A Simple Idea of Sharing
By Petra Skarja, author and entrepreneur
The first time I heard about the Katapult project was in 2014 when a large abandoned building of a failed company in Trbovlje was being renovated. "We want to create a kind of Silicon Valley of Slovenia," said Jure Knez, president and co-founder of Dewesoft. Here in Trbovlje? “Yeah, right here”.
But did he really believe that? Sure, he did! Neighboring Dewesoft had bought the empty 2000 m2 large factory building, formerly housing part of the company Iskra. It was being renovated and would give space for Katapult – a business accelerator where young entrepreneurs with innovative ideas could germinate and grow.
Katapult Building in City of Trbovlje
A vision appropriately named after the ancient ballistic devices used to launch stones a great distance or maybe the forked stick with an elastic band fastened to the two prongs, used by children for shooting small stones.
We were walking around the construction site when he enthusiastically painted a detailed image of Katapult. I envisioned a similar work environment to that of Google, although significantly smaller.
A Community in Need
Silicon Valley – it was a high-flying dream. But it is not forbidden to dream... Let me explain, to us Slovenes, Trbovlje is an area where you really never go - unless you happen to have relatives who in the past worked in the mines.
Trbovlje, once a proud mining town, is hidden between high hills in a 7 kilometers long narrow valley at the Sava River in Eastern-central Slovenia. The town and the whole Zasavje region have in recent years experienced many unpleasant blows from the collapse of the brown coal mining and the related industrial plants.
It is now a landscape marked by large empty and decaying factory structures. The chimney of a closed down coal-fired power plant – the tallest chimney in Europe, 360 meters (1181 ft) – raising like a landmark, a strong physical icon of the industrial decay. In strong winds, its peak sways almost one meter sideways.
People's wills were also swaying, hopes dying, unemployment on the rise – above 20% in Trbovlje, while the overall rate in Slovenia was just around 13%. Young people were searching for opportunities elsewhere, leaving the elders in the constraining valley.
However, Dewesoft was founded in Trbovlje and chose to remain in Trbovlje, although the town was wrapped in a kind of dispirited passive melancholy – and the fact that business opportunities are probably better in bigger cities like Ljubljana or Maribor.
Do you really believe that in a place with only 13,000 inhabitants, will be able to fill all the space?
"I do not know. But we can try, right?” He smiled optimistically.
The Conception of a Business Incubator
Jure Knez explained the thinking of the Dewesoft managers: “Our hometown has given us a lot. It's time to give something back. We've always liked the saying that it's better to teach someone how to fish than to catch the fish for them."
“One day we were looking at the graph of revenue growth and realized that the first seven years, the curve rose rather slowly, but then went steeply upwards”, he says, and continues: “To have the success we needed a whole bunch of things and, consequently, time – we had to buy equipment, establish infrastructure, strengthen the team, and penetrate foreign markets. We realized that our experience, knowledge, infrastructure, and connections could effectively help young companies.”
That was the conception of the vision of Katapult, a business accelerator, the main goal of which is to support young entrepreneurs and with it decrease unemployment in the region. Great idea, almost on the verge of being too good to be true.
Today, five years later, I ask Jure, “How did the idea become reality?”
“As always, life here is full of coincidences. Do you know the company Chipolo?", Jure Knez asks.
Of course. They make electronic pendants that help find lost keys, for example.
“Listen! Chipolo sold $ 300,000 worth of pendants on Kickstarter.” Jure goes on; “Within a few months, they had to produce more than 15,000 pieces. They were faced with the difficulty of completing development and setting up production in a short time.
Just then, we had some space available at Dewesoft. Within a few hours, we remodeled some rooms and thus became co-occupants. As they developed their product, we helped them by answering – at least for us – simple questions; who is the best supplier of nickel, how to regulate soldering technology, how to export to Russia, how to arrange export tariffs ...”
Now, after five years, Chipolo generates an annual turnover of about 4 million €. They have become one of the most recognized startups in the country with a level of success, which is rare in a small market of just 2 million inhabitants.
Jure continues: “We found that Dewesoft has an incredibly good infrastructure to assist businesses that manufacture physical products. Why not help others this way? That is how the idea of the Katapult became real."
Katapult – The Dream Come Through
Katapult has been active since 2016, and I am now in front of this renovated building. Modern and minimalistic, business-like and creative, modern and stylish, in an orange-black combination, which is also the distinctive styles and colors of Dewesoft.
Already at the entrance, Urša Poznic Gorsek, the director of Katapult, is waiting for me. With a strong handshake and a genuine smile – I immediately feel accepted, at home. "Come, I'll show you our facilities," she invites me.
Urša Poznič Gorsek is the director of Katapult, which today houses 13 startups
By profession, Urša is a lawyer with more than 18 years of legal experience, two years at the company Eti in the nearby town of Izlake, and 16 years as director of municipal administration in Trbovlje.
Today, Katapult houses 8 offices, 5 manufacturing facilities, a conference room, and more meeting rooms. We head to the conference hall, which also has a smaller bar, and in an in-built box of glass, I see a relaxed meeting room. Just a few steps ahead, there is a billiard table. Interesting! Gaming consoles and a TV also look promising – these are spaces for relaxed meetings.
Katapult has a conference room, more offices and meeting rooms – and manufacturing facilities
What is that? I look at some rooms with smaller beds. “Bedrooms. Startups often work from morning to night, fully committed to their idea. And sometimes it's convenient that they can sleep here", Urša explains to me.
We step forward into a long hallway. "They make rockets here," Urša says. Rockets? “Yeah, a young group of guys got into hybrid propulsion rockets. They are amazing!"
How many companies are currently operating within the Katapult?
“12 promising startups so far,” she informs and gives some examples: “As you noticed, Spacelink makes a rocket engine, and later they want to build a rocket capable of bringing micro and nanosatellites into space. Chipolo, which develops and manufactures smart pendants to find stocked or lost items. QuickShoeLace, known for its high-profile kick-starter campaign, making innovative, non-binding laces. Aereform or Aformx develops a flight simulator backed by virtual reality and Academy 4 – which teaches flying.”
Flying on the ground – the Aereform virtual reality flight simulator
After a quick breath, she goes on: “Hillstrike is based on the idea of bringing mountain biking to the snow, it’s a like 'three-wheeled' bike with three skies instead of wheels. SOS School is an online portal that helps children better understand mathematics. ZOYO manufactures a smart device that measures a baby's breathing, heart rate and temperature for easy parent monitoring. MonoDAQ, however, manufactures single-channel measuring instruments, supported by Dewesoft X software.”
Hillstrike entrepreneurs assembling their snow-bike
Space, Mentoring and Mutual Support
I begin to believe in their high-flying dreams that this remote place could actually be the Slovenian Silicon Valley, where the best innovations are sprouting.
So how does Katapult help these companies?
Andrei Morozov, CEO, and founder of Flare, producing an electronic device for parents to monitor their child, give some clues to the benefit of Katapult: “I like Katapult mainly because it can offer a lot of help to startups, from renting low-cost space to legal advice. In addition, if you are very busy at work, you can also sleep in the Katapult as it offers very good rooms.”
Andrei sees great benefits in the shared environment: ”Of course, the opportunity to meet and also work with bigger companies like Dewesoft and Chipolo is valuable. Everyone is ready to help you no matter what the problem. If you are a member of Katapult, you can get some more discounts on circuit design and component ordering, which greatly simplifies the life of startups."
A local herself, Urša says, “We provide startups with infrastructure and mentoring support without entering into their ownership structure. We want to support businesses to the point where they can create jobs. The locals, boys, and girls, from this valley, have priority."
They really love their valley!
