After graduating from the American University in Bulgaria’s third class, Daniel Tomov (’97) embarked on a successful career in entrepreneurship. Following his success with a renewable energy startup, in 2012 he cofounded Eleven, a venture capital firm based in Sofia. Most recently, he was elected chair of AUBG’s University Council for a three-year term.
We talked to him about his relationship with AUBG and present, past and future of entrepreneurship in Bulgaria. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
You’ve been a part of the startup scene in Bulgaria for almost two decades now. How would you describe the current state of entrepreneurship in the country?
It has advanced a lot and now it’s in a totally different stage, it’s much more exciting these days. We could say now that we have a vibrant ecosystem that is growing. It has achieved a lot over the past 10 plus years. But still it’s very fragile and there’s a lot of work in the future but this is normal. I would say it’s a great achievement so far and one of the greatest signs of this is that there are more and more people getting involved in the startup ecosystem – we see mature founders starting companies again, you have serial founders, you have more [corporations] being engaged, we have much more capital around compared to what used to be 10 years ago, as well we see there’s a lot of angels, probably like a hundred plus angel investors active in making at least one or two investments per year.
Eleven Ventures, the VC fund you cofounded, has become one of the major ones in the region. How did its founding come to be?
It was a very interesting story because when we started I made a parallel to the start of the American University [in Bulgaria]. Because when [AUBG] started in ’91, it was just after the collapse of the socialist block so there was a vacuum for good education. There were a lot of talented people around but there were no possible options outside of Bulgaria because it was very difficult for anybody to get funding or get a visa to go to Western Europe or to the U.S. So when the American University in Bulgaria was established, all of these talented people actually enrolled in the university. So we were in a similar situation because we had all the ingredients of the ecosystem. There had been a growing tech industry for two decades. There were a lot of engineers, a lot of experience in selling services, in products. There were the first product companies that were doing well abroad. The only link that was missing was capital in order to boost the entrepreneurial effort. The moment we started in 2012, we were lucky to get exposure to all of this talent and things happened very fast. Over three years, the whole scene was changed dramatically – not only in Bulgaria but also in the region. In a very short period of time, a lot of experience and knowledge has been acquired in the ecosystem. It was a great moment.
And what were some of the projects that you were most excited to invest in?
It’s difficult to say which ones since we reviewed more than 6,000 projects from the whole region over three-four years in the beginning. We were mainly focused on technology or the application of technologies in various fields. Some of the most exciting [ones] were actually on the intersection of different fields. For example, we had a company, Dronamics, which in 2013 two brothers came and said, ‘OK, we would like to build a cargo drone,’ which was something you could only read in popular science magazines that this could be the future. Today they are much closer, they have the prototypes and they have most of the systems working so it’s becoming a reality.
You’re also the driving force behind the AUBG Accelerator, a new initiative meant to support student and alumni startups. Can you tell me more about this idea?
The idea behind the accelerator is that this is a format where students could experiment without any restrictions. They could really work on a real-life startup with all the risks and all the failures, and this is the only way you could learn entrepreneurship. In my view, which might be a very drastic opinion, you can’t learn entrepreneurship in a classroom or in an academic way. The only way is to experience that. It’s also a great way to engage active stakeholders in this way, like alumni. Because the purpose is that the accelerator is funded by $100,000 per year but half of the money is for the investment part, and the rest would go for operations. And this money would be raised mainly from the alumni network and not on an individual basis, but rather from companies that are founded or managed by alumni. Because in that particular way you could actually engage more the alumni in being mentors, in helping the startups and the students in opening doors. And it’s a much more natural interaction between the alumni and the students.
You joined AUBG while it was still a very young and not-as-well-established institution. Did that feel like a risk at the time and do you think it was worth it?
At that age, you have a different perception of risk. I wouldn’t say it was a risk at all, my due diligence was very simple. First, I had the support of my parents. Second, a major part of my friends from the previous class of the First English Language School in Sofia already were in the university for one or two years. So I just called one of my good friends and he said, “It’s a great place, we have a great basketball team, you’ll like it,” and that was enough. For me, it was a very easy decision. Even from hindsight, I don’t think it was a major risk at the time. What would you say is the most important thing you learned in your time here? Probably the thing that stayed for longer with me was this type of curiosity about life and about things that drives me until today, and I hope for many more years. The other thing is probably the whole atmosphere, the people around, and the friendships, and this type of mental framework and the confidence that you could deal with any situation in life, professional or personal. For me, in hindsight, this is probably the biggest asset that I got from AUBG. Not so much about the theoretical or academic aspect of the university because to a great extent you could learn this anywhere around the world. But it’s more this soft type of skills that stay with you for a longer period of time and they could help you be successful in any endeavor you try.
You recently became the chair of AUBG’s University Council. What does that job entail?
It’s an interesting thing because for years the University Council was a supporting body to the Board of Trustees. It was supporting different initiatives, mainly on fundraising. I would like to transform the University Council so it becomes much more active and more instrumental in the future of AUBG, not only in terms of specific fundraising activities but probably more in supporting some larger initiatives at AUBG in the coming years.
What drives you to keep being involved with AUBG and to support the institution more than 20 years after you graduated?
To a great extent, this is due to the way we were brought up at the university as citizens, to always think of giving back to communities and institutions that helped us succeed in life. I think that all of us as alumni, everybody would like to be involved with AUBG in one way or another. [Alumni] would like to see in AUBG their Harvard or Stanford or whatever the metaphor is for a [top] university. I would like to contribute to the long-term success of the institution and I would like to see AUBG as one of the top educational institutions in Europe in the next 20 or so years. And I would love to see my kids consider AUBG as one of their options when they have to decide which school to go to. This is my ambition.