4 Years and 29 Startups Later: Here’s Why StartupYard Works

This week our CEO Cedric Maloux and I sat down for a conversation about the struggles and the excitement of recruiting and working with amazing startups together for the past 4 years.

StartupYard this week announced our largest fundraise so far, of about €1 million for up to 20 new startups in 2017-2018. How did we get here? What have we learned? Here are the most interesting exchanges that came out of our discussion:

Hi Cedric, every week during the StartupYard program management meetings, you ask founders one question: “What are you struggling with right now?” I think it’s fair to start with the same question here:

Sleep! [Laughs].

I have two sources of stress when it comes to every StartupYard round, and this is now going to be my 5th time going through it. The biggest stress is Demo Day. Like a parent or a teacher watching their kids take the next big step in life, our whole team works very hard to make sure our founders and startups look great, professional, in control, and ready. But when they go out on that stage, our hands are off the wheel, and they are on their own. That’s a big scary moment for me, and for the founders. I don’t want them to feel that they’ve failed themselves.

The other stress is right now. We are looking for startups, talking to startups, trying to get the right startup founders to apply for our next round at StartupYard. We will invest in up to 20 companies in the next 12 months. I am always slightly panicked at the idea that we’ll miss one, or that one won’t find us, and will miss an opportunity that can really help them to succeed in business, and hopefully in life. I get real joy from making a difference in people’s lives, so I have that fear that I won’t do all I can.

What specifically are you afraid will happen, or not happen?

We can make the wrong choices. We have in the past – though not often, thankfully. StartupYard takes a big risk in trusting people we barely know, to be strong and committed and honest and open enough to go through a really demanding experience. It is very humbling. And I know we aren’t always right about people. We invest in founders, but you don’t really know someone until you spend every day, all day, with that person. Sometimes we’re not sure, and they turn out to be just amazing. Other times we are sure, and it turns out we were off.

So I’m stressed right now about those decisions, and knowing that later is too late.

So what helps you sleep at night, knowing that you’ll never be able to perfectly predict who will apply, and how they’ll perform?

Luckily we surround ourselves with really great advisors and investors. We have a great selection committee, who really get what we’re trying to do. They serve as a check against our biases and assumptions. We have been very lucky, but we also work very hard to remain humble, knowing we will make some mistakes.

In some way, every investment decision we make at StartupYard is a bit crazy from a normal perspective. We invest our time and money into people we have met maybe twice or three times. It takes a lot of faith. Among investors, accelerators like StartupYard are the ones with the least actionable data, KPIs or traction to judge in a startup. We have to believe our hearts and our noses. We have to trust in our experience and instincts more than other investors, who can point to solid numbers to tell the story. We go on much less.

Hearts and noses?

Yes. If you’re investing in a later stage, it’s all about numbers and trends. We can see trends, but we have very little in terms of numbers. So we also have to really understand people to make the right choices. I say our hearts and our noses, because our hearts are for people, but our noses are for opportunity. If we believe in someone, and we believe that there is an opportunity in what they’re doing, then that is enough for us.

Central Europe Accelerator

What makes you particularly fitted for a role like this?

I think a person can’t imagine what it takes to go from an idea to a profitable company unless they’ve done it, and experienced it themselves. I have done that multiple times in my life.

And unless you’ve experienced the opposite, which is failure, you probably think somewhere in the back of your mind that it can’t happen to you. I’ve also failed, publically. The last time one of my ventures was mentioned in Wired, it was in the context of the company going out of business.

So I know what that’s like to be notable enough to be in Wired, but still to fail. I have a deep technical background (I studied AI at University in the 1990s, when it wasn’t cool), and I’ve had a long career in sales. If a founder can’t sell; to employees, to co-founders, to investors, and customers, then he can’t make his ideas a reality.

So sales is not just about closing deals?

No. It’s about everything. Selling is essential. I’ve sold customer-facing services. I’ve sold B2B products to big corporations. I’ve sold my own company. Selling is an art. As we say, “telling isn’t selling.” You have to be able to not just talk about your ideas, but sell them.

Also, I learned a lot from running online businesses during the 2000 Internet bubble and the 2008 financial crisis. These things taught me the hard way about discipline in the fundamentals of business.

What was your hardest lesson through those experiences?

Cost understanding and control is at the heart of your company. You can only control one thing: your costs. Revenue projections, cost control: these are the things that get you through a crisis. It’s all about planning. Not your revenue, or development time, or investors, or customers. Just costs. Knowing when the money will run out. So financial hygiene is a top priority.

You’ve run companies. You’ve sold one company. So from that background, if you were starting a tech startup today, would you apply to an accelerator, even knowing everything you know?

Short answer, yes I would.

Long answer, I do have a few tech businesses on the side that I have started with other people, and with one, I’ve been encouraging the CEO to apply to an accelerator (though not StartupYard because it’s not in our area of focus). That should tell you what I think about accelerators, and not just about StartupYard.

If I was starting a business, I would go to one tomorrow, because no matter how much experience I have, I am limited by my own capacity as a human being. One thing that I’ve learned over the years, is that success doesn’t come from what you know, but from who you know. Your network is a vital ingredient for success.

A great startup has these things:  a hard problem to solve, a great solution, a clear value-proposition, a strong sales/marketing team, perfect timing, and great connections. You cannot be in control of every one of those things at any one time. You can however always work on your network. An accelerator connects you with people who help you seize opportunities and move fast when the time is right. Your connections help you discover weaknesses, and also opportunities. Knowing you need help is a strength, not a weakness.

Speaking of networks, StartupYard has quite a few corporations on its mentor list. Why do you focus so much on corporates during mentorship?

It’s a good question, and one we are asked a lot. Startups even tell us they would like to meet more people who are more like them. Usually when you meet a mentor, like at a competition or in a conference or at an incubator, or many other accelerators, they tend to be investors, or entrepreneurs.

It’s actually relatively easy to get a meeting with an investor or an entreprepreneur, which is why it’s easy to convince them to mentor startups. But, if you’re a B2B startup looking for early traction, you need to go door to door, talking to customers. And most of the time doing that, you’ll meet low level people.

What we decided early on, was to incorporate high-level corporate decision-makers, not just a lot of people, but leaders and C-level executives. The people who aren’t so much in the internal politics of their corporations, but are in a position to make things happen for startups. And we have many concrete examples of that working really well.

If the Chairman of the Board at a bank invites one of our startups to talk to his executives, that’s a meeting where people will be paying attention. It will have results. Not long ago, our mentors at Microsoft brought one of our startups to meet Satya Nadella, CEO at Microsoft, in Redmond. You won’t be able to name many early-stage companies who can get that meeting.

