On 27 January, the EU4Digital Facility invited government representatives, leading start-up ecosystem organisations and innovation experts to the first high-level policy forum, ‘Innovative solutions for the development of start-up ecosystems in the Eastern Partnership’.
This forum provided a platform for government representatives from the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries to share their progress and the challenges they face, discuss future cooperation and showcase the emerging potential of the region in terms of the innovation and start-up ecosystem community. The experiences with, and advancements in, the innovation ecosystem shared during the event perfectly portrayed each country’s diverse efforts to enhance the economy through national and sector-tailored solutions. Overall, this regional forum attracted close to 80 distinguished guests and speakers.
The forum was opened by a welcome speech from Mr Gérald Audaz, Head of Economic Cooperation with EaP countries at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR). Mr Audaz, presented the EU4Digital initiative as one of the key enablers of collaboration between the European Union (EU) and EaP countries, and said it could be considered as a strong stimulus for innovation in the EaP ecosystem. He indicated that the growing number of start-ups in the region proves that it has a wealth of innovative ideas, hiTech experts and entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, digital technologies – which present immense economic opportunities – require the public and private sectors to be open to taking certain actions and risks.
The inspiring keynote speech was delivered by Mr Charles K. Whitehead, Founder of eō Business Incubators in Kyiv and Founding Director of the Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship programme at Cornell Tech, USA. He demonstrated how global mentorship can improve the start-up climate in Ukraine and be applied in the rest of the region. In his presentation, Mr Whitehead emphasised the fact that, with the proper international support and real dedication, EaP start-ups have a chance to become more competitive in international markets. He said that it is essential to establish links so local start-ups can connect globally and so global actors can better understand the region’s significant opportunities. In this context, capital is crucial to realising the full potential of start-ups in any ecosystem.
The event’s main focus was on the long-awaited launch of a new regional EaP startup ecosystem platform. Mr Matthieu Demolin,Head of Ecosystems at Dealroom, presented this interactive platform, which was developed using best practices from the EU (such as europeanstartups.co). This new map of the EaP innovation ecosystem will facilitate data-driven policy- and decision-making, share cross-industry knowledge, and foster the partnerships required to help the next generation of innovators succeed on the global stage. The platform has already gathered more than 2 500 start-ups alongside a broad range of other participants. This part of the event was continued by Ms Małgorzata Walczak, Investment Director at PFR Ventures. She shared her practical experience using a similar tool – PFRs’ Polish Startup Ecosystem Platform. She noted that the transparency of start-ups and their overall ecosystem builds trust among potential investors; and national or regional digital tools like these platforms greatly contribute to building this trust.
The next part of the event was focused on strategy, and based on the panel discussion, ‘Innovative solutions for start-up ecosystems development in the Eastern Partnership’. This part of the event invited government officials from the Eastern partner countries to present their country’s efforts to tackle challenges and exploit opportunities for further collaboration with the EU.
Mr Davit Sahakyan, Deputy Minister at the Ministry of High-Tech Industry of Armenia, spoke about the start-up ecosystem that already exists in the country and the ongoing efforts to improve it (such as launching an Armenian diaspora-focused initiative aimed at bringing start-up developers back to the country). In his opinion, the main obstacle to attracting foreign investors for Armenian-registered companies is the gaps in the country’s legislative framework. However, the government is aware of this and is working to improve the situation.
Mr Irakli Nadareishvili, Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development of Georgia, identified the country as a regional business hub (ranked seventh in the world for ‘ease of doing business’). Georgia has started developing access to financial instruments using different types of grant programmes and is continuing its engagement with international acceleration programmes. The governement is also focusing on developing digital skills; this year they launched trainings for information technology (IT) specialists. Mr Nadareishvili shared the fact that more resources are being allocated to the innovation sector in the national budget, and, alongside private sector investment in the start-up ecosystem, this helps to assure long-term sustainability.
Then, Mr Andrei Cușcă,Head of the Information Society and Digital Economy Directorate at the Ministry of Economy of the Republic of Moldova, identified information and communications technology (ICT) as the most dynamic and developed sector in the country. Moldova IT Park play a crucial role – their innovative tax model containing simple management mechanisms has become the main engine for the development of the IT industry, increasing its competitiveness at regional level and attracting foreign investment. Another important actor in the ICT sector is the Tekwill Centre of Excellence. It intends to mature the start-up ecosystem by augmenting the entrepreneurial and educational IT capacities that exist in smaller cities.
The Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine and Head of the Diia City project, Mr Oleksandr Bornyakov, proudly presented Ukraine as a country transforming into a digital state. To accelerate the transformation, the government have decided to focus on two things: firstly, a legislative system that helps entrepreneurs and businesses thrive in local and international markets; secondly, improving access to capital. Diia City was launched as a result. It provides a special taxation framework for residents and a legal framework for the IT sector, as well as working to create opportunities for foreign venture capital investment and other benefits.
In the final part of the panel discussion, the key EU4Digital ICT Innovation Experts shared their insights on regional development in terms of innovation and the start-up ecosystem. Their presentations were followed by a lively discussion among panel participants and the audience. Ms Anna Pobol, EU4Digital ICT Innovation Lead, gave an overview of the region’s progress during the past several years and identified some of the key trends. In her opinion, the creation of new departments dedicated to the innovation ecosystem and the reorganisation of the institutions that oversee policy-making played – and can continue to play – a tremendous role in supporting the emergence and development of new types of actors (such as innovative clusters, accelerators and digital innovation hubs). She pointed out that the growing collaboration between the public and private sectors is creating big changes in the start-up ecosystem landscape, and named some good examples: Georgia’s Innovation and Technology Agency’s (GITA’s) collaborative programmes with Catapult Venture; Startup City Cahul, implemented by the Moldovan Association of Information and Communications Technology Companies (ATIC); Diia City in Ukraine. Finally, Ms Pobol noted how new projects appearing in the EaP market are helping to support the growing levels of digital skills needed by SMEs and citizens to create and implement innovations: the Union of Advanced Technology Enterprises established600 engineering laboratories as part of the Armath programme in Armenia; the TUMO Labs programme at the EU TUMO Convergence Center in Armenia; the Diia.Digital Education platform in Ukraine.
Then, MrJesús Lozano, EU4Digital’s Senior Expert in the Start-up Ecosystem, relayed a very clear message about the importance of digital skills, knowledge, and internationalisation to the ecosystem’s growth. In his opinion, tools like the EaP startup ecosystem platform, can help to build bridges between local and international investors and other players. The region should also focus on high-performance incubators and this is one more field where international support should be welcomed.
The most essential takeaway that emerged during the event was that cooperation with the EU is still an important contributor to the region’s growth. Countries must find the tools best suited to building synergies, and the EU4Digital initiative success story is a perfect example of how this can be achieved. For the start-up ecosystem to function successfully, it needs to further build and work with local communities, advance knowledge and establish the right infrastructure through targeted actions, the right investments and favorable legislative measures.
The EU4Digital Facility sees this forum as a new, important step in the development of the EaP innovation and start-up ecosystem; it encourages the exchange of diverse opinions, experiences and challenges. Solid foundations have been put down to establish this forum as an annual event that will act as a regional catalyst for developing the ICT innovation and start-up ecosystem and deepening connections with the EU.