In my day job, I have the distinct pleasure of engaging with some of the smartest and most interesting startups in the world.   Outside of Microsoft, I am a board member for the Neil Squire Society, a non-profit that uses technology, knowledge and passion to empower Canadians with physical disabilities. You can learn more about Neil Squire here.  That means that the theme of this year’s Startup Festival appeals to me on a very personal level.  It is so inspiring to see technology help some communicate, get a job and be more independent.   I have seen firsthand how technology can change the life of a single person for the better.   

Technology allows startups like Kiva, Charity:Water and Change.org fight for a better world.  Mobile technologies help companies like EdRover (one of our Mobile Acceleration Week companies) turn the check-in into a fund-raising tool.  The world definitely and desperately needs more startups that are doing things that matter.

My team and I at Microsoft pay close attention to where startups are focusing, where the VCs are investing and where the areas of opportunity for entrepreneurs are.   As we prepare to gather in Montreal, I want to share some thoughts on these trends in light of the theme of the festival. 

One of the most significant focus areas we see right now is Big Data.  While the exact definition is somewhat debatable, the implications for the enterprise and commerce are clear. But could Big Data be fertile ground to grow startups that matter?  I believe the answer is – “absolutely”.  I think about how government is being transformed by making better decisions gleaned from data insights.  As the technology advances, the democratization of big data will bring new tools and solutions to an ever increasing group of companies and could have a profound positive impact on the economy.  There are even opportunities for startups to deal with some of the emerging challenges in Big Data, most notably the talent gap that exists for data scientists.  Kaggle is a great example of a startup working to close this gap.

Health Care has always been a focus for IT companies, but we have recently seen significant venture activity here.  New legislation, new technology, and the economic pressure to be more effective have created unique conditions for startups to make a difference in this space.  Big Data unlocks new potential for DNA analysis.  Personal sensors create new applications inside the hospital and for personal health and fitness.  Patient management systems and records are moving to the cloud and changing how doctors work.  Natural User Interfaces have transformed how we interact with our devices. Although gaming is the popular application, the impact on health and rehab opens up inspiring possibilities.  At the Microsoft Kinect Accelerator, Montreal-based Jintronix is using this technology to revolutionize rehabilitation techniques. 

Education remains an important space for startups.  Great companies like Kno, that is transforming the textbook or Khan Academy, that is reimagining how to teach, are two great examples of startups making a difference.  There is so much innovation in this space we recently hosted a dedicated event at our Silicon Valley Campus focused on what startups are doing to shape the future of education

My list is by no means exhaustive.  Our team witnesses daily how technology enables startups to make a difference. The ways entrepreneurs change lives is only limited by imagination.  We are delighted to be a platinum sponsor of the International Startup Festival and can’t wait to see everyone in Montreal in July.  If you are a startup, be sure to visit the BizSpark site and follow us on Twitter at @bizspark to see how we can help you in your quest to change the world.

Mark Relph is a Senior Director at Microsoft and leads the Startup & Venture Capital Team.  His group works with high potential startups, engages the venture capital community, connects startups to commercial opportunities and provides startup market insights for Microsoft.  You can follow Mark on Twitter at @mrelph.