as mentors, the initial avalanche of heterogenous opinions and suggestions naturally creates a bit of perplexity when you want to take the advice and put it into practise right when the consultation is over. The mentoring month helped Salutara shape it’s business strategy and recognize some of the threats and weaknesses as well as strengths and opportunities.

Now as the dust is slowly settling, we are revising our notes and realizing the value of suggestions and tips we in some cases did not see immediately. To mention a few names in particular – Liva Judic helped us in the process of renaming our company, to Salutara. I cannot leave out Ladana Edwards whose persistence in support has been endless. Marketa Kabatova and her great input on Google advertising, Jeanne Trojan and her factual to the point tips on self presenting, Veronika Prikrylova, Klara Gajduskova, Karin Pomaizlova…Those are just a few, and all the mentors had something to contribute to our launch and growth, and we are super grateful for the chance to get to know them and learn from them. Thank you all, guys, you have been phenomenal! Hope we will show our appreciation by becoming the global leader in healthcare provision without having doctors on payroll.

Martin: Honestly I cannot imagine how we could move forward so fast without the support of the whole SY team, shareholders and mentors. It would be very long and painful without this.

Q: You’re currently expanding your team. Who are the kinds of people you are looking for?

Martin: Yes, we are now hiring a native English journalist/blog writer, social networks specialist, SEO specialist. Then two more coders, designer, key account for clinics and customer service specialists. We want a team of people that have drive and are results oriented. I want to also thank here Jiří, Jakub and Michal for their work, we are happy to work together.

Q: Where can potential partners, clinics, or job seekers get in touch with Salutara?

Petr: Salutara can be reached on our Twitter plus Facebook profiles and of course e-mails (petr@salutara.com or martin@salutara.com).

 

NeuronAd

NeuronAd: Ads for Everyone

Do you use AdBlock, or another ad-blocking solution? More and more, the answer to that question is yes. With the advent of adblocking for mobile, over 20% of online users now employ some form of ad blocker, and that proportion is growing rapidly.

Ads can be annoying, they often use too much data, and they can be loaded with unwanted code and invasive tracking. NeuronAd is working to reconcile the needs of online publishers, with the wishes of ordinary web users who are sick of invasive advertising on desktop and mobile. NeuronAd is a member of StartupYard 2016, and will present at our Demo Day, on April 6th.

I caught up with Karel Javurek, founder and CEO of NeuronAd, to talk to him about the state of online advertising, and his role in improving it. Here’s what he had to say:

Hi Karel, Tell us a little about yourself and NeurodAD. How did you come up with the idea?

My experience has lot to do with NeuronAD, because I’m a journalist and writer, owner of a small content website, and an entrepreneur. But i’m also a reader and i saw Adblock becoming stronger and stronger every year.

Some publishers do get a bit extreme with the number of ads on their sites, but Adblock is the opposite extreme – completely no ads. So I started thinking about that, and I realized that basically the current model of online advertising is broken.

People want content, and advertisers want impressions. But publishers have to balance these two needs, and they have a very hard time doing so. The economics of advertising are constantly pushing them to new extremes.

At some point, online ads stopped helping online publishers, and started to hurt them, and that starts to happen when the pain the ads are creating is real enough that people do something about it- like using AdBlock. And that happens essentially because the reader does not feel that their interests are aligned with the publisher. Instead, they see publishers as working for advertisers, even though they are relying on the publisher for content that they want to view.

There has to be some middle ground– a solution that can balance both sides.

Readers are ultimately the most important part of online advertising. That’s what advertisers are there for, and it’s why publishers exist. At the same time, advertising is ultimately meant to be beneficial to people. In a fundamental sense, advertising does help us to make choices about how we spend our money – and it can have a positive role in our lives.

You want to know if a product is right for you, or if something new is available, and advertising helps us learn things like that. But neither advertising nor publishing is going to work if the publisher can’t survive because half of the readers are blocking ads, and the other half are being attacked with them.

What we see today is the whole system sort of breaking down, and that’s bad for everyone. NeuronAd is set up for what I think the future of online ads is going to be– something much more sensitive to the needs and wishes of consumers.

 

Tell us a bit about your team as well. Who is working with you now? Are you looking for more people?

Right now we are about 8 people. As CEO I still do everything except programming, that is managed by the David Dutkovsky, our CTO. We are still mostly programmers and DevOps, but also one experienced sales pro from the US, who has worked more than 10 years in online advertising business, and led big teams of salespeople.

The NeuronAd Team

The NeuronAd Team, Karel in the middle.

 

Our business is strictly B2B, so we will need lot of sales help in order to expand. We are always looking for talented programmers as well. We are solving hard and unsolved problems, so it’s very interesting even from the architectural point of view.

NeuronAD defeats ad blockers. What’s the problem with ad blockers, considering that they are so popular?

The main problem with ad blockers is that they are too extreme – they block every ad on every page a user visit and usually, once a user installs them, they never uninstall them. Possibly over 20% of internet users now use some form of ad blocker, whether or not such technology is really needed to enjoy online content. In most cases, they simply aren’t necessary.

