Fasten your seatbelts: Oradea’s startup community is ready for takeoff

Pitching Day, an event that marked the ending of the validation stage of Oradea’s Bright Labs Incubator’s 2022 edition

The local startup ecosystem of Oradea, in North-West Romania, has been making headlines for the past two years. Besides being a beloved destination for tourists and having a high-performing public administration, Oradea has made it to the list of the most attractive and innovative startup hubs in Romania and is not stopping here. It aims for 100 product companies to be developed in Oradea, in the next 20 years.

We looked at the key milestones reached in the last two years, and spoke with David Achim, Executive Director of the Make IT in Oradea non-profit organization, Alina Silaghi, General Director of the Oradea Local Development Agency (ADLO), as well as with Cătălin Rus and Ioana Rus from Prime Dash, an innovative global FinTech startup founded locally, promising to revolutionize business decision-making processes through AI technology. Spoiler alert: public institutions can also benefit from the solution to increase their transparency and financial performance – but let’s set the scene first and dive into the details later on.

Update time: how has the local startup scene evolved in the last two years?

As we were sharing back in 2020, the public-private initiative Make IT in Oradea was launched by the Oradea City Hall and local IT companies (such as Paymo, Mobiversal, Smartware, Helion, Ro et Co), in partnership with Orange Romania. We all know the challenging context of the time, but in terms of building the startup ecosystem in Oradea, the time was ripe. The initiative offered a framework for accelerating startup ideas and developing a stronger tech community through the Bright Labs incubator program, offering comprehensive mentorship program for founders, in order to launch their products within 6 months. The City Hall finances viable startup ideas with up to €50,000, within a total annual budget €300,000. The financing is also available for startups developed outside the incubator program, with the condition to establish their headquarters or open an office in Oradea and have part of their team here.

The Oradea City Hall has earmarked €300,000/ year for financing startups

The city has assumed a bold approach to become competitive in the market of services with high added value. David Achim, Executive Director of Make IT in Oradea, put the goal of the initiative clearly: to have 100 product companies developed in Oradea, in the next 20 years. The program also includes tax facilities for IT companies, as well as scholarships for students interested in building a career in tech.

In the past two years, Oradea was put on the map of startup communities in Romania. Just recently, when you talked about startups, Oradea would not come to your mind. The ongoing initiatives have changed this and brought visibility for the city as a startup hub.

David also made the point that while many of the startups were founded long before, it was only recently that they became known on a wider scale, as part of a well-coagulated community. At the same time, the local ecosystem celebrated important exits, such as Appointfix, an appointment scheduling app created by Mobiversal, which was acquired by a US company and Paymo, a cloud project management application that bundles task management, time tracking and invoicing. 

In terms of public investments, the city is continuing its pro-active and accelerated development. The Oradea Local Development Agency plays a key role in addressing the needs of investors and future innovators, from the management of industrial parks, to involvement in the development of major transport, educational and research infrastructure.

David Achim, Executive Director of Make IT in Oradea and Alina Silaghi, General Director of the Oradea Local Development Agency

 “The industry is constantly adapting and changing to market requirements. Oradea is trying to adapt to the demands of companies, with projects such as the Intermodal Terminal and Cargo Terminal, new road connections, the development of public transport in the metropolitan area and science and technology parks which will provide innovation and research, as well as technology transfer to companies”, says Alina Silaghi, General Director of the Oradea Local Development Agency.

The Bright Labs incubator program, at the second edition

The results of the past two editions of the incubation program financed by the public administration are very promising. In 2021, over 30 teams participated in the selection process, and 8 ended up in the third phase of incubation. Out of these, 3 startups were granted funding, totaling €115,000.

After an exciting Pitching Day event in May, the teams moving forward into the 2022 Bright Labs incubation stage have recently been announced. The pre-selection stage took place between February and April and 20 startups went on into the validation phase. 8 teams were selected for the incubation stage and each received a prize of 5,000 euros to further develop their idea. Similar to the previous edition, the selected startups were from industries such as Smart City, Medtech and SaaS, but also web3 and NFT, applied in the tourism industry. The incubation stage begins in June and will last until the end of September.

If you are interested in joining or supporting the event next year, keep in mind that the program is open to applicants beyond the city of Oradea. This year’s edition included events organized in partnership with Cluj Startups and Cowork Timișoara, as well as a pitching event for expats, Romanians who live abroad or have recently returned. In terms of criteria, the jury will focus on your team, market size, innovative component and validation with the target audience. The Make IT in Oradea team also awarded a grade for the level of involvement of each team during the validation stage. 

Winners of the Pitching Day event 2022:

Palm Benefits – a marketplace that facilitates the communication and business relationship between property managers and property service providers;

DocsGen – a web application that generates documents based on a form;

NFTickets – a blockchain-based system that gives event organizers control over ticket sales, as well as fair prices for participants who buy them;

2 people – a fashion platform dedicated to exchanging clothes;

TreeDev Software Solutions – a solution that offers a wide range of features to help institutions function efficiently

Hygge – a mindfulness diary guided by artificial intelligence;

PackE – a platform that contributes to improving local tourism and building customer loyalty using NFTs;

MD Priority – a support system that will contribute to better health care in emergency units.

Founders corner: Meet Prime Dash

At the beginning of May, Urbanize Hub organized an event in Oradea, bringing together experts, local and national representatives and startups, which hosted the launch of the „Romanian City 4.0” book. The book offers a fresh, post-infrastructure approach to urban development, including economic strategic guidelines, major trends in technology, smart planning and governance and hot topics like designing cities for children and digital nomads. At its core, the book is about the main driving force of any city – its people, and can be found here (in Romanian).

Cătălin Rus (COO), Mălina Turcuț (Country Manager – Romania) and Ioana Rus (Chairwoman of the Board) in the Prime Dash office in London

During this event, we had the opportunity to talk to Ioana Rus (Chairwoman of the Board) and Cătălin Rus (Co-founder and COO) from Prime Dash, a successful global FinTech startup founded in Oradea, with offices across three continents (Oradea, Bucharest, London, Senegal and Virginia). Prime Dash takes BI to a new level and uses advanced analytics and machine learning to help entrepreneurs and financial institutions make data-based decisions in real time, in order to attain their financial objectives, regardless of their industry or business size.

On the platform, users can simulate different scenarios to visualize the impact of their decision on the company’s results and receive recommendations to optimize their strategy. The app also bridges the gap between banks and SMEs, as financial institutions can automate and control their lending processes, enhance risk mitigation, while companies can receive loans within hours, based on easily accessible performance data.

What is more, the tool is also suitable for public administrations looking to the ensure the transparency of the budget execution for public companies in their subordination. For instance, the app can deliver ROI analysis for all costs and identify cost optimization patterns to increase the performance of public spending. Building on the existing local talent, the Oradea City Hall has partnered with Prime Dash to become the most transparent public institution in terms of how citizens’ money is used. Prime Dash is eager to have other administrations onboard, at no cost, and can offer direct support for implementing the solution.

What is the story of Prime Dash?

“We started Prime Dash as a result of an exchange of ideas with our US partner Madou Sylla back in 2014. The goal was to develop the best financial advisor for decision makers, and we began mapping the steps to make this possible. The key focus areas were R&D, tech and business development.”

The team of founders was formed of Madou Sylla (CEO), Cătălin Rus (COO) and Cosmin Ghiță (CTO). The product went into a validation phase with two major financial institutions in 2017, and was launched in a beta version two years later. 

“We presented our beta version at the Future Banking event in Bucharest, as we were looking for investors. Banca Transilvania (BT) contacted us and proposed us a partnership to promote the product towards their SME portfolio.”

This partnership also prompted the team to refactor the app into a SaaS (software as a service), as it previously needed to be installed locally by users. The first cloud version of the app was launched in BT Store in the summer of 2020, but the pandemic context put the bank’s store project on hold.

The startup had a global vision from the beginning. Other major partnerships with Microsoft, BCR InnovX (an accelerator of the Romanian Commercial Bank) and the inclusion in the Visa Innovation Program have allowed Prime Dash to scale up and accelerate their international journey. As part of a program of the UK Department of International Trade (DIT), Prime Dash will soon be headquartered in London, while the software development and the business development for Central and Eastern Europe will remain in Romania.

What makes the product different from competitors and how does it work?

“In Romania, Prime Dash is the only AI-driven tool offering financial modelling to improve decision-making for SMEs. There are two aspects that differentiate the product from a traditional BI software – a virtual financial consultant based on artificial intelligence and the ability to simulate financial scenarios and visualize the impact of decisions in real time.”

The first step is to import accounting data onto the platform, which is then interpreted for optimizing financial decisions.  This can be done, ideally, by real time connection to accounting systems through an API, or by manual upload of pdf documents. The first option ensures that real-time data can be processed and used at any time, compared to quarterly uploads of data. Ensuring this compatibility is a key requirement for making the most out of what the product can offer.  

Who were the first investors?

“The team of people who worked for this product was the first to invest money in it – as a result, the initial product was evaluated at approximately €500.000 at the time (authors note: currently Prime Dash is evaluated at €10 million). Another key investment came from the legal team behind the project, with a strategic role in navigating the banking and financial ecosystem. We could not afford to hire our own legal department, so we proposed them to make an investment in the product.”

Prime Dash received its first angel investments through a brokerage company which helps companies prepare for listing on the stock exchange. In total, by 2020 the company attracted over €600.000 in angel investments, to further develop and promote the product.

How much did the product change from the initial idea?

“There was a lot of work to get here – our app had over 70 updates, focusing on making it as a simple as possible for the users. We took in the feedback coming from our first clients in the US, Africa and Europe, as well from consultancy firms, and more optimizations will follow, as we are headed for a new round of investments of €1.5 million.”

How has the local startup ecosystem changed in the last years?

“We noticed that there is a strong orientation towards building new products, instead of the outsourcing model. With outsourcing, there is always the risk that due to increased costs, clients will move their business to cheaper markets. Today, in Oradea, we have more and more startups designing innovative solutions for a wide range of industries.  The support offered through the Make IT in Oradea initiative, as a result of the partnership between the Oradea City Hall and local tech companies, is very valuable for encouraging young people to develop their ideas and for promoting them beyond the local market. The growth of this ecosystem of stakeholders is a key asset and shows that there is a lot of potential here, locally.”

Interested in more information about the startup scene in Oradea?

The Oradea Tech Hub, created in 2015 with the aim of strengthening the local tech community, published a report on the local startup ecosystem in 2020, showcasing 22 startups. 

The main local startup industries are project management (Paymo), app development (Mobiversal), cybersecurity (TypingDNA, East-Tec Eraser), FinTech (Prime Dash, Finboard), ad design and creation (Creatopy), appointment scheduling and field services (Appointfix, Fieldvibe), HoReCa (OptiOffer, tapTasty), professional services platform (Ex€, online ads platform (Publi24), graphic design and online catalogs software (SVGator, Bannersnack, Flipsnack),  academic conferences (confDesk), online  marketing (Relevon), POS (ExpertPOS),  ERP software (ExpertAccounts), personal shopping assistance (Cartloop), parking (Keyticket), hotel management (HoteloPro) industry 4.0 solutions (Octavic) and biotech – creating medical exoskeletons (Axosuits), automotive (Tracknamic).

Let’s turn to the city: how is Oradea changing?

The city has been keeping up its high pace of development and is continually investing in becoming more attractive for citizens, tourists, innovators and investors. Besides being a popular touristic attraction and the “ArtNouveau capital” of Romania, Oradea has embarked on the journey towards the “smart city”, understood as a city which has a good economic balance, efficient services and quality of life. The smart approach will consist of continuing the digitalization of the administration, the improvement of public services and simplifying the way in which citizens and companies interact with local institutions, as well as data-based decision making with the help of AI. The Smart City components will also focus on health, education, the environment and energy efficiency.

Developing air transport is another key priority for Oradea, with the aim of attracting investments and tourists in the city and the Bihor county. The local airport currently offers external connections to London, Dusseldorf, Milano and Bologna, with two airlines. Since last year, the city has established its own public airline, Air Oradea, which will most likely start operating this fall and will extend the current flight offer to Bucharest and other European capitals of interest. The ambitious airline project has been initiated as a partnership between the City Hall and the County Council, making it the first of its kind in Romania. The Cargo terminal is another major investment that shows the commitment to better connect the city to economic markets and accelerate its development. The terminal will ensure conditions for the transport of necessary products to local production companies, and the other way around. To this end, a new logistics base will be created in Bihor County. The construction works have already started and the terminal is set to be finished at the end of 2023.

The four industrial parks, managed by the Oradea Local Development Agency (ADLO), in which the majority shareholder is the Oradea City Hall, have attracted investments of over €425 million and created close to 10.000 new jobs. Based on these results, the local Agency was also handed over the administration of the entire network of existing and new industrial parks in the county, which will comprise of 11 units.  Another significant project implemented by ADLO, in partnership with the Bihor County Council and the University of Oradea is the establishment of the city’s first Science and Technology Park, which will facilitate technological transfer and foster innovation.

The future Science and Technology Park in Oradea will facilitate technological transfer and foster innovation

In the coming years, continuing the support for strengthening the tech and startup community, implementing the planned infrastructure investments and developing the metropolitan dimension, in order to connect people to opportunities will be key for sustaining the city’s development. What the story of Oradea’s startup ecosystem shows is that where talent, mentorship, financial support, a performant public sector and a culture of partnerships exist, the rest is only a matter of time.

Urban Development Consultant & Editor at Startups&TheCity.