Warsaw and Krakow are currently the best known of Poland’s tech centers. But the country, buoyed by excellent education and a growing economy, may have a new digital contender – Poznan. The picturesque city, home to just over half a million people, has grown to become a vibrant hub for several successful startups. And with cutting-edge municipal projects in place, great transport and low rents, it may soon be challenging Poland’s digital duopoly.
There are over 100,000 qualified I.T. professionals in Poland. According to a 2012 Computerworld study, the country’s tech sector is growing at an annual rate of 8.3%. In March this year the Polish government pledged $100 million to supporting Ukrainian businesses, the majority of which are in the tech field, to participate in the Warsaw Stock Exchange amid continued tensions in Kiev.
Poznan is one of the oldest cities in Poland, having been established in the 10th century. Its old town is a pretty mix of classical buildings and has a regional reputation for classical music, focused around the Pantheonesque Grand Theatre.
But away from the tourists and the tunes, Poznan’s technology industry has started to attract attention, helped along by a steady supply of skilled young professionals. Poland’s higher education is prized throughout Europe and the world for its preference for transferable skills and languages, an approach that has propelled home-grown talent across the business world. It’s a far cry from the early 90s, when education, like the country, was crumbling after the fall of communism.
“When my parents were younger they’d go to schools teaching you to be a mechanic, electrician, that kind of thing,” says Kasia Ring, an artist based in London. “Now we go to general knowledge high schools – science, languages.”
Poznan has taken up that baton. Its universities turn out over 40,000 graduates a year, many of whom are studying computer sciences and related fields. The local Medical University is Poland’s second most popular for foreign students, and Poznan University of Technology, known as one of Poland’s best, is ensuring the city remains supplied with a steady stream of startup talent.
Meanwhile the city continues to grow apace, with several headline-grabbing projects owing thanks to the tech world. A high-speed rail service, mothballed in 2011, has been sparked back into life and will connect Poznan with other major Polish cities, as well as the German and Czech borders, at speeds of up to 350km/h. That would put it on a similar level to the world’s current fastest commute, on Shanghai’s Maglev Line, which runs at an average pace of 360km per hour.
Transport has provided Poznan with another of its digital coups this term, in the form of interactive bus stops, which are the first of their kind of the continent. The stops are ‘pro-social’, featuring additions for the elderly and deaf. They also include games for children to play while they wait for a ride. London had toyed with the idea previously but chose not to implement it wholesale.
“One half of the screen is a fixed interactive timetable,” says Paulina Skrzypinska, of Poznan Science and Technology Park, which developed the solution. “The second part of the screen is open for developers to prepare dedicated apps – the stop has its own API that is available for developers – that is the main difference between this stop and the other available solutions.”
Poznan was rejuvenated by the 2012 European Championships, which brought the glitzy new Miejski Stadium and a global media spotlight. It was telling that the city’s leadership chose to focus on its startup potential, forging ties with other major cities in Europe, such as Dublin, with whom it shared a €10 million project.
And it is the startup sphere which has continued to grow well in the intervening two-and-a-half years. According to Venture Village Poznan, real estate can be 30-40% cheaper than equivalents in Warsaw or Krakow. At a recent ICT Summit in Warsaw, Poznan was named the most friendly Polish city for startups. Even Forbes gave the city a shoutout in a recent ‘Startup Hotspots to Watch’ post.
Local outfit Omni3D was one of the world’s first major 3D printer firms, and still offers a competitive range of products. It recently launched its AirEnergy3D project, which is an open source, 3D-printed wind turbine.
Startup Poznan and Startup Weekend have supercharged the local community. Some of the more successful outfits include Smart Mirrors, a company making adaptable mirrors for motorcycles; mobile app developer Moodup; eBook expert Legimi; and DICE+, a universal board game controller that works with tablets to enhance interaction. Its founder, Patryk Strzelewicz, claims that Poznan’s handy locale and size make it an ideal place for business.
“We wouldn’t swap Poznan to any other city,” he says. “It’s neither too large nor too small; neither too loud nor too quiet. Nothing is missing here. From here we’ve started to conquer other markets thanks to the A2 highway and good air connections, and we were able to visit the best international trade shows. Here we employ the most brilliant and talented people. I don’t see any cons to Poznan.”