Yes, I was genuinely surprised when that happened too. The engagement from Microsoft was extraordinary. What do you think the corporate people get out of being startup mentors?

As it happens, those heads of industry share many of the qualities of startup founders. Ambition, drive, vision. So they love to be exposed to young founders and interact with them, not just about ideas, but about ways of working and thinking. The CEO of a global corporation told me a while ago that it’s his job to know what’s going on outside his company, because they are under constant attack from startups. You have to know your adversary.

We sometimes call corporations “dumb and slow,” but it would be a mistake to think that the people running them are either dumb or slow. Often the people at the top are thinking very far ahead, and when a startup is looking for the right stakeholder, the top is often the best place to start. Outside of our program, our founders would just never get meetings with such people. Even if they did, it would take years to get them all, and by then it wouldn’t matter.

I feel very proud of our mentor group. One mentor told me recently, that it was an honor to be included. That just made me feel very proud. We have spent years developing StartupYard as a platform, but we can’t rest on our achievements. We have to keep improving and building that network ever round, or it dies.

You said you can’t rest. What is your biggest difficulty when it comes to talking to founders about acceleration?

I would say we see two types. There is the founder who really understands the value accelerators can bring, and is eager to join. The other is the one who is more defensive; defensive of their ideas, of their priorities, of their sense of control and sometimes pride as well.

They may see joining an accelerator as a risk rather than an opportunity: that they risk wasting time. But often I think it’s just that they risk giving up control. Startup founders can be control freaks, as everyone knows, and we ask people to give up some of that control in order to grow, and that is a hard thing to ask of people who have always performed at a high level in their lives. Even the tiny amount of control we want them to give up can seem like a big, big change.

But if you’re so concerned about making the wrong choices, that you don’t act, then you risk never making decisions at all. Our biggest challenge is to show skeptics that the accelerator is called an “accelerator” for a reason, and it is not to slow them down or take up their time. That interrupting their process and refocusing them can actually save them time, and not waste it.

All our alumni will confirm this to you and in fact, they often talk about the empty period after the program. Once a founder told me he wished the program never stopped. And this was a startup which already had some revenue, but had skyrocketed with us.

You have to be a bit smart and a bit arrogant to start a business, but you need to let your intelligence prevail, and admit when you need other people. We all start as fools in life, and the only people who are doomed to remain fools are the ones who refuse to admit this, and don’t let themselves be questioned.

Some founders will tell us that all they need is cash.

That’s true. But when you ask them: “If all you need is cash, then why don’t you already have it?” They start telling you about their real problems – the reasons investors aren’t giving them money. It’s usually because they haven’t earned it yet. They don’t have enough data, they don’t have enough traction, or they don’t know how to sell to the investors.

You are absolutely right, and in an environment where cash is king, it’s sometimes difficult to explain to these people that to deserve cash you need to go through some steps.

What we find is that the act of just applying to StartupYard, and answering very specific questions about their business can help founders to realize what they don’t know. Even just forcing yourself to really answer these questions, you can begin to see that there are a lot of areas where you can grow and learn more.

So you need to bring people down a bit to build them up?

Yes. The acceleration process is challenging not just intellectually, but also emotionally for some people. But if you want to really run a global business, and meet your potential as an entrepreneur, that is the kind of challenge you will have to face, one way or the other.

We aren’t here to judge people and their ideas. The projects we look at are very early stage, and the people running them have a lot of room for mistakes and wrong roads. Our job as an accelerator and the job of our mentors is to support people who are taking these creative risks, exposing them to dangers and opportunities. We prepare them for taking good risks, and being aware of the dangers they will face.

Over the past 5 years, I have repeated certain things over and over again through every program. One of them is: “be careful, about what might happen if…”

To you, what is the biggest misconception about what StartupYard does for founders?

What I think some founders don’t expect is that the mentorship process, and the whole acceleration program, is aimed not just at their business, but at them as people. It would be waste of their time, and ours, if we spent our energy trying to make people into something they don’t want to be. So we pay very careful attention to discovering, with our founders, what it is in their hearts that they really are passionate about and want to do and to become.

So it’s not just about business for you?

There is a saying: “just business, not personal.” But I think this is very misleading. Growing a global business is all about who you are as a person. If you do something that is true to who you are, and who you want to be, that is infinitely better, for everyone involved, than if you’re just trying to make money. You can make money in a lot of ways, if that’s what you want. We want to help people to become their best selves as founders, and that means finding in them that special energy they possess that no one else does, and helping them to tap into it.

The biggest successes in business don’t think “It’s just business.” They know it’s about more than themselves or this one goal. It’s about relationships and it’s about being true to who you are.

Any last words?

Apply to StartupYard! Applications close June 30th, so I hope anyone who recognizes themselves in what we’ve talked about will consider applying now.

I can’t wait to be impressed.

You can now apply for StartupYard Batch #8.

  • Robots
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • VR/AR
  • IoT
  • Cryptography
  • Blockchain
Applications Open: Now
Applications Close: June 30th, 2017
Program starts: September 4th, 2017
Program ends: December 1st, 2017
 

Innovation Nest, StartupYard, CEE Allstars

StartupYard Podcast Ep. 3: Chris Kobylecki of Innovation Nest, Krakow

In late May, StartupYard took part, along with two of our alumni (BudgetBakers and Claimair), in a private conference for Central European Startups we called “CEE AllStars.” Put on with the help of Google’s Campus Warsaw, and led primarily by the team at the VC fund Innovation Nest (who co-authored an article with us a few months back about the Polish startup scene.

Cee AllStars

The unique event was put together by a group of accelerators and early-stage investors from Poland, Estonia, Czechia, and Germany (as well as a few other locations), in order to provide a refreshing alternative to for-profit startup conferences in which startups normally compete with a great deal of noise to talk to investors. This event had a 1:1 investor to startup ratio, and every single startup had to be personally recommended to attend by one of the organizing investors.

I sat down with Chris Kobylecki, of Innovation Nest, to talk about the event, and about his take on the Polish tech ecosystem and more. Here is our interview:

(Apologies for the audio quality here: the interview had to take place in a busy venue, but I did my best to make sure our voices were audible).

 

StartupYard Podcast Episode 2: Thomas Patzko of ImpactHub Zurich

This week I visited Warsaw, for Google Campus’s exlusive “CEE Allstars” event, matching investors and startups at a 1:1 ratio for 2 days of pitches and discussions. During the event, I sat down for an episode of the StartupYard podcast with Thomas Patzko, to talk about Impact Hub Zurich, growing startups in one of the world’s richest and most conservative countries, and fundraising for Central European startups.

