In business, they say, failure is the first step on the ladder to success. If that’s true, Daria Kaftan is headed in the right direction.
Daria Kaftan, the 24-year-old rock-chick innovator and familiar face in the Skolkovo ecosystem. Photo: sk.ru
The 24-year-old “programmer blonde,” as she calls herself on Twitter, has been rattling around the Skolkovo ecosystem since 2013 but is yet to find her feet – leaving two companies that went on to become residents and opening a third that is off to a spluttering start.
But Kaftan’s response to the latest setback - finishing outside the prizes during a pitch contest in Krasnogorsk – reveals the honesty and persistence that keep her on track.
“It’s a shame, but it’s logical,” she proclaims dismissively, recognizing the superiority of the competing projects at the Startup Tour in the small town near Moscow.
“Now we look straight to Startup Village. But before Startup Village, we must focus on our algorithms and perfecting our product,” she says, flashing a tired smile.
That Kaftan had any energy remaining at all seemed remarkable.
To highlight the rigorous and emotionally draining process that Kaftan and her fellow innovators go through in order to turn an idea into a viable commercial product, Sk.ru tracked her progress through the two-day Startup Tour event in Krasnogorsk.
The first day one was devoted to mentor sessions and practice pitches, while the second saw the projects go head-to-head in the pitch contest.
But first, a word about Kaftan.
An illustration of Readinglove. Photo: Daria Kaftan
Kaftan is a rock-chick innovator who makes robots. More precisely, she programs them.
Her latest innovation – the one that flopped at the Startup Tour but may still have a big future – is named Readinglove. It’s a glove that has a camera attached to help blind people read. The camera recognizes words and sends the information to a small box around the user’s neck. The box contains a processor that converts the text into audio, which is piped into the user’s ears via headphones.
Her pitch – a five-minute presentation with the aid of a slideshow – contained that information plus some thoughts on how it might be commercialized.
Armed with that, and on the back of a third-placed finish at Skolkovo Robotics, Russia’s biggest robotics event, a month before, Kaftan arrived at the Moscow Region Government Headquarters late in April to find out how Readinglove would be received, and whether, in its current guise, it was worthy of a place in the national pitch sessions at Startup Village.
“I’m here at the Startup Tour to find out what I need to do in order to progress,” said Kaftan an hour before she was to perform her practice pitch for the Skolkovo mentors, relaxing on a gray leather sofa in a lobby area.
“What I really want at this mentor session is to get a really good rollicking so that tomorrow I’ll be in a position to answer all the slippery questions of the jury and get as close as I can to the prize.”
Skolkovo Robotics, held at the Hypercube and run by Albert Efimov, one of Russia’s leading roboticists, was a success but uncovered some room for improvement in Kaftan’s pitch.
“We have corrected our pitch, we are now indicating how much investment we need, we have done some calculations, but in general our pitch is unchanged compared to the one at Skolkovo Robotics. We gave a pretty good presentation there. So our task, our general problem, is to create a good product. The presentation isn’t our weak point,” she said, before going on to explain what she was looking for with the mentorship help.
“Today I want to find out where the weak points are in our business model. The innovation is one thing that we do well – we are developers, scientists, innovators – but I’m pretty new to the world of business. It’s from this point of view that I want to get the advice of the experts.”
Up to the seventh floor of the glass-and marble building on the banks of the Moscow River, where Kaftan takes her place in a small, stuffy room with two dozen other hopefuls and three Skolkovo startup experts.
After five or six presentations, it’s Kaftan’s turn.
Kaftan practising her pitch for the mentors. Photo: sk.ru.
Looking dapper in a sharp business suit that occasionally swings open to reveal a t-shirt with a logo partially obscured by her badge, Kaftan is engaging with her presentation.
Cool and confident as she clicks through her slides, Kaftan explains how Readinglove has no real competitors on the market currently, save for a device called Finger Reader – a camera that’s pegged onto the end of a blind person’s finger and reads the text aloud as the hand glides across the page.
Then she fell silent, allowing the Skolkovo panel to begin their interrogation: “Why is the number of blind people growing?” “Why do you need to reinvent the bicycle? Why don’t you have a blind person in your team?”
Kaftan batted the questions away with aplomb, conceding the last was an oversight that would soon be corrected by hiring a visually impaired person.
The most glaring gap in the presentation, however, was pointed out by Skolkovo’s Daniil Osei, the foundation’s Investment Service.
“To succeed in the pitch sessions tomorrow, you need to explain exactly where your technology comes from,” he noted.
Kaftan failed to explain where she would derive her parts from. Her team had cobbled together a prototype at the Skolkovo Robotics hackathon, but that only demonstrated that it could be done. Where would Kaftan source her parts should Readinglove go into production? How much would this cost and is the product truly scalable?
Here was the “rollicking” she had sought: Taking her seat in the audience, Kaftan furiously scribbled down notes for the best part of 20 minutes while the ideas of her mentors were still fresh in her mind. Tomorrow would be the real thing.
The real thing
Suetin, left and Barannik, right, fire questions at her. Photo: sk.ru
All too soon, she is back on day two and shuffling into a smaller room, two floors lower, for the pitch that may or may not get her into the Startup Village finals.
