In R&D departments, the search for suitable technologies often takes up a lot of time and effort. The Dutch startup Findest, which is part of 5-HT’s digital ecosystem, aims to make this process faster and easier by using artificial intelligence. In this interview, CEO and co-founder Vincent Franken and Account Executive Sam Salsal explain how their algorithm IGOR^AI can help their clients to speed up the process of technology scouting while also enabling them to get a better overview of potential technologies.
What are the key challenges in technology scouting?
Vincent Franken: When R&D departments search for appropriate technologies, they use Google or other search engines, look into scientific publications, or even fly to conferences and fairs around the world to speak to suppliers. It is common to spend a lot of time on scouting technologies. With our algorithm called IGOR^AI, we can help to speed up this process, reducing the time our clients need to invest in technology scouting from an average of 100 hours to only 4 hours per project. As we aim to accelerate the process of finding technologies, we chose to name our startup “Findest”, which can be read as the superlative of “to find” – “find, finder, findest”.
Who are your customers?
Vincent Franken: We work for every industry that needs to innovate by using better science: energy industry, food industry, but also chemical and healthcare industry. Our service is very industry-independent; almost every R&D department can use it. Up to now, we have already helped more than 130 companies from the Netherlands, but also from other European countries. For example, in Germany we have had about 15 customers by now.
How does the process of technology scouting with IGOR^AI work?
Vincent Franken: We start every project with a mutual non-disclosure agreement so we make sure to stick to the highest standards of secrecy and integrity, but also IT security. In an intake meeting, we ask our client a lot of questions about the technology he is looking for – what specific requirements should this technology meet? Then, our team lets IGOR^AI search for solutions as broadly as possible. By reading millions of patents, scientific publications and supplier websites, the algorithm identifies various potential technologies and shows them to one of our technology scouts. These Ph.D. level searchers – experts in chemistry, healthcare, or molecular neuroscience – evaluate the suggestions of the algorithm and select the technologies that they consider appropriate. In a midway meeting, our client can say yes or no to each of the technologies that we suggest to him. Then, we dive deeper into our research and investigate how well the selected technologies are going to work. Do they meet all the specifications? Are they well-developed enough? Based on a ranking that we present to our client in the final results meeting, he can hopefully make a decision and select the three most promising technologies to test them.
What are the main benefits for your customers?
Vincent Franken: First of all, we help companies to save a lot of time and effort. With Findest, the whole process of technology scouting takes only two weeks. Our service is also very low-cost, which makes it affordable for a wide range of companies. Furthermore, the likelihood of a technology being developed without IGOR^AI finding it is very low – and you don’t want to miss that one of your competitors is working on a technology that is going to disrupt your business in a couple of years.
Sam Salsal: In about 25% of the cases, the winning technologies that we identify come from a completely different industry than the client would have expected. The experts working in R&D departments usually have decades of experience in their field, but IGOR^AI can help them to get a complete overview by considering technologies from various industries.
How does IGOR^AI work technically?
Vincent Franken: The most important feature of IGOR^AI is its ability to understand and interpret text. With methods of natural language processing, we have trained our algorithm to understand subject-object-relationships. For example, if a scientific publication says, “You can open a door with a doorknob”, then the algorithm understands that the doorknob is an instrument for opening doors. If our client wants to search for different methods of opening doors, then IGOR^AI will name the doorknob as one potential solution, next to other technologies with similar functions. Second, our algorithm is able to identify the properties of a technology and understand its characteristics. Finally, the results of the algorithm’s research are always presented to a human expert to evaluate if the findings are correct.
What is the story behind the foundation of Findest?
Vincent Franken: Me and my co-founder Roel Boekel both studied science business and innovation, a study program in which you learn how to turn technologies into innovation, and we both graduated on nano technologies.
In 2014, we started a company to help our clients find suitable nano technologies. At that time, we were scouting technologies just like everyone else by googling, reading patents, and talking to suppliers. When Roel joined a text mining group at Delft University of Technology, we discovered that artificial intelligence could drastically increase the speed of our scouting processes, and we started developing the algorithm that became the foundation for IGOR^AI. From then on, our startup began to grow very fast. Now, there are already 27 people working for Findest.
In times of coronavirus, how does Findest support companies attempting to combat COVID-19?
Sam Salsal: We asked ourselves how our technology could help companies from pharmaceutical, healthcare, and chemical industry to find solutions against COVID-19. Therefore, we developed IGOR^Cov-19, a simplified version of IGOR^AI covering all virology data connected to the new coronavirus. This search engine, which is completely for free, can help companies to get a complete overview of all potential solutions. At the moment, there are already 60 to 70 clients working with IGOR^Cov-19.
What is your vision for the future of Findest?
Vincent Franken: In the future, we want our algorithm to be so simple to use that everyone can find the technologies he is looking for within a few hours. Our aim is to build a search engine for technologies that every R&D department can use without special training. At the moment, we still need human technology scouts to ask our clients follow-up questions in order to evaluate the results of IGOR^AI. In the future, we want the algorithm to be able to ask these questions on its own so that R&D departments can work with IGOR^AI independently. This is our dream, but the development will take us many years. Finding technologies is arguably one of the most complex tasks in the world, and we want to make this process easier for everybody.
How important is the German market and 5-HT to you?
Vincent Franken: Establishing our services in Germany is a big step for us, as Germany is one of the most important countries in the world. Therefore, we first started to internationalize our business with customers in Finland and Sweden to gain some experience with big multinationals. Now, with Sam, we have started to set up a German team leading the expansion into the German market.
Sam Salsal: For us, it’s great to be a part of 5-HT because of the intensity of biotech, medical, and chemical industry in the Rhine-Neckar region. We hope to get into contact with companies from this ecosystem that would benefit from using IGOR^AI. At Findest, we are very happy and excited about this opportunity, and we believe that we can make fantastic things happen when we work together.