Seems like up till now, mainly I’ve been exploring startup communities in capital cities across Europe. Because there the ‘action’ happens and usually other cities are not as active on the startup map. But, I was really excited for my next journey, to a country I’ve never been before. Destination Czech Republic, city of Brno. Cute student city with lots of lots of opportunities. While researching where to start from, I took it ‘to the left’ and went directly to where the magic happens – the tech park.
Somewhere outside the city centre, I was invited to visit the premises of the JIC (South Moravian Innovation Centre) and was warmly welcomed by the two lovely ladies Martina Pouchlá PR Specialist at JIC and Hana Šudáková the JIC StarCube manager. Eager to learn more about their program and their story, we sat down at the cozy lounge area.
“JIC has been helping innovative businesses in the region for 13 years now and the accelerator is just one of 4 programs and many other activities that help entrepreneurs and enterprises to grow. I have “joined the party” in 2012 after a career mostly in marketing and media (both creative work and operations). I didn’t know much about startups then. The whole startup hype started in Czech Republic quite late – in 2010/2011, so in 2012 it was still something fresh and young people started consider entrepreneurship as a career possibility, which was a huge step forward. Startup events became a huge trend and first success stories got the media attention.
I started to work in a team that was running the accelerator program at JIC. First I took care of the day to day operations, later was also in charge of two main events – the Bootcamp at the very beginning of the program and the final demoday StarCube Show. Last year I started from scratch a new program for really early-stage startups (sort of pre-accelerator) called JIC Enter. During the year I worked very intensively with about 20 startups that I helped to go through the problem – solution phase and some of them to reach their first paying customers.
In the beginning of 2016 I came back to JIC StarCube. There were many reasons why I accepted the offer of becoming a manager of the program – one of them was the challenge and stepping out of my comfort zone, the other was that I had and still have an emotional connection to the whole program, its´ alumnus and mentors and I really wanted to see it grow further. ” – says Hana.
For Martina it was totally different story. Her husband is an entrepreneur and from there she gets the drive to work for this fast pace entrepreneurial life.
“I have a husband that´s entrepreneur. He has so called „free company“ focused on human centered design and playful design. His decision to leave a corporation after 12 years of a good paid work and become a entrepreneur starting with almost nothing was very hard. And still it is not easy to run a company, have a responsibility for many people that work for him and fight with a lot of bureaucratic obstacles. I see it every day from a very personal perspective. Thanks to wild 90’s in our republic being an entrepreneur means being a villain for a lot of people. But this is so unfair! Especially for those who create new values and give work to a lot of people going through sleepless nights and working more than 100 per week. Being a part of South Moravian Innovation Centre also means to convince people that entrepreneurship is amazing way to go, that deserves acknowledgement. Sure, it is not for all of us. But definitely worth considering.
Every time I meet an entrepreneur that decided to create his own innovative values, encouraged by my colleagues´s advice and mentoring and got to the point when all the work starts to make a clear sense I feel proud. Our region is full of very clever people and we should take our chance to prove it to the world!” – Martina said.
What has changed throughout the years and how is the situation with international students/teams in their acceleration program, was something I was really interested to find out.
“JIC StarCube is the oldest accelerator in Czech Republic and one of the first in CEE. We have worked with 72 startups. The program looked a lot different the first two years – it was much longer and the teams and projects were formed during the program. We have opened JIC StarCube for international teams in 2013. At the beginning we accepted all startups that worked with some type of innovative technology. We began to narrow the focus since 2014 – first we were “hardware friendly”, in 2015 we went with the overall IoT/ICT Security focus and this year we went even deeper. We have chosen 4 technology and 5 application focuses. Still in the IoT / ICT Security range but more specific. We are looking for teams that are working with Big Data Analytics, ICT security, Sensors or Augmented/Virtual reality and/or apply this technology in the field of Industry 4.0, Retail 2.0, Smart city/office/home, Paperless office and Secure family/home. It sounds like a lot, but we expect that most of the startups will find themselves in more than 1 area. This time we also do not require a market validation, we will accept also teams with great technological know-how who are not sure yet what market or product would suit them most. The team responsible for the program changed through the years as well.
