From Stress Free Corners to the latest Circular Agriculture and Tech ideas

A year wrap up at the Home of Startups and Innovation in Kosovo – ICK

Prishtina, January 2022 – Schools reopening’s, workers back in the office and vaccines. All seemed suddenly to point a return of normality in 2021, which for many was seen as a year of hope, but also loss and uncertainty. In Kosovo, like in other countries of the world, the pandemic has deepened a crisis that already existed, with higher numbers of young people not being able to develop skills, find a job, start business and engage in their community.  But there is one place in Kosovo, that didn’t give up hope.

The Home of Startups & Innovation in Kosovo, as we love to call it, the Innovation Centre in Kosovo (ICK), achieved to prove quite the contra verse, by giving faith and opportunities back to young people and impact directly to the “back to normal” process for youngsters in Kosovo.

“It was an unusual year, but unusual times are soil for innovation. It was our duty to really serve the bright minds and entrepreneurs of Kosovo through of offering of startup support services, trainings and community events”, says Uranik Begu, the Executive Director of ICK.

29 new startups and over 120 new members joined ICK’s “Business Incubator” program during 2021. While 200,000 Euros where provide for young entrepreneur in grants, incubation services, consultancy vouchers, AWS credits, etc.

“As ICK, we never focus on grants as the greatest value of our offering. Community, network of partners and the synergy derived from it is what makes this community special and at the same time resilient for over 10 years”, adds Uranik.

Not only have been these grants and consulting’s supportive for news business, but the work of ICK is leading up on creating an environment for companies with Social Responsibility. Especially due to the fact that most of the projects and Startups that where supported from ICK, are those that applied with projects related to community problem solving solutions. Like the one that was created from Saranda Rexha, a young psychologist from Kosovo.

Having in mind the trend with mental health issues globally, but also the urge to adapt to the pandemic situation, Saranda designed the idea of the “Stress Free Corner” Project, which aim was to transform traditional mental health services to tech solution which would give opportunity for access for everyone in sources of treatment.

“Psychologist do not know much about technology”, Saranda starts to explain. “But when I applied and became part of the Incubator of ICK, I had the great chance to collaborate with young and professional mind and together we achieved to create the ‘Stress Free Corner’ platform”, she adds.  The platform now is a source of information and treatment on mental health related issues, but also is providing data trough research. “We have achieved now to publish our first research related to the level of stress at people that smoke”, Saranda tells us. “I am really grateful to ICK and every support that I’ve gained from the center and the professional young people, mentors, etc. that I’ve met there”, she adds stating that she was one of many new Startups that were lucky to be part of the ICK programs, having in mind that in the beginning of the pandemic many new businesses had to be shut down.

Another company that was supported from ICK, is “GoBeyond”, a company that is dealing with the protein dilemma, though innovative tech agriculture ideas.

The founder of “GoBeyond”, Karsten Klapp attended the Tech Boost Demo Day, with his idea of using insects as source of protein. “GoBeyond”, is being part of the Regional Accelerator with Spring Activator & Startup Wise Guys powered by the European Fund for Southeast Europe (EFSE) Entrepreneurship Academy. Karsten, who came almost three years ago from Germany to live in Kosovo, says that this great opportunity was given to him thanks to ICK. “Nearly a year after we [him and his wife] moved in Kosovo in early 2019, we got in touch and ever since ICK has been a place I really loved to go to meet young people and learn about new projects”, Karsten adds. “GoBeyond, started out of curiosity when I learned about the great protein gap globally, and the obstacles for protein and we started to grow some insects here in our flat, and now we have a farm in Llapnasello where we can work”, Karsten explains further on the work of his company.

While the incubator program was a business opportunity for so many new ideas and solutions, for some others ICK has been just the community needed in order to grow professionally. Jon Shala explains it in his own words, when he tells us how he became part of the Tech Community in Kosovo. Jon was one of 1,550 youngsters that were trained during 2021 at ICK. In total 120 ICT courses and workshops were held last year, and Jon was part of the Junior Geeks – a STEM Education Program.

Junior Geeks, is funded by the U.S. Department of State, and is an inclusive platform for high school students to discuss, explore and learn about technology, entrepreneurship, science and innovation. Before his experience with Junior Geeks, Jon tells us that he never thought that he could be part of the Tech Community.  “I had this idea in my head and I would stay all day on the computer and try new things out but I never thought that I can work with that as well. Until I met the ICK community”, the 17 years old from Prishtina – who is currently working on the design of an agriculture robot – tells us.

“I found my community and I am so happy because now I am part of professional team and I am working and also making money for my future form my work”, he adds. Jon explains how important it is for him to work on projects that are related to community solutions, therefore he says technology is the answer. “U can digitalize so many services, and benefit so much of it, there are so many ideas we can work on and develop”, explains Jon Shala further. “I would never imagine that I could do all this by being only 17 years old, but it happened and I am grateful to my tech family – ICK”, Jon adds in the end of the interview.

While travel restrictions where active for so long, and for Kosovars even longer due to political struggles, ICK continued to break the borders even in 2021, by making possible for many teams from its programs to attend in several local and international events such as: Startup Boot Camps, Startup & Innovation Fair, Tech Camp in Greece, Study Visits in the United States, Israel & Estonia, EXPO 2020 in Dubai, etc.

During 2021, ICK and its partners organized 108 events with 50,000 people involved.  Also 120 ICT courses and workshops with 1,550 participants and 100 paid internships were accomplished, with the main subjects covered: STEAM, Cyber Security, DevOps, Graphic Design, Java Programming, JavaScript, Smart Home and IoT, Web Development, App Development, Digital Marketing, SEO, Multimedia etc.

Seven competitions and hackathons organized at ICK Kosovo and in Tirana, with over 1,000 participants and €70,000 in value of awards. All those wrapped up in seven big events held in 2021, by ICK & partners such us: Techstars Startup Weekend Balkans; JusTech – Justice Hackathon, Red Bull Basement; Startup Social Venture; Junior Geeks Innovation Challenge; Food Waste Challenge and the Startup Answers Prishtina.

Well, we all can say one thing, a lot went on during 2021 at Kosovo’s Home of Startups & Innovation. And, the team is ready for a blasting 2022. Note: the pic below is “professionally” retouched!

Written by Leonora Aliu (ICK).