How startups can ride the digital wave, forge partnerships with corporates, and make a social impact too
Following up on our photo essays on startups at the Mobile World Congress 2019, we dig deeper into how entrepreneurs can blend creativity with business acumen and social impact at scale.Madanmohan Rao
The annual Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona is a great place to scope out emerging frontiers in the wireless race, spot promising startups, and gather insights on what can make innovation really work. See our five photo essays from MWC 2019 on networked robots, innovative startups, creative marketing, 4YFN pavilion, and government promotion.
Taking Indian tech global
MWC 2019 featured pavilions from a number of countries and states around the world, including Kerala. “The pavilion helped startups and SMEs see what’s happening in the world from a technology perspective, learn, and improve their products,” said Ajith Prasad Balakrishnan, Chief Minister’s Fellow for IT, Government of Kerala, in a chat with YourStory.
The pavilion also served as a base for inviting potential clients and investors to explore deals in India, and to promote Kerala's technology ecosystem to the outside world. The Kerala Startup Mission (KSUM) was established in 2015, and includes support activities, incubator services, fab labs, and funding schemes.
Startups promoted at the Kerala pavilion were Calpine Group (AI, Blockchain), WellnessChain (health data management), HRtray (smart HR solutions), Virtual Cockpit (customising automobile cockpits), Elvicto Technologies (smart city solutions), iBoson Innovations (AR), Mediknit (professional medical education), RapidOR (intelligent automation), ThinkPalm (telecom product engineering), ViewBox (digital screen management), and Zerone Consulting (agile software development).
Ajith flags off edge computing, IoT and 5G as emerging wireless trends to watch. He identifies a number of notable tech startups that have emerged from Kerala: GenRobotics (manhole-cleaning robot), Navalt Boats (commercial solar ferry), and CareStack (software for dental care).
From digital divide to knowledge dividend
Startups can have a transformative impact in technology and business adoption, as well as in social innovation. There are over 400 million households without access to electricity or connectivity, but who could benefit from digital access to business information, education and healthcare, explains Mike Freni, founder of wireless startup Kumbaya. The company makes solar-powered communications solutions for populations in remote area.
Kumbaya has signed beta pilots for Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique. The secure WiFi hotspot solutions can be supported via shared revenue models, advertising and sponsors. Other plans include solar-powered classroom hubs with 30 tablets. Support has been received from companies such as OSF, TechnoSoft, NXP, Arrow, and Monsoon, according to Mike.
The sky is not the limit – literally
One of the notable companies exhibiting at MWC 2019 was Zero 2 Infinity, a space transportation company founded in 2009 by José Mariano López-Urdiales. It offers a stratospheric balloon operation service in Europe, having completed more than 40 successful flight campaigns for major aerospace players such as Airbus, Thales Alenia Space, Comex, ESA, Altran, DHV, and Aistech.
Its other projects include the development of a small satellite launcher (Bloostar) and a pressurised pod for space tourism and research (Bloon). The stratospheric environment is even being pitched as a new and attractive medium for brands to advertise, explains Fulvia Buonanno, Communications Manager at Zero 2 Infinity. The company’s business partners include Dassault Systemes, Ultramagic Balloons, Peli Cases, Final Frontier Design, CIMSA, Panasonic, Indra, Caixa Capital Risc, and ISTAR Group.
The startup advantage
Many of the exhibitors pointed out the unique advantages that startups have in the innovation and talent race. “The best thing about being in a startup is definitely the opportunities and challenges that you get to work on every day,” explains Gwenaëlle Kollegger, Business Development Manager at AppTweak. The company’s core product is an ASO platform that provides data and insights to help companies and developers optimise their apps’ visibility and performance.
“Being in control of your vision and mission, and bringing on like-minded creative people who will help to go the extra mile without being a nine-to-fiver are some of the compelling features of startups,” explains Mike, of Kumbaya. It requires hard work, willingness to work in complex environments, and ability to learn fast from experiments, he adds.
“One of the best things of being a space startup is that we can offer innovative concepts for space transportation with more flexibility, frequency and affordability,” says Fulvia of Zero 2 Infinity. The company has its eye on a range of applications: from connectivity to isolated parts of the world to monitoring our planet and its natural resources, and even anticipating natural disasters.
“What we can get from the stratospheric environment is more than technical tests and research; it is the unique opportunity to see our planet from above and understand its fragility, its beauty and its lack of frontiers,” Fulvia enthuses.
Marketing and promotion
The annual Barcelona event is the premier gathering for the mobile industry around the world, and a great place for promoting, learning, sharing, and collaborating.
“MWC was definitely a big event for us. We met lots of interesting people, had many meetings with some of our customers, and gathered a lot of feedback on some of our newest features,” says Gwenaelle of AppTweak. The company has over 800 active customers, in more than 70 countries.
“We're constantly adding new features, with at least one new release every month planned for 2019. Our features are developed based on feedback from customers and using all the data that we've been gathering since 2015,” Gwenaelle adds.
“Without doubt it was great to showcase our products and services. This way people had a better feel of the workings of the system in real-time,” says Mike of Kumbaya. But there are challenges as well. “Getting the systems through customs and on board commercial airlines due to battery size was tough,” he explains.
To kick off the 4 Years From Now (4YFN) event during MWC 2019, Zero 2 Infinity collected people’s resolutions for a better future and launched them to the stratosphere via a high-altitude balloon. The documentary was presented on the first day of the event, says Fulvia of Zero 2 Infinity.
The exhibitors also offer a wide range of tips and advice for entrepreneurs on their long and hard journey ahead. Success for a startup is about people and business model, observes Mike of Kumbaya. It can be tough to build a top-notch product or service when funds are scarce, especially while targeting underserved markets and marginalised communities. Fortunately, Kumbaya has managed to secure a bridge round to a Series A funding, he says.
“Validate your business case properly with a few trusted people before jumping in. I see many startups that are essentially doing the same thing, as well as many startups that are working on use cases where the market viability is really doubtful. You need to really introspect on whether someone will buy your product and, if so, what's the market size,” advises Ajith of the Kerala IT Government.
“Our advice to aspiring entrepreneurs out there, in any industry, is don’t be afraid,” says Fulvia of Zero 2 Infinity. Space is an environment that has gained more interest in the recent years and it isn’t something untouchable that only big institutions can reach, she explains. “If you are confident about your project and your offer is unique, the rest of the work is to seek the funding and the structure your project needs to succeed,” she advises.
Co-creation: startups and large enterprises
The interplay between the conference tracks and tech exhibition at MWC, and between large enterprises and agile startups, has many broader lessons for innovators and leaders.
“Access to early revenue-paying customers is important for startups, especially in a B2B segment. This is quite evident here in MWC where senior executives of many multinationals like Siemens, Telefonica, and others visit the startup stalls, play around with their solutions, and see if there is a mutual fit,” observes Ajith.
Openness to startup procurement has to come from the traditional industry bases in India, he urges. He also suggests other steps like improving ease of business in India, more collaboration between industry and academia, and job rotation between these sectors.
“Traditional businesses have to create corporate innovation teams that act as a bridge between startups and industry,” he advises. This needs sensitisation at the top levels of companies. “Traditionally innovation has been attempted as an in-house function. That won't be cost-effective or viable in the long term. You need to create these linkages to the startup ecosystem for exponential growth,” Ajith signs off.