Bright Ideas from Young European Minds

By Andy Reinhardt

Europe’s economic growth may lag that of the U.S. and Asia, but there is no shortage of ambitious young people with good ideas itching to pursue their dreams and start their own businesses. In this first ever BusinessWeek.com competition to identify promising young entrepreneurs in Europe, we asked our visitors to nominate candidates until Oct. 1. Now, for the next month, we’re hoping you will look at the intriguing group of nominees in the following slide show and pick the biz whiz you think shows the most promise. Browse through, cast your vote, and we’ll report later on the winner and runners-up.

Tristan Cowell

IC-Innovations

http://www.ic-innovations.com
Sheffield, England
Age: 25

Despite its name, IC-Innovations has nothing to do with integrated circuits. Rather, it’s an ideas factory started two years ago by Tristan Cowell, then a recent geography graduate from University of Nottingham. The seed was planted when Cowell’s mother was looking for a way to display her Christmas cards and he noticed a strip of Velcro sticking out of her sewing basket. His “Eureka moment,” as Cowell calls it, was the idea of sticking the cards to a strip of Velcro hanging from the wall.

After incorporating in 2004 and exhibiting at trade shows in England, Cowell had his big break thanks to a 100,000-unit order from Asda Wal-Mart. But his local suppliers couldn’t possibly produce that volume in time for the 2005 holiday season, so Cowell hopped a plane to Shanghai, lined up manufacturing, and made the deadline. Since then, he has rolled out Photo Hangups, Fridge Hangups, and three other novelties for displaying cards and photos. Revenues in the year ended last June hit $285,000, and Cowell figures they’ll quadruple this year. For Cowell, who has had business schemes since he was a teen, this is only the beginning.

Ben Woldring

Bencom

http://www.bencom.nl
Usquert, The Netherlands
Age: 21

Child prodigy or early entrepreneurial itch? Ben Woldring started his first company in 1998 at the age of 13, and now ranks as one of The Netherlands’ best-known young entrepreneurs. That first site, known as Bellen.com, was a place where consumers could go to compare prices and rate plans for mobile phone services.

Since then, Woldring’s company, called Bencom, has expanded to eight sites that offer clear, detailed information about fixed-line and mobile phone plans, Internet services, and utilities. The comparison services are free of charge to users. How does Woldring make money? After reading Bencom reviews, consumers can also subscribe online to the phone or utility services of their choice, and Bencom gets a referral fee. Bencom also makes money from banner ads and licensing its tools ot telecom providers and resellers. Revenues are in the “multiple millions of euros,” Woldring says.

Karm Singh

Desitouch

http://www.desitouch.com
London
Age: 25

Imagine a Web site that’s a blend of iTunes, MySpace, and YouTube, but stocked with Bollywood movies, soundtracks, and Bhangra music, and you get an idea of what Karm Singh is up to with Desitouch. A British-born Indian who built his first Web site at 16, Singh is fiercely proud of his cultural heritage yet firmly planted in the high-tech West.

His inspiration, dreamed up while studying computer science at King’s College, London, was to combine the two. Even the site’s name, which juxtaposes “desi,” the Indian word for “tradition,” with a “.com” suffix, fits the bill. Visitors can download South Asian music and videos in a variety of formats, and upload their own media from PCs or mobile phones. Singh aims to make money from transaction fees and advertising.

The self-financed Desitouch.com launched only a few months ago, but Singh expects to reach 100,000 hits a month by December. “I aim to be the world’s No. 1 South Asian entertainment Web site,” he says. At this rate, he might get there.

Lars Duursma

Debatrix

http://www.debatrix.nl
Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Age: 24

Teaching people how to constructively argue is the novel business concept behind Debatrix, based in Rotterdam. The company was started in early 2005 by Lars Duursma, the reigning world debate champion in the non-native English-speaking category. Clearly, Duursma is a believer in the power of persuasion. While a student at Erasmus University, he was hired by several Dutch firms and agencies to give speaking and debate training. “Then the entrepreneur inside me said, ‘Why not do this yourself?’” he says.

Less than two years later, Debatrix is one of the top four Dutch providers of persuasion training. It also coordinates debates for governmental bodies and companies such as ING that want to use an interactive format to present new ideas and generate discussion. Duursma is boosting his own visibility right now with a series of weekly newspaper articles analyzing the rhetorical skills of Holland’s major politicians.

With 15 freelance trainers on board and a growing roster of clients, Duursma looks to be well on his way to improving the quality of arguments in The Netherlands. That’s a goal every country might aspire to.

James Gibson

BinFix Ltd.

http://www.binfix.co.uk
Nottingham, England
Age: 24

Necessity, invention’s mother. Back in 2002, when James Gibson was a student in sports management at Brighton University, his roommate complained that nobody ever emptied the overflowing trash pail in the kitchen or replaced the bin liner. “What we need is a liner that comes up from the bottom of the bin,” the roommate said. Lightbulb moment. Gibson became obsessed with the idea and, improbably, turned it into a company.

