This is the first article in a new series called Startup Hatch, about incubators and accelerators in the startup ecosystem.
Over the past 50 years since their first inception, business incubators and accelerators have played an increasingly important role in the race to get startups off the ground against local and global competitors. The stakes have risen dramatically in the 21st century, particularly in the adrenaline-driven Internet and mobile space, with global investors targeting not just startups but incubators as well to get a piece of the action faster than anyone else.
The recent Mobile Youth Forum 2013 in Baku, Azerbaijan, showcased a range of such tech incubators and accelerators from over a dozen countries. Tech platforms, market research services and international linkages can help app developers identify and solve real customer needs, and get them off the ground fast. Such services are emerging in incubators and accelerators with vertical specialisation in specific domains – such as mobile gaming, best exemplified by GameFounders, the first gaming startup accelerator in Europe, based in Tallinn, Estonia.
“In less than a year we have managed to raise funds, collect 70+ world class mentors and start our first batch where mobile gaming startups from 41 countries applied. We have linkages with gaming studios from Argentina, Lithuania, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands and Estonia,” said Lauri Antalainen, co-founder of GameFounders.Gamefounders devotes a lot of effort in spreading the word about mobile apps and mobile gaming. “We hold workshops in our premises and invite all interested parties to participate in them. We were also the founding members of the Estonian chapter of the IGDA, the International Game Developer Association,” said Antalainen.
GameFounders holds regular testing and demo days where young people can see what the teams are developing and test the games. The accelerator helps developers master the design, localisation, and service migration issues of games.
Though it has a population of just 1.3 million, Estonia – home of Skype -- has blazed a trail as one of the most ICT-savvy nations on the planet. An estimated 99.6% of banking transactions in the country are done electronically, every citizen with an official ID card gets an official e-mail address from the government for state notifications, and 95% of people declare their income electronically. Estonia is reportedly the first country in the world where an m-parking system was commissioned.
At a global level, the World Bank’s infoDev programme publishes an Incubator Handbook, coordinates groups such as the Africa Incubator Network, and offers support services online such as the Incubator Support Centre. infoDev'S global business incubator network consists of nearly 300 incubators in over 80 developing countries assisting 20,000 enterprises which have created more than 220,000 jobs; more recently, they include mLabs and mHubs for mobile app development.
The infoDev Global Forum on Innovation and Entrepreneurship has been held twice in India, and once in Brazil and Finland; the next one is in South Africa at the end of May (http://www.globalforum2013.co.za).
In addition to hosting incubators, academic institutes play an important role in creating entrepreneurial buzz along students. These include emerging domains such as robotics. “We work mainly with young students from ages of 8 up to 18, and their teachers are typically young people between 18 and 27 years old. As well as teaching technology, we are sharing our experience in entrepreneurship and business approaches,” said Aleksandar Pavlov, mentor at the robotics school Robopartans in Bulgaria. “Competition is stiff: there are no boundaries in the virtual world,” Pavlov added.
One of the inspiring showcases at the Mobile Youth Forum was from Palestine: Ibtaker for Technological Innovation, a company which uses hands-on educational kits to spread the culture of technological innovation among Arab students.
Microcontroller boards and graphical user interfaces help students understand control and automation, which are important in a world where the Internet of Things will be all around us, said Emad Ammouri, founder of Ibtaker. It is important to inject technological hands-on tools and concepts in the education system, and help students focus on real-world problems and issues, he advised.
A good example of industry-academia cooperation comes from Ukraine. Ihor Katernyak, an innovation policy expert from Lviv in Ukraine, is now initiator and coordinator of Innovation Spring, a series of events including an Idea Marathon aimed at encouraging students and young researchers to test their ideas in terms of value innovation in front of a jury of experts and investors.
Katernyak is also founder and president of the Ukrainian Distance Learning (UDL) System, created in December 2000 as a partnership of 27 Ukrainian universities, R&D institutions, business schools, business support centres, and technoparks.
Innovation Spring was founded in 2010, and includes courses aimed at developing entrepreneurial mindsets. Winning projects are displayed at the Laboratory of Ideas, and awarded at the Innovation and Investment Forum.
Long term success of innovation in a country depends on advancement of entrepreneurship culture in the academic community, and creating a favourable milieu for ideas exchange, recommended Katernyak.
At the Forum in Baku, I also shared the examples of mobile companies spawned by incubators in India, such as AadhaarUp, VirtualWire and Webaroo. Numerous Indian startups have been groomed at international incubators such as YCombinator, RocketInternet, 500Startups, Startup Chile and JFDI, as documented earlier by YourStory.
In India today, almost every IIT, IIM and BITS campus has an incubator, as well as IISc, ISB, IAN, and a host of technology and business schools. The Indian STEP and Business Incubator Association estimates that there are over a hundred incubators and accelerators in India.
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