“We help young businesses through the process of industrializing so they can produce more effectively - and grow. Thus, we offer a full range of services, from assistance in setting up production, testing their products, renting premises at affordable prices, accounting and administrative services, assistance in procurement and logistics, assistance in accessing foreign markets...” she explains to me.
Sharing - Give and Receive
“But Urša, how do they find you?” I hadn’t found any planned promotions or media announcements. So, it was interesting to me that the place fills up so quickly.
Flare produces an electronic device that helps parents monitor their children
“It's probably words of mouth. We put a lot of emphasis on concepts like cooperation and fairness ... Simply put - be a good person and act like one. I think all people want to work in an environment of true values. This is probably why young people want to join this environment. Some are almost begging to work with us. They can learn and grow their businesses freely, without fear of anyone grabbing their idea or project. In the long run, acting on the basis of the right values always works. Always!", Urša states with modesty in her voice and heart.
Start-up owner, Jure Zupanek, explains: “The very concept and idea of Katapult itself seemed phenomenal to us at the outset of our company setup. We somehow imagined each other here and hoped to get a place here, since we would have everything on the 'doorstep.”
Jure is behind Ironate, which makes heavy-duty carbon steel pans for baking pizzas on ordinary kitchen stoves – without an oven. He sees Katapult as a space, where young companies share knowledge, experience, and not least hardware and other equipment.
Jure Zupanek concludes: "With Dewesoft, their help, mentoring, and experience, it is so much easier for everyone at Katapult if we have any problems. For young businesses, this is really an environment that is conducive to free initiative and creativity – and it's almost unbelievable that this exists here in the Zasavje
The other Jure, Jure Knez, joins us and goes on to explain: “Katapult also means security - if one company fails, there are many opportunities to find a place in another company within Katapult, there have been quite a few successful transitions. It's just crazy how well a very simple idea of sharing and collaboration lives. There are no losers in the Katapult. We give, we receive, we live and we work ... together."
Katapult would take in even more upstarts, but all space is already occupied. “That is why we have purchased an additional 500m2, so that with the first of October 2019, new ones will come,” Urša says.
The latest addition in Katapult is the More Than Beauty brand for fashionable clothes, footwear, and fashion accessories. Developed by Jelka Verk this project aims to give creative enterprising individuals a new worldwide sales channel.
Jelka, the project manager of More Than Beauty, explains: “Katapult is very important to us as it provides support in areas like infrastructure, development, and experience – and that is exactly what we need most at the moment.
“Jure Knez and I met through the Miss Slovenia Miss World project,” says Jelka, who is the Mother of Miss Slovenia and behind numerous beauty pageants in Slovenia. Her new project is launched with the slogan: Let's support Slovenian and Slovenia!
Jelka describes the project: “Jure Knez and I quickly found a common language and developed the brand More Than Beauty. It emphasizes the importance of closer connections between Slovenian companies, artists and athletes. We want to be synonymous with quality and opportunity for creative individuals and businesses to reach out through our brand marketing support and global sales channels”.
The more I got to know of Katapult, the more I was convinced that I wanted to participate in such a story myself.
Quite recently I founded a new company, 5KA Publishing House, which I set up in Katapult rather than go about it alone. This provided me with the infrastructure, knowledge, administration and shipment arrangements, which made it extremely easy – or actually even enabling – for me to do business during this initial phase of the business.
In a few years, in Slovenia, Katapult has become a model example of successful cooperation between experienced companies and start-ups - between the beginner's creativity and euphoria and the strength and wisdom of the experienced; between fresh ideas and an established organization ... Above all, an example of what can be created with a simple connection concept.
I see the strongest added value in the excellent mentorship of the leaders of the successful Dewesoft company. The core values of Dewesoft states: “We are respectful of our community… We have an outstanding influence on the environment and the society we live in.” Katapult is evidence that these are not just words.
Trbovlje is no longer a place of melancholic passivity – it is no longer fueled by coal, but by more sustainable energy that sparks action and hope.