'Tech is going to be driving, not just those isolated sectors such as computers or IT, but all other industries.'
Bill Street, Chief Investment Officer at Quintet Private Bank
During the pandemic, technology came into its own.
With an urgent call to stay home and protect lives, it became immediately obvious that embracing all things digital was going to be a major factor in getting us through and making our lives infinitely richer during such an unprecedented time.
‘Even before we got to the surreal world of COVID-19, the growth of the tech sector, especially in the digital world, was becoming pervasive,’ says Bill Street, Chief Investment Officer at Quintet Private Bank. ‘We were seeing the economic development and expansion of tech across industries, and the pandemic has absolutely accelerated that. Tech is going to be driving, not just those isolated sectors such as computers or IT, but all other industries.’
Digital futurist Dimitris Dimitriadis agrees. ‘Behind any crisis there is always an opportunity and tech companies are growing because of COVID-19. During the pandemic, tech moved beyond useful and became essential.’ Indeed, what the last year has highlighted is that technological advances are not only allowing for the optimisation of day-to-day living but are also facilitating new human connections and influencing the way we relate to one another.
‘Solving problems that actually matter: that’s my biggest driver and for me, what makes a Richer Life,’ confirms Francois Gerard, founder of Belgium’s Helpper, an online meeting place that connects those who need help at home with their neighbours. The idea was born in 2017 after his father was diagnosed with ALS and the family found that outside of the care provided by professionals, there was no support available for simple tasks such as cooking or gardening.
'Solving problems that actually matter: that’s my biggest driver and for me, what makes a Richer Life.'
Francois Gerard, Founder of Helpper
Once Francois came up with his sharing economy model (users pay a small fee for every hour worked by a helper, from which the helper receives the majority of the money and the remainder covers insurance and administration charges), he secured funding from CAREvolution, a health-centric venture capital firm he used to work for. ‘We already had a relationship of trust but it was a big leap of faith for them. Since then I’ve added more investors to increase impact but they all have the same mindset: understanding the balance between financial reward and our societal mission,’ he says.
Similarly to Helpper, Anne Dvinge’s Low-Fi is also about bringing people together – a peer-to-peer marketplace in Denmark where music fans can host bands to play in their living rooms. ‘For me, the connection you make through music is incredibly powerful and makes for a Richer Life, particularly when it’s experienced with other people. When you’re watching a concert in someone’s home, there’s wonderful conversation beforehand. Then when the music starts, devices disappear and everyone is very present.’ Of course, the idea of home concerts isn’t new, ‘It’s one of the oldest ways of enjoying music but we act as the facilitator. It’s the community that organises the concerts; we’ve just created the infrastructure’. Dimitris believes this kind of infrastructure is part of our new reliance on tech. ‘We have changed the way we use digital platforms; they have given us new ways of communicating through essential social interactions.’
The idea for Low-Fi evolved at a 10 week incubator. ‘I said, rather foolhardy, that I would build a platform. I didn’t know how to code but I found Sharetribe, which is a solution for platform businesses and started there.’ Beyond this, Anne set herself a target of writing to 20 musicians every day and persuaded friends to become hosts. ‘By the end of the programme, I had a platform, around 35 artists and a few hosts signed up, and the first concert had been held.’
'The connection you make through music is incredibly powerful and makes for a Richer Life.'
Anne Dvinge (right)
Image: Anne Dvinge and Stine Hulvej, Co-Founders of Low-Fi, @lowficoncerts
An incubator also provided crucial development for Amsterdam-based entrepreneur Michael Musandu and his co-founders who had shared experiences of underrepresentation and interest in using neural networks to generate images through machine learning. Their start-up, Lalaland, has raised over €720,000.
Using the developing capabilities of AI to create hyper realistic virtual models for the e-commerce fashion industry, the trio are diversifying the shopping experience (clients include Wehkamp, one of the largest online retailers in the Netherlands). Users can choose the image that best represents their size, age, shape and skin colour, and see what a garment really looks like on their own body. This doesn’t just benefit consumers but businesses and the environment too. Using these models has shown to reduce item returns and refunds by ten per cent – a significant drop considering that US returns alone create five billion pounds of landfill waste annually, according to logistics company Optoro.
