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Hit the start-up button

The ultimate aim of the Takeoff business incubator is helping start-ups get their first investors and customers.

Benjamin McClure. Photo: Jason BorgBenjamin McClure. Photo: Jason Borg

• Benjamin McClure

Takeoff business incubator manager

How does the local start-up business scene compare to that in other countries?

Malta’s economy is strong and the island is home to a new generation of tech-savvy graduates. However, the region’s start-up ecosystem is still in its infancy and many founders lack resources.

A wave of start-up-friendly initiatives and programmes, including the freshly launched Takeoff business incubator, aim to address that gap by stimulating a supportive, well-connected entrepreneurial community that can help transform Malta’s innovations into businesses that will prosper and grow the economy. Malta’s start-up ecosystem, in many ways, is a start-up itself, but its future looks bright.

How does Takeoff support young entrepreneurs in packaging, selling and developing an idea into a business?

Takeoff helps its clients create a tailored start-up development programme plan, providing oversight and taking an active role in developing connections needed for partnerships, suppliers and potential sources of financing that otherwise may be challenging to secure.

Ultimately, our aim is to help Takeoff members get their first investors and customers.

What funding options do start-ups have?

Start-ups need money to get their ideas off the ground. They need money for rent, to pay skilled people needed to develop their products, for licences, legal and accounting fees and other operating costs. Product development and marketing costs can be high and come long before any sales revenue, making technology start-ups too risky for bank loans.

Funding options at this stage include the founder’s own cash and cash from close friends and family. Sometimes vendors and service providers are willing to trade all or a portion of their services for share equity. The Takeoff Seed Fund Award programme offers innovators and entrepreneurs grant funding to support new business development.

Start-ups with talented founders and great ideas can also tap into Takeoff’s growing network of angel investors who are eager to find and fund great business opportunities.

One important early-stage step of a start-up is validating an idea. What makes a start-up market-ready?

Before investing any time, energy and money into a new venture, entrepreneurs need to validate the market-readiness of their business idea. Market-ready businesses create products that solve customers’ burning problems. So, at Takeoff, we encourage start-ups to spend a lot of time meeting with prospective customers and learning about their problems.

The start-up can then refine its product to best relieve customers’ pains. Proof that the start-up is market-ready comes when customers are happy to pay for its productsand services.

There is a lot of advice on how to start up a business. However, a lot of start-ups still fail. What, from your experience, are the major pitfalls?

The biggest pitfall is failure to make early contact with customers. Too many start-ups begin with an idea for a product that they assume people or other businesses want. They then spend months or years perfecting that product without ever showing the product, even in a very rudimentary form, to potential customers.

When they fail to find paying customers, it is often because they never spoke to prospective customers to determine whether their product was something they would be willing to pay for.

What business-to-consumer and business-to-business start-ups have you supported since Takeoff was set up?

At Takeoff, we are working with several start-ups focused on developing products and services for the consumer market. These include MightyBox Games, Ligua Deal, E-Sports Unlimited, DiscountIF and Childhud.

Meanwhile, start-ups such as Thought3D, CreoLabs, OLOK Entertainment, Sanctuary, Inbound Muse, CalypseLab, and Gatfol are targeting business markets for their products.

• Gatfol

The team

Gatfol, which provides technology that transforms keywords into intelligent conversation, was founded by Carl Greyling, who is also the company’s chief technical officer.

Greyling is a certified internal auditor (Institute of Internal Auditors New York) and qualified financial analyst with a BA degree in psychology. As a data analyst and forensic auditor with a career spanning 18 years in the UK, Greyling developed artificial intelligence virtual auditing agents using natural language neurophysiological programmatic advances to report on patterns in financial data. For breakthrough work on this he won an EMDA software innovation award in the European Union RDPE programme in 2006.

Greyling started work with a small team in the UK on natural language search technology and was awarded a US provisional patent on improved online search in April 2011. He presented the patented search technology to the international semantic industry at SemTech 2011 in San Francisco. In December 2011, Greyling founded Gatfol with two rounds of international seed funding. In 2013, he led Gatfol collaboration with Microsoft Malta with the aim of establishing a strong European marketing presence. Gatfol is also currently following a development route with the Innovation Hub in South Africa to develop online language processing products for national and local government as well as large commercial enterprises to aid economically disadvantaged mobile technology users.

Another member of Gatfol is Joe Wiid, responsible for business development in the Asia Pacific region. Wiid started various companies and has manufacturing experience in South Africa and New Zealand. He currently heads Extrutec Limited and is focusing on expanding into the Asia Pacific region, including China. With an academic background in biogenetic structuralism and extensive start-up investment experience, Wiid was fundamental in setting the conceptual building blocks for the Gatfol pattern algorithm patent and subsequent base technology.