 


Key Takeaways: 

  • Switzerland, with its high cost of living and conservative society, stigmatizes startups and entrepreneurialism
  • Risk aversion in Switzerland goes back in history to its political neutrality
  • The social safety net is built around employment, not self-employment
  • In Switzerland, salary levels are guaranteed according to a person’s level of education, offering graduates attractive salaries
  • Small traditional businesses are respected, and are in fact the backbone of Swiss society 
  • ImpactHub mentors its members on investor relationships – Thomas focuses on helping startups understand investor motivations
  • Swiss startups can suffer from “over-investment,” causing them to defocus in order to match investor benchmarks
  • Communities like ImpactHub are growing in their importance as a defense against predatory investors or wild speculation. 
  • ImpactHub encourages its members to tackle problems that are outside of their experience

About Tomas:

For Thomas work is more than just making money. That is one of the reasons why he has worked in multiple fields, including a private home for the aged, building and leading various country presences of an insurance corporation, and for nine years as an independent business consultant and coach. His journey of finding possibilities to facilitate real change and encouraging individuals to experience happiness in their professional lives, has led Thomas to the Impact Hub where he curates the relationship with corporate partners and conducts business development. He holds an M.Sc. in economy and business administration and has completed advanced degrees in coaching and sociology.

About ImpactHub:

ImpactHub is built around the belief that the world’s greatest challenges will never be solved by one person or organization alone. We need to work together.

ImpactHub has set out to build a thriving innovation ecosystem where people collaborate across organizations, cultures and generations to solve the grand challenges of our time. ImpactHub Zurich, among the largest of ImpactHub’s locations, has nearly 1000 members, and reaches 10s of thousands of people in Zurich and across Europe. It was founded in 2010, and has 3 locations in Zurich.

StartupYard Alumni

SY Alumni Talk about the Value of StartupYard for Them

This week, the popular podcaster Florian Kandler, of Startup Milestones, published another video with a pair of StartupYard Alumni from 2015: Jakub Ladra, of Claimair, and Ondrej Sedlacek, of Satismeter. Through the course of the talk, the two founders focus on the core value of acceleration at StartupYard, what their personal experiences were during acceleration, and what advice they would give to other founders thinking about joining.

The pair also jump into a discussion of what to look for in a good accelerator, and other tips for pre-accelerator startups.

StartupYard Alumni Talk Acceleration:

 

Key Takeaways:

  • Ondrej Sedlacek (Satismeter)
    • You need to find an accelerator that has the appropriate focus for you.
    • Mentorship is about recognizing patterns between different conversations, but also about learning how to communicate your ideas more clearly.
    • The biggest single value is simple: great advice. The impact of that advice from mentors, investors and the SY team is increased because of the compressed timescale of acceleration. You are forced to make decisions quickly.
    • Setting clear goals for yourself also helps you to use the advice of mentors and advisors better: focusing them on what you need.
    • Good accelerators attract investors who look at every startup in the program. Your chances for investment rise thanks to your participation.
    • The StartupYard program helped to narrow the focus on the product, and think in terms of execution and milestones.
  • Jakub Ladra (ClaimAir)
    • Mentoring is uniquely intense and important for building your network. Connections made there can last and change your business over time.
    • You talk all day about your value proposition, and this is a big challenge. We had no idea how intensive this repetition and iteration can be.
    • Management team meetings at StartupYard reinforce learnings from mentors, and bring up new unexplored ideas.
    • The act of prioritizing between ideas during “mentoring madness,” was deeply valuable. The ongoing discussions were a big challenge, but worth the time to go through.
    • The accelerator is especially important in helping a startup scale: laying the legal, technical, and strategic groundwork for sustainable growth.

 

You can now apply for StartupYard Batch #8.

  • Robots
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • VR/AR
  • IoT
  • Cryptography
  • Blockchain
Applications Open: Now
Applications Close: June 30th, 2017
Program starts: September 4th, 2017
Program ends: December 1st, 2017
Ada Jonuse, Startupyard, Lithuanian startups

Ada Jonuse: Lithuanian Startups Need to Think Bigger

 

I will be heading to Lithuania for the first time on May 25th to mentor startups and host a workshop at LOGIN Startup Fair, in Vilnius. As you may know, StartupYard has only ever accelerated one startup from Lithuania, the Slovak/Lithuanian team behind Feedpresso, the AI enabled news collection and curation app (which I also use myself).

Ahead of my trip, I caught up with Ada Jonuse, a well known figure in the Lithuanian tech community, and an advocate of women professionals in the technology sector. Ada has been an event organizer in Lithuania for many years, and has worked in the European Parliament, including as the head of the office of MEP Antanas Guoga from 2012-2014, where she organized #SWICTH!: international event on ICT and entrepreneurship in Vilnius. September 2016: with 10.000 participants, the event garnered the Guinness World Record of the biggest programming lesson in the world.

Here’s what she has to say about Lithuania, the tech scene there, and more:

Hi Ada, you’ve worked in the European Parliament, founded several IT education initiatives in Lithuania, and you “gather talented women in tech.: Tell us a bit about yourself, and why do you what you do.

Right now my main occupation and passion is being CEO and co-founder of Lympo.lt. Lympo is a platform which helps to find the best personal trainers near you and I have a vision that it will gradually evolve to a general global talent sharing platform. We want to make money-free exchanges possible with Lympo points underpinned by blockchain technology.Lithuanian Startups, StartupYard, Ada Jonuse

Actually, I always wanted to become a politician and this is why I returned to Lithuania after 10 years abroad. It did not quite work out as expected as the party I was running with for parliamentary elections got involved in a massive corruption scandal. During my years in the European Parliament I had an opportunity to work with a talented entrepreneur turned politician (and a poker star!) Antanas Guoga. He inspired me to join Lympo and this is how I found myself in a world full of new discoveries.

When I recruited first team members for Lympo in December, I had no idea what the difference between back-end and front-end is. 🙂 For me, leading a startup is a big responsibility and a commitment to never stop learning.

StartupYard is headed to Vilnius for the first time this year, for the startup fair at LOGIN. What should we expect from Lithuanian startups? What are their key strengths?

LOGIN is a great event and I am very glad you will be visiting Vilnius. You will be surprised that Lithuanian startups don’t actually have to be Lithuanian: their founders, CTOs and key developers might be coming from Ukraine, Belarus or Russia. This talent influx made the startup ecosystem in Vilnius much more interesting. You should expect tech-heavy companies focussing on providing various niche B2B solutions: it could be, for example, VR, big data, medtech, fintech. The key strengths are very talented engineers, hard working teams and drive towards perfection. On the other hand, they might lack business development or global strategy elements.

