Vratsa Software Society has been creating IT staff for Bulgarian and international companies for the past five years. Electric bikes and cars are produced in Ruse, and Burgas is turning into a so-called smart city, and is opening a high school for computer programming and innovation. If you open the high-school textbooks, you will hardly read the exciting history of the regional entrepreneurial communities in Bulgaria because it is now being written and developed rather informally and dynamically.
Outside Sofia-city, there is no developed entrepreneurial environment, but “something is happening.” According to experts of the Applied Research and Communications Foundation, Ruse and Burgas are examples of centres of active informal interactions between the business and the research/university units with the purpose of innovation and regional economic development. They call this process an “entrepreneurial discovery” because it creates opportunities for business and technological growth. And although these interactions are rather informal, there is a demand for growth in the regional economy: Burgas and Ruse are among the strongest economic centres with a growth in direct foreign investment per capita. In Vratsa, the economic activity is also growing, the city is a “incubator” for programmers, unemployment is steadily declining but innovation is still rare.
“Entrepreneurs in the Northwest region prefer to bet on sure things. They are looking for what “works and can make money” and multiply it. Few people dare to realize different, non-standard business ideas. As a whole, the business development seems to be 10-15 years behind the southern part of the country, but there is a tendency for catching up. This year, 3 big investors will come to Vratsa, and this will probably change the environment a lot,” says Emiliyan Kadiyski from Vratsa Software Society. His organization trains IT specialists and creates staff who can work on projects around the world from Vratsa.
The problem is in the development of a local business. “The lack of a local market is the most difficult thing entrepreneurs have to deal with. Most of them are looking for ways to work with clients from other places or from abroad, but we have enough examples of people who have gone through our courses, who are working on projects for the whole world and are doing it from here,” he says.
Petko Georgiev, President of ICT Cluster-Burgas, adds that the hardest challenge is to harness the entrepreneurial potential, to make people invent and develop products and services that can be sold not only in Bulgaria but also abroad. According to him, the entrepreneurial community in South-eastern Bulgaria needs to be united, to show successful examples, as well as business knowledge and skills. “Currently, there are different and interesting state funding programs, as well as private funds. Which means that to some extent, funding is not the big problem,” he says.
Arch. Emil Burulyanov from Decor Design Studio, which creates smart urban projects in Burgas, adds that creativity and boutique projects are a distinctive feature of the regional community. “Innovation and digital business are the future of Burgas.” Local authorities are aware of this and invest in projects. This is a symbiosis in which one side gets an innovative product for a relatively small investment, and the other gets the opportunity to realize its product without investing its own funds, and then to present it as a successful and working project,” he explains.
According to him, healthy competition with elements of complementing and sharing knowledge is the key to the development of the region. That is why more business incubators and acceleration programs are needed. Petko Georgiev adds that after meetings in 10 cities in the South-eastern region within the project “Ensuring Effective Support for Entrepreneurship”, he is convinced that the environment will develop. Burgas now has a free training program for entrepreneurs - StartupHub.bg, and a shared office space. The number of industrial zones is also increasing. We are currently working on Phase 1 of the Industrial and Logistic Park – Burgas.
Nikola Ilchev, an e-commerce entrepreneur from Ruse, also believes that the local business environment needs some encouragement. There are developed businesses in the city that share experience, provide resources, but there are no strong training organizations,” he says.
“Entrepreneurship in the region is still in its infancy state. There are startups, but they are too little and timid. They are mainly developing in digital entrepreneurship and accompanying services,” adds Desislava Nikolova, who produces the first Bulgarian electric scooters – Motoreta. According to her, the fact that the region specializes in the development of electric vehicles is a major economic advantage. The business of Sin Cars - Bulgarian electric cars is also developing in the city, and the University of Ruse designs cars, powered by electricity, too.
“Until recently, the regional specialization was dictated by two factors – the presence of a technical university and tailoring factories. However, the University of Ruse is no longer a purely technical one, there is also a very strong economic faculty that is functioning. Ruse has the potential to turn into a digital centre for many services that do not require large and polluting productions. Its strategic location and its proximity to the Romanian capital further contribute to such development,” adds Nikola.
A change in the economic profile is about to happen in Vratsa. The region is developing in the field of joinery production, there are many construction companies, car dealers and repairers. With the penetration of international investors from the automotive and IT sector, local entrepreneurial initiative is also stirring up. “Our ambition is for the digital industry to also enter as a significant area more and more. We already have enough examples of people who have gone through our courses and who are now working on projects for all over the world,” says Emo Kadiyski.
In Vratsa, a shared work space will soon be opened with the support of the municipality, individual donors and businesses. For now, this is a sporadic act of regional unity. “We rarely get support from the local business. As a whole, the business in the region does not have a strong interest in the activities of the Vratsa Software Society. “Fortunately, we are in the IT sector, and many companies with offices in Sofia are helping us. But with the entry of new investors, the number of middle managers will also increase, which will require serious training and investment in people’s skills. Competition will grow, as well as the need to develop an active business environment in which everyone who is willing to work has the chance to find realization.”
Arch. Burulyanov believes that the regional battle for entrepreneurial discovery is yet to take place. “Burgas is a city that is ready for business and has niches for development. I think the peak of its economic upsurge is still far away. We are developing slowly, we are not looking for scale, but rather for results, we want to be a reliable partner.”
“I also strongly believe in Ruse’s potential as an economic centre. The service sector is of good quality and prices, small scale helps you find everything you need much faster. But the region needs more people to believe in it,” adds Desislava.
So, the new big issue facing regional business communities is how they will cope with the competition for entrepreneurial discoveries that will enable a sustainable economic development. Is it enough to be digitally oriented and to seek innovation, or do they need to wake up and fire up the entrepreneurial desire first? We are about to find out.