Dat Tran, Head of Axel Springer AI © Dat Tran

06 January 2020

"Axel Springer wants to become an AI-first company."

When you hear about Axel Springer, you immediately think of Bild and Welt, a traditional newspaper company. But did you know that they are more than this? Since 2019 they’re not only the largest digital Media company in Europe but they also want to become a leading tech company. Moreover, their overall goal is to build digital products that people love to use and most of those products are smart nowadays. And therefore to reach this goal they need AI. #KI_Berlin talked with Dat Tran, the Head of AI at Axel Springer about his plans on how he wants to achieve this goal.

You joined Axel Springer in June 2019. What do you do there exactly?

My role is to build up Axel Springer AI which is a new AI unit for Axel Springer with the overall goal to turn Axel Springer into an AI first company someday. We set up Axel Springer AI as part of Axel Springer Ideas Engineering which is the innovation unit of the group. 

The goal of Axel Springer AI is:

1. Making AI accessible to everyone within the group by offering education, workshops, etc.

2. Establishing best practices and supporting our units in building ML services that can be used accross the group e.g. imagededup

3. Applied research for our group, e.g. working on applying BERT models on German text or deep fakes

Why did you set up Axel Springer AI as part of Axel Springer Ideas Engineering?

Axel Springer Ideas Engineering GmbH was founded in 2013 as a separate tech incubator for the Axel Springer Group in order to support and promote the performance and growth of the Group and its brands. It has since become the innovation engine and think tank of Axel Springer. Through them, Axel Springer could grow more organically and become a globally recognized technology company. Since Axel Springer AI’s vision is well aligned with the vision of Ideas Engineering, it was a perfect match to start it there.

Axel Springer is not known to be a tech company why did you join them?

This is not true! Indeed, a lot of people still associate us with BILD and Welt, but 80% of our revenues come from digital activities such as our classified business with StepStone or Immonet. Over the past years we already invested a lot in this area and are continuing forward. We want to commit more to tech topics.

Our new investor KKR has created the financial framework for the Group's new strategic orientation. In the coming months, Axel Springer will focus on implementing its growth strategy in order to expand digital journalism and digital classified on the Internet.

Is Axel Springer too late in the game for AI?

Not really. Axel Springer has a hidden competive advantage in AI. What we really do in AI is not really strong AI but machine learning and this relies heavily on data. And Axel Springer is a big media house with a wide range of data. For example our price comparision website, idealo.de has millions of price and image data for products and hotels. We also have a lot of text data from our news outlets bild.de and welt.de, as well as tons of videos from businessinsider.de or WeltNews. Surely, we don’t have the top machine learners to handle all the problems yet but we want to change this step-by-step. For example, we already hired a first batch of machine learning engineers and we want to grow more in the future.

Why is Berlin the best location for you?

We chose Berlin as our location because with the three large universities TU Berlin, HU Berlin and FU Berlin as well as the University of Applied Sciences, Berlin has the right ecosystem for young talents.

In addition, Berlin is home to the Big Data Clusters or DFKI as well as several research labs from other companies such as Zalando Research, Google Brain, Amazon Research and many more. Another important point is Berlin’s living conditions. It is still cheaper than other big cities in Germany, for example Munich. But the most important aspect is that Axel Springer's headquarter is located in Berlin.