Photo: Summ

Summ: Plain Language With Help From AI

Plain language doesn’t ‘just’ mean avoiding long sentences, but is rather a defined linguistic style. Until now, texts have been translated manually, which is expensive and time consuming. The Munich startup Summ wants to change that with its AI-based technology. Its three founders Flora Geske, Vanessa Theel and Nicholas Wolf fill us in on the details in our interview. By the way: The interview is translated into plain language in the second half of this text.

Munich Startup: Who are you and what do you do? Please introduce yourselves!

Summ: We simplify every kind of text so everyone can understand it and no one is denied access to important information. In concrete terms, we’ve built “Google Translate” for plain language – enter the entire text on the left side, click on “translate” and an automatically generated, plain text appears on the right side with help from AI. It’s basically a tool for translating within a language – in this case into a simpler style of language that is called “plain language.”

Dieses Bild hat ein leeres Alt-Attribut. Der Dateiname ist Summ-Produktbild-1200x675.jpg
Easy language. Made easy. (photo: Summ)

Plain language is a defined linguistic style that is distinguished by simple syntax and additional explanations of terms. It was developed with the goal of writing texts that are fully accessible, especially so the text can be understood well by people with learning difficulties, older people or people who are learning the language.

In Germany alone, this applies to more than ten million people. So why do you “have” to use AI? At the moment, texts are translated into plain language manually. The process is quite expensive and takes a long time – according to our market research, we’re talking about roughly 100 euros per page and translators need at least one hour per page. And because an increasing number of texts are being translated, the waiting times are long. This is also due to the fact that public institutions in Germany are required by law to publish information in plain language.

Understandable language in legal and medical fields as well

On top of that, more and more companies are realizing how important it is to communicate with their customers and employees in an understandable and inclusive way. And the issue in general is even broader, because everyone has encountered texts that are difficult to understand. In the future, we want to give everyone access to texts in particularly complex fields as well, such as legal texts or medical information, by automatically simplifying the texts.

Munich Startup: But that’s nothing out of the box!

Summ: You would think that, because quite a lot has happened in the field of technical support for foreign language translation. But that is absolutely not the case with plain language. One reason is that you can’t simply translate “one-to-one” in this case, but also have to technically implement an abstraction of the text. This means the content of the text has to be transferred to a different level of abstraction. In the next step, the content is reproduced in a different linguistic style and enhanced with additional explanations. It not only sounds complicated, but is also far from trivial in technical terms. We’re the first to have pulled it off!

Munich Startup: What is your founding story?

Summ: The three of us founders, Vanessa, Nicholas and Flora, met while studying at the TU Munich. We met in an interdisciplinary Master in Finance & Information Management program – in short “FIM” – and realized quite quickly that we basically had all the tools we needed to found a company in our team, because we cover the fields of mathematics, computer science and business.

A passion for natural language processing

What also unites us is our passion for natural language processing, which is the machine-based processing of natural language. After initial projects in the area, both in research and practical application, we started looking for a use case that also had a strong social dimension.

Commercial applications in the field of AI are a hot topic at the moment, but we felt certain that it would be possible to combine an attractive business case with the meaningful application of the technology for society. Moreover, it was a family member in our founding team who benefits from offers in plain language who brought our attention to the field of plain language. We’ve been amazed by the response to the subject – both within the domain itself and beyond – when we talk about Summ.

Munich Startup: What have been your biggest challenges so far?

Summ: As so-called first-time founders, everything we’re experiencing right now is new and challenging: making strategic decisions at the right time, organizing ourselves as a team, establishing structures and processes, because new test customers get on board each day.

Last year, we went in a whole new direction with our use case and pivoted – it was a difficult decision to make after we had worked on two topics simultaneously for a while, but it was also very liberating once we got to that point. After making the decision, we quickly noticed with plain language that we are on a very good track that is extremely relevant to society.

Established player in the DACH region

Munich Startup: Where would you like to be in one year, and where in five years?

Summ: In one year, we would like to have greatly expanded our customer base and to have established our plain language tool in the DACH region. In five years, we would like to have expanded our offer to different dimensions: plain language in other languages, different levels in the simplification of a text and the targeted simplification of specific texts in highly complex fields, such as in the legal field or in a medical context.

Munich Startup: How have you experienced Munich as a startup location so far?

