Unconvention: the only startup event where entrepreneurs get unfiltered access to European policy makers

Last Friday, Unconvention 2013 ended with a photo of all the attendees on the majestic marble staircase of the Egmont palace. The palace is owned and operated by the Belgian ministry of Foreign Affairs, and usually welcomes heads of state. Last week, it was overrun with young European entrepreneurs, as the scene for a two day conference on innovation and policy in Europe.

By the way, the quality of speakers and attendees that Kumardev Chatterjee, Larry Moffett and Nicholas Zylberglajt managed to get to Brussels for what was only the second “Unconvention” is quite amazing. IBM, Huawei, Microsoft, the EIF, the World Economic Forum, Startup America, the European Commission, Seedcamp: you name them and they were there. As Kai Engel, a partner at ATKearny rightly remarked: Unconvention has everything to become a movement of thousands of innovators.

Here are my impressions – I’m very interested in hearing yours, by the way.

1. It’s a startup event, Jim, but not as we know it

Unconvention isn’t quite a startup event like you know them. Fitting for a convention that is set in the power (and money) center of Europe, it examines the soil for startups rather than the startups itself.

And it’s clear that this close connection to the European Commission and Parliament piqued the curiosity of many levels within the European power structures. I must have met a dozen or so Eurocrats who showed genuine interest in the startup and innovation scene in Europe. As usual, these things trickle down from the very top.

Commissioners like Neelie Kroes (Digital Agenda) and Michel Barnier (Internal Market) are loudly and repeatedly stating their support for European cross border innovation and entrepreneurship – so loudly and repeatedly that even professional cynics are starting to accept that there’s a genuine will to change the climate of entrepreneurship in Europe. And so the Eurocrats come, looking for more information on this newish phenomenon called tech startups.

That, right there, is one of the reasons why I believe that Unconvention will grow into a must-attend event in the following years. Where else can a young entrepreneur bump into so many high level officials of the European Union to tell them what is on his or her mind over a couple of beers? Where else will the officials be so receptive to be told what their policy focus should be over the next years?

Because the message comes not only from twentysomething entrepreneurs, but is echoed and reinforced by the chairman of IBM Europe, and maybe a senior technologist at Microsoft, an institutional investor or two and the senior adviser to Neelie Kroes. That’s some validation.

2. Some simple ideas can greatly spur the European entrepreneurial ecosystem, like: mentorship

It’s clear that we have some work cut out when it comes to the entrepreneurial climate in Europe. But some things are really low hanging fruit.

Christopher Fogg of Connect London suggested mentoring as one of the highest priorities in Europe. Harry van Dorenmalen, chairman of IBM Europe agreed wholeheartedly with the idea, saying he had brought a mentee all the way from the Netherlands. (He also admonished the EYIF not to use the word ‘issues’, adding that he was jealous of the young people in the room, with all these opportunities to start a business and innovate today).


I’ve always felt that startups and corporates need each other, and I’ve been thinking lately about good formats to get them together. But as I talked to Herman Nielens (also IBM) about ideas to give startups more access to corporations, he said something to the effect that it’s hard to jumpstart relationships between companies, because everything is about people – you can’t make companies date, dating happens between people. And I think he’s right: it’s about creating chemistry and understanding between people inside corporations and people that run startups.

Senior leaders inside corporations are looking for innovation, and they are eager to hear from young entrepreneurs how they can adopt the lean we-can-try-this attitude. Young entrepreneurs are looking for seasoned business people to teach them the ropes about sales, execution, managing a team (and also to open up their network of senior level corporate friends).

I’m not sure if a European wide mentorship exchange program already exists. If it does, let me know and I will write about it.

If not, and if you’re a corporate looking for an injection of lean stories and hands on entrepreneurial training, I’m sure the startup community can help you get in touch with some interesting young wolves in Europe or near you. And if you’re a young wolf looking for a corporate mentor, I’m also quite sure that the community can help you get in touch with people who can find you what you’re looking for. Let me know.

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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