“Destination: Armenia in the world’s Top 10 innovation countries”

“Destination: Armenia in the world’s Top 10 innovation countries”

Armen Orujyan

Armen Orujyan, PhD, is the Founding CEO of the Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology (FAST). Focused on producing an ecosystem that drives scientific advancement and technological innovation, under Armen’s leadership FAST has launched a Fellowship for the top 10% of all PhDs in Armenia in STEM, deployed numerous scientific grants, a startup studio and established the first Science and Technology Angels Network in Armenia.

 

Interview : Karine Ghazaryan   
Photo : Armen Orujyan Archive

 

Dr. Orujyan, FAST is a very promising initiative, considering Armenia’s general course for developing the tech industry. How was the foundation created?

— The idea was generated by Ruben Vardanyan through his discussions with Noubar Afeyan several years ago as part of their overall commitment to development in Armenia. It was a way of making sure that Armenia went back to its roots with science and technology at the core of its economic development. Two years ago, in August, I received an email from Ruben, expressing his interest in discussing the idea with me. We met in Los Angeles and had a fascinating conversation about his work throughout Armenia. I had not been there in about ten years, so everything he was describing seemed new and exciting to me. I accepted his invitation and traveled to Armenia to see it all in person. It was a short trip, but I was completely blown away not only with the work he, his partners, and his team had already accomplished, but also with the promising developments such as TUMO, AYB or UWC Dilijan. I was also amazed with the positive developments in tourism, particularly in Tatev, which had gone from hosting 4,000 tourists a year to 150,000, leaving a profound impact on the region. At the end of my trip, Ruben mentioned science and technology, and my curiosity really piqued. I have devoted the past two decades of my life to providing opportunities to those in need, building innovation solutions for individuals, companies, and countries, and I was offered an opportunity to have the support of these remarkable individuals, devoted philanthropists, and straight up incredible people. So, we agreed that I would return to Armenia for 6 months in April 2017 to contribute to the ongoing efforts of Ruben Vardanyan, Noubar Afeyan, Artur Alaverdyan and other partners. I wanted to get a better feel for the country, the economy, the industry, and understand how we could create something mighty and lasting. When I returned in April, I began to fall in love with the country. I got to know students, young entrepreneurs, scientists, and workers from different sectors, see their desires, ambitions, and anticipations for our homeland. It was beautiful to see what could be accomplished here. Soon, it all came together, and we agreed that I would be predominantly based in Armenia for the next three years to help make the Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology a reality. FAST was formalized last June, and I officially joined as a Founding CEO on November 1st, 2017. It has been an extraordinary experience with an incredible promise for the future.

There is a common belief that Armenia had a great scientific basis back in the USSR which it lost in the 1990s. Given the amount of effort you put in an initiative like FAST, do you believe Armenia still has this potential to become a regional scientific hub?

— I look at it slightly differently. I am not particularly interested in Armenia becoming a regional player because in today’s world, where everything is universal and scientific discovery is no longer kept within the boundaries of a country or a region, we would be doing Armenia a disservice by attempting to make it just a regional player. Yes, we definitely had something to be proud of during the Soviet era, yet today, I see Armenia as capable of becoming more than just a small element in a larger global mechanism. We have the potential to surpass what we had in the Soviet era and become a real driver within certain scientific disciplines in the global market. Armenia’s population is too small for it to become a market destination, which is why we are looking for that one scientific vertical that can make us globally competitive. That is how I am leading FAST when it comes to our strategic developments, our tactics, and our roadmap. For us, the goal is to ensure Armenia a place among the Top 10 innovative countries in the world, at the very least.

Which priority areas are you pushing forward that have the potential to take Armenia to the Top 10?

— We are considering data and computer sciences, including artificial intelligence, machine learning, data modeling, data simulation, big data analytics, and more – as our anchor scientific vertical that can make Armenia highly competitive on a global level. Biotechnology, advanced materials, and microelectronics are also a priority, as well as other disciplines, such as physics. Many of our plans and engagements are looking at this as a vehicle with many players, both in Armenia and abroad, which encompasses not only the Diaspora, but also international institutions and partners. It does not matter where “top notch” comes from. What matters is that the global community has scientific discoveries coming into its own pipeline, so having Armenia as a destination is great for the country itself and also for anyone who cares about fundamental scientific advancements.

There is also a crucial cultural component which works to Armenia’s advantage – the culture of studying the hard sciences. The culture of wanting to consume knowledge plays a critical role in determining how long it will take to repurpose the educational system and the potential research community to create a desire among the students to get involved in certain types of scientific disciplines. This desire already exists among young scholars of Armenia. The problem is in the quality of instruction. The input, that is to say; the desire to go to class and study natural sciences, is equal to that of France or the UK, but the level of instruction is not, which results in us having a lower output. We are, therefore, looking at ways of increasing our output by enhancing the quality of instruction as a starting point.

