Artificial Intelligence for the Greater Good: an Interview with Vidya Munde-Mueller

Artificial Intelligence for the Greater Good: an Interview with Vidya Munde-Mueller

by Sophie Renhuldt

Throughout history, popular culture has routinely demonised artificial intelligence. In recent years public concerns have continued to grow, with academics by the likes of Yuval Noah Harari labelling technological disruption ‘one of humanity’s biggest challenges for the 21st century’. But companies like Givetastic want to change that: with a focus on promoting philanthropy and bringing about social change, the venture aims to increase donations to charitable causes with the help of AI. We sat down with Co-Founder Vidya Munde-Mueller to find out more about this atypical startup.

So Vidya, tell us a bit about Givetastic’s mission.

Our team is focused on making the giving experience easy and attractive using AI, allowing people to contribute to causes they care about any time, anywhere. In short, we are a matchmaking platform for social impact. We are in the process of building a collaborative platform that connects NGO’s with the public, matching people with charities that speak to their values based on the content they consume.

You only made Givetastic a full-time focus of yours this April. What prompted you to finally bite the bullet?

Well, I’d had the idea for a while, but you can’t possibly push something you are only half-heartedly pursuing. Until last year I was working at Deutsche Telecom as a product manager, and I was just too busy to dedicate enough time and attention towards it. We started this year with a fully formed, motivated team, delivering on an ad hoc basis, but there was still too much irregularity. I was in India for a period of time, working on my other social projects and when I returned, I realised that we weren’t fully functioning. The vision was so big and complex, both in terms of the technical requirements and the support required from NGOs, and our relaxed approach was simply not going to cut it: If we were going to take this seriously, it needed to be full-time. So that’s what we did: we joined TechQuartier in April, started building our company and within a matter of weeks were invited to Google’s Mentoring Day, already proving that our full commitment was paying off. You need to just take the risk and put all your eggs in one basket — I can think of many people who started their own companies as a ‘side-project’ and it never seems to work.

What does the Givetastic team look like?

We are a team of 6, 5 of which are women, located in Hamburg, Munich, India and the United States. It wasn’t necessarily my intention to have such an internationally dispersed team, but these were the people I wanted on board. It’s a great team, and I’d much rather have valuable players that are displaced, than a less qualified, local group. We have a lot of Skype calls and try to meet at least once a month face to face, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other once we have secured some funding. One thing I have learned it is you can’t do it alone — together, we have come so far in just a few weeks, and we are getter closer and closer to our minimum viable product.

You mentioned you were working on other social projects in India — do tell us more!

I was born and brought up in India and come from a very poor background. My parents are from villages where women simply did not get any formal education, and my mother cannot read or write. I always did well at school, and was heavily supported by my teachers, so I decided at an early age that if we were to have enough income, I would want to give back by building a library in my home village. At present, the children there are lucky to get some second-hand textbooks, and although it will take some time to see the project through, it could make a huge impact on their lives, especially for the young girls. Secondly, I have always wanted to help women get into employment, because I find that if you empower a woman, you empower the whole family. There are very few employment opportunities for women in those villages. My brother and I want to change this, so we are in the process buying of machines that will allow women to produce paper teacups and earn a living.

So are you starting your own foundation?

Yes, I’d like to create a foundation in the name of my mother-in-law Rosa Müller. She accepted me into the family so whole-heartedly and had a huge impact on my life. Being very concerned with philanthropical issues in developing countries, she has such a big heart for women and children. I want to pass on some of the love shown me. While Givetastic speaks to the entrepreneur in me, the Rosa Müller foundation, which I hope to get started towards the end of the year, will speak to my heart. I am keen to do more social work, and I will be able to dedicate more time towards it once Givetastic gains some traction. I would also like that the foundation has a strong tech focus, helping underprivileged children learn how to program and teaching them not to be afraid of AI.

As a female founder, can you identify some of the challenges for female entrepreneurs?

Wow, that’s a big topic. I do think that a lot of the main issues come down to mindset. Entrepreneurship requires taking risks, making investments and not knowing exactly what the future will hold. Society has discouraged women from moving into riskier businesses and many women still seem to lack the necessary confidence. They will miss out on certain opportunities due to the uncertainties involved. You have to learn that yes is in the land of no to serve entrepreneurship.

