Ede Schank Tamkivi

Ede Schank Tamkivi is an Estonian author and journalist. She currently lives in Estonia and runs Eesti 2.0, a non-profit organisation that aims to inspire the next generation of Estonians to choose a future in technology. Previously she was editing Eesti by the Bay, a website for and about San Francisco Bay Area Estonians.

Getting off the ground with Estonian-founded RocketFuel scholarship

The Estonian-founded RocketFuel Scholarship, worth €1,000, helps those who want to learn some 21st century skills all by themselves, taking advantage of the multitude of online resources out there.

“If you come from the humanities background like me and want to start programming, you’ll instantly get confused: there are so many options that will lead you somewhere – but where?” Michaela Snopková (25), one of the winners of the RocketFuel scholarship, poses a rhetorical question. “Where should I start from? I would love someone to come and explain to me: OK, this is JavaScript, this can be used for these things… etc. Also, many of the real-time courses in Estonia are for teenagers and when I’ve asked if I can just listen in, they’ve told me that I’m too old! At 25?!?”

This was how she came across an ad for RocketFuel, applied and was awarded a scholarship, which, on top of the up to €1,000 access to online courses will provide her with the mentoring of the impact makers who help her stay focused and keep an eye on her progress.

Michaela is from the Czech Republic and now lives in Estonia. During her bachelor’s studies in political science in Dijon, France, she had to choose a country where to spend one year abroad. “As Russian was my foreign language and I was interested in the area formerly occupied by the Soviet Union, I chose the University of Tartu that offered a course on the EU-Russia relations.”

While she was already here, she decided to learn some Estonian and started to like it so much that she picked an intense course – and never made it to that EU-Russia relations course.

She went back to Paris to conclude her master’s studies, but has now settled in Estonia and works as a project manager for the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory, on a project called “Kogu Me Lugu” (All of our Story). To this day, they have collected more than 200 stories of people living both in and outside of Estonia that can be used for history classes as well as by researchers on recent history.

Doing her work, Michaela realised that a lot of things she does manually could be automated, not just for her work but overall. “For example, the national curriculum on history is based on specific keywords. In the interviews, if they mention these words, we would write down their time code and would then upload it to the website and people can search the keywords. Therefore, analysing one one-hour video takes you up to four hours, something the machines could do a lot faster.”

Solving your own problems with tech

This was how Michaela got interested in data science and data analysis. And now, all of a sudden, all those books she remembers her brother reading back in her teenage years made sense. “He started programming when he was 14 and I remember him looking for books which had really weird titles for me, like C++ and others. Back then, I knew only my books on ‘proper topics’ like political science and history.”

She has no illusions about the time frame and knows that if one wants to become a professional data scientist, it will take time. But she is very willing to learn. “Last spring, I took a course on C# and had this ‘aha!’ moment when I understood I had already been learning coding through my statistical courses, but nobody had told me that. Then I realised I wanted to learn more and started to look for courses online.”

From her own experience, Michaela knows that learning to code is similar to learning any new language. “First you learn the alphabet and then you can read a book; now I’m dreaming about reading a book, but I don’t know the alphabet yet.”

She has already passed the first half of the massive open online course, “Down-to-Earth Programming”, offered by the University of Tartu and funded by her scholarship – it took her around four to five hours per week. Every time she sees a piece of code, she tests it out, as sometimes the course organisers would put in the wrong code deliberately to put the students to the test.

As she is now eager to take up an extra load of online learning, one will ask about her plans for the future. Does she see herself turning into a “real” IT-person? “I would not see myself working in IT yet, but still somewhere in between, finding an environment that would link the two worlds.”

Moving at your own pace

Andrei Klevtsov (14) is one of the youngest people to have been awarded the RocketFuel scholarship so far, since the applicant has to be at least 13 (there is no upper age limit). He is one of those bright teenagers who sometimes finds regular school too boring and is therefore looking for extra learning sources online. “One of the biggest advantages of the online courses is that you can choose your own pace.” So far, he’s passed one-third of an 80-hour gaming course and is now looking into another 3D gaming course.

Andrei is a student at the Tallinn Tõnismäe Science School and his favourite class is math. “It is just so much fun for me,” he explains. But the programming class his school offers as an extracurricular activity is not challenging enough for him, and the arts and crafts class, where they do 3D modelling, is also far too easy. For many years, he’s been going to a drawing class at an art school and is now also taking an animations course.

He got a new boost for his interest in technology in Hüppelaud (Springboard) summer school, organised by Eesti 2.0 – he was on a team that built the PowerBox, a fingerprint-lockable charging station for phones. “Every school should have similar events to Hüppelaud, because this offers some really good practice,” he claims.

Besides putting his previous interest in Arduino-based programming into practise and learning some new tech skills, he also got to practice his Estonian among his peers which he found very helpful.

Since the summer of 2018, he’s teamed up with his Hüppelaud teammates on their online-gaming platform, Considero, learned C# programming and has created his own games – mostly for PC but one for mobile as well. But he’s still a bit shy to share the games he’s created. “I’m not pro enough yet,” he says and will therefore keep on learning and we will definitely be hearing more about him soon.

At least 19 more scholarships to be granted

So far, six RocketFuel grants have been allocated to students from Estonia and Ukraine but there are at least 19 more scholarships to be granted.

“The aim of this grant is to bring more people into the startup world,” Ragnar Sass, the initiator of the scholarship, who is also the founder of Tallinn-based co-working hub, LIFT99, and a cofounder of Pipedrive, says. “If someone has the drive to learn something new and get somewhere, they should not be stopped because of the lack of money. A RocketFuel scholarship will give a boost to those who relate to IT and the startup world and the €1,000 could be spent either on studies, such as the online courses, necessary course materials, such as books or hardware.”

The grants have been provided by several Estonian startup founders – among them Kristel Kruustük (Testlio), Markus and Martin Villig (Taxify), Kaarel Kotkas (Veriff) and Ragnar Sass.

If selected, the applicant can pick the courses they find most useful and, in addition, will get mentored twice for a one-hour session during the course of the studies by one of the experienced founders.

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Cover: Ragnar Sass and Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, awarding the scholarship at LIFT99 (images courtesy of LIFT99 and Ede Schank Tamkivi).

To the moon, indefinitely – the story of Erika Ilves

Erika Ilves is an entrepreneur who does not let herself be limited by the size of planet Earth while there is a whole universe out there. “For now, it’s easier and cheaper to try things on Earth than fly it out to space and bring it back,” she claims. “But in the future, we will need the resources on the moon as well as the asteroids to enlarge ‘our economic area’.”

“WALL-E”, a 2008 animation by Disney-Pixar, takes us to planet Earth in 2805, abandoned by people and covered in heaps of trash. There is only one cute robot left whose job is to clean up the planet. In real life, we do not have to wait another 800 years to see a robot like this – they already exist. And if we treat our resources more reasonably, the picture might not turn out be as gloomy as depicted in the movie.

“Personally, I do not believe we will be running out of resources any time soon. We have plenty of resources on Earth to last us a few centuries,” says Erika Ilves, a cofounder of OffWorld, a company that is developing a new robotic workforce to enable the settlement of the solar system. But Ilves would not want to be among the first humans to set foot on Mars. Before moving people to other planets, it might be wiser to send robots out there.

“Right now on Earth, we need about 10 tons of metals, biomass and fossil fuels per person per year. Even with our resource needs expected to double by 2050, we have plenty of elements, including seabed mineral and even fresh water deposits. We don’t always have the technology to access these resources economically, but I have no doubt the technology can be developed. Energy is a challenge. Going outside planetary boundaries is a challenge. But again, all of these are addressable. The only justifiable attitude here is that of rolling up your sleeves and solving very real problems that we face,” Ilves, who herself has done exactly that, says.

Think big!

The space industry currently amounts to €323 billion a year. In 2015, around one fourth of it was still government expenditure, but thanks to Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the likes, private companies are rapidly taking over. At present, the biggest chunk of it goes to communication satellites and the infrastructure on Earth that supports it, but that could likely be overshadowed by other opportunities like space resources, manufacturing and tourism.

“Being able to use lunar and asteroidal resources means we can dramatically lower the cost of in-space transport and make Earth orbit and even the moon more accessible to everyone, even high school projects,” Ilves claims. “Think of an Estonian school team being able to send their experiment to the moon. It also means it will be cheaper to build and supply structures in orbit and on the moon – think private orbital stations you can visit, micro-gravity labs you could work in, outposts on the moon you can visit. And perhaps, during our lifetime, we could have thousands of people living on Mars.”

OffWorld was founded in November 2015, but not much has been heard about the company. The same team of seven cofounders had been previously working on another space infrastructure project called the Shackleton Energy Company, announcing in 2007 that they would be building the equipment and technologies necessary for mining the moon and placing a team there within eight years. But they failed to do so. “This was an $18 billion infrastructure program, so a mission impossible in terms of raising the funds,” Ilves explains now. “And yet, we managed to put together a global consortium of top tier space contractors, secured interest from multiple governments and secured our sovereign partner in Dubai. So we did come shockingly close to pulling the thing off.” Yet, this time they want to be sure to show results first.

Before aiming at the moon, they are developing mining robots for a terrestrial mining client because “it is the best place to develop and mature our mining system”. It also happens to be a large market that can support investment into the development of such a system.

Just like in WALL-E, the robots look like boxes on wheels (or tracks or legs, if necessary) and have robotic arms with different tools for different tasks. They can be built up of 10x10x10cm modules. Currently they are still in the prototyping-phase and operate in a simulated mine environment but will hopefully be ready to hit real mines in two years.

These small robots could evoke a big leap forward in the industry that currently employs about 20 million people around the world, in both open pit and underground mining, using technology that is at least a century old. “The current technological paradigm in mining on Earth relies on heavy machinery, human labour, drill and blast bulk mining. We can’t export this way of mining to the Moon.”

Unlocking one challenge after another

Having been to underground platinum mines, Erika describes them as the toughest places for humans to work on Earth. “These mines are dark, low, hot and smell of ammonium. I spent only a few hours there, but I was already struggling to breathe. The workers, however, spend 12 hours down there and I could not believe that we still send people to work in these conditions in 2017. Half a million people get sick every year working in the mining sector.”

