How Microsoft is driving innovation and entrepreneurship

We speak to representatives from two Microsoft Innovation Centers and two start-ups to find out how Microsoft is using its technical and business expertise to drive innovation and entrepreneurship

Rebecca Gibson
Rebecca Gibson
By Rebecca Gibson on 23 October 2017
How Microsoft is driving innovation and entrepreneurship

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2017 issue of The Record.

Each year, around 100 million start-ups attempt to take their business ideas from concept to reality, according to data shared by InnMind, a professional network of start-ups and investors. Driven by its mission to ‘empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more’, Microsoft has around 100 innovation centers worldwide.”

Equipped with Microsoft software, devices, meeting spaces and skilled IT specialists, each MIC acts as an innovation hub where students, academic researchers, software developers, IT professionals and entrepreneurs can exchange ideas and resources to create successful new companies and spur economic development.

Launched in February 2013 in cooperation with the government and the University of Malta, MIC Malta has already worked with more than 140 start-ups in the very early stages of their development, helping them to mitigate the initial costs of developing a company and supporting them with business education.

“MIC Malta provides a vital platform for start-ups to be taken seriously by customers and investors,” says Mary Downing, manager of MIC Malta. “We give start-ups the opportunity to develop their business from the early stages, allowing them to focus on perfecting their products and services without the pressure of immediately investing in their own expensive software and workspaces. As MIC Malta is a community-based facility, start-ups can also easily reach out to world-class experts.”

In 2016, Microsoft linked MIC Malta to its Accelerator Programme in London, UK. The first Maltese start-up to benefit from this new partnership was Hippo Data, which develops machine learning solutions for data processing, acquisition, filtration and forecasting. In addition to giving Hippo Data credits to use its development products for free as part of the BizSpark initiative, Microsoft shared technical knowledge about Microsoft Azure and cloud services, ran expert-led workshops and offered ongoing business support.

“Hippo Data joined the MIC during our very early development stages and the team helped us in many ways,” says Abdalla Kablan, founder of Hippo Data and CEO at amico.ai. “Speed is an important characteristic of successful start-ups, and having Microsoft’s technical support saved us days of problem solving and research at the start, allowing us to develop efficiently.”

Importantly, adds Kaplan, MIC Malta provided Hippo Data with a meeting space. “We didn’t feel comfortable receiving important guests at our own offices, so Microsoft’s meeting space helped us to maintain a professional image,” he explains. “We also participated in events at the MIC offices, which gave us essential networking opportunities to quickly grow our business.”

In addition to helping Hippo Data grow its contacts in Malta, these networking events also allowed its team to liaise with other start-ups and existing companies so they could learn the best business practices. “Through our encouragement, know-how and technical support, MIC Data gave Hippo Data the confidence to become a successful business,” says Downing.

After graduating from Microsoft Ventures, Hippo Data was acquired by one of its major customers, Singapore-based fintech innovator SIXCAP, and its team has grown from seven to thirty employees. It’s now working on launching its own AI products worldwide. Buoyed by the success of his own venture, Kablan highly recommends that other start-ups kick off their own journey with the help of MIC experts.

“We’re honoured to have been the first Maltese company to be chosen by Microsoft Ventures – it would have been impossible for us to join the programme without MIC Malta and we’re very grateful to the team,” remarks Kablan. “People should definitely use the MICs as a platform on which to build their own start-up in the early stages of development. Take advantage of the perks the MIC offers, talk to as many people and experts as possible, and learn from the successes and failures of others.”

Kablan isn’t the only one to discover how MICs can empower entrepreneurs to make their business ideas reality. Another is Paola Allamano, CEO of WaterView, a data analysis software provider that was founded as a spin-off company of Italian university Politecnico di Torino in 2015. With the help of MIC Torino in Italy, WaterView has created patented IR2 technology that uses AI and advanced image processing techniques to enable imaging devices – such as surveillance IP cameras and smartphone cameras – to take photos of rain and analyse them in real time to measure rain intensity.

“Our innovative monitoring solutions are aimed at helping private companies and public administrations abate the costs and improve the quality of rain mapping, which is useful for storm hazard management and risk mitigation,” says Allamano. “Start-ups must outline a solid business model to drive their development, and MIC Torino is unique in being able to help with that because it couples business and technological competences.”

According to Fabrizio Dominici, head of MIC Torino, his team quickly identified the potential of WaterView’s business concept. “We brought together our expert Microsoft technology researchers and our extensive experience with the start-up ecosystem to support WaterView in all the phases of its product and business development,” he comments. “Our Azure Solution Architects are helping WaterView explore how it can create a scalable infrastructure and build solutions on top of the Microsoft Azure cloud platform. To accelerate the company’s market entry, we’ve added it to the Microsoft BizSpark Plus programme so it’s entitled to more Azure benefits.”

Over the next few years, WaterView plans to gradually release new products and services for capturing data, develop an international customer network, and act as a global database for precipitation data.

“MIC Torino is the ideal partner to achieve this goal; it works at the cutting edge of innovation and it offers scalable off-the-shelf technological solutions that are perfect for start-ups and fast-growing companies like WaterView,” says Allamano. “Although we’ve only recently started collaborating with MIC Torino, there have been several occasions where we’ve appreciated the support of its technical and business staff. We’re confident that by establishing an even closer partnership with MIC Torino as part of our 2018 roadmap, we’ll achieve a significant step-change in WaterView’s growth.”

Dominici believes Microsoft Innovation Centers will play an increasingly important role in helping companies like WaterView and driving successful entrepreneurship in the next few years.

“Not only do MICs provide technical training and support for the most advanced software and solutions, but we also foster the growth of local software economies and drive innovation in products and processes at enterprise level,” he says. “This will be essential as the digital world advances.”

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