What’s the next milestone for Givetastic?

Well, there’s still a lot of work to do. In the beginning, building Givetastic felt like trying to construct a castle without any foundations in place. Now that we have the team, it feels like we are laying down the first bricks. The next big milestone would definitely be the minimum viable product. We also need to work on the business model, figuring out how can we make profit. That has been one the biggest challenges thus far: because our work is so focused on social impact, we initially thought we would be a non-profit, but more and more I’m discovering the core of what we are doing, and fundamentally, Givetastic is a tech company. We are social-driven tech entrepreneurs, but entrepreneurs none the less.

Thank you for your time Vidya. We can’t wait to see what 2019 has in store for you.

Cloud Meets Banking: fusing tradition with innovation

Cloud Meets Banking: fusing tradition with innovation

by Sophie Renhuldt

Cloud computing seems to be on everybody’s lips, as was the case at Tuesday’s bustling TechQuartier: The ‘Cloud Meets Banking’ event, in collaboration with Main Incubator, saw over 140 attendees gather together for a day packed full of speeches and panels, featuring the Hessian Minister of Digital Strategy and Development Prof. Dr. Kristina Sinemus as well as experts from Google, IBM, Microsoft, ING, Deutsche Bank, Palo Alto Networks, Commerzbank, SAP, QWICS Enterprise Systems, PwC, ATOS, iNNOVO Cloud, smacc, meshcloud and Myra Security.

Given that the majority of today’s companies are embracing the cloud, the 16 speakers in attendance identified and assessed current trends as well as potential causes for concern, with discussions focusing on cloud security, regulation and implementation.

First up, Rojan Gharadaghy (Google) spoke on ‘Tech Evolution’, followed by a talk on ‘Cross Technology’ by Yasser Eissa (IBM). Amit Thawani (ING), Dr. Shivaji Dasgupta (Deutsche Bank) and Alex Flade (Microsoft) then took the stage for the first panel discussion of the day, providing their expertise on ‘Experience in Implementation’.

After lunch, Supriyo Bhattacharya (iNNOVO), Kerstin Breuer (Commerzbank), Dr. Ulrich Erxleben (smacc) and Christina Kraus (meshcloud) addressed the potential synergies between FinTechs and banks, before Patrick Simon (Myra Security), Prof. Dr. Philipp Brune (QWICS Enterprise Systems), Pinaki Ray (SAP), Sergej Epp (Palo Alto Networks) and Olaf Badstübner (ATOS) discussed ‘Cloud Security’. Finally, Marc Billeb (PwC) presented findings from his study, titled ‘Data Governance Survey Results: A European Comparison of Data Management Capabilities’, raising questions regarding regulation.

To wrap things, Prof. Dr. Kristina Sinemus took the stage, providing us with an inspiring and visionary overview of Hessen’s digital future, and cloud computing’s inevitable position within it. Highlighting Hessen’s role as a centre for innovation, she described the region as the ‘secret Silicon Valley of Europe’ and encouraged startups to realise their power in constructing the future. The fusion of cloud computing and banks was established as an impactful amalgamation of tradition and innovation.

From debates on a ‘European Cloud Solution’, to concerns over IT outsourcing, the event proved to be as informative and as it was engaging, leading to many follow up questions from the crowd.

Thank you to all those who participated, and in particular to the organisers Michael F. Spitz (Main Incubator) and Alina Kilian (TechQuartier). We look forward to collaborating in the future.

startup authenticity

From bootstrapped to big bucks: Alina Kilian on the importance of startup authenticity

From bootstrapped to big bucks: Alina Kilian on the importance of startup authenticity

by Sophie Renhuldt

‘Be yourself’ — a phrase so overused, it has become meaningless. When examining the success factors of startups, this simple saying, however, certainly seems to pack a punch. With ‘authenticity’ becoming somewhat of a buzzword in recent years, many consider it to be fundamental to shedding the ‘startup’ label and scaling. Indeed, considering the rise of artificial intelligence, authenticity is arguably one of the few characteristics that sets us apart from computers. But is being ‘yourself’ really that straightforward? We sat down with Program and Events Manager Alina Kilian to discuss how young companies can build their brand image and create an authentic culture.

