Czech-based start-up network looks across borders to grow a transnational innovation ecosystem

29 Mar 2023 | News

Hopes are that partnering with nearby neighbours in Poland and Slovakia will help all three border regions increase their potential

Winners of the CEE Startup Network's 2022 competition. Photo: CEE Startup Network

A start-up network connecting three border regions in Czechia, Poland and Slovakia is hoping that its bottom-up approach can help a local - yet transnational - innovation ecosystem to thrive. 

Following its launch in 2021, the CEE Startup Network held its first cross-border funding competition last year with over 90 startups participating. The team behind the network is now looking to expand its reach into more cities ahead of hosting this year’s Startup Voucher call, which will open in September. 

The three regions involved are all remote from their capital cities and are not typically the strongest in terms of innovation. The Moravian-Silesian region in Czech Republic is classed as a “moderate innovator” by the EU’s Regional Innovation Scoreboard, while the Silesian Voivodeship in Poland falls within an area classed as an emerging innovator, as does the Žilina Region in Slovakia. 

The innovation scoreboard divides regions into one of four categories: innovation leader, strong innovator, moderate innovator and emerging innovator. 

But Pavel Csank, CEO of the Moravian-Silesian Innovation Centre, who had the vision for the network, wants to turn this traditional disadvantage into an advantage. Central to that is tapping into the potential of the regions through bottom-up growth. 

“The general mindset here is really of dependency thinking,” he said. “If we want to be at a European level of innovation, we need to change this mindset from dependency to building inter-regional potential.”

He said that the mindset can often be more fixed on growing through European public money. “Our approach is building bridges between global corporations and start-ups,” he said. 

This strategy of looking to more local collaborations and partnerships is vital for the region, said Michal Janovčík of the INOVIA Innovation Centre, a partner of the CEE Startup Network operating in the Žilina Region. 

“In general, bottom-up initiatives work better because they are based on the real needs of users – SMEs, start-ups and innovation agencies, for example,” he said. 

“European-level support programmes are certainly beneficial, but they require more experience in operating them and adjusting them to the specific conditions of the given region. Bottom-up initiatives are more flexible, and we can adjust them faster as needed and adapt them to the needs of SMEs and the startup community.”

The CEE Startup Network does not backseat European funding opportunities and they have a consultant on board to help applying for such grants if necessary. But in general, the start-ups they work with are smaller and are taking their first steps towards internationalisation. 

“We are a step that you need to take before you even consider funding from, for example, the European Innovation Council. That’s usually too competitive for our start-up targets,” said Adéla Píchová, project coordinator of CEE Startup Network. 

She said that one advantage of the funding opportunities it provides is the flexible nature of it. “We try to fail fast,” she said. “If someone is not on the same page as us, we don’t feel bound by project rules.”

While Píchová describes the network’s first international funding competition as a success, she admits there is room for improvement. Of the over 90 participants, only nine were from Poland. She said the hope is to bring on board new Polish partners this year.

One voice

There is a necessity for start-ups in the border region to internationalise quickly, especially the ones from the Czech and Slovak side, as their domestic markets are relatively small. 

In Poland there is a much bigger domestic market, which takes away some of the urgency in creating cross-border partnerships – possibly a factor in why fewer Polish start-ups were interested in last year’s competition.

But this does not mean cross-border collaboration is not useful for Polish entrepreneurs, said Sonia Bazan, manager of Technology Incubator at Krakow Technology Park. 

Krakow Technology Park is not a partner of the CEE Startup Network, but they have been in contact about collaborating. “To succeed [as a region] and to be able to transform towards being a digital Europe, we have to be consolidated and have one voice, so it’s good to work together on this type of project,” Bazan said. 

Krakow is a more advanced innovation hub compared to other parts of the border region and Csank has said it is a target for Ostrava in Czechia to get to reach a similar level of development as Krakow, Wroclaw or Brno within the next 10 to 15 years. 

Janovčík also sees international collaboration as a key factor in unlocking the potential of the Žilina Region. “Like most [places] in central Europe, Žilina still has an underdeveloped innovation ecosystem, where we have not yet created effectively functioning support tools and financial mechanisms for more active growth in an international environment,” he said. 

“We are trying to build such an ecosystem in Žilina, and it is inter-regional cooperation and the exchange of experience that can help Slovak start-ups enter the surrounding markets more quickly,” Janovčík said.It is an opportunity even for small regions to connect and form a stronger network of European importance.”

Snowball effect

The Startup Voucher competition is an important part of the network’s plan to reinvigorate the innovation potential of the three border regions, but their ideas go beyond just offering funding. 

They also offer aftercare support to start-ups that do not win funding, host and participate in various networking events during the year and try to invest in local talents. They have also worked with local secondary schools to try to teach children about having a more entrepreneurial mindset. 

“We are trying to create a community of differently minded people,” Csank said. 

“If we have the first snowball of positive minds around us, it has a positive effect. We are trying to spread this effect beyond borders.” 

“Our strategy is bottom up and connecting local and regional stakeholders through a collaborative platform. We believe that as a region from Czechia we can offer our Polish and Slovakian partners some additional value which they couldn't get by themselves.”

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