The countries of the Western Balkans – which include the states of the former Yugoslavia, along with Albania – are not exactly world-famous for their entrepreneurial spirit. Yet if you look at their societies more carefully, you’ll soon find a surprising number of new companies dotted throughout the Western Balkans. They’re already setting their sights beyond smaller domestic markets: They’re looking to Europe, and the world.
While still small in number, these startup companies point to the potential for forging new knowledge-based economies in the Western Balkans. They show the entrepreneurial potential of a young, well-educated population, illustrating how entrepreneurship can help create jobs and promote shared prosperity.
The information and communications technology (ICT) sector in Kosovo, and in its neighboring countries, is developing very fast. It will need to, if it’s going to provide the jobs that the next generation will require. At the Innovation Center  in Kosovo – an incubator in Pristina sponsored by the Norwegian government – they’re breeding new ICT companies ready to go head-to-head with the titans of Silicon Valley.
As countries in the region transition from the old Yugoslavia to the new knowledge economy, the Western Balkans countries are facing many of the same issues that other transition and developed countries face: The old industrial structure is, for all intents and purposes, gone. Meanwhile, there’s an acute need for jobs.
The numbers are staggering. In Kosovo, 30 percent of the population is below the age of 16, and 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30.
Not all the countries of the region have such young populations. But talented young people throughout the region – and there are plenty of them – need jobs and opportunities.
The region is still struggling toward recovery. Unemployment levels are among the highest in the world, and youth unemployment is particularly dire: It is often double the national average.
Private sector development is likely to hold the key to creating those needed jobs. Small and medium-sized enterprises are forging ahead, particularly in newer sectors like ICT, robotics, marine biology and nanotechnology – sectors that nobody had even thought about 10 years ago.
Meet just a few of the entrepreneurs, researchers and business people who are shaking things up, and it’s hard not to catch some of their infectious enthusiasm for what this region can do on the world stage.
An old dentist’s office in Maksimir, Zagreb seems like an unlikely place for making your mark on the world. But when your business is IT, and when building a business means gathering a group of like-minded young friends who are as passionate about coding as they are about video games, it doesn’t much matter where you are.
UX Passion , an IT development firm that specializes in enhancing the user experience, is probably best known for the Wall of Tweets  – a Twitter product for events used by the World Economic Forum and other international players. The product played a key role in the 2012 U.S. presidential debate, when it set a record  with 10.3 million tweets during the 90-minute debate. Events like that have enabled UX Passion to position itself as a serious international player.
“Ninety percent of our customers and 95 percent of our revenues come from outside Croatia,” says Vibor Cipan, the co-founder and CEO of UX Passion. “It doesn’t make a lot of difference [whether we’re] sitting here or in Berlin or somewhere in Silicon Valley. We are a worldwide company by mentality.”
That’s a sentiment shared by Miloš Milisavljević: “All you need is one computer to build an empire,” says the CEO of two-year-old Serbian start-up Strawberry Energy .
Milisavljević was a student when he invented the world’s first public solar charging station. He has now turned that invention into a 10-person company – where the average age is 25 – whose mission is to bring clean energies into people’s everyday lives. By the end of the year, Strawberry Energy will be doing business in three countries in Europe. Next year, they plan to enter the U.S. market.
There’s good reason for optimism in the Western Balkans. Geographically, the region is part of Europe, positioning it alongside the European Union, world’s largest consumer market. The countries have tremendous natural resources, and their populations are well-educated. On top of their technical knowledge, they promote a creativity and approach to problem-solving that makes this a great place to start a business, according to Sava Marinkovich, the COO of TeleSkin , a Serbian start-up that has created an app for the early analysis of skin cancer and melanoma.
Regional cooperation will be vital for the development of the Western Balkans. With so much shared culture, history and even language, regional cooperation is a natural advantage for innovators seeking to conquer world markets. “If we want to compete in the outside world, in the huge markets and on the world scene, we have to cooperate,” says Strawberry Energy’s Milisavljević.
Another reason for optimism is the regional cooperation agreement signed last month by government ministers from every country in the Western Balkans . For the first time since the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, science and technology ministers from the seven regional countries approved a common set of national reforms and programs to foster innovation in the region. With high-level support like that, there’s every reason to hope that the young entrepreneurs who are forging this region’s future will be able to realize their aspirations – for themselves, for their countries and for the region.