When people think about the Baltics and tech, it’s usually Estonia front and center. Would you say Lithuania is following in Estonia’s footsteps, or making its own path forward? What does Lithuania lack that Estonia has, and where are Lithuania’s advantages?

Lithuania is on its own path. In recent years, we concentrated on enabling fintech companies to thrive in Lithuania. The Bank of Lithuania did a great job and now the country has one of the most innovation friendly regulation systems in Europe. Another big topic is gaming industry. Lithuania attracts a lot of IT talent from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Great gaming talents could make Vilnius a strong gaming hub. What Lithuania lacks in comparison to Estonia is obviously a big success story like Skype and all the experience and connections that came with it. So far, we also lacked a proactive government that makes digital innovation its top priority.

Lithuania is a small country, and sadly many Europeans don’t know much about it. What do you wish more of the European community knew about the character of the country, the people, and life in Lithuania?

It is natural that a country of 3 million people is difficult to remember. I wish Lithuania was known more for its amazing nature. We have superb quality air, water, lots of space and fresh and healthy natural food. I love gathering wild berries in the endless forests of Lithuania. It is such an exceptional experience. Most people in the world are deprived of these crucial elements of good life. I started appreciating this a lot after my traineeship with the UN in Kathmandu, Nepal, which is one of the most polluted Asian cities.

Estonia has cultivated a strong reputation for an innovative government, in addition to the private tech industry. Has this had a big influence Lithuania as well? How does the government relate to the tech ecosystem?

Lithuanian government is very innovative in the fields of e-government and digital services for citizens. This works great. Much better than in the majority of EU countries. However, on the larger scale I miss more strategic government actions. Let’s take education: IT education in schools is old fashioned and starts way too late. At the same time, there is a huge lack of developers in the country. I personally constantly struggle to find people. Therefore, I co-founded an initiative to provide every Lithuanian fifth-grader with a BBC micro:bit microcomputer in 2017. Lithuania is celebrating 100th anniversary of modern statehood next year and this will be our gift for the upcoming 100 years!

On the same theme, how does Lithuania compare with the rest of Europe in terms of conditions for entrepreneurs, in things like taxation, bureaucracy, and legal complexity? 

Within Europe I had a chance to live in Germany, Belgium,  the UK and Italy. I dealt with bureaucracy in all these countries. Now, back to Lithuania ten years later I realize how simple our bureaucratic system is. It took us less than 2 days to establish a company and we didn’t use any paper at all! When it comes to taxation, as an entrepreneur I have one single wish for the Lithuanian government: tech companies must have tax exemptions for the first year. In order to pay an employee 1500 EUR I have to spend 2600 EUR. This is killing startups.

As mentioned, you founded W@Tech, a platform for professional women in tech. Would you say the Lithuania and the Baltic states generally are doing better, or worse than the rest of Europe when it comes to being inclusive?

I am right now part of an amazing project – Women Go Tech mentorship program which connected me to a wonderful mentor Darius Montvila. The very fact though that this program exists shows that we lack women talents in Lithuania as well as in the rest of the world. Having in mind that women are top users of many tech products, from social media networks to e-commerce platforms, it is staggering that only 17% of startups have female founders.

W@Tech aims to make these names known and show more role models to inspire younger generation. Together with W@Tech, I plan to organize a conference on VC startup financing in Berlin this autumn. It will be almost impossible to find female VC speakers, but we will do all it takes to at least uncover some names.

What would you say are two or three of the top challenges for Vilnius as a tech ecosystem today, and what are local entrepreneurs, investors, or the government doing about them?

Number 1 challenge is a lack of global mindset and network. There are so many startups that aim to operate in the Lithuanian market. It is simply too small. Entrepreneurs don’t have connections to big tech hubs like Silicon Valley, London or even Berlin. Number 2 challenge is related to that. It is a lack of big ambitions. As access to finance is difficult, startups must make money as soon as possible, but they need to find a business model and grow first. Big ideas have to find markets for their expansion. Government played an important role in securing more IT talent by making visas for non-EU citizens easier. We even have a startup visa now, so the whole startup can migrate to Vilnius with the assistance of the city and the government.

Big ideas have to find markets for their expansion: @adajonuse on #Lithuania #startups Click To Tweet

You can now apply for StartupYard Batch #8.

  • Robots
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • VR/AR
  • IoT
  • Cryptography
  • Blockchain
Applications Open: Now
Applications Close: June 30th, 2017
Program starts: September 4th, 2017
Program ends: December 1st, 2017

For you, what are the two or three biggest successes in tech to come out of Lithuania in the last few years? What parts of the tech ecosystem show the most promise going forward?

 

One of our great successes is  a mobile social marketplace for secondhand clothing with more than 11 million users and its top market Germany. Actually, the co-founder and CEO of Vinted, Justas Janauskas, is advisor to my company Lympo. We learn so much from Justas. I believe that more successful companies should mentor young startups in Lithuania. [Vinted secured 27M Euros in VC funding in 2015]

I also admire Trafi – a public transport app based on machine learning, data from the crowd and self-learning. It was the official public transport app for Olympic games in Rio. Last year, Trafi launched a partnership with Uber for connecting public transport with Uber services.

When it comes to fintech, I have to mention the Bitcoin wallet SpectroCoin. It has achieved great results last year.

Top 3 #startups in Lithuania to watch via @adajonuse: @trafiapp, @vinted and @spectrocoin Click To Tweet

It is a bit unfair, but I must mention two exciting companies I work with myself: PM Screen producing 3D holograms and interactive screen apps with amazing projects in the US and Dubai; and a.lot parking – a parking technology company that aims to transform parking industry in the US. With license plate recognition technology so common in Lithuania, we want to ensure seamless parking experiences and even enable everyone to rent out their private parking space in a garage.

So, you see, the variety of companies is huge: from marketplaces to machine learning and fintech. And then there is a big lot of niche B2B tech startups working with big data, sensor technologies, 3D printing and much more.

What would be your 3 top reasons for visiting Vilnius (or other parts of Lithuania), and what are a few things a visitor simply has to do there?  

 

I love Vilnius. It is my home town and honestly one of the best places in the world. Vilnius has a charming medieval old town, a great bar scene and vibrant cultural life. People here might not smile a lot, but they are very helpful and sincere once you get to know them a bit better. I would propose to discover some great street art and the atmosphere in the upcoming part of the town, Naujamiestis, close to the train station; to take a balloon flight during one of the fantastic summer sunsets and to simply try to get lost in the narrow streets of Vilnius. You will discover so much.