She is relaxed enough to pipe up with a question about a product that precedes her pitch, which comes around next.
Kaftan ambles up to the front of the dimly lit room and launches into her act.
“The world around us contains a lot of visual information that blind people can’t take in …” she begins. If she is on autopilot, she is hiding it well. That same engaging, confident voice is deployed and the jury is engrossed.
Kaftan flies through the stats and the product’s advantages: “there will be 75 million blind people by 2025 … the blind can’t usually find the start of text on a page – the Readinglove automatically recognizes text in complete blocks … we intend to make money by selling the device but also by licensing the technology and providing access to online services …”
The five-minute buzzer goes off before she has a chance to introduce the other four people on her project, forcing her into a stylish sign-off: “But anyway, I’m the captain of the team.”
Cue the barrage of questions, starting with the obvious: Who is going to manufacture your technology? “We don’t know yet,” Kaftan admits. Have you even researched the market of who can make these things? Kaftan deflects.
Then comes a change in tack from one of the judges: “You haven’t said who’s going to produce your product. But never mind. You can surely realize your idea through smartphones. They already have all the technology you need: A camera, a computer and an audio output.”
Kaftan is ready. “Yes, this is exactly what we are trying to do,” she responds. “We are trying to find out at the moment whether blind people would find this a convenient alternative.”
Then come the product’s other perceived shortcomings.
“How can your technology recognize text when it’s out of focus? When the text is far away, how does the camera know it needs to focus? How does it even know there is text there?” asks Nikolai Suetin, a project director of Skolkovo’s IT cluster.
“It doesn’t, not yet,” is Kaftan’s rather meek answer.
“Also, how does a blind person even understand that there is text in the room that needs to be deciphered?” adds Suetin.
There is a longwinded response.
“I get the feeling that you are simply thinking up convenient answers to our questions but not really addressing them,” surmises Suetin.
We are still hours away from announcing the winners, but it is already seeming possible that Kaftan will not be among them.
Oleg Barannik, an expert on the Russian and international IT market, breaks an awkward silence: “As I told you in the mentor session, you need a blind person in your team to explain how he sees his world. You need to follow him around for a week and then understand how your technology might be applied.”
The pitch is over. Kaftan won’t be among the finalists at Startup Village unless she applies to go through the preliminary stages.
Rather than retaking her seat, Kaftan slips out of the room and reclines on a brown leather sofa in the hall.
“I got the advice I was expecting,” she says. “We definitely need to take on a visually impaired person to understand their real needs – we definitely need to do that. But my presentation yesterday [at the mentor session] was more important for me. Yesterday there was more time for the mentors to give me advice and recommendations, which for me is the main point of the tour.”
Kaftan still holds out hope – however feint – her project will emerge victorious from the 20-odd other innovations in the IT category.
“I don’t know if we will win, I haven’t heard many of the other presentations.”
She has heard a few, in fact.
“Yeah, there was a smart home innovation on adaptive technology, and a fitness tracker. It’s hard to compare my own project, because for me it’s still really young. Two months old. At the ideas stage. Other projects already have prototypes or are even already on the market. Some have clients and sales, but I don’t have any of this yet.”
So the real goal of the tour was education, not victory?
“Yes. Advice and recommendations are what you get with Skolkovo guaranteed. The projects that the jury will find most attractive are hard to predict. If it turns out that I win, excellent, I’ll be happy.”
Kaftan showing the hackathon prototype. Photo: Daria Kaftan
From the lessons learned at the tour, Kaftan now had a concrete direction to move in.
“I felt that we need to create not just a prototype, but show the process of how the device will be used during the actual interaction process with a visually impaired user. We need to say ‘it does precisely this and this,’ for example.”
A few other projects wrap up their presentations and it’s down to the main hall to discover which innovations had impressed the judges the most.
The top IT project was adjudged to have been Vladimir Konev's BlackBeeTrack. In second place was Vladislav Kharchev with his Stannix Web Server and Vitaly Romanchuk came third with his software platform for neuroprocessing devices.
Kaftan discovers she has not won, yet is the first to clap the winners, sparking a ripple of applause.
“I guessed the BlackBeeTrack would be the winner, because they clearly have the best parameters. They have the product, they have sales. And we’re still young, we have it all still ahead of us,” she says.
“Now I’m really, really exhausted. Been here two days, no energy to give any more presentations. All I want to do is go home and sleep.”
Albert Efimov, head of the Skolkovo Robotics Center, holds Kaftan is high esteem, but warns that she is yet to develop that killer business instinct.
"Dasha isn't necessarily geared towards making money yet. She is a great C++ programmer but what is more important she is creative and highly communicative,” he says.
“Thus, she personally has enormous potential with our startup ecosystem - innovations are contact sport after all. She still has to mature and find a project that is right for her. I can see her becoming a Skolkovo resident eventually. And when she does, she will really take off."
Back at the ceremony hall, a gust of wind whips through the room as the participants begin trickling out. Kaftan’s blazer blows open.
“Keep Calm and Make Robots,” reads the t-shirt underneath.