MIT International Innovation Symposium showcases impressive European startups


Last summer I had the great fortune of visiting Portugal to get a better understanding of the startup ecosystem there. Since not everyone can go to Portugal to see it up close, thankfully MIT brought a portion of that ecosystem to Cambridge for Wednesday’s MIT International Innovation Symposium.

Thanks in no small part to the introductions of Mike Lake, the Massachusetts Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor whose Leading Cities network had established roots there, I was connected up with some great people who were more than glad to meet up to discuss what they saw as the rapidly growing startup culture there, not just in Lisbon but throughout the country. One of those great conversations was with Goncalo Amorim, Program Director for the MIT Portugal Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative (IEI). Goncalo was hard at work with planning programming for the startups participating in the 2013 Building Global Innovators (BGI) accelerator.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I sat down on the MIT campus with Luis Barros, who since working for the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center a few years ago has gone on to become concurrently the Co-Director of MIT Portugal IEI while wearing a separate hat as managing partner with his own LB Ventures and Portugal Ventures‘ accelerator. There I learned that the most successful of those BGI startups were invited to attend the eTeams III programming here in Kendall Square.

The startups are just wrapping up their first week here and will be here all of next week as well in the hopes of making great connections with potential partners and investors here in Boston, and in generating some buzz about their work and the burgeoning scene in Portugal.

Interestingly, not all of the participating startups were strictly Portuguese. With the 97 applications they received in this year’s class, 17 countries were represented. By their count 55 companies remain active out of the 80 semifinalists from the previous 4 editions, and over €17 million have been raised by semifinalists in the last 2.5 years. These figures rank BGI in 2nd place in the European accelerator landscape and 6th globally, according to the recent report by The Economist [PDF here]. If that kind of diversity and successful track record sounds as appealing to you as it should, the 2014 application deadline is in June.

Director of MIT Portugal IEI and MIT Skoltech Initiative E&I Jose Estabil (who is quick to name-check the faculty support received from Dava Newman, Paulo Ferrao, Charles Cooney, and Jose Paulo Esperança at their respective schools and from the entire eTeams committee) and Techstars’ Semyon Dukach spoke before the startups pitched to a packed house in the Stata Center. Afterwards everyone adjourned to the larger lobby to mingle and meet with the startups stationed at their display boards. The startups covered a wide range of interests and business models, giving a little something for everyone to talk about. Here’s a sampling of just a few…

eSolidar preached the need to build a community of charitably motivated shopping. Marco Barbosa passionately talked about how the “solidarity platform” will boost nonprofits awareness and sustainability through tech and social impact tools. Anyone can sell/buy and in turn donate a commission to a nonprofit. Users will also be able to bid on exclusive items and experiences from celebrities (where the money reverts to a chosen cause), and will be able to buy unique products directly from nonprofit organizations.

Iwaku (pronounced like I Wake You, not something of Japanese origin) explained their technology designed to help people enhance their mood and feel more energized. They point out that 1 out of every 3 people suffer from “social jetlag” (a term which totally hits close to home for me most weeks) resulting in chronic fatigue and other negative health effects such as obesity. The Iwaku platform will monitor your circadian rhythm and combine that with intelligent light therapy to treat rhythm disorders and mood disorders like S.A.D.

Samebug thinks it has discovered a smarter way to debug. The idea revolves around what they call “CrashManagement services and a Crowdfixing network” which automatically connects developers working on fixing the same bugs. Renata Tamasi made a great case for being able to save time, effort, and of course money, by getting developers onto their platform.

Octodon showed off a model of a blind 10-finger clip-case keyboard for typing on handheld devices. No I’m not saying you have to be blind to use it; I’m saying the keys are positioned out of sight and remain under the panel. According to Eugenia Panasova novice users can start typing on the Octodon keyboard in just a few minutes and can achieve speeds of up to 80 words per minute.

MeshApp is working on a web application that allows you to consolidate content and interactions from your social accounts, newsfeeds and e-mails into a single interface. Rodrigo Rato (whom I first met during my travel through Portugal and have stayed in touch with about his work) discussed how MeshApp’s unified and streamlined experience serves as an advanced organization system that eliminates noise and stress, wasted time, and loss of privacy. And while he was doing that, CTO Patricia Figueira had her tablet open to check on the latest revisions to the product.

If working on the product during momentary lulls in a networking event isn’t the definition of hustle, then I don’t know what is.

But it’s exactly that kind of hustle and motivation that makes these companies, the MIT Portugal IEI / BGI / eTeams, and the Portugal startup scene compelling.

Attorney Michael Novaria, a partner at Rubin and Rudman who has carved out a noteworthy niche in helping international companies think about how to best set up here (I’ll be running a post from him on that soon), remarked that he was “amazed by the quality of the pitches and the enthusiasm of the founders. MIT Portugal is clearly fostering an environment of innovation and entrepreneurship in Portugal.”

Hopefully more people will be able to see that up close by meeting with these intriguing startups next week.

Chad O’Connor is a communication consultant, teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Organizational Communication and Culture at Northeastern University, and is editor of this blog. Connect with him on Twitter @chadoconnor.