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Teachings from Helsinki’s Slush 2015: the cosmic egg of global startups

In the last ten days, this American-turned-adopted-South African was honoured to participate in the Global Impact Accelerator run by Slush, a 15 000-plus person strong tech conference in Helsinki, Finland. codeX, along with two other SA startups, HearScreen and GEM Project (both founded by fantastic entrepreneurs, invest in them!) were the South African delegation in a group of 30 entrepreneurs from all around the world.

We’d worked hard to get there. mLab, the mobile app accelerator, ran a rigorous pitching process that included an application, a live pitch in Johannesburg, a video submission as to why we’d benefit from attending, and a phone interview with the Slush Impact judges. Once chosen, the Finnish Embassy in Pretoria kindly hosted our entire journey and opened every door they could to all sorts of investors, donors, government folks, press, and other startups along the way.

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The most precious gift of the entire experience was the solidarity built with Jamaican, Chinese, Armenian, Nigerian, Pakistani, Kenyan, Serbian, Mexican, Vietnamese, Ghanaian, Ethiopian, Brazilian, and Tanzanian, as well as my fellow South African entrepreneurs. To know that all over the world, people who could have cushy corporate jobs are risking their own financial health to build a better future is exhilarating and humbling. Sample dinner conversations: how to scale and adapt across borders, how to incentivise great talent to stick with you when you have no money, do Finns use saunas to actually burn their skin in order for it to tan, how to adapt to air pollution in Mexico City vs. Beijing, whether to incorporate in Delaware or Mauritius, and whether Jay-Z really shut down Nas in the great battle of Queens.

Read more: Ericsson AHUB, mLab partner for entrepreneurial Pitch & Win session

The first few days were hosted by the maker-y/design-y/impact-y folks at Aalto University, where we attended workshops on everything from the proper way to present a business card (in Japan: bow and hold a pristine card out from a well-designed case with both hands) to pitching sessions with the likes of Y-Combinator’s Kate Courteau and Kenyan-Finnish angel investor Florence Korhonen, briefings by the World Bank’s venture arm and cocktail hours with Finnish startups.

We did a design-thinking workshop at one of the more awesome green buildings I’ve ever been to up in the woods of Suomi. There, we dissected each other’s business assumptions (are farmers willing to pay up front for a Fitbit for cows?) and learned that Finnish mythology and quantum physics have the same take on the origin of the universe, that it all started in a tiny center (the cosmic egg or the Big Bang, take your pick) and expanded out from there.

Elizabeth Gould pitching codeX for Global Impact Accelerator at Slush 2015. Photo credit: Derrick Kotze

Next came UNICEF’s summit on innovation, with panels on the role of tech in the current refugee crisis, drones delivering food in Malawi, 3D printers in rural schools, and so on. Most of it wasn’t super new to us techies but it felt palpably eye-opening to most of the attendees, policy wonks and UNICEF field workers whose Twitter feeds are clearly not filled with blasts from TechCrunch and Medium.

The summit was the brainchild of development golden boy Chris Fabian, who spoke passionately about how mobile tech limited the spread of Ebola in Liberia last year. If anyone can actually get ginormous multilateral institutions working with startups to help the world’s children and poor, it’s probably him. Still, other UNICEF folks made it clear that our fast moves (get out an MVP, try it, if doesn’t work, try something else) were the polar opposite of their ways: byzantine bureaucratic machinations, year-long project scoping, and five-year budgets set at country level. In the real world they are still struggling to figure out exactly how to work with us little Speedy Gonzaleses.

One highlight for me was the alternative financing panel, whose dominant theme was that equity crowdfunding will utterly disrupt capital allocation around the world. Does that mean VCs will stop investing in photo sharing apps for hobbyist fishermen (yes, that’s a real thing)? I doubt it, and let’s be fair, their job is to make money for their own investors and it would be a lot harder to check in on our Parisian friends after bombings (thank you, Facebook) if they didn’t. But it could certainly democratise which ideas get funded, and give a whole new path to innovation for the many entrepreneurs in the majority world who find themselves stuck in the early stage conundrum of investors demanding proof of something yet to be provable.

