TechCrunch Disrupt London – Our coverage of the year’s most anticipated start-up conference (1/2)

TechCrunch magazine is an authoritative source on the start-up ecosystem, with thought leadership articles about latest technology trends and promising start-ups. TechCrunch Disrupt is one of the most anticipated events in the start-up ecosystem because of the coverage and high profile of TechCrunch, the great speakers and the presence of seasoned investors. It brings together start-ups eager to show the world their revolutionary new products and services, investors who are here to hunt the next Facebook, press people like us from DigitalCorner and finally a few start-up enthusiasts. This event has expanded from the US to come over Asia and Europe,this year in London. The format is a line-up of talks on the main stage with TechCrunch editors moderating founder stories and Venture Capital industry perspectives, as well as the highly anticipated Battlefield, a start-up pitching competition that has seen the likes of Yammer, Mint and FitBit. There was also an ongoing exhibition called “Startup Alley” where handpicked start-ups were competing for attention in the Copper Box Arena of the London Olympic Park.

Sir Alex
Sir Alex Ferguson giving his thoughts on leadership

It was overall a great line-up of speakers with inspirational people ranging from US VC investors David Hornink (August Capital), Thomas Korte (AngelPad) and Andy McLoughlin (SoftTech), EU based investors Laurel Bowden (83North), Eileen Burbridge (Passion Capital) and Sonali De Rycker (Accel Partners) to founders like Sebastian Siemiatkowski (Klarna, a FinTech start-up), Gareth Capon (Grabyo, a social media start-up) and Oliver Samwer (Rocket Internet). Guest stars were Sir Alex Ferguson and Thierry Henry, pleasing the crowd with their football anecdotes as well as giving their views on leadership (for Sir Alex Ferguson) and on social media business (for Thierry Henry, seed investor in Grabyo).

Taavet HinrikusLondon being a FinTech hotspot, the opening speaker was Taavet Hinrikus from TransferWise. He is also known for being the first Skype employee. It started with a very personal need as he moved from his home country Estonia to London, but was still on the Estonian payroll of his company. This meant that every month he had to transfer money from his Estonian account to his London account with huge fees from his bank. What he started doing was transfer that money inside Estonia to his friend who then transferred money from his own UK account to Taavet. The rest is history. Asked with how banks reacted, M. Hinrikus said they first denied it was happening: “it will never work, people will not trust you”. TransferWise now has a 5% UK market share and is looking to expand into new countries. Taavet argued TransferWise was a “defensible” business (that they could resist competition) because the technology to move tens of millions around every day was hard to build. He went on to comment on the BitCoin flop they had: ”nobody is asking for BitCoin”, meaning they made the mistake to add BitCoin when too few customers, if any, were asking for it. Asked whether London could stay leader in FinTech, Taavet argued they had a good headstart, and if they continued growing the ecosystem they could stay leaders: “the ecosystem grows only if you help each other, exchange with and talk to each other”. One could argue that the emergence of Innovate Finance (FinTech industry body created a year ago in London) and the regulatory sandbox the UK FCA has set up to help innovative FinTech businesses be compliant are steps in the right direction.

See below the whole « funder story » of Taavet Hinrikus

Here is a round-up of the other talks: the overall sentiment was that Europe is catching up on Silicon Valley in terms of high valuations and successful exits, although there is still a sizeable gap, and US investors on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt still think start-ups should come to the Valley to truly scale and be successful. Danny and Neil Rimer from were hopeful another Nokia could emerge in Europe, although it would probably not be a hardware company because of the scale and manufacturing expertise countries like China now have. Bastian from said that at the time he was raising his first round for PostMates he couldn’t find the funds in Europe and had to move over to the US, but he believes he could now do it here. Another European VC investor said that seed money and late stage funding was nearly as easy to find in Europe as in the USA, but in intermediate growth rounds the Old Continent was still lacking.

TechCrunch moderators methodically asked the different speakers whether we were in a bubble. The reason everyone is asking the question is because situation looks worrying: the rise of “unicorn” companies (that have a private valuation of more than $1 billion) and the lengthening of times to exit (to IPO or acquisition) seem to point to a disconnect between private and public markets. Nearly all speakers had a similar line: prices are high, but as always a few are justified and others are not, which is how VCs operate as an industry. They bet on a lot of companies, and make their money on the few very successful start-ups. Speakers suggested that money flow would probably tighten and prices go down when several start-ups will exit with a “down-round” (the value of the company lowers compared to the last round of financing). But several speakers insisted there would always be money for great companies, even in difficult financing times.

After these morning talks, the main stage was the place of the exciting Start-up Battlefield: 14 start-ups preselected by the TechCrunch editorial team and one wild card public choice decided by participants on the day. The 4 shortlisted finalist companies were Jukedeck, Lystable, MAX and Yoobic, and the winner was Jukedeck, a start-up producing a music-generating software based on artificial intelligence.

TechCrunch_Disrupt_london_DigitalCornerIn the main room was the Start-up Alley, where start-ups were exhibiting during the two days. There were a Nordic and a Korean pavilions dedicated to local start-ups from there. Exhibiting start-ups ranged from instant gift messenger SwiftGift to visual analytics Vize. One very exciting start-up was Saaspass, represented by Selahaddin Karatas, co-founder. Saaspass promises to do away with passwords, with a solution as secure as a soft token and as easy to use as a password, when you remember it. It certainly sounded exciting and Selahaddin showed how with a tap on his smart watch he could unlock and lock at will his computer, his Gmail account and a large number of other online accounts. You can do the same from your phone. The system works by generating one-time unique codes, which in practice is like using two-step identification like a soft or a hard token. The unique codes are refreshed every 5 min so they are unbreakable by brute force attacks or password leak, which are 2 usual ways your online account gets hacked. If you loose your phone or your smart watch you can signal it and get a recovery code on another device you have set up. The company has already integrated its service with Firefox, Chrome, Opera (Safari in the pipeline) internet browsers and the app is available on Android, iPhone, Windows Phone, iPad, Mac, Windows, wearables,… You can use the app for authentification for secure access to numerous online services including Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook, Gmail, Amazon, Outlook, Salesforce,… The company has not started marketing its solution to the general public but already has a strong user base in the IT/Information Security community. It will be interesting to see if Saaspass can cross the chiasm and convince regular users to use its service, as well as corporate users who are usually resistant to change and sceptical to using innovative external services, especially for security.

All in all, TechCrunch Disrupt London was a fantastic display of the innovation brewing in the start-up ecosystem and the ongoing disruption of traditional industries. The challenge for these bright and ambitious start-ups will be to convince mainstream users to jump on board of the more and more digital, connected and automated train, and fight the entrenched interest groups and incumbents they are taking on. But in the end, customers will have the final say on whether the start-ups are successful or not, and the reality is a lot of them will fail for every winner.

If you would like to read about the companies that pitched during the Start-up Battlefield event you can so in our second article regarding the TechCrunch Disrupt event.

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