Back to the boot camp: Fitness training for new enterprises
Belgian IT engineer Didier Beka had a new idea: software that would enable people with hearing or speaking disabilities to communicate by telephone. Beka knew he had the technical expertise to develop the product but he lacked business experience to build a company around it. “I needed commercial advice,” he says.
To get it, he signed up in 2009 for a six-week entrepreneur’s boot camp at the new Microsoft Innovation Centre (MIC)
in the Belgian town of Mons. A joint initiative with the regional government of Wallonia to seed new information technology companies, the innovation centre offers coaching for entrepreneurs.
Beka arrived with a software program designed for use with a personal computer. He left realising that to be commercially successful, he needed a mobile version that could be used from a cell phone.
Now Beka is racing to finish the mobile product, called Vivatel, for launch in January 2011. “The boot camp allowed me to run through everything from A to Z,” he says, including advice on improving his product and his pitch to potential industrial partners.
For the Walloon government, which is investing €1.5 million in the Microsoft Innovation Centre over the next three years, supporting entrepreneurs like Beka is a way to tackle double-digit unemployment. The government’s goal is to help create 250 jobs through the centre during the three-year period by seeding new information technology companies. Microsoft operates about 100 similar innovation centres around the world as part of a public-private partnership strategy which helps grow the IT industry.
So far, some 38 start-ups have gone through the Mons boot camp, with one-third starting businesses and another third working on improvements. The remainder have shut down. “It goes without saying that some start-ups will fail, but our ambition at Microsoft Innovation Centre is to fail quickly if they must fail, or to adjust quickly if they must adjust,” said Ben Piquard, head of the MIC in Mons.
Many incubators offer entrepreneurs cheap office space with disappointing results. High-quality coaching and mentoring are vital forces driving entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley and Cambridge and are key to helping start-ups survive. “This (coaching) idea was the most striking and the most immediately actionable”, to help increase the number of entrepreneurs in the region, says Pierre Leclercq, a representative of the Walloon government.
The initiative is predominantly aimed at entrepreneurs in Wallonia, but all Belgian residents can take part. About half the start-up ideas relate to eHealth (the application of computer technologies to health), a key focus of the Mons centre. Other ideas apply information technology solutions to the hotel and catering industry and fleet management. The IT industry requires a very different business plan from other sectors, Piquard notes. “What is needed the most is IT business advice,” he said.
The Mons innovation centre offers three levels of support for potential entrepreneurs: brain-storming with experts; free facilities, software and coaching; and a boot camp to to groom start-ups for survival.
Pieter Eerlings, who heard about the Microsoft Innovation Centre on Twitter, used it to shape a business idea for online ticketing software. Eerlings received advice on marketing his application and pitching a business plan to venture capitalists. “You need to find a way to sell,” says Eerlings. When he attended the boot camp in 2010 his service, called Fikket, didn’t have any sales. The product now has 350 customers and Eerlings expects to turn a profit by year end.
Microsoft was surprised by the start-ups’ demand for information about best practice in the software industry, as opposed to basic help with technology. “They know our technology,” says Piquard. “They want to learn how to be successful.”
Microsoft and the Brussels regional government are now planning a MIC in Brussels, for early 2011. And the Walloon region is launching another project this year in Mons to support green entrepreneurs this year: the Euro Green IT Innovation Centre.
If such public-private partnerships can deliver on those ambitious goals, the public investment will pay economic dividends for years to come.
This article was first published in Futures Magazine. To see the full issue click here.