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Interview: Renée Wagner, Managing Director of Plug and Play Austria GmbH, has big visions and builds a bridge between American and European mentalities.
US-born Renée Wagner manages the Austrian office of the American venture capital company "Plug and Play" at Vienna Airport's AirportCity Co-Working Space. Plug and Play is an American innovation platform operating as a global player out of Sunnyvale in Silicon Valley. It connects start-ups with investors and reputable companies. Renée Wagner wants to turn the Vienna location into a European hub in the sectors of travel & hospitality and smart cities.
How did you become the Managing Director of Plug and Play?
Renée Wagner: It was really a coincidence. I was working at the Federal Chancellery of the Republic of Austria where I coordinated various projects, such as the EU Council Presidency in 2018. At the same time, Plug and Play were talking to Vienna Airport about establishing an office at AirportCity, and I conducted a tour through the Federal Chancellery as a special programme for a Plug and Play delegation. We noticed that their team and I would be a great fit because there were plans for the travel and hospitality industry sector for the Vienna location, and because I had many years of experience in the area of aviation. Also, my contract with the Federal Chancellery was expiring. After several interviews in Vienna and California and a background check, I finally got the job. I take care of the entire strategic direction – not just for the Austrian location, but also for Europe in the travel sector and for Central and Eastern Europe in the smart city sector. We are a small, manageable team in Vienna, but we have access to all Plug and Play locations of which there are over 30 worldwide. We are very well connected and positioned globally.
As an innovation platform, Plug and Play specialises in connecting start-ups with investors and renowned companies. What have been the company's milestones so far?
Renée Wagner: Plug and Play has two business areas. When Saeed Amidi founded the company in 2006, his goal was to sponsor talents. In the US, Plug and Play is one of the biggest early stage investors. Last year alone, we made over 200 investments with a volume of up to 500,000 US$ each. Through our work with venture capital investors, we are able to very quickly provide financial aid to talents who need money. Our second business area is corporate partnership. Here, we have over 50 accelerator programmes worldwide to accelerate technological progress in many different sectors. Altogether, we have defined 17 industries. In Silicon Valley, all these industries are represented by an accelerator programme. For each new start-up hub we build, we /choose the industry sectors that fit best. For Vienna, this is travel and hospitality as well as smart cities, where we are looking for start-ups in the accelerator programmes.
Which brings us to the question of how Plug and Play became aware of the Vienna location at all, and why AirportCity as a location serves this goal best.
Renée Wagner: Vienna has always been a link between East and West. The entire Vienna Region offers an excellent infrastructure. It has ideal conditions for doing good business. Also, Vienna has an ideal mix of different cultures. The magic of our Sunnyvale headquarters includes the fact that you'll meet people of all nationalities, cultural groups and mindsets there. This mix has a positive effect on innovation. And this is where we see that Vienna has more potential than other hubs. Therefore, I think that Vienna has what it takes to become a European hub in its industry sectors - especially because AirportCity is a brilliant location. Firstly, because the latest smart city technologies are being used here, but also because as a partner, the Vienna Airport is extremely open to innovation and is happy to serve as a testing ground. This is very exciting for many partners. For example, this fact was one of the reasons why our Czech partner Inven Capital got involved.
What needs to happen so that the vision of a European hub becomes reality?
Renée Wagner: This is entirely in the hands of the partners, the projects, and what the start-ups make out of the partnerships. Stuttgart, for example, managed to become an international hub of mobility. Interested people from all over the world come to Stuttgart to see innovations in this area. We could create this phenomenon here in Austria as well.
Plug and Play hails from Silicon Valley in California. How visible are the developments in Vienna, for example in the area of smart cities?
Renée Wagner: To be honest: when Americans think of Austria, the country is known for Arnold Schwarzenegger and its young chancellor. In terms of business, people know nothing about Austria, so Saeed Amidi was surprised when I told him how progressive Vienna is in the smart city sector. It was my input which led to the idea of linking Vienna to our smart cities industry sector as well. Austria is not very good at promoting its capabilities. Perhaps this is because of people's mentality. Austrian people are very reserved, true to the motto: don't stick out. Saeed's first question when I told him about the Austrian hidden champions was: "Why are these companies hidden?" In the US, you put a spotlight on talents like these. As a born American, I know how Americans think, but I also understand the Austrian mentality. I bring both cultures together. There is a lot of motivation here for start-ups and innovation. Plug and Play creates more scalability and visibility for Austrian innovations.
Plug and Play's first Austrian Selection Day was held in February. What can you tell us about the current accelerator programme?
Renée Wagner: We saw 23 start-ups from eight different nations. At Selection Day, we had about 170 participants from the travel and hospitality sector, and about 150 from the smart cities sector. About 50 CEOs, CIOs and CFOs were present, almost half of which flew in to Vienna. It's excellent proof of people's interest. Despite the Corona pandemic which followed shortly afterwards, twelve projects started with excellent partnerships. This is a signal that the solutions we are offering are relevant to these companies. First provisional results show that the programme was successful.
Didn't the corona pandemic upset your plans at all?
Renée Wagner: During the lockdown, the Plug and Play business actually ran at full speed. We created an entire list of COVID-19 technologies in the areas of health, risk management and human resource management, and thanks to our global approach, we were able to show our partners which start-ups from all over the world would offer the best solutions for the companies' individual problems. Especially in the health tech sector, we received a lot of support. The Corona pandemic gave us a chance to help our partners proactively. Matchmaking and finding solutions is exactly what we are excellent at.
The interview was conducted by medienkomplizen | Christian Scherl
Photo: Renée Wagner © Plug and Play Austria GmbH, Plug and Play Tech Center
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