An inside look at Europe’s Webit Festival

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Image credit: Webit

Webit.Festival Europe is one of the worlds most attended large-scale events with delegates from all around the world. The numbers speak for themselves: over 12,000 attendees of which 70% C-Level coming from 118 countries, 450+ speakers, 500+ accredited journalists, 500+ investors... Webit is also running the world's largest startup challenge called Founders Games with over 4000 applications from startups from all around the world - from  Silicon Valley, USA to Hangzhou China, through Singapore, Hong Kong, Brazil, Canada, Russia, Korea, Ghana, Kenya, Poland, Iceland, Australia, UK, Spain, France and Germany.

Webit Festival started from humble beginnings. In 2008, the year on the Festival’s launch, half of the attendees requested refunds perceiving the advertising for the first "International Tech Festival in Central and Eastern Europe" as a music techno event. Over 10 years later this mistake is no longer being made. Webit Festival is now known as a globally renowned international tech festival, created by the Bulgarian serial entrepreneur, philanthropist and investor, Dr. Plamen Russev.

TechRadar Pro spoke with Dr. Plamen Russev to learn more about the festival and the effect it has had on the startup scene in Eastern Europe.

Can you tell us a bit more about the Webit Festival’s background, and what sets it apart from other events?

When I returned back to my home country Bulgaria in 2007 (after a number of years living abroad) I saw a very unhappy country and decided that to do something about it. Giving back to the community became my main driver. I perceived it as an investment in our future. Webit was created as a not-for-profit organization with the aim to change the way the world was perceiving Bulgaria and Eastern Europe, and to stop the brain drain which was destroying the future of entire generations.

In order to achieve this, we decided to launch an educational institution for digital skills and a large-scale event which would attract global leaders and media attention to the country and the region. This would bring opportunities and connect the local ecosystem (which in early 2007 was almost non-existent) with global entrepreneurial and investment networks. 

The underdeveloped ecosystem posed a challenge in attracting attendees to a large-scale event and therefore we took a multi focus approach, combining what would be covered in 15 summits in one. Back then this was considered an unconventional approach, but nowadays many tech events follow this tactic. We pride ourselves on being the first to popularize this format with the Webit Festival. 

Furthermore, we have integrated the startup ecosystem into the DNA of the event. We included policy makers and politicians in discussions and panels in order to foster innovation through legislation. Initially, this was not well perceived by the ecosystem but has now become a mainstream occurrence at many industry events.

Throughout Webit’s existence we have pioneered a new approach to industry events, and we continue to do so. We do what we preach - "stay out of your comfort zone and improve the global well-being by empowering entrepreneurship and women in business and politics".

Image credit: Pexels

Image credit: Pexels

(Image: © Image credit: Pexels)

What makes Webit such an attractive draw for startups?

Since the first year Webit has been a place where startups are welcomed for free! Our goal was and is to build and grow role models, not to sell to and to make money from the founders. We have never taken money from the startups – rather we provide them with grants from the money we attract from corporate sponsors, ticket sales and the governments who want to host a Webit event. Throughout the years the number of requests by startups for free tickets and free expo booths grew exponentially, reaching over 4000 in 2019. This required the creation of a special jury which selects and provides grants to the best startups. Thus the Founders Games were born - selecting the best founders and giving them a platform to pitch and connect with investors, enterprises and media. Today the Founders Games is one of the world's biggest startup and scaleup challenges and we select around 200 of the best startups and scaleups (up to 10 million EUR investment) to help them grow.

Because we are very selective investors love to attend Webit. They meet and connect with a hand-picked deal flow of top startups and investment opportunities. The mortality rate of the startups that we select at Webit in the past 8 years has been less than 25% - significantly lower that the industry average of 90 to 95%. Webit’s format is opposite of the standard consumer event arrangement - because we select the best of the vest startups - it is the investors and the corporates who compete for the opportunity to connect with the startups at Webit. And the success rate is very high - almost 65% of all Webit entrepreneurs (the selected startups) close a round up to 8 months after their pitch at Webit!

