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Kosovo's nascent tech community grows at Prishtina Startup Weekend

In 54 hours, young Kosovars took turned ideas into actual companies. They hope to kickstart their own 3-year-old country, which itself remains very much in startup mode.

pitches for ideas

The 60-second pitches for ideas began Friday evening

At first, the next big thing got only 60 seconds.

On a Friday evening in a new office building, Mehmetali Shaqiri, who co-founded the startup Spartan Soft, launched into his proposal into a room of budding entrepreneurs and a few local tech luminaries.

"I have a big problem enabling payments with banks [here in Kosovo]," Shaqiri began, as one judge encouraged him to speak louder.

Scenes such as this one played out a dozen times at the Universum University in Pristina (or Prishtina), Kosovo, as entrepreneurs participated in a 56-hour marathon this past weekend.

The goal: transform a concept for a Web or mobile application into a living, breathing startup by the end of the event. Team leaders pitched ideas on Friday night, found designers, programmers and others to join up, and worked all day Saturday and Sunday before presenting their company to judges.

Since 2007, some 200 startup weekends have happened across the world - this was Kosovo's first.

Startup Weekend logo

Startup Weekends have spawned hundreds of companies worldwide since 2007

Focus on problem-solving

Shaqiri hoped to use it solve his e-payment problem.

"My idea is to build a bridge between banks and developers," Shaqiri continued.

He wants to enable service providers and web developers in Kosovo make electronic payments online.

Services like Paypal don't work with Kosovo banks. That's largely because since Kosovo declared independence in 2008, only about 85 countries have recognized it.

In other words, Kosovo doesn't have International Bank Account Numbers (IBANs) and other important trappings of modern statehood, such as a telephone country code or top-level Internet domain.

Shaqiri's payment idea was just one of diverse pitches presented over the weekend. Others included systems for pre-ordering from restaurants, and locally-based server maintenance.

Burgeoning tech community

Event organizer Celik Nimani, himself a former tech journalist turned entrepreneur, told Deutsche Welle he was satisfied with the startup weekend, saying it marked an important first step for harnessing the economic potential of Kosovo's young tech community.

"These kinds of events could be really useful for those [in the] geek community to match up with business guys," Nimani said.

Monetizing tech savvy is something Kosovo could really use. It's Europe's poorest country, with an unemployment rate of more than 40 percent - the country's economy continues to rely heavily on money from Kosovars living abroad, mainly in Germany and Switzerland.

Kushtrim Xhakli, a veteran of several successful startups and a judge for the weekend, also wanted to connect the weekend's most successful endeavors with venture capital.

But Xhakli's biggest hope was that these 56 hours full of fast food, coffee and Red Bull will plant the seeds for a thriving group of technology entrepreneurs in Kosovo.

"It's not only about who's the winner and who's the loser," Xhakli told Deutsche Welle. "The best idea to come from here is the community."

Bright future

The startup teams

The startup teams worked for 54 hours solid to produce a workable product or service

If 17-year-old high school student Gent Thaci is any indication, the country's tech future looks very bright.

"I'm willing to do anything to help Kosovo grow," he said.

Thaci's team spent the weekend creating a near-shore Linux server administration system, so Kosovars don't have to outsource Web hosting to places like India.

Thaci's team, Sudobase, took home second prize in the weekend competition.

Peter Sunde, co-founder of The Pirate Bay and another judge for the weekend, thinks Kosovo - a new state trying to find its own footing - is the perfect place to foster a start-up mentality.

"A startup is a series of failures until you find success - that's kind of the idea of a startup. And that happened with this country as well," Sunde told Deutsche Welle.

Startups, like Kosovo, will find encouragement from incremental success within repeated failure, Sunde said.

Albanian e-books

Albanian-language e-book startup Elexoj

In the end, Albanian-language e-book startup Elexoj took home the top prize

Even though winning isn't everything, the taste of victory sure is sweet.

The idea that ultimately succeeded at Startup Weekend was Elexoj, which means "I read" in Albanian.

Over the weekend, the team created an Albanian language electronic bookstore, and stocked it with more than 50 titles. It targets the 7 million native Albanian speakers worldwide, particularly the large diaspora community that may not have immediate access to Albanian books.

Valon Badivuku, the 23-year-old University of Pristina student who led the team, said he thinks the language is a treasure.

"If we send the treasure outside, they can have [it too]," Badivuku concluded. He intends to have Elexoj online and in business this week.

Other Kosovar Internet entrepreneurs won't have to wait long for Pristina's next Startup Weekend, which is set for April.

Author: Nate Tabak, Pristina / sad
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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