The application process for the first part of the Idea Challenge ended on Easter Sunday – and a whopping 311 teams will be hoping to earn the right to pitch at the four individual finals this summer.
Organised by EIT ICT Labs, the Idea Challenge is a pan-European contest to find the best new ideas in eight topics spread across eight cities with an EIT presence. The first batch has seen 113 submissions in health and wellbeing (based in Eindhoven), 57 in cyber-physical systems (Munich), 67 in smart spaces (Helsinki) and 74 in future cloud (Rennes).
Each city will pick three winners who get €40,000, €25,000 and €15,000 as well as coaching and mentoring from business development experts, integration into future EIT activities and office space for six months.
The hope is that the contest can help break down the barriers to true innovation within Europe a little; especially given that EIT won’t take any equity from the winners and therefore does not measure success in terms of seeing the startups exit for a huge profit, but rather by factors such as job creation.
And the challenge attracted interest from far and wide – there was interest from 86 countries, even though only European Union citizens could apply. Registrations came from all 28 EU states apart from Luxembourg, Denmark and Malta, and actual applications were made from 22 (the Czech Republic, Cyprus and Lithuania missing in addition).
Perhaps the least surprising statistic was that 46 percent of submissions were made on Sunday – there’s nothing like leaving things till the last minute!
Now a panel of experts, both from within EIT ICT Labs and externally, will choose between eight and 12 finalists in each category who will travel to the appropriate city for a pitch event to decide the winners: Eindhoven on May 21, Helsinki and Munich on June 3 and Rennes from June 23-24.
Dr. Udo Bub is the managing director of EIT ICT Labs in Germany and one of its original proponents. He spoke to Silicon Allee about the end of the Idea Challenge’s first phase.
SILICON ALLEE: What is the thinking behind EIT ICT Labs and the Idea Challenge?
UDO BUB: Value chains are breaking up everywhere; in all domains where ICT plays a role you will have new value chains and we don’t know yet exactly how they will be divided in the future. But you need a platform to experiment and to fertilise and catalyse all of those ideas and then everybody has to find their own niche and their own places in the whole game. That’s also why startups are very important for this because there are many things you cannot do with a big company; it’s better to do them with startups.
Sometimes innovation has something to do with Darwinism. There are innovation funnels, and sometimes failing early and often is a very good model. Those who survive with the right idea very often have a well tuned niche that they have found and they fill it with extraordinary ideas and with an impulse that a big company cannot actually create.
The Idea Challenge plays a strategic role. For me it is not just a new contest, but it fuels this ecosystem and we want to reinvent value chains and see how they will be in the eight different categories.
SA: So how did you feel the first phase went?
UB: It went very well. Overall I must say that we are very happy – 311 real submissions, not just registrants, is really an excellent outcome. You’ll notice that most of the submissions came from the core EIT member countries which is interesting. I had expected the response in the newer member states in Central and Eastern Europe to be even higher because relative to costs in those countries, I think that the prize money on offer is even more of value than here. There is an increasing amount of potential in these countries and we want to leverage that. But let’s see, we will continue to work on our footprint in those countries.
SA: How are you doing that?
UB: We are systematically building up our visibility in those countries with an outreach program, where we are already in the process of meeting multipliers and people who are visible there who run a business centre, maybe, or a startup centre, or university professors. We are doing this mainly with neighbouring countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, and also with the Baltic countries. We are creating a win-win situation because for historical reasons they don’t have as strong an industry sector. But we can connect their ideas to big industry in Western Europe without asking them to fully move out of their countries. We can reach out and build bridges, invite them to come here and work for some weeks on our premises. It’s building a bridge for their ideas to be better commercialised, and for the money to flow back for good ideas. In this way, we aren’t fuelling a brain drain.
SA: Why were there more entries for health and wellbeing than, say, for cyber-physical systems?
UB: My own interpretation of this – although we have not yet fully analysed this, of course – is that health and wellbeing is a market-orientated action line, and many of the applications in this area might have technology of cyber-physical systems inside or maybe even a cloud application inside, but the name of this field is application-oriented, that’s my first intuitive interpretation.
Additionally, health and wellbeing will in the future play a more important role with all the small sensors that are available, in smartphones and elsewhere. So I think the topic itself is very hot.
SA: There are juries of experts in each field narrowing the submissions down to the finalists – what are they looking for?
UB: The maturity of the idea, of course – although it shouldn’t be too mature, so if they are already established in the market then probably our contribution would be too narrow. So it should be really early stage, probably an earlier stage than is interesting even for early stage VCs. The early early stage. But the maturity of the idea should be very clear. With previous competitions, we have been looking at teams where they have already founded a company but have not yet managed a successful market entry.