The Kosovar startup is helping the internet pierce the Albanian-speaking world, a demand Google has been slow to meet
In a world of search engines and information indexing, some minority languages are waiting their turn. For 12 million Albanian-speakers, it’s also a more fundamental matter of getting documents and books and newspapers and bus schedules that are in Albanian online. That’s where Gjirafa comes in — and the $2 million they just scored in venture capital.
Gjirafa is based in Kosovo, the former Serbian province that was once at the heart of the Balkan Wars. It is ethnically and linguistically Albanian, but functioning as an independent country. Gjirafa’s founder, CEO Mergim Cahani, started developing his company’s mission when he was a student in the U.S.
“I had a few roommates from Czech Republic; one of them was hired later on by Credo Ventures as an associate (an investor in StartupYard). He recommended that I apply — I did, I got accepted and the rest followed,” he told Geektime.
While getting his Master’s Degree at New York University, he worked with Professor Torsten Suel, a pioneer in web search that Gjirafa now counts among its top advisers.
Cahani’s company is a graduate of the Startup Yard accelerator in Prague, presumably where Gjirafa first met their Series A investor Prague-based Rockaway Capital of CEO Jakub Havrlant. The money will go toward scaling Gjirafa’s operations to turn it into an e-commerce, advertising and search giant for Kosovo and Albania. The site already hosts listings for rentals, job openings and claims the largest online marketing platform in those two countries and Macedonia.
The site is digitizing information either dispersed on the web or not online at all. Using a natural language processing algorithm, they hope to cover ground ignored by other search engines.
“We implement a hybrid approach in search; statistical and language-NLP based. Something that does not exist in academic research for the Albanian language,” Cahani notes.
Albanian is linguistically unique, in a language subfamily all by itself within the larger Indo-European branch. That can make it difficult to pick up if you’re not a native speaker, having far less of a cognate language to reference while learning it like English-speakers might when learning Spanish or German.
That drawback also gives Gjirafa a counter-intuitive advantage. Cahani cites Startup Yard investor Seznam.cz, a Czech search engine that reputes itself as the only search engine in the Western world with a lead in its domestic search market against Google. Seznam has become as synonymous with the web in Prague as Google has in the U.S.; so too, Gjirafa appears headed for that status for Albanian speakers.
The “Albanian-language web is in its infancy; [it’s] not developed enough,” Cahani tells Geektime. “As such, [it] is not rich and one cannot find something online that does not exist (e.g., Bus Schedule, Business Contact data, blogs that discuss important themes, and the common items that one may look up online).”
The enormous Kosovo startup ecosystem that you’ve never heard of
The amount of tech startup activity in Pristina — the Kosovar capital — is far higher than one might expect for a country with only 1 million people. The director of Startup Grind Pristina, Uranik Begu, also reigns as the Executive Director at Innovation Center Kosovo (ICK) which hosts an incubator in the city.
ICK turns four years old in June and Begu has been there since the beginning. To date, ICK has supported over 60 companies (out of 400 applications) and over 1,000 trainees in ICT, held over 175 events including Startup Grind, Global Entrepreneurship Week Kosovo, organized FuckUP Nights (which we assume isn’t a bad word in Albanian) and Startup Weekend.
“Gjirafa’s story is an impressive one…Gjirafa has done a great work in solving a ‘problem’ for Albanian speakers, especially when it comes to search engine. Many times Google fell short, and did not produce optimal results.”
That aforementioned internet penetration in Kosovo and an enthusiastic diaspora are mixing a talent pool, investment and networking together is proving potent.
“This model has proven a successful one thus far, because in one end we have Diaspora providing a know-how, network and finance, on the other hand we have an offer from our young computer and language literate youth.”
Financing is still the main issue, but the recent creation of the Kosovo Business Angel Network is coalescing the small country’s resources and advantages together.
“There are good companies that could mark global successes, and we as ICK are trying to link these companies, by showcasing them to other global and regional accelerators and venture funds.”
Small country, big ambition
Kosovo’s startups are fighting some greater market forces; brain drain is an issue as good talent gets poached by companies abroad who pay better. But there are more and more training programs, VET schools and “an increasing interest also among kids to go after digital knowledge and skills needed for the future,” Begu tells us.
Cahani posits that while Albania has more purchasing power, Kosovo has a more dynamic, younger population with better internet penetration. Still they’re both “frontier markets” in his words.
“People [Kosovars] are ambitious, hardworking, young (the youngest age in Europe), willing to take the extra mile.”
The company was co-founded by CEO Mergim Cahani, COO Diogjen Elshani and CTO Ercan Canhasi. They currently have 21 employees, but plan on opening an office in Tirana, Albania and hiring 10 more people. They also maintain official headquarters in Detroit. It’s their second financing round following investment from angels Esther Dyson, Credo Ventures Partner Ondrej Bartos, and Roland Berger Managing Partner Philip Staehelin.