#DigiWomenKA: Verena Heusser

By Katharina Iyen

The number of female founders is increasing. This development is shown by the KfW Start-up Monitor 2022. “After the number of female founders hardly changed for three years, it rose at an above-average rate last year.” By as much as 25%, the study shows. The proportion of female founders is now around 42%. Despite all the euphoria, the truth is that women are still underrepresented in the start-up scene. Strictly speaking, there are four female founders for every six male founders. What’s more, women are not only starting up less, they are also starting up differently. Women are significantly less likely to be behind capital-intensive start-ups than men. This is where female role models play a crucial role. They show us the possibilities that are out there in the world, they help us to define our own goals and we can learn from their experiences. In our blog series #DigiWomenKA, Katharina Iyen meets one such role model from Karlsruhe once a month to find out more about them, their experiences and their commitment. Today she talks to Verena Heusser, computer scientist and co-founder of the start-up DishDetective .

I visit Verena Heusser in the south-west of the city in mid-July. The young computer scientist meets me on the stairs, laughing. She is wearing a black T-shirt with the DishDetective logo. The young founder’s positive and natural charisma is infectious and we immediately feel at ease with each other. Since February 2022, the startup founder has been living and working with her co-founders Tobias Kahlert and Robin Rüde in a large, centrally located apartment. The office is therefore also a start-up flat share.

Berlin style is the order of the day in the large shared living room: the residents have casually pushed the desks together from all sides, a large rectangle as a work surface – equipped with many double screens – forms the office. The three founders grow herbs and salads around them on shelves with lamps – and on the balcony where we conduct our interview in the glorious sunshine.

Verena Heusser offers me a homemade iced coffee – which she mixes fresh in the kitchen. “Do all the founders of DishDetective live here?” I ask her in the hallway. “Not all of them,” she explains to me, “the original team still consists of Lukas Frank, who works for us part-time and is a software developer at SAP, and Alina Roitberg, who has been with us since the project phase at KIT.”

The DishDetective app

“We’re a bit like Shazam for food,” Heusser jokingly explains her start-up’s app. Shazam is a song recognition app. If you want to identify a song that is currently playing, the application recognizes the name and artist within seconds. “We want to make people more aware of their eating habits and maximize enjoyment. For our users, this means no more time-consuming weighing, measuring or adding up calories,” says Heusser happily.

The new DishDetective app developed by Karlsruhe students
The new DishDetective app will soon be launched with a beta version. Photo: Robin Rüde and Verena Heusser.

Various fitness trackers or smartwatches record steps, steps – in other words, our movement. The analysis and evaluation of the data is also automated. Anyone who wants to transfer this information directly to their eating behavior knows that it is not quite so automatic. Numerous apps help you to balance the calories you consume with the calories you burn. This is particularly interesting for athletes, for example. However, as the tracking of calories and macronutrients also provides information about bad eating habits, the use of tracking apps is now widespread. So far, however, this has mainly meant one thing: weighing, scanning and recording. The new DishDetective app aims to make this more convenient. “As a positive side effect, more time is freed up for other things,” says Heusser. The DishDetective slogan is therefore fitting: “Calorie tracking – playfully simple”.

The secret of the digital application lies in its intuitive handling: the app can find out all the basic information about the dish from a single photo: Amount of food in grams, calories, carbohydrates, fat as well as proteins. The free beta version of the DishDetective app will be available from the end of July. “We are very happy about every registration and feedback,” adds Heusser.

I would now like to know what costs users will incur. “The basic version of DishDetective will always be available free of charge. In the future, we envisage extras such as a food diary over longer periods of time and various analyses – for which we could imagine monthly costs of a single-digit euro amount.”

The team has many more ideas for possible further developments. Heusser sees potential medical applications, for example, in “a development specifically for diabetics”. Extensions beyond tracking are even conceivable. “Social applications that we design like a Tinder matching process, but based on a similar food culture – with a shared journey for users,” adds Heusser with motivation. “We can imagine matching based on food preferences, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free or with a special diet. We also think that chat exchanges or socializing events, such as cooking get-togethers with like-minded people, are extremely viable for the future. It is important to connect people with each other and thus create inspiration and added value.” And as we all know, nothing connects better than food.

Computer science via sensible detours

But who is actually behind all these ideas? And what does it take to get from the idea to implementation? I would now like to know more about founder Heusser. She originally comes from Stuttgart Schorndorf, the city of Daimler. She tells me on the balcony that she actually wanted to study art at grammar school. “However, my art teacher of all people gave me the advice to tackle disciplines outside my comfort zone,” she smiles. “That was clever! Today I am very grateful to her for this input.” Heusser first completed a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science, with a high proportion of psychology and neurobiology, in Tübingen. “The core of this degree course is to understand the human brain – a women’s subject, as you could clearly see from the quota,” she laughs.

Interview with Katharina Iyen and Verena Heusser. Photo: Robin Rüde.

