Leif-Nissen Lundbæk, founder of Xayn tells us about web search.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Leif-Nissen Lundbæk: My family and I are very fortunate in the sense that we are healthy – but of course, it’s been a challenge to combine working while having two small kids at home. I think I’m speaking for a lot of people when I say that I’m looking forward to Corona being over.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Xayn.
Leif-Nissen Lundbæk: Sure. The first idea for the company actually started from my Ph.D. thesis, in which I work on privacy-preserving AI. My thesis advisor Professor Michel Huth from Imperial College London, then also became a co-founder of the company and is now Chief Research Officer. Even though I dedicated myself to academia by studying at the universities in Heidelberg, Berlin, Oxford, and Imperial College London, I’d also worked with companies like IBM and Daimler – where I met Felix Hahmann, who is the third co-founder and is now Chief Operations Officer.
How does Xayn innovate?
Leif-Nissen Lundbæk: Our company Xayn originated from a research project, and this scientific mindset continues to be in our DNA with 30% Ph. D.s among our team members who come from all over the world. And this highly qualified team is dedicated to solving the conflict between privacy and convenience by using great technology. We not only want to build new technology; we want to change things for the better. Those factors help us to bring in new ideas and to continuously improve what we are working on.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Leif-Nissen Lundbæk: We enabled our team members early in March 2020 – before Germany went into the first lockdown – to work completely remotely and continue doing so.
While we dealt with Corona and adjusted to the changes, we also worked intensively on our privacy-protecting search engine Xayn that we launched early in December 2020. It’s been a long year, and I’m immensely proud of our dedicated and highly motivated team that made this possible. And we are really happy to see that all our efforts paid off and that we hit a nerve with our privacy approach: since launching about two months ago, more than 75,000 people already downloaded our app.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Leif-Nissen Lundbæk: We had to make difficult choices shortly after we founded the company in 2017. Three months after we started the company, we won the first Porsche Innovation Contest with a blockchain project and received further investments in 2018 and 2019. But we were driven towards more and more project-based assignments. So, we decided to abandon this area – even though the blockchain division had the highest turnover and enabled us to become profitable in our first year. Instead, we focused on our initial approach – the combination of AI and privacy – and decided to build our privacy-protecting and convenient search engine Xayn.
The lesson that we learnt is that you sometimes have to take a detour to reach your destination – but that it’s also an important part of your overall journey.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Leif-Nissen Lundbæk: I can relax best when taking our dog for long walks in the woods – there is no better way to wind down than fresh air, nature, and the happiness of a dog.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Leif-Nissen Lundbæk: With our search engine, we combine two areas that until now seemed to be direct opponents: privacy and convenience. Users always had to choose between using either a convenient search engine, like Google, that invades your privacy and collects your personal data or a privacy-protecting alternative like DuckDuckGo, that doesn’t give you personalized results. Either way, you always had to pay – either with your data or with your time. In a sense, the user kept being the losers. And we wanted to change this.
Therefore, we built our search engine that combines privacy with convenience by using decentralized AI technology called masked federated learning. Instead of bringing the data to the algorithms, we bring the algorithms to the data – and, in addition, also enable the user to gain back control over the algorithms by giving them direct feedback to the search results. This combination of privacy, convenience, and controllability is unique and has the potential to change the way we search for information on the web.
Your final thoughts?
Leif-Nissen Lundbæk: Privacy seems to be this abstract notion that is sometimes also difficult to grasp for us. But it affects us immensely on an individual and societal level. Tim Cook from Apple put it best when he said in a recent interview that privacy and the climate crisis are two of the most important issues of this century.