BizSpark accelerating start-ups’ access to global market

9 Mar 2010

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Irish start-ups, it appears, are proportionately the most avid subscribers to Microsoft’s BizSpark programme and according to the global head of BizSpark, Cliff Reeves, the country is putting in place an ecosystem for start-ups that Silicon Valley would be proud of.

In excess of 400 companies have joined the BizSpark programme which brings them into a development ecosystem of 30,000 firms worldwide and strategically positions them to capitalise on Azure, Microsoft’s ‘Windows for the Cloud.’

Microsoft’s role in BizSpark

Under the BizSpark initiative, Microsoft provides start-ups and entrepreneurs easy access to development tools and server products with no up-front costs. The Irish programme also includes discounts on the purchase of Dell hardware and preferential rates from hosting providers like Blacknight, C-Infinity, Digiweb, Eircom and Hosting 365. In terms of software, the programme will provide start-ups with access to current full-featured development tools, platform technologies and production licences of server products.

Microsoft Ireland managing director Paul Rellis recently confirmed that the number of Irish tech firms joining the programme is proportionately higher than those of larger economies like France or Germany and according to Martha Rotter, developer evangelist, the number now exceeds 400 firms.

Reeves confirmed this. “Proportionately, for sure. I don’t really know how to put a single reason for this but there’s clearly an entrepreneurial spirit, perhaps in spite of Government,” he jokes. “It is true though that the environment feels different here than somewhere like Germany. There’s a willingness to take risks and everybody here knows each other.

“It’s these things that lifts the (Silicon) Valley where it’s cool to be an entrepreneur, super-cool to fail and there’s always someone to encourage you to fail, where you’re not seen as a crazy inventor.”

Praise for Enterprise Ireland

Reeves was very complementary about Enterprise Ireland, which he believes is doing a good job in putting in place the right ecosystem to grow the local software industry.

“Enterprise Ireland are clearly a massive player. When we formed BizSpark, Enterprise Ireland was the poster child for the way we wanted the programme to work. If it doesn’t engage the entrepreneurial community, we’re making a mistake. At the time, allying with Enterprise Ireland was common sense, now it’s the silver bullet.

“I’m looking forward to synergies we haven’t seen yet. IT used to be a destination, now software companies are being recognised as a key enabler delivering business value.”

In terms of what Microsoft gets out of working with start-ups under the BizSpark initiative, Reeves was candid. “It started out because we wanted to get a broader adoption of our technologies by SMEs, new companies were looking at different ways of delivering technology and we realised we weren’t always the first choice. We asked ourselves how do we relate to these new guys?”

He added that the initiative is a key component of Microsoft being battle-fit and relevant for the new cloud software ecosystem.

“We believe it is a key path to securing long-term customers, not only for us but helping new firms to enter the ecosystem. We’re learning an immense amount about trends and technology by spending time with these guys, even learning about technology they’ve spun out. There are different mindsets around getting technology to market, new ways of commercialising and new perspectives.

“We realise that it’s not a case of just managing the congregation. It’s a strong ecosystem. We’re realising the world is more complicated and not all about Microsoft. The future of partnership is about developing communities.”

He said the pockets of innovation in the world like Ireland and Israel are impressive but there are other locations that are emerging like Belarus, Ukraine and Italy as fulcrums of innovation.

“It is abundantly clear that the downturn can lead to an upturn. I was in Italy recently and there are more start-ups than ever because there’s a massive infusion of experienced senior managers who are no longer working but have decent separation packages. The economy there is speeding up.”

Firms readying for Azure ecosystem

Present at the meeting with Reeves were a number of established Irish technology companies that are already advanced in preparing for the Azure ecosystem and have found the BizSpark programme constructive in their overall growth trajectory.

Conor O’Riordan is CEO of TradeFacilitate, a firm dedicated to reducing the costs associated with dated and inefficient paper-based international trade transactions and increasing the trade competitiveness of buyers and sellers globally.

It provides a European Union (EU)-validated solution with global capability and scalability that enables traders and their transport intermediaries to create and manage all their relevant trade, transport and customs data, using only an invoice, and assists in linking their physical and financial supply-chain activities.

O’Riordan said membership of the programme provides a calling card and level of assurance when trading in regions like Africa. “Microsoft has hundreds of thousands of partners globally and everywhere you go there’s a partnership you can work with.”

He said that the programme has equipped TradeFacilitate, which works with the EU and the UN, to be knowledgeable enough to win business with major governments. “If we hadn’t been in BizSpark, we couldn’t have met the technical deadlines set by the EU. We took on a module and were able to seamlessly move onto the Azure platform and work on it; it’s been a huge learning curve.”

Lucey Technology and BizSpark

Ian Lucey of Lucey Technology said the programme helped his secure payments company to accelerate growth.

Lucey founded the company with the goal of taking services usually available to larger businesses and making them available to smaller customers. Lucey Technology’s software is developed using Microsoft’s SharePoint platform.

“We’ve done the math and estimated that being part of the programme has saved us €292,000 over three years. We’ve used the tools to create development packs and the licensing to go into production. We would have had to raise another €200,000 to put infrastructure in place.”

He said that when the three-year window of access to Microsoft’s development tools expires, the company will be financially strong enough to keep paying Microsoft the €15,000 a month fee that the platform will require in the future.

Another company, InishTech, has used the ecosystem to target a market of more than 30,000 companies worldwide. InishTech, which, through the Microsoft IP Ventures Programme and Enterprise Ireland, has relaunched Microsoft’s Software Licensing and Protection (SLP) Services.

CEO Aidan Gallagher explained that the company effectively spun out the SLP technology from Microsoft and created a thriving business platform. “We took over the service and got up and running with over 100 customers.

“We managed to take this on board and transition to a full release of new services within five months with a small team of people.

“The key to that was the availability of technology and the development environment of BizSpark,” Gallagher told Siliconrepublic.com.

By John Kennedy

Photo: Cliff Reeves, Global Head of Emerging Business, Microsoft, with Inistech’s Aidan Gallagher, Conor O’Riordan of TradeFacilitate and Ian Lucey of Lucey Technology

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com