“Computer stuff wasn’t really my thing, I found my entry point via my Bachelor’s degree. I realized that you actually have to program everywhere.” The founder changed her mind at the time and decided to do a Master’s degree in computer science – which is why she came to KIT Karlsruhe in the fall of 2018. She sees the fact that her career has been accompanied by detours as an advantage. “I think it’s good that I got to know different perspectives. It gives me clarity: I didn’t study computer science because of talent, but because I accepted the challenge. And because there are still too few women in this field!” She believes that the key to getting more women into IT and STEM professions in general lies in schools and not in universities: “Women tended not to get recommendations for math or computer science. But in the Master’s degree, gender didn’t matter, it was about content and performance, not about gender at all.” Our first student shares similar experiences #DigiWomanKA Professor Kay-Margarete Berkling, who is committed to ensuring that computer science is taught from the first grade of elementary school and interlinked with all subjects and is accessible to everyone as a matter of course, regardless of gender.

Inspiration from the KIT lecture series “Entrepreneurship”

Heusser was ultimately inspired to become an entrepreneur by the lecture series “Entrepreneurship at KIT”, which she attended on an interdisciplinary basis. “The lecture by Professor Dr. Orestis Terzidis, who is also a mentor for various start-ups, was really good,” she enthuses. Terzidis heads the Institute for Technology Management and Innovation “EnTechnon” and accompanies a Chair for Entrepreneurship. “He invited start-ups to the majority of the sessions, who gave great pitches and presentations. Afterwards, you could ask the startuppers all kinds of questions.” The practical interaction and support of science for young start-ups at KIT made a lasting impression on her as a Master’s student.

“Without Orestis Terzidis’ lecture, I probably wouldn’t be the co-founder of a tech start-up today,” she adds thoughtfully. “A world that was still foreign to me suddenly became not only visible, but also tangible.” In his second Master’s semester, Heusser and his fellow students came up with the idea of evaluating nutritional values using photos. Because, as she says: “Food touches us all.” The idea initially gave rise to a project in the second computer science master’s semester at the KIT chair “Computer Vision for Human-Machine Interaction” of Prof. Dr. Rainer Stiefelhagen. “Innovation managers from the Innovation and relationship management then approached us – with our publication in hand – and asked what we wanted to do with it,” says Hesser, still pleased with the impetus. “That was very exciting and thrilling.” The department interlinks transfer and communication at the interfaces of business, society and KIT. “From then on, the ball started rolling: the KIT support network, funding generation and start-up events became part of our everyday life.”

Enthusiastic about startup culture and events in Karlsruhe

Heusser is enthusiastic about the start-up culture and mentality in Karlsruhe. “We are there for each other and help each other, for example with complex applications.” Her team also benefits from the support and integration of tech start-ups in Karlsruhe. “You have universities, CyberForum, ZKM and a really big start-up scene – lots of cool events and great digitalization offers,” she explains. “Events like the KIT-Gründerschmiede start-up barbecue are simply world class. A great, relaxed exchange with other startuppers over good food. It doesn’t get any better than that, does it?” she laughs and gives me a meaningful wink. Heusser repeatedly emphasizes the region’s very “sym-bad” down-to-earth maker mentality. “In the beginning, the focus is more on intensive development than bloated marketing – this results in products that are technically clean.”

During the interview, Katharina Iyen learns that without a lecture series at KIT, the DishDetective app would probably never have existed. Photo: Robin Rüde.

For example, she did an internship with the flying cab and drone manufacturer Volocopter during her Master’s degree. There, she encountered precisely this way of thinking: “I liked the strong focus on making things work – the love of extreme tinkering, which seems to me to be very typical of the Karlsruhe technology region.” The audience at last year’s InnovationFestival @karlsruhe.digital were also able to learn more about the spirit at Volocopter, as Chrisitan Bauer, Chief Commercial Officer of Volocopter, was a guest on the big stage with his exciting keynote speech. If you are interested, you can watch the complete presentation here.

What she would still like for Karlsruhe is to meet established founders in a relaxed setting – without fear and at eye level. “I would be happy to receive tips on suitable meetings in the region,” says the young founder. “People often don’t dare to approach it if it’s presented too high-profile in external communications. I think if there’s too much emphasis on board and doctorate titles, it intimidates the younger generation and they tend to stay away, even though it would be a win-win situation for both sides. We all need a genuine exchange at eye level in order to continuously develop.”

Contact Verena Heusser
Heusser on LinkedIn
DishDetective app website

Theauthor of the blog series #DigiWomenKa , Katharina Iyen studied German Literature and Philosophy in Karlsruhe and Heidelberg and Business Management – specializing in Marketing & Media – in Heilbronn. She is the winner of the Scheffel Prize of the Upper Rhine Literary Society. Katharina works as a freelance conceptioner, copywriter and consultant in digital marketing. She gives workshops, lectures and creates content for digital products and services in agile teams.
Katharina is the founder of the text agency
EdiCut in Karlsruhe and co-founder of the digital agency [BusinessRebels] in Heidelberg. She is an expert in Tink Tank coworking network and can regularly be found on site.
Katharina Iyen on LinkedIn.

Photo: Nasko Flan.