Appu Shaji, CEO and Chief Scientist at Mobius Labs tells us about computer vision innovation.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Appu Shaji: Thanks! Thankfully my family and I have been doing well and in good spirits during these testing times of COVID-19. It has been interesting and strange times, to say the least. But it was also a time to self-reflect and be grateful for our health, our family, and friends that accompany us.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Mobius Labs.
Appu Shaji: I have always been fascinated by computers and programming. I started coding when I was ten years old (the early 90s). Computer vision and image processing caught my attention very early on, so I decided to pursue a PhD in them. I graduated with my PhD in 2008 and decided to continue with a postdoc position, where I had the opportunity to contribute to some really interesting and well-cited academic projects and publications.
In 2012, I switched from academia to entrepreneurship, since the explicit value creation ( i.e., building something that can be used by thousands of people for solving problems ) was really attractive, and started my first entrepreneurial projects. The first one failed. The second one I sold to a photography company called EyeEm, based in Berlin. It was after this that I founded Mobius Labs, with the goal of making computer vision accessible to every application, device, or process. It has been a really exhilarating journey so far!
How does Mobius Labs innovate?
Appu Shaji: At the core of Mobius Labs, We have some of the best scientists, engineers, and product experts in the world working on the leading computer vision technology. We’re committed to making computers see like a human, in fact, even better than a human! We do a lot of original work to make the technology do things that it could not actually do before. To give you one example, we’re working on creating computer vision solutions that can be trained by non-techies. This is truly fascinating because if you really think about it, this is a field where – if you want to build something – you have to have a strong technical and academic background. So by simplifying this, we empower anyone to build really strong end-user applications like visual search or visual recommendations.
At Mobius Labs, we have three pillars for innovation. The first one is scientific innovation, which pushes the barrier of what is possible scientifically. The second one is productization, which focuses on how we take this extremely advanced technology to a product that can be used by everyone to generate value. Last but not least is our business model, which looks at how we work with our commercial partners to monetize our technology.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Appu Shaji: To be honest, we have a couple of very tough quarters at the beginning of the pandemic, early spring and summer 2020. On the B2B side, we basically had a market shut down that forced us to reevaluate and innovate quickly in how we commercialize our technology. But we managed to turn that around and ended up having a strong showing, where we more than double our revenue versus last year.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Appu Shaji: This was a very interesting period to navigate human resources wisely, especially because before COVID, we really enjoyed working in the office and didn’t really have a remote working culture. So one of the very first decisions we had to make was around the first week of March when the news really broke, and it was clear that this was a very serious health risk with disastrous consequences was to switch to remote working culture. In fact, we were one of the first companies in Berlin to take the whole team remotely. We were becoming a fully virtual organization by the third week of March. This involved adjusting our processes to support our open and collaborative culture. When you are in the same physical location, you have many tools at hand. But going virtual required using tools like Asana, Slack, and Miro for collaboration and being disciplined about keeping them updated. Another interesting part was onboarding new colleagues, where we have been collaborating with many team members for months, whom we have not met in person. So making sure a proper virtual onboarding process and virtual meet-ups to ensure everyone was feeling included, engaged, and motivated.
What we found was that the remote working environment has many positive aspects to it. People enjoyed a better balance with reduced commuting times, and we were able to keep collaborating in a very focused way. And now, the next challenge will be what comes next when we transition into a new world. I don’t think it’s going to be the old world, and I think it’s going to be a hybrid picture of what we used to have pre-COVID and what we have post-COVID.
One thing I have learned during my time as an entrepreneur is that you have to put people first. You have to create an environment where the team believes in the company mission and has genuine fun while working on the problems we are trying to solve. It is quite heartening as a CEO to know that we have a team right now, which is very energetic, really enjoys working with each other, and that took on the remote work challenge headfirst. It is quite surprising to say this, but the remote work journey has actually made the entire company more collaborative.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Appu Shaji: Customer relationship management is something that we really had to pay attention to during COVID. Since we’re an early-stage company, a lot of our customer development used to happen in meetings, conferences, or trade shows where meeting face to face was a very important part of the journey. And with COVID, this avenue dried up pretty quickly. Which meant that there was a hit to the business in terms of the traditional methodologies that we had set up to work with our customers and acquire new ones were basically gone. So we had to quickly pivot into a fully digital customer relationship management strategy. We also started our marketing department and took all our lead generation efforts online.
We also have to go back to the most important lesson, which is about people. So it is important to maintain that personal touch during this challenging time and focus on building genuine relationships.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Appu Shaji: We do not necessarily take any COVID government grants during the pandemic. We were granted an IBB ProFIT grant, but the application and entire process were made pre-COVID. This is a grant by IBB bank in Berlin, which supports innovative projects. This is something that the European Union and the Berlin senate have set up to incentivize companies in the Berlin ecosystem to take technological risks that are sometimes not possible in a commercial setup. So we are very grateful for this grant and for the bank for supporting us during this process.
I also really want to congratulate our entire team for really putting all their energy and passion into their work during this time. It is great to see every single individual in our team, believing in what we’re doing and essentially pulling their weight. I’m very thankful for that.
Your final thoughts?
Appu Shaji: This pandemic was an eye-opener for us as a humanity. It made us realize how fragile some things are. But it also gave us time to introspect and evaluate what really truly is important to us. Speaking personally, I’m feeling lucky to be in good health and to have those around me also in good health. There is nothing that can replace that. Also lucky because I get to work with people that want to work on real problems that matter and that want to push the barriers every day. I’m privileged to be able to work with them, and it doesn’t matter if it is in person or remotely.