In 2017, Armen Orujyan joined Rice University’ Baker Institute for Public Policy as a Member of the Board of Advisors. He has been an advisor at Facebook and a Commissioner on the United Nations Broadband Commission for Digital Development. Armen was also named a UN e-Leader for ICT and Youth and selected as one of top under-40 young leaders by Asia Society.

It is known that the natural sciences require significant financial resources. Do you think it is realistic for Armenia to find such investments?

— We are looking to drive scientific advancements by partnering and collaborating with large international institutions. We have already begun the process of partnering with a number of universities abroad, including the University of Southern California and the Technological University of Hamburg, Germany. We are trying to expand our reach and foster a proper cooperation between our local scientific community and the experts from abroad.

You have a whole range of projects aimed at creating a network between the local and international scientific communities, as well as strengthening the network between local scientists. Why do you think networking is so important?

— The mission of FAST is pretty straightforward. We are focused on producing an ecosystem that drives scientific advancement and technological innovation. An ecosystem has three capacities: intellectual, financial, and network. Before creating a new instrument or mechanism to be deployed into the ecosystem, we first do an evaluation of each component to see what functions properly and what is missing. We are not looking to do all of the work ourselves, but to cooperate with highly driven champions and experts in their fields. We help consolidate the resources around them, and only when we cannot find a champion that can bring an important instrument into the ecosystem do we establish something ourselves.

 

Network capacity with its many domains and verticals plays a critical role here. One of its most important components is the relationship between a country and its citizens. Through its rules, regulations, laws, and procedures, the nation states either enable science or stifle it. And it is part of our work to educate all sorts of influential communities about the importance of this phenomenon in order to prevent the expatriation of experts. Another component of network capacity is the creation of links and bridges between the scientists in Armenia and the scientific community abroad, both foreign and Diasporan. This is the aim of many of our engagements, including our upcoming Global Innovation Forum and our initiated Next Generation (NextGen) Council.

In what ways does the NextGen Council assist in FAST’s work?

— NextGen is a platform where talented young scientists, technologists, and entrepreneurs from Armenia and around the world come together and exchange ideas. We currently have twenty very talented members, but we are gradually reaching the chartered capacity of thirty: fifteen from Armenia and fifteen from abroad. We are also making sure that there is an equal number of male and female participants. We already have participants from Switzerland, the UK, Japan, and the US who bring their knowledge into Armenia and, get involved in many of FAST’s programs.

You have launched the Science and Technology Angels Network which provides incredible opportunities to starting entrepreneurs. What is the aim of STAN?

— The Angels Network provides financial support to very early stage startups that are geographically bound to Armenia. At FAST, we have done an analysis of the local startup ecosystem and discovered that early startups are missing the very early stage investments – usually 5,000-80,000 USD – which generally come from family and friends. Once they reach a certain level of maturity, accessing funds becomes much easier. In developing countries like Armenia, where adequate middle class is missing, there exists neither a business angels network nor a large play of startups and entrepreneurs because they do not have affluent friends and family members who could invest in their ideas. That is where STAN comes into play. Most of our founding members and I have personally joined the network as angels. We are primarily focused on all the areas of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), but may go beyond those boundaries at times to have a greater number of deals. For this network, we are more interested in the start-ups and even very early-stage ideas with a major scientific component at their foundation. We are not really looking at communication solutions or basic apps. We recently had our first pitch session and are looking to invest in 3-4 companies. Later this year, we will begin to expand our pool of 18 angels as well, which will create more funding opportunities.

 

You have a significant number of outstanding individuals supporting FAST. What do you think your young beneficiaries can learn from these people?

— A lot, really. We always need role models, mentors, and advisors to look up to and model ourselves after. Growing up, we mimic our parents and siblings. It is in our nature to imitate and draw inspiration from the people we respect and admire. It is a healthy trait that stays with us throughout our lives. Therefore, it is imperative to have prominent scientists like Yuri Oganessian, Lord Ara Darzi, Naira Hovakimian, and President Armen Sarkissian, who have accomplished so much in their fields and industries, because they prove that there is a future for the student who chooses to study biology, chemistry, physics, or mathematics. Prosperity builds up all capacities. We are striving to make science a relevant, exciting, and inclusive field with opportunities for everyone. Almost everything today has science and technology at its base, and it is going to expand and become more and more advanced. We want Armenia to be in it as a real player, instead of just watching from the sidelines as it has been for generations. I think it is time for us to take this seriously and show our kids that the future of science holds extraordinary opportunities for them.