A taxi drops me off on an industrial estate in Cracow, where a street sign tells me that the Schindler factory – now a popular tourist destination – is nearby. But that is not what I am looking for. It’s 9am and I’m here for a meeting with an angel investor.
Not without difficulty, I identify the correct building and find myself heading down a dim corridor into what looks like a hollowed-out warehouse. Once I make it upstairs, though, the atmosphere of the place is completely transformed. It no longer feels like a dilapidated industrial floor but a bright, modern workspace. Young people wearing nametags wander around speaking Polish and English. Everyone seems to be working on an Apple device.
While in my mind Cracow is Poland’s cultural capital, it is undeniable that in recent years the city has become something of a tech start-up hub. This is partly because Cracow is home to several universities with leading IT departments and every year the pool of young talent is replenished. In January 2013 Google for Entrepreneurs opened an office space in Cracow which is used by hundreds of developers and entrepreneurs to work in and host networking meetings attended by innovative developers and savvy investors. Poland’s start-up ecosystem is vibrant and growing fast.
The timing and circumstances seem right. In June 2011 the European Commission launched the Smart Specialisation Platform, an initiative designed to encourage different European regions, especially those that had been particularly hit by the recession, to "find their own industrial and technological niche in the global marketplace" by focusing on "smart specialisation". The aims of the project are broad, there is plenty of scope for innovative initiatives, and many young Poles seem keen on establishing Polish brands that could compete successfully in international markets. Also, Poland weathered the global recession better than most EU members and many young Polish professionals now prefer to explore opportunities on the domestic market than look for jobs abroad.
The wave of Polish labour immigration that had flooded the EU market in 2004-2005 seems to have retreated, but it might be “Made in Poland” brands that will flood the European market next. As I head back towards Cracow’s Old Town, having been fed a large serving of new ideas, I’m excited by the young people’s efforts to show the world that Cracow is not just pretty, but also smart.