EU represents a huge, investor-friendly market: Jana Zilcayova

Jana Zilcayova (2nd person from right)

Connecting the growing markets of Southeast Asia and Central Europe mutually benefits the business communities, investors and entrepreneurs, as well as bridging the economic gap.

With the upcoming EU-Singapore FTA (EUSFTA) finalised but yet to be ratified, the Singapore-Central European Chamber of Commerce (SCECHAM) and other entities are laying the foundations for businesses to reap the dividends and leverage on this development. Key to these efforts is acquiring key business leaders with insights into these regional markets.

In 2013, bilateral trade between Slovakia and Singapore improved by 13.5 percent, increasing to S$122 million (US$ 97.6 million). Ho Meng Kit, CEO of the Singapore Business Federation, noted during the conference that “There is a hunger for innovation-based economic growth in Asia. Slovakia’s strength in innovation research and technology can yield collaborative synergies between Slovak and Singapore companies keen to offer their solutions to the immense needs of our regional markets.”

With its pivotal role in facilitating business exchanges between Singapore and the European Union (EU), Jana Zilcayova, the Vice-Chairman of SCECHAM, sees great potential. As a business leader in innovative technology-related businesses, as well as , she participated in the Slovakia-Singapore Business Forum, organised in November 2014 by the Singapore Business Federation (SBF). It saw close to 60 Singaporean firms and 11 Slovakian companies participating, with representatives from the engineering, architecture, IT solutions and business consulting sectors.

Aside from her role in SCECHAM, Zilcayova has a personal and professional interest in the city-state. Her daughter, Jana Yar, who is based here with her family, manages the Asia-Pacific branch of her firm, Ensof Creative, as well as working as a professional photographer specialising in business functions and corporate events,

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Edited excerpts from her exclusive chat with Deal Street Asia:

How do you see business relations between Central Europe and Singapore evolving in the medium term, from 2015-2020?

EUSFTA is a solution for reviving economic growth, employment and innovation in both regions. Europe’s interest in Singapore has been growing exponentially. Why? For EU businesspeople and entrepreneurs, Singapore is a safe gateway to Asia, offering a transparent business environment, language compatibility and a performing economy capitalising on innovations and renewables.

For Singaporean businesses, EU represents a huge investor-friendly market. We assume that the areas most likely to develop are innovative technologies, science and development (in particular applied research), technologies transfer, renewables, engineering and automotive industry.

As part of the Horizon 2020 programme, from 2015 to 2020, the EU will be focusing on science, research, innovations and their implementation in business. The programme’s priorities are: information and communication technologies (ICT), nanotechnology, biotechnology, advanced materials, manufacturing & processing, space applications as well as future and emerging technologies (FET).

We believe these areas offer unique potential for cooperation – we expect increased initiative from EU members seeking to market products from these industries in Asia. At least in Slovakia, this seems to be the prevailing tendency.

What are the primary sectors/industry verticals where you reckon Singaporean/ASEAN and Slovakian investors stand to benefit from investing in each other’s countries?

All in all, we consider innovative technologies and FET as the main area of cooperation. Innovations are the part and parcel of any segment of the economy, be it in engineering, automotive, telecommunications or ICT. They’re all unique technologies that bolster economic development.

For instance, in light of the ‘Westernisation’ of lifestyles in Asian countries, new collaboration opportunities have arisen in medicine – gastroenterology research using nanotechnology and biotech. Others involved the applications of advanced materials, environment and nuclear energy technologies as well as similar field. For Singapore or Slovak companies, investments in these areas certainly won’t be a move in the wrong direction.

What’s your primary role as Vice-Chairman of SCECHAM?

My task is to coordinate activities with the director and founding member of SCECHAM, Robert Sabaka. He established himself in Singapore some time ago and has created efficient and solid business network there. I’m confident to say that the November 2014 business forum in Singapore took place as part of the official visit of Slovakia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Miroslav Lajčák. It was a great success due to Robert’s numerous, high-level contacts and position in both business and scientific circles.

I mainly focus on innovation projects in Slovakia, specifically contacts with universities, science and development institutions or people who create interesting prototypes marketable in Asia. Currently, we are working on a project introducing three innovative technologies to Singapore. These are a mass spectrometer, superconducting/ferromagnetic composite magnetic cloak and DESE, a technology for purifying polluted water sources sustainably.

When you’re pitching Slovakia as a business destination to Asia-Pacific investors, what’s the value proposition you emphasise?

That would definitely be Slovakia’s USP (unique sales point), specifically innovations, R&D, services, and a good price-performance ratio. We still maintain that there is strong intellectual and human potential in Slovakia and I’m a firm believer in this; therefore, interesting areas of collaboration could found in education (e.g. internships, scholarships, scientific internship opportunities in research institutions).

