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Fabiola Duro, CEO of INNVEST, about empowering founders and startups in Albania

INNVEST startups Albania
Image credit: Fabiola Duro by Genti Onuzi
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“Innovation has no limits. It’s an extraordinary time for it as technological change and industry disruption seem to be accelerating and linking individuals, organizations, and nations as never before,” shares Fabiola Duro, founder of Tirana-based INNVEST, a network of angel investors that together with visionary people tackle national economic challenges in Albania. 

In over 15 years as a professional, Fabiola has built an impressive portfolio. She has a background in diplomacy and business administration and has been focusing on the startup ecosystem for over a decade now. 

There are over 250 startups in Albania, 35% of which are founded by female entrepreneurs, with most of them developed in sectors like IT/software development, education, and e-commerce. Their biggest challenge: funds.

With INNVEST she has changed the nature of Angel Investors in the country and defined the pillars of their collaboration with startup founders, which are basic knowledge, mentoring, networking, and finance. 

Before becoming a CEO, she has worked for the Albanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure, and Telecommunication; and the Tirana Chamber of Commerce and Industry, to name a few. And has developed skills for coordinating multi-stakeholder processes both nationally and internationally with angel investors, entrepreneurs, startups, incubators, and governmental representatives. 

With a keen eye for spotting Albania’s tech rising stars and an advocate for female entrepreneurship, she will take us on a journey through her local ecosystem, talking about 2022 plans with INNVEST.

INNVEST startups Albania

THE RECURSIVE: What fascinates you most about the tech startup world in Albania? Take us on a local innovation trip around the ecosystem. 

FABIOLA DURO: In Albania, despite a young and fragile ecosystem, many players have started to design programs to help startups innovate and grow. These support a wide range of startups in various stages of growth but are mainly focused on Pre-ideation, ideation, Seed Phase, and Startup Phase. 

In this regard, great support has been given by international organizations, like the EU for Innovation, GIZ – Pro Seed programs, and EBRD ASB programs, to name a few. They play a major role in offering the opportunity to turn an idea into a scaling business, while at the same time fostering an entrepreneurial culture.

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Another platform for all the important actors of the ecosystem is Albania Tech. The goal is to create potential bridges between Albania and other countries, an environment for entrepreneurs, knowledge institutions, and capital sources. 

This month, the Albanian Startup Database will be launched, mapping the country’s startup and venture capital ecosystem, built with the support of EU for Innovation, the foremost data provider on startups, growth companies, and tech ecosystems in Europe and around the globe. 

How would you define the stage of the development of the local ecosystem? What else does it need to grow?

The Albanian ecosystem is still in the developing phase. There are many initiatives that are producing success stories, but access to finance for startups and ISOs is limited. To ensure a startup’s development and survival in the early stage, investors must offer financial assets but also additional expertise and know-how. Governmental financial support is also needed. 

A very good start is the law on startups that has been approved this January. Startups will be able to get advice at a “one-stop-shop”, which will be set up under the Minister of State for Entrepreneurship Protection in Albania. This will pave the way for startup financing in a variety of sectors, from education institutions, innovation support organizations, hospitality, and edtech to IoT, blockchain, and fintech.  

Also, the Triple Helix system and R&D area are still in the initial phase. Company executives believe that it is important to invest in innovation and technology but only 15% of companies said they have a dedicated fund for R&D; 75% stated that they dedicate such funds sporadically.

What inspired the launch of INNVEST?

Doing great things with impact in my home country. The best thing about my work is that I love it. It is all about the freedom to explore and being on the side of success.

While I am creating the perfect job for me, I enjoy celebrating the wins of everybody around me. I fully believe in networking, in building a community within the Albanian innovation ecosystem and internationally. 

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Can you tell us about your 2022 plans?

We are trying to stick to our slogan “Investing for Impact”. INNVEST combines innovative research to bring investors and new business ideas together with a long-term goal for sustainable growth to shape the ecosystem. We empower entrepreneurs and investors to forge a more dynamic economy across Albania and the Western Balkans through mentoring, training, support, consultancy, and mediation. 

The INNVEST vision is based on the pillars of empowerment for entrepreneurs and investors. We want to create new opportunities for investments, access to new jobs, products, and services. And we want to support women in businesses aiming to bring qualitative improvements in their life.

Our main goal of 2022 is to innovate through education. Since innovation is the ability to be seen as an opportunity and not as a threat, we will be focusing on the Innovation Management Academy Albania (IMAA). By managing innovation, we all are managing the future of the companies. Who are we, if not measured by our impact?

Next, we want to conduct studies to scale projects and we will host our annual event, INNVEST Summit 2022, for all Western Balkan countries, during October 12-14th, in Tirana. 

What surprised you about developing a project of your own? Any challenges and lessons you would like to disclose? 

I had no surprises since I was well prepared. I have always had solutions. Success for me is about the difference I can make in people’s lives. Challenges are part of moving and looking forward to what’s next. I truly believe experience is the greatest mentor ever. 

I enjoy the everyday aspects of it. I’ve discovered some of life’s great turn-ons for me. In an ever-changing world, innovators take the path of uncertainty to explore, innovate, and create. This way, the challenges turn into opportunities.

What is it like to lead a female-only team? 

Amazing experience and I feel lucky since we are sharing three important main values: loyalty, pragmatism, and attentiveness.

You have been part of both private projects, as well as governmental ones. How do you think the latter opportunities helped you with your current responsibilities?

Experience and the practice of “innovation parenting”. I believe that innovative cultures start with a philosophy and a tone—one analogous to the classic parenting advice that children need both “roots and wings”. 

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As innovation leaders, we must hold creative people accountable for the entities’ objectives, key focus areas, core capabilities, and commitments to stakeholders. Then we can give them direction to conduct their work in service of those parameters. Obsessing about budget and deadlines will kill ideas before they get off the ground. 

Once all our scientists understand that they are accountable for delivering practical products and processes that can be manufactured affordably, we can trust them to not be embarrassed by wasting money and effort. This trust helps us forge an innovation culture. 

We know you to be an advocate for female entrepreneurship. What can you tell us about your initiatives in this direction?

In May 2021, INNVEST initiated an annual forum named “WomEn Move Forward”.  The goal was to spotlight the women who can harness the power of this pivotal moment to shape a new way forward and come up with actionable solutions to drive meaningful progress. Through this annual event, we will boost women’s economic empowerment across Albania for job creation, poverty alleviation, and sustainable development. 

What do you look for when analyzing a potential investment – the team, the solution, the story, the scalability opportunity, the impact on society?

Impact first, analyzing how they can contribute to our lives. The way the founders solved the problem, the team as the greatest asset, the customer experience, and their suitability. 

What do you want your legacy to be in the Angel Investors niche in Albania?

Angel investors are often the first to recognize, research, and fund promising new businesses with social and environmental impact goals. They target new enterprises and they can serve dual roles as both investors and mentors, bringing hands-on expertise and guidance along with a financial investment. We have built a network based on shared interests or expertise in sectors, geography, or social impact mission. 

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Elena is an Innovation Reporter at The Recursive with 10+ years of experience as a freelance writer based in Bucharest, Romania. Her mission is to report internationally on the amazing progress of the local startup ecosystem while bringing into focus topics such as diversity in business cultures and women in tech; mental health, work-life balance, and the future. Of what? Everything! As a former solopreneur and a full-time mom, she strives to learn something new every day to share with the world. #nevernotlearning