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Meet the Innovators: Forging a new future for the Western Balkans

Welcome to the Western Balkans, where they’re forging a new future and a new way of doing business.

The countries of the former Yugoslavia and Albania are hardly famous for their entrepreneurial spirit. But travel around and you soon find a surprising number of new companies dotted throughout the Western Balkans that are already setting their sights beyond smaller domestic markets and looking to Europe, and the world.

Jobs needed

At the Innovation Center in Kosovo—an incubator in Pristina sponsored by the Norwegian government—they’re breeding new ICT companies ready to go head-to-head with the titans of Silicon Valley. The ICT sector in Kosovo and its neighboring countries is developing very fast. It needs to if it’s going to provide the jobs that the next generation will require.

As countries here transition from the old Yugoslavia to the new knowledge economy, the region is facing many of the same issues that other transitioning and developed countries face: The old industrial structure is for all intents and purposes gone. And there’s an acute need for jobs.

The numbers are staggering. In Kosovo 30 percent of the population is below the age of 16, and a full 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30.

Not all the countries of the region have such young populations. But talented young people throughout the region—and there are plenty of them—need jobs, and opportunities.

Private sector development may hold the key to creating those jobs. Small and medium enterprises are forging ahead, particularly in newer sectors like ICT, robotics, marine biology, and nanotechnology—sectors that nobody had even thought about ten years’ ago.

The Outlook is Global

Meet just a few of the entrepreneurs, researchers, and business people who are shaking things up, and it’s hard not to catch some of their infectious enthusiasm for what this region can do on the world stage.

An old dentists’ office in Maksimir, Zagreb is an unlikely place for making your mark on the world. But when your business is IT development, it doesn’t much matter where you sit.

UX Passion, an IT development firm that specializes in user experience, is probably best known for the Wall of Tweets—a Twitter product for events used by the World Economic Forum, and other international players. The product played a key role in the 2012 US Presidential debate, when it set a record with 10.3 million tweets during the 90-minute debate. Events like these have enabled UX Passion to position itself as a serious player on the global stage:

“Ninety percent of our customers and 95 percent of our revenues come from outside Croatia,” says Vibor Cipan, Co-founder and CEO of UX Passion. “It doesn’t make a lot of difference sitting here or Berlin or somewhere in Silicon Valley. We are a worldwide company by mentality.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Miloš Milisavljević: “All you need is one computer to build an empire,” says the CEO of two-year-old Serbian start-up Strawberry Energy.

Milisavljević was a student when he invented the world’s first public solar charging station. Today he’s turned it into a ten-person company whose mission is to bring clean energies into people’s everyday lives, and where the average age is 25. By the end of the year, Strawberry Energy will be in three countries in Europe. Then next year they plan to enter the US market.

Going global, regionally

There’s good reason for optimism. Geographically, the region is part of Europe. The countries have tremendous natural resources. And the population is well-educated. On top of the technical knowledge, there’s also a creativity and approach to problem solving that makes this a great place to start a business, according to Sava Marinkovich, COO of TeleSkin, a Serbian start-up that has created an app for the early analysis of skin cancer and melanoma.

Another reason for optimism is the regional co-operation agreement Ministers from every country in the region signed in Zagreb last month.

Regional co-operation will be key for the development of the Western Balkans. With so much shared culture, history, and even language, regional co-operation is a natural advantage for innovators looking to conquer world markets. “If we want to compete in the outside world, in the huge markets and onto the world scene, we have to co-operate,” says Strawberry Energy’s Milisavljević.

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