Technophrenia

Technophrenia

Forget Silicon Valley, Finland’s Slush is a celebration of Europe’s tech ascendancy

Slush 2016. Author, CC BY-SA

The centre of the innovation and startup world has shifted. Despite the sub-zero temperatures, more than 17,500 people have come to Helsinki, Finland for the annual Slush event which matches startups with investors. Bigger than almost any other event, the 2,367 startups come from around the world to matchmake with 1,143 investors.

Slush was started by students and is still run by volunteers but despite this, it is a professionally run event. Since its start in Helsinki, there are now Slush events annually in Singapore, China and Japan. The trademark fit out of the Messukeskus Convention Centre is a “cyberpunk gothic-tech” but the gloom is pierced by spotlights and bright stalls that reveal an overwhelming number of new products and services that will be shaping our lives.

Augmented and virtual reality applications were heavily featured but the technology and services ranged from food through to robotics. Universities were presenting innovation coming out of their research. The University of Helsinki had a range of startups at different stages featuring product like securebox that offers cybersecurity for home Internet of Things devices and another product Kärsa that can be used to electronically “sniff” explosives during airport screening.

With a Europe that is facing an uncertain time after Brexit and the election of Trump in the US, it is an affirmation that technology and innovation is thriving in a country that gave birth to Linux the most influential operating system in the world, Nokia, and of course Angry Birds and Clash of the Clans

European technology and more generally, technology outside of the US has now broken the mould of trying to be the next “silicon valley” and created its own identity and momentum. US companies, like IBM, Google and Microsoft that attend Slush have established large groups in a number of European countries and are largely represented at the event by their local staff.

According to Atomico there are 4.7 million professional developers in Europe compared to 4.1 million in the US. Given Trump’s threats to curtail work visas, more US companies will be looking to the rest of the world to establish research and development centres.

Events like Slush serve to highlight the opportunities in countries which would not necessarily have been considered as sources of talent and innovation. Representatives from Estonia was at the is trying to capitalise on this by offering anyone the ability to become an “e-Resident”.

Signing up involves filling out a form, sending a photo and a photo and details of ID and paying 100 Euro. After being sent an official e-Resident card, you can use the card to officially sign documents, and set up a company and bank account in Estonia. Famous Estonian e-Residents include Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

I took the opportunity to sign up as an Estonian e-Resident whilst at Slush and will cover my experience in a future article.

Other countries were also represented with many startups associating themselves with stands from countries like Italy, France and South Korea.

Sadly, Australian companies represented only 0.3% of those attending. In the startup list, this was just 7 companies. By comparison 2% of the startups were from Africa and 1.3% from South America. What Australia does do well is supply workers for European companies. Australians are the third largest group of migrant workers coming to work in the European tech sector. The absence of Australian companies is possibly simply a fact that it is easier to work abroad in the tech sector than it is to start your own company in Australia.

One Finnish company at Slush that was actually founded by two Australians is tellybean. Tellybean, produces video calling apps for smart TVs and mobile devices and has established partnerships with Sony, Philips and Nvidia. Founder Damien Higgins, who has worked for companies like Telstra and Nokia, told me that he couldn’t imagine trying to raise the same types of funding in Australia that they have received in Europe. The relationship with Sony means that tellybean appears as one of the apps on the home screen of TVs that will be shipped in the US. Higgins hopes that they will be able to do the same with TVs in Australia in the near future.