Students arranged business start-up at New Year's party
By the second semester of his Computer Science degree programme, Jonatan Møller Gøttcke had already spoken to one of his fellow students about starting up his own business.
But it was only at a New Year's party nearly a year ago that Jonatan and two fellow students, Mathias Bøgebjerg and Peter Severin Rasmussen, agreed to take the idea seriously.
"Peter and I met through working on the student council at IMADA (Editor's note: the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science), where we were on the board together. In many ways, my involvement in working for students at the department and the network it created was central to me taking the leap and starting the company with Peter and Mathias. It's very reassuring to know that there are several of us who share the responsibility," says Jonatan.
Jonatan is the CEO of OpGo, as the business is called, and Mathias and Peter are employed as consultants. In the company, the three friends work with optimisation tools, which they develop and then sell as solutions to companies.
Jonatan and Mathias both study Computer Science at SDU - Mathias has just started a 4+4 PhD, and Jonatan is planning to start a PhD in the summer. Peter graduated in the summer of 2018 and declined the offer of a PhD to try something outside of the academic environment and put his skills into practice.
Recently, they employed a student assistant, Henrik Sejer Pedersen, who is also studying Computer Science at SDU.
In many ways, my involvement in working for students at the department and the network it created was central to me taking the leap and starting the company with Peter and Mathias.
Supercomputer Challenge launched business
As mentioned, it all started at a New Year's party, but their first customer came from a slightly unexpected area. It came in the form of a task that a transport services organisation had put to a group in the SDU Supercomputer Challenge a few years ago, which the group was unable to solve. Instead, the task ended up with Jonatan, and subsequently his own company. In fact, it has been this way for many of the tasks OpGo have undertaken. Another task was an offer to collaborate on a thesis, which Jonatan again directed to the company.
"The task from the Supercomputer Challenge resulted in our first business trip to Nordjyllands Trafikselskab (Editor's note: the public transport services organisation covering the North Jutland Region). It was a special moment for us to present our product to them because it was something we had worked so hard on. So it was extra fantastic that it led to the first users of our Optimisation Engine. That was probably one of the biggest experiences so far in our start-up process," says Jonatan enthusiastically.
The product is a web platform for tender optimisation for the public demand-responsive transport service Flextrafik, which they are selling to the transport services operator, and are now underway with selling to other transport services organisations in Denmark. In the long term, they are also hoping to sell it to international transport services organisations:
"At the moment, we're just trying to work out which business strategy OpGo should follow and how to develop and expand the company further. It's an exciting journey that could lead in many different directions, and it's difficult to know where we'll end up. As Eric Ries says in "The Lean Start-up": The aim for every company is clear - it's about creating a functioning business that makes money. Maybe that's a bit trivial, but in principle it's what many businesses are trying to achieve. So our dream is to build up an international IT company with headquarters in Odense, or at least in Denmark, which is a leader in artificial intelligence and optimisation. We want to create a business that does something meaningful and that can help influence tomorrow's use of machine learning and artificial intelligence, and where employees thrive. That is essential," says Jonatan.
Customers found through network
Jonatan explains how the business got to where it is today:
"At the moment, we're spending most of our time on developing our product. In the beginning, we had some clients whose tasks yielded a good return to the company, but now we need to further develop the product we want to sell so that we can attract more customers to the company. In this way, we've entered a new phase of the company's development in which we need to work more on development and sales than on solving consultation tasks. Actually, last week I experienced my first rejection with a task when we tried to enter a new business sector. Up until then, the tasks had come to us because customers approached us through our network. Now we need to seek them out instead, which can of course lead to rejection".
Currently, the company is working with four customers whose tasks are nearly solved, have just been started on or are well underway. The duration of a task can also vary greatly, depending on its type.
Idealism behind the hunt for good tasks
Although Jonatan spends approximately 20 hours per week on the company on top of his studies, he still thinks it is worth it:
"We originally started OpGo because we could see that many of the jobs other computer scientists got after they graduated were with companies who work with online shopping solutions or websites, and I really didn't want to do that. I would much rather make the algorithms and systems behind the solutions, and we can do that in OpGo, which is really cool," says Jonatan.
In general, Jonatan likes the freedom of being his own boss, and he also likes that they can choose which industries they want to work with. In addition, they are also idealists who want to use new technology for the best possible end:
"Artificial intelligence can be used for many things. For example, some people use it to develop systems that can monitor pig farming and in doing so increase production. We would much rather develop optimisation systems for something that could perhaps make a difference for the world. I'm thinking about something like wind turbines, where we can use artificial intelligence to make predictions of when some of the wind turbine parts are about to break before it happens. That, I think, is a much better way of using artificial intelligence," says Jonatan with conviction.
SDU Research & Innovation Organisation works to:
- strengthen students' networks and their innovative and entrepreneurial competences
- contribute to helping students learn about entrepreneurship as a career path to secure a strong pipeline to a real business start-up or an enterprising mindset among the students who do not start their own businesses
- increase the number of students who start their own businesses, with particular focus on supporting start-ups that have the potential to become growth entrepreneurs
SDU has played a big role
OpGo is based in Cortex Lab, and has been since August this year. Since the company began, they have had a business developer who has helped with sparring. Since then, they have entered the Accelerator programme in which they have had weekly meetings with the business developer, which has been very useful. They also have their own offices in Cortex Lab:
"The weekly meetings with the business developer gave us the push we needed in the start-up process. We also took part in a number of networking events with other companies. We made contact with Technology Denmark at one of those, and it's a goldmine for Odense because they're helping to make connections between established businesses and the start-ups. As a small start-up, you can easily become a bit isolated in Cortex Lab, but these events really help to prevent that. We have great things to say about SDU RIO and the great work they do in helping students with our companies," says Jonatan candidly.
The entrepreneur environment among the different start-ups in Cortex Lab is also something Jonathan highlights as a good source of inspiration for their work. And something which, again, helps create a network.
Good advice for others
When Jonatan is asked what advice he would give to other students who dream of starting their own business, the first thing he mentions is interaction with other people:
"Good ideas happen when you collaborate with other people. It's important to get to know your fellow students as they can become the network you start your own business with. For instance, I spent some years on the student council, and that experience has really paid off. It's also about daring to try out good ideas, even if they don't work out. Believe in yourself! Although it's a cliché, it's incredibly important if you are trying to get somewhere with a new company. I got a good piece of advice at one point: "It's about getting the tasks. You can worry about finding the solutions later." I think that is absolutely correct," concludes Jonatan.
According to business developer Thomas Bernhard Kjærgaard, there are three things which SDU RIO focuses on in its work with start-ups:
"In my opinion, the most important element is that we help to facilitate an environment in which people have the opportunity to network. When you start up a new company, a network and sparring are crucial, and this is where other entrepreneurs can be the key. In addition, as business developers we help individual entrepreneurs with process control and individual guidance so that the company starts up in the most optimal way. Last but not least, we provide the unique physical framework for entrepreneurs to work in and network. In fact, at the moment there are 127 students using our premises."