Startup@HSG x Lightly

Startup Story - Lightly

Interview with Matthias Heller, Co-Founder of  Lightly

(Featured in the Startup@HSG monthly newsletter of March 2021)

Matthias, how did it all start?
Our story began when Igor and I met at the ETH Rocket Hub playing billiard while we were both working on different projects. After this, we became close friends, challenged each other, and discussed different ideas. One of those ideas was an avant-garde AI for smart data selection.
During my time in consulting, I noticed that machine learning projects are extremely expensive. The main reason for these high costs is the resources required to process the enormous amount of data. Igor, on the other hand, worked on many AI projects and experienced first-hand the struggles of cleaning raw data. So, we both understood that an innovative approach for smart data selection could let us offer companies that spend millions to have their dataset annotated a way to spend much less - we saw a large business opportunity, which we promptly pursued.
We began probing the market under the project name WhatToLabel and began to see some real interest. Our first trial-customer was a German car manufacturer, who saw our slide deck and unexpectedly called me on a Monday morning to invite us to their headquarter to pitch Lightly. Their reaction was the first glimpse of knowing we were creating something of value. In no time, our Startup was up and running.

Was Lightly your initial idea and vision?
One year later, we had the first version of the software ready. From then on, right after having collected some million samples, companies could easily process all their data in our software instead of having to annotate all of it. We would remove up to 90% of biased and redundant data so that they would have to pay only for the 10% filtered data to be annotated. However, we noticed how many other data issues there are and how much more we could do to solve them.
Therefore, in October 2020, we rebranded the company to Lightly with a new and thrilling vision: To become the leading data curation platform. Within our new goal, we do not limit ourselves to only filtering customers’ data right after it has been collected. Instead, Lightly serves as the mission control for AI data along the whole machine learning pipeline. Thus, we also help customers with data versioning and management, with quality assurance, or with model and data optimization. For instance, we ensure our customers’ AI has no racial biases by directly addressing the underlying data.

What are you doing right now?
We currently work with companies from different fields within autonomous driving, visual inspection, and video analytics. Our main goal right now is to make these customers happy and expand our customer base. We also look very much forward to the release of Lightly 2.0, which will include new features like active-learning and automated annotation, as well as a completely new UI and Analytics. This release will replace our first version of Lightly and will be a game-changer for everyone that uses our platform.

What have been your biggest challenges so far?
Working in a high-tech environment and selling to this technical customer base has its challenges and requires constant innovation and flexibility from the business model side. As customers’ needs, expectations, and technology change extremely fast, we had to establish and maintain a customer-first culture within an engineering-heavy team. Nevertheless, we were able to do that successfully by following the internal rule “do not build something if you cannot sell it in advance”. This mentality helped us to build what the customer really wants instead of building what we think he needs.

Did you already close some founding rounds?
Right before our rebranding into Lightly AG took place, we were able to close our angel/pre-seed round. We received financing from First Momentum Ventures, Another.VC, and well-known business angels in Switzerland. We are very happy with our investors, and it’s great that we share a common vision of what Lightly can become. It is also great to have business angels on board that have built large companies themselves and can provide us with valuable feedback every now and then. Our next step, regarding financing, will be the seed-round. However, we currently want to focus on operations and on pushing Lightly as much as possible.

Any final words?
To go on this adventure and build Lightly with our team has been challenging – as it probably is to build any business – but extremely exciting! If you have any input you would like to share if you would like to know more about us, or if you’re interested to join us on this journey please let me know.

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