Can you provide a brief introduction to MITA and the YouStartIT programme?
YouStartIT is an accelerator programme run by the Malta Information Technology Agency (MITA) at its Innovation Hub in SmartCity. MITA is a government agency that provides IS/IT projects and services to public administration. YouStartIT is a performance based programme that transforms teams with a researched and market validated idea into tech start-ups. Seven or eight teams are taken in as one cohort, then mentored as they build their first prototype which they have to test on their selected market. The idea has to be based on emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Distributed Ledger Technologies, immersive technologies and others. They get a pre-seed of €30,000, two-thirds of which is cash, to help them cover the initial costs needed to set up, develop and test their product.
All start-ups are required to follow the programme on location through the physical presence of at least one founder in Malta for the entire programme duration.
Can you tell us a bit about the application process and the typical profile of the applicants?
Tech start-ups can access the online application form from the MITA Innovation Hub website www.mih.mt. When the call closes we assess the applications, pre-select the best start-up projects and then invite them for a bootcamp to be challenged, guided and coached to deliver a pitch to a panel of judges. The best ideas are then selected to follow the four-month accelerator programme.
To be eligible for the programme, start-up teams must consist of at least two co-founders and then formalise into a company. If already incorporated, it’s important that their company headcount does not exceed nine, and they have not been in business for more than five years. If the selected applicants are foreign, they have to register their business in Malta. We accept applications from anywhere in the EU, EFTA or EU candidate countries.
Typically, applicants are between 25 and 45 years of age. Since internationalising our calls in 2018, we are receiving many applications from foreign start-up founders, mainly from the EU. The sectors are quite diverse, including FinTech, HealthTech, GameTech, Media, etc. In the last two calls, our YouStartIT programme evolved from start-up projects consisting of solutions based on mobile apps and eCommerce platforms to projects based on Blockchain, Internet of Things, Augmented and Virtual Reality, Deep Tech, and others.
How many applications have you received so far and how many start-ups have been funded?
To date we have received nearly four hundred applications and disbursed some €650K in funding to 30 start-ups. €150K were disbursed in the early pilot calls and the remaining €500K between YouStartIT#1 in 2016 and YouStartIT#4 in 2019.
What particular advantage does Malta offer to start-ups and are there any sectors that attract greater interest than others?
Malta is an excellent testbed for new projects because it is small, but has the same complexity of larger economies. The country’s small size is ideal for its easy reach to representative customer segments and get relatively fast feedback about their MVP (Minimum Viable Product), a low resolution prototype of their solution for market testing.
Malta’s small size makes it easy for start-ups to connect with mentors, advisors and other interested players from various industries.
The Government of Malta is focused on positioning the country as a centre of innovation and technology. Malta is the first country in the world to have developed a Blockchain regulatory framework which gives it a competitive advantage with respect to other jurisdictions. A public consultation over a high-level policy document covering AI Strategy is also underway.
What message about Malta would you like to share with the global start-up community?
Malta is a country with an economy that is developing rapidly. With one foreign worker for every five, it is a stable, welcoming and cosmopolitan environment. We are nimble in developing policies, and the government is investing aggressively to build an innovation ecosystem that is open to change, experimentation and talent. This is amply demonstrated by the thriving iGaming industry operating from within Malta with around 300 companies, contributing over 10% of GDP, and now Blockchain which is steadily growing and attracting big players such as OKEx, Binance and CoinInvest; not to mention ground-breaking start-ups such as Learning Machine Technologies that recently launched the world’s first pilot program for storing digital learning credentials on the Blockchain. There is a great political will to repeat the same model also for Artificial Intelligence by creating incentives for start-ups wishing to relocate to Malta. Apart from that, we must not forget the basics: the Mediterranean warmth and sunshine, a flexible workforce, and English as the main language of business and administration. Practically everybody speaks English here.
How do you see the programme developing in the coming years and what are MITA’s future plans?
Based on the success achieved to date and the lessons learnt, there are two things we’d like to do: one is contributing in building a business angel network as the next step towards creating a VC culture. We would like to do this by working together with other public and private organisations. The purpose is to create continuity and stickiness for start-ups to remain in business and grow. It is pointless to incentivise tech teams to start up if there is no follow-on investment to allow them to become scale-ups, which is what venture capitalists look for. The other thing we would like to do is to redesign our programme to create a more aggressive tech start-up factory from ideation, through validation, and then on to acceleration.