Recently, I toured Europe to learn about how hardware startups grew there. Where is the Euro Silicon Valley? How are startups treated there compared to in the U.S.? How does networking, funding and team-building work over yonder? One of my stops was Warsaw, Poland. Here, I’ll share what I learned touring the FabLab powered by Orange, and interviewing the COO of Arkley, a hardware accelerator/VC.
Watch for upcoming articles on other countries, including Germany, Ukraine, and Spain!
Big Thanks to Hardware Massive
In spite of having lived in Germany for about a year, I sadly didn’t have a ton of hardware engineering connections in Europe before now. So, when I learned I’d unexpectedly (and on short notice) take a trip to Europe, I reached out to Hardware Massive. In addition to putting on HardwareCon and other events, Hardware Massive includes a network of HW nerds around the world. I asked CEO, Greg Fisher, if he had any suggestions on places to visit. Not only did he have excellent suggestions, but he generously provided some intros, too! You can check out all their many chapters HERE.
In Warsaw, Hardware Massive pointed me to the delightful Marta Proksa, COO of Arkley Ventures. Proska, in turn, suggested I stop by the FabLab in Warsaw sponsored by Orange and the Robisz.to Foundation. And the FabLab was also extremely generous in letting me barge in with my camera, rather announced, for a tour. “Um, hi, I’m American…uh…I want to film? English?”
So, a huge thanks to everyone who helped me find the breadcrumbs for these pieces and for being so amazingly kind with little-to-no notice! I’m seriously blown away by the generosity of all these awesome folks.
Arkley Ventures: HW Accelerator/VC in Poland
My first not-pierogi-type stop was coffee with Marta Proska, COO of Arkley Ventures.
Arkley offers hardware startups both funding as a VC and technical assistance as an accelerator. You can see examples of HW companies Arkley works with in their portfolio, HERE.
At first, Marta Proska wasn’t entirely sure what I was trying to learn from her. I also wasn’t 100% on what questions I should ask to learn the thing. It kind of boiled down to:
- Are y’all aware you aren’t Silicon Valley?
- How exactly are things different for startups in Warsaw, Poland?
- Do you care that it’s different?
- If so, what are you doing about it?
What I gathered from my more scattered questions was that Europe and Poland, specifically, were aware they were not self-propelled organic breeding grounds for startups like the San Francisco Bay Area is now. And yes, they were trying to do something about it. What’s different? A lot of curious things…
Lots and Lots of Money, er, Złoty
From attending IDTechEx the week prior, in Berlin, I already knew Europe, in general, has plans to throw heaps of money at startups. The European Innovation Council (EIC) is set to firehose 2 BILLION EURO in funding at European startups between 2019-2020. That’s over 3.1 billion USD.
What I didn’t know was Poland on its own is dumping cash into venture capital firms there. It’s a bit hard to discern the exact money trail, as it appears there are funds of funds funding funders… The concentrated version I gather is: the Polish government is dumping about PLN 2.8 billion over 5 years into startups/VCs, or almost 750 million USD according to today’s exchange rate.
It’s a Startup’s Market
In Proska’s view, with all that cash flooding into VC pockets in Poland, it makes it a bit easier to be a VC there. So compared with Silicon Valley, there’s at least a feeling of an opposite supply:demand ratio. Where in the US, there is a surplus of startups rushing/hoping/praying to be funded, in Poland, there is a higher proportion of VC’s looking for startups to fund.
While in the USA, startups may need to polish their interactions with VC’s and hustle hard to sell their business plan (think Shark Tank), in Poland, startups feel less pressure to do so. Consequently, I’m told, in Poland, they mostly don’t.
In Poland, there’s a feeling of the startup being king. For example, startups would almost never pay for entry to a conference or other business event. I heard from multiple sources they also tend to take their sweet time with lots of things…from replying to emails in a timely manner to setting meetings with influential organizations. Priorities are different. They’re…busy.
Having worked with many hardware startups in the United States, this shocked me! For me, it would be a red flag telling me NOT to work with a startup if they didn’t show a lot of hustle. If they weren’t working ceaselessly, without breaks, and while under considerable stress, this was usually a clear indicator to me they would not succeed.
And yet…somehow…as seen from Arkley’s portfolio, there are success stories emerging from this curious culture.
Are You On Facebook?
