A dimly lit locale in the heart of Sofia, a piano on stage, people chatting around low tables, pleasant music and the occasional drink in hand… Although it sounds like the setup for a good Friday night, this scene took place in broad daylight and people were there for a matchmaking session – the startup way. It was in this informal environment that Bulgaria-based seed fund LAUNCHub chose to highlight some of its more developed startups to potential investors as part of its fifth Long Weekend and Investors Day. In a parallel meeting, organised in betahaus | Sofia, the fund also introduced the final list of 13 shortlisted candidates for seed investment.
The developed dozen
Petar Bojkov, presenting for investors on the success of his company Viblast Photo credit: LAUNCHubBack in the piano bar, 12 startups from CEE did their best to impress international VCs andinvestment organisations such as Early Bird, 3TS Capital Partners, RSG Capital, SEEDRS and ALICE. The digital tech companies were from Bulgaria, Slovenia, Greece and Croatia and included: Mediately, StatAce – whose CEO apparently had to postpone his own wedding to pitch, CloudRunner, Deed, Edhub, Transmetrics, Cinexio, Viblast, Jumpido, Codebender, Dragon Inside and Imagga. Their solutions ranged from new teaching methods through play (Jumpido) to backend support for hardware developers and software engineers (Codebender and Cloudrunner). One thing united these diverse teams, though: “We invest in people with complementary skills,” said LAUNCHub Managing Partner Lyuben Belov. Interestingly, there seems to be a rise in companies with a focus on education, because, as Stanislav Sirakov, partner at LAUNCHub, said, “the education system in this region is broken.”
The event aimed to showcase the success of these companies to date and their investment needs in a more relaxed manner. Or, as the CEOs of Codebender, Cinexio and Mediately jokingly put it while sitting at the bar: “We are gathered here, with an outstretched palm to say ‘please give us some money’”.
Jokes aside, Vasilis Georgitzikis, Damir Bandalo and Blaz Triglav all agreed that the LAUNCHub fund has provided them with not just money but also mentorship, which they couldn’t find in their home countries of Greece and Croatia. “These kinds of events are awesome, because you get to meet investors in person, you are not just a number anymore,” Bandalo from Cinexio said. “It’s good to have some initial contact in real life, to get a feeling of the person,” Georgitzikis from Codebender added. “We are not actively raising now, but it is good to have a few leads, start talking to investors so they see where we are now and in six months, when we are actively looking for investments they can see the progress we’ve made,” Mediately’s CEO Triglav explained.
Trayan Stoyanov pitching his product Discountfinder at the event in betahaus Photo credit: LAUNCHubDuring the pitches of the 13 shortlisted companies in betahaus, it became clear that LAUNCHub is very region-oriented and its focus is shifting towards companies with a bit more than just a concept. Part of a rigorous four days of intensive work with coaches and more than 50 mentors, the pitches were meant to help the LAUNCHub Investment Committee decide on the winners, which will be offered investment of up to 200.000 euros in exchange for equity in April.
Coming from seven countries, including Italy and Ireland, with Slovenia being almost as strongly represented as Bulgaria, most of the companies boasted some existing clients or working prototypes or betas. The full list of companies included: Adtapsy, Bitcoini, Brainstorm, CicerOOS, Clusterize, CM2W, deTENS, Discountfinder , Enolyse, Goodwerp, MEDinar, Tabfoundry and Zeduki.
Most team members attended the event with great expectations and it showed in their beaming faces, and covert high-fives and pats on the back after some presentations. “The Long Weekend of Launchub was really productive”, Brainstorm co-founder and CEO Miroslav Knežević said after pitching the company’s KISS restaurant discovery and menu app. “The guys managed to get the best the out of every team and made us so effectively squeeze months of our work into a five-minute pitch. Short. Focused. To the point.”
Valon Sopi, founder of Goodwerp, a last-minute addition to the roster from Kosovo, said: “Mentors and investors are relentless to get the best out of you and demand world-class approach to challenges, growth, and acceleration.”
And while everyone seemed to unite around the learning experience being the biggest benefit of the event, some did not hide the fact that they were also a bit starstruck: “One of the great advantages of the LAUNCHub experience was the fantastic opportunity to listen and share with few of the most exciting guys of the tech and startup industry such as Mike Butcher from Tech Crunch,” Alexandre Glas from e-learning platform Zeduki commented.
Sofia’s drawing force
The fact that Sofia has become a magnet for tech startups from the region was evident in the diverse group of countries represented in both the startups and the investors.
3TS Capital Partners’ Investment Manager Svetoslav Stefanov shared that although his company was more focused on later stage, growth equity investments, he has long followed with high interest the development of the startup ecosystem in Bulgaria, both from his investor viewpoint and as a mentor for the two local accelerators – LAUNCHub and Eleven. “They moved the industry forward by a huge leap, of course with the funding and help of the European Investment Fund and Bulgarian government funds,” he said. “In truth, they institutionalised early-stage investing, which until then was scarce, mostly done by business angels and without such publicity.”
The funds’ combination of financing, mentorship, pre-selection and team education in working with an institutional investor is what helps earn investors’ trust and, in turn, attracts investors and startups from other countries in the region to Bulgaria, he added. While Stefanov attended mostly to witness the companies’ development firsthand, some were hoping to maybe entice some companies to travel. “This event was representative of the region and I think there is an awful lot of talent here,” David Scanlon, who came to scout companies on behalf of Enterprise Ireland, said. “What Ireland could offer as an advantage and a differentiator is commercial success.”
Announced at the event, LAUNCHub’s recently forged partnership with Microsoft Ventures, the software giant’s global effort to support startups, will also help position Sofia as the startup hotbed of the region. “It may sound abstract, but this is a crowning achievement for the Bulgarian startup ecosystem,” Raya Yunakova, Audience Marketing Manager for Microsoft Bulgaria said. “This highlights us on the global startup map and, as a whole, in order to start this partnership, the company cast a strong vote of confidence in the accelerator and seed funds here.”