SY Podcast: Mergim Cahani, Founder and CEO of the Fastest Growing Tech Company in the Balkans

Tomas Tunys, StartupYard

This Machine Learning Geek Thinks You Need StartupYard

Tomas Tunys: Machine Learning Geek

Tom Tunys is the “silent one,” of the Rossum.ai team. He is a prototypical machine learning geek, which is to say: quiet, thoughtful, and rigorous in his thinking. He joined StartupYard along with co-founders Tomas Gogar and Petr Baudis, two also geeky, but comparatively outspoken AI/ML geeks in their own right.

As StartupYard focuses on AI/Machine Learning startups and founders for our upcoming round of acceleration (applications close June 30th), I reached out to Tomas to talk about his experience at StartupYard. Tomas is, as he would say, not a business minded person. This is the story of how he came to appreciate his experience at StartupYard despite initially doubting its value.

Here is what he had to say:

Hi Tomas, you have always been the quiet member of the Rossum.ai team. Can you tell our readers how you joined Rossum, and your background in Machine Learning and AI?

Tomas Tunys, StartupYard

It’s almost a year since the moment Tomas, Petr, and I were discussing the possibility of creating our own startup, but our history together is much longer than that, so let me briefly tell you my story, and how we met.

In late 2012 I started my PhD studies at the Czech Technical University, under the Cloud Computing Center research group led by Jan Sedivy. It was there where the team behind Rossum first met (albeit not all at the same time). We all together worked on a dozen different machine learning applications, supervised students, and helped to build up what is now known as eClub Prague. To sum it up we have known each other for more than 3 years now.

When I think about it I started my PhD back then out of love for mathematics, optimization and machine learning that had built up in me doing my master’s thesis. I should say that prior to that I had no background in machine learning whatsoever but I could always appreciate the beauty and elegance of mathematics and optimization.

Since I had no clear idea what to work on I laid my hands on many different machine learning topics such as document classification, topic modeling, information retrieval, and learning to rank. The last mentioned has become the main focus of my research and it is about developing algorithms for sorting “things” in a particular order such that the final list has the desired property. One example for all would be a web search where you might try to order the list of documents for a query in a way optimized for user satisfaction.

To me this has always been about the act of accomplishing new things in a very intellectual way. What’s strange about my journey to Rossum and StartupYard is that I am really, really not a business guy. Not at all. I just love math.

You’ve described yourself as someone who finds the business aspect of technology unappealing. You’re very critical of business culture. What motivates you to do the work you do, and what do you hope will come from it?

Quite simple to answer: I do what I do because I love it, and moreover I work with amazing, smart, and genuine people which I see as an endless source of inspiration and motivation.

What am I working on right now? I am part of the research and development team in Rossum which is currently building a machine learning engine capable of reading and understanding the content of textual documents on a human level.

This is of course a far-fetched goal (yes, even now with the current level of technology) and we wanted to make a business case out of it right now, not really building a business on empty-handed promises.

We know that we need to take small steps, like the saying “you need to learn how to walk before you can run” (I can imagine a business person would use fly instead of run without hesitation here), so we decided to focus on understanding a particular instance of documents, which are invoices. I’ll leave what we do in Rossum at that, you can find out more at rossum.ai.

What I hope will come out of our work? My only hope is that in the end we built something amazing that everyone can benefit from.

I am of course looking far into the future, but just imagine what can be done with a technology that can go through gazillions of documents accumulated throughout our history, such as research articles, medical reports, legal documents, books, newspapers, internet -take your pick- and provide access to knowledge, not only information, hidden inside them.

How much can research be sped up? How many lives could be saved? How many hours could be spared at court (sounds stupid unless you know how the Czech judiciary system works)? The list may go on. And I know I chose words that make this sound totally abstract and unspecific and I made it deliberately, because it would be really hard for me to formulate concretely what I mean by “access” (interface specification) and “knowledge” (data store and inference engine).

This is something we will be more than happy to contemplate at Rossum.

We had a discussion recently about the impact that AI/ML is having and will have on humanity and society. Can you talk a bit about your perspective on the role AI will play in our lives going forward?

I think that ML already plays an important and maybe irreplaceable role in the everyday life of a modern person and it is going to be more so in the future.

So far ML (Machine Learning) is mostly prominent (and this is solely how I see it, and might be wrong) in the realm of the internet. Web search, social networks, e-commerce, all these services are intertwined with ML algorithms which are programmed to make a user more satisfied, more engaged, click more, purchase more, etc. But ML is going to have a big voice in “the real world” pretty soon (Do not ask what soon means!), for example, Tesla with its self-driving cars.

This big shift is going to make Machine Learning something that more people can directly benefit from. ML works best wherever there is the most data to leverage. That has meant the internet, and advertising, and so forth, but soon it will mean anywhere there is a sensor and a stream of data coming in. It is hard to imagine the range of applications that will propagate from the Internet of Things.

Let’s play for a bit on a more futuristic and philosophical note, because such a question always deserves it.

In my opinion, it is just a matter of time before AI reaches and supersedes the human level of performance in every aspect. There is nothing that would suggest otherwise, on the contrary, and that makes me think what would be there left for humans?

Everyone kind of says, there will always be something left, without having any clue what that something might be, which does not give me a lot of comfort. I fear that in the end AI will rob us of our curiosity, which I reckon is the main driving force of human progress (definitely of mine). Just think about it, there is no way anyone would wait for you to find answers which are already there (definitely not in a business)  – the only person that would need to resist going for the shortcut and get the answer from your pal HAL, is you.

Sadly, I do not see people nowadays willing to ponder over even the simplest of problems, stackoverflow-copy-paste simply wins (if you are a programmer you know what I am talking about). Now imagine there is an omniscient stackoverflow — disaster is in our way! Is there a solution or is it even a problem that needs solving? I do not know what it is for you, but I’d rather stay curious.

We also talked about the nature of intelligence, our assumptions about our own intelligence, and the capabilities and benefits/drawbacks of AI. What do you think most people are getting wrong in our understanding of these topics?

Let me share with you some of my thoughts on how some of us may see their own intelligence and relate it to the idea of (general) AI.

I think that people tend to think about themselves and their intelligence as something superior, and (so far) unmatched, yet I do not think there is an agreed upon concept of AI. There is definitely more than one, hence, for me there is not a firm ground to base a comparison on. How do we define general AI if we don’t understand what makes us intelligent to begin with?