‘We spent over a year doing research and found that our models caused a 15 per cent increase in click-through rates,’ says Michael, who believes a Richer Life comes from empowering people and building a social enterprise rather than simply making a profit. ‘AI technologies are within reach,’ confirms Dimitris. ‘Within fashion alone, machine learning and algorithms can provide insights into fashion trends, purchase patterns, and spotting counterfeits. For me, AI is like the invention of fire; it’s everything.’
'We spent over a year doing research and found that our models caused a 15 per cent increase in click-through rates.'
Michael Musandu, Co-Founder of Lalaland
As well as testing whether an idea will work, those entrepreneurs with online platforms need to make sure that they function for their audience. ‘For instance, unlike Airbnb we don’t have a star rating system,’ says Francois, who is now on his fourth iteration of Helpper. ‘We are more human centred than transactional; so we’re in the process of adding a badge system for a positive feedback loop’. The way the finances work is also deliberately clear yet discreet. ‘This is not about someone earning as much money as possible by helping a neighbour; so we mention it where we need to but it’s not the focus.’
Money – or rather currency – was also an initial issue for Low-Fi. ‘We worked with a Minimum Viable Platform for nearly two years before we attempted to build something bespoke,’ recalls Anne. ‘The platform only allowed us to use one currency so Danes had to pay in dollars. Plus they were asked to review a concert immediately after buying a ticket when, in many cases, it hadn’t taken place yet. We thought: if people are still coming along with all this hassle, then we are definitely onto something.’
Although digital-first companies need to work through these practical problems, there are endless advantages too – especially during a pandemic. ‘When COVID-19 hit, tech models such as e-commerce, EdTech, digital collaboration tools and digital trading platforms benefitted,’ recalls Ann-Christine Roope, CEO and founder of Ethan Partners, an executive search and recruitment company that specialises in supporting businesses that scale-up at speed. She also found that her own company had the edge over competitors. ‘Eight years ago, there were only traditional executive search firms but when you’re placing talent globally it makes sense that the hiring process is digital. In the pandemic, those still doing in-person interviews had to change their model but it is how we’ve always recruited.’
'It is well documented that gender diversity leads to more innovation, yet women are still underrepresented in tech.'
Ann-Christine Roope, CEO and Founder of Ethan Partners
Equally, for Francois, it’s being digital that has attracted his biggest group of helpers: 25 to 30 year olds. ‘My initial conviction was that most of our helpers would be retirees aged 60 to 75 who want to do something for society, but those in their 20s understand the platform model and like the flexibility we offer compared to more traditional organisations.’ In lockdown, Helpper added a volunteering option (now on the platform permanently) and collaborated with health insurance agency Mutas on a call centre for frontline workers who needed help with simple tasks such as filling the fridge.
Cultural experiences became critical for our emotional well-being, and at first, Low-Fi streamed gigs so that artists still had an income and the audience could still feel connected. During the second lockdown, Anne decided to focus on her planned expansion to Sweden. ‘The trickiest thing was that we were in the middle of an investment round in March last year and understandably, many investors decided to focus on taking care of the companies they’ve already got rather than invest in something as crazy as live music.’
Investment, especially for women, continues to be a huge challenge. ‘In the Nordics, in 2019, female entrepreneurs only received one per cent of venture capital funding. The reasons can be many, but studies suggest that there are a lot of unconscious bias that play a part when VC's choose what companies to invest in.’ ‘There is a lot of unconscious bias,’ says Ann-Christine, who earlier this year launched InTech Founders, an accelerator programme for female-founded and mixed start-ups. ‘It is well documented that gender diversity leads to more innovation, yet women are still underrepresented in tech.’
In fact, innovation, especially in tech, is the future. ‘The pandemic has given us this huge pause for thought; it’s an overused phrase but we need to build back better and that means that tech is key, especially when it comes to unlocking the next stage of a cleaner economy,’ says Bill. ‘COVID-19 forced companies to move into an innovation mindset; it’s the key to post-crisis growth,’ agrees Dimitris. ‘Looking ahead to 2025, our relationship with tech will deepen as we produce the enhancements that allow people to live smarter, safer, more productive lives. The new normal will be far more tech driven.’