How Microsoft is leading the start-up revolution

Spokespeople from three Microsoft Innovation Centers outline how they help entrepreneurs to access the technical expertise, technologies and partners they need to launch their businesses

Rebecca Gibson
Rebecca Gibson
By Rebecca Gibson on 29 January 2018
How Microsoft is leading the start-up revolution

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

Why did your Microsoft Innovation Center (MIC) open, and what makes it unique?

Cécile Jabaudon, operational director at MIC Brussels in Belgium: MIC Brussels was launched in May 2011 to drive the socio-economic development of Brussels’ IT sector. Three things make MIC Brussels unique. First, we’re a not-for-profit, public-private partnership between Microsoft and the Brussels-Capital Region, so we collaborate with government representatives to ensure our programmes meet local community needs. Second, we were one of the first to design specific entrepreneur programmes, therefore we’re a key point of reference in the start-up ecosystem. Finally, we offer a balanced environment that helps start-ups find developers via programmes, events and networking opportunities.

Luc Bläser, director of MIC Rapperswil in Switzerland: MIC Rapperswil opened in 2008 as a technical innovation centre that bridges the gap between Switzerland’s academic and industry sectors by offering software engineering competence and applied research related to Microsoft technologies. While our initial focus was to spread Microsoft .NET technology competence, we now cover Microsoft Azure, Cortana Intelligence Suite, Xamarin Mobile, Visual Studio, Visual Studio Team Services, SQL Server and more.

Drago Gveric, director of MIC Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Inaugurated in June 2016, MIC Banja Luka is based in the premises of Innovation Center Banja Luka (ICBL). We act as a catalyst in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s software economy by promoting technology innovation with Microsoft’s latest technologies and supporting IT entrepreneurship. The MIC has been designed as a hub for start-ups, individual developers, IT professionals, academics, students and government officials to collaborate on innovative research, technology and software solutions.

How does your MIC work with key partners to foster innovation?

Gveric: MIC Banja Luka was established via a three-year collaboration agreement between Microsoft Bosnia i Herzegovina, ICBL and Government of Republic of Srpska. Thanks to the quality of the training, support, products and services we provide, government representatives have expressed a willingness to bring Microsoft a few steps closer to Banja Luka’s academic and industry sectors.

Jabaudon: We work with our partners to run a five-month ‘Boostcamp’ programme to help start-ups validate their business ideas and the ‘Step Up!’ acceleration programme so start-ups can train with market experts. Developers can participate in interactive IT sessions and hackathons, while IT undergraduates can do a 15-week internship where they split time learning technical expertise at the MIC and working on IT projects at an external company. Primary schools can participate in complimentary coding sessions and we support Bruxelles Formation, a training centre, by offering free IT certification vouchers and coaching to Brussels-based job seekers.

Bläser: Our MIC is part of Switzerland’s Hochschule für Technik Rapperswil, a public university of applied sciences that has a premier national reputation for software engineering. MIC staff run lectures and labs on the computer science course, which is unique because it focuses on Microsoft technologies like Microsoft Azure, .NET, Xamarin and TypeScript. Our MIC also offers further Microsoft-related education programmes, such as a specialised Certificate of Advanced Studies in .NET.

What are the main business challenges for start-ups in your country and how is your MIC helping to overcome these?

Bläser: Entrepreneurs come to MIC Rapperswil for help with specific technical solutions in software engineering, software architecture, programming and machine learning. Other start-ups want to get involved in joint research and innovation projects, and because MIC Rapperswil is part of a public research institution, we can acquire public funding for such projects. Funding usually comes via the Swiss National Commission for Technology and Innovation, European Union programmes and other public or private research foundations.

Jabaudon: When launching a business, entrepreneurs often don’t know where to start. MIC Brussels’ Boostcamp programme gives them a roadmap to validate their business early in the process and discover whether it will be a good fit for the Belgian market. Funding is also a challenge for many start-ups, so we help them structure their business and set the right milestones before they approach investors and connect them with developers.

Gveric: Bosnia and Herzegovina has one of Europe’s worst business environments for entrepreneurs. Current business incubators don’t have the resources or experience to help start-ups develop business models, marketing campaigns, or products and services. Plus, it’s hard for entreprenuers to access financing from seed funds, angel investors or banks, and it’s expensive and complicated to register new businesses. Working in cooperation with accredited companies, educational institutions and business experts, MIC Banja Luka provides start-ups with certified training courses that are nationally and internationally recognised, as well as informal training courses, seminars and workshops focused on business and computer science and engineering.

What services, software and hardware do you provide to entrepreneurs?

Gveric: MIC Banja Luka targets start-ups, small- and medium-sized enterprises, independent software vendors, developers, IT professionals, K12 and university students, academic staff and government decision makers. Programme participants share ideas and best practices, and learn how to use the latest Microsoft technologies to develop products and services that meet the demands of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ecosystem. The programme will include mentoring sessions, targeted training and technical skills sessions, innovation workshops, full-day camps, coding activities, events and more.

Bläser: MIC Rapperswil offers the expertise, tailored training, technical workshops, guidance and coaching Swiss entrepreneurs need to overcome technical challenges. When it comes to solution development, we engage in projects that are related to Microsoft technologies. In addition, we act as an academic partner for Swiss companies to obtain public grants to pursue their Microsoft technology innovation projects in collaboration with the MIC.

Jabaudon: Besides our Boostcamp and Step Up! Programmes, MIC Brussels runs hands-on IT sessions, hosts events on entrepreneurial topics. Last year, we ran 160 events. We also enable participants to join Microsoft’s BizSpark initiative and allow them to experiment with new technologies like Microsoft HoloLens.

How has your MIC helped specific start-ups to enter the marketplace?

Jabaudon: More than 250 entrepreneurs have participated in our Boostcamp programme, including Panora.me, which has developed a way to combine panoramic shots and selfies. We helped Panora.me to establish a business roadmap, assisted with communications during campaigns and provided an intern to support solution development. The solution will soon be used in permanent installations at Brussels’ Atomium and Grand Place. Similarly, our workshops, programmes and Microsoft technology training played a critical role in helping OUAT! to develop HakoBio, an operating system that uses 3D simulations to analyse healthcare environments. Both start-ups have clients beyond Belgium.

Bläser: Currently, we’re helping start-ups to develop prototypes for various cloud, web and mobile software engineering projects, and we’re assisting computer science students to create Microsoft HoloLens systems on behalf of Swiss companies. We’re also supporting a consortium of start-ups and universities that is using the Microsoft cloud, deep learning and .NET to develop a medical system.

Gveric: Some of the most successful start-ups we’ve helped include coding specialist Codaxy, gaming software developer Alea Gaming, and web and mobile software developer DVC Solutions, which now has two offices in Europe and one in North America. MIC Banja Luka’s location in the premises of the ICBL meant we were able to provide office spaces and business advisory services. We also connected them to Microsoft’s teams and partners, and helped them to find investors.

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