Last week marked my second visit to the beautiful city of Riga, Latvia, for the ninth annual TechChill startup event. The show focused not only on 5G (my main love), but also blockchain, MedTech, FinTech, and Greentech—that’s a lot of tech! I spent nearly three days in the Baltics with a number of innovative companies and startups. Here I will share my impressions and insights on those that have the potential for disruption in the networking and connectivity space.
Relationships and experience as a theme
There were scores of interesting companies at TechChill, but a handful stood out for their use of connectivity to strengthen relationships and drive improved customer experience. One of these was Latvian startup Asya. Asya developed an app that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to provide a platform for personal counseling for couples. It guides two people in active conversation, via smartphones, with suggestions based on tone and speech patterns. A flower represents the health of a given conversation, and it wilts or blooms based on the exchange. Scores of analytics are available to evaluate sessions or users can choose to delete the data for privacy considerations. This is certainly a different form of networking than what I typically cover, but the disruption potential could be immense. In many countries, psychological services are either difficult to find, cost prohibitive or both. I also believe that the Asya platform could extend to support other behavioral therapy applications and disrupt the multi-billion-dollar psychological services industry.
Bolt, based in Estonia, seeks to provide affordable ridesharing and an improved customer experience to Eastern Europe. The company says its expansion into developing areas of the world, such as Africa, creates jobs and improves financial prosperity. 4G LTE was instrumental in providing the consistent connectivity levels needed to support ridesharing services globally. Bolt has also utilized 4G LTE to broaden its platform into food delivery and other adjacent services. I was particularly impressed with co-founder Martin Villig’s support for other Estonian startups and his passion for fostering career development opportunities in the Baltic region.
Kipuwex is a MedTech startup based in the high-tech corridor of Oulu, Finland. The company is poised to disrupt the medical pain and vitals monitoring market with a low cost, IoT based solution that can be used with patients of all ages. Traditionally these devices were expensive, inconsistent in terms of performance, and difficult to use with infants or children that have verbalization challenges. Utilizing a smartphone and Bluetooth connectivity, Kipuwex’s biometric sensor can be used in both hospital and home or hospice settings. The company says this enables it to deliver a more accurate assessment of pain and proper medication administration. With my prior experience starting a medical products division within a company, it seems as though Kipuwex is well positioned to improve the patient experience.
Printful isn’t a startup, but it is disrupting on-demand printing services in Latvia with its razor-sharp production, fulfillment and ecommerce enablement. The online vendor become known for its products (namely posters) featuring inspirational quotes that gained popularity in many company breakrooms and hallways in the early 2000s. As the business grew, the founders weren’t able to find a printing service that could keep pace with the demand. So, in 2013, they decided to launch Printful. Today, the company provides a white label service that integrates into popular ecommerce platforms Shopify, BigCommerce (located in my hometown of Austin, Texas), and others. The power of the platform is that anyone can open a t-shirt, poster or soft goods business online in a matter of minutes and offer customized products without the headaches and expense of managing inventory. Printful delivers a true just-in-time manufacturing model with equipment that can scale to lot size one orders with lightning fast speed. The company also employs a significant number of software developers, and AI and ML factor heavily into the platform to ensure high quality, reliability and functionality of connected printers and other IoT devices that monitor production. In the future, connectivity will also serve to provide support for predictive maintenance of expensive equipment to ensure near ubiquitous uptime.
Needed policy harmonization and spectrum democratization
Let’s shift gears to the subject of 5G in the region, since that was also a big focus at TechChill. I’ve spent considerable time over the last year in Europe, and from my perspective one of the biggest challenges facing 5G deployment for compelling use cases (such as vehicle to vehicle communication (V2V), autonomous driving, and drone delivery among others) is harmonizing policy and spectrum cross border. Each individual country has its own policies, regulations and spectrum allocation process in an effort to safeguard privacy and raise revenue. However, this puts Europe behind other countries like the United States, China and South Korea in deploying 5G networks. I believe the EU must find a way to harmonize policy or suffer the consequences of having disparate networks that won’t broadly scale to support the delivery of new services. I researched the effect of 5G policy on a global basis last year, including the EU—if interested you can find that article here.
The good news is that Latvian operator LMT continues to work with Estonian operators in an attempt to solve this challenge in the Baltics, with a focus on drone use cases and cross-border flight. During a media tour before the event started, I attended a demo hosted by LMT and SPH Engineering in a cold and windy patch of Latvian forest with open airspace. Based in Latvia, SPH Engineering delivers a drone control service platform that is utilized for the majority of drone airshows around the world, including many professional football and soccer events and past Olympic games. In addition to drone delivery, SPH Engineering is working with the United Nations to deliver a safer detection process for minefield discovery. The LMT and SPH Engineering collaboration is compelling and could be leveraged as a test bed for broader scale policy harmonization for all of Europe beyond the Baltics.
From a licensed spectrum perspective, I believe the EU should also democratize its availability beyond traditional operators to spur 5G innovation. At the event, CBRS OnGo Wireless was cited as an example of opening spectrum access to achieve service delivery beyond traditional operators. CBRS is a disruptive model that I’ve written about in the past—I believe it can serve as a model for driving private networking use cases in the EU. Some of the more compelling use cases include transportation and logistics, mining operations, smart manufacturing, and healthcare applications that can scale from basic telemedicine to remote surgical procedures. In the Nordics, Nokia Enterprise is a clear leader in delivering private networking infrastructure. However, it will take the freeing up of spectrum to drive broad adoption.
TechChill 2020 didn’t disappoint. It’s clear to me that advances in connectivity across Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, LTE, and 5G was a catalyst for much of the innovation highlighted at the event. I may be a tad biased as a networking infrastructure analyst, but the absence of connectivity creates silos. Silos aren’t ever productive—most corporate strategy discussions center on how to eliminate them and improve collaboration. I was impressed with TechChill’s capability to highlight the power of connectivity and the transformative effect of innovation across a number of use cases and verticals. I’m looking forward to what’s in store at TechChill 2021!