We can now truly say that the ‘startup area’, 4YFN, has become the most crowded area in MWC. It is so busy that sometimes you want to walk to the halls where the big guys (Ericsson, Samsung, systems integrators, etc) have more space and a quieter environment. And there are signs that some big guys want to have some presence in the startup area too.
As I wrote earlier, the GSMA wanted to emphasize ethical business components in the startup area this year, including edutech and inclusive financial services. Yet, this is not the main thing you notice at 4YFN. There is an edutech area, but it’s not really the strongest area there. And fintech is now much less visible than it was a few years ago. Health tech is very strong this year. Data and AI play an important role in most startups.
Think global, speak local
There are also country pavilions, which naturally includes many local Catalonian and Spanish startups. It is nice that the organizers are giving visibility to local startups, but they dominate some areas almost too much –sometimes you start to feel that the home base is more important than the quality to get into 4YFN.
The Spanish area is also somewhat surprising, in that many startups have their brochures and materials only in Spanish, and their presentations and pitches are often only in Spanish. You would think that startups understand that English is the default language at global events like this. Or maybe they only plan to find partners, investors and customers in Spanish-speaking countries?
Ukraine has its own area at 4YFN, which is providing Ukrainian startups with a good opportunity to not only pitch their solutions but also demonstrate how many great entrepreneurs and young people are building great things in very difficult circumstances. They are important examples of how to build a better future when in Russia it is mainly old oligarchs that want to collect money from fossil fuels.
While MWC is a global event, it is also a very European show. After all, its roots are in mobile businesses and standards that Europeans dominated years ago. Anyway, I was interested to hear from EU representative how Europe could become more competitive in the startup area.
There are several bottlenecks to this: how to commercialize research work, get enough funding, have ambitious entrepreneurs who really want to build global businesses and have a big enough domestic market. The EU cannot solve those issues alone, but it tries to create programs and funding to help with this. But on the whole, it is a long process that also includes a lot of local politics and attitudes.
Startups don’t always have to be the Next Big Thing
Visitors often come to 4YFN hoping to see the Next Big Thing to hype up. But I had an interesting conversation with one exceptional startup that wants to build technology that improves the utilization of technical network data for telcos, and cooperate with companies like Nokia and Ericsson. Can you imagine anything less fancy?
But the founder had a good attitude; he knew the business was not sexy, and that it’s not easy to work with partners like that. On the other hand, the company has a genuine opportunity because it was started by telco veterans who know what the telco business needs. We talked about how it’s hard to think of a young entrepreneur who would like to build a software business where he must sell with network vendors to carriers. Or, if one starts a business like that, they at least have to give up during the three-year process to agree on a preliminary cooperation with a network vendor to create a pilot for a carrier.
Anyway, it was good to remember that in the startup business, not all opportunities lie where the mainstream is making lots of noise.
The 4YFN investor lounge is packed
One takeaway from the show is that the hype over blockchain, NFTs and the metaverse is clearly over. The relevant question is: was there something real there, and is it something that can survive and be re-born? A common message was that decentralization and blockchain now need really good, solid technology, not more business model innovations to monetize cryptos. Now it’s time to build sustainable technology for more decentralized solutions, which we need for many purposes, from network computing to new data ownership and processing models.
Data is also an unsurprisingly common theme, whether you’re a startup or an industry veteran. If you just randomly select three companies at MWC, you can be pretty sure that at least two of them are doing something where data is important. Maybe the only exception is pure hardware companies, but even they need more tools and analytics.
Some of the entrepreneurs I spoke to said they were happy about this year’s event and how busy the startup area is. They said they were able to meet a lot of people and gain relevant contacts. The investor lounge and meeting area for investors and founders was so busy that it was usually impossible to get a seat there. That’s a big difference compared to just five years ago.
There is still much less money at 4YFN compared to startup events that take place in Silicon Valley, but it is much better than it used to be. There are other big startup events in Europe too, but MWC is different because of the presence of big tech companies. Consequently, it can open discussions that don’t happen in pure startup events.
What were then the most important business areas and innovations in the show? That will be the topic of my next article from Barcelona.