The LAUNCHub Seed Fund Opens a New Run for Funding Applications

guest post by Marina Handjieva, Communications and Networking Manager at LAUNCHub

The LAUNCHub seed fund is excited to announce the opening the fourth application call for financing of digital startup companies. All committed teams from South-East Europe (SEE) developing future disruptive technologies in the Digital Tech Sector are encouraged to apply here. The application deadline ends November 3, 2013.

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The culmination of the LAUNCHub funding selection will be the four-day Long-Weekend Event in the end of November in Sofia, where shortlisted teams will receive several days of coaching and mentoring and will have the chance to pitch their ideas and get approved for seed investment.

The successful applicants will receive funding of up to 200K Euro in exchange of equity and will participate in the LAUNCHub mentor-lead programme scheduled for February 2014.

During the call LAUNCHub will be seeking to identify and meet the most promising teams, focus being placed on startup companies that have formed their teams and can present some traction – if they have a prototype, early adopters, first customer reviews or testing.

The successful teams will not be required to move to Bulgaria. When the investment is signed there is an intensive period of 8-10 weeks of mentor-led programme in which they will need to travel and attend different mentoring activities in Bulgaria, together with powertalks and workshops.

Since 2012, LAUNCHub has invested 2 million Euro in 25 companies from 5 countries mainly in the SEE region. On a strategic level the fund is partnering with Seedcamp and Mozilla WebFWD. All companies that are in the digital tech sector are eligible to apply. More information is available on www.launchub.com. LAUNCHub is eager to meet the best digital startups in Greece.

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Open Coffee Athens – The Dates Ahead

As a café, it’s elegant, but friendly, cosy, yet professional, definitely the place for introductions to take place and partnerships to shape. As a 350 seats auditorium, is definitely the place where ideas get spread and excitement happens.

We’re referring to Benaki Museum of course and, after three Open Coffee events been hosted there, I bet we all agree that the Museum is the best place our event has ever been to, probably the most appropriate in the whole city of Athens.

φωτο απο flickr & χρηστη nektar
φωτο απο flickr & χρηστη nektar

Today, we are excited to expand our cooperation with Benaki Museum, and announce the dates for our forthcoming events till June, all of which will be hosted in the exceptional facilities of the Museum.

So, mark your calendar and save the following dates, or plan your next trip to Athens to coincide with an Open Coffee event, to get the vibe of the greek start-up community, plus more. Here you go:

– Tuesday, November 10 2009
– Tuesday, December 22 2009
– Wednesday, January 20 2010
– Tuesday, February 23 2010
– Tuesday, March 16 2010
– Tuesday, April 13 2010
– Tuesday, May 4 2010
– Tuesday, June 8 2010

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Open Coffee Athens XXVI – the minutes

Before the OpenCoffee begins

SocialWhale is a Twitter interface/client which started 8 months ago intending to cover the needs of more advanced users who consider Twitter to be somewhat lacking in features. It initially combined existing services built on top of Twitter into a single service and later tried to evolve into a ‘real-time social media client’. SocialWhale also intends to aggregate the use of five main social networks (while more are to be added later).
social-whale-logo

It’s important to note that SocialWhale has not gotten any marketing promotion as such – it has become known via world of mouth and the Greek social media and remains still closed as a service – but out of those who have access (~500 people) approximately 10% visit the site every day which may be not so bad for a team of 4 full-time developers, plus some part-time designers.

According to SocialWhale it’s too early to start talking about business plans but they aim to generate profit by offering premium services for social media professionals and in the future an API (which is operational even now albeit without documentation – please contact the team to experiment with it). An investment has already been made, at 60% of the planned development. When 100% of the development is accomplished they will start implementing their monetisation models. In addition to this, a desktop client and an iPhone app are coming up too in the next couple of months.

Invitations may still be available here.
vivalogo

viva is the innovative part of the 45-people strong company Realize. It started back in 2005 with the successful free-internet service enhanced with offering SMS and songs. 801 Phone followed in 2006 which was also a success (used by over 350000 households in Greece) – it was essentially an initial version of a VoIP package. Following these packages the infrastructure used for these 2 services had to be used in something new when they became commodity – enter vivanumbers. The basic offering consists of a Greek unique number that can receive calls via your mobile, your office number and your home or a combination of them as well as handle faxes. It is all configurable online and an account can be started entirely on the web while the number from an existing provider can be carried over too.

