You’ve got to be crazy to go into business with your own startup here,” says Darko Ðurić, a young computer programmer from Niš in Serbia, who is just about to start his first company. He enumerates the most common obstacles on his fingers. “Firstly, the bureaucracy is totally unreasonable. You spend hours filling in funding applications which might then end up in the trash,” the 26-year-old explains. “Secondly, there are almost no angel investors. Thirdly, the economic situation isn’t exactly a springboard for startups and fourthly, there’s a lack of infrastructure.“
“Loans come with the kind of interest rates that you wouldn’t wish on your worst competitor,” says Daniel Rössler from the Austrian Development Agency (ADA), which establishes business partnerships between Austrian and south-eastern European firms with the aim of supporting startups. And then there’s the image problem.
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The Balkans or Kosovo? “Potential partners furrow their brows at first,” says Rössler. Jurica Magoći from the Macedonian-Croatian company Fueloyal agrees it is the key issue. “Startups from south-eastern Europe have to be a whole lot better than US or western European firms if they want to achieve success internationally.” But that works, “if you’re madly determined”, Magoći says.
For against all the odds, there has been a very lively startup scene in the Balkans in recent years. Bulgaria is the clear forerunner. But as a member of the EU, it starts from a more favourable position than its neighbours to the west. And there are many advantages to the Balkans, says Rössler: a population which is younger than average, and is creative and willing to take risks. Paradoxically, Rössler quotes another advantage: all the problems. “For us as a development agency, that’s very exciting, because we can solve social problems in a completely new and innovative way with young entrepreneurs. And, sadly, there are still plenty of social problems in the Balkans,” says Rössler. Like we said, necessity is the mother of invention.
STRAWBERRY TREE, SERBIA
Strawberries aren’t the only thing that don’t grow on trees. Electricity doesn’t either. Which is just fine as far as the Serbian solar energy company Strawberry Tree is concerned. While still at school, electrical engineer Miloš Milisavljević was already dreaming of making green energy as accessible to as many people as possible. He set up his firm with classmates while still at university. His tree-like arrangements of solar panels are to be found in parks and public places, so you can sit on a bench, plug in your smartphone and use free Wi-Fi. The trees use built-in batteries and smart technology that was patented by the founder specifically for the purpose, all of which makes sure that the energy is harvested and used as efficiently as possible. These trees can go 20 days without sunshine: the period they can store and provide energy for. These smartphone charging points are also designed to contribute towards the development of smart cities.
Strawberry Tree wants to create public places that are used sustainably, and to make use of unused street furnishings. When Milisavljević founded his company in 2011, the European Commission recognised his invention as the first urban solar device of its kind in the world. If you go to Tašmajdan Park in Belgrade today, you’ll see law students, nannies, mothers and tourists clustered around the charging point, chatting merrily with each other. There are now 13 Strawberry Trees in three European countries being used by 400,000 people. And naturally the company hopes to continue to grow. “We hope that our Strawberry Trees will give everyone in society a chance to realise how important renewable energies are. Environmental awareness is increasing and we are already seeing improvements in people’s everyday behaviour,” says Milisavljević.
During times like these, we all need to pay attention to how much fuel we’re using. Which is why the joint Macedonian-Croatian firm Fueloyal has come up with a smart fuel cap that contains a sort of counter. It helps measure the amount of fuel which has actually made it into the tank, to prevent theft by staff or external crooks. Trucks in the US and Canada can leave their depots for up to 50 days at a stretch. When the drivers fill up with petrol, they pay with the company credit card. Until now, truck owners had never had a way of checking whether anything had been siphoned off in the process.
But there is speculation that theft costs companies anywhere from 15 to 20 per cent, which amounts to a loss of about US $2,000 per truck per month. Just under a year ago, a Croatian, Jurica Magoći, the developer of a management system for just such fleets of trucks and a Macedonian, Igor Hristov, came up with a solution that far outshone any competitors’ products.
Whereas those products had always required adjustments being made to the truck’s fuel tank, Fueloyal’s product could simply be incorporated into the existing fuel tank. The counter measures and records the amount of fuel in the tank and automatically transmits the information to company headquarters. Furthermore, a special valve stops fuel being siphoned off. In this way, truck owners can be sure that the petrol actually makes it into the tank and stays there.
Magoći and Hristov, who now have their headquarters in the US state of Illinois, want to introduce their product to the market this summer. The team are to produce more than 10 million units for Canada, the US market and the EU and they already have $350,000 worth of pre-orders. The two co-founders also recently signed a distributor agreement which should make the cash tills ring to the tune of another $3 million.
Those people from the Balkans? They’re good at football at best. But it’s not as simple as that. In 2009, three football-mad Serbs got together and laid the foundations for one of the most successful football manager games in the world: Top Eleven by Nordeus
It’s about profitable transfers, the right line-up, the best training methods, the ideal tactics, the biggest possible stadium – and, of course, good league games, Champions League games or just games you play with your friends. “Our idea was, at long last, to give social network users a challenging and complicated video game. That was still a rarity in 2009,” explains Nikola Čavić of Nordeus. The company now has more than 150 employees and offices in five cities: London, San Francisco, Dublin, Skopje and their original home, Belgrade.
Approximately 100 million registered gamers around the world try their luck as Top Eleven football managers. “We’re proud that we can say we financed it all ourselves,” says Čavić. They are also “extremely happy” at the way the video game scene is developing so actively in Serbia. Things may have begun rather modestly, but now there are more than 30 large game-developer studios in the country. Nordeus doesn’t see them as competition and not just because they are a giant compared to the others. “In a region like ours where development is only just beginning, every new company helps to move the industry forward. So we see them not as competitors, but partners – as other teams working towards a common goal,” Čavić reveals.
Elections in south-eastern Europe have been the butt of bad jokes from time immemorial. And yet one of the smaller former Yugoslav republics has produced an electronic voting system which is now used worldwide. The software package Demokra is one of the few products which make it possible to organise the complete cycle of a political election, from voter registration to the count. To date, the system has chiefly been used in young democracies, and international experts have declared it to be particularly quick, reliable and transparent. A total of 116 million voters in the EU, south-eastern Europe, the US and Africa have already cast their votes using Macedonia’s own Demokra. iVote also comes with the Epistum e-Learning Management System, which is chiefly used by large organisations with staff spread out over a wide area for mass training programmes.
The company was founded by Ljupcho Antovski and Goce Armenski, two professors of computer science at the University of Skopje. “There are lots of companies offering similar software systems, but we’re way ahead of them. We’re very fast and flexible and extremely competitive, especially when it comes to cost. There are a lot of companies who simply claim to offer everything, but we are one of the few that have a functioning platform which is easy to customise and can therefore be used anywhere in the world at short notice,” Armenski explains. The company is currently generating a profit which is half a million above the regional industry average. The total value of iVote is estimated at approximately € 2 million.