The internet is a vast, ongoing entity of endless information at your – and your kids’ – fingertips. Kids however, may not be as careful, savvy or sceptical as they should be with all that information out there – which can sometimes lead to them being misinformed – or confronted with pages they are not yet mature enough for. Diane Janknegt and her co-founder Theo Huibers saw an incredible, necessary need for not just a “safe search” filter, but a search engine designed for kids, giving them results at their own reading level. Here is the WizeNoze story…

Tell us a bit more about your WizeNoze and what it offers

Essentially, WizeNoze gives children access to an easy-to-understand internet. Children are spending more and more time searching the internet for information, using tablets, mobile phones and laptops. It is our mission to make the internet a more suitable place for children, by giving them access to age-specific content in a child-friendly way.

We have built the first search engine in the world that gives children access to age specific results. For example we give a child of 8 years old search results with more pictures and easier to understand text than a child of 14 years old, as we believe that children need tailored search results, adapted to their age and reading level and they need a better defence against irrelevant or inappropriate content.

And where are you based?

We are based in the heart of Amsterdam, near Dam Square.  This is our first location, however, I think we will soon need to search for a bigger office, both in the Netherlands as well as in the UK and other countries.

Who do you believe your target audience is? Did you see a particular gap in the market?

There is an interesting article on the UK watchdog Ofcom website that perfectly describes the pain we are solving. They have shown through research that children aged 8-15 spend twice as much time online as they did ten years ago but sometimes lack the understanding to decide whether it is true or impartial. and parents are playing the major role in what their kids see and how long they spend online.

Our goal is to make the internet more accessible for children aged 6-15 years using smart technology, which can automatically classify a text as suitable for instance for an 8, 10 or 14 year old. To prove the quality of our work we launched the Dutch search engine Jouwzoekmachine (translated to “Your search engine”).

The providers of the three biggest portals for schoolchildren are currently integrating our search engine, and thanks to their support, our search engine is present in all primary and secondary schools in the Netherlands, with a potential reach of 1.6 million children. We started with a Dutch version and are currently developing the English version, which will be available in mid spring 2016.

A very important second target audience for our business model is companies and organisations who want to communicate with or be found by young audiences. They can use our search technology as a white label for their websites to offer age specific searches themselves. Currently one of our biggest customers is the Dutch Telecom Network KPN. They use our technology in their app in which they offer children access to a safe and suitable internet. Other customers include museums, zoos, government and toy companies. In addition, there is lots of interest in the healthcare sector. Hospitals want to have their own branded search engine that gives patients access to a safe and suitable internet. When a child enters “cancer” it shows all the results on his/her reading and comprehension level. That doesn’t make the message nicer, but it does help a lot in making it easier to find the information.

Besides our Search Engine we also developed the WizeNoze content editor, a tool that semi-automatically translates a text for adults into a text for children. By using this technology, companies can re-use their current content and adapt it to an easier reading level, in order to be found by a broader young target audience. We are currently collaborating with ANP, which is the Dutch Reuters. Based on this technology they are developing a daily newsfeed for children aged 8-12 and a feed for 12-15 years old. How cool is that!

Lately our technology is discovered by organisations offering products for low- literacy audiences. This is a great new opportunity for us, giving us another target audience for our technology.

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What do you see as being the unique selling point of WizeNoze and gives you the competitive edge?

Our proposition is unique. There are other search engines for children, but the technology we use to automatically classify information and present it for different levels of reading skills has not been used before. I have several PhDs in my team who are top specialists in Informational Retrieval, Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing. I am confident that we have a very solid base for a successful new business with a very clear dream – to make the internet more suitable for children (and other audiences that want access to an easier internet). We do not have an advertising business model as our SEO is based on the content. The better the content, the higher the results.

And how long have you been working on this project? Where is it at the moment?

WizeNoze was founded in September 2013. Prior to the launch we took some months to develop a business plan based on academic research from my co-founder, Professor Theo Huibers and from Hanna Jochmann, who has a PhD in Child-Computing Interaction. They had been investigating the search behaviour of children for four years and that gave many important starting points for business opportunities. In September 2015 we launched the Search Engine and so after 2 years of developing the technology we can now offer it to schools and clients.

How did you fund the project?

We were very lucky to be qualified for an Innovation Credit by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs. This was an extremely tough selection procedure, since the government is very cautious and risk averse. Next to that, we have two Angel Investors, with a background in long distance learning. To date we have raised €1.75 mil and in 2016 we will be looking for new capital to support our international roll-out.

And is this your first startup venture or did you start other businesses before this?

