The number of categories for tech startups is on the rise – from fintech and machine learning to impact. Not only does this signal the expansiveness of startups across sectors and industries, it helps them to collaborate. Still, their labels may come to lose their meaning over time.
Just a few years ago, the label “tech startup” would have sufficed to categorise a company. It signalled that a business did something digitally and online – whether opening a webshop or creating a platform. The more conservative parts of the business world remained uninterested. This was also true for the first TechBBQ back in 2013.
One of the founding fathers of the TechBBQ, Daniel Laursen recalled: “There were no specific labels. We divided “startup” into three categories, depending on how long they had been a company and whether they had investors. The sub-categories came later when we started working in clusters.”
Laurensen helped to lead the startup media company, ‘Trendsonline.’ Since then, he has founded Valuer.ai – a platform that matches startups and corporations – based on his keen observations of how the tech scene has unfolded since the early 2000’s.
One of the most significant changes has been the addition of labels like “fintech,” “machine learning,” and “impact.” The sub-categories and niche labels demonstrate how the tech scene has come to penetrate every industry. And the labels also point to how new startups are reaping the benefits of digital technology in new industries. This, in turn, makes it easier for the newcomers to work in clusters.
Where tech and sex meet
One of the more colourful attendees at last year’s TechBBQ was the sex tech startup, Ferly.
According to Billie Quinlan, co-founder and CEO of Ferly: “As a society, we talk about physical and mental well-being, but the third pillar of our health – sexual well-being – is often left out of the conversation. Feeling confident and healthy with our sexuality is essential to our health, and we want to normalise investments in transforming it.”
Working alongside experts in human sexuality, the UK-based startup has developed an app that enables users to explore their sexuality in a holistic way, through content like guided practices, podcasts, and sensual stories. Their mission is to close the “pleasure gap” by letting users self-explore their concepts, desires, bodies, and boundaries through the app.
Using tech has enabled the startup to reach users from 53 countries in a matter of months. While most users are from the US and the UK, Ferly has attracted a considerable fanbase from far-reaching countries like Cambodia and India. In Quinlan’s words, “Technology has enabled us to reach people in places where information is hidden and sexuality is taboo.”
Technology has already played a pivotal role in reach and accessibility, and Ferly is keen for it to play an even bigger role as the solution matures. The company is planning to use artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing (NLP) to tailor the experience and support users in understanding their needs, desires, and bodies.
For Quinlan, the company is trying to create behavioural change: “… as the app develops we want to use NLP – in combination with diaries – to create a richer, more personalised experience for our customers. NLP will allow us to generate meaningful, actionable insights.”
She sees it as a natural bridge, using tech to assist users in their sexual exploration: “We use tech in every area of our lives. We are already accustomed to using technology to foster well-being, and if we don’t include sex, it will just add to the taboo. A person’s sexuality is a living, breathing part of who they are and it deserves a space on their phone’s home screen, next to Uber and Monzo.”
Sub-categories are typically chosen by the startup
The shipping and transportation industry is a physical business, moving cargo from point A to point B. Maybe that’s the reason why the industry is perceived as quite conservative and transactional, with less digitisation and automation than other sectors.
However, through focused efforts and venture capital, the industry has nourished a budding ecosystem of tech startups – clustered under the label “Maritime Tech.”
As Lotte G. Lundberg, head of The Danish Maritime Fund, observed: “The maritime sector is one of the five strength positions in Danish export. Globally, we rank fifth as a shipping nation. There is great value and scale in maintaining and expanding this position. For that reason, we must think innovation, digitisation, and automation – not least to attract new talent to the sector.”
One of the pioneers in this area is the young drone startup, Upteko. Its co-founder and COO, Benjamin Mejnertz explained: “We build aerial robotics, which are essentially drones with a bunch of robot sensors. And we attach a different payload to the drone depending on the task it needs to solve.”
Currently, their drone responds to two scenarios in the maritime sector. First, the drone streamlines and automates inspecting ships in a dry dock. Second, it serves as something of a Swiss army knife in drone form, with a nest on ships solving different tasks onboard – from parking the ship with the help of an aerial perspective (from 120 meters above) and assisting in search and rescue missions to performing fire inspections with a thermal camera.
These advanced solutions call for a broad combination of different technologies, which means the startup could be designated drone, robot, or AI and could solve problems in other industries as well. Still, Upteko has categorized itself “Maritime Tech,” which has led to an investment from The Danish Maritime Fund, access to the shipping industry, and a clearly defined space to solve problems.
“Our solutions could be a fit for the windmill industry as well. But we’re passionate about the maritime industry and have developed partnerships with shipping companies who have been open to adopting our technology. We aim to be the number one supplier of drones for the maritime industry, and that means we can look into and solve some very specific challenges,” Mejnertz pointed out.
Verticals may soon become obsolete
While Laursen is excited to see tech startups spread and agrees that collaborative clusters can add value and help startups to narrow their focus, he also reserves the right to be critical toward all the creative startup labels:
“It has become a business model to say you’re a cluster or exclusively focused on one startup category. And, when an accelerator or event uses a new label, it’s just as much about getting customers as giving value to the startups in this specific category.”
The sheer number of categories is already starting to dilute their meaning. Moreover, the fact that both new and established companies are building their futures on a tech foundation could make the tech labels lose their meaning altogether.