Ana Trbović, Co-Founder, Grid Singularity & Energy Web Foundation: Serbia has some amazing innovation success stories

To enjoy more successes, we need to invest smartly in education and research

Economic development is critically dependent on the rule of law. In the case of Serbia, this translates to an increased focus on judiciary reform and anti-corruption measures, which would be significantly aided if the public sector were reduced and otherwise reformed. These policy recommendations are not new. They are repeated in every report issued by the European Union and international development organizations working with Serbia. On this topic, we talked to Ana Trbović, Co-Founder, Grid Singularity & Energy Web Foundation

Ana Trbović, Co-Founder, Grid Singularity & Energy Web Foundation

You are now doing business internationally. Is our continent, Europe, still competitive?

Europe is certainly competitive but not as competitive as North America or Asia (namely rising China) in some important aspects. Namely, while there are abundant entrepreneurial ventures, there is an evident challenge to scale these ventures. Venture capital investments in the US are three-fold that of Europe for early-stage companies and six-fold for late-stage companies. The World Economic Forum which organizes the famous Davos conference has a Digital Leaders Europe group where I participate and here we discuss measures that Europe could take to bridge this gap, as well as how to be more competitive in disruptive technologies.
For instance, while Europe boasts some of the leading companies in artificial intelligence, most are in the early state of diffusion, few in big data and smart robotics, and even fewer in deep learning technologies and AI tools development such as computer vision or virtual assistants. Since artificial intelligence represents a key component of Industry 4.0, which is the current stage of the industrial revolution, political leaders in Europe pay close attention to it and it is a regular agenda item at high-level summits.

What are other important technologies that we should also follow in your opinion? And do we have any champions there?

Industry 4.0 disruptive technologies include a range of so-called disruptive, transformative technologies, including those that have been present for some decades such as genetics, synthetic biology and new materials, as well as newer advances such as autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, virtual and augmented (or extended) reality, quantum computing and finally blockchain which is also called distributed ledger technology, and which is an area where I work.
As to Serbian champions it depends whether you include those that are based locally or abroad, whether they work locally for a foreign-owned or locally-owned company, but generally speaking we are present in blockchain in a share that is not insignificant for the size of the economy, also in some early-stage AI development projects and I am also aware of some 3D and other projects but we do not have a cluster of such companies outside of possible blockchain.

Serbia is located next to some of the most advanced global markets and has a talented workforce.

What are the chances of our country when it comes to growth and further progress, and where do you see our development chance?

Serbia is located next to some of the most advanced global markets and has a talented workforce. This opportunity can be harnessed if we invest more and smartly in education and research. By smartly I mean establishing a system of meritocracy and transparent access to education and research infrastructure, promoting and awarding performance, with zero tolerance for plagiarism and other unethical and corruptive practices.

Technological innovation has three main stages: research, application and monetization. Serbia has potential in research but as you are aware universities have fallen in global rankings, and this is why I keep returning to the topic of education and its role in innovation and competitiveness. Next, application is where there are opportunities, as evidenced by a successful program of the Serbia Innovation Fund to support the collaboration of research institutes and local companies to commercialize scientific innovation. Such programs could boost a currently low level of scientific commercialization. Last, monetization requires incubation and financing, where there has been significant progress but efforts are still needed to facilitate improved access to finance. Other types of infrastructure like transport infrastructure also play a role as does a level-playing field with fair market competition and efficient public services.

What challenges Serbia will face on the further European path and when, in your opinion, is it realistic for Serbia to become EU member?

EU accession reforms are those that ensure functional public institutions and a fair market, protecting civic and economic rights, such as access to free media or environmental protection. We should want to implement these reforms to enjoy a progressive society. Once there is sufficient political will, this can be achieved in a relatively short time period. The one complex issue relates to Kosovo and that is a purely political discussion where EU’s interest is “not to import a problem,” based on prior experience with Cyprus for example.

Whenever I have an opportunity I seek links with entrpereneurs from our region and ways to encourage technological innovation

How do you assess today’s image of Serbia when it comes to innovations as well as innovative companies?

Serbia has some amazing innovation success stories. To enjoy more successes, we go back to the topic of investing smartly in education and research. Innovative companies are already experiencing shortage of skilled workers, and we still have a relatively low number of technological startups and spinoffs. In addition to supporting local entrepreneurship, Serbia could also attract more companies to relocate by enacting smart regulation. One example is the recent law on digital assets and ruling that investments in crypto will be charged at 15% like other global income (and token payments are part of regular operations for blockchain companies, not just investment); however it is not fully clear how this legislation will be implemented (the process of income reporting is too cumbersome) and it is still not possible to connect your bank account to a crypto exchange, leading to a missed opportunity of not only more locally-led companies registering in Serbia but other companies relocating to Serbia.

Environmental protection, air pollution, green projects seem to be priorities on the global agenda. Where is Serbia on that map and what reforms await us in these areas?

I am increasingly concerned about the pollution levels in Serbia – air, water, noise, poor level of waste management and food standards. The state of public health and quality of life has been deteriorating. I was happy to support the establishment of a green building course at the Architectural Faculty in Belgrade some years ago and thrilled to see that there will be some financial support for citizens investing in renewable resources and refurbishing their homes to be more energy-efficient, but these are all too few and too limited measures. EU countries are doing significantly more but even their citizens are demanding stronger action and environmental rights are the fore of the political and civic discourse.

You are the co-founder and CEO of Grid Singularity & Energy Web Foundation. What are the mission and vision of the organization and what are the most important projects?

Energy Web Foundation (EWF) is a platform, an open-source, decentralized operating system for applications in the energy sector that are based on a novel technology called blockchain, supported by over a hundred energy corporations globally, as well as many other stakeholders. Grid Singularity cofounded EWF together with a clean technology organization called the Rocky Mountain Institute, with a goal to facilitate decarbonization and enhanced efficiency of the energy sector through digitization and decentralization. Grid Singularity is also working on an application that simulates and operates local energy markets, enabling households to trade with each other, will ultimately reduce electricity bills, increases return on investment in renewable resources (like solar panels) and reduces reliance on the grid, making the overall system more efficient. I work with an international team of engineers and developers and enjoy being part of an impact-driven venture. Whenever I have an opportunity I seek links with entrepreneurs from our region and ways to encourage technological innovation that is instrumental to bridging the development gap.

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