For a particular type of VC investors, Eastern Europe doesn’t automatically spell trouble and war exposure. For them, the region’s resilient talent pool is compelling, offering unique opportunities for growth and innovation. Poland-based Borys Musielak, a founding partner at SMOK.vc, is one such investor.
In a recent interview, he told me about his transition from being an entrepreneur to an early-stage startup investor in Central Eastern Europe.
Musielak’s entrepreneurial journey culminated with building his own company called Filmaster, a Netflix-like entertainment platform that was acquired by Samba TV in 2015. While working for Samba TV, he also dabbled in helping entrepreneurs in Poland and Eastern Europe, eventually launching a small acceleration program called ReactorX. Musielak later saw an opportunity to invest in startups through SMOK.vc, which launched in 2019 and combined his local expertise with the global network of his investing partner, Paul Bragiel.
“We have a very deep network in Central Eastern Europe, so we thought with our network built over 10 years of being in the startup ecosystem in Poland, we could be the fund that first-time entrepreneurs come to first,” Musielak said, explaining the decision to create a VC fund. With Bragiel’s connections in the U.S. and Asia, they hoped to bridge the gap for Eastern European startups and help them access international markets.
“We wanted to be the first and last check from Eastern Europe and make sure that most of our founders raised from the markets where they want to be working in, either Asia or the U.S.,” Musielak explained.
The fund is mainly focused on Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states.
Musielak tells potential LPs it’s safer to invest in Eastern Europe than in places like San Francisco, citing the region’s rapid growth in venture funding and its fast-growing startup ecosystem.
The CEE countries remain underinvested compared to bigger or more digitally advanced economies. At the same time, there’s plenty of room for growth. Startups founded in the region have an enterprise value of $209 billion according to a 2022 Google report, a 20x increase since 2010.
While SMOK.vc is industry agnostic, it has primarily specialized in software startups, game development and artificial intelligence.
SMOK.vc’s recent addition to its portfolio is HyperJob, a Latvian startup that Musielak and his team invested in late last year. HyperJob offers a tool for executive search agencies, a product that founder Janis Kreilis had needed while running his own agency. Musielak was impressed by his ambition and the support from local angel investors.
For Musielak and similar-minded investors, there is another factor that sets Eastern European founders apart: Their determination to succeed, motivated by their desire to make a difference in their home countries.
“I’ve actually seen in Ukraine, they’re fighting for more than just the company–they’re also fighting for their country when they launch companies,” says Musielak. “I think they are even more motivated, looking at the kind of determination of some of those founders, I would say those are some of the best founders in Central Eastern Europe.”