Dublin Startup Weekend: The Art of the Possible in 54 Hours

The second Dublin Startup Weekend (#swdub) took place last weekend at The Digital Hub. At the previous event in May 2010 four of the eight ideas that were worked on over the 54 hours are running as companies now launching real-life products.

Startup Weekend began three years ago in the U.S. and has now turned into a worldwide phenomenon. At the same time as the Dublin event Startup Weekends were taking place in Tunis, Copenhagen and Texas.

The format is straightforward. Participants gather on the Friday evening and listen to pitches from those who have a project or an idea they want developed. People decide which project interests them most and they form themselves into teams. In Dublin 70 people showed up out of which 8 teams were created.

The teams focused on a variety of projects; a restaurant booking system, an accountability system for political representatives, web texting for Facebook, a habit monitoring system, and a virtual exhibition hall for art galleries to name just five of the eight.

Clément Cazalot, a French entrepreneur who will be launching docTrackr his own anti-Wikileaks startup soon, was the facilitator for the event.

He says, “We are aiming to allow people to create their startup in only one weekend. This is a big challenge because when you speak to people, I don’t know, for instance, your mum, she will say, ‘this is impossible to build a company in only one weekend.’

“But we prove this idea to be constantly false because in one weekend you can quickly create your product and test your product or at least test your idea to a specified market.

Startup Weekends are not exclusive to technical folk as Clément points out, “When you create a startup you need to be balanced. You need to have half business guys and half tech guys who are able to mix their different backgrounds.

“It is necessary to challenge technical aspects with business insight and to challenge business insight with technical aspects. When you launch a startup you need a balanced team.”

Corinna Hardgrave, who lists being a food writer for the Irish Tatler amongst her many activities came along with an idea for a restaurant booking system, “I would never have got started on my idea if it wasn’t for an event like this. This is such a brilliant idea, people coming together from all different backgrounds all in the one space.

“Everybody wants to achieve something. People who turn up at events like this are very motivated anyway.

“It’s a nice atmosphere because people are sharing. No one is getting precious about ideas and things like that. It’s great from a networking point of view but beyond the networking it is just a great learning curve.”

Reza Seljewk managed to enrol a number of people to work on his netocracy idea. He explains what he is trying to do, “The idea behind Netoocracy is that communities come together in a virtual environment to track if there is real [civic] progress, at their local, regional or national level and that the policies that are being implemented by those in authority are following the interests of those people.

“Dublin Startup Weekend brings key people together to make real teams very quickly. It is a real catalyst in being able to make a jump start on something that could take you months to do.

In contrast, Qamir Hussain, Founder of aveclabs, thought he would just come along for a couple of hours and maybe have a bit of a laugh but what he found was, “Different people with different mindsets, bringing different things to the table and just lots of really cool ideas coming up.

“It’s real – it’s real coders and real developers doing real stuff. You’ve got such a short time frame so you are forced into being focused.”

The event itself was sponsored by the NDRC and Seán Murphy was one of the organizers, “We started the ball rolling on this a year and a half ago in Dublin by putting a call out to see if people would be interested in engaging with a weekend such as this and I got a pretty positive response.

“Once we had a couple of hundred people signed up we concluded that there was enough energy and interest to give it a go in Dublin.”

“The time is a little bit constrained over the weekend. We kind of feel that this number is a good balance between having enough momentum, enough energy to make it an interesting and fun event but not being overcrowded and people getting too little time.

“The sort of people who come to these events are absolutely fantastic. They are people who are positive. They want to give something a go. They are full of energy, enthusiasm and ideas. There is a really great vibe, a really great, fun atmosphere here at the event.”

Seán and his colleagues will take a little time after the event to gauge feedback from the participants and determine what could be done better next time before deciding on the date for the next event.

If you are interested in coming along then that is an announcement that will be worth your while to watch out for as this last event was 20% over-subscribed.

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Vital++: Television Content through the Internet

Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) is a mechanism by which televisual content is delivered to your television set by using the internet. Instead of receiving programs via an aerial or through cable you will be able to have them delivered through your broadband connection.