But this sort of an egoistic self-regard, a proclaimed superiority in terms of intelligence that should definitely not become part of the AI we are trying to build. Because if you stop for a second to think about how we treat the runner ups in this ridiculous game you would not want to become a runner up.

Machines can replace humans, like machines have replaced humans throughout history. But there is an important distinction: the machines do not replace humans by doing exactly what humans used to do. Hand-sewing was replaced by the loom. Hand crafting of parts has been replaced by machine tools and moldings, and now 3D printing. The machines that replace humans don’t function the way we do, or produce exactly the same results we would.

So when we consider machines replacing humans, a mistake we can make is to imagine that the process or the product carries on as it did before. But that doesn’t happen. The process and the product are changed, and we as a society and different industries adapt to those changes out of necessity or convenience. If something used to be handmade out of wood, but is now made of plastic, we accept this change because of the cost savings, or because of the superior qualities of the plastic.

We don’t think much about the kaleidoscopic effects of those changes. Industrialization helped create products that couldn’t be imagined before. A car or a plane are just a machine, but now they shape the way that all of society functions.

That same process happens also in services. We had bank-tellers, but people accepted a less personal approach in order for the convenience of cash machines. Bank-tellers became fewer and more specialized. Call centers and phone operators are another case of this. Soon it will apply to more professions. The outcomes will be different, but it will be about what people are willing to accept- not about exactly reproducing the same results using AI.

Today we do not understand what those results will actually be. We cannot know, just like we couldn’t know what the results of the industrial revolution were going to look like. Some huge positives, for sure, but also some big, big negatives.

A big mistake I have heard from people, some of whom invested a lot of money into the research of general AI, is that they can make sure to build AI that obeys certain rules of conduct.

Nothing can be further from the truth and we, humans, are the best example. When you are a parent, you may try your best to control for all the factors that can influence your child’s growth (external factors could make this a false analogy, but I do not think so), but there is no way of saying for a 100% certainty that a child will become a nobel prize winner or a serial killer. The problem when it comes to AI is the latter.

You cannot predict how something will evolve when it is inherently as complex or more complex than you are. No simulation or set of rules can account for all variables when you don’t know what all the variables will be.

By this I am not implying we should drop the idea of developing general AI. I am saying that we should become really careful parents for the AI we want to raise. In the end we need to hope for the best (or just roll the dice) when we decide to let it go into the world.

I guess most people also see AI as something that is bound to become evil. But this also begs the question: what is meant by evil? This is a favourite theme recurring in literature and movies and I am talking about it mainly to mention a particular one — R.U.R. by Karel Capek — where Rossum gets its name from, which also kind of gives away what we plan for the future (just kidding?).

You’ve said that you initially were very skeptical about StartupYard, but that now you would recommend the program to others like yourself. What changed?

I experienced StartupYard! That’s what changed. I guess my skepticism about StartupYard stemmed from my ignorance and lack of a “business” gene.

When we joined StartupYard, I suspected that it would be a distraction and a waste of time. I want to work on AI/Machine Learning, and not talk about working on AI/Machine Learning. So for me that’s a struggle, and one I still experience.

The Rossum Team: Petr Baudis (left), and Tomas Gogar (middle), with Tomas Tunys (right)

But on the other hand, for the other members of our team, Petr Baudis and particularly Tomas Gogar, I saw incredible changes in their thinking, and really noticeable growth in their abilities outside of the technology we are working on. The other Tom definitely has the business gene, and StartupYard brought it out in him and made him much more confident, and much more wise about the business, and all the challenges we face.

Honestly, I would be lying to say that this was an experience that transformed me as a person, but as a team we were quite transformed. We began to work with much more focus, and so much more effect, on problems that are going to help us grow and keep climbing new mountains.

I can see the difference between our mentality at the beginning, and our mentality today, and it is remarkable.

What would you say to someone like yourself, who is deeply invested in advancing new technologies, but doesn’t believe that an accelerator StartupYard is what they really need?

Well, I don’t want to make a case out of myself, but I would say this:

If you are on your own and you want to do business for whatever reason, then you definitely need something like StartupYard.

I am not a sell out. I will not claim StartupYard is the best thing that can happen to you, but I will say that from my experience the whole team behind it does its best to shape your idea (or if you have none, it helps you to formulate an idea) into a real and viable business.

It does so by providing access to a vast network of mentors, which you certainly do not have and who are non-technical for the most part. In the end many of these mentors can become your potential customers, while others can come up directly/indirectly with an opinion or an idea that can really move you forward in your own thoughts. Moreover, StartupYard teaches you how to think about your business and prepares you on how to talk and present your ideas appropriately. That’s the most crucial part: getting others to understand clearly what are you bringing to the table.

I guess I read this on the StartupYard blog, but I grew fond of it: you and your ideas need to be the fire and StartupYard is the gasoline that makes it go big. I know it sounds like a cliche, but the people behind StartupYard really live up to that message.

And if you are a part you a bigger team, where the others are eager to take over the business part and you have the luxury to concentrate on what you love, then it would really depend on the others, but after seeing the personal growth of Petr and Tomas after going through StartupYard, I can only recommend taking that chance and joining.

You can now apply for StartupYard Batch #8.

  • Robots
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • VR/AR
  • IoT
  • Cryptography
  • Blockchain
Applications Open: Now
Applications Close: June 30th, 2017
Program starts: September 4th, 2017
Program ends: December 1st, 2017
Blockchain, StartupYard,

Blockchain Founders Need StartupYard: SY Alum Dite Gashi

Dite Gashi is the founder and CEO of Decissio, the blockchain powered investment management and smart-contracts platform that was accelerated at StartupYard this year. Dite has called Decissio the “Jarvis” of investment decision making. The company is working to build a data platform that helps venture investors and professional portfolio managers to actively manage their investments, based on blockchain verified and real-time data.

Dite has been a leading voice in the blockchain movement for years, and represented the first startup at StartupYard to focus on the technology. I caught up with Dite this week to talk about the future of Blockchain, and why startups in the space need accelerators like StartupYard now more than ever. Here’s what he had to say:

Hi Dite, you’ve been working with Blockchain technology for almost as long as it has been around. Tell us how you got into Blockchain, and why it still fascinates you.

Decissio, StartupYard

Dite Gashi, left, participating in StartupYard’s voice training workshop

Blockchain has been an obsession of mine from when it came out as a research paper, all the way up to Bitcoin and Ethereum. My background is in computer science, business management and economics. This knowledge base, fueled by curiosity, allowed me to dive deeper into blockchain concepts first and then into their applications in the world of business quicker than the mainstream world, which to this day I believe has a superficial understanding of blockchain as an innovation.

