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With a new EIT Digital Challenge edition just around the corner, we get in touch with past winners that have since made it big. In their answers to our 5 questions, the CEO’s of Europe’s most innovative startups tell us what the startup life has brought them, and where the future will bring them. Today: Andreas Kunze, from German AI/IoT startup Konux, about living above a garage, the importance of diversity in a team and life after winning the EIT Digital Challenge.
Konux is a leading German AI/IoT startup, providing smart sensor systems and AI-based analytics to enable predictive maintenance for the industrial world. Since its foundation in 2014, KONUX has raised more than $50 million with leading Silicon Valley investors.
Widely recognized success of Andreas Kunze
Heading this fast-growing company is German AI-expert Andreas Kunze. Despite his young age, he has been widely recognized for his entrepreneurial chops. In 2016, Andreas was the youngest CEO to be on the ‘40 under 40 entrepreneurs’ list by Capital Magazine. In early 2017, he got selected among the Forbes ‘Top 30 under 30 – Europe’ and just last year he was selected for the MIT Technology Review list of ‘Top Innovators under 35 Germany’.
Let’s start at the very beginning: how did it all start for you and Konux?
“When me and my co-founders founded Konux in March 2014, we had the idea to build a combination of sensor technology and sophisticated software. However, we weren’t sure where to use it. As graduates of the Technical University of Munich we soon recognized that the conditions in the railway industry were ideal for our IoT-solution: rail networks are physically very similar, no matter what country they are in. This makes it easier to build generic AI models and allows developers to find solutions to common problems.”
“My original plan had been to write my Master’s thesis at Stanford, since I had a research scholarship. But once I arrived in the US, everything developed a little bit differently. Instead of focusing on our studies, we started searching for investors. I met Andy von Bechtolsheim at an event in Germany. He is the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, the first investor for Google and now one of our current investors. He offered me a room above his garage. That was a jackpot for two reasons: first, we didn’t have to pay any rent. Second, I lived with someone from whom we could learn an infinite amount.”
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement so far, and which hurdles did you have to clear to achieve them?
“Within the last four years we have built a company of almost 60 people, with great international railway customers, including Deutsche Bahn in Germany, SNCF in France, Trafikverket in Sweden and several others. And we have a number of fantastic and very supportive investors like News Enterprise Associates (NEA), MIG Funds, Alibaba and Andy von Bechtolsheim, just to name a few.”
“But there certainly have been some hurdles to clear. I believe we initially made the mistake to mainly hire people who were very similar to us. Similar age, similar backgrounds. It felt good in the beginning because you quickly agree on everything and get along wonderfully. But the problem was that our perspective couldn’t be expanded much further due to missing diversity. We now have around 19 nationalities in our team. Our people come to us with very different experiences and different ages. We discuss more, and that brings a positive dynamic and a holistic picture to decisions.”
What has been the greatest advice anyone has given you since starting your company?
“Andreas von Bechtolsheim told me: “You have to believe in your own destiny.” You have to believe that you can make this idea come true. If you don’t believe it, no one else will.”
What did winning the EIT Digital Challenge mean for your company?
“We won the EIT Digital Challenge back in 2014 when the competition focused on early-stage companies, not at scaleups as it does now. At that point, this award came as a huge motivation boost and support for the entire team as it clearly proved that we were obviously doing something right.”
What are your plans for the future? Are you looking for external funding?
“For now, we are very happy with our funding. Business-wise, we are working on the further extension of our product portfolio as well as expanding into other European and Asian markets. I envision a future where AI and IoT will empower industrial operations to run more efficiently and manual processes will be a matter of the past. I hope, that five to ten years from now, our solution will be a defining system for the digitization of global railway systems and that Konux itself will be the number one digital player in the railway sector.”
Apply now for the next EIT Digital Challenge
If you think your business has got what it takes to become a fast-growing company like Konux, you can still sign up for the EIT Digital Challenge 2019. Deep tech startups from all over Europe will compete in different categories and pitch their business to win money and a years’ worth of support from Europe’s leading accelerator. Sounds good? Check out the application criteria and apply now, registration closes on June 14th.