TechCrunch, one of the most respected and referenced tech blogs on the Internet, founded by Michael Arrington in 2005 and now owned by AOL, organized their first event in Europe, called Disrupt Berlin (#DisruptBerlin). The event was highly anticipated by the European startup community, as TechCrunch has for several years been on the pulse of the Startup ecosystems worldwide. However, some say that since their most recent website update (looks more like a press release platform, than a tech blog), they have lost some impact, nevertheless, TechCrunch remains influential (367th most visited website according to Alexa ranking) and their events are always full of talent, surprises and interesting presentations.
The location was East Berlin, the set was Arena Berlin which is located in the beautiful lakeside barrio of Treptower Park and the attendees came from more than 30 countries, were tech savvy entrepreneurs, startups from Finland to UAE and American and European investors as well as CEO’s of rising global organizations and some corporations (notably, AOL’s Tim Armstrong, more of him later below).
Green was the dominant colour during the entire spectacle, not only because its TechCrunch’s trademark colour but also due to the array of eco-friendly startups, both in Software and Hardware front, were present. The event aimed at showcasing TechCrunch’s selection of Europe’s hottest new emerging companies in various sectors such as: Medical Tech, Energy, Education, Enterprise and Consumer tech.
TechCrunch and their local partners put together a well functioning event, from the easy registration process to the presentation of the startups and to the great choice of constant replenishment (mandatory German sparkling water included), delicious food and visible security (someone was taking precautions). Notably, the actual event was orbiting around the speakers and bit less around the startups in the “alley”.
First day witnessed speeches from the likes of Nathan Blecharczyk from Airbnb (Co-Founder), who gave interesting insights to how Airbnb works at the moment, upcoming updates and finally confirming the whopping $200M investment from Founders Fund. Nate also touched on how they work with authorities to help Airbnb’s users in certain European countries. We also heard some of the neat perks Airbnb staff receive when travelling around ($500 in travel money every on quarter).
The interviewer asked great questions, even cornering Nate in certain issues such as the concerns some cities in Europe have with Airbnb, regarding taxing and the availability of housing due to the success of Airbnb hosts (they make more money from Airbnb than traditional renting, therefore less housing is available on the market). Watch the complete interview here.
Disrupt also consisted of several panel discussions, some more interesting than others and few even had interesting debates that neared controversy, such as the discussion titled: Is Bitcoin the new euro? (Watch this interesting panel here). Perhaps the most engaging panel discussion was hosted by Michael Arrington and featured the Benchmark Capital gang (Matt Cohler, Peter Fenton, Bill Gurley & Mitch Lasky), who between them have invested in 250 companies (Instagram, Twitter, Yelp, Snapchat and Uber among others), which have a total market value of $100BN. The discussion touched on several random issues, mainly due to Arringtons unique style, anywhere from digging into Benchmark’s interest in investing in to European startups (turns out, they are looking into it closely, however, declined to comment further) and then there was this:
Notable mention goes to Startup Lithuania (check out their fantastic website) envoy, who brought along 17 early stage startups, whom they paid to participate. Not only that they covered their travel costs but, also freaking paid them to participate!? Now, that is how you push and grow your country’s startup scene! Dovydas Varkulevicius, a.k.a Dov the Hustler, armed with charm and incredible enthusiasm told us about what’s going on in Lithuania, in terms of their startup scene. Dov the Hustler feels strongly that several successful startups will emerge from his country in the coming years, and we don’t doubt the hustler one bit. Some of them, such as BliuBliu founded by an enigmatic Italian Claudio Santori, (language learning with a real twist, I assure you) could actually be one of the startups to rattle the European ecosystem. More about Startup Lithuania soon in SiliconKarne…
Some entrepreneurs brought along their cool tech and gadgets, to provide a snapshot into the European hardware scene and where its going! Knut Hechtfischer from Ubitricity, wants to transform the existing light-poles in to electricity outlets for electric cars, and has done successful tests in some parts of Berlin. With Ubitricity, electric car drivers can recharge their vehicles wherever the special light-poles exist, and fairly quickly for that matter (see how it works here). Payleven with HQ in Berlin, is one of those startups that will actually help businesses grow and is doing so already in several European regions. They provide this cool credit card reader, which works with Bluetooth, sets up within few minutes and connects with smartphones/tablets (android & iOS devices) without any complicated setup procedure. Merchants type in the amount to the app and then the client confirms the purchase amount by inserting his/her pin in to the card reader. That’s pretty much it, but with obvious benefits and details. The surprising thing about these guys was that they all spoke great Spanish.
Then there was TheEyeTribe, who mindfucked every person who tested their tech, including us and the panda that was wobbling around. Sebastian Sztuk, gave me an iPad and told me to follow the dot around the screen and once done, the mindhumping was ready to begin. I could scroll up and down a website with my eyes, by looking on the top right or bottom corner of the web page, just as you would normally do with a mouse. Playing games is pretty insane with this tech, Sebastian thought me in just few seconds how to slice some fruits on Fruit Ninja, which was an epic experience as I did it entirely with the movement of my eyes. If this tech, which seems to be easy to integrate into various devices, such as iPads, will go mainstream, then we’ll all be tripping on Angry Birds and similar, for countless hours.
