iBridges, a non-profit organization incubated at the University of California, Berkeley, and powered by leading Iranian-American technology entrepreneurs, investors, and academicians, reached another milestone this month. It convened the largest- ever gathering of Iranians focused on high-tech entrepreneurship, on June 4-6 in Berlin - the start-up capital of Europe.
Over 1200 Iranians active in technology-based entrepreneurship, based in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Iran itself, came together to explore the role that a high-tech entrepreneurial ecosystem can play in Iran's economic development and diversification. The event featured over 100 speakers and was organized by a similar number of team leaders on three continents. It showed the great potential of Iranians (in talent, capital, and goodwill) to establish entrepreneurial ecosystems around the world. More than anything, the event was a masterful display of teamwork and the value of trust.
The conference was part of a program to accelerate and expand the budding innovation economy in Iran through mentoring young talent. "This was a community effort for education, not a place for politics or religious issues," said Kamran Elahian, one of the founders of iBridges who is a serial technology and social entrepreneur based in Redwood City, California, and chairman of Global Catalyst Partners.
An innovation economy is based on the premise that "the primary driver of growth in today's knowledge-based economy is not capital accumulation but innovative capacity, spurred by knowledge and technological advancement." In this thinking, the modern economy is driven by innovation (especially technological innovation) and productivity, rather than being dominated by deplete-able resources. Thus, knowledge, technology and entrepreneurship are now the core engines of change and growth.
A good illustration of the potential of the innovation economy was the presentation made by Iran-based Fereidoun Ghassemzadeh, founder and president of Afranet, one of Iran's leading internet service providers and e-commerce consulting firms. "Less than two percent of the U.S GDP has been invested by technology-focused venture capitalists," he said, and "this has resulted in 21 percent of the U.S. GDP."
The event was ostensibly focused on ways of promoting the high-tech sector in Iran. In fact, however, it was about a whole new way of thinking about development and economic growth.Ghassemzadeh outlined the ways in which Iran is the "largest unconquered internet market in the world."
In the past three years, Iran's internet bandwidth has increased three-fold, and the volume of ecommerce has displayed a similarly rapid rise. Smart phone usage has topped 40 million people, about a quarter of whom have seamless data access. Iran possesses its region's largest number of internet users with over 46.8 million people with regular access to the internet. Despite significant progress, however, the B2B (Business-to-Business) segment of the E-commerce is almost non-existent in Iran, offering a potential area of rapid growth for domestic and foreign investors.
Ruha Reyhani is Managing Partner of the Mensch Group, a Berlin-based consulting company in Berlin. As one of the event's main organizers, she addressed the topic of "Collaborative Innovation." She cast a critical glance at our dominant paradigm of competition, as the zero-sum view of the world wherein someone always has to lose for others to win. She used the analogy of the human body to elucidate this point. If you have different organs of the body compete with each other, "this condition is called cancer" which means there is something major that's wrong. "The underling of principle of nature is harmony, balance and synergy. I am not saying let's get rid of all competition..just dial down competition and dial up collaboration."
Reyhani described the ