Starmind International AG: From Fish Brains to Corporate Software
When Pascal Kaufmann was a student in the United States 17 years ago, he was dissecting a fish brain so that he could connect parts of it to a robot. He started thinking about how wonderful it would be to create a kind of global, interconnected brain to solve problems. He later returned to Switzerland, where he happened to meet business systems engineer Marc Vontobel while working in a university robotics department. As Marc Vontobel recalls, “I had already started several businesses, but none had fascinated me as much as Pascal’s idea did.”
What they dreamed up in a professor’s office years ago is still at the heart of Starmind’s software. “As we were conducting research on artificial intelligence, questions kept coming up that we thought surely someone, somewhere in the world, would be able to answer immediately without needing to research it. The question was just how to find that person,” Marc Vontobel explains. Their vision was to create a digital network, composed of the brains of a large number of smart students, as a kind of “world brain.” That was the genesis of the Starmind concept. Most users, however, were unwilling to pay for Starmind’s services. “If we had insisted on sticking to our original idea, we would probably still be playing around with programming a student network. But entrepreneurship means taking risks and being adaptable,” says Marc Vontobel. The two entrepreneurs didn’t change their idea very much, but they did decide to look for a new target group: “It suddenly became clear to us that every large company or corporation is a kind of small universe.” Starmind was officially registered as a business in 2010, and quickly took off from there. Today its mission is to connect the existing untapped knowledge of the employees of large companies and make it available to others who need it. When a question is posed, algorithms in the background identify a list of people who might have the answer. The question is sent to those people, and in most cases someone will come up with the perfect response. Of course, the likelihood of finding a good answer depends on the size of the network. As Pascal Kaufmann succinctly puts it, “Seventeen brain cells don’t add up to a brain.” Starmind’s founders therefore recommend their product for companies with at least 1,000 employees; the ideal customer is a large corporation. “Our customers tell us that they have had incredible success,” says Marc Vontobel. “In one case, a manufacturing company had just installed our software. One of its employees in Italy asked, via Starmind, whether anyone knew how to configure a machine that he was planning to buy. A colleague in Germany immediately sent him a message advising him to wait with the purchase, explaining that he had that exact same machine sitting around at his place of work, unused. A simple question saved the company a million euros.” The questions posed on Starmind are as diverse as its users. Pascal Kaufmann himself is often surprised by how well the software functions for some companies. One such company is a pharmaceutical firm with 8,000 copywriters, scattered around the world, who write the texts for drug information sheets. “They are thrilled with this new way to connect with one another and quickly find answers to highly specific questions,” he says.
In the seven years since Starmind was conceived in that small university office, the company has grown from a student network to a supplier of powerful corporate software. Headquartered in Küsnacht and with offices in Frankfurt and New York, its regular customers include international corporations, and its software is used by people in over 70 countries. In the United States, in particular, Marc Vontobel and Pascal Kaufmann have found an openness to their innovative ideas that is sometimes lacking in Switzerland. As Pascal Kaufmann points out, “In the US, I don’t have to explain the importance of getting employees to work together. American entrepreneurs are more likely to ask, ‘How do you do that?’ But in Switzerland you first have to explain why creating a network of employees is so useful and exciting.” Marc Vontobel adds, “We worry sometimes that certain Swiss companies might miss out. Their attitude is, ‘Artificial intelligence? Oh, we’ll take a look at that in two or three years...’ It shocks us every time.” Nevertheless, the two entrepreneurs take a critical view of everything that falls under the term artificial intelligence. “It’s not really intelligent if it takes 300,000 photographs of a cat for a program to be able to say with certainty: ‘This is a cat,’” Marc Vontobel observes. Pascal Kaufmann adds, “We use algorithms that can identify a cat – or create a profile of a human being – based on as little information as possible.” They can understand why many people are reluctant to embrace the idea of artificial intelligence. Science fiction scenarios suggesting that humans will soon be superfluous and robots will rule the world are something most of us find frightening. But the founders of Starmind are convinced that we are far removed from such a scenario. They believe that for a long time to come, the use of algorithms to create networks of the best human brains will be much more important than attempts to crack the “brain code.” “Our software is not intended to eliminate the role of human beings. Instead, it makes people more valuable and keeps them in the workforce longer,” says Marc Vontobel. As Pascal Kaufmann puts it,
We’re on the side of humans, not robots.
It is obvious upon entering Starmind’s offices that the focus is on human beings. A large brain made of glass signals what the company is all about. In the corridor, hundreds of smiling “double selfies” hang on the walls. At a company party, employees were encouraged to take photographs of themselves in as many two-person combinations as possible… “These pictures illustrate our motto: 1+1=3. That means that if you bring together the right people at the right time, the results are much better than if each person works independently,” Marc Vontobel explains. Both of them find it challenging to recruit new people. “We’re lucky because we’re dealing with an interesting subject that attracts motivated people; that makes it easier,” says Pascal Kaufmann. Slightly over a year ago, they convinced Peter Waser to accept the position of Starmind’s CEO. For many years, Peter Waser served as general manager of Microsoft Switzerland and as country general manager for Microsoft Services in Western Europe. He was intrigued by the idea of lending the benefit of his experience to a young enterprise like Starmind. With Peter Waser as CEO, Pascal Kaufmann and Marc Vontobel are relieved of management responsibilities and have more time to pursue further innovation.
During Starmind’s early years, Credit Suisse showed itself to be a reliable partner. Last year, because of its steady growth, the company needed a higher credit limit. As Marc Vontobel says, “We didn’t need cash, but we needed a guarantee in case of a temporary financial shortfall.” Starmind approached several banks, but only Credit Suisse was willing to provide the guarantee they needed. “The first time Stefan Keller from Credit Suisse came to us, he brought along a credit officer. They wanted to know all about us. Eventually, Stefan Keller apparently decided that he could trust us, and the credit was approved,” Pascal Kaufmann remembers. Since then, Starmind has forged a closer relationship with Credit Suisse. “I have to admit: I was forced to rethink some of my assumptions about large banks like Credit Suisse,” Pascal Kaufmann says. The company’s interactions with the client advisor have been quite unbureaucratic, and the two founders are often glad that they can take advantage of the bank’s expertise. “In the past, I would have called one of our shareholders if certain strategic or financial questions had come up. Now my first response is usually to contact Stefan Keller,” Pascal Kaufmann says. As an expert in artificial intelligence, how does Pascal Kaufmann see the future of the bank? “The bank of the future will be a network and problemsolving machine to a much greater extent than today. Credit Suisse is already strong in this area – and that fits well with the Starmind philosophy.”