Title : Rising Star: Jan Ståhlberg of Labster
Date : 18 July 2016
Each month, LOWdown sits down with one of the rising stars of the European startup and entrepreneur community. This month, we catch up with Jan Ståhlberg of Labster, an innovative health-tech startup which empowers the next generation of scientists to change the world.
LOWdown: Why did you set up your company?
Labster was set up as a disruptive response to reimagining science education. More and more pupils and students were losing interest in science education and research as teaching methods had not changed for many years. Our mission is to empower the next generation of scientists to change the world. Labster is committed to motivate an increasing number of young women and men to find solutions to challenges such as climate change, hunger, diseases and dwindling natural resources. We want to achieve better learning and immersion in STEM subjects by placing students in real-life scenarios and a gamified 3D animated scientific environment.
LOWdown: When did you set up your business, and how long did it take?
The company was set up in 2012. There was an initial slow start in the first couple of years where Labster established its ground-breaking development platform and a catalogue of virtual laboratory simulations. The scale-up process began in earnest in 2014. This marked the time where the company had matured sufficiently and positioned itself with strategic partners and collaborators. From this point, Labster has expanded both sales, partnership, content and product development teams – always making sure that there has been a healthy balance between demand, supply and customer success linked to our products and services. Since 2014, the journey has been a story of rapid growth, maturing as a market leader meeting the needs of an expanding group of collaborating education and industry clients.
LOWdown: Did you have a ‘lightbulb moment’?
The story behind Labster is a “Eureka” moment brought on by frustration and dissatisfaction with existing teaching methods. Labster’s founder Mads Bonde sat as a student in a biotechnology lecture and was frustrated with the traditional lecturing methods and how they sucked out the motivation to learn and engage with subjects that he otherwise considered as his favourite. Mads wanted to change the way that students were engaged in science studies so that they could be empowered as next generation of change agents. The result was the first version of the virtual laboratory simulations that since has evolved into the world’s leading virtual laboratory simulations incorporating virtual reality.
LOWdown: What education or training did you have?
Originally educated as an economic development professional, I have established, worked with and managed many multi-disciplinary teams with focus on health, education and urban development. I have been very fortunate to gain a skill set that has given me grounding and confidence to work with complex needs and expectations from many different stakeholders. I have spent the last 25 years embracing and evolving innovation and entrepreneurial approaches to my work and have supported and coached others not to fear failure and to successfully find solutions to challenges faced by organisations and society. My MBA with speciality in Public Service Management gave me the scaffolding to carry on strengthening my approach to business development and change management.
LOWdown: Where did you source funding to set up your business?
Labster’s founders provided the initial investment for the early start and growth stages. While that is not unusual, Labster’s amazing and unique story can be found in the way the company has grown through organic sales and grant applications for research and innovation projects. Funding through a loan guarantee programme by the Danish Growth Foundation has been the other key to Labster’s successful start-up and scale-up stages. This public-private loan guarantee has been instrumental in providing a much needed scaffolding for pursuing the rapid sales and product development growth. Labster is unique in that it is still wholly owned by the original two co-founders without any infusion of investment and stakeholding from Venture Capitalists.
LOWdown: Were there any EU, national, regional or local business support services, programmes or funding initiatives that helped you set up or grow?
Labster has been successful in attracting funding from the Danish Innovation Fund for a range of research, innovation and development grants. This funding has been important to secure strategic collaborative projects involving some of the top universities in the world such as MIT, Harvard and Stanford. Funding from the Danish Market Development Fund has also been an essential piece of the puzzle for development and market testing of our virtual laboratory simulations in collaboration with university and high schools in Denmark, EU and in the United States. Funding from these national funding sources has provided us with essential proof of concept and setting out return of investment for teachers, students and educational institutions. A Eureka! Eurostars grant has allowed us to explore the use of new technology and involve new and exciting industry and academic players in the process. The Danish Growth Foundation providing public-private loan guarantees has also been a significant factor in providing financial stability for rapid growth in sales and product development.
LOWdown: With hindsight, which would have been the single most valuable skill to have before setting up your business?
It is closely linked to the journey that the company and its employees have taken over the past 4 years. We have worked hard throughout to share the responsibilities of taking Labster through start-up and scale up stages. With hindsight, I would therefore like to highlight the skill that it takes to bring together an ever growing staff group to set, focus on and achieve objectives and key results that drives individuals and the company. It is not so much a captain’s role as it is the role of a facilitator and mentor navigating and pooling resources through a very complex and rapidly changing internal and external business environment.
LOWdown: What is the single best piece of advice you have received along the way?
That it is not enough to do the right things but more important to do things right. We have in the technology industry an increasing amount of choice of what we can do and how to do it. The key factor for success is how to see through these massive opportunities and make the right decisions based on need, quality and user expectations. We must constantly make sure that we focus on what makes the best value for the company, our markets and end users. Providing lots of volume of choices will not be enough to make sure that Labster will remain the choice for science education technology in the future. Quality and user satisfaction is as much a driver for our continued success.
LOWdown: Who or what are you inspired by?
There are many inspirational points and people throughout past and current history. There is, however, one clear winner for me. There is nothing more amazing than to see children and young people getting engaged and enthusiastic about science and creative activities. The energy and dynamics displayed is part of the drive to break down barriers and nurture new ideas, talent and innovation. The smiles and excitement inspire me to continue following the lead that the young people give and collaborate for even better education technology solutions.
LOWdown: What is the USP that distinguishes your product or service from its competitors?
