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  • Writer's pictureSorina I. Crisan, PhD

The Story Behind Beekee: Dr. Sergio Estupiñán talks about co-founding a startup & making education available for all

What does it look like to revolutionize education technology and empower learners globally? In this illuminating discussion with Sergio Estupiñán, Ph.D., co-founder of Beekee, a pioneering startup operating at the intersection of education technology and humanitarian aid, we delve into his multifaceted journey from academia to entrepreneurship. Estupiñán shares captivating insights into Beekee's origin story, its evolution from a local educational tool to a global solution for areas lacking internet connectivity, and its mission to empower learners worldwide. The interview commences with Estupiñán reflecting on the pivotal moments that sparked the creation of Beekee and its early successes, especially in the humanitarian field. He sheds light on the challenges faced by traditional educational models in remote and offline settings and elucidates how Beekee offers innovative solutions to address these obstacles. Furthermore, the interview explores Beekee's product offerings, market validation, and ambitious long-term goals of establishing accessible higher education institutions for underserved communities located in the global south. In summary, this interview with Sergio Estupiñán provides a compelling narrative of entrepreneurship, humanitarianism, and the transformative power of education. As you embark on this captivating exploration, I leave you with Estupiñán’s poignant words: "It's not just about creating things that solve problems, but also about convincing people that your product is what they need to use to solve their problem."

Beekee. Dr. Sergio Estupiñán interviewed by Sorina Matthey de l'Endroit, Ph.D., Persuasive Discourse

Q1. Thank you for taking part in the Persuasive Discourse interview series. When and why did you and your cofounder, Vincent Widmer, Ph.D., decide to create Beekee?


Answer: Vincent and I started Beekee while we were completing our Ph.D.s, at the University of Geneva. We have been friends since our Ph.D. days, as that's where we first crossed paths.


Essentially, it all stemmed from a conversation about our respective Ph.D. research. Vincent's focus was on making people collaborate and leverage technology for collaborative learning. On the other hand, my research delved into interactive digital storytelling—a separate realm which uses AI for narrative purposes.


Back in 2018, Vincent told me he created this product —a prototype platform facilitating learning and collaboration without the need for internet connectivity—and mentioned being invited to a conference called The Geneva Health Forum (GHF). He asked if I wanted to go with him, and I thought, why not? In retrospect, I joined him because I was genuinely impressed with what he had developed.


The product he created was initially designed for use in Geneva public schools, which is interesting to reflect upon because now, in 2024, when we find ourselves working in various places globally that lack internet connectivity. However, the primary challenge Vincent aimed to address, the product's origin, was linked to education and the absence of internet in Geneva schools. Vincent wanted to pursue his Ph.D. studies on this topic since the Geneva canton didn't want children going online due to a lack of necessary filters to protect them. Being offline was a deliberate choice for the Geneva public schools, and that's how the idea of creating a device that could function without internet, yet still enable collaboration and learning, originated.


Returning to the initial story, in 2018, Vincent invited me to accompany him to the GHF conference, where we showcased his Ph.D. research. While there, someone from Doctors Without Borders noticed the product and commented that, "This could be really useful for training people in the locations where we operate daily, which lack internet connectivity." This caught our interest, as someone directly suggested a practical application of the device, which went beyond its initial scope. The same person also asked if the device could be used in places like the Central African Republic, which, like Geneva schools, lacked internet. We responded affirmatively, sparking the transition from addressing a local problem to solving a global issue for Doctors Without Borders—training people in areas with no internet. It's crucial to remember that even today, a third of humanity remains offline, making this a persistent concern.


However, the idea of establishing a company wasn't on our radar until an encounter with a gentleman from Nepal who approached our booth afterwards, at the same conference. He expressed interest in purchasing the device, which caught us off guard because, at that point, it was still a Ph.D.-level research project, not a market-ready product. He argued that his desire to buy this particular device stemmed from a personal experience during the 2012 earthquake in Nepal when the lack of internet and power hindered information-sharing efforts.


The Nepalese visitor insisted on buying the device before flying back to Kathmandu the next day, as he recognized its potential positive impact on disaster recovery efforts. This marked our first "Eureka moment," realizing that this product had market potential and could actually be sold to help solve different problems around the globe.


Q2. Were you able to sell the early version of the Beekee prototype to the gentleman from Nepal, at the conference in 2018?


Answer: Yes, we did, but it was difficult because we had to determine a monetary value for it. As we were part of the university, we couldn't charge an amount that would allow us to make any profit. As a result, we chose to make some rough calculations regarding production costs, and it came to approximately one hundred dollars. So he paid us a one-hundred-dollar bill, which we still keep in the office.


