San Francisco

The Quest for (Local) Knowledge

Text by John C. Cannon

Mihai Calin looks every bit the part of a young Silicon Valley entrepreneur: engaging smile, gregarious demeanor, even down to his hipster-chic trademark cardigan. Much of that’s innate—he brought his knowledge-seeking zeal, first from his native Romania to Zurich where he’s working on a doctorate in management information systems at ETH Zurich, and then to swissnex San Francisco for a month this summer to study the tech culture and launch his latest project.

The mobile iOS application Calin brought to test out on the streets of Silicon Valley combines the knowledgebase of Wikipedia with the immediacy of LocalUncle, an application in which users can ask questions about the places they visit—whether a coffee shop is currently crowded, for example—and get answers in real-time. Calin and his colleagues added a twist to their app by allowing users to ask specific questions about where they are at that moment. “We believe that if one person had a question at this location and then several other people read that question, then maybe it’s a popular question here,” he explains. But instead of needing another person online at that moment to answer that question, “Loques”—the app’s working name—taps into an existing pool of knowledge left by previous users. You might, for instance, want to know whom a nameless statue is of. You could Google it on your phone, Calin says, but “the phone is not so comfortable to read.” If someone else had that same question and typed it into Calin’s app and then another person answered it, you would only have to open the application and look through the questions that come up near your specific location at that moment to get your answer.

Public peer review

Calin likens the Wikipedia-style crowd sourcing of information to peer review for the masses. “What Wikipedia shows is that, by leaving it up to the people, they will start organizing themselves in order to correct that information,” he adds. As more users fill the app’s virtual library with locally relevant questions and targeted answers, it will become more useful. This will, in turn, draw in more users, who will inevitably tweak the content so it’s even more precise. But right now, Calin’s project faces an issue most startups struggle with as they’re getting started: recognition. If people don’t know what Loques does, they won’t download the app or begin populating it with questions and answers. To address that problem, Calin has hired students at ETH Zürich to begin filling the app with location-based inquiries. That way, once Loques gains more steam, new users will drop into what feels like a living, breathing community that can provide them with the information they need.

“Here’s where they start”

Calin also knew that so many apps start their lives on the West Coast of the United States, so he decided to come to swissnex in San Francisco. “Here’s where they start. Here’s where they are less successful when they come and they are very successful when they leave,” he says. For a month, he attended workshops on how to pitch his idea to investors and ways to develop a client base that would make the app financially sustainable once it left the nest at ETH. He attended networking events with venture capitalists and developers on the hunt for the next big idea, providing a crash course in how quickly business moves in Silicon Valley. Calin says, “It’s so important to see this networking ‘live.’ It’s something you don’t find in Switzerland.”But his time at swissnex did more than just provide him with office space and plug him (and Loques) into the tech scene. An overhaul of the name, for example, was in the works from the time he arrived. “Loques,” it seemed, wasn’t quite descriptive enough. So when swissnex San Francisco’s Head of Startup Services Gioia Deucher proposed “Local Quest,” Calin knew he had found a way to give users a better sense of what the app does.

“I also changed half of the way the application works based on the feedback I got from this office,” he adds. When he first arrived, Calin pitched the app to Startup Services Project Manager Cyril Dorsaz. Then, Dorsaz spent some time tinkering with the application with fresh eyes. He found that interface wasn’t immediately intuitive. “He said, ‘Why don’t you do one of those introductory screens?’ That was a brilliant idea,” Calin says. “Working with the application, I never thought of people not understanding it. It’s hard to zoom out and look at it with a bird’s-eye view.”

Calin recently returned to Zurich, brimming with contacts and ideas to make his quest to bring a local knowledge solution to mobile devices as good as it can be—contacts and ideas he wouldn’t have if he hadn’t brought the application into the California sun. Fulfilling that need mirrors his approach to the projects he takes on. “The apps I do, I do because I feel a lack of something. So, if I’m on the go and I feel a lack of information, I’ve identified a need,” Calin explains. “That’s where my interest comes from.”