4YFN (Four Years From Now), the startup and investor event taking place in parallel with Mobile World Congress, is set for a record-breaking year: the attendee count should reach 12,000 this year, while more than 400 startups are exhibiting and investor representation is to more than double to over 500 participants.
The increased breadth of investors and the involvement of big corporations are signs that the tech ecosystem is coming of age. ”Not only the quantity of investors is growing, so is their quality, with a larger representation of international VCs,” Esteban Redolfi, 4YFN’s executive director, told Mobile World Live. “Startups exhibiting are also stronger than in previous years, with more mature projects, and they are looking for bigger investments.”
Featuring keynote speakers such as Google Ventures’ general partner Rich Miner, Werner Vogels, CTO of Amazon, and Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook’s vice president of EMEA, 4YFN aims to cover every aspect of mobile innovation, including the shared economy, fintech, smart cities, connected homes, digital content and wearables. ”This year’s 4YFN will be a bigger and stronger event with more complete content, a more international representation among exhibitors and attendees and more networking activities,” Redolfi added. In total, 150 hours of content will be offered, together with 60 workshops and three startup competitions.
The event is now aiming to establish itself as a business platform that lets startups and investors connect all year round. ”Our core meeting point will always be 4YFN but throughout the year we have developed a full set of activities, all aimed at stimulating the global tech startup community… We want 4YFN to consolidate itself into a relevant business platform in the global ecosystem,” he said.
As part of this transformation, 4YFN has started an Investors’ Club, a digital platform where investors from different regions can connect. ”We have seen investors funding together startups in regions they would otherwise not have known or invested in,” said Redolfi. 4YFN has also scaled up its activities around introducing startups to large corporations from outside the tech world.
Don’t write off telcos
Given 4YFN’s focus on startups, investors and large corporations, where does this leave players from the mobile industry? Redolfi argues operators are very much involved, with participants including Telefonica, AT&T, Singtel, and Deutsche Telekom. ”When everything started, many thought that startups would completely change the industry. Now, the consensus is that both corporations and startups are here to stay. The evolution is natural and goes in a collaborative rather than conflicting way.”
Startups and operators are interdependent when it comes to innovation, says Tom Wehmeier, principal and head of research at Atomico, the global investment firm started by Skype co-founder Niklas Zennström. ”Mobile players have had an important role in enabling startups. Without mobile networks, without 4G, most of today’s startups would not exist, there would be no WhatsApp, and no Supercell for example. To me, a lot of what the mobile industry does is to enable startups to create new services. It is a symbiotic relationship,” he said.
There is no denying though that many new mobile services can threaten operators’ traditional revenue. Yet, telcos are still in the best position to offer connectivity, according to Fredrik Cassel, partner at VC firm Creandum: “Communication services created by startups include such slick communication functions that they easily bypass operators, hence reducing the value of a telco. As an operator you have to ask yourself, ‘how do I want to play this game?’. The trend towards more communication services on top of telco networks is hard to reverse.”
”On the other hand, select over-the-top communication services show demand for voice services to complement or to facilitate last steps in the conversion funnel. As an operator, I would buy into startups developing these types of services,” he added.
Startups offer a window on the future and that longer term horizon is very valuable, says Tom Wehmeier. ”On the one hand, it helps us understand how consumers and businesses will demand mobile services in the future, on the other hand, looking at the innovation coming from startups gives us an indication of how telcos will have to invest to stay relevant tomorrow.”
Virtual and augmented reality are both examples of this trend. They both give operators an insight into future bandwidth demands. Self-driving cars is another market with huge implications for the industry. ”These [innovations] will push the mobile industry to improve itself,” said Wehmeier.
There is no doubt in his mind though that some of today’s startups have the potential to displace traditional players in the next five to ten years. ”Absolutely, that will be the case.. Thanks to technology, we see amazing mobile-centric startups founded and becoming huge companies, such as WhatsApp, Skype or Airbnb. And we are also looking at industry verticals that have yet to feel the full impact of mobile innovation and connectivity, sectors such as transportation, health, payments, education or gaming.”