Czech entrepreneurs are exploring California

Text Daniel Libertin and Jana Jenšíková Foto US Embassy in Prague Publikováno
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Bijan Sabet took up the post in Prague about a year ago, presenting his credentials as U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic in February 2023. The son of immigrants, this former tech executive and venture capitalist brings to his diplomatic assignment deep experience in business and business development. A co-founder and leading figure at Spark Capital, he has helped many tech start-ups grow into large multinationals. He has left his mark on brands such as Twitter, Slack and Discord. In line with the overall focus of this issue of TRADE NEWS, we spoke mainly about California, where Mr. Sabet worked in the tech industry and as an investor for twenty years, ten of which directly in Silicon Valley.

Let’s start with a broader question. Do you have any figures regarding the US-Czech bilateral trade in 2023?

The Czech-US economic ties continue to be extremely strong. Our trade has gone up ten times since 1993, and 2022 was a record year, with bilateral trade exceeding $12 billion! The numbers for last year are still coming in but we have every expectation that 2023 even exceeds those numbers from 2022. I’m very pleased that our economic ties are stronger than ever.

Innovators step forward

In May 2023, shortly after your appointment, you organized a US-Czech business forum focused on innovation in Prague's Žofín Palace. What were the outcomes of the event?

The US Embassy in Prague held the first US-Czech business forum in 2022, so this was the second year. It was a very exciting day full of discussions around innovations, start-ups and climate-related endeavours. We invited Biz Stone, who is a good friend of mine and one of the founders of Twitter, to be the keynote speaker at the event. We had a really strong showing of Czech business leaders, entrepreneurs, academics, government officials and thought leaders from the Czech community. The event was a great opportunity to make even more connections between the US and Czech stakeholders, mainly in tech.

The US-Czech business forum in fact followed up on the Czech trade delegation in March 2023 when Minister Síkela took around sixty executives of Czech companies including start-ups to the US, and they went to multiple states including Texas and California. In Silicon Valley, they signed a memorandum of understanding with Plug and Play Ventures.

Is there a US-Czech business forum lined up for this year already?

Yes, we’re holding another US-Czech business forum in 2024 which will be focused on AI this time. We are still finalizing the date and location and would love to have some of your readers join us.

California has a lot to offer

Let’s move on to the main topic of this issue of TRADE NEWS, which is California. If it was an independent country, California would be the fifth largest economy in the world. Meanwhile, in terms of export volume from the Czech Republic, California is on a similar level as Brazil or Canada. In what other aspects is California important and interesting for the Czech Republic?

Indeed, California is a massive economy and one that’s also constantly growing. The economy there is diverse – it has everything from agriculture, biotech, certainly start-ups, to the film industry, aerospace and defence industry. The economy is broad and vast, and that’s also why it has a lot to offer to Czech companies. When I speak with Czech business leaders, there is indeed a lot of interest in California, in building relations particularly with tech companies, meeting investors or even exploring opportunities to expand in the region.

Czech companies have a good reputation in California and there’s a lot to follow up on. Perhaps the best-known example is the massive merger of Avast with Norton, which created a new entity called Gen Digital, which has a presence in California.

As someone with extensive experience in venture capital and start-ups mostly in California, how do you think Silicon Valley and the start-up scene are different today from 10 or 20 years ago?

I lived in Silicon Valley for ten years and was investing in California for twenty years overall. I think that the biggest change in this respect is that those 10 or even 20 years ago, tech used to be limited to one specific area of California. Back then, everything was centred in Silicon Valley, which is a region of a few small and mid-sized cities and towns, and there was no tech innovation hub in San Francisco for example.

All that has changed. Now you see really dynamic founders, start-ups and activities happening all the way from Sacramento in the north of California to San Diego in the south. On top, there are now companies that didn’t even exist ten years ago that have now become iconic companies with a global footprint. That’s amazing.

Investment is paramount

Although you are no longer an active investor, you do have a strong track record in helping technology entrepreneurs. What do you think is key for Czech start-ups to get a strong investor?

I do spend a lot of time with Czech founders who are interested in my background and have the same question. What I try to encourage in Czech company founders are to go beyond Central Europe in the first place, and think about their business in more broader geographic terms. I feel that a lot of young founders in particular have this desire to go global. What I always tell them is that the good ideas will get funded by US or European venture capitalists and that they don’t need to intentionally restrict their ambition.

Overall, the best way I can help Czech company founders is giving them the confidence to go big. We all live in a connected world, and it’s no longer the case when you can build a business just for your own backyard. Can you imagine if Silicon Valley companies were going to build their apps just for the people of California? That wouldn’t make sense.

We connect Czech and American entities

How does the Embassy support these activities between the Czech Republic and the US, that is, connecting start-ups and investors?

At the U.S. Embassy, commercial entities can reach out to the Commercial Service office.  The U.S. Department of Commerce’s SelectUSA program can connect Czech companies and startups to the Economic Development Organizations in different states.  These offices often offer support and provide information on incentives and can connect them to other businesses in a particular area.  We can also introduce Czech companies to service providers like lawyers or accountants and start-up accelerators.  As mentioned, the U.S. Department of Commerce organizes a SelectUSA summit in Washington which is a one-stop place to meet many important contacts.  Our office in Prague organizes a delegation to the summit every year.  Part of the SelectUSA summit is the SelectUSA Tech program that provides support for tech companies seeking U.S. expansion and creates opportunities for them to make connections with the U.S. startup ecosystem.   

We also work with student entrepreneurs, we collaborate with innovation centres and engage in a lot of activities across the country.  We are trying to connect with as many entrepreneurs as we can on the topic of innovation in particular.

Mr. Sabet was interviewed by Daniel Libertin and Jana Jenšíková

Photo credits: US Embassy in Prague

Celý článek si přečtěte v tištěné verzi TRADE NEWS 1 / 2024 na straně 10-11.

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