So OffWorld has a solution to let the robots do the hard work for people and have people working in command and control centres on the surface instead. If a conventional small diamond mine employs 500 people today, it would only need 50 in the future, plus around 3,000 robots. In other words, that would mean that 90 percent of the current workforce would be laid off.

“But that is only half of the story − the other half is that there are thousands of ore bodies around the globe that cannot be mined today because there is no economically viable way to do so. Our swarm mining robots would make mining these ore bodies economically viable and open up a whole new inventory of mineral deposits. That would mean new human jobs where there would otherwise be none. I can’t tell exactly what the net effect on employment in the mining sector would be − we have not run the numbers on this yet. We won’t be displacing 90 per cent of the workers in the mines that we start. In many new mines, we would be creating new jobs.”

The mining robots weigh only 50-100 kilograms (110-220 lbs), so hundreds of them could be sent to the moon. “For starters, launch capacity of our rockets is the first bottleneck. Non-existent human labour is another. So we have to rely on small, modular, highly redundant robots with a high level of autonomy.” With different subsystems inside each same-size block with a standard interface, the robots would be able to assemble themselves.

It’s unlikely that once the robots are on the moon and asteroids – and have assembled factories – that there would be a necessity to send the “production” back to Earth. “The only things that we will be sending to Earth are communications signals and maybe beaming down solar power,” Ilves explains. “If we find products that can only be manufactured in micro-gravity environment, we would bring those down. Other than that, I currently don’t know of any commodities that we could get from space that we would not be able to get cheaper on Earth. Helium 3 extracted from lunar regolith is often touted as one such commodity for use in fusion reactors, but we need to first build commercially viable fusion reactors before we can seriously have that conversation.”

The main question here is obviously funding. “When it comes to development of space infrastructure projects, the markets themselves, not just technology, need to be created. To deal with this, our master plan is to first develop our universal robotics platform for the mining sector on Earth, then use that platform and money to jumpstart operations on the moon. In other words, we will underwrite moon activities ourselves, without relying on external investors. That’s why serving the mining sector on Earth is critical for our off world plans. And it puts us in control of our destiny.”

A lot is changing in the space industry every year. Even one to two years ago, remote sensing and satellite constellations were the big rage, with lots on interest in commercial space startups. This year we are already seeing the first signs of consolidation in that space. Only in the first quarter of 2017, there have been four acquisitions in this field. So it is a big deal that OffWorld has a five-year development agreement with their mining client. They work in cycles of three months to unlock the next challenge. In May, they will be presenting their masterplan and vision to a small audience in Canada but in June they will be “coming out of the closet” at NewSpace, the big startup conference of their sector.

And last, but not least, OffWorld has also hired its first Estonian employee in Tartu, who is in charge of machine learning.

Not a rocket scientist

Erika Ilves’s story seems do defy the myth that in order to have prospects in the space industry, one should be at least a “rocket scientist” by training. “Rockets are just a transport segment,” she laughs. “They are important but we need a wide spectrum of skills and sectors to enable space settlement. Two of my cofounders are literally rocket scientists, but one of them is now working on developing small factor mining technologies, the other is looking at integration of off-the-shelf innovative technologies into our system. So they aren’t even working on rocket engines. Five of my cofounders are aerospace system engineers, the other two are lawyers by education. What we all have in common is a strong drive to pick up new domains fast. In the last 12 months, we have all had to learn terrestrial geology, rock mechanics, machine learning and robotics. As Nietzsche once said, ‘he who has a why to live for can bear any how’.”

Ilves herself is one of the two lawyers in her company. She studied law at the University of Tartu because back in 1995, when she graduated from high school, there were only two “reasonable” options for further studies: law or economics. “I chose law because economics was too easy. I had always loved maths and physics, so law was a completely new experience.”

But she only practiced as a lawyer for less than a year because it was not quite a fit for her. She had just earned a Fulbright scholarship to do her PhD in law at New York University but decided not to pursue her career in this field and joined a consultancy firm instead. She spent six years at McKinsey, was based in Australia, Singapore, Africa, and learned a lot. She then joined the executive team of a Norwegian public company producing videoconference equipment, but that ended up being bought by Cisco. Her next stop was Dubai in a strategy firm solving big scale problems like how to replace income from oil on the Arabian Peninsula with other sources.

“At the time, we had a boutique strategy consulting firm, called Executive Office,” Ilves tells the story. “We always argued for removing the distinction between corporate strategy and corporate responsibility, and building companies and nations that from the outset contributed positively to the arc of human history as an integral part of what they were about. This always led to conversations about the most important global challenges facing humanity. Most of our clients at the time asserted that the most important issue was climate change. My cofounder and I got curious how people knew this was the most important issue. Had they looked at all other global issues? We were determined to answer those questions for ourselves (and thereby make sure that we personally were spending our own lives on issues that actually mattered), we started doing research in our spare time. That effort evolved into a book and an app, and a Kickstarter project and collaboration with 150 volunteers.”

Australia, Estonia or the lunar South Pole

So the space is no longer an abstract idea, but rather a collection of actual locations like the Far East or Australia. “We don’t use the word ‘space’ anymore as we are looking into specific areas like the low Earth orbit, the South Pole of the moon, or Mount Sharp on Mars − these are all different places,” Ilves says. Also, apparently people working in the field, while referring to going to other planetary surfaces to stay, no longer use the paternalistic term “colonise” but “settle” instead.

For now, Ilves herself has settled in London with her family (and to those who always keep asking, she assures them that she is not related to Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former Estonian president). OffWorld has offices in Pasadena, CA; and in Vienna, Austria – obviously she still has to travel a lot, but she does not really mind. She will still make time to come to Estonia at least once a year. Last year she attended the Latitude 59 conference and was blown away by the bustling local startup scene.

“The fact that we have survived as a nation in that small dark corner of the world is a miracle,” Ilves recently told in the “Globaalsed Eestlased” (“Global Estonians”) podcast. “It’s not only about the future of Estonians, but all the people of the world. It’s all about the perseverance. We will need a truckload of that to be able to settle space!”

As she always introduces Estonia as a “small and fearless” country to those who have never heard of it, she also encourages Estonian companies to benefit from the “space race”. “There is no reason why Estonian companies could not be part of the commercial space ecosystem, pushing the final frontier. There are plenty of opportunities but first, you need to be able to imagine things that are not there today, and second, find a way to pay the bills while you are developing a new technology or application.”

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Cover: Erika Ilves (image by Imke Pinz-Cochran. Images by Imke Pinz-Cochran, Woland, Wikimedia.) The print version of this article was first published in Life in Estonia magazine.

Atomic kids: how tech-savvy children are shifting stereotypes in Estonia

Girls as young as fifth graders are getting more and more into the tech and robotics industry in Estonia, shifting the stereotypes according to which this field of study is only meant for boys and men.

A small school in Voore (part I)

The sun brightens up the day,

The moon shines in the night,

Rather tiny in my way,

But I have a lot of might.

Many of those who grew up in the Soviet-era Estonia may remember this catchy song from a 1970s cartoon and kids’ book, “The Happenings of Atomic”, about a tiny particle that escapes the lab it was created in and starts to make things happen.

For some reason that happy song of the tiny but mighty character started to loop in my head when I was recently visiting a small school in Voore, near the Lake Peipus, on the eastern verge of central Estonia.

The name of the village implies to the word “voor”, a drumlin, an elongated hill that was shaped by glacial ice thousands of years ago. If you stood on top of one of those drumlins, you could admire a magnificent view. It looks as if some sort of a giant left hundreds of half-buried eggs hatching in the ground in each direction. Of course, there was no mythical giant but the miracle was created by melting ice, leaving behind this most peculiar landscape that is both pleasing to the eye as well as evoking to the fantasy.

Last year it inspired three local school kids to come up with an idea to build a viewing tower near their home village as a gift for the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia. Liisa-Marie, Kaila and Emil, who were fifth graders at the time, made a 3D model of the tower, printed it out and won the first prize on national digital projects competition.

Bitten by a tech-bug

“Our math teacher told us there will be a national competition coming up that also includes a 3D section,” the young engineers tell me a year later. “We thought about it a lot and decided to do something useful for our local municipality.” Therefore they decided to design a tower that would offer the locals an opportunity to admire their beautiful surroundings, but also attract more visitors to Saare parish, an area out of reach of the regular tourist trails.

Liisa and Kaila were searching the map of the national Land Board until they found the highest peak that is more than a hundred meters above sea level (which is high in Estonian terms!), on top of Kallivere drumlin. Emil, who loves to take pictures, caught the spot with his Canon camera in wintry conditions – the white snow is contrasting with the dark forest on the background, underneath an overcast blue sky. This is probably not a coincidence that the picture reminds the viewer of the blue-black-and-white tricolour flag.

The teachers praise Emil for always being the fastest to finish his games in the robotics class. Asking him if he already knows what he will study in the future, he does not hesitate for a second: he wants to follow in the footsteps of his older brother and continue his education at Luua Forestry School.

Liisa-Marie, who is the most outgoing of the trio, has also made up her mind about her future: she wants to go to high school in Jõgeva (also following the example of an older sibling) and then, who knows, maybe defy the stereotypes and go study IT in university.

Robotics class is one of her favourite classes, in tight competition with arts and physical education.

An ordinary day for the 12-year-old Liisa-Marie starts at 7:30 AM when she boards the school bus in her home village of Ruskavere, 10 kilometres (six miles) from Voore. She then takes her five-year-old sister to the daycare and will be at school in time for the classes to start at 8:30.

“What I like most about our school is the fact that everybody knows everyone’s name and what grade you are in,” tells Liisa. There are 49 students in Voore middle school.

3D gurus 

Shortly after a lunch break the sixth graders – all nine of them! – are sitting in their computer lab for a math class. There are two teachers to tutor the students but everyone seems to be well aware what they are doing and working in complete silence. They are using Tinkercad, an easy-to-use 3D modelling program for beginners, to draw geometrical shapes to create animals that they have already drawn on paper beforehand. Once they have finished their 3D-models, they will print them out.

