The northern province of Vojvodina in Serbia is known for being the most important agricultural area of the country. Even though agriculture is one of the strongest export sector of Serbia’s economy, the demands of a fast-growing national ICT sector has made the EU-candidate country to prioritise digital skills and technologies.
The Biosense Institute is located in Novi Sad, the second largest city and economic hub after Belgrade and now a hotbed of Information and Communication Technologies. Hence, it’s no wonder why this unique setting serves as a fruitful intersection between agriculture, ICT and food production.
We had the pleasure to interview Staša Stojkov Rošić (SSR), project manager at the
BioSense Institute and coordinator of the inhouse accelerator, and talk about how this young Digital Innovation Hub balances the aspects of tradition and innovation, and embraces the new technologies with the aim of enriching and bringing value to the region.
All stories have a beginning. How did the story of the BioSense Institute start?
SSR: The BioSense institute is a public institution part of the existing University of Novi Sad. We started our activity 6 years ago and took the opportunity when the Digital
Innovation Hubs appear to register in the JRC catalogue. We are a fully operative Digital Innovation Hub since 2015.
The founders come from research and industry backgrounds with the objective to have an organisation that doesn’t focus only on research, but also on implementation. The institute has an entrepreneurial mindset and a strong industrial approach, as it always had a business development department. It is located in a region with an agriculture tradition, but also with a history of technical oriented education. We have departments of electronics, robotics, biotechnology, data and knowledge development, among others. Thus, we have to operate in unison with traditional and innovative institutions.
Could you describe your DIH ecosystem?
SSR: Our ecosystem is a young one in many ways. As a country in the Balkans and South Eastern Europe, Serbia did not have an open market approach until a couple of decades ago. So, it was not so innovation oriented. Regardless of that, in this country there is a very strong technical expertise legacy of the socialist economic system. Even now you can find very strong technical institutions, and the school is also oriented to technical sciences. Unfortunately, the market business-oriented approach is still non-existent because it was not an educational component of the system. We [the Biosense Institute] bring that business approach and the connection with the EU ecosystem through the EU-funded projects, providing opportunities for the people and the regions.
In addition, we also work with Asian countries in different aspects of research and business collaboration as part of the Serbian international policy. We have a two-way scientific exchange with China and South Africa, and bilateral agreements with certain African countries.
Our different activities and projects target policy makers, end-users (i.e. farmers),
citizens and also high schools specialised in agriculture or attended by farmer’s children. We also work with business, early stage entrepreneurs and large companies. We focus on all the different players in the ecosystem, so we can create a community that fulfills the role of a one stop shop.
Agriculture is still a very traditional field and bringing innovation to a system where most of the business are family run and very manual can be an opportunity but also a challenge. In the last years, the development of policies has been primarily in the area of organic growth, but there are other areas where policies need to be developed. It’s important that the key players of agriculture in Europe have a long-term vision that is implemented gradually.
What specific services does BioSense offer?
SSR: We are specialised in the agri-food and technology sectors, where there is still a big gap between market business and technical implementation. One of the areas we operate due to our technical expertise is business development. Our services are categorised in:
Technical services: scientific research, access to labs, certain activities of prototyping, and also technology knowledge. These services are demand based.
Business services: the in-house accelerator and the selected cohort of startups are very much focused on business support (how to create business models, marketing strategies, etc.). They are tailored for startups, but we also provide business support to SMEs though the EU projects.
Ecosystem services: they are very across the different actors. Connecting people, being a bridge, promoting, etc.
How many companies have been accompanied by the DIH on the base of the DIH services?
SSR: Last year, we had the first cohort of startups graduated from our BioSense accelerator). The main objective of the in-house accelerator is enabling young entrepreneurs and promote agriculture as an interesting field to be in. We supported a total of 8 teams from different fields, ranging from biotechnology to hardware. Over a period of 6 months they raised around a 150K EUR plus additional opportunities, which is a good start in Serbia. Some examples are AgroCams, with their camera system that can cut in half the use of herbicides by spraying only weed, and Atfield with their “Winessense” a decision support system for vineyards. NSoilLab with their microbial fertilizer based on biopolymers “FertyColl” that promotes plant growth and nutrition in an ecologically sustainable way, and last but not least, IoTartic with their IoT Smart Agriculture System that can provide a whole range of information from soil temperature, to soil moisture to air pressure, etc. The 2020 accelerator program is currently running, we have 4 startups from Serbia and 1 from Bosnia and Herzegovina. They are going through an 8-week intensive acceleration program, developed in partnership with the Startup Wise Guys Accelerator and EFSE Fund.
We also work with private actors to develop our own products. An example of this is the system for mapping insured lands that we developed with an insurance company interested in agriculture.
What is your vision of DIHs development in Europe?
SSR: We see a great potential and value in EU collaboration, bringing people from different fields together and building a network of DIHs in Europe. All these individual DIHs acting as a one stop shop and together as a unique ecosystem.
What could be the added value of Pan-European collaboration for an EU candidate country like Serbia?
SSR: We are small in size and numbers, but we are great in what we can offer. The pan-European network needs to be united and act in the values of the ecosystem. The EU market is excellent for doing experiments, business, etc. One of the advantages of the Pan-European collaboration is being more competitive in the international market, especially with the larger economies.
Through EU projects we establish a first collaboration with other countries, and the relationships usually last beyond the project itself. This is the case of our collaboration with the Wageningen University in The Netherlands.
Did you receive any EU funds and, if so, how did you employ them?
SSR: We are currently involved in several Horizon 2020 projects with a focus on Digital Innovation Hubs. To give you some examples, we are partners in the innovation actions AgROBOfood, SmartAgriHubs, Diatomic, , IOF, KATANA, and the coordination and support action Antares. We are mainly interested in areas that contribute to our infrastructure development. This comprises internal development (i.e. capacity skills, training, development of the research centre personnel, international capacity, etc.) and acceleration projects through financial support for third parties (FSTP). In summary, actions that enable the local ecosystem and benefit the region.
The BioSense Institute also receives significant national funding from the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Science and Technology, and the National Research Funding, among others. However, the overall budget available is still smaller than the one from the European Union. In Serbia, the EU-funding tends to be matched by national funding, so it is also advantageous.
Did COVID-19 pandemic affect your DIH services? Do you foresee any changes in the agri-food sector?
SSR: Since corona pandemic, we have seen that is now easier to test in the field with farmers which is definitely encouraging. If you ask me in terms of what is coming in the near future, the biggest changes we foresee are in the entire food chain. Things may start to change there.
Further to our activities, we have been able to do most of them online, but we still miss the human touch for brainstorming, solving problems and building community. Those activities are not so easy to carry out in an online format. We are hoping for a more stable situation in which we can organise face-to-face workshops again and people can meet and exchange knowledge as in pre-Covid times.
Interview by Marta Palau Franco, DIHNET