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Kushtrim Shala: maintaining momentum with the Uplift accelerator

In an interview with Uplift manager Kushtrim Shala, we explore how to run multiple acceleration programs per year and the differences between online and offline programs.

Kushtrim Shala led the organization of the Uplift acceleration program in Tirana twice in two years. We wanted to know more about what that experience was like.

Swiss EP: You organized two acceleration programs in two years. What motivated you to do it twice?

Kushtrim: Our main motivation was a commitment and a promise we made to our community back in 2019. The first edition of the accelerator program was a pilot program, while the second tested our capabilities as a community: can we build an accelerator of the same quality as any other European country? I believe that we are now close to achieving this goal. Besides that, the success of the first cohort of startups led us to believe that our ecosystem is mature enough for one acceleration program per year. The number of emerging entrepreneurs increases, together with the level of risk they are willing to take to succeed. To sum up — a promise, a high-quality program, an increase in the number of new exciting startups and many other reasons, like increased visibility of our entrepreneurial ecosystem in Europe, local support from various organizations such as Swiss EP, EU for Innovation, Vodafone, Raiffeisen Bank, and growing curiosity of investors made us believe it was worth it.

Swiss EP: What is the main difference between the first and second program (organization-wise)?

Kushtrim: I must admit that the second edition of the program was very challenging. Apart from the fact that it was longer (we went from 6 weeks to 16 weeks), the accelerator's second edition was focused on investment readiness. But the program and specific theme were not such a big problem for us. The most challenging part was the pandemic: it forced us to reshape our original plans for the acceleration program. We had to cancel seminars and visits of various investors who would have come to Albania, and we postponed our trip to Central Europe. I hope that we will be able to do it sometime in 2021.

Swiss EP: What is the main difference when it comes to participants? Are the first and the second cohort of teams any different?

Kushtrim: Yes, they were quite different. Like our organizing team, the first cohort was a test ride for the entire startup community. Startups had no idea what to expect from the acceleration program: how demanding would it be, what were the internal rules, would they benefit from the program? With the second cohort, we had the system in place, and things were much clearer to all of us. On top of that, startups in the second Uplift accelerator were utterly different from our first cohort. Most of them already had a few MVP attempts and prototypes. In my opinion, the second batch was more mature than the first one. Here is an example: the engagement of participants in workshops was nearly 99%. They all attended all workshops! It almost felt like they were studying for an MBA — this is how serious they were.

Swiss EP: That is remarkable! Congrats on this result. You mentioned that Swiss EP helped you with the program. How did the Swiss EP experts help you organize and run the program?

Kushtrim: I must say that Uplift would be completely different without Swiss EP. We are amazed by the level of support received from the Swiss EP and the fantastic network of this program. It was beyond any of our expectations. Swiss EP experts increased the program's quality, creating an experience never before seen in our ecosystem.

Swiss EP: You managed to facilitate private investments in several startups in the first cohort. How big of a challenge was it to trigger Albanian and international investors' interest in your startups this time?

Kushtrim: The pandemic made things difficult for us from this perspective, too. Many investment funds have relocated their assets, changed strategies, and completely shifted their course. Still, we had many inquiries and interest from VC funds and Angel investors curious about our startups. I don't have any news yet, but I hope that this cohort will be as successful in gaining investments as the first one.

Swiss EP: We hope so, too. What are your plans for 2021? Will you organize another acceleration program? Or two?

Kushtrim: Our main principle is to keep our promises — once we declare something in public, that becomes our obligation toward our community. Since we already announced Bridge2EU project, this is the next thing we are working on, in parallel with the new Uplift accelerator, of course :) We are brainstorming with our partners SOVVA, CIVITTA and the financial support of SlovakAid from Slovakia to adapt the Bridge2EU program and fit it to the “new normal”. And we are also searching for ways to reshape the acceleration program for our third cohort.

Swiss EP: Great news! Good luck with all the planning and count on us for support!