There were few 3D printers present that did some printing (not entirely convinced on them yet), an ecological coffee machine that made, umm, coffee, and then an insane looking piano, that came with a musician who played (might be wrong) during the entire event, that looked more like a creation of Jonathan Ive.
Kano from the UK, brought along their DIY computer set which will cost around €85 when ready. This computer can be entirely programmable by users (don’t need to be a programmer) in just few hours and it can be adaptable to any users needs. Its like assembling pieces of Lego, but instead you’d be making a computer (!!) that actually works!
Then there was Seedjobs, who’s founders were perhaps the liveliest and funniest guys at the event. Based in the UK, Seedjobs allows employers to connect directly to the young talent pool, through their neat platform. SeedJobs, saying it out loud sounds a lot like saying Steve Jobs, looks at disrupting the “hell out of the stupid recruitment business”, according to Sultan (yes, that is his real & awesome name). Sultan and Abakar Saidov (founders) where giving away great treats that were brilliantly disguised as Camel Balls to gain exposure for their cause and yes, I had one and yes, it was delicious.
We even met our first ever startup from Belgium and oui, apparently they do more than politics and potato chips over there. Wiseradar, similar to Feedly or Prismatic, aggregates different news sources and allows users to follow what their competitors are up to or it can send meaningful updates from certain news sources that the user favoured. Wiseradar will then collect the most relevant updates and send them directly to your inbox, without spamming the shit out of your email account (yes Hootsuite and Hubspot, this goes for you). Olivier Colot reminded us that they make more than just beers and chocolate over there…
Then came Tim Armstrong
Who sat down with Arrington, which immediately turned into a featherweight verbal boxing match. Arrington started with: “Why did you fire me?”, which paved the way for the entire interview, oscillating between how much Arrington dislikes Arianne Huffington and the Huffington post and his great surprise when finding out that Armstrong, who infamously fired one of his executives on a live teleconference call, still uses a BlackBerry. Armstrong made it clear that there is an open job offer for Arrington in AOL and that NSA hasn’t inquired anything from them, which left Arrington visibly dissatisfied, along with the audience.
To end the patchy, but highly entertaining talk, we witnessed an Indian fella who took onto the stage in order to pose in a picture with Arrington and Armstrong. Turns out that he came from India just to get in a picture with Arrington. Kudos to him for taking the initiative! Watch the entertaining clip here.
Worth mentioning is the bewildering fireside chat between Alexia Tsotsis and Pavel Durov from VKontakte (The Russian Facebook) who made a job offer to Edward Snowden (he eventually refused) and seemed to be very serious about it. Pavel also told the audience that the VK founders threw money (paper planes) out of their office windows in Russia, when they found out that they had become rich (the audience along with Alexia were left gobsmacked by this revelation). Strange things seem to happen in Russia.
The 4 finalists of the Battlefield
Lock8 – WINNERS – Presented by Daniel Zajarias-Fainsod (CTO) and Franz Salzmann (CEO) – Lock8 claims to be the first smart bike lock in the blue planet. The gadget works as an intelligent lock, which transmits any attempts on stealing the bike directly to the owner, by sending warning messages to the smartphone. The device, which has an inbuilt Geotransmitter, will pinpoint the location of the bike, in case stolen, directly to the smartphone and provide a live feed of its whereabouts. The actual lock chain is equipped with some smartness which triggers a loud alarm if any attempts on it are made. The device is equipped with something called Gyro Accelerometer, which triggers the alarm if an attack occurs by sawing, drilling, hammering or any other impact driven attempts. The lock also has a temperature monitor, which can detect blowtorch or freezing attempts (common attack method towards more sophisticated locks).
Lock8 is entirely keyless and can be completely controlled (locked & opened) with a smartphone from a great distance. The sensitiveness of the alarm can be controlled with a smartphone and, here is our favourite feature, you can rent the bike with the app to other Lock8 users. This feature is especially useful for Hotels, bike rental businesses and to others that rent away bicycles (Hello Netherlands). Their presentation was confident and clear, demonstrating effectively what Lock8 solves, how it goes about doing it and what benefits it can bring to the society. No wonder then, that Lock8 won the Disrupt Cup and took away the €40,000 prize money. Check out their cool Kickstarter campaign here.
Import.io, who was the audience favourite by show of hands, didn’t really turn the judges on, especially Arrington, who didn’t seem to fully understand its benefits. Import.io, from the UK – Presented by Andrew Fogg (CDO) & Matthew Painter (CTO) – is is a data centred service that allows anyone to build an API (Application Programming Interface) for any website, without actually writing any code. Unless you are a programmer or techy, then you fail to understand fully what they do, but briefly: they help to transform information from the web into useable data, and allow organizations to turn any website into a table of data or an API in minutes.
