Uplift will hold the final day, the Demo Day, on January 17, where the selected startups will present their ideas and progress in front of a jury of investors. In the following interview with the founder of Uplift, Kushtrim Shala, we talk about the progress of this edition of Uplift, the level of innovative ideas in our region, and Uplift's plans for the future.
How has this Uplift season been for you? Can you say that you have achieved the expectations and goals set at the beginning of the season?
Uplift Western Balkans, originally called Uplift Albania, has gone through a second phase that brought the formal expansion of this accelerator with the opening of its branches in two other countries such as Kosovo and Northern Macedonia. This has paved the way for another objective, to spread further to the 6 countries of the Western Balkans, including Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Uplift itself is an accelerator program for early-stage startups which helps to grow the business and increase their appreciation. Uplift aims to support dozens of startups from the Balkan region each year. Through Uplift, innovative startups are taught how to approach investors and protect their property, improve business models and apply certain methodologies. When we say innovative startups we mean any startup that has innovation involved in the solution of the problem. The creation of this accelerator has come as a result of a very large gap between project ideas and ideas which are willing to absorb investment and exhibiting models is the best way to lure others into the ecosystem. Uplift has already gone to a stage where it does not accept plain ideas but MVPs or prototypes which need investment and we do their acceleration to get them ready to absorb a certain investment.
In this edition, we had 12 startups of which 10 managed to make it to the finals, in the Demo Day that will be held on January 17th. More specifically, it is about 4 startups from Albania, 3 startups from Kosovo, and 3 startups from Northern Macedonia. During the journey 2 startups have not reached the finals, for various reasons, startups that are reluctant to follow a certain program or are not at the right time to develop their project idea. Startups have a difference in their development level, some are early-stage, some are in the stage where they generate profits, some are at higher risk. What we have tried to achieve is to make them fall in love with the problem, this way they do not forget at any moment who their target is. This is because the solution can be variable and you can always go back to it to change it. An important factor is also getting feedback at an early stage from potential customers.
What do you think the two startups that failed to pass all the stages lacked?
I would not say that they lack something but they were not at the right moment to take advantage of such an intensive program. The Uplift program requires a very large commitment of 10 weeks where you have to be part of seminars, workshops, interactions with investors, various experts who have extensive experience and require commitment and certain resources to engage. Uplift has a primary condition where the founder or co-founder of the startup must participate in any individual mentoring activity or session, which makes it difficult to participate consistently.
How was the level of applications in this third edition given the fact that you have expanded in the Western Balkans, but not only in terms of quantity of applications but also the quality of their ideas?
Uplift every year tries to raise the standard of ideas, normally this has been the best year in terms of the level of applications. In the last two years we have had a very large number of applications but the startups that stood out have been very few. The peculiarity of this accelerator was that we had three selection boot camps in different countries where different mentors and experts were engaged and the level of startups consequently has been higher. This does not mean that there are startups that exceed the value of over 100,000 euros for the testing phase, which means that they are still startups at an early stage. Startups that reach that level are required to expand capacity, sales operations, in different countries of the world or Europe and they mainly need millions of investments and do not participate in programs that focus on early-stage startups.
In our ecosystem of startups, many startups do not operate in Albania, so Uplift is an educational program that focuses on helping a certain set of startups, but also to convey motivation to students, innovators, and young people, those who have premises for entrepreneurship and have enough capacity or a good team to develop a certain idea. We are very pleased with the way this whole program was developed, I can say that we are one of the most correct accelerators in terms of participation, there has been an extraordinary synergy through the founders with each other. They talk about potential collaborations to exploit cross-learning opportunities.
In addition to all the mentoring sessions, the seminars, the individual meetings now that we are coming to the final day, are there any prizes for startups that will be declared winners?
There are prizes ranging from 5-7 thousand euros, but this is simply as an incentive to try to formally identify an accelerator winner. This does not mean that those startups that will hear the name in Demo Day will have the road paved, in fact, this is just the beginning. Each of the startups will get an impression, will receive advice from the investor panel and the program will continue for some startups that will be at a higher level. We are working to make January 17th not a turning point but for some, it may be a starting point for their investment journey. We will continue with an Investment Readiness Program where we will work with investors to prepare the investment package for the best startups.
Looking at the situation a few years ago where to say "I am an entrepreneur or I am going to build a startup" you were considered unemployed, do you think you made any changes to the mentality of people now that they hear the word startup?
I think the term startup is already mainstream, it is a common term nowadays, it is not a person who takes a risk because he has nothing to do or is unemployed and tries to keep himself engaged. Young entrepreneurs have already managed not only in Albania but also around the world, to go to the ears of each of the common people. Groups of young people who deal with solutions to various problems, big issues, are considered elite groups, young people have ideas have courage and all together we have injected very positive feelings because they are the ones who need to be motivated to do more. But these ideas need to be structured, they should not focus on the moment but on longer-term solutions.
In conversations with investors, it seems that they tend to say that there is a willingness on their part to invest but there are not enough good ideas in Albania, what is your opinion on that?
For some startups there is a sufficient amount of grants and funding opportunities, but there is a very large gap between the demand of investors for ideas that can get an investment of 20 000 - 100 000 euros and the ideas which are at that stage. Although we also have successes that do not pass into formal incubator systems, accelerators, or university systems. Universities are very important for talent promotion because an accelerator has nowhere to look for other than university systems. Talents can not be sought in the streets, they come from a formal education system. We are complementary in the formal education system and compete in that group of talents who want to realize their idea in the ecosystem and to implement it. Sometimes problems have to be said out loud, in order for a brainstorming session to be done and find a solution. Yes, it is true, investors of start-ups in the early stage find it a little difficult to consolidate their offices in Albania and create a daily activity due to the lack of absorption capacity of start-ups and the innovative entrepreneurship sector.
What are the further plans for Uplift, when can we expect the fourth edition?
In discussions with other European countries, we have received tremendous feedback due to the high cultural and educational level of young people across the region. Uplift has done a colossal amount of ongoing work in terms of human capacity development. We love Tirana very much not only because of the open access that Tirana has with other cities but also because of its geographical position, opportunities, etc. Uplift will continue, if not wider, as it is and there will be additional platforms that will be attached to make it richer and more enticing and adapt it to the new circumstances we all already see. The ecosystem is evolving, if we look back and think three years ago when Uplift started as a European accelerator it was a great skepticism how much we could adapt to an energetic level of a European accelerator as the spoken language is high-level English.
We are dealing with highly prepared people with a great deal of experience who do not hesitate to say it out loud when an idea does not work. No matter how educated you are, you must be open to a European mentality, global thinking. I believe that we have achieved everything very well and Uplift has influenced not only the inner spirit of the youth but also the acceleration of the steps of central, global politics. We have seen various regional developments within Albania such as Shkodra, Durrës, and Korça and of course Tirana, we have seen central government developments which have put it in special focus. For the first time, there is will be a 10 million fund for the startup ecosystem, which is extraordinary news.