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"Visual Google" takes shape in Zurich

Digital images are fed into the Kooaba system Reuters

The Zurich information technology boom has been led by incoming international firms, but one homegrown enterprise is bucking the trend with an innovative product.

This content was published on August 26, 2009 - 15:05

The founders of Kooaba rejected the IT start-up paradise of Silicon Valley in favour of Zurich to initiate their ambitious project of building an image based "visual Google" search engine.

The Federal Institute of Technology spin-off company was set up by Herbert Bay and Till Quack three years ago and is now entering a critical commercial phase. Kooaba connects users with an array of multi-media information associated to the digital images they feed into the system.

Users can take photographs of objects with mobile phones and receive useful information through the tool.

Kooaba currently has around eight million images in its database, mainly of books, CDs, DVDs and Games. But the application could soon be used to find additional information on newspaper articles and even, in future, for landmarks, buildings and museum exhibits.

"We have the big idea of becoming a visual Google," Bay told swissinfo.ch. "A year ago we were able to recognize one object among 100 in one second. Now we are at the point technologically where we do it with millions of objects in the same time frame."

Commercial lift

The concept has been used in a variety of advertising and marketing campaigns. Kooaba teamed up with EMI record label and a Swiss newspaper to help promote the launch of Kylie Minogue's album "X". Users took pictures of the album cover in the newspaper and could download a ring tune from the single "2 hearts".

In June the company signed its first long term contract with Swiss price comparison website Comparis.

"It is hard work trying to keep finding new marketing campaigns that have a limited shelf life," Bay explained. "We are looking for more recurring income streams that would also bring in more revenues."

The next technological project for the company is to connect its tool with print media, so that readers that input a digital image of a story can gain access to a range of extra information on the subject, including video and audio clips.

Herbert Bay fired off several other future uses for the application as he gave an interview to swissinfo.ch at company headquarters in Zurich's Technopark.

Entrepreneurial spirit

Bay and co-founder Quack are two entrepreneurs who cast doubt on the stereotype of the Swiss coming up with great ideas that all too infrequently turn into commercial reality. The former Federal Institute students both spent time in Silicon Valley learning about IT start-up firms.

But they nevertheless spurned the idea of setting up their enterprise in the United States. "The influence of Silicon valley was not that big," Bay told swissinfo.ch. "It is not true that entrepreneurial spirit is somehow in the air or the water there – it is something you have individually or you don't."

"It's true that, in the US, if you come up with an extremely innovative idea then you fall on more fertile soil for attracting finance. But it would have taken us two years of networking just to get established had we moved over there."

Instead they chose to cash in on Zurich's obvious advantages of having excellent infrastructure, transport links and a pool of world class talent, particularly from the Federal Institute. They are the same advantages that have attracted Google, Microsoft and IBM over the years.

Red tape

But having observed the start-up structure in both Switzerland and the US, Bay admits that his home country still has some disadvantages. Kooaba's efforts to hire a highly talented Indian employee were bogged down in red tape before it was rubber stamped.

"This is poison for a start-up because it takes four months longer than hiring a Swiss person. This is an eternity in the life of a start-up," said Bay.

Bay also cited the expense and delays incurred in securing all the necessary paperwork to get the firm up and running in the first place. Kooaba is currently being frustrated in its efforts to set up an options plan to compensate staff in order to free up cash.

However, Kooaba is living proof that the garage start-up mentality does exist and can succeed in Switzerland. The next few years will tell if Zurich can boast some of its own IT giants to rub shoulders with the US firms that have come to the city.

Matthew Allen, swissinfo.ch in Zurich

Kooaba

The Zurich Federal Institute of Technology spin-off company Kooaba was set up in 2007.

The application recognizes digital images and links users to an array of associated information such as web pages, audio and video links.

A year after perfecting its technology, the enterprise started using its product in advertising campaigns for companies such as EMI, Opel, O2 and Sony.

Comparis was the first recurring revenue stream signed up to Kooaba and the company hopes to attract more such customers in the near future.

Co-founder Herbert Bay holds a PhD in computer vision studies from the Federal Institute. He started his studies at Lausanne's EPFL and later worked with IBM in Zurich.

Till Quack, also studied for his PhD at the Federal Institute having completed his Masters degree at the world renowned centre of education.

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