In the beginning of the 2015/16 school year, Voore school was one of the 50 schools in Estonia to receive a 3D printer from a pilot project of Eesti 2.0, a non-profit organisation that aims to inspire the next generation of Estonians to choose a future in technology. At the end of the school year the whole school participated in the national science fair type of contest “World Country Estonia”, organised by the Information Technology Foundation for Education (HITSA).

“We just wanted to participate and not go for the win,” the math teacher and 3D tutor, Mare Maasik, says modestly. But she confesses she was shaking all over when the news came that most of her students had made it to the finals. As is a tradition in their school, everyone took part and everyone got to go to the finals in Tallinn. They were overjoyed to bring home almost all the prizes in their age groups.

Half a year later they were awarded the first prize for the “Most Entrepreneurial School” contest in Pärnu for their case study of “Using 3D modeling, 3D printing and programming in the learning process”.

It seems obvious that the key to success is the tight-knit community of the small school. “Because of our small size, everyone will take part in everything we do,” the computer class teacher, Kaie Mikko, claims. So it was no longer a surprise to the organisers of a recent contest of 3D Christmas decorations that every third participant to the competition came from the tiny Voore school.

Small but feisty

After receiving nation-wide praise, Liisa, Kaila and Emil went to present their idea to the local municipality. Their presentation was well received but nothing much happened afterwards. It is likely that their great idea was overshadowed by the recent land reform which encourages all smaller local municipalities to join into units of no less than 5,000 inhabitants. Saare parish will merge into a neighbouring Mustvee parish. The biggest town nearby is Jõgeva, but when the locals say, “I’ll go to the town”, they are referring to Tartu, which is a 40-minute drive away. And they will have to drive their cars since there is no train or a regular bus to take you there.

As a silent observer of all the good times and bad times that this little village has seen, there stands a corner tower of Roela manor house, now almost completely overgrown by big trees. Looking for references, one will be directed to the local paper “Vooremaa” that published a story on a battle that took place just less than an hour in the summer of 1941 between the incoming Germans and the retreating Red Army that completely ruined the old manor. What was left of the buildings was later demolished by the Soviet system.

But something good also came out of that era: shortly before Estonia regained independence, a new school was built to Voore in 1989. Facing a scarcity of resources – like most schools in Estonia –, the staff has been more keen on advancing its technological prowess than updating other amenities.

The school obtained new computers last spring and the robotics class – being the most popular after school activity – has almost everything a school can think of, from littleBits blocks to Lego constructors. The teachers will not be taken back by the fact that sometimes their students are far more tech-savvy than they are since the kids have a far more intuitive approach to new technologies than those from previous generations.

School principal Raivo Reimets, a physics and technology teacher, is well aware that a large variety of tech options will spark further growth. “The kids want to see results fast and robotics class will give you an excellent opportunity to build something that moves around in just an hour,” he says.

Seeing the school investing in technology makes me wonder if they will be able to celebrate its 30th anniversary in style, a year after the centennial anniversary of Estonia. It’s not just the case of Voore, but many small schools in more remote parts of the country are in limbo due to constantly diminishing student numbers and less support by state institutions. The principal does not want to elaborate on these matters and only refers to the school motto which goes, “I will be better today than I was yesterday!”

A robotics club on the outskirts of Tallinn (part II)

I’m reminded of the mighty Atomic again when I enter a small house in suburban Laagri, in a quiet dead-end street on the outskirts of Tallinn, 200 kilometres (125 miles) north-west from Voore. Opening the door I’m greeted by a flush of smell of fresh dumplings as well as high-pitch noise. The room is full of girls who all talk instantaneously to one another and move around so fast that the first impression of the sight makes me feel slightly dizzy.

Settling down, I understand this is no ordinary playdate of a group of friends, although it is obvious that the youngsters are all good friends. It’s actually a regular meetup of a robotics club team to practice for the finals of the First Lego League (FLL) Estonian finals (that were held in Tartu in early March). It’s probably no coincidence that out of all the 37 teams participating in the finals both girls-only teams are from Laagri.

Brigitta, Norah, Mirjam and Karmen are best friends since kindergarten and being third graders now, it’s their second year taking part of the FLL robotics competition. Although the official rules would allow them to start competing this year as they are nine years old. Last year they were part of a boys/girls mixed team called “Laagri Garbage Heap Monsters” with Mirjam’s twin brother Oliver and his classmates and a few older friends who were in charge of building the robots.

This year they decided to go for a girls-only team and Aimei, Grete and Viivian also joined in. The seven members took a vote on the new name and it was decided it will be “Laagri LaTüü”: an Estonian/French version of “Cool Girls from Laagri”.

Why do they like robotics and why did they pick such a name for the team?

“Because we love to compete and beat the boys!” a well-coordinated answer comes instantly.

Mirjam’s brother Oliver will have to admit that LaTüü has indeed beaten his team, “The Sandwich Aces of Laagri” since they did not make it to the finals. “The boys took far too many risks,” the girls say. Nevertheless, Oliver is adamant that he is not envious of his twin sister since he can now spend more time on his other hobbies instead of prepping for the finals. Nevertheless, he has agreed with his friends that they will participate in Robomiku, yet another Estonian robotics competition held in April.

Computers on the dancefloor?

Being successful in Lego League is a result of a mix of components. While building, testing and programming autonomous robots using Lego Mindstorms EV3 robots to solve a set of missions on an obstacle course like saving a shark from a cage, taking a bumble bee to the beehive or turning on the milking machine, the teams will also earn points for their creativity, teamwork and core values. The latter will be expressed in a “value proposition”: in LaTüü’s case it’s saving the koalas by building shelters for the cute marsupials.

“We decided that everyone picks an animal and then we vote. Koalas won,” the team explains enthusiastically. It does not really matter that koalas only live in Australia, they are an endangered species and the girls want to follow the golden rule: think globally, act locally. “Their homes and sole sources of food, eucalyptus trees, are being chopped off and burnt down fast and soon they will run out of food.” The girls have done their homework well; they have even found an unbelievable factoid that koalas are good swimmers.

LaTüü has built a model for a koala shelter where people, not animals are the ones to be fenced in. They have made themselves costumes that accompanied by fitting face paint and hairstyle will make them look like marsupials themselves, although unusually fast-moving and talkative ones. They have also prepared a video that they will play for their audience in the finals in the Estonian National Museum in Tartu.

The editing was done by Viivian, the oldest member of the team. “I got this new app called Filmora,” she shows me on her computer screen and counts a list of famous youtubers she follows and would like to invite to make a guest appearance in one of their upcoming videos. Last year they made a promotional video with a band called La La Ladies where LaTüü was teaching the singers how to “do a mission”, ie solve the challenges on a robo-trail. “So the girls could also be wiser and be better than boys,” Brigitta sums up at the end of the video why the girls should attend robotics classes.

Although LaTüü has more than proven the point in less than a year, the wider problem does not seem to be disappearing. “My niece just dropped out of robotics club because she could no longer resist the boys solving all the challenges for her,” Viivian is disappointed.

Several teachers have pointed out and the surveys also support the fact that although girls start robotics classes with the same amount of enthusiasm as boys do, most of them just seem to disappear at some point, usually in the fourth to sixth grade. Robotics is somehow still considered to be “a boys’ activity” while according to “common sense”, the girls are expected to take up something “more girly” like dancing or singing despite the fact that all of these activities could well be combined and enjoyed by both genders. The members of LaTüü team count the list of extracurricular activities they participate in besides the robotics club: ceramics, show dance and woodwork.

The truth is that most of these stereotypes only exist in our heads, mostly the heads of the previous generation. A survey conducted two years ago by the team of researchers at Tartu University, by request of Skype Microsoft Estonia, revealed that “the capabilities of boys and girls in sciences and technology are not gender-based but mostly constructed by the conditions created by parents, schools and society which will enforce girls to work twice as hard to reach their full potential and prove their worth” as “parents would rather expect their sons to choose a future in science, technology or mathematics” (“The role of women in Estonian ICT sector and the opportunities to change it”, 2015).

To prove the point: despite the fact that in the earlier version of the kids book Atomic was depicted as genderless metallic particle, in the 1980s version he becomes a human being with distinctive boyish features (not to mention that the scientist working in the lab is an elderly white man).

Myth busters

Although the myths will take a long time to disintegrate, there are parents who dare to think “out of the box”. The Laagri robotics club came to be thanks to one parent who would not take “no” for an answer. Diana Poudel has been active in Saue parish for years, and she also happens to be the mother of the twins Mirjam and Oliver. “It seemed easier to start this thing here than keep driving my kids someplace else,” she claims. “Robotics is so much more popular among kids as compared to regular programming because it makes things move around. It is far more attractive to kids and they can start learning as early as in kindergarten. There will be no fields of life where you cannot use this know-how in 20 years.”

Diana was in charge of organising a trial class for robotics that ended up collecting €5,555 instead of the €4,000 they pledged for on Hooandja, an Estonian crowdfunding platform. The Laagri robotics club was kicked off with eight teams in early 2015. There was such a keen interest that the last ones on the waiting list were only accepted in the beginning of this year. Now almost every fifth pupil in the school of more than 700 is a member of a robotics team.

Only a year into starting with robotics, Laagri was already a well acknowledged member of the vibrant school robotics community in Estonia. Their teacher, Mai Pitsner, was awarded the best tutor in FLL last spring and the club was chosen as the best newcomer in Robomiku contest. This year, Laagri school hosted one of the North-Estonian semi-finals for the FLL. Out of all 111 teams participating in three semi-finals there were four teams from Laagri.

It’s not just about the gadgets that the school has purchased, starting from easier Beebots and Ozobots to more complex Lego WeDo’s and Mindstorms to Arduinos. The people committed to the cause are a far more valuable asset. It’s not easy to find a good robotics teacher, but Laagri is lucky enough to share their teacher Mai with two other schools.

“Mai is the best teacher,” LaTüü members tell me with great pride. “She’s not just a robotics teacher, she has also written a book!”

It’s rather obvious that one person is not enough to help all teams in their preparation for big competitions. This is where the parents come in handy, helping out with everything else besides the robo-race. Diana is one of those parents who host a team meeting in her house once a month to help the team practice their moves, both on the race course as well as on the stage. The girls are not afraid to be the youngest team to compete in the finals where some teams consist of 16-year-olds. The only other team they really look up to are the “Owls who are really-really smart!”

