Idea Challenge Finals: A Sunny Future for the Cloud in Rennes

By David Knight |

Travelling around Europe is usually a good way to dispel many of the stereotypes and reputations that different countries and regions have gained. Sometimes, however, it can serve to strengthen them. Take, for example, a trip this week to the French city of Rennes for the Idea Challenge final in the future cloud category. It involved fast trains, the glorious Brittany countryside, a beautiful chateau, great food and some really rather nice wine – and, of course, an air traffic controller strike.

But it also helped to cement Rennes’ reputation as a centre of innovation in cloud computing, and the potential that space holds for the next five or ten years. Nine teams had made the final from the 74 entrants in future cloud, one of eight topics in the pan-European contest. They gathered at the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation – aka INRIA – on the Beaulieu Campus of the University of Rennes 1 on Monday and Tuesday to pitch and see what the judges thought.

And they weren’t there alone – the Idea Challenge final was just a part of the Future Cloud Computing Symposium, which allowed the teams to mingle with (and pitch in front of) industry experts and hear the latest developments in the space.

Up for grabs for the winners was €40,000 as well as coaching and mentoring from Idea Challenge organiser EIT ICT Labs, integration into its big network and office space for six months. Second and third places were awarded the same package but with €25,000 and €15,000 respectively.

EIT ICT Labs is an EU-funded platform which brings together research, education and innovation. It has been running the Idea Challenge this year with the aim of supporting the next generation of tech companies in Europe, and the contest is spread across eight topic areas centred on eight cities.

Rennes marked the last of the first batch of four, which started out with health and wellbeing in Eindhoven and then moved on to smart spaces in Helsinki and cyber-physical systems in Munich.

This time around, however, summer had definitely arrived – and while the sunshine meant there was nary a cloud in the sky, attention was firmly on the digital equivalent. The symposium saw speakers from Google, Microsoft and Thales as well as startups like Lyatiss and Allyours and cloud expert and author Joe Weinman. What will the cloud look like in the future? What challenges face it? How can we ensure a safe and secure cloud?

The Chateau d'Apigne. Photo: Silicon Allee/David Knight

The Chateau d’Apigne. Photo: Silicon Allee/David Knight

It was heady – and technical – stuff, and the teams lapped it up, just as they (and the odd journalist) lapped up the champagne laid on at dinner on the first day, which was held at the charming 18th century Château d’Apigné. The evening also provided an opportunity for the symposium attendees to gain a little more information on the ideas by talking directly to the teams – future cloud is a good example of a space where it can be difficult to convey the complexities of an idea in a five minute pitch.

So what exactly were the nine ideas? In order of pitching we had:


This Spanish team, based in Barcelona, is creating a smart farm management tool using an ‘agricultural cloud’. The nature of farming means it is very much open to digitisation – it still takes place fully in the real world; the crops and the livestock and the machines and the physical labour. But many supposedly modern farms are still being run with excel sheets and other ancient software.

Giving farm management a touch of the 21st century would surely bring about significant efficiency savings, and Agroptima believes it has the answer. Using the cloud, vast amounts of data can be collected and analysed – weather conditions, what’s happening in the fields, what the tractors are doing etc.

This data is collected via sensor and sent in real time to the cloud through an M2M solution, where can be analysed and sent to the farmer via an intuitive cloud interface.

The team face the issue of techphobia amongst many farmers and the presence of similar competition, but its undoubtedly a space where the cloud can have a big impact.

Video, as pitcher Varun Singh said, is everywhere online; a dominant presence on the Internet. This is especially true for video communications – as is the fact that it doesn’t always work very well.

Finnish startup, then, monitors and manages the performance of video calls via a WebRTC application. A Javascript client library measures the performance of a browser endpoint, and enables WebRTC service providers to identify users experiencing poor media quality.

It is, essentially, a way to measure, diagnose and fix problems in real time, posed as a B2B solution offered to clients including telemedicine and customer service providers.

And a good way to put pressure on the judges – tell them your company has already had two acquisition offers…


LeanXscale is a Spanish team focused on data management and the problems it entails, including the fact that databases in clouds do not scale and that analytics require data to be copied from the production database to a data warehouse. This process is known as ETL and makes up around 80 percent of the cost of business analytics.

LeanXscale aims to provide an ultra-scalable database that provides, quoting the team’s description, “full SQL and full ACID transactions in a fully transparent way to cloud applications with standard interfaces (JDBC) that solves forever the scalability of databases removing 100 percent of the cost of partitioning the DB (sharding).”

As the use of a quote might suggest, the complexities of this idea – and the pitch was delivered at the speed of sound – make it difficult for a (relatively) non-expert in the technicalities of cloud computing to pass judgement, but at the very least, Spanish banking giant Santander is interested and is working with the team.


They say be energetic on the stage when you’re pitching, but there’s a fine line between energetic and frantic… Brit Ashraf Samy Hegab – a former BAFTA award-winning console games developer – gave quite a performance as he explained Playir, a real time technology creation platform.

When finished, the platform will enable users to update source code, art assets and designs in real-time across devices and app stores, and as such will be a super easy creation tool for kids, for example, to create their own games and apps based on templates.

