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René Samek: You can’t build a biotech startup from Starbucks

15.04. 2024
line-arrow René Samek: You can’t build a biotech startup from Starbucks

The readers of the portal were interested in the series on science and technology parks in the Czech Republic. Some people asked how we selected the science and technology parks presented. We consulted the selection with representatives of the CzechInvest Business and Investment Development Agency. On the topic of science and technology parks and innovation infrastructures, we now bring you an interview with René Samek, Director of the Innovation Department at CzechInvest and author of the publication Methodology for the Development of Innovation Infastructures in the Czech Republic.

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You wrote the Methodology for the Development of Innovation Infrastructures in the Czech Republic, in which you wanted to map what we actually have in the Czech Republic. What’s the motive?

After 2001, and fully after 2005, the CzechInvest agency began to shift from attracting any foreign investment to attracting investments with higher added value. The Framework Programme for the Support of Technology Centres, which are actually corporate research and development centres, has been prepared. It operated until 2008, before the government of the time put a stop to it. Investment incentives for technology centres were awarded to about 100 companies. At the same time, we started to look at science and technology parks (STP) as places where foreign investors could establish technology centres. Which didn’t quite happen, because they mostly built their technology centres on the premises of their Czech factories. However, there are a few foreign companies in science and technology parks, most of them in the Brno Technology Park, some in Pilsen and Ostrava. But otherwise there are only Czech companies in the VTP, which I think is a mistake and a pity, in a proper VTP there should be a mix of small and large companies, domestic and foreign, plus some laboratories and research centres of the local university, so that synergistic effects take place between them.

The methodology of innovation infrastructure development mapped different infrastructures: technology park, science and technology park, innovation centre, hub and others. What distinguishes a science and technology park?

We didn’t have any definition for these infrastructures, we tried to categorize it according to foreign practices. There is an International Association of Science and Technology Parks definition of a science and technology park. But we struggle with this in the Czech Republic, even the Society of Science and Technology Parks of the Czech Republic had a problem with this in the 90s. was founded by Pavel Švejda. If you look at this society, more than half of its members are not actually science and technology parks – many members were and are business incubators, some were built with the help of subsidies from privatized departmental research organizations. Most of them were privatized by the director or employees and the subsidy was a way for them to save the privatized research institute. This was for example the science and technology park built at the Potato Research Institute in Havlíčkův Brod or the business incubator at the Brown Coal Research Institute in Most.

And how did you define a science and technology park?

My working concept is that a science and technology park is a space (land) with several buildings – it should not be one isolated building where, in addition to corporate research and development in companies, there is also collaboration with a university that is nearby, ideally if the university has some laboratories there. That’s how it is, as they say, in the West. Although today there are more and more VTPs in China and Africa, and even there they are usually very large parks, bigger than ours. But still, the best ones to take inspiration from are simply in the West. There should be more science in a science and technology park than in a technology park, at least some of the tenants should be doing research and development, and there should be at least one laboratory or research centre of a local university in addition to the companies.

How did you approach the mapping for this Methodology?

The project was prepared by my colleagues, I had been out of CzechInvest for 13 years at that time (René Samek was working at the ICRC Brno at that time, ed.). Then I came back to the realization. CzechInvest and the MIT wanted to know what of all the incubators and parks that we have built in the Czech Republic since the revolution with national and European funds is usable at all. Some of it was already built before joining the European Union from the PHARE accession subsidies, most of it unfortunately disappeared. The big boom in building parks and incubators was after 2004, the first 10-15 years of our membership in the European Union. Most of them were built back then, but at the same time there were an awful lot of bad examples that went bankrupt soon after opening or a few years after opening.

So the state wanted to know what works, what is usable, and what works only formally, because someone got a subsidy, operated it for a few years, and once the sustainability period was over, it turned into some kind of logistics center or a manufacturing company’s premises, and nobody cared anymore, because formally it was built, it existed for a while, and it met the indicators. But in terms of usability, it doesn’t really have any effect for us now.

There was also an idea to do some sort of ranking of innovation centres and science and technology parks, but we eventually rejected that. Anyway, we all kind of subconsciously suspected the order of the best. So we wanted to map what is and what is not applicable, what we can or cannot recommend to foreign investors. Then, in addition to VTPs and incubators, I also mapped out coworking centres, which nobody was paying attention to, and open workshops, which were a new thing in the Czech Republic at the time, and I am trying to develop them now. For example, at the beginning of June we will have a workshop for the city and the university in Karviná on what an open workshop is, and how it can be used as a tool for promoting entrepreneurship and interest in technology, promoting crafts, etc.

