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Homecoming: The CEE Startup Founders Who Chose To Return

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Eastern Europe has lost its best and brightest for decades, with many seeking better opportunities in the West. However, a new narrative is unfolding as emerging tech ecosystems in CEE draw these talents back to their homelands.

In the ever-evolving world of startups, the CEE region has become a burgeoning hub for innovation. What makes this scene even more compelling is the return of visionaries who, having ventured abroad, have chosen to bring their expertise back home. These homecoming founders and startup ecosystem players embody a unique blend of global experience and local passion.

In this listicle, we delve into the stories of inspiring startup professionals who embarked on journeys beyond their borders, only to return with a mission — to shape the future of their home countries. Their diverse backgrounds, experiences, and contributions paint a vivid picture of the vibrant startup culture in the CEE region.

From Romania to North Macedonia, Greece to Bulgaria, each individual has a distinctive tale of why they chose to return, the challenges they faced, and the impact they’ve made. Join us on this journey as we explore the narratives of these homecoming innovators, celebrating their resilience and dedication to elevating the startup landscape in Central and Eastern Europe.

Romania

Louis Havriliuc

Lived in: France and the UK
Period: 2 years
Background: Studied International Business at the University of Leeds.
Title: Founder of Simbound, an international education technology company providing testing infrastructure for businesses.
Quote:
“Fourteen years ago, I returned because I believed that others receiving a good education would return as well, bringing with them the desire to make changes to the way the country is evolving.”

Andrei Negulescu

Lived in: the Netherlands
Period: 4 years
Background: Studied International Business Administration and Marketing Management at Rotterdam School of Management.
Title: Founder of Tasklight, an AI-based organizational platform simplifying how organizations communicate and collaborate.
Quote:
“There are three main reasons I chose to return: patriotism and the desire to contribute to adding the country to the innovation map. Secondly, my network and my family are here, allowing me to accomplish things I could never do as an expat. And thirdly, I count that my know-how and skillset are appreciated and valued better here.”

Vlad Marincas

Lived in: Germany
Period: 9 years
Background: Studied and worked at Universität Osnabrück and the European Central Bank.
Title: Founder of Aqurate, an AI-powered SaaS platform helping eCommerce companies use their data to grow.
Quote:
“I decided to return because I believe Romania can offer many advantages as a launchpad for startups. The costs of opening and running a startup in Romania are considerably lower than in Western Europe. The network that founders might have, and the opportunities given that many segments of markets are in their infancy here, are other two notable advantages. On the downside, fundraising is more difficult, and markets are smaller than in Western Europe.”

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Catalin Crisan

Lived in: the Netherlands
Period: 1.5 years
Background: Worked as a freelancer in data related roles: data engineer, business analyst and technical product owner.
Title: Founder of Typeless, a platform automating document processing operations on a single cloud solution.
Quote:
“The experience of moving abroad and working in roles as a data engineer, business analyst, and technical product owner, mixed with a very good professional environment, made me grow a lot. This gave me the courage to move to Romania and found Typeless.”

Sabin Prunau

Lived in: the Netherlands and Austria
Period: 5 years
Background: Studied BSc International Business at University of Groningen and worked in Austria at Red Bull Media House.
Title: Founder of Atlas of Sports, an app that maps mountain sports infrastructure and empowers mountain goers to lively report their issues.
Quote:
“One reason I came back home is because Romania has so many problems that nowadays I see as perfect opportunities for growth. My period abroad was a time of creating a high-quality network, being exposed to international decision-makers, but most importantly, a period of learning.”

Lucian Toader

Lived in: the Netherlands
Period: 4 years
Background: Studied a Master in Parallel and Distributed Computer Systems at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
Title: Founded Alt.Real, an infrastructure supporting the transition towards solar energy.
Quote:
“I’ve always been a believer in local-to-global. If I am to make an impact, I would rather start with the people and places closest to me and expand that circle to the best of my ability. I wanted to take the best parts of the Netherlands and apply them to my own country. There is so much potential here, and I would like all of us that identify as Romanians to be proud of who we are.”

Mircea Ghita

Lived in: the Netherlands and the USA
Period: 3 years
Background: Studied a Master in Finance & Investment at Rotterdam School of Management.
Title: Romania’s Country Manager for SeedBlink, a crowdinvesting and equity management platform for tech startups in Europe.
Quote:
“Studying abroad was an exceptional experience. Besides building discipline and making international friends all around the world, I gained access to a great network of professionals and academics. Right in my first year of undergrad, I started working in VC (no idea how I could’ve gotten into this locally at that time) and thus fell for the tech startups ecosystem. I came back to Romania forced by Covid and did my master remotely. I quickly realized that the startup ecosystem in Romania and CEE represents a great opportunity ahead, hence I decided to stay.”

