German-born entrepreneur, networker and technology scout, André Nitzschmann, first came to Latvia almost 20 years ago as part of a student exchange program. A mere two decades later, he (in fluent Latvian) calls the country his home and is an integral management team member of the master’s study program “Virtual Reality and Smart Technologies” at Vidzeme University of Applied Sciences (ViA). We spoke to André to learn about his path to Latvia, his career and expertise, as well as to get his opinion on the future of virtual reality (VR) and the potential of those who choose to pursue a degree in this field.
Return to Latvia rooted in friendships
André has spent a student exchange year in Ventspils, Latvia from 1997 to 1998, whilst being a pupil at Ludwig Leichhardt Gymnasium in Cottbus, Germany. He stayed with a host family, to which he points as one of the main reasons why he became fluent in Latvian.
During his first time, he has developed a lot of profound friendships, which drew him back to the country later on. In 2003, he began his bachelor’s degree studies in Business and Economics at the HTW Berlin - University of Applied Sciences and simultaneously became a Management Trainee in Hospitality & Tourism Management at Radisson in the capital of Latvia, Riga.
After graduating in 2007, he started to work for German companies in Latvia. “I was their local contact point, dealing with daily business issues and ensuring efficient operations with the local partners. Since then I have been living in Riga full-time and loving my life in Latvia,” he happily shares.
His first steps into the IT & ICT arena were in 2013 when he joined the largest organization for applied research in Europe, Fraunhofer Society. He took on a business development role within The Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS, which is the world's leading application-oriented research institution for microelectronic and IT system solutions and services. “It is the European equivalent to MIT,” André explains. “Joining the institute is the point in my career when I switched to industry-specific business development, fully working in the ICT and IT sector. My departments were developing tracking and communication technologies, which are applicable to virtual reality for free-room and multiplayer applications.” He later worked in business development and sales at two successful IoT startups, MyOmega and Q-loud.
Discovering the digital potential of Latvia
In 2017, André decided to explore the sector in Latvia and became a full-time Master’s student at Riga Technical University. “I studied Innovation and Entrepreneurship and was observing what was happening in Latvia in terms of innovation, digitalization, and startups. I realized that the ecosystem, although small, is very, very progressive and open to manage challenges. Many people are working on great products “Made in Latvia”, starting from offering services to technologies and software.”
Last year, he joined Riga Stradins University, working in the technology transfer office and describes his experience as a turning point for grasping the tech industry’s potential in Latvia. “It was my first time working within the administration part of a university in Latvia and that was the key moment for me when I figured out the enormous research and development and commercialization potential in Latvia. We have well-equipped laboratories at the research institutes and well educated talents among the student and experts. Not only the academic world and the startup world is paving the innovative future of Latvia, but also many small and midsize companies as well as large corporates. Even the ministries and state services participate in making Latvia a leader in digitalization in their specific areas.”
Joining forces to boost study experience of the VR program
Eventually, André’s path crossed with Arnis Cīrulis, the Director of “Virtual Reality and Smart Technologies” study program at ViA and he was offered an opportunity to get involved. “We, alongside other industry representatives, were putting together trends and opportunities with the vision to make that business sector a growing and prospering one including experts and academic education in MR (Mixed Reality), VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality). Due to my previous experience and connections with companies that use VR and AR for sone including simulation and gaming, it made a lot of sense for me to work on those goals.
“As a Deputy Director, my goal is to enrich the study program with my business experience. My aim is to establish regular cooperation locally, nationally and internationally with the industry and research partners. I am not only thinking in terms of what is good for students but also getting the business angle and thinking about the market globally, in order to spot opportunities that ViA can pursue and turn into milestones and success stories.”
Talking about his choice to join a small university after working for globally known brands, André emphasizes the potential he sees in regional universities. “I have noticed a really great trend recently, where regional universities develop focus areas, concentrating on creating experts for specific niches in industries. For Vidzeme University it is virtual reality and this is where I see huge potential, especially in training and simulation. It’s smart if we concentrate on our specialties and provide excellence for students in those areas.”
Virtual reality and smart technologies: room for expansion
Having recently returned from XR Expo 2019 in Stuttgart, André notes that the industry is developing rapidly with a wealth of opportunities for the next generation of virtual reality experts. “It is good to see how different technology streams around VR are coming together providing platforms on which to build perfect solutions for customers. However, a new wave of technologies is due turning the market to mass-consumer market. Therefore a lot of development is necessary, which merges the different hardware and software to an impressing VR user experience.
“Until now, VR technologies have been used mostly by enthusiasts, but they are set for mainstream usage. I recently also attended EdTech&STEAM Festival 2019, where about 200 kids were participating. It was amazing to see how fast children adapt to new technologies and how quickly they feel safe and act in virtual environments. The young generations who are growing up now will use these technologies differently, with confidence, and we will recognize more and more industry asking for those digital competencies.”
Potential for VR students
When asked about the pros and cons of choosing the academic path to enter the VR industry, André points to the importance of personal connections. “Of course, a lot of learning could be accomplished online, even using just YouTube and we can definitely do things without an academic background. However, I see that the university environment provides a neutral contact point for industry professionals, a platform, where people can come together and decide how to proceed. As a student, you can have access to the international partners of the university and can work on various projects simultaneously, you can use the university as a matchmaker or project connector and enter the VR community much easier. The university environment provides great leverage for students and all the stakeholders in this field.
“What is interesting for ViA, is its focus on students getting educated in the content creation and implementation, which represents a big gap in the global market. We should grow the competencies beyond design and user experience in order to utilize promising business opportunities. Companies want to virtualize content and they are ready to invest good money. Our students can pick up this chance and build VR companies serving professionally the global market is even more competitive than the one in the Western hemisphere.”