Understanding the Polish Start-up Ecosystem: Tal Harmelin

Tal Harmelin, Start-Up Nation Central’s Director of Business Development has vast experience in various start-up and corporate environments. One of those environments is Poland, where Tal lived for a time, acting as Consul for Economic/Commercial Affairs to Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary.

In preparation for the Wolves Summit being held in Warsaw on March 28th and 29th, we sat down with Tal to discuss some of the differences and similarities between the start-up and innovation ecosystems in Israel and Poland. Tal outlines some of the strengths that Poland has, where it can gather inspiration from Israel, and the direction in which the Polish start-up ecosystem is moving.

What do you think is driving innovation in Poland?

In the past 20 years, the Polish economy has transformed tremendously. Joining the EU injected close to 150B Euros over 15 years. Many of these funds have been directed to creating innovation baselines and providing specific infrastructure. As I’ve travelled around Poland, I’ve had the opportunity to see such “mushrooms of excellence” being created. One of the challenges and opportunities that arises is to interconnect these hubs to form a stronger and more dynamic ecosystem. Israeli start-ups have had the opportunity to overcome such a milestone, helping the local landscape become one of the most dynamic ecosystems in the world; insights they are currently sharing with Polish entrepreneurs as with others.

Human capital is a fundamental element of the start-up ecosystem and is the driving factor of innovation. How is human capital contributing to the success of Polish start-ups?

Poland’s leading technical academic institutes have long been acknowledged for their achievements in sprouting engineers and PhD students on a mass scale in Europe. Already, the BPO sector employs more than 200K professionals, supporting many of the global leading companies. These same multinationals have the potential to make Poland another innovation hub for their European operations. As these operations expand, we will see more Poles taking on executive positions, which will eventually build a bridge between the HQ and local operations. Such scenarios have strengthened globally including in Israel and the multinationals active there.

Israel, considered to be the “Start-up Nation”, has a very international landscape when focusing on start-ups and entrepreneurs. How can Poland benefit from looking at Israeli innovation and processes, and what can they learn from the Israeli ecosystem?

The competitiveness and size of the Polish economy is pushing companies to start competing globally, out of their comfort zone. As they move outward, innovation and entrepreneurship will be key factors in creating a competitive edge. If today, cost is still a competitive advantage, tomorrow, it’s not going to be enough. Probably the biggest challenge is how Polish companies can shorten the learning curve to become competitive.

As I walk through Rothschild boulevard, one of Israel’s most vibrant start-up hubs in the center of Tel-Aviv, not a minute goes by without hearing a different language. Russian, French, English, Chinese and many others are all taking part in the “street” dialogue. These languages are spoken by entrepreneurs from all over the world who are coming to Israel to take part in this melting pot of ideas and innovation. Poland can not copycat the process Israel has undergone in the past 20 years, but rather needs to adopt some of these ideas. One way to join this dialogue and filter only the relevant ingredients would be to take an active part. I am so looking forward to walking in Rothschild again and hearing Polish.

What are some of the similarities and differences between the start-up ecosystems in Israel and Poland?

This is quite a common question but it is the least relevant. Even if the similarities outweigh the differences, it does not predict any specific outcome. Building an innovation ecosystem is very specific and many of the factors are a combination of local capacity and international outreach. Israel has had the fortune of doing it right for almost 20 years – having built the fundamentals early on. Countries such as Poland should not focus on the differentiating factors, but rather on the complimenting ones, complimenting those existing in other hubs, including Israel.

Silicon Valley is one of the largest innovation hubs in the world and is often seen as an avenue into the international market. Over the past several years, Israel has established relationships within Silicon Valley. How can Poland leverage the relationships Israel has in order to advance their entrepreneurial goals and ecosystem?

Indeed, most entrepreneurs being asked where’s the first place they would choose to find investors, begin collaboration, or even just measure success, would probably say Silicon Valley. But should that always be true? The place also determines the competition. Sometimes, starting in a location that is closer, that is more flexible and that has less competition might be more effective in the initial stages. Such a direction is something I would suggest to Polish entrepreneurs to evaluate. Being enough sophisticated but much more flexible, with enough funders but dynamically tightened; Israel might be a perfect candidate location. Why fly transatlantic, have jet leg and spend thousands of dollars?

What should we expect for the future of the Polish start-up ecosystem?

A very bright future ahead, not without challenges. The Polish start-up ecosystem has potential to build exciting ideas and create strong innovative companies. Nevertheless, connecting regional hubs together, opening them to external collaboration models and aspiring to real innovation (rather then supportive value creation) are some of the obstacles that need to be overcome. There is a lot that can be done by the government, corporations and entrepreneurs, but what is certain is that the aspiration and commitment is already there. Good luck.

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