Words of Wisdom at sTARTUp Day 2019

On the last day of sTARTUp Day, I met a Latvian entrepreneur over my modest lunch. We talked about machines taking over erratic humans in service and how it’s difficult for older companies to keep up with the times. I told her my story, and, before she left, she repeated several times: “Don’t give up!”

This is something I have heard before, and not long ago. sTARTUp Day – the biggest business festival in the Baltics, with 4,000 participants and a huge programme on three stages, plus a number of seminar rooms – started with a slackliner show. Jaan Roose shared his story after the performance. His piece of advice was something along the lines of: when you have failed again and again, ask yourself: Can I do it just one more time?

Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang, a guest of honour at sTARTUp Day, had the patience to train for over 14 years before he eventually got to space.

Mary Loritz, a freelance journalist and researcher covering tech and business topics for Tech.eu, has it along the same lines:

It sounds like an old cliché, but people with a “don’t give up” mantra did not seem to have learned it from the books. It felt like they were all sharing their genuine experience, and not for the sake of showing off. I could sense the supportive atmosphere and good vibes at the event.

Business advice in case you need it

At the opening of sTARTUp Day, University of Tartu Rector Toomas Asser said that every fourth student at UT wants to become an entrepreneur. Andres Kuusik, Associate Professor in Marketing at UT and one of the initiators of the business festival, noted enthusiastically: “I believe that the University of Tartu is the third entrepreneurial university after Stanford and Berkeley.”

If you happen to dream of your own company, you may benefit from the best startup advice from these two days. Let’s start with the quotes from Peter Vesterbacka, the former Mighty Eagle at Angry Birds:

You shall master the art of storytelling

The amount of advertising and noise has become incredible. What you can achieve with paid ads is limited. You have to earn people’s attention, which is done best by telling stories. Our brains are wired for stories.

What makes a story viral? Shareability. According to Cameron Manwaring from Shareability, people share things because they help us connect, are useful, are educational, start a conversation, make you feel part of something bigger, help us define ourselves, are funny, or strike an emotional chord.

Do you click on that “boost post” button on Facebook? Don’t do that. According to James S. York, President of Oscar Diggs Digital, doing this means that you don’t know what to do with your money.

He taught the participants a few magic (creepy?) tricks for marketing on Facebook – geographical microtargeting and sniper targeting. The first allows you to target people at a single building (i.e. during events), the other lets you target a single person. And no, Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t want you to know about them.

Science to business

One of the panels at sTARTUp Day was about the challenges and opportunities of turning science projects into businesses. The panelists agreed that commercialization of research is a sidetrack for scientists that is not duly evaluated or advancing their career.

“Academics see it as a distraction, and I understand it,” said Benjamin Miles, CEO of Spin Up Science Bristol. “But it is changing,” he added. Mikko Pohjola, Collaboration Manager at the University of Turku, agreed with this: “It is extra work for researchers. Publications push you forward in your career. But it’s becoming part of everyday life.”

Erik Puura, Vice-rector for Development at the University of Tartu, added the Estonian perspective to the topic: “Leadership is looking for what the university is getting paid for. We are not paid for spin-offs, but this is a narrow view. Everybody is benefiting from this.”

Director of Post Urban Ventures Luke Robinson and the panel moderator, Lars Jonsson, CEO of Uppsala University Holding Company, both noted that researchers’ attitudes change when they see a colleague in a successful startup.

The panelists also discussed the possible conflict of interest that an entrepreneurial scientist might face. The common understanding was that it should not be an obstacle; however, clear rules (also at the institute level) and transparency are needed.

Several panelists noted that tech transfer offices at universities can be a bottleneck, as they are too slow and try to centralize innovation. Instead, they should stitch together the local ecosystem where doctoral and post-doctoral students would belong.

Why deal with entrepreneurship? “Research is publicly funded, so implementation is needed as well,” said Benjamin Miles. Luke Robinson agreed, adding that “academic research can drive local economy through startups.” According to Erik Puura, university fulfills three roles: education, science, and service to society. “I would put education on top. If professors have entrepreneurial experience, they will give it to students.”

Instead of a conclusion

An event with 4,000 participants sounds like something hard to embrace. However, with the Brella app I was able to match individual participants with my interests and ask them for a 15-minute meeting at the automagically assigned table. The programme would find a time slot suitable for both. This way, I was invited to one meeting and initiated another meeting myself – both well worth the time spent. Both encouraged me not to give up.

Inga Külmoja is an author and the editor of the UT Blog.

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