Tartu: The Forgotten Second City
By now everyone is well aware of the fast pace at which things are taking place in Estonia, but often that success is linked quite specifically to the capital, Tallinn. During our Travelling Salesman trips a lot of people have recommended only visiting the obvious locations. But that's not what we are about: we aim to visit as many locations as possible, and specifically want to discover the smaller, upcoming scenes, or the fantastic entrepreneurs in the middle of nowhere. Sure, a lot of the Skype team is based in Tallinn, and the new VCs operate from there, but Tartu is still an important technological center in the country, and is a very important university city.
The population of the picturesque place is just over 100000, of which 20% are there studying at the famous University of Tartu (and yet more at other universities). Fortumo, one of the other famous success stories from Estonia, also comes from there. Even at the Tallinn event I met a number who were based in Tartu. Currently it is missing a bit of an actual startup scene, but Annika Toit, of the Tartu Science Park was adamant that one should be built, and listened intently to the tips Mike and I offered for how to build one, based on what we have so far seen during our trips.
But before I write about the startups I met there, I have to put a good word in for the route we took from Vilnius to Tartu.
We decided to avoid taking the same old coastal road we've done several times already, but instead to take the route through Daugavpils to Valga on the Latvian and Lithuanian border, and then onto Tartu. Now the running joke for us was that there should be warning signs for patches of road that weren't bumpy (ie. areas where the passenger can sleep or write blogs). The "bumpy road ahead" signs were, generally speaking, totally superfluous as that really was the norm.
But the reason why this route was so brilliant is that we got the extremes of the extremes: main, connecting roads, with no tarmac whatsoever, and with deep sandy banks (great fun in the Landy) and then what must be the best road in the whole of Latvia, if not the Baltics. It was perfectly smooth, had a 90km/h speed limit, and was so tight and bendy that I yearned to get in my Caterham 7 to put it to a proper test. Even in the Landy it was supremely fun. Once you get used to the roll, there is a fair bit of grip available on a Defender!
After a quick overnight stay in Valga, which is a town split in two by the Estonian–Latvian border, we arrived in Tartu for a lovely, relaxed meetup put together by Annika. With around 10 people there, it was naturally smaller than Vilnius, but the spirit was very friendly and we even got some good pitches that were awarded some Finnish 'Sisu' sweets.
Marker.to is a bookmarking service with a difference: you can use it to bookmark any phrase on the net, and share that with other people. It integrates with existing services such as delicious and Twitter, while providing the marking abilities. I have seen services similar to this before, but the ability to link this up with what is already out there might significantly reduce the threshold to use.
Sportlyzer.com was up next with a virtual personal trainer that is based on sophisticated artificial intelligence. It analyses your routine and gives professional advice about how you should proceed. Tõnis Saag told me that they are now planning to go to Chile, to take part with a startup programme there! This was mentioned at the event in Tallinn, and is a programme that gives $40K in grants to run a startup project from there. At the time I wondered why anyone would want to run an IT startup from Chile, but Sportlyzer is jumping on the chance to try something new. Got to respect that!
Finally, while not yet willing to do the video pitch thing, Taavi Raidma told us about CrowdIPR.com, which is a crowd-sourcing service for professionals in the patent and IPR business. Founder Taavi Raidma explained that a big problem is being able to discover what patents are out there on a global scale, as well as getting proper understanding of patents that can be very specific to a certain field. CrowdIPR allows professional to submit information and query from others around the world. They charge for projects run through them, and pay out to professionals based on their participation.
I immediately ran this by one of our trip sponsors, Peltonen Law. It's always super if the Travelling Salesman can help form new partnerships and connections between our supporters and the companies we meet.
We learnt two other great things while in Tartu. Do you like Caterham 7s and similar cars? Well, Tartu has its own manufacturer called ESTfield, that builds them out of bits from Ladas! They're a tad fugly, but this has got to be one of the most random ideas ever, and now I have got to visit Tartu again, just to visit this workshop.
The other thing we learnt is that one word for getting married, or going to a wedding is 'pulma'. This means 'problem' in Finnish! I guess the Estonians always say what they are really thinking (for those who don't know, Estonian is one of the few languages in the world related to Finnish).