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Medical tourism with a recreational twist is nothing new in Bulgaria. For centuries, ancient Romans flocked to the region’s hot springs to treat ailments and relax from the strains of city life or a warrior lifestyle, a practice emulated in succession by medieval Bulgarians, Ottomans, and West Europeans. Today, scores of tourists from all over the world visit the country in the hope of discovering whether Bulgarian yogurt holds the key to longevity or just adds flavor to their Bulgaria trip.

Five young Bulgarian entrepreneurs are hoping to take this venerable tradition in a new direction—by targeting vacationing tourists’ oral health. Their idea to help British tourists get affordable dental care while enjoying a holiday in Bulgaria won the grand prize at the first edition of ABLE Activator, an immersive six-week entrepreneurship accelerator run by the Association of Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs (ABLE) with support from Tech Tour, the America for Bulgaria Foundation, United Bulgarian Bank, and business partners.

Yolita Doncheva, Sofiya Valcheva, Albert Pashov, Blagovest Papagalski, and Pavlin Gergov, members of Team DenTOURium, were among the 31 aspiring entrepreneurs selected to participate in ABLE Activator’s first season. Running from February 15 through early April 2019, the program featured weekend activities and evening lectures that aimed to equip participants—most of whom either are full-time students or have full-time jobs—with the knowledge and skills to start their first business.

Over the first long weekend, participants went through an intense introductory experience designed to test their character and leadership potential. By surmounting a series of physical and intellectual challenges together, they bonded and got to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Subsequent modules were dedicated to the different stages of entrepreneurship: from coming up with a good idea through conducting a feasibility study and developing a business model to learning how best to advertise your product.

Having observed everyone’s performance early in the program, Pavlin, DenTOURium’s self-appointed strategist, handpicked what would become both the first team to come together and the program’s winning team. The group considered a number of options before zeroing in on Albert’s idea to offer British tourists health-and-holidays packages in Bulgaria. Albert had recently returned from England and had personal experience of the UK’s backlogged public health system and exorbitantly priced private alternatives. (Although Albert’s personal wait record was five months, his father had once waited 13 months to get a dental appointment in England.) Long wait times for medical services is not what brought Albert back to Bulgaria but being able to compare the quality of health services in the two countries helped him see his birth country in a more positive light.

Sofiya, Blagovest, and Yolita helped with the idea’s development, the feasibility and market studies, competition research, and the elaboration of a business model for DenTOURium. The five were guided in the process by their mentor, Belizar Marinov, an ABLE founding member and an investment associate at VC fund Eleven Ventures.

The team’s plan is to launch the business in Plovdiv, a place known both for tourism opportunities and for good dental care. To top it all, Plovdiv is the 2019 European Capital of Culture and offers plenty in the way of cultural, sports, culinary, and ecotourism.

“Medical tourism was one of the first kinds of tourism that Bulgaria attracted. Although our idea was not original, we continued developing it because it turned out that there aren’t organizations or platforms that use accessible, modern means to help people in need,” Blagovest said. “It didn’t matter so much which idea we would pursue or whether we would pursue it at all,” he added. “The process was important, and so was our goal—to complete our work as well as possible.”  

“The idea is not new. It isn’t something that will make you go ‘Wow!’ But I think we did well as a team,” Sofiya said. Teamwork was also important to Albert. “For me it was more important to contribute to the team than to the idea,” he said. Community is important to him and is what made him apply for ABLE Activator in the first place. It’s also what made him return to Bulgaria. 

Yolita signed up for the program because she wanted to be among people who wish to make a difference in the world. She received valuable knowledge and tools that she would use both in an entrepreneurial venture and in her current work. “I am most grateful that the program allowed me to surround myself with valuable friends I can rely on,” she said.  

Pavlin learned to have more faith in himself. “I realized I was capable of things I had doubts about in the past, and this gives me the confidence to go forward and keep improving. I learned a lot about entrepreneurship and about myself. I also realized that you don’t learn to ride a bicycle with an instruction manual,” he said.

ABLE Activator may be the best test ride there is for budding entrepreneurs. While in real life your first attempts at starting a business may often feel like you are going downhill at break-neck speed, the program offers a safe test space where it is OK to fail, said Denitsa Simeonova, ABLE’s executive director.

“One of the key hurdles to entrepreneurship we would like to overcome with this program is the fear of failure. We provide a safe and friendly environment for participants where they can be creative, develop critical thinking, practice communication and collaboration, fail multiple times, and improve,” Denitsa said.

So, if you are contemplating a visit to Bulgaria, and a dip in a hot mineral spring after the stress of a dental treatment sounds like it could be your thing, keep an ear out for DenTOURium.

Photo 1: Blagovest, Sofiya, Albert, Yolita, and Pavlin with their mentor, Belizar Marinov. Photo by Yuliyan Hristov

Photo 2: ABLE Activator participants benefit from the mentorship of real-world entrepreneurs.

Photo 3: Team DenTOURium is hard at work.

Photo 4: ABLE Activator participants at the Leanplum offices in Sofia

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