Alina Kilian — Program and Events Manager

So Alina, what sparked your interest in this topic?

Well, I was studying New Media Marketing at the University of Applied Sciences in Darmstadt and after spending some time in both Tel Aviv and Silicon Valley, I developed a strong interest in startups. Consequently, I wanted to write my thesis about something related to startup culture and marketing, and after deliberating with TQ Co-Director Thomas Funke, we decided to explore the success factors of bootstrapped startups. We concluded that it all came down to authenticity. This seemed paradoxical to me, as authenticity and company culture tend to be a product of an organisation’s historical background, something that is carefully crafted over the course of many years. Since startups have no history, I was desperate to get to the bottom of this enigma.

Which startups did you focus on?

I analysed four bootstrapped startups that had managed to grow steadily and that had a strong brand presence in Germany: Mymuesli, Freeletics, Urlaubsguru and Fritz-Kola.

And what exactly makes a startup authentic?

The founders seem to have the most significant impact on a company’s authenticity. They are the ones who create the vision and the strategy, setting the tone for how the company is run, which in turn influences their output. Curating your brand image is extremely important and many CEOs place too much stress on other factors, such as the quality of their products. Take a look at Apple for example: their products are no better than those of their main competitors, but due to PR efforts and the authentic culture of their brand, the quality of their products is perceived as being higher than it actually is. The founders of Fritz-Kola certainly seem to have recognised the importance of maintaining this image, as even their appearance aligns with the company’s vision: Their long hair and unkempt clothes reflect the brand’s ecological and alternative stance.

What other common trends did you observe?

Since these startups didn’t have the means to spend on marketing, they relied heavily on PR and word of mouth. But precisely the fact that they werebootstrapped, became a major selling point, and telling their down to earth founder story again and again was fundamental to their success. Fritz-Kola insists that they started with 7000 euros, produced one crate of coke, went to a local bar and asked: ‘Hey, do you wanna sell this coke?’. Supposedly they sold 10, used that money to produce the next batch and that was that. Mymuesli claims that hearing an outdated granola advertisement on the radio inspired them ‘bring muesli into the 21st century’, and despite having five other startup concepts with established business plans, they ‘just fell in love’ with the muesli idea and ‘followed their heart’. They constantly emphasize the fact that they were just a couple of passionate students, working out of a small apartment on the fifth floor, weighing out and packing each order individually. To put it simply, people would much rather hear a self-made, rag-to-riches story along the lines of: ‘I sold hand-packed muesli out of my apartment for two years and now I’m a CEO with 800 employees’. This is something Fritz-Kola are very aware of too: Even now that they’ve scaled to about 200 employees, they still tell people that they’re a team of thirty.

They’re not authentic then — they’re lying in order to construct an ‘authentic’ company image

Well, that’s just little white lie — in general, customers are quick to recognise dishonesty and one has to tread carefully. Even if a seemingly great opportunity arises, it would be wiser to turn down the offer if it does not align with your values. Fritz-Kola, for example, could have increased sales by selling their products through Aldi. But since Aldi does not sell glass bottles, that would mean switching to plastic. If you look at Bionade, another ‘healthy’ drink, this decision lead to the downfall of the company. After they were bought by Radeberger, they converted from glass to plastic bottles and started selling them through discounters. They’re almost dead now. The packaging no longer aligned with the values they were communicating, so they lost their authenticity. In order to maintain authenticity, you also have to be clear about your shortcomings. On their website, Fritz-Kola state that although they would like to be 100% sustainable, they’re ‘not quite there yet’.

Is it more beneficial to be customer oriented or product oriented?

When looking at the case studies mentioned above, it seems that being product oriented is key. Take Freeletics: their vision was to create the most intensive workout possible without the need for gym equipment. Investors told them that the difficulty level of the exercises was not suitable for the masses, and that therefore they would not scale. But after sharing their plans with clients in Munich the response was overwhelmingly positive, so they started publishing one free workout plan per week. After the third week they stopped and, to their surprise, were bombarded with requests for the 4th plan. They decided to sell the next workout for 1 euro, made half a million and used that money to create an app. It seems all the bootstrapped startups we looked at started with an idea for a product, tested it and then developed it.

