Startup Ecosystem Serbia: Who is Who and What Are the Trends
“I believe that our experience in bootstrapping successful startups will prove very useful after the pandemic. In addition, our strong focus on gaming and our ability to create cost-efficient solutions to global issues could further improve our future prospects,” states Branko Milutinović, Nordeus co-founder and Digital Serbia Initiative Board President in this year’s Startup Genome report. The new edition of the annual research highlights Serbia, mainly Belgrade and Novi Sad, as a growing tech and startup ecosystem with a strong focus and expertise in gaming and blockchain. Big data, analytics, and smart cities are also strong verticals in the tech ecosystem, stated recent research by the Austrian Economic Chamber (WKO).
The tech ecosystem at a glance
The Serbian IT industry, the most vital and high-paced part of which is made up of startup companies, has strengthened its position on the national and international market and has become one of the most important pillars of the domestic economy, reads recent research made by the Austrian Economic Chamber (WKO). According to the report, in 2019 startups were also a big topic in public and political discourse. WKO estimates that there are currently between 200 and 400 newly registered and active startups in Serbia (mostly in Belgrade – 74%, and Novi Sad, but also more and more in Nis), working mostly for international markets (78%). The total export volume of the IT industry (not only startups) in the country exceeded €1.4B in 2019.
There is no unicorn in Serbia yet, but one of the biggest success stories in the tech sector so far is called Frame. In 2018, the cloud-software company, which back then was six years old, was acquired by the American company Nutanix for $165M. As a comparison, on a regional level, in Bulgaria, the biggest tech exit happened in 2015 when US Progress acquired Bulgarian dev tools company Telerik for $272.5M.
On a different note, Serbia is making great efforts to attract foreign investors to the country, and companies that decide to invest are generously supported. In view of the low wage costs, these are mainly productions with rather low added value. A weakness of this situation is that local companies are very little integrated into these international production networks and can hardly be considered as a supplier, notes the WKO report. This could logically lead to challenges for homemade tech companies who struggle with access to capital and may also face a challenge with talent that is sought by better capitalized foreign companies. This is also a discussion that has been around in Bulgaria for some time – foreign outsourcing companies sucking out the talent that startups would need but cannot afford as the salary standards in the sector rise.
In Serbia, the VC ecosystem is still not as developed as in other Balkan countries that are EU members and have received funding from the European Investment Fund to start their first accelerators and early-stage funds. In the past ten years, tech startups have raised as much as €143M of external funding, whereas €121M of them went to two companies, states the research by the Digital Serbia Initiative. Most of the startups in the country are bootstrapped. There are, however, other financial and fiscal incentives for founders. For example, 80% of income from royalties, licensing, as well as 80% of capital gains from the IP rights, are freed from corporate income tax, there’s also a 30% corporate income tax credit (maximum EUR 850,000) for investments into innovative startups. Also, startup founders with up to nine employees do not pay income tax in the first year.
The blockchain and gaming hype
Blockchain and gaming are the two areas where Serbia excels, according to the latest Startup Genome. It is one of the top five countries in the world for blockchain developers and has many product-oriented blockchain startups. The biggest initial coin offerings in Serbia include the $56M ICO by MobileGo and OriginTrail who raised $22M via initial coin offering. Other local stars according to the Startup Genome report are Blinking, thah has developed a blockchain-based digital ID solution, and Tenderly, a platform that monitors smart contracts.
Also, the region’s gaming industry is expanding. One of the leaders of this trend with an important spill-over effect over the whole sector is Nordeus, a Belgrade-based self-funded mobile games company whose popular game Top Eleven has 220M+ registered users. Two recent acquisitions put Serbia on the global gaming map too. 3Lateral, a leading developer of digital animation and creative content was acquired by Epic Games in 2019, while the Novi Sad-based gaming studio Eipix was acquired by Playrix, one of the largest mobile game developers in the world (check out our special game dev guide).
The Digital Serbia Initiative estimates the total value of the Serbian ecosystem at $502M and counts around 300 startups. Four-thirds of the companies are export-oriented, and nearly 60% are in the B2B space. Here is a list of some notable startups put together by WKO (some of them have already been acquired – see further below):
Nordeus | Nordeus is a Serbian independent mobile game developer headquartered in Belgrade. The studio’s debut game is Top Eleven Football Manager, a free-to-play social football management simulation game. In 2013, the game reached the top of the top-grossing charts in 23 countries on Android, and 68 countries on AppStore. The company is self-funded and one of Europe’s fastest-growing gaming companies. It is a privately held company with no external funding that registered a turnover of €18M in 2018.