How has the innovation landscape in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe changed since you first launched the Webit Foundation?

In 2008 Sofia was referred as the "capital of the poorest country in the EU". Today, global media call Sofia “the Digital Capital of Eastern Europe”. Forbes stated that "Webit has helped catalyze the rise of Sofia, Bulgaria as a credible location for technology talent and investment", The Economist and other media add to that. Webit has managed to change the narrative for the entire region and particularly for Bulgaria. 10 years ago it was hard to imagine that one day Sofia would be a place that consistently attracts 12,000 of the world's global leaders from 120 countries landing for Webit.Festival Europe.

Image credit: Pexels

Image credit: Pexels

(Image: © Image Credit: RawPixel / Pexels)

Has the number of startups in the region increased during that time as well?

Starting from 10-15 tech and digital entrepreneurs in the early 2000s the number has soared to over 1500 active tech and digital startups currently only in Bulgaria. One can only imagine the growth in all of Eastern Europe! 

The numbers speak for themselves: the total amount of venture capital that the Bulgarian start-up ecosystem has received so far through programmes, particularly through the European Investment Fund, is somewhere between €50m and €70m, and this is mainly for the first stages of funding. That could be a single investment in one medium-sized company in western Europe or the US. You may only imagine what could be the numbers if there is more risk capital for the later stages. And it will come very soon and it will make the difference. 

The same applies for the entire region and it is soon to see more and more unicorns from Europe coming from the Eastern part of the continent. 

Bitdefender and Cyberghost are two of the more well-known companies to emerge from Eastern Europe. What are some other companies that have caught your eye in the region?

The top success story from the region is from Bulgaria's neighbour Romania. 

A startup called UiPath (one of the fastest growing and highest-valued AI enterprise software companies worldwide), currently a $7 billion post-money valuation company closed its Series D investment round raising $568 million. In only 24 months this robotics process automation and AI leader has grown ARR from $8 million to over $200 million, and valuation from $110 million to $7 billion. 

But there are a number of other great startups. AVAST software from the Czech Republic along with Bitdefender account for over 1,5 billion downloads of their cybersecurity software. Allegro from Poland, Aero Mobil from Slovenia and many others are making their way to the global markets. A few years ago, the Bulgarian company Telerik was acquired by Progress Software for $264 million. 

Today again, a Bulgarian company - BULPROS Consulting is the fastest growing company in the region based on employee growth. The list is already very long, but the region is just warming up.

Image credit: Pexels

Image credit: Pexels

(Image: © Image credit: Pexels)

What do you think the tech scene in Eastern Europe will look like in the future? Will it continue to evolve and could it one day rival Silicon Valley?

More than anything, it is all about empowering and connecting our local ecosystems with the rest of the world. This is what the Webit Foundation is actively advancing through our events. What has been achieved over the past ten years, not just in Bulgaria but in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe, is just the beginning. The region is emerging as a hub for a lot of very important technologies of the future.

The future belongs to those who can constantly innovate, and I am a believer in the potential of the people of Central and Eastern Europe to support and empower future growth of the old continent. 

27 cities have been competing to become the new host of the European edition of Webit.Festival 2020. Who is the winner?

27 cities have participated in our first open call for a new host city for the European editions of Webit.Festival 2020-2022. 

The economic impact of Webit for the host city’s economy has been estimated at €60 million per event. Webit has already held very successful editions in Istanbul, Dubai, Singapore and India, but the European edition has always been held in Sofia.

 For the first year in 2020 Webit.Festival Europe will have a new home. We shall announce the winner at the upcoming Webit.Festival, held on 13-15 May 2019 in Sofia. It was very humbling to recognise that Webit became the only available large-scale innovation forum in Europe and so many cities, including London, Paris, Madrid, Tel Aviv, Brussels, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Valencia, Vienna, Budapest to name a few, have applied to become hosts of our next editions in Europe.