Making quality content isn’t free, and i think everyone who use adblock, knows this. Ads are  a great solution for a free internet, and they work not only for publishing, but also for Google, Facebook and a lot of other online companies and startups.

Some publishers are greedy, honestly, and they deploy too many ads, pop-ups and so on. But that in itself is an extreme situation, for which all publishers are being punished. We are trying to help conscientious publishers who display useful, relevant ads that are not obtrusive- as it should be.

Ads that are tasteful and well placed can add value to a reader’s experience. That is the kind of thing we want to support with our technology.

Can you talk a bit about how NeuronAD’s technology works? How does it get around Ad blockers?

Our solution gets around any type of blocking software in a browser- desktop or mobile – and can also get past adblocking on the network level, where it’s normally hard to do. So we can offer publishers a future-proof solution for the next generations of adblocker, not just the ones on the market today.

We do that by detecting when an adblocker is being used, and rebuilding that page with code the adblocker doesn’t recognize, delivering an “ad-lite” experience that an ad-sensitive user should find acceptable.

It’s a better alternative than, for example, barring ad-blocked users from visiting the site at all, as more and more publishers, such as Forbes, now do.

We’re building NeuronAd from the ground up, to tackle ad blocking technology where it will be two, three, or even five years from now.

We can also easily update our solution, so if there is any problem with any type of new adblocker, we will be able to patch our technology quickly, and publishers don’t need to take any action.

Will NeuronAd have any effect on website visitors who are not using ad blockers?

No. NeuronAd only affects users who are employing ad blocking technology. For typical visitors, NeuronAd has no effect on their experience, and nothing is changed at all.

Part of our mission is to change the business of online advertising by rewarding fair actors. Part of this is our firm commitment not to spy on or collect private data about site visitors. Much of what has driven people to adopt ad blockers has been privacy concerns, and with good reason. We want to encourage publishers to respect the privacy of their readers as well.

What is NeuronAd’s relationship with advertisers or ad networks?

Our backend can be connected to different ad networks and clients, so we can provide extra inventory for an advertiser, even on big websites and reaching people who don’t usually view ads.

The number of people with ad blockers grows at about 40 % every year. There are more than 200 million people with some kind of adblock installed, and that will double in the next few years. On some websites, the number of users with ad blocking software is now higher than 50%, and this puts a powerful strain on publishing as a viable business online.

How do you plan to grow in the coming 6 months to a year?

We are a global startup, and our reach is not limited by geography or language. We hope to be in the US within the next year – that’s an obvious market to tackle, and it is where much online advertising is focused.

We’re piloting the solution with a few Czech websites right now, and we hope to be serving ads very soon.

Long term, what do you hope NeuronAD’s role will be in the online advertising market?

Our goal is to make the internet a better place for all involved – for publishers, readers, and advertisers.  Publishers and advertisers can forget that readers are the real customer, so we focus on them quite a bit, providing an ad-light experience (less advertisement), more privacy (less tracking), more security (ads link check), and better performance (faster loading times, less data to download).

 

How has your experience at StartupYard shaped the company going forward? Are there any particular mentors who had an outsized impact on your development?

The experience with StartupYard has been fantastic. It’s accelerating every part of our project and we’ve had great feedback and contacts from a huge number of mentors. Every mentor is useful in some way, even if they’re from different market or segment. Sometimes even a small idea or feedback from a different point of view can shape your service or product to be much better.

 If I’m forced to name names, then Jan Urban, Andrej Kiška, Aleš Teska, and Viktor Fisher are examples of really important mentors for us. But in truth, there are many more who have played vital roles in shaping our development, and we are grateful to all of them. 

Are you currently looking for launch partners and early customers? How can people find out more?

We are looking for good partners from publishers and ad networks, that want be relevant in the future. More information is on our website Neuronad.com and you can also send email to info@neuronad.com. On our twitter page we are trying to cover new thing in the world of adblocking.

ClaimAir

Claimair: Fighting For Air Passengers’ Rights

ClaimAir helps travelers fight the airlines for compensation, because fliers don’t have the time and resources to do it themselves.
It’s is an automated platform that handles the end-to-end process of claiming owed compensation for delays, baggage mishandling, etc. Did you know that the average compensation owed was over 300 Euros?

I sat down this week with Jakub Ladra, Founder and CEO of ClaimAir, one of our 2016 Startups. Here’s what he had to say about fighting for the rights of passengers all over the world:


Hi Jakub, tell us a bit about ClaimAir, and why you decided to fight for the rights of airline passengers.

Hi Lloyd, thanks for asking. Let me ask you a question: the last time you had a flight delay, or a lost bag, how much money did the airline give you in compensation?

Now, if you’re like most people, the answer is that you didn’t get anything, or maybe the airline gave you enough money for a meal at the airport. But what people don’t know is that the airlines routinely owe much more, often hundreds of euros per person, for a delay or mishandling of bags.

ClaimAir makes sure travelers get flight and baggage compensations when they are lawfully owed by the airlines. Since ClaimAir works as an automated platform which allows us to process claims in high volume, we can provide our service not only directly to the travelers but also to our business partners.

