Many entrepreneurs are blissfully unaware about leveraging soft-landing programs for internationalization and market expansion. Yet, they’re a critical tool for startups and scaleups to utilize for new market growth. They come in all shapes and sizes as well as greatly vary in terms of costs, investment, and time commitments. A soft-landing program is a general phrase which encapsulates a few days to several months of business support provided by a locally based organization to help foreign companies have a softer landing in their market.
In practical terms, a soft-landing program connects you to local domain experts, provides market insights and makes relevant introductions to key stakeholders within an ecosystem including corporates, investors, and innovation hubs. The most common implementors of such programs are chambers of commerce, accelerators, and consultancy groups. The strategic advantage of soft-landing programs lies in their ability to grant you immediate access to key contacts, knowledge, and possible investment whereas otherwise, doing it yourself could take your business months or years to gain such insight, connections, and funding.
There are different types of soft-landing programs, so let’s dive into the most common types:
This is where you will pay a few thousand to tens of thousands of euros to join a program which gives you access to expert-led workshops, business mentors and networking opportunities within an ecosystem. As these programs require a participation fee, make sure you do your due diligence on the implementor and speak with companies that have gone through it already. An example of such program is Benelux Catalyst by BelCham, implemented by the Belgian-American Chamber of Commerce in New York City, open to Belgian, Dutch and Luxembourgish startups and scaleups. Other opportunities which fit the model are ERA Global focused on the US and Hindsight Ventures’ Africa Immersion Program.
Many local governments outside our national capitals across Europe are covering travel, accommodation and or creating detailed week-long to multi-week programs to immerse your businesses in their communities and regions. Beyond expert-led workshops and mentorship opportunities, there are many chances to engage with leading locally based corporates which in many cases are not included in the ‘pay for play’ model. An example is the Stuttgart Region in Germany and its Startup Welcome Package. Other examples include Scaleup Landing Pad Hamburg and The Hague’s Soft Landing Programme for additional entry points for the German or Dutch markets.
Across the world, there are pitch competitions that offer startups and scaleups grant funding, access to investors for potential follow-on investment and corporates for proof of concepts. In many cases, these competitions have restrictions based on where your business is registered, what sector your company operates in and the stage of development. While competition in global contests such as Hello Tomorrow’s Global Challenge is extremely fierce, niche competitions are happening in smaller cities globally which offer limited competition and are willing to ‘roll out the red carpet’ when you arrive in a city or region. A good example is the FRST Challenge in the US focused on first responder tracking systems or Arch Grants to drive innovation in St. Louis, Missouri (USA). Think niche rather than general when entering a competition, your chances of ‘winning’ are more favorable.
Many accelerators allow foreign companies to join their programs such as Y Combinator, Techstars, imec.istart and 43North. These accelerators are either in-person or online and give you extensive access to local ecosystem experts, investors, and corporate partners. For accelerators that provide investment, this may require you as the CEO or founder to register a subsidiary or another form of legal presence in the country where the accelerator is based as well as commit to time spent in the host country of the accelerator. Accelerators normally last several months so it gives you a reasonable amount of time to understand and navigate a new market. Important to note that accelerators tend to be more focused on pre-seed to seed stage start-ups and scale-ups so if you’re a more mature company this pathway isn’t appropriate.
Finding the right soft-landing program isn’t easy and it’s not recommendable to approach this with a ‘spray and pray’ mentality and apply for all programs. In that instance, you’re wasting valuable time and energy that could be focused elsewhere. As a CEO or founder, you need to be intentional about using a soft-landing program as an expansion tool. Remember, speak with organizers and previous participants of programs you’re interested in and see if the benefits and costs align with your plans and capabilities for expansion.
At imec.istart, we prioritize international thinking from day one. Our dedicated Internationalization Officer, Andrew David Herweg, arranges foreign business missions and prepares young entrepreneurs for global expansion.
If you're a tech startup with a solid proof of concept and a drive to grow, we invite you to apply during our three annual open calls (September, January, or May) to take your startup to the next (international) level