Building Lithuania‘s AI ecosystem – lessons learned from boosting a local AI community (Sponsored)

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is becoming a cornerstone of modern economies. While big nations such as the USA and China are in a race to dominate the field, smaller countries, such as Lithuania, are trying to figure out where they stand amidst global AI ecosystems and define which direction to head in.

Back in 2019, Lithuania became the second country in the European Union, right after Austria, to create a national AI strategy. The strategy was built with an ambition of growth, maturity and sustainability for its AI ecosystem and an understanding that AI can be a significant uniting booster for the public, private and academic worlds. Benefits include a more innovative and resilient economy, as well as a more efficient public sector. At that time, a total of 39 small and medium-sized enterprises were working in the field of research and development of artificial intelligence products. Now, just a few years later, the Startup Lithuania database identifies 74 AI startups. The number doubled even when excluding the count of larger businesses.

Such a noticeable step forward did not happen over the night. Over the last few years, the AI ecosystem in Lithuania undertook targeted efforts to make sure that AI is part of the country’s strategic agenda. The actions that were taken can teach us how small countries with limited resources can achieve ecosystem growth – of AI or any other ecosystem. 

Cooperation instead of competition

Lithuania is a small country, therefore, inner communication and cooperation of the AI ecosystem are crucial. Given limited resources, one of the key steps to build the ecosystem was to discourage the competition among the different players and focus on becoming a helping hand to each other, as well as figuring out common strengths as an ecosystem.

One of the most prominent examples of such cooperation came about when great minds from various sectors (public, private, academia) came together and created a restless AI Think Tank – an informal organization with a task to create a national AI strategy. Even today, the strategy still acts as a roadmap for ecosystem development.

While the AI Think Tank was initiated by the public sector, business leaders have grown into the community as well. AI businesses have started to cooperate under the newly created AI association of Lithuania. Now it is a strong community of professionals and enthusiasts dedicated to promoting and encouraging AI integration and development in Lithuania. Startups joined forces to create their own association. Both of these are honoured to be the home of the first Lithuanian tech unicorn, that has been recently recognized among the top 100 Unicorns in the world. And we hope there are many more to come. This recent increase in collaboration is part of a comprehensive effort, showing that the ecosystem as a whole is stronger than separate businesses.

Comprehensive communication efforts

With the community engaged, the second step was to make sure that people in Lithuania have enough knowledge about AI to make the most of its potential. This is how the AI Boost Initiative was born – with a goal to communicate trusted information about AI and get people interested in the topic. AI Boost played a crucial part in initiating and implementing various initiatives to popularize and publicize AI, organize events on AI topics, and promote AI education initiatives.

A spectrum of national and international events have been held over the years, tackling topics from social problems to AI applications in different fields. “Women in AI”, “AI & Fintech (mis)MATCH”, “The future of AI in Europe: Baltic perspective” are just some examples. A one-of-a-kind AI podcast was also created to give an additional communication space for AI voices. Timely and very spot-on interviews quickly became something to look forward to.

The new communication format expanded the usual AI audience and now the “used to be boring” topic has become the new “it-topic” for everyone who’s at least slightly interested in what is going on in Lithuania.

It is safe to say that AI, even without us noticing it, has got its way into everyday aspects of our lives and every possible public field. This is what inspired a series of virtual events called “Lithuania goes AI”, covering the Lithuanian AI ecosystem and the current innovations in AI. From Health, BioTech, Agriculture, Creative industries and Security to Space and Education, nothing was left behind.

One of the most recent events held by the initiative was an international event that grabbed the attention of almost 1000 participants from all over the world – the international virtual AI conference AI BOOST 2021. This online conference had it all – from inspirational grand ideas, local use cases of AI and even the most advanced research – everyone found something of their own. Cutting edge AI applications, AI for Business, AI for Government & Society, AI for Research and of course – AI for Startups. More than 60 artificial intelligence experts from around the world spoke on the hottest AI topics making this event one of the reasons that AI ecosystems worldwide are increasingly shifting their focus to Lithuania.

All of this has helped to highlight the capacity of the intellectual power of Lithuania’s AI Ecosystem alongside the great faces and voices of everyday people that are putting their efforts into making Lithuania a strong and leading AI country, even if there is a long way to go.

Accelerating AI startups

Despite the skills, knowledge and ideas, sometimes building AI solutions are just too complex and expensive. For a small country such as Lithuania, it was essential to make sure that every innovator and entrepreneur received enough assistance with building or deploying AI solutions as needed. Therefore, as part of the AI Boost initiative, Lithuania’s Agency for Science, Innovation and Technology launched an accelerator aimed specifically at the AI business.

The AI Boost Accelerator was a unique opportunity for AI developers to receive completely free high-level consultations, which allowed them to develop their activities faster and more efficiently. The accelerator consisted of a 4-month consulting and individual mentoring program designed to help startups and companies. A total of three rounds were carried out with a total of 50 startups getting a helping hand in the fields of development, finance, communication, marketing, AI leadership.

The accelerator program was based on a survey of AI startups and companies to tailor the content of the consultation to the specific needs of AI developers. After all this intensive work in the accelerator, the developers of AI receive a strong impetus to grow and Lithuania can enjoy new AI solutions.

In one of the interviews, President of the Lithuanian Artificial Intelligence Association Dovydas Ceilutka, said that Lithuania still has a long way to go in the field of artificial intelligence. But, the plentiful examples of AI products built-in Lithuania that are celebrated worldwide show that Lithuania really does have an entrepreneurial AI talent pool. This is the main reason why Lithuania has what it takes to become an AI leader – at least for now in the Baltic region.

All of these small steps that were taken in this long Lithuanian AI journey is what has made it work. Consistency, unity, the devotion of the people and a great belief in Lithuania’s future with AI as an integral part of it. This is what has made Lithuania a proud home of new technologies and talented people with a will to create.

If you want to learn more about the AI ecosystem in Lithuania, follow AI Boost and MITA on social media.

AI Boost is part of GovTech Lab Lithuania project at the Agency for Science, Innovation and Technology and has received funding from European Regional Development Fund. Number and name of operational programme measure: 01.2.1-LVPA-V-842 Inogeb LT.