One USP is Collaboration. All of our virtual laboratory simulations and the application of the many technologies have been developed in collaboration with universities and secondary schools. Teachers and students are key collaborators as Labster works to ensure that both technology, content and learning effectiveness meets need, expectations and perceptions at the user level. At Labster we are keen to stress that we are not sellers of education technology but agents for reimagining science education. All of our virtual laboratory simulations are the results of elaborate development, testing and customer success support in partnership with the end users. The same goes for how we develop our new virtual reality lab simulations – these are also products of a partnership with academic institutions, teachers and students, making sure that the VR technology is not just a flash in the pan but will be a user driven growth for the next many years to come.
The other USP is the quality of presence and immersion that Labster delivers across a number of technology platforms. We have been able to develop a platform that makes it relatively easy to offer virtual laboratory simulations for PC and Virtual Reality as well as tablets and other mobile devices. We are able to migrate content across the platforms with relative ease, so that teachers and students can access the virtual labs wherever and however they choose to provide and access the materials. One of the best example of the result of our product development is the Virtual Reality. We are able to use this technology to immerse students in the emotion and beauty of science – giving our existing products a new life and learning effectiveness that gives education new opportunities for success for more students.
LOWdown: How does your company impact people’s lives for the better?
Gone are the days where it is essential to set up a physical laboratory to experiment and examine science related questions and problems. Our research at secondary schools and universities tells us that our virtual laboratory simulations increase motivation and learning effectiveness in science education. Labster’s virtual laboratory simulations open up for laboratories being available to anyone at any place at a very low cost. Gamification and near real-life graphics gives access to expensive facilities and allows the use of many materials and chemicals that students normally would not be allowed to work with. Simulations are essential tools for pilots to improve their skills in flying and Labster use the same principle to improve the knowledge, skills and outcome of working in laboratory environments. We have seen remarkable results from low achieving students getting improved grades in science subjects, female students engaged in STEM subjects and the elimination of dangerous chemicals benefitting both the safety of learners and the environment. In the future, Labster expects our products to be a great help for the many developing countries that up until now have not been able to afford good quality laboratory facilities. By reimaging education, Labster is able to engage many young people in the diverse communities of the world that otherwise would be lost for both science studies and the related careers that will be part of changing the world.
LOWdown: How would you describe your progress so far? Are there any significant challenges you have had to overcome?
The initial start-up phase secured key strategic partners and collaborators in the home Danish market alongside UK and USA. Labster also had some early successes in the Asian market that positioned the company as a global company from early on. After a couple of years of consolidation of organisation and product development both sales and product development were expanded. The resulting growth brought us economies of scale that match the needs and expectations for product development and customer support for our partnering educational institutions. The challenges have come from managing the rapid growth and the changes needed to mature the organisation and make it resilient operating as a market leader.
LOWdown: How are you planning to grow your business?
US, UK and EU remain Labster’s key markets for securing collaboration contracts with both universities, high schools and industry partners. Continued short-term rapid growth and market leading positions in these markets will be the foundation for medium term expansion into Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Setting up high impact strategic and education partnerships will be part of Labster’s approach to bridge education, technology and socio-economic outcomes. Labster will strengthen its role as a leading collaborator, partner and change agent for science education and related careers in industry sectors such as biotechnology, medico-pharma and engineering. Selling licenses will go hand in hand with major projects and programmes that work on research and development as well as new approaches and solutions for effective learning, improved innovation and increased productivity.
LOWdown: If you were in charge of the government ministry for SMEs and start-ups, what would be the most important changes you would make to help them grow?
(1) More funding programmes designed for the SMEs to collaborate on market growth, technology based innovation and other R&D programmes.
(2) A rethink and redevelopment of the many tax, finance, legal and regulatory systems that currently slows the growth of SMEs or encourages exit to USA or Asia. The digital economy requires a new set of frameworks that will allow more rapid growth from EU-based SMEs and making them resilient to VC or capital investment and buy-outs.
(3) A more active stake in finalising the EU Digital Single Market and improving regional policy development. This will open up for broader and more rapid collaboration across countries to strengthen innovation and the collective competitive advantages against other global competitors.
(4)Place innovation and entrepreneurship on the school curriculum from an early age encouraging more young people to set up their own companies or seek employment in SMEs.
LOWdown: The best thing about being an entrepreneur is…?
…to realise ideas and dreams with like-minded individuals so that we together can inspire each other to break down barriers and achieve new solutions that will bring joy and form a part of an exciting and changing world. Having fun while disrupting, challenging and innovating is an absolute essential part of being an entrepreneur.
LOWdown: What do you see as the key trends/disruptors for 2016 relevant to entrepreneurs?
(1) Connectivity. Our daily life will be increasingly influenced by how we connect up to the world and how we multitask with the technologies in it. Whether it is e-health, education, collaborating at the work place or just shopping for groceries, there will be an increased need to connect products and services. AI, machine learning and cognitive computing will be at the core of developing new intuitive and personalised products and services.
(2) Open sourcing. There is an increased drive for open sourcing of data and how we collaborate through these platforms for new products and solutions. The question for me is how we operate both as individuals and companies in this new open and collaborative environment. Seamless user engagement needs to go hand in hand with business models reinventing the way we develop and profit from our products and services.
LOWdown: If you could go back to when you were about to start your company and give yourself a single message or piece of advice, what would it be?
“He that lets the small things find him, leaves the great undone behind him.”Return to The LOWdown
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