September 15th, 2020
Mait Müntel never thought he would start a company, let alone a consumer-facing app. For the first decade of his career, he was focused on a much different pursuit: nuclear physics.
When working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), located in Switzerland, Mait became increasingly frustrated with how difficult he found it to learn French, one of the working languages spoken at CERN. “I had huge trouble learning languages when I was at school. I hated it because it was so demoralizing and a slow process,” says Mait. “I started to think I could use data analysis to understand the most important things to learn.”
As Mait wanted to improve his conversational French, he downloaded the French captions from 50,000 movies, and built a learning program for himself, statistically prioritizing the most important things he needed to learn. Within a couple of months, he had a good working knowledge of French, and he was even able to pass the high-school level French exam.
Lingvist officially launched in April 2013 in Tallinn, Estonia.
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As the company grew, Mait realized that Lingvist’s approach had far greater potential than language learning alone — the product can potentially make any learning subject easier.
Mait is passionate about starting with language, because he believes learning a new language is a bridge to all types of education. “We can’t start by boiling the ocean,” he says, adding that he frequently tests Lingvist’s algorithms in other subjects, such as history, law, and even meteorology and economics.
As more people use Lingvist, the company’s data scientists continue to improve the language learning models, making it even more efficient as the company grows. Mait says one of the proudest milestones the company achieved was attracting top talent — he specifically points to the quantitative cognitive and AI scientist, Fermín Moscoso del Prado Martín, who is lead scientist at Lingvist, and has already discovered incredible learning efficiencies by examining six years of Lingvist’s data.
As a later-stage company, Lingvist was well-suited to participate in the Alexa Next Stage, Powered by Techstars program, which was completely virtual. Mait loved that he was able to participate in the program while staying in Tallinn to continue running his company. He also valued the connections he made with Amazon’s Alexa Fund team, and believes participating in the Alexa Next Stage program boosted the Lingvist brand. “Both Amazon and Techstars have gravitas,” says Mait, adding that during the program he valued learning how to leverage content marketing to better achieve his business goals.
Above all, Mait says Techstars helped him become a better leader for his company.
“When I started as an entrepreneur, I didn’t know anything about anything. The science world is much different than industry,” he explains. “If you’re a CEO, you need to learn human management skills, product skills and vision to build the best company you can.”
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