This year, Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge was delighted to team up with tech and innovation platform, The Next Web. Innovation Program Manager, Gianluca Bellan, took time out from preparing for the company’s calendar highlight, the annual TNW Conference, taking place in Amsterdam 9 -10 May, to discuss how the challenge helps start-ups focus on growth - and why building a network matters.

Please introduce The Next Web
The Next Web started when our two founders, Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten and Patrick de Laive, were struggling to find the right showcase for the tech start-up they were working on. So in 2006, they held a small event at the Hilton Hotel in Amsterdam. It was a success - 200 people turned up, and so they decided to continue. After three years, they launched the digital media journal element: regular curated content focused on tech and innovation. It's since expanded, and a couple of years ago we opened a community co-working space called TQ - or Tech Quarters - in Amsterdam. We opened a second venue at the beginning of May, with a focus to also include more scaled-up companies. On top of that, we also have Index, which is a search algorithm aimed at collecting and analysing data on tech companies. Our latest initiative is called TNWX which connects corporates, governments and investors with start-ups. To give you an example, we last year launched in collaboration with Vodafone the Vodafone TNW IoT Challenge, in which we connected ten clients of Vodafone with innovations that could help them in their IoT-related challenges.

Tell me about this years conference
This will be the biggest yet - we’re expecting 18,000 attendees over the course of the two-day event. It's also the most ambitious in terms of tracks, or central themes, with thirteen in total, selected to appeal to everyone from developers, corporate innovators, designers, and so on. We’ll be hosting around 250 top-notch innovators, as well as corporates, with a view to bringing these groups together. Part of the qualitative program we offer will be 'Assembly', which is a series of conversations around how technology can be a solution for global challenges. What separates it from other start-up or tech events is its festival atmosphere - there are bars, DJs… it's a lot of fun.

How did you work with Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge on this year’s competition?
We were excited to work with the Green Challenge again. Our role has been working with eligible tech start-ups in essentially a mentorship role: supporting with the application process, focusing on the sustainability aspects of innovation, and helping them articulate the potential impact of their ideas. It's a useful process for innovators: the Green Challenge process forces questions they may not ordinarily ask themselves, but are so important for growth. We've also be advising innovators how they might use the prize money for maximum impact. Start-ups tend to channel all investment directly back into the company, but we’re here to suggest alternative models: for example, sinking costs and giving some of their product away for free in return for a boost in awareness or usability of their product

What’s interesting is that this year, Green Challenge is working with several organisations who in some ways are competitors - Impact Hub and Get in the Ring, for example. Of course, between us it will be interesting to see how we each fare - but it’s also an important message with regard to tackling the kind of global issues Green Challenge raises: we need to work together.

What's your advice for start-ups looking to raise investment?
Of course, investment is important - but more important is finding loyal customers, especially in the early stages. A big reason so many start-ups fail is that they place all their focus on investment, instead of building traction with end users, whoever they may be. It’s like finding a new best friend - you need to think long term, build a base, and not place all your efforts with an investor or angel who may leave you sooner or later for another, or can’t transform with you. Just as important is finding a great network that brings with it opportunities as well as validation. Take us, for example: the Financial Times recently acquired a majority stake in The New Web. On top of everything else, it speaks volumes for our credibility, it opens doors.

TNW is increasingly about connecting start-ups with corporates - is this something that’s happening more?
Yes - because I think corporates are seeing it less as a risk, and more about getting people together in a room and saying, ‘OK, how can we make a difference now’. Collaborating with start-ups requires a different kind of framework in terms of regulations and going through legal departments. Things can happen more quickly, but it takes openness from both sides, with each asking themselves, 'How can we innovate?’ To give you an example, we recently introduced an innovator to the Dutch National Police. In the Netherlands, contaminating the water supply with drugs has been a major problem. We set them up with a start-up focused on sensors, but not initially envisaged for this usage. Because both sides were open to new perspectives, they’re now collaborating, and the project is a success.

How has the tech start-up scene changed in recent years?
I started working in this sector five years ago. Back them, everyone had a platform - for connecting people, different forms of social media. But now what we are seeing is more of a focus on the product. Take fashion, for example: where before e-commerce was all about order and delivery, now it’s about sourcing specific, tailor-made items. The same can be said of takeout delivery apps, Airbnb, and so on. Timescales have also changed. Before, it took tech start-ups perhaps five to ten years to reach the heights of, for example, Facebook. But thanks to new technologies, it can now happen in just a few years. So in recent years, we’ve seen a shift away from an ecosystem where there are a lot of startups, all evolving rather slowly; to an environment where they're able to scale faster, because of different ways of working, and requiring fewer people. For this reason, we tend not to call them start-ups or even scale-ups, but innovators.