“We have our own robotics anthem,” the girls declare. “And if we get an award in the finals, we will have a movie night with popcorn!”

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Cover: LaTüü members at First Lego League (photo by Viorica Bordei.) Please consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

Kristel Kruustük, a cofounder of Testlio: testing is my passion

No matter where she goes, Kristel Kruustük (27), until recently known as Kristel Viidik, a cofounder of Testlio, is likely to stand out in a crowd. “No matter what my last name may be, everyone will always know me as Kristel, the girl with big hair,” she laughs and adds that a key to success is never to worry about what others might think of you.

Of course, it’s not just the hair but her shiny personality, can-do attitude and, above all, her crazy ideas that simply cannot go unnoticed. Having worked as a tester herself, and become disillusioned by how testers were treated by big app-building companies, in 2012 she came up with the idea of building a platform that would actually appreciate the work of a tester − if you find a critical mistake and draw attention to it, you are also likely to be motivated to fix it − thereby providing development teams with quality-assurance (QA) testers.

Testlio III

She shared her thoughts with her then-boyfriend Marko Kruustük, later also a cofounder of Testlio, and now her husband, too, and the two signed up for a London-based event, Angelhack. They made it to the top three and were flown to San Francisco for the finals, where they won the global hackathon with a seed investment of USD25,000 and a first paying customer.

What would “Kevin” do?

That first customer was “Kevin”, a person that made such a lasting impression that he earned his own poster on Testlio’s wall: “What Would Kevin Do?”

“I’ve never seen a more intense person in my life,” Kristel Kruustük explains the story behind the poster. “Kevin”, a founder of a company that was later acquired by Microsoft, had a very precise vision of what he was after. Testlio really wanted to impress their first big customer so they worked nonstop over the span of three months, and eventually “Kevin” admitted that they had done a much better job than their main competitor. “He really helped us shape our product so now we always ask, what Kevin would do to reach our goals,” Kruustük says.

Testlio’s present goal is to become a world leader in mobile apps testing. “Currently we are more of a high end and a high touch product. As this business model has justified itself, we can reconsider our pricing policy,” Kruustük concludes. What next? “We will tackle the issues once they are in front of us,” she shrugs while giving a big smile.

Never raise more money than you actually need

In early 2015 the company raised a “party round” of USD1 million from a number of individual seed investors in Silicon Valley. But this was just the beginning. In April 2016, they announced a round of USD6.25 million, led by venture capital firms Altos Ventures and Vertex Ventures.

kristel-and-marko-kruustuk-the-cofounders-of-testlio-atko-januson“Over the next 18-24 months, we do not need to worry about money,” claims Kruustük, although the business was already profitable before they raised the latest round. She shares another rule-of-thumb of fast-growing companies: never raise more money than you actually need for giving an extra boost to the growth, otherwise that risks making you too lazy to look for more creative solutions.

For Testlio, it was crucial to open an office in San Francisco and to hire a sales team there. But unlike so many other startups in Silicon Valley, they have stayed true to their frugal style. Although they no longer have to live on friends’ couches − since the office in San Francisco also serves as a crash-pad – Kruustük is adamant about not spending their hard-earned money on anything that does not meet the definition of a necessity. Even her clothes she wears to rags, before she goes shopping.

But the big party they had promised to all of their friends, they did finally have – the party took place at the company’s Tallinn office, since 34 of their 47 employees are based there.

Only process information you can benefit from

“Estonia is my home,” Kruustük recounts passionately, but then pauses for a moment. Looking out of the window of her office on the sixth floor on one of a few new buildings in Telliskivi Creative City, which would offer a panoramic view of the tiled roofs of the Tallinn Old Town on the one side, and the gleaming Port of Tallinn on the other, but for the fact that they are hidden behind grey clouds and pouring rain she shrugs: “Although now you might wonder: what is going on with the weather!?”

kristel-kruustuk-the-cofounder-of-testlio-atko-janusonWhile a typical Estonian would, no doubt, fall into a rant about how this donnerwetter has spoiled all their plans for the summer, Kruustük lightens up: “But it’s still good. I love the atmosphere of this part of the town; it only takes me two minutes to walk home. I have all my friends nearby. I love the small size of Estonia; everyone knows everybody and that makes us stronger together. If I need to, I can always get away and do things elsewhere but I will always want to come back.”

Onlookers wonder how Kruustük can maintain such a positive attitude and energy, while being a completely down-to-earth and humble person at the same time. She admits that she always tries to do her best and has learned to only process information that she can benefit from.

“I have definitely grown a thicker skin over the past four years,” she says. “Building a team up from 15 to 40 people has been very stressful and has taught me a lot about effective and value-based leadership. There is opportunity in every setback. We all make mistakes, but it’s important to learn from them, not to give up, and move on. I believe I’m a much better leader and a much better communicator today,” she goes on.

Testers in the cloud

Marko Kruustük has observed that while talking to investors it’s always his partner that gets the attention first with her optimism. “Most people probably wonder how anyone can possibly talk about testing with such passion!” He admits that as a much more structured person himself, he has learned a lot from Kristel’s outgoing personality. But their double-act works perfectly just the way it is − once Kristel has caught everyone’s attention, Marko will introduce the numbers and their plan to tackle the market.

“Every day I wake up I think of my mission to offer best jobs for testers around the world,” states Kristel Kruustük. “It’s not so much about the number of testers we have but to have the best qualified testers in the network,” she goes on. There are currently around 200 testers on their payroll in places as diverse as the UK, Ukraine, Estonia and Pakistan, some of whom can earn as much as EUR4,000 a month.

“Every day I wake up I think of my mission to offer best jobs for testers around the world.”

“I always think of the story of a Ukrainian guy who became one of our best testers, and thanks to his job could move away from the war zone currently raging in Ukraine,” Kruustük remarks, giving a sobering example of how it’s not just fixing the bugs of software that’s at stake, but actually making a difference in people’s lives too.

testlio

To become a qualified tester on Testlio’s platform, candidates need to pass a test on a test app with built-in bugs. “I built it, but have never reached a score of 100% even myself,” Kruustük testifies. Then they sign up for a webinar for half an hour in time. And as a final test, candidates need to work on a project over a weekend, the so-called “eat your own dog food” that aims to filter out the people who are not really passionate about testing. The best people get voted top by ratings from QA managers and the community.

Kruustük still likes to do some hands-on testing herself, in addition to talking to investors and running the everyday business, while her husband is in charge of constantly upgrading the platform as well as taking care of the financial matters.

They originally thought that being a couple might be seen as a setback on the startup-scene, but the truth has been quite the opposite. While pointing to several factors that helped him make the decision to invest in Testlio, Yee Lee, an angel investor and startup founder from Silicon Valley, explains: “I like companies where the founders have worked together to build, validate and iterate on the product.”

“I could never imagine doing this with anyone else but her. If you are building a company together it also helps you to be on the same page with the values. Sometimes we don’t really need to say things to understand what we mean, there is a complete trust: if one of us is silent, the other person will know not to bother her/him,” Marko Kruustük explains.

Role model for women in IT

Many Estonian startup entrepreneurs point out that Kristel Kruustük has become an inspiring role model for hundreds of women who are now willing to try their hand in IT and even dream about becoming entrepreneurs and leaders. “I’m most certain that thanks to Kristel we will be seeing more and more women as founders in startup entrepreneurship,” Ragnar Sass, a cofounder of Pipedrive, asserts.

kristel-kruustuk-the-cofounder-of-testlio-atko-januson-iMarko Kruustük insists that there is no hidden rivalry inside their relationship and he feels no envy when her partner gets more attention than he does. “She is our cover girl. We need to see the bigger picture here of setting a good example for upcoming generations.”

Kristel Kruustük has a heroine too – she names her 90-year-old grandmother as one of her biggest role models in life. “Despite all the hardships she has had to endure in life, she’s still a redoubtable person.”

Whenever she feels in low spirits or simply needs time to muse over, she likes to play the piano. “Playing the piano is like being an entrepreneur,” Kruustük says. “You will not be very good at it as you start and it will take a while to excel. You need to practice a lot and learn it by doing, sometimes going slower and then adding speed if needed.”

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The longer print version of this article was first published in Life in Estonia magazine. All photos by Atko Januson, unless otherwise stated.

Standing out from the crowd: Karoli Hindriks, the founder of Jobbatical

Having just raised USD2 million for her company from some of the top venture capitalists in the US and Europe, Karoli Hindriks, the founder and CEO of Jobbatical, is one of the most successful startup entrepreneurs in Estonia.

Raising a round worth more than EUR1 million always draws a lot of attention in the local media, but the news about Jobbatical was in spring 2016 all over international tech media outlets such as TechCrunch, Forbes and Business Insider.

Besides getting the limelight in both old and new media and while attending globally influential events like the Lean In conference at Google Asia, the word “jobbatical” has already made it to Merriam Webster dictionary, being defined as “a short-term post when between jobs in one’s career”.

The industries of the future

The word has recently also made it to the pages of an international publication. “One of the first people I met in Estonia was Karoli Hindriks, the CEO of Jobbatical, a company that blends the concept of a job and a sabbatical, matching employers and talent for short-term jobs that might involve sending a software developer from Sweden to Thailand for a three-month ‘jobbatical’,” Alec Ross, the former head of office for Hillary Clinton, writes in his new book, “The Industries of the Future”.

“I asked Karoli why she and everybody else on the street was wearing reflective clothing, and she told me that when it gets dark, it is Estonian law that all pedestrians wear some form of reflective clothing for safety,” Ross continues in his book. “She smiled and told me that she became an inventor at age 16, creating pedestrian reflectors that could be used as a part of clothing and jewelry, and she now holds several patents and international trademarks for her designs. This was very representative of what I have seen during all of my time in Estonia: extreme order combined with invention and design.”

Hindriks herself did not have to worry about wearing reflective clothing in order to be visible in the slushy winter of Estonia this year since, living the life she preaches, she was on a jobbatical in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

karoli-hindriks-and-ronald-hindriks

“Malaysia and Singapore are the fastest growing markets for us as there are many great global companies emerging and there is not enough talent locally so we need to import it,” she says. She is sitting in the shade of a tropical tree by a pool that’s teeming with little turtles, in a spacious courtyard of the house that operates as both an office and living quarters for her team.