Did any of the startups do market research?

Only Mymuesli did market research and, incidentally, their findings were not in favour of the product. In general, companies that are too customer focused tend to come across as inauthentic, being overly fixated on the wants and needs of others rather than their own vision. Considering the current trend of customer centricity and heavy focus on feedback, this was a very unexpected finding. Speaking of customer centricity, customisation proved another interesting topic. When Mymuesli included the option of allowing customers to name their own muesli blend, they noticed a decrease in sales, so they decided to change the concept slightly and included a random name generator button instead. It became the most clicked button on the website for the next year and sales increased by 30%. So even though people love a customised product, they don’t want the burden of having to customise it themselves. Customer centricity is important, but not to the extent that you sabotage your brand individuality.

Thank you for sharing your insights Alina. Find out more about our diverse team here:

Thomas Funke OKRs

How to create organisational cohesion: A conversation with Dr. Thomas Funke on OKRs

How to create organisational cohesion: A conversation with Dr. Thomas Funke on OKRs

by Sophie Renhuldt

The New Year certainly marked the beginning of a new chapter for TechQuartier. Over the past three months, we have been redefining our identity and aligning our incentives through the implementation of a new managerial system: Objective and Key Results. We sat down with TQ Co-Director Thomas Funke to discuss the ‘how’, ‘what’ and ‘why’s.

Thomas, when did you and Sebastian first discuss the topic of OKRs? As an Entrepreneurship teacher, I’m assuming you’ve known about them since their conception.

The first time I heard of OKRs was when Friedhelm Schmitt from Fincite gave a university talk back in the summer of 2017. They were one of the first to apply OKRs and reported extraordinary growth following their implementation. Friedhelm really sold the idea, describing them as a one-stop solution for growth problems. He even credited the implementation of OKRs as one of the major contributions to his success. We were immediately attracted to the holistic approach to managing a company.

What other examples of managerial systems exist?

There are the classic systems such as KPIs or 5-year strategic roadmaps, but this was simply not feasible for us: How could we follow a 5-year plan, when we struggle to even look one year ahead? I attended a very insightful workshop by Murakamy, where it was suggested we focus on periods of three months. He compared running a business to a group trip to southern France: Everyone has different expectations of the trip. Some imagine the Alps whilst others have their sights set on the coast. Problems arise when you fail to define exactly where you’re going and fail to approach the journey step by step. Defining the purpose of your trip is essential and that is precisely what we have been working on.

So, the destination of southern France represents your long-term vision, which you then break down into short-term plans of three months?

Exactly. What makes OKRs so appealing is that they allow you to establish realistic, achievable goals within three months. By having three different levels of OKRs, i.e. the company goals, the team goals and the individual goals, everyone feels personally involved in the process. What is unusual is that only 60% percent of those goals are set by management whilst 40% are defined by the team. I’m confident this will alleviate some of the frustrations derived from not knowing whether one is doing that right thing.

You still waited a year and a half before implementing OKRs — It seems the need for a structured plan only became apparent when you scaled?

Yes. When we first heard about OKRs we were only 5 people. I think we probably benefitted from not having the system in the beginning, as we needed to find our place in the market. Back then, communication was spontaneous and everyone was aligned, so we did not see the necessity for it. As we expanded, this alignment became more and more difficult to achieve and we lost a lot of efficiency. Two people would end up working on the same task, and the common goal was lost. Eventually, we reached a tipping point: Either we would continue as we were and people would leave us out of frustration, or we would build a system that actually worked. Ultimately, we want to create a great company culture, where people enjoy working for TechQuartier and identify with the values and beliefs it represents. For this reason, we are constantly reiterating our purpose.

Would you say that OKRs represent a more democratic system?

I wouldn’t compare it to a political system. It’s empowering, because everyone knows exactly what they should be working on for the next three months. And more importantly, they know why.

What happens if you want to work towards a long-term goal that is simply not achievable in three months?

Assess it and break it down. Let’s say you’d like to establish an international smoothie franchise. Your long-term vision is to contribute towards creating a healthier society, to help cure people of their health problems etc. Rather than imagining all the ambitious milestones you would like to achieve over the course of 5 years, you start by saying ‘in three-months-time I will have opened my first store’. No matter how grand the vision, you always break it down into steps that are achievable within three months. This is what we have been working on at TQ.

