Corporate Innovation Conference Remarks

Minister Popovic, Mr. Randjic, ladies and gentlemen.

It is exciting to be with you today to discuss the issue of innovation and how Serbian firms become more innovative.

I think I am probably preaching to the choir when I say that it is impossible to understate the importance of innovation.  It has an impact on our daily lives, from school to work, from health to food to entertainment.  We are here in this hall equipped with lights powered by electricity that are the legacy of men like Edison and Tesla.

The U.S. economy depends upon innovation, and we believe it is essential to the Serbian economy too. That is why United States has partnered with the ICT Hub to launch the “Playground of Innovation” activity, a $535,000 effort to support the development of Serbia’s “innovation ecosystem.”  That’s quite a mouthful, but I think you all understand the concept already.

More and more, rapid adaptation and innovation (and at times risk-taking) are essential for firms to thrive and survive.  New business models and technologies can disrupt entire industries and turn leading businesses into laggards overnight.

Yet, innovation does not happen in isolation. A supportive structure is required that incentivizes businesses and people to engage, collaborate, and find solutions that enhance efficiency and efficacy. In the United States, for example, the private sector, academia, and the government all play crucial roles in creating an environment that nurtures, allows, and rewards innovation.  And that doesn’t happen by chance.  Each of those three sectors or actors knows that their activities are interlinked, and they engage in dialogue as they strive toward that common goal.

The U.S.-supported “Playground of Innovation” is intended to help Serbia develop similar structures here. Through conferences such as this, mentoring, start-up support, as well as linking traditional companies with firms operating in the digital market, the activity’s goal is to advance the infrastructure for innovation. And the benefits are not to be underestimated. Companies that innovate and adapt are crucial to strengthening Serbia’s economy, creating good-paying jobs, and creating the opportunities that too many young, talented Serbians think exist only outside of Serbia’s borders.

The private sector cannot do this alone. Creating an ecosystem that enables businesses to thrive also requires positive government action. I thank Minister Popovic for his dedication to make government policies work for innovation. More can be done–particularly in the realm of access to finance. Throughout Serbia, small and medium enterprises lack adequate access to finance. In fact, almost 70% do not even use external financing to support investments into their own growth, development and adaptation. Laws and regulations that enable the establishment of venture capital, diversified financial instruments, and alternative financing would provide an incredible boost to Serbia’s innovation capacity

–allowing businesses to invest in new practices, conduct research and development, upgrade their production and products, and experiment with a reasonable assumption of risk.

I do not doubt this is possible in Serbia. Nor do I doubt that Serbian firms have the capacity to innovate, adapt and be leaders. Just look at the company Frame, a company from Niš that developed a desktop-as-service platform that was sold to a leading American cloud computing firm for $165 million. Yet there is further proof in this room today. This room is filled with companies and individuals who have already taken the essential first step–recognition that innovation is essential to success and that innovation comes through collaboration.

I’m reminded of a saying by the American country music singer Jimmy Dean, who also happened to be quite the successful businessman. Mr. Dean said, “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” That requires innovation. That requires adaptation. And the United States is proud to be your partner in building the environment that fosters and harnesses Serbia’s innovative spirit–laying the foundations for more competitive firms, more jobs, and greater economic opportunities.   Thank you.