The Polish diaspora wants to build a Silicon Valley in Poland

Woman computer scientist is reading "Introduction to Algorithms" by Cormen, Leiserson, Rivest. (CC BY NC ND Anna)

Poles living abroad could help build a Polish Silicon Valley, says Maria Olsson, a Polish businesswoman and scientist based in Sweden. In fact, a plan is already in place.

 

The idea fits in with the plans of the Beata Szydło’s government, which has announced a “reindustrialization” of the economy and the creation of industry-specific economic “valleys” – clusters aimed at developing various sectors.

CE Financial Observer: Professor Janusz Filipiak, the founder of the IT company Comarch, does not believe that a company such as Google will be created in Poland and neither will a Polish Silicon Valley be created. The reason is simple – the market is too small. Do you agree?

Maria Olsson: It is true that we won’t build something on the scale of the American Silicon Valley. But does that mean we shouldn’t try to do anything? I believe it’s a matter of perspective. After all, the Polish market is a part of the European market, so Poland could become the European hub of innovation. We should set the bar high. If we only wanted to build a “tiny little silicon valley”, we probably wouldn’t attract many people with that idea, would we?

The Foundation of the Polish Business Community Abroad, which you chair, has set itself the goal of creating the kind of hub you described in Poland.

This all happened at the initiative of Professor Wiesław Nowiński, a prominent scientist working at Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research. He has created an original programme for the development of Innovative Poland*, which is the foundation for the creation of our own Silicon Valley. He presented it in the Polish Parliament as early as 2012. Unfortunately, the politicians somehow did not follow up on his idea. We are currently trying to revive it.

What exactly do you plan to do?

The key is to tap the talents of the Polish people.

Isn’t that a cliché?

Not necessarily. Talent is quite a tangible thing; people in the West realise this. That is why they are happy to draw on our talent, attracting Polish scientists to their countries.

Of which you are a perfect example yourself. An outstanding chemist, scientist, consultant for major international companies…

I moved to Sweden almost 40 years ago. I have a Swedish husband who brought me there. I began my career with an internship at ABB Canles AB. I then spent thirteen years working in the laboratories of ABB’s research department. I studied at a business school and worked as an export manager until I finally founded my own consulting firm, advising others on how to implement innovative products and technologies.

And during these 40 years there was nothing Poland could offer you in terms of your career?

It had very little to offer. And this is what we need to change. We have to create the right kind of institutions and the right climate to allow young Polish researchers to grow in Poland and to earn good money there. As it is, our students and doctoral students are winning international scientific competitions and developing innovative technologies, only for us to learn with time that these ideas have been implemented in practice by the Japanese, for example.

There is a huge gap between our achievements and their practical application. Our young people want their ideas to change the world, and not to be appreciated only on paper. If we fail to change the system into one that enables them to do that, we will lose our intellectual capital – the  talent will leave and never come back. That is why we want to “force” a change in the Polish system. The top-down approach has failed, so we should try the bottom-up approach. Our potential is vast. The West is heavily specialized, whereas we Poles are educated more comprehensively and have a different approach to problem-solving.

This is our advantage, which I can observe in Sweden. I could even quote my own example – as a chemist I have worked on new technological solutions in a variety of fields: from modern plant protection products, through the development of intelligent plastics for the manufacture of golf balls, caterpillars of tanks or aircraft antiradar protection, all the way to semiconductors.

How should we go about creating our own Silicon Valley? Is it supposed to be a physical location on a map, where innovative Polish companies will flock? How should we see it?

Polish talent can only be put to use if people get to know about it. Cooperation is also a must. This is exactly what our foundation can help with: we can show the world what outstanding minds we have in Poland, and we can give them a chance to establish cooperation with other great minds from other parts of the world. We want to make use of the fact that the Polish diaspora includes a great number of people who work in scientific centres around the world, have major achievements and enjoy high prestige.

We have recently organized a meeting of Polish scientists in Sweden and it turned out that there were 52 people with Polish roots working at universities in Stockholm alone. And that is just Sweden. I’ve also attended a Polish diaspora meeting “Polacy razem” (Poles together) in Austria. It was attended by our scientists and businessmen from all over the world. It turns out that in the United Kingdom there are over 60,000 Polish companies, which are just beginning to work together and exchange experiences. It also turned out, that Poles working at the world’s largest stock exchange centres, have long been supporting, on their own accord, Polish students who have decided to study abroad.

Do you want the Polish diaspora to provide Poles with know-how, industry contacts and capital in a more coordinated, systemic way?

