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Bulgaria Innovation Hub: How Does The Soft Landing Pad in the US Actually Work

The applications for the new season of the Bulgaria Innovation Hub Acceleration Program are open until the 23rd of October. The online program starts on the 2nd of November. Learn what are the benefits and what the BIH experienced and elarned so far.

Two years ago, four friends were sitting in a cafe in the East Bay of San Francisco and were talking about the Bulgarian startup ecosystem. To that point, the ecosystem had the talent, the infrastructure, and the capital to continue developing, yet the access to the US market, the target of most of the tech founders, was hard, due to lack of go-to-market knowledge and the network of contacts. And so the Bulgaria Innovation Hub (BIH), a not-for-profit organization, addressing this bottleneck, was born. 

“In our history with Telerik launching on the US market was natural as we were selling mostly online but once we started physically expanding and opening offices we faced big challenges from day one: how to set up a company, how to recruit the first people…When you have no one to rely on for any of those things and don’t have the knowledge, it is and it was complicated for us. This is why we wanted to see the Bulgaria Innovation Hub take off,” shares one of the four co-founders of BIH Vassil Terziev. “Our vision is to help create a couple of unicorns in this country in the next couple of years,” smiles Ivan Dimov, former investment banker and co-founder of BIH. Pavlina Yanakieva, the CEO of the program and Bogomil Balkansky, who’s also a partner at one of the most prominent US venture capital firms Sequoia, are the two other friends from the story in the cafe, who joined forces to craft the ultimate go-to-market curriculum and utilized their whole networks in the Silicon Valley, to create the launchpad for Bulgarian founders.

The goal of the BIH acceleration program, which lasts for three weeks is to help founders polish and adjust their Go-to-Market strategy, get to know the US legal environment, make valuable connections and meet potential partners, clients, and investors. Since that first chat over coffee, 21 companies have been through the program of BIH, learning about the US market and Silicon Valley mentality, revisiting their overall approach towards business, establishing connections and embracing a global mindset.

Who participates in the BIH program and what are the benefits

“This is not a program where you just sit and listen, you have to actively participate to be able to benefit from all the content which is generated not only by the speakers but also by all the other participants,” says Svilen Rangelov, the co-founder of cargo drone startup Dronamics. After six years of extensive R&D, the company is on the final line before its first flights and the program gave them important insights into the US market and connections they would utilize when the moment comes. Not least, Svilen Rangelov took full advantage of the content. “The insight that stuck the most with me was how Tesla manages to keep highly motivated talent. It turns out it is also a matter of the recruiter. I was surprised to learn about the observation that A players hire A players, while B players hire B and C players,” he summarizes referring to the lecture of Boryana Straubel, who was Head of Programs at Tesla Motors, before founding the Straubel Foundation together with her husband, the former CTO of Tesla JB Straubel. 

Svilen is not the only one who had eye-opening experiences during the program. For instance, Maya Zlatanova, the co-founder of clinical trials startup FindMeCure, who joined the program only because of the people. But she also gained a lot from the lectures, e.g. she learned about the crucial role of business analysts, who “could be the best advocates for startups”. Miroslav Genchev from industrial IoT startup Develiot realized what is the right way to do a product demo and why he should explain the client the benefits before the functionalities. Miroslav also made sure to make the right connections and understand how the market works for he’s planning to launch one of his water utility products in the US soon. 

 “Every company has key competitive advantages and in this program, Bogomil Balkansky slashed one of ours – the low prices. We were told that this is not a topic,” smiles Miroslav Katsarov from Modeshift, a platform that enables small and mid-sized transit agencies to provide smart transportation services, and already has its footprint in the US. The program had its advantages for both early-stage and more mature founders. “My most memorable moment was when I was pitching in front of Jerry Chen from Greylock Ventures. For me as a founder with a deep tech background and not much business knowledge this was the first investor pitch ever,” shares Georgi Kostadinov, the co-founder of Kelvin Health. His company was founded only a couple of months before the acceleration program and provides a platform for monitoring and early diagnosis of infectious diseases of epidemic nature via a thermal imaging camera attached to a smartphone. 

“The BIH program was the perfect way for us to understand how we need to step up our Sales, Marketing, and Distribution activities (including Talent Acquisition) so that we will be able to address a US client base in a serious, structured way. The program also helped us understand the thinking of US investors who are interested in big problems and large markets. So, we need to think BIG for our next move,” summarizes Stoytcho Vlaykov, the co-founder of Cashwave. His company is a B2B provider of branded currencies (gift cards), working with Fortune 500 companies across Europe and recently in the US, and is planning to launch a new fintech product overseas by the end of the year. 

+++ These are the 16 companies that were selected for the BIH program in 2020 +++

Ambition and attitude, are two of the topics BIH wants to address. “Ambition in many ways is a factor of your market and your ecosystem, of the people you are surrounded by,” adds Vassil Terziev.

A crash course into the US: 27 modules in three weeks

The Acceleration Program of BIH is targeted at high potential startups that need entry to the US market – meet clients, establish legal entities, talk to investors. The program features 27 modules designed to equip the founders with everything they need in order to make the first steps overseas but it is also suitable for companies who are already there and are struggling with specific challenges. Among the mentors of the program are Boryana Straubel – former Director of Programs at Tesla and founder of Straubel Foundation, Jenn Wei – the Product Director of Rubrik, a Palo Alto based cloud data management company with $500M+ funding, Jerry Chen – partner at leading VC firm Greylock, Villi Iltchev, partner at Two Sigma Ventures.

The program is equity-free (which is expected to change in future – ed.n.), but requires a financial commitment of between $2K per participant from a startup for the basic Go-to-Market polishing package, to $5K for two people from a startup, including access to VC and potential clients network of BIH. The benefits package for startups includes also a benefits package worth $65K, including $15K in Amazon AWS technology credits for two years. 

The hub, by design, provides particular services and aims to institutionalize and put into process the established and not so effective ad hoc support approach. For startups, the new center provides office space, access to legal and tax advisors, intros to mentors, potential partners and clients, and top tier investors. The idea is that founders stay for several weeks, use the office spaces rented by the hub, and plan accordingly, but also get prepared to speak to investors and clients. In the context of the pandemic situation, the team of BIH has decided to conduct the whole program in an online environment, which could also save founders’ costs for travel and accommodation. Given the new remote order, this would probably not harm the establishment of connections to potential partners overseas as the video chat is already a norm in the (post)pandemic business world.

“What we kicked off in October 2019 with only five companies here in San Francisco was exponentially scaled to 21 companies amid the global pandemic. And we are definitely not stopping here,” says Pavlina Yanakieva, the fourth co-founder and the person who’s creating and adjusting the curriculum and the program on a daily basis. A new edition of the Acceleration Program is coming already in November 2020.