Standing in the Slush, Part Two

Standing in the Slush, Part Two

Continuing from my first post, I’d like to share my observations from the rest of the Slush Helsinki conference on Monday. The first speakers set a great tone for the day and talked openly about their successes and slipups. Subsequent speakers followed their lead, with Petteri Koponen winning the prize for funniest story: he told us how he was forced to ask his hairdresser for a ride because he was running late for a meeting with a top VC firm. Of course, the fact that a hairdresser was so enthusiastic that he drove Petteri to all his VC meetings across Silicon Valley didn’t go unnoticed, with once firm so impressed that they came  out to the parking lot to meet up.

As much as the speakers were good, I especially enjoyed meeting local startups. I had a good chat with the people behind Zipiko (covered here before) and was particularly interested to how how the service has evolved. For instance, one of the popular uses of the personal activity announcement service is the management of deviations from regular schedules by recurring events. Thinking about this, this use makes sense, as a service built around SMS notifications makes passing along updates easy regardless of how late the changes happen. However, the Zipiko team also surprised me: during a panel Helene Auramo, their CEO, declared that she wasn’t worried about the current decline in advertising spending despite running an advertising-supported service. I guess time will tell whether she is right to be so sanguine.

While Zipiko is definitely in the spotlight – for instance they will be the only Finnish startup at LeWeb – there were also plenty of small startups at Slush flying under the radar. I was particularly impressed by Million Clouds. Yes, it’s a site just selling pictures of clouds. However, I think this this niche stock photo site has real potential. Founder Christian Yakowlef comes from the world of advertising photography and explained to me that the sky is the one thing you can’t control in an outdoor photoshoot. Thus, ad agencies are often forced to use stock photography to get the final image they envisioned. Traditional stock sites cannot match the search tools Million Clouds offers thanks to their area specialization. Naturally the concept can be extended to other types of common but difficult to photography objects, with Yakowlef mentioning trees as perhaps the next photography subject ripe for a specialized stock site.

I was also impressed by the student ideas presented in the Slush Seven challenge. You couldn’t say they lack for ambition when the Illme team declared they were going to eradicate the common cold. More impressively, their plan to mine social network status messages for disease symptoms in order to track the spread of diseases is a feasible one and could really help reduce the spread of diseases. I think it would complement well the existing tools public health authorities use to monitor the spread of diseases, particularly for their monitoring of East Asia. Pot-it, a service that will let people collectively raise funds, and Siilein Research, a team developing a service to transcribe audio via users playing games, joined Illme as the other two Slush Fund winners.

One thing I was surprised to hear throughout Slush and at the TechCrunch side event was that many of the startups were relatively happy with the financial environment in Finland. While everyone said there are no serious venture capital available in Finland, with perhaps only speaker Risto Siilasmaa’s Nexit Ventures managing a fund over €10M, startup  founders repeatedly said it was easy to raise angel financing, with many angel investors in the Helsinki area eager to invest in promising teams. To my surprise, government subsidies were also cited as a local advantage, and many Finnish startups see them as a viable source of early-stage funding.

Despite optimism about the funding environment and creating startups in general, the condition of the global economy definitely cast a pall over the event, with several people declaring it to be insantity (though necessary) to start a technology company today. Hopefully they’ll able to report next year at Slush that their fears were unfounded but I’m afraid. While businesses are in for tough times, the Finnish startup scene is alive and well.

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