Austria’s Pioneers Festival paves way for Europe’s IT entrepreneurs

Technology entrepreneurs have been congregating in Vienna’s Wiener Haus der Industrie at the Pioneers Festival, the biggest technology start-up conference in Europe.

Imagine electrical brain wave technology that allows severely disabled people to control objects with their minds (, or software that combines social intelligence and web content filtering (, or a hand-held camera that reproduces images in 3-D precision ( Welcome to the future, forged by young entrepreneurs gathered at Austria’s Pioneers Festival, Europe’s biggest and most prestigious tech start-up conference.

In the gilded baroque setting of Vienna’s Wiener Haus der Industrie, all crystal chandeliers, marble staircases and imperial portraits, geeks mingle with suits over free-flowing coffee and pastries, and iPads primed to pitch.

This year some 2,500 ‘future trailblazers’ gathered at Vienna’s Hofburg Imperial Palace for the IT-focused Festival, hoping to see the gods of the sector: Matt Mullenweg from WordPress, Peter Vesterbakka from Finland’s Angry Birds, and maybe Russia’s super venture capitalist Alexander Galitzsky.

As the rest of Europe wallows in a sea of debt, true innovation has found fertile ground in Austria. Festival organisers STARTEurope received some 850 applications from 58 countries, a deluge of potential business that is helping establish Austria as a next-century investment hub.

STARTEurope was itself founded recently, in 2009, by Andreas Tschas, a young veteran of both football and farming marketing campaigns in his native Carinthia region, who now heads a team running 25 events each year in cities such as Bratislava, Bucharest and yes, Athens.

A compelling speaker, he pointed to a map of Europe and a column of figures: 35%, 50%, 25%, 40%. “What do they represent? Youth unemployment in European countries. These people are highly educated, in their twenties, and have no job. No one is going to hand them one. They have to create them,” Tschas said.

“Precious metals and property are too expensive, the interest on banking products is low, and the equity markets are volatile. Unsurprisingly, the idea of ploughing 5% or 10% of your fortune into new businesses springs to mind.”

Investors are getting the message, with funds starting to flow to top contenders. Any firm less than two years old and with less than €2m funding can participate in the Pioneers Festival. The best 50 submissions are invited to present their ideas live on stage during the opening Coaching & Investors Day, followed by a more sober Conference day and inevitably, the final razzmatazz of the awards dinner and after parties.

Shortlisted entrepreneurs seized their brief but high energy slot (“Rock the Stage!” shouted chairman Tim Rohrich, as another hopeful was cheered to the podium) to pitch to and then field questions from the festival’s judges and competitors in the audience.

Among the judges this year were Rupesh Chatwani from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Rob Moffat of Balderton Capital, Esther Loewy, Founding Partner at Bootcamp Ventures and Johan Lorenzen of Sunstone Capital.

It is a ruthless pace, not for the faint hearted. Tschas has already cut back the original event schedule from one week to three days to keep everyone sharp. “We don’t want a dull conference full of dry academics,” he said. “Festival sounds better: it’s short and sweet.”

The winners of the 2012 Pioneer Festival Challenge (and the first prize of €25,000) were: 1st: Poikos, 2nd: Helioz, 3rd: BeamApp. Want to know what they do? Go to the website:


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