The team at Jobbatical consists of people from all over the world – Estonia, Italy, the US, South Korea, Hong Kong. “Almost half of the team has been found through the platform itself; I’ve hired six people before actually meeting them.”

It seems the future of the job market that Alec Ross pinpoints in his book, is already here.

Think big, act fast

Matching talented people who want to take a break from their ordinary jobs with companies who are looking for helping hands for specific projects around the world is the shorthand description of what Jobbatical does. Over its first year, 1,200 companies across 40 countries have used Jobbatical and 7,000 job applications have yielded over 300 job matches.

karoli-hindriksThe concept of Jobbatical grew out of several previous experiences. Since 2009 Hindriks had been in charge of bringing FOX International Channels, broadcasting Fox Life, Fox Crime and National Geographic to Estonia and the Baltic states. At some point she felt she had learned all about localising international TV-channels and needed some change. She left FOX and flew to Malaysia, with just her running shoes and books. Within eight days she had read through all her books and done enough running circles around the small island she was staying on to understand she needed more meaning in her time off.

“I would have loved to find a team in Malaysia, whom to help with the skills and expertise in media business that I had been working past seven years, but Jobbatical did not exist back then,” she says. Hindriks managed to find a small Estonian startup who needed her help and flew to San Francisco. “I worked 14-16 hours a day really exploring the startup scene in the Bay Area. This was a great ‘jobbatical’ for me.”

She also applied to Singularity University, a global initiative founded by Dr Ray Kurtzweil and Dr Peter Diamandis, both influential thinkers on the future of tech in Silicon Valley. “I had applied to the Singularity University Graduate Program last winter since a brave little optimist in me said – what the heck, go for it, you’ve got nothing to lose!” she wrote on her blog after finding out the delightful news that she was chosen from among 3,000 candidates. “I will be the first person from my country and the first woman from the Baltic countries to be in the SU Graduate Program,” she revealed.

Geographic location and time zone does not matter anymore

Fast forward four years, and Hindriks reflects that this experience gave her the courage to do really big things, and most importantly, a really good network of people that reaches much further from the sweet embrace of Silicon Valley.

“I noticed that with the new millennial generation, your geographic location and time zone really does not matter anymore. Both friendships and work span borders. Although hardly anyone wakes up in London to think that their next big opportunity is waiting for them in Tallinn, we should open up opportunities for those who are curious and adventurous enough to want to try out new challenges elsewhere,” she explains.

Jobbatical was born in the spring of 2014, when Hindriks’ daughter Maya turned one, as she had promised herself to take at least a year off for the family. “I discovered that for a person like me, having worked for more than 10 years, there was an option to go and pick melons in Australia or take up an internship. I started to wonder that there must be a multitude of people like me who could add more value than that.”

karoli-hindriks-ii

Looking back at how her company started, she admits that they’ve made many mistakes. “Eat your own dog food!” is a good saying by many entrepreneurs that also applies to Jobbatical. There was no pivot but there was a lot of experimentation. Finally, placing the focus on technology paid off. “It really took off in May 2015; the focus was there, the companies and the right people were on board,” Hindriks notes.

“I did not know anything about raising money and no one is likely to give you a manual on how to go about that,” she reflects. Having pitched to hundreds of investors, she now admits that even today she cannot pinpoint a specific pattern besides the fact that the US investors will look further in the future whereas the European ones are more centred on numbers and are keener on how the idea can be monetised.

In the latest round, Hindriks managed to embrace both VC varieties, since Union Square Ventures is based in New York, while the other venture fund, LocalGlobe, is London-based. With this latest investment, Jobbatical have now raised around USD3 million.

jobbaticals-office-opening-in-tallinn

“I raised the angel round solely based on my presentation and by making people believe in my vision,” she says in hindsight. “My first investors were from Finland; I still remember that day when I was running in my silk stockings from the ferry to make it to the meeting in mid-town Helsinki.”

The next people on board were the British investors, and only then were the Estonians brave enough to put their money in her venture.

“I was the second woman in Estonia to raise money this way after Kaidi Ruusalepp, the CEO and founder of Funderbeam,” Hindriks claims.

Ruusalepp assumes it all boils down to the passion Hindriks feels about things. “If she’s devoted to a cause, she will put her full energy into it – either for her company, women’s rights or other causes. We both build global startups and we are women with small kids. This simple fact keeps us both motivated – if she can do it, I can do it. She has a leader’s characteristics, ability and the courage to build up a global company. We both bet on the future trends: she’s betting on the trend of changing the status of work; Funderbeam bets on the fact that raising capital will change because technology is eliminating the borders,” Ruusalepp asserts.

How it all started

Believing in new technologies and having the courage to tear down existing borders is what makes many successful people stand out among others. Plus, it takes a lot of perseverance and, above all, a few supportive people to rely on. For Hindriks it was her entrepreneurship teacher in high school; and of course her parents, who would always stand behind her crazy ideas.

“Usually parents would encourage their kids to pay more attention to their studies, but my late dad told me to go to the patent office when I told him about my idea for the student company project,” she says. That was exactly what she did with her soft reflectors, and this was how her first company, Goodmood, took off.

“Usually parents would encourage their kids to pay more attention to their studies, but my late dad told me to go to the patent office when I told him about my idea for the student company project.”

Liis-Katrin Avandi, an Estonian dancing teacher and a good friend from high school, admits that she’s always been amazed how Hindriks can manage to do so many things at the same time while having no complexes to hold her back.

To bring an example of Hindriks’s determination and experimental mindset, Avandi tells a story from several years ago. “As a student entrepreneur, she was invited to give a speech at the European Parliament in Brussels. To get the full attention of her audience she decided to open her speech with a song. And I mean, she can carry the tune but she is no singer! For me that would be an absolute nightmare. But she, of course, pulled it off very elegantly and got 110 per cent attention. This is how she rolls: besides amazing everyone with the initial attention she can then surprise people with her craziest yet doable ideas. She has that X-factor: a specific balance between the form and the essence.”

karoli-hindriks

Hindriks admits that if she gets an idea, she will almost literally drive through a stone wall to reach her goals, as she was lucky enough to be taught to believe in herself. An exchange year as a senior in a US high school in New Hampshire probably helped in shaping her character too. “As I decided to go back to Estonia and continue being an entrepreneur, my classmates must have thought I was completely out of my mind.”

However, a few years later she had no regrets, despite having been an alumna of the Pärnu City Council at the age of 25. She had been elected at the age of 19, as a member of IRL, currently a rather conservative party. She does not deny that she became disillusioned with politics. “You need a cooler nerve and thicker skin to be active in politics on a local level. I’m sure I’ll return some day,” she pauses and adds with a smile, “once I’ve finished changing the world! I will return to politics when I’m independent enough to be dependent on public opinion.”

A politician lost?

Being a person with a cool head, as well as a warm heart, she cannot only shower praise on her homeland. Hindriks can bring many examples from other countries that Estonia might be keen to follow. Among these some obvious examples like Singapore, as well as those who might sound a bit more surprising, like Canada.

“Singapore is a perfectly engineered state: they send their best brains to study abroad with a string attached that they have to come back. If you talk to any government official from Singapore you’ll realise the positive effect of this pattern. We could consistently broaden the minds and horizons of our future generations if every student in Estonia had to go through an exchange program abroad,” she explains.

karoli-hindriks-and-ronald-hindriks-siblings-and-cofounders

Having now lived for almost a year just across the border from Singapore, in Malaysia, where Islam is the predominant religion, she has learned a completely different yet valuable lesson. “I have thought a lot about the issues of discrimination and diversity here. Although I’m not a Muslim and I don’t wear hijab, nobody would bother to give me a weird look on the street. Everyone can exist peacefully together.”

“We could consistently broaden the minds and horizons of our future generations if every student in Estonia had to go through an exchange program abroad.”

She gets really excited when she talks about the obvious dichotomy of diversity and discrimination. “I would love to see someone ‘owning’ this topic in Estonia. The way we currently deal with discrimination is totally ridiculous. It’s where we could easily apply a modernised version of the simple theory of Adam Smith: if you know that there are likely to be sanctions for taking your neighbour’s TV, you simply won’t take it.”

“I love following ‘the third culture kids’ – the ones who have moved around a lot since childhood – in our team. The way they think and do things is just completely different; they are just so smart in every aspect of life,” she observes.

In their co-working and living space she’s been immersed to adhan, the Muslim calls for prayers five times a day as part of the local culture. And she’s really happy that her daughter Maya is there with her, so for her many of the barriers that might have held her parents back, albeit these are nothing but mere social constructs to start with, will not even be present.

Family is her rock

Modern technology has already helped a lot with her family setup where both spouses are entrepreneurs and used to constant continent and time-zone hopping. While she’s in Malaysia with her daughter Maya who just turned three, her husband Allan Martinson, the cofounder of Starship Technologies, is based in Estonia and travels back-and-forth on the other side of the world, between London and San Francisco.

karoli-3-year-old-daughter-maya

Despite not being able to spend much time together, Hindriks is adamant that family is her rock. “The time with your family is when you are actually together, no compromising!” she says.

In the meantime, Hindriks and her company encourage people to get out of their comfort zone and get new experiences across the globe which might completely transform their lives.

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The longer print version of this article was first published in Life in Estonia magazine. Images courtesy of Karoli Hindriks and Jobbatical.

The Estonian startup that is making testing sexy

“We want to change the world of testing,” claim Kristel Viidik (26) and Marko Kruustük (33), the power duo behind the testing startup, Testlio. “Our goal is to change the mindset so that this occupation would be seen as sexy. Being a tester does not have to be a launchpad for becoming a developer. Testlio should be the first name that comes to mind if you think of testing.”

The first time this writer met Viidik and Kruustük in the San Francisco Bay Area two and a half years ago, they had just founded their own company, Testlio  a startup that provides development teams with quality-assurance (QA) testers. They were looking for ways to raise money and lived off friends’ couches, being social in the evenings but working hard through days and nights. This had been their lifestyle for years, they did not yearn for stability or much comfort because they had finally figured out what they really wanted to do.

