In December 2022, representatives of the early-stage support programs from the Serbian startup ecosystem, came together for a Pitching event at the Faculty of Organizational Sciences (FOS) to meet the first generation of student startup teams mentored in the Route2Launch program. The event generated great interest among colleagues from other universities, even though mentorship of student’s startups is not an established practice in academia.

Facing Challenges

In February 2019, Assistant Professor Milan Okanović gathered a group of colleagues from the FOS around the vision to grow entrepreneurship in academia. While considering ways of introducing entrepreneurship into formal and informal education, together they agreed the local startup ecosystem can develop only if its basic constituents – teams, ideas, and initial support – grow exponentially. They also agreed that faculties in Serbia were not actively participating in the startup ecosystem (still in the activation phase according to Startup Genome Report 2019), and student startups needed more room for growth within the academic environment, where startup activities and initiatives were scarce and operated as “isolated islands”. Some student teams looked for outside support which distanced them from their academic workload. Also, research conducted at FOS indicated that students’ entrepreneurial mindset declines during their studies.

To respond adequately to the described situation, teaching staff was identified as a key factor for systemic changes in academia. In order for teachers to embrace entrepreneurship and startups, Expert2Mentors training program was designed in cooperation with experts from the local startup ecosystem to enhance the mentorship capacities of teaching staff for working with student startup teams. Among 150+ FOS teaching staff, 32 expressed interest, and 24 went through the training program. To further empower teachers to work with student teams, the project team provided a “step-by-step” guide for conducting mentorship sessions, making the faculty ready to announce the first Route2Launch startup mentorship program for student teams.

“Working with young and enthusiastic startup teams was a true privilege. Great personal responsibility for the team’s success is very much present”, emphasized Slađana Barjaktarović Rakočević, FOS full professor while sharing her experience with the program.

Transforming Student Teams Into Startup Teams

A total of 18 student teams applied for the Route2Launch startup mentorship program; 9 were selected and they were assigned 17 trained mentors. More than 70 mentorship sessions were held as part of the program with mentors and external experts from the ecosystem.

“For me, the Venture an Idea initiative represents a great opportunity for personal development and I really enjoyed its implementation and working with my student team that I am sure will be a very successful startup in the future”,  highlighted a full professor from the FOS IT department Ivan Luković.

During four months of continuous mentorship, teams went from initial ideas to validated problems, conceptual solutions, and developed business models at an investable level. With the newly established partnership with 30Hills development studio, two teams developed MVP versions of their products. 

“Route2Launch program allowed us to study and develop our startup simultaneously. I would particularly highlight high-quality work with mentors, connections with investors and successful entrepreneurs, opportunities to socialize, and personal growth. I would recommend this program to anyone with a startup mindset”, said Sava Pavlović, final year undergraduate student and founder of startup FarmIt. Route2Launch mentorship program was successfully completed by 6 teams, who presented their pitch decks at the “Student Ideas Week” to the representatives of startup support programs RaisingStarts, TechStars, NINJA, StarVentures and ICT Hub Venture. Student startup teams received feedback on their pitch decks and guidelines on how to apply for grant programs. The pitching session was followed by a Roundtable discussion during which new initiatives for involving academia in startup ecosystems were discussed.

A Step Towards Economy Based On Knowledge And Innovation

With a piloted training program for teachers and a mentorship program for students, a channel for generating startup teams from academia is established in the Serbian startup ecosystem. Other faculties and universities are now able to join the Venture an Idea project with foundations laid for building an academic mentorship community at the University of Belgrade. 

The expansion of this community will contribute to the wider inclusion of academia in the startup ecosystem. These systemic changes will contribute to growth in the number and quality of startups in Serbia in the long term, accelerating economic growth, and thereby increasing equitable prosperity. 

Expert2Mentors training session for FOS teaching staff

Opening word at Student Ideas Week 2022

Jury members at Student Ideas Week 2022

Sava Pavlović (FarmIt) pitching at Student Ideas Week 2022