A big part of the Polish startup culture (or any startup culture) is how pros find each other and communicate. Once again, I was shocked when my contacts in Poland wanted to use Facebook to follow up with me or introduce me to other pros.
Hahaha…um…you mean LinkedIn?”-Me to Proska, not getting this was a serious Q the first time I was asked.
No, she meant Facebook. And no, she wasn’t joking.
At first, I declined to connect on Facebook because, like other Americans, my Facebook was an off-limits, private, HR-free zone. However, between others I met in Poland and my next trip to Kiev, Ukraine, my defenses finally wore down. Facebook Messenger is used professionally for group chat discussions to decide on plans, and for general 1-1 discussions over Europe’s typical app of choice: WhatsApp. Curious, as they’re both Facebook-owned things now.
What about LinkedIn? It’s rarely used.
So, by the time I’d spent several days in Poland and the Ukraine, I finally agreed to let some of these professionals into my sacred space. I simultaneously made a mental note to douse my old Facebook posts with gasoline and light them on fire.
Tour: FabLab Powered by Orange and Association Robisz.to
When I asked Proska about makerspaces or other similar facilities worth checking out in her neighborhood, she kindly pointed me to FabLab Powered by Orange. The magnanimous Magda Zaras and Ignacy Chrząstowski-Wachtel lent their time to give us a full tour of the facilities and explain the programs at the FabLab. (And thank goodness their English is excellent because my Polish is non-existent.) This facility is a joint project of the Polish branch of the Orange Foundation and the “Robisz To” Foundation.
You can see it all in this video:
Even with the Google Maps to aid my wandering through the streets of Warsaw, I still managed to walk right past the FabLab’s building…at least twice. As you can see from this image, there is only a small sign facing a side street.
I’m told the facility is a re-purposed film studio. Lucky for these makers, the glass, sound-absorbing walls remain. That’s something you don’t see often in makerspaces!
3D Printers Galore
In the main co-working space of the FabLab, I counted 6 3D printers plus a custom-built hang printer. Later in the tour, we saw one more in the laser cutter room — a Formlabs resin printer.
This mammoth CNC is neat for a few reasons. For one: it was made by a friend of the FabLab. For two: it’s so gigantic, it needed to be cut in pieces to get it into the building.
For three: it was used to build all the furniture in the space!
The electronics workshop had a lot of basic equipment. You won’t find a PCB printer or mill here, but you have enough tools to prototype simple circuits with breadboards and solder by hand the final version. Some of the classes in the electronics realm cover using Raspberry Pi, Arduinos, and soldering irons.
There’s lots of space plus sewing and embroidery machines available for playing with textiles. Classes are available, too! I’m always amazed by people who can use those machines because I’ve never touched one. Robots and lasers and power tools? Sure, no problem, I got it. Sewing machine? Witchcraft. Impossible. Thanks to this member for sharing her gorgeous (sorcery) work!
There are 2 laser plotter cutters at the FabLab which get a lot of use. In the tour, we saw several examples of pieces put through these machines which included decorative, artistic touches on wooden objects and prototyping smaller-scaled objects.
The carpentry workshop was one of the larger and more well-stocked spaces in the facility. Festool is also a partner, providing a lot of sweet tools, so that could one of the reasons why. The members of this FabLab do seem to do a lot of woodworking, too, though!
An overview of the FabLab’s many educational programs can be found on this page. I’d recommend viewing it in Chrome and turning on the translate feature… In addition to these more involved, long-format programs, there is of course also instruction available for specific tools and skills.
This program is a startup academy geared for women entering the workforce or returning to work after things like maternity leave. It’s also for ladies who want to sharpen technical skills or add them to their skillset. Our tour guide, Magda Zaras, is a graduate of the first edition of this program.
This one is for teaching youth from orphanages and foster families and the age range is 16-25. These kids get to take classes in whatever type of fabricating tickles their fancy. They’re also offered assistance in finding internships afterward.
Curious how much the Polish pay to play in this space? There is a range of subscription/membership rates from roughly $50-$200 when converted to USD. The one around 50 bucks gives you 30 hours of playtime. The high-end rate is a monthly fee and includes all basic training classes.
Know of Other Cool Stuff We Should Feature?
If you have tips on stories you’d like featured with topics such as interesting tech, hardware, spaces, events, HW start-up stuff, and the like, please let me know! (Even/especially if it’s your own thing.) Drop me a note at: [email protected]