Last updated: 13 March 2023
Published on: 10 June 2020
12 MINS READ
As it celebrates its first decade, Knorex founder and CEO Justin Choo shares his company’s DNA and secrets of success with IMPact.
By Billy Teo
Knorex is a company that one might advertise as literally “grown in a lab”.
Founder and CEO Justin Choo recalled: “In September 2009, I was working as a researcher in the Data Mining Department at A*STAR's Institute for Infocomm Research (I2R). I launched Knorex after enlisting two other research colleagues and an old friend who was a coder working elsewhere.”
The fledging company licensed the KnowleSuite technology from A*STAR’s ETPL (now known as A*ccelerate). The semantic technology suite helped Knorex to go after companies in the pharmaceutical, hospital and defence sectors with the solutions that allow for smarter discovery of new and actionable insights.
The company started by entrepreneurial-minded researchers and engineers – with domain knowledge of AI/Machine Learning (ML), Natural Language Processing (NLP), Computer Vision and Image Processing – eventually developed the omni-channel XPO platform that merges the power of ML to automate the surging programmatic online advertising that is increasingly data-driven.
Fun fact: It even allows ad buys on to the red hot social media platform, Tik Tok that is taking the world by storm.
Since its founding the company has grown to over 120 people and has helped media agencies and a who’s who of major corporations like Bank of Singapore, UOB, OCBC, Marriott, KoreanAir, Qatar Airways, Lufthansa, BMW, Cycle and Carriage, Audi, Canon, Samsung, and HP.
It has also collected awards along the way, like the merit award – for the Knorex Arise AR platform – at the 2012 National Infocomm Awards (now known as TechBlazer Awards), and two Seals of Compliance (by the JICWEBS) for anti-fraud and brand safety. Most recently, Knorex received the ISO/IEC 27001:2013 certification for Information Security Management System.
Mr Choo shared elements of the Knorex story with IMPact in a recent chat.
What advantage did starting out as researchers give you?
While technologies are being developed or incubated in R&D labs, as researchers, we have access to cutting-edge technology that is often much ahead of the market.
This is a double-edged sword though.
Being ahead of the market naturally accords us some time for experimentation, but in business, what matters is the critical need to turn the technology into a useful application or solution and making it easy for customers to be able to understand its value so that it can contribute to their business.
Execution is even more important.
That’s the critical initial challenge for startups targeting enterprise software sector to overcome.
What other crucial skills and knowledge did the team have to pick up over the years?
In-house R&D has been a bedrock for us since day one, and thanks to our background in research, we take a rigorous approach to many business problems we face constantly. And in some areas for which it is necessary to deep dive into the problem, especially in our industry, we appreciate research very much. It has allowed us to develop the critical edge to solve our customers’ problems and deliver value to them.
Our emphasis on R&D lets us continue to push the boundaries and innovate,to break through in areas which typically, engineering and development teams might not focus on.
As a technology company, the ability to master technical skills is essential since it lays a strong foundation for our products and solutions.
As we go about in developing the product and finding the product-market fit to develop the business, we have to develop skills in hiring people, in building and scaling our technology, infrastructure, in streamlining operations and setting up support services globally, since our customers are scattered in different parts of the world.
What we need is constantly oscillating and evolving as the business progresses.
You unveiled the Knorex XPO platform in 2016. What led to the development of XPO?
Before 2014, when we first pursued and secured our external funding, we were providing primarily managed services in the form of dynamic ads, where we build beautiful, fanciful ads that could dynamically change and adapt when fed with data under different contexts.
We noticed that media owners, agencies and marketers were spending tremendous amount of time on operational aspects, on things like the ad sizes, devices, platforms, channels, formats, list of sites and inventory, while not paying enough attention to their marketing objectives and strategic business direction.
We thought there had to be a better way, and an opportune development of the budding real-time bidding technology in programmatic advertising gave us the impetus to pursue this area in earnest.
We decided then we must secure external funding to let us piece together all the pieces that we already have plus adding additional components to form an integrated platform that would be able to resolve all the aforementioned challenges.
Thus, the birth of Knorex XPO, a modern marketing cloud platform to enable any ad buyers to market globally and across different media channels all within a solution.
XPO is touted as a ‘cross-channel marketing platform’ that is powered by AI. How would you explain that to the man in the street?
Consumers nowadays are using multiple devices and accessing all sorts of media and contents online through different ‘channels’ including social media, OTT/CTV, search, video and so on. With such diversity, marketers and agencies often have to operate multiple platforms to cover as many of such devices and channels as possible, or if unable, limited to using one or two platforms, typically Facebook and/or Google.
Reports are scattered across platforms and in silos, and companies are unable to have a unified view of their “marketing portfolio” to optimise further the performance.
