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Virtual workplace wins Red Herring

"Collanos collaborators Peter Helfenstein, Franco Dal Molin and Andreas Danuser in Zurich (left to right)"

(Susan Vogel-Misicka)

It's a situation familiar to anyone with business partners who work for another company.

With no shared server or file system, maintaining an overview of documents, emails and tasks can be a headache – making group project work a real challenge.

Convinced that there had to be a better way, a Zurich-based software company has created a solution that is simplifying the lives of thousands of people.

That solution, called Collanos Workplace, has earned Collanos Software AG the "Red Herring 100 Global" award, an annual honour recognising the world's best tech start-ups.

Company founder, president and CTO Franco Dal Molin says a bit of desk research and the trend in online networking inspired him to begin developing the software.

"I noticed that a piece was missing – there were islands but no bridges," says Dal Molin. "Companies put a web solution in place and ask everybody to get there, but nobody is really connected."

Dal Molin's vision was to create a network where everybody could connect directly and do some real work together, and Collanos Software was born in 2003. Its name is derived from "collaborate" and the Greek word for mind, translating roughly into "collaborating minds".

Networking plus

Collanos Workplace allows teams to collaborate electronically over the internet. Based on peer-to-peer architecture, the software makes it easier for teams to tackle project work.

"You can plan and allocate tasks, get an overview, see who's doing what and where the project stands," says Peter Helfenstein, the company's CEO. Collanos Workplace also incorporates functions like instant messaging, filing and notification tools.

Designed with non-enterprise users in mind, the basic version of Collanos Workplace is free.

While big companies may have the budget for fancy software and an administrator to manage it, smaller organisations and individuals have limited access to such IT solutions.

Helfenstein says that the team collaboration software is very popular with volunteer organisations and student groups.

Similar to other networking sites, Collanos Workplace has its users register for a free account. There is no limit to the number of work groups they can set up, and they can invite new members to join at any time.

"We're filling the needs of ad-hoc networks on one platform," says Andreas Danuser, Collanos board member and CTO of voice services. "I even have a work group with my wife."

Enthusiastic Users

Collanos Workplace is still a work in progress, with plenty of constructive user feedback to inspire new features.

"The challenge is to select the right suggestions," says Dal Molin. A calendar function and a search tool are the top priorities. Other ideas include more-refined access rights, version-control, a locking mechanism and more integration with other systems.

"Our users help us to test new solutions and ideas, which makes us very flexible in the development of our software," says Helfenstein.

Currently, there are more than 27,000 people registered on Collanos Workplace. Between 1,000 and 2,000 join per month, and that number is growing exponentially.

"The network is exploding now," says Danuser. They hope to have about 200,000 users by the end of the year, and ultimately, one million.

"We're now at the point where we have a proper platform. People are really surprised at what they can do, and we will continue to roll out more functionality," says Helfenstein.

Collanos targets the English-speaking market in particular, followed by the German-speaking world. There is also a Chinese version of Collanos Workplace.

Swiss innovation

In January, members of the Collanos Software team travelled to San Diego, California, to collect the Red Herring prize.

"We are quite early-stage compared to others we met there, but we are ready and that's what Red Herring saw and appreciated," says Helfenstein. Collanos was one of 100 winners, narrowed down from an international pool of 600 finalists.

Collanos wasn't the only Swiss winner: Axes Systems, CarryQuote, Museeka and Secu4 were also recipients of the Red Herring 100 Global award.

"The fact that four other Swiss companies besides Collanos received awards is testament to Switzerland's role as a technology centre," says Helfenstein, noting that innovation has always been important in Switzerland.

As innovative as Collanos Workplace may be, the people behind the software know that it isn't a substitute for personal interaction.

"After meeting in person, communication goes very well," says Helfenstein of the positive effect of regular visits with business partners. Smiling at his colleagues from across the table, Danuser agrees: "The human spirit only comes across in face-to-face meetings."

swissinfo, Susan Vogel-Misicka in Zurich

Key facts

27,000 users and counting

By location
United States 35%
Germany 8%
Canada, India, Switzerland, Britain 5%
Australia, Brazil, China, France, Hong Kong, Italy, Korea, Malaysia, Portugal, Singapore, Spain 3-4%

About 25 people work for Collanos, with another 200 contributors.

end of infobox

Red Herring Awards

Every year, the media company names 100 of the world's most promising start-ups in the tech industry.

Past winners have included eBay, Google, Netscape, Salesforce.com, Skype, Yahoo! and YouTube. Red Herring has its world headquarters in California and its European office in Zurich.

Last spring, Collanos Software was a recipient of the Red Herring 100 Europe; the global award came in January 2009.

end of infobox


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