These partners are companies like flight booking platforms, travel agencies, travel itinerary management systems, etc. We believe that our service can help them improve customer relationships, loyalty and last but not least, it gives them a strong competitive advantage. On the other hand, these partnerships help us to overcome our biggest challenge, which is the fact that travelers are not well aware of their rights and airlines usually take advantage of it.

 

Jakub Ladra, Claimair

Jakub Ladra of ClaimAir. Jakub has extensive experience in the airline industry, and wants to fundamentally change the way airlines treat their customers.

Back to your second question, my journey with air passenger’s rights started at the university when it was the topic of my thesis. It was in 2007 and no surprise, the thesis ended up in a box – luckily, not forever. I went through a couple of aviation-related corporate jobs, but I always knew it wasn’t what I wanted. I love the startup environment and the feeling of freedom which, in combination with my knowledge, naturally led to ClaimAir.

Do you see your mission as more than just taking advantage of the laws and regulations?

For us it’s not just about taking advantage of the laws and regulations. We live in an experience economy where customer service should be a priority. Trouble with your flight just happens, and obviously brings a lot of stress and frustration into your life. So our goal is to make the rules around air passenger’s rights as clear as possible and make air travel an even more comfortable way of exploring the world. We also have some plans that don’t relate to the regulated stuff, but I can’t tell you more at the moment.

What are some of the most common mistakes that air travelers make when it comes to getting what is owed them for delays, disruptions, and lost bags?

I wouldn’t call them mistakes. Travelers simply don’t know they are owed compensation and that airlines are in fact legally obliged to pay them out. For instance, when your flight is delayed for more than 3 hours on arrival, you can get €600 paid in cash. Regarding the baggage, the compensation can be up to €1,500. These are pretty good sums that airlines wish to be kept secret. Moreover, when you complain by yourself, the airline usually responds by using complicated legal arguments that you have no chance to understand and work against. The average traveler feels powerless next to the airlines.

What does it take, legally, to get an airline to pay legal compensation? Why is it so hard?

Naturally, it’s a common practice of a majority of airlines to keep their compensation budgets low. Therefore, if you don’t know the rules precisely and if you are unable to submit a strong letter of complaint by using relevant legal arguments, your chances to success are close to zero. The airlines usually respond by using some tricky legal provisions that exempt them from liability, but most of them are taken out of context. Overall, the legislation is damn complex and contains many grey zones, so it’s just difficult for an ordinary traveler to cope with it.

Let’s talk a bit about the numbers. How many travelers a day could benefit from your service? What are some of the other important industry stats?

Although I’ve devoted my professional career to aviation, I’m always amazed about those daily numbers. There are more than 9 million travelers transported by air every day and approximately 800 thousand of them are affected by any kind of flight disruption or baggage mishandling. It’s also worth mentioning that the average compensation we got for our customers in 2015 was €320. There are also projections that air travel industry should double in next 20 years.

Your team is growing quickly. What do you see as your biggest challenge as a company in the near term? What keeps you up at night right now?

A: Extremely quickly! If everything goes well and in line with our plans, we should have more than 100 employees by the end of 2016, which is the thing that actually keeps me up at night these days. Have I mentioned that we are hiring? (laughs)



What kind of people are you looking for?

Anybody who speaks fluent English, has a passion to learn new things from the aviation industry and is willing to use the latest technology is more than welcome to reach out. We are currently based in Prague, but our goals are far beyond the borders of the local market. If any of your readers want to be a part of an international startup environment with a vision and strategy to create something big, I can’t wait to meet them.

Where do you plan for ClaimAir to be, as a company, in 5 years time? What will be your mission then?

We’re still an early stage startup so I primarily hope that we will still exist in 5 years. (laugh) But anyway, I have a clear vision of a perfectly seamless process of customer care that I would love to bring into life.

I would really like to have our service integrated with various travel solutions, so every time your flight goes wrong, we would automatically notify you about important facts and we would get you money without any intervention from your side. In other words, we would like to solve your traveling troubles in real time so you can feel secure, and as a bonus, the compensation will be automatically credited to your bank account.

Have any of the StartupYard mentors had an especially powerful impact on your trajectory as a company? How so?

jakub ladra, Claimair

Jakub talks with other 2016 founders at a StartupYard workshop


Not only mentors but all StartupYard team members, including you Lloyd, are extremely supportive and dedicated. I can’t thank you enough for allowing us to be here and for supporting our goals. I am sure that we wouldn’t make such a progress in just a few weeks otherwise. We’ve met more than 70 extremely experienced mentors yet and sorry, I can’t mention anyone in particular because I value all of them the same. They are busy professionals and they give us their precious free time to move our businesses forward. We got numerous valuable insights into our business as well as several important introductions to our potential business partners. I’d definitely recommend other early stage startups to do their best to make it into the next StartupYard’s batch.

This space has some active players already. Why is there room for ClaimAir in this market?

