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Nebojša Bjelotomić, CEO of the Digital Serbia Initiative

Business and Academia Must Collaborate Better

The business sector should, with state assistance, direct academia towards addressing topics that are in the interest of economic growth and development, as well as encouraging innovation and thus attracting talented students to the fields that we need

According to the latest research conducted by the Digital Serbia Initiative, Serbian start-ups have strong engineering personnel, but still lack knowhow in the areas of sales and marketing. According to Nebojša Bjelotomić, chief executive officer of the Digital Serbia Initiative, our university system includes these subjects in its curriculum, but the problem is the failure to stress their importance and applicability in real world situations. “The topics needed to further expand the startup ecosystem relate primarily to internationalisation and scaling (company growth). And sales and business development processes provide the basis for both,” says our interlocutor.

“Representatives of companies (both small and large) also have the responsibility to increase their attractiveness. They should, through cooperation with colleges, reach a position from which they can interest students in these fields of study, but also to direct teaching staff to engage in research in areas of interest, mostly doing so by offering them “live” data,” explains Bjelotomić.

“The academic community has a need to engage in lecturing and studying. The business sector should, with state assistance, direct academia towards dealing with specific areas. Through the creation of student internships, guest lectures and the assigning of case studies, it is possible to attract talented people to the required areas. Given that start-ups lack the resources needed for this longstanding work, the role must be taken on by organisations that provide support within the start-up system.”

To what extent can this shortfall be remedied by non-formal education; how accessible and high-quality is it?

— Non-formal education generally tends to be much more market- oriented than formal education. This means that, for example, it will only address the development of skills needed for B2B sales when it identifies the potential for financial gain. That is perhaps a longer pathway than the one mentioned in the answer to the first question. At the same time, a large number of online courses covering these same topics already exist. They are high-quality and have improved over time. It is true that they have a language barrier factor, i.e. that they are mostly in English. But again, a foreign language mustn’t represent a hindrance if the intention is to apply the acquired knowledge on international markets.

We Hope That the Ninja Programme, In Cooperation With JICA, Will Be Organised Again This Year, and That it Will This Time Include Startups From Across the Balkans

Another option within the framework of non-formal education is for lectures on topics of interest with experts from abroad to be organised by companies themselves – provided they have the capacity – or by support organisations acting on behalf of start-ups.

What is the Digital Serbia Initiative doing on this front and how are your results?

— One example of training for “lacking” skills is the Ninja programme, which the Digital Serbia Initiative introduced in cooperation with JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency). Within the scope of this programme, expert lectures have been organised for start-ups at an advanced stage of development (that have a developed product). The experts either came from Serbia or abroad, depending on the topic. Topics covered during the course of the programme ranged from basic accounting to online marketing and e-commerce.

We hope that this programme will be organised again this year, and that it will this time have a regional character, i.e. that it will include start-ups from across the Balkans. Alongside this programme, we also hold individual lectures on topics of interest (e.g. on LinkedIn-based sales, with the lecture given by an expert from Sweden). Moreover, through the Career 4.0 programme, we bring together business mentors and high school pupils, introducing them to new occupations in the IT industry, skills, and people who have similar interests.

We discussed the maturing of our start-up market and growing interest in investing in Serbian start-ups among foreign funds in previous years. To what extent have current global trends, such as political and economic uncertainty, impacted these tendencies and what can we hope for in the near future?

— Observing the global situation, benchmark interest rates have risen markedly, under the influence of inflation. This has been characterised by an increase in the “price” of money, but has also reduced its availability. However, this trend is somewhat milder in Europe than in America, according to the reporting of London-based magazine The Economist, in the sense that European start-ups raised slightly less money in 2023 than they managed in 2022, but not to such a dramatic extent as was seen in the U.S. Our start-up ecosystem has another mitigating factor. Due to their relative lack of development, start-ups from our area are “seeking” investments of between half a million and two million euros, which is more accessible compared to larger financing drives. According to preliminary data from domestic accelerator Katapult, which is organised and managed by the Innovation Fund, the group of start-ups that collected investments during 2023 managed to collect almost the same amount of funding as the group from 2022.

At one point, we had ample initiatives to tailor the institutional framework for the work of start-ups. Where do we stand today on that path and how much can we use domestic resources to develop AI-based solutions?

— The institutional framework is advancing. In the Law on Innovative Activity, the state recognised the start-up concept, but also the angel investor concept. It envisaged and subsequently established a registry of start-ups aimed at easing cooperation between the state administration and start-ups. We are satisfied that more than 120 companies registered with this registry in the first few months after its establishment and will work to increase that number further. All start-ups wanting to apply for funds that are under the authority of the Innovation Fund or wanting to apply for some of the available tax breaks (such as exemptions from taxes and contributions on the founder’s salaries or exemptions granted on the basis of research and development activities) need to register. The process is automated to a large extent, in order to reduce the complexity and required application time.

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