The Startup Scene of Bosnia Is Reaching Critical Mass

Startups are the “cool” thing to do nowadays! Walk around in a café in San Francisco or any major city around the world and it seems like almost all unemployed youngsters are building their own “tech startup.”

Everyone wants to be Mark Zuckerberg and create the next Facebook. Silicon Valley claims that they are a “meritocracy” and that no matter who you are, where you are from, or what your background is, you too can make it big! However, this is simply not true!

Elizabeth Yin, former partner of 500 Startups, one of the largest and most successful early-stage investors in the world said it best in a recent blog post:

“There are big world problems that are neglected because the right founders who understand these problems are not funded to solve them. And this is because their demographics do not fit the pattern that many investors are looking for.”

Two of the most recent startup success stories are Skype, which was sold to Microsoft for $8.5 billion and Transferwise, which is a coveted “unicorn” currently valued at $1.6 billion. Skype and Transferwise were both founded in Tallinn, Estonia. In fact, Transferwise was founded by Skype’s first employee, Taavet Hinrikus, who used his money from the Skype sale to start Transferwise.


Admirable efforts by USAID and others, but to early!

Estonia’s tech startup ecosystem is now firmly on the world map because of these two success stories. Before a startup ecosystem can achieve international attention, it needs success stories of its own to help spread the money around to other potential startups. Bosnia is not quite there yet, but I believe we are getting closer to this goal.

Four to five years ago, organizations like the USAID tried to inject money and resources into the Bosnia technology community but saw little growth or the creation of sustainable businesses. While their efforts are admirable, they were simply “too early.”

After holding conversations with many Bosnian community organizations and startup founders, I believe that even one year ago would also have been “too early!” Community events focused on either technology or startups, one year ago, were lucky to have 20 people in attendance; way too few people to make any sizable impact.

In the past few months, I’ve seen numerous grassroots startup events in different Bosnian cities (Banja Luka, Mostar, and Sarajevo) with 50-100+ people in attendance. Interest in technology community events is growing, but it’s only one part of the ecosystem.

To have a blossoming tech startup ecosystem, the following pieces are required:

  1. Real-world, technology, and startup educational programs to develop local talent
  2. Incubators, accelerators, and co-working spaces fostering collaboration
  3. Mentors and advisors helping startups to scale their businesses international
  4. Corporations willing to learn from and partner with startups
  5. Early-stage investors willing to take a risk on these startups
  6. Successful “exits” where startups have profited from their success and then reinvest their money back into the local startup ecosystem.

The first five pieces are now coalescing and within the next five years, I believe Bosnia will see its first successful startup achieve an “exit” to put Bosnia’s tech startup ecosystem on the world map.

Let’s recap some of the moments that have occurred in just over the last 2 months in Bosnia, to demonstrate why I believe a thriving tech startup ecosystem is now achievable.


A thriving tech startup ecosystem

Unless you have been living under a rock recently, you have probably heard about “Bitcoin,” a new cryptocurrency that has seen a meteoric rise to over $20,000 per Bitcoin (although it has since tumbled downward below $8,000). Many people still don’t really understand Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies, like Ethereum, or its underlying technology, called blockchain.

For this reason, Developers Banja Luka, a Facebook group of software developers in Banja Luka, hosted an “Intro to Ethereum and Blockchain” event on December 7th. Over 60 people were in attendance, at QLab co- working space, to learn more about this emerging technology. There was no free food or famous speaker (although the event was taught well by Dejan Radic, a software engineer of the blockchain company, Flashboys). This was as “grassroots” of an event as can be; local technology enthusiasts gathering to just learn and collaborate. That is a very promising sign.

Two days later, also at QLab, was an event called, “Fuckup Nights” where startup founders talked about the different times that they “fucked up” in their lives. The purpose of this type of event is to show that even successful people have failed many times and that people should not fear failure, but rather embrace failure as a stepping stone towards success. Over 110 people were in attendance to listen to 4 different speakers: Vladimir Sukara (CEO, JSGuru); Davor Debrecin (CEO, Svinaweb); Dajan Javorac (Creative Director, MANIA), and David Feldsott (CEO, PanTrek).

