Nenad Popović, Minister of Innovation and Technological Development: WE STRIVE TOWARDS THE SAME GOALS

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Digitization of agriculture, smart cities, artificial intelligence, robotics, these are segments to cooperate on

In this interview, Minister of Innovation and Technological Development, Nenad Popović talks about what can Serbia learn from Israel, their innovative technology, the similarities between the two peoples and the areas for further cooperation.
You have travelled to Israel on several occasions and met with Israeli officials. What key messages did you take with yourself from these meetings? 

– Israel is one of the world’s leaders in the development of innovation. The Israeli economy is largely based on digital economy and innovative entrepreneurship, and that is what Serbia is striving for. Every meeting I had with Israeli officials was an opportunity to exchange experiences and discuss a common vision of sustainable economic growth based on innovation. Digitization of agriculture, smart cities, artificial intelligence, robotics – these are the fields in which daily changes occur that make life easier and better for people. Israel has a tradition of developing innovations. Some of the world’s greatest inventions are attributed to Israel and Jewish scientists. Likewise, Serbia can be proud of its innovators such as Nikola Tesla, Mihajlo Pupin and others. This shows that our nations, although quite small in numbers, have the strength and ideas that can change the course of civilization. Unfortunately, Serbia has had a very turbulent period of wars and sanctions that have left a mark on our industry and caused us to lag behind in other countries, but technological development, innovation and digitization are our chance to bridge this gap and catch up to the most developed countries in Europe. We have excellent young engineers who are recognized all over the world. There are 17 STEM faculties at the universities in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Niš, and Kragujevac, of which 11 are engineering faculties. A total of 42,000 students studied at these faculties in 2018. Last year, the value of Serbia’s IT exports exceeded EUR 1.2 billion. This is the first time in history that IT exports were higher than agricultural exports. The structure of the Serbian economy is changing and slowly shifting from the economy of raw material exports to the economy of software development and export.

What lessons can Serbia learn from Israel?

– Our two nations are very similar. Both the Serbs and the Jews have a tragic past and both have suffered huge losses caused by the Nazis in the Second World War. Serbia still has unresolved political issues with certain countries, as does Israel, because it does not want to renounce its territorial integrity and sovereignty. A difficult past has taught us Serbs to be persistent, devoted and resourceful and the same can be said for Jews. There is a saying in Israel that goes – half of the citizens have their startup companies,  while the other half is planning to open them. We need such a mindset in Serbia as well. And that’s exactly what I see as one of my main tasks, namely to encourage young people to become entrepreneurs, to shape them in a way that they are not afraid of failure, and to be aware that every successful entrepreneurial story first had to suffer several failures. For now, we’re doing good. Serbia has an increasing number of startup companies run by students and young engineers. We also have very successful student companies here. Our startup community is still young and can learn a lot and expedite its development by observing the successful examples in Israel, which is also called „a startup nation“. We are always encouraging the members of the innovation com munity to apply for and participate in numerous exchange programmes. MASHAV and the Embassy of Israel in Serbia have contributed immensely to the development of cooperation between the innovation ecosystems of our two countries and there are almost no young people in the Serbian startup community who did not attend at least one from their programmes.

Israel’s Ministry of Science and Technology assists with the development of innovations and has been opening research centres all over Israel. The Government of Serbia used this model to start opening innovative startup centres here too. What are the results so far?

– From the very beginning, the Cabinet of the Minister of Innovation and Technological Development has had excellent cooperation with the colleagues from the Israeli Ministry of Science and Technology, and we have seen firsthand the results and progress achieved through investments in regional development. They funded the construction of research and development centres which activities are based on addressing the challenges of local communities in which they operate, which directly affects the quality of life in these regions. The centres promote innovation as a way of thinking, provide employment, attract scientists and prevent the brain drain especially among young people and give their contribution to the whole community. Of course, these centres are not only the places where laboratory research is carried out but also the places where children and youth training is organized in the segments that are crucial for the jobs of the future: programming, codes, robotics… Last year, we launched a programme for the opening of regional innovative startup centres and we had a great response and a strong interest from local governments from all parts of Serbia. Soon we are going to open innovation startup centres in Subotica, Zrenjanin, Valjevo, Stara Pazova, Gornji Milanovac, Čačak, Kruševac and Pirot, where, in addition to space and equipment, we are also going to give young people with all the necessary mentoring support they need to realize their innovative ideas. In addition to university centres, where we are developing the state-of-theart scientific and technological parks and an innovative infrastructure on which have spent over EUR 70 million, our motive was to give a chance to regions to develop innovations and innovative entrepreneurship, because undoubtedly we have very talented and creative young people in every corner of Serbia.

Israel has provided Serbia with a modern satellite imagery technology used in space, which will be used in our country for agriculture and water management. How did this system perform? How can the two countries cooperate even more on this matter?

– During one of my official visits to Israel, I talked with my colleague and the Israeli Minister of Science and Technology, Ofir Akunis about that Serbia getting access to data generated by the VENμS satellite, which is under the authority of the Israel Space Agency and is used to observe atmospheric conditions and vegetation. Bearing in mind that such data can be of great use in the field of agriculture and contribute to planning and improving yields, we have linked our Israeli partners with Serbian experts working in the BioSense Institute in Novi Sad, which had already established cooperation with the Israeli agricultural institute Volcani. The achievements of the BioSense Institute are internationally recognized and I believe that through this cooperation, both sides will learn a lot from each other and that new data will help in the optimization of BioSense’s services. As for the new technologies, I have already mentioned that, in cooperation with the Embassy of Israel, the ISRA has done a  great deal to help the development of an innovative and start-up ecosystem in Serbia, including providing equipment for one of the first IoT (Internet of Things) laboratories in Serbia early last year. Serbia and Israel have great cooperation that has been growing year-on-year in all traditional economic sectors, but the Internet of Things, as well as all other new technologies that develop day by day, represent new areas and an opportunity for cooperation between Serbian and Israeli experts.

Israeli company Mobilicom has shown great interest in coming to the Serbian market. What does that mean for our country? Are you in talks with another Israeli company?

– We first contacted the representatives of Mobilicom in January last year to discuss various possibilities and advantages that their company would gain by entering the Serbian market. Our market is very attractive for foreign investors, first because of the subsidies we give to foreign companies, and certainly due to the fact that companies operating in Serbia can export their products without customs duties to the EU, Russia and Turkey. The Mobilicom Company is engaged in providing wireless communication for critical infrastructure that functions in the most difficult conditions, and they came up with the idea to open an R & D centre that would function as a subsidiary of Mobilicom. The decision was made very quickly. In less than a month after visiting Serbia, we received a letter from Mobilicom in which they said that they had decided to launch their activities in Serbia, after which they would start employing the first engineers. The presence of Mobilicom, as well as other Israeli and foreign companies in our market, is very important because these are the companies that are building bridges between our countries, creating new jobs and boosting the competitiveness and attractiveness of our market in the world. TenenGroup is the latest Israeli company to contact us with the intent to enter the Serbian market and we certainly hope that we will soon see them in our market.

How important is for us that Israel did not recognize Kosovo’s independence?

– The Serbs have a long history of fighting for what they believe in. Kosovo is the place where Serbia was born. Kosovo is our heart and soul. We cannot compromise with our heart, soul, history and values simply because some countries in the international community want to do it. Kosovo is the territory of Serbia and it will remain such as long as we have the Serbian Constitution and the UN Security Council Resolution 1244. I am convinced that Kosovo will never become a member of the UN. At the moment, five EU countries, in addition to Israel, have not recognized Kosovo’s independence. Plus, we have the support of some of the most influential and economically most powerful countries in the world, such as Russia, China and others. Serbia is deeply grateful to them. Belgrade is ready to talk with Priština how to improve the lives of people in Kosovo, but if we are talking about resolving the issue of the Kosovo status, this must be done in view of the Serbian Constitution and the Resolution 1244. We will not compromise. Israel is a proper example of this. Serbia and Israel have a long and proud history and do not compromise when it comes to historical values. Our ancestors went through terrible times, but they never made compromises in regard to key national interests. And we have both survived those times. The Nazis occupied our country and wanted to wipe our people from the face of the earth, but we survived, just like the Jewish people. The biggest test for this generation of Serbs is the preservation of Serbian statehood in Kosovo, which our ancestors left us a legacy. Only those countries that have firmly and perpetually defended their territory, and by doing so, defended their state and national dignity, were honoured, recognized, and at the same time, became economically strong. Certain groups want us to feel that Serbia cannot progress economically because of the unresolved issue with Kosovo, and I claim that this is simply not true. Weak countries, and handing over territory is considered a weakness, are seen as unstable and insecure for investments and development because in such circumstances it is impossible to see the end when it comes to changing their borders and further political upheavals that are destroying the economy of a state. Let’s look at the example of Russia when it defended its right to Chechnya, or Israel with Jerusalem, or the United Kingdom and the Falkland Islands, or China and its rights to Taiwan and Hong Kong… All of them are different countries, with different organization and history, but with identical positions when it comes to strongly defending their respective states. Strong economy and development are the results of such determined state policy. Here, I would like to draw another parallel with Israel.

Israel’s population stands at just over 8 million and the country’s GDP exceeds $350 billion. Israel has a constantly open issue of the vulnerability of a part of its territory that other peoples in its surroundings claim as their own. At the same time, this country is an obvious example that a permanent conflict situation is not an obstacle to economic growth and attracting investments, as some politicians in our country try to portray it. On the contrary, thanks to its decisive policy of protecting territorial integrity, Israel has demonstrated its willingness to uncompromisingly defend its Constitution, statehood, laws and territory. This policy might not be to everybody’s liking, but it has been stable and unchangeable for decades. This is precisely what gives investors security and trust in Israel. This is the country which central part, the city of Jerusalem, is the subject of two ethnic conflicts that had the international community involved, just like Kosovo, but that did not prevent the American company Intel from recently buying Mobileye, the Israeli innovation company based in Jerusalem, for US $15.3 billion.

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