Asap54, a London based startup, is an app that allows ladies (at this moment) to snap a picture of any clothing item and receive on their smartphone detailed information about the brand, pricing and purchase opportunities. Asap54 has a sophisticated image recognition algorithm which, similar to Twitter’s something recognition software, allows the identification of apparel. The Founder and CEO, Daniela Cecilio, did a solid job presenting their case and responded calmly and thoroughly to multitude of questions and doubts which were launched by the judges.
The fourth and the only non-British startup (kind of strange that almost all of battlefield finalists came from the UK…nuff said) of the finals hails from the former capital of new Germany; Bonn. The boys from Voicesphere, David Kokkelink and Jan Thoene, are only 17 and 19 years old. Seriously, what the f**k were you doing in that age!?! Not much probably, chasing girls and playing video games, but these guys saw a problem and went on to solve it and boy did they do a great job. David told us that current voice recognition software sucks, because they just work with certain apps and services. However, Voicesphere lets you talk to your phone, like back in the days when you talked to your toys, but this time, the toy answers you back! With Voicesphere, users can pull any sort of data from all apps, websites or services on their smartphone, such as the image of a specific friend at a specific occasion or a map of a certain section of the city and much, much more. While we were watching this smooth and confident presentation, we kept forgetting about how young these two were and what they have really come up with, and that they were pitching in English which is not their mother tongue. To get the full picture of how good these guys were, you need to see the video of their presentation.
The Startup Quality
The startups came from a wide range of sectors, and some were really impressive, but most did something that has been seen before, however with a new twist. Travel startup Wanderio, based in Rome, was one of such startups. Wanderio provides travellers the possibility to organize their journey from step 1 all away to the final leg of a journey. This includes all the things that we take for granted but will eventually waste lots of time on, such as getting to and from the airport, getting to the hotel/accommodation and any other type of necessary ground travel. What Now?!, from London, gave a fantastic presentation on stage, Tony Sandler, effectively fought off any doubts the judges had and provided solid arguments into why this kind of app is necessary. What Now?! is an app that allows travellers to use their smartphones when abroad just as they would back home, in other words: in order to plan and successfully enjoy the plans you make online, usable also offline without occurring the roaming fees. Their witty punchline; “usually your smartphone becomes an dumbphone when travelling abroad, but with What Now, it can remain smart” worked on the audience, of which the majority came from abroad.
Perhaps the most entertaining on stage presentation came from two Londoners called Joshua Eichler-Summers and Toby Weinberg, who’ve founded Shufflehub, which allows users to browse online apparel shops with just click of a one button, which is called: The Shuffle button. They call themselves the “the laziest feature on the web” and said during their presentation that “we are pretty lazy, so we thought to use it to our advantage and thats how we came up with Shufflehub”. Similar to Stumbleupon, Shufflehub helps to discover clothes and other apparel, without forcing the user to click on several times in the menu and refining his/her specifications before even seeing any items, this process can be very cumbersome, said Joshua. With Shufflehub, surfers just get on the site, input their gender and start shuffling! The website will then start showing off cool clothes, until you pretty much drop dead (over 100,000 items available). However, there aren’t any drop down menus, no buttons and not much of anything else really, other than bunch of pretty items visible on the screen. These guys had a very scientific approach towards testing their product; by getting their mates drunk, forcing them to sleep over and waking them up early to start using Shufflehub. With this magnificent process, they learnt that the site works, even when hungover. Seriously, these guys will be famous one day.
Most of the startups were in the very early stage and some had not even launched their Beta yet, which begs the question: why were such startups present? Wouldn’t it be more interesting for the investors and for the visitors to witness something that is in action and that has gained some traction? At some point when visiting some of the startups stands it felt as if we were seeing the prototype cars, in those car shows, that were never going to materialize (which is very annoying because they look awesome). Having written that, there were great talent present, however, when we spoke with the more experienced event goers and investors, we got the feeling that TechCrunch failed to provide the entrepreneurs the possibility to network with the speakers (hiding them behind the massive curtain and giving them access only to the VIP’s) and really turning on the audience with intriguing discussions and groundbreaking projects .
There were few things that could have been done better, there always is, such as the judgement method of the startup battlefield, which was not communicated clearly to the press nor to the audience, which meant that we had no idea on what basis the winner was chosen. The TechCrunch staff, were not very approachable throughout the event and the entrepreneurs showcasing their products, felt that they (TC staff) were there only because they had to. The quality of the startups in the Startup Battlefield, with the exception of Lock8 and few others, did not present anything exceptional nor anything entirely remarkable and Arrington made clear how he feels about it.
Overall, these sort of events organized by large American organizations are a welcome sight in Europe. However, there are plenty of events here that can put up a great show and attract interesting speakers. What TechCrunch might need to for the next event, is to take the game into another level. This can be achieved by allowing more interaction between the entrepreneurs, the investors, speakers and the panelists. They could also bring their existing event model from USA to Europe, without diluting it so much. After all, talk is cheap, but connections and results speak volumes. We enjoyed our time in Disrupt and felt like we had the opportunity to see whats coming up in Europe in terms of innovation, future star entrepreneurs and the successful startups of the future.
All images were taken by our photographer, Carles Gonzalez Léon. Visit our Facebook page to view all images from Disrupt Berlin.