I made a recent trip to Estonia's lesser-known startup hub, Tartu. While Tartu has frequently been overshadowed by its big brother, Tallinn, it is in fact the country's ancient centre of education and science. It hosts Estonia's largest and most esteemed university, founded in 1632, while containing a beautiful and easily navigated old town centre. To top it all, every time I have ventured into the city the weather has been clear and sunny. Admittedly that is a total of two times, but I am confident it is always like that.
The first time I visited was in spring 2011 — our first visit there as part of the Travelling Salesman project. Back then Baltic startups were still very much searching for their way, barely even understanding what the word means, but a few role models, a few accelerators, and a few failures make all the difference. This time I visited during a Mobile Monday, and the contrast was a stark demonstration of how lessons are now being shared all over the world. There was energy, there was knowledge, and there was a sense of purpose.
One of the companies I met was Heelosophy. Forget photosharing, these entrepreneurs are after a rather more practical dream: the ability for people, and women in particular, to have ultimate comfort in footwear, without compromising on looks. They have developed technology, based on research done at the Tartu University, that allows them to measure a person's walking pattern and, virtually immediately (they claim within 5 minutes), create an individually moulded inner sole that perfectly dampens impact to problem areas.
They specifically target women who are in love with their beautiful, but often painful, high heels. The promise the company offers is that they will be able to dance all night (which of course is either good or bad news for guys, depending on your point of view). It is not just a matter of comfort, however, but also of health. Constant use of high heels or badly suited shoes can really wreck havoc with your feet, and even your whole body, as your posture gets ruined. Due to their rapid measuring and manufacturing techniques, Heelosophy's solution easily allows different soles for different shoes (according to foot angle), and they claim they are more invisible than other solutions out there — traditional orthopaedic in particular.
Their story has been going from strength to strength. After first winning Garage48, they have now announced funding from Prototron, the Estonian startup fund. That will be enough to build prototypes and production methods. Their technology is to be sold to shoe shops and chains, which sounds like difficult channels to really crack, but there is some potential — at least with the chains — of a decent level of scale. To the lady readers: would you choose your shoe shop based on whether they were offering this? Is this going to change the way we walk?
Heelosophy is an example of a growing number of new companies creating hardware-based solutions. I remember when building hardware was a sure way of losing a lot of the green stuff, and, as a software guy at heart, I would even today approach the space as if stepping onto unholy ground. Building hardware companies has, however, never been easier due to better design tools, cheaper sourcing and, most importantly, decreased psychological barriers towards hardware. For the first time in decades geeks are once again experimenting with chips, boards, sensors and manufacturing. One other Tartu initiative reflecting this trend is BuildIt, a brand new hardware-focused accelerator. They have just recently started working with their very first batch. Is this the birth of a hardware hub?