Croatia has a very vibrant startup scene, and the recently established umbrella association CRO STARTUP brings together everyone on the market. One of the first tasks of the association is to map the startup scene, so we can finally find out if Croatia has 600 or 6,000 companies in Croatia that belong to the club.
We spoke to CRO STARTUP president, Hajdi Ćenan, about the potential of the industry, the development of the Croatian startup scene, and artificial intelligence, which her company Airt deals with.
You are the head of the new association CRO STARTUP, which brought together both large companies in this sector and those that have recently been established. What is the goal and motive of the association?
We were the only EU Member State without such an organization, so we decided to unite. I must stress that we became a country with two unicorn companies overnight and that we have an extremely vibrant startup scene, where new companies are being created every day. They all succeed not because of the support of the ecosystem but in spite of it, because we simply don’t have an ecosystem.
What can the Government do to facilitate the development of the startup scene? Estonia is an example of a country with very good support for innovative ideas…
We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, there are centers like Estonia, which already has nine unicorns per 1.3 million inhabitants. Their startup momentum happened, as it is happening in Croatia today, when Skype became the first Estonian unicorn company. The state can make it easier for new companies to do business by simplifying the opening and closure of companies, because one of the characteristics of startup companies is the high probability of company shutdown. The transfer of shares in companies should also be simplified, as this will facilitate investments by institutional investors. Many are being discouraged from investing in Croatian startups because it is difficult to transfer shares, or they are forced to change headquarters. The scene would also be stimulated by providing tax breaks to “angel investors”, in order to encourage them to transfer funds from savings to new projects. This money would find its way back into the budget very quickly through contributions because IT companies invest the most in employee salaries. It is also important to facilitate the rewarding of employees, especially through stocks and shares in companies, because nowadays it is extremely difficult to retain talent. These benefits would enable startups to stay in Croatia and develop into unicorns.
On the 5G portal, we presented a number of companies that are well-known in our country and in the global market. Do you, like some experts, believe that Croatia can develop another unicorn, or even more?
We are not a big market, but we have amazing people, talent, and ingenious projects that are globally relevant. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes, so Infobip surprised us too because we didn’t even know they were going to ask for an investment, but then they got a billion-dollar valuation and thus we got our first unicorn. We certainly have the potential for more such stories.
You are the vice president of an association of companies that develop tools based on artificial intelligence, and you also run Airt, which develops similar solutions. What is the potential of AI?
Artificial intelligence is a very active sector on the Croatian scene. We have about 120 startups, but the whole ecosystem is expanding, so we can say that today about 200 companies are developing AI solutions. It’s fascinating to watch how fast this scene is developing and how good we are at it.
How do you view the use of artificial intelligence in everyday life? What will healthcare, banking, retail look like in 10 or 20 years?
We don’t have a crystal ball and it’s hard to imagine what the world will look like in ten years. We already have strong global players, like Photomath, currently the most popular app on the Apple Store in the world; Rimac uses many AI solutions in the development of autonomous driving, as well as Gideon Brothers on their logistics robots.
The key to development is the 5G network, which enables faster transfer of larger amounts of data. Is Croatia developing 5G infrastructure fast enough?
I have a feeling that we are leaders because, as far as I can see in the region and in Europe, Croatia was among the first to develop 5G infrastructure. Artificial intelligence is based on a large amount of data, so the infrastructure that enables fast data transfer and processing can only boost the development of new services.
It is interesting to talk about the application of AI on health and autonomous driving because these sectors are very sensitive.
Great care should be taken in this area, and that is the task of regulators. Autonomous driving is evolving cautiously. A fully autonomous vehicle like from SF movies would be a vehicle at level 5 of driving automation, while the solutions used today are in the level-3 domain.
There are already some fascinating solutions in medicine. A good example is the application of artificial intelligence to mammograms, a tool that can detect breast cancer for up to five years before it develops. The algorithm processed 90,000 images of as many as 60,000 patients. No radiologist would be able to recognize these minute changes that a machine can, but machines, i.e. algorithms, have to support people in decision-making. The machine is still unable to make independent decisions – if it will ever be able to.
You are the founder of Airt, which has developed a solution for the financial sector. What exactly is it about?
Our solution arose from cooperation with the bank, but we are no longer focused exclusively on the financial sector. Namely, we focused on the type of data – transactional, event-based data – that dominates in all business applications related to end customers. We have innovated and applied for a patent for deep learning techniques to process precisely this kind of data, which yields superior results for predicting customer behavior. Since we can give companies a much better understanding of their end customers, we help them anticipate much better, for example, what they should offer to whom, at what time, and through which communication channel.
The IT sector is dominated by men. Is the employee structure in the sector changing and how many women are there among the founders of startups in Croatia?
The change is already happening at the academic level, where more and more women attend technical colleges, so more of them are entering the labor market. What still needs work is their greater representation in senior management positions, as well as in the startup world. We still do not know the exact number of women (co-)founders of startups in Croatia because we still do not know the exact number of startups; we have yet to truly analyze our startup scene, which is one of the tasks ahead of the newly established CRO STARTUP association. The only concrete data we currently have is related to AI startups, from CroAI’s review of the artificial intelligence scene, in which they identified only 17 percent of women in the positions of founders or co-founders of AI startups. In short, there is plenty of room for improvement.
You have changed the direction and sector in which you work several times during your career. With the current dynamics of market development, many who are on the labor market today will likely have to do the same. How did you arrive at artificial intelligence from finances and media where you started?
Generations that are just entering the labor market today are already expected to change 17 jobs in as many as five different industries, which really means that gone is the time when it was difficult to move to a completely new area. Today, knowledge is just a mouse-click away and anyone can get educated in whatever interests them, if they are really interested. I personally started my career in the media, then moved to the world of digital marketing and now I am “swimming in the waters” of artificial intelligence. Of course, this means that we need to continuously monitor current events and technology developments, and continuously learn, as this is how we gain priceless knowledge and experience that brings great value at every step of the way.