The Robotics Strategy Forum – the first specialised technological event for robotics and automation in Sofia and Bulgaria – took place at the Inter Expo Center on October 22. Invest Sofia was a partner of the event. We had the opportunity to meet with representatives of the Bulgarian industry, academia, industrial zones and start-ups – the ecosystem of stakeholders in building a comprehensive strategy for the robotics sector in Bulgaria.
“Our economy, manufacturing industries and service providers have long been in a state where they compete on the basis of productivity and quality,” said the CEO of Invest Sofia Mr. Vladimir Danailov in his welcome address to the participants in the forum. “In Bulgaria there are companies that are leaders in their area, including Ocado, Festo and many others. We already have over 15 venture capital funds, we have accelerators and incubators. More than 15% of our start-ups are in the field of deeptech, which includes the AI sector. These factors place us among the leaders in Europe and push forward the industrial automation in our country. Over the last 18 months, more than 70 companies have shown interest in investing in Sofia and Bulgaria, half of them are industrial companies. They are not just considering low production costs. They are already talking about engineering talent, that the ecosystem is evolving, they are talking about how they are able to develop automation and artificial intelligence here. All these factors show that we already have a dynamic environment.”
Highlights of the Robotics and Strategy Forum
In a special panel, the PARA team shared their initiative to create an expert council to work on recommendations in different directions and to draw up a roadmap for the development of the robotics sector in our country.
Visitors had the opportunity to see the robots of Giga Automata, Festo, ABB first-hand in the expo part of the event, and exchange ideas, impressions and enthusiasm during the networking part.
The event started with a survey on the high-tech sector in Bulgaria:
The Professional Association for Robotics and Automation (PARA) published a survey on the level of automation in the Bulgarian industry, including information about the activities in which companies tend to invest the most, how much they invest and for what purpose. According to the survey data, the industrial producers in Bulgaria plan to invest in automation, especially within production, quality control and data processing in the next three years.
The agenda of the Forum featured several discussion panels.
✔ ‘The New Industry of Bulgaria’ Panel
The panel focused on the benefits of automation, the higher administration it leads to, and the need for more skilled personnel. It addressed the issues of how companies can integrate robots and autonomous systems in their day-to-day operations. Another focus was the innovative ecosystem in Bulgaria in terms of infrastructure, international partners, investors and suppliers, as well as the level of Bulgarian engineering talents.
In a special keynote, Alex Harvey, General Manager of Automation and Embedded Systems at Ocado Technology and a leading expert in the field of AI and robotics, drew attention to automation for online grocery retail solutions, as well as the activities of its local center in Sofia.
Boyan Rashev, Sustainable Development Consultant at Denkstatt Bulgaria, shared in a lecture outlining that automation is the only roadmap possible to sustainable development.
✔ ‘Robo Startups’ Panel
The panel focused on next generation solutions such as biometric protection solutions in the automotive industry, access control, and workplace and hotel biometric systems. Other solutions that were discussed were Giga Automata’s industrial cobot and its implementation in SMEs, as well as the success behind the record sales of the smart IoT-enabled devices of the Bulgarian company Alterco on Amazon.
The key lessons for startups developing specialized hardware were to maintain good working capital levels, hire an experienced sales team, and invest in R&D.
Victor Manev, co-founder of Impetus Capital, shared: ‘In Bulgaria we try and find solutions that are not traditional, as in the big tech markets. Currently, there is a qualitative change in Bulgaria, as the entry of foreign companies in recent years has created conditions for many Bulgarians to work in technical positions as part of a global team, and to capture global trends. This helps them realize that they can do something different. We already have such success stories in Bulgaria.’
✔ ‘Legal & HR Challenges’ Panel
The key questions discussed were what type of protection is possible for AI systems as a product and whether there can be intellectual rights over products created as a result of AI activity without human participation. HR and ethical challenges in the peer-to-peer financing sector, including credit-evaluation algorithms, were also addressed. A major topic in the panel were the difficulties in finding personnel in the high-tech sector in Bulgaria, as well as the expansion of the Bulgarian technology companies such as Fadata, Bulpros and Scale Focus in regional cities.
✔ ‘Supporting Innovation & Business Development’ Panel
The key topics covered were related to the launch of the National Innovation Fund, as well as the voucher schemes for ICT services for SMEs, presented and developed by BSMEPA, and the international events, fairs and exhibitions where the Agency participates on behalf of Bulgarian enterprises. Over 450 companies can benefit from the BSMEPA voucher system, with a total budget of BGN 10 million. The strategic goal of the Ministry of Economy is to move Bulgaria from the group of ‘timid innovators’ to the group of ‘moderate innovators’.
Prof. Dr. Todor Yalamov from Sofia University confirmed that on average 50-60% of the companies enter the university with specific case studies for students to work with.
✔ ‘Future STEM Education’ Panel
Irina Ilieva from America for Bulgaria Foundation stated that around 113 million dollars have been invested in the Bulgarian education system. ‘It’s essential for young people to learn how to work in a team and develop an algorithmic way of thinking in order to identify a problem and the necessary steps to resolve it’. Ivelina Atanasova from Digital Kidz shared that today’s education systems should be forward looking 20 years ahead.
External speakers, businesspeople and policymakers need to visit schools in order to present the professions of the future to children. These are some of the key factors for implementation of STEM education. A similar project is the participation of the students of the Thomas Edison private school in the NASA Space Challenge in Izmir.
The Robotics Strategy Forum gathered over 200 guests who got acquainted with the latest developments on the Bulgarian industrial scene. The event was sponsored by FESTO, Ocado Technology and Uber.
We thank the co-organizers – the Professional Association for Robotics and Automation (PARA) and the Executive Agency for Promotion of Small and Medium Enterprises (BSMEPA) – for the opportunity to join the forum. Photos and more highlights of the event can be seen on the Association’s Facebook page, and a video recording of the results of the survey (in Bulgarian) is available here.