Bulgaria’s National Innovation (Eco)System: the Case of the Biotechnology Sphere

Crossroads Europe |

This article is based on research presented at the UACES Graduate Forum Research Conference 2022 (23-24 June, at FASoS, Maastricht).

 

The advancement of biotechnology has ignited both enthusiastic approval and fear, yet it has not left the public indifferent. The global COVID-19 pandemic has particularly focused public attention on this science-based sphere. An inherently interdisciplinary field, biotechnology is broadly defined as ‘the application of science and technology to living organisms, as well as parts, products, and models thereof, to alter living or non-living materials for the production of knowledge, goods, and services’. Rapid development pace, high initial investment, high development costs, significant educational and financial investments– is just a brief list of some key characteristics and needs of this dynamically developing sphere. It is also regarded as a ‘strategic’ technology with a diverse array of applications, ranging from traditional ones: medicine, agriculture, food products, to emerging industries, such as nanotechnology.

The importance of national biotechnology capabilities became especially evident during national border closures and a scarcity of certain medical supplies, which took place during the COVID pandemic. As production and supply chains were interrupted, government involvement was of decisive importance. For some, a reference to government involvement may bring to mind a formerly dominant techno-centric rationality, which narrowly focuses on inputs (research funding) and outputs (patents). However, views on how innovation should be understood and governed have already changed. A more holistic approach of National Innovation Systems (NIS) recognises innovation as a process, which takes place within a network of relationships and involves a variety of actors from both the public and private sectors. Yet, NIS have now been increasingly recast as National Innovation Ecosystems (NIE) because concerns about diversity, participation, and inclusivity of various types of actors have also come to the foreground. Furthermore, NIE brings particular awareness to the importance of an innovation-conducive environment.

My doctoral study explores the ways in which these theoretical reflections may help understand Bulgaria’s overall unsatisfactory innovation performance. The small Eastern European economy was ranked second to last, according to the Summary Innovation Index of the European Innovation Scoreboard’s ranking of 2021 (the last EU Member-State being Romania). The 2015-2020 National Innovation strategy admitted with concern that low-tech products hold a major share of the country’s exports, internationalisation of Bulgarian enterprises is low, there is a limited contribution of Foreign Direct Investments to technology transfers, production methods are energy intensive, and partially because of the above factors, labour productivity is low. This concern is also echoed by a more recent 2019 EBRD report, which warns that the country’s economic development is hindered by its low capacity to innovate and generate value. In 2018, the EU even took the drastic measure of withholding innovation funds after Bulgaria’s failure to identify enough sufficiently qualified scientists to evaluate research proposals.

Admittedly, Bulgarian technopolitical and development strategies are embedded in a pan-European ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship. Some of the issues faced by the small Eastern European country are recognised as wider pan-European challenges. For example, in comparison with the USA, EU start-ups have access to much less venture capital. Thus, even though the number of EU and US start-ups is comparable, far fewer European start-ups manage to scale up.

However, issues about Bulgaria’s innovation performance run deeper than what can be determined from assessments of purely economic factors or business analyses of economic actors. In 2021, researchers who were identified as ‘non-innovators without disposition to innovate’ were 54.1%, while the EU average was 31.3%. The Bulgarian Ministry of Education identified key weaknesses of Bulgaria’s NIS: institutional rigidities and a growing distrust amongst key stakeholders in the research and innovation system. Such concerns bring attention to the importance of fostering a culture of innovation, which helps nurture innovative behaviours and attitudes, new forms of communication and collaboration, as well as forms of rationality that inform these new forms and innovative behaviours.

Consequently, in addition to an analysis of broad national-level innovation policies and strategies, my doctoral research pays particular attention to Bulgarian science entrepreneurs, especially focusing on the biotechnology sphere. Science entrepreneurs are scientists who have been able to commercialise their own research and the nature of biotechnology research has been considered as particularly favourable to the emergence of this group. While most existing analyses have focused on the economy, my research argues for a need to understand the role of ideas, narrative, and discourses in the constitution of NIS/NIE. Special attention is given to these, which emerge at micro-sites of discourse production, such as individual biotechnology laboratories or research institutes. The doctoral project argues that such an understanding is just as important for understanding national innovation capacity as quantitative reports of relevant indices about the country’s innovation performance.