NASA Space Apps Challenge 2015, CEE Locations Chief Coordinator
Entrepreneur. Manager. Mother. Integrator. Change Maker. Risk Taker. Futurist. Doer.
Passionate about building the start-up ecosystem in the Republic of Macedonia and the region of South-Eastern Europe.
This is how Irena introduces herself. After 14+ years in management, finance law, marketing, media, government and executive trainings she decided to use all that experience and in April 2014 launch the first Accelerator in Macedonia – NewMan’s Business Accelerator.
But our story starts before that. With her dream to become an astronaut and her decision to visit NASA.
Irena and the first European contact to NASA
“It’s an amazing story. Already as a kid I was interested in space and space travels. I wanted to become an astronaut. In spring 2012 I learned about this event taking place for the first time at about 50 locations. I wished we could have Macedonia on that map. And than the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars on August 6, 2012 – this was the final trigger for me wanting to learn more. I thought e-mail communication would not be enough, so I wanted to go to NASA to talk about the possibilities. But I had no Visa for the United States.”
Irena, at that time she was head of an educational center in Skopje, Macedonia, wrote about 20 requests to her LinkedIn contacts to help her with the confirmation letter. Finally one accepted and she got the Visa, and in the mean time managed to schedule a meeting at Caltech, academic home of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – JPL.
“At JPL I met their Director of the Educational Sector. She exchanged a lot of valuable training resources especially in the area of robotic exploration of the solar system, the Curiosity Rover mission and then … changed my life and my career by saying that I was the first from the European educational sector meeting her. Me, the first? And the only think to do was … TO ASK!”
Yes, indeed, Irena was the first European asking for cooperation and went home with information and contacts to Space Apps and other projects. And the following year Space Apps took place in Skopje.
The event changes your thinking
By Space Apps Challenge Irena is most impressed by the massive global cooperation between people from different backgrounds, skills and ages and open sharing of valuable information between NASA as state agency and regular people.
“This is a unique experience which changes your life. It sets your brain on a different speed of thinking and reasoning for what should and could be your next start-up idea or your next product and service of your current company.”
Last year the focus at the Skopje location was on students as participants, this year they also want to open the door for young entrepreneurs. They will host both parts – The Data Bootcamp on April 10th dedicated to Women and the Space Apps Challenge on 11th and 12th.
Skopje as success case
In 2013 the Skopje location welcomed around 80 participants together, but the big success came last year, when the event was hosted by NewMan’s Business Accelerator just after its establishment. 158 participants created 32 projects with which Skopje became the winner location 2014 worldwide by number of projects and 5th by number of participants. One of the teams won the 2nd place at global level in one of the categories.
This showed the true Irena’s dedication and the innovation ability of the young people in Macedonia. A winning combination which won trust of the Space Apps global organizers who entitled Irena to inspire and support additional 9 locations from the CEE region to host the event in 2015. And this website is one of the results of this.
Innovation – simple improvement with great impact
This is how Irena sees innovation – simple improvement with great impact. But in real life that seems to be so difficult.
“In Macedonia, there is no strategic support of the R&D activities in the companies in terms of access to finances for it, tax incentives and supporting legislations. If we change this, it could move the country from being the outsourcing location into a R&D location.”
She is observing how the globalization of product and service markets is accelerating and how European companies, in particular SMEs, face increasing competition not only for sales, but also for technical know-how and skills.
“I think it’s all about the speed. Speed with which new products can be brought to the market and optimization of cost-saving. Similarly, the creation of wealth and employment depends to a very large extent on the speed with which scientific and technological breakthroughs are converted into practical and attractive solutions.”
She believes that for innovation it is crucial the ability to reap the results of the scientific achievement and that requires much more than the ability to turn a new idea into a working product. “Efficient flows of technology are not enough, if financing and business skills are missing. There must be accessible protection for intellectual property and adequate incentives for the entrepreneurial drive.”
Small is strong
In Irena’s opinion Europe, especially the CEE space, needs a dynamic, self-sustaining culture of innovation. Small is strong. Critical for this are the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) which have in recent years proved themselves to be the engines of the economic growth and the principle source of the new employment.
“SMEs account for over 99% of all European businesses and in many fields provide the channels along which new technologies develop.”
She believes we should give in Europe SMEs the pivotal role – support the creation of new ventures and spin-offs from research institutions and large companies, as well as the removal of barriers to their rapid growth and transfer of know-how.
The art and science of pitching
“The perfect pitch is both art and science,” she believes. Coming up with creative ideas is easy; selling them to strangers is hard. She sees it as an imperfect process for communication of creative ideas. Audience has no formal, verifiable or objective measures for assessing that elusive trait, creativity. Catchers, even the expert ones, therefore apply a set of subjective and often inaccurate criteria very early in the encounter, and from that point on, the tone is set.
“You can improve your chances of selling an idea, if you made the catcher to feel that they are participating in an idea’s development,” she has learnt along the way. “But by being aware of stereotyping processes and the value of collaboration, both pitchers and catchers can understand the difference between a pitch and a hit. Missing that means overlook creative individuals who can truly deliver. I heard numerous examples of people who had developed reputations as great pitchers, but who had trouble producing usable business models.”
At NewMan’s Business Accelerator they categorize the start-up teams based on their entrepreneurial knowledge and experience and group together people with similar level of difficulty in the Smart-up Center. “But then we focus on their personality and work with them individually in order to address their individual challenges by becoming great team and great pitchers.”
Talking about personal. Irena wrote a book entitled “I am Enough” talking about her
personal and professional challenges as woman, mother and entrepreneur. It will be
published in May.
World in 2025
She is living with the development, therefore we wanted to close with the future. How does she see our life in 2025?
“From the smallest personal items to the largest continents, everything, everywhere will be digitally connected, and responsive to our wants and likes. Methods for harvesting, storing and converting solar energy are so advanced and efficient that it becomes the primary source of energy on our planet. Understanding of the human genome and genetic mutations leads to improved detection of, and prevention methods for, the onset of neuro- degenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. A versatile human genome engineering platform is a reality, paving the way for the modification of disease-causing genes and helping to prevent certain metabolic conditions. Food shortages and food price fluctuations are things of the past. Light-weight aerospace engineering coupled with new battery technologies power electric vehicle transportation – on land and in the air. Bio-nanocomposites based on nanocellulose make 100% fully biodegradeable packaging pervasive. Petroleum-based packaging products won’t exist. Kinematical techniques used to understand the Higgs Boson particles generated in the Large Hadron Collider advance such that quantum teleportation is more commonplace.”
(Photo: archive NewMan’s Business Accelerator and Nina Nikolikj)