Founder Interviews: Lyubomir Hristev of Berger Neurorobotics

Lubo is the founder of Berger Neurorobotics, a startup creating AI-powered wearable technologies

Davis Baer: Who are you, and what’s your background?

I’m Lubo. I’m one of the two co-founders of Berger Neurorobotics, a Bulgarian-Danish future-tech startup that creates and patents commercial wearable technologies powered by Artificial Intelligence.

Along with my co-founder Stoyan Stoyanov, I’ve been working on this project for 31 months now. He’ s the original idea owner of our first product as well as the technology engine behind the entire company. I’m sort of an executive employee whose mission is to help commercialize this technology and introduce it to the end consumer.

My background is in the field of new product development and innovation management. I’m also knowledgeable in areas like corporate finance, managerial accounting, and organizational design and development. My role in the company mainly revolves around communicating with third-party organizations (primarily investors at the moment) and executing on all kind of non-technical activities (writing blog posts, talking with customers and partners, organizing trips, presenting, product conceptualizing, etc.).

Not long after completing his master degree in Robotics and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU), Stoyan started working at the university’s Embodied AI & Neurorobotics Lab as a research assistant where he explored further the latest neural technologies in a scientific environment. Although latest developments were already in place, Stoyan saw not only a huge potential for improving the technology but also believed that more entrepreneurial kind of efforts are needed in order for EEG to be successfully commercialized and brought into the hands of the end user. That’s how the idea of incorporating a completely independent business entity to develop, patent, and realize a consumer EEG headset came to mind and in April 2016, Berger Neurorobotics was officially incorporated as an IVS (Entrepreneurial Limited Company) entity in Denmark.

After winning our first equity-free grant sponsored by the Innovation Fund Denmark, the initial capital amounted to the total of $27,000 and time to recruit the rest of the founding team and key area employees came in. Thankfully, due to Stoyan’s vast connection in the field of AI and neurotechnology, a few professionals were quickly recruited and thus, the initial technical team was formed. Although the deep tech expertise that the team possessed, Stoyan knew that was not enough. He wanted a business professional to come aboard in order to help with organizing the daily task as well as establish and maintain the business operations of the starting endeavor. This is where I hopped in.

After a few years of development, we managed to win a few grants and awards. Having talked with hundreds of potential users and buyers also helped us complete the industrial design of the product. We did 6 iterations of our electronics and not only started to demonstrate our hardware prototype to investors but also started to build a fan base of individuals that see the potential of this product in various market fields.

What does Berger Neurorobotics do, and how did you validate your idea?

At Berger Neurorobotics we’re developing a wearable headset that enables computers to read your emotional states by sensing your body and brain. Our headset measures brain signals, heart rate, and skin response in real-time and understands human emotional and cognitive states such as concentration, workload, fatigue, stress, and more. Together with our headset, we provide a software development kit that can be used independently or together with other major platforms like the Unity game engine, Raspberry Pi, the robot operating system, and more. Our goal is to empower researchers, developers, and businesses to solve problems or create new experiences by using physiological data.

In early 2018, in a collaboration with the SDU, we managed to achieve a proof of concept by successfully delivering on a pilot project in which our technology was tested in an everyday environment. Our novel AI-powered headset device was proved to detect various physiological data with a medical-quality signal. As a result of the achieved success, a research paper which Stoyan co-authored has been approved for official publishing.

What went into building the initial product?

The following resources went into building our product and develop it to its current stage:

- Money: we raised $100K in pre-seed funding by winning a few non-equity public grants and rewards. In addition, $20K more were added by ourselves (basically, these were our savings).

- Partnering organizations such as the University of Southern Denmark’s Embodied AI & Neurorobotics Lab, Robotdalen, and Runius design made possible the realization and production of our first product prototype. At SDU’s lab we managed to develop and test our proof of concept technology, whereas Robotdalen sponsored the production of the initial high-quality production of the headset and connected us with Runius design, a professional industrial design firm from Sweden that we collaborated with in making the headset design and iterating with the initial group of customers.

How have you attracted users?

Because we’re currently in the pre-product/pre-launching phase, we still haven’t started to board users and sell our product. However, the initial step that will be taken towards this is building a community of early adopters. They will be given a private access to the hardware prototype and the platform’s beta version so that they can review and test the product, provide feedback upon which we can iterate and improve, and collaborate among themselves in order to find the best application of the technology that will suit their needs. So, if you’re interested in learning more and eventually join in, please let me know.

At the moment, I can only tell that we have a couple of hundred individuals on our waiting list ready to be invited to join “Berger Neurorobotics Troopers”, our private, invite-only community of tech savvies interested in experiencing and testing our technology.

What’s your business model?

As I already mentioned above, currently, Berger Neurorobotics is at the pre-launch, pre-revenue phase. Although we had validated our proof of concept and serious interest of end consumers to buy our product, we still haven’t officially launched yet. That’s important to be said again because when it comes to our business model, further validation and additional tweaks will be probably made in order to refine it. For now, though, there are a couple ways that we intend to make money:

- First, we will sell our hardware device on a single-price-per-unit model (price to be announced later on in 2019);

- Second, we intend to charge users a monthly/yearly fee for the premium features of our software platform;

- Third, we’ll be running customized projects for organizations and research institutions in which we’ll implement our technology for specific needs and wants of the customer.

What are your goals for the future?

