A global player with a multilingual video player
In the Old Testament the plethora of languages in Babylon was seen as divine punishment – and in out times of digitization the many laguages are making things difficult when watching videos online. Bernd Korz is taking on the issue with hin Mannheim startup Alugha: the video player integrates multilingual audio tracks, which saves every time, traffic and memory space, making the internet a bit faster and greener.
What does Alugha mean, and what is it exactly that you do?
The word Alugha is Swahili and translates to „one language“. We are the first online video platform that integrates several different languages into one video stream and publishes these. We don’t just supply the tech, but also offer a platform that allows users to transcribe, translate and dub videos. This gives anyone the opportunity to reach a global audience.
What language courses did you visit in school?
None. In secondary school I was offered only English as an option and my language skills were bogus. I achieved my general qualification for university entrance via a second educational pathway. I didn’t learn proper English until quite late in my life. And up till then I was capable of very rudimentary English, some Turkish and some Spanish, which I had picked up over time. Despite of this I was always interested in foreign languages. I’m very eager for knowledge and always wanted to understand everyone around me.
How did you learn Spanish without being taught?
As a teenager my uncle had a big satellite rig, the kind that turns. So I would spend days watching foreign television. French, Spanish, Russian — I found this all to be very interesting and tried to mimic the different languages. As a kid of the Palatinate I was also often in France, and later when living in the north, I also spent also in Denmark. When living near the border one tends to pick up a lot of things.
What was your first career?
I started off as a concrete worker. As a master mason I went back to school to learn structural engineering. After this I started my first business producing prefabricated parts and did quite well. During this time we employed around 60 people and supplied projects such as the Volksparkstadion in Hamburg, the EuroSpeedway in Lausitz, the stadium in Unterhaching and even in Schalke.
What brings a guy from the construction business to starting up in software?
Early in my life I found my love for all things computer. As a teen I was a real nerd. VTech Laser 200, Sinclair ZX 81, Commodore VC 20 — these were my computers in the 80s, long before they even offered floppy discs. When I was 30 I decided I wanted to transition into the computer sector. I made some good investments in stocks and was able to invest the money into a OS I was developing. In the end though the whole thing failed quite spectacularly. Ultimately those years were an important step for me.
What brought you to to aspect of multilingual videos?
After tanking my first endeavour I spent a few years working in the music industry. Though even then I couldn’t shak the image of the computer nerd. Whenever an artist needed help with their computer I was the guy they would ask. After answering the same questions for years I was fed up. I recorded tutorial videos answering many computer related questions and uploaded them to youtube. This way people could watch the videos and leave me alone. What I hadn’t anticipated though was when my vdeos became early viral hits. After a while I had amassed over a million views and even made some money through advertisements. Over time there were more and more requests for english versions of the videos. This would have been way to much hassle back then. Re-recording everything, re-uploading it all — this was out of the question. So one evening when watching a DVD I wondered why YouTube didn’t offer language options.
And you just started coding?
I was intrigued by the idea and met up some programmers to get input. These guys needed 150,000 Euros for a prototype, which was way too much. So I needed a different approach. I started things by securing a patent and putting together a well though out concept, basically all the things I was capable of doing on my own. One evening I was about to watch a Champions League match and my son, 15 a the time, walked in and opened up his laptop. He showed me a little something he had coded for me over the weekend. I was awestruck. The little guy had developed a working code to switch between languages, as surprise for his dad – this was in 2012.
And this was the go-ahead for Alugha?
Not quite. We started Alugha two years later. But that was the moment I was hooked. My good friend Ithamar Adema, who I had worked with before joined the team. This was at the time that I had worked out the patent and submitted it. I was telling friends, acquaintances and business contacts about the concept – though nobody was really getting it at that point, they felt the idea was to nerdy.
In the end, what led to the startup?
Gregor Greinert, a businessman and good friend of mine, called me one day and requested I meet him in his office. He wanted to see my language tool. When I got there he was waiting along with his dad. Then everything happened very quickly: i presented the project and they both wanted to get involved directly. It’s a double father-and-son story: Gregor and Klaus Greinert have been both my sons and my partners from that day on. This was in 2014 and by today my son Niklas is studying computer sciences and is one of the key developers at Alugha.
Family enterprise Alugha – how does the collaboration between the two of you work?
It’s great. The roles are clearly defined. I am more impulsive and sometimes hot-headed, while Niklas is more mature and makes factual and dry decisions. We complement each other very well.
Be honest now: what about Mannheim do you love, and what can get on your nerves?
Coming from the Palatinate I sometimes get the impression that Mannheim does not want anyone to get into the city. No matter from which direction one is coming there is always the possibility it might take two hours to make the last few miles there. Traffic can be really bad. Getting there by public transport isn’t much easier. The public order officers can be a pain as well. When the weather is nice I like to sit out in the park, in a public green space, and it sucks to be chased off. Aside from this I really like the city, and especially the people. Once you’re in the city everything is easy to reach and I really enjoy the way the city blocks are set up – an optimized and well-tuned system.
What differences do you see between the startup ecosystems in Mannheim and Berlin?
Berlin is full of wannabe startups. People seem to be emulating the spirit of Silicon Valley, and that feels silly. Berlin is no Silicon Valley, and it never will be. Mannheim and the region here are just much more down to earth. Around here people are keen on staying in business, on not failing with their startups. In Berlin your a weirdo if you have been successfully operating after three years.
You’re ofter overseas in the US. What differences do you see between Mannheim and America?
I like the straightforward and less self-serving attitude that the US has when networking. If you meet up with a venture capitalist these people will tell you what they think directly. And if what you are offering doesn’t fit in their portfolio they won’t hesitet to foreward the contact of a colleague that might be able to help. „Here’s his number. Give Disney a call.“ Short and sweet. Over here in Germany people are always scared that they might be missing out on a potential investment. I like to deal with things the way the Americans do. If someone approaches me with a good idea, that might interest someone I know, I connect the two parties. To not help out just feels wrong.
Is there a market for multilingual videos in the US?
Most definitely! In New York alone people speak over 130 languages. The Spanish-speaking population of the country is rapidly growing. English alone isn’t going to cut it over there anymore, and reorientation has already begun.
Is the Mannheim dialect a language of its own to you?
There are studies that show that our brain deals with dialects just as with languages. With all the voice recognition technologies and digital eavesdropping of our times I can well imagine a renaissance of vernacular. Dialects are still a real hurdle for even the most advanced systems. My tip for anyone keen on evading audio surveillance: get your dialect game on! But seriously, dialects are a very interesting aspect. We have even produced videos in several German dialects for sanitaryware manufacturer Duravit.
What languages will be spoken 500 years from now?
The easy answer is English. But I don’t think that is the right answer. Mandarin and Hindi are gigantic language groups. These languages aren’t optimal as world language though. I believe that we wont be learning foreign languages at all 50 years from now. I am sure there will be live-translation solutions, that break down any language barriers. Technological progress will save linguistic diversity. If this was not the case we would all be speaking sadly watered down versions of English some day.
Where do you see yourself and Alugha in five years?
Despite the rapidly increasing interest we are receiving from investors from all over the globe, I feel that in five years Alugha will still successfully function as an independent business with international partners. I am sure that we will be a key player in the field of language solutions. We are interested in positioning ourself in the US, European and Asian markets. To be honest I would gladly be stuck in traffic in five years, pissed off and cursing, and happy once I get to the office and can grab a cup of coffee. My heart and the heart of Alugha are in Mannheim and I want it to stay that way.
Interview: Andreas Stanita / LA.MAG
Photos: Ricardo Wiesinger