How Switzerland helped build bottom-up North Macedonia’s startup ecosystem

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Local news, 06.08.2020

From a fragmented to a well-functioning startup ecosystem in just four years: This is how Switzerland helped local actors develop a strong and innovative entrepreneurial ecosystem in North Macedonia.


Start up Macedonia Team ©FDFA

When someone mentions startups in North Macedonia, one organization pops up almost immediately in one’s mind: Startup Macedonia. This umbrella association for the country’s startup community was established in 2016 by a group of startup enthusiasts and rapidly became a key driver of its rapid development. As proof of its achievement, Skopje was ranked one of the top five global startup hubs to watch in 2019. But how did this happen in just a few years? 

The birth of the Macedonian startup community dates back to 2014, at the 3rd edition of the Startup Weekend Skopje. This event showcased the potential of startups in the country, but also highlighted the need to fill in key gaps in the ecosystem to support their emergence and growth. It then came naturally for the Swiss Entrepreneurship Program (Swiss EP), as one of its first activities in North Macedonia, to bring in Franck Nouyrigat, co-founder of Startup Weekend, on a mission to support the mapping of the existing startup ecosystem. 

"SWSkopje #3 was the game-changer for our startup community. Back then we didn't have a structure nor strategy how to build solid ecosystem. Everything changed once we got the support from Swiss EP. Thanks to that, today we have stronger community, better knowledge and clearer vision for the future development of our ecosystem. And it means a lot to know that we can always rely on Swiss EP’s team and their international experts for gaining more experience, insight and top notch know-how." - Dejan Aleksov, president of Startup Macedonia.

As an outcome of this mission, the Swiss EP supported the formation of an umbrella organization to not only bring structure to, but also promote and speak for the startup community. In August 2016, a group of startup enthusiasts, including community leaders, legal and investment professionals established Startup Macedonia. Ever since then, the organization has been a key partner of Swiss EP in North Macedonia, aiming to better connect members of the startup community and to create a more favorable environment for startups to emerge and grow.

“The birth and rise of Startup Macedonia give us much pride in Swiss EP. What started as an intensive but unstructured dialogue among startup enthusiasts quickly developed into various forms of collaboration and with the help of Swiss EP, cooperation was formalized in the registration of an association. Startup Macedonia is unique in the region and plays a key function as main tracker of ecosystem development and acts as a bridge between government and startup community. With Startup Macedonia, the local ecosystem is ready to accelerate and create new generations of competitive startups capable of competing globally”, declares Jakob Modéer, Swiss EP Regional Manager.

Following its establishment, Startup Macedonia was supported by Swiss EP experts on strategic, management and organizational issues. To further professionalize its operations and benchmark itself and the ecosystem internationally, the Swiss EP supported Startup Macedonia to build a data tracking and analysis platform based on the Startup Commons’ world-renowned methodology. Under the strategic guidance of Swiss EP, the team prepared a proposal to build a digital platform for North Macedonia’s startup ecosystem, which was awarded a grant by USAID. This resulted in the first digitalization of a country’s startup ecosystem in the region. And this was a game-changer. Suddenly, Startup Macedonia was able to make data-driven descriptions of the actual state of the country’s ecosystem, rather than depending on opinions and hearsay. By sharing these data and analyses openly with all ecosystem actors, organizations serving startups could revise their plans and activities to better accommodate the realities of the marketplace and needs of startups. This generated much respect for Startup Macedonia within the ecosystem, while the Swiss EP established itself as the number one go-to program to support the country’s ecosystem development.

The partnership between the Swiss EP and Startup Macedonia didn’t stop there. With Swiss support, Startup Macedonia’s collaboration with the Fund for Innovation and Technology Development (FITD) was strengthened in the last two years. FITD supplied premises free of charge in Skopje’s city center to create the #MKstartups Space, managed by Startup Macedonia. The Swiss EP staff in North Macedonia now also use this space as their ‘office’, ensuring that they are fully embedded in the local ecosystem and can react very quickly to new initiatives and calls for support. One such new initiative is the Womenpreneurs Stories - 5 day bootcamp for 1st time female founders.

Something that started as an initiative to celebrate inspiring women in business and leadership positions, two years later grew into a structured 5 day bootcamp for 1st time female founders. The contribution that women as innovators, entrepreneurs and engines of change can give to economic growth is very important. Many are already involved directly and indirectly in improving an environment in which women in North Macedonia are recognized and fully enabled to contribute to the development of the emerging entrepreneurial ecosystem.” – said Nina Nikolikj, SwissEP Program Officer.

Another initiative is the Founders Club. Realizing that some entrepreneurs often do not fit into programs provided by accelerators, because they are beyond early stage, Startup Macedonia saw a niche in the market for anybody who could directly address the specific challenges of scaling startups. The Founders Club is a community of entrepreneurs, involving peer learning as well as intensive work with Swiss EP experts to boost the performance of individual startups, making them more competitive globally and generating more revenue, investments and jobs.

Last year collaboration with Swiss EP on Founders Club revealed how essential mentoring and world class experience is to startups growing globally from North Macedonia. Therefore, this group of driven founders is getting access to tailored programs with industry experts and matched with an International pool of mentors.” – Igor Madzov, SwissEP investment facilitator

North Macedonia’s startup ecosystem is enjoying a time of growth, consolidation and collaboration, and is now capable of generating increasingly sustainable organizations, communities of likeminded people and ultimately more competitive startups and entrepreneurs. One of the main drivers for the ecosystem building has been supporting Startup Macedonia team in capacity building as this bottom-up organization is paving the way in positioning North Macedonia as the startup hub in the Balkans. Since the Swiss EP started in mid-2015 in the country, the ecosystem has made significant progress. Such developments contribute to further strengthen the startup ecosystem, which should lead to many new successful startups in the country.