Irish innovators put on green jersey at Tech World Cup

Challenge sees companies from across the globe, including Ireland, pitch to Silicon Valley investors

 

Walking through a crowded amphitheatre to your national anthem may be a scenario more associated with sporting heroes, but for two Irish technology start-ups, that was the introduction they experienced at one of the biggest pitching sessions of their lives last week.

The World Cup Tech Challenge, organised by the not-for-profit SVForum took place in Microsoft’s head offices in Silicon Valley last week, with 30 companies from 15 countries represented across five categories including medical, educational and mobile technology.

“They tried to make it fun, giving it the World Cup theme,” Rob Leslie, CEO of Dublin-based security start-up Sedicii tells The Irish Times, “so every company was introduced with their national anthem, we all had T-shirts or jerseys with the national flags on them, then a map of country behind us while we spoke”.

It was, he admits, “a little cringey” at times, but the effort put in by organisers was “incredible really”.

Leslie was joined in California by fellow Irish representative, FoneSense, whose founder Christian Ryder also addressed “about 300 audience members” who included venture capital representatives, possible investors, curious Silicon Valley companies and, as Leslie put it, “the usual bunch of lawyers and accountants selling their wares”.

Changed “To be honest, I’m usually dreadful at pitching,” says Ryder a few hours before he boards a flight back home. “I can be nervous as hell, but when I got up there I wasn’t nervous at all. Everyone else in our category has at least a $4 million turnover a year, so we’re competing at a high level and I think we gave a good account of ourselves.”

The competition itself is, admits SVForum CEO, Adiba Barney, a timely “tweak” on a format that has run for the previous eight years under the banner of Launch Silicon Valley. However, up until now, Barney says, “95 per cent of participants had been from the US”.

Under the World Cup Tech Challenge banner, that changed completely, with Irish, French, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian and Ukrainian companies among the interlopers.

The competition itself started at 6am with dress rehearsals for all companies, each of whom set up stalls in a hall next to the main stage where interested attendees could find out more about their products.

For Leslie, this meant talking to “technology scouts” who are permanently based in Silicon Valley while looking for new technology investment opportunities for tech giants from Japan, South Korea and all over Asia.

For Ryder, the main conversation during this time was with keynote speaker at the event and director of Microsoft Ventures, James Maiocco. Ryder says Maiocco was so taken by the FoneSense’s mobile advertising platform that it was the only company he name- checked in his speech.

After some last-minute tips from Silicon Valley pitch veterans (in which Ryder was told to emphasise how FoneSense could be a “solution for Whats App to monetise”), both then waited for their categories to be called before four-minute presentations that had to be “tight as a drum” on their products and five minutes of questions afterwards from a panel of experts.

Presentations Some particularly detailed queries on Sedicii’s approach to data security came from Marc Burch, a technology expert form the Department of Homeland Security.

“He came around beforehand and talked with me for about 15 minutes, quizzing me on different things,” says Leslie. “To be fair to him, it was sort of a heads-up”.

Barney had spent the previous few weeks talking to Ryder, Leslie and every other company involved via Skype, talking through their presentations.

She says that for many of the visiting companies, getting used to the “incredibly direct” style of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, investors and VCs was “one of the biggest challenges” of the whole experience. “Investors here think in a certain way.”

Ryder says that, in his case, this meant one of his category’s judging panel started off their critique by saying, “I’d never use that”, while Leslie had to face down a query as to whether “the American public actually give a s**t about identity theft”.

“Over here they’re looking for completely different information to what Irish VCs are looking for,” says Ryder.

Both, however, were advised to set up in the San Francisco/ Silicon Valley area. “We got feedback saying we need to come over to San Francisco to raise money, have a small office there, have a small office in New York and keep all development in Ireland, ” says Ryder.Leslie was told the same and it’s a possibility the company will look into.

By the day’s end the prize in FoneSense’s category of Digital Media Mobile went to US-based 3D innovators Pantomime, while another American company, Liquidity, beat Sedicii for Next Generation Technology award.

Proposition “Just being here though was worth it,” says Leslie. “There was definitely a handful of good conversations that could develop into very serious conversations, either on a business front or on an investment front.”

With Barney commenting that the competition may forsake the football format and be held every year rather than every four, the Sedicii co-founder said other Irish companies should look to step up next year.

“The key thing though is to have a very clear message, what is your value proposition, what problem are you solving. Plus, if you’re looking for money, have a very clear idea of how much you’re looking for and what you’re going to spend it on.”

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