Switzerland.

The land which, as Orson Welles famously stated in ‘The Third Man’, had 500 years of democracy, peace and brotherly love, “and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!”

If you ever take the train along Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) from Geneva itself to the smaller towns – Lausanne, Nyon, Vevey and Montreux – watch closely the clocks on the station platforms. Every time the second hand reaches twelve – it will stop for a brief second and a half, allowing the train to leave exactly on time. The second hand will then skip and continue showing the correct time. The Swiss railway clock is an icon of XX century design and engineering.

Switzerland today, of course, is home to so much more than clocks, chocolate and Swatches.

Closer to the interests of Tech.eu, the federation is home to two of the globe’s finest technical universities – the “Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule”, better known as „ETH“ in Zurich, and its sister institution in Lausanne, the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne or EPFL.

I’d been in Lausanne before, visiting friends at another high level learning institution, the IMD, one of the world’s leading business schools. I’d never set foot in the EPFL, however, so it was with awe and admiration that I finally arrived there for the for the final event of the Seedstars World competition, the Seedstars Summit.

Seedstars World is a startup program quite unlike any other. The organizers are focused on emerging markets, looking for the best talent and the most promising projects and companies in faraway lands you and I will not have visited very often. Asunción, Kigali, Luanda, Dar Es Salaam, Bishkek and Ho Chi Minh City are just a few of the cities in 54 countries where the program organized local pitches and competitions.

The organizers lined up some very interesting partners and sponsors. Amongst them was a name very familiar to those of us who remember the dot-com craze of the late nineties – Lastminute.com. That company was the poster child of British tech startups, only to see its stock price – and with it its fame and fortune – rise and fall with the rollercoaster trends of those times. In late 2014, lastminute.com was acquired by the Switzerland-based Bravofly Rumbo Group. I spoke with Bravofly Rumbo founder and now Lastminute.com group chairman Fabio Cannavale about the company’s present and future:

“We are the most entrepreneurial among the big online travel players in Europe. However, as you know, it’s difficult to innovate internally when you grow – we are now more than 1,000 employees. This is why we continue to look for innovative companies and startups to work with, to acquire stakes of, say, 30 or 60 percent in and expand our offering.”

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Fabio Cannavale, chairman of Lastminute.com group

“In terms of customer segments, group and family travel in Europe is still dominated by the big packaged tour operators such as TUI. It’s a big but declining business,” he added. “We are witnessing the rise of the independent travelers who prefer to configure and book their holidays themselves, and Lastminute.com is very well positioned to serve this new, growing generation of customers.”

Another very interesting partner of the conference was AP-Swiss. Now… if you’ve never heard of AP-Swiss, don’t feel bad, neither had I until the event.

However – it turns out it’s an intriguing organisation. Formally, it’s the “Ambassador Platform” of the European Space Agency’s ARTES Applications programmes  in Switzerland. The Swiss seem to have a knack for advanced and futuristic transportation in the air and on land – great examples are the Solar Impulse project to circumnavigate the globe with an all-electric airplane, as well as the Alinghi America’s Cup sailboat. No surprise – both of these projects were developed in close research partnership with the EPFL.

José Achache is the managing director of AP-Swiss. This veteran of “big space” worked previously at the ESA and at CNES, the French space agency. Today he’s a big promotor of ‘small space’ – small satellites and startups developing space apps.

“It used to be that space was reserved for the big guys, and many people still think about it that way. What we want to do is help them understand that space applications are now accessible to every startup that wants to take advantage of the opportunities space technology has to offer. An average ESA satellite costs roughly €100 million and what’s in it? Exactly the same stuff as in your cellphone”, he told me. “Musk is bringing launch costs for large satellites down ten times, and smaller, micro-satellites can now be launched for €100k or €200K, so we are bringing these costs down three orders of magnitude. There are practically no capex barriers any more – space is affordable and open to startups!”

An interesting startup at Seedstars Summit which fit right into Jose’s vision was Bulgaria’s EnduroSat. The company builds a range of products based on the CubeSat platform. CubeSat is essentially a spec developed back in 1999 by Caifornia Polytechnic (Cal Poly) and Stanford.

The ‘Cube’ in CubeSat is a 10 cm cube, the idea being that a standardised miniature satellite platform would foster a wide range of product development. EnduroSat’s web shop features products such as onboard computers, antennae, transceivers, solar panels etc. with prices such as €2,900 for the onboard computer or the S-Band patch antenna. With access to space at thousands instead of millions of euros, lots of solutions and applications are already up there flying around, and many more will be on their way soon.

