This article first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of OnWindows.
When Modisar Net decided to develop livestock management app Modisar to provide farmers with a new way to accurately record and monitor farm inventory, employees, animals and finances, it turned to the Microsoft Innovation Center (MIC) in Botswana for help. Not only was the Gaborone, Botswana-based company able to build its precision livestock farming software on the Microsoft Azure cloud platform, but it also received technical mentoring and help to grow its network while incubated at the centre. Thanks to the help of MIC Botswana and Microsoft’s technology, the Modisar app beat 449 competitors to win the 2014 Orange African Social Venture prize and came top at the Seedstars Gabrone 2015 competition in December 2015.
Modisar Net is just one of a growing number of startups around the world that is benefiting from Microsoft’s technical expertise, technology and resources, and extensive global supply chain network.
MIC Thailand helped a group of students from the Microsoft Imagine Cup programme to access Microsoft Azure and Windows Phone to develop LenDin, an app aimed at helping agriculturists improve the soil quality in both Thailand and globally. Meanwhile, MIC Armenia provided SoloLearn with the basic equipment, Microsoft technology, experienced mentors and e-learning experts it needed to launch its online coding courses. Now, more than 4.5 million people worldwide use the SoloLearn platform to hone their coding skills, while Silicon Valley Business Journal named the company as one of the top ten startups with less than US$10 million in financing in December 2015.
“It would have been close to impossible to start SoloLearn without the MIC,” said Davit Kocharyan, co-founder of SoloLearn.
Currently, Microsoft operates 120 innovation centres in 33 countries worldwide, all of which run in collaboration with local governments, universities and Microsoft’s other industry partners.
“For many years, Microsoft has been committed to fulfilling our public responsibilities to serve the needs of people in communities worldwide,” says Ed Steidl, global program manager of Microsoft Innovation Centers at Microsoft. “This extends far beyond our own efforts using technology to empower people to live their full potential, because it is amplified many times over through our network of partners, including governments, non-profits, academia and other organisations.”
Equipped with Microsoft software, devices and skilled IT specialists, each MIC acts an innovation hub where students, academic researchers, developers, IT professionals and entrepreneurs can exchange ideas and resources to create new companies and spur economic development.
Not only can participants join expert-led workshops, training and certification sessions, and networking events, but as members of the Microsoft BizSpark initiative, they are granted access to free software, cloud credits, developer tools, services and support. They can also work with members of Microsoft’s customer and partner network to further develop their ideas and test solutions. Plus, they’re entitled to use the MIC’s meeting rooms and conference facilities to kick-start product launches.
“We support these local hubs because they provide critical resources and assistance for youth and students, entrepreneurs and startups, helping accelerate not just innovation, but also the creation of new companies, jobs and growth within local ecosystems,” explains Steidl. “Throughout the world, small businesses play a vital role in local economies, and are often the primary drivers of job and economic growth, and what we’ve learned is that those that embrace technology far outperform their peers in the marketplace.”
Steidl notes that each MIC tailors it services to help companies overcome the unique challenges prevalent in their country’s business ecosystem.
“The MIC in Nepal, for example, provides technical training, as well as computer literacy programmes and access to technology,” he remarks. “Meanwhile, in more developed ecosystems like Belgium, our MICs organise boot camp-like activities and programmes that are designed to push new startups towards success. Currently, Microsoft’s main focus in all of our global innovation centres is to provide the tools, skills and IT infrastructure entrepreneurs need to succeed in a mobile-first, cloud-first world. We do this through various services including workshops and cloud resources.”
However, notes Steidl, it’s not just startups that benefit from Microsoft’s innovation centres; key partners also reap rewards. For example, last May Microsoft joined with partners from the Madrid Regional Government, universities and more than 60 of its sports industry partners – such as Cigna, Pivot Sport, Real Madrid FC and MediaPro – to open a Global Sports Innovation Center (GSIC) in Madrid, Spain. Here, Microsoft’s partners are able to work with entrepreneurs to unlock new opportunities for accelerating innovation in the sports, health, and fitness and sporting event industries. By 2020, the GISC aims to have served as a business incubator for 50 startups, and supported 200 additional companies.
“Our partners make a significant contribution to the GSIC’s success and they’re also able to showcase their sports-related technologies and product portfolios,” says Steidl. “In return, they’re able to network with startups and get a first look at all of the new and innovative ideas and business opportunities in the sports vertical. Plus, they can use our space and facilities to host their own events.”
Steidl predicts that more startups, entrepreneurs and even established companies will turn to innovation centres over the next few years as the fourth industrial revolution – or Industry 4.0 – continues to change the way businesses and consumers interact with the physical world.
“Our enterprise marketplace cannot be pushed into the future by the success of the past, so innovation is currency,” he comments. “A recent report by Business Insider projected that the world will have upwards of 34 billion connected devices by 2020, a rise from ten billion in 2015. Clearly, the rise of ‘connected things’ is a trend that will continue to shape companies and their products for years to come. Companies need to continue to innovate themselves, and take advantage of accelerator programmes and incubators, to remain up to date with new and upcoming technologies and business trends that have the power to disrupt and change various industries across the world.”
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