Irish Tech News spotted this company at the recent Innovation Showcase event in Dublin. We interviewed their founder, Eric Risser.@ This company, Artomatix could do really well, you heard it here first!
Your back ground?
My background before starting Artomatix was purely academic, aside from some short term consulting gigs (for example I did three months with Adobe R&D). I’ve studied computer science with an emphasis on Computer Graphics through the course of a bachelors at the University of Central Florida, masters at Columbia University and PhD at Trinity College Dublin. Since turning in my thesis over two years ago, I’ve been working on Artomatix full time.
3 years PhD at TCD, how was it being over here compared to the States?
I can’t say for certain as I didn’t do a PhD in the states, so my frame of reference is from the second hand observation of lab-mates. The big (and only) difference I could tell is that a PhD in the states would be a combination of a masters and a PhD in Ireland. They typically last five or six years, where the first two involve a full-time course load, culminating in “quals”, an exam which decides whether you get to continue on with your PhD. If you pass your quals then you go on to do full-time research for the next three or four years. My PhD at Trinity was basically the post-quals portion of an American PhD. This was great for me as I’d already done a masters and was keen to focus on my research project (which was well underway) full-time.
How would you describe the difference between studying / living in Ireland and in the US?
I grew up in a pretty typical Florida suburban county. Endless housing developments dotted with fast food restaurants and the occasional shopping mall. I went off to college for the first time to the University of Central Florida in Orlando, a much bigger/faster/younger version of my hometown, but much the same in many respects. After my bachelors, I started college for the second time at Columbia University in New York City. I didn’t make it to Ireland until finishing my masters and leaving for college for the third and final time at Trinity College Dublin.
In terms of attitude toward study, I’ve seen a huge difference within the states, so it’s hard to wrap it all up into one category. The University of Central Florida is one of those massive state colleges that takes pretty much everyone (currently the second largest in the nation I believe) while Columbia is an Ivy League college that takes almost nobody. UCF is very cheap and actually completely free for Florida residents who meet certain academic requirements, in contrast a four year degree at Columbia costs about as much as a new house. I think peoples attitude toward their studies is more a reflection of their personal investment than anything else. The level of dedication, discipline and general culture at UCF felt a lot like high school (but without all that annoying adult supervision), whereas Columbia would probably be more like the army… or some kind of monastic life. Being a PhD student I haven’t actually taken any classes at Trinity, so my views of the academic culture are second-hand, but I’d say Trinity falls somewhere in-between, at a point which is probably healthier overall.
Personally I love living in Ireland, my six years here have been the best years of my life. I got swept up in the Irish start-up scene (and thus my company is now Irish) because I stayed for an extra year after my PhD in order to work on a prototype, and living here seemed more fun to me than moving out to California. Because I was here, I started to learn about the vibrant community and all the supports/benefits Ireland has to offer. When comparing life between here and the states, sure there are the little things you have to get used to (some good, some bad), like non-mixing faucets, tiny refrigerators and not having to constantly add tax/tip to every purchase, but for the most part all the important things are pretty similar. I guess what stands out about Ireland for me are the people, in general I think people are happier, healthier and lead richer lives here (at least I do).
How was 2014 for your company?
2014 was very transformational for the company. I’d been working on this topic as an Academic for six years. I then worked on Artomatix independently for an additional two years in order to build a commercial prototype. While the software was continually and steadily progressing, it was hard to call it a “business” as very little had been done on this front. 2014 has been the year when all this changed. In January I brought in a co-founder to act as the business end of the venture (after trialling several great potentials in 2013) and we legally founded the company in March. In January I was also selected for Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers program, a six-month start-up accelerator which gave us financial support and expert training.
In April we secured a 100k pre-seed investment from NDRC and access to a cluster of desks in the digital hub, this has allowed us to start growing our team. The second half of 2014 has been a mad rush for myself and my co-founder as we’ve done two separate month long trips to the states where we’ve met with chiefs from some of the largest and most well known video game and movie studios in the world. During our first trip we had over 50 meetings, as a result we started exploring several major partnerships during our second trip. 2013 was mostly about developing something cool so people could see the potential of Artomatix. 2014 has been all about building the foundation for a company that can rapidly grow. 2015 should be a very interesting year!
What were your big wins?
