Interview with Lucka Polášková, Director of CzechInvest’s foreign office in London

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We are bringing you an interview with our colleague Lucie Polášková, who has been at the centre of things in London for the past two years and whose territory includes the whole of the United Kingdom. London is one of the world’s main start-up hubs and its role at the global level is growing year by year.

We met with Lucka and spoke with her about the currently open call of the CzechAccelerator programme, which sends Czech start-ups to global start-up centres and co-finances three-month acceleration programmes for them through EU funds.

And Lucie will be one of the main actors in London, as she will provide support for the selected Czech start-ups, help them adapt to the British environment and serve as a guide for them. What does she recommend to Czech start-ups? What are her views on the start-up environment in London? Do Czech start-ups have a chance in the face of strong competition? To learn the answers to these questions, please read the following interview.

Q1: Lucka, to begin, can you briefly tell us about the British start-up environment? How do Brits see the Czech Republic?

The British start-up scene, especially in London, is the biggest in Europe. With more than 4,000 start-ups, 70 co-working centres, 250,000 jobs in the digital area, 36 incubators and 98 million pounds invested in the first six months of 2016, Silicon Roundabout – the centre of start-ups in East London – is comparable to Silicon Valley in California. Since 2011, the local scene has been actively supported by the government, which is striving to implement the digital city concept – Tech City – in East London. In the past, its objective was, among other things, to attract major players like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Intel, Cisco and Qualcomm, and its efforts were not in vain. Not only capital came to London with those firms, but also a huge number of creative people and a bit of the innovative culture of Silicon Valley. The government is implementing a massive PR campaign in this area and has also introduced a range of tax incentives, such as reduction of the tax rate for start-up companies from 28% to 20%. Equally important was the creation of the “Business Visa”, which makes it easier to attract talented people to the country from abroad. The success of this approach is obvious in London. The technology sector now takes up more office space in London than the financial and insurance sectors combined. The centre of the London start-up scene is Google’s London Campus, which is home to two of the four biggest incubators: Seedcamp and Oxygen. Silicon Roundabout is not the only start-up centre in the city. Camden & Kentish Town, Kings Cross & Euston (IoT, digital media, data), Canary Wharf (FinTech), the Olympic Village (HereEast – new technology/innovation hub to be completed in 2016) and Croydon (the fastest-growing digital hub – software development and creative media) are rapidly catching up with Silicon Roundabout. Twelve of the 17 European “unicorns” – the most successful start-up with minimum valuation of one billion. These include well-known companies such as ASOS, an online platform focusing on fashion retail; JustEat, a global leader in online takeaway food ordering; Transferwise, a money-transfer service that enables private individuals and firms to send money abroad without hidden fees; Funding Circle, a leading global online market for business loans; and Rightmove, a website that mediates real-estate purchasing and leasing. Another point of interest is what’s called the “Cambridge phenomenon” – start-ups focused on hardware are concentrated almost exclusively in Cambridge, a university city an hour from London. Cambridge was actually the first Tech City in Great Britain, nicknamed Silicon Fen and the Cambridge cluster. With a population of 120,000, the city has more than 1,000 start-ups, ten companies valued at more than one billion dollars and two companies valued at more than ten billion dollars.

Q2: What can you recommend to Czech start-ups that register in the CzechAccelerator programme and choose London as their destination? Perfect English? Sufficient funding? Should they expect strong competition?

It’s very important to learn to build business relationships and to not be afraid to go among people at various social events and to network. It also pays to know how to relatively quickly and comprehensibly describe what the start-up does and how it is unique. Especially in Britain, it is good to be prepared for the fact that a lot of people will tell you that they want to collaborate with you, but in the end they don’t reply to subsequent communication. Brits don’t want to explicitly say no because they never know when a connection might suit them. Of course, excellent English is essential; for business development and sales, it’s good to rather have a Brit. If Czech start-ups want to be truly successful on the British market, it is necessary to have an established local branch in the UK. Coming from the Czech Republic for a couple of meetings every week is not ideal; British firms will sense that and they won’t close a deal.

Q3: You will be one of the key people in London for the selected Czech start-ups. What will your role be?

To start, I should mention that, in connection with the CzechAccelerator programme, there will be a chosen local partner (an accelerator) that will provide the main mentoring and all facilities for the start-ups. We are striving to select the best variant for the Czech firms so that they can be at the centre of events, soak in the right atmosphere and get high-quality support.

My role will be especially to provide assistance upon their arrival in Britain and with orientation in the local environment. I believe that there will not be such a big culture shock as in the case of other CzechAccelerator destinations, such as the United States or Singapore. However, certain local characteristics can be surprising, so the start-ups will turn to me in that respect. At the same time, I will be in close contact with the local partner and I can thus better keep an eye on fulfilment of the programme’s conditions.

Q4: We are coming to the end of our interview, but can you tell us about your plans? Is there anything that we can look forward to?

Together with the Czech embassy in London and partners from the V4 countries and Austria, in October every year we organise an event called Central European ICT StartUp, at which we present five successful start-ups from each country. Innovative start-up companies thus have a chance to present themselves to British investors, through which they can obtain capital and an opportunity for global expansion. We hold the event every year and we are thus striving to promote successful Czech ideas abroad over the long term and to provide an opportunity for them to penetrate foreign markets. We will hold the third edition of the event this year. Firms should be focused on applicability in the FinTech, HealthTech, electromobility and IoT sectors. Selection of start-ups is underway in cooperation with the ICT Alliance. More than 80 VCs, investors and representatives of corporations attended the event last year.

Lucka, thank you very much for your time. If readers have any questions, they can contact your London office directly by e-mail at london@czechinvest.org.