Seedstars Summit 2020: A Click-And-Mortar Event

By Sharon Lewis and Monika Ghosh

Edtech startup StudyFree announced as winner of global pitch competition

After narrowing down from over 5000 applications across 86 global emerging markets through local events and five regional summits, over 70 startups attended the Seedstars Summit on April 3, to pitch in competition for the top prize.

The Summit kicked off with several days of private events, including startup bootcamps and an investor forum, where startups and investors interacted through more than 100 one-on-one meetings. The Summit culminated on April 3, where finalist startups pitched to a jury of experts for an investment of up to US$500,000.

Interestingly, instead of holding the Summit in Switzerland as is usually the case, all of this was orchestrated online.

Many global events such as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Dubai’s Expo 2020 have been postponed or cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but this was not an option for Seedstars.

“If you think about who is being hit hard in terms of this global pandemic, it was clearly also these fragile small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and startups. It was unacceptable on Seedstars’ terms to let this program and participants down, so it was an obvious decision to go online,” Seedstars CEO and Co-founder Alisée de Tonnac said in an online press conference.

“The pandemic has hit world economies hard, and young businesses will be on the frontline during the recovery period. To support them, Seedstars’ mission of impacting lives in emerging markets through tech and entrepreneurship needs to speak loudly,” she added.

This was an ambitious goal. Seedstars had to rethink the entire agenda as well as the modus operandi for the Summit. They decided to interview candidates online, and play pre-recorded pitches during the event, but despite these pre-emptive attempts to run a smooth show, poor network connectivity was just one of the challenges the Summit encountered.

For example, there was a complete Internet shutdown in the midst of an online interview with an Egypt-based startup. In another instance, an Ethiopia-based interviewee had to be moved to a hotel, because of a din created by birds that made it impossible for the interview to progress.

The bigger challenge for Seedstars was bringing the energy of its offline event to the online forum. The team got creative, from having online parties and informal get-togethers, to hiring a professional studio and relying on postproduction.

“This is the beauty of going beyond from physicality to online. We’re probably a much more inclusive event today because we’re reaching a much larger geography… [Startups have told us that] this was probably a huge benefit that it went online because the full team was able to participate in the webinars and the expert sessions,” de Tonnac noted during the press conference.

The final event was a two-hour long live broadcast. It started with The Mag, an exhibit of startups working in trending themes from emerging markets, such as migration, education, digital access and the green economy. This was followed by a documentary on Ghana-based Cowtribe, winner of the previous year’s Seedstars Summit.

The broadcast culminated with pre-recorded pitches and a jury debrief. The five finalist startups included Kenya-based fintech startup Pezesha, Singapore-based energy solutions provider Resync, Turkey-based logistics startup Optiyol, fintech startup Baubap from Mexico, and Russia-based edtech platform StudyFree.

Jury members Cédric Waldburger (entrepreneur, essentialist and investor), Ramona Liberoff (Sustainable Development Goals investor and development leader) and Seedstars Co-founder Pierre-Alain Masson cross-examined the five finalists and shared their deliberations.

In the last leg of the broadcast, Masson went live to announce StudyFree as the winner. StudyFree is an online platform that helps students get admitted to universities across the world, with full financing. Dasha Kroshkina started the platform with $300 and has gone on to make $60,000 in monthly revenue, serving 400,000 students worldwide.

Seedstars Partner and Chief Investment Officer, Charlie Graham-Brown brought attention to the fact that four out of the five finalist startups had one female founder. “It’s way above the usual rate, which is typically around 10-15%,” he said in the broadcast.

Seedstars’ ability to adapt so quickly to an online framework is also credited to its operative model. It works largely through decentralized remote teams that are accustomed to collaborating online.

“Most of our teams, as we are working remote, need to collaborate online,” Masson explained. “Companies that were not used to working like that are struggling in this transition, which was not our case at all.”

Other notable moments from the summit include Hugo Jácome Andrade and Rene Espinoza–founders of Talov and Lazarillo respectively–winning the ICT Accessibility Award by Mada.

Andrade caters to over 700 million people worldwide through his startup Talov, which provides support to people with hearing and visual disabilities through their mobile application. The app is available in 60 countries and 35 languages.

Espinoza converted his thesis into a startup and developed Lazarillo–a mobile app–with a government grant of $15,000. Lazarillo is a guide app that helps public and private institutions in Chile and the world make their spaces more accessible to people with disabilities.

Going online has pushed Seedstars to rethink other ventures such as their acceleration programs and incubators. As an example, Masson noted that Seedstars is in conversation with partners to stage an online version of these activities.

“We will have more online programs in the future while still relying on our offline presence. [There is a] question mark on the future of it, but we’ll apply what we’ve learned so far in the next few months as well,” he says.

Header image courtesy of Seedstars. Image is from a previous edition of Seedstars World and included for reference only.

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