The guys behind viva managed to keep a broad target group for their service – essentially addressing the entire internet user base – by practically limiting pricing packages to the phrase “1 euro per month” and as such vivanumbers relies heavily in a micropayments system. According to it, user money is collected in a virtual wallet from a bank transfer, a credit card, paypal or a ‘dropcharge’ phonecall which can then be spent in a number of simple services they offer (fax2mail, VoIP, music, sms, etc). Perhaps the most innovative aspect of their infrastructure is that more of these virtual currency points are offered to users who introduce their friends to the service. It is using this method that they have soft launched their product with blogs, forums, social media and an AdWords campaign. Interestingly, this billing/micropayments functionality will soon be offered to third parties too.

mindworks

Mindworks started as an advertising company back in 2003 with a few thousand euros of starting capital. In 2005 they decided to focus in search marketing – cutting about 90% of their income which up until then also involved website building, print layout etc. Really early they started blogging and that helped them get known in the market and in essence ‘train’ it and create their niche. At the end of 2006, they managed having a Google-qualified individual among their ranks while in mid-2008 they become a Google qualified company with – among others – a 100K budget in 3 months. Then came the Silver Effie Award in a very difficult to win competition and soon after that ATCom buyed them. Mindworks is currently offering SEO, Paid Search Marketing, Usability Studies and Web Analytics. The lessons they learned can be summarised in the following list:

  1. Build a team you can trust
  2. Do not underestimate marketing
  3. Make friends (e.g. via blogging) – even with competitors
  4. Mind the cashflow gap
  5. Make the right deal when getting funded – it’s not about the money (e.g. how well you can communicate with the buyers, customer exchange, etc)
  6. Work-life balance
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OpenCoffee XXV – the minutes

(photo by penlix)

Favit is yet another startup which is here to address the problem of information overload. They do this combining a number of techniques but their core idea lies in collecting all news sources the user might need at a single point so that the information comes to the user rather the other way round. That’s why allegedly Favit is superior to other services like Google Reader because it allows integrations of multiple services. They also have some other interesting features such as allowing users to import sources of interest not by adding links but just keywords – in their native language. The interface is not just text based – you can also view news in images. You can also search the news sources you are following and the results appear in reverse chronological order. Hiding, liking and voting capabilities are also available and they feed learning algorithms that improve the user experience further while another central concept is that of groups of people from which you can learn and also push news to.

favit

When it comes to the Bulgarian startup scene where Favit originates from it is still nascent – most investing is in non-IT-related projects – and OpenCoffee-like events are quite rare too. To get started, Favit contacted a 40M Bulgarian fund specialising in IT and got funded to do localisation in order to ensure easy usage by simple humans and not just geeks. Interestingly, they secured that funding with not much more than the idea and at the very early stage it was pushed forward by a single, non-IT person – which is quite unorthodox. What is also intriguing is that the Machine Learning alogorithms are drawn from another company of the fund which also plans to setup a datacentre and generally create a ecosystem of mutually helped companies.

mvoip1

Pragmaticomm was founded in 2005, is now employing 8 people across 4 countries and is operating in the field of Voice over IP which has recently seen huge growth due to the advent of phone applications (iPhone, Android etc). MvoIP is their flagship product and it is already a mature application that offers transparent, telco-independent communication. MvoIP basically offers free calls across the world between MvoIP users and ~10 times cheaper prices when talking to non-MvoIP users (incl. landlines). Compared to the first competitor that comes to mind – Skype – their difference is that they are open-source and use a different technology (they are SIP-based instead of Jabber-based) thus offering another type of product in an attempt to get their share of the market.

Its main features are ease of use, ubuiquitus availability, good integration with the mobile device and has a good quality of services due to its maturity. On the downside, no encryption is implemented (although they are planning to include it soon) and voice continuity when going from wireless to GSM and back is not in place either.

Their business model is another difference with Skype – they are offering B2B services: they are providing a VoIP services bundle to providers who in turn sell it to the end-user. Currently, they have secured a major customer in Vyke which uses their technology while at the same time they are planning to port their application to the iPhone.

joomlaowrks

Joomlaworks started as a group of freelancers who back in 2006 turned their expertise with Joomla CMS to a startup. It was as ‘simple’ as seeing a gap in the market of Joomla extensions and decided to take the plunge and start a company.

Six people are working now in joomlaworks.gr and have created 16 free GPL extensions and 3 commercial ones (available for a life-time fee). They boast 2M+ downloads in 3 years (out of 150M websites running Joomla in total – not a small fraction). They run 7 content websites, 2 community websites and 8 demo websites in order to have a strong presence in the community – and they attribute to that presence their achievement of including 7 of their apps in the Top-100 Joomla directory. This is their company’s core philosophy: make a few excellent apps and release them for free to attract attention and users – which can then be converted to customers who will buy the premium apps. As programmers the philosophy (of the Greek part of their company at least) is to create websites for customers but they also give back to the developers’ community. In other words, they leverage the community for help but also are there to return the favour.

So far they have established a good and steady revenue allowing them to experiment with further business models and create new products. Their main experimental product-to-come is K2 which is currently free and combines the best bits of existing CMS packages like WordPress. Their other product is TemplateWorks – i.e. creating templates for Joomla initially for free to attract attention and hopefully later for a fee. Also, it’s in their plans to enable the creation of video platforms as well as even more interestingly a web service that will enable Joomla extensions to operate in other CMSs in order to go over the strict Joomla borders.

