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Guest Analysis: cleantech in Warsaw calling Palo Alto!

Parker Snyder

My iPhone is pixie dust and magic. My hypothesis was re-affirmed the other day when I was in New York to meet with the portfolio manager of a hedge fund, and I called back home across the ocean to talk to my ten month old son. With the aid of my smart phone (and my wife), I could look into the eyes of the broccoli monster, and tell him – face to face – that I loved him.

Broccoli Monster

But the iPhone could do better. Instead of staring into a tiny 2 inch touch screen, imagine if I could project my toothless bundle of joy onto the wall. Imagine if I could turn my smart phone into a movie projector. Would that app be worth $1.99?

In a few years, your iPhone will be able to do just that: project video on the wall of your home. When it does, you may have a crystalline laser technology to thank – or more specifically – the next generation of semi-conductor crystals derived from gallium nitride. These crystals give off more light at less energy. These crystals will allow your smart phone to project movies. When, finally, human kind has managed to condense a movie theatre into a pocket accessory, you will have a whizz kid inventor to thank.

This inventor is called Bobby. Where did Bobby go to school? Where did Bobby locate his startup? Silicon Valley? Boston? Tel Aviv? London? Think again. Bobby is based in Warsaw.

As a young optical engineer, Polish inventor Robert (Bobby) Dwiliński had an idea: grow a new type of crystal in an autoclave based on gallium nitride. For the past 20 years, he’s been improving his methods. He’s gotten to about 2-inch crystals, a commercial product. In another five years, he just might have developed the next generation of electrical appliances, such as smart phones and automotive lamps.

Until just a few years ago, the Warsaw-based inventor was relatively unknown. But then IEEE Spectrum Magazine did a cover story on his crystals and overnight he became something of a Central European (CEE) sensation.

Why Warsaw? Well Warsaw is Bobby’s home, and even though it is now widely known as a hub of cleantech innovation, Warsaw is the home to a growing number of talented, confident, and above all entrepreneurial types. Some other emerging cleantech entrepreneurs include:

  • Peter Hogren, Greenfield Wind, who is redefining the wind business by partnering with utilities.
  • Zygmunt Lada, Telesto, who has developed an environmentally friendly fire extinguisher based on water mist.
  • Konrad Świrski, Transition Technologies, who has written a software program for efficient gas system distribution.

Whilst the large number of Poles developing cleantech businesses comes as no surprise to me – having lived in Warsaw for a few years now – it does surprise many VC and PE investors whose mandate does not extend to Central Europe. That’s silly. It should. Many investors from all over the world could benefit from understanding more about the promising cleantech cluster emerging out of the region.

My notion has been vindicated by George Friedman, a security analyst, wrote a book called The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century. When it was published, the book raised quite a few eyebrows because Mr. Friedman claimed Poland would be the economic powerhouse of the 21st century, eclipsing even China and India. No one quite believed him (including me) because he offered little credible evidence. But what Mr. Friedman can be credited for is focusing more mainstream attention on Poland, the most advanced industrial economy east of Berlin. Moreover, the resilience of the Polish economy was seen throughout the financial crisis as it was the only country in the entire EU to boast positive growth in 2009.

And this resilience has allowed Poland to develop a more advanced cleantech ecosystem. For example:

  1. The EU’s directive (20/20/20) has spurred the growth of renewable energy to about 2 GW to date
  1. Talented Polish expats are flooding back to Poland because of its strong economy
  2. Freedom & entrepreneurship are in the Polish blood: it is no accident the Solidarity movement emerged in Poland when shipyard workers got tired of someone telling them what to do

Another pillar of the bubbling cleantech ecosystem comes from corporates. Corporates including Acciona, EDP Renewables, EDF-EN, Iberdrola, E.ON, Gamesa and Dong all have offices in Warsaw and are strategically engaged in cleantech.

I will end by saying that I believe that over the past 5 years, Poland has been putting together many of the important elements of a thriving cleantech innovation ecosystem. And consequently, the pipeline of revolutionary innovations, such as Bobby’s, is filling up rapidly. It is therefore worthwhile for more VC and PE fund managers to get engaged with the sector now, before others get there first.

Parker Snyder is Executive Director of Cleantech Poland, media and consultancy for sustainable business, publisher of the Cleantech Quarterly.

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