Consolidation of the Serbian Startup Ecosystem
In 2022 the Serbian startup ecosystem became consolidated further through verticalization, decentralization, and more regional exposure. How did it happen, and what does it mean for the main ecosystem actors?
Sudden jump or constant growth? What is the most effective way to consolidate an ecosystem? In 2022, Serbia initiated several processes that led to a more durable approach to ecosystem growth, internal alignment between different stakeholders, and increased international exposure.
One of the most successful years for the Serbian startup ecosystem was 2021. With the record amount of investments raised and a high number of emerging startups, the atmosphere in the ecosystem seemed, as Nataša Škrbić, former program and ecosystem director at Digital Serbia Initiative, expressed, “like it's going to shoot fireworks."
We didn't see fireworks in 2022. Instead, we saw the startup ecosystem consolidate, mature, and find more opportunities for exposure throughout the country and the region.
Superclusters—a first step towards future verticalization
Even if different verticals in the Serbian startup ecosystem are successful (such as blockchain and gaming), none is dominant and fully consolidated. We won't argue whether this is a problem or an opportunity, but there remains space for improvement. ICT Hub is actively working in this area within the Serbia Innovates project.
Serbia Innovates aims to strengthen the Serbian economy by developing innovations within superclusters consisting of stakeholders (academia, entrepreneurs, government, associations, ESO, and others) relevant to specific verticals within the larger innovation ecosystem.
Currently, four superclusters are formed: Blockchain and Web3, High tech agriculture and food industry, Gaming and VR, and Medtech and Biotech. Since the project is now in the second year of implementation, it remains to be seen if superclusters can live up to the expectations and improve verticals inside the Serbian startup ecosystem. Nevertheless, we see it as a positive development and look forward to upcoming activities and results.
Inner expansion and decentralization of the startup ecosystem
Belgrade, as the country's capital, has a solid startup ecosystem within the city. The same can be said for Novi Sad and Niš, two other IT centers in the country.
But what about smaller cities throughout Serbia? Are there any activities, communities, or even startups outside these three centers? Looking at the general picture of the Serbian ecosystem, we might conclude there is nothing out there. But, taking a closer look, we see many IT-centered communities and small entrepreneurial support organizations doing their best to make a difference inside their communities.
Digital Serbia Initiative decided to take action to expose, connect, start the conversation, and bring such organizations and communities closer. In late spring 2022 they hosted regular meetups of ESOs nationwide. Neda Trifunović, manager for startup ecosystem in DSI explains:
If we want to have a startup ecosystem that is growing and constantly making progress, organizations that help and contribute to the development of that ecosystem must be connected. It's crucial that they actively exchange knowledge and inputs on how to improve it. The gathering of startup support organizations from all over Serbia began in 2022. It brought together more than 25 organizations with a simple goal—to get the facilitators of the ecosystem in one place and encourage them to map the current situation and help us all realize what existing programs and support there are. From that point on, we can see new opportunities and activities we can introduce into the ecosystem to help it grow further.
With four such gatherings in 2022, the ecosystem started internal consolidation and organic mapping of different needs and gaps in the country. As an active participant and the host of the first ESO gathering in 2023, the Swiss EP team in Serbia strongly supports the initiative and sees it as a very positive development.
Taking the relevant place in the region
Most regional startup ecosystems have a conference where they showcase and share their success, gathering local and global partners and audiences. For Serbia, that conference might be SPLET Tech.
As Neda Trifunovic, one of the conference organizers, said:
The SPLET Tech conference was held for the first time in 2022 in cooperation with two USAID-supported projects, Preduzmi ideju and Srbija Innovira, implemented by the Digital Serbia Initiative and ICT Hub. The conference gathered the entire digital ecosystem in one place. It was an opportunity to see and remember how many good projects and initiatives have been undertaken in the last few years. We looked at technological innovations from different angles. We witnessed how some ideas from this area have turned into global successes. Also, we discussed everything that is still ahead when we talk about the development of technological entrepreneurship.
Besides the local startup tech and scene, the conference attracted regional startups, VCs, organizations, partners, and startup enthusiasts. Over 2000 people visited one of the seven stages and listened to 80 speakers during just one day of the conference.
SPLET Tech 2023 is already scheduled for this upcoming fall, and we hope to see it becoming a tradition.
With structured verticalization, open conversation, and relevant public events, the Serbian startup ecosystem is consolidating and strengthening. The upcoming years will be challenging in more ways than one, but a healthy ecosystem foundation should provide a solid foundation for Serbian startups to flourish.