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Helping Polish R&DGo Global
March 1, 2013   
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The U.S.-Poland Innovation Hub in Silicon Valley, California, aims to help Polish companies build global strategies.

The institution behind the project is the U.S.-Poland Trade Council (USPTC), which has promoted and supported scientific exchange and the transfer of new technology between Poland and the United States for the last 10 years. The Innovation Hub project is expected to enable Polish businesspeople to access U.S. venture capital funds, establish direct business contacts, and learn the ropes of doing business in the United States and globally.

Leading international technology companies have for years been employing Polish scientists and engineers, appreciating their intellectual potential and technical expertise, the USPTC says. The U.S.-Poland Innovation Hub, based in Palo Alto, California, wants to highlight this intellectual potential with a view to strengthening the position of Polish companies on global markets.

According to Prof. PiotrMoncarz, chairman of the U.S.-Poland Trade Council and one of the main originators of the initiative, a growing number of Polish companies are ready to go global. “That’s why we’ve come up with the slogan ‘Go Global, Poland!’ because we are part of the global economy,” Moncarz says. “But (...) in order to go global, you have to know how to get around, who to talk to, and what kind of tie to wear.”

The U.S.-Poland Innovation Hub brings together a wide array of scientific disciplines: a project from Wroc³aw in the field of chemical catalysts, a project related to shale gas, information technology, a company dealing with unmanned aircraft, and a project involving creating virtual reality images. The qualification process makes it possible to select the best—those who have achieved stability in carrying out their innovative ideas and building human capital, the USPTC says.

According to Moncarz, even the best Polish companies with the right motivation and exceptional products come to America unprepared to present themselves in the right way. The idea behind the Hub is therefore to bring about a situation in which more Polish businesspeople will be able to do that.

The first round of the project, held last year, attracted 32 companies; 15 of them were qualified, and a further 12 underwent training sessions in Poland. Some of them are already in Silicon Valley, where they are talking shop with investors and partners. None of these, however, is a company hailing from a Polish university because the Hub project does not aim to replace business incubators operating at Polish universities, the USPTC says.

Putting research projects to commercial use in the United States is easier than in Poland due to that country’s well-developed venture capital market. VC funds finance the process of innovative products and services entering the market in exchange for a part of the rights to future profits. One of the reasons behind the unsatisfactory commercial use of R&D results in Poland is that, at their early stages, many research projects are conducted without the involvement of a commercial partner, the USPTC says. That’s why a lot of R&D work develops in a direction that does not guarantee that its results will be put into practice after the project is completed.

Moncarz regularly takes part in venture capital sector meetings in Poland. In his opinion, such meetings are indispensable because they give people an insight into the market for innovation and high-risk investments.

“Meeting participants learn, for example, why EU funds are not always a blessing, and why it is sometimes better to give up a part of your ownership rights to a company if you want to finish your project on time instead of having 100-percent ownership of a product whose window of opportunity has already closed,” says Moncarz.

A program launched by the National Center for Research and Development (NCBiR) is among the first major projects for the development of VC in Poland, according to Moncarz. The project is called “Research & Development and Innovation with Venture Capital Funds” and its budget is zl.240 million. The NCBiR is looking for business partners ready to support the commercial application of research results with the use of equity funds. The NCBiR will provide private investors with a significant part of the funds needed at the earliest stages. This is designed to produce benefits for investors, young businesspeople and research institutions. The center used American models to create the mechanism for joint investment in hi-tech projects based on research results.

“A private fund will be managing the money without NCBiR interference, but the money can only be spent on projects based on new technology and scientific achievements,” says Moncarz.

Despite the new initiatives Poland still has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to venture capital. Moncarz says. Its VC market must gain momentum. “It is necessary to stop talking about programs that will be ready in six months or a year. Half a year from now your idea will be fit for the garbage can because someone else in China will have invented and patented something similar by then. You have to be more aggressive.”

And there is a lot at stake. There are areas in which Poland has a strong track record, for example material technologies and the achievements of a team led by Prof. DorotaPawlak at the Institute of Electronic Materials Technology (ITME) in Warsaw. The researchers are working on a meta-materials, which means materials based on a combination of two different materials that, after being provided with a micro- or nano structure, gain new electromagnetic properties. Up to now such materials were obtained in small quantities with expensive methods. Thanks to the Polish researchers, it will now be possible to do that faster, cheaper and easier.

In the Ensemble project managed by Pawlak, the researchers are testing the properties of what are called plasmonic materials. In the future such materials may be used to build cheap blue lasers and special shields to protect detectors used in the defense industry against damage from lasers. Other “self-organizing” materials being developed by the ITME team are being tested for use in water treatment plants. The researchers also are trying to obtain materials to make objects invisible at a specific wavelength of light.

The Institute of Electronic Materials Technology has also developed a unique method for the production of graphene, a revolutionary new material that could have myriad hi-tech applications and may even replace silicon in the electronic devices of the future. But the question is whether the institute will be capable of marketing all these ideas, in addition to doing great science, Moncarz says. He adds that the idea behind a project is essential for innovation, but it only gives you a 30 percent chance of success. Success is impossible without funds and a market, he says.

“Funds should be sought by both the researcher on an individual basis and the institution where the technology is being developed,” says Moncarz. “Leaving all this in the hands of even the best-organized bureaucracy will not do the trick. An investment project, especially in its early stage, must have soul—and the scientist must be convinced that his invention is necessary for the world and that his idea can be pulled off and put into practice. Otherwise, the investor will not dig into his pocket.”

Karolina Olszewska
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