Real-time big data for trade
Every day supermarkets and bakeries waste tonnes of food. Marc Huber and Alexander Gossmann have made it their mission to fight this madness with their start-up Opal Analytics, by developing software that allows businesses to use real-time analytics to precisely forecast the day-to-day requirements.
Marc, what came first? Was it the plan to pursue your own business and develop innovative software solutions, or the wish to make this world a better place?
Marc Huber: We were studying commercial information technology in Mannheim and looking into finding a good subject for our PhDs. Big Data and the analysis of operational data were fields we were focusing on. It was more by chance that we came to learn that great amounts of food go to waste each day – due to bad requirement planning! When a partner of ours supplied us with several billion datasets coming from the fields in question we knew: this a subject that is not only scientifically relevant, but also useful and meaningful.
When did the research project become the Opal company?
Alexander Gossmann: In March 2014 professor Steffens institute was closed for health reasons. We saw the potential to create a sales-software from our prototype and have been working on the project full time since April 2014. During work on our PhDs we had also been active in consultancy, and surely could have pursued a career in that field, but becoming independent with Opal appealed to us more.
Developing a product is one thing – founding a company on the other hand is quite demanding. Were you counselled regarding risks and benefits?
Marc Huber: Mannheim is a very good and supportive place for founders. While still in university we were counseled well and with help from the business development department we applied for the “EXIST-Gründerstipendium“, which we received without much hassle. We profited from events such as “Business Speed Dating“, which allowed us to build a network in the the world of start-ups.
What is special about the Opal software?
Alexander Gossmann: The way we use various sources of data to develop our prognoses makes us unique. We evaluate every single item in the store individually, and based on every transaction in real time and the automatically gathered contextual information, we will then generate our projections. This makes our system very adaptable, fast and self-learning, as we utilize machine learning techniques. Our software is the result of five years of development.
How can we imagine the system in everyday use?
Alexander Gossmann: For example: The daily forecast runs are based on weather conditions that are ideal for barbecues, but on the day planned for meat production a thunderstorm warning is issued. Opal will dynamically react to this in real time and reduce the forecast quantities.
Where do you see Opal in 2020?
Alexander Gossmann: Our software is applicable in other fields of business – such as the pharmaceutical and chemical industry, or automotive suppliers. Our six-member team is working on the standardization of the software and we will require another round of financing to ensure the necessary growth.
Where does one acquire financing in this phase of business?
Marc Huber: We were lucky to have the Mannheim Beteiligungsfond as our first investor. On the other hand, we want to generate enough turnover to grow independently. This isn’t easy for a tech-start-up and so we gladly take advantage of the networks Mannheim offers founders, with all its organizations and events. At the events, you can meet Business Angels and institutional investors, but many contacts also come from the private sector.
What kind of workflow does Opal favour?
Marc Huber: We were always about learning by doing. We took a look at what we needed to get done and distributed the tasks among our team the way thought it made the most sense. It benefitted us that we come from different backgrounds: before I worked at Opal I was a consultant for SAP, and during my doctorate I worked for the pump manufacturer KSB. At Opal I am responsible for finances, human resources, organization and frontend development. My main focus is ensuring the profitability and applicability of our software solutions.
Alexander Gossmann: I used to work as a BI consultant in different fields. My last gig was during my doctorate at the automotive supplier Freudenberg. As CEO I am responsible for strategic direction and distribution. I focus on real time processing of transactional bulk data and the development of our prognosis algorithms.
Why did you move into the Mafinex startup centre?
Marc Huber: At first we used to work in the university library, as there were no coworking spaces in Mannheim back then. Mafinex offers optimally equipped spaces. Mannheim was always our first choice. The travel distances to our clients from a city such as Berlin just wouldn’t work out. Mannheim is very conveniently located and offers great transportation connections.
How important are relationships with universities?
Alexander Gossmann: We are very glad the university in Mannheim is introducing new educational models for Data Science, as these are much needed. Beginning in the fall of 2017 a degree program for Data Science will be offered – sadly only for 25 students. I would also like to commend the very successful collaboration with professor Stuckenschmidt of the institute for Data Science. We have been working together since 2014 within the framework of a research agreement.
How do you find the right co-workers?
Marc Huber: Our software requires a great amount of research effort and we greatly profit from our relationship with the university, be it through degree theses or interns and student trainees. We are constantly developing young talent.
How do you convince graduates to join Opal?
Alexander Gossmann: We offer a very different perspective to young talent than a large company. Here you can grow together with us and might be head of a whole team within a year. We need people willing to push our ideas to next level with us.
What is the key to retaining ones creativity within a daily routine?
Marc Huber: To me sport is important. I love riding my bike in the Palatinate Forest and am often on the move there with the university exercise group.
Alexander Gossmann: I spend time with my family and we feel so attached to Mannheim that we have decided to build a future here.
Interview: Ralf Laubscher / LA.MAG
Pictures: Daniel Lukac