It’s been a week since Sam Pasupalak and Mo Musbah wowed a tough crowd with their pitch at TechCrunch Disrupt, but the Maluuba team is back and building in Waterloo Region.

Maluuba, based in Kitchener’s Tannery complex along with the Communitech Hub, was one of just 30 companies chosen from more than 1,000 applicants to pitch onstage in San Francisco, at one of the tech world’s premier launch platforms for startups.

I sat down with Sam and Mo at the Hub this week to chat about the experience, about the company’s phenomenal growth since their founding in late 2010, and about their ambitions to move the world beyond the search engine to Maluuba’s ‘do engine.’

Q – What is Maluuba?

SP – We are building a ‘do engine.’ We believe that a do engine is an evolution of the search engine, and it gets things done for you.

So, basically, you can ask any question naturally to our do engine, and it will go to the relevant APIs and it will get stuff done for you.

MM – The example I always go with is, let’s say you’re walking down the street and you’re in the mood for sushi. You’ll be able to ask any query, from ‘What sushi restaurants are nearby?’ to ‘I’m in the mood for this certain kind of food’.

The key thing about us is that we’re very natural; we pick up natural queries and we hook you up to the exact data.

SP – How we differ from traditional search is, when you go on Google, you can’t ask naturally, first of all. You have to type in keywords, and you get a set of web links.

We don’t give you web links. We give you exact results, and that’s why we call it a do engine.

And a do engine is beyond search. We also organize your life by having something called Timeline, which gets your meetings from Google Calendar, your reminders, your alarms, everything in one place. That’s the Timeline page, if you swipe to the right in our app.

We also let you share stuff easily, so it’s search, organize, share.

When you get a result, you can share it with friends easily, through Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, text – everything is there in every result that you get.

MM – The huge, key thing for us is to make the experience as simple as possible on the mobile phone.

For example, I can pull out my phone right now and say, ‘Send a Facebook message to Sam Pasupalak, telling him, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’, or whatever, and it’ll get me there directly. It’ll jump me to the Facebook app and pre-populate Sam Pasupalak, versus going through the cumbersome task of filling it out and looking for him, that sort of thing.

That’s how I use the product, personally.

Q – What makes Maluuba better than Siri?

SP – There are a number of different factors. The first factor is that our vision for Maluuba is completely different from Siri.

Apple is trying to make the best possible phone, and accordingly, fit in the services, like calendar and reminders.

We are building the next generation of search engine, and that’s why we focus more on the APIs, that kind of stuff.

So, the vision is different, and accordingly, we want to expand to more of these domains – movies is a domain, restaurants is a domain – we want to expand really fast and provide users with a variety of domains to choose from, whereas they (Apple) don’t want to do that.

That’s from a vision perspective, but from a product perspective, one of the key differentiating factors is the user experience.

In Siri, there’s a lot of back-and-forth dialogue. You ask, ‘Set up a meeting with Mo,’ and it’s going to ask you, ‘When do you want to set up the meeting? What time?’ It’s very cumbersome.

Instead of that, Maluuba makes your life very simple. You can ask a question; you can fill out forms.

We put voice and touch at the right places.

MM – The experience with Siri is that if you ask for something, you get straightforward or limited results.

For example, if I ask for restaurants, there’s only so much I can do with that.

With Maluuba, the idea is, what’s the natural evolution? So when you ask for a restaurant, what are you looking for?

We make it very easy to find directions to that restaurant. We make it very easy to add it to your calendar, and set up a lunch meeting within, like, a click. And if you want to share that restaurant with a friend, it’s only a click away.

So, it’s really about enhancing the user experience.

We’ve launched as of five days ago, and the reviews have been phenomenal. They were like, ‘This is the great, natural evolution of personal assistants; it’s not just about answering my question, it’s really about helping me get what I want.’

For example, through Maluuba, I can see it’s your birthday. What can I give you for your birthday? I can search for a concert that’s happening around that time, and from that, invite you to the concert; ‘Hey, this is an awesome concert; let’s go out.’ And that’s done flawlessly and seamlessly.

That’s our vision with this product – to make things as seamless as possible.

Q – What led to your appearance at TechCrunch Disrupt?

SP – We thought TechCrunch Disrupt was an amazing platform to launch at. A lot of successful companies have launched there, so that’s why we applied, and we got in.

MM – It’s a great platform with a strong portfolio of companies that have launched previously.

It just synced in very well in terms of time; we were ready to launch in September and we noticed that this event would fit in very well.

