Friends in Far Places
In 2019, Kadri Arrak was one of 28 international visitors nominated by their respective embassies to travel to the U.S. as part of an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) focused on science and technology entrepreneurship. Traveling from countries on opposite sides of the equator – from Iceland to Brazil, Nepal to South Africa – the visitors explored entrepreneurial cities such as Washington, DC, Boston, Dallas, Kansas City, and Minneapolis, to collaborate with their American counterparts at organizations such as the National Science Foundation, Google Fiber, and Sprint Accelerator. After the program, Arrak returned home to Estonia with a newfound understanding of the U.S. and a commitment to using innovation as a tool to connect global communities.
Shortly after her return home, Arrak helped implement the S2B (Science to Business) launchpad of the Tartu Science Park Foundation – a startup incubator helping entrepreneurs bring their ideas to fruition in the global market. The launchpad bolsters startups through a two-year program, providing working space, mentorship, free entrance to over 100 workshops/events, and the opportunity to participate in international conferences and expositions. Arrak credits the IVLP for providing her with the knowledge necessary to fine-tune such an initiative and has called upon her newfound international network of American field experts and investors to serve as mentors for the selected entrepreneurs. “The possibility to visit the U.S. with the science & technology IVLP came at an opportune time. We [as international visitors] saw a wide range of models supporting the creation and development of science-based companies. It was a privilege to gather best practices and bring them to my colleagues,” Arrak reports.
Arrak’s experience also inspired her to maximize innovation as a tool to support COVID-19 response efforts in Eastern Europe and around the world. In April, Arrak joined the “Hack the Crisis” movement – a fast-growing wave of online hackathons connecting world-class mentors and globally-talented teams to “hack the future” and find scalable and transferable solutions to the COVID-19 crisis. Arrak and her team at the Tartu Science Park Foundation, along with the European Space Agency (ESA) Business Incubation Centre (BIC) Estonia, supported one such hackathon, known as the Global Hack, by providing mentors and inspirational speakers for all participants, as well as prize money and networking opportunities for the winning teams. The hackathon attracted more than 12,000 participants from 98 countries to present over 1,000 ideas on the topics of crisis response, mental health and wellness, work and education, economy, governance, and other industries directly impacted by the pandemic. With support from the Tartu Science Park Foundation and the ESA, winning teams transformed their ideas into readily available resources to combat the COVID-19 crisis. These companies, established as a direct result of their participation in the Global Hack, include SunCrafter, a Berlin-based solar startup incorporating UV light to create hand disinfection stations, and Act on Crisis, a personalized mental health app offering secure online emotional support, free of charge during the crisis.
More recently, Arrak joined fellow IVLP alumni Massimo Magnifico of EuraTechnologies, Nekesa J. Were of AfriLabs, and Vedran Simunovic of INTERA Technology Park to serve as coaches, mentors, and speakers in a week-long ed-tech accelerator organized by Voldemars Bredikis of the same IVLP. Looking forward, this tight-knit group of professionals plans to continue these collaborations across cultural and geographical borders to strengthen their newly acquired networks provided by the IVLP.
“The will is there. We want to communicate. We want to stay in touch, and if the will is there, you find a way,” says Arrak, already planning her next collaboration with Sameh Saleh, CEO and Founder of Egyptian startup Harmonica. Saleh is scheduled to speak at sTARTUp Day 2021, the biggest business festival in the Baltics organized by the Tartu Science Park Foundation and other universities and science parks in the region.
Arrak’s passion for international collaboration led her to participate in the IVLP and drove her engagement with professional counterparts from the U.S. and 27 other countries. “The IVLP made me think and feel the connectedness and understand the different needs of other countries better…I went to the IVLP with an open heart and eyes. I found much more than I expected – love and understanding for the country that I didn't really understand before.”