Sally Greyling is a co-founder of Gatfol and is responsible for digital presence. She is a graduate from Rhodes University, South Africa, and has a 15-year career as commercial lecturer and software trainer at tertiary institutions in the UK and South Africa.

She has extensive web design background and augments this function at Gatfol, in addition to researching markets and providing a full digital marketing function worldwide.

What inspired your start-up idea?

Our inspiration was fuelled by a burning desire to put human intelligence into machines.

What gap in the market does your app seek to address?

Keyword processing is a limited interface for human-to-machine language interaction. This limits improvements in how we as humans communicate with electronic data going into the future.

How does your technology work?

We have a base technology that takes keywords and transforms them into intelligent conversation to massively enhance online search, retail and advertising, augmented reality, communications security filtering, web text simplification and child net language abuse protection.

What support does a start-up need to launch?

A start-up needs constant drive from all its members. Everything else will follow: capital will be sourced, mentorship will be found, market-ready products will be created and operational governance will be effected.

How can a start-up business achieve sustainability and growth?

Sustainability and growth can be achieved with perseverance and the involvement of strong mentorship, especially in the initial stages.

• Calypselab

The team

Calypselab was founded by Riccardo Lora. The Calypselab platform uses innovative technology to provide stores with real-time data on their product appeal, customer behaviour and promotional campaigns.

The Calypselab team is made up of people with proven technical and managerial experience and a stable external collaboration with an Italian IT company.

Riccardo Lora is an architect by profession. His areas of expertise include e-commerce, video surveillance, intelligence and security, start-ups and business development.

Pier Vittorio Sassone has valuable experience in the design and configuration of firewalls, VPN infrastructures, Windows and Unix operating systems, project management, cloud computing and security.

What inspired your start-up idea?

Coming from the security market, we have gained competence in the sector of video surveillance and video analytics, a trend sector of robotics which aims to automate and support human surveillance activities and, on the other hand, is able to individuate and measure subjects, objects and understand some basilar behaviours.

Furthermore, our competencies include software development and project management.

A partner had asked us to develop a solution based on video analytics: the aim was to measure how much time a customer would spend in a specific area of a fashion store and therefore gauge how many customers were interested in a specific item.

This project helped us discover a new world: depending on their market specificities, retail stores need tools to improve their own efficacy and efficiency. This helps them give customers a better service.

What gap in the market does your technology seek to address?

The selection and integration in our solution of video-analytic libraries and the use of a specific and efficient IT architecture allow users to benefit from precise data, reliability and scalability.

Often, the technology in this area is very approximate and only gives users qualitative sensations instead of effective measurements. In other cases, the solution is a cloud-based one which cannot be applied in every context. On the other hand, our solution provides enhanced performance and can be integrated with other in-store solutions like RFID, POS systems, accounting applications and digital signage. This means that users can gather more information and, in return, enhance customer satisfaction.

How does your technology work?

SmartStoreXperience is an innovative software solution that acquires physical and digital data sources, inside and around a store, to provide a set of useful key performance indicators to system users. The SmartStoreXperience analytics engine is designed to organise, store, analyse, and visualise massive volumes of diverse retail data through video analysis algorithms. The software accumulates information from all the configured stores into a single place, in the cloud or on the store premises, providing a unified and immediate view of the stores and shoppers, across the retail chain, in real time.

When deployed as a service, our technology can use existing infrastructure, such as analog and IP cameras, to make installation and activation quick and easy.

The robust set of analysis tools and reports allows users to easily visualise data, identify trends, and compare them across any time period. Users can access all this information using a variety of intuitive interfaces.

The potential for users to gain deep insights into their retail operations and their customers’ behaviour is as vast as the amount of data they can collect. Users can benefit from a precise fact-based understanding of how shoppers move around the stores. Moreover, it’s possible to optimise store layouts, fixtures, staffing, and even product offerings, based on the data gathered.

What support does a start-up need to launch?

Start-ups need visibility with investors, potential partners and customers. They also need a set of IT assets as well as cloud services and professional advisors to drive the sustainable development of a start-up.

The role of the incubator is to create relationships with universities, students and collaborators: this is fundamental to a start-up.

How can a start-up business achieve sustainability and growth?

Any start-up business needs an initial contribution of liquidity. This allows them to refine and improve the solution and, on the other hand, helps them develop all the relational activities required to identify the most suitable partners for market development.

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