Intoducing one of his songs for the 1973 ‘Rainbow Race’ album, Pete Seeger says: “Here we are, knee deep in garbage, firing rockets at the moon.” That line seems to be a perfect connection between EnduroSat and the Turkish Evreka team. Personally, I like to see a project addressing a problem people don’t like to think about too much – in this case, garbage.

Making garbage collection more efficient seems to come up every now and then when we read about IoT and Smart Cities. Founder and CEO Umutcan Duman and his crew have built a robust sensor which can be installed in any dumpster. Working with municipalities, they are able to manage and monitor garbage truck routes so the trucks go only where they’re really needed and follow optimal driving routes. All of our cities could certainly use getting much smarter than they are now. Evreka is alreday working with several Turkish municipalities but they are now getting international interest from cities as far apart as Dubai, Colombia, Madrid and our host city for the event, Lausanne. R

emains to be seen whether they can conquer the city that always seems to come to mind on this topic – Naples, drowning in garbage for decades.

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Umutcan Duman, Evreka CEO, helping to make our cities smarter, cleaner and more livable

Umutcan was very passionate in delivering his pitch – and so was Fernando Saddi, CEO & Founder of Easy Carros. Passion fits the image – Fernando and Easy Carros are Brazilian!

The company wants to take away the pain many people have with servicing their cars. Instead of dealing with service shops which in Brazil – apparently – can be unreliable, inefficient and corrupt, Easy Carros offers an “Uber for car services”. They will come to you to pick up your car, have it serviced by licensed service providers and deliver it back, where and when you want it, all at a few taps of the proverbial smartphone screen. Sounds simple – as any app shooting for success should – but in the background there’s a lot of groundwork to cover to make servicing cars on demand reliable and trusted by customers.

Easy Carros was in 32 Brazilian cities when Fernando and I spoke at Seedstars Summit. “In the near future,” he explained, “we will completely change the way people interact with their cars by connecting an IoT device (OBD) to cars, using big data & artificial intelligence to automatically prevent, alert & provide car services when needed.”

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Fernando Saddi, CEO, Easy Carros

I caught up with him again just prior to writing this piece to ask about some numbers and KPI’s. He promptly replied: “We have reached 10,000 services per month, growing monthly at 30%. Easy Carros has partnered with the #2 insurance company in Brazil as well as the largest auto services payment company. Our $1.2 million investment round is more than 50% committed.”

One of the sexier demos at the conference was eora 3D. This Australian team has a coffee-mug sized device for 3D scanning. You hook your phone up to the device, the scanner hits the object you want to scan in with a laser beam, your phone camera records this and then your phone generates a 3D scan of the object. No need for a pitch deck – the demo says it all!

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eora 3D – a small but very capable 3D scanner, came to Lausanne all the way from Australia

Well… not really – there are many possibilities and potential applications that the eora 3D team talks about excitedly and with good reason.

It’s impossible, of course, to meet and get to know all the wonderful startup teams at any conference and Seedstars Summit was no exception. Undoubtedly there were more than a few that I would have been equally as excited to meet and get to know them.

The conference itself and the overall Seedstars World project are different than any others you might encounter. The concept – a long and elaborate series of startup events throughout the emerging markets, with a final event in Switzerland – is intriguing and exciting. Our various startup ecosystems tend to focus inwardly and suffer from far too much belly-button gazing.

Go and talk to Londoners about startups and it’s mostly Londoners you’ll hear about. Same goes – with great respect to exceptions – for Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Barcelona, etc.

At Tech.eu, we try to balance this “islands in the stream” mentality by covering Europe far and wide. The Seedstars team is raising the bar by taking the game to, for us Europeans, faraway and ‘exotic’ countries and cities and showing that there is talent and value and exciting innovation happening, literally, everywhere. Kudos to them and their partners for making that possible.

Seedstars World 2016 got started on May 7 in Alexandria, Egypt and Lima, Peru and will be touring 65 countries for this year’s edition. I’ll be looking very much forward to visiting Lausanne in early 2017 and perhaps meeting some of this year’s teams and some of my readers at the EPFL!

Also read:

A look at Switzerland’s complicated relationship with innovation

GoPro has acquired Zurich, Switzerland-based sensor tech startup Skybotix

(Photos credit: Seedstars World and Ivo Spigel)