Bulgaria’s Swiss-inspired research institute can be ‘world class’

06 Sep 2023 | News

The researcher behind the government backed computer science centre laments the EU’s slow, top-down approach to innovation and backs the Sofia-based facility to succeed by carrying out high quality research, providing the feedstock for start-ups

INSAIT founder Martin Vechev. Photo: INSAIT / Facebook

In just under a year and a half, “insane progress” has been made in developing the world class Institute for Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence and Technology (INSAIT) in Bulgaria, which claims to be a first-of-a-kind for eastern Europe. 

Martin Vechev, founder and chair of the board of INSAIT, which was launched in April last year, is not shy in vaunting the potential of the Sofia-based institute. 

“It is showing the impossible,” he said. “This is not going to be one of the best places in the region, but one of the best in the world.”

INSAIT is an all-in-one institute running a computer science PhD programme, supporting basic research and acting as an incubator for start-ups. 

It is mainly funded by the Bulgarian government, which has committed €93 million over ten years. An additional 15 million has come from companies such as Google, DeepMind, SiteGround and Amazon Web Services. 

This investment has allowed the institute to attract top talent, such Luc Van Gool, head of the Computer Vision Laboratory at ETH Zurich, who also leads the Computer Vision research group at KU Leuven, Belgium, as a faculty member for the PhD programme. 

Vechev jokes this it is the equivalent of Bulgaria bringing in Lionel Messi, one of football's biggest stars. “Actually, [Van Gool’s] salary is higher than any soccer player here,” Vechev said. 

The institute is also able to pay its PhD students €36,000 per year, which in relation to the cost of living in Sofia makes it one of the most generous programmes in Europe. 

Vechev, a Bulgarian national, is professor of computer science at ETH Zurich. INSAIT was established in partnership with ETH and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), two European powerhouses when it comes to forming start-ups.

These institutions serve as the model for INSAIT, both in terms of the quality and the approach to fostering innovation

“ETH is really a mix between the US and EU systems,” Vechev said. “It is the deep tech start-up capital of Europe. INSAIT is following the same rule book.” Innovation is nurtured from the ground up, rather than through top-down initiatives like the many supported by the EU, such as innovation valleys, clusters, centres of excellence, of which Vechev takes a dim view. 

The EU money backing such initiatives, just feeds mostly things that don’t do anything. It maintains a level of mediocrity,” Vechev said. 

In his view, for innovation to flourish, the starting point is high-quality research. INSAIT is funding the best research and the best researchers, as the feedstock for start-ups, rather than forcing them through innovation-boosting programmes. 

That is INSAIT’s secret sauce, Vechev says. Get the money, get the best people and “leave them to do what they want to do''. 

“It shows you how to transfer knowledge from one place to another on a bottom-up level,” he said. “European companies are so slow, it’s laughable. They can’t compete with the US.”

Closing the innovation gap

If Vechev’s view of how best to support innovation in eastern Europe differs from that of the European Commission, the objective of helping the region catch up with its western counterparts is the same

The EU is attempting this through its Widening initiative, a series of measures built into the Horizon Europe research programme. These measures often involve linking western institutes or individuals with eastern peers in a bid to promote cooperation and learning. 

But things move too slowly, Vechev says. As a result, the EU could lose the region’s potential to global competitors such as the US, China or Japan. 

“Eastern Europe has massive potential but is very underdeveloped. If Europe does nothing, the US will open university branches here, producing people for the US market,” he said.

His vision is to replicate INSAIT across eastern Europe. “Ten centres like this one in other countries [] it would change the whole region,” he said. “INSAIT made it work in one of the most difficult places, but you can expand the model abroad, it will be easier elsewhere.”

Vechev is confident in what he is trying to achieve at INSAIT, but he acknowledges success is not a given. The funding needs to keep on coming to pay for the best researchers and the best equipment. But he is grateful for what the Bulgarian government has done up to this point. 

“What Bulgaria did should not be underestimated, [the government] took an incredible risk and is not getting much credit,” he said. “I think when we started out it had a 15 to 20% chance of succeeding, now I would say it is 25 to 30%. It might be too ahead of its time.”

First start-up

It has been a big week for INSAIT, which has just become the first eastern European institute to partner with the European Laboratory for Learning and Intelligent Systems (ELLIS), a network of artificial intelligence hubs and experts. 

The only other partner regional partners in Widening countries are in Prague, Czechia and Lisbon, Portugal. 

In addition, INSAIT announced that its first spin-off, computer game specialist Martian Lawyers Club (MLC), closed a $2.2 million pre-seed funding round

MLC’s co-founders CEO Kamen Brestnichki and the chief technology and product officer Levi Fussell met at Edinburgh University. Brestnichki subsequently studied at University College London and joined the PhD programme at INSAIT in September 2022.

Brestnichki said that there is little doubt INSAIT was instrumental in raising the pre-seed round for MLC, helping with the process as well as supporting the company in building connections with investors. 

Brestnichki was part of the first cohort of ten PhD students at INSAIT – there are now around 30 – and still regularly collaborates with the institute, which has a stake in MLC

He said he could have stayed abroad to continue his education, but once he found out about INSAIT and its staff, including Vechev, the choice was clear. 

Brestnichki hopes INSAIT will encourage researchers and entrepreneurs to stay in Bulgaria or return from abroad. “Before it seemed like a career sacrifice [to return], now not so much,” he said. 

He is optimistic INSAIT will achieve its goal of becoming a world-class institute.All the ingredients are there,” Brestnichki said. “I think it is going to help expose the Bulgarian talent pool to the global market.” 

For Vechev, the next steps are to keep on carrying out quality research and developing start-ups. The institute is partnered with Sofia University and if one top-quality research paper comes out via the institute, it could push the university up the international rankings. 

In terms of innovation, the more start-ups that follow on from MLC the faster Bulgaria’s reputation as an entrepreneurial hotspot will grow. 

The potential of INSAIT to do this has been acknowledged on a European level. The institute’s launch event was attended by former research commissioner Mariya Gabriel and Maria Leptin, president of the European Research Council, the EU’s basic research funding agency. Both spoke highly of INSAIT and how it could change Bulgaria’s research and innovation landscape for the better. 

And while Vechev is sceptical of EU schemes, he knows that this external support is essential for the institute to continue to receive backing from the Bulgarian government and the private sector. 

“INSAIT came out of nowhere and no one expected it to get this far,” he said. “Now we have to produce world class results and start-ups. We’ll keep going, doing more of the same.”

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