EPFLinnovators: Maria Sivers
EPFLinnovators is an industry-oriented doctoral fellowship program based in the dynamic environment of the EPFL campus. The doctoral fellows – trained in academic as well as non-academic settings – are set to become true innovators, equipped with a broad set of scientific, transferable, and business skills.
We would like to introduce you to Maria Sivers, who is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie EPFLinnovators fellow in architecture and sciences of the city and a founder of DuckTest, a mobile application that helps those suffering from allergies or diabetes to check food product quality through barcode scanning.
1)What inspired you to start your entrepreneurial venture?
An old truth asserts: “There are no accidents”. In my opinion, entrepreneurial endeavors begin not with mythical apples falling on heads , but with some kind of entrepreneurial mindset that allows one to notice such an apple and consider it from all sides. Probably, most of my projects started based on a mix of a concrete need, imagination, and previous experience. The “DuckTest”, however, was literally started with an apple. One day I stood at the supermarket trying to recognize what was hiding in the apple juice, in addition to the usual artificial colours, preservatives, or flavours. Did you know that most arsenic is found in apple juice? Or could you imagine that we unknowingly drink and eat almost 42kg of hidden sugar every year? That's how the DuckTest was born: a mobile application that helps those suffering from allergies or diabetes or who are on a special diet and even travelers to check food product quality through barcode scanning. This application therefore enables them to make a conscious choice according to diet preferences and/or medical needs.
2)Can you name some influential figures?
It would be hard to do this in a comprehensive manner. I would say that in a global sense there are people that positively altered the course of history, even if their names are now forgotten. Usually, such people are rebels that interfere, call into question and even destroy the traditional order of things. In every culture and every age, they impose a new reality that reflects their dreams and vision. I find this both exciting and inspiring. At the local level influential people are those who bring positive change to our lives and make us better and stronger. Their names are different for everyone. “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”, as they say. They can be your parents, your friends, characters from a book, casual acquaintances and strangers, or even your enemies, competitors and your toughest critics.
3)What are some of your top achievements so far?
For me personally, these are people I am surrounded by. They are very talented, persistent, trustworthy individuals who set goals and achieve them. The same people rallied behind the “DuckTest”. A strong team is surely a top achievement for any project and I’m glad to have found the right people, who share common values. Currently we are compiling databases on thousands of food products and developing the first mobile prototype after validating an idea with the help of a chatbot. A large number of people are eagerly waiting for our app, in at least three countries. Unlike alternative solutions, it provides a transparent evaluation system that possibly will be protected.
4)What are the main challenges that you have faced so far?
The main challenge for almost every human with ambitious targets is that a day only has 24 hours. Almost all other technical challenges are solvable.
For DuckTest, technical tasks include the creation of a totally new evaluation system and the creation of massive databases based on this system. Current scoring systems for food products do not offer a complete view with regard to quality. Generally, they refer only to isolated aspects such as the nutritional value, processing or ecological-score and often give contradictory evaluations for the same product. We are creating a new approach.
5)What keeps you going even in hard times?
It is a desire to win. I thrive on challenges. All of them are an integral part of entrepreneurship and opportunities are hidden inside every difficulty: You win or you learn from them, like in chess. Therefore, you should not just embrace challenges, you should search for them, go out of your comfort zone. If you don’t have enough confidence in your plans to fight for them, leave them behind, they are not worthy. But if you’re sure of your vision, concentrate all of your will power because almost everything is in your hands and the power of your imagination. In this way you challenge your determination, flexibility, strength, persistence, courage and capability to make great achievements. Thus step by step, you become stronger and acquire skills to handle new challenges.
6)How do you define success?
For me the formula is to have freedom and an opportunity to do what you truly aspire to do. Usually it happens when good preparation and hard work make it happen. The biggest success is if your wishes correspond to something good that brings changes to people’s lives around you, and you have the power and ability to help others, staying true to yourself and developing your talents and skills. Therefore, my advice to find your success: think about what you would choose to do, if you already had everything you wished for, and then do that thing with the greatest dedication.
7)What are the top three tips you can give to someone who wants to enter the world of entrepreneurship?
The first one – entrepreneurship isn’t about financial benefits, it’s about a way to live. It’s about passion, vision, and stamina to try and try again, in the process surpassing different challenges and continuing to pursue your goals despite all difficulties encountered until you achieve success. Therefore, be honest with yourself and be honest with others, build an environment of trust, learn to understand people, be careful about who you let into your inner circle, and surround yourself with worthy, positive people. One of the secrets of communication I live by: people overreact because of fear, so listen to understand and respond intelligently even to the most challenging reactions.
The second piece of advice would be – be yourself. Forget the word “hierarchy”; respect can’t be requested, it can be only gained. Therefore, take responsibility, stick to your word, keep your promises, but take risks and never give up. Only your own experience makes you unique, so let it define your strategy and vision, which may inspire others to follow you. So, discover yourself, be original, be authentic, and remain your true self.
And finally, remember, the most valuable thing in life is time; waste neither yours nor other’s. Therefore, be concrete, meet deadlines, but keep balance (workaholic tendencies and an empty social life are not good and lead to stress). Reassess your vision regularly, be open to new ideas, don’t arrange (and try not to join) organizational meetings longer that 1 hour (longer than this they are mostly worthless and unproductive), play sports, be mindful of your health (no bad habits), enjoy life, and travel to find new ideas and inspirations.
8)Where do you see yourself in five years?
I’m really excited about my PhD work, which is part of the EPFLInnovators program at EPFL, because in five years, I see myself as a knowledgeable professional with an in-depth knowledge of the industry. I look forward to exploring and developing new skills and fulfilling my entrepreneurial ambitions, and I know that’s exactly what I have an opportunity to accomplish at EPFL. I’m also keen to lead my own projects and in the course of the next five years I hope to become a leader and a great manager with a strong vision and strategy that motivates others to bring about positive transformations.
The EPFLinnovators project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 754354.