It's a particularly nice story for us because it affirmed the need for this kind of solution. People were willing to pay for it, either to use the product in disaster recovery settings or for Doctors Without Borders personnel to perform their life-saving work using technology.


Q3. You created the company while both of you were still working on finishing your respective Ph.D.s. How was that experience like?


Answer: Looking back, those two years were exceptionally demanding for me. Juggling the completion of one thing while launching another was quite challenging.


In 2018, at the conference, we recognized the need to create something. Then we used approximately a year and a half to finalize our Ph.D.s and to achieve this goal of creating a company. Beekee was officially founded in 2020, in Geneva. We opted for Geneva as our company's location simply because we were both completing our Ph.D.s here.


Q4. What is the meaning and rational behind the name you chose for the company?


Answer: Vincent, the co-founder of Beekee, prior to pursuing his Ph.D. in educational technologies, similar to myself, trained as a biologist. He delved into various subjects, all related to the field of biology. Throughout his studies, he observed the remarkable collaborative abilities of bees. Given that his Ph.D. research focused on collaboration, the analogy with bees resonated deeply.


At Beekee, collaboration lies at the heart of all that we do. Our technological perspective underscores the importance of a 'beekeeper' guiding the 'little bees.' In our context, the 'bees' represent learners engaged in collective study, while the 'beekeepers' symbolize trainers or facilitators.


We also place significant emphasis on face-to-face interactions. Beekee's mission isn't to replace teachers, facilitators, or trainers; rather, it aims to equip them with the necessary tools to excel in their roles. The role of the beekeeper/facilitator is to facilitate collaborative learning experiences, fostering the exchange of perspectives. Our solutions are designed to function seamlessly offline, because they are meant to respond to the reality encountered in any field, as we aim to cater to diverse infrastructural conditions worldwide. Moreover, they are incredibly simple to deploy and require a very low energy consumption in order to function.


Q5. What is exactly the product that Beekee offers and who is it meant to help? You've already mentioned Doctors Without Borders. What is another example of customer?


Answer: We essentially empower anyone whose goal is to help educate and train to fulfill their responsibilities using technology. For instance, one of the main segments we have focused on takes the form of universities aiming to provide higher education for refugees.


One of our customers is Arizona State University, a large U.S.-based university. They have numerous partnerships worldwide, including with organizations like the Norwegian Refugee Council. Together, they work towards facilitating access to higher education for learners in underserved locations, allowing them to attend university without physically being on campus—essentially bringing the university closer to where they are.


Q6. Can you offer a current example to further elaborate on how Beekee specifically helps with educating learners in refugee camps?


Answer: A practical and current example is the University of Geneva’s program called InZone, which is a higher education initiative meant to help educate refugees. Their approach involves installing a container, similar to a ship container, with 10 computers powered by solar energy. The computers still require significant power, as solar energy is needed to charge the batteries and sustain their operation. However, a challenge they face is at times the absence of internet connectivity.


For instance, a scenario may arise where many refugee learners visit this 'learning hub' – the container I mentioned earlier – but encounter issues when the satellite internet is not functioning correctly, perhaps due to rain or a power outage, resulting in no access to the internet.


This is where Beekee steps in with a solution. We offer the option to continue using learning resources without the constant need for internet connectivity. This way, learners who are occasionally offline can still access higher education programs, videos, courses, and everything necessary to complete their university work. Moreover, they can not only access their educational content, but they can also work and collaborate entirely offline.


While having internet access is beneficial for activities like updating educational materials, our goal at Beekee is to challenge the notion of always needing to be connected. We aim to empower learners to continue their work seamlessly.


While internet connectivity is improving overall globally, the requirement of constant connection remains a challenge for some long-distance educational programs. In many contexts, being always connected is not a feasible option due to various reasons such as, power cuts or recurring costs. Our approach ensures that this issue doesn't arise, as facilitators and learners have their resources available to them at all times once the data is uploaded to their devices, irrespective of their location and without having to worry about any recurring internet connectivity fees.


Q7. To summarize, is it correct to say that you provide the product that allows learners to connect to the courses/trainings they want, yet the course materials are designed/created by, for example, the university or organization trying to teach in the field?


Answer: It depends on whom we work with. For most of our clients with whom we collaborate, they already have their own educational content.


Returning to the example of Doctors Without Borders, they have more than 800 online courses and a vast repository of educational materials. Their challenge is linked to how they can bring those courses to the locations where the learners they need to train are situated.


