Bulgarian professor achieves dream of creating world-class tech powerhouse

Prof Martin Vachev, whose brainchild is INSAIT [Dnevnik]

In April, Bulgaria became home to INSAIT, a new Institute for Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence and Technology that aims to develop a world-class research centre, keep talent in Bulgaria, and attract outstanding international scientists by offering globally competitive research facilities and compensation.

The idea behind INSAIT is to address current shortcomings in the sector and build on comparative advantages. Despite past positive traditions during the 1980s, the current state of science and research in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe remains uncompetitive compared to the West.

It does however have its advantages: skilled labour and a sense of “stay hungry, stay foolish”, as Steve Jobs famously said.

INSAIT is located in Sofia, which is ranked among the 20 top tech cities of Europe for 2021, according to FT.

The institute is the brainchild of Professor Martin Vechev, a leading computer scientist, a full professor at ETH Zurich, and an ELLIS fellow (European Laboratory for Learning and Intelligent Systems).

He has 20 years of experience working in world-renowned institutes and is keen to develop and improve the technological and scientific environment in his home country, bridging the gap between Eastern and Western Europe.

The project dates back to 2003, when he applied for scholarships at Cambridge. He says that when he was asked, “What would you do in 30 years?”, he wrote: “Create a world-class centre in Bulgaria, following the example of Cambridge”.

INSAIT aims to address the core problem in the region: revitalising and establishing it as a world-class scientific and research powerhouse in one of the most important economic sectors today: artificial intelligence and computer science.

It also spans key topics such as machine learning, quantum computing, information security, robotics, and others.

As Velchev explains, artificial intelligence is already finding applications in all walks of life – medicine, autonomous cars, information security, and financial markets. In his words, AI research is strategically important for any country that wants to have a competitive economy.

“Eastern Europe is full of bright scientific minds, but people’s aspirations are often limited due to lack of facilities, funding, and support. This has resulted in a ‘brain drain’ away from Eastern Europe, a systemic problem discouraging innovation.

INSAIT is perfectly placed to reverse this trend and compete worldwide,” Vechev explains.

Brain drain has hampered innovation in Eastern Europe, with highly qualified people moving to the West to study and advance their careers.

In Bulgaria, between 1990 and 2007, when it joined the EU, an estimated 60,000 people left every year. Bulgaria faces numerous economic challenges, but many of them can be traced back to the country’s demography.

Declining population growth, a high mortality rate, an ageing population, and the constant emigration of young talents are significant threats to the country.

What could be changed

“This is completely new for Eastern Europe, says Vechev in an interview with Free Europe. “We are bringing the top 1% of the world’s universities to Eastern Europe.”

Indeed, the names on the supervisory and advisory boards of the new institute are stellar – among them are professors at the US universities of Yale, Princeton, Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Israeli Technion.

According to Vechev, the biggest winner of the project will be the Bulgarian scientific community. The institute is planned as a special unit of Sofia University, “St. Kliment Ohridski”.

It will employ about 300 people – 25-30 of them will be professors and researchers, and the remaining 200-250 will be PhD students, junior researchers, and postdocs. There will also be many master’s students, which could number several thousand.

INSAIT’s funding is secured for the next 10 years, with €95 million coming from the Bulgarian state and another €6 million from technology giants such as Google, DeepMind, and Amazon Web Services.

The institute is also backed by another €6 million from the Bulgarian tech company SiteGround and €500,000 from assorted Bulgarian tech entrepreneurs and investors.

INSAIT has benefitted from the support of four Bulgarian governments. According to the institute, state funding is unprecedented in Eastern Europe when it comes to funding pure scientific research in a very concrete area.

“The Bulgarian government can also do many things: establish joint grant programs with other countries such as Israel, Switzerland, the US and others, as well as provide further support for INSAIT by placing it at the centre of its agenda”, Vechev says.

Such support would help INSAIT attract world-class expertise and help train the next generation of scientific leaders, highly-qualified researchers, and engineers. This, in turn, would create more job opportunities in the region and provide an ideal environment to support deep tech startups and entrepreneurs.

According to the team behind INSAIT, the prospects for the future are promising for the country and the region.

Their shorter-term goal is that INSAIT be ranked in the top 20 in Europe in computer science according to csrankings.org and that in 10 years, the INSAIT becomes a famous name worldwide.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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