DILIJAN—Diaspora-Armenian entrepreneurs from 20 countries converged on the Armenian mountain resort town of Dilijan this week, representing 47 tech startups at NerUzh 2.0. The program, which includes a startup boot camp, mentorship sessions, networking events as well as panel discussions started on Monday the 16th and will last until the 20th of December.
Armenia’s burgeoning tech sector has been a promising example of the country’s recent economic growth, expanding at double-digit rates for almost a decade. Armenia’s Minister of High Tech-Industry and NerUzh partner Hakob Arshakyan reports the IT sector expanded by a whopping 33 percent in 2018. Much of this growth has been anchored around the opening of major research and development branches in Armenia by global tech giants including Microsoft, Oracle and National Instruments. The diaspora has also heavily invested in the country’s indigenous startup ecosystem, which has seen some notable successes lately. The minister says Diasporan Armenians have registered some 45 tech companies in the last several years.
The NerUzh Diaspora Tech Startup Program was successfully piloted last year as a means of attracting Diaspora tech and business talent back to the homeland. “Neruzh” in Armenian means “potential,” but it is also a play on words, which directly translated means “internal strength.” The program also received a boost from Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who visited the entrepreneurs on Tuesday. Repatriation and technology have been among the most commonly-heard refrains from the Prime Minister. This event combines both.
In 2018, the first iteration of Neruzh became the flagship project hailed by the newly-restaffed Ministry of Diaspora as a bold statement of Armenia’s commitment to reengaging with its far-flung diaspora following the decade of perceived cynical indifference that characterized the previous administration. Program organizers have stated the following goals: to enrich the Armenian startup ecosystem by promoting the inflow of innovative, scalable tech startups from the Diaspora and to leverage the Diaspora’s transcontinental networks, in order to, lastly, position Armenia as a gateway for deploying and scaling-up impactful technologies to global markets.
The NerUzh Tech Startup Program is designed to introduce diaspora entrepreneurs to the possibilities of basing their startups in Armenia and familiarize them with the country’s business practices as well as the local ecosystem. The organizers hope that this sort of cross-pollination of the Diaspora’s cosmopolitan business experience and local savoir-faire would be mutually beneficial for both sorts of participants as well as the country as a whole.
The winners of this year’s startup competition—provided that they present a business plan, company registration in Armenia and a local corporate bank account—will be invited to repatriate to Armenia and awarded between $15,000 and $30,000 in funding, as well as mentorship to grow their businesses in Armenia.
Chief of Staff at the High Commission for Diaspora Affairs—the body which replaced the defunct Ministry of Diaspora—Sara Anjargolian has been instrumental in the Neruzh program’s continuation. Participating in a panel discussion on repatriation, she presented Neruzh’s long-term objective: to “place the notion of Armenian Statehood at the heart of the Diaspora’s identity.” She wants the Diaspora to see Armenia as a viable location to start a life and a business. “We must dispel the idea that Armenia is just: Ararat, duduk and khorovats,” she declared among cheers and laughter from the audience. The entrepreneurs do seem to be responding to the message.
Marina Aghayan applied to Neruzh in the hopes of reconnecting with the Armenian tech community. She’s also here to scout for opportunities to establish an Armenian branch for the Estonia-based thermal management systems manufacturing startup FACT Industries, of which she is a co-founder. “I’m really pleased with the collaborative atmosphere at Neruzh,” she tells the Armenian Weekly. Her participation has already paid off. “I’ve already got a series of meetings set up here for right after the end of the program.” She is currently planning on opening a 3D printing laboratory in Armenia which would provide supplementary research for their headquarters in Tallinn. The startup’s innovative 3D manufactured parts (which utilize an in-house developed proprietary thermal material) have already found customers among the European Space Agency and private European firms such as RHP Technology and the French giant Egid.
Dave Bequette, VP of Innovation at the Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology (FAST)—one of Neruzh’s implementing partners—tells the Armenian Weekly that his organization is dedicated to ensuring the success of Armenia’s STEM startups by providing resources and tools. “The program goes beyond fundamentals like startup mentorship. It is designed to cover every aspect of launching and scaling a Startup in Armenia,” says Bequette. “We’re also providing our entrepreneurs with logistical support for moving their businesses to Armenia, legal assistance for incorporating, as well as practical advice for living here. FAST will provide space to the winners for three months, guidance on setting up a legal entity and so on.”
“We are empowering innovation of Armenians worldwide to come here and change not only Armenia but the region and the world,” says Emma Arakelyan, whose firm is also one of Neruzh’s implementing partners.
The winners will be announced at the closing ceremony on Friday the 20th of December.
Editor’s Note: Weekly correspondent Raffi Elliott served as a participant during a NerUzh 2.0 panel entitled “Why Armenia?”