Can one assume that all these rapidly growing start-ups are relying on an established organisational system?

Yes, 100%. We conducted a series of interviews with 11 scale-ups in Germany, and all of them confirmed that they were using some kind of organisational system, although not necessarily OKR’s. Blinkist, for example, uses holacracy, a system that focuses on circles and flat-hierarchies. Fincite has a funnel structure, whilst N26 has a matrix organisation. Ultimately, there are so many different organisational structures, and everyone does it differently.

Did these interviews reveal any interesting trends?

Yes. Frequently, one of the Co-founders will direct a vast amount of their attention towards the development of the organisation. Take Minna technologies, for example: Despite having secured funding and ample demand, they refused to take on any new clients until they had solved their organisational issues. Team members were fighting in meetings and eventually started to resent each other, so they decided to appoint one of the three founders as sole responsible for building the company culture. They started implementing OKRs and resolved their conflicts. But everyone has their own methods for developing company culture. Audibene, for example, dedicates two days a week towards recruiting, focusing on finding the best people in order to develop their team.

Would you say OKRs are a fad or do you think they are here to stay?

I think that in this current era of exponential growth, having a flexible system is crucial. In the past, it was possible to scale with one or two-year plans, relying on heavy sales. But Sebastian and I came to the conclusion that we needed OKRs, or at least some kind of system that promotes alignment. There are, of course, a lot of misconceptions about OKRs, and people see them as a type of goal system through which you are being monitored. This isn’t the case.

But surely there is some kind of accountability involved?

Sure, but it’s more about transparency than accountability. Not only does each team member know exactly what they should be working on, but they are also aware of their colleague’s responsibilities. This awareness also promotes collaboration, as employees are able to recognise for which tasks they may be of help to their co-workers.

Thanks for your time Thomas. I’m excited to see all we can achieve over the coming months.

Global Insurtech Roadshow 2019

Global InsurTech Roadshow 2019: Here’s what you missed

Global InsurTech Roadshow 2019: Here’s what you missed

by Sophie Renhuldt

Following the success of the Global InsurTech Roadshow in 2018, Dr. Moritz Finkelnburg’s unique startup event returned to the Goethe University Frankfurt for a second time running.

With over 250 participants, the two-day conference presented an optimal opportunity to network and match-make, bringing together promising tech startups, experts from the insurance industry, as well as international regulators and policy-makers. Once again, we gave special attention to a specific country’s ecosystem, deciding to collaborate with Israel for the 2019 edition.

We kicked off the event with our international pitch competition, featuring 21 startups in the running. Up first, we heard from Kovrr (Israel), Botfriends (Germany), Go InsurTech (Israel), Anivo (Switzerland) and Tiidan (Israel), who provided innovative risk assessment and chatbot solutions. After a quick coffee and conversation break, Mitipi (Switzerland), Insurdata (United Kingdom), Smart Insurance Inc. (Macedonia), Motion S (Luxembourg) and Gefen (Israel) presented their business models.

Given the fantastic weather conditions, we proceeded to enjoy a long lunch in the sunshine before retreating indoors for our final two pitch sessions: firstly hearing from a variety of health and life insurance focused startups, including AirDoctor (Israel), Bodylabs (Germany), Serenus AI (Israel), Atidot (Israel), Vlot (Switzerland) and Ewa (Germany). This round was moderated by Stephen Voss of Neodigital, a participant in last year’s roadshow, demonstrating the immense evolution that can occur from one year to the next. The competition drew to a close with presentations from Hepster (Germany), Yous (Israel), Wetterheld (Germany), FloodFlash (United Kingdom) and Skyglyph (Bulgaria).

With the pitches completed, Dr. Moshe Bareket, Director General of Israel Capital Markets, and Kobi Bendelak, Founder & CEO of InsurTech Israel, shared their knowledge and expertise in an engaging panel on Isreal’s InsurTech ecosystem, citing social responsibility as a key lesson to take away. To wrap things up, Dropin, Trumyle and Nect proudly reported their personal growth and financial successes since participating in the roadshow last year.

