Interview with Noëlle Fischer, founder and owner of Clockworks - How Clockworks is succeeding in the utility sector
NLinBusiness recently spoke with Noëlle Fischer, founder and owner of Clockworks, a company that develops image recognition software. With the help of artificial intelligence, they have developed software that recognises specific patterns and objects from an image. They have automated a process of visual inspection which is usually done by a person. Incredibly interesting, innovative material if you ask us, so we asked Noëlle everything about it.
This article is also available in Dutch!
Clockworks was founded by Noëlle and her business partner Victor three years ago, when the two worked for TNO. They had many similar interests, sharing a passion for everything related to artificial intelligence. From one day to the next, they left their jobs and began the adventure of their own business together. After a few days they already completed their first project, which gave them a lot of confidence. Noëlle says the two have not come up with their own ideas of what the market needs, but that they have gone through projects to look for problems and challenges that exist where image recognition software could be a solution. That is how they ended up in the utility sector, and Blicker was born. Blicker is able to read and interpret electricity, gas and water meters from photographs. Personnel engaged in the maintenance and or replacement of these meters or personnel installing new meters may use Blicker. But people at home can also photograph their meters to capture data in a safe and reliable way and gain insight into their own consumption and usage.
We asked Noëlle whether Clockworks had always had international ambitions or whether that ambition had only just begun, she said:
“We have been preparing for the international market from the beginning. There is a large number of meters, especially outside the Netherlands. It therefore has a lot of potential in the global market. The Netherlands has a similar number of meter readings as a city like LA or Cape Town. The Netherlands is small in this respect and international markets have enormous potential. That is why internationalization was part of the strategy from the beginning”.
It soon became clear to Noëlle and Victor that many attempts had been made worldwide to develop such a solution, but nothing was successful. often due to the difficult conditions of the meter, which is usually located in a dark room, the formation of a lot of dust etc was a major concern. Because of these signals, they already knew that they had something valuable in their hands.
Blicker was presented at an international fair last year. We received even more confirmation about the many international opportunities. Blicker is offered as a SaaS product (Software as a Service), which makes it extremely convenient to use the product anywhere in the world whenever you wish. People are very surprised that we succeeded in building this solution with superhuman accuracy. Last week we got in touch with a utility company from Belgium, they have tried several other solutions repeatedly and they haven't worked. So it will prove to be a challenge everywhere.
An international journey
Noëlle was asked which markets she plans to target: "We initially wanted to focus on the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Spain and Portugal. Nevertheless, we also saw a lot of interest from Eastern Europe, the United States and countries in Asia and Africa. We want to seize the opportunities that present themselves and see it as a positive thing to be able to adjust these initial plans. Even if the opportunities are geographically far away, we still want to try it.”
Is business running smoothly, or is it more difficult than it seems?
“We sell the product B2B and it is relatively big, so we don’t close 10 deals every week. We're taking a little longer to get things done. Currently, we are doing particularly well in the United States, the United Kingdom and India, we have a number of things that we're working on in these areas" she said.
Obstacles along the way
NLinBusiness is curious about the potential risks and obstacles Noëlle sees in internationalising Blicker. She believes barriers do exist in some countries, stating: "Coincidentally, we talked about it this week. India's government has told companies that there is a ‘preference to make products in India’. Overall, Indian companies should always try to buy a product or service from a local party instead of a foreign one. As a result, it is very difficult to do business there unless you have a local partner, this can form a problem and risk if you plan on entering this market.”
Consequently, Clockworks has chosen to work with a local partner in India, which means they can bring the Blicker on the market and still qualify for tenders. “A local partner is critical in the process of entering a new market”. Noëlle has no concerns about competition that may arise in the future: "Because Blicker is a SaaS product, the software runs through our own Cloud environment. It may be available anywhere in the world, but it is very well protected.”
Finding Local Partners
We were very curious about how Noëlle finds local partners:" We have been at many events and major international trade shows specifically focused on the utilities sector. Here we made many contacts who are eligible to become a local partner and began building an international network. Due to the presence of the corona virus, we can’t do this at the moment. We had planned to attend many events, but everything was cancelled or postponed. We are now reaching out to these companies and individuals online, mostly through LinkedIn, and experiencing a digital shift in business development," she said.
Noëlle believes that networking is different in this day and age. Digital networking is much more difficult than it seems, Noëlle notes:
“It used to be easy to tell your own story with enthusiasm and passion, while showing a genuine interest in the other person and making a connection. Even in a very short time. When done digitally, it is in fact a different and more complex process than it was before”
Noëlle was also asked if Clockworks is looking for someone with international experience when recruiting new staff.
“I think it is very important, particularly on the commercial side. Our core team consists mostly of people who work on development of the technology, where the international aspect is insignificant. However, in our commercial team we work with and recruit people with international experience. We look for people who can add value from their own network”.
Noëlle's golden tip?
“I think what really helped us was to be able to present on stage at an exhibition or event, to talk about our solutions. During an event we attended last year, there was an app that you could download so that you could connect with other people at the event. At first, I noticed that it was very difficult to get in touch with others, because there were a lot of CEOs and high level people. As a start-up we really didn't stand out. However, after I gave the presentation on stage, there was a line of people who wanted to talk to me and our team all afternoon. It might seem obvious, but it really works!” Noëlle said that at another event they installed a very showy stand with a luminous wall. This also proved to be very effective, they automatically stood out and were literally in the spotlight.
Orange Trade Mission Fund (Oranje Handelsmissiefonds)
To conclude, Noëlle talks about the prize that Clockworks recently won from the Orange Trade Mission Fund. Winning the prize brought them into contact with various embassies, which brought Clockworks into contact with local various parties. The price also included a trade mission, which has unfortunately been postponed due to the situation around Corona. Once travel is permitted again, they will go to France.
“I believe that what you are doing at NLinBusiness is in line with our current development. I am very pleased to have been able to get more support locally. We are now working with the embassy in London to set up a networking event there.” Noëlle says she is not yet bothered by the upcoming Brexit and hopes that this will not be an issue for them either. She genuinely enjoys doing business in the UK and tells us she considers English people to be very open: “What I have noticed in conversations with people from the UK is that people talk more often, longer and more easily, about personal things, even in the first meeting; ranging from the age of their children, their cat’s name, to what they have done one the weekend. I have heard many beautiful stories. Perhaps this has been reinforced by the situation surrounding the Coronavirus, but as far as I am concerned it is a great way to connect and lay the foundation for a business relationship!”
We tell Noëlle that the Netherlands British Chamber of Commerce can also help to establish and expand contacts in the UK, and that we are happy to refer her to become even more successful there!