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.
Science and technology have had a major influence on society, and their impact is on the rise. By radically changing our method of communication, our work style, accommodation,clothes and food, our means of transportation, and indeed, even the length and quality of life itself, science has made changes in the moral values and basic philosophies of humanity. Armenia, a mountainous, landlocked country, on the Southern edge of Europe, and at the gateway to the Middle East and Asia, is not bereft of the impact.
Dr. Armen Orujyan, an Armenian- American Entrepreneur has a mandate to make Armenia highly competitive on a global level as Founding CEO of Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology (FAST). Over the years, he led Athgo, an organization he founded to initiate frequent Global Innovation Forums at the United Nations (UN) and the World Bank Headquarters in the United States of America. He is also a founding member of the UN’s Global Alliance for ICT and Development (GAID) and has held several other global positions.
Armen Orujyan, in this special interview with Diplomatic Watch, speaks about his motivation for joining FAST and his role, some of his personal challenges entrepreneurs are likely going to face and he wrapped it up with some parting words to aspiring and budding entrepreneurs.Excerpt:
We understand that you are Architecting Innovation Ecosystem. What is it about and how do you build the architectural framework for it?
In general, three competencies make up an innovation ecosystem – Intellectual Capacity, Network Capacity, and Financial Capacity. These in some sort of equilibrium coupled with, what I call the Core Capacity of stakeholders, which essentially combines the desire, the salience, and the motivation of involved parties, produces the optimum result.
Would you rather be called a Social Entrepreneur or a Business Entrepreneur?
I am a Constructive Entrepreneur, helping in transforming ideas into opportunities that benefit the entrepreneur financially and impact society positively.
What motivated your involvement in FAST?
The idea was generated by Ruben Vardanyan through his discussions with Noubar Afeyan (two notable Diaspora Armenians) 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, NoubarAfeyan, 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.
What is your ambition for FAST in the coming years?
FAST has short and long term objectives. The mission is producing an ecosystem that helps drive technological innovation and scientific advancement. Overall, the objective to make Armenia a top-10 innovation country by 2035 or so. In order to get there, we need to do a lot of work. This is a very important part — the state of affairs of this country is not just the mismanagement over the last 25 years or so. This has been in the works for the last Millennium and beyond.There are both historic and economic factors, decision making that’s been done 500–1000 years ago, decisions that have brought this country to where it is today. So, to say things are going to change in the next six months or because there’s been a Revolution, that’ll be difficult to achieve.
We consider 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.
Do you have any success story since you started FAST two years ago?
FAST has already offered: fellowships for the top 10% of all PhDs in Armenia in STEM; numerous scientific grants; deployed startup studio and an advanced solutions center;established the first Science and Technology Angels Network in Armenia; and, organized a Global Innovation Forum titled ‘Engineering the Evolution’ , FAST’s flagship event designed to engage the global scientific community, and many more things to come.
The Global Innovation Forum is 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 continue to provide the Armenian scientific community a firsthand access to the scientists which do breakthrough research along with an opportunity to exchange practices and experiences.
Other programs include, the Science and Technology Angels Network, which is there to discover and support seed-stage Armenian startup. Not only is this, but a whole project for boosting the startup scene is being maintained by FAST.
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.
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.
What can you say about Athgo you founded in 1990?
Athgo was one of the world’s leading entrepreneurship platforms in consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council, UN Department of Public Information, and the World Intellectual Property Organization. Athgo had advanced innovation ecosystems in Europe and Africa and established recurring Global Innovation Forums at the UN and the World Bank headquarters.
What difficulties or challenges did you or do you experience as an entrepreneur?
The biggest challenge was narrowing down the mission statement. I was consumed with all sorts of ideas. At early, conceptual stages I was essentially hallucinating. You build this amazing, yet kind of unrealistic picture – you dream about it at night,and to a degree you live that dream in the wake hours. In that state, the concept of time and place ceases to exist and you feel that your pursuit is so clear and awesome that anyone should understand it, feel your passion, and leave everything behind in order to support your outrageously vague objective.You would be fortuitous to find anyone who would blindly share your unique feelings and vision. Very quickly Newton’s laws catch on with you.
The gravitational force of the actual reality sets in, especially when you are building a non-profit business. You have to convince individual donors, corporate sponsors, and institutional funders to support you, to believe the world that is in your head is real, that your mission is substantive, and importantly, that you can execute the set forth objective. I learned the hard way that the perceived reality does not simply transpose into actual reality. Innovation has its own independent formation process and timeline. You need to be patient with it and take baby steps before you can get on with running.
Lastly, what advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur?
Pursuing passion is easy. Doing it right is challenging. Find a mentor. Better yet, find mentors. They don’t necessarily need to tell you what to do. They can help you keep yourself flexible, challenged, and objective. When building new businesses, we can easily become insular. It is just the nature of the beast.You are so focused on the task at hand, the world may pass you by without you noticing. Also, yield if necessary but don’t throw in the towel. It means it is okay to fail, as long as the failure is not an end in of itself. Think of it as a missed free throw shot, or a missed penalty kick, or a lost battle, but not the game, the war. Resiliency is what separates those who live their dreams from those who dream their lives.