Startup Grind, an international organization designed to educate, inspire, and connect entrepreneurs, held its first event in Sarajevo, on January 18th. Held at Brew Pub and organized by Alema Pelesic (Swiss Entrepreneurship Program Manager for Bosnia) and Naida Vikalo (Business Development Manager for WeAreDevelopers), there were over 80 people in attendance. The event was a fireside chat and Q&A with David Feldsott, a tech startup founder and Entrepreneur-In-Residence (EIR) in Bosnia, on behalf of the Swiss government.


Various technology programs around BiH

In addition to technology and startup events, private organizations are developing educational programs around both technology and startups, such as Kliker and Starter Program. Kliker recently held four events in December to teach programming skills to children, from ages 7-16. Over 80 students have attended the courses so far, held by instructors Jelena Kalaba, Jelena Miodragovic, and Dragan Knezevic. Students explore web programming languages such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript and many students completed Android apps by the time they “graduated.” Some of the apps created were a to-do list, music player, shopping list, and best games review site, among others.

Vladimir Corda created the Starter Program to teach new entrepreneurs how to design a growth strategy around their new business ventures. Five startups, along with support from mentors, built “business model canvasses” to better understand where the potential pitfalls are for their businesses, along with strategies to overcome these issues. Types of businesses at the event included a new brand of tea, a tourism agency focused on organizing hunting trips in Bosnia, and a website to sell inter-city bus tickets online in Bosnia.

With the surge in startup activity in Bosnia, new incubators/accelerators are forming to help the nascent community. Robokids, a beautiful, new makerspace was recently opened in Banja Luka, on December 21, 2017 to teach robotics and software development to children. At the opening event, even the Mayor of Banja Luka, Igor Radojičić, was in attendance. The founder of Robokids, Zoran Gajic, hopes to open a Robokids in all major cities in Bosnia.


Co-working spaces and accelerators

In Sarajevo, two different groups are in the process of establishing an Impact Hub, which is part co-working space and part social-enterprise incubator program. Furthermore, the CEO of the Banja Luka Stock Exchange, Milan Bozic, is in discussions with the University of Banja Luka to open a Technology Park and Incubator Program by the end of 2018.

The most advanced accelerator in the Bosnia tech startup ecosystem is Spark, in Mostar, run by its new Managing Director, Sanjin Osmanbasic. Spark was originally created from the success of the betting and gaming technology company NSoft. Spark has four divisions: a coding school, an R&D lab, a startup accelerator program, and a co-working space for more established businesses.

In January, Spark introduced its 5th generation of startups to its accelerator program, showing great consistency in identifying the up-and-coming startup talent in Bosnia.


Exciting startups

One of those top startups from Spark is VRET (Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy), which is using virtual reality software to help medical patients overcome their fears, such as fear of heights, spiders, dogs, claustrophobia or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). VRET recently completed a trial run with the Phobius Polyclinic in Vienna, Austria, treating 60+ patients, with an 80-90% success rate. The startup also placed 2nd in an international startup competition, Betapitch, in Berlin, Germany, winning a free trip to Silicon Valley. These early successes for VRET are already attracting the interest of international investors say VRET’s project manager, Iva Dikic:

“We are visiting conferences and congresses that are accompanied by a large number of investors. Of course, there are those who are interested, and it is up to us to choose the opportunity that is the best and most suitable for us…”

Other early Bosnian startup successes include two Sarajevo startups: Bizbook (B2B messaging service) and Fress (home delivery service for organic food).

Bizbook, founded by Erna Sosevic, has received very little outside investment and yet has already reached profitability; a remarkable feat for such a young tech startup. Bizbook’s software facilitates interactions between different Bosnian companies such as for forming joint marketing partnerships, finding vendors, or to close sales deals.

