“Ireland is my America.” Mariusz Wilk said those words to me the first time we met in July. He sees Ireland as the land of opportunity, just as many Irish saw America in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Wilk, a native of Poland, moved to Ireland about a decade ago. At the time, he intended to study English and return home. Life took him in a different direction. Love, education, a failed startup and now family have Wilk thinking about an entrepreneurial future in Ireland.
“It was becoming my second home,” says Wilk. “Now, it’s becoming my first home.”
With a focus on electronic engineering, Wilk recently began his PhD studies at Cork’s Tyndall National Institute – a partnership of University College Cork, the Science Foundation of Ireland and the Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment.
At Tyndall, Wilk developed several sensor-based technologies. He wrote algorithms that help wearable motion trackers like FitBits use less energy and work better. He also worked on sensors in the ground and elsewhere that help farmers improve their crop yields.
“If I keep improving myself, my life will get better and better,” says Wilk.
He decided that life as an electronic engineer wasn’t enough, hence the PhD. “An engineer uses technology to do things,” Wilk says. With his focus on the science behind technology, he’s creating the future.
“A straight path of an engineer is nice and secure, but boring.”
Wilk’s path to his future was anything but straight and boring. As a young man from a farming community, he moved to the bigger city, where he worked a variety of odd jobs. Eventually, he joined the military but was no career soldier. A year later, he was out.
The time in the army taught Wilk to get the job done, no matter what. As a civilian, he knew education was key. The ups and downs with job insecurity, Wilk says, made him more resilient. Starting a business doesn’t scare him.
After moving to Ireland, he drove trucks and worked in warehouses but he was driven to do more. He started studying electronic engineering at Cork Institute of Technology.
Wilk tried launching a startup using the hardware of Microsoft’s XBox Kinect sensor to create a stationary 3D person scanner. It was a good idea that attracted some investors’ attention.
However, he shut the startup down before taking any investments. Wilk was concerned the company would burn through cash because the technology wasn’t quite ready.
“I felt it was not nice to take someone’s money and knowingly waste it.”
Still, he didn’t give up.
“If I tried hard, I could achieve much more and become much more successful in Ireland than I could in my home country,” says Wilk.
Wilk says if someone does more or works harder than required in Poland, colleagues and managers may hold that employee back. In Ireland, Wilk senses people want to see him succeed. They either help him or get out of his way.
Ireland’s Polish community continues to have a major impact on the country. According to European Union statistics, approximately 112,000 people living in Ireland were born in Poland. That’s second only to those born in the United Kingdom.
Since Poland entered the EU in 2004, the Polish community in Ireland grew until the economic crash. Unlike other countries with large Polish populations, like the UK, there is no active anti-immigrant political party in Ireland.
Krzysztof Kiedrowski of the Irish Polish Society says there have been several great success stories for Polish people in Ireland, including the Mróz Exclusive Polish grocery stores, which now operates 13 locations in Ireland.
With a new generation of young Polish men and women like Mariusz living in Ireland, that entrepreneurial spirit could spur startups in addition to traditional businesses.
Following failure after failure, Wilk is learning to enjoy his success in Ireland. He has a three more years to finish his final degree.
Then, Wilk’s ready to move forward with his next startup idea, whether the agricultural sensors or something else, here in Ireland.
“Ireland is making all of the good choice,” says Wilk. “They invest in the future.”
As Wilk lays down roots, in many ways his family is becoming a little more Irish by the day. The Polish man and his Filipino wife named their first son Patrick as a thank you to their new home country.