“When you look at Bulgaria since 2012 in terms of politics and economy – I really think Eleven and LAUNCHub are the single best thing that happened to the country in those tumultuous past few years. They gave so many young people the motivation to come to Bulgaria and build new and exciting technologies here. People with world-class education and amazing upward mobility, people who could work in New York, London, Tokyo, Berlin, they chose Sofia. And even if you look at us – I mean, we’re building a freaking airplane in Bulgaria – an airplane that will be a true world’s first, and Eleven helped make it happen. If that doesn’t give young people hope, I don’t know what will.”

Daniel Tomov, Chief Dreamer at Eleven

This is how the Rangelov brother’s, Dronamics, winner of Pioneers Festival 2015, speak about Eleven, the biggest Bulgarian business accelerator. I was curious what is behind that comment. Eleven excels all the CEE startup accelerators in terms of activity (36 startups per year!), and also compete successfully with Western European programs. According to Fundacity’s European accelerator report of 2014, Eleven finishes in top ten among main investors. An exemplar of how to build something valuable out of the JEREMIE initiative of the European Investment Fund (EIF). What is behind their success? I asked Daniel Tomov, founder of Eleven about their secret recipe.

Congrats to your success on Pioneers. Everybody in CEE region wonders what’s Eleven’s secret to build one of the bests accelerator in the world in Bulgaria. Dronamics referred to your contribution on first place when winning the Pioneers Festival. What do you think what brought you to this success?

Thank you. I would mention two key aspects that makes Eleven succesful. One, is the funding that few accelerator programs can offer, and two, the vast community that surrounds us and grows constantly. Before Eleven, there was barely an accelerator that could provide financial support to their companies. After gaining the JEREMIE fund, we could offer them a startup fund that is essential for earlystage innovative projects. Our mentors and founders – not less than 300 people – come mainly from first and second generation entrepreneurs, and I have personally many friends among them.

How did you build up an accelerator in Sofia that competes with Western European standards? How did you gather a crowd of more than 300 mentors and founders and more than 100 startups within 2 years?

Three of us started it: Dilyan Dimitrov, Ivaylo Simov and myself. They both have professional background in venture capitals and private equity, and what’s more they have been my good friends and partners. When shaping up the accelerator, we invited Jon Bradford from Springboard (now MD at Techstars London) who has been the most experienced accelerator builder three years ago.  About the crowd, well, most of them are friends and partners from our pasts, they were quite easy to bring into the business. Then friends brought their friends, so it was all a self-impulsive process. Maintaining this network and keep them active however, seems to be a greater challenge. As for the startups, Eleven was a missing link in Bulgarian startup ecosystem. There was no accelerator program that could provide follow-on seed investment before for startups. So attracting startups were quite simple, in the launching year we already received 500 applications! Now, it’s around 1500 yearly, and we are proud to say that there are more than 30 nationalities here.

Financial center of Sofia

Eleven, Launchhub, 3Challenge. How did Bulgaria turned out to be one of the drivers of the startup sector in CEE region?

The root goes back to the socialist times. In the Soviet block, Bulgaria was designated to be the technology and computer sciences hub. Thus, we had the infrastructure and high-qualified engineer resources, who partly fled the country but later came back refunding their knowledge from abroad. After the regime change the entrepreneurial wave took over Bulgaria. Those entrepreneurs (from the early 90’s), now in their late 50s, are the angel investors in our startup ecosystem. Second generation entrepreneurs could be called the early startuppers, who started their businesses 10-15 years ago, and ended up as success stories on international level. Telerik, Imperia Online, Chaos Group are paramount in this period. Most of those entrepreneurs are now mentors at Eleven. And our focus is to support the third generation entrepreneurs: the startups.

How does your program work? What example did you take for your business model?  

We offer our early stage startup projects a 3 month- accelerator program with 25.000 EUR investment for 8% equity. They receive additional 75.000 EUR convertible loan after 1 month to help their early development.  We took that example from Techstars as we see that startups are in need for more resource at the very beginning. After the 3 month program, Eleven could provide the top teams with follow-on seed investment of up to 200.000 EUR in aggregate, often alongside other investors.

And how long have you worked with Dronamics? Did you expect them to win?

We invested in Dronamics in September 2014, and they received the starting kit we give to all companies we accelerate:  the critical first rounds of investment and the support of the Eleven community. But in the end of the day, it is the startup’s choice what to do next. Going to Pioneers Festival was Dronamics’ idea. We were really happy they won because this is another proof that what they are doing is amazing, but what matters most for us and for them is to finish the drone and make it fly.  We also have another company that aims at disrupting the aviation industry: Quadrodinamics. I believe both teams have benefits from their collaboration, therefore after the program. they are still around here.

One of 11: Dronamics

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