Educated both in Poland and the UK, in 2007 Borys Musielak secured a job as a consultant at the London-based office of Deutsche Bank. “I really enjoyed working there, it was a good experience that gave me a taste of how to operate in the corporate world,” says Mr Musielak. “But after three years with Deutsche Bank, I wanted to start my own company.” 

He could have done this in London, or with his software engineering degree, virtually any other city in the world. But he chose Warsaw, which is where, in 2010, he founded Filmaster, an analytics platform for the entertainment industry, which in 2015 was sold to Samba TV, a San Francisco-headquartered smart TV apps publisher. He also founded Reaktor, a co-working space that holds monthly meetings for budding entrepreneurs.

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Gaining momentum

Mr Musielak's is not an isolated case. Young professionals have been returning to Warsaw in their droves, intent on tapping into the city's innovation landscape. Take Lukasz Alwast: he studied at the University of Sussex and University College London, and then worked at the London-based Future Cities Catapult, a think-tank linked with the government's Innovate UK initiative. But he recently left the UK to move back to the Polish capital. “As a Warsaw native, I have seen this city evolve over the past decade and I can confidently say it has made a massive, positive leap,” says Mr Alwast.

What is making young professionals, such as Mr Alwast and Mr Musielak, move back to Warsaw?

“Momentum,” says Eliza Kruczkowska, CEO of Start-up Poland, an non-government organisation focusing on promoting the country's tech ecosystem. “The start-up scene here has grown exponentially, and is increasingly getting attention from abroad. I believe that Warsaw is becoming a regional start-up and innovation hub, and that is why young people are coming back.” Indeed, Ms Kruczkowska moved back to the city after spending several years abroad, studying and working in London, Madrid and Munich.

Mr Alwast describes the growth of the start-up scene and the emergence of interesting employment opportunities that came with it, as a deal-clincher for him. “I knew that Warsaw had a lot to offer in terms of livability and quality of life, so the key factor for me was whether I could continue working on exciting projects with world-class exposure. It turns out that I can,” he says. Mr Alwast currently works for Platige Image, a computer graphics and 3D animation firm that includes among its clients theatres in Amsterdam and St Petersburg.

Funding push

Employment opportunities in both Poland and Warsaw would be far more limited if it were not for the injection of funds granted by the EU. Between 2007 and 2013, Poland received €101.5bn from the EU and, between 2014 and 2020, it is projected to receive a further €106bn, of which €12.5bn is allocated to R&D projects. As with all of the country's EU funding, capital allocated to innovation is awarded to the whole country, but Warsaw, by virtue of its sheer size, receives a large proportion.

The EU capital is used to fund projects such as Mr Musielak's, whose start-up received €101,000 in 2010, but also to co-fund institutions such as Warsaw University's Centre of New Technologies (CeNT). Opened in March 2013, CeNT focuses on multidisciplinary research in the fields of biology, chemistry, physics and IT. “It is one of the most modern bio-chemical centres in Europe, which allows scientists to conduct world-class level research,” Marcin Palys, Warsaw University's rector, said on the day of CeNT's launch.

In November 2015, the city gained another innovation hub when the Warsaw University of Technology opened the Centre for Innovation and Technology Transfer Management, an initiative that includes the likes of Google, Microsoft and Samsung among its corporate partners. In the same month, Campus Warsaw, a Google-backed initiative aimed at creating a meeting place for entrepreneurs from across central and eastern Europe, opened its doors.

On top of that, entrepreneurs in Warsaw can also take advantage of resources offered by the city's many business incubators, such as the Smolna Entrepreneurship Center and Business Link. Another recent addition to the city is the Warsaw branch of TechHub, a start-up community that is also active in seven other cities, including London, Bangalore and Boston.

Additionally, the city is home to the National Centre for Research and Development, a governmental agency in charge of supporting R&D in Poland, the Polish Agency for Entreprenurship Development, which supports SMEs in Poland, and the Agency for Industry Development, which supports medium-sized and large companies.

Work in progress

The number of initiatives and education centres focusing on new technologies clearly shows that something is brewing in Warsaw, but many in the city believe that it is still a work in progress. “Most of those initiatives were launched in the past 24 months,” says Pawel Bochniarz, who was until recently the director of innovation advisory at PwC Poland, the Polish branch of a global consulting firm. In November 2015, he launched a technology accelerator in Warsaw, which is part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Enterprise Forum network.

The accelerator, affiliated with one of the most prestigious technology schools in the world, will teach its students how to improve their pitching skills and business concepts. Switching into entreperenurial thinking and learning how to present concepts to investors is something that Polish innovators still struggle with, according to Mr Bochniarz. “One in 10 MIT students start their own company. In Poland, it is less than half of that,” he says. “MIT alone produces 1000 start-ups annually. The whole of Poland [produces just] 2500. Clearly, there is still a lot we have to do to catch up with developed countries.” 

Yet, a 2015 report published by San Francisco-based analytics firm Compass shows that Warsaw already counts among Europe's leading start-up hubs, next to cities such as London or Madrid. This is in no small part down to individuals such as Ms Kruczkowska, Mr Alwast and Mr Musielak, who have brought with them expertise gained on their travels as they have returned to Warsaw.