Efficient Innovation: Entrepreneurship in Bulgaria

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Yasen Georgiev

About Yasen Georgiev

Yasen Georgiev is Executive Director of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) – a Sofia-based think tank that provides economic research and interdisciplinary analyses of economic and socioeconomic trends in Bulgaria and South Eastern Europe.

When discussing entrepreneurship and start-ups in Europe, Sofia, let alone Bulgaria, is not among the usual destinations that gets mentioned. And yet surprisingly enough, the country that joined the European Union eleven years ago and currently holds its first ever Presidency of the Council of the European Union, is now proud of an emerging start-up ecosystem that is now spreading from its capital city of 1.3 million people to some other major cities.

The exponential growth of start-ups, mainly export-driven and concentrated in the ICT sector, is to a large extent a natural process, that has been taking shape not necessarily because of any comprehensive set of tailor-made public policy and government incentives in the field of entrepreneurship. Indeed, a major push to the sector was given by the government in the early 2010s, which allocated EU funding to private funds and let them operate as venture capital firms.

As such, despite the lack of a focused long-term policy, the process started to gain momentum when in 2012 two start-up accelerators were founded in Sofia as part of the JEREMIE initiative. It was financed with EU funding through the Bulgarian Ministry of the Economy amounting to 21 million euros and managed by the European Investment Fund. As a result, investments were made in 180 innovative start-ups, which were supported through equity investments up to 200,000 euros. This enabled Sofia to rank third in terms of the the number of accelerated start-ups in Europe in 2013 and 2014 according to Startup Heatmap Europe, right behind London and Dublin and ahead of Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin. At the same time two more financial instruments composed of public resources and private investments were made operational in order to support early-stage small and medium enterprises (SMEs) registered in Bulgaria.

Sofia Buzz

Understandably, the availability of funding during the EU 2007-2013 multi-annual financial framework gave tailwind to a number of start-ups from Bulgaria and Southeastern Europe – about 20-30 per cent of all Bulgarian start-ups at that time were established by entrepreneurs from neighboring countries and a considerable number of the entrepreneurs came from the Bulgarian Diaspora.

Despite efforts to prevent gaps during the transition between budgeting periods, availability of seed financing proved to be more limited during the first part of the ongoing budget 2014-2020 framework. This is due to delays both in launching new financial instruments and provision of funds for development and upgrades to previously supported companies. Nevertheless, the benefit from the initial rounds of financing succeeded in creating a domestic buzz and in placed Sofia and Bulgaria under the spotlight of business angels and regional platforms for debt and equity investments, thus making starting a business more attractive and facilitating access to finance.

New Talent

The challenges ahead of the emerging start-up ecosystem are closely linked to some of the advantages of this development. Most of the enterprises supported were in the ICT sector, which seems to be a challenge when structuring new public financial instruments, as they should include a larger variety of sectors along with those that are not so attractive to investors. According to Move.bg’s 2017 annual survey, digital entrepreneurship in Bulgaria is heavily export-driven – 78 oer cent of companies operate on foreign markets and only a third of respondents do not generate revenue from exports, while 52 per cent of those exporting said that exports accounted for 76-100 per cent of their revenue. Needless to say, this speaks positively about the competitiveness of the sector, however, besides its increasing dependence on foreign clients, it continuously functions without building bridges to the rest of the domestic business, which continues to operate in a less digitalised manner and thus not yet fully benefits from the knowledge and expertise of its local digital pioneers.

Last but not least, according to the same research, 31 per cent of digital companies in Bulgaria employ foreign citizens, which signals that the industry is looking for new sources of talent because of the exhausted supply of skilled labour at home.

Innovate with Efficiency

Leaving aside the ICT sector, entrepreneurship and SMEs continue to experience two major constraints among others – low entrepreneurial activity and perceived gaps in the field of intellectual property rights protection. Whether the latter is hard to be measured, the former is clearly argued in the latest two national reports on entrepreneurship in Bulgaria, carried out by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM). In 2016 the total early-stage entrepreneurial activity (TEA) rate for Bulgaria was 4.8 per cent (3.5 per cent in 2015), comprised of 2.6 per cent of the adult population engaged in nascent entrepreneurial endeavours and 2.2 per cent who were new business owners. Interestingly, despite this very low rate, which is among the lowest globally, a relatively high percentage of these starting businesses manage to survive long enough and become established.

