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NGAL - The Leaders and Unicorns of Tomorrow

Network Globally, Act Locally (NGAL) started its second year on the 6th of July 2016, after 11 American students made their way to our Estonian city Tartu, which is the home of the University of Tartu. In collaboration with Nebraska Wesleyan University and College of Charleston, University of Tartu hosted the first 10 days of the NGAL program. Throughout the busy days, the students and the staff of three universities got to meet and talk to Estonian startup founders and had enough team-time to improve their business models. Besides it was an awesome opportunity to broaden cultural horizons and make acquaintances with people from the other side of the world. By the end of the week those acquaintances had already grown into friendships.

Above all NGAL program is an opportunity for the students to get guidance and feedback from experienced mentors and improve business models in international setting. However, in the end, it's a competition and there is going to be a winner. The students work intensively during the hands-on program, which lasts for three weeks, and during the rest of the summer, they will have the help from mentors locally and internationally to get their business' started.

The week in Tartu started off with introductions - both people and their ideas. Some had prototypes, like team BarFrog, whose plan is to help customers to "master their night" and bar managers to "stay ahead of the curve" (as the slogan goes). BarFrog wants to improve the going out experience by introducing a beacon system that would allow the bars to have access to a lot of analytical data about their visitors and sales and give the customers an opportunity to pay and set limits via smart phone and get promotional deals. The University of Charleston boys Anthony, Max and Kyle showed us the beacons they intend to use when they turn their business plan into reality.

Another University of Charleston student Austin from team Rodbug also had a working prototype but at that moment it needed a little patch up. But hey, that was just Rodbug 1.0 - the final product might be Rodbug 853.5! That's how it is with hardware-based businesses. Rodbug is a device that is mounted on a fishing-rod and it automatically tracks and records where and when you get the most bites on your rod. Being a devoted fisherman himself, Austin knows what fishermen want and he truly believes in this project. He says that most fishermen don't have the time or simply don't want to take out their phones or notebooks in the middle of a fishing trip to manually record their bites.  

Staci and Gwen from Nebraska Wesleyan University are also taking the hardware route. They are going to develop a drug detection device that would discreetly test drinks for known date-rape drugs and alcohol. It looks like a common drink stir, it offers safety and security and it's called SipSafe.

But when your plan is software based, creating a webpage is probably the way to go. Some teams, like Konku, had theirs ready. Joonas and Karl-Sander hope to see a future without broker fees. Additionally, HireYoung, where Nikita and Andriy want to connect young jobseekers with their best-matching company and vice versa and Need2Park, where Kert and Tanel want to help parking lot managers manage their parking lots and get rid of traffic caused by people just who are looking for parking spaces. Interestingly enough all of our webpage creators were University of Tartu teams - maybe Estonia's e-technology savviness came into play here.

Maggie and Ryan from College of Charleston want to tackle the inefficiency and awkwardness of networking events by creating Everlink - a platform that improves the before, during, and after of the networking experience for both attendees and hosts.

Taylor and Arlie from Nebraska Wesleyan introduced Grocery n'Go, a shopping efficiency application that saves shoppers time while driving the sales of stores. Aren't we done with wasting time by wandering around mindlessly at grocery stores? Taylor and Arlie sure think so.

Another student that joined us later from Nebraska Wesleyan, because flying across the globe rarely goes smoothly, was Jared who created Patch Financial. Patch Financial wants to put payday loans out of business by creating a financial education platform that works with employers to help their employees get out of debt and plan for retirement.

Kissing Students was our spot of lunch for the rest of the week. Located on the Tartu Town Hall Square, Kissing Students offered a taste of food that Estonians eat every day and taste of what it's like to live in Tartu. After a few days the short walk from Idea Lab that took us along Emajõgi and to the Town Hall Square was known to everyone and soon people's hungry stomachs drove them to hurry ahead to grab lunch.

I noticed early on that every day we had at least one option that had some form of potatoes on the side - boiled, baked, mashed, fried - you name it. Eating potatoes is very Estonian and I was worried that it might seem bland to our American guests but when I asked, they just laughed it off and informed me that depending on which part of the country you're from, it's the same with them - the potatoes are just replaced with something else. Nebraskan students confirmed that for them, it's a corn.

After lunch it was back to work, as the teams participated in a workshop that resulted in verbalizing their product's value propositions. Every day Idea Lab welcomed a guest speaker, a startup founder who helped us to focus on different aspects of building business, such as: product-market fit, design thinking, financials, pitching to different types of investors, etc.

 A few days later when I asked Joonas from team Konku if he has any words of advice for future generations who wish to participate in NGAL, he warned that it's actually a lot of hard work. SipSafe girls Gwen and Stacy mentioned that they did not expect to have to get so much done in such little time and Taylor said that he feels he learned in a week more than in a year at school. But with NGAL students, it's "work hard, play hard". On the other side, it is fun too! Fun and excitement was clearly visible on Stacy’s and Gwen’s face when with a little help from Austin girls learned to use Idea Lab 3D printer and printed SipSafe prototypes.

