Nearly 2 million people migrated to western Europe from Poland after the country joined the EU in 2004, according to the most recent estimates by the Central Statistical Office of Poland. Anna Pronczuk, a high-energy, young professional might have been one of them, yet rather than moving to London, she instead works in Lublin next to a wall-size photo of the UK capital.

“We happen to send some of our start-ups to London, hence the photo in my office. But it is Lublin – and knowing that we have phenomenal people, firms and, increasingly, also a tech scene – that keeps me going,” says Ms Pronczuk, who works as a manager at the newly opened Lublin branch of Business Link, a network of business accelerators located in Poland’s 10 largest cities.

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The office opened at the end of 2014 and so far has attracted eight start-ups. It is expecting to receive many more tenants in the coming months. “We organised 10 information sessions about our accelerator and each would attract 40 to 50 people," says Ms Pronczuk. "That shows that there is increasing demand for start-up hubs, but also that there is interest when it comes to starting companies in Lublin. It is not just about graduating and moving to bigger cities and becoming a drone working for a corporation anymore.” 

Big city moves

Unlike Ms Pronczuk, Magdalena Solarska, a US and Germany educated manager and a Lublin native, chose to move to a bigger city and work for a big corporation. In 2006, Ms Solarska moved to Krakow and started working for Comarch, one of the largest Polish IT firms. “When I started my professional career, jobs in IT in Lublin were virtually non-existent. Anyone who wanted to work [in this field] had to move,” she says.

Yet, a year after moving to Krakow, Ms Solarska moved back to Lublin, but this time she took Comarch with her. “Big cities had many IT companies but limited talent pool. Lublin had human capital, but limited employment opportunities, so in 2007 I convinced our managing director to open an office here,” she says. After leaving Comarch in 2009, Ms Solarska began managing MS Consulting Group, a EU funding-focused consultancy, and since 2013 she also co-manages Software Camp, a tech incubator.

Software Camp offers not only physical and virtual offices, as well as business services helping companies with legal and tax issues, it also wants to be a meeting space for budding entrepreneurs. “For innovation and co-operation to thrive, there needs to be a certain type of vibe. Initiatives such as ours or Business Link aim to make that happen,” says Ms Solarska.

Gaining momentum

Both initiatives came to life in the past two years, showing that start-ups in Lublin are gaining momentum, albeit on a smaller scale than in some of the larger Polish cities. Much earlier, in 2009, Lublin Science and Technology Park (LPNT), a technology campus, opened its doors. LPNT has regional government as its majority shareholder, but unlike many publicly owned institutions in post-communist countries, it acts fast and feels more like a private firm. This is in large part thanks to Tomasz Malecki, LPNT’s chairman since 2013. As with Ms Solarska and Ms Pronczuk, he is young, ambitious and highly employable. “Our focus is on helping creative individuals and good ideas reach markets and become businesses. Especially given that we have a number of really clever people working here.”

Another area of LPNT’s activity is linking businesses with universities. “When an investor comes and works on a solution, he does not care which university or a professor he or she is going to work with. They have a problem to solve and that is what matters to them,” says Mr Malecki, adding that LPNT runs a database of professors and researchers, so an investor can quickly look up contacts using keywords. That is, provided that academic faculty is pro-business – not a given in a system that still often battles remnants of communism.

To speed up the process, in 2013 LPNT partnered with Lublin institution Maria Curie-Sklodowska University (UMCS) to identify so-called innobrokers, people charged with building co-operation between business and science. “We decided to looked at success stories in the university-business co-operation realm in the UK, Germany and France and applied it in LPNT. The innobrokers project is a result of that,” says Mr Malecki.

Applying ideas

Even before innobrokers began working on linking science with business, some members of Lublin’s academic community were pushing for a more business-centric approach. “I believe that there is no better feeling for an engineer than to see his ideas applied in real life and there is no better way to do this than by commercialising them,” says Miroslaw Wendeker, head of the chair at the mechanics department at Lublin University of Technology. “But when I introduced this approach in 1999, many of my colleagues were surprised,” adds Mr Wendeker, who recently has been working with a municipal bus carrier in Lublin to provide a power supply to buses by installing photovoltaic panels on their roofs.

Mr Wendeker might have been a rare specimen in Polish science at the turn of the millennium, but now an increasing number of university teachers in Lublin are either interested in strengthening links with business (courtesy of more than €8bn assigned by the EU for science in Poland in its 2014-2020 operational fund) or have a business background. “Every department and academic institution is different, but definitely academics are more business minded than they used to be,” says Zbigniew Pastuszak, dean at UMCS’s faculty of economics.

As they should be, adds Maciej Maniecki, a local entrepreneur and angel investor. He points to a string of interesting projects that can be found in Lublin, including Pawel Bershke, a young designer who created a concept car for Bugatti; Aero Brains, a company that applies neuroscience into business coaching; and VitaGenum, a firm that uses DNA markets for determining genetic predispositions, for example, for sports or certain medical conditions.

Mr Maniecki says: “We used to be seen as 'Poland B' – a backwards, remote place where no one really wants to be. But people that choose to live and be successful here change that notion.”