Toby Stone, a veteran of the Eastern Europe business scene, compares the Serbia of 10 years ago, still in the shadows of Milošević, to his most recent visit to a royal palace packed with startups and pitching at the very first Seedcamp Belgrade…
I first visited the Royal Palace in Belgrade in the middle of winter about 10 years ago. The Royal Family had recently moved back into the palaces after years in exile and I was invited for breakfast to discuss what could be done with the White Palace. Austin Prichard-Levy, the husband of Princess Lavinia, is an Australian tech entrepreneur and he was keen to explore how the palace could be used in some way to support tech startups in Serbia.
After the Royal Family was banished, the palaces were home to Tito and Milosevic. Arriving on a miserable morning, my taxi took me to within view of the main gate. The area had been a restricted zone for so long that the driver would not go any closer, so I had to walk the last stretch in the cold rain…
We walked over the grass from the Royal Palace to the White Palace. It is a beautiful building dating back to the 1930s. Inside it was empty and cold. We found ourselves in Milosevic’s former study… It looked like he had just left before we arrived. As we walked back into the hall to leave, Prince Alexander gestured to the large crest on the wall in the centre of the room: “That is Milosevic’s emblem, I must get it moved”.
10 years on – startup pitches in the palace
Ten years later, things have changed somewhat. I was here for the first mini-Seedcamp in Belgrade, which was run in partnership with the Belgrade-based NGO SEE ICT and with the support of the Crown Prince Alexander II Foundation for Education.
This time, my taxi driver drove confidently up to the gate, where a very large soldier in full combat gear stood guard, next to a suited man with a clipboard. He ticked off my name and asked me to walk up to the Royal Palace…
Now, the palace was a buzz of activity. Young tech entrepreneurs, a few foreign guests, camera crew and palace staff were bustling over coffee and cakes in a drawing room. At the edge of the crowd Crown Prince Alexander and his wife Crown Princess Katherine were chatting to Carlos Eduardo Espinal from Seedcamp.
A special stage of development
Espinal explained why the time is ripe for Serbia right now: “Seedcamp has 2000+ mentors creating a very wide network. They’re our eyes on the ground. They said to us, ‘Hey look, we’re seeing a lot of interesting things in this region’. So we decided to go and see what’s here.
“The biggest strength in Eastern Europe is the talent. The history of the region is one of high technical talent, which is mainly a result of the education system.
“The problems here are consistent across any developing ecosystem: lower access to capital, less transparency of information, more cultural hurdles to overcome. The main obstacles are not endemic to the region in particular, but to this stage of development.”
Dragana Zmijanac, Executive Director of SEE ICT, adds: “There is a lack of seed capital. Also a lack of education; Serbian formal education doesn’t support entrepreneurship. Even the technical part of the universities, which are good, are not up to date. Young people here need more encouragement to become entrepreneurs. We need a cultural shift towards this, and to become more open to risk.”
She explains what her organisation is doing to make this shift happen: “We are a non-profit NGO that organises different events and workshops, like Startup Academy, conferences, and gathering investors and entrepreneurs in the region and from across Europe.
“We are part of the team that created the government support programme, whereby the government gives grants and match funding for startups, and supports networking and education programmes. We think the next step is to set up a physical hub in Belgrade. We would like to open an incubator. There are a couple here already, including a good one in the technology faculty, but there’s not enough. There are more startups who need this…”
Although the future looks promising: Prince Alexander added that he was thrilled to see an event such as this happen at last. We joked that we had discussed it nearly 10 years ago to date, but he said it has really taken this long for the country to be ready for the startup ecosystem. The whole concept of startups, angel investment, and incubation are still very new in Belgrade, and it felt like this mini-Seedcamp was the catalyst for many exciting things to come.
The startups representing at Seedcamp Belgrade
Cinematic (Zagreb-based startup)
According to founder Damir Bandalo, 80 per cent of cinema seats are empty after the opening week. He has developed a very easy interface to search cinemas, movies, times and to purchase tickets.
DataMaid (Serbia, Startup Academy graduate)
A multimedia note taking/creating tool that aims to increase the productivity of journalists, bloggers and creatives
EarnCoupon (Serbia, Startup Academy graduate)
A word-of-mouth marketing and social media referral/recommendation platform, looking to change the way we think about social media and online marketing
“WordPress for games”, enabling people without technical skills to build their own games
Novi Sad-based startup, helping delivery companies to plan the most optimal delivery routes
PubSonic (Serbia, Startup Academy graduate)
Makes searching for and finding bio-med related papers a breeze
A fresh startup aiming to modernise the trucking business. Founded by two members of the Startup Academy team
Warrantly (Serbia, Startup Academy graduate)
Another Startup Academy graduate, working on changing the way we use and deal with warranties
Rainbow: flickr user Tamoneki