What doesn’t the mainstream business world understand about Blockchain?

Most of the mainstream business world seems to be in a state of needing to get a piece of the action when it comes to this technology. I’ve literally heard phrases like – we are talking to you because our CEO said “we need blockchain.”

Why 'we need Blockchain' isn't a good reason to work with most Blockchain #startups - Dite Gashi… Click To Tweet

The fear of missing out is big. I’d go as far as to say that’s the money that keeps most blockchain startups running. Wanting to be part of the new revolution is totally fine, however the way that they go about it tends to be sub-optimal. Investors sometimes invest in shady schemes and promising ICO’s (Initial Coin Offering) without proper tech due diligence and auditing, just to find out a few months down the line that the tokens they got are suddenly worthless.

I think the greatest misconception lies in not understanding the basic utility that blockchain provides, which in most cases boils down to somehow cutting out the middle man. Only after understanding it, can you think of an investment opportunity through the filter of whether a blockchain application would be the best for that particular purpose. There are many applications out there who would do fine without blockchain.

You attended StartupYard as part of Batch 7 earlier this year. What do you think that other founders with Blockchain ideas can get out of StartupYard?

Having been present in the blockchain sphere for a while I can attest that most blockchain people tend to be technologically inclined, or as the world likes to call them, nerds. They have strong technical skills that they apply or a great ability to understand and aim to solve important problems. I believe that is great for building technology blocks, innovating and bringing about thought provoking questions of alternate models of functioning.

Where the blockchain community does fall short though is the ability to reach out to people. I believe blockchain founders can learn about marketing, how to sell and how to communicate with masses. They can better refine their offerings to match the needs of the market – something that many startups miss.

Right now we are seeing a sort of valley between the promise of Blockchain innovation and the realities. Right now, the technology is too geeky and complex for ordinary people to use, and too fringy and speculative for corporations to really get behind it. A team I put together last month took 2nd place in the KB Fintech Hackathon in Prague, working on a blockchain contract verification system, so it’s obvious that banks are starting to see real potential in the technology.

Still, we are in the very early days, and blockchain founders are going to need a lot of exposure to the perceptions and expectations of existing industries, in order to come up with solutions that have a chance of being adopted widely. StartupYard is an ideal environment for a really speculative technology to come face to face with the hard reality of the market. I think Decissio is a perfect example of that: all the traction we’ve gained has been thanks to the feedback we got directly from potential customers at StartupYard.

What do you see as the biggest barriers for Blockchain founders right now?

Probably more than any area in tech in recent history, blockchain does have a credibility problem. A big part of that has been the ongoing saga of Bitcoin, which has unfortunately attracted a lot of negative attention. Rightly so, I think, because Bitcoin brought some of the worst elements to the blockchain community, and became an attractor for the get-rich-quick schemers and for cyber-criminals and extreme political ideologues.

Actually this is nothing new: the internet itself did basically the same thing in the 1990s especially, and it suffered its own credibility gap, until serious, in-depth businesses started to make the web safer and more usable for regular people and business. Any really disruptive area of technology has this cycle built in. Now we need serious, sober thinkers to apply themselves to making blockchain useful in real life, and not just in fringe communities. That is a blocker for good people to take Blockchain technology seriously, and a blocker for them to pitch new blockchain ideas in the business and consumer worlds.

This is also a reason why I see StartupYard as a great platform for serious Blockchain innovators. Working with an accelerator like StartupYard brings much needed credibility to ideas that many would-be customers and partners might not take seriously. But with StartupYard, you have a chance to be heard by the right people, and given a chance to convince them you’re doing something interesting.

What was your biggest surprise attending StartupYard? What were you not expecting to change?

The biggest shock for me was to figure out how mainstream customers (in my case, investors) think in relation to products and services they purchase. We tend to turn it into a complex equation, however it boils down to really simple factors when facing a buying decision.

'At Sy I learned that mainstream customers don't buy technology. They buy solutions.' -Dite Gashi Click To Tweet

I believed that I could relate to customers and if we had a great technological products sales would soar. That is the case sometimes, however if you can’t really explain how it relates to people you are selling to, the product is a lost cause. I thought I was good at that, but being faced with mentors, customers and advisors it is obvious that I had a lot of catching up to do – which has lead to tremendous growth of knowledge on my end.

What do you think are the biggest weaknesses in the Blockchain community, when it comes to turning new ideas into businesses?

Blockchain is a maturing technology that has tremendous potential. I like to make comparisons with the early days of cloud computing – companies like Dropbox, Amazon Web Services, Azure capitalized on new technology breakthroughs, and built great products. Blockchain has the potential to be as transformative as cloud computing in the near future.

When you really look at it, Blockchain can form the backbone for a whole new way of looking at the web. There are really not many areas of commerce or government, or even interpersonal relationships, that Blockchain won’t touch. Imagine things like credit card fraud or political corruption being impossible, because at every level, monetary transactions and activities can be audited by powerful AIs. Imagine democratic processes that are un-hackable, or messaging systems that are impossible to hack into. Scary ideas for some people, I’m sure, but an amazing vision of the future for most of us.

The internet has created unprecedented prosperity, but also unprecedented opportunities for fraud and abuse. Blockchain technology, or something very much like it, may be the answer as to how we move forward into a trust based society, where everyone has really powerful tools for protecting themselves and being treated fairly.

'Blockchain is like cloud-computing. It can change everything.' - Dite Gashi on #Blockchain… Click To Tweet

I believe there are many disruptive blockchain applications and companies waiting to be built by ambitious founders. The weaknesses that community faces is monetization. Many blockchain ideas sound good on paper, however for an idea to work and thrive it has to benefit all stakeholders involved, including founders and investors. With the cloud, there was also a learning curve around how it would be monetized: there was uncertainty about where the defensible value of new products was, be it in hardware or software. Blockchain has the same issue, only more so: it is about distribution and de-centralization, which makes it more complicated to create a business model around it.

It doesn’t help that blockchain people seem to be a part of a bubble and are often isolated from actual customer needs. Disruptive technology needs to have people behind it that really understand the customers whose industries they are disrupting. As became very clear to me working with the mentors at StartupYard, just because we see ourselves as creating new technologies, doesn’t actually mean that customers see us that way: people rarely buy technologies, they buy solutions to their problems, in whatever form that takes.

What would you say to a Blockchain startup founder who is thinking about applying to StartupYard?

