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Estonia - the Skype effect

Do Not UseDo Not Use 13/05/2016 By Rory Cellan-Jones
Delivery robot © BBC Delivery robot

On the Technopolis industrial park in Tallinn, Estonia, Ahti Heinla is pointing out some local landmarks from his office.

Delivery robot: Are delivery robots ready to take to the streets? © BBC Are delivery robots ready to take to the streets?

That modern white building just across the lake is the current Skype office, he explains. The red brick building right outside the window is where Estonia's most famous tech company started.

A gathering of young entrepreneurs: Skype has inspired a generation of young entrepreneurs © BBC Skype has inspired a generation of young entrepreneurs

Mr Heinla was part of the team that started the internet call firm and he's speaking to me at a new business partially funded with the money he made there.

Anni-Brit Remmelg organised the event © BBC Anni-Brit Remmelg organised the event

Starship Technologies, founded with another Skype alumnus, has an even more ambitious aim - to build a fleet of delivery robots that will transform the economics of bringing parcels the last mile to your home.

Outside, we watch one of the robots trundle back and forth along the pavement, using technology similar to that which guides driverless cars but developed by the small team of engineers based here in Tallinn.

I tell Ahti I'm sceptical about two things - the business model and the security of the robots.

He insists that sending out dozens of these devices from some urban depot carrying a bag of flour or a pizza is a more practical proposition than deliveries using self-driving cars or drones.

I'm not convinced the little robots won't be tormented or vandalised as they make their way along the gritty streets but he says the company has tested them over thousands of miles in Tallinn, London and the United States without suffering major mishaps.

It may succeed, it may not, but Starship Technologies is just one of a number of Estonian startups, many of them with Skype connections, that make this one of Europe's most energetic tech clusters.

Even if they have no connection with the company - which was bought by eBay in 2005 and then sold on to Microsoft in 2011 - other entrepreneurs here acknowledge its vital role.

"It's the equivalent of having a couple of world-class universities," Andrei Korobeinik, who started a major social network here and served as an MP, told me.

"Companies like Skype are a huge deal for a small country - it's changed the whole infrastructure - it had a huge impact on the ecosystem."

He was one of the older people I met at an exuberant event called Mobile Monday, where young Estonian entrepreneurs came to hear the experiences of people like him. It was a relaxed and convivial atmosphere - one speaker started his presentation about a failed social network for pets with a slide captioned "We didn't really know what we were doing", while a dog ran around under his feet.

The evening - all of it conducted in English - had been organised by a student called Anni-Brit Remmelg. Like everyone, she had a couple of startup ideas running alongside her studies.

I asked her where this can-do attitude came from.

"Even in middle school, there's a strong message," she told me. "Don't be afraid, learn how to code even if you're a girl. If you say you're studying IT that's the coolest thing you can do - it's your parents' dream."

Estonia has quite a few disadvantages - a tiny home market, a winter that seems to go on forever (although the weather was lovely for our visit), and poor connections with the rest of Europe. But the legacy of Skype combined with the energy and engineering skills of young Estonians has made this into a startup nation to rival any in Europe.

Hear more about my visit to Tallinn in today's special edition of Tech Tent today at 16.00 BST on the BBC World Service or catch the podcast.

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