Get to know the Startup Poland Foundation
One of the biggest hindrances faced by entrepreneurs in Poland is a lack of institutional support, whether from the government or NGOs. With this problem in mind and examples of better solutions already working in other countries, the Startup Poland Foundation was created in mid-2014 in order to do serve as an advocate for Polish start-up founders. We spoke to its new CEO, Eliza Kruczkowska, to see how exactly the Foundation plans to do that, and what it has accomplished so far
Eliza Kruczkowska joined the Startup Poland Foundation as its CEO in April 2015. Before that, she had extensive experience in three distinct fields that made her a prime candidate for the job: politics, PR and media as well as NGOs. She has served as the head of media relations for a member of the Polish Parliament, has a background in journalism and international relations and worked abroad in an online marketing agency, and most recently, as the director of communications for the ePaństwo Foundation, an NGO that releases public data and runs initiatives such as Code for Poland.
Eliza is no stranger to the start-up world as well: “I’m not a coder myself, although I have start-up experience,” she explained. “Because I’ve worked with programmers for a while, I know their mentalities and can understand their problems and needs.” And so, with Eliza at the helm, we took a look at what the Foundation has accomplished so far, and what its plans are for the immediate and far future.
Six months in, and what are the results?
Though the Foundation was officially launched in December 2014, as we wrote earlier, its board of 12 members first decided on the main vision of the Foundation and wrote its Declaration before deciding on a CEO to represent the Foundation with its contacts with the government, investors and entrepreneurs themselves. Thus, Eliza joined in April, and the first item on her agenda was to spread the word by getting Polish start-up founders to sign the Startup Poland Manifesto.
“When I first started this job, one of my goals was to reach 1,000 signatures of the Startup Poland manifesto. So far, we have 536, which shows how many start-up people in Poland already support the Foundation, and I’m very happy that this number is steadily increasing, because it shows that we are the real community voice of start-ups from Poland” she stated. “Additionally, the Manifesto was handed to the president of Poland, major ministers and the heads of government institutions such as PARP and NCBiR. We can say that from this point, Polish decision makers know our needs. Now it’s up to them to decide what they are going to do with it.”
The next step, Eliza explained, is the upcoming publication of the start-up scene report, planned for the 6th of October, 2015. “It will be the first report of its kind in Poland, where we try to analyze what the startup scene looks like: what the biggest start-ups are, how many women are working in Polish start-ups, how big the sector is and where the financing is coming from, if it’s mostly local capital or foreign investors.”
Creating a report like this will not only benefit Polish entrepreneurs and investors, but will above all be an invitation for foreign VCs to become familiar with the ecosystem and invest in the country themselves. However, the Foundation has more plans than just creating a single report that will be published online – the next step is the creation of a comprehensive database on Poland’s start-up ecosystem.
The new website is set to launch in November, and Eliza explained what it will entail: “We’re going to completely change the website, and I would like to map the entire ecosystem in Poland, because I’ve received so many questions from people, both abroad and locally, asking if there’s a database of start-ups in Poland, and so far no one has prepared something like that.”
What will be some of its functions? “It will allow you to find information about start-ups, to select them based on their location or industry, as well as information about the ecosystem, meaning we will try to map the accelerators, coworking spaces, technology parks as well as investors,” Eliza revealed.
When I asked about the process, Eliza explained that they have been working on the database for the past few months, “but the data is almost ready and the design of the website is ready as well, so now there’s just the coding left to do.”
Advocating for Polish start-ups
In addition to organizing information related to Poland’s start-up community, the major role that the Startup Poland Foundation plans to fill is as an advocate for the country’s entrepreneurs, and some of the ways they plan to do this is by organizing events with the participation of governmental and industry representatives, as well as talking directly to politicians.
