ASEF Story

“Students of technical faculties should acquire a basic entrepreneurship course”

April 17, 2024 | 7:07 pm |

On Thursday, February 22nd, ASEF Junior Fellows listened to another story as part of the series of conversations with outstanding Slovenians. In this ASEF story, we were joined by Matej Rus, founder and director of the Maribor University Incubator Tovarna Podjemov, an entrepreneurship expert who assists and supports regional businesses and strives for the development of the Slovenian startup ecosystem.

In his high school years, Mr. Rus wanted to become an engineer, but soon realized that he was drawn towards entrepreneurship. He found a good combination of both in his studies at the Faculty of Economics and Business in Maribor. After completing his studies, he worked as an assistant professor at the same faculty, teaching business planning while also searching for the right idea to start his own business. This idea came to him during a study trip to the USA at the University in Berkeley, where they were introduced to the university incubator concept. He saw an excellent opportunity to start something similar in Maribor.

In 2001, he co-founded the Institute Tovarna podjemov. At the beginning of its establishment, a key challenge was convincing older professors and colleagues who were not familiar with entrepreneurship. Financing was also a challenge. Slovenia’s most important center is Ljubljana, where there was no university incubator at the time, making it difficult to justify the establishment of an incubator in the peripheral city of Maribor.

Within the framework of the institute, several other projects operate besides the university incubator. One of them is the PODIM conference, the most influential startup event in the region, where over 1000 startups, investors, and other stakeholders gather every year. According to Mr. Rus, the conference is already highly recognized. Because the atmosphere at the conference is also excellent, word of mouth spreads positively. Most participants come from the nearby region – Slovenia, Croatia, and Austria – and they have also managed to expand their international reach through social networks.

Another project carried out by Tovarna Podjemov is Start:up Slovenia. Through this project, anyone involved in the startup ecosystem can connect, as it primarily functions as a communication platform. Mr. Rus added that Slovenia is actually a pioneer in the field of startups. When the Start:up Slovenia initiative was established in 2007, many, both domestically and internationally, were not yet familiar with the concept of “startup”.

Mr. Rus has been teaching entrepreneurship at the University of Maribor for almost 28 years. In his opinion, all students of technical faculties should acquire basic knowledge in entrepreneurship because one cannot become an entrepreneur from scratch. When an entrepreneurial idea emerges, it is crucial to already possess basic knowledge and tools on how to approach the idea. Additionally, he wishes to see more knowledge transfer from academic groups and laboratories to the economy. He believes that appropriate motivational incentives need to be found to encourage research groups and laboratories to strive for excellence.

The guest also highlighted the lack of investment in Slovenia and Europe. There are actually many European entrepreneurs, but there is a shortage of investment for larger companies here, which is why they move to the USA. Consequently, some of the most successful European companies become American.

Mr. Rus explained to the ASEF Junior Fellows how unfriendly the situation is in Slovenia for entrepreneurs. He emphasized that establishing a limited liability company (d.o.o.) is more suitable for larger companies and less practical for startups. It often happens that smaller companies pay their first employees with shares, but this process is complicated in Slovenia as it requires a personal visit to a notary. As a result, foreign investors are not inclined to invest in Slovenia. Many Slovenian entrepreneurs, therefore, opt to establish companies in the USA, where they can more easily attract investors, while maintaining development departments in Slovenia. To improve the environment for startups, the introduction of a “lean stock company” is proposed.

The conversation was moderated by Matej Škerlep, ASEF Junior Fellow generation 2022. 

The ASEF Story project is supported by the Government Office for Slovenians Abroad and the Office of the Republic of Slovenia for Youth.

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