What 2020 holds in store for tech startups in Romania
Reasonable predictions and unreasonable hopes for the local startup scene
I should say this from the very beginning: I have wild expectations for 2020. Money from investors will flow, advisors will advise left and right, founders will start throngs of startups, and valuations will inflate by the hour.
But we are in the late stages of a bubble. Should the wise investors stop investing, sit on the money, and wait for the prices to drop? Or should they put the money at work and invest in counter-cyclic business models?
When it comes to an economic downturn, early-stage VCs (such as our fund EGV), are less affected in terms of revisited valuation because they do not pay the premium that late-stage funds always pay. But early-stage VCs should worry about the business impact of a crisis on startups at the beginning of their life when they are most sensitive to shrinking demand.
The beginning of the year is an excellent time to ask yourself questions.
Getting back to my prophetic efforts, these are the industries where I expect frenzy activity and deafening noise this year:
In Healthcare, we’ll see the proliferation of local platforms (the emphasis is on “local”) — all favored by the collapse of the state-operated system.
First of all, the local market is ripe for a variety of booking platforms that will fight over helping people get appointments with physicians. But the service is quite basic, the added value is little, and the differentiation among the players is practically non-existent. The winner will be the team able to execute best and/or the one most funded — as this is ultimately a marketing game.
Other platforms I expect to emerge this year are those applying (ready-made) computer vision algorithms to obvious use cases: I think of medical imaging analysis. Practically, these are teams working on training neural networks to recognize a variety of symptoms or maladies in CT scans and other medical films and images. Note that the quality of the results depends on the quality and quantity of the available data sets, not exactly a strong point for the Romanian startups when competing with other teams from more evolved and digitized health ecosystems.
Finally, there are the medical advice platforms, a quite complicated play as the regulations here are strict, and the potential damage is scary. Nevertheless, some will try to find creative workarounds for launching and operating telemedicine platforms.
To my knowledge, Romanian healthcare startups are “innovate” at the level of business model, not at the level of technology. I am afraid that real, profound, disruptive healthcare innovation is still reserved for more evolved markets, like the UK, where healthcare research universities actually exist. Not the case in this less fortunate part of Europe*.
Startups in Human Resources will flock in two main categories: training heads and employing hands.
Heads first. 2020 will be the year of training and long-life learning platforms supported by two aggravating factors: the collapse of another vital system terribly managed by the state (public education), and the availability of corporate HR budgets in a year of economic boom. Most of the teams working on such products won’t come with a technical solution — I haven’t seen any yet. In the end, the core of such a business is content creation/curation, not technology, right?
Moving to hands, a plethora of startups will continue to compete on the zero-innovation race of recruiting for ITC and medical sectors. Maybe some will prove more creative and move into hiring for hospitality, retail, and other sectors equally affected by the lack of labor.
The disruption craze in retail banking will continue. This is the combined result of the over-excitement generated by PSD2, and of Romanians throwing themselves head-first into spending money they don’t have (repeating the same stupid mistakes they made during the 2008 financial meltdown).
I foresee no change here. More and more marketplaces for activities will emerge as this is the last type of bookable inventory left partly uncovered by the OTAs, GDSs, and other giants. But the market fragmentation is too high, the service providers are technically illiterate, the required marketing effort is huge, there is no loyalty in travel, the level of customer support is insane, the margin is ludicrous, etc. etc. etc.
And the big winner is… agritech!!!
Mark my words: 2020 is the year for agritech startups to raise their heads as they have been long enough overlooked and underfunded. They address painfull needs and hold golden promises.
Consider this a call for startups: at EGV, we want to meet teams that solve the problems of farmers in any field (pun intended). Don’t be shy! Come talk to us!
Cybersecurity deserves a better year. Much is expected from a country that gave the world Bitdefender as well as so many hackers.
Eastern Europe at large and Romania, in particular, are not API-fied. For those willing to take it, this is an opportunity to build something meaningful and useful.
Consider this another call for startups: EGV is looking for startups that build APIs.
For us, the APIs are the software infrastructure needed by many industries, the technological backbone that will make possible the development of new companies, products, and services.
B2D (Business to Developers) is something I would like to see more animated. There are many devs around; it should be easy to test your ideas with them. Ask them what they think, adapt, and iterate. Also, devs should know what devs need.
On a closing note: predicting the future requires guts and strong convictions, but for a VC, it’s part of the job. Take my prophecies with a grain of salt and remember what Nassim Taleb said: “Courage is the only virtue you cannot fake.”
I wish you all a fantastic 2020, with no vacations and tons of work!
*Just as a reminder, EGV does not invest in healthcare startups for several reasons:
- the above-mentioned lack of real technological innovation
- the high regulation of the filed which adds complexity to the business and reduces the speed of startups
- the specificity of the Romanian market which makes local models almost impossible to export elsewhere
- the strong dependency on the state-operated health infrastructure and all the troubles and frustrations this fact brings
- and not lastly, our team’s lack of expertise in this field — which may render irrelevant all the points above.