At Berger Neurorobotics, we’re fanatic about efficiency and effectiveness. We love setting ambitious goals that must be achieved in a relatively short period of time. At the end of the day, it’s all about the quality of the specific job or an activity being performed and the eventual result that it will lead to.

What comes up shortly (3 to 9 months from now) in terms of the goals that we set for ourselves are mainly in the field of product development, such as:

- Product design revealed: how does our product look like, how does it work, and whom can use it.

- Community building activation: opening up the “Berger Neurorobotics Troopers” portal to subscribe first users’ interest and start building the critical mass of first users that we need to attract.

- The Official launch of the product: an introduction of our product to the market and boarding end-users and early adopters.

In the long term (6 to 18 months ahead of us), however, we plan to accomplish mainly activities related to fundraising and growth:

- Raise a seed round of private investment from angel investors and VCs in no later than 9 months from now.

- Reach the milestone of selling 100 hardware units per month to ensure recurring monthly revenue.

- Board our first corporate client to the platform and start growing our monthly recurring revenue in a stable manner.

What are the biggest challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

Throughout my career as a startup founder, together with my team, we faced numerous and various challenges. Below, I’d like to share only a few of them, what we’ve learned from them, and anything that we would have done differently if we had a chance to:

- Being underestimated by an investor: every founder will sooner or later experience this. An investor that I personally met with was both fascinated by our technology and struck by what our business plan to commercialize it was. Moreover, he thought that our go-to-market intentions and the predefined target group that we wanted to reach were completely messed up. He tried to provide a few suggestions but at the end of the conversation confessed that he is not a professional one in this area and thus, he cannot make any claims about our product’s application or marketing strategy for commercialization that are feasible. Lesson learned: never underestimate the arrogance of an investor. Always position yourself as the one with the domain expertise and follow the pre-determined plan that you and your team have compiled.

- Recruiting went wrong: it becomes very messy and dangerous when a startup founder put himself in front instead of the cause of the startup. Оnly a few of our friends know that fact but at the beginning, at Berge Neurorobotics we were 3 co-founders. The third one was an awesome guy who unfortunately had different expectations than ours. I won’t go into much detail in here but the thing is that although we knew our paths will eventually separate, we still didn’t let him go on time. If there’s anything that we should have done, it was to fire him a.s.a.p. in order to focus on more important things occurring at the moment. Lesson learned: a startup doesn’t need dead weight. Founders must be decisive and act quickly in the name of the common interest of the new-found company.

8. Have you found anything particularly helpful?

Since I started Berger Neurorobotics with my co-founder in February 2016, I’ve been a strong protagonist of the following formula as being a must-have prerequisite for founders to succeed:

Self-discipline + Self-reflection = Unstoppable Working Machine

Or to be more precise:

- Self-discipline = this goes one step beyond the usual traits that every average founder has. In my experience, every founder must be able to overcome failures and continue on working towards securely reaching the top. Self-discipline is often synonymous with persistence but it requires the knowledge to know how to reach the end goal you set for yourself and for your team.

- Self-reflection = no individual who is a founder should judge others before judging themselves. One must know their weaknesses so that they can work on them and constantly improve. Being a highly critical founder will allow you to spot the details easily, make things that you normally do better than others, produce high-quality results, and be a doer that deserves to be exemplified.

There’s no luck included in this equation. There’s no market trends nor any other external factors that matter. (Yes, external factors definitely DO matter but their role comes in later). The fundamental thing in starting a startup is the founding team. If every founding member — as I mentioned — possesses the above-mentioned traits, then the team can start building their product/service without hesitation (with doing initial market research as a first step).

9. What is your advice for starting entrepreneurs?

Usually, I personally avoid giving advice to entrepreneurs if I’m not being introduced to their projects in depth. However, there are a few generic “grain-of-truth” practices that my team and I at Berger Neurorobotics share when it comes to increasing the chances of successfully executing initial startup endeavors. Here there are:

1) Prove that the founding team has a core technical competency in the area in which the startup is going to operate and/or develop a product for: just because business books proclaim to do so, don’t haste to hire a business executive or a Stanford MBA graduate as a co-founder. Yes, it all looks quite good on paper but the business guy won’t develop nor will they deliver the product that eventually your customers will love. You — the technical guy(s) — will!

2) Build your personal circle of knowledgeable practitioners in various fields: being coached or mentored by an expert makes things different. Learning how to listen and follow require a specific set of a mindset that not every startup founder possesses. So, gathering all your trustworthy ones and opening your ears might be a proper first step towards becoming a startup founder with a successful traction behind their back.

3) Learn from those who have been there already: don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Good practitioners (entrepreneurs, artists, develops, etc.) copy what’s already been done and try to build on top of it in a certain way. Apply for the YC’s Startup School (SUS) program to learn first-hand how to start a startup, follow founders who graduated the program to ask them questions or find critical reviews about acceleration programs and investors so that you know what works and what not as early as possible.

Where can people learn more?

We’re currently primarily focused on working on two areas: a) product development and b) fundraising from public and private investors. So that we can dedicate оurselves entirely to the project, we decided to operate in a stealth mode for the next couple of months. We regularly post news regarding our progress and latest achievements in our official blog and constantly get in contact with early adopters and fans via e-mail to do further technology iterations based on customer’s feedback. Our entire team is quite responsive and open-minded to criticism and questions so don’t hesitate to ping us in case you want to learn more. Recently, we re-launched our Twitter account (@BNeurorobotics) so hit the “follow” button in order to support us on our serious mission to make computers able to understand you so that the digital world becomes more immersive and personalized to you.

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