In 2004, he moved to Nottingham and applied for space at a local business incubator. By last year, he had filed for a patent, developed a working prototype, and started looking for manufacturers. The product: a triangular cardboard box, stuffed with extra-thick trash bags, that lives at the bottom of the can. Pull one bag out, and another comes up to take its place.

A few trade shows and an award for household cleaning product of the year by Grocer magazine got BinFix noticed, and Gibson started getting orders from supermarkets. But building a company with the scale to compete against giants like Proctor & Gamble looked too daunting, so Gibson decided to license the concept to an as-yet-unnamed consumer products company. Now, with a potential royalty stream of tens of thousands of pounds annually, Gibson is pursuing a raft of new business ideas. Clearly, a young entrepreneur to watch.

Marvin Dominic Andrä

Bagpax Cargo Systems

http://www.bagpax.com
Saarbrücken, Germany
Age: 24

Like most inventions, Marvin Dominic Andrä’s “a-ha” moment came from a real-life experience. Asked by his father to take some garden clippings to the dump, Andrä was startled while driving by a spider that climbed out of the load and nearly got on his face. Had he been an arachnophobe, Andrä says, he might have crashed the car.

Thus was born BagPax, a series of padded liners that fit in the truck or back of a car and protect it from messy payloads-whether dirty children’s toys, sandy beach togs, or bug-laden compost. “Germans like clean cars,” says Andrä, who has sold hundreds of the patent-pending BagPax, which cost from $38 to $62, over the Internet and through German auto shops. Big contracts are on the horizon.

Andrä, an economics graduate from Saarbrücken University, set up BagPax from the beginning as a “virtual” company, with suppliers and partners in Turkey and Poland and a call center in Karlsruhe. For now, the trunk liners are only sold in Germany, but “it could work elsewhere, too,” Andrä says. Spoken like a true entrepreneur.

Neil Waller

Information Websites Ltd

http://www.marbellainfo.com
London
Age: 22

While earning a degree in business administration from University of Bath, Neil Waller went to work for a private-equity firm in London. But like most Brits, he hankered for getaways to the sunny south coast of Spain-especially the resort of Marbella. Yet Waller was disappointed in the quality of information available on the Internet about hotels, restaurants, and local events there, so he decided to set up his own Web site.

Thus was born Marbellainfo.com, whose traffic has increased fivefold in the past few months and now has 33 sponsoring companies. Waller’s real surprise, though, was how quickly Marbellainfo.com evolved from a site aimed at tourists into a community site used by local residents to find services and exchange information. Seeing an opportunity for other such tourist-cum-community sites, he and his business partner are now aiming to roll out similar such sites for the Algarve region in Portugal and Dubai. Someday, he says, he hopes to offer a network of hundreds of cities. Not a bad dream for a guy who was just looking for fun in the sun.

Julien Genestoux

Jobetudiant

http://www.jobetudiant.net
Lyon, France
Age: 23

French youth rallied this year against an aborted plan to make it easier for companies to hire and fire young workers. But they’re certainly eager to find jobs, as entrepreneur Julien Genestoux has quickly discovered. As a student at engineering school Insa in Lyon in 2000, he couldn’t find any summer job listings on the Internet. So three years later, he decided to build his own jobs service aimed specifically at students.

Now, a year after its launch, Jobetudiant (literally “student job”) has 200,000 registered job-seekers, an average of 10,000 open job postings every day, and should book more than $100,000 in revenues this year. Genestoux, now a business graduate student at Essec, outside Paris, thinks he could triple that in a few years. Listings are free, but lots of advertisers pay $64 per ad for higher placement, and many students pay up to $3.80 per month to see new postings via e-mail before they hit the site. More than 50% of revenues come from advertising. Genestoux attributes his success vs. larger rivals such as Monster to greater specialization. Looks like he has found the right formula in a country that needs to put more people to work.

Grant Lang

Mozzo

http://www.mozzo.co.uk
Southampton, England
Age: 24

As a business management and marketing student at Southampton Solent University, Grant Lang helped make ends meet by working in bars and cafés. But he was also passionately interested in sustainable development and local community. In March, 2005, he found a way to tie it all together by starting a coffee company, called Mozzo, that sells organic “Fair Trade” beans and helps local artists gain recognition.

Lang first tried to open his own coffee shop, but couldn’t raise enough money. So instead, he bought an Indian rickshaw, fitted it with solar panels and a wind turbine, and launched an eco-friendly coffee cart. To top it off, he hung the works of local painters on the sides of the cart and played local bands over the boom box. The bright red cart garnered attention, and soon stores and cafés asked to resell his beans. Last May, Lang started a coffee distributor, which he figures will notch sales of $225,000 in its first year. To stay true to his values, Lang will donate 5% of profits to community causes.

Next year, he finally aims to open that coffee shop, while continuing to branch out into other Fair Trade imports. Lang is convinced he can build Mozzo into a “sustainable lifestyle” brand. He’s in pretty good company: The success of The Body Shop, among others, proves that entrepreneurs can do well while doing good.