Having blockchain experience I receive loads of requests for consultation ranging from technology architecture to cryptocurrency trading. It has led me to grow a bit reluctant to provide strong advice, just because the field is changing so often and I would like to be accurate with my proposals.

However in the case of StartupYard I am 100% convinced that it would benefit a blockchain founder tremendously. Trust me on this one, do it and then thank me later.

While at StartupYard I would encourage them to go in with an open mind towards receiving all sorts of feedback and then incorporate what they believe applies to them. In the same time be ready to handle the frustration of “people not getting it”. Just because you have been breathing, living and working blockchain it does not mean the rest of the world stopped. People have their own jobs and industries they work in. Focus on learning as much as you can and apply the lessons to refine your product. Good luck!

You can now apply for StartupYard Batch #8.

  • Robots
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • VR/AR
  • IoT
  • Cryptography
  • Blockchain
Applications Open: Now
Applications Close: June 30th, 2017
Program starts: September 4th, 2017
Program ends: December 1st, 2017
Petya Lipeva, Puzl Coworking

Exclusive Interview: Puzl’s Petya Lipeva on the Bulgarian Tech Space

On April 11-12 2017, StartupYard will be visiting Sofia to meet with Deep Tech startups, and offer two workshops – one on turning an AI idea into a global business, and the other on storytelling for Deep Tech startups.

Before our next official visit, which is to be StartupYard’s third in beautiful Sofia, I talked to Petya Lipeva, Chief Navigator of CowOrKing by Puzl, one of Sofia’s hottest tech startup spaces, about the tech scene in Sofia, how it’s changed in recent years, and what we can expect in the near future from Bulgarian startups. Here is what she had to say:

Hi Petya, first why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself, and your path to becoming Chief Navigator at Puzl?

Hey StartupYard-ers! My name is Petya and I’m the Chief Navigator at Puzl CowOrKing – a coworking space for IT professionals and IT startups in Sofia, Bulgaria. I joined the team a month after they opened the first space.

My background is in PR and marketing for a Bulgarian tech company in the CG industry. For a few years I was traveling the world and I needed to settle down, so I tried to do some freelancing work. However, being a freelancer is quite a lonely experience for a person that is used to working with big crowds.

I was considering relocating to France or Italy when I found out that two guys opened a new shared space in Sofia and they were looking for a person to run the space. I met the team for a lunch and this was the most random job interview that I ever had. It was a couple of days before the start of a big CG conference that I was organizing and my phone was ringing all the time. Meanwhile we were speaking about anything but my role in the team. It’s amazing how you click immediately when you find your people!

Petya Lipeva, Coworking by Puzl

What makes Puzl CowOrKing, aside from any other workspace in Sofia, a special place?

First of all Puzl CowOrKing is the first industry focused coworking space in Sofia. We created the space to help IT companies and professionals to grow and develop together. The amazing industrial design is complemented with different areas to foster efficiency, collaboration, and creativity both for companies and individuals.

We started with one space in October 2015 and a few months later in May 2016 we opened a new floor that we created specially for early-stage startups. In the beginning of April 2017, we’re opening another floor with 10 dedicated offices for small startup companies. The idea is to have different areas so a team could start with some desks in the area for the early stage startups and move across the different zones as the team grows and develops.

Do you have some success stories from your own alumni you’d like to highlight?

Yes, we do have quite a lot of success stories! I’d say that the whole community of 250 professionals is one amazing success story.

We have quite a lot of starting companies that are funded by different funds and accelerators. We have a few examples of individuals who are starting alone and growing a team of 10 people. My best success stories however are the collaboration stories – I love seeing how companies and professionals in the space start working together and find it valuable to exchange experience and resources.

StartupYard is about to make our 4th visit in as many years to Sofia. What would you say have been the most profound changes about the city and the tech ecosystem there in the past decade? What can we expect when we visit next month?

I would say that about 10 years ago in Bulgaria only a few people had heard the word ‘startup’  and the entrepreneurship ecosystem basically didn’t exist. However a decade is quite a long period and the ecosystem is thriving now.

Last year Forbes Magazine named  Sofia  one of the top 10 destinations for starting a business. Only three years after the first venture capital funds Launchub and Eleven started; they have already about 200 start-up companies in their portfolio. Recently we also witnessed one of the largest exits in the region, with a value of 262.5 million USD after acquisition of Telerik by Progress Software.

Quite a lot of organizations are working on organizing entrepreneurship events and trainings and the country is definitely showing a great progress and could show a thriving and interesting tech ecosystem.

What are, in your view, the biggest strengths of Bulgarian tech people, engineers, and thinkers?

I’ve noticed that the engineers in Bulgaria have amazing tech skills – they are talented, dedicated and passionate about their projects. They are real problem-solvers and quite interesting people – there are some quiet ones, loud ones, crazy ones, real inventors, thinkers, and players.

To you, which have been the most interesting and inspiring successes in tech to come out of Sofia or Bulgaria in the last few years?

The most inspiring success to come out of Sofia is Chaos Group – the company that develops the rendering plugin for 3D computer graphics software applications – V-Ray. Chaos Group founder Vladimir Koylazov received an Academy Plaque at the 2017 Academy Awards. The award, presented by the Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards Committee, recognizes V-Ray’s role in bringing realistic CGI to the big screen.

Another great success is the above mentioned largest exits in the region by Telerik. We have quite a lot of interesting starting tech companies and I’m sure that we’ll see many more great stories in the upcoming years!

What kinds of things do you think we can expect from Bulgarian startups in the near future?

I’d say that we’ll see many exciting products and services coming from the Bulgarian startups and I’m sure that we’ll see many teams growing worldwide. I’m sure that soon enough I’ll be saying proudly “he/she used to work in Puzl CowOrKing”.

Bulgaria is a relatively small economy. Does this force Bulgarian startups to think bigger? Does it have a negative impact on startups looking for their first customers and their first investor?

Yes, Bulgaria is a small economy but it’s a great floor for product testing before going outside the boundaries. The small economy is definitely pushing the startups to grow bigger and to find bigger markets. However, I don’t think it has impact on finding customers and investors, as nowadays we’re all easily connected and because of the thriving ecosystem in the region. It’s easy to access many resources outside the country.

How would you rate the local and state government’s involvement in the tech ecosystem? What are they doing right, and what are they doing wrong?

The local and the state government is not much involved in the tech ecosystem although they are trying a lot. It takes time – the administration in Bulgaria is quite slow in picking up new trends and the tech ecosystem is still something that they don’t completely understand and relate to what’s happening in a starting company. I think the administration needs to attract a new generation of people in order to start helping out the tech ecosystem.