Thoughts in the wake of EIT Digital Challenge 2016
When Justina from EIT reached out to me to judge fintech startups competing for the Digital Challenge 2016 Digital Finance award, I barely knew about the organisation. A quick look revealed it focused on “incubation, market uptake and rapid growth” of top innovations coming from European research results. That was enough to pique my interest and I decided to be part of the event. As a firm specialising in helping high tech companies secure R&D Tax Credits and UK/EU grants we have a good visibility of innovations happening across the sector – including within fintech itself, thanks to being involved with clients such as GoCardless or Curve. This was quite possibly why I was considered for the role.
I arrived at one of the top floors of the Cheesegrater building without particular expectations and was instantly positively surprised by quality of the setup and the buzzing atmosphere. Over networking lunch I bumped into one of the competitors – CopSonic from France – and was impressed to discover the company was quite well established with commercial traction and patented technology. CopSonic uses sound waves to enable communication between electronic devices (such as ATMs) and mobiles.
Before the pitches started all judges – including high profile execs from BT, Aviva, Visa and a good friend John Spindler from Capital Enterprise– huddled together to discuss the judging criteria. As it turned out what mattered most was the quality of the product/service, its USP, quality of the team, potential for international growth and acceleration opportunity by EIT. Teams presenting were to have been selected out of 234 from 25 countries that applied within five different categories.
First on stage was Giovanni Lepori from Italy pitching Axyon AI – a platform and consulting service applying Deep Learning to business problems – and seven more international pitches followed: two from UK, one from Germany/UK, one from the Netherlands, one from Ireland, one from France and one from Denmark. The quality of pitches in general surprised me – all of the speakers were well prepared, technology they delivered solid (and often patent protected) and their businesses more established than I expected. UK based Cuvva stood out as solving a particularly painful problem for a UK consumer (not being able to insure a friend’s car easily to be able to drive it) while Dutch Quantoz addressed an exciting emerging market (payments for Internet of Things) and Irish Sedicii tackled a very interesting technological challenge (optimisation of identity verification process with user privacy in mind) and impressed with high profile pilot clients.
As judges we had a difficult task ahead – only one company was to win a cash prize and two more were to be selected to be supported internationally by EIT. Since problem areas addressed were quite diverse (insuretech, payments, data mining, digital identity etc) it was sometimes difficult to compare companies to one another, disregarding personal interests and background in tech.
In the end, bearing the judging criteria in mind – acceleration opportunity proved to be very important to ensure winners can maximise the mentoring and support potential presented by the prize – three winners emerged. Sedicii came first to the surprise of the founder Rob Leslie who described the company as a bit of an “unwanted bride” in their past (probably unnecessarily given various recognitions Sedicii earned already, such as being named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum 2015). Quantoz came second and Cuvva third; in terms of challenges both companies face judges were mindful of market’s readiness with regards to former, and differing national legislations when it comes to latter’s scaling potential.
Awards ceremony was rounded off by an informal dinner for contestants, speakers and panellists which proved to be a great opportunity to connect with scaleup founders and ask more questions about their pitches. I found out, for example, that a male founder who seemingly brushed off my question about gender diversity in his company earlier, in actual fact cares about bringing more women onto the team and would really appreciate more exposure to female tech talent. I definitely look forward to EIT bringing the issue of diversity in tech more into focus as part of its events and agenda for 2017. Given the quality of Digital Challenge 2016 I fully expect that future projects will also be executed with second to none quality and care.
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