The conventional delivery of programming via an aerial or through a cable requires the material to be sent more or less as a continuous stream from the transmission center to the television screen. But not all content uses the available bandwidth equally.

An action/adventure feature film, for instance, can have considerably more audio and visual data at a given point in its timeline then then say, a studio discussion with two talking heads. Providers have to allow for these high density transmission rates by increasing the designated bandwidth but as a consequence, when not so much audio/visual content is present, unused capability is created in what the telecomm operators call the reserved space.

The most effective way to make more efficient use of data bandwidth is to use peer to peer (P2P) file sharing. Instead of everything having to come down one pipe, so to speak, data is stored across a network of PCs. The P2P software locates the nearest piece of content as opposed to continually trying to locate content from a centralized server.

However, as it presently stands, a lot of P2P file sharing is highly problematical for the network operators. A significant proportion of file sharing activity is in the trafficking of unlicensed and unpaid for copyrighted material.

A solution to this issue of unregulated transfer of data is Vital++, a project with multiple partners across Europe. These range from the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, where the MP3 system was invented through to Telefonica, Telecom Austria and partners in Greece who are expert in P2P networks.

The Irish effort in this project emanates from the TSSG who are based at the Waterford Institute of Technology. Shane Dempsey is one of the project members.

“If you were broadcasting a popular football game using the Vital++ system you would still have to reserve some bandwidth to make sure the overall performance of the system was adequate. That the viewers who were watching the peer to peer distributed TV were getting a good experience.

“What we are trying to do is minimize the amount of expensive quality of service reservations. We use pretty advanced algorithms for distributing the content based on statistical usage properties.

“With the Internet, it’s generally best effort. That’s not good enough for high definition TV but it’s free, or very cheap. So what we are trying to do with our peer-to-peer network is to use as much best effort as possible and then as a last resort reserve quality of service.

“We have to address the mechanisms that were available in the network to reserve bandwidth as required by the peer to peer network. So, we had to come up with a way to do that. We had to find a way to monitor a very large number of users who could be part of the content distribution overlay. An overlay is basically a group of users who are involved in distributing content to other users and receiving it themselves.”

In contrast to a centralized content service where the user just pays a subscription fee, being able to monitor what is going on throughout the content overlay and throughout the group of users participating in the service allows for micro-charging to be made possible.

This makes it much easier pay-as-you-go and and pay-to-play services to be made available.

Another aspect where the TSSG provides its expertise is contributing towards additional functionality in the Vital++ project to allow the building of licencing and content management infrastructure across the reserved spaces or reservation. This enables the appropriate usage and licencing of fair-use content for educational and other purposes.

The standardization process is still going on at the International Telecommunications Union. In two or three years we should actually start seeing some of these mechanisms being used in IPTV systems. The next stage after that would be to have IPTV sets in our homes.

Feedhenry: Building Apps in the Cloud

Feedhenry is service that allows developers to build an app from a single source code base; have it processed in the Cloud and receive an output that is configured for use on the relevant major mobile phone operating system of choice – iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone 7 or Nokia Web Runtime.

Applications are built using JavaScript which runs on Feedhenry’s open standards technology platform. Developers can construct their apps online through a browser or they can download a software development kit if they wish to work off their own computers.

Micheál Ó Foghlú is the CTO of Feedhenry and explains further, “It is an entirely hosted environment. The development platform is hosted as well as the server side cloud where the apps are deployed.

“On that website you edit html, javascript and CSS and you press a button and it spits out a binary APK file, for instance, that you can just upload on to your Android phone. Or it spits out a binary file that you can upload to the Apple Apps Store to put on your iPhone via itunes.”

Having a single source code base means that developers and client can work in a single cross-platform development environment and avoid having to write and update their app a multiplicity of times for multiple platforms.

Micheál cites an example of what can happen in the normal development process, “Usually the first thing a client may say is, ‘We want an app.’ Then they say, ‘We can hire these software developers to builds us an app.’ Then they say, ‘Hey guys, we’ll give you 5k, 10k, 20k. Can you build us an iPhone app?’

