And then there was Skype
Why do many of us increasingly associate Estonia with the term “startup nation”? Let’s start with the obvious: Skype. Although founded by a Dane and a Swede, the VoIP company was built by Estonian programmers Ahti Heinla, Priit Kasesalu and Jaan Tallinn – the same bunch who brought us the now sadly defunct Kazaa. Founded in 2003, Skype was acquired by Microsoft in 2011 for a whopping 8,5 billion dollars in cash, proving that the tiny Baltic state had a lot to offer in terms of tech talent and entrepreneurial drive.
Starting up made easy
And it does. Estonia has a disproportionate number of startups per capita (yes, there is such a metric) compared to most of its European neighbours. Why is that so? For starters, it’s really easy to start a company (pun intended). The state portal eesti.ee provides a startling fact (at least for those used to the Austrian procedure): you can register a company in less than two hours; and you can do it online.
It’s all about attitude
Coupled with this ease of doing business, the next magic ingredient for startup success also seems to exist in abundance: the right attitude. Since their country’s return to independence in 1991, Estonians have little qualms about leaving the past and quickly transitioned into the post-Soviet era on a clean slate. This cultural resilience and thirst for change have inspired an out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new mentality that encourages risk-taking and enables the local entrepreneurial ecosystem to thrive. According to a recent article on Arctic Startup, in an effort to push the “e-Estonia” trend even further, the Estonian government will soon be giving Estonian entrepreneurs access to public sector data in processable format, as a new resource for innovation set to harness the potential of Big Data.
Last but not least, the small size of the population (a mere 1,34 million) is arguably both a blessing and a curse. Although it is becoming more and more difficult to sustain the supply of talent in such a small country, its size also makes it necessary for Estonian entrepreneurs to look beyond the local market from the get-go and hence create products and services that are viable on the global market.
What’s happening now?
Because there is so much going on in Estonia’s start-up space, we spoke with Mike Reiner of Startup Wise Guys to give us the low-down on what and whom to look out for right now. Here’s what we put together.
Keywords: farms + better data! Founded by Martin Rand (previously at Skype) and Vaher Meus, VitalFields has caught onto the importance that services such as accurate weather forecasts and early disease warning will have for the future of the agrarian sector – i.e. real farms, not the virtual ones. Given that food security issues and climate change shocks are hardly news anymore (to the dwindling numbers of us who still watch/read the news, that is) the guys at VitalFields are developing spot-on tools for farmers such as aggregated independent weather data and a crop protection module giving pest and disease warnings for individual fields. Use of the website is free for basic services, with paid access for the more sophisticated tools. And no, it does not come as an app! A grad of the Startup Wise Guys accelerator program, VitalFields has secured 250.000 euros in seed funding under a recent agreement between the Wiseguys and SmartCap, the investment entity of the Estonian Development Fund, by which the latter will commit 1 million euros to Startup Wiseguys alumni companies having a local presence in Estonia.
Founded by a young team from Croatia headed by Martin Birač but based in Tallinn, Monolith calls itself the world’s first reality-augmented advertising machine. The new technology enables advertisers to literally place every passer-by into their ads through the Reality Augmented Advertising Engine, giving potential consumers a “movie-like experience” of a product. The smart-display platform works on the basis of three currently available standard apps, Monolith Wardrobe, Monolith Games and Monolith Objects. These apps can be integrated into an existing advertising campaign and allow consumers to interact with a product like in a computer game, only better. Custom made apps are also available to order from the Monolith development team who can build anything you imagine through the Monolith Store, subject to additional costs. Monolith is also part of the Startup Wiseguys family.
Click and Grow
No joke. “A self-watering smart flowerpot that grows your plants for you”. Yep, it’s out there, brought to you by the Click and Grow team in Tallinn. Prior to starting the company in 2009, founder Mattias Lepp came across a startling statistic: every year about 20 billion euros worth of houseplants are thrown away around the world due to mismanagement. And so it came to be: the “smartpot”. It includes sensors, software and yes, batteries to automatically dose water, nutrients and air according to the needs of the plant you’d like to grow. Starting at 59,99 dollars, this nifty little device seems to be making good on its promise of “giving everyone access to a green thumb”. The online store offers Starter-Kits with various “plant cartridges”, including chili pepper and mini tomato, and also sells refills such as thyme, should you be running low on your fave herb. Best of all – the smartpot is reusable, in line with our sustainability-driven era. If you get bored with your plant or if it dies of natural causes, you can replace the cartridge and start afresh.
Not to be confused with Erply (also Estonian!), Zerply (derived from “Serious Play”) is a new online professional network that seeks to reinvent the way creatives present themselves to employers and the wider online community. The vision: “Go beyond the résumé – showcase your work and your talent”. Recognising that standard networking sites such as LinkedIn do not always provide the best way of presenting and endorsing creative skills and talent, the Zerply team are building an enriched, multimedia platform allowing all the “makers” of the world (designers, hackers, writers, artists) to show a more personalized and textured version of their CVs. Raising 600.000 dollars in a recent round of funding and counting the likes of Dave McClure and Don Hutchinson amongst their investors, the founders could hardly ask for a better start. Zerply is currently launching new features such as Converse, an embedded conversation tool, as well as Flickr and Vimeo Integration, to allow for a truly portfolio-driven approach. Oh, and the Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves also has a Zerply profile.
Headquartered in Boston with a Tallinn-based development team, GrabCAD is an online marketplace and community catering to mechanical engineers. Founded in 2009 by Hardi Meybaum and Indrek Narusk, the aim is no less than to provide “a place for engineers to share their talent, expand knowledge, find a dream project and work with tools and features that make life better.” Currently counting 350.000 engineers and 65.000 free CAD projects, GrabCAD also offers an open-source CAD library and thousands of online engineering tutorials. (Just in case you’re wondering, CAD stands for computer-aided design.) GrabCAD was one of three winners selected at the 2011 Seedcamp, and in October 2012, it raised an impressive 8,15 million dollars in a Series B financing round, with which it is set to come up with new collaborative tools for building better physical products.