Fathi Said

Ecommerce Holding

http://www.ecommerce.com
Freistadt, Austria
Age: 24

German-born Fathi Said has the distinction of having launched and lost his first company, Web hosting outfit Hosting-Network Inc., by the time he was 20 years old. He says he got into business with the wrong partner-and clearly, the collapse of the firm, which hit $7.5 million in annual revenues in 2002, still hurts.

So guess what Said did? He started another Web hosting company in 2003-this time called Ecommerce.com. Headquartered in Austria, but with its main data center in Kentucky, Ecommerce has attracted 80,000 customers and plays home to more than 150,000 Web sites. The company has 130 employees in five countries, and revenues should hit $12 million this year.

Matt Roberts & Irfan Badakshi

Bean2Bed Ltd.

http://www.bean2bed.com
Birmingham, England
Ages: 23 (Roberts) and 25 (Badakshi)

Back in Matt Roberts’ second year at Aston University in 2002, a bunch of friends came up for a weekend birthday party. An offhand comment planted the seed of his future inspiration. “Somebody said, ‘I wish I could flatten out this beanbag chair and sleep on it,’ ” recalls Roberts.

Two years later, Roberts and buddy Irfan Badakshi had run with the concept. They met with designers, worked through 44 prototypes, rejected polystyrene pellets, maxed out their student loans, and unveiled Bean2Bed at a home show in July, 2005, at Earl’s Court. The finished product is, in effect, a mattress filled with crumb foam that stuffs into a corduroy, denim, faux suede, or imitation fur sack the size of a beanbag chair. One minute it’s a comfy chair in the corner, and then presto, it’s a bed.

Thanks to publicity and word of mouth, Roberts and Badakshi have sold thousands of Bean2Beds, which cost $285 to $475. They’re available on Amazon.co.uk and more than a hundred stores in Britain. The company figures to book sales of more than $570,000 this year. Not bad for the aftermath of a college party weekend.

Matteo Böhme

Matteoevents

http://www.matteoevents.de
Dresden, Germany
Age: 24

A self-confessed inline skating fanatic, Matteo Böhme began organizing skating events five years ago at the age of 19. His great knowledge of the sport and the skating scene in Dresden made him a natural to set up and manage local competitions and celebrations.

But now, Matteoevents, the company he set up in 2001, has blossomed into something bigger: a general events management business with three full-time employees and 25 contractors. Böhme presides over a group that has managed events for Red Bull, local breweries, and even the family day at the nearby AMD chip factory. Böhme may have been just a skating dude once, but now he’s got a growing business on his hands.

Matthew Hubbard

Reels in Motion

http://www.reelsinmotion.co.uk
Stoke-on-Trent, England
Age: 24

Three partners, all recent graduates in media from Staffordshire University, started Reels in Motion in late 2004. It was a classic entrepreneurial gambit. “Given how creative we wanted to be, we felt we wouldn’t be doing ourselves justice to give our talents to a larger organization,” says co-founder Matthew Hubbard. “So we just went for it.”

The trio found office space in a local business incubator supported by the Enterprise Fellowship Program, which provided administrative support and a business mentor. They started to make a name for themselves producing educational and training DVDs, especially in the area of special-needs education. Hubbard knew the subject from personal experiences.

Now business is starting to come in over the transom. Turns out there’s healthy demand in the West Midlands for the talents of three ambitious filmmakers who wanted to go their own way from the start.

Joav Ben Jaakow

BJ Bewässerungstechnik

http://www.benjaakow.de
Lengfurt, Germany
Age: 22

When Joav Ben Jaakow was just 15 years old, he and his parents went into business together importing state-of-the-art drip irrigation systems from Israel and selling them to farmers in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Now, eight years later, the younger Jaakow is the manager of the business and will become its top shareholder when it’s converted into a limited liability corporation next year.

“We started in a garage, just like HP,” Jaakow says. The whole family helped with packaging products, sending out bills, and other jobs. The younger Jaakow even dropped out of school for a while to help grow the business. Now the Ben Jaakow company has 10 full-time employees and books nearly $4.5 million a year in business.

Wayne Berko

Uni-versalExtras

http://www.universalextras.co.uk
London
Age: 24

Working as an extra in a movie: It’s a quick, easy way for students to make cash, and you can’t deny the glamour of being in a film. But, it turns out, production companies don’t always have an easy time finding extras, especially in off-beat locations. And many people interested in being extras don’t know where to look for jobs.

Enter Uni-versalExtras, a matchmaking Web site launched a year ago by Wayne Berko. The site has now signed up 30,000 students who want to work as extras. Film companies find them there, and Berko takes a 15% cut. He has recently expanded as well into professional extras, who pay a one-time $20 fee to post their profiles. Already the site gets 800,000 hits per month, and Berko aims to start selling ads to sponsors who want to reach his attractive student demographic. Lights, camera, startup!

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