This week, we are concluding the last pilot with Doctors Without Borders in the Central African Republic. That's why I provided that example earlier. They don't have to create the content because they already have the courses. They just need to upload the courses they want to our Beekee devices, allowing them to travel with the courses to the locations where their learners are present on-site. Learners can access the courses through their phones, tablets, or computers—whichever they have on hand—and complete their courses. Then, whenever there is internet access, all the learner information, progress, and certificates obtained while offline can be sent and saved on their servers.


Our goal is to break the always-needing-to-be-connected paradigm and shift it to an "offline first" approach, as we call it. It's not just about being offline; it's offline first. This way, everything functions without the internet. While the internet can enable various things, you don't have to depend on it for functionality.


Q8. How many learners can connect to one device?


Answer: Currently, the limit is 25 learners. However, because learners sometimes choose to share a device, there can be anywhere between 25 to 50 learners.


We are currently working on an updated version of the device that will allow 50 learners to connect to it. The challenge is that when you create a more powerful computing device, it will require more energy to function as well.


For example, if you create a very powerful computer that can serve 100 or 200 learners, you will also need to have a power generator that you need to maintain and always use. However, we do not always have the luxury of having electricity. One of the problems that has always been overlooked is the supply of electricity. People often focus a lot on the need for connectivity, but in reality, connectivity and electricity go hand in hand. That's where our solutions are very conscious on that level. We need to be able to provide that platform but still be able to fuel it for as long as it's needed. This can be achieved with a small solar panel, for instance. At this stage, one can connect the Beekee Box or the Beekee Hub – the two devices we manufacture – to a solar panel, and you don't have to worry about any sort of power supply. So, you can simply choose to go to the field with your backpack, in which you have a solar panel. You can take it out anywhere you want, turn on the Beekee device, and you're good to go.


Q9. What are the differences between the two devices you manufacture: the Beekee Hub versus the Beekee Box?


Answer: The Hub is a device you can install in a physical location, such as a learning hub, cafe, or any relatively fixed place, allowing you to leave the device there. The hub, equipped with antennas, is larger and, consequently, has a bigger battery. You can have a SIM card installed in it. The device can be used offline, because learners may access all the preloaded applications and content without any internet. Additionally, when needed, this device can connect to the internet for activities such as attending live classes or participating in Q&A sessions with experts.


The Box is a smaller device, similar in size to a coffee mug, that you can take with you in your backpack to any location worldwide. For the Box, an offline-first approach allows multiple people to access your content, including courses and collaboration platforms, without the necessity of going online. It serves as an ideal companion device for teachers who do not require internet. However, if needed, this device can also eventually go online, as it has the capability to use mobile data.


Q10. What are the short term versus long term goals for Beekee?


Answer: In the short term, our goal is to empower organizations, including NGOs and universities, facing obstacles in delivering digital training in the field. We aim to establish our presence as a viable option for those hindered by issues like internet and power constraints, showcasing a simpler, cost-effective alternative to satellite internet. Specifically, we target education and emergency-focused organizations, including higher education institutions and vocational training providers.


Looking ahead, our long-term vision involves leveraging our accumulated experience to establish a new educational institution for the global south. With this initiative our goal is to support millions of youth who currently face challenges attending university without relocating. Our approach will involve a blended learning university experience, combining online education with local facilitators to address students' questions and needs. The goal is to provide accessible higher education without requiring students to leave their homes or communities, ultimately granting them recognized diplomas from their country's university. Through this initiative, we aspire to bring about significant positive changes on a global scale.


Q11. Can you please further describe Beekee’s work towards establishing an educational institution for the global south?


Answer: We're now working towards turning our vision into reality, by taking a country-by-country approach to understand the complexities of local laws and diploma accreditation. Our overarching focus is on creating a more flexible educational model. We hope to challenge the current all-or-nothing paradigm of traditional universities. For instance, now if you complete only 70 percent of your bachelor's degree, you leave empty-handed, losing three to four years of education because you couldn't finish it. Our goal is to assist those commonly referred to as 'dropouts' in obtaining a certificate or diploma, that they may thereafter use to obtain a job.


Our vision for this new educational institution is currently at the brainstorming stage. We’re now working on gathering feedback, which is crucial. And thus far we've collaborated with the Geneva Graduate Institute on research projects linked to our idea. For example, Prof. Christophe Gironde led a class where master's students completed annual research projects focused on exploring how our vision of this new educational institution could be implemented in countries such as Egypt, Peru, and Vietnam.


Our aim is to keep this new institution affordable, efficient, and to leverage existing locations, thus avoiding the need for new buildings. The emphasis will be placed on creating an engaging university with in-person support, whenever possible, which can address the motivation challenges often faced in online learning. We're determined to offer a unique blend of personal assistance and self-paced education, thus breaking the pattern of high dropout rates seen in many online courses. We want to ultimately make accredited education more accessible. 


