The EPFL spin-off SThAR draws on large quantities of telecommunications data to identify where and when to deliver a message most effectively. Recently the company gained success in winning stage 2 of Venture Kick and partnering with CA Technologies. We talked with CEO Alberto Hernando about his company and future plans.
Alberto, before we talk about SThAR, tell us your story.
I am a physicist and did my PhD on quantum mechanics and complex systems. Some years ago, I started to study social and economic processes as electoral results or demographics using the mathematical methods I was using for physics. At that time, it was a “blue ocean” in terms of research and opportunities, and I got some nice results about describing and predicting population flows and opinion dynamics.
How did the idea of SThAR come up?
That research became to scale and commercial applications naturally appeared. At that moment, together with some of my colleagues of the lab at the EPFL, we saw the opportunity and we went for founding SThAR. We started to develop the Big Data algorithms based on what we call Sociothermodynamics for designing viral marketing and electoral campaigns using data on mobility and connectivity from telecommunication companies. We generate a roadmap with the best places and best time for executing coordinated marketing actions to maximize the spreading of the message. Since we have behind the algorithms general models on mobility and communication, we are planning to also use them in the future in many other applications as traffic forecast, design of optimal public transportation networks, or rating of placements for new business as shops or restaurants.
What distinguishes your technology from your competitors?
We use first mathematical principles borrowed from physics to derive our models, and use them in areas where other solutions, as machine-learning or evolutionary algorithms, cannot be straightforwardly applied. In general, one needs data of already-solved examples to train those algorithms, but in many situations there is not such a database. By using the basic principles of how we move and communicate, we can still derive models and make some useful predictions even if the quality of the available data is not as good or is incomplete.
You took part of the AIT Camp Brazil in October 2015. What were the benefits of that?
It was an amazing experience, and still it is! I met very enthusiastic and energetic people, with very nice ideas and projects. The organizers at Swissnex Brazil were very professional and close, and they continue to helpus createcontacts in Brazil and suppor our projects in the country. It was a pleasure to meet the entrepreneurial environment there and learn the potential of the Brazilian market. Definitely inspirational.
You recently won stage 2 at Venture Kick. Why did you apply for it? How did the win help you? And what do you expect from stage 3?
Venture Kick is not just about the money, but about the support that we find from the excellent professionals that are participating there. We have learned a lot from the feedbacks, the comments, and the training at the kicker’s camps. It also helped us to find people who understood very well our technology and potential applications, and whom are helping us in introducing it smartly into the market. In stage 3 we will present our business strategy for the next years, and it is a great opportunity to test its robustness in front of such high-profiled experts.
SThAR announced a partnership with CA Technologies and received 100’000 CHF. How did that come up?
CA Technologies invests in Swiss IT start-ups when they find a promising project, and fortunately Bjarne Rasmussen (VP at CA) found our product interesting. Their support is very meaningful for us, they are one of the largest software corporations in the world and are kindly offering us their advice, experience and knowledge. We can learn a lot from them.
How will you invest the money?
We are investing it into the development of an in-the-cloud application for the design and management of viral marketing campaigns. Our plan is to make it available for Europe, USA and Latin America in a scalable format.
The money is given through the Innogrants at EPFL. What do you think about them?
EPFL Innogrants definitely made the difference for making SThAR real. They trusted on us when it was just a concept, and their support gave the boost to transform our academic ideas into a viable business. They make it simple and fast, which is really important for a startup. They put us in contact with many interesting people in the area and helped us a lot for learning how to become an entrepreneur. The way that Corine Zuber and Hervé Lebret are managing Innogrants makes it so far the best program for jumping from academics to business.
At what stage is SThAR today and what do you plan next?
Thanks to all the support we have received in our first year of existence, we have had enough time to understand the market and their necessities. We have performed several marketing campaigns and electoral processes in 2015 that helped us to proof our technology. For 2016, we are now prepared for scaling our business abroad, growing our number of clients and facing new and exciting challenges.
Is the venture leaders program (in USA or in China) an option for you?
Of course! After my experience in Rio with the AIT Camp, venture leaders is the natural step for continuing learning about business development and entrepreneurship. The challenging team and environment along those days are quite enlightening, and really makes you to rethink about your business plan and get inspired by the examples and ideas exposed there.
What are your future plans? Any cool deals on the horizon?
Indeed, we will become fully international with executions in several countries as Brazil, Colombia, or India. There will be elections soon in Brazil and in the USA, two of the biggest democracies in the world, where we have started negotiations. In addition, our on-the-cloud application for management of viral marketing campaigns will be ready, what will mark a totally new chapter in our evolution as startup. I can’t wait for 2016!