Fress, founded by celebrity chef, Almir Mukaca, has already received a sizable seed- stage investment. With this funding, Almir plans to sell/deliver more products, purchase new delivery trucks, and expand its services to other Bosnian cities. On occasion, Almir has been known to “shock” his fans by delivering the products himself, directly to your door. Almir uses these face-to-face opportunities to solicit feedback from his customers, a very smart move to remain informed.


The startup ecosystem in cooperation with more established companies

The final piece needed for any budding tech startup ecosystem is the cooperation and involvement of larger, more established companies.

On December 14-15, 2017, the Bring IT On event, in Banja Luka, was organized by BitAlliance and United Nations Volunteers, in partnership with three larger, Bosnian IT companies: LANACO (software development company), JSGuru (software development company), and MANIA (digital marketing agency) along with the University of Banja Luka.

Bring IT On was a 2-day collaborative event designed for ~50 students from the University of Banja Luka, to receive support and learn from IT industry experts. The first day, held at LANACO’s office, included lectures, networking, and a fireside chat from professionals in Bosnia’s technology industry. The 2nd day, held at JSGuru’s office, was a pitch event/hackathon for the university students.

Teams of 5-6 university students had to come up with a startup idea, product specifications, and business plan. By the end of the day, the teams created an investor pitch and presented in front of a panel of judges. The winning team, “Mine Mapper” was a group of only 3 students: Andrea Došen, Aleksandar Kecman, and Nebojša Ivić. The Mine Mapper team wants to use giant African rats to help clear the remaining land mines in Bosnia. The rats, which are specially trained to smell TNT explosive powder, would be equipped with an IoT device to precisely “map” the GPS coordinates of where mines were being detected, by the rats. The rats are too small to detonate the mines and can clear minefields up to 20X faster than humans; thus saving, time, money, and human lives.

Even the larger Bosnian technology companies are banding together to achieve more success. BitAlliance, one of the organizers of the Bring It On event, is a new trade group in Bosnia, representing 27 software companies that employ more than 1,8000 people. The primary goal of BitAlliance is to lobby the Bosnian government to adopt laws that are more conducive to economic growth for the technology industry.

Many regulations are holding back the industry’s potential growth, and therefore employment opportunities too. By combining efforts, BitAlliance hopes to use the collective might of these 27 software companies as a government influencer. Other goals of BitAlliance include educational programs, such as CoderDojo, public relations, and organizing conference events.


Entreprenurship in Residence Program

Another organization helping to grow the tech startup ecosystem in Bosnia is the Swiss Entrepreneurship Program, funded by the Swiss government. The program brings tech entrepreneurs, known as Entrepreneurs-In-Residence (EIRs) from North America and Western Europe to develop relationships with the Bosnian startup community. Many EIRs become advisors to startups, teach specialty workshops, hold public speaking events, and help technology companies and incubator programs reinvent themselves.

Four EIRs have recently been placed in different cities in Bosnia, including:

With the increase in technology and startup educational programs, the entrance of new incubators, early startup successes, budding interest from international investors, and support from more established technology companies, Bosnia now has all of the necessary pieces to build a sustainable startup ecosystem.

There is one aspect of Bosnia’s budding startup ecosystem that beats Silicon Valley, hands-down: the number of women pioneers. If you didn’t notice, most of the people mentioned in this article are women; including both organizers of Startup Grind, the founders of VRET and Bizbook, two of the teachers at Kliker, one of the team members of Mine Mapper, and two of the Swiss Entrepreneurship Program EIRs. Silicon Valley has a big diversity (and sexual harassment) problem, including a lack of women.

From my anecdotal experience, there is a higher percentage of women involved in the Bosnia startup ecosystem than in Silicon Valley. Bosnia is actually leading the charge here! In my experience, women tend to make better startup founders than men because they have more empathy and better listening skills, which are both essential to understanding customer needs and growing a startup to success.

These many women involved in Bosnian startups excites me and is one of the big reasons why I believe success is just around the corner for the blooming Bosnian startup community.


Guest post by:
David Feldsott
Entrepreneur-In-Residence Swiss Entrepreneurship Program