IBM SmartCamp: Silicon Valley Envy? That’s so 1990s!

By Sandy Carter

Sandy Carter, GM, IBM Ecosystem Development
Sandy Carter, GM, IBM Ecosystem Development

Once upon a time, Silicon Valley was the only place in the world where entrepreneurship seemed to happen through spontaneous combustion. So cities and countries all over tried to copy it–with only modest success.

Well, something strange is happening in the early years of the 21st century. Startup fever is on the move, both within the United States and globally.

The spirit of global entrepreneurship will be on display Feb. 6 in San Francisco, where the IBM SmartCamp program will present its fourth annual Entrepreneur of the Year award. The contestants, boiled down from 1200 applicants, qualified for the finals via a series of regional contests last year. They hail from Brazil,  Turkey, the United Kingdom, the Middle East, Australia and Malaysia—as well as a couple of unlikely spots in the United States, Camden, N.J., and Fresno, Calif.

To watch a live stream video of the day’s activities, visit here starting at 9 a.m. US Pacific Time.  To participate in a peoples’ choice vote, click here.

This year, IBM SmartCamps are being held as part of IBM’s inaugural Global Entrepreneur Week. All week IBM has been celebrating the great work startups do through a series of events around the globe offering startups and entrepreneurs the tools and expertise needed to innovate, transform and grow using key technologies such as cloud, big data analytics, mobile and cognitive computing.

This globalization of entrepreneurship has been building for a number of years, but now it’s so obvious it hits you upside the head. A signal of the shift came last year when MoDe, a mobile phone top-off payment service founded in Kenya, won the IBM SmartCamp Finals in New York City.

Sure, Silicon Valley is still an incredible engine of innovation and entrepreneurship. But, there are plenty of other tech boomtowns now.  According to data from the CrunchBase directory, New York City created 1,438 startups in the past five years; San Francisco, 1,448; London, 1,075;  and cities including Berlin, Bangalore, Istanbul, Moscow and New Delhi are revving their own startup engines.

While Nairobi, Kenya, only registers in a small way on the directory, dozens of startups like MoDe have emerged there in the past few years—many of them aided by tech startup incubators and entrepreneurship hubs.

One of the IBM SmartCamp finalists, Reengen, which makes an energy-use dashboard for the owners and occupants of buildings, got a helping hand from Girisim Fabrikasi, a tech startup accelerator in its hometown of Istanbul, Turkey.

While incubators are helpful, there are other vital ingredients in a healthy startup ecosystem—among them venture capital, the cooperation of governments and universities, and, often, a stimulating urban culture and support from already established businesses.

It doesn’t hurt that the barriers to entry are collapsing. Startups are aided by the availability of open source software, inexpensive cloud computing services and government tax breaks. In addition, development platforms like Google’s Android and Apple’s IOS power the app economy.

IBM is deeply committed to supporting startups in bringing new technology and customer solutions to market through mentorship, partnership, matchmaking and free access to IBM technology. Most recently, IBM has entered the platform space, with its Watson Developers’ Cloud, which is designed to enable startups to build applications on top of IBM Watson—the technology that beat two grand-champions on the TV quiz show Jeopardy! To help get startups up and running on the developers’ cloud, IBM is offering support to the entrepreneur and venture communities through workshops and seminars on topics such as development skills, as well as networking opportunities. IBM has also dedicating a $100 million investment to support the seeding and growth of  startups and businesses building apps in the IBM Watson Developers Cloud.

It’s amazing what a startup can do when it gets a helping hand from bigger companies. Streetline, a San Francisco-based firm that won the Entrepreneur of the Year award two years ago, subsequently became an IBM business partner. It now ranks as the largest smart parking solutions provider in the world.  It has recorded more than 170 million parking events in the US, Germany and the UK.

Another example is Sproxil, which provides a consumer verification service through mobile devices. Since participating in IBM’s Global Entrepreneur program, Sproxil has expanded to 10 industries to help consumers protect themselves from fake or stolen goods and helps brand owners maintain supply chain oversight. Sproxil was also named the best HealthCare startup up by Fast Company for 2013 and the #7 in the overall top startup category.

Who’s next for explosive growth? This year’s SmartCamp finalists include Temando, of Australia; TMC, of Malaysia; Shopa, of the United Kingdom; Reengen, of Turkey; Nova Lumos, of the Middle East; Geekie, of Brazil, and Coriell and OnFarm, of the United States.  Fix on those names for a minute. For one or more of them, this could be the start of something big.
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