Q12. What type of company is Beekee, how many people work with you, and how do you hope to increase your funding?


Answer: We're a startup, a spinoff of the University of Geneva. We are heavily linked to the university, not only in the way we think but also in the way we do things. For instance, we are hosted by the FacLab, the fabrication laboratory of the University of Geneva – a space where students come to get trained – because we think it's important to work in a space that gives you a lot of insights and allows you to meet and exchange with many people.


We like to be constantly challenged as well, which is why I say the mindset of the Ph.D. still is there. We enjoy being challenged to be open to new ideas and to any kind of feedback. We still have this researcher hat on; we want to prove things that are strongly based on science. And we would like to remain like that for a while.


Currently, we are a team of nine people, which is great because we started with just two. It's been an exciting journey in terms of management as well. There are questions we need to answer like: How can we align everyone and work together towards the same goals? And everyone in the team is very passionate about the problems we're solving.


It takes a whole team to function well. I love our team because they are very motivated and resourceful, which is important because the problems we face are the problems of the field, a reality that many learners face in this world.


But, of course, if we want to have a larger impact soon, we also need funding. Thus far, we have received aid from the Swiss National Science Foundation and have won several awards. We're aiming to grow the company as integrally and homogeneously as possible. Since day one, we've been able to pay our employees. Nobody is working pro bono, and even the interns and co-founders receive a salary.


We’re now applying to obtain EU funding because we see there's a lot of potential there for collaboration. To continue to be successful, we acknowledge that we need to have the right partners and resources so we may implement our project.

 Photos showcase FacLab premises, where the Beekee products are 3D printed, and several members of the Beekee team: Cofounder Dr. Vincent Widmer, Diana Jeronimo, Nicolas Hervy, Sofiia Storozhenko, & Raphaël Caudron.

Q13. What are the transferable skills you have noticed between working on the Ph.D. program and being entrepreneurial?


Answer: I believe there are numerous transferable skills from a Ph.D. to entrepreneurship. Here are some key ones: facing rejection is common during a Ph.D., and it parallels the entrepreneurial phase when engaging with potential clients and investors. The Ph.D. experience helps develop resilience and a thick skin, enabling one to consistently defend viewpoints within reasonable limits. Remaining open to argumentation is crucial, mirroring the collaborative nature of a Ph.D.


Additionally, a strong belief in your work and the ability to self-criticize are vital. Maintaining peak performance, courage, and determination despite difficulties is essential. This mindset is akin to handling rejection – ensuring that, despite setbacks, you remain certain that the problem you're solving is worth addressing.


Practical skills learned during a Ph.D., such as drafting papers, articles, and proposals, greatly facilitate entrepreneurial work. This includes the ability to draft different projects tailored to specific customers and collecting evidence from projects, drawing from scientific practices to demonstrate the efficacy of your work.


Similar to the scientific approach, creating a systematic approach that works is crucial in business. And knowing how to effectively communicate is crucial when trying to accurately convey your message and defend your value proposition. Moreover, being comfortable with occasional inexactness is important, as it requires a willingness to draw compromises, which means you need to learn how to balance scientific correctness with practicality.


Q14. Looking back at your career trajectory, what do you believe are some important elements that have helped you reach the position you are in today?


Answer: From early on, my interest spanned different disciplines, with a particular fascination for technology. Influenced by my mother, who is a teacher, I've always maintained the belief that technology, while great, should also contribute to better teaching and learning methods.


The path into learning sciences has been instrumental in shaping my current position. And I’ve had a lot of exposure to interdisciplinary work through different job experiences and professional engagements. I've spent considerable time working with diverse groups, from developers to decision-makers, thus learning how to navigate and harmonize different viewpoints – which is a crucial aspect of my professional journey and current job. One of my focuses has always been to seek effective approaches to solving different problems. And, I’ve always had a deep interest in geopolitics, as I’m interested in understanding global statuses and power dynamics.


In hindsight, I've always been naturally curious. I enjoy being constantly exposed to research, world affairs, and technology. In the entrepreneurial realm, it's not just about reaching out to the users of your product but it’s also about knowing how to engage with decision-making centers. For example, understanding how to transfer funds from donors to learners for maximum impact demands a genuine global perspective. I believe that it's all about seeing both the tree and the forest.


Q15. As you know, our website is called Persuasive Discourse, and because we want to shed more light on the role of persuasion in different areas of our lives, I'm curious to know: Based on your experience, what is the role of persuasion in your work?


