The Tech Baltics – Still challenges, but enormous talent and potential

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I’m just back from Riga in Latvia where we held our first ever TechCrunch Baltics meetup (where you will find video of the whole thing). It was a great day of panelists and speakers, (and thanks to all those who organised, participated and attended, especially Andris Berzins). After chatting to a few people at the event I came away with a sense that the tiny Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, triple-sandwiched by Belarus, Poland and Russia, definitely punch above their weight in terms of technology talent. We are all of course familiar with Estonia’s association with the early development of Skype, and lately a clutch of new startups. But that seems to have only served as a rallying call for its two other Baltic neighbours to pick up the pace in developing their own tech ecosystems.

What I came away with was a sense that although they will compete, the tech borders between the three Baltic brothers are gradually melting – and that makes sense. With populations varying between 1 million and 3 million, these are not big countries there is not a lot of point in not having a dialogue with the neighbours about tech and startups.


(PICTURES by Juris Kazha)

Indeed, Angelist has over 45 companies from the region and the Baltic states remain great platforms for launching companies into the vast Russian market without having to deal with any vast Russian bureaucracy, as we heard in a panel featuring Andres Susi (Flirtic), and Vitaly Rubstein (RubyLight). Indeed, Ilya Shirokov told how Russian social network Odnoklassniki (part of Mail.ru) was originally built out of Latvia and remains partly developed there today.

Meanwhile, the Baltics is home to a thriving daily deals operation, as Aldas Kirvaitis CEO of Cherry Media Group explained on stage. But he is also hugely optimomistic, he told me, about the opportunity for innovative startups to come out of the region, not just Groupon clones.

A panel on startup investment featuring Jon Bradford (Springboard), Carlos Espinal (Seedcamp), Priit Salumaa (Garage48), Margus Uudam (Ambient Sound Investments), Allan Martinson (MVTP) showed that plenty of problems remain. Despite being jam-packed with tech talent, local government venture programmes still ask about revenues not growth and local Angel investors are thin on the ground. Indeed, it’s often easier for a Baltic startup to raise larger rounds of funding from outside investors, impressed by the talent exemplified in Skype, than it is to attract internal investors.

Perhaps evidence of this was the news, announced on stage by Lars Hinrichs (HackFwd) that it had invested in Infogr.am, which we covered here.

A panel about scaling startups to Europe and the USA featuring Kris Hiiemaa (Erply), James York (Fits.me), Kristina Narusk (GrabCAD), Rain Rannu (Fortumo) and Kristo Ovaska (StartupSauna), showed that startups from the region really do need to get out of their comfort zone if they are going to learn about international markets – especially when the home markets are so small.

Finally a pitch contest featured 8 companies (Infogr.am won) and you’ll find a run-down on them below. Here are some more pictures form the event.

Our sponsors were Mail.ru, Rubylight, Nokia and Veritweet.

BusyFlow
(Lithuania): BusyFlow is a workspace that integrates cloud-based productivity and collaboration apps and makes them work together. E.g. users are able choose a Dropbox file, start a discussion about it on Yammer wall and then create a Pivotal Tracker story in just one click, from a single interface. It creates a single dashboard to disparate services.

GateMe
(Estonia): GateMe is a simple guestlist management (CRM) for promoters and venues. They’ve developed a simple tablet-optimized and cloud-based guestlist checking solution as well as preselling environment that has become popular among Estonian nightclubs. They home to expand its use.

Mokipay
(Lithuania): Mokipay has launched a mobile payments and loyalty system that works with NFC stickers attached to a mobile phone and linked to the subscribers’ SIM card. Mokipay mobile payments are accepted by shops, restaurants (including McDonalds), petrol stations, schools and other merchants in Lithuania. It works with any NFC reader.

Pozitel
(Latvia): Pozitel is about making cheap international calls from the Web or from an Android device. You can receive calls to incoming numbers from over 60 counties – to browser or mobile. No downloads, no installs.

Priienergia
(Estonia): An interesting one for e TechCrunch event, this is a waste water heat exchanger. It claims to return up to 80% wasted energy back into the house. The first installation is up and running in Estonia, and they’ve filed a patent covering whole Europe.

Pult
(Estonia): My personal favourite, Pult is an app which let’s you watch your content on any screen. Using your mobile phone as identity carrier, connection agent and remote control you can gain access to your files in the cloud (videos and pictures on Youtube, Facebook, Flickr etc.), pay-TV channels, rented or purchased movies and any other content you have right to access. It’s a way of bringing bring cloud media services to the TV screen. This was an impressive pitch.

Sellfy
(Latvia): Merchants are leaving marketplaces and want to sell on their own sites, but it’s technically hard for them. Sellfy provides simple, affordable, drag & drop solution enabling anyone to start selling digital goods within seconds. With Sellfy you can also start to promote your products instantly using social media promotional campaigns, where the best deals are available to those who share the products with their friends.

The event organisers were TechCrunch Europe and the newly-launched TechHub Riga (as is obvious on my bio and Twitter profile I’m a co-founder of TechHub in London).