Zuzana Nehajova: Slovakia provides an incredible technical potential

She was abroad when she realized what potential her home country has. After gaining some experience she came back and currently is supporting Slovak creative industry as the General Director for Innovation and Business Environment at the Ministry of Economy. She is doing what she likes and helping to make positive changes, according to her own words. What are the Slovak projects she likes the most? Is she about to come up with her own startup? What activities can we expect from the Ministry? Zuzana Nehajova.

 

Right now you act at the position of Director General at the Directorate General for Innovation and Business Environment. What is your story and background? 

I was very influenced by international experiences which I gained during my studies abroad. That was the moment when I have recognized the potential of our country and I was looking for opportunities to be in position where I would be able to make positive changes. I am strongly suggesting to all young people in Slovakia to go abroad, learn as much as you can, explore the opportunities which are out there and then come back and bring the knowledge and experience with you. International experience will probably change your lives and make you more open-minded. Our country offers so many opportunities for personal development and growth and Slovakia also needs people who are creative and bold to make changes. This was also my motivation to come back. I am doing what I like, helping to make positive changes and I am home – is any better combination out there?

Do you remember your first touch with the startup world? What did that look like?

What I remember very clearly is my first touch ever with the word “pitching”…Ondrej Socuvka from Google plays a very important role in that 🙂

What´s your take on Slovak startup ecosystem from the point of ideas, projects, capital, etc. What do we lack and on the other hand where does our competitive advantage lie?

Slovakia still have a very few startups which are globally successful. This fact tells us that we need to be more innovative, and adapt more ambitious and more opportunity-seeking mentality. It might sound surprising, but money is not a problem. There is plenty of investors and financial resources, both on the national and the European level. We must understand that pitching is not enough – startups which are looking for capital must be fully prepared. Investors are looking for a great pitching based on the great idea, followed by bulletproof arguments.

On the other hand, our competitive advantage is that Slovakia is a small market, what makes easier for startups in early stage to test their products and get recognized. Not to forget, Slovakia provides incredible technical potential in the heart of Europe.  

 Can you maybe give an example of “bulletproof arguments”?

I would say there are few major areas which every startup has to identify. Fundamentally startup needs to find a prospective customer, the desire that the market has not sufficiently addressed, set a business plan etc. Can a startup offer something meaningful that someone will gladly pay for? The startup has “the best chances” with a “fast follower” strategy, where it identifies a new interest by a set of customers that is already occurring. Also it is very important to figure out how much of capital this product requires to develop. The goal is clear – to achieve maximum output (profit) with the minimum possible inputs (risk and cost).

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 What steps could be taken to improve the business and startup infrastructure?

Education plays the crucial role. Students must be led from the early age to adopt entrepreneurial, out-of-box thinking. They must understand that failure is an opportunity to learn. They also must adopt something what I call “innovator’s mentality” – purposely looking for problems and coming up with solutions. If universities could implement more practical, entrepreneurial courses and lectures connected to real needs of the industry, we would have better prepared students who are ready to pursue their entrepreneurial ideas.

In order to improve the business and startup infrastructure, it is necessary to foster communication and connection between R&D institutions, companies and startups, which would support innovation ecosystem in the country and significantly improve conditions for small businesses and startups which could easier determine the market needs and develop viable solutions.

What are the plans for the near future of the Ministry of Economy of the Slovak Republic in the area of startups or business in general? What can we expect?

Naturally, implementing the measures in our Concept for supporting the startup ecosystem remains high on our agenda. The growing trend of digitizing the economy represents great benefits for SMEs and startups and creates new opportunities for business. In addition, we are now also focusing on developing the Concept of Smart Industry into concrete actions. As both concepts see startups and SMEs as carriers of innovative ideas and the most flexible elements in our supply networks, our aim is not only to connect startups and SMEs with large corporations, allowing them to tap into their innovative potential, but also to expose more traditional industries to innovative ways of production and novel business models. Going forward, this interaction will give a way to new ideas and projects, creating innovation hubs that will bring the entire ecosystem together – in Slovakia and cross our borders.

However, Smart Industry is also about providing the right environment for cooperation, innovation, and prosperity of business. In this context, we remain strong in our focus on reducing the administrative burden, especially for emerging businesses – still a crucial barrier to market entry and growth. Better and Future-Proof Regulation efforts will enable more innovative and disruptive ideas to become successful businesses.

When a person speaks with entrepreneurs and businesses, one can always hear about the bad entrepreneurial environment in Slovakia. What´s your position on that? Can you agree or would you argue with them?

The truth is that we need to improve education, support creative industry and understand that creating a startup includes a lot of hard work, but I also must give a credit to the incredible transformation of Slovakia, which is now being entrepreneurially active.

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What Slovak project, service or product comes to your mind first? Why?

“Tatranka” 🙂  And of course, all the traditional success stories like Eset, Aeromobil, or Pixel Federation, because they are doing great PR and promoting the potential of our country. However, I am very proud of Sygic, Sli.do, C2i and many others who are putting Slovakia on the “innovative world map”!

Can you share with us any specific programs, initiatives or events organized by the Ministry of Economy to support Slovak startups that people can apply for or become part of? 

We have organized Hackathon, Business delegations with president Andrej Kiska, regular consultations, roundtables with international experts and business leaders and policymakers or conference of international experts about startups with Euro-commissioner Oettinger, We4Innovations what is a task force created to support the cooperation of our V4 countries. We have already managed to bring 12 startups to Silicon Valley.

Currently we are creating Virtual Business Accelerator which supports promising Slovak startups and deliver highly successful professionals who are mentoring them in order to help them penetrate to global markets. Another initiative is Innovative Slovakia, a website summarizing startups, investors, incubators, hubs, companies, universities, R&D institutions  and business environment in our country which will be useful for investors from abroad as well as easier orientation for Slovaks.

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Recently you organized the visit of Dirk Ahlborn from Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) in Slovakia. What are your impressions when thinking of it in retrospect?

Slovakia was number one trending story on Facebook worldwide, we were in Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Wired, Mashabe, etc. I am very happy that signing Letter of Intent with HTT was such a positive PR for Slovakia, we definitely put ourselves on the global innovative map and our potential got international recognition. Also Austrian government got very excited about Bratislava-Vienna connection. In retrospect, all those encouraging thoughts leave lasting impressions, I am happy to spread enthusiasm about such revolutionary projects as Hyperloop. For the future, I hope that it will cheer companies, academia and R&D to cooperate on national as well as international level.

Is there any particular moment that pops up in our mind from the visit? 

Yes, when he signed the Letter of Intent 🙂 …and when he expressed his impression by enthusiastic people who want to help Hyperloop to become a reality.

What are the next steps in regards to Hyperloop in Slovakia? What is the plan?

We want to conduct the feasibility study in a near future and organize meetings with Austrians in order to establish cooperation.

A little bit more personal, if I may. Any future plans for your own startup? 

I am inspired by working in this vibrant startup community, so I have some ideas in my mind 🙂


Photos: Zuzana Nehajova

 

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