We talked to Adrian Locher of Merantix (AI Venture Studio) about the world’s first AI venture studio, and he had the following to say:-
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Adrian Locher: The situation we’re all in at the moment is exhausting, of course. But I’m very happy that my family is doing well and especially my kids are coping very well with it. And I’m also looking forward to post-pandemic times because we see so much innovation going on right now in different domains – that’s really encouraging!
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Merantix.
Adrian Locher: First of all: I’m driven by the vision that AI is the key technology in making our world a better place. AI is as influential and groundbreaking as electricity and software have been before. I also wanted to build things ever since I was able to play: First with building blocks, later wood, and for more than 15 years now, software. After selling my last company in 2015, a very successful Swiss e-commerce business, I did a sabbatical and visited the Bay Area in the US to get inspiration for what I was going to do next. AI was on the rise to become one of the hottest topics at the time, so I started learning more about it and looking out for opportunities in that space. Luckily, a friend connected me with Rasmus Rothe, a young and brilliant mind in computer vision and machine learning academia. A few months after we first talked to each other, we founded Merantix: the world’s first AI venture studio where we bring AI from research to its application in business and the real world.
How does Merantix innovate?
Adrian Locher: Our aim at Merantix is to provide the best possible ecosystem for founders to bring ideas that are based on AI to life. To do so, we’re providing know-how, a network of partners, and funding – which is the essence of our venture studio model. Thus, Merantix is a new version of an investor, if you like.
The first and foremost well of ideas are the founders that join Merantix. We constantly are looking for the smartest entrepreneurs, equipped with stamina and charisma, in order to lead a team and to overcome obstacles on the way. They distinguish themselves through unorthodox thinking and a deep-rooted ambition. When founders join Merantix, they usually don’t have the company in mind that they want to build, but they may come with a particular experience that triggered their interest in a specific domain – ranging from a particular technological subfield, like Natural Language Processing, to domains, like healthcare or environmental topics. Other times, they have a more generalist background, accompanied by a curiosity for business models and go-to-market strategies. In essence, the variety of possible sources of company ideas is a manifold as the CVs of our founders are.
Once aboard, Merantix founders scoop ideas from multiple conversation partners and research topics. This includes friends and acquaintances from venture capital firms, our network in academia, advisors, industry contacts, and other founders alike. At this point of ideation, it is important to think critically and combine learnings and thoughts from different layers of the process. Innovative ideas form through a complex interaction of suggested domains to explore, reported industry needs, and technological breakthroughs that open up new fields of application. Often, an approach from one industry could be remodeled for another industry; and some problems occur industry-agnostic.
As many start-ups fail to build a successful and sustainable business case, we’re investing a lot of time in ideation and validation before a new venture will spin-off. Thus we’re making sure that the company will thrive. And that’s one of the key advantages the venture studio model brings to the table.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Adrian Locher: Since March 2020, we’re operating mostly from our home offices, and our ventures are doing pretty well – we even founded two new start-ups during the pandemic, Kausa (business intelligence) and Cambrium (biotech).
If the situation and the German government’s rule allow it, some team members meet at the office to discuss new ideas. Even if there are a lot of opportunities to connect virtually, we see that being in one room is still the best way to discuss and develop new ideas. With this in mind, we’re finishing the biggest project we’ve taken on so far: Building an ‘AI Campus’ in the middle of Berlin.
The AI Campus is a not-for-profit project with the goal of further developing the AI community in Berlin to make Germany and the EU more attractive as an AI location. It offers space for more than 20 companies, research groups, and start-ups to rent at cost price. The exchange between the individual teams and domains, which we’re promoting very much, will lead to huge leaps in AI development and application.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Adrian Locher: Well, promoting a big office space in times when no one can think of working in a crowded room is quite tough. But we’re looking forward optimistically as hubs like the AI Campus will be key pillars to foster the AI community in Europe. This is also the feedback we get from potential partners and tenants. The lesson learned here is: Playing against all odds can be very rewarding.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Adrian Locher: Not only during the crisis are we relying pretty much on digital tools to stay connected with our team members and partners alike, as some of them are located around the world. Slack and Zoom are helping us to communicate with each other; Bamboo is our favoured recruiting tool. As we’re promoting a modern, relationship-based leadership style among our founders, we’re encouraging everyone to stay as connected as possible to the team. 1:1 calls are very helpful here, especially when you’re not sitting in front of a screen but going outside for a walk while calling.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Adrian Locher: We don’t think of anyone as a competitor. The biggest challenge we face is the fear some people have when thinking of AI taking over their jobs and stuff. That might happen, yes, but there will also be many new opportunities for everyone. So if we want to be successful, it is our job to help shaping a positive outlook on the future.
Your final thoughts?
Adrian Locher: AI is the most important technology of the 21st century. To make it a success, we need to bring all stakeholders together – with the AI Campus; we want to fulfill our part in this project.
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