René Samek (with microphone) at the conference on VTP in Prague

And has your Methodology had any impact? What was it used for?

At the very least, people started talking about it and thinking about where to take it next. We started to organize study trips to specialized incubators, for example, for biotechnology, green technologies, etc. We’ve already been on one study tour of innovative infrastructures in the Mobility sector in the UK. For example, we visited test polygons for autonomous vehicles, testbeds and so on. Representatives of the Ministry of Transport and companies that are considering building a polygon for testing autonomous vehicles in southwestern Bohemia or north of Prague were there with us. It would probably be the best PPP project(public-private cooperation, ed.) and it could test, for example, public transport vehicles or autonomous cars.

Now we will go to southern Sweden and Denmark, a group of several people from Olomouc will go there – from the city, the region, the university, a private developer. I hope that when they return they will build a biotechnology incubator in Olomouc together. There is also a group from Prague – representatives of the Prague City Hall, the Prague Innovation Institute, medical faculties, and the University Hospital. One of the aims of these trips is to show that in the West, such things are usually built by several actors together. And not like here, that one entity builds something of its own, so that no one interferes, but then it is small, it has no influence, it does not develop, it is politically volatile and dependent on who is at the helm in the region or in the city. In the autumn, we want to look at green technologies in the Benelux, then we would probably like to visit new materials in Germany or France, creative industries in Austria, and we would finish with a trip to Ireland to innovative infrastructures for artificial intelligence, because the Irish want to be a European leader in it.

Aren’t you worried that you’ll just be a travel agency for a few people, but it won’t really lead to anything?

I hope not, we choose from the applicants that really have the potential to build something. In biotechnology, for example, it seems that at least in Prague and Olomouc something could be created. We have been working with most of the organisations/institutions that sent representatives on the study tour for a year or two.

Involvement of banks and the academic sector

In our series, we have presented VTPs in Brno, Ostrava, Olomouc and Pilsen. We consulted the choice together, but of course every choice always pleases someone and displeases someone. Did we make the right choice?

I think so. Of course, these parks also faced various problems. For example, even the Technology Park in Brno struggled in the beginning with the fact that there were companies there, next to the university, and cooperation was minimal. Companies were only intensely interested in students as future workers. But over time it changed for the better, smaller Czech companies came there and cooperated more with the university. Then around 2001 IBM came in with some 100 to 200 employees, and today they have about 4,400 employees. Smaller Czech companies involved in research, for example in the space industry, have also come to the technopark.

Ostrava’s VTP also used to function more as a real estate project until it came under MSIC and received a new assignment. Now they are going a little further, they are trying not only to develop companies in their VTP, but in general in the whole region of the Moravian-Silesian Region, which may even exceed the scope of activities of VTPs in the West. Other VTPs that meet the definition of a park, i.e. that there are more buildings and research and development takes place there, are the VTP of Palacký University in Olomouc and the VTP in Pilsen, and the South Bohemian Science and Technology Park, which currently has two buildings (and each has a different owner), but has the potential to develop in the future, has vacant land in the vicinity and a university nearby. There is also a science and technology park in Ústí, but it is only one building and it does not communicate much with the public and potential tenants, the website is hidden on the faculty’s website, but maybe there is also some gradual transformation, last year a new building was supposed to open there.

Except for the Brno Technology Park, Czech VTPs were usually established with subsidies. Was that right? Weren’t these things supposed to come about naturally without subsidies?

After the battle, everyone is a general. It is probably impossible to do without subsidies, even in Brno the Technology Park did not have a subsidy, but the city’s contribution was about 200 hectares, which is a significant contribution from the public sphere.

But if I were to be critical, maybe it was a mistake not to have some strategic thinking at the beginning. That someone didn’t say: “The Czech Republic has 10 million inhabitants, so there will be at most ten science and technology parks here”. Instead, the approach taken was that whoever applied for the subsidy and met the conditions would be given it. Perhaps the state should not have relied so much on local initiative, which is good, but it has led to the fact that about 55 STPs have been formally established here and the usable ones are now minimal.

How do you see the future of Czech VTP?

