Hacking for entrepreneurs: a transatlantic go at designing policy – Mikk Vainik

In September last year, startup ecosystem representatives got together at the MTB Innovation Center in San Francisco to “hack” policies in an effort to design solutions to global policy challenges facing entrepreneurs. Ahead of this year’s Startup Europe Comes to Silicon Valley (SEC2SV) mission, Mikk Vainik*, startup policy expert at the Estonian Economic Affairs and Communications Ministry, shares some thoughts on the Policy Hack.


Describe your experience with the Policy Hack in 140 characters.
Coming without any preparation, I found the topics easy to relate to and I was happy to see an engaged team.

Were you surprised with the outcome?
Yes, a little bit. Since the solution given by our team relied quite much on the Estonian experience with data policies, it was interesting to see how my own perception and explanation of things turned into something bigger. But the surprise also had a negative tone to it – I expected the results to have some more practical relevance. 

Do you think policymakers talk enough to entrepreneurs, investors & members of the startup ecosystem?
I’m a policymaker myself and I must admit there is not enough talk. I talk once in a while and usually I realize that our work could be explained better, and the messages from the community could be heard more often. Entrepreneurs are a self-aware and demanding target group, which makes them great to work with and surely most of us should aim to do so more often.

How about regulators – should regulators talk to startups? Any specific sectors?
If we differentiate between policymakers and regulators, then the first is more crucial. The policymaker is the owner of the public service and must understand its effect on the target group (the entrepreneurs). From my point of view, regulators mostly execute on what policymakers have designed into laws and regulations. The policymakers should be the ones to ensure that the voice of the entrepreneurs is heard prior to setting new policies, regulations etc. Having done that, policymakers should choose wisely whether some specific sector must be highly regulated or whether a number of general guidelines could suffice. But it is up to the regulator to also hear the feedback from the startups, understand the limitations of the regulations, and help entrepreneurs make the most of it.

What should that dialogue ideally look like?
I think a very good way is to think of regulation as a demand-side policy, not just a way to set safeguards. What I mean by that – regulation is not an end in itself, but a number of rules set to provide a specific outcome that acts as a safety net for society. Sometimes, this safety net may become too tight or unable to account for how the same safety can be achieved in novel ways. Thus, when a policymaker is struggling with a need for innovation in the health sector, or would want their city/region/country to attract more financial technology companies, one way to do so is to check whether the safety net is up to date. It may be useful to give your regulations a shake. Instead of taking a passive stance and „letting regulations be“, take a look and see whether you can lift some of the barriers. In return, expect entrepreneurs to try out new technologies and business models. You may experience that the same safety is possible with fewer rules, because the world has moved forward. If not, you know that you have at least tried, and made some friends with entrepreneurs while doing so. 

If you could pick an entrepreneur or investor to team up with and design a solution for a policy challenge you have come across-who would it be?
It really depends on the policy challenge at hand. Whoever is on a policy hack team – policymakers, regulators, entrepreneurs, investors – they should keep an open mind and be a good listener.

*follow @MikkVainik

Mikk Vainik is an advisor on startup policy to Estonia’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications. He is the driving force behind the country’s co-hosting of the 2017 Startup Nations Summit together with the Global Entrepreneurship Network, which for the first time will allow policymaker-regulator teams to test out how a dialogue with startups could look like.

Mikk sees this as a great way to strengthen the community and experience something that is unusual in the public sector but with great potential. This comes as Estonia is holding the revolving presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2017. In the spirit of serving the European community of policymakers for 6 months, Mikk sees this as an opportunity help the European and global policymaker community advance more meaningfully by deep-diving into policies where both startups and governments are finding that change is needed, but where a solution is still not clear.

During Startup Europe Comes to Silicon Valley (SEC2SV) 2017, Mind the Bridge and Dell will host a Policy Hack on 18 September at the MTB Innovation Center in San Francisco to pull together a set of transatlantic recommendations for policy solutions. These will feed into the Startup Nations Summit (SNS), a global summit to take place in Estonia in November 2017 that will discuss the challenges digital disruption brings to the public sector in its role to set the rules of the game for entrepreneurs and innovators.

The SNS Policy Hack will take place on 22 November in Tallinn. Hosted by the Estonian Presidency of the EU and the Global Entrepreneurship Network and powered by Dell, the European Commission, EIT Digital and Startup Estonia, it will allow policymakers from across the globe to validate and test policies to make it easier for regulators and startups to talk to each other in their respective ecosystems.