And, when we spoke to them, they were very positive and they really loved the app. We had great responses from the TechCrunch writers. Even one of their interns, for example, he said ‘I’m wrapping up my TechCrunch internship but I really like your product, and I’d love to see how we can work together on taking it forward.’ So that was great response for us.

SP – A select few companies get to pitch; like, 30 pitched out of more than 1,000 who applied.

Q – What was it like to be up there pitching?

SP – Well, it was a lot of pressure, actually. But I think everything went well in the end.

In front of an audience of, like, I don’t know, 3,000 people and broadcast live, there was a lot of pressure to perform.

MM – We’re very happy with the results and the general reaction we got from the crowd.

Some of us have watched all the 30 people present, and only a few of them got applause, and we were one of the few.

SP – We were the crowd favourites; people were tweeting about us, that Maluuba should get into the final top 6. We didn’t get in; that’s a different story, but we think it went pretty well.

MM – We were very happy. The biggest thing for us was the reviews, and people coming up to us and saying ‘You guys were awesome.’

There was huge applause for us when we showed off our demo, and that was really cool, because we were told beforehand that the crowd is really tough.

Even the judges, as soon as Sam finished the presentation, were like, ‘We love the product; the UI looks fantastic.’

Q – How did it feel to have ‘Kitchener, Canada’ up there on the screen behind you?

MM – We were the only company from Canada, so that was awesome.

Q – Tell me about how Maluuba got started.

SP – Me and my friend Kaheer Suleman started this in October of 2010 as a computer science research project at the University of Waterloo.

We said, ‘Hey, when you go on Google you can’t ask a question naturally and you get a bunch of weblinks. How do we solve this problem?’ And that’s when Maluuba started.

Then we got the remaining co-founders, Josh (Pantony) and G (Wu), and we all liked this vision that me and Kaheer had come up with.

We incorporated in August of 2011, and we have 22 people right now.

In February this year, we got the Samsung Ventures investment for $2 million.

MM – So things really went into full gear then.

Q – What are the next steps for Maluuba?

SP – We’re moving cross-platform, so not just Android but to Windows phones and iPhones.

We are going to support different countries, because there has been huge demand for our product in, for example, Spain and England. People have been tweeting about us.

We can’t support Spain as of yet, but in England they speak English, and we have built our natural language processing engine around English, so we will be supporting the UK soon.

The other thing is, we want to close our Series B round by the end of this year. We are very focused on that; we’re talking to a bunch of VCs.

Q – How much are you looking for?

SP – We can’t say right now; it’s very early.

MM – We’re also going to open up a developer ecosystem, so we’ll be sharing an API.

We were hoping to do this by the end of this year, but it’ll probably be early next year.

It’s a huge thing for us. One of the core competencies of our product is that we can open it up to developers so that anybody can hook into our natural language process.

SP – And also, since we can expand really fast, we’ll be going to a lot more domains; for example, sports, news, shopping.

We’re also building a payment pipeline, so that you can ask a question, get your result and make a payment instantly.

So we have huge things coming up, and it’s about prioritizing them.

Q – Is it a challenge to scale in a community competition for top talent is fierce?

MM – The one thing for us is, Kitchener and Waterloo have been a great platform for us to begin with, because of the talent pool we’ve generated.

We have 22 employees and all of them have a fantastic background; people who’ve worked at Google, Facebook, Amazon. That’s the beautiful thing about the University of Waterloo, and why building such a powerful technology has been such a strong competency for us from the beginning.

Even the judges and some of the VCs we’ve spoken with have been amazed with what we’ve been able to do in six months. One of the original investors in Siri, for example, said it was phenomenal how much we were able to do compared to what Siri has actually done in two years.

We are now competing head-on with Siri, and a lot of that has to do with the amazing direction that we’ve had as well as the strong talent pool we’ve built from the University of Waterloo.

The community has been wonderful. As soon as we launched, we had BufferBox, VidYard, Pair, Sweet Tooth – all the startups in Waterloo – they’ve been very supportive, and they were happy.

SP – I think one of the first tweets about us was from Steve Currie, as soon as we launched, and one of the first 10 tweets was also from Waterloo alumni.

MM – From a talent standpoint, this is the best place for talent.

We’ve done amazing things. We’ve gotten technical validation of our product within the last six months.

The biggest thing for us is to keep the momentum going, and have it scale really fast.

About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy

Anthony Reinhart is a veteran journalist who left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards. He is Communitech's Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer.