Having grown up in Kosovo, Visar Berisha aims to help showcase innovation in the Balkans to the rest of the world. He recently had the opportunity to do so in the United States. state departmentIt is Global Initiative for Innovation through Science and Technology, or GIST.
“The development and growth of the Balkan region has always been close to my heart,” says Berisha, professor of electrical engineering at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University with a joint appointment within ASU College of Health Solutions. “When the Melikien Center at ASU introduced me to the US State Department GIST innovates in the Balkans program, this appealed to me, because it was like an opportunity to make a difference in a region that is very close to my heart.
With help from the Melikian Center and ASU J. Orin Edson Institute for Entrepreneurship and InnovationBerisha’s proposal resulted in funding from the GIST Initiative to power a two-year program with several cohorts of selected Balkan-based companies, during which participants learn how to expand their offerings in the US market.
The first cohort of the program is made up of 13 companies participant for 10 weeks between July and October 2023. Participants participate in training sessions in which they learn from the experiences of ASU faculty entrepreneurs from Fulton schools and beyond. They also benefit from mentoring and networking opportunities with ASU-affiliated entrepreneurs relevant to their industry and conduct interviews with potential clients. Some participants will also be selected to participate in the Adventure Devils pitching competition.
Design an international entrepreneurship training program
Berisha took the lead at GIST Innovates the Balkans with her co-principal investigator, Zachary Holmanprofessor of electrical engineering and Fulton Schools associate dean for research and innovation.
Berisha and Holman have entrepreneurial experience leading startups; Berisha co-founded a digital health company Hearing analysisand Holman is co-founder of the coating company Quick coat and solar technology companies Beyond silicon And SunFlex Solar.
Holman and Berisha designed the program with Eusebio ScornavaccaASU professor and interim director School for the future of innovation in societywho is also a professor at Thunderbird Global Management SchoolAnd Ji Mi Choiexecutive director of National Science Foundation-finance I-Corps Hub: Desert and Pacific Regionthat ASU runs.
They modeled the GIST Innovates the Balkans program after the NSF program. Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, which helps university science and engineering researchers bring their projects to market. Unlike I-Corps, GIST Innovates the Balkans includes startups from a wider variety of industries beyond science and engineering that did not all start in a university setting.
Regional collaboration and entrepreneurship organization Kosovo Innovation Center helped tailor the program to benefit participating startups as much as possible. The center also helped select participants from four countries in the region: Kosovo, North Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia. Additionally, the Innovation Center Kosovo managed the logistics of the program and organized in-person entrepreneurship training sessions.
Denise McKenzieacademic associate at ASU College of Health Solutions, is a lead instructor for GIST Innovates the Balkans. Also an instructor for I-Corps, she led the in-person sessions in Kosovo for a week in July with help from Holman and Berisha, after which participants learned through weekly online sessions.
“We teach a process for finding solutions based on who your customer is,” says McKenzie. “It’s something they can use for this product or service, but also in the future. It really is wash, rinse and repeat.
Understand the needs of American customers and learn from the experiences of entrepreneurs
Participating startups include companies across a wide range of industries, such as AI speech translator to sign language. SignAvatarsustainable hat brand Mirjana Josifoska and marketing platform Brand pack. These companies are matched with ASU-affiliated mentors who help participants find potential clients with whom they will conduct approximately 40 interviews per company.
After the interviews are completed, mentors help participants analyze the information they have gleaned and determine what changes to make to their products or services.
“At the end of the program, participating teams will accumulate the evidence necessary to confirm or disprove product-market fit,” explains Berisha. “This information will help them build a data-driven business model and craft a compelling pitch.”
Participating startup teams are at various stages of development, including those with some market share in the U.S. and others exploring whether expansion is worth it. One of these teams is Brummellwho invented a blazer jacket designed to maintain a professional suit-like look while meeting strict motorcycle equipment safety standards through the use of Kevlar.
Nina Levic, CEO and co-founder of Brummell, says the experience was valuable because it allowed her to learn from ASU entrepreneurs about their own experiences running businesses and dive deep into the needs of their clients.
“This program was really valuable for us, as it allowed us to explore our customer segment in depth, gain new knowledge and share our experiences with other entrepreneurs,” says Levic. “This has been a great experience for us and we look forward to seeing the emergence of similar programs like this in the Western Balkans region. »
Looking to the future, Berisha plans to make the program self-sustaining through collaborations between ASU and local institutions, possibly through ASU. Global university partnerships. He believes the program helps people see the Balkans in a positive light.
“While much of the world primarily associates the region with its past conflicts, my experiences during my regular visits there paint a different picture,” says Berisha.
“This initiative represents a bridge connecting the region’s untapped potential with the tools, knowledge and opportunities in the United States to make a meaningful and lasting impact.” Presenting these projects to a wider audience allows us to present the Balkans in a new light, with a focus on innovation and, hopefully, fostering a change in attitude towards the region.