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That special spark: A helping hand for innovative start-ups
01 December 2009

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Who would start a business development for start-ups in a slump? That’s precisely when it has to be done, says Microsoft.

When Microsoft launched BizSpark a year ago just as the world’s stock exchanges went into free fall, it might not have seemed an ideal time to start an initiative to help to accelerate the success of early-stage start-ups, providing free software, support and visibility.

But a year on, the programme is celebrating success. Cliff Reeves, General Manager, Emerging Business Team, Microsoft Corporation says: “We are incredibly pleased with the uptake of BizSpark in Europe since its launch in November 2008.”

More than 6,600 start-ups in Europe have entered the BizSpark programme and downloaded the software. “But what is even more interesting, is that more than 600 ‘Network Partner’ organisations – hosters, incubators, investor groups, government agencies, and entrepreneur support groups – have joined the community,” says Reeves.

Now Microsoft is planning to do even more to nurture the local software economy and start-ups in Europe, said Jan Mühlfeit, Chairman, Microsoft Europe, in a speech at the European Venture Capital Association Investor Forum in Berlin on 14 October.

“The global IT industry will create 5.8 million new jobs and 75,000 new companies by the end of 2013. Start-ups are the essence of this intensification but they are the first to suffer from the global credit crunch. It is time for us to do more for them because they are driving growth and innovation and contribute to Europe’s competitiveness,” said Mühlfeit.

Technopolis Ventures Ltd is one of the organisations that decided to become a BizSpark Network Partner on 5 November 2008. The company began life as Otaniemi Science Park Ltd in 1984 and opened its doors to high-tech companies in January 1987. Since then and through several mergers and acquisitions, it has become the largest business development company in Finland focused on start-ups, with upwards of 300 high-tech and knowledge-based companies in its development programmes around the capital, Helsinki, as well as Jyväskylä, Kuopio, Lappeenranta, Oulu, Tampere and St. Petersburg in Russia.

Will Cardwell, CEO of Technopolis Ventures, says: “In our database, we have over 1,500 Finnish high-tech companies and over 200 Finnish and international VCs and business angels.”

In 2008, Technopolis companies raised more than €50 million in risk financing from domestic and international investors. By late 2009 Technopolis had signed up more than 30 start-ups to BizSpark and helped them to gain access to investors, customers and partners under its new Technopolis Development Services brand.

World-class tools

“Through programmes like Microsoft BizSpark, our companies get access to world-class tools and service very cost efficiently, making them much more fundable in the eyes of investors. Our goal is to foster these kinds of beneficial relationships with global players in order to advance international success of Finnish high-tech companies,” says Cardwell.

The heart of the offering is TechnopolisOnline.com, which provides business intelligence as well as a window out to the global venture capital market for high-tech companies, board members and investors. Through customised matchmaking and networking events, Technopolis helps secure funding from private and public sources in Finland and abroad.

“We evaluate business ideas and intellectual property rights, and help to commercialise them. We will also help to find the best possible experts, and work hand-in-hand with them to maximise value creation. We offer the right business environment, one that allows entrepreneurs to concentrate on their core businesses and leaves the rest to the Technopolis team,” adds Cardwell.

Microsoft is betting on the large community of Network Partners like Technopolis Ventures to deliver more support to BizSpark start-ups, including through the EU Grants Advisor programme (EUGA), an initiative led by Microsoft, HP, Intel and other partners to help small and medium-sized enterprises to increase their awareness and understanding of EU and national funding opportunities, and to assist with the application process. EUGA’s goal is stimulate growth, employability and innovation thus, enhancing business and helping to grow competitive and dynamic local economies.

“Now our goal is to do more for the Network Partner community. In the near term, this will include providing greater access to grant funding through the EUGA programme for BizSpark companies – grants when they need it most, in the first three years of their life. We will also continue to add products to the BizSpark offer and ensure that partners have access to enhanced training, early adopter programmes and product roadmaps,” says Reeves.

Eeple is one of the start-ups that benefited from this extra support. The company’s social networking site, Melty.fr, attracts over one million users a month, offering the media content, chat and news that you would expect from a good social platform.

This website is run by Eeple, a fast-growing start-up company working with a team of 25 young entrepreneurs. The company was founded in 2005 by Alexandre Malsch, a 24-year-old student then at Epitech, the French IT university based in Paris. A member of BizSpark, Eeple has quickly become expert in implementing Microsoft Silverlight Technology and SAAS models.

As a company focused on innovation and software development, Eeple is continuously looking to improve the features it offers on Melty.fr and the online experience it gives to its users. That’s what motivated it to work on a new Web interface last year.

Its ambition was to create more flexible Internet tools for users and to shorten the time it takes to create new websites. To help it achieve both of these goals, Eeple created the Board Engine project, a Web tool designed to facilitate the publication of new Rich Internet Applications (RIA) on Melty.fr – high-definition content and interactive tools to enrich the user experience. Built on Microsoft Silverlight technology, the Board Engine concept provides a framework for developing RIA websites faster and more cost-effectively.

The creation of a complex RIA website requires the collaboration of multiple Web agencies over a long period, which can quickly become prohibitively expensive. What Silverlight Technology brings is the ability to cut time and costs without compromising on the quality of the content or limiting the creativity of Web designers. This opens up a new avenue for more effective agency collaboration and as a result generating new ergonomic Web solutions to the market.

"With EUGA, we worked with a professional experienced consultant who was able to set limits and to identify strength and weaknesses of the project."

Recognising this ambitious endeavour, Eeple was included in the 25 start-up companies selected for the Microsoft IDÉES programme, which provides Eeple with integrated support ranging from product development to access to venture capital funding. This acknowledgement has also drawn other supporters, among them the French venture capitalist Bouygues Telecom Initiatives, which has become a key strategic investor in Eeple.

Participation in IDÉES has also given Eeple access to EUGA. A EUGA consultant helped Eeple to identify the French government’s €35 million WEB INNOVANT 2.0 grants programme as the most appropriate source of funding for the Board Engine project.

Young team: Eeple was founded in 2005 by a 24-year-old student at French IT university Epitech.

Web 2.0 technology

The grants programme runs under the auspices of the French Stimulus Package, which is tailored to support and strengthen the digital economy, with a special focus on Internet Web 2.0 technology. The programme’s funds have been shared among 44 projects, with the Board Engine receiving €80,000, thanks in part to the assistance and support provided by the EUGA infrastructure.

Support from Microsoft in such a wide range of areas has been a significant facilitator of Eeple’s success and rapid growth. Everyone involved felt that Microsoft’s collaboration with Eeple and the technological support provided by the Microsoft development team played a key role.

“We knew that working on such grant application was time-consuming and a strain on resources, which a start-up like Eeple could not afford,” the company told us. “With EUGA, we worked with a professional experienced consultant who was able to set limits and to identify strength and weaknesses of the project. Finally, Microsoft, by attesting to the high quality of the Board Engine project, has provided the credibility we needed to succeed in our application.”

BizSpark’s success is testimony that fledgling software start-ups are eager for the kind of technology and marketing support that Microsoft is providing via multiple initiatives. In the coming months, Microsoft will unveil the new features of its support to entrepreneurs which will include additional software and services, including Microsoft’s cloud platform Windows Azure, a marketplace to enable richer connections between members of the entrepreneur community with tools to assess a start-up’s potential, and access to capital in the form of government grants with the EUGA programme.

More information

http://www.microsoft.com/emea/euga/