Pictet North America Advisors SA

Tony Beltramelli - Using AI to disrupt how digital products are designed

Tony Beltramelli - Using AI to disrupt how digital products are designed

The co-founder and CEO of Uizard took an early interest in machine learning and has built one of the world’s leading design tools powered by AI. Now he’s trying to cut through the noise and scale in a market that is constantly shifting.
play video

As a child growing up on the French-Swiss border, Tony Beltramelli thought he was destined for a career in design. “I’ve always been fascinated by taking nothing, just an idea, and turning it into reality. And so my assumption was that I needed to be a designer, I needed to be a creative,” he explains. However, that was before he discovered programming and computer science. “I realised then how much more you can do by writing lines of code.”

Today, Tony is the co-founder and CEO of Uizard, a start-up which describes itself as the world’s first AI-powered tool for designing mobile apps, websites and user interfaces (UIs). “Every company over the past decade has become a software company,” Tony says, explaining the pain point that Uizard was built to remedy. “For instance, banks need to create software to interact with their customers. The challenge is that human beings are only going to use software if it’s easy to use and it looks good. So design really became a bottleneck for creating good software.” Using machine learning, Uizard allows users to generate mockups from text prompts, scan screenshots of apps and websites, and create clickable prototypes, essentially opening up the fundamental skills of UI design to non-designers.

Among investors and entrepreneurs alike, generative artificial intelligence has become one of the hottest topics of 2024, so it might come as little surprise that an AI venture exists in the design space. Yet this belies the fact that Tony has been studying machine learning for a decade and is further ahead of the curve than most. Having realised that programming was his passion, Tony moved to Denmark to study for a Master’s in Information Technology at the IT University of Copenhagen. As part of this degree, he spent a semester at ETH Zurich, where he took a class on machine learning. “It blew my mind,” he recalls. He was, of course, already convinced of computer science’s ability to help people build compelling products. “But machine learning was taking this to the next level, where instead of programming a computer to do something, you could just give it data and it will then figure out the programme itself. It really felt like science fiction. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do now.’”

While this kindled his interest in machine learning, the initial seed of the idea that became Uizard was planted years earlier. While studying for his Bachelor’s, Tony was working part-time as a web developer, yet found the development process frustratingly slow and convoluted. “Things hadn’t changed much since the beginning of the internet in the 1980s,” he says. “Some human being turns their brainwaves into pixels, and then some other human being turns those pixels into code, all ‘by hand’. I thought that was insane.” Then, after graduating from his Master’s, Tony was working full-time as a data scientist and experimenting with the latestAI technologies. During his evenings and weekends, he built a tool called pix2code, which automated parts of the development process, using machine learning to generate functioning code from a simple screenshot created by a designer. It was the start of what would eventually become Uizard.

Back then, in 2017, when Tony began building Uizard, the main challenge was that AI applied to design was still, for the most part, uncharted territory. “Generative AI wasn’t even a term; there was no OpenAI around that you could use,” he says. “So we had to build the entire technology from scratch – hardcore research, R&d and eventually build the core product.” No matter: he and his fledgling team were willing to put in the hours and the hard yards.

Thankfully and by contrast, one of the greatest advantages of setting up a venture in the mid-to-late 2010s was that there was plenty of funding around. In May 2018, Uizard raised an usd 800,000 pre-seed round, led by New York-based LdV Capital. “We were building the research and the product,” says Tony. “The funding was for hiring people and for cloud computing, because it’s expensive to train machine-learning models at scale.” Since then, the company has raised funding two more times – a USD 2.8 million seed round in 2019 and a USD 15 million Series A round in 2021 – for scaling the team and fine-tuning the product in the first instance; and then for go-to-market, marketing and building the team even further.

Human beings are only going to use software if it’s easy to use and it looks good.

The company  has  grown  steadily over the past five years, but Tony and his three co-founders Henrik Haugbølle, Ioannis Sintos and Florian van Schreven have remained measured and heeded warnings from across the wider tech sector. “We are 50 people today,” says Tony.“ We like to keep it small and efficient. What we’ve learned over the past 18 months in this macroeconomic climate is that companies were over-hiring.” The Uizard approach has been to only bring new staff onboard “when we need new DNA,” as he puts it. Yet, it’s always a case of weighing up positives and negatives. In 2024, looking into the future, one of the biggest challenges facing the company is scaling. “There is so much demand for the product today, but we’re still a small team,” says Tony. “It’s this interesting game between when we scale versus how long we’re expecting to see this massive growth. It’s a balancing act.”

You could argue that this is a peculiarly European approach: ambition bounded by caution. After all, the company is still based in Copenhagen, where Tony studied for his Master’s and where he established the business. He is quick to point out that plenty of other well-known tech companies have been founded in the Danish capital – Unity Technologies and Zendesk, to name just two – yet it’s perhaps revealing that both are now headquartered in San Francisco. Will Uizard one day up sticks to Silicon Valley? “I spend a fair amount of time in the US, but Copenhagen is still the place Uizard calls home. For now,” says Tony. Nonetheless, over half of Uizard’s revenues are in the US, so he can imagine building a sales team stateside “in the very near future”.

“We’re pretty bullish about the fact that the future of design is going to be AI-powered.”

It’s easy to understand why scaling is the biggest challenge Tony can see. From column inches to investments, artificial intelligence has been grabbing the limelight throughout 2023, and there’s little sign of that trend abating. For Uizard, this has been a fantastic “tailwind,” says Tony. “We’ve been advocating for AI in design since we went to market in 2021, so when people started looking into it and wondering if it could help them, we already had the content, we already had the product.” This has helped the company cut through the noise and rise above the competition, which is largely a few years behind in terms of R&D and product testing.

While Uizard is riding the wave of AI being everyone’s favourite topic of interest right now, Tony also has confidence in the long-term trends underpinning the business. “Ultimately, design isn’t going anywhere,” he says. “We care about the design of the app we use every day, the design of the website we use every day. We want to be at the forefront of helping companies ship better product and ultimately serve their customers better. We’re pretty bullish about the fact that the future of design is going to be AI-powered.”