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It is said that when there is an international competition for students, there are almost always Poles taking part. Moreover, they are often among the winners.

There are plenty of recent examples of this. At the end of September, Polish students won one gold and two silver medals at the International Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad held in Beijing, China. In June, a group of Warsaw School of Economics students won the Europe, Middle East and Africa section of the Google Online Marketing Challenge for the second time. Warsaw University computer students came first in the International Top Coder Ranking and have already taken part in the finals of the Association for Computing Machinery's International Collegiate Programming Contest, the largest programming contest in the world, 11 times. In April, a Kraków Economic University student won Euromanager, an international management competition held in Lisbon, Portugal.

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Human potential

“There are many foreign investors who have already discovered the human potential of the region. They have set up new working environments in the neighbourhoods of [Polish] universities,” says Marek Florkowski, director of the ABB Corporate Research Centre in Kraków. ABB is on the verge of opening an R&D centre to provide scientific support for a plant producing motors and electronic equipment in the Aleksandrów Łódzki district of central Poland.

For computer giant IBM, Wrocław in south-west Poland turned out to be the right place for its new technology service delivery centre, which was opened last year. "We chose Wrocław for our newest facility based on criteria including its highly educated and experienced professionals, language skills and a favourable business environment," says Anna Sieńko, general manager of IBM Poland.

Jeff D Standridge, vice-president of global operations at marketing company Acxiom Corporation, praises the work ethic of the Polish labour force. “Companies that are looking to place a global service centre somewhere in Europe would be completely remiss if they didn’t consider Poland a very strong candidate,” he tells fDi Magazine. After having a small branch in Poland for a few years, Acxiom opened a global service centre in Gdańsk, in the north of the country, in 2008.

“Poland enjoys one of the higher dynamics of development for people with higher education,” adds Sanjay Dube, president of Unilever Polska. Last year, the consumer products company opened an R&D centre for liquid foods in Poznań, which has become a centre of expertise for Unilever's global business. “Poland has a young population and the percentage of people studying is one of the highest in Europe. That is the key element when developing a knowledge-based economy,” says Mr Dube.

Thirst for knowledge

According to the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education, there are currently almost 2 million students at 458 universities in the country. Every year 30,000 students complete computer studies courses and another 2000 finish biotechnology courses. There are more than 200 R&D centres in Poland, including institutes within the Polish Academy of Sciences as well as individual research units, which aim to or already collaborate with business.

Waldemar Pawlak, Polish deputy prime minister and minister of economy, said at the Economic Forum in Krynica in September that these days innovative organisations can operate from any place around the globe, but the choice of location depends partly on the population and its ability to move forward. “The important factors are the climate, elements that create a good culture and an opportunity to come up with the most surprising modern solutions,” he added.

Poland fulfils these conditions, as more and more global companies appreciate the benefits of links with Polish scientists. Philippe Castanet, president of energy company EDF Polska, says: “We carry out research programmes on energy production, use and distribution. In Poland we’re the leader in biomass coal burning. We worked out the method along with Polish scientists. Now we use it in all our energy plants.”

ABB’s Mr Florkowski adds that the Kraków Corporate Research Centre is another good example of Polish R&D success as it collaborates with a number of universities and research institutes in Poland. The centre acts as a repository of expertise and carries out "research consultation and advanced research projects in different areas, jointly with business, that often result in shared inventions and patent applications”, he adds.

Another company making good use of Polish expertise is the US conglomerate General Electric (GE). Professor Bogusław Smólski, director of the Polish National Centre for Research and Development, says: “Today, about 5% of GE’s global research takes place at the Institute of Aviation in Warsaw. Its solutions are later implemented in GE’s global products.”

Innovative production

The Polish Information and Foreign Investment Agency (PAIZ) says it is now negotiating 132 new investment projects in Poland. More than 60% of them are still focused on manufacturing, “but it is a different kind of production from the assembly lines we know from the 1990s or even the beginning of the 2000s", says the agency’s president, Sławomir Majman. "Each of the new production projects has an element of innovation. The share of more advanced investment is going up. More than 30% of new projects require specific skills and education. That number has doubled within the past two years.”

Mr Majman adds that business process outsourcing (BPO) is another growing sector in Poland. International companies are locating BPO centres in Poland to manage their marketing, logistics or financial operations across Europe or even the globe. According to the business website BiznesPolska.pl, there are currently almost 350 BPO and shared-services centres located in 26 cities across Poland.

R&D expansion

PAIZ expects that this year international companies will invest $100m in R&D centres in Poland. There are already about 40 such centres, mostly in the food, automotive, aviation, chemical and telecommunications sectors.

“We still don’t have many R&D projects in the pharmaceutical or advanced energy industries. They will come in the end, perhaps in a few years,” says Adam Żołnowski, former president of PAIZ and currently a director at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “The key to success is to plan in advance, monitor the implementation of goals and make corrections resulting from global trends. This is a must in a knowledge-based economy.”

For Acxiom’s Mr Standridge, the vision of long-term planning and continuous adaptation and the effort to achieve this must be shared between the government and universities. "Institutions of higher education have to be willing to adapt their curricula to produce the kind of graduates that knowledge-based companies moving to Poland will be willing to hire,” he says.

Higher-education reform

This year, Poland implemented a reform of its higher-education system, giving universities more autonomy over their educational offerings. “We are now trying to build a stronger connection between universities and the economy, the labour market and the business environment,” Professor Barbara Kudrycka, Poland's minister of science and higher education, told journalists at a press conference in September.

Mr Smólski adds that Poland should look to exploit more niche sectors. “Since coal is our wealth, we should also be a leader in research on coal. It is not a coincidence that the EU Co-location Centre of Knowledge and Innovation Community was established in Kraków,” he says. This institution will focus on efficient coal gas technologies, capturing and storing carbon dioxide, emission reduction and increased energy efficiency.

Lack of spending

However, Poland's spending on R&D is still low. Last year, domestic spending on R&D projects accounted for just 0.64% of GDP, whereas an average EU country expends 1.9% of GDP on R&D.

“We spend too little,” said Michał Boni, minister in the chancellery of the Polish prime minister, at September's Economic Forum in Krynica. “In more developed countries, one-third of all money spent on innovation comes from the state and two-thirds from private companies. It is now changing in Poland." Mr Boni added that in 10 years' time Poland's domestic spending on R&D will reach 1.7% of GDP, and the amount of money allocated to research will rise from the current €2bn to between €5bn and €6bn.

Polish entrepreneurs also have to show greater appreciation for the value of innovation. Calculations by accountancy company Deloitte show that between 2006 and 2008 only 128 Polish firms made use of R&D tax exemptions, compared with 14,430 companies in the UK.

Far more successful is the implementation of Innovative Economy, an EU programme under which Poland has been granted more than €8.2bn for R&D between 2007 and 2013. So far, under this programme, Polish companies have received almost €3.5bn, while almost 5000 research deals worth €5.7bn have been signed.

“The challenge is as always the scale of spending. I can only encourage [Poland] to maximise investment in education and R&D, as there is plenty of proof coming from emerging markets, such as India where I come from, that the future belongs to those who know more than others,” adds Mr Dube.