More than 7,500 start-ups in Europe have signed up to become part of Microsoft’s BizSpark program in the last 12 months. Now, Microsoft is ramping up its efforts, with the launch of an expanded program that allows start-ups to connect not just with venture capitalists and government funding but also with banks loans, free legal advice and a whole host of other services to help get their companies get off the ground. Click on read more to see the story and watch a video interview with the chairman of Microsoft Europe.
Microsoft’s BizSpark program, which was launched in November 2008, is aimed at convincing start-ups the world over to run their businesses on Microsoft’s Windows platform. It’s an aggressive move by Microsoft to give away free software and support in order to ensure that start-ups consider using its tools when they build their infrastructure rather than open source alternatives.
But Microsoft doesn’t want to stop there. “We want to be the platform to really help connect the dots,” Jan Muehlfeit, Chairman of Microsoft Europe, said during an interview in Berlin at the Information Exchange, a new pan-European conference launched in Berlin Oct. 14 by Informilo, in partnership with the European Private Equity & Venture Capital Association and the European Tech Tour Association. (watch the video to see the full interview)
The strategy appears to be working in Europe, which is now the largest BizSpark region in the world, outside of the U.S.
Take the case of Zokem, one of nine start-ups which presented at the Innovation Exchange. Zokem’s mobile applications allows users to automatically share and publish their daily lives through mobile phones. Users’ activities and status updates are shared in real time to friends’ mobile phones and to all major social networking services, such as Twitter and Facebook.
Zokem is headed by Ludovic Gaude, a former executive at Google and Nokia. Gaude said he had never had any dealings with Microsoft before coming into contact with BizSpark. Zokem is available on five smartphone platforms. Windows Mobile was the least developed. After connecting with BizSpark, it rapidly became the most developed.
“I wasn’t very hopeful about the program,” says Gaude. But, he says he was pleasantly surprised. “They pointed out existing libraries so we didn’t have to rewrite things completely,” says Gaude. “They helped us with the code itself and the certification process to get into app stores but most of all they have helped to make us more visible both inside Microsoft and to the outside world.”
Gaude said the company is close to concluding a deal to raise its first round of venture capital. The company is housed at Technopolis Ventures, which claims to be the largest start-up focused business development company in Finland, with upwards of 300 start-ups participating in its programs in Helsinki, Jyvaskyla, Kuopio, Lappeenranta, Oulu and Tampere. Technopolis became a BizSpark network partner in November 2008 and by late 2009 had signed up more than 30 young companies to Microsoft’s program.
It is one of more than six hundred so-called ‘network partner’ organizations – incubators, investor groups, government agencies, and entrepreneur support groups – that have joined the BizSpark community in Europe, says Cliff Reeves, General Manager, Emerging Business Team, Microsoft Corporation. “Even global banks such as HSBC and law firms like Osborne Clarke are signing up as network partners,” he says.
Microsoft hopes to grow the community further by extending the range of services it offers. “In the near term, this will include providing greater access to grant funding through EU Grants Advisor for BizSpark companies,” says Reeves, who also participated in the Innovation Exchange event. The European Union Grants Advisor program, EUGA for short, is a collaborative effort led by Microsoft, Hewlett Packard and Intel to make it easier for startups to see where they can avail themselves of national and EU grants when they need it most, in the first three years of their life. Some €500,000 has been invested in 2,000 start-ups since the program began.
For example, Eeple, which runs a French social networking site called Melty.fr, which attracts more than a million users per month, was able to get € 80,000 e in funding thanks to a EUGA consultant who helped the company respond to the French government’s €35 million WEB Innovant 2.0 call for proposals.
Eeple, which was founded in 2005 by Alexandre Malsch, then a 24-year-old French university student, started out by asking for access to Microsoft’s Silverlight technology. It used the technology to build a web tool designed to facilitate the publication of a new Rich Internet Application (RIA) on Melty.fr. That got the company admitted to the Microsoft IDEES program, which provided Eeple with help with product development and access to venture capital funding. The participation in IDEEs gave Eeple access to EUGA, which in turn, helped the company apply for the French government grant and beat more than 350 competing projects for the money.
Microsoft says it is ready to do even more for companies like Zokem and Eeple. “We will continue to add products to the BizSpark offer and ensure that partners have access to enhanced training, early adopter programs and product roadmaps,” says Reeves. Recently Microsoft announced the addition of Windows Azure to the BizSpark offering.
Microsoft’s IP Ventures program is yet another avenue for Microsoft to engage with start-ups. The IP Ventures program was started in May 2005 to help Microsoft better leverage some of its intellectual property by spinning it out to startups.
Startups in the IP Ventures program, such as InishTech, an independent Dublin-based company which took over Microsoft’s Software Licensing and Protection Services unit in 2009, are offered an opportunity to take part in the BizSpark program, ensuring that they stay in Microsoft’s orbit.
“What we have tried to do is create a map of the world and look at where start-ups are being created and why and use that as a basis to decide where we will focus our energies,” says Claire O’Halloran, head of emerging business, international, for Microsoft. “We want to give those start-ups access to our technology, make it friction free, and introduce them to a range of partners who can help them move up to the first rung on the ladder to success.”