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The status of the Bulgarian start-up market

Following to his presentation at Open Coffee Athens XXV, Martin Linkov of Favit writes about the status of the Bulgarian start-up market, paving the ground to cooperation across our communities.

photo from flickr and user cobalt
photo from flickr and user cobalt

Talent

Though the hard times and the constant problems with funding and outdated programs, Bulgarian universities and high schools are still able to lay the grounds for further development of very talented developers, designers, entrepreneurs. It is enough to mention Viktor Antonov – the chief designer of the Sierra Studios to get an idea of the work we can deliver. However, due to the economic situation and the business climate in Bulgaria most of the Bulgarian developers and designers tend to:

a) outsource their work to companies like HP, IBM, Gameloft, C3i, Cisco or those of the hosting industry like Aplus.net (the one I started my IT career from with more than 200 employees in its best days) , Hostway, etc.
b) freelance their skills mainly via GAF and EUfreelance.com, GetaCoder, etc.
c) which is and the best case – outsource their work and perform extraordinary on positions as low as technical support (customer care) and develop some small projects (sites) in their free time, while eventually gain enough clients and stick to b) but freelancing to the local market

Developers and Designers are considered as high paid positions, however due to the different standards between Bulgaria and Greece, their typical monthly wage is even less than the “Genia of the 700 euro”, starting from as low as 500 euro/mo and growing depending of the position and the company to 800 euro, 1000 and very slightly above the 1000 euro mark (in most of the cases).

Funds

NEVEQ – a fund founded in 2005 with 22 mln. euro for investments in tech companies. The fund gradually increased its capital to 32 and is moving close to the 40 now. Some of their projects include Lessno – “Less Money, No Hassle” – a search engine for cheap flights worldwide (initially invested 3 mln in 2007, second round of 1,5 mln in October 2008, 2 more mln in July 2009, now control 100% of the start up, due to problems with the management) and FinAnalytica, a company for estimating and prognosis of financial risk, with a 5 mln. investment in March 2008. The fund currently has 7 companies in its portfolio, including Semantic Search Company OntoText and an innovative Data Center Builder one. Future plans of the fund include investing 5 mln. for four new companies, 2 in Southeastern and 2 in Western Europe.

Other funds with interest to Bulgaria and the region are GED, Global Finance, Balkan Accession Fund, Bancroft, ARX (the new DBG), Mid Europa Partners, as well as the purely tech funds 3TS Cisco and Advent.

Community

The Start Up community in Bulgaria is pretty small and new. However, due to good university policy in that sphere, it gets a lot of support from the Sofia University and the Technical University in Sofia – including rooms to held conferences, speakers.

For the last 3 years the Start Up seminars have been held for about a day and this year we had the first Start Up IT seminar with speakers from the industry, lawyers, business angels, and a few wanna-be investors. The Nova Tech competition is also an important event for the community. The start up community is gathered around the Startup-bg.org website with its subsites of Init Lab – a coding event- and the newly founded Marketing Lab – a marketing experiment lab.

Cooperation

In Bulgaria the Ruby on Rails community is getting a lot of traction and organizing a lot of events for coders, why don’t we bring this to Salonica and make it an Autumn Code Camp for example? Or organize a truly Open Coffee with participants from Bulgaria, in Sofia, Salonica or anywhere in between? In October we will have the first Mozilla Dev Garage too, may it’s a good idea to might held one together. I’d love to participate in such a common gathering, and I’d like to work towards that, please share your feelings, ideas, or get directly in contact if would like to cooperate on such an event.

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Breaking – Netflix Prize, we’ve got a winner, and it’s Greek! (updated)

It is to our great pleasure to share with you and the world that the Netflix Prize is finally over, with Nicholas Ampazis and George Tsagas being the core members of the winning team.

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The contest, featuring one of the biggest datasets ever published, opened new frontiers in the areas of Data Mining & Machine Learning and could easily be characterized as’ The Olympiad of Data Mining’. Netflix, the biggest online video rental service in the US, literally crowdsourced the optimization of its recommendation system, giving away -next to the data- a prize of $1M. (You may read more in the NYT or Wired, or you’d better wait for more updated articles to come).

To put this success in context, let me also mention that over the 2 years that the contest was running, more than 40,000 teams from over 160 countries participated. The final winner in a very tight race with consecutive submissions till the very last moment is The Ensemble team, the full member’s list is available here.

Nicholas Ampazis presented a few months ago in Open Coffee Athens XXII his own start-up, Feeds 2.0, and gave a fascinating speech on the Netflix Prize a couple of months ago in the greek Foss Conference, but rest assured that we’ll have him again to speak on this tremendous success in a Open Coffee event in the very near future. :)

update: Netflix will officially announce the winners in a couple of weeks, based on a separate test set to validate the robustness of submissions to overfitting.

update 2: It seems that, Bellkor’s submission was better in the test set, at least this is what a member of the team states at the netflix forum. And we really have no reason to argue against that, it looks like a proper time to congratulate the team. The official announcement is still pending.

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