Frame is one of the leading providers of cloud software and was founded in 2012. The Serbian start-up from Novi Sad was bought by the American company Nutanix in 2018 for $165 million. This is the largest sum ever paid for a startup in Serbia.
CarGo Technologies was founded in 2015 in Belgrade with the aim of modernizing the Serbian market and enabling transparent payment for services and easy connection of citizens through the CarGo application. Today, CarGo is a service that connects more than 850,000 people within the CarGo Citizens’ Association, a volunteer service to help the most vulnerable, a center to support young talent, and soon a service for ordering groceries from markets and restaurants.
3Lateral was founded in 2012 in Novi Sad and specialties in technologies that enable digitization of human appearance and motion at an unprecedented level of realism. The technology is applicable in many other industries like AI, biometrics, robotics, automotive, and research. In order to digitize an appearance and motion of a human being, the team produces an end-to-end solution – from electronics and hardware for 3D and 4D scanning, IT infrastructure solutions, databases, pipeline, to processing algorithms and real-time engine solutions. The company was bought by Epic Games.
Visaris is a privately owned company founded in 2003 in the field of digital x-ray imaging and diagnostic workflow. It offers a range of digital X-ray systems including digital radiography (DR) consoles and complete DR rooms as well as fully integrated process and diagnostic workflow solutions. The company operates in twenty-two countries worldwide.
Peaksel is a mobile development and publishing company, located in Nis, Serbia. The company was founded in 2012 and today has over 40 full-time employees and a portfolio of over 700 mobile apps and games. Peaksel is a privately held, bootstrapped company.
Founded in 2010, ManageWP is a web development tool that allows you to manage multiple WordPress sites simultaneously. This product was the first of its kind and was the market leader until it was acquired by GoDaddy.
AskGamblers exists since 2006 and is the most visited online portal for player ratings and casino reviews. It was voted the world’s best gambling website for three years in a row.
Mad Head Games is a fast-growing game studio that has become a worldwide player in the HOPA (Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure) scene with 48 published video games. It was founded in 2011.
Eipix, based in Novi Sad and founded in 2005, is one of the largest game studios in Serbia and was taken over by the Irish company Playrix. Together with its US partner Big Fish Games, Eipix has become one of the leading HOPA game developers. Simultaneously, the company has taken steps towards expanding into other fields of the gaming industry, such as VR and free-to-play games, with less success. It was acquired in 2019 (read below).
Tradecore is a fintech startup based between London and Belgrade, which has been developing innovative tools for the retail and financial services industries since 2013.
This company designed the “Strawberry Tree” in 2011. This is a solar-powered smart bench that allows you to charge smartphones and access the Internet. They are already active in 25 countries and have won numerous awards. The company is funded by the Bulgarian Eleven Accelerator and has run several successful crowdfunding campaigns.
Kampster is an e-learning company that was founded in 2017 and offers more than 3,600 different courses.
TwoDesperados is a game studio in Belgrade, which was founded in 2010. After changing from HOPA to free games, two marble shooter games were developed, which has more than 30 million users.
This is an online marketplace that was established in 2013 to book fishing trips or rent fishing boats. With over 30,000 fishing trips and numerous rentable boats and yachts in 118 countries and 2,022 cities, it is the world’s largest platform for such trips.
iPay is the first online payment service in Serbia, which was licensed by the National Bank of Serbia in 2016 and entered into the register of electronic financial institutions.
Decenter is an R&D center and project incubator focused primarily on building on the Ethereum platform. The team from Belgrade that has so far developed several blockchain projects (including two blockchain games).
ActiveCollabs comes from Novi Sad and was founded in 2007. It all began as a popular open-source project but soon grew into a commercial product. For over a decade, the company has helped more than 50.000 teams solve their professional problems by developing project management software for creative professionals.
With offices in San Francisco and Novi Sad and a “virtual lab”, Alchemy has built a platform that allows chemistry companies to launch products more quickly and easily grow their revenues.
Original Trail is a Serbian-Slovenian startup that was founded in 2013. Its main goal is to bring more transparency in the supply chain and its product is used in many industries – from food and beverages to consumer goods and pharma.
Founded in 2011, Content Insights is a SaaS platform that measures the behavior of online users. The company that was first backed by Bulgarian VC Eleven, has developed its own algorithm called CPI (Content Performance Indicator). In 2020 the company merged with a Dutch peer to form smartocto and help digital media be more relevant.
The founded in 2016 Hunch is an automated creative production and media buying platform that empowers brands and agencies to grow on paid social.
