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Innovation labs where CEE founders can test and validate their ideas


At the beginning of their journey, founders need as much support as they can get in turning their ideas into an MVP, testing and refining their solutions, and validating technical and business hypotheses. This is where early-stage startup programs such as innovation labs, pre-accelerator, or accelerators come into play. The Recursive selected a few opportunities out of the numerous available for CEE-based founders.

Innovation labs that CEE startups can join

Case in point: Żabka Future Lab

One example of a program where young tech companies from CEE can test their innovations is the Żabka Future Lab. Launched by global innovation hub Huge Thing, part of a SpeedUp Venture Capital, in partnership with Żabka, the biggest convenience store chain in Poland, the program is at its first edition. 

Startups need to have a prototype solution that can be tested at technical and commercial levels. The selection process takes place on a rolling basis, with the shortlist announcement planned for January 23.

The key theme here is commerce; startups will be selected out of five areas: Commerce (e.g. payment, assistants, delivery), Sales Automation, Sustainable Development (e.g. preventing food waste, decarbonization), FoodTech (e.g. plant-based foods, functional foods), and the Shops of The Future, and based on their potential to be implemented within the development strategy of the Żabka Group. 

Similar to other such programs, Żabka Future Lab offers technical support, connections with experts from target sectors, and the opportunity to test, refine, and collaborate before launching a product.

Żabka is known for its future-oriented approach to retail, with a focus on digitalization, automation, and a personalized shopping experience. Currently, the group owns the largest chain of autonomous stores in Europe, each leveraging AI-powered computer vision tech developed in partnership with US-based AI developing platform AiFi.

15+ early-stage startup programs

Beyond, Bulgaria – Organized by Junior Achievement Bulgaria, Beyond aims to help young entrepreneurs grow their ideas all the way to generating traction and getting investments. It starts by helping founders polish their ideas and create a team, learn proven methodologies for launching a successful startup, and find a mentor to help them reach a product-market fit. Then founders are offered opportunities to pitch and receive investments to take their business to the next level.

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Elevate, Bulgaria – The accelerator is the first of its kind in Europe, initiated by the American University in Bulgaria (AUGB) in partnership with Eleven Ventures. The four-month program is built around the Lean Startup methodology, consisting of weekly scrum meetings, individual team meetings with managing directors, motivational talks, and mentorship sessions. Founders further participate in workshops aimed to help them develop an MVP, the business model canvas, and the go-to-market strategy.

Able Activator, Bulgaria – Taking place over six weekends, this entrepreneurship program is aimed to support 30 founders transform their ideas into reality. There are six corresponding models, each focused on another step in the journey, building knowledge on topics from startup idea generation to leadership, problem validation experiments, design thinking, business modeling, and sales. In the Demo Day, founders also pitch their products to representatives from the Bulgarian startup ecosystem.

ClimAccelerator Black Sea, Romania and Bulgaria – In 2021, a new startup program was launched for startups in Romania and Bulgaria with solutions to sustainability challenges, such as urban mobility, waste management, and the circular economy. The first edition of ClimAccelerator Black Sea had three different tracks, including early-stage and MVP. Early-stage startups received workshops on topics such as business modeling and product development, mentoring, and a 4K grant, while later-stage companies also participated in a pitching competition.

Innovation Labs, Romania – One of the biggest programs of its kind in Romania, Innovation Labs has 8 years of activity and teams in 10 cities and 5 centers. It has separate tracks for eight themes including blockchain, agriculture, smart mobility, and cybersecurity, and is open to students, university research spin-offs, and professionals. Over 7 months, teams receive support in building an MVP, receive mentorship, build partnerships, and gain media exposure. You can pre-register for the next edition.

StepFWD 2021, Romania – The program offers an eight-week pre-acceleration program to diverse founder teams, with the aim to help them turn ideas of prototypes into viable businesses. Throughout the program, founders can benefit from testing their assumptions, validate their business model through workshops and mentoring sessions, make connections, and pitch their business during Demo day.