The big ones will hopefully survive and I think they want to develop, the Technology Park in Brno wants to build, Ostrava wants to build a new building and demolish one of the old unsuitable ones… But the state doesn’t have much influence on that. Once some construction has taken place, the mandatory sustainability has been met, the state has no leverage over whether or not it will continue to exist.

I think that there is room for the creation of a new VTP mainly in Prague or in the vicinity of Prague, where there is nothing suitable and it is a pity that Prague has not managed to prepare something for the National Recovery Plan.

Then perhaps a VTP could be set up focusing on chemical technology, the environment and the semiconductor industry near Ústí nad Labem in the context of how the semiconductor industry will develop in Saxony, but this must go hand in hand with the development of the university in Ústí. And then I think something else could be created in Liberec, where the university is strong in engineering and there are many innovative companies linked to the automotive industry in the belt from Prague to Liberec. I already mentioned Olomouc. Let’s focus on quality, not quantity.

What is your focus at CzechInvest now?

In addition to supporting Czech start-ups, which in a few years will need laboratory and production space and could find it in science and technology parks, also to attract research and development centres of foreign companies. About 15 years ago we were quite successful in this, then there was a bit of a downturn as the unemployment rate dropped. But unemployment has fallen virtually everywhere in Europe and in the United States. The fact that there are no people, so to speak, is true for most of the developed world. Nevertheless, companies are pushing where there is already a reputation, an image. So, for example, American IT companies are still pushing into Prague to do cybersecurity, even though Prague is expensive and unemployment is low, because thanks to companies like Avast Prague has managed to create a reputation that we are good at it. So it really requires each region to think about what they are good at and to develop that, because we don’t need, say, a biotech incubator in each district town.

Which of the foreign science and technology parks would you give as a model?

I really liked the Biotechnology Park in the north of Zurich, Switzerland. There used to be a wagon repair shop there, which was closed down, and then a private developer bought the area and built a VTP there. The developer built the park and manages it, but in addition, a non-profit company has been created in which the canton (similar to our region, ed.), the city of Zurich, the university, the regional chamber of commerce, and the cantonal bank and insurance company have shares. And this non-profit company has only about one or two employees who are doing the communication with potential candidates to fit into the VTP portfolio, they are focused on biotechnology. And if they fit in, then a private developer takes over the interested party, settles them in, adapts the space to their requirements, and they pay normal commercial rents like elsewhere. It looks very nice architecturally, too.

And then I like to give the example of the VTP in Malaga, Spain, which has about 650 technology companies. The core of the park is an incubator, startups stay there for three years and then move out into the real world, but within the technology park. They either build the building themselves or have it built by the technology park. In addition, there are three other incubators in this VTP, one run by the Spanish bank Santander, another by Telefónica and the third by Vodafone. The important thing is that companies have to move out of these incubators after some time to make room for others. Whereas in our country, companies have been in incubators for 30 years, and some have been there since the 1990s. years, which in itself doesn’t quite fit the picture that an incubator is a flow-through thing where companies grow to a certain size and then go out into the real world.

In the Czech Republic, it is probably not even common for banks or pension funds to invest in VTPs or incubators, as you mentioned in the examples from Switzerland and Spain.

But it’s starting, CSOB has a virtual incubator, it’s called Start it @ CSOB, Česká spořitelna has a virtual incubator called Seed Starter. Most of them are just virtual incubation programs, although ČSOB also has physical coworking spaces in Smichov. They support companies that develop apps that interest them, so for example that 24/7 app that allows you to shop with your credit card in small village shops without a staff or pay for tickets with a bank card on public transport. But as they say at Stanford or Berkeley, you can’t build a biotech startup out of Starbucks, you just need small labs that startups can rent before they grow big enough to build their own space.

Do you think that there are also barriers on the academic sector?

We have three people at CzechInvest who connect startups or even more established companies with university departments, researchers and the like. And when they go and promote our Technology Incubation program, somewhere along the line they don’t want their students and young researchers to start companies because they say it takes them away from research and learning at school. Whereas when we were at the University of Berkeley in the USA, they boasted that 30% of the IT faculty had their own startup, and they said that when they hire a new professor, they look at whether or not he has a startup. They want teachers to put that on their CVs, to put the results of their research into practice in the form of startups, not just sell licenses. Here it is the other way around, some researchers prefer to hide the fact that they have companies.

Author Vladislava Vojtíšková

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