EVENT RECAP, GALLERY & RECORDING: Estonian Startup Ecosystem Annual Fireside Chat 2023 / (18.01.2024)

Already for the fourth year in a row, key members of the Estonian innovation ecosystem came together for a traditional annual ecosystem fireside chat to discuss the present situation and future possibilities of the Estonian startup/tech/VC scene. This January, the Annual Fireside Chat drew a large audience to Erinevate Tubade Klubi in Telliskivi, to hear the reflections on this challenging yet productive year.

The discussion, moderated by Eve Peeterson (Head of Startup Estonia), featured:
  • Margus Uudam, Member of the Board of the Estonian Private Equity and Venture Capital Association (EstVCA) and founding partner at Karma.VC
  • Joonas Vänto, Director of Estonian Investment Agency
  • Kaidi Ruusalepp, President of Estonian Founders Society, CEO & Founder of Funderbeam
  • Mait Sooaru, board member of Estonian Business Angels Network (EstBAN) and CEO North-East Europe at Unifiedpost Group.


2023, with its cooled investment appetite, was still a prolific year for the Estonian innovation ecosystem. Per Startup Estonia estimations, Estonian startups raised €191M in 2023 (only the companies established less than 10 years ago are counted). This might be a decrease from previous numbers but a healthy one, argued Margus Uudam. “For me, we’re back to normal now after a big party”, he said.

A broader picture should be considered, said Joonas Vänto, and investments into industries and other sectors should be taken into consideration. Invest Estonia finished 2023 with the second-best result in its history. There’s a lot of noise in the news now, but the investors’ outlook is different, as they think in decades, not quarters or years, he argued.

“Now is a really good time to invest and look for the future investments”, he says. Besides capital inflows, there are other statistics to back this. “Last year, we saw 167 visits from investors to Estonia from all over the world. The interest is here”, he added.

Yet there’s always something to improve. “We need more founders, more of those crazy people who can squeeze oil out of stone”, said Kaidi Ruusalepp. More female founders will be in the spotlight this year, argued Ruusalepp. The time of puffy storytelling is over, but those who execute will prevail.

Another important thing will be to bring in foreign founders to Estonia, highlighting its strengths: no admin burden, close-knit community and talent quality. “Every country is fighting for talent. Besides ICT employees, we also need to welcome engineers to Estonia and boost our industry sector, mix it with the startup innovations”, argued Vänto. Estonia needs the next big thing; an industry should be a part of that. “We see it from Estonian successes, such as Skeleton and Elcogen.” Both raised significant sums with corporate VCs participation, such as Japanese conglomerate Marubeni, German industrial giant Siemens and HD Hyundai from South Korea.

Mait Sooaru, a business angel and board member of EstBAN pointed out that even though investors like certainty and predictability – it’s not there at the moment. “The economy has always been and will be cyclical. So I would say it’s sort of a clean up phase we’re going through – the weakest ones will not survive,” Sooaru said.

We need to normalize failing
Margus Uudam pointed out that even though we have many startups, some of them are waiting too long without any growth. “They should fail faster and start something new,” Uudam kicked off the new discussion. Mait Sooaru and Kaidi Ruusalepp agreed that we should definitely learn from US – to fail fast. “There’s no shortage of good ideas. Execution is key! If an old idea doesn’t die, but doesn’t fly either, get rid of it and start something new!”, Sooaru encouraged. Ruusalepp added that failing is part of the business, and we should foster it when needed.

Mait Sooaru brought in another interesting point about entrepreneurship in general. He said that we still lack positive public opinion about entrepreneurship. “Isn’t it clear that entrepreneurs create new jobs, new companies and public opinion should support all kinds of entrepreneurs?,” was his thesis.

What happens in 2024?
Margus Uudam: “We will see who is in, who is out. Quite many become normal companies, break-even, and some will run out.”

Kaidi Ruusalepp said even though it might remain just a thought, but some layoffs should come – some founders will have to start new businesses, there’s no time or money to prolong what’s not working by now. “We have massive challenges in the world. I hope these new founders will use these new challenges,”.

Kaidi added that she’d put her money behind an Estonian superfounder. Markus Villig and Taavet Hinrikus were mentioned as role models for superfounders.

Healthtech, defence and energy sectors were also mentioned as good investment perspectives. Mait Sooaru ended with a note that the times will remain turbulent, but the next growth will come!

Announced at the opening of the event by Anu Oks, EstBAN managing director, the new Connect2Scale investment ecosystem project is aiming to ease access to funding, empower startups through specialized training and help them to become successful scale-ups.

Read also:
  • Event recap by Invest Estonia - click HERE
  • Event recap by EstBAN - click HERE

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