For me the biggest wins are the industry relationships we’ve been building over the past few months, and the likelihood that we’ll see Artomatix in some of the biggest upcoming games next year. Unfortunately we can’t really talk about this yet. That said, finding a co-founder and securing investment have both been immensely helpful with progressing the business. Since you’re asking about big wins, I should also mention our good fortune in the StartApp and E.I. Roots in Research competitions, where we literally won.
Any things you learnt from and will try differently in 2015?
Running a start-up has been one big learning process, and we’re constantly evolving our plans based on customer interaction. That said, I can’t really think of any big mistake or setback to learn from in 2014. So far we’ve been very fortunate and things have been going as well as we could expect.
3 tips for new startups in the sector?
If you’re in Ireland then apply for New Frontiers! Venturelab as well, if you’re doing something high tech with strong and defensible intellectual property. For everyone in general, talk! Get out and talk to your customers and potential users, as well as any other stakeholders… just talk!
Is the technology for your company moving as fast as you’d like ?
Nothing related to my company is moving as fast as I’d like. If it were then I wouldn’t be a very ambitious founder 🙂
What will success be for you in the next year?
Customers! In 2015 we expect to get traction from industry. We’re currently working with a big partner to close on our MVP, and we’ve got some other interesting opportunities on the table as well. If 2013 was plowing the field, 2014 was about planting the seeds and 2015 will be watching our crops grow!
You have an active social media presence, how do you decide what is working for you?
We’re very fortunate that our technology has a natural appeal, even people who aren’t going to directly benefit from it still seem to find what we’re doing interesting. In the startup world this is truly unique – the consequence of which is that we’re pretty newsworthy, especially when the story is tied in with us making good traction with investment, customers, competitions, etc.
Is it increasing sales, awareness, or a mixture of both?
As we’re a B2B play (for now) – our social media presence is more about increasing awareness about Artomatix.
Awareness for potential investors, employees and indeed customers.
What inspiration or ideas did you get from Web Summit (or anything else recently)
We just spent a month in Silicon Valley, all expenses paid as the grand prize from the StartApp competition which we won back in June. Unfortunately this overlapped with Web Summit. Luckily our industry has a wealth of large and relevant conferences throughout the year, so we’re keeping very busy on this front.
Life work balance, your tips?
I’m a “live to work” type of person, and I can get really passionate about the projects I work on. I think my friends and family would consider this a character flaw. That said it’s been a big advantage as a start-up founder.
If you make it to be super rich, what’s your philosophy on philanthropy?
My philosophy is probably similar to most peoples I’d imagine. I think philanthropy is generally a good thing. I’m not sure I’d call myself a philanthropist in the strictest sense of the word though, as I believe philanthropy means charity towards your fellow man. I’ve been fairly active with charities in the past, donating both time and money, but I tend to gravitate more towards the animal charities such as pet shelters, farm sanctuaries and I’m a big fan of guide dog programs (so I guess I am a little bit of a philanthropist). If I ever get super rich then I’d definitely like to do a lot more for our furry friends. I could see myself bank-rolling a no-kill shelter.
Do / did you play sport / exercise, in what way has it helped you with work?
I love board related sports! I was very active on the ski/snowboarding team back at Columbia and I’ve been a member of the windsurfing and snowsports club at Trinity. I’m actually heading out to the alps this month to get a few days of snowboarding in between Christmas and New Years!
In June I heard about a new start-up competition coming to Dublin called “StartApp”. The press release really jumped out at me due to their unconventional prize. In addition to offering a full month, all expenses paid trip to Silicon Valley to meet with VC’s, they also offered a four day kite surfing retreat out in Achill Island for the winners immediately following the competition. I’d always wanted to give kite surfing a try, at the time this was actually my main motivation for applying. A few great things have come about from applying to this competition. (1) we won (2) I found out that I love kite surfing and (3) we got connected to the CEO of a company we are currently exploring a partnership with.
As it turns out, kite surfing is pretty big in the silicon valley entrepreneurial scene and we’ve made a lot of great connections through that community. To quote Bill Tai, a well known VC and one of the organizers of the competition, “Kitesurfing is the new golf”.http://www.thekiteboarder.com/2009/11/bill-tai-the-kite-guy-of-silicon-valley/