Instead of a conclusion, the GEM reports states that Bulgaria has a rather small but vibrant group of innovation-oriented businesses which undertake innovation with remarkable efficiency. In fact, this pattern of ‘elite‘ innovation suggests that there might be a two-tier population of both early-stage and established businesses: one small group of innovation-active businesses and a much larger group of companies that do not engage in innovation. The real challenge of public policy then will be to spread innovation culture to the second group and thus expand the base on which the international competitiveness of the Bulgarian economy relies.

The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy.

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Poland Fails to Spend Billions of Euros in EU Funds

euro banknotes

A Risky Evaluation of Croatia’s Economy?

ZAGREB, CROATIA - JULY 17, 2017: Square Ban Josip Jelacic with tourists and trams on a summer day in Zagreb. City of Zagreb is the capital of Croatia.

Moldova Falls Victim to Politicising

moldova emerging europe

Retail Rents Rise Across Emerging Europe

Na Prikope Prague

Michael: The Last King of Romania

CEE Boosted by Positive Tourism Trends Across the Region

cruise ship in Kotor Bay Montenegro. Aerial view panorama. Kotor bay Montenegro.

New Start-Up and Innovation Report Names Estonia and Slovenia as Market Leaders

Tallin, Estonia - July 06,2017: Scenic view of the modern part of the city of Tallin, Estonia

Georgia’s Great Potential

The highland agriculture lands in Gudauri with the herd of sheep grazing here Georgia.

After 25 Years of Restructuring, the Romanian Power Sector Is at a Crossroad

PE and VC Investment In CEE Is At an Eight-Year High

venture capital

Europe at Odds over OPAL and Nord Stream 2

Will the New Five-day Visa-free Regime Encourage More Visitors to Belarus?

Economy Minister: Internationalisation Is the Key To the Slovenian Economy

Europe Needs To Be More Proactive In Embracing Armenia

Czech Land Prices Continue to Increase

farm land

Škoda too Strong for VW Group

MLADA BOLESLAV CZECH REPUBLIC - MAY 30: Skoda Octavia on conveyor line during Doors Open Day at Skoda Auto a.s. factory. Skoda auto celebrated 120 years since its founding on May 30 2015 in Mlada Boleslav.

More Brexit Fears As the UK Proves To Be A Needed Member

City of London view from Waterloo Bridge. This view includes: St. Paul`s Cathedral The Gherkin Tower 42 and Blackfriars Bridge.

World Bank: Western Balkans Need to Speed Up Growth For Faster Convergence

world bank

Let’s Stop Wasting Time Redefining our Place in Europe

Is the Level of Foreign Ownership a Problem in Emerging Europe?

Flags of European countries flying from their capital cities. Viewed from the South.

Chickens Blamed for Romanian Budget Deficit

Two white chickens or hens inside a chicken coop or hen house seen through chicken wire.

How Did We Get Here?

Amazing Panorama to City of Plovdiv from nebet tepe hill, Bulgaria

Only a United Opposition Can Defeat Poland’s Ruling Law and Justice Party

Classical building of Polish parliament. Warsaw in Poland.

Albania’s Economy Not Benefiting From Largest Oil Reserves in Region

Warsaw City Guide: 48 Hours in Poland’s Reborn Capital

WARSAW POLAND - DECEMBER 28 2016: Downtown Warsaw Financial center in Warsaw Poland. Warsaw is one of the most economical successful capital in Europe in last few years.

Czech Real Estate Market Is Top CEE Performer

Prague skyscrapers in blue hour with purple sky. Modern building architecture after sunset. Office center in capital city. Czech republic lighting buildings.

Georgia’s Sweetest Export Targets EU & Japan Expansion

Kiwi fruits growing on the branch on autumn

The Reality in Romania Exposes False Perceptions Of The Country

The Long Tail of Global Expansion

‘Traditional Values’: A Potent Weapon Against LGBT Rights

gay rights putin

Slovenia: An Optimistic, Export-Led Economy with First-World Problems

Big cranes in port of Koper in Slovenia

Steep Jump in Georgian Exports

container ship in import export and business logistic.By crane Trade Port Shipping.cargo to harbor.Aerial view.Top view.