A few years earlier they were in a dire situation with Viidik staying in a hostel in London, sharing a room with nine other people and holding on to her backpack in the night, while Kruustük was back in Estonia looking for THAT idea to get them rolling. They were both working lousy day jobs and feeling miserable.

“Testlio is now 23-strong and there is a cool vibe in their uber-hip office, where people don’t just go to work but the air is filled with that special positive electricity and awareness that seems to be changing the world.”

Fast forward a few years and they are in charge of a bustling startup based at the Telliskivi Loomelinnak in Tallinn, the heart of Kalamaja, aka local “hipsterville”. Testlio is now 23-strong and there is a cool vibe in their uber-hip office, where people don’t just go to work but the air is filled with that special positive electricity and awareness that seems to be changing the world.

In early 2015, they managed to persuade a “party round”, ie a large number of individual seed investors in the Silicon Valley, including Techstars Ventures and Galvanize, and raised US$1 million.

Power couple

One of the angels in the round, Yee Lee, lists his reasons that helped him make the decision to invest in Testlio:

“I like the company for several reasons: 1) I believe in the power of online marketplaces to create a global level playing field for employment and labour; 2) I like companies that can dominate a focused niche and have large adjacent markets to grow into; 3) I like companies where the founders have worked together to build, validate, and iterate on the product. Testlio embodies all three.”

San Francisco based Lee, who is currently building his own next startup, Vouch Financial, a social network for credit, points out that unlike many other investors, he is not scared of working with husband/wife teams. “Many of the companies I’m most proud of being affiliated with were started by couples – Wildfire, Slideshare, Khush Labs.”

“I like the company for several reasons: 1) I believe in the power of online marketplaces to create a global level playing field for employment and labour; 2) I like companies that can dominate a focused niche and have large adjacent markets to grow into; 3) I like companies where the founders have worked together to build, validate, and iterate on the product. Testlio embodies all three.”

Viidik and Kruustük are long past the period in their lives when they thought being a couple was something they had to hide as a possible turn off for investors. On the contrary, being a strong tandem is a definite forte that also represents their dedication. They are one of those couples who obviously complement each other in every way, one starting the sentence and the other one finishing it. This is also how they came to the idea to build Testlio and how they’ve executed it.

Testlio

“Kristel and Marko stand out among Estonian startuppers with their special ‘can-do’ attitude,” says Ott Kaukver, VP of Engineering at Twilio, a San Francisco-based cloud communication provider on which Testlio has built its platform. “They have an extremely positive mindset and they are willing to work hard to achieve it.”

Fast riders

“Most of the things have happened over the span of last months,” Viidik tells in her typical reserved manner that is in striking contrast with her anything but modest appearances. “The brand recognition has expanded.”

Testlio team is spread around the world with the core people based in their Estonia office: seven engineers, three QA managers, a designer, recruiter, PR and marketing, and a sales person. Two additional engineers will join in September.

“Kristel and Marko stand out among Estonian startuppers with their special ‘can-do’ attitude.”

“There is a certain look in the eyes of the people who are on a mission toward something truly big,” says Annika Ljaš, the head of branding and communications at Testlio, one of their latest hires. “In the case of Kristel and Marko, this look is combined with a strong confidence that failure is not an option. This is what convinced me to join Testlio.”

Having previously worked for a big state-funded organisation, Enterprise Estonia, Ljaš loves being part of a small team of young techies that is growing fast. “There’s so much I can do to make the Testlio brand stand out in the world. We’re in a market of immense potential, worth US$50+ billion, and Testlio is becoming the GitHub of testing. Our weekly all hands meeting tends to end in Kristel shouting, ‘Let’s do this, lets do epic shit!’ That says it all, it is epic.”

“We’re in a market of immense potential, worth US$50+ billion.”

They are indeed all hands in. Kruustük, who originally built the platform, still fixes bugs in the nights. And Viidik muses that she still enjoys hands-on testing: “Whenever we have a new customer, I help out because I want to make sure it is a great success.” She adds it would be unfair to expect everyone to work their butts off if they themselves would not be setting an example.

So how does one become a qualified tester on Testlio’s platform? First of all, one needs to pass a test on a test app with built-in bugs (“I built it but have never reached a score of 100% myself,” Viidik testifies). Then they sign up for a webinar for half an hour on time. And as a final test they need to work on a project over a weekend, so called “eat your own dog food” which would filter out the people who are not really passionate about testing.

“There is no such thing in the world of software as a product with no bugs.”

Only after passing those tests can one become a member of the international community of testers, most of them from the US, Ukraine, the UK and Estonia. There has been around 7,000 sign-ups from testers but around 250 are actively joining the projects and get paid monthly. The best people get voted to top by ratings from QA managers and the community.

“There is no such thing in the world of software as a product with no bugs,” Kruustük says. “We test big apps that have millions of users and pay attention to those bugs that have been notified the most. Testlio also provides statistics how the ratings get compiled and how one or another feature could influence those ratings. We are not just a testing factory, we actually help to better those products.”

“Testlio currently has around 30 paying customers, Microsoft among the others.”

Testlio currently has around 30 paying customers, Microsoft among the others, plus startups who need just a small testing cycle. “We always try to give feedback in 48 hours,” Kruustük claims. The 48-hour-cycle comes from the fact that most stable clients like to do their development during the week and use Testlio’s service over the weekend, so they can start a new week sans the bugs.

“I still remember our first big customer. We really wanted to impress them so we worked hard and gave our results really fast. That won them over.” Now that he is doing less testing himself, Kruustük has more time on his hands to revamp the whole platform.

Humble beginnings

Both Kruustük and Viidik have graduated from the Estonian IT College, a vocational school built solely for training high quality IT specialists, Kruustük having been among its first alumni and Viidik being his junior of 11 years. They met at an Estonian digital products company called Artify in 2008 when Kruustük hired Viidik for a project to test a website. By then he himself had a degree in IT management from the University of Kiel in Germany, had worked at the Estonian Traffic Insurance Fund for some time and lived in London for three years.

“I loved that feeling of moving someplace else and starting everything from scratch again,” Kruustük explains. “You sell everything you have and all the rest fits in a suitcase. Even if you have the courage and get on well with other people, things won’t just happen to you but you have to make them happen.”

When Viidik graduated from college, they decided to move to San Francisco. While there, Kruustük was interviewing for jobs but neither of them really blended in. So they unplugged their wires again and joined friends in the Dominican Republic, literally went surfing. No commitments, no deadlines to meet.

“I had a chance to reflect on everything I had done over the past ten years and I realised why I had not been successful at all,” Marko recalls. “I decided that dealing only with the tech side is not enough, I also need to pay attention to the business part. The mythical combination of a kick-ass developer and an MBA working together with not sharing their tasks does not really work. Both have to do a little bit of everything.”

“I began to realise how inefficiently testing was done on those platforms. How testers competed with each other and there was no actual process to deliver world-class results. Building a killer app is team work and I didn’t see that competing and being detached from the development team would help anyone get there.”

Two months later they were back in London and while Viidik was frantically looking for a job and a decent place to live in, Kruustük was trying to build his next company in Estonia. “I even worked as a waitress for a week, lived in a hostel infested with rats, clinging to my backpack in the nights, but I could not imagine that a man would pay my bills,” Viidik recalls with a laughter.

Finally Kruustük joined him in London, they found a nice place and moved in together but could not afford to live the bustling metropolitan lifestyle. “We would walk home from work together and have a party of our own. Ever since that time every little victory tastes sweeter.”

Viidik was working for different crowd-sourced testing platforms and became a gold level tester pretty fast. For a girl who was used to get by with so little, money was pouring in but so did an unnerving kind of restlessness.

“I began to realise how inefficiently testing was done on those platforms. How testers competed with each other and there was no actual process to deliver world-class results. Building a killer app is team work and I didn’t see that competing and being detached from the development team would help anyone get there. That was when Marko and I started discussing that this is something we could build.”

They signed up for a London hackathon called AngelHack. The 2012 event provided 64 ideas and they were among the first three. “We did not get elected for the free tickets to San Francisco because we had been hiding the fact that we were a couple as we thought that would not be seen as a good thing. But when we opened up about it to AngelHack founder Greg Gopman, they saw the potential in us as a team, and sent us to SF anyway.”

They flew to SF, where they won the finals with 27 other finalists from all over the world, with a seed investment of US$25,000 and a first paying customer. As the story goes, the rest is history.

To live the dream

“When we were celebrating in the end of the event at a home of one of the founders of Zynga, we thought: ‘This would be a cool way to live.’”

From that day on, things looked up for them. Having decided to be “all in”, they got engaged, quit their jobs and took a small loan to buy tickets to Austin, Texas, for TechStars.

“We have managed to combine work with joy.”

This was where they met Meelik Gornoi, their current head of development, who soon after became the first employer at Testlio. It only took them days to realise they created good synergy together: Viidik and Kruustük had the powerful energy and Gornoi had the experience of building teams and testing strategies from Skype.

“What I love about startups is the fast chain of feedback,” Gornoi says. “If you write a blog post or release a new feature, it reaches a great number of users and makes their life easier, and they thank you from the bottoms of their hearts. This also helps you to learn immensely and develop with and within the company.”

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Gornoi had gone through a bunch of different roles over those few years starting from writing code and managing client projects to being a technical project manager, scrum master and a hiring officer. “We have managed to combine work with joy – a great part of our culture is going out with the whole team every Thursday to exchange ideas in a more relaxed environment. The team has grown but the vibe has remained the same and I hope this lasts forever.”

They have had the company office in Tallinn since March this year. Until then, they had always been extremely frugal. “I never like to spend money if you can rather keep it,” Viidik says. “But now that our cash flow is positive, we raised the round and do not have to check our bank balance every day, we can relax a bit. The main thing is to keep the testers happy.”

As the fall creeps in in Estonia, Viidik and Kruustük set their eyes on California again. Soon they will have to start raising money for the next round. “And who knows, we might even have a party when we finally open our office in the US.”

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Testlio

Founders: 

Marko Kruustük – Hacker since the age of 12. Founded first software startup while still at high school.

Kristel Viidik – CEO of Testlio; software tester; creates and breaks software.

Funding: Seed funding of US$1 million in March 2015.

Employees: 23.