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North Macedonia

Ivan Zografski

Lived in: the UK
Period: 2 years
Background: Studied a Master of Sciences in Creativity, Innovation & Leadership at City University London.
Title: Founder of Solveo Mk, a strategic design and innovation consultancy that works with local and international clients to design and test new revenue streams.
Quote:
“While studying for my master’s degree, I decided to come back and founded the innovation agency Solveo in 2016, which steadily grows and works with many international clients.”

Nino Karas

Lived in: the USA and the Netherlands
Period: 1.5 years
Background: Studied Computer Software Engineering at Boston University and then worked in Amsterdam.
Title: Founder of CodeWell, a startup that builds digital assistants that automate entire departments.
Quote:
“I decided to get back in order to continue running CodeWell more actively. Back then, running a company remote was way more difficult than it is today I guess.”

Greece

Dimitris Kalavros-Gousiou

Lived in: the UK
Period: 4 years
Background: Studied Computer and Communication Law at the University of Kent and Queen Mary University of London.
Title: Founder of Found.ation, Velocity.Partners, and TEDx Athens.
Quote:
“Upon completing my masters in 2010, coinciding with the onset of the Greek Financial Crisis, I made the decision to return immediately to Greece. At that time, I was deeply involved in the launch and organization of TEDxAthens within the community. Returning was essential to spearhead the second annual event and continue the groundwork initiated a year prior, in 2009.”

He told us his extended story in The Recursive podcast.

Bulgaria

Martin Vechev

Lived in: Canada, the USA, and Switzerland
Background: Has a PhD in Computer Science from the University of Cambridge and co-founded 3 start-ups in the area of Safe and Robust AI, Blockchain Security, and AI for Code.
Title: Founder and Architect of INSAIT – Institute for Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence, and Technology in Sofia.
The Story:
Prof. Martin Vechev started an undergraduate degree in Computer Science in Canada but then returned to Sofia to pursue his dream of working with people from his uncle’s lab. He dropped the lucrative opportunity to earn more money in Canada to follow his passion back to Bulgaria and to get exposed to the whole technical range of computing. “It was a great decision for me. Following the passion to the place where you can learn the most”, prof. Martin Vechev says in The Recursive podcast.

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Then his journey took him to Cambridge, where he did his PhD followed by becoming a professor at ETH Zurich, an award-winning researcher, and a tech entrepreneur with 3 successful exits in the area of Safe AI, blockchain security, and AI for Code.

Prof. Martin Vechev fulfilled his lifelong dream of building INSAIT – a world-class research center in the capital of his home country. Currently, he holds a dual position as a full professor at ETH Zurich and Scientific Director at INSAIT.

Greta Stefanova

Lived in: Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, Spain
Period: 10 years
Background: Studied Architecture at Politecnico di Milano and worked as an architect in different countries.
Title: Founder of WHISP, an infrastructure helping HR and Legal departments of international companies save time and resources invested in global hire relocation.
Quote:
“After seeing how it is to be an expat, I decided that Bulgaria is a much better place to start my entrepreneurial journey. I decided to quit my job as an architect in Italy and solve the problem I had as an expat – settlement paperwork and healthcare. Initially, I only came to Bulgaria for a summer and while doing some research on being an entrepreneur in Italy versus Bulgaria, I learned that Bulgaria is much better for a young entrepreneur.”

Svilen Rangelov and Konstantin Rangelov

Lived in: the US / the Netherlands
Period: 5 years
Background:
Svilen is an Economics graduate from Davidson College, US, and Konstantin studied aerospace engineering in the Netherlands.
Title: The founders of the world’s first cargo drone airline, Dronamics.
The Story:
Тhe idea for Dronamics was actually born on a phone call between the two while Konstantin was still living in the Netherlands, working for an aircraft manufacturer.

Konstantin was homesick and missing the taste of traditional Bulgarian white cheese and complaining to his brother about it. Svilen told him: “You’re an engineer, aren’t you? Come up with a drone and I’ll send it to you.”

The idea of actually building a big cargo drone stayed with him and in 2014, Konstantin returned permanently to Bulgaria. He and his brother quit their jobs and put all their time into Dronamics. 9 years later, their cargo drone took its first test flight and Dronamics was the first company in the industry to obtain an EU operational license.

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https://therecursive.com/author/elenaghinita/

Elena is a Startup Community Editor at The Recursive. In other words, she keeps close to the startup ecosystem in CEE and makes their stories heard. She creates educational and informational content about innovation, funding and startup growth.