While the Western Balkans region is still in the early stages of developing its tech and startup ecosystems, it does have frontrunners. It seems that Serbia is setting the pace for others to follow.
Having been through a series of wars and sanctions during the 1990s which resulted in the collapse of its economy, Serbia is now trying to create tech talent which will aid the digital transformation of its society through the development of the ICT industry, R&D institutes, and startups in different tech sectors.
Various governmental and non-governmental actors have been playing significant roles in this process. One of them is the Digital Serbia Initiative, a non-profit organization with the strategic goal of developing a strong, globally competitive digital economy in Serbia.
The initiative combines the forces of more than 30 members from all sectors relevant for the growth of a digital ecosystem – including tech, banking and finance, telco, consulting, legal, education and research, media, pharmaceutical, and startup support organizations.
According to Digital Serbia’s general director Nebojsa Bjelotomic, when it comes to creating the new wave of Serbian tech talent, the most important aspect is how to switch the mindset that will help the Serbian youth gravitate much more towards thinking about their skills and career development.
“One thing that Serbia and the rest of the Balkans is fighting with is brain drain, so we want these kids to know what is happening in Serbia and what are the opportunities they actually can have in development centers, startups or in academia. So, we organize these visits for high school kids in order for them to see the real working spaces where they can maybe imagine themselves, and have them thinking where they would want to work, rather than where they should go to college,” Bjelotomic tells The Recursive.
Therefore, Digital Serbia has also created interdisciplinary programs that can help students figure out how to make the best use of their skills and talents.
“If you have some engineering skills or other way around, if you’re not technical and want to go into a technical area, we try to give you some knowledge about IT. So for example, if you are somebody who finished arts in visual design and sound design, we’ll give you IT muscle so that you can go into the gaming industry for example, since this industry also combines music and film,” he points out.
As Bjelotomic further adds, for example the gaming industry is one of the most developed ones in the country, so this is also one of the practical examples where students can already start getting practice in and work for the big gaming companies that are present in Serbia.
Practical knowledge and business know-how
Another practical aspect Digital Serbia is implementing is helping students learn how to create so-called “student companies”.
“They get to learn about balance sheet and income statement are very early age, and they learn about pricing policies, how to create the product and what are the components of the product so that if they go to any of the STEM fields, they can keep that in the back of their mind, and eventually have the know-how to commercialize their ideas, inventions, and technological advancements,” Bjelotomic tells The Recursive.
According to the Serbian minister of science, technological development and innovation, Jelena Begovic, to be able to achieve all of this, it is of the utmost importance for the private sector to be able to communicate with the best universities.
“We want to educate people in the best manner so they are prepared for what is happening. Nowadays it is very difficult to imagine what new jobs will look like even in biotech in the next five to ten years. So things are moving and changing very fast and the education system has to follow this and has to be prepared. The best way is to communicate with the private sector since some of those people will end up in the private sector. On the other hand we are also open for mutual R&D projects with companies, as well as the development of IT with companies,” Begovic tells The Recursive.
Commercializing the best ideas and developing startups in different sectors
The commercialisation of such ideas is especially important for all of those that are entering the tech sector in the country, and the Serbian Innovation Fund is one of the institutions that is fostering the process for the young startups that are ready for the many challenges in this sector.
“We are working on expanding the transfer of technology and the transfer of knowledge both ways, because some of the projects and ideas for the projects came from the research and development sector. Now, small and medium businesses actually teach them or coach them how to approach commercialization,” Serbia’s Innovation Fund managing director Ivan Rakonjac tells The Recursive.
Established in 2011, the Innovation Fund has so far invested around €60M, out of which around half came from different European Union funds available to the country. However, aside from the funds, what is also important is to develop cooperation with different players within the ecosystem, Rakonjac maintains.
“The cooperation with some other players on innovation ecosystems, such as the science and technology parks in the country is something that is very important in the sense of infrastructure, and providing not just the roof for the startups and utility companies, but also to provide certain soft support. And for some it even provides the preparation for the access to finance and the challenges that have to be met in order to be doing business at the market,” he emphasizes.
Biotech as the next big thing in Serbia
To be able to achieve all of this, Serbian authorities have also established a number of institutions that are focused on research and development, while supporting the development of a variety of startups through resources and incentives.
The BioSense institute in the city in Novi Sad is one of those institutes, focusing particularly on the development of biotech and becoming one of the country’s success stories.
Established seven years ago as the first new institute in the country after 40 years, BioSense today has a team of 150 researchers, out of which 50 are PhDs and there are also about 50 external researchers and consultants.
“The idea of the project was to establish a new institution which will be a turning point to change the game on the European research space, and bring new ideas and a fresh start. So indeed, we started with 10 enthusiasts and came to 140, 150 people today with the crucial moment that people are young, multidisciplinary oriented, with the idea to do the cross fertilization between different fields. So I’m an electrical engineer teaching 20 years about artificial intelligence, but we have molecular biology, agriculture and so on within one institution. So the big part of the investment from the government is going into the research equipment and also forward looking things that will be important even 20 years from now,” BioSense director Vladimir Crnojevic tells The Recursive.
According to Crnojevic, the institute and its programs have already produced successful biotech companies such as Agremo for instance, which is an intuitive agricultural platform and data analysis software.
“Agremo is now working on five continents, and they started as an idea on the BioSense platform. Also, we have the BioSense regional program where we are looking to identify the potential centers in the region and make a network of centers that are working on biotech. We want to have a demonstration farm where we will have hands-on experience for people to understand what it means to have a digital transformation of agriculture and other traditional activities and finally, a shared research facility where we showcase the equipment and technology that everybody can use,” Crnojevic concludes.