Estonia, a small Baltic sea region nation known for its mystical language, picturesque landscapes and rich history, has emerged as a powerhouse in the global startup ecosystem. Over the past two decades, Estonia has witnessed a remarkable transformation, from an occupied Soviet state to a New Nordic hotbed of innovation and entrepreneurship. Estonia has become into the spotlight as the “Unicorn Nation,” boasting the highest number of unicorn companies per capita in the world.

The Pioneering Spark: Skype

Estonia’s journey towards becoming a unicorn country can be traced back to the early 2000s when a group of Estonian engineers, led by Ahti Heinla, Priit Kasesalu, and Jaan Tallinn, co-founded a revolutionary peer-to-peer communication platform called Skype. Launched in 2003, Skype quickly gained worldwide popularity, revolutionising the way people communicated across borders. In 2005, eBay acquired Skype for $2.6 billion, marking a historic moment for the Estonian startup scene.

Skype’s success served as a catalyst, inspiring a new generation of entrepreneurs and igniting the spark of innovation in Estonia. It demonstrated that even a small, relatively unknown country could produce a global tech giant.

Estonia’s Startup Ecosystem Takes Root

In the aftermath of Skype’s success, Estonia’s government, in collaboration with the private sector, worked diligently to create an environment conducive to startups. Several key factors contributed to the growth of Estonia’s startup ecosystem:

  • Digital Infrastructure: Estonia’s advanced digital infrastructure, including a secure digital ID system and widespread internet access, provided a strong foundation for technology startups to flourish.
  • Supportive Policies: The government introduced favorable policies such as e-residency programs and tax incentives for startups, making it easier for entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses.
  • Access to Funding: Estonia attracted venture capital and angel investors, both locally and internationally, by providing a supportive environment for investment and access to EU funds.
  • A Culture of Innovation: The country’s education system fostered a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, encouraging young talent to pursue ambitious ideas.

The Unicorn Boom

Over the past two decades, Estonia has seen a surge in startups across various industries. Many of these companies have achieved unicorn status, signifying a valuation of over $1 billion. Some of Estonia’s notable unicorn companies include:

  • TransferWise (now Wise): Founded by Taavet Hinrikus and Kristo Käärmann, Wise revolutionised the way people send money internationally, offering transparent and cost-effective currency exchange services. It became a unicorn in 2015 and has continued to grow globally.
  • Bolt: Formerly known as Taxify, Bolt was founded by Markus Villig and is a ride-hailing and scooter-sharing platform. Bolt achieved unicorn status in 2018 and has expanded its services to numerous countries.
  • Playtech: Although founded in 1999, Playtech became one of Estonia’s earliest unicorns. It is a leading developer of online gaming software and services.

Estonia’s achievement of having the most unicorn companies per capita in the world can be attributed to its combination of factors. Its small population (approximately 1.3 million) and strong focus on technology and innovation have created a unique environment that fosters rapid growth for startups. Estonia is always promoting a startup-friendly ecosystem and its remarkable journey from the birth of Skype to becoming the “Unicorn Country” serves as an inspiring success story in the global startup landscape. The combination of visionary entrepreneurs, supportive government policies, and a culture of innovation has propelled Estonia to the forefront of the technology world. As it continues to nurture and attract talent and investment, Estonia is poised to maintain its status as a beacon of entrepreneurial success for years to come.

If you are keen to hear more, see you in May in Tallinn – we will show you Estonia and give you an opportunity to hear these stories from the unicorn founders themselves.

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