Answer: When creating a startup, you need to consider two main points: firstly, creating a great product, and secondly, ensuring your product is actually used. Unfortunately, many people stop at the first point. Many entrepreneurs think and say, 'My product is fantastic.' However, to have a successful product, you also need to think about how to distribute it to your users, and that’s where ‘persuasion’ comes in.


So, it’s not just about creating things that solve problems, but also about convincing people that your product is what they need to use to solve their problem. The path you're on as an entrepreneur is to convey the value of your proposal versus the alternative. To do that well, you need to wear different hats: the financial hat, the reliability hat, etc.


Additionally, you need to think about the arguments that each person in a decision-making process wants to hear. Some people who value collaboration in learning might be most interested in saving money on connectivity. Therefore, you need to understand the motivations and find the right approach and elements to outline what they want to hear about first. Only after that, you can convey what you think is also important from your point of view. For example, for our product, we can confidently say that the user is cutting their dependency on the internet, gaining the added value of learning progress and experience. It is crucial to present your argument correctly and bring out key and clear takeaway messages that people/users can easily remember and then convey to others.


Persuasion is essential, and you need to always work on it as a muscle. It's a crucial element to consider when creating and running a business.


Q16. And that brings us to the last question: If you're thinking of a junior professional who might be interested in creating a product—obviously not exactly similar to your product but believing they have an entrepreneurial spirit and a great idea—can you share some advice with them?


Answer: I'm happy to share advice based on my experience.


The first part is that it's all about the team. You shouldn't work alone too much. I mean, you need to have a strong support from the business partner you want to start something with. For example, if you are a startup, you should not find the same profile as you o work with you. You should look for and find people who have exposure to other things than you, to other cultures or languages as well. And try to get the balance of different backgrounds right from the beginning. I know this is sometimes very hard to do because for insance, if you're an engineer, you may have many other engineer friends to choose from as your team members. Or, if you’re studying something about international development, you're probably surrounded only by people who do the same thing. But if you can find others with backgrounds that are complimentary to yours, try to get them on your team early on.


Second, as I already said, it is important to not only focus on the product, but also on the distribution side. Ask yourself: How are you going to sell this? What are the channels you're going to use to make people know that you even exist? Is it through a podcast? Is it through a webinar? Is it through a workshop? Is it by getting to present your product using an exhibition booth at a fair? Where is it that the people who have the ‘pain’ your product is solving usually go to? What do they listen to? I know that these are many different questions, but you need to address them early on, to ensure that you get what is called ‘traction’ for your product. You need to always keep in mind that it's not all about a great product, but also being able to make people buy your product or subscribe to your idea. You need to get your product to distribution stage very fast. 50 percent of your time should be focused on your product and 50 percent should be on distribution.


And third, do not rely only on grants although there's a lot of grants you can apply for, from different organizations, that can give you punctually some money, which is obviously great in the short term. For instance, you have a really good idea and an organization gives you let's say CHF 5’000 or CHF 10’000 or CHF 20’000, which is fantastic but the issue is that this doesn't really create a sustainable business model. It helps to give you a kind of a boost, but that's not actual long-term traction. It can be a viable solution to just depend on grants if you’re doing a two yearlong project and that's it, you finish it there. If you want to create a healthy startup, that has longevity, you need to create that kind of recurrent revenue fast.


For instance, the pilot products that you need to create at the beginning for the people or organizations that trust what you do, you need to hopefully get them paid. When people do these initial products for free, at some point they end up running out of cash and they have to stop what they're doing. So if you have an idea of creating a solution to a problem, try to obtain your first paying contracts fast and ideally from a large client.


To help clarify this point, in our case, we are lucky and grateful that we started by working with Doctors Without Borders. They have a huge network and they prove that what we do, our Beekee products, are responding well to the education problem they are solving in the field. With this contract we are able to showcase that Beekee offers a learning centered solution which can be effectively used not only in the Geneva public school classrooms, located in a high-income country like Switzerland, but also in low- and middle-income countries located anywhere around the world.


Concluding remarks: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.

Answer: Absolutely. My pleasure. Thank you for your time and your questions. They made me think a lot and that's a good sign.

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Dr. Sergio Estupiñán & Beekee. Interview by Dr. Sorina Crisan Matthey de l’Endroit. Persuasive Discourse.

Co-founder of Beekee | Switzerland

Illustrations: The main article photos were taken by Dr. Sorina Crisan – Matthey de l’Endroit, at the time of the interview. Dr. Estupiñán's profile photo is made available on the Beekee official website (link here).


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