Of course, but I always find competitors as an important part of every industry. Their presence confirms that our business is viable and they also help us educate and evangelize the market. Why is there room for us? Remember the figures? 9 million travelers are transported by air every day. Moreover, we are the only ones who deal with baggage-related issues and I hope that our focus on a technology will quickly make us one of leading players.

Are you looking to raise investment right now?

Yes. In order to carry out our business plan, we are looking for an initial €300k investment.

liva judic

Liva Judic: Storytelling Between the Lines

Liva Judic is a financial journalist turned entrepreneur. Born in Madagascar, she was educated in Europe and has lived and worked across 4 continents. As a StartupYard mentor, Liva stresses efficient communication, and connecting emotionally across cultures by telling compelling stories that resonate with all audiences. She works individually each year with our startups to open up new avenues of storytelling.
In 2010, Liva founded Merrybubbles Communications to help fuel the fire for technology startups wanting to expand internationally. She lives in Miami Beach and shuttles between there, New York, San Francisco, London, Paris and Berlin.

I caught up with Liva  after her latest mentoring session with the StartupYard 2016 teams, to talk about her views on the industry, startups, and storytelling. Here’s what she had to say: 

Hi Liva, welcome to our blog. Is there anything you’d really like people to know about you, that they can’t find out by reading about you on LinkedIn?

Hi! What’s not showing through my LinkedIn… a lot of things, actually. The thing that I really want to share and is connected to what I do with StartupYard is that I’m passionate about design, aesthetics, especially minimalistic approaches. You can see it through my Instagram account, mostly, and my personal site LivaJudic.com. In terms of work, it transpires in the way I approach things, notably how I structure my interactions with businesses and startups. Short and laser-focused with the goal to make a lasting impact on their progress.

You founded Merrybubbles (the branding and communications firm) in 2011. What was the original vision for the firm? How has that evolved?

At the beginning, the idea was to provide my international experience and journalistic background to companies needing to open their outreach to foreign markets, notably English-speaking ones and mostly the U.S. Our first client was GDF Suez Trading and from there on, we started working with startups with ambitions to move to the U.S. in general. We pivoted, as per startup language, last year from an all-marcoms approach to a strictly branding offer, both strategy (which precludes all communications for any company) and implementation. And instead of purely startups, we have both narrowed and widened (I know, sounds contradictory but you’ll see what I mean) our focus to change makers/game changers. It means first, recognizing that small businesses and startups with women or minorities at their helm are a force to be reckoned with: they are innovators, just because of that leadership choice. It also means that we want to find businesses/startups with technologies or products that are making an impact on their ecosystems, improving quality of life, one way or another.

What makes Merrybubbles different from a typical branding and communications agency?

We only offer one product now (see, the narrowing down is surfacing…) Our approach is very streamlined to ensure maximal impact and ROI for our clients: we only sell one product. Yes, really. We work in a two-step process: we first lead a discovery and analysis of the business/startup in order to put together their brand identity and give the client the one-pager blueprint at the end of the very same day. That’s what we call Primer. Then, we narrow it down with them to execute on it: we ask specifically that the client has access to a screen (phone, tablet or computer) during business hours so we can communicate with them seamlessly for the following four days after Primer. At the end of that fourth day, they will leave with a logo, website, 4 social media profiles or pages of their choices, business card design and a one pager or a landing page for their specific need. In five business days, they are ready to launch.

You emphasize that Merrybubbles is focused on women and minority led organizations, yet you also mentor at the very male, very European StartupYard. Women make up a huge part of the market for emerging tech products, but we’ve struggled to attract women entrepreneurs to our program since the beginning. What could we be doing better, from your perspective?

Bear in mind that I’ve always worked (and thrived because it never bothered me) in male-dominated industries: financial journalism, diplomacy and government, tech startups. So being with StartupYard is not something out of the blue. I’m always happy to represent women in areas where there are so few of us, and it’s part of my thinking to actually organically integrate where women are scarce, a bit like a statement that we can do it: if I can do it, we all can.  

What I would say is that StartupYard has three points of leverage. One, you can onboard more female mentors. There are a lot of women with incredible track records out there who would be amazing adds to your roster of mentors. Number two, encourage applicants who have women in their teams or at the helm of those teams. How you do that is by communicating your awareness and support for more diverse teams. I know there are great diverse teams in Eastern Europe. I have met a few, especially when I am in Berlin, where I spend a fair amount of time. One was from Croatia and is now doing quite well for themselves, as they went through YC.

And of course, what you’re doing now, by giving me this opportunity to speak, is a great first step! Let’s keep doing more such things, I’ll be happy to support your efforts.

You emphasize storytelling in your startup mentorship. What does good storytelling mean to you? Why is it so important

Let’s see. You meet a stranger and s/he tells you a story, random conversation. It’s really not bad. You part ways. Then, on the same day, you meet another stranger. S/He also tells you a story. But this time, it actually makes you laugh, or it reminds you of this one adventure you went on with friends a while ago where you had felt so empowered, or it made you shiver… you part ways. A week after, you are telling a friend about that weird day where you had random conversations with two complete strangers. You can’t remember their names. Not really. But the one thing that you will remember is how that second stranger made you feel. That will stick with you. And you are able to tell the story s/he shared with you that day. The first story? Maybe vague details.