It’s the contacts in particular that matter. The leading figures from the Polish diaspora could help, for example, to set up branches of Western research centres and think tanks in Poland, so that young people would not have to go overseas in order to pursue their careers. Professor Nowiński talks about the creation of innovation centres. Poland has many universities, each of which is good at something. The ones in Kraków and Wrocław are said to turn out great computer scientists and biotechnologists. Let’s follow this direction – let’s support research in these areas, let’s facilitate formal issues such as, for example, obtaining double doctorates. Let’s boost the strengths of these universities by supporting them with capital, contacts, by linking them with other research centres, or by facilitating the establishment of relationships with the business community. Incidentally – another problem people in Poland have is not being able to see the commercial side of discoveries and inventions. We are kind of happy about them, but when we make discoveries and inventions we should always keep in mind how we can commercialize them.

This is a well-known problem: the cooperation of science and business is not very smooth in Poland. Could this perhaps also stem from the fact that Polish entrepreneurs don’t have the ambition to be innovative on a global scale?

It’s true that there is some passivity among them. I’ve experienced this myself while trying to implement product innovations in Polish companies. They are always asking: who else is using this in Poland? How many such plants are using it? None! That’s precisely the point! It’s an advantage, but that is not fully understood. Our business community is conservative. We could remedy this problem, however, by showing that innovation pays off. This is a role for the state. In Sweden, for example, IT companies are extremely strong.

Do you have a Swedish Silicon Valley?

Yes we do. But why? Because the state provides the perfect infrastructure. In this country, even a cottage in the mountains must have Internet access. It is a government priority. Of course, this cottage with Internet access is a symbol of the approach towards mutual communication and cooperation prevailing in the country. In addition, the government provides incentives for innovation. We’re not talking about subsidies, but, for example, tax relief. This is particularly evident in the green energy sector, which enjoys many tax breaks. Companies see that it’s worth investing in the industry and a lot of innovative and, most importantly, sought-after technologies are developed.

The first steps towards the improvement of the situation in Poland in this respect must involve a positive climate surrounding innovative ideas and media support. It doesn’t cost much; in fact it’s simply a matter of good will. We would also like a committee to be established under the auspices of the Council of Ministers or the President, whose work would be devoted solely to this issue.

Who will cover the costs associated with its activities, and later, with the implementation of your ideas?

The costs will not be that high. We, the Foundation, and those who support us, are working pro bono. The truth is, it’s about a certain prestige that the issue will gain through the formal support of the state. Our initiative will also provide a platform for direct contacts between the economic policy makers and prominent representatives of the Polish diaspora, who are familiar with the pro-innovation solutions in other countries and have ideas on how to transplant them to Poland. Since some of the solutions are already in place and working in other countries, there is no point wasting energy trying to re-invent them – instead, we could focus on creating added value.

Interview by: Sebastian Stodolak

Maria Olsson Polish chemist, businesswoman and Polish diaspora activist, awarded with the Cavalier’s Cross and the Officer’s Cross for her contributions to the Republic of Poland. She has been living in Sweden for nearly 40 years. She is currently serving as the Honorary President of the Association of Polish Diaspora Organizations in Sweden and the Chairwoman of the Economic Foundation of the Polish Diaspora.

*Professor Wiesław L. Nowiński presented the concept of pro-innovation reforms in the article “Innovative Poland Now. How to build it?”. The goal of the reforms is to make use of particularly talented Poles and focus on intensive scientific research in selected niches.

Nowiński writes: “1. Let’s create a flagship Polish innovation and technology project, the foundations of the Polish Silicon Valley – “Technopolish”. 2. Let’s set up Centres of Excellence in selected technological niches in which we can reach global quality levels, led by prominent Poles who are at the same time scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs. Let’s build international consortia around each of these centres, mostly financed with international grants. 3. Let’s build an Academic Incubator for talented youth mentored by prominent Poles”.

The Professor proposes to make the human brain one of the main subjects of research. “The brain is not only a challenge for humanity, but also a huge market opportunity. Society is aging, 1/3 of the adult population of the world is suffering from neurological diseases and brain diseases are the most common, accounting for 13% of all diseases. In the US, neurological diseases cost 400 billion USD per year and 1 trillion USD in 10 years, while in Europe they cost 800 billion euro in 2010 alone. Hence the huge projects and neurotechnological initiatives in the USA, EU and Israel, as the study of the brain will bring the next huge wave of scientific innovations after space exploration,” Nowiński believes.

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