Is it so far fetched that South Africa could enact equity crowdfunding incentives to encourage a Llandudno lady of leisure, a Soweto stokvel, and a Durbanville dentist to get together to fund a young upstart? It certainly could help us become the international destination for startup activity and innovation we at Silicon Cape are working for.

Read more: Cape Town will never be Silicon Valley, and that’s a good thing

And South Africa might take a cue from e-Estonia, which has cheekily dubbed itself the land of unicorns. It now allows anyone (including the Prime Minister of Japan) to become an e-resident and base their business in Estonia without ever having been there. Farewell, nation-state! Borders have officially been disrupted. Plus, a VC from New York who visited the capital Talinn (a ferry ride from Helsinki) told me his Uber was a Tesla!

Banner display of e-Estonia, an initiative by the Estonian state to facilitate citizen interactions via digital solutions.

That brings us to the main event, Slush 2015, the tech conference with trance party trappings (a volunteer told me they rented out every laser machine in the region). There were four huge stages, thousands of startups, hundreds of investors, a dizzying array of workshops and meetings, food trucks corresponding to most nationalities in attendance, rows and rows of booths manned by bright blond 20-somethings and the usual suspects like Google, Samsung, and IBM. There was so much happening at the same time you really had to curate your own experience or you’d waste away wandering around in the semi-dark trying to make out whose badges had “investor” on them and debating whether to interrupt their conversation to ask if they’d consider investing in a African startup trying to change the world.

Read more: Co-creation Hub Nigeria calls startup pitches for Slush 2015 bootcamp

The good news (for me, anyway) is, in the Nordics they actually often would. Impact investing is getting some legs, and isn’t just, as I’ve feared for years, where the aid industry operates under a shiny new pseudonym. Increasingly, people trying to do good are applying the same financial rigour as people just trying to make good returns. The Acumen Fund’s Jacqueline Novogratz had a keynote on patient capitalism. An entire stage was dedicated to mission-focused startups and tech to slow down climate change. And there were several sessions specifically focused on Africa and building partnerships between our regions.

Which is why I got the chance to talk about codeX on the pitching stage, as part of the Impact Showcase. Several great contacts approached me afterward, so despite my nervousness at speaking to a crowd of thousands, I was proud to be able to tell not only the story of codeX but also of an individual coder, a single mom from Langa who has used code to begin to solve her own childcare problems.

De Wet Swanepoel pitching early hearing loss detection solution for main Slush 100 pitching competition.

My comrade in South African problem solving, the University of Pretoria audiologist De Wet Swanepoel, pitched his early hearing loss detection solution as part of the main Slush 100 pitching competition. He may not have won, but he should have. Okay, I’m totally biased, but I do know that 650 000 euro prize money would have been put to good use. Unlike the more reserved Finns, the South African contingent cheered wildly, of course!

Low-key as Finns may be, the city of Helsinki really rallies for Slush. Finnish hospitality goes far beyond reindeer meat, cider, and saunas. The 1 500 volunteers were incredibly helpful and friendly, especially the team that took care of the Global Impact Accelerator entrepreneurs, who went far beyond the call of duty (massive shoutout to the incomparable Olga Balakina who conducted it all like a symphony).

After the long journey home, our next mission is to follow up on all the great connections we made, to bring more partnerships and investment to our individual companies and also to the country and continent. In my former life as a journalist, I mainly focused on the US tech scene. I’m thrilled to report that what I experienced in Finland felt more global, open and inclusive than the Valley tends to. Here’s to the arctic mix of Slush (we luckily escaped the actual stuff that earned the conference its name), may what is born there, like the Finnish origin myth of the world egg, expand far out into the universe.

Images by Elizabeth Gould

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