Now, apply that to startups and pitches. Instead of you, the recipient of the stories are investors or users. That’s why it’s so important. You weave your story to make an emotional impact and that’s how you relate to your audience. That’s why it’s crucial to nail your branding: it’s not just the logo and marketing collaterals, it’s the unsaid, what is between the lines that will make your story the best — it’s what is invisible but can only be perceived emotionally.

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We hear quite a lot about “branding” these days. What does branding really mean to you, and what should it mean to startups in Central Europe?

I think my previous response gives you a good idea of what branding should be. Don’t focus just on your logo or website as objects. Focus on them as a medium to convey the full experience of what you offer. This is why, for instance, we offer the Primer phase: we find out everything about the startup, its team, its values, its mission, its goals, but also the story of how the team member got together, what glues them together. We want to find out what makes them tick, what they hate. Of course, we want to see their vision. I always tell clients that we are exploring their full universe in order to be able to activate all 5 senses. Touch, feel, smell, see, taste. That’s how we are able to then build a brand identity that aligns with the startups’ values and culture. As regards startups and businesses from Central/Eastern Europe, this is how they can be authentic and genuine — and that, in turn, will allow them to be universal, go to foreign markets.

We often hear that European startups are “behind” those in the US or in Britain, particularly as it concerns marketing principles and communication skills. Of course the real picture is more subtle. Do you think there are mistakes in the overall narrative that US startups are “ahead” of others around the world?

It is a reality that the level of maturity of startup ecosystems around the world are different. It’s like with electronics. Do you remember the beginning, when the U.S. was making calculators, fax machines and even computers? What was the economic phase in Asia? It was copying. Then comes innovation, they started iterating faster, then took over: look at what happened with Samsung, for instance. You can’t burn through the stages, it takes time. It’s not just the startups, it’s also investors. In a place like Berlin, investors are still very shy and the startups are still used to presenting perfect solutions instead of MVPs to those investors. So their development phase is slowed down by a lack of funding. In the meantime, investors in the U.S. have had quite some time to become familiar with the startup ecosystems. They are bold and bet very early on, even at the stage of ideas, with no product yet. I’m not saying it’s better, it’s just different paradigms.

One thing that is VERY important to be aware of, however is this: regardless of the maturity of the market, developers in Europe, and more specifically in Central/Eastern Europe, are extremely skilled. Proof is, some of the most successful startups in Silicon Valley have gone through the process of working with remote teams from the region.

It’s important to look at the whole ecosystem, not just one side.

You met with the StartupYard startups recently. What did you learn from the experience?

This is my second year mentoring at StartupYard. As you asked me before about startups in Europe vs the U.S., I have to say that the level of maturity of this cohort is striking. Last year, they were good, and this year, they are even better. I’m not bashing on last year, no, that’s not what I mean. On average, the level of readiness overall, for seed stage startups, was pretty damn good. I am still involved with some of last year’s batch. You know, it’s also about who you click with. I believe a few of them will do really well. And this year is no exception. I’m very happy to be a mentor for StartupYard and very grateful for this opportunity too.

 

Satismeter: Meet the Founders

SatisMeter is perfect for online businesses that lack qualitative feedback from their users.
It’s an in-app feedback platform, that collects NPS data based on specific usage patterns. Unlike a traditional email survey or various in-house solutions, SatisMeter is an easy to integrate, multi-platform solution, perfect for small startups with only a few customers, all the way up to enterprise scale clients.

Satismeter’s current customers include BuzzSumo,  Udacity, Mention, Adroll, Dashlane,and MailJet. I sat down with the founders, brothers Jakub and Ondrej Sedlacek, to talk about Satismeter, and their unique team.

 

The Satismeter Brothers

The Satismeter Brothers, Jakub (left) and Ondrej (right)

You two are not only Co-Founders at SatisMeter, but brothers. Have you always worked well together, or was that a later development? Is it an advantage to work with a sibling as a co-founder?

Ondrej: Before SatisMeter neither of us thought our professional paths would ever meet.
Even though we are brothers, we are quite different.
Jakub is a technical person and a product guy with experience of leading GoodData front-end engineering for five years. I, on the other hand, am a sociable person with a background in IT sales, marketing and NGO fundraising.
Jakub: Being brothers has a great advantage, in that we know each other well and we can rely on each other in good and bad times. We share the same values and because we have different expertise we complement each other well.

Tell us a bit about how you came up with SatisMeter.

Jakub: I worked in the [Czech founded and Prague and San Francisco based] analytics company GoodData before and we struggled with the direction of our product and keeping focus on what our customers need. We started collecting customer feedback and it helped us tremendously with further product development. I was surprised there was no such service that would help automate the whole process. That’s where the idea for SatisMeter came from.

How can SatisMeter be used to improve how SaaS companies develop new features or improve retention of existing customers?

