Website of Innovation Center Kosovo

Website of Innovation Center Kosovo

Kosovo is growing fast in the field of innovation, but the strong potential of the sector is currently not being used as much as it deserves. We talked about it with Uranik Begu, director of the Innovation Center Kosovo

17/11/2022 -  Ornaldo Gjergji

What is, in brief, the Innovation Center Kosovo?

Innovation Center Kosovo (ICK)  is a non-profit organisation, founded in 2012 with the support of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the aim to help create a new economy through creation of tech startups.

Throughout the years ICK has proved that this was the right decision, because it really supported the creative, innovative minds in the young population of Kosovo in demonstrating their talent, testing their ideas, making new friends, finding new co-founders, showcasing their potential, and also creating new opportunities for themselves and for their communities.

How does the centre operate?

ICK today operates on three main pillars. The first one is Startup Support: we work directly with companies that are in the process of their creation or fundraising. We support startups and companies that are up to two years old. And through an Innovation Fund we support SMEs that are entering the digitisation process in order to remain competitive. Through this first pillar we offer physical space: offices, services, consultancy, mentoring services, B2B promotion, but also cash based grants through which we support innovative ideas.

The second pillar is the Skills Department and Talent Program, through which we try to bring new people to the labour market. Some people will enter the labour market, but others will either become entrepreneurs or become self-employed, business owners or freelancers. Up to date, we have trained 8500 people; we are not an accredited training centre, so we focus on quick fix industry led solutions, which are not looking for diplomas but are looking for impact. It has worked so far.

The third pillar is community events, because we want to make this country attractive. We want to keep young people in Kosovo and in the region. So far, I think we've brought to Kosovo around 50 international partnerships.

How do you finance your activities?

Currently, we're funded by a Swedish development agency, which is our core supporter, but we also partner with all international development agencies or foreign ministry programs, starting with Norway, USA, Sweden, Germany, EU, Norway, Austria, Luxembourg, you name it. And then we work also with UN agencies, UNICEF, UNDP, the UN women. Then we also work with some governmental institutions on a project basis. All of these are project based activities.

Do you operate exclusively in Kosovo?

We have also start-ups coming to us from Macedonia, and Albania. International startups from France and Germany are coming here, too. Then we have some regional activities as well, we do regional partnerships. Actually, we're the only hub from the region that is involved in all regional activities.

Do you think that what you do at ICK could be scalableoutside the country, maybe in the Western Balkans or at a European level?

The problem with the region is that it is extremely fragmented, even Europe has the same “syndrome of fragmentation”. There are several reasons for that: language barriers, physical borders, sometimes also currencies represent a barrier. So it is not so easy to assess how much of what we do is currently scalable. For example, in Albania there is a growing interest for us to be present there because of our contacts and influence. They're asking us to participate in all of these activities. I think it's a bit too early because as we are still striving for self-sustainability and since we are donor based and we're looking for our sustainable model, I think it's a bit early to look outsid, but it could definitely happen.

What's the average profile of the employees of the startups that you are helping to create?

It's a bit difficult to say, usually these organization employ about 14 people on average, but some are bigger, up to 25-30 people. When it comes to gender, there is still a male predominance, like a 60/40, but we are going towards a 50/50. We also had some very affirmative programs empowering women and girls into tech. One program is called “developer”, we gave over over half a million euros in scholarships for empowering women into coding. We've supported 61 women and girls:all of them are employed now and that's one of our highlighted activities.

Do you think it's an issue to retain young people and valuable skills in Kosovo? Do people want to go abroad after they acquire the skills?

This question brings me first to the definition of what is brain drain. In my perception brain drain is when a person uses his or her brain to solve problems for other people. And it doesn't have to do so much with their physical presence, or where they live. It does with the utilization of their skills. Although most of the people are in Kosovo right now, we're seeing brain drain from here because all these people are working and outsourcing, and they're solving issues which are related to people outside.

Of course, they get just part of their salaries here, and if they were to go to Germany, for example, they would get times more than their current salary. So yes, we are exposed to brain drain, not on maybe as people phisically leaving Kosovo, but as of what they use their brain for. And this is mainly because there is no private equity and no capital in the region to utilize their skills and create opportunities for young people that have ideas.

Do you think that there is a clear political strategy in Kosovo to support innovation?

Throughout the years governments have failed the sector. This is an organic, growing sector that is mainly funding itself because of the opportunities given by an increased demand for global digital services.

How do you think local and national governments can support activities like yours and the sector?

They need to be more involved in the public private partnership. They need to be more open minded. They need to start creating solutions. We generate data, that data needs to enter the market, create solutions for citizens. They need to see digitalisation and IT services as something that will increase the well-being and generate services for its own people. Obviously by doing so, by being a government and a big spender, they can also incentivise local service providers to create solutions for them. All the people that are now creating solutions for foreign companies, for big universities, for governments abroad, could be brought back to try to solve some more pressing social issues here such as health, justice, public administration, education and so on and so on.

Does the Kosovo education system manage to promote entrepreneurship and innovative thinking?

The educational process is not competitive and it does not support innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. It's still a one way communication for the most part. Classrooms are big. Teachers are still the leaders. Although we're talking about new methodologies, the books are not fit for what we learn. I think we need schools not just in Kosovo, but all over to redefine themselves. And then we need a closer partnership between public and private.

On the other hand, in Kosovo there has long been a culture where public administration was the most attractive sector for many years. A lot of people aspire to have a position within public administration because it feels like it's a lifetime job. It was very tough to challenge this mindset. Only the ICT sector and this service industry has really started entering into people's minds, becoming a good job provider, providing insurance, health care and so on, but also competitive benefits for young people.

Obviously, this is a new set of skills and people can get into these jobs by training or retraining themselves because they don't require an official diploma. So it's not about formal education per se, like it was in the public administration where you needed to have a master's. That's why a lot of people and a lot of training and training providers are being super competitive in this regard.

What are, in your opinion, the main limitations and potentialities for innovative enterprises in Kosovo?

I see a lot of potential, but unfortunately we're not utilizing it. I'm not saying that there is nothing happening, but if we could bring some more means and instruments into the ecosystem, we could achieve much more thand we do. In the meantime, time is working against us, because young people want to leave, they don't see opportunities.
The ICT, innovation and entrepreneurial and startup ecosystem should be the driver of this transformation by creating new opportunities for young people, but at the same time, utilizing technology to solve some of our issues which we have locally and improving quality of life by offering new services. We need partners like foreign governments, agencies, but we also need our government. We need supporters that could match some initiatives with our government in order to make substantial steps ahead.

Is the European Union doing enough to support innovation in Kosovo?

Honestly, I'm very critical of the European Union and the way they've treated the subject till now. They've given so much money into infrastructure in Kosovo for so many things that have to do mainly with the past. We talk about museums, galleries... We need instead to focus on the future and this is the future and we need to focus on empowering existing organizations like ICK, empowering young people and then organizations. The European Union has already done some very good models in other places like Armenia, where they set up private equity funds, they have received funding and so on. They can do that again. That would mean a lot.


This material is published in the context of the project "Human capital mobility of and from the Balkans: when innovation succeeds against brain drain" co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MAECI). MAECI is in no way responsible for the information or points of view expressed within the framework of the project. Responsibility for the contents lies solely with OBC Transeuropa. Go to the project page

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