Christoph Leitl, president of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber (WKÖ), visited the Silicon Valley and Stanford last week to talk about innovation and entrepreneurship and the challenges for Europe and Austria in the 21st Century. Austria is without doubts affected by the challenges that new technologies bring, and many of them come out of the Silicon Valley. Just recently the Austrian Parliament changed legislation on investments in part to new business models that crowd-funding/-investing platforms like Kickstarter developed. Silicon Valley based social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter change the way people connect, disrupt news reporting, and impact the political life in Austria. Computers and mobile devices changed our jobs and communication systems, and they are a reason for the "silicon" in Silicon Valley. And many more industries in Austria will be affected, such as car manufacturing. Ten year old Tesla Motors is the first successful American car company startup in over 80 years and with what an entry! The Tesla Model S electric vehicle earned the highest accolades from the Consumer Reports magazine ever given to a car, has the highest safety standards of any car in the US, and outsold German cars in several ZIP-codes. And this car does not have an engine, which puts the future of Austrian companies such as the BMW Motorenwerke in Steyr into question. This is a dying industry.
That's why the Austrians in the Bay Area were keen to understand Leitl's position and vision for the future of Austria's relationship with the Silicon Valley. We were pretty much disappointed.
Just some facts
Austria does not have any official representation in the Silicon Valley except a Honorary Consul (with whom we are actually pretty happy). We have no trade office, no consulate, no science office, or any other official representation here. The Austrian Scientists in North America Bay Area-chapter comes closest to any form of official thing, and this is just a private association of which I am a founding member. Also companies lack in their presence. Trumer Brewery in Berkeley with 30ish employees, Red Bull, and beside startups and many individuals both in the corporate and academic world: that's what we have here. We do have more Austrians than we had 10 years ago, though we don't have numbers on that. Our gut guesses say that the number must have doubled or tripled, given the many Austrians attending the Austrian Stammtisch or Christmas-parties.
But we do have the go-Silicon Valley initiative from Advantage Austria, sponsored by the WKÖ. Toni Emsenhuber and Rudi Thaler do a terrific job given the resources and their location (both are in LA) to help Austrian startups to spend time in the Silicon Valley and learn and scale their companies. While this has certainly given a boost for many companies and created awareness back home in Austria, it is clear that the program needs to take it up a notch. Which is with the current financial and structural support not possible. But instead of honestly trying to understand what makes the Silicon Valley so special, and reaching out to local Austrians to involve them (and they are willing), we won't get anywhere. A visit like this seems just as another photo-opportunity for officials, and thus not worth the money spent.