Jakub:  SaaS companies live off of customer subscriptions. They need to keep their customers as long as they possibly can. SatisMeter can be viewed as a churn reduction tool. We identify unsatisfied customers, and let SaaS companies work with these customers before they leave for the competition.

Ondrej: Also, most online businesses do not get enough user feedback. They optimize the whole user experience and new features based on analysing the behavior of users, but know very little about the actual needs behind this behaviour.
SatisMeter gathers this feedback directly inside web apps and shares it back to the right people in the organisation. Unlike most in-house solutions, SatisMeter can send the feedback not only to Support, but also to CRM, Analytics and Marketing tools, as well as other communication channels like Slack. This way the feedback doesn’t stay trapped in some helpdesk database, and the whole organization can see what their customers think.

You signed some very prominent clients pretty quickly, like Buzzsumo, MailJet, Mention, and AdRoll. What do you think got you this early traction?

Jakub:  We made the service very easy to start with and let the users see the value immediately. Also, unlike many surveys on the market, we really care about the experience of the end-user – Satismeter doesn’t block them from working and let them fill in our pop-up when they have time for it. This is why Satismeter has a 30% response rates on average.
Ondrej: Our first users came from partnership with customer data hub Segment.com. For example Mention’s Head of Growth found us on the Segment marketplace, and build their churn reduction process around our NPS platform. Later he even wrote a blogpost about this process, and the word of mouth started spreading. Satismeter have also been featured on ProductHunt, which helped as well.

Do you want to help Satismeter on their journey to the top? Click Below to Tweet about them now.

Have you seen any unexpected uses of SatisMeter since you launched? Something that surprised you?

Jakub: When we launched, we saw SatisMeter as a tool for Product Managers to help them build a product their customers need. It surprised us that most people interested in SatisMeter were marketers and growth hackers who wanted to optimize their growth metrics. We unlocked many creative uses by integrating with other platforms and letting our customers work with the collected data. We already took a lot these ideas and implemented them right into SatisMeter.

What’s the short term plan for Satismeter? Where do you want to be in 6 months to a year?

Ondrej: There are four areas where Satismeter will focus: new platforms, new markets, better understanding of user feedback and actionable advice. We want to cover all platforms where users are communicating with businesses and our mobile survey will be launched in March. We are working with several communication platforms to collect user feedback for their customers. Some of our customers collect tens of thousands of responses a month and we would like to give insight not only whether their users are satisfied, but why. Also we already know how to identify the customers with higher churn risk. We want to advise on how to work with them right inside SatisMeter.

Which players do you view as your biggest potential competitors in this market, and why?

Jakub: At the moment our biggest competition are companies that are collecting NPS using email surveys. A surprisingly large number of companies are still using email surveys, although it’s much less efficient than an in-app solution. There are also many platforms that are doing really nice survey widgets, but don’t work very well with the collected data. Satismeter is trying to focus on an easy to use solution that will help companies to dramatically improve customer retention.

Can you tell us some of the most common mistakes that SaaS companies make when surveying their customers?

Jakub: Common mistake is that they just survey users and don’t follow-up with them. It’s a great way to engage with your happy customers and opportunity to proactively resolve issues of the unhappy ones.

What are some of the most common misconceptions about how NPS is used, and how it works?

Ondrej: The most common misconception people make is to look at NPS score and ask “What does this number mean to my business”. The NPS score alone is an indicator of how satisfied and loyal your customers are, but every business segment, every culture and every country has different perceptions and thus different benchmarks. The right way is to watch the NPS trend, correlate it with product and service changes, and decide how these changes influenced your customers’ satisfaction.
Jakub: NPS can be also used in many other ways to improve your business, for example as tool for better conversion of trial users into paying customers, or a way for better targeted marketing campaigns.

Has StartupYard been a positive experience so far for the team? How has it affected your overall approach to the company so far?

Jakub: StartupYard is a combination of connections, knowledge and experience. This is invaluable for first-time entrepreneurs like us. The first month was intense but Satismeter moved miles ahead in vision of our product and company. We are really excited to see what’s coming next.

Philip Staehelin

Philip Staehelin of Roland Berger: Czech Republic a Gateway for Startups

Philip Staehelin is a StartupYard mentor and investor, and former StartupYard Executive in Residence for 2015. He currently serves as Managing Partner for Roland Berger Consultancy in Prague, with a particular interest in connecting startups with corporate partners. Philip is also a key investor in Gjirafa, a StartupYard company, which recently raised $2 Million from Rockaway Capital.
The following is a lightly edited translation of an interview with Philip that appeared in January in Lidové Noviny. The author is Jan Zizka. Some of the content has been slightly altered for clarity, and several questions have been shortened or removed. 


Lidské Noviny: Few have as much experience with Czech startups as globetrotter Philip Staehelin, who has been living in Prague for over two decades. Staehelin merges two different worlds – he has not only been (and still is), very active within the ecosystem of promising startups, but he also has broad experience from various managerial positions in a number of large enterprises. As the new head of the Prague branch of the Roland Berger consultancy, he confirms in this interview that he has clear plans to recommend, even to traditional corporations, learning from the flexibility and the creative mentality of startups.