 

Global Estonians – Kerstin Karu (Silicon Valley)

Kerstin Karu is a typical Silicon Valley early-stage entrepreneur. Startuppers are a distinct kind of people that cannot be defined by their gender, age, nationality or education. Only one thing is certain: they are self-assured, optimistic and full of confidence. While talking to Kerstin these are the features you’ll notice above all.

Despite her young age – only 23 – she has travelled the world, studied hard and tried different occupations. For the past year, she’s been running her company Blast Buzz, a mobile and web application that provides customers with a possibility to virally advertise goods and services on social media networks in exchange for points or gifts.

Having completed an academic degree in marketing from the Lancaster University in 2013, Kerstin decided to get a more hands-on experience in business from the San Mateo-based Draper University of Heroes in the summer. She was accepted into the programme in the spring of 2013, which led her to spend the following summer in Silicon Valley. Little did she know that she was bound to stay.

As it tends to be the case for stories of this kind, Kerstin had heard about the school from a friend, while completing her final year in a university in the UK. Her friend from the university had been to Estonia, where he had heard about the Draper University, founded by Tim Draper, partner of the venture capitalist, Steve Jurvetson, who also happens to be a well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneur with Estonian roots (both Draper and Jurvetson recently became the first e-residents of Estonia). Both Kerstin and her friend applied to the programme and were accepted, while Kerstin also earned a scholarship that covered most of the USD9,500 worth of studies thanks to her rich set of experiences. Perhaps another contributing factor was the fact that there had been three Estonians in the previous class.

The ability to sell oneself successfully is definitely one of the key aspects in building a startup. One might have a great idea but if one does not know how to make it understandable to one’s potential investors or team, one can just as well forget about the big idea. The founder of one of the best known startup incubators in Silicon Valley, Y Combinator, Paul Graham coined the rules of successful startups already back in 2005: you need an idea, people, money and at least a vague understanding of what your customers want. If we add to the list the courage to stumble and fall, followed by standing up and trying again, we can recite Kerstin’s story based on the following points:

1. Be brave and experiment

While still studying at the Lancaster University near Manchester, UK, Kerstin was an active student running the university’s entrepreneurship and marketing societies and working as a regional manager for the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs (NACUE).

One can easily say that Kerstin is not a typical Estonian, as she’s far too outspoken and lively. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that she was born in Canada, where her parents had migrated during the Soviet occupation of Estonia. They returned to Estonia after the country regained its independence in the beginning of the 1990s. As if one cultural shock was not enough, Kerstin and her mother also lived in Romania for a while in 1994, five years after the country had put an end to the cruel dictatorship of Nicola Ceausescu.

Back in Estonia, she graduated from one of the top schools in the country, the Tallinn French School, in 2010. She still has fond memories of her former high school that provided her with a strong basis in classical literature, foreign languages and arts, on top of a strong foundation in all other subjects core to the national curriculum. For a while she even dreamt of becoming an actress, but soon replaced this dream with a far more practical goal to study marketing instead. In order to reach her goal, she self taught herself graphic, video and web design when she was still in middle school.

Perhaps it was her interest in classical literature and arts that brought her to Greece a year before the end of high school. She did not go there as a tourist to admire old temples or pass along days by the seaside, but instead got a summer job selling tickets to concerts and parties on a beach promenade. She managed to sell enough tickets to quickly become one of the top sellers in the resort and was offered the position of an advertising manager, making her responsible for creating promotional videos for the resort. Kerstin was 18 at the time.

She also went back to Greece for the summer a year later; however, this time she wanted to try out a new job: “Although they offered me the same position as the year before, I wanted to try bartending before starting university in the autumn. I really enjoy entertaining people and felt that I could apply that to bartending.” She learned how to make cocktails and soon had her own counter to serve loyal customers who kept coming back.

By the time Kerstin went to the university, she became interested in search engine optimisation (SEO) and trying out different ways to boost websites on search engines. She created an online fashion retail site, which she ran from the UK, while targeting Estonian customers. To her great surprise, Estonian women were eager to buy clothes normally sold in typical high street stores in the UK, at much lower prices compared with Estonia. Although the sales took off well, she decided that this was not the business she wanted to pursue in the long term.

2. Find the right people

According to Graham, it is important to find an idea first and then find the right people to implement it with. Kerstin had it the other way round. The first “right person” on her path was probably Tim Draper, who became a role model for her, followed by her current co-founders.

“Draper makes you think big,” she praises her teacher a year after graduating Class 3. “He’s a very inspirational and optimistic person, there is no doubt in my mind that he’s very smart but at the same time kind of crazy in a good way. And all the people he invites to speak to the students are incredibly inspiring.” Among others, the past speakers at the Draper University have included well-known Silicon Valley titans, like Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla; Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos; Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and of course, Tim Draper’s own father Bill Draper, who is considered to be one of the founders of venture capitalism.

During the six week program, Kerstin came up with a business idea and decided not to immediately return to the UK after she had completed her studies. Instead, she stayed in San Mateo, helping run the new class and working on her initial business idea. The elaborate startup scene in Silicon Valley also played a big part, as it tends to offer a striving entrepreneur more experiences than any other place in the world. There are plenty of opportunities to network with like-minded people and reach out to those who have already achieved fame and fortune.

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In one of those typical Valley networking events Kerstin started to talk to Mark Chen, a former software engineer at Cisco, who had recently left the corporate world to pursue entrepreneurship by starting a mobile app company. “We clicked instantly and realised we complemented each other’s skills,” Kerstin recalls. “I had a background in business and he knew software development like the back of his hand.” Mark also introduced her to his friends from Cisco and Adobe and the new team was born.

In addition to her team, it was yet again at a business networking event, where Kerstin met her mentor. Michelle Fisher is an angel investor who doesn’t mind allocating some of her time on advising striving young entrepreneurs about business development, as well as more complex issues crucial to succeeding in business. For instance, she has given Kerstin advice on how to succeed as a female entrepreneur in a male-dominated world of technology. It’s a well-known secret that some men tend to harass their female counterparts – consciously or unconsciously – in the hardcore blood-on-the-street entrepreneurial scene.

“If a man comes to you with an indecent proposal you simply have to play it down in style,” Kerstin knows from a first-hand experience. “Fortunately I have not had many unpleasant encounters of this kind, as I always try to stress with my appearance and attitude that I mean business. However, perhaps I would like to look more feminine from time to time, for example wear a dress and lipstick, but then I’d have to face the dominating prejudices: what does this 23-year-old woman know about entrepreneurship!?”

3. Find the right idea 

All in all, Kerstin seems to have been rather successful in establishing herself as someone to be taken seriously. Being the only woman in a team of men she started to work on the idea how to create a unified identity code system to replace all common items in a wallet, as well as keys. The name of the working version was “Karu” (Kerstin’s last name means “bear” in Estonian, which her cofounders thought would be an extraordinarily cool and strong name).

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Just over a year ago Kerstin and her team decided to test their team working abilities and resistance to pressure at the Dreamforce hackathon in San Francisco. The idea they came up with, Blast Buzz, grew on the team so much that they decided to put Karu on hold and pursue the new venture.

In November 2014 Blast Buzz celebrated a year from the birth of the idea – they incorporated in January. But what is it that they do exactly?

In essence it’s peer-to-peer marketing. By using the app a person can create mouth-to-mouth buzz in social networks among his/her friends, thereby earning premium points that will be converted into money, vouchers or products. “92% of people do not care about (public) advertising but only their friends recommendations,” Kerstin knows from her marketing books. “Let’s say I drink a bottle of Coca-Cola and share a picture of it on Instagram and if ten of my friends like it, Coca-Cola will award me as a loyal customer by giving me the next bottle for free or some company products with their logo on it.”

After launching the first version of Blast Buzz and testing it with the initial user base, the team is now working on implementing their vision of brand growth through the influence of fans on a brand new platform. By partnering with selected brands, they aim to introduce a one-of-a-kind fan relationship management and influencer marketing platform in 2015.

4. Find money

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There is only so much you can do with pure enthusiasm alone, even if you have the best team in the world. Great ideas need a certain amount of starting capital to get executed. Kerstin managed to impress Tim Draper enough to get him to invest in her idea, but she emphasises that graduating from the Draper University doesn’t guarantee an investment from him.

Instead, as is the case with any investor, you need to have a business idea with great potential and an incredible team behind it. “If he happens to invest in some of his students’ startups, there is no typical way how he does that. It could be in the form of money, providing free housing or a co-working space (at the Draper University),” Kerstin explains. Therefore it makes more sense to look at the most common model used by investors when funding early stage startups, which is issuing a convertible note, ie a short-term debt that converts into equity. To put it more simply: investors loan money to a startup as its first round of funding; and instead of requesting for their money back with interest added, they receive shares of preferred stock (usually ranging between 5-20% of the company), as part of the startup’s initial preferred stock financing, based on the terms of the note. The most common deadline is 12 months.

“If you expand the horizons of young people they’ll go out there and do great things,” Kerstin muses. “If Tim Draper is willing to invest in your startup, he’ll also make it worthwhile.”

5. Be ready to fail

After listening to Kerstin’s stories, one cannot but wonder if the road to success is not supposed to be paved with failure? It seems she has only encountered good luck and praise for her great achievements. Actually it’s not all that easy and she does not shy away from confessing she’s not always successful. “It takes failing and failing again to succeed,” she adds.

As part of her “finals” at the Draper University she had to pitch her business idea in front of a panel of investors and a large audience. “Oh, that pitch day was just awful!” she shrugs in horror. “You only have two minutes to talk about something that you feel so passionate about. I was overly confident in myself prior to the pitch day, as I had done a lot of public speaking at my university in the UK, and I had also given a TEDx talk shortly before coming to the Draper University, but this was completely different. These two minutes went by in a flash and then the clicker jammed, so I only got through half of my slides…”

But life does not stop because of one unsuccessful presentation and keeps going regardless of the obstacles thrown on one’s way. “I failed giving this pitch, but as a result I learned that you can never practise too much. Play your slides through in front of a friend or practise talking to a mirror – do either or both more than once before you go in front of investors. You’ll always have those butterflies in your stomach before you need to perform in front of an audience, so the more you practise, the less those butterflies will kick in.