“The guys build them an app. Then they say, ‘Android have shipped more units in the States than iPhones did in 2010. Maybe we should have an Android app as well.’

“Typically, they go back to the same developers and say, ‘Can you build us an Android app?’ And they say, “No, we’re all Objective C guys. We know how to build iPhone apps. We don’t know how to build Android apps.’

“Then you have to pay another bunch of guys 5k, 10k, 20k to build the Android phone app and so on for Blackberry, Windows 7, Nokia Web Runtime.”

But the story doesn’t end there, “Then you have to update the app. So you have to pay the first guys to update the iPhone app, pay the second guys to update the Android app and so on across the handset operating systems.

“It becomes a nightmare in terms of code bases for what in terms of logical business functionality is a single functionality.”

The server side element which is hosted in the cloud allows easy back end integration into enterprise services. Sophisticated apps can be created using standard web technologies and be integrated into existing business and IT applications without any additional investment.

The three main market segments the Feedhenry team are looking at are enterprise solutions, telecoms operators and independent developers.

Its application delivery platform can deliver the same application interface to both smartphones and social media sites.

The original work on Feedhenry was done by the Telecommunications Software and Systems Group (TSSG) in Waterford, Ireland back in 2008 and now operates as a pay-as-you-go service with six full-time staff.

According to Micheál, “The purpose of TSSG is to try and be excellent at basic research, applied research and commercialization and to have a balance of all three. What Feedhenry represents is one our best attempts at having a real commercialization impact — to have a commercial spin out of the technology.

“It was a strong enough technology at the right time in the market place to make it worth getting investment and spinning out to make a play in the market place.”

GruUpy: The Purchasing Power of Community

Gruupy.com is an online retail company with a difference. They sell a different electronic product every day, and that’s only if a minimum quota of people buy it. The idea is that buyers become part of a community, and their combined buying power allows Gruupy to buy these gadgets cheaper, and pass these savings on to the consumer.

Irish online gaming entrepreneur Dylan Collins is the Chairman of Gruupy. Given the fact that he has enjoyed considerable success in the gaming sector, Demonware was acquired by Activision Blizzard, while Jolt was bought by Gamestop; surely starting another gaming company was the logical next step?

“Yeah, I suppose that’s what a sensible person would do!” However as Dylan explains, “To me there are huge growth opportunities in e-commerce. I know there has been a huge wave of it over the last ten years, but if you look at what the global economic situation is doing, it’s pushing people online to try and find the best price.

“Gruupy is a site which is really dedicated to giving people products at the cheapest price humanly possible and it does it in a way that is quite community-focused. I’m a big believer in that and I think you’re going to see a lot more growth in the future.”

Dylan is not concerned that the idea of the success of your purchase being dependant on others will deter online consumers. “We are extremely transparent in terms of whether something is selling or not. That’s the reality of the community, sometimes they like things, and sometimes they don’t like things. But the beauty of our business model is that we have no balance sheet risk, so we only buy the stuff once our community buys it.

“I think people are pretty well socialised to the notion of looking at stuff, realising that it might not be for them, but not taking it personally, and coming back the next day anyway.”

Dylan has been particularly vocal in his view that start up companies should be cherished and supported in Ireland, and tries to do so himself through a number of avenues.

“More and more what we’re seeing is companies approaching us, particularly start up hardware companies, or small gadget makers who are trying to break into the market and they want to sell stuff to our community. And that’s really very cool, because the ability to help small tech start ups around the world actually get traction in the market, but at the same time providing something very exclusive to our customers, I mean, that’s great, that’s a double win.”

“I try to help out with or mentor several companies. I act as an informal advisor to a range of them. Generally, I try and limit myself, because it’s very easy to get involved with everything and then all of a sudden you run out of time to do anything at all productively.”

Ireland is, as Dylan himself describes it, “One of the biggest online gaming hubs in the world.”

However, not many people are aware of the country’s stature in this sector. Much of this is to do with a lack of awareness from politicians.

“They don’t come from the same generation that grew up with the Internet, or that understands things like online gaming, so a lot of this stuff just goes beneath their radar.”