Summ: We could hardly imagine a better location than Munich! That’s especially due to the excellent support we’re given as a startup in the TU Munich ecosystem. We’re part of the Xpreneurs incubator of UnternehmerTUM right now and have already benefitted in advance from different coaching offers, workshops and valuable contacts, for example through TUM Venture Lab Software/AI. In the large network that we’ve been able to establish, we now have someone we can contact directly with many issues and challenges as well as quick, straightforward support, and we feel we are in a very good position for the future.

Munich Startup: Quick exit or staying power?

Summ: Without a doubt: staying power! We’re giving our all each and every day in order to implement our vision of universally understandable information for everyone and to make a positive impact on society. Change doesn’t usually happen overnight, so we’re ready to give everything we have over the long term for our vision!

The “plain language” version of the interview

Disclaimer: The German plain language text was generated by artificial intelligence. This English version, however, has been translated by a real person. It is meant to demonstrate Summ’s plain language tool. It was not created by an expert for plain language or verified by a review group.

Munich Startup: Who are you and what do you do? Please introduce yourselves!

Summ: We have built a program like Google Translate for plain language. 

All you have to do is enter a text. 

And then click on: translate.

Then you will see the plain text. 

Plain language is a special kind of language. 

It helps people with learning difficulties to understand a text better. 

Or older people. 

Or people who cannot read German very well. 

That adds up to 10 million people in Germany. 

Until now, texts in plain language have been created manually. 

That means: The texts are translated by people. 

This is very expensive. 

It costs about 100 euros per page. 

And it takes a long time: 

A translator needs about one hour to work on a page. 

Translators also do not have that much time.

That’s because there are more and more texts in plain language. 

This is because: 

Public institutions in Germany have to use plain language.

Some examples are:

  • city authorities
  • insurance companies

Also, more and more companies are writing texts in plain language. 

In the future, we want to automatically make very difficult texts simpler too. 

For example: 

  • legal texts,
  • information from a medical doctor. 

Munich Startup: But that has existed for a long time!

Summ: You might think: But that already exists! 

We say: It does exist for translations of foreign languages. 

But that is not true for plain language. 

This is because:  

Translating into plain language is not that easy. 

You have to explain the content of the text differently.  

That means: You have to re-write the content.  

And you have to add more explanations to the text. 

That is not very easy. 

We are the first people to do it!

Munich Startup: What is the story of your company?

Summ: We are three founders. 

Our names are Vanessa, Nicholas and Flora. 

We met at university. 

It was an inter-disciplinary master’s program. 

That means: We studied different subjects first. 

We realized: 

We are good at different things. 

We are very interested in artificial intelligence. 

We worked on lots of projects about artificial intelligence. 

You can also write artificial intelligence like this: AI. 

We realized: 

There are a lot of things you can do with AI. 

But we thought: 

We want to do something good for people with AI. 

We know from our families: 

People with disabilities need help reading.  

And we thought:  

Creating help for that is a great idea!

Munich Startup: What has been difficult so far?

Summ: We had never started a company before.

We have to learn lots of things first.

For example: How to organize the company properly.

That is difficult.

But also exciting.

We went in a new direction last year.

Because we had 2 ideas.

We selected one of the ideas.

That was difficult.

But also good.

Because we realized: A program for plain language is a good idea.

Munich Startup: Where would you like to be in one year? And where in 5 years?

Summ: What we want in one year is:

We want to have lots of new customers.

And our tool should be known in the entire DACH region.

D-A-CH is an abbreviation for these 3 countries:

  • for Germany
  • for Austria
  • for Switzerland.

In 5 years we want to do even more things.

For example:

  • Plain language in other languages.
  • Plain language with different levels of difficulty.
  • Plain language for different subjects.

Munich Startup: Munich is a location for new companies. How is it here for you?

Summ: We really like Munich!

The university here helps us a lot.

The university is called TUM.

TUM stands for Technical University of Munich.

There is a special place for new companies here.

It is called Unternehmer-TUM.

We have learned a lot of information from Unternehmer-TUM.

So we can improve.

Unternehmer-TUM helps us with many things.

For example:

  • Unternehmer-TUM helps us with consultation.
  • Unternehmer-TUM helps us with workshops.

We have lots of contacts through Unternehmer-TUM.

We can call someone: When we have a question.

And when we need help.

We are also in a program at Unternehmer-TUM: It is called XPRENEURS.

The program really helps us.

Munich Startup: Do you want to sell your company quickly? Or do you want to work in the company for a long time?

Summ: We want a better world.

We work for that every day.

It often takes a long time for things to change.

We want to keep going until it works.

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