Startup Poland became a founding member of the Coalition for Polish Innovations, working in four working groups. One of the outcomes of this is the Startup Handbook, which will be presented at a conference called Innovative Europe, which will take place on the 27-28th of October. The Innovative Europe 2015 conference is an event led by a group of leading Polish scientific, business and governmental institutions in an effort to raise the profile of innovations in Poland by drafting and implementing legislative recommendations. “We’re very involved in the organization of this event, because it’s going to be a very interesting international event where we will be talking about building bridges between science and business, and I’m very proud that start-ups will take part in the second day,” Eliza explained. “They will have an opportunity to pitch from the stage to politicians and decision makers and present their products.”
Eliza explained how such events will be a core part of the Foundation’s activities: “The main scope of our Foundation is to educate policy makers, to change their view of start-up founders, that they’re not kids playing at having a business but are real entrepreneurs who will create a constantly growing source of GDP.”
The problem with policy makers in Poland, and in much of Europe, is that often politicians don’t see start-ups as real businesses. This is often because when compared to more traditional sectors such as heavy industry, their impact on GDP is still very small. Eliza explained that while the actual percentage of GDP brought in by start-ups has not yet been analyzed in Poland (another job for the Foundation), it can be estimated fairly well by looking at other countries with similar start-up ecosystems, such as Australia, which has a similar market of about 1,500 start-ups. “In Australia, the start-up sector was only 0.1% of GDP in 2013, but this number is growing, and they predict that it will be over 1% in 2023 and over 4% in 2033. It’s probably similar in Poland, and the number of start-ups and the businesses that will survive and create new workplaces will continue to grow.”
Another part of the educational work of the Foundation will be to change the perception of risk and entrepreneurship in Polish culture. “Everyone admits that we don’t have this risk culture in Poland, this ability to fail, and this needs to improve,” Eliza told me. “Imagine a businessman admitting in public that his business didn’t work out — this doesn’t happen in traditional businesses very often. We have a problem with admitting failure, with saying that our idea didn’t work out. When something doesn’t work out, though, it means you have to try again, but I see that some people give up. However, I wouldn’t say that it’s just a Polish problem; it’s a European problem.”
Looking to the future and government support for start-ups
The biggest goal of the Foundation in the coming years is to change the legislation that governs foreign and domestic venture capital in the country. This would give Polish start-ups greater access to capital, thus increasing their potential and competitiveness in the global market. However, at the moment there are major hindrances to this, as Eliza explained: “Unfortunately, Polish legislation does not favor venture capital. I was personally very involved in a presidential project that was prepared by many professionals over the past year and a half and passed the first reading in the Polish Parliament, but then got stuck in commission. That shows the mentality of the government, which is still not treating entrepreneurs seriously. Because there are so many people abusing the system, they’re trying to protect the laws, and that causes a lack of trust between entrepreneurs and the government.”
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. “It’s the exact opposite case in the UK,” Eliza explained, “where the government tries to encourage investors to invest in high-risk companies. In our declaration, we explain how government incentives work in the UK. Because if you’re a rich person, what are you going to do? You can invest in real estate or art, or in high-risk companies. If you don’t want to lose money, and of course with start-ups the probability that your business will fail is much bigger than in safe markets such as real estate, you’ll invest somewhere safer. So the government needs to encourage people to invest in start-ups, to create incentives. And even if the Polish government is saying they want to invest in innovations, they’re not creating the regulations that could push for this innovative system.”
When thinking about the future, Eliza believes that it’s a mistake to do a one-to-one comparison between Poland or Polish cities and Silicon Valley, which has had 50 years to grow their start-up industry. However, she believes that Poland can become a strong hub for the CEE region and take a leading role. “If you take a look at what’s happened over the last few months, we just had a hot summer of start-ups, with exits by Filmaster, UXPin and Showroom, to name just a few, and that shows that the industry is getting more mature, and it is attracting foreign capital and being appreciated internationally.”
“What I’m interested is in seeing,” Eliza concluded, “is Polish start-ups become stable and create more jobs and survive for many, many years and shaping a new, competitive Poland. That’s my perception of the outcome of creating a successful start-up ecosystem.”
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