Silicon Valley, maybe Switzerland, or Israel, is what comes to everyone’s mind when talking about startups. But I’m not sure what the current situation is in Central Europe. Poland, perhaps? Do you think we have already made at least a small step forward for people to associate Prague and/or Brno with startups?

PS: Well, it’s absolutely clear when you include Berlin in the CEE area. There is a real, huge boom of startups, and many investments are now oriented towards Berlins direction. In my opinion, there is enough interesting potential within the Czech Republic as well, but I am not convinced that Prague can become the next startup hub like Silicon Valley, London or Berlin. However, Prague may serve as a kind of funnel and launch pad for startups from the entire CEE region.

Philip Staehelin

Philip Staehelin of Roland Berger

Alongside other roles, I’m a mentor and advisor in StartupYard, a startup accelerator which is helping to shape Prague into such a role. For instance, TeskaLabs, a company dealing in mobile communications and IoT (Internet of Things) security, went through our accelerator. Then they were accepted to a leading London accelerator (TechStars).

So people who focus on this business in Prague will be following all startups in the CEE region? Or will early stage investors still be found locally, and other investors from London or Silicon Valley will join them later?

This is one of the possibilities. The key idea is to achieve wider coverage ,which will help Prague become a startup gateway – a bridge from East to West. As for StartupYard, for example, it’s closely linked to Slovakia and Hungary.

The key question is what it will look like here for the investors. In the past, only very limited funds were available. Nonetheless, the appetite for risk, which is obviously closely associated with investments in startups, has recently increased. The competition exists even on the investors’ side. There is also governmental support, albeit still insufficient. However, it’s not the same money as in Silicon Valley yet. Investors here are not giving out finance into concepts or ideas; they rather go after companies that already generate some revenues.

Yes, previous governments experienced that weakness when they started to build up the so-called “Seed Fund” for projects at an early stage. Will it still be very difficult to find other investors for those projects in the research phase?

This surely is a weak point. Yet, I’m not suggesting the government offer money itself to anyone who applies with some “startup.” It would not lead to any better outcome. The state should provide resources to the existing venture capital funds. Or to accelerators, for example.

In StartupYard, we have utilized European funding for the past two years, which helped a lot. But our government can take a number of other useful steps. They can provide support in creating the right eco-system for startups. Although financial aid is very important, it is still just a side-effect in comparison with shaping simple and transparent entrepreneurial environments.

Speaking of the new state-owned National Innovation Fund, are you a sceptic?

Yeah, I am definitely skeptical, but at the same time I have some hope. We need something like this. However, I know how much of the state-provided money has disappeared in past years, without that being reflected in the improved performance of companies.

So I have strong hopes that is isn’t just another opportunity for corruption, and that this money would indeed assist in changing the whole business atmosphere.

The problem is to ensure such a fund is well-managed. Because if you take a look back at the history, you’ll see that similar projects here haven’t been managed well.

The Ministry of Industry and Trade wants the new fund to invest along with private investors. Is that vital to success?

Fortunately, our government representatives do realize that they aren’t much good at choosing startups with potential. The state is not a professional investor, and wants to be assured that someone else will be involved, and put their own capital into selected projects. The question is whether it can be guaranteed that this money isn’t being allocated to family, relatives and/or friends of those who would be responsible for managing such a fund.

You said that the state has other, more important roles to play.

They should definitely care more about the actual conditions under which new companies are incorporated in the Czech Republic. In comparison with other countries, we are really backwards when it comes to the difficulty involved. Surprisingly though, the situation is even worse in Germany. Still, most other countries in Europe have much more favorable systems. Poland, for example. And Estonia is the bellwether for innovation.

I often hear that we are fighting corruption, while the issues of the  entrepreneurial environment itself are cast aside. Do you agree with that?

Well, fighting corruption is extremely important. If you grant hundreds of millions to startups, it can seem like a lot. But it’s still just a fraction of what has been stolen in this country. I was an active member of  the Administration Board for Transparency International for several years, so the topic is close to my heart. Czech firms simply wont be able to reach their potential without ending all the graft. If the government could prevent the misuse of public money, and was able to use it properly with promising new companies, that would have tremendous effects.

Just to name a successful example – consider anti-virus experts such as AVG or Avast. They help our economic growth and they employ many people. And on top of that, they are promoting the whole country abroad. We can dare say we are leaders in internet safety because of them.

Some in Czech business circles would tell you that even today, banks will remain central to financing here. The Prague Stock Exchange has no particular reputation, but banks can’t be replaced, and VCs can’t save us. Moreover, banks have more liquidity, and tend to claim they can’t find good business plans or interesting projects.

Banks are too careful when it comes to risk, as part of their basic makeup. And definitely they are not the best choice for startups. As I already mentioned, even some venture capital funds here are risk averse. Which is obviously quite a difficult situation for startups – usually with no assets and frequently being “one-garage” style firms. They have computers and thats it. So very often, they have no other options but to ask their friends and/or family for seed money. Then, so-called angels might get involved – individual private investors. However, from all these relatively small investments you can end up with a nice sum to start with.