XPO is designed not only to connect to the two most popular advertising platforms Facebook and Google, but also extend to all other popular media channels, while equipping XPO users with many targeting capabilities and automation features to enable any business, big or small, to carry out sophisticated online advertising to reach out to anyone worldwide in real-time.
Any company or marketer can self-operate XPO to market to anyone in the world, across into all the different advertising channels like Facebook, Search, Display, Smart TVs, OTT and so on, without needing to worry about the media, devices or advertising formats. We also place significant emphasis on automation and scalability, thus AI/ML, which is a very cliché word these days, forms a core part of driving the automation.
We are focused on achieving our vision of ‘Universal Advertising’, where we place the power of real-time, global engagement into the hands of all businesses of shapes and sizes, to help them to grow their business.
We wish XPO to be a central piece of this vision.
How would you describe the experience of expanding Knorex into countries like the US, Australia, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and China?
Venturing into each of these countries gave us new and different perspectives and understanding into the way things work in each country, and it continues to provide us new learnings, new insights and improvements that we have to continue to make, to ensure that we can deliver the optimal experience to our customers.
No matter the country or cultural differences, there are certain general needs and requirements that we must be able to fulfill, and we are very fortunate that our customers agree with our focus on building a scalable business with predictable revenue.
Our customers and partners in our journey have collectively helped to provide and shape our learning and development, especially during our formative years.
They continue to help shape our people, XPO and our development.
Most importantly, our customers and partners bestow their trust in us and gave us the opportunity to grow so that we know how we can improve, innovate and scale while learning from our mistakes.
We are truly thankful for their trust and confidence.
How would you describe the impact of AI in digital marketing?
As digital marketing become more sophisticated especially with the advent of programmatic advertising, where ads are traded computer-to-computer to enable real-time delivery, we are now witnessing the paradigm shift from a media-centric to a ME-centric paradigm where it is heavily data-driven.
Suddenly, previously mundane work has become humanly impossible to be done manually anymore, including the smart buying of media in split seconds, round-the-clock monitoring and optimisation of marketing performance.
Such tasks are now executed by smart computer algorithms!
And that’s why we believe that the continued widespread use of AI/ML to transform this space and beyond, is inevitable and forward-looking companies are already exploring and embracing such technologies to augment and transform their business.
What are the challenges that face Knorex as you move into your second decade?
Hiring the right people!
Talents are more accessible than ever yet it is also getting tougher as ever especially finding the talents who can fit right with a company.
I would imagine it would continue to be constant theme for us.
Having the right people who fit our culture and our way of working while continuing to deliver results is an extremely daunting task. We spend a huge amount of effort and time on this aspect.
We have drummed up our efforts in connecting with more people, to reach out to more people over many events. We also proactively tap our contacts and investor base to seek out the right people, both locally and globally.
Fortunately, we operate globally, so we are able to tap on talents located anywhere in the world.
It certainly helps that these days that many people have worked abroad, or have experience working with international customers and employers.
What has your experience been working with Digital Industry Singapore (DISG)?
DISG has been extremely supportive of our development and overseas expansion.
When we first expanded into the U.S., they were very supportive and promptly supported us in filing three patents – the first in our company history!
DISG also initiated grant support for our R&D program to develop cutting-edge new technologies. One such project is Sentinel, where we manage to accelerate our R&D in the realm of brand-safety with what we called as Intelligence-as-a-Service (IaaS) to enable large-scale content moderation.
Whenever there was any enquiries, our DISG point of contact, Mr. Kenneth Yeo, has been extremely responsive and resourceful in coming back with not just replies, but solutions! DISG has helped us tremendously to make progress and advance our understanding into many areas.
For instance, when we first incorporated in US in May 2018 after finding out the necessary information with the help of DISG, against all odds, we managed to edge out some of the biggest names in our sector to clinch our first major customer by early 2019.
Recently, we needed to get ourselves certified with ISO27001, and again, DISG helped us to get timely information to enable us to pursue the right direction, saving us critical time. We managed to achieve our certification in record time too!
We’ve been really impressed with the support and response from DISG.
What lies ahead for Knorex?
Our long-term goal is to enable smarter discovery for actionable insights anytime, anywhere towards ‘Ubiquitous Intelligence’, where one can attain intelligence and act on it.
We have been building our technology and business around this long term vision. Incidentally, digital marketing seems to be the front runner in leading this pursuit.
With more businesses transforming in the digital arena, a trend accelerated these few months with the onset of COVID-19, digital marketing will only become increasingly paramount in business growth.
Right now, the lines between sales, advertising and marketing are already blurring.
Over the past few years, we have been laying down the critical foundation for us to scale and tap into this critical trend that we are seeing.
Since late 2019, we have been focusing on scaling our business in the markets that we are in, in our quest to becoming profitable and building a sustainable business, while growing with our customers.
For more information about Digital Industry Singapore, visit www.digitalindustry.sg