Slush brought around 2,600 investors to Helsinki last week, so it was fertile ground for ambitious Irish start-ups. We caught up with some of them, as well as other Irish companies operating in the Nordics.
I spent a fascinating few days at Europe’s popular start-up conference Slush last week, where the investors were nearly as numerous as the start-ups, and the now-obligatory puffer gilets abounded. It has to be said they came into their own in a zero-degrees Helsinki, although the buzz was back in a big way, warming the hearts of attendees.
It’s certainly a hot region for Irish start-ups and companies. It’s easy to forget that the Nordics (an area made up of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland) are home to 26m inhabitants, making the region the 11th largest economy in the world. Plus English is very much the business language in the area.
According to Hannah Fraser, Nordic region director at Enterprise Ireland, more than 460 Enterprise Ireland-supported companies export to the Nordics, with exports reaching a remarkable €1.24bn in 2021, a 30pc increase on the previous year.
Back on stage at Slush, there were lessons to be learned from the founders of Revolut, Spotify, Twitch, Klarna and many more, but the real work went on behind the scenes with the well-prepared entrepreneurs we met, racking up investor meetings in the double digits.
Team Ireland was there in force this year, with twice the number of start-ups as last year (11). We caught up with Enterprise Ireland leaders and the Irish ambassador to Finland, as well as other Irish companies that are quietly expanding in the Nordics.
The video below also features founders of some of the cream of the Irish start-ups that attended, including Waratek, Luna Systems and MyPatientSpace.
Irish start-ups at Slush 2022
Waratek is the security-as-code platform that enables security teams to automate the management of security behaviour to reduce human error, remove false positives and maintain lockstep with the rapid rate of code changes and deployments.
Luna is a micromobility safety company, whose computer vision technology provides irrefutable visual awareness to e-scooters and e-bikes to make them safer for riders, pedestrians and cities by reducing sidewalk riding, collisions and disorderly parking.
Ufurnish.com is an innovative search platform, reinventing the way furniture and furnishings are searched, discovered, compared and shopped online. Ufurnish.com brings furniture retailers and their products onto one website to make search easy for the consumer.
Oblivious is a Dublin-based company building privacy-enhancing software. It offers tools for developers in organisations that need to process sensitive data and collaborate internally or externally without revealing private information.
MyPatientSpace is an innovative digital health company, founded in 2017, powering connected patient tools for global healthcare providers and life sciences companies. The company’s no-code platform allows its customers to provide personalised medical-grade digital companions for patients.
Upscaler, founded by Philip Gillen, is the information security, quality and privacy compliance platform for growing technology companies.
Meili is an advertising and retailing platform that enables mobility companies to integrate with airlines and travel partners, with the aim of creating a friction-free customer experience. Conceived by a team with huge industry insight, the company reimagines mobility distribution, empowering businesses to drive greater revenues, brand loyalty and ultimately success.
Implement Technologies provides software and consultancy services to help software developers deliver faster. Implement works with software teams across Europe to help them accelerate development, improve processes and increase productivity. According to the company, teams have seen an increase in productivity of more than 10pc and reduction in time to market by 55pc.
SocialTalent is an e-learning platform dedicated to hiring and talent management. According to CEO Johnny Campbell, its content enables organisations to find, hire and retain the best candidates and foster an engaged culture while championing DE&I.
Other well-known Enterprise Ireland-backed companies attending this year included Bobby Healy’s Manna, which designs and builds its own aviation-grade drones to deliver food and other items directly from restaurants and stores to consumers’ homes.
And of course Taxback International, the technology and services company that specialises in VAT compliance and reclaim, with technology that enables real-time processing of more than 10bn transactions across 180 countries in multiple languages.
More innovative Irish companies in Finland
While the trams run like clockwork in Helsinki, one of the first pieces of advice I got locally was to download the Meneva taxi app, and it did come in extremely handy for several quick trips across the city, and the customer app is seamless.
I only subsequently remembered that it was powered by Irish technology from Dublin-based start-up iCabbi. Indeed as I was returning to Ireland, iCabbi announced it had surpassed the 1bn bookings milestone.
With operations in Ireland, the UK, US, Canada, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand, its European plans kicked off in Finland. iCabbi was approached by entrepreneurial taxi company Meneva, led by Tuomo Halminen, to see if they could work together.
Today iCabbi powers more than 20pc of Finnish taxis. While Meneva was the first to join in 2018 and saw its 100-car fleet grow 15 times to 1,500 within two years, it has since been joined by Taxi Tampere, which switched platforms during Covid-19 and has seen its business digitally transform.
Established back in 2009, iCabbi has expanded into one of the largest dispatch technology providers in the world, notwithstanding competition from the big global ride-share players such as FreeNow and Uber.
“We share a deep appreciation of our local roots in common with all of our customers,” said founder Gavan Walsh.
“Taxi is an inherently local business, but taxi companies need world-class technology to meet passenger expectations and continue owning the local market they’ve serviced for so long. That’s what iCabbi gives our customers, tools to compete, and we’re constantly striving to find ways to make taxi companies better and better.”
Earlier this year iCabbi launched the Taxi Alliance, an unprecedented joint venture between the technology provider and its customers. It comprises more than 500 companies, representing upwards of 39,000 cars as members, making it the largest taxi alliance in the world – and Finland is just the beginning. Watch out for major announcements in Italy and the Netherlands in coming months.
We also bumped into Colm O’Neill and Tommi Harju of Phorest Finland. It was lovely to hear that they first came across Irish start-up Phorest through an interview with founder Ronan Perceval on SiliconRepublic.com back in 2012, and that it inspired them to propose to Perceval bringing Phorest’s service to Finland, where today its software is used in more 500 salons.
And O’Neill and Harju aren’t done yet, currently adding 10 to 15 salons every month and a potential market of some 4,000 salons there. They believe the Phorest software has developed to a place where it beats any competitors in the Finnish market.
“Most of our competitors are very much marketplace-led, so they try to get customers for salons onto a marketplace and then charge commission,” said O’Neill, “Whereas Phorest does it a little bit differently. They let salons get customers directly, and retain that direct relationship with the customer as well.”
Having chatted to iCabbi, I’m beginning to see a pattern here that could indeed be the future. One has to wonder could we be looking at more local and direct players having greater appeal than the tech behemoths? Time will tell.
Susan Spence’s SoftCo also has offices in the Nordics and is working on a major Finnish government project there. For more than 30 years, SoftCo has delivered finance automation software that streamline processes, reduce costs and ensure full financial control, compliance and visibility.
With offices in the US, Ireland, the UK and the Nordics, SoftCo won a $20m Finnish government contract back in 2016 to help automate the procurement and invoicing processes of more than 70 government departments.
There are countless more examples of Irish innovation in the region. Notwithstanding the minor controversy surrounding Slush this year, innovative Irish companies could do a lot worse than to check out Slush 2023 and get a flavour of what’s going on in this sophisticated, vibrant, digitally enabled corner of Europe.
At Enterprise Ireland, Fraser believes it’s time to think about the Nordics when it comes to export-led, high-tech companies. “It’s a very good place to do business, they’re very reliable customers, language isn’t a challenge, and I’d really encourage innovative Irish companies to think about this region.” If those we met in Helsinki are to be believed, opportunities abound.
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