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Richard Branson and Google head to Eastern Europe in search of Entrepreneurs

Last week some of the big global institutions, including Google and the Financial Times, came together to launch a campaign to find the 100 most exciting individuals working in digital technology in central and eastern Europe (CEE). This hunt for “New Europe 100” is an important step to changing misconceptions; the likes of Russia, Ukraine, the Baltics are not so much a grey bleakness, but at the forefront of the world’s technology revolution.

Three years ago Dmitry Aksenov had just left school. He is now 21 and working with the core of the financial world, having devised and set up the pioneering FinGenius. Headquartered in London’s Canary Wharf with additional offices in New York, this fintech (financial technology) startup offers banks and financial institutions the chance to axe costly call centres, and instead use artificial intelligence to handle customer and employee inquiries.

According to a recent Financial Times article (Russian version on: Ведомости) Aksenov is just one example of the “new breed of startups” originating from CEE, that provide cost-effective, digital services. This is epitomised by the news story which reached international headlines in late February: Facebook’s $19 billion purchase of Whatsapp from its Ukrainian co-founder, Jan Koum.

Sally Davies, the FT’s in-house techy, argues this generation of entrepreneurs benefitted from the vestiges of a maths and engineering heavy, Soviet education system. It would seem the skillset, which sent Gagarin into space, is now securing the internet the world over, whether you use Russian-founded Kaspersky Lab, or Czech AVG Technologies. Moreover, unlike their neighbours in the West, they benefitted from growing up in a post-Soviet environment of privatisations, commercial enterprise and economic hardship.

As the Estonian co-founder of TransferWise, Taavet Hinriks, commented: “[we were] used to make everything out of nothing”. And he should know. Last week Hinrik’s 3 year old company announced it has raised $25 million, with the list of investors including the likes of Richard Branson. FinGenius and Transferwise are just two out of a growing number of fintech start-ups which are developing in CEE and then using technology to challenge traditional Western banking methods. For those who grew up in CEE, the region’s prowess in technology is no surprise. But it’s good to see the rest of the world is sitting up and taking note.


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