FAST Forward

FAST Forward

The office of FAST is located in a very special place – Yerevan Computer Research and Development Institute (also known as Mergelyan Institute). The building fits perfectly in the network of historical and modern constructions of the true “isle of science” of Yerevan. Inside the minimalistic and thoughtfully designed rooms of FAST multiple truly innovative and potentially impactful projects are being implemented. We present just several from the whole series of promising FAST initiatives.

 

Text : Karine Ghazaryan   
Photo : FAST

 

Experimenting with Creativity

Experimentation Area, a multifunctional platform for the origination and development of science-intensive ventures, is just about to be launched. Here the researchers will apply the unique approach to company creation developed by Boston-based Flagship Pioneering. This company stands out among thousands of startup incubators and acceleration labs throughout the world. It was founded in 2000 by well-known American-Armenian researcher, businessmen, FAST co-founder and Board of Trustees member Noubar Afeyan. Over time, FP established dozens of successful companies in the field of biotechnology. FAST partnered with FP to repurpose their work in biotechnology and apply it particularly to data sciences in Armenia using the Experimentation Area. Biotechnology is the specialization of Flagship Pioneering. “Very few people on the planet have successful single biotechnology project, and Noubar Afeyan and FP team have over three dozen of them,” FAST CEO Armen Orujyan notes. “Cooperation with FAST over the Experimentation Area is a testament from FP team as specialists in the field, but also a testament of the organizational model: how they do scientific discovery and exploration, create companies, rule out those that are not impactful and focus on those that could turn into marvels.”

In FP innovation is being done deliberately and in a planned way. They run teams internally that are tasked with coming up with new areas to explore, find out what impactful solutions may be developed and what valuable companies may be founded. The creation then moves to a next stage where they ensure the expansion and growth of the company. “FP provides not just money, but people, guidance, our culture of innovation and driving value. We are a large company with small divisions which end up becoming major companies themselves,” FP Partner Avak Kahvejian says. “In cooperation with FAST we want to bring this model to Armenia. We are going to train people in FAST to be self-sufficient in their ability to generate ventures so that they can run the process of ideating and bold their ideas into compelling companies.” Experimentation Area also provides scientists an opportunity to travel to Boston and work within FP team to get direct exposure to the process. Once they have acquired enough knowledge on how that type of scientific discovery is done, they will return to Armenia and help to establish something similar for data sciences in local laboratories and universities. “We want to spur true innovation and entrepreneurial spirit in Armenia to show that creation of more than just service-based business is possible here,” Kahvejyan says. “This is a process that takes some work but it is fully possible as long as we have this collaborative, creative mindset.”

Ventures started in Experimentation Area will have to go thorough month of stress testing, and if they survive it, they are going to be turned into actual companies and deployed in the market. The whole concept of Experimentation Area is based on fundamental science but also looks to commercialize science – an important challenge for modern-day Armenia. Focusing on pure scientific discoveries, FAST will also work towards turning some of those discoveries into viable enterprises to contribute to both development of knowledge and the growth of economy of Armenia.

 

Pitching in front of Angels

Science and Technology Angels Network is there to discover and support seed-stage Armenian startup. Not only this, but a whole project for boosting the startup scene is being maintained by FAST. Startup studios are to be opened in Yerevan in autumn; another three are being developed in collaboration with UWC Dilijan, TUMO, and Vanadzor Technology Center.

The idea behind Startup Studio is to support science and technology-backed startups as well as budding entrepreneurs with an aspiration to become a company founder. Startups and budding entrepreneurs will first need to go through a selection process, after which the selected candidates will be given free access to the space for up to four months. FAST will also provide free coaching, mentorship, and programming during that time to help them turn their ideas into business concepts, and possibly even real prototype products. Each month participants will take a practice-pitch exam. Different modules will be introduced to cover the needs of all participants: from experienced entrepreneurs looking for some fresh approaches to beginners doing their first steps in business. All the graduating teams will pitch in front of Science and Technology Angels Network which unites distinguished entrepreneurs from various countries of the world. With time, these labs may enable a greater deal-flow than the one that currently exists in Armenia.

Engineering the Evolution

This year marks the launch of the Global Innovation Forum, an annual conference of the leaders of the fields of technology and science who will gather in the capital of Armenia to tap into the linkage between disruptive technologies and industries of the future. Global Innovation Forum is designed to engage the global scientific community and become a flagship event of its kind in Armenia and in the region. Armenian Scientific Diaspora Association, co-organizer of the Forum, joined efforts with FAST to ensure deeper engagement and reach.

The Forum will provide the Armenian scientific community a firsthand access to the scientists which do breakthrough research along with an opportunity to exchange practices and experiences. Some of the established connections may turn into joint publications of local scientists and those from abroad whom they would not have been able to meet otherwise. Additionally, the Forum will allow foreign scientists to get acquainted with the work that has already been done here thus increasing visibility of Armenia, especially since it will attract not only researchers but large and diverse audiences to the country. They are neither presenters nor necessarily experts but are coming to Armenia to learn from globally renowned experts and interact with the scientists in Armenia in person. The Forum will also provide an immersive technological experience, so all of the participants will actually get to interact with some nifty solutions. And, of course, FAST teams – from board members to NextGen council – are all to be met at the Global Innovation Forum.

 

Stay and Thrive in Armenia

To encourage and enable young Armenian scientists to do research in local institutions, FAST started Fellowship Program, a series of grant for outstanding students. Financial aid covers tuition fees and living expenses, depriving students from the need of a day job during PhD studies and allowing them to focus on quality research only. Partial and full grants of up to $7,000 are provided to the top 10% of students studying physics, biology, mathematics or engineering. In addition to that, 10 fellowships are provided to outstanding female students to empower and engage women in science. FAST facilities will be open for those who have received fellowships.

Fellowship Selection Committee member Ani Aprahamian, who is a professor of experimental nuclear physics at the University of Notre Dame (Indiana, USA) and the newly appointed Director of National Science Laboratory of Armenia (YerPhI), recalls, “Having just accepted the directorship of the National Lab of Armenia, I was looking forward to expanding the science capabilities of Armenia via FAST.” Omit “Aprahamyan recalls” She then adds, “And, I share one key thought with the founders of FAST: the most important resource in the 21st century is human capital. That is why I like the Fellowship Program so much: this project gives funds to students in Armenia to stay in Armenia and thrive in Armenia.”

Researcher Tatevik Baghdasaryan, who received a fellowship in 2018, says she was being strongly advised not to do PhD in Armenia as ‘here science is meaningless’. “I started my PhD in Spain, but eventually decided to continue here. So, when I won the FAST fellowship, friends were astonished and started telling everyone that a woman scientist can actually be valued and supported here!” Baghdasaryan draws attention to the FAST fields of interest. “The focus areas of the Foundation are of particular importance for Armenia. I think over the course of the years, the Fellowship Program will lead to generating some impressive achievements in these areas.”

Apart from fellowships, the Foundation runs Travel Grant and Collaborative Research Program which aims to encourage Armenian researchers to establish relations with their foreign counterparts, especially those who have received funding from national science organizations in the US, Europe, Japan, China, and Russia. The grant of up to $7,500 is available not only for Armenia-based, but also to Diaspora scientists who want to do research in Armenia. Furthermore, Guest Researcher Program brings prominent researchers from different continents to work and exchange experience in Armenia. This list goes on and on marking a new, probably groundbreaking step in the chronicle of the development of Armenian science.