Financials & Investors
According to the Digital Serbia initiative, Serbian startups have raised €143M in the past 10 years. It bears mentioning that startup investments in Serbia were almost nonexistent five years ago. Even though the number on its own might seem pretty high, when we consider the overarching context, the perspective changes completely. UK-based startups raised 6.95 billion in 2018. Furthermore, approximately €122 million was raised by only two startups within the Serbian ecosystem. This implies that almost 97% of the remaining startups received only €21 million. Additionally, 45% of startups did not receive any external financing in the past 10 years and completely bootstrapped their development and growth.
SC Ventures (SouthCentral Ventures) is an investment fund that started in 2015 with an investment capacity of €40 million. They have invested in 27 companies and the startups in their portfolio are from Serbia, including Tradecore, Content Insights, Hunch, and Alchemy.
ICT Hub Ventures is the first private fund in Serbia. The fund invests up to €50K for equity between 5-15%.
Startlabs Ventures is a US fund investing in Southeast European companies that has an office in Belgrade. It invests up to €50K and asks for 10 to 15% equity. Startlabs originates from San Francisco.
Organizations & associations
The Digital Serbia Initiative (DSI) is a non-profit, non-governmental organization with the strategic goal of developing a strong, globally competitive digital economy in Serbia. It aims to create a business environment that serves the digital economy by investing in strategic programs in the areas of formal and informal education, startup ecosystem development, legal and regulatory frameworks, digital infrastructure, and public dialogue on digital transformation. DSI has a community of more than 30 member-organizations from all sectors relevant to the growth of a digital ecosystem.
Startit runs a network of seven startup hubs across the country, an annual pre-acceleration program supported by Google Launchpad, and a local tech news outlet – startit.rs.
ICT Hub runs two startup hubs, in Belgrade and Gornji Milanovac, and is responsible for several programs connecting startups with corporates.
Impact Hub Belgrade, part of the global network and located in the center of Belgrade, it provides various programs for startups, as well as digital media and entrepreneurship initiatives.
Science Technology Park Belgrade is a complex for both startups and scaleups, putting them under one big roof and providing them with various mentorship programs.
Business Incubator Novi Sad is one of the support organizations that focuses on supporting projects and teams in the field of ICT as well as creative industries.
StartIn is focused on the gaming industry and delivers engaging and practical programs, including the Booster program, which offers free co-working space and mentoring support to chosen gaming startups.
Nordeus Hub is focused on the gaming industry and delivers engaging and practical programs, including the Booster program, which offers free co-working space and mentoring support to chosen gaming startups.
Serbia Startup is focused on providing startup support across the region of Vojvodina, with central activities taking place in Novi Sad.
Relevant tech exits
One of the key indicators of the quality of the products and services that are being created are startup exits that happened in the last few years. Several Serbian startups were acquired by several big global companies, which resulted in most of them continuing the development in Serbia. When it comes to tech exits of Serbian companies, the most important ones are explained in detail in the section on “Startup Scene”. Considered more generally, if we take a look at exits which have taken place in the last 3 years, those with disclosed deal values add up to around €150 million. However, since there are several major deals that have remained undisclosed, it is estimated that the total value of all acquisitions could be higher than €400 million, states STARTUP SCANNER, the report by the Digital Serbia Initiative.
Frame got acquired by Nutanix in 2018. The Serbian-American startup Frame was purchased by US publicly-traded company Nutanix for $165 million, the largest publicly known acquisition of a Serbian startup. Frame is a leader in the field of cloud software and specializes in products for migrating desktop applications and software tools to the cloud.
3Lateral was acquired by Epic Games in 2019. 3Lateral was a self-funded company from Novi Sad that had built the world-leading technology of digital doubles. The US company Epic Games, widely known for its game Fortnite and Unreal Engine had been working with 3Lateral for years on several different projects.
ManageWP was acquired by GoDaddy in 2016. ManageWP is a tool for web developers that enables managing several WordPress websites at the same time. It was the first of its kind and up until its acquisition was the market leader.
DMS was acquired by Schneider Electric in 2019. DMS was founded in 2002 and works on Smart GRID solutions. It is specially devoted to the development and delivery of its main product, Advanced Distribution Management System (ADMS), which is the most advanced software system in the world for performing all technical tasks in distribution utilities.
AskGamblers was acquired by Catena Media in 2016. Ask Gamblers was the most visited online portal for player ratings and casino rankings and was named the world’s best gambling site for three consecutive years. Catena Media, an online lead generation company within iGaming and Financial Services, has continued to maintain the website.
Eipix got acquired by Playrix in 2019. Eipix, headquartered in Novi Sad and founded in 2005, was one of the biggest gaming studios in Serbia.
Lists are never complete so feel free to reach out to us and we’ll be more than happy to add more companies to the list. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
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