Valentinos Polykarpou: Limassol has emerged as the innovation capital of Cyprus

TechIsland Chairman Valentinos Polykarpou talks about how Limassol has emerged as the innovation capital of Cyprus, the various initiatives undertaken by the country’s largest non-profit tech organisation to create a resilient and adaptive network for the industry, and the need to build a living environment that responds to today’s working demands.

Limassol rose up the Global Ecosystem Index by 56 places in 2022, effectively becoming the innovation capital of Cyprus. What has turned Limassol into such a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity?

It’s important to remember that encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship should be a nationwide objective. Limassol’s transformation into an innovation hub is due to a blend of factors. It boasts a dynamic seaside lifestyle, is located conveniently close to both airports and hosts a variety of international businesses. To sustain Limassol’s momentum and extend the entrepreneurial ecosystem to other cities, there needs to be a persistent focus on cultivating a collaborative environment that nurtures innovation and entrepreneurship.

Building a robust tech ecosystem will require greater collaboration among universities, businesses and government agencies – the so-called ‘triple helix’ of innovation. How can TechIsland help build better bridges between these partners?

As an IT association, TechIsland plays a pivotal role in forging and strengthening the crucial linkages between universities, businesses and government agencies. We have instituted several initiatives that enable these connections, promoting our collective mission of transforming Cyprus into a global tech hub. A core strategy of ours is constant, open communication and knowledge-sharing among all involved parties. We facilitate engagements where we deliberate on crucial industry issues, share best practices from global counterparts and offer feedback to stakeholders, including public sector and government entities. Our annual TechIsland Summit, part of the Reflect Festival, encourages an active dialogue amongst decision-makers, business leaders, academics and tech visionaries, catalysing growth in the tech ecosystem. Similarly, our regular TechIsland Academy educational programme and the newly introduced Startup School workshop series offer crucial industry insights, led by global experts. Our 2022 collaboration with birthed the Cyprus Tech Ecosystem Platform, which maps the entire tech ecosystem, emphasizing Cyprus’s global tech potential. Additionally, our partnership with Mercer on the Cyprus Tech Industry Salary and Workforce Survey exemplifies our commitment to continuous learning and improvement. At TechIsland, we don’t just build bridges between the components of the ‘triple helix’ of innovation; we create a resilient network that adapts to the dynamic needs of the industry, leading us towards becoming a global tech hub.

Tell us more about that Cyprus Tech Industry Salary and Workforce Survey. What’s the rationale behind it and what impact do you expect it to have?

We recognised a critical need for comprehensive tech-industry market data in Cyprus. Hence, through our partnership with Mercer, we have designed this initiative to provide reliable benchmarks that will allow companies to make informed business decisions. In addition, the survey aims to keep them abreast of the latest compensation trends and practices. Through it, we envision fostering consistency, transparency and pay equity within organisations. During the recent launch event, we offered HR professionals the opportunity to understand the project’s methodology and gain first-hand insights. We believe that this initiative will help redefine talent management in the tech industry.

You mentioned the Startup School, in collaboration with Zubr Capital, among TechIsland’s educational initiatives, and there is also the partnership with the Joint Advanced Student School. What kind of feedback have you received from participants? How can such initiatives help meet the workforce needs of the local tech industry?

Overall, we’ve received highly positive feedback from participants in our events, workshops and meet-ups. These initiatives offer professionals up-to-date insights into industry trends, equipping them with knowledge and skills vital to their success. As the tech sector is relatively new in Cyprus, the enhancement of local tech proficiency is critical for industry growth. However, we recognise that there’s a need for further expansion of local tech expertise. While local talent is promising, the relatively early stage of the tech industry in Cyprus presents a challenge in meeting all the sector’s workforce needs. Foreign tech professionals can complement this growth by creating a diverse, robust pool of highly skilled tech workforce. This diversity will stimulate a dynamic environment of growth, creativity, and mutual learning, further reinforcing the tech industry’s evolution.

Attracting talent is one thing but assimilating people into the social fabric of Cyprus is another story. What assistance does TechIsland provide to help these professionals become Limassolians and avoid the emergence of ‘ghettos’ within the city?

The presence of highly skilled experts adds value to our local community and stimulates collaboration and knowledge-sharing, leading to continuous advancements in the tech industry and beyond. So, how do we support them to ensure their smooth integration into society? To compete with other European countries, we should be building a living environment that responds to today’s working demands. For example, we need to modernise the currently outdated business visa and naturalisation framework, acknowledging the work requirements and travel commitments for these specialised professionals in today’s globalised environment. There are many successful examples of other EU countries to follow, such as Finland, which also requires a knowledge of the local language for naturalisation. As the voice of the IT community in Cyprus, TechIsland is here to offer suggestions and solutions and work together with the Government to ensure that the country retains top talent as active and contributing members of our society. To this end, we are currently working closely with all relevant parties, including the Government, to identify and offer solutions to two pressing matters: affordable housing and the shortage of places in private schools offering international education.

What steps do you believe need to be taken to address funding constraints on Limassol’s startup scene so as to create a more vibrant and supportive investment ecosystem?

First, let me say that the recent appointment by the Government of 33East to manage the Cyprus Equity Fund is a significant step toward bridging the gap in early-stage innovation. However, to mitigate funding constraints in Limassol and across Cyprus’s startup scene, we require a comprehensive and coordinated approach. It is crucial to facilitate the transformation of academic research into commercial success. This can be achieved by establishing a National Technology Transfer Office, implementing relevant guidelines for public universities and strengthening Centres of Excellence. Such measures would greatly streamline the process. Additionally, fostering connections between academia and industry professionals, along with providing networking opportunities with international investors, will play a vital role in creating fertile ground for startup success. By adopting these multi-faceted strategies, we can effectively address funding constraints and cultivate a more vibrant and supportive investment ecosystem in Limassol and beyond.

It is a fact that bureaucratic processes in the country impede innovation and entrepreneurial growth. What reforms do you advocate that could remove some of the red tape?

Indeed, bureaucracy remains one of Cyprus’ major challenges. It is important to note, however, that the Government has taken some significant steps to alleviate this. The establishment of the Business Facilitation Unit (BFU) is a commendable initiative. The Unit serves as the sole point of contact for businesses and provides assistance with licensing requirements and communication with relevant government agencies. Nevertheless, the digitalisation of the entire public sector is imperative. By integrating digital solutions, we can expedite and simplify processes, thereby improving efficiency.