UK Economic Growth Slows as Brexit Uncertainty Bites

flags of UK and EU combined over icons of London - Brexit concept

2018 Elections — Vital Decisions for Hungary’s Future

Victor Orban energing europe

Montenegro Accelerates Legal Reform

montenegro law reform

Slovenia: Emerging Europe’s Hidden Giant

ljubljana slovenia

Romania Warned Again by European Council Over Budget Deficit

romania finance ministry

Derek Chollet: There Is a Resurgence of Supporters of the Transatlantic Relationship

white house

Lviv Region in Double Logistics Boost

goods train logistics

Slovenia’s Presidential Election: Pahor Expected to Romp Home

Slovenia flag against blue sky waving in wind

Romanian Opposition Unites Against ‘Crime Syndicate’ Government

CEE Tech Growth Continues: Poland and the Czech Republic Lead the Way

technology

Trans Adriatic Pipeline Will Fuel Albanian Growth

Xanthi. Greece - July 30 2017: aerial view of construction of gas pipeline Trans Adriatic Pipeline - TAP in north Greece. The pipeline starts from the Caspian sea and reaches the coast of southern Italy

CEE Governments Still Can’t Resist Tampering with Legislation

legislation

Partnership is the Key to CEE-Indian Business

Armenia Opens New Free Economic Zone on Iranian Border

Bags headgear boxes made of traditional fabrics of Armenian patterns and colors lying on the stalls at the Yerevan market in Armenia

Albania’s Construction Sector Supports the Country’s Growth

SARANDA, ALBANIA - MAY 18: View of the city Saranda, most important tourist attraction of the Albanian Riviera on May 18, 2017 in Saranda, Albania.

Belarus Steps Up Liberalisation of Business

belarus

Could the West At Least Help Ukraine To Insure FDI Against Political Risks?

Resignation in Ukraine: War, Revolution, Crisis — Some Things Never Change

Bulgaria Takes on EU Presidency

Sofia, Bulgaria - September 12, 2017: Architectural complex in downtown of Sofia in which the Presidential Administration is located, Sofia, Bulgaria

Central and Eastern European Consumers Are Joining the Global Trends for Change

Budapest and Warsaw: Marriage of Convenience or Union of Values?

Ukraine’s Reputation for Cheap Labour May Not Ring True in the Long-term

Baltic Bank Merger May Tempt Polish Heavyweight

DNB Bank Vilnius

Lithuania Wants to Bring Home its Skilled Workers

VILNIUS - FEBRUARY 25: Many people choose books at the indoor book

CEE Must Improve Infrastructure and Logistics

Aerial view of Gliwice Sosnica motorway junction. There are international traffic in four directions

Belarus Refinery Boss Upbeat Despite Challenges

oil refinery

WEF: Emerging Europe Ready for the Future

robotic machine tool in industrial manufacture plant,Smart factory industry 4.0 concept.

Ex-Banker to Become Poland’s Next Prime Minister

IMF Urges Croatia to Speed Up Reform

croatia

Political Tensions Rise As Croatia Allegedly Breaks the Dublin III Refugee Regulation

croatia migrants

Measuring Growth of Societies with GDP Alone Shows an Incomplete Picture

Poland & Ukraine Should Join Outsourcing Forces

outsourcing

CEE Nation Brands Still Behind Western Counterparts

TALLINN ESTONIA- JUNE 17: View of the modern high rise buildings on border with an old part of the city on June 17 2012 in Tallinn Estonia

Ask for Georgian Campaign Set to Expand Abroad

Traditional Georgian carpet. Carpets with typical geometrical patterns are among the most famous products of Georgia.

Visegrad Group Looks East

IMF Concludes Latest Moldova Review, Releases New Money

Reflection of a Soviet building in Chisinau Republic of Moldova

Investors in Poland Unfazed By Article 7

Warsaw EBRD annual meeting

Falling into Old Ways in 2017? Ukraine’s Struggle for Functioning Economic Institutions

CEE Lags in Business Connectivity

ANIS romanian ICT

Effective Policies Have Strengthened the Georgian Economy

TBILISI GEORGIA Jul. 18 2017: Bridge of Peace is a bow-shaped pedestrian bridge a steel and glass construction over the Kura River in downtown Tbilisi capital of Georgia

Belarus’ Economy Is Slowly Recovering From Past Declines

Are Labour Shortages Driving Economic Growth?