Dylan acknowledges that Ireland has not marketed itself particularly well in this regard, “I think one of the things that Ireland is quite bad at is really looking closely at what we’re good at and shouting about it unashamedly.”

However the Internet entrepreneurs should not be expected to shoulder this burden alone, he says, “I don’t think it’s particularly realistic to expect them to be out trying to represent the country as well as their own companies. I mean, there’s only so much they can do.”

He does think that Internet entrepreneurs could play some representative role in marketing Ireland as a tech hub, but only as part of an integrated government strategy.

“The government, needs to come to all the senior figures in the Internet industry and say, ‘OK guys, we want to hire you as ambassadors, we want you to go out and on your travels around the world, talk to people and when you talk to people, do so under this quasi-diplomatic ambassadorial status. Because the impact of an actual business person walking in to a Zynga or an Amazon or someone like that and saying ‘you know what? I run a company just like you guys, I know what the ups and downs are like, and I’m telling you, this is a fairly sensible place to do business, you should come to Ireland’ carries a lot of weight.”

In the meantime, Dylan welcomes the announcement by Fine Gael, the political party most likely to form Ireland’s next government, of a strategy, “Which is extremely focused on online gaming” as a positive start, “It bodes well for the future.”

And what does the future hold for Dylan Collins? “I’m always looking at things, and I think that there’s enough there to keep me busy for the time being, but I would be very bullish in general on the e-commerce space, I would be very bullish on online gaming. I think they’re both very, very strong sectors and will be well into the future.”

President Obama visits Silicon Valley

President Obama recently made a two-day visit to Silicon Valley. The aim of the trip was to promote technological development with a view to supporting and improving the US economy. At a private dinner, President Obama met with the heads of some of the leading technology companies based in Silicon Valley.

According to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, the conversation centred on ways to work to invest in innovaton and promote private sector job growth.

“The president specifically discussed his proposals to invest in research and development and expand incentives for companies to grow and hire, along with his goal of doubling exports over five years to support millions of American jobs.”

In addition, “The group also discussed the importance of new investments in education.”

President Obama has already promised to fund tax credits for research and development, and has plans to allocate $18 billion dollars for wireless broadband infrastructure across the country.

The Irish Innovation Center (IIC) has over 20 start-ups operating from its premises in San Jose, California. They support plans to give immigrants preferential visas if they bring in capital and start up a company that creates jobs for Americans.

They are referring to initiatives like the Startup Visa Act which was introduced by Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar in February 2010 and is awaiting approval. In essence, it allows for a foreign national to obtain a visa that would allow them to reside and work in America if they can raise a certain amount of money from a venture capital firm owned by a US citizen.

John Hartnett, President and Founder of the Irish Technology Group (ITLG) says, “Our competition is every other city in the world, and leading in education and leading in supporting that young innovator that is coming to Silicon Valley to set up their company and be successful and become the next Google or the next Facebook is what we want to make happen.”

To increase the chances of making that happen, for Irish businesses in particular, the ITLG wants to get the US Government to create “start up incentives” for seed funding and the creation of employment grants to be made available for Irish startups in America. They would also like to see more support for the IIC.

In a previous interview with the Technology Voice, John explained why it was so important for entrepreneurs, especially Irish entrepreneurs, to have a presence in Silicon Valley, “Three reasons to come to Silicon Valley are access to customers, access to capital, access to talent. If you want to understand what is going to shape your company in the future, it is your people, your ability to get customers, and your ability to get funded, and that’s all sitting here.”

With the President of the United States taking a personal interest in technological innovation and growth, combined with upcoming changes in legislation like those proposed by Senator John Kerry and Senator Richard Luger, the future does seem to look more promising for those who are willing to make a go of it in Silicon Valley.

Starolas: The All-in-One Web Application for Academic Conferences

Academic conferences allow researchers and academics to present, discuss and showcase their work. The conference chairperson generally organises the entire event from the paper submission stage, months in advance of the conference, right up to the event itself.

Galway-based company, Starlight, plans to simplify the organisation process for the chairperson through its conference management application, Starolas.