I can say that I feel most proud when the entrepreneur I have worked with for past few months or weeks comes to me and says: “Hey, we have our first paying customer / we have got an investment / we finished the beta version and are going to deploy it in pilot.” Basically when the work they have done with my little help, the goals we reached together, makes them happy and satisfied and hungry for more. And of course when I see some of our alumni like Skypicker / now Kiwi.com – one of the fastest growing companies not only in Czech Republic but also in Europe – having such a huge success in the business and paying it back to the ecosystem by investing in smaller companies, mentoring the startups and sharing their story.” – adds Hana.
What better way to get info of the local startup scene, than to get insights from the people that are involved directly on a daily basis. So let’s learn more about the Brno startup scene:
“Moravian metropolis has also an advantage of presence of JIC that was the very first to create a top-class incubation programme for local aspiring entrepreneurs in the Czech republic. Its potential was rewarded many times – in 2014, our programme for start-up companies gained first place in the Young Entrepreneurship Competition at the European Business Network held in Spain and the JIC STARCUBE programme was listed in the European Accelerator Report 2014 as among the TOP 20 most active accelerators in Europe. But much more has been achieved. Through the support of our founders (the municipality and the South Moravia region representatives), a properly set up regional innovation strategy and the commitment to implement innovative projects, we continue in creating a favorable environment for a knowledge-based economy and a thriving business ecosystem. JIC as non-commercial organization provides services from an early stage of startups to grown companies. So in any phase a company is able to find a partner to grow intentionally.” – says Martina.
“I was totally blown away by the startup spirit in 2012/2013, going to lot of events, conferences and meetups, but later, together with many young entrepreneurs here, I found out, that doing startup is not about visiting every event you can, but mostly about hard work. I became quiet allergic to those “fancy startups” and I am appreciating much more those entrepreneurs who are building a sustainable real business. Also I agree with Anand Sanwal´s (of CB Insights) theory that the age of unicorns is over (many of them being just donkeys in disguise) and we will see the rise of so called rabbits (Real Actual Business Building Interesting Tech). Those are the people and startups I like to help.
Brno is relatively small, so let´s talk about the eco-system in Czech Republic. There are few key actors with experience and history – besides JIC, there is the StartupYard in Praque, the Impact HUB network (3 of them in CZ), some Czech universities are also supporting the students who want to start a business, there are some NGO´s and foundations that work with innovative and/or socially responsible startups and few VC funds and investors. We know each other and know about each other, the playground is too small to fight, so it´s better to cooperate in one way or the other 🙂 There were more players involved few years ago (mainly accelerators), but the market become supersaturated and they didn’t last long. Right now the focus is on the cooperation within central Europe – the closeness of Brno, Vienna and Bratislava just calls for it. ” – adds Hana.
So to anyone interested in starting their business in the Czech republic, especially in Brno, I would highly recommend for you to check out the JIC StartCube acceleration program that is now open for applications. You have up until the 7th of August to submit your application and be part of JIC 2016 batch.
It was a real pleasure for me to be able to learn more and understand better the Brno (Czech) eco-system, thanks to these two amazing ladies. Before I leave for my next meeting I asked them if they would like to share a piece of advice to the startup enthusiasts out there.
“If you feel, that your startup could benefit from the cooperation with the strong partners we have or if you would like to enter the East/West European market (Brno is great for both ways) and your product falls within the previously mentioned technologies or application areas, then apply! Brno itself is a wonderful place to live and to build a business. It´s truly a heart of central Europe – close to Bratislava (Slovakia), Vienna (Austria), Budapest (Hungary), Krakow (Poland) and of course Prague. Almost 100k university students bring energy to the city, many branches of global companies make it a small but vivid melting pot of different nationalities.” says Hana.
Until our next reunion…