Made in Croatia

Could Croatian Startup Rescue Tourism from Coronavirus Consequences?

With so much focus being placed on just what to do with not only Croatian tourism but the tourism industries of the whole world, could something Made in Croatia manage to help rescue what's left of tourism from coronavirus?

As Poslovni Dnevnik/Bernard Ivezic writes on the 12th of May, 2020, Ivan Bestvina is the co-founder and chief data scientist at ViraTrace. He graduated from the school in Osijek, and then five years ago, he graduated from FER. Back in 2017 he received his master's degree from there. In parallel, he worked as a programmer, analyst and data scientist at the likes of Spin Informatics, Ericsson NT and Mire.

The biggest new startup ''miracle'' from right here in Croatia is called ViraTrace. Just a couple of months ago, Ivan Bestvina from Osijek, who lives in Zagreb, and his partners from Romania, the USA, Canada and India, set out to research how to use technology in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic using contact monitoring applications and maximally protect citizens' privacy.

Now, they have freshly founded a company over in the US. They received an offer for investment from there, and various state institutions around the world warned them that they couldn't continue talks with them without a defined legal form in place.

You may have heard of the Apple-Google initiative in the field of mobile applications to monitor the spread of the new coronavirus, but this "contact tracing" platform is still in the development phase and is not yet available to the public. ViraTrace's technology, on the other hand, is already under the proverbial ''hood'' of the world's most widespread contact tracking software.

It is built into the official Indian COVID-19 app called the Aarogya Set, which is expected to exceed 100 million users in the next three days alone. Within it, ViraTrace calculates who might be infected with the new coronavirus based on a model developed by Bestvina, who offered it for free to anyone fighting coronavirus. Last week, ViraTrace was declared as one of about thirty winners at the European Commission's hackathon #EUvsVirus, as the only one from Croatia to win first place in one of the categories.

There were three more winners from Croatia, but they took second to fourth place in each category.

On that occasion, ViraTrace presented its own mobile application for tracking contacts, its model and the concept of the new hardware used. The aforementioned hardware is the type that would be added to the server and that would prevent even the server's owner from directly accessing the personal data of its users.

Data processing would be possible, but only in an anonymised form. This gave ViraTrace the opportunity to appear in the fast-growing digital health and IoT markets. ''I wouldn’t like to talk about the financial prospects of a startup, because that’s not my area,'' Bestvina said briefly.

Bestvina otherwise helps German company FoodTracks to develop data analytics in order to reduce waste, and has also created the AI ​​startup Courier Data.

Along with him in the ViraTrace team are Romanian Andrei Taranu, with whom he initially started this project. Then there is Wayne Thornton from Americam who also runs the startup, Canadian Anjana Pai, Indian Surbhi Gupta and Anne Frankovic, as well as the epidemiologist, Dr. Joseph Frankovich from the USA.

"Infrastructurally, we've been supported from the very beginning by one of the largest data science platforms, the American Alteryx, which is also in Gartner's Magic Quadrant for Data Science and ML Platforms, and we have the personal support of its director Dean Stoecker," explained Bestvina.

He added that cooperation with Alteryx is currently limited to resources, and not investments. Several investors from the USA have shown interest and are being talked to, he noted. However, ViraTrace first wants to examine investment opportunities in the sequel to the EC hackhaton, where it has already won a 3,000 euro prize sponsored by Capgemini. Bestvina pointed out that this is also a coincidence.

''In the next two to three weeks, we'll be talking to investors and potential beneficiaries under a programme that the European Commission has called Matchathon, so we'll see what happens next with investors,'' Bestvina said, adding that the most important thing for him is that they have chosen the right path from the beginning: the protection of user privacy.

He explained that today, more and more countries in Europe are turning to this approach. One of Europe's strongest economic powers, the United Kingdom, in addition to its centralised application, which it is currently testing, is developing another one based on the decentralizsd approach advocated by Apple and Google. Germany has signaled that it is open to the approach taken by Apple and Google, and, much like Austria and Switzerland, has shown interest in accessing DP-3T.

Bestvina's solution, as he explained, is almost identical to Apple and Google's approach. But the key is which approach the EU will recommend so that EU citizens don't have to install COVID-19 applications for each country separately when crossing any borders. In addition, Apple and Google are under pressure to enable the recording of geolocations and other data on their platform, which will be the basis for the development of mobile applications for coronavirus monitoring.

Bestvina stated that the most important thing is gaining and then maintaining the trust of citizens, because in order for these applications to be functional, more than half of the citizens need to install them. Here, Apple and Google, as seen in Croatia, have an advantage. Bestvina declined to comment on the fact that the Indian Government, meanwhile, has made the Aarogya Setu application mandatory, and it is the only democracy to have done so.

He explained that in Croatia, where tourism, hospitality and transport are extremely important industries, contact tracking applications would be an alternative to quarantine in the early stages of a pandemic, but also later because, as has since been seen in France, the manual tracking of contacts is difficult.

Make sure to follow our dedicated section for more on coronavirus in relation to Croatia. Follow Made in Croatia for more on Croatian innovation.

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