I consider my embarkation and journey on YouStartIT#5 to be rather serendipitous. A little more than a year ago, I was a stressed out, final year, 21-year-old student, reading for my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Digital Art at the University of Malta. Stress oozed out of my every pore, as I struggled through. But that stress drove me, and kept me focused on what I sought to achieve.
At the time I knew that my dissertation project would eventually be part of a greater plan. My thoughts on how however, were not yet clear. My project was to create a mobile application that would bring photos to life using Augmented Reality, in the same way that the paintings in Hogwarts could wave at Harry Potter, have conversations, and the way Harry could step inside the paintings’ scene in 360 (Virtual / Mixed Reality). The idea was too good to merely be published and shelved in some dusty library. My vision for the project was sky-high, although at the time, I could not comprehend what can be done with it.
You may be wondering, ‘what does a Digital Fine Art project have to do with emerging tech’? Honestly, if you were to ask me this exact question a little over 2 years ago, I might have told you that I wouldn’t know, or care to discover. I hated coding with a passion – in fact, I scraped through the code-based assignments at UoM just because I truly did not care for it. My boyfriend, on the other hand, was a technical and artistic genius. His work fascinated me, and made me eager to learn more, and I knew that from the moment he showed me his artwork come alive through Augmented Reality technology, that there is a world of possibility in the paper he held, and the lines of code he’d scramble on his computer. This was in fact his own dissertation project from his own BA, where he had brought the pages of a book to life! Illustrated characters would jump out from the pages of the book, and play with the reader, whilst some AR animated characters would smile and wink. I was sold.
I spent the following summer learning, and experimenting with Augmented Reality. We in fact had collaborated and created an AR exhibition: the birth of what was then to become our start-up. As I practiced and experimented with the technology, I had decided to haphazardly switch my dissertation research and project around in a last-minute curveball. The faculty approved, and I knew I did not want it to stop there. An app? A service? AR art? I was not yet sure, but was willing to figure it out.
In March 2019, with just 1 month left to complete my dissertation, I stumbled upon an ad put forward by MITA that invited emerging tech start-ups to participate in a 5-week validator to see whether an idea is worth turning into a business. I merely thought “the worst that could happen is that I apply this feedback to my thesis research and see what comes of it!” And anyway, it wouldn’t have been so bad had we been chosen to take part in their accelerator programme, earning 30K in pre-seed funding. So, why not?
By some luck, I was shortlisted as one of the top 15 startup ideas, and embarked on the YouStartIt#5 validator journey, juggling university assignments, finishing off the dissertation itself, setting up an AR exhibition, assignments, and more. Alone at first… Until I convinced my boyfriend, Nikolai, to join me – despite his overwhelming timetable as a digital art lecturer and at MCAST.
Mita Innovation Hub sought to teach us the basics of Market Research and Validation in 5 weeks. It was crazy, although they were successful in preparing us with all we needed to know. The competition was tough; each idea was better than the next. With thanks to the MIH advisors and team, our AR idea was transformed into a tech-startup with a SaaS model and app, offering AR experiences for the marketing, education, publishing, and tourism industries. The knowledge and experience they shared opened our minds to an oasis of ideas which we developed and brought to life.
After 5 intense weeks, the Validator drew to a close with an 8-hour boot camp, and a pitching day on May 11th, whereby Startup Founders were asked to pitch their validated idea to a board of judges, of which only 5 out of the 15 would be chosen. We pitched passionately, added a little bit of AR magic and a twist of emotion, and after 2 intense hours of contemplation, we had made it to the top 5!
Nikolai and I took the summer to prepare for the upcoming 4-month accelerator; learning, testing, coding, experimenting… We began in the first week of September, and by the first week of October we had already exhibited our startup at Delta Summitt, Malta Innovation Summit, and the KSU Campus Fest. Overwhelming was an understatement, as we had pitched to over 2000 persons in just 7 days.
Through our 16 week journey, Mita Innovation Hub became our home; other startup founders became colleagues, and the words “may I ask for your advice?” to MIH advisors and coordinators became more common than ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’. With meetings scheduled by Mita with foreign entrepreneurs, industry advisors, technical experts, there was never a dull moment. We seemed constantly overwhelmed with information, meetings, and to-do lists. The hustle and bustle gave us life.
Our journey was inundated with never-ending Trello board lists, tasks, and goals we’d enjoy ticking off – step by step by step. There was no better feeling than dragging a trello card from ‘to-do’ to ‘done’.
Our Social Impact Agenda missions may have been steep, although for someone who had just graduated, the experience and networking was necessary in order for us to be placed on the map. Not only did we host a successful meet-up featuring renowned local entrepreneurs from the tech, fashion, creative and hospitality industries, but we were also invited to give a podcast on our journey as entrepreneurs. It is what truly put us on the map for numerous collaborations lined up and ready for our launch.
Like most entrepreneurial journeys, this one did not come without obstacles. Being one of the first AR specific startup locally, our technical and intellectual resources were limited. From business development, to technical set-up, it was difficult to strategise a business concept with a pro
duct so intangible, yet equally mystical. Because how would you explain to a consumer that we sell ‘magic’?
Luckily, we were introduced to intellectuals from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (more commonly referred to as MIT), professors from universities in Vienna, renowned entrepreneurs from New York, Alaska, the UK, and even Silicon Valletta, who challenged us until we were exhausted. No loophole was left unnoticed, until we finally had a ship-shape concept that no one could object to – pitch and all!
And so, when it came to our Demo Day, with adrenaline in our veins and tears in our eyes, we pitched passionately. There was never an appropriate time to start the dream, and there never shall be. It was simply a question of starting, seizing opportunities, and with one foot after the other, to persevere forward in massive leaps of faith and baby-step sized progress. Not because before us stood a packed room of investors, but because with each word we uttered on the podium oozed passion and love for a business that had been built by two ex-students whose ideas were once two thick dissertations, which could have been shelved in a dusty library.
Zoe Louise Gatt
CEO/Founder of Flint Innovations Ltd