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Bucharest AI, Romania- A more niche program is available to European startups working on AI-based solutions. #BeAI assists deep tech startups in taking their concept to the MVP stage by matching them to AI mentors, educating them on key concepts and experimentation, guiding them on business validation, and preparing them to attract seed funding.

Commons Accel, Romania –Commons Accel is a 3-month acceleration program that offers entrepreneurs access to curriculum, mentors, one-on-one coaching, and dedicated networks to achieve their business goals in terms of marketing, investment, internationalization, or scaling up. Participants get 75 hours of training and group workshops, and 24/7 available office space. In the Demo Day, founders can pitch in front of investors. Cohort #6 has now launched, and awaits applicants with both tech and non-tech solutions, and a focus on impact and sustainability until Feb. 28.

EIT Digital Venture Program, East Balkans – The pre-acceleration program is coordinated by Found.ation in East Balkan countries, namely Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania. Startups need to develop solutions in the fields of Digital Tech, Digital Industry, Digital Cities, Digital Wellbeing, or Digital Finance. Over eight weeks, teams receive support in developing an MVP, establishing the venture, get business development help, and find an investor. They also receive support of up to €25K. 

Enso XL Accelerator, Greece – In the maritime industry, Optima-X has developed a seed-stage accelerator that looks for innovations in areas such as infrastructure for ships, carbon emissions, fuel, and energy efficiency, and cyber risk management. They help startups test-drive/ pilot their products in a low-risk setting, offer coaching, as well as the opportunity to cooperate with Optima-X in Athens for 4 months to get clients.

Microsoft for Startups, global – Microsoft has recently launched this founders hub to help early-stage startups build their business with free access to Microsoft technology, as well as personalized technical coaching and support from experts. Users get up to $150K in Azure credits, free access to development tools such as GitHub and to collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams. Applications are opened on a rolling basis.

Read more:  11 Accelerators with Open Registration for CEE Tech Startups

Orange 5G Labs, global – The initiative is all about helping innovators test and experiment with 5G technology. There are eight centers across France and Belgium and one in Romania. The latter is a collaboration between Orange and the CAMPUS Research Institute of the Polytechnic University of Bucharest offers a space for startups, but also companies and researchers, to test their 5G-based ideas early on and create innovative solutions around this technology. It offers access to advanced equipment and platforms, the latest 5G communications network, and expert advice. 

Founders Factory Venture Studio, global – The six months program is dedicated to founders who are looking for assistance in turning their ideas into startups. Founders join a studio team where they can validate their idea, build an MVP, test, iterate, and go to market. Furthermore, they can get 180K when they are ready to launch. The program is looking for ideas in specific areas: media, AI and big data, beauty, retail, home and hygiene, travel, and fintech. Applications close on February 22, 2022

Wise Guys Pre-accelerator, global – This early-stage program takes place over eight weeks and is targeting SaaS founders. It aims to help founders refine their MVP and business plan to launch or boost sales by offering professional feedback from mentors and coaches. They will also work with pitch coaches to perfect the deck and delivery. 

Founder Institute FI Core, global – Part of the Founder Institute’s world-known network, the FI Core accelerator is open to founders at the idea and pre-seed stages and aims to assist them in reaching the milestones required to get investment and grow. Founders are engaged in growth sprints, from customer acquisition to revenue modeling and branding, and receive weekly feedback sessions. With the previous cohort having launched in November last year,  The Eastern Europe Virtual 2022 Cohort accepts applications until October 23, 2022.

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The list is not exhaustive. You can send us suggestions to The Recursive newsroom channel: [email protected].


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Antoanela is a Sustainability Communications Specialist and Deputy Editor at The Recursive media. From these roles, she is helping organizations communicate their latest sustainability goals, strategies, and technologies. She writes about climate tech, ESG, impact investment, sustainability regulation, and related topics.