In Poland, this VCU student is helping startups get off the ground

Michael Mahoney gives a presentation in Poland as part of his job this summer as International Pa...
Michael Mahoney gives a presentation in Poland as part of his job this summer as International Partnerships Specialist at the startup accelerator called Clipster. (Courtesy photo)

As a student in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Master of Product Innovation program, Michael Mahoney is learning the product innovation and teamwork skills needed to create, develop and manage the launch of new products and services.

This summer, he’s putting those skills to use at a startup accelerator in Poland that helps new businesses get off the ground.

“I’m here to offer a different perspective and exchange best practices,” said Mahoney, a second-year student in the da Vinci Center, a collaboration of VCU’s schools of the Arts and Business, and the colleges of Engineering and Humanities and Sciences, that advances innovation and entrepreneurship.

I’m here to offer a different perspective and exchange best practices.

One of the key requirements in the da Vinci Center’s Master of Product Innovation program is that students must develop a business idea or go into the field of entrepreneurship and innovation and write about their experience. Mahoney knew he wanted to focus on entrepreneurship and innovation, and he knew he wanted to work overseas.

He heard about a Polish accelerator program, called Clipster, when a Polish software company, Scalac, visited Richmond as part of an economic development effort by Greater Richmond Partnership to promote Polish-Virginia partnerships.  

“I contacted Clipster and convinced them to create a position for me, and it worked!” Mahoney said. “Nobody ever told me I could make up my own job, but that's essentially what I did. I even made up my title, International Partnerships Specialist, and it stuck.”

Mahoney is technically working for a nongovernmental organization, Inkubator Starter, which has a number of projects and business collaborations in the cities of Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia and the greater Baltic region. His main work, however, is with Clipster, a public-private partnership between Starter and a local venture capital firm, Alfabeat.

Clipster supports a number of developing companies. One recent example, Mahoney said, was a developer of an app similar to HQ Trivia, but for the Polish market. Another is building an online database that checks visa and travel requirements based on a user’s citizenship.

“My main goal is trying to make the program more focused, and cohesive,” Mahoney said. “I want to create a funnel of quality, pre-screened applicants who have already taken part in pre-accelerator programs or have an existing business they want to grow.”

He added that he is also aiming to boost international recruitment, as well as promote sponsorship and investment by local businesses and large corporations that outsource services to Gdansk, where the IT infrastructure and technical expertise is strong.

After three weeks at Clipster, Mahoney has been an inspiration for both the program and the team with which he is working, said Agnieszka Cichocka, startup development department manager at Clipster.

“[Mike’s] knowledge and experience are amazing help and he adds so much value to our work. He has wonderful ideas for making the program better,” Cichocka said. “Mike is … helping the participants, supporting them in choosing mentors, sorting out their problems, giving them advice and structuring their work. Mike also supports Clipster, as international partnership specialist, in building international relations with other pre-acceleration programs, universities and technology parks.”

The work has been challenging, particularly considering the language barrier, Mahoney said, but he has been working hard to get buy-in as an outsider and build his credibility.

“I am doing a lot of extra work, and it is paying off,” he said. “I am already building ties in the community. I recently gave a talk on the importance of good experimental design in testing business hypotheses, and following it, I was asked by someone in attendance if I could write an article (‘How to kill your startup before it starts’) on the subject for their blog.”

Garret Westlake, Ph.D., executive director of the da Vinci Center, said Mahoney exemplifies what the center looks for in a Master of Product Innovation student.

“He has been active in international collaborations through his early work in the European Innovation Academy, his attendance at the Clinton Global Initiative University international conference and now his leadership with Clipster in Poland,” Westlake said. “The ability to come from a technical background in life sciences and complete a multi-disciplinary master's curriculum has empowered Mike with a truly unique perspective and skillset that allows him to be a catalyst for innovation in the United States and abroad.”