Serbia innovates, because it can and because it must

It’s a simple matter. To become more competitive in the global market and create new
opportunities for exports, Serbia should work on the transformation of its traditional
economy in order to build a new one, one based on knowledge.

I have been witness to this process during the years I have spent supporting technology start-ups, connecting
corporations and entire industries, companies and start-ups, people and ideas in the
innovation ecosystem. That experience enabled me to first understand the specific needs of
entrepreneurs in the technology sector. This led to an understanding of the entire regional
ecosystem and the role it could - and should - play in the development of the domestic
economy.

Success stories, and an important question

The role it should play is quite clear. For years, “success stories” have been drawing everyone's attention. A small team of young people, full of knowledge and talent, achieve great success with an innovative product. It may sound simple, but the reality is quite different. There are many steps precarious steps involved, various conditions that must be met. I am pleased to say that I have been involved in some of these stories. Unfortunately, these successes were not the result of a broader, well-thought-out strategy or systemic support for the development of the innovation ecosystem – this has simply not been the case. Moreover, alternative sources of financing for such companies have proven to be consistently lacking. These success stories happened without a mature, developed ecosystem, without strategically placed support and without concrete plans for well- founded, long-term growth in the digital economy. This raises an important question: what would happen if all these things existed? If we worked together to develop them?

Something is happening

In recent years, things have slowly begun to change. The digital economy in Serbia is invigorated. As a sector, the IT industry is constantly growing. An emerging ecosystem is showing itself. Start-ups, hubs, incubators, accelerators... For years they have numbered in the hundreds. Companies of all sizes recognise the importance of innovation, collaborate with start-ups, and engage in digital strategies. This has also been recognised by the regulators, who have reacted with tax incentives for investments in innovations, amendments to the Law on Electronic Commerce and other measures.

But does all this contribute enough to improved competitiveness in the global market, or are we still limited to the isolated successes attributable to the talent and knowledge of persistent small teams and individuals (with perhaps a little luck too)?

It is precisely these factors that have for years constituted the main advantages of the innovation ecosystem in Serbia: the quality of our people, their skills and talent. We are all proud of that, and we should be. However, when we talk about the economy, long-term growth, a broader strategy - talent is no substitute for a stable basis for sustainability.

What, then, is missing?

At the same time, most innovative companies do not possess the required business acumen. Instead of focusing on “finished products”, the Serbian economy still predominantly exports products and services without added value. The same goes for the IT industry. There is a divide between traditional and innovative businesses, universities, the state, and sources of funding; they are simply not connected enough. Value chains are short. The cooperation of traditional and innovative companies still represents a huge, largely unused space. For the latter, there are simply not enough funding options, especially when they are in the critical early stages. All these factors combined represent serious constraints to the growth of the knowledge economy.

Our entire innovation ecosystem is in the initial phase of "activation" (according to the methodology used by Start-up Genome). Real growth and global competitiveness require a clear vision and the strategic participation of all stakeholders. For us to have a few more success stories, for them to become “something normal”, it must be the result of working together towards a common cause. But what should we focus on?

Now or never, but what?

Again, the answer is simple; at least, writing it is. Our strategy should be rooted in the concrete potentials that we know we have as a country. From these, we can start to build the competitiveness of our economy. The development of an innovation ecosystem must focus these factors that have the potential to raise it from activation to growth. Our goal should be to engage all stakeholders in this work, to connect them with a clear common interest. All this needs to be done in a way that is already proven globally, with knowledge and experience that we can “borrow”.Izan other words, we need to carefully choose an industry or sector that can foster as our competitive advantage, throw all the talent we are so proud of into it, and build an innovative supercluster around it. We can achieve this with the support of all players in the broader ecosystem, all stakeholders who are able to contribute. This includes not only start- ups, but also businesses of the relevant sector or industry, investors, accelerators, public institutions, service providers, education system... In the supercluster, everyone has roles that complement each other and benefits one another. When things are set up in this manner, talent and money emerge on their own. We need to do all that bravely. Let it be our “big bet”, in which we invest everything we can.

Serbia innovates

A well-thought-out strategy based on something real, on connecting all stakeholders and creating common values can really give us a national competitive advantage. After studying similar stories elsewhere in the world, I don't think we have any other choice. And there’s no doubt in my mind as to whether we can achieve it.

Together with our partners, we at the ICT Hub decided to do just that. That is the essence of the “Serbia Innovates” project.

Kosta Andrić, Executive Director, ICT Hub

The Serbia Innovates project is implemented by the ICT Hub with the support of USAID.

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