Smile on our guests’ faces makes us happy too! We love to host NGAL! Every evening we invited all participants to dinner and network to  various best spots in Tartu, like Vilde restaurant, Aparaat, Crepp and La Dolce Vita but the most popular place among American students was definitely the Gunpowder Cellar - if not for the food, then for drinks and interior. Gunpowder Cellar is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the highest pub ceiling in the world, at 11 meters.

The evenings after dinner were left open for team-time. Some explored Tartu, met some locals, hung out with other NGAL participants and visited local establishments. Some nights were spent out until the morning hours, some nights ended behind the computer working. Of course, our short summer nights in Estonia are both a curse and a blessing. You can stay up more easily to work because it's light out, but you are also more inclined to go out... because it's light out. Nebraska Weslyan girls found Tartu cozy and safe because of its small size and friendly residents.

We also offered a tour to the University of Tartu Main Building and whoever was interested was welcome to join.  On Wednesday, a small group rushed out of the rain and into the beautiful neo-classical building built in the beginning of the 19th century. The tour guide showed us the Assembly Hall and the historical students lockup, originally used during the 19th century for detaining students who had offended public morality and the code of student conduct. Today lockup as such is not used but students tend to lockup themselves into the virtual world instead.

One interesting place were one could stay longer is Garage 48 HUB Tartu. We stayed in this startups co-working space for an hour and got to meet startup professionals from Tartu's own Silicon Valley who shared tips and tricks.

Estonia is positively surprising! Has it ever happened to you that you go to a city far from your home and on your 3rd day you are on a photo with the Major of the city? That happened to Nebraska Wesleyan students Stacy and Gwen when they were at Town Hall Square at the time when US military vehicles opened the training in the Baltic counties.

Surprising was also the weather on Saturday, when we planned a trip to South Estonia. We strongly recommended everyone to join our trip to Meenikunno bog because it's something one cannot find anywhere in the rest of the world. We asked the students to take the opportunity to see something new and unique and have some well deserved fun. Unfortunately, in the morning we were greeted by rain and it did not look good! But someone must have a weather machine hidden away somewhere because as soon as we stepped off the bus the rain stopped and it did not rain when we were standing on the top of the Egg Hill tower looking down to the beautiful landscape. As soon as we came down from the highest spot of Estonia Big Egg Hill and sat down to eat lunch at Big Egg Restaurant a couple of hours later it started pouring again.

We were privileged to be served delicious gourmee food by the man in a simple T-shirt and friendly smile who later turned out to be the Estonian information technology scientist and former advisor to the Prime Minister on ICT, Linnar Viik. He was happy to serve customers in his family, summer restaurant.  This type of meetings can happen only in Estonia, we think!

All in all, the trip to Meenikunno bog was truly amazing and we were happy we got to show everyone this hidden gem of Estonia. Being in nature is good for your health and makes you stronger only and this was exactly what our early stage businesses needed.

The last official part in Tartu was the final pitching event on Monday, where Students from University of Tartu, Nebraska Wesleyan and College of Charleston came together one last time in University of Tartu Idea Lab to practice their pitches in front of their peers, members of faculty, UT Vice-rector Erik Puura and Yrjö Ojasaar, a startup mentor and investor.

In the end Yrjö Ojasaar gave the teams some very constructive feedback. He praised teams for the work done and told they were a lot further ahead than most of the startups that he had seen in this programs. He also mentioned that some of the ideas caught his eye for business investments and he definitely would follow up on them.

NGAL Tartu Camp ended with a formal dinner at Atlantis restaurant, where everyone got to enjoy a fun night and relax after the busy week. Next our teams travelled to Tallinn to visit Startup Estonia and Estonian successful startups Transferwise and Pipedrive. We got to know that former Skype founders and developers have started several successful businesses and are known as Estonian mafia. And Transferwise as a unicorn is one of them. For our surprise in Transferwise we were greeted by the US origin happy guy Chris Raastad who showed us their modern premises and talked about the working culture at Transferwise. We were amazed by the space they had and of course Estonian start-up has its sauna, pool and terrace. Pipedrive was another startup that we were lucky to visit – it amazed us by the office design including also a bed to people who need to recover from jetlag. The founder’s story of growing global brought forward the truth that startup road to success is always under construction but when there is a will there is the way.

After Weslyans had left Charleston students were kindly invited to e-Estonian showroom to get overview of the e-services provided and information necessary for becoming an e-resident. And again a surprise – e-Estonian services were enthusiastically introduced by the speaker from US who just loved the solutions here and hoped to see them in USA soon. 

To sum, NGAL 2016 has already been a success and we are excited to go to Nebraska to close-up NGAL 2016 experience with the final pitch event, on June 24. 

Gerda Kelly Pill
Maret Ahonen
TÜ Ideelabor