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Poland’s Regional Play

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

The Polish startup scene is looking increasingly vibrant. For some time now, technology blogs have been covering Polish startup expos, competitions and meetings such as Startup Weekend, PitchRally, E-nnovation and Startup Fest that are happening with some regularity across major cities. And Poland was one of the first winners of a Global Entrepreneurship Week Award. Is Poland poised to take the lead in Eastern Europe?

The answer is yes. Polish startups have begun to make headlines in a country beating a pessimistic outlook until a couple of years ago when many feared the capital markets or investor communities were not there yet to enable a startup ecosystem. Local rockstar entrepreneurs-turned-investors are some of the most eager participants, as Chris Kowalczyk, the founder of Warsaw-based HardGamma venture fund and the GammaRebels accelerator, told TechCrunch last October at the Startup Fest. Kowalczyk was able to raise money for his seed and early stage fund after supporting (as an angel investor) a successful startup called Codility.

He is not alone. While by some estimates every fifth entrepreneur still borrows money from friends or family, funds are now competing to nurture promising Polish startups. Investors from Israel and the U.S. are joining local funds such as Cracow-based Innovation Nest, Poznan-based SpeedUp Group, and the Warsaw-based non-profit accelerator AI NOT—and many of the local funds are receiving applications from neighboring countries.

Investors are looking at startups in a range of tech areas from image recognition technology to web applications and Polish entrepreneurs are starting to get international ambitions. For example, a young Polish company, Chayamuni, was recently selected to participate in the Startup Chile program.

On the government side, there is clearly work to be done. The EU ‘Innovation Barometer’ which reflects how satisfied European Union countries are with their innovation environment shows many areas for improvement, with Poland emerging in the survey as the third most pessimistic. The EU report “Entrepreneurship Education at School in Europe” does include Poland among the 13 EU countries that has entrepreneurship education as part of a national lifelong learning, youth or growth strategy and most technical universities in Poland have set up business incubators. However, there still appears to be little attention from policymakers in smoothing the path for new and young firms.

The question now is whether this matters. After decades of top-down management behind the Iron Curtain, it appears to be Poland’s entrepreneurs who are driving their startup movement and quietly building a startup ecosystem from the ground-up for the whole of Central and Eastern Europe.

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