Kerstin adds that one of her favourite sides, what comes to Silicon Valley and the US business culture overall, is the fact that (unlike anywhere in Europe) failing is considered to be a healthy learning experience. It’s okay to fail, as this will help you analyse your actions and avoid making the same mistakes in the future, without bearing the sign of a “loser” for the rest of your life. “If it happens so that we need to pursue plan B, we’ll try a new business model and a different platform. And if we fail again, we’ll stick to developing software but perhaps in a different field.”

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The article was published in Estonian on California-based Eesti by the Bay website. Cover photo by Kätlin Rebane.

Rainer Sternfeld: taking over planet Earth

He plans to take over the planet. And not just planet Earth but everything that surrounds it too. Not by brutal force but by offering a platform for organising and making sense of planetary sensor data.

“I have a feeling we’ve only just started,” says Rainer Sternfeld (31), CEO and co-founder of Planet OS. In a way, they did just start. While others hit the beaches for the summer, Rainer and his colleagues were busy revamping Marinexplore, a company they founded only two and a half years ago to deal with all sorts of oceanic data, to Planet OS. As the name implies, the ambition of Planet OS goes all the way beyond the 71% of the surface of the Earth covered in water.

“Our system is like Google Translate that speaks the languages of buoys, gliders, satellites and other data mining machines,” Rainer describes the business. “We are the central brain that helps companies and organisations to run and analyse the big data these machines collect on a daily basis, without moving the data itself.”

The problem they are trying solve is best described by the saying, “Swimming in sensors, drowning in data.” Literally every vessel that sails out of any port collects some sort of data, whether it is the just the depth of water and the speed of currents, or more complex data, like the level of contamination or the abundance of fish in the water. In the era of information there is too much data but not enough power or knowledge to analyse it and make it work in our best interests. “Planet OS is like an airport, the people are the data, and the airplanes are the means to bring and send the data, and the gates are the interfaces between them.” Companies and organisations can buy their own “airport”, with their own security, to organise their own data. “And this airport is specialised on all kinds of airplanes, not just one type like many sensor data mostly often are.”

Rainer Sternfeld III

To take a quick history-tour: not much changed in the maritime data for centuries since Magellan’s fleet first circumnavigated the world. If large cargo vessels wanted to cross the ocean, they would have to rely on data collected mostly by visual and manual observations. This did not change much until the first industrial-grade electronic sensors were produced in the 1980s and their mass production really took off only in the 2000s. Since then the price per unit of data has dropped drastically, making all sorts of forecasting equipment accessible for literally anyone.

The keyword here is “speed”. While with the abundance of sensors it became rather easy to collect data, it often takes more than 80% of the time to find, organise and clean the data of all the unnecessary noise. Companies drowning in data realised the more data they have, the less complexity they can afford when analysing it, and the harder it is to find a signal within the noise. This is the direction Planet OS is striving towards.

“There are a lot of old players in this field we are trying to get into,” Rainer claims and quotes Bill Gurley, one of the best known venture capitalists in Silicon Valley: “You can only make money by being right about something that most people think is wrong.”

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“The risks are always high and you never know what might work or not,” Rainer keeps his cool, true to his Estonian roots. But having lived in the US for almost three years now he does not shy away from dreaming big: “In addition to Planet OS tools, there are open data. Our goal is to index the majority of publicly available oceanic, land-based and atmospheric data, the real world.”

Currently, Planet OS connects 33 organisations and 37,000+ data collection devices from repositories around the world. They have obviously justified the trust of their biggest investors Intertrust and Philips, and angels like the Nest Labs founder Tony Fadell and Skype founder Jaan Tallinn among others.

Location One: Sunnyvale, California, USA

In the beginning of October it’s still scorching heat outside in the heart of Silicon Valley. I meet Rainer in front of a typical boring-looking glass-and-concrete two-storey office building where he shares a small office with three local colleagues in Sunnyvale, an industrial city known for its history of big companies in aerospace and technology. Moffett Field, the original NASA research base, is only a few miles away.

Rainer looks so much more confident and relaxed as compared to the last time I saw him for an interview in the Bay Area, in March in Crissy Fields near the Golden Gate Bridge. It was rather windy and cold, as the weather tends to be in San Francisco. But at least it’s always very predictable and there is an abundance of information to tell if it’s going to be foggy, rainy or windy.

However, human-made disasters, like something that happened after the BP oil platform exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago, are harder to predict.

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“Each of these oil platforms collects terabytes of data every day and petabytes in a year (which is more than all the pictures on Facebook combined – Editor),” Rainer says, explaining that the problem was not so much in the lack of data but how the oil driller managed the data. The damage could have been much less severe had BP had better integrated data administration. To speak in more understandable terms: the rescue ships were sent out to collect the spilled oil based on the data they received from satellites not considering the fact that there was a considerable time lapse and by the time the ships got there the current had changed and the spilled oil was no longer there. It also took much longer than anticipated to literally put a cap on the spill. As a result an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil leaked into the Gulf during those 87 days making it the worst oil spill in US history.

Oil producers are the main target group Planet OS is currently offering its services to, since they are the most comprehensive users of sensory data. This is also the reason why the company has two people based in Houston and why Rainer has to travel to Texas more often than you’d expect from a regular Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

To be closer to potential customers and also bigger talent pool is the main reason why Rainer moved his family to California two years ago.

“There are plenty of data science and B2B-software talent here and they have more experience with large volumes of data.”

Location Two: Tokyo, Japan

Just a few weeks earlier Rainer was a guest speaker at the Nikkei Big Data Conference in Tokyo. He obviously connected to the audience who listened in grave silence the whole 30 minutes he talked about the (r)evolution in dig data and sensor networks.

That was his second time in Japan this year and many more similar visits are probably on the way: “This is where our potential customers are.”

Although anyone taking regular flights across oceans and time zones would agree such travelling is no picnic, Rainer does not mind going to Japan every now and then. He confesses that the Japanese culture and traditions resonate well with his personal beliefs.

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Before having kids, Rainer and his then newly-wed wife Anu, also a young entrepreneur, took a trip to Japan, backpacking most of the Western and Southern parts of the country. In addition to the more traditional Kyoto, Nara and Hiroshima they covered areas from Nagoya to Ibusuki and climbed Mount Aso, the largest active volcano on Kyushu island. Besides admiring the sheer beauty of the nature, they were also blown away by the Japanese work ethic and discipline visiting a Toyota plant. One day they would want go back with the whole family to see Hokkaido, too.

Speaking of Japan, one could hardly not think about the food. As Rainer considers himself to be a health foodie and taking a systemic approach – like in anything else he does – he could talk for hours about the possible effects of nutrients on human body. Whenever in Tokyo, he likes to explore the tiny eateries in the murkiest parts of the city. While in the Bay Area, he also indulges in Japanese dishes like soba and sushi. Yet he would steer clear of the main delicacy in Japanese cuisine, the Pacific tuna. Not just because of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster, but he has just seen enough evidence that tuna is the most contaminated fish in the ocean. In fact, he would also not touch Kobe beef as has not been eating any meat since the end of 2010.

Location Three: Tallinn, Estonia

While the Sternfelds “officially” moved to Palo Alto two years ago, they still spend their summers in Estonia and consider Tallinn to be their home. There is no questioning the fact that they will only speak in Estonian at home with their daughters Johanna, five, and Sophia, two, who are also becoming fluent in English.

Planet OS still has their biggest office with seven people in Tallinn as “Estonians are the surviving kind and due to its small population everybody has to be a large-profile specialist”. The climate also supports automation, and people are used to making things more compact and efficient.

This national capital boasts all of the post-Soviet westward-looking Eastern European complexities. Most telling of all, there is the glass-clad modern-looking cross-shaped Statue of Liberty with 200,000 LEDs standing at the backdrop of the medieval Old Town. Rainer was only 24 years old when he co-authored the piece. Yet it took another few years to see it completed.

Not to dwell too deep into the long and complex debate about the symbolism embedded in it and how it finally materialised, Rainer now claims this was a good learning experience in how difficult it is to pull off something big that has never been done before amid all the political turmoil. It is quite obvious that although he’s proud of the fact itself –“I had to do this thing because of all the things that had happened in our family in the past half a century” –, he’s not too happy about the outcome of the whole project. “When I become wealthy enough, I’d like to make a new, better memorial and redeem my debt,” he wows, stressing that design and architecture was, is and will be one of the biggest (secret) passions in his life.

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But running big projects at an early age has not been something to hold him back. He was running the Baltic business development branch for the Swiss-Swedish electrical manufacturing giant ABB for five years, starting while he was still a student of the Engineering School at the Tallinn University of Technology. He was in charge of designing the fast-charging infrastructure of electric cars, making Estonia the first country in the world to have a nationwide coverage as of 2013.

While at ABB, he felt the urge “to do something with my own hands” and founded a small prototyping company with his friends. One of the incoming projects was building a data buoy that would measure the concentration of phytoplankton in the Gulf of Finland. “The buoy was long out there and we never heard back from the client, so we found out that they had trouble using the data they had collected as there was too much of it,” he recalls. This is how they realised there was a much bigger data business around getting the sensors physically out there.

Although he’s now in the software industry, his heart is in technology and design for humanity. Growing up in Saue, a small town just on the outskirts of Tallinn, he would tinker in the home office of his father who’s also an engineer, surrounded by books and electronics. While the Soviet Union was falling apart, tensions between Estonians and Russians were running high and gangs of criminals were literally shooting each other on the streets of his tiny home town. Coming from a bilingual family – his mother is Ukrainian – Rainer was an easy target and more often than not he preferred to escape from the troubles of the “real world” outside by staying home and watching a lot of MTV and other utterly western satellite channels as his father, an early adapter to the new uber-capitalist momentum taking ground, had set up one of the first private satellite TV home systems in Estonia in 1989, which followed to his earlier work with satellite heads, speakers and colour TV circuit boards. There was a high demand for these gadgets as everybody was fed up by the monotonous Soviet propaganda and wanted access to the western TV-channels.

Although to this day the experts are still debating the effects of watching too much television, there is no doubt that besides his flawless American English Rainer picked up the sense that knowledge and freedom (to move) are the two most important things in life.

“Our life is so short and we should not be wasting resources (while we are on the track),” he muses. “It is very important to me not to just take up space but be somehow useful to the human kind.”

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