Sea and startups rarely intervene, but everything is possible in Estonia. Proving that, the third annual Startup Regatta, part of the Nordic Folkboat Cup, which connects the sport of sailing and the startup community, took place on the 2nd and 3rd of August in Tallinn. As progress always happens in cooperation, networking is a must for building the blooming startup community of Estonia. That’s why sailing is a perfect challenge for startups to blend fun with business. This year’s event was a significant success, with up to 100 investors and entrepreneurs networking at sea.
Networking at the sea
The 2-day gathering led and opened by Helery Pops and Kai Island, kicked off at Kalev Yacht Club, with participants learning about folkboats, followed by a friendly sailing competition. Greeted by sunny weather and a kind welcome from Tiit Riisalo, the Minister of Economic Affairs and Information Technology of Estonia, the business crowd was excited to embark on this unique experience. Riisalo is a long-standing sailing enthusiast. In 2001 he has participated in a voyage of “Lennuk”, the yacht that had sailed around the world under the Estonian flag.
To ensure a well-matched experience, each investor was manually paired with two startups from the local ecosystem. They were then assigned a yacht and an experienced captain who provided a brief theory lesson before setting sail. Despite the open invitation, even individuals with no previous sailing experience could participate, thanks to the folkboat’s seaworthy and safe design.
“Startup Regatta was one of my favourite startup events I have ever taken part in. I really liked how the whole sailing philosophy and also sailing in action was connected with the startup ecosystem, and parallels were drawn to describe the current situation,” said Robert Lang, Deputy Director of Global Business Development at Invest Estonia. And indeed, navigating the sometimes rough waters is much like building an innovative business.
The captains skilfully managed the yachts, but the organizers encouraged the investors to take the “wheel” and experience being a captain themselves. Although weather conditions could vary, the sailors had been fortunate this year with favourable weather, providing a sailing experience nothing short of magnificent. Safety remained a top priority, and both theoretical classes and safety courses were provided before allowing anyone on board. But as with any other regatta, this was also fiercely competitive. The boat ‘Geppeline’, sailed by Linda Võeras (karma.vc), Andrus Alber and Marek Piller (Bankish) and captained by Per Buch, came first, and the winners were met with medals, a round of applause and obligatory dive in the sea. Hopefully the success continues into new business opportunities too.
Adjusting the sails
Regatta is something wildly different from a usual startup conference, as it operates with a motto “You can’t direct the wind, but you can adjust the sails”. This was also a core narrative of a second conference day, held in the Coinspad office, right across the Port of Tallinn Old City Marina. Opened with a presentation by Margus Uudam, founding partner at karma.vc and chairman of the Estonian Private Equity & Venture Capital Association (EstVCA), it was all about agility and resilience of the Estonian startup ecosystem.
Last year, local companies attracted over €1B in venture capital. This year puts a different situation. “Everybody could sail fast under a strong wind, but it takes true mastery to prevail in a more challenging situation,” summarised Uudam. What are the things that can help? Being humble, resilient and understanding that challenging times are teaching you a lot.
But not everything is so uncertain. The pivot to green energy in Estonia is inevitable and is only speeding up, as discussed in a panel session moderated by Rebecka Löthman Rydä, Investment Director at Inventure. She was joined by Kallev Kingske, Vice-Chairman of the Supervisory Board at Sunly, and Robert Lang from Invest Estonia.
The scale of energy transformation is something we have not seen in decades, argued Kingske, and the investments should match those ambitions. Sunly’s plan is to raise up to half a billion dollars next year to back renewable generation and surrounding tech across the New Nordics and Poland. Capital is present, but it takes significant efforts to win it amidst fierce international competition. “We are helping companies that are willing to invest in Estonia or are looking to attract funds by being proactive partners, considering all the specific needs, and stepping aside at the right moment,” said Lang.
The balance between challenges and opportunities might be a little bit towards the latter in 2023, but it doesn’t stop the Estonian ecosystem from evolving, argued the final panel discussion. It was joined by Max Krupyshev, founder and CEO of Coinspad, Karen K Burns, founder and CEO of Fyma and Kaidi Ruusalepp, founder & CEO of Funderbeam and President of Estonian Founder.
“Estonians are great at building products. Now, we need to step up in marketing and scaling them,” argues Ruusalepp. Following the paths of Bolt and Wise, which are global leaders in their respectable sectors, Estonia, the European leader in building unicorns, could mint even more of them. One crucial part of it will be attracting more high-skilled talent and continuing efforts to fight gender biases.
What brings a better ending to a sailing-themed event? It’s hard to beat a view of over 70 ships participating in the Nordic Folkboat Gold Cup, sailing in Tallinn’s harbour. And so the Regatta wrapped with one more networking opportunity, setting its sights on having an even bigger competition next year, showcasing once more the investment attractiveness, maturity and security of the local ecosystem. From land to sea, Estonia is laying more and more cornerstones for its future successes.
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