Indeed this is my first start-up venture. Previously I worked for 14 years for Microsoft in various roles from marketing, business development to commercial roles. Eventually I was part of the Dutch Management Team.

Tell us what makes you so passionate about this business and where the idea for it came from?

Starting a startup is not unique. However, starting a startup with an idea that is potentially going to help millions of children and low literacy people across the world is something else. My co-founder and I are the perfect combination. He had a brilliant idea based on in-depth academic research, and I could not wait to transform this idea into a great business proposition and offer this solution to the market.

Every day I hear people telling me how much they like what we are doing, asking me why this does not exist yet. Moreover, every day we receive mails from children and teachers thanking us for the Search Engine. I cannot express how happy that makes me and how grateful I am for all the feedback and support we receive.

Tell us a bit more about your personal background

As I said before, I used to work for Microsoft. At Microsoft, I saw that by using software and technology you are able to really dream big. Technology has the potential to really change the world. Right now, I am living my dream – making the internet a better place for children and low literates.

What about your childhood background? Were there any entrepreneurs in your family who set you down this path?

Not at all. My father was a doctor and extremely risk-averse. The moment I informed my parents that I had ended my corporate career to become an entrepreneur, they were worried and tried to convince me otherwise. Therefore, I am definitely not one of those natural born-entrepreneurs. However, I do not think that matters at all – it is all about passion. If you truly believe that what you do is the greatest thing in the world, then there is a way to achieve this goal. The worst thing that can happen is that you have to start all over again and try to fulfil your dream in another way.

Do you have a mentor or role model who inspires you?

Many people constantly inspire me! When I started my career at Microsoft Bill Gates was definitely an inspiration, as well as Jack Welch (CEO GE). Now all different types of entrepreneurs inspire me; big ones but also small entrepreneurs who really do what they like best. Anybody who listens to his or her heart and dares to let go of all those wrong achievements like a big salary or status are the ones I look up to. I also have three beautiful children aged 7, 10 and 11 years old. They are the big inspiration behind WizeNoze!

Was there ever a particular event that sparked the idea for this business?

The mother of my daughter’s best friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. Obviously, this had a huge effect on my daughter as well. That is why she decided to write a paper on cancer when she was 8 years old. This was not an easy task because you absolutely do not want her searching for breast cancer on Google. Her struggle to find the right information was a big motivation to make the current internet more accessible for children!

You mentioned your business partner Theo. Can you tell us more about him and how your partnership came about?

I co-founded WizeNoze with Professor Theo Huibers who is also chairman of the Advisory Board. He is a Professor at the (technical) University of Twente and he is the managing director of Thaesis, his strategic consultancy firm. We met during a meeting for non-executive committee members and by that time, in September 2012, he had just finished a big academic research on Information Retrieval Behaviour in Children. We used this research as an inspiration for founding our venture together. Our characters are two opposites, which makes it so great to work together. I could not have done it without him!

What do you consider to be the most exciting or inspirational moment to date running this business?

If you really do what you like to do most, your life is one big celebration. There is not a day in my life that I do not want to go to work. I truly love what we are doing and this whole adventure is one big rollercoaster of emotions and joy. I cannot express how grateful I am to work with a team with so many inspirational people.

And what about the toughest moment?

All the sleepless nights that come along with starting your own company. The constant pressure of going faster, selling quicker and being the frontrunner in your area. But someone I admire a lot once told me: “If your dreams do not scare the heck out of you, you are not dreaming big enough.” I truly believe that.

Have you made any “bad” decision along the way? What lessons did you learn from this?

Of course you make mistakes along the way. If you don’t do that you are acting too conservative. One of my lessons learned is that the educational market is really a very traditional, slow-acting market. I thought that educational players would be more open for innovation, but instead they wait to see which way the wind blows. Due to this experience, I decided to launch my own search engine instead of fully going for an API/white label approach.

Was there ever a weird moment where you felt that you are just destined to do this?

We receive a lot of feedback and free publicity in the Netherlands. The national 8 o’clock News and the National Youth News even featured us. Every time we receive spontaneous feedback from users or awareness in the press with beautiful articles, I am (next to grateful) more and more convinced that we are doing the right thing and that this is my destiny.

And what is your business goal for the next couple of years?

I want to make the internet a better place for children and everyone else who needs help to access an easy-to-understand internet. Here in the Netherlands, in the UK, in Europe and worldwide.

And for a final question – tell us what one bit of advice you would offer to someone starting their own business

Listen to your heart and follow your dream. Find out what really excites you and act on that. If you do whatever you would like to do most, you are the richest person in the world!

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