Finally, after indulging in a well-earned Äppler and delicious dinner, Gabriel Bernadino, Chairman of the European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority, gave a talk and the TechQuartier Insurtech Prizes were presented. AirDoctor (Israel) took home first place, with Yous (Israel) and Insurdata (United Kingdom) coming second and third respectively. Bodylabs (Germany) received the Aon Award, and all the winners were gifted a TechQuartier membership by our Managing Director Sebastian Schäfer.

On day two, we were welcomed with more sunshine, as insurance experts discussed the latest digital trends in cyber, blockchain, and artificial intelligence, followed by the Regulators Talk and a digital insurance strategy discussion.

The CyberInsurance panel, lead by Ute Richter (Digital Hub Cybersecurity), Christan Nern (KPMG), Shalom Bublil (Kovrr), Ole Sieverding (Hiscox) and Constanze Brand (SwissRe), was particularly engaging, illicting moments of laughter and many follow-up questions from the audience. Discussion points included the future of cyber and potential risks to the insurance industry, with speakers highlighting that, due to the rise of new business models, cost-effective systems, analytics, and predictive technology, businesses are expected to become more and more digitalized. It was noted that, thanks to increased usage of wearables and corresponding familiarity with these products, feedback had emphasized the importance of improving cybersecurity in consumer offerings.

Further ideas were exchanged regarding the insurance of low-tech companies. As new technologies are constantly being introduced, engaging with the ‘shift of [digital] culture’ was identified as the first step for small businesses. The insurance sector was thus presented as having no choice other than participate in digitalization when deciding on whether to engage with other companies. ‘Cyber insurance is the most promising, fastest changing product of insurance… Be willing to change and adapt fast if you swim in that pool,’ stated Constanze Brand, SwissRe.

Next, we heard from Dr. Benjamin Jetter (KPMG), Kobi Bendelak (Insurtech Israel), Jag Rao (SwissRe) and Prof. Dr. Philipp Sandner (FSFM), who evaluated potential Blockchain developments across Europe. Discussions ranged from the ‘hype’ surrounding cryptocurrencies to the use of Blockchain as a distribution channel in insurance, with all parties agreeing that large scale coverage should not be expected within the near future due to current political and business environments.

The Artifical Intelligence panel, presented by Oscar Maciaga (Force Manager), Claire Sévin (Getsafe), Bartek Maciaga (KPMG), Dr. Thomas Jansen (Heuking Lawyers) and Dror Katzav (Atidot), addressed the extraordinary proliferation of AI, its integration into our day to day lives, and potential causes for concern. A reduction in the price of data and hardware was identified as the main driver of current developments within the field, and potential uses in insurance included fraud detection and claims processing. The speakers concluded that, while it is impossible to predict exactly how AI will impact business in the next 15 years, we can expect it to have ‘a drastic effect on our daily life’.

After lunch, we gathered together for the Regulator‘s Talk, featuring Dr. Frank Grund (Executive Director, Federal Financial Supervisory Authority), Prof. Klime Poposki (President Macedonian Regulatory Authority), and Dr. Moshe Bareket (GM Capital Market, Insurance and Saving Authority Israel). Main topics included the simplification of FinTech/InsurTech regulations, intervention approaches during market failure for future strategy, moving away from old regulation methods and moving into new ones (i.e. blockchain), monitoring the value chain and understanding products, as well as forcing insurance companies to share data. It was concluded that adjustments in regulation would be required in order to move forward with future technological developments.

The final talk of GIR19 was ‘Digital Insurance Strategy: Toolbox for small and medium insurers’ which welcomed Chris Lodde (Clark), Tobias Hinterthür (Zurich Insurance; Insurance Lab), Annette Weber (Tia), Thomas Heissmeyer (Enowa), and Franz Widmann (KPMG). Each of the guests shared their perspective on today’s digital strategy, providing an insightful and informative end to this fantastic two-day conference: ‘Get out there, learn from other industries’ best practices, focus on consumers and don’t be afraid to fail’.

We would like to thank all the attendees for their brilliant participation, and in particular Founder and Chairman Dr. Moritz Finkelnburg, without whom this event would not have taken place. We cannot wait to continue the tradition in the years to come.