"STEPping Up" Innovation in Armenia
Unlike some of its neighbors in the region, Armenia cannot rely on the extractive sector to support its economy. Instead, it has to build a globally-competitive knowledge-based economy. To this end, the country is striving to undertake meaningful steps to revive its once-powerful science and technology capacity that used to be tightly integrated with the Soviet Union's research and development (R&D) infrastructure. Upon regaining independence in 1991, Armenia faced tremendous hurdles associated with the disruption of all aspects of its economy, which resulted in significant brain drain and a science funding shortfall. In the past decade, however, as a result of steady effort by the Government of Armenia and support from the Armenian diaspora abroad, there have been impressive accomplishments in the fields of higher education (40% increase in total PhD student enrollment as compared to 1991) and the emergence of programs supporting R&D in academic and research institutions. This resulted in an uptick of innovative technologies that have market potential, especially in the ICT, CleanTech, BioMed and AgriTech areas.
In an effort to support Armenia's scientists and engineers in their technology commercialization and entrepreneurship pursuits, CRDF Global – in partnership with the Enterprise Incubator Foundation (EIF) – hosted the crowning events of its 2015 Science & Technology Entrepreneurship Program (STEP) in conjunction with the annual ArmTech Congress.
Jointly created in 2006 by EIF, CRDF Global, and the Government of Armenia, STEP has supported hundreds of innovators and aspiring tech entrepreneurs through training, mentorship, and competitions.
The first event of many STEP events during the two-day Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for the twenty-six competitively-selected semi-finalists of STEP’s “Idea to Market” competition launched in May earlier in the year, the boot camp was designed to best prepare STEP entrepreneurs to pitch their ventures and innovations during a business pitch competition that took place under a separate track of the ArmTech Congress.
Demonstrating the growing interest in entrepreneurship in Armenia, this year’s STEP Idea to Market competition saw a thirty percent increase in the number of applicants compared to last year, resulting in a tougher competition among the 90 applicants eager to take part in the highly competitive Boot Camp and Pitch Competition. Based on the feedback from those selected, it was not just the opportunity to win sizable grants, but also an opportunity to receive one-on-one mentoring by experienced technology entrepreneurship practitioners that enticed them to participate in the rigorous application submission process. Their expectations (evidenced by the feedback) were fully met by the generous, practical and insightful coaching each of the Boot Camp participants received from the participating mentors, Catherine Mannick – a prolific angel investor, Director of the Launchpad venture Group and CRDF Global Board of Directors member, and Goncalo Amorim, Director of the MIT Portugal Entrepreneurship program, early-stage investor and former researcher.
Through intensive one-on-one work with mentors participants improved their business pitches. Participants also learned how to evaluate the business pitches of others to better understand investor perspectives when evaluating startups seeking investment. After these and other activities, boot camp participants were well-prepared for the Business Pitch Competition that was judged by a panel of business experts and three Armenian technology entrepreneurship experts that included Mannick and Amorim.
The pitch competition identified future business leaders who each have the potential to put Armenia on the global innovation map akin to what Skype did for Estonia. CRDF Global and the Armenian Ministry of Economy (through EIF) awarded $12,000 to each of the five competition winners who are working to bring their innovation to market.
Winners of the 2015 STEP Idea to Market competition include:
- Artavazd Sokhikyan, with Localz, an online platform where tour guides can register and provide their services to tourists, and tourists can register and select tour guides.
- Artavazd Yeghiazaryan, with Movie Tripp, a website and app that will allow tourists to design their own tours associated with famous films, accessing information on attractions, maps, and nearby restaurants. The app will have a global database, be crowdsourced, and have a strong social networking component.
- Tigran Bayburtsyan, with TreeScale, a startup which manages cloud computing infrastructure for companies by using innovative tree-based infrastructure scaling, as well as applying state-of-the-art algorithms to provide greater effectiveness and scale in comparison to systems currently in the market.
- Aram Jivanyan, with Skycryptor, a cloud encryption gateway designed to allow users to use public cloud data storage (Dropbox.com, Box.com, Google Drive etc.) without revealing data to the storage provider or to any other party, and without compromising the user’s convenience of accessing the data.
- Davit Khachatryan, with InstaJob, a mobile app which allows employers near college campuses to communicate with local job seekers and fill vacancies, and job seekers to find employment near their place of study.
- CRDF Global looks forward to next year’s STEP Armenia Competition and continuing its efforts supporting the innovation and entrepreneurship critical to Armenia’s economic advancement and integration into the global