The existing language compatibility, effectiveness of law enforcement, government incentives for foreign investors and a skilled labour force make it favourable for Singapore investors.  Slovakia has a strategic central location, with a market potential of over 350 million customers within the radius of 1000 km. We consider ourselves a typical Central European country, as a gateway to the EU, with strong business potential.

Slovakia is especially strong in the automotive, education, electronics, ICT, infrastructure, light industrial manufacturing, pharmaceutical, R&D, trade, tourism & hospitality, water technologies and environmental engineering. The core of the Slovak market, interims of international trade, lie in energy, automative engineering and the construction sector. For the automotive sector, we are a global leader in terms of volume, with the highest number produced per capita.

The sectors that have the most potential for investors are e-government, R&D, tourism, automotive engineering, electronics and startup ventures. The latest statistics indicating intensified business exchange between Slovakia and APAC countries. Slovak entrepreneurs are increasingly fond of the APAC markets and try to establish themselves there. We like to recommend Singapore as a good starting point for business expansion and as a gateway.

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How has your background in film and media benefit you as a businessperson?

What certainly comes in handy are the creativity and communication skills, which were refined through professional experience and teaching at a univeristy.  Despite my 15-year stint in the IT business, science and its application in everyday life remains my driving passion. That is why IT and innovations appeal to me.

Are there any notable success stories that have emerged from the efforts of SCECHAM to date?

Yes. There is no doubt that the business forum in Singapore and the presentation of projects developed by Slovak companies at A-Star, NTU, NSU, PUB, NEA, DSTA and other was a huge success. Visiting the Singaporean research institutions and seeing their scientific work was a tremendous experience for me. As part of the visit we were able to witness the Slovak success story in action – ESET, one of the most successful Slovak companies in Singapore.

While we don´t have the exact data from all Central European countries interested in entering Singapore in 2015.  However, there are firms which have approached us with a keen interest in entering the Singapore market.

Slovakian companies that have approached us are Progroupe (sediments removal technoloy), Envirocare (ecological polymer application solutions) and Ensof Europe, which deals with biotechnology and ICT. From the Czech Republic, Inocure, which deals with intelligent drug delivery, is seeking opportunities in Singapore and the wider region.

As of 2015, are there any Singaporean firms with a footprint in Central Europe via SCECHAM?

We’ve so far communicated with institutions and companies that we contacted during the November 2014 business forum. These were mainly R&D companies that established contacts with their Slovak counterparts during their visit to Singapore. Currently, our main focus area is Slovakia.

As of late, the communication between Slovakia and Singapore has been gaining momentum on a governmental level, with growing interest in bolstering bilateral relations. Although SCECHAM is new to the game, I‘m positive that by the end of 2015 we’ll have a solid portfolio of companies that’ve established themselves in Central Europe through SCECHAM.

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Singapore Reporter/s

In Singapore, we are looking to double our reporting team by this year-end to comprehensively cover the fast-moving world of funded startups and VC, PE & M&A deals. We want reporters who can tell our readers what is really happening in these sectors and why it matters to markets, companies and consumers. The ability to write precisely and urgently is crucial for these roles. Ideal candidates must have to ability to work in a collaborative, dynamic, and fast-changing environment. We want our new hires to be digitally savvy and ready to experiment with new forms of storytelling. Most importantly, we are looking for hard-hitting reporters who work well in a team. Collaboration and collegiality are a must.

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).   

  • A reporter to track companies/startups that have raised private capital, and have the potential to become unicorns. SEA currently has over 40 companies with a valuation of over $100 million and under $1 billion.
  • A reporter who can get behind the scenes and reveal how funding rounds are put together, or why they’ve failed to materialise. She/he in this role will largely focus on long-format stories. 
  • A journalist to track special situations funds, distressed debt and private credit (from the PE angle) across Asia.

Singapore Reporter/s

In Singapore, we are looking to double our reporting team by this year-end to comprehensively cover the fast-moving world of funded startups and VC, PE & M&A deals. We want reporters who can tell our readers what is really happening in these sectors and why it matters to markets, companies and consumers. The ability to write precisely and urgently is crucial for these roles. Ideal candidates must have to ability to work in a collaborative, dynamic, and fast-changing environment. We want our new hires to be digitally savvy and ready to experiment with new forms of storytelling. Most importantly, we are looking for hard-hitting reporters who work well in a team. Collaboration and collegiality are a must.

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).   

  • A reporter to track companies/startups that have raised private capital, and have the potential to become unicorns. SEA currently has over 40 companies with a valuation of over $100 million and under $1 billion.
  • A reporter who can get behind the scenes and reveal how funding rounds are put together, or why they’ve failed to materialise. She/he in this role will largely focus on long-format stories. 
  • A journalist to track special situations funds, distressed debt and private credit (from the PE angle) across Asia.