Summer of Startups 2011

Spent almost a full day last week in Helsinki by invitation of Aalto Entrepreneurship Society (See also: #aaltoes & on FB) to speak to 10 teams of their Summer of Startups program. All-in-all it was a worthy time investment for me, and I hope for the teams too – after a lecture on the history and learnings from building Skype I could spend about 20 minutes in a mentoring session with each of them.

Characteristically to being just in the middle of a 10-week intense effort of forming their products in such an early seed stage it is far too early to tell which one of them will actually fly as a company. It could be well just 1-2 companies and I have my hunches to which one(s), if any – won’t reveal that before their final pitches on August 10th though. Nevertheless that same hunch tells me that out of the people present the ratio of future success will be much higher, and even if their current concept fails they will find a new idea and potentially a differently formed team that will help them succeed in the future.

So in a way, it is back to that big discussion in May about what is the real role and goals of all these startup incubation/acceleration program formats out there. Even if they often don’t produce sustainable companies, they still do train better entrepreneurs.

On other random thoughts from these meetings and surrounding hallway chats:

  • When thinking of new incubation and accelerator programs, the Baltic and Nordic countries need to start taking a seriously regional view. Besides the Garage48 event constantly on the road, there still is too much disjointed action in each country to create their own unique support systems. These efforts should be more synchronized, combined, consolidated, co-financed and co-marketed. Otherwise, as a random illustration, while Finnish Startup Sauna and Lithuanian StartupHighway compete head-on for the same short roster of potential participants, the best local startup teams apply to the Seedcamps, TechStars, Betaworks and Y!Combinators directly and flee Europe on day 2 of their existence. Which, as it has been proven many times, will more than likely to benefit their particular careers (which makes me happy for them!), but is not the dream scenario for our Nordic, or generally Europan economies in the long run.
    • Another side-effect is that no single Top50 VC group in the world can today sanely pick if and which of these programs to support or even attend in Nordic-Baltic region – there are just becoming too many programs and impossible to distinguish from each-other. The result is that serious money stays home where they already have a natural dealflow. And our new companies need to follow them there.
    • Unfinished idea to throw out there: what if all the major acceleration program attempts in the region put their backs together and pitched their co-operation to be branded by some major globally established incubator under a franchise? Think of Seedcamp Nordics, or TechStars Europe based in this area. That would help manage the expectations of both the investors and startups considering affiliations, pending of course the needed measures to keep the bar as high as the mothership has it. Discuss?
  • Estonia is extremely lucky with the amount of two-way public dialog happening around technology entrepreneurship in the context of the country’s overall economic environment in the future. From our President, several cabinet ministers and MP-s to ranking officials in ministries and public agencies there are people who get and are able to discuss matters ranging from e-governance to funding and taxation issues of fragile early-stage ventures. Given how small even booming gaming software sector in Finland is compared to some traditional Finnish export industries, as well as the long-standing position of Nokia, they truly early guys claim they need to fight much more for attention.
  • As the Aalto Venture Garage co-working space was under renovation (check out the fancy designs being implemented) we spent time in the neighboring Aalto Design Factory instead – I was very impressed by the overall feel of the distinctly Nordic yet unpretentious environment and took some photos too.
  • Among the many startups hosted at the Design Factory, I met three that are in a more mature stage of launching their products. A few whose creations I would likely buy without much hesitation today:
    • PowerKiss wireless mobile charging ring that doesn’t look like that massive brick you have to attach to your phone, sold at airport electronics shops (I forget the brand).
    • Jalo Helsinki‘s Fly-shaped smoke detector / fire alarm. The end of the era of those ugly plastic round pucks the law requires you to stick in your ceiling in many countries.
    • TribeSudiosStagecraft seems to become a really interesting format shift in social gaming, or, as they put it, “what happens when real game designers take on social”. Even though I can’t remember when I played a non-mobile game last time, I am looking forward to understanding trendchanges in this form of entertainment better.

Thanks again for the invitation, guys.


  • Miki Kuusi

    I think the question here is whether everyone’s willing to contribute together instead of doing their own thing? Thanks for the great post Sten!

    –Miki

    • Yes, will and positive intent are required of course. Thinking further, though, there is also the negative flip side that needs careful management and could be an even bigger obstacle: multi-country, consensus-seeking co-operation always runs the risk of becoming bureaucratic and thus slow.

      So we need to find a way the startup support functions in neighboring markets can consolidate, but not grind to a halt in the process. Sometimes it could be about chipping into a joint pool while swallowing some pride and delegating a lot of decision making power to a few actively managing partners. Or maybe creating a two-layer structure where there is a clear place for ultralocal, fast moving and adaptive initiatives which still have a clear relationship with the broader “regional” umbrella…

      With startups dreaming of changing the world, the (nation-)state borders always are a nuisance and barrier, one way or another… Huge advantage US, China, etc have.

      WDYT?

  • Consolidation of accelerators would make total sense in theory. Honestly (pessimistically?) thinking, I doubt there’s enough interesting ideas/teams to support several accelerators in each small Baltic country.

    In practice though, I guess, local programs get more attention (and help?) from local media, governments, etc.

    • Yup, good point and maybe again an argument for some sort of a two-tier approach I mentioned in the previous comment – that would provide some common umbrella (mentor network, funding, brand…) for relatively independent and locally executed programs.