After living in Australia for three years she came back to Slovakia full of new ideas and experiences. Her first touch with the startup world came during the organization of the first TEDxBratislava event and since then she wanted to be part of the story. The wish came true and she has become the Executive Manager of Slovak Alliance for the Internet Economy (SAPIE). We are glad she had time for our interview as recent months have been quite busy for her – travelling around the world and preparing everything for the Slovak EU Presidency. Petra Dzurovcinova.
Let´s start with an introduction. What´s your background?
I have Master’s degree in International Business from the University of Economy in Bratislava. I have also studied Business in France and in South Korea I attended classes of future studies. After the university I wanted to travel and found a job as a Digital Communications Manager for an Australian organization RiAus. After three years of a great life in Australia I had decided to do some good back in my home country and returned to Europe.
You worked as an event coordinator and journalists among other activities. Do you remember when you first heard about startups and the whole startup environment? How did you get into startups?
I think it was around 2009-2010 when some friends of mine started talking about startups. I was part of the first team to organize TEDxBratislava. That was a big thing for me, the experience and the team was amazing. One of my team members was Andrej Radovan Grezo who was involved in the first startup meetups. I remember when I went for the meeting at YMCA building. It felt quite underground at that time. When I arrived to Australia, I observed that the ecosystem there was quite small but very vibrant. Regular meetups were held there, universities organized competitions and I was even part of a course on entrepreneurship that took over 6 months and consisted of everything you need to know to develop your own product or service – finance, legal, market, HR, marketing, all the aspects of a company, with a pitch competition at the end. That was an incredible experience for me. I´ve always been curious and interested in new opportunities. I think for a long time I didn’t think of it as startups. It was just a group of people meeting and maybe coming up with cool ideas and then working on them.
You act as the Executive Manager of Slovak Alliance for the Internet Economy (SAPIE). What is the main mission of SAPIE?
SAPIE’s main mission is to create a world-class Slovakia. We believe that improving the education system and taking it to the 21st century by teaching tech, entrepreneurial and soft skills will help us to prepare better for the challenges ahead of us. Secondly, we want to support the brave and creative people who decided to become entrepreneurs by boosting the startup ecosystem in Slovakia. And thirdly we want to help the successful ones to succeed on a global scale. We are a membership organization so by connecting our members (now we have over 40 of them and our goal is to reach 100 by the end of 2016) and listening to their needs we act as an industry body for innovative and internet companies and communicate on their behalf with the policy makers in Slovakia and Europe.
What did the beginnings of the initiative look like?
SAPIE is quite a new organization. This June it’s just two years I’ve been working for the organization. The selection process itself was very long and diligent. The three founders – Anton Zajac, Rasto Kulich and Ivan Stefunko, decided to have a rigorous check. So I took tests you do when applying for Google, prepared an assignment and had multiple interviews. When I started, SAPIE was just an idea with a few people very excited about it. In June 2014 I started talking to them, prepared legal documents to start an organization, talked to potential members, stakeholders, prepared our website. SAPIE has been evolving ever since and it feels like working for a very exciting startup with a great mission.
How do you fulfill your mission? What events do you organize and what activities do you do?
We act as a policy advocacy body for the innovative and internet companies in Slovakia. We want to provide expertise and knowledge from companies to policy makers that would lead to better regulation and improvements in the business environment. Our goal is to be a partner for the Slovak government during our EU presidency, and long-term help with the digital agenda and advocacy for innovative policies for the Slovak government. We are also working on a Danube Valley Innovative Cluster, where we are aiming at connecting the ecosystems of Vienna, Brno, Budapest and Bratislava in mobility and cyber security. At the end of the summer we are planning a cruise with the top innovators from the region to shape the development of feasibility study, connect them and figure out the ways forward.
What can we look forward in the near future from the alliance?
On my travels around the CEE region and Nordics I see so much eagerness, innovative thinking and passion for developing and preparing the region for the 21st century. I keep repeating that, but you can see a lot of changes in the world these days. And we can either hang on to the old and familiar, or we can embrace the new and exciting. Of course it needs to be done slowly and the big opportunity is in slow transition and adding new ways to the old methods. The largest opportunities are in innovation of the traditional industries, great examples are in automotive (flying car or self-driving cars) or agriculture (CropTech).
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?
I think we have a small, but quite vibrant ecosystem. There are projects that take it really seriously and work hard to be globally successful. The level of professionalism is quite high. For a smaller group it is also a lifestyle choice. I hope we can get more talented people in, you can feel the lack of IT talent already. I see a great opportunity in introducing the startup visa and making it easier for companies to employ third country nationals.
It’s great to see that innovation and startups are grabbing the attention of policy makers. It is the best time for entrepreneurs to voice their concerns and ideas. On European level we have the Digital Single Market strategy and the European commission really wants to listen to business. I would urge entrepreneurs to use this opportunity. It doesn’t mean they will do everything we want them to, but it is important to be part of the process. The Slovak government is listening, too. There are successful examples from around the world. Let´s take Denmark which has a great policy for startup visa we could easily implement in Slovakia. So I see the great opportunity of attracting more projects to Slovakia by improving policy, clearly stating we are good at these verticals like future of mobility, security and IoT (which are all related) and branding it nicely like the campaign Good Idea Slovakia. I see our strength in being agile and opened to cooperate regionally. It would create jobs and hopefully help with the nationalistic tendencies as well.
What are your personal top 3 startups or projects from our region that first come to your mind?
I always think of them as the ones I would want to be a part of. Number one is EcoCapsule which has a great potential and it just sounds like a good idea. I can imagine it can become a world-class product if they manage the execution and sales well. Secondly I admire the team behind AeroMobil. That is a group of highly professional people with a clear mission and very interesting product. So for me they are a huge inspiration. I am also following guys in SaferPass, Divano, Cloudo or BatSuite and admire their hard work and dedication.
When do you think we reach the digital level of Estonia we hear so much about? Where do you see the biggest gaps and what steps do we need to take?
I don’t think we should be aiming at becoming Estonia. We can get inspiration from them, but we can design specific strategy for our country considering our specific strengths. As I mentioned before using the strong industrial background, large automotive industry and connecting them with local and regional innovators. Slovakia.Digital has been doing great work in digitalization and e-government. Adding to the mix use of data, flexible education system and attractive policy we can easily become e-Slovakia. There are amazing brains in our country, concepts and ideas are already there, like “The value for money” concept. However it needs to be a public-private partnership with courageous and determined leaders to undertake this task.
Do you sometimes think about your own startup?
I do. As I mentioned before, SAPIE is like a startup for me. I can pivot and experiment and my members are like investors I am accountable to. There will be a time when I find the right group of people and the right idea to work on. Now I am learning a lot, and I can feel it in my bones, the time will come.
Photos: Petra Dzurovcinova