© Cris Ovalle / Unsplash

28 October 2019

With AI from Phantasma Labs human behaviour becomes tangible - for machines.

It was the rabbits’ fault. Lewis Carroll's Alice followed the white rabbit and discovered Wonderland. Maria put the stories of her two rabbits online and discovered her love of technology. At that time she was ten years old. "At school, I was laughed at for it," says the computer scientist today, "but for me that was the great realization: I can build something with technology. It sounds like a cliché, but I felt like I had magic powers."

It was not so much magic as hard work that made Maria Meier win the renowned „She Loves Tech“-Award award in mid-September 2019. A month earlier, the Berlin-resident artist had already prevailed against her domestic competitors with her start-up „Phantasma Labs“, which makes autonomous vehicles understand human behaviour. At the global round in Beijing, Meier then came out on top against 15 finalist teams from all over the world - from Israel to Hong Kong, from Indonesia to the United Arab Emirates, from the USA to the Baltic states. The competitors for the biggest tech award of the She Economy, which took place for the fifth time this year, could be proud: they included, for example, the American start-up CanAIry, which uses artificial intelligence to evaluate changes in cough sounds and thus monitors the course of the disease with chronic respiratory problems. The Indian biotech company CyCa Onco Solutions in turn administers drugs directly into the cancer cell and thus makes them more tolerable for patients. "All the participants were very impressive"; the decision of the jury, which consisted of representatives from ADB Ventures, SOSV Accelerator VC, Dell Technologies, Microsoft for Startups and Intel, was quite surprising for the Germans. "I gave my best. Maybe it played into our hands that self-propelled cars are a very important topic in China,” says Maria Meier, who worked as a software engineer in Silicon Valley among other places. "Apart from that, however, we simply did a lot of hard work as a team,” she emphasizes.

Phantasma Labs CTO Maria Meier and CEO Ramakrishna Nanjundaiah © Phantasma Labs

Entrepreneur First: Co-founder wanted!

"Phantasma Labs" is not a one-woman show, but the result of a perfectly complementary cooperation. One that almost never came about. At the beginning of 2018, Maria Meier, who was working at a start-up in Berlin at the time, took part in an "Entrepreneur First" programme. Twice a year, the talent investor selects up to 100 particularly promising candidates from thousands of applicants and supports them both professionally and financially in setting up a tech company. Around 200 companies in London, Paris, Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangalore and Berlin have already been launched. The first aim of the programme: to find a partner within eight weeks in order to develop a business idea and subsequently set up a company. "I've always missed a co-founder" - that's exactly what Maria Meier, who worked among others for Oracle in the USA, needed. "I had been thinking about founding a company for a long time, but my friends didn't want to get involved. It wasn't the right time for them. Or maybe I just didn't find the right friends for it." Ramakrishna Nanjundaiah had a similar experience. After studying Computational Mechanics at the Technical University of Munich, he spent five years developing highly complex simulations to solve problems in megacities like Dubai or Qatar. "I was part of a lucrative company," he looks back at these stops, "but I wanted to develop solutions that would benefit an even larger market.” So he left his job in Stuttgart and moved to Berlin for Entrepreneur First to "meet other innovators whose skills complement my know-how." The risk paid off - at the last minute. "We had almost given up," recalls his current co-founder, "and it was only last week that we found each other. We were under immense pressure to get something up and running quickly. It worked! After all, we didn't kill each other," she adds with a smile.

From shared mobility to self-propelled vehicles

About 12 months later the time had come: in April 2019 Phantasma Labs UG gave birth to their baby. "We knew that we wanted to solve big problems with simulations," says CEO Ramakrishna Nanjundaiah, whose mission was clear right from the start. This is also reflected in the name of the company, as the philosopher Aristotle already called a mental "image" a phantasm. Today this is generally understood to be a delusion of the senses or an illusion. With the help of one of these, the two wanted to help providers of shared mobility on a virtual level to improve their offerings. "But when we presented the idea to an automobile company, we were made aware of an even bigger problem," says the computational mechanic: teaching self-propelled vehicles how to deal with people.

Safe "people understanders"

The fact that such training is necessary was clear to everyone from March 2018 at the latest: a self-propelled Volvo XC90 of the Uber fleet in the US city of Tempe, Arizona had hit a woman crossing the road outside an intersection. Obviously the software of the vehicle was to blame, as it had classified the obstacle displayed on the road as a false alarm. "Currently, self-propelled cars are not used in large cities because they don't know how to interact with people," Ramakrishna Nanjundaiah puts it in a nutshell. "In Berlin, for example, people come out of nowhere, cars drive in the wrong direction, they come from all sides. The industry must ensure that cars understand all these situations and are able to react to them correctly.” Hundreds of millions of kilometres and in some cases even hundreds of billions of kilometres would have to be covered by vehicles. Such an intensive test would take several decades. This was the result of a study by Rand Corporation in 2018. Since nobody has so much time, innovative test methods such as simulation technologies are intended to remedy the situation. "It is important to obtain sufficient data on human behaviour," explains Phantasma’s CEO, "and for this purpose we create simulations of urban spaces.” What happens when a cyclist overtakes a vehicle? Or when a pedestrian crosses the road ten metres from the zebra crossing? Using such examples, behaviour models are generated and synthetic data sets are added. "Then we train the vehicles for these situations," says Nanjundaiah, "the machines learn to predict them and to react correctly to them.” Without putting people in danger.

Excellent idea

The organizers of the She Loves Tech Award were convinced by the sophisticated simulation platform developed by the Phantasma duo with three other employees. As the winning team, the young Berlin-based company, which had already been one of the finalists at the Deep Tech Award, received 15,000 US dollars from Teja Ventures. This is the official venture partner of She Loves Tech and Asia's first investor with a focus on women. The organizers are convinced that in addition the finalist teams can count on investments from other funds such as ABD Ventures. It is not an empty promise, as the finalist teams of the last five years have been able to generate total investments of over USD 100 million. Whether Phantasma has already achieved something similar, the two Berliners do not want to comment: "We will announce this when the time comes", Maria Meier keeps a low profile. What she would do with the funds is clear to the two founders: "In one year we want to have at least 12 to 15 new colleagues, win more large automotive companies as customers and generate regular income," her co-founder sums up the plans.

Berlin: Ecosystem with potential

The potential for this growth exists in Berlin in any case, the two Phantasma founders agree on another point. "The ecosystem is right," enthuses the Indian-born Nanjundaiah, who has already lived in Munich and Stuttgart. "Access to talent is high. It's easy to find candidates for jobs." You can meet anyone here and be yourself as you like, confirms Maria Meier and speaks of a "revolutionary energy". The city's start-up scene in particular has high growth potential, she is sure. But in order to fully develop this potential, there are still some obstacles. German bureaucracy, for example: "In order to become a founder, I have to go to the notary here", she quotes an example from practice, "in England it goes online in two hours. As a start-up, time is the most valuable resource, so you can't afford to go to the authorities."

Urgent investments for the future

Germany's slowdown in regulation and bureaucracy - especially the low willingness to invest in Europe by global standards - are grounds for scepticism for Meier: "In Asia so many investments flow into technology companies. Europe should take this as an example. We must invest in our young people if we want to keep up. Otherwise we will lose the race." Ramakrishna Nanjundaiah agrees that increased investment in deep tech companies is particularly necessary. "Maybe the technology isn't ready yet. But in 10 to 20 years it will be big. We need financial support so that we can develop better technologies and solve bigger problems. Investors should take more risks." Loosely based on Lewis Carroll: sometimes you have to follow rabbits to get to Wonderland. Phantasma is willing to do this.

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