The secret sauce, Ashraf, said, was that they “run-time convert streamed HTML5 source code into native, enabling the flexibility of web standards and the performance of native.” Ultimately Playir, which has already seen over a million game sessions in beta, will enable users to make money from their apps and will take a cut. It is looking at other verticals as well including advertising, education, banking and security and brain training.

And Ashraf was very keen for the jury’s feedback: “I would love to get your advice because… I talk too much.”


SecureBeam pitching in Rennes. Photo: Silicon Allee/David Knight

SecureBeam pitching in Rennes. Photo: Silicon Allee/David Knight


Cloud storage is great. You plug your phone into your laptop, your pictures are automatically uploaded to DropBox, and you can then access them anywhere. Once your DropBox account has reached its free limit, you could either go premium… or start using the free storage of a rival. If you go for the latter, you end up with files spread across DropBox, Google Drive, Box, SkyDrive and more. And that also makes ensuring the security of your data more difficult.

SecureBeam’s solution is to encrypt a file directly on a smartphone or laptop, and split it up so that different parts can be spread across different storage hosts. You can still share it and merge it onto your device and decrypt it, with the platform having no knowledge of the data sent through the cloud, but rather only providing the infrastructure.

There is also an encrypted chat feature, and the beta is being released on Android soon, and the company hopes to implement a freemium model itself – which does beg the question of why someone who goes to all that effort to avoid having to pay for storage would be willing to pay SecureBeam.


Put your hand on the back of your laptop/phone/other connected device which you’re reading this on – it’s warm, right? Electrical devices generate heat as a waste product, and this is especially noticeable with servers, with data centres around the world producing the equivalent of half the volume of emissions of the global aviation industry. So why not recycle this heat?

That’s the opinion of French startup Stimergy, which has created a new hardware solution to recycle server energy at a claimed rate of 100 percent, 365 days a year.

In a trial, the Stimergy system managed to cover up to 60 percent of hot water production in a residential building. It has the aim of making the cloud energy free, with the added benefit of reducing outages. Server racks are decentralised by being coupled to water heaters in secured rooms of residential or tertiary buildings, with the water going in cold, cooling the servers and coming out hot.

A great idea, if perhaps fraught with implementation problems and, perhaps, not overly a cloud solution.


A single webpage used to be just that, a single page. But now there are different browsers, different platforms, different devices. That makes testing web applications to make sure everything works a real pain; up to 50 percent of development costs are spent on testing.

That’s because it’s vital to get it right – if your online banking or Internet shopping site crashes regularly, your customers will go elsewhere. It is essential to ensure that web apps work perfectly, and German startup Testfabrik – with its webmate product – is trying to make that process simpler and quicker.
Developers can simply input a page they want to examine into the webmate cloud platform, and it analyses it using systemic state exploration. With the scalability of the cloud, webmate can also analyse complex web applications.

Diagnosis includes listing deviating behaviour – such as a link leading to the wrong places. Ultimately, Testfabrik – which with a team of nine was a bit further along the road than many of the other teams – wants to improve the quality of web applications for all platforms and devices.


More users and more data requirements means either more capacity or slower access. Simple. And with more cloud users being used by more users, particularly on mobile, this process is accentuated further. The link from the user to the cloud goes via a base station or an action point, and is not always as strong as it could be, especially for data-hungry services like video. It tends to overload the network.

Vi-fix, a team from Germany, has developed technology to take advantage of local caches, filled at times of low traffic, and uses it at times of high traffic. The technology can save data rates, especially peak data rates, using local storage on devices.

With annual investments in wifi and cellular networks well over €1 billion, the company hopes to cash in by creating, promoting and licensing its IPR.


Your eye, your nose, your mouth – they all share the same DNA, but they do different things. That is down to gene expression, the functional aspect of DNA, and research and work in the field of sequencing and genetic data is exploding. A bottleneck has formed, whereby scientists can’t analyse all the data this being produced.

To combat that, Xpressomics has created a cloud platform for gene expression analytics. Users can upload their data files and run the analysis straight from a browser. The technical stuff takes place in the cloud so it can be used by those with no programming skills. The company intends to tap into a growing bioinformatics market – with three million life scientists already – and offer an end-to-end solution, with a nice user interface.

And the winner…

Testfabrik walked away with the €40,000, with Agroptima second and LeanXcale third. Afterwards, Testfabrik co-founder Bernd Pohl told Silicon Allee he was delighted and had been very impressed with the international nature of the contest – a vital part of helping early stage companies network better.

As for why the jury had awarded his company first place, he said: “I think we touch on a problem which is evident all over the web world and all developers, all companies have these problems to secure the pages are working on every platform, mobile devices and everything else – and we have a solution for that.”

Now the company, which is based in Saarbrücken and was spun out of Saarland University, will use the money to make a new hire – but Bernd was also keen on the other benefits the award brings.

“There are four things really,” he said. “It’s the network, specifically the international network – we don’t have a really international network up till now – it’s of course marketing and PR because of the exposure the Idea Challenge gets; the co-location centre [i.e. the office space] is interesting because it allows us to step into another city, and of course the money, €40,000 can pay for someone for a year.”

That’s the first half of the Idea Challenge done, but just as sure as the rain falls in England, the Germans win on penalties and the French air traffic controllers go on strike, it will return in the autumn with the second batch of four categories – cyber security and privacy, Internet of Things, urban life and mobility, and smart energy systems. Applications will open on September 1.