The Forum was opened by ARC Fund Chairman Dr Ognian Shentov who briefly reviewed the past year, noting that the crisis of 2020 was also a catalyst for incorporating innovation in our daily lives. The two global trends worth mentioning in this respect were the response of national governments and innovation activity. Bulgaria remains a modest investor in R&D, despite the growth of public funding in this area, with a mere 0.7% of the GDP devoted to it, lagging well behind the 1.5% previously set as a national goal to be reached by 2020. Thus, the country has not managed to join the group of moderate innovator states on European Innovation Scoreboard. The leading contributor to R&D is once again the business. Bulgarian companies have invested nearly BGN 700 million in innovative projects, which is a growth of 13% compared to the preceding year. Due to the digital transformation in a number of sectors, the source of added value is increasingly shifting towards such digital solutions both in the manufacturing industry and the social domain, e.g. education and healthcare.
Thorsten Geissler, the Director of Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s Sofia Office, underlined the key role of innovations in the Foundation’s daily activities in the past year. The COVID-19 crisis has greatly affected the job markedt and a number of people are still at risk of unemployment. Fortunately, both the European Commission and the governments of Member States have adopted a series of economic and social measures to mitigate this effect. Vaccines have also been swiftly developed. 2020 has demonstrated that the world is in dire need of economic resilience. Innovations, therefore, are one of the major factors for long-term growth and improving quality of life through better work processes, working conditions and supply chains. The key lesson learnt from the crisis, though, is that the human factor is essential. This is why societies should strive to lessen job loss and keep workers and employees content. Innovations’ role is fulfilled only when they serve people and take future generations into account. Mr. Geissler expressed thanks to all partners and wished success to all winners of the Innovative Enterprise of the Year award.
Rumen Radev, President of the Republic of Bulgaria, addressed the participants by stating that innovations are not only a cause towards which Bulgarian business works, but also an integral stepping stone towards Bulgaria’s full-fledged integration. Both the economy and a nation’s progress are always driven forward by innovations. The launch of innovative solutions is linked to new responsibilities, to demands towards education and the educational tools used, to the creation of green, social and digital innovations. In 2020, creativity and the drive to innovate led to inroads into new business niches in Bulgaria, moving the country forward in the EU in terms of the export of technology and know-how in developing digital infrastructure. Multiple Bulgarian companies managed to adopt new technologies in short terms. Nevertheless, the trend for low public investment in R&D in the country was kept, as Bulgaria had allocated 0.5% of the GDP in such operations, way below the 3% of developed economies. Foreign investments remain the main driver of innovation in the country.
Ruslan Stefanov, Coordinator of ARC Fund’s Innovation.bg Group presented the key findings of the Innovation.bg report and the Innovation Index brought back into use in the current year. A major idea for improving the country’s long-term prosperity is to prioritise secondary education at the national level. Another shift in the positive direction would be to strengthen the leadership role of the government in boosting innovations and creating a favourable environment for it. Currently, the core part of R&D is covered by the business, but the level of growth is far from satisfactory in the long term. The report points out that companies have been quick to adapt, as they had during the previous crisis, by adjusting the work process of their employees and their sales methods, but such changes are far from transformative. Large companies and ICT companies remain the most innovative in Bulgaria, but the bulk of firms – 80 % --maintain a low innovation intensity. This could be mended not least by establishing inner system, cluster links between large and small companies, the lack of which has to be overcome in order to create new well-paid jobs. The Bulgarian parliament should also assume a leadership role by putting up additional instruments to support innovations, including innovative public administration and electronic public services. In the next 5-10-year period human resource and skills development would also play a major part.
During the discussion on Innovation Prospects: The Role of the National Recovery and Resilience Plan, Martin Danovski, Chairman of the State Agency for Research and Innovation (SARI), commended the National Innovation Forum for consistently capturing the framework and details of the national innovation system over the last 16 years. The health challenges in 2020 are only the tip of the iceberg. Emerging deficits that had not been addressed so far, have turned into routes for dealing with a crisis by finding the right position within the value and interaction chains. If enhanced, the interplay between innovation and research could lead to fulfilling the potential of both systems. The state, as a public partner, has certainly a role to play in the knowledge and innovation system. The current stagnation in investment and the number of people involved in research and innovation is not a positive development, and SARI is striving to address these particular deficits. It has contributed to the adoption of brand new legislation on research and innovation and the setting up of a dedicated Operational Programme for Research, Innovation and Digitalisation. In early 2021, a substantial amount of BGN 2.2 million will be budgeted in this area which is expected to significantly raise innovation expenditures. Mr. Danovski pointed out that SARI consistently centers all its tools and policies on innovations and new technologies in line with the European Innovation Area promoted by Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, an initiative firmly based on synchrony, sharing, synergy and concerted actions.
Boyko Takov, Executive Director of the Bulgarian Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises Promotion Agency (BSMEPA), noted that although through the years BSMEPA has worked under complex circumstances, it has successfully supported 25 companies via the National Innovation Fund. He expressed his confidence that the following year, among others through the new Operational Programme targeting innovations, will see a key step forward to strengthening the innovation system. In a regional perspective, Bulgaria is not yet among the strategic leaders, but thanks to its human resources and the opportunities that public agencies, the scientific research community, the business and educational institutions have to cooperate in creating and developing the national innovation ecosystem, the country has strong chances to progress.
Lyubomir Stanislavov, Executive Director of the Bulgarian Employers’ Association Innovative Technologies (BRAIT), provided a similar assessment of 2020 as a year of trial for business and innovations, which has nonetheless brought about positive changes. One such example is the transformation of the Business Clusters Association into the Bulgarian Employers’ Association Innovative Technologies. The COVID-19 crisis has opened up new avenues for the automobile industry, education, biotechnologies and the renewable energy sector, catalysing technologies, and speeding up developments, e.g. of autonomous vehicles production. It has served as a stress test to enterprises and the economy at large. Some companies, in the automobile and ICT sector in particular, have improved their performance results, with the leading automobile companies which have facilities for sensor and control manufacture in Bulgaria even breaking their own production records in the country in the last quarter of 2020. This is a sign that the auto parts industry is a healthy and promising sector of the Bulgarian economy, and the long-term development goal is to occupy a leading position in Europe and globally in the electric and autonomous vehicles industry.
The Forum was moderated by Kristina Eskenasi, Chair of the Managing Board of the Health and Life Sciences Cluster Bulgaria, who formulated some essential advice on how to successfully enhance the innovation ecosystem.
The videostreaming of the event was conducted by MP Studio, the Innovative Enterprise of the Year 2017 award winner in the creative industries category. The company is among the pioneers in the design of 3D visual effects and interactive installations on diverse objects. It has achieved an innovative synchronisation between laser and video mapping under the 4D Experience brand. It has accomplished over 160 projects all over the world, including the first mapping of a cave, a cathedral and a moving object (an automobile and a bus). MP Studio makes building and exterior projection mapping of historical and cultural sights and was the creator of the multimedia exhibition for the Opening Ceremony for the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, which presented a variety of images of the country's millennia-old history, magnificent architectural monuments, beautiful landscapes and iconic artistic masterpieces.