GIST Innovation Hub Entrepreneurship & Product Innovation Center (EPIC) at The American University of Armenia has been a great example of how innovation ecosystem builders are getting creative and making an impact in their communities. We asked EPIC about their recent batch of programs to support innovators.
GIST: This past summer EPIC launched the first ever Entrepreneurship Summer Festival with a theme of “Reimagining Your Future.” What was the goal of that event and what outcomes did you see from it?
EPIC: The Entrepreneurship Summer Festival 2020 was designed to disseminate knowledge and create enthusiasm for entrepreneurship in the local population through engagement in a unique week of online events. The program was jointly hosted by local Armenian universities to promote participation amongst students and others.
The theme of the festival was “Reimagining Your Future.” This theme was chosen to address the perceived inflexibility of career choices and trajectories that confront many Armenian youth and early career professionals. There is outdated thinking in society that once a university major or specialization is established, or a career track is chosen, that there is limited ability to modify or reset it. Thus, the theme focused on how, in today’s flexible and fast-moving globalized environment, it is possible (or even probable) to change or redirect career directions and choices – with an emphasis of entrepreneurial options. With this in mind, one of the unique elements in the design of the program was the making of connections between entrepreneurship and other disciplines that are not commonly associated with it - for instance, Entrepreneurship and Agriculture, or Entrepreneurship and the Arts.
The Festival was very well received and generated substantial positive PR. It also raised the visibility of EPIC and AUA. We had five partner universities, four corporate sponsors, 38 speakers/panelists and over 400 attendees with more than 20k tuning in via Facebook. The competition also played out very well with 11 teams pitching to a jury of five judges and three ultimate winners.
GIST: You are currently running your fall 2020 incubation program. What does the program look like?
EPIC: Almost a dozen teams were accepted into the program from 38 applicants. However, due to COVID and the military conflict resulting from Azerbaijan's attack, some teams ended up dropping out. Most of the program is remote, however, we are managing to have some biweekly face-to-face Fireside Chats. This event is where entrepreneur teams gather together to discuss their latest challenges and collectively support and problem-solve. We also have biweekly Entrepreneur Hack nights where prominent entrepreneurs from the local ecosystem or from overseas discuss their own startup journeys and provide advice to our teams. The core of our program is twice weekly workshops that guide our startup teams from assumption mapping to customer research, idea validation, prototyping, finance and marketing. The final weeks of the program are dedicated to pitching in preparation of our demo day. Our incubator especially emphasizes mentorship - where mentors guide the startup teams during the entire 15-week program. Mentors usually meet with their teams every two weeks, though some meet more frequently. Experienced entrepreneur mentors come from the local ecosystem or from overseas and include AUA professors, alumni, and individuals with specific domain expertise.
GIST: You must have some exciting innovators in the program. What types of innovative solutions are impressing you the most?
EPIC: The ecosystem in Armenia is heavily weighted toward artificial intelligence. EPIC incubator teams in our most recent cohort reflect this technology focus with platforms and applications related to tourism, next generation agriculture, and food service.
GIST: Armenia’s innovation ecosystem is young but quite effective. What factors do you attribute to the health and growth of the ecosystem?
EPIC: The local innovation ecosystem is at an early stage of development and is relatively small, but it is growing quickly. A strength is that it is comprehensive - containing many of the necessary elements that are critical for support and success of startups including incubators/accelerators, universities and other educational programs, research organizations, small and large enterprises, investment and finance, and finally, law firms, accountants, auditors, recruiters, etc. There is emphasis on STEM education which is impacting the quality of advanced human capital.
Of course, the American University of Armenia has a prominent role with leading faculty, students, and programs in innovation and entrepreneurship. Annually, hundreds of AUA students take entrepreneurship courses not only in AUA's business program, but also engineering, computer and data science, general education, and open education. I can attribute the strength in Armenia's ecosystem also to robust ties with the Armenian diaspora.
Be it technology transfer from overseas corporate partners and research organizations, to teaching and mentorship from leading foreign business people, technologists, and entrepreneurs, to financing and investment at all stages of venture development - the diaspora is engaged and generously supportive.
GIST: You have had some great panel discussions recently. What’s your advice to other GIST Innovation Hubs for how to find relevant topics and quality panelists?
EPIC: Innovation, technology, and education are all evolving at such high speed that it is not difficult to find contemporary topics and speakers from around the world. The challenge is to make it relevant to the local ecosystem. Prior to our recent entrepreneurship festival, we spend considerable time with other players in the ecosystem evaluating and identifying needs and gaps. We are fortunate in Armenia that everyone generally works together, supports one another, and is generous with their time and effort. There is an understanding that coordinated, collective effort will be to the benefit of everyone in the ecosystem. It is with that spirit and aspiration that everyone works together.