Old Fashioned Skulduggery Overshadows the Elections in Moldova

EconMin: Bulgaria — Number One Outsourcing Destination And an Island of Stability in Europe

Czech Election Result Could Delay Euro Adoption Until 2025

czech banknotes nominal value two and five thousand crowns on white background. 300 000 Kc is approximately 12 450 US dollars (USD) or 11 100 Euro (EUR)

Bad Payers Still Causing Problems for Romanian Firms

Close up Romanian currency note, LEI or LEU, Romania

Azerbaijan: The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Nothing

Baku

The EU’s Benign Neglect Of Eastern Europe

People Power Reminds the Government of the Rule of Law

Bucharest’s Stock Exchange Reports Growth; Eyes Emerging Market Status

bucharest stock exchange

One in Five Poles Unaware of Source of Funds for 500 Plus Programme

Lviv Is the Pearl and the Soul of Ukraine

Go East

Moody’s: CEE Creditworthiness Holding Up

Man's hand holding pen and checking spreadsheet

Kosovo: A Population of Talented Young Entrepreneurs Waits at Europe’s Door

Investors Eye Opportunities in Emerging European Infrastructure

infrastructure

World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2016 Resume For Emerging Europe

The Capital Markets Union: a New Beginning in the European Financial Sector?

Romanian Inflation Hits Four-Year High

supermarket, prices, inflation

Banca Transilvania Concludes Moldovan Deal

banca transilvania

Regional News Outlets: The Real Target of Poland’s New Media Law?

poland media

Czech Own Currency Insures Against Euro Losses

Euro Czech republic emerging europe

Azerbaijan Showcases ICT Potential

BAKU AZERBAIJAN - SEPTEMBER 25: People goes by the seafront of Baku on September 25 2016. Baku is a capital and largest city of Azerbaijan.

Georgian Wine Posts Record Results

Glass of wine at tasting area of annual city festival Tbilisoba with crowd of people around. Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia country

The CEE Region Is Making Advances in Prioritising Waste-to-Energy Projects

Beyond Borders: Immigration Within the EU

refugees immigrants

Poland’s New PM Defends Attacks on Justice System

warsaw supreme court

Emerging Europe’s Economies Are Booming

Is Prague the New Face of Overtourism?

prague tourists

Defending EU Values in Poland and Hungary

Eu hungary poland

Georgia Leads Emerging Europe in Ease of Doing Business Report

Global Players Dash for Tempting CEE

dollar pound euro coin on euro background.

Despite Public Anxieties, Migration is Playing a Key Role in ECA Growth

Bratislava city aerial panoramic view. Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia.

The Socialism of Central Europe’s Populists

MARSEILLE FRANCE - JUNE 21 2016: People watch football match at Tribunes of Stade Velodrome during UEFA EURO 2016 game Ukraine v Poland

Measure, Strengthen, and Grow

dacia brand

Air Passenger Volumes Reach Record High in the Baltics

airbaltic

The Global Outsourcing Industry — the Rise of the Phoenix

Euroscepticism in Serbia: An Image Problem?

Double Ratings Agency Boost for Bulgaria

Wizz Air in Huge Polish & Ukrainian Expansion

wizz air a320

Poland’s Business Constitution Must Be Finalised

Front of finance ministry in Warsaw Poland with a fountain framing the entrance. Could be used for images about Euro currency problems

Emerging Europe to Record Positive Growth Across the Board in 2018

coins growth

Romania Surviving the Waves of Recent Political Tsunamis in Europe

Romania Cuts Income Tax, Introduces Solidarity Tax

CLUJ NAPOKA ROMANIA - OCT 2 2016: People on the central street of Cluj Napoka - the unofficial capital of Transylvania.

The Competitive Edge in Central and Eastern Europe

SOFIA BULGARIA - MAY 5: View of the Ivan Vazov National Theatre in Sofia on May 5 2016. Sofia is the largest city and capital of Bulgaria.

Ukraine’s Finance Ministry Wants Urgent Tax Reform

Latvian Deputy Prime Minister Highlights Riga’s Potential

riga

Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Boss Survives, For Now

Artem Sytnyk

Romanian Competition Council Approves OTP Purchase of Banca Romaneasca

BUDAPEST HUNGARY - JUNE 22 2014: People walk by OTP Bank in Budapest. OTP is the biggest commercial Hungarian bank with 1500 branches in 9 countries.

Ukraine’s Q2 Growth Climbs

kyiv ukraine emerging europe

Under Promise, Over Deliver: Prospects for the EU’s Eastern Partnership in 2018

Eastern partnership

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