Starlight is a creative lab space of six people that focuses on the creation of web apps. Its diverse portfolio also includes website design and animation.

The name for Starlight’s app, “Starolas”, combines the “Star” from Starlight and “Eolas,” the Irish word for knowledge.

The app is designed to be used for approximately nine months leading up to an academic conference. It contains four key modules:

  • Paper submission and review
  • Online payment and registration
  • Website
  • Delegate management

The final module above allows a conference presenter to upload his or her presentation and biography to the conference website in advance of arrival. The delegate management module will also download the presentation files to the presentation computer to negate the need for the speaker to bring it on a USB key.

Founder and Managing Director of Starlight, Paul Killoran says, “Academics are focused on research. They don’t necessarily want to organise a conference. At the end of the day, their key is that the conference goes well, generates a lot of papers, research and presentations. My objective is to create a piece of software that is robust and will provide that infrastructure. It will make them look really good and in doing that, take away all the pain of how to coordinate the conference.”

In terms of the current web apps available for an academic conference chairperson, Paul explains, “some of the competitors only do about 25% of what we do. For example Eventbrite
and EventElephant do online payment and registration. But we’ve tried to make it a one-stop shop for everything you would need to run your academic conference. We would hope that within five years this product could be the de facto standard for how to run a conference.”

Starlight is also considering adding a social networking tool to the app. Paul explains, “These conferences are not just about publishing papers. They’re probably more about meeting up with your peers from all over the world in the same subject area and then networking with them. What would be nice is an opportunity for you, before you get there, to see all the submissions or the presentations that are going to go on and to see a list of who will present those in a social way, almost like a Facebook.”

In addition, Starlight also hopes to include a feature that will allow the abstract book for delegates attending the conference to be complied through Starolas. The app will gather the individual submissions into one document that can be produced easily by the conference chairperson.

The idea for Starolas first originated from an Institution of Engineering and Technology conference held in NUI Galway in 2008. Starlight was approached by a lecturer to design software for the event. Paul remembers, “I said to him I can write that in a week. Six months later I finished writing it and it broke me. If I had a house I would have lost it. But we had built this amazing app.”

After the event, Starlight was approached by other conferences to use the app. Paul says, “After four or five conferences I thought: we have something here and we should make it in such a way that we can deploy it really really fast.”

Starolas has already been sold to twenty conferences. Paul notes, “We’ve never lost a conference. The first year we did two conferences, the second year we did seven. Then the recession hit so we maintained our seven and we’re hitting seven again.”

Starlight is most proud of having powered the 2009 symposium on Applied Reconfigurable Computing (ARC) in Germany as it was the first European sale of Starolas. Amongst others, it currently powers ARC 2011 in Queen’s University, Belfast and the Western Vascular Institute Symposium.

Paul recalls one particular moment where he realised the potential of Starolas. “I was sitting in Germany at ARC 2009. We had servers which were located in Galway. So I’m sitting there and there’s a guy in front of me with his Mac open and he’s working on his PowerPoint. There’s a presentation going on at the same time. He finishes the PowerPoint, closes it, saves it and goes to the website and uploads it. The presentation in front finishes and he walks down the stairs, clicks on the link and presents. His presentation had gone from Germany to Galway and back to Germany.”

The funding for the app was acquired from the Galway Enterprise Board with match funding from the bank.

Paul advises other budding designers seeking funding that “the best thing you can do is just be completely honest with yourself. There’s no point going in with a business plan trying to sell the bank manager on if you don’t believe in it yourself. To get the funding, we put together a very clear business plan, we showed a product that clearly worked, that was sold twenty times, that had generated x amount of revenue in 2 years and were able to demonstrate that this product would work.”

Starlight aims to have Starolas at alpha (the first phase to begin software testing) or approaching beta (the next phase generally when the software has all its final functionality) by May with a view to showcasing it at upcoming conferences in June.

TapMap: Navigating Offline Store Inventory with Online Technology

The first online shopping site, Intershop, was established in 1994, followed closely by Amazon and eBay. Since then, online shopping has expanded into the multi-billion dollar ecommerce industry that exists today.

