Estonian Government’s One Man Show in Silicon Valley

Unlike all the t-shirt-clad technogeeks  around him he always looks neat in a dress shirt. Whenever visiting someone he always brings a box of “Kalev” chocolates. And what is even less typical to an Estonian: he would say hi with a warm hug. He never suffocates his listeners with long and loud stories, yet again busting a myth that only the aggressive salesman-types would survive in America.

Andrus Viirg has been the representative of Enterprise Estonia (EE) to Silicon Valley for almost eight years now. Although his office is situated in Plug and Play Technology Center in Sunnyvale one could hardly ever find him sitting in his tiny cubicle. His job is more demanding, mostly introducing Estonia as a possible investment target but also representing Estonian startups in Silicon Valley.

Therefore there is a high likelihood to see Andrus in any of the events in Silicon Valley that have anything to do with Estonia. Be it connecting visiting Estonian entrepreneurs to local “who’s whos”, introducing his country to the students at Stanford or Berkeley or hosting a dinner in the honour of Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves visiting California. But he’s also played a supportive role to the local Estonian community: for the traditional Independence Day celebration of the San Francisco Estonian Society the blue-black-and-white flag will be raised high in Plug and Play Tech Center and last year the center also hosted Estonian Christmas Fair.

Andrus also goes back and forth between Silicon Valley and Tallinn a lot: he’s in charge of organizing a startup conference Latitude 59 in Tallinn every spring and last summer he also moderated a group discussion held by Silicon Vikings, a collaborative non-profit organization for networking and promotion of technologies and businesses intersecting Silicon Valley and the Nordic countries, in his home town that saw such legends of the tech-scene as Steve Jurvetson, the best-known venture capitalist of Estonian descent, and Rain Rannu, the cofounder of Fortumo that provides mobile paymets in 81 countries worldwide.

Support to Estonian entrepreneurs

Rannu claims that Andrus Viirg has played a big role supporting his company in Silicon Valley. When Fortumo first comtemplated the idea of moving to the Valley, Andrus gave them the first useful tips how to survive in the harsh entrepreneurial climate. He also helped them to find their first office here.

“It’s impossible to overestimate his role in connecting Estonian entrepreneurs to local Estonians in Silicon Valley,” says Rannu. “He takes care of any group of Estonian entrepreneurs (or politicians) visiting the Valley and always sets up some meetings with local Estonians.” Rannu is quite certain that this will materialize in several business ventures.

“Personally I’m very thankful to Andrus for inviting me to talk to the students at Stanford. This was a useful learning experience.” Rain also points out that the link to his lecture on the internet has been working as some sort of a credibility check: “Two landlords have been willing to sign a contract with me after they Googled my name and saw this link pop up while they might have otherwise never rented their houses to a foreigner with no credit history in the US,” tells the mobile payment provider.

Rannu is referring to a course “European Entrepreneurship and Innovation” at Stanford School of Engineering where he appeared as a guest speaker in early 2011. This course has been taught in Stanford since 2008 and Enterprise Estonia has been their partner since the very beginning.

“Andrus is the most effective one-man government operation in Silicon Valley,” says Dr Burton Lee, Lecturer at Stanford Engineering School who also happens to be an avid fan of Estonia having visited the country several times. His class attracts around 40 students every spring quarter and is open for auditing for anyone interested in European startups in Silicon Valley. There has always been a speaker from Estonia during the spring session and Andrus would usually introduce the speaker with a short summary about Estonia. In his most recent stunt in last January he appropriately pointed out that Estonia has the highest ratio of both startups and supermodels per capita. The audience was thrilled with laughter and no wonder if some of the engineers to-be made a mental note of Estonia as a potential market for their future business ventures.

A salesman or an ambassador?

Andrus knows how to win over a crowd of students. He puts on a smooth show a few month later at Berkeley, in a very different ambiance as compared to Stanford. Yet another big fan of Estonia, a tech writer and a university lecturer Cyrus Farivar, dedicates a whole 3-hour seminar to Estonia as a hotspot of internet during his lecture course “Covering Technology”. The MA students from very different backgrounds already know that Estonia is a country that prides itself with e-voting, hassle-free mobile payments and that literally everyone from the cradle to the grave is a tech-geek.

Andrus introduces another Estonian to the class: Rando Pikner, the COO of Stigo Bike, the developer of an electric bike that weighs 17 kg and can go as fast as 25 km/h. The students are delighted to try out the prototype of the bike. “We could use these bikes in Zimbabwe,” exclaims one student excitedly. The others agree that the bikes could even find a merket in Silicon Valley if they were lighter in weight and cost less.

Q&A session follows and the students probe Andrus and Rando with questions like “How much does your government actually know about its citizens?” (Andrus responds that every citizen is fully  in charge of his/her own data) or “Can you name five internationally well-known startups from Estonia?” (Andrus counts: “Fortumo, Pipedrive, Click&Grow, TransferWise and GrabCad” and hearing the last name an Italian student nods: “I’ve heard of that!”).

International (banking) experience

Andrus sheds more light on his work that can be wrapped into one ambitious sentence: to help Estonian (tech) startups conquer the world. With just the afore-mentioned five stratups Estonia already has rather good references but the traffic in the opposite direction is not as smooth yet. “The most difficult part of the job is to get the American companies to invest and trade in Estonia because it’s just too far and too tiny a market for them,” notes Viirg. “Nevertheless we already have a few good solutions like Symantec with its 150+ engineers and the transit of NATO supplies to Afghanistan through Estonia.” He also sees potential in fields like biotechnology and energetics (mostly connected to the development around electric car industry).

Andrus is just one of the many foreign representatives of Enterprise Estonia that also has offices in Helsinki, Stockholm, London, Hamburg, Moscow, St Petersburg, Shanghai and Tokyo. The new Minister of Foreign Trade and Entrepreneurship Anne Sulling has stressed that she wants Estonia to rely more on the expertise of the offices around the world.

Viirg has enough international experience. He has worked as an Assistant to the Executive Director of International Monetary Fund in Washington and later heading the World Bank Group (IBRD, IFC) office in Tallinn. Andrus has also worked for the Central Bank of Estonia on relations with international financial institutions although he graduated from the Tallinn University of Technology as an engineer on automation and software engineering. Ha also served as a Director of Estonian Investment Agency that was later merged to Enterprise Estonia.

“The structure of Enterprise Estonia has been changing a lot over the years,” agrees Viirg and draws a parallel from fairytales: “I have had a chance to run Estonian operations from these faraway lands even if I have to pull some magic tricks for the funding.”

Read the Estonian version here

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