Five estonians to watch
Inspired by Skype, ambitious entrepreneurs have the confidence to believe their dreams can come true
Apple is to America, Skype is to Estonia – a symbol of the best in creative energy and entrepreneurial savvy.
The current cast of Estonian entrepreneurs includes a number of engineers who got their start at Skype, where they learned first-hand that an idea from a small country can go around the world if it is good enough and well executed. “There’s no magic, nothing to be afraid of,” says Henn Ruukel, who worked at Skype for seven years before launching his own company.“You don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to build something global.”The video-chat service’s other gift to Estonia is a cadre of Skype-made millionaires eager to reinvest their earnings at home by becoming angels and advisers to the next generation of start-ups. On these pages Technologist presents a small sampling of Estonians with innovative ideas and global ambitions.
Click & Grow
Unlike many of his fellow Estonian entrepreneurs, Mattias Lepp is not an engineer. Nor does he have an academic background in agronomy, even if his company sells plants. “I studied music and orchestra conducting,” he says with a chuckle. “Then one day, during a concert in Sweden, I understood that I wasn’t going to be no. 1 in the world. I wanted to have it all, so I ended up in the IT sector.”
While reading a NASA report on travel to Mars, Lepp was impressed with how plants could be grown in space. Six years later,
he built his own plant-growing device based on the U.S. space agency’s blueprint. It didn’t work – so Lepp re-immersed himself in the science and came up with his own technology based on bio-mimicry (copying nature). The key is Smart Soil, which provides just the right level of oxygen, nutrients, pH and moisture, enabling even the least likely green thumb to keep a houseplant alive.
Click & Grow’s basic product is the Smart Herb Garden, which grows three plants at a time, starting at €50. Lepp’s longer-term vision is to scale the technology up to a Smart Farm that can feed anywhere from a small family to a small neighbourhood.
University of Tartu
A theoretical physicist by training, Mait Müntel was part of the team that discovered the Higgs Boson at CERN in 2013. After that, he wanted a new challenge. “I’d been living in France for nine years,” he recalls, “but I hadn’t learned French and so I’d missed out on the cultural experience.” As a “hobby”, he spent a summer writing software code that would help him learn French in 100 hours. To figure out which words were used most commonly, he analysed the French subtitles of 10,000 movies; then he built software to determine how quickly his memory would retain the words. When friends started asking Müntel if they could use his software, he realised he had the makings of a business. He received support from the Estonian government, the European Union, various business angels and the prestigious London-based business accelerator Techstars. “Our aim is to provide the fastest learning experience by adapting an individual’s qualities,” Müntel explains. Now available as a beta in six languages, Lingvist will start testing its monetisation model in the fall of 2015.
University of Tallin
Production to begin fall 2015
A veteran innovator, Ardo Reinsalu feels a bit lonely in the world of Estonian entrepreneurs because his product actually exists in three dimensions, not in a cloud. Stigo is a simple electric scooter than can be folded up and rolled like a suitcase. “Our target is the urban user,” explains Reinsalu. “If you live in an apartment, there’s no plug on the street to charge your car or bicycle. And an electric bike won’t fit it into your elevator.” Stigo weighs 13.5 kg, will reach a speed of 25 km/h with a range of 20 to 40 km – and in a few seconds it folds up to the same footprint as a typical baby stroller.
Stigo has found a Chinese partner eager not only to manufacture the product but also to sell 30,000 to 60,000 units domestically. Another 1,000 to 2,000 units meeting EU requirements will be assembled in Estonia for sale in European countries with strong two-wheel cultures, including Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. Price: €1,900.
Tallinn University of Technology
Plumbr does pretty much what its name implies: it crawls through the innards of an IT system, looking for leaks. “Systems are complex,” explains Priit Potter, “so when there’s a performance issue it can take engineers two to three weeks to identify the problem.” Plumbr, on the other hand, sits permanently inside an application: when something goes wrong, it tells you exactly where to look – down to the exact line of code. Customers include the U.S. space agency NASA and computer manufacturer Dell.
Looking to the future, Plumbr is adopting the same geographical strategy as Skype, TransferWise and other successful Estonian ventures: keep product development in Estonia, but shift business development to Western Europe or the U.S. To service its American customers and reach new ones, Plumbr has opened an office in Boston that Potter will soon move to. But he’ll never turn his back on Estonia: “It’s a nice environment for shy engineers.”
Tallinn University of Technology
On a vacation in Guatemala in 2012, Henn Ruukel was reading a book by British venture capitalist Paul Graham when he came across a passage in which Graham argued that many start-ups are not ambitious enough. “The next day, hiking down a volcano, I stopped and knew instantly what I wanted to do: build a better messaging service than Skype. From then on it was all about execution.”
Fleep’s aim is to replace e-mail, especially in team and business settings. “E-mail is old technology, built for letters,” Ruukel says. “Today value is created when people interact.” Unlike some collaboration tools already on the market, Fleep is an open platform that allows conversations within a team but also beyond it – with a supplier, for example.
Live since 2014, Fleep now reaches 30,000 users, of which 500 pay for the service. This is just the beginning, Ruukel says. “Our aim is to be as big as Skype.”
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