On June 20th, 2019 AmCham Bulgaria partnering with AmCham Israel organized one-of-its-kind InnoStart Forum 2019. The event met the expectations of all participants: members, institutions, investors, startups, media. It gathered those groups of people in one place and showed them the perspective of how Bulgaria can become an innovation and startup nation by utilizing the excellent relationships we have with Israel and the United States. Both countries are role-models for entrepreneurship and innovation, thus the Bulgarian community of venture capitalists, startups, and mature business can cooperate well with their respective counterparts. One thing is certain: the door for exchange, share and communicate with them is now open widely.
Here we present some highlights of the speeches delivered during the Opening Session by Olivier Marquette, AmCham Bulgaria President, H.E. Irit Lilian, Ambassador of the State of Israel to Bulgaria, Justin Friedman, Deputy Chief of Mission of the United States to Bulgaria, and Tomislav Donchev, Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Bulgaria.
Olivier Marquette: InnoStart Forum Opens Bulgaria’s Perspective for a Productive Entrepreneurial Eco-System
Many nations developed vibrant economies because they utilized their ultimate asset – the intellectual power of their people. Over the past decades – including during the socialist times and the period before the World War II – Bulgaria had a solid base of engineers and scientists. Studied abroad, copied Western knowledge, they have often returned to motherland to give back what they have learnt. They started businesses, they did science, and they taught their successors.
In our view innovation and venture capital should be nurtured and the entrepreneurial culture should be supported institutionally and promoted by the governments.
The key elements of the entrepreneurial eco-systems are – governments, business, venture capital, startups, academia, accelerators. All of those players should speak a common language – the language of growth, innovation, peace and success.
We are happy that the Bulgarian government shows its will and implements a variety of measures to improve business climate. Thus, it shows that it realizes the importance of innovation and education for the sustainable growth and prosperity of Bulgaria. We are glad that we are having four members of the Cabinet who will present their sectorial and broaden views on how we could do better.
Irit Lilian: Together we have to create, innovate and initiate for the sake of our future.
In Israel 50% our of the total export is of hi-tech products and services, and in Bulgaria it is about half this size. Here is a wonderful wind of opportunities to join forces… This is the main reason why we are here today (…) to try a triangle of knowledge with expertise gathered by the AmChams in our respective countries, try to find spaces of possible sustainable cooperation, exchange views and ideas that will lead our communities to success and better practice. It will enable us to better confront political and social challenges that would demand us all to foster better performance of our economies.
Israel will always be obliged to the Bulgarians for saving the Bulgarian Jews during the WWII. However, we should be attentive to the fact that in our time, as memory fades out, this pillar needs both maintenance and reinforcement. The younger generation needs more that glorious history in order to maintain profound bilateral relations. Therefore, we have to put an emphasis on mutual projects for the benefit of both societies, we have to create, innovate, and initiate together – not only for the sake of our mutual past but for our future.
Old wisdom says that if you walk alone, you reach fast, but if you walk together, you reach far. So, hit the road, there is a long way to go.
Justin Friedman: Bulgaria has the innovation culture, the innovation capacity.
When I first heard about this conference I asked myself “Why do we need this conference?”. Bulgaria has economic growth, it has great FDIs, American companies contributed to that and create around 30,000 jobs here. Why do we need to innovate? As Ambassador Lilian pointed out – the World is not standing still, markets are changing, the challenges are changing, and innovation is always looking to the future.
And then I asked myself “Can Bulgaria create innovation economy?” And the answer is resoundingly “Yes!” Let me explain why I think so.
We do have models of innovation here in Bulgaria. One innovator said that climbing rocks is far and dangerous, so why we don’t practice rock climbing with rock and safety equipment. And now that company – Walltopia – is the world leader in indoor climbing. So, Bulgaria has the innovation culture, the innovation capacity.
Over my conversations with business leaders both from the United States and Bulgaria, brought me to three elements of innovation culture. First, it is strong education system. Second, is clear, transparent and fair governance. And the third is openness to risk and to change.
There are three elements of innovation culture: strong education system, clear, transparent and fair governance, openness to risk and to change.
So, how Bulgaria can do better if those three elements are identified. Also, I would turn that question to America, because we have to challenge ourselves all the time.
Bulgaria has wonderful universities. They are challenging the students to think, not only to memorize facts. And that is a challenge to all educators – do you teach your students to think.
There is no magic formula for the right set of laws. Bulgaria has very low tax rates which is attractive to businesses. But what I heard from business leaders, that there is an impression that laws and rules can be variably implemented. So, the challenges for the government professionals are imposing the rules when we are playing fair to innovators who are creating jobs for our citizens.
Openness to risk and change is seen both ways – the hard one, and the easy one. Everyone is open to some risk at some level. But it is about whether you take this risk alone, or you are working with someone together. And there are people – like in the Silicon Valley – people are competing rigorously with each other: Uber Vs. Lyft, Facebook Vs. LinkedIn, Apple Vs. others. But at the end of the day, they sit together and share how experience to solve problems and overcome challenges.
Another question to Bulgaria after attracting so many foreign companies, is how you keep your people on board; how you keep them satisfied? It is not only question of money to stay.
There is something common that we say in NATO, something that is shared among European Union: separately we are broken, but together we are stronger. That is what will make work this innovation environment here in Bulgaria and in the Balkans.
Tomislav Donchev: Complete digitalization of the Bulgarian enterprises will improve their competitiveness
The digital transformation I see it through the perspective of the transformation of the Bulgarian economy. In the current situation, I see that our economy has reached its peak, and it limits its potential for development. If it grows by the same volumes, attracts same investments, we are doomed to grow with the same numbers.
The transforming economy requires new types of funding of innovations and applied science, including institutional reorganization, it requires traditional business infrastructure, requires significant reforms in education, some of which are already started.
One of the main components is the digitization – of both the public and the private sectors. I will continue emphasizing that the improving of the competitiveness of the Bulgarian enterprises is based on their complete digitization. Thus, in this sphere enough need, demand and funds will be available in the coming years. We have the ambition to invest more public funds in this area, and to do it in a smarter way by attracting private funding as well.
The Digitization is a social process. It inevitably will lead to changes that we can not imagine now. It is pure illusion if we think that such economic and technological transformation will not lead to any social change. I do hope that this change will be harmonized and conflict less. However, I do fear that it will lead to some crises. It is also illusion that such change will not lead to transformation of the governance and political management of our societies.