Tech Innovation Finding Its Way in Kosovo

Kosovo has had a hard time competing in Europe with its pains of a recent war and a slowly developing economy. But one area where its youth has excelled is in adopting latest trends in technology and making a run at it. From small local startups to offshoots of western companies searching for affordable, Euro time zone talent, Kosovo has become an attractive ground for innovative tech entrepreneurs looking to expand their vision without breaking the bank. Trends such as cryptocurrency, Blockchain, and Artificial Intelligence have found favor with many talented teams here. They have understood that the playing field in software development is much more leveled than any other industry and have drunk the digital cool—aid.

One such tech entrepreneur is Bleron Baraliu, an Albanian American from New York, born and raised in Prizren, Kosovo who has built a remarkable career in Wall Street prior to launching startups in fintech and health tech.  His vision is built on maximizing the benefits stemming from the convergence of advanced tech, data science / AI, and latest advances in fields of medicine and finance.  The two companies founded by him, Matrics and Ninety One, have established teams in the motherland in the last year, with offices in Prishtina and Tirana counting over 20 talented programmers.  As he was introducing the Ninety One platform to the market for the first time, participating as an Exhibitor at the largest summit of Electrophysiologists in the world, HRS2018 in Boston, we spoke to him about the challenges of startups in technology and his experience in his homeland.

Bleron, tell us a bit about the startups you have created and what is your vision?

About 5 years ago I co-founded Frost & Fire with my best friend, Edvin Tela. We had studied together at Columbia and later worked on a joint project in Wall Street.  F&F was a fintech startup focused on improving risk management practices in finance, in particular focused on helping companies with challenges resulting from changes in regulation post the financial crisis.  After market wind sand lack of sufficient traction made it difficult to continue, we decided to wind down F&F and change direction.  Later we decided to invite Jean Safar, a pioneer in cutting edge technologies in Wall Street, and together with him we co-founded a new startup, Matrics.  Matrics is inspired on the idea of leveraging the singularity we are reaching in technology and data sciencein conjunction with our know-how and expertise in finance, in order to shape the revolution created by the digital age.  A big part of our focus is around innovation and latest tech, including Blockchain, AI, Big & Fast data, and Natural Language Processing.  It is exciting work and we are immensely joyed with the path we have chosen.

Likewise, together with my wife, Eleonora Gashi, an interventional cardiologist trained at Northwell Hospital in New York, we decided to create Ninety One, a startup seeking to advance the cause of Precision Medicine by coupling innovations in technology and data science, and applying Machine Learning and AI in order to better understand disease and ways we can reduce its negative impacts to society.  We are here in Boston at the HRS conference presenting our first product, which is a platform for automating and optimizing the process of monitoring remotely patients who have implantable devices in the heart, such as defibrillators and pacemakers.  As this is our first interaction with the market we are overly excited with the reaction and feedback we have received and are motivated to get to the next phase of our business, applying our platform to the benefit of patients, doctors, and hospitals and other health practices.

You have set up part of your team in Kosovo and Albania.  What can you tell us about them, how are they a part of it, and how important is the team in a startup?

Our Albanian teams in the two capitals are a quintessential part of our culture, vision, and philosophy.  We have selected them carefully and worked diligently to make sure they are an integral part of the overall team.  They are all highly intelligent, unbelievably quick to learn and work well with the US team, and exceptionally eager to be part of our ambition and drive.  By the way, almost everyone in our Prishtina team comes from the Gifted and Talented pool of students as identified by ATOMI, the International Institute for Extraordinary Intelligence, an organization I serve on the board and which we have supported for several years now.  They are effectively certified geniuses, and it is a joy to work with them.  Meanwhile the team in Albania plays a critical role in our application, being primarily responsible for the User Interface and led by Edvin, who has returned to work in Tirana after nearly 20 years of immense success in the United States.

What ca you say about value in a startup, what is most important to you?

Without hesitation I would say that the culture and the team are the most critical aspects of increasing the probability of building a successful startup right of the gate.  After that comes the intellectual property you create and the clients you can attract to your platform.  Some startups start this backwards, looking for ideas that come from clients.  We have a different approach: start with the vision and the philosophy and the team that believes in it, build the IP that is useful to the market, then attract the clients that can solve problems and gain benefits from such IP.  Of course, this increases the risk of finding the right product-market fit, but with iteration and feedback we strongly believe that it is better to design and adopt from an original vision rather than start the product on the basis of what seem to be the symptoms in the market.

How difficult is to protect your team and IP in that case, especially as finances are probably tight in the early days?

It is always a challenge to hold on to the team as you go through the ups and downs of a startup.  This is one reason why you have to lead with the vision.  If you have believers in your team, they will stick to the mission as long as you do.  Naturally there is a breaking point, as was evidenced for me with F&F, but as long as you are keeping the team well engaged, they will respond.  Many of the original people from F&F got involved again once we launched Matrics, and so far, we have had great success.  The IP, on the other hand, is tightly tied to the vision, so I am less concerned.  It is difficult for someone to take our IP and make use of it in their own way, even if they were to somehow gain unfair access to it.

When you talk about unfair access, we noticed via a simple google search a claim by a company which said that you used their IP inappropriately while servicing State Street as a client of F&F.  How difficult is dealing with lawsuits and such claims for a startup?

As you may know, in particular if you watched Sillicon Valley on HBO (which I recommend for anyone interested in innovation tech by the way), the tech world is known for frivolous lawsuits, or shakedown lawsuits as they are often called.  Those are guys who pray on tech startups with no time to deal with a legal dispute and costs and instead would just settle for shakedown amounts usually less than legal fees.  In the FF case that would be the prudent thing to do, but I have put my foot down, in part to send the message that I will not be swayed by such frivolous claims and have made it clear to the other side that the maximum we are willing to settle for is zero payment, and a statement of fact that we have made no use of their IP in our platform in any way whatsoever.  For starters, in tech terms, their software is a few hundred years old, but in either case there was very little coincidence between what their product is capable of and what we aimed to build at F&F.

One thing I hate about the US legal system is that win or lose you are stuck with the legal bill, and for that reason it may be often reasonable to settle the case for irrelevant sums even when there are no merits whatsoever.  But as I said, if you see that this case against us has been settled or dismissed, then you know how much we paid: Zero!   We will have probably paid the penalty of being principled and going the distance, primarily in distractions and legal fees, in addition to the effect on reputation such intentionally punitive claims the other side makes, but such is the world of tech and we have to accept its flaws, including the flaws of the legal system.  Either way, I am sure this won’t be the first time that someone will look at our product with envy and greed and try to find a way to get an unfair benefit.  Call me crazy, but we will spend many times over in legal fees before we satisfy such frivolous actions that have become a bothersome nuisance to hardworking entrepreneurs.

Aside from legal pains and other challenges you have mentioned here, what would you say are the most difficult parts of building a startup?

I would say the single most difficult process to manage on day to day basis is the emotional volatility.  You wake up one day and you are pumped: everything is going to work out, team is on fire, clients are responding and you feel like changing the world is not just a dream anymore.  You are on top of the world.  Then the next day, out of sudden and for no great reason, you wake up in a sour mood and start worrying that everything is going to fall apart.  You are not smiling, the traffic is bothering you, and every time the phone rings you are worried who is on the other side.  You worry about the team and are you pushing them too hard.  Will they have enough to support their families, will they be able to find jobs if things don’t go well, and feel responsible for their wellbeing.  Learning how to manage this volatility, in my opinion, is the single most important factor of resilience in making sure you give your vision and your team the proper chance to build a successful company out of your ideas and commitment.

Finally, tell us about the market in Kosovo, what you like and what you don’t, what your plans are, and what you hope to see here.

First and foremost I love my people and I am proud to be an Albanian, not just because of our resilience and fortitude, but also because we have defied the odds a 100 times over time and time again, by bonding together against the most unbelievable storms that were set to eradicate us.  Sadly, I have to admit that we are less focused and perhaps more divided than ever in our approach toward building a modern society with values beyond corrupt politics and deficiencies of underdeveloped economies.  But this temporary inferiority has no room in technology.  Our young people are intelligent, creative, motivated, and a terrific bunch to collaborate with.  And I am talking here beyond my unique and invaluable team: I am talking about Gjirafa, about the 3 member shops that are bold enough to explore cryptocurrencies and the lone girl or guy who is building the next app for android or ios.  I am convinced that the potential per capita in tech here is far greater than what I have seen in Germany or Ireland, or even US.  And this stands true for Albania.  But, while the market is seriously untapped, I am gravely concerned about a brain drain.  I can tell you right now that everyone in my team is not just hirable in Germany or Switzerland, but they would commend some of the highest salaries in the market for their level of experience.  So when you ask me what I hope to see, I hope to see an economy that places focus on these young people full of talent, and appreciates startups and companies like ours who respect their talent and give them a forum to shine.  I would like to triple our teams in Prishtina and Tirana in the next 12 months, and I see that as totally possible and of huge value to us.  Perhaps one day we can even headquarter our tech development here.

On the other hand, no doubt in my mind that we have governments with little experience or understanding of the gold mine that is going unharnessed.  I wish they would consult more guys and girls, both home and in the Diaspora, who can demonstrate the facts around the value of innovative technology in prepping our economy forward in ways traditional industries have no power to do.  It is a field where barriers to entry our low and we need little to compete against the best, and demonstrate our worth in ways that is noticeable, as it has been recently in the few cases of success we have experienced, including ours.