Riga’s Baltic tech hub is on the rise In Latvia
The Summer Solstice in Latvia is a serious affair and maintains many Baltic pagan traditions, notably ‘seeking the fern flower’ on the night of the Solstice.
This activity, however, does not centre on walking around forests looking for fauna and flora, but other types of wildlife; it is a euphemism for having sex in one of Latvia’s many forests while getting very, very drunk.
Latvia has a lot of forests, more than 50% of the country is covered by woodland, so there is more than enough room for these non-vestal virgins to frolic.
However, for the rest of the year, the emerging startup hub of its capital Riga is seeking recognition and investment, not fern flowers or those particular seekers.
The city competes with the neighbouring Baltic states of Lithuania and Estonia whose major cities of Vilnius and Tallinn have also positioned themselves as ‘Tech Nations’, freely (and relatively recently) independent from Soviet Russia.
In many respects these three nations resemble Sweden, Norway and Denmark as friendly and adjacent countries, but also fiercely competitive when it comes to differentiating themselves as places for the Technology Pound, Euro and Dollar.
Andris Berzins, the co-founder and board member of TechHub Riga, believes this local competition is a positive thing and brands all three Baltic States as a place to do business.
The Baltic states all have a similar, but globally unique combination. They have small populations (which drive startups to go global from day one), excellent technical talent pools that are hungry for success and are all from inside the EU. Expect more outsize startup successes similar to Skype to come from here.
TechHub Riga has an integral role in helping the tech ecosystem in Riga grow. It is a co-working space where tech startups can collaborate, network and meet.
It moved into new premises into the centre of the city at the end of 2015, a place I visited in February of this year.
It certainly felt as if something powerful was going on, real brio and enthusiasm, not always seen at similar global co-working spaces.
TechHub Riga also prides itself on opening the first Open Device Lab in the Baltics, a shared community pool of smartphones, tablets, or consoles. It allows developers to test their websites and apps. Moreover, this service is free, a four-letter-word that startups love to hear.
The road to Riga from the airport is a benign one and it takes less than half an hour to arrive at a central hotel, the airport itself being a strategically placed transport hub. Air Baltic is a decent airline with a significant network of flights and onward connections.
Interestingly for a supposedly tech nation, the taxi app of choice in Riga is not Uber, although the US company has entered the local market, but Taxify.
The company was founded less than three years ago in neighbouring Tallinn and claims that it it is the fastest-growing taxi booking app in Central Europe with more than 500,000 ‘riders’ in ten countries.
Enough, however of Estonian taxi companies, what of the Latvian startups that are emerging from Riga’s tech hub?
Perhaps the most interesting startup is Monea,a micropayment app that provides instant P2P payment services, by transferring small amounts of cash using smartphones from one bank account to another (no top-up accounts or virtual wallets).
To do so competitively, Monea has created a national payment infrastructure backbone (Monea Engine), an alternative to to the central bank clearing.
It is also ready to launch Monea Engine to third parties, including all local and regional banks. During 2017 Monea plans to expand both its front-end solution as well as the back-end engine services to several other markets throughout Europe, capitalising on EU-wide payment institution licences and strong VC backing.
Martins Kalnins, co-founder and COO, Monea:
Riga is rapidly becoming the regional hub for FinTech solutions, repeating the success of the country’s banking industry in the 1990s. We believe coins in their traditional form are on the way to extinction, and we are leading the way to creating a ‘coinless’ society by 2020.
To achieve this we have designed technology that moves small amounts from one person to another as seamless and instant as coins do, without all the hassle of keeping change in people’s pockets.
While Monea is widely used, other FinTech companies are booming.
Subsequent local examples include Mobilly (a public parking payment mobile app that services most public and private parking spaces in Riga), Twino (consumer loans and investment), and several others, most notably Mintos (offers peer-to-peer lending).
The company says €10 million of funded loans have been traded via its marketplace, and that investors are coming from 40 countries, while loans have originated across the Baltic nations and Eastern European countries.
Another interesting startup based in Riga is Edurio, a web toolkit to expedite the relationships between students, parents and teachers. Currently
present in more than 150 schools, Edurio is one of the growing number of startups that combine presence in the Baltics with an international head office, thus benefiting both from the lower cost base in Latvia and the global growth potential in its London base.
Ernests Jenavs, founder, Edurio:
Riga is a perfect entrepreneurial sandbox – a small and safe test market for ideas along with low living costs. The community has boomed over the last five years due to the TechHub community and that international travel is very easy.
The gloriously named AirDog describes itself as ‘the world’s first auto-follow GoPro Video Drone for sports enthusiasts, outdoor fans and indie moviemakers’ and was officially acknowledged as the best drone of CES 2015.
It is probably the most well-known startup in Latvia, having picked up a Latvian record-breaking $1,368,177 in a Kickstarter campaign in 2014, followed by a $2 million seed round in 2015.
The AirDog model aims to perfect the use of GoPro, processing data using an algorithm and directing AirDog to always follow the operator and film their movements.
Active gyro stabilization guarantees that video footage is stable, smooth, and always level with the horizon.
Whether AirDog stays level with the horizon or not, one thing is for sure and that is the horizon is looking rather rosy from Riga. A modern city with a young population means that its emerging ecosystem is evolving nicely.
Just be careful if you go down to the woods, not today, but on the Solstice, you’ll be sure to get a surprise. You have been warned…
Monty Munford has 15 years’ experience in the mobile, web and digital sectors and is a weekly columnist for Forbes in New York and has been a monthly columnist for The Telegraph in London since 2009. He also writes here.