And local price levels help too. A few years ago, I personally invested in Video Recruit, a startup that was able to survive here with just EUR 300k for three years. In London, by contrast, you couldn’t live longer than six months on that.

Who are these angels? As far as I know, businessmen like Zbyněk Frolík of Linet or Eduard Kučera from Avast are investing in startups more and more. Do others invest as well, after selling their own businesses, or delegating management to others?

Yes, there is much more funding coming from people who are themselves successful as entrepreneurs. Still, they need better access to startups. That is where the aforementioned accelerator model might be useful, as many great entrepreneurs are involved there as mentors.

To become an investor, you don’t need millions. An investor can be managers who have just done well enough. Another example: a company that went through the StartupYard accelerator a few years ago was an “Albanian Seznam,” called Gjirafa. Our mentors were among their first investors.

As the new Roland Berger Managing Partner, you plan to focus on cooperation between large corporates and interesting startups. Why are you so driven to connect these two seemingly diverse cultures?

You’re right. I am very excited about this, and for multiple reasons. I used to work for T-Mobile, as a member of its international team for innovations. We came up with a few nice ideas, but the company then lacked the ability to work with and develop them. That was about eight years ago; and large companies, including T-Mobile, have changed a lot since then. Today, there ‘s much more understanding that driving innovation is important, and that there are lessons to learn from the flexible approach of startups. The question now, is how.

They can try to incorporate startups into their own structure, but oftentimes startups don’t want that. They don’t want to become just a smaller part of a big unit with overwhelming administration, with no room for development and growth.

What’s your solution?

Startups can stay outside large enterprises, keeping their uniqueness and creativity, but still working cooperatively. Corporations can then create, in collaboration with these startups, some kind of innovation lab where ideas can be worked on. This mode of cooperation is highly fruitful for startups, especially if they get at least some financial support from a bigger company. This is not to mention the advantage of an enterprise’s customer network.

Yet, there is another model available – creating corporate venture capital companies, and buying shares in prospective firms that are relevant to  their overall strategy. As a big plus, you don’t have to put all your eggs in one basket.

It occurs to me that you personally represent a good example of combining these two worlds – you probably aren’t a very typical head for such a traditional consultancy as Roland Berger.

True. I have been a consultant before and wasn’t sure whether to return to the role or not. Though, I had a long discussion on innovation with a global head of Roland Berger, who aims to lead this company more deeply into  the digital world and to a new mix of consulting, technology and private equity. This is a very nice, thrilling vision and also completely in line with my own convictions.

To what extent will this be attractive for Czech companies without foreign ownership? Merging trans-national corporations and startups might seem to far afield for them.

There are many types of innovation. Some Czech companies have agreed to try innovating inside their establishments according to the Industry 4.0 concept. In other words, to integrate the latest technologies and maximize the value of what they already do. And it can work out pretty well because a lot of local firms are very specialized in one particular segment. But it might be helpful even for them to be inspired by a startup mentality. I think also that Czech companies must stay open and try many paths. If something fails, it’s rational to try something different.

Do you think the whole concept of Industry 4.0 is more than marketing jargon? Is it an exaggeration to call this the 4th industrial revolution? Computerizing, digitalization – we’ve seen all this already as a part of the third one.

I am an eye-witness to the fact that this really is the fourth revolution, and I don’t think this is a matter of mere marketing. If companies succeed in gathering data from each & every machine and interconnect all processes ,from logistics to production, that’s an appreciable progression towards higher efficiency.

The Industry 4.0 principle relies not only in applying automation and robotics on your manufacturing processes, but also in integrating all data into your planning – wherever that data comes from (both inside and outside) – and working with it efficiently.

To put it simply, a brewery will be able to connect information on how a climate phenomenon like El Nino may influence this year’s harvest yield, together with historical details on how similar weather swings affected beer consumption in the past, and adjust their strategy for the future accordingly. Or you can easily detect in advance when one of the production line components might break down, or wear ou,t and avoid that by performing pre-emptive maintenance.

The Industry 4.0 concept came here from Germany. My question is a bit wider though – do you think it’s good that the Czechs are so strongly linked to the German economy?

Actually, this is more of a political question… Look, we are such a small country, there are just ten million of us.

Did you really say „we/us“?

Yes, of course. I’ve been living here for more than twenty-two years, I obtained Czech citizenship last year. My wife is Czech as well as both my kids. And I also became a big fan of the Czech national hockey team…

So you are eligible to vote as well.

I will definitely vote, but it will be a tough decision to make. Anyway, I do think we have no better option than our relationship with Germany. I am a bit worried about that element in Czech society that is pulling us back towards the Russian sphere of influence again. So I am willing and happy to be a German ally, vven if neither is perfect nor ideal. But we can benefit immensely from the German industrial base being as strong as it is.

On the other hand, that doesn’t necessarily mean Czechs shouldn’t strive to enter other markets. I gladly support market expansion. And well, if our local startups can be a part of the global scene, it will be a massive thing for the Czech economy.