Despite the growth of online shopping, consumers still research products online and then purchase that same product in a physical store. A US consumer survey commissioned by the Art Technology Group (ATG), published in March 2010, found that “30% of consumers today actually use three or more channels for a single transaction.”

This process, known as cross-channel shopping, has been linked with many factors. These include the need for a tactile experience that drives many consumers into their local stores ahead of online retailers. However, finding the exact product you have researched online in an offline store can be difficult. Until you visit the store you may not know if the product is in stock, or if it is at a reasonable price.

Philip McNamara noticed the need for greater transparency in relation to offline store inventory when he was searching for a gift over two years ago. “I remember I was in San Francisco and I was looking for a present for my friend. San Francisco is this really high tech amazing city. I was looking for a specific bike part and I remember I went to five shops asking for this. The first shop didn’t know if he had it, the next shop didn’t have it, next shop didn’t have it and it was a real pain.”

This experience prompted Philip to establish TapMap, a platform for retailers to publish their inventory data on mobile devices. A consumer can then search or scan the barcode on a desired product to check the availability of it in their local stores and compare it to online products.

Philip says “a lot of the retailers right now are competing actively against the big guys whether they like it or not. A lot of consumers are researching online, they know exactly what they want to buy and retailers are loosing out. They’re not being seen and they can’t be found. We want to change that.”

TapMap works with large retailers like O’Brien’s Wines, Unicarepharmacy and Evergreen Health Foods. It is also currently in discussions with retailers from the consumer electronics, health and beauty and toys and games sectors in Ireland, the UK and the US.

TapMap plugs into the retailer’s point-of-sale system and takes a feed of their data. This updates automatically in real-time or for example, every 2 hours or 24 hours. When a customer then searches for or scans a product, TapMap accesses the retailer’s data to inform the customer if the product is in stock, how much it costs and to provide a comparison with online retailers.

Many offline retailers are currently questioning whether they need to develop their own smartphone app (software application) to appeal to their customers. Philip believes that this is unnecessary.

“What the app will do is cost you €100,000 at least. There are about 350,000 apps in the app store and about 100,000 apps in the android store. No one will download it, and if they do download it, what value will they get from that? It’ll tell them maybe: Here’s my local store. I know that already. Here’s what’s in stock. Fine. But can I compare prices? No. Is it giving the consumer real value? No, so they’ll just delete it.”

Instead, Philip has this message for retailers: “What Google are saying is in the next two to three years there’ll be more queries going from mobile devices than there will be from fixed devices. Mobile is going through the roof. Whether you like it or not, your customers are researching your products and they’re finding them online really easily but they don’t know if they’re in your stores.

We know that, even despite the growth of e-commerce in the last ten years, the majority of all shopping is done in local stores. So people are researching online and buying in local shops. So if you don’t allow people to see that it’s in stock in your local store your customers will go somewhere else. They’ll go to Tesco because they know it’s in stock or else they’ll go to Amazon or eBay. So you’re going to lose out.”

With direct access to retailer’s inventory data, TapMap is conscious of maintaining high levels of data protection. Philip says, “When someone requests a price, it’s one person with oneprice and that’s what we give back. We don’t mine all the retailer’s prices and we don’t show their prices to anybody else. That’s their private data.”

The data captured, however, can be used to provide an insight into the retailer’s brand and the consumer interaction with it. Philip explains, “We can look at a retailers live data. We can see when there’s a big spike in demand and we can tell the retailer – of what people are scanning across the mobile web – what the top products are. When anybody scans the barcode of a product like in a shop, a pub or at home, we capture the latitude and longitude of that scan. That’s a lot of rich valuable data that we can use to give marketing companies or brands more insight into their own brands. But we don’t know that this comes from this exact store or this particular person. It’s all anonymised data.”

The ATG commissioned consumer survey also found that only 9% of people questioned never purchase products in a physical store. This figure highlights the continuing importance of brick and mortar stores to consumers. With the emergence of new technologies like TapMap, the offline store now has an opportunity to compete more directly with its online counterparts to maintain this importance in the online age.