SAP is attempting to spur adoption of its HANA in-memory database platform among smaller UK firms with the introduction of a start-up investment programme aimed at highlighting the benefits of big data analysis.

The German firm hosted an event at University College London (UCL) this week, inviting start-up companies to pitch for mentorship, development and investment as part of the global SAP Startup Focus intiative.

Those selected for the business accelerator are invited to develop a proof of concept to exhibit how they would use HANA as part of their business, before receiving financial investment and assistance in commercialising their products in a go-to-market phase. Following this, SAP says it will also offer to open up its contacts book, with some start-up participants meeting with SAP's Fortune 500 clients.

So far, 640 start-ups across 23 countries have entered the programme, which has run for 18 months with the backing of SAP chief technology officer Vishal Sikka. SAP was unable to reveal the levels of investment to date, or how many of the start-ups involved have actually received funding.

The two-day event held at the London university is the first time the project has reached out to UK start-ups.

"It is a massive new direction for SAP that came about particularly since we moved away from just offering business applications and into technologies like HANA," said Gary Parnell, head of global start-up recruiting, SAP Startup Focus.

"These technologies are ideal for start-ups to build really innovative new applications rather than just what we have been involved in previously. That is why we have moved in this direction, and it is exciting from SAP's perspective, so I hope start-ups feel the same way about working with SAP."

He added: "SAP has invested a lot of time into HANA. So yes, [part of the aim of the programme] is to make sure that we are telling the story not just to the large enterprise, but to the start-ups as well."

While the project is aimed at offering assistance to the start-ups, it is as much SAP's marketing pitch to the companies (some of those involved have little or no knowledge of the in-memory database platform) as it is the start-up companies vying for the vendor's support. Once the start-up starts bringing in money they are required to buy a HANA license.

Despite quick growth, two-year old HANA is still a small part of SAP's revenues, which are largely based on its sales of enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. However the company is attempting to convince smaller firms that the big data-crunching platform is not purely a large enterprise play. SAP recently announced a mid-market customer which was spending just over £100,000 on shifting to HANA -its first UK customer running BusinessOne on the in-memory database - while, globally, the firm is attempting to make the platform more accessible through partnerships with other vendors like HP and system integrators such as Accenture.

SAP has also expanded its partner programme to support growth of application development around HANA.

By engaging with the start-up community SAP is attempting to create a groundswell of adoption among smaller firms, supporting an eco-system of applications being developed natively on HANA, or migrated onto the platform.

However SAP still faces a challenge in persuading smaller firms with small, if any budget, to adopt big data systems, and Parnell admits that the company is playing the long game by targeting start-ups to purchase HANA: "In the first 12 months we probably won't see anything from the start-ups financially, it will be more 'let's help you invest in HANA'. It is a long-term proposition. It is the only way to do it."

For example, one of the start-ups pitching at the London event, social media debating site Kworrel, told ComputerworldUK that its business will not be in a position to start using HANA for a year or two, and had not previously considered the platform. For now they are content with using free graph database tools rather than pay for infrastructure, at least until its service, currently in beta, is better established.

Another of the firms pitching, BrainInHand, said that licensing costs were only part of the challenge. Although the firm is keen to use HANA for its data-intensive medical monitoring application, it will require more funding to be able to take on developer staff for the lengthy project of migrating away from Microsoft Azure, which currently hosts its databases.

"If, when we look at HANA, we see that it matches what we want, then we will definitely move towards it. But I can't say right now that we will move to HANA next week - it is part of our roadmap," said Glenn Atter at BrainInHand.

"The licensing cost is not the issue, it is the development time to integrate it. That is the biggest cost; it is nothing to do with how much it costs to run, it is purely to do with development time. To implement HANA, to do the full native system it is quite a lot of development time. For a small company that is the biggest cost."

Nevertheless, Parnell said that a number of start-ups internationally have already started to move onto HANA.

"Some start-ups are now totally embedded in HANA, have purchased licences, and are now going to the next stage themselves of proof of concept and are bringing revenue into their own company," he said.

SAP will continue its StartupFocus programme with fortnightly events across Europe, and plans to return to Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh in future.