A significant improvement in ecosystem development has been registered during the past 5 years - mostly in the capital city. There are many startup events and conferences, and their number is increasing annually. Outside Zagreb, the following initiatives are operational: ICT županija, Osijek software city, Split Tech city. The startup scene in Croatia was already dynamic and well developed before the accession to the economic bloc, and its relatively recent EU membership lowers barriers for Croatian startups to expand further into Europe and bring fresh investment to the area. Despite good intentions, there are still regulatory challenges, and stronger concerted efforts are required to implement the Startup Manifesto recommendations. For example, the Croatian ecosystem remains paralyzed by a chronic lack of risk capital. With only one active VC fund specifically targeting the Balkans region (SCV), entrepreneurs find it extremely hard to raise capital for early and growth stages alike.
Pockets of risk-finance activity can be found around a few large and more mature IT companies, but those will, more often than not, be geared towards impact investing rather than outsourcing innovation through corporate venturing. The lack of risk capital is the single most important obstacle to a more vibrant startup ecosystem in Croatia. When it comes to raising capital, startups have to rely almost exclusively on international funding, which is rather challenging to raise. Despite the small size of the ecosystem, and the lack of funding available, the Croatian startup ecosystem managed to generate a few success stories. Companies like Infobip and Rimac, that have already outgrown the label of “startup”, have been founded rather early in the development of the ecosystem, and have managed to become industry-defining players.
Startup support actors in Croatia, such as technology parks, incubators, and accelerators increased in numbers and the quality is progressively improving as well. Croatian startup support entities are good in creating startups and scale-up companies and should thus focus on helping its best scale-up companies reach their exits.
It is difficult to determine the most important industries in the Croatian startup ecosystem because successful startups operate in very different fields from one another. Verticals range from automotive to agriculture, and from cybersecurity to telecommunications. One of the key competitive advantages of the Croatian ecosystem is the availability of good and affordable engineering talent. This is particularly true for hardware, where a rather low-cost base for engineering talent and services in Croatia allows for setting up an EU-based operation that is competitive to Asian counterparts. One interesting point is that while tourism represents a very big and important part of the overall economy, it does not feature in the startup ecosystem. Surprisingly, a small number of Croatian startups are focused on tourism.
The existing support framework is based around two state agencies, HBOR, and HAMAG BICRO, providing favourable loans and guarantees. HAMAG BICRO is the result of the incorporation of HAMAG Invest and BICRO, the national business innovation agency. This merger strengthened the agency, which has signed a contract with the European Investment Fund and started a microloan scheme for SME financing. Startup conferences are also supported by the government in Croatia, as well as Startup weekends and hackathons through public funding of entities like technology parks and startup incubators that usually organize such events. Collaborative projects between industry and academia leading to spin-off creation are present in the region. Croatia invested strongly in these programs and supports 20 centres of excellence and competence centres.
In line with global trends, investments in Croatian startups increased over the last several years. However, looking at the volume of specific types of investments, it is evident that the Croatian startup market is still underdeveloped and that the startups do not have the required access to capital. The identification of faulty factors is required to understand measures which need to be taken to improve startups’ access to capital and enable them to compete with their EU and US counterparts.
The key stakeholders of the Croatian startup ecosystem are:
• Agrivi, Bellabeat, Degordian, Dok-Ing, Photomath, Scorealarm, Repsly, Rimac Cars, Infobip, reversing Lab.
Incubators, technology parks, accelerators, startups programs:
• ZICER, HUB385, ZIP Zagreb, Impact Hub Zagreb, Startup Incubator Rijeka, BIOS Incubator Osijek, PISMO Novska, etc.
• Croatian Chamber of Economy, SC Ventures, CRANE.
• Netokracija, BUG portal, ICTBusiness.info, Mojbiz, ZIMO, Lider Media, Poslovni HR.
• Zagreb Connect, Idea Knockout, Shift Split, Good Game Liftoff, Startup Grind, Startup Drill, Moj Zaba Start.
• HAMAG-BiCRO, HBOR, Regional Development Agencies, Ministry of Economy, Entrepreneurship and Crafts, University of Zagreb, Technology Transfer Office Split. Technology Transfer Office (UTT) at the University of Rijeka, Technology Transfer Office (TERA) at the J.J. Strossmayer University, Department for Projects and Knowledge Transfer within the Ruđer Bošković Institute, Centers of research excellence, Technology Park Varaždin, TIC Rijeka, Terra Technolopilis Osijek.
Croatia is characterized by a startup innovation ecosystem that is still in its infancy, as relatively little attention is given to investing in innovation and development. Therefore, it is essential to develop a dynamic mindset that accepts failure, that is flexible and agile, to allow ideas to flow easily from university and research centers to companies as well as from one company to another. Croatian innovators and researchers struggle to find support and funding for development which is causing an inevitable brain drain. Patient investments are needed to create and foster entrepreneurship that can drive meaningful economic growth.
Furthermore, the unfriendly bureaucracy is an obstacle to business creation, as the process is long, complicated, lack stable procedures and policies, and is expensive. Such structural conditions are discouraging and lead many entrepreneurs in giving up. Nevertheless, the startup ecosystem in Croatia is on the move and is seeing an increasing number of activities, measured by the number of startup and venture funding events that take place. This is mainly due to the solid base of young entrepreneurs active in the region. In the short- and mid-term, the government should focus strongly on bridging the critical market gap in the availability of risk capital (early-stage in particular) by setting up a range of equity-type financial instruments.