South Moravia Expands as Information Hot Spot

New York Times

One of Central Europe’s fastest-growing regions is South Moravia, centered on the city of Brno, in the Czech Republic.
An information technology hot spot for more than a decade, with a focus on investment and innovation, the area is working strategically to bring in businesses and ideas that fit its research-led vision.

Of the 209 investments made in 2010 by CzechInvest, the government’s investment and business development agency, 52, worth a total 2.25 billion korunas, or $130 million, went to South Moravia.

The South Moravian Innovation Center, established to market the region’s research base and promote business skills development, brings together Moravia’s universities and technical institutes in a partnership to maximize the contribution of higher education to the regional and national economy.

“Our role is a facilitator for companies who want to come here,” said David Uhlir, the agency’s deputy director.

“We like to support international efforts, assist clients with getting E.U. research grants and establish collaborative networks, because a well-networked system is a major asset.”

The center runs an incubator program for start-ups, a technology transfer program to encourage research cooperation between the academic and business worlds and a cluster development program that connects up resources to coordinate research spending.

“We are relatively small, we won’t ever be a major research hub like Boston, but our distinction is we are able to combine different types of knowledge and develop niches,” Mr. Uhlir said. “Our strength is in taking the differing fields that are here, and matching them in an unusual way. In this way, our size is an advantage; people know each other, research companies have access to I.T. guys and universities.”

FNZ, a company that develops Web-based financial service applications, opened a Czech development center in Brno last summer. It now has 70 employees there, mainly software developers and testers, working on eight projects. It already had offices in Australia, New Zealand and Britain, but Jack Doig, head of the Czech center, said rapid expansion and an increasing need for people led it to go looking for someplace else.

“We decided what was important to us: highly skilled and keen people, a great country and vibrant city, and a central and interesting location, and somewhere in close proximity to our clients,” he said. FNZ has invested about 30 million korunas in Brno to date, and the center is still growing, with plans to add 30 more people, he added.

“The city has a rich cultural scene and is located in the heart of Central Europe, not far from major historical cities like Budapest, Prague and Vienna,” he said. “The young population creates a vibrant after-work scene that the U.K.- transferred staff enjoy.”

AVG, a developer of anti-virus and Internet security software, is a home-grown company, founded in Brno 20 years ago. In November, it opened a new research and development center there which now houses about 450 people.

The company long links to the city have led to ongoing partnerships with local universities. It has research grant projects with Brno University of Technology, where it also has a small team on faculty, and its chief scientist lectures at Masaryk University on malware research and technology. Students intern at the company and often return to full-time jobs after graduation.

“We have access to brilliant engineering and research talent,” said AVG’s chief executive, J.R. Smith.

For Mr. Uhlir, FNZ and AVG are poster children for what his center tries to do. “Companies learn to work with academics, and they can also take advantage of our talent pool — we have about 80,000 students out of a population of around 370,000,” he said. In addition, the center estimates that there are about 6,000 researchers in the area and more than 270 companies with in-house research and development departments.

“Things can’t always be planned,” he said. “But you can create the right environment and bring together the right people.”