A Bulgarian professor realizes his dream of creating a world-class center of technological excellence

In April, Sofia hosted theINSAIT, a new institute dedicated to computer science, artificial intelligence (AI) and technology which aims to develop a world-class research center, retain talent in Bulgaria and attract leading international scientists by offering research facilities and internationally competitive compensation.

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

However, it has its advantages: a skilled workforce and a sense of “stay hungry, stay foolish” (“be insatiable, be crazy”), as Steve Jobs said.

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

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

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

The project dates back to 2003, when he applied for scholarships to Cambridge. He says that when asked “What will you be doing in 30 years? »he responded : “Create a world-class center in Bulgaria, following the example of Cambridge”.

INSAIT aims to solve the central problem of the region: to revitalize it and make it a world-class scientific and research powerhouse in one of the most important economic sectors today – artificial intelligence and computing.

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

As Velchev explains, AI is already finding applications in all walks of life like medicine, self-driving cars, information security and financial markets. According to him, AI research is of strategic importance for any country that wants to have a competitive economy.

“Eastern Europe is full of brilliant scientific minds, but people’s aspirations are often limited due to lack of facilities, funding and support. This has led to a “brain drain” out of Eastern Europe, a systemic problem that discourages innovation. INSAIT is perfectly positioned to reverse this trend and compete globally.”explains Mr. Vechev.

The brain drain has hampered innovation in Eastern Europe as highly skilled people move west to study and advance their careers.

In Bulgaria, between 1990 and 2007, when it joined the European Union, it is estimated that 60,000 people left each year. Bulgaria faces many economic challenges, but many of them are related to the demographics of the country.

Declining population growth, high mortality rate, aging population and constant emigration of talented young people pose significant threats to the country.

What could be changed

“It’s completely new for Eastern Europe”said Mr. Vechev in an interview with Free Europe. “We are bringing the top 1% of universities in the world to Eastern Europe. »

Indeed, the names of the new institute’s supervisory boards and advisory boards are high-profile — among them are professors from the US universities of Yale, Princeton, Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Israeli Technion.

According to Mr. Vechev, the big winner of the project will be the Bulgarian scientific community. The Institute should be a special unit of the University of Sofia, “St. Kliment Ohridski”.

It will employ about 300 people, including 25 to 30 professors and researchers, the other 200 to 250 being doctoral students, junior researchers and postdocs. There will also be many masters students, which could be several thousand.

Funding for INSAIT is secured for the next ten years, with €95 million coming from the Bulgarian state and an additional €6 million from tech giants such as Google, DeepMind and Amazon Web Services.

The Institute will also receive €6 million from Bulgarian technology company SiteGround and €500,000 from various Bulgarian entrepreneurs and investors.

INSAIT has benefited from the support of four Bulgarian parliamentary groups. According to the Institute, public funding is unprecedented in Eastern Europe when it comes to funding pure scientific research in a very concrete field.

“The Bulgarian government can also do many things: establish joint grant programs with other countries like Israel, Switzerland, the United States and others, as well as provide additional support to INSAIT by placing it at the center of his agendasays Mr. Vechev.

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

According to the team behind INSAIT, the outlook is bright for the country and the region.

Their short-term objective is for INSAIT to be ranked in the European top 20 in IT according to csrankings.org and that in 10 years, the Institute will be recognized throughout the world.

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A Bulgarian professor realizes his dream of creating a world-class center of technological excellence

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