Updates from IBD: Postcard from Sofia, Bulgaria

Greetings from the heart of Eastern Europe! Приветствия към нашите приятели в Бъркли!

This is the first trip to Eastern Europe for all four of us and it’s hard to believe we are coming up on the halfway point already. It’s been a tremendous learning opportunity as we have been able to learn from and engage with the public sector, the business community, the institutional investment/venture capital community, academia, as well as ordinary citizens here in Sofia.

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Our IBD journey started in the beautiful and romantic city of Paris. It was my first time flying on Air France (I have to say…the food wasn’t bad!) and when we landed in Charles de Gaulle airport for a six-hour layover, we decided to take the subway to downtown, near the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris, for a hearty lunch!

During our flight to Sofia (from one EU country to another!), I started chatting with the lady next to me about the Bulgarian culture and some of the sights that we have to see during our stay. We then discussed briefly about our project in Sofia—working with the Ministry of the Economy, Energy, and Tourism (MEET) to develop a comprehensive governance plan for the proposed science and technology park that will hopefully be operational by 2015. Near the end of the flight she gave me her business card and told me that she is the executive director for the National Centre for Regional Development. She has taken a big interest in this project and provided us with some interesting insights about how to increase foreign-direct investment and the overall competitiveness of the country.

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During our first full day of work we met with our primary points of contact within the MEET (the deputy minister) and the Office of the President. We wanted to make sure that everyone was on the same page in terms of expectations and what our final deliverable would look like.

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Front of a government building in the city center of Sofia. Note the Bulgarian coat of arms and the EU flag.

Our government hosts graciously arranged an office space for us at the Ministry (it’s the office of the former deputy minister!) and allowed us to work on a flexible basis as we took advantage of our rather spacious hotel rooms (near the city center) to conduct group meetings and ideation/diverging/converging sessions.

Once we settled in we immediately went to work and held a series of productive meetings with people who will be key stakeholders of the Sofia Tech Park. 2nd-year MBA student Galina Vlaeva, who was born and raised in Sofia, also graciously connected us with her cousin Angel, who lives in Sofia currently and works at HP as a project analyst. He gave us terrific local perspectives about the tech sector, the human capital, and the outlook of this project. We also sat down with partners from a local seed/accelerator fund (that plans to launch in September and make roughly 200 investments) as well as the chairman of the ICT (information and communications technology) Cluster Bulgaria to hear their concerns and vision (such as highlighting Bulgaria’s existing core competencies) for the tech park. Some of the common themes and sentiments that arise from our meetings include: the tech park should help businesses, especially start-ups, lower up-front capital costs by providing access to key licenses, legal support, and live labs for rapid prototyping; the tech park should truly foster innovation and collaboration and not just be another business park with nice-looking buildings.

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Aside from our work, we have taken the time to explore the beautiful city of Sofia (the only regret that I have is not being able to speak the local language, but we have been slowly learning to read the Cyrillic script on street signs and storefronts). It has been raining quite a lot during our time here but the precipitation has not dampened our spirits. We have experienced the nightlife as well as traditional Bulgarian cuisine. We have also toured local museums and marveled at the incredible architecture all around the city.

We wrapped up the first productive week last Sunday by attending Startup Weekend Sofia/hack-a-thon at an incubator space that’s similar to the Skydeck in Berkeley. We listened to the teams’ rocket pitches and provided feedback and encouragement—ideas ranging from an e-commerce platform that would help companies sell excess inventories to an app that would help infants learn. This was a rewarding experience for all of us and we admire the organizers for putting in the hard work to help educate the next generation and nurture the entrepreneurial spirit in this country.

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Despite the level of commitment shown by the stakeholders and the sense of optimism that we have felt around here, we have been constantly reminded that this will not be an easy journey…

With the general elections slated for the middle of next year, there are a lot of political risks and uncertainty that remain. Even though the president himself is committed to this and has demonstrated that commitment by visiting tech companies and start-up in Silicon Valley (including the San Jose BioCenter, a life sciences incubator that we’d visited prior to arriving in Sofia), he is only one person. We hope to have the opportunity to sit down with him, the President of the Republic of Bulgaria, Mr. Rosen Asenov Plevneliev—who was inaugurated in January 2012, sometime next week.

We understand that there are many factors affecting the Sofia Tech Park that are out of our control, so we are still approaching this work with an open mind and we view this as an invaluable learning opportunity—no matter what happens, we will take everything in stride…

…including the 5.8 earthquake a couple of nights ago! I thought we’d left California! In all seriousness, we really appreciate the messages of concern that our family, friends, and IBD compatriots had sent out. Even though it shook pretty good for a good while and we experienced a few aftershocks, we are safe and sound here.

Tomorrow (5/24) is the Bulgarian Education and Culture Day, an important holiday in this Balkan nation—which means it’s a long weekend for us! We have just finished planning for the weekend and we look forward to visiting other parts of the country and immersing in the Bulgarian culture some more. We will have more about this after the weekend! Ciao for now! (Довиждане за сега!)

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A run-down residential building from the World War II era—we have noticed that there are a lot of graffiti around the city.

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Passengers waiting to board a street car.

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The Team

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This is where we sat down with Peter Statev, chairman of the ICT Cluster Bulgaria. He wishes that we can convey his hope of rekindling a partnership between UC Berkeley and the ICT community here.

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Honor guards in front of the Office of the President

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At the Museum of Military History—we visited a few museums during the first weekend and took advantage of the free admissions. This is a Soviet-era MiG 19 fighter jet.

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From Startup Weekend Sofia—Bulgarian PFPS at work?!

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