EIC Coffee Break with Laila Danielsen from Elliptic Labs: Born to be an entrepreneur
Every month during a Coffee Break, we dive into the stories of EIC innovators and get a glimpse of the persons behind the start-ups. Our guest for this month’s edition is Laila Danielsen, CEO of Elliptic Labs. Laila has worked and lived in Europe, North America, and Asia, developing the global experiences and skills needed to successfully overcome cultural differences when doing business worldwide. Laila started her career as an international football player, and today she is scoring big in the AI software market with her company, Elliptic Labs. Under her leadership, Elliptic Labs is trailblazing the creation of smarter, more interactive devices through ultrasound-based technology. Discover the story behind this innovation in the EIC Community!
Tell us how the idea for your innovation started. Was there a specific stimulus or was it something that was bouncing in the back of your head for a long time?
My company began as a research-and-development spin-off from Oslo University (in Norway), which was focused on discovering what was technologically possible with ultrasound. At the time, ultrasound was a mostly unused spectrum of sound beyond the range of human hearing that could nonetheless be used to determine distance, presence, and movement in support of touchless human-device interactions. We turned our technology from its research beginnings into a globally-desired, marketable product by observing current technology trends, talking to customers, analysing the markets, and paying attention to how people were interacting with their devices. Over the years, we have continued to focus on these fundamental aspects, which has allowed us to create a successful software platform that combines AI, ultrasound, and sensor fusion to detect a user and their surroundings in order to deliver unique, intuitive, and touchless user experiences. For example, by using a laptop’s existing speaker and microphone to emit and receive ultrasound, we can successfully analyse the environment and enable the laptop to automatically lock and go to sleep if a user walks away, thereby reducing power consumption while ensuring the privacy and security of the device.
How did your family and friends respond to your ideas/innovation?
I have been doing this sort of thing my whole life. When I was young, I moved to the USA for college. Once there, I received a scholarship to play football, which led to me moving to Japan in my early twenties to play the sport professionally. Even while I was a professional athlete, I was already thinking about the businesses that I would create in the future — as much as I loved playing football, I preferred to create and build companies. It helps that every personal skill you learn in a sport — from teambuilding to overcoming challenges — can be applied when one is building a business. The concept of never giving up and always fighting to achieve your goals is present in both. So, when it comes to innovating, my family views it as the same thing I’ve always done — aiming for the goal until I succeed and always finding new areas to conquer.
Who or what has shaped where you are?
Playing professional football has definitely shaped who I am. The constant practice, working with a team, dealing with different personalities ... no matter what issues may arise during practice, one still needs to take the field as a team and win the game. Furthermore, playing in Japan meant I had to interact with teammates from an entirely different culture. Even though we came from very different backgrounds, we strove, lost, and won together. In Japan, the language barrier was very significant, which highlighted the cultural differences for me even more. Being exposed to these amazing experiences has certainly shaped who I am today.
Can you tell us about a tough moment you had at your company and how you pushed through?
Recently, we faced some challenges due to COVID-19. Our biggest customers are based in China, where they do all their product manufacturing. When the virus started hitting, it was very tough for us because our customers stopped production. Smartphones that had been scheduled to use our technology were either delayed or cancelled completely. A few product launches did happen, but in a smaller number than initially expected. Yet, even as the smartphone market shut down, our company was able to refocus its resources toward the laptop market instead, where we had already been making inroads. We also sped up our plan to go public (originally anticipated for the end of 2020) in order to capitalize on our huge growth potential in the laptop and IoT markets. We pushed through by accelerating into new markets, securing revenue, and taking the company public at Euronext Growth. The process was stressful, but I’m proud to say that our people at Elliptic Labs really responded well to this challenge. Our team’s mindset was, “Let’s do this!” The whole team was very focused and fearless, which is vital for getting through a situation like this one.
What advice can you give people who are currently playing with the idea to start a company?
Always be customer focused. Sometimes when you are developing a very interesting technology, you don’t think about the most important factor: “Would someone buy and use this?” Furthermore, if you’re only “playing” with the idea of starting a company or are on the fence about it, don’t do it! It won’t work unless you’re all-in! You also need to have a few trustworthy, team-oriented people partnering with you — ideally at least three — to focus on different aspects of the business. Finally, keep your eye on your goals and dreams and leave all your fears behind!
If you could talk business over lunch with a large corporate CEO or global leader, which one would you choose and why?
I would say Julie Hanna. She was Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship during President Obama’s government. She has a lot of experience on the entrepreneurial scene and is now working as an advisor at Google X. Actually, I already had lunch with her, and she is truly inspirational. She is incredibly powerful, but soft at the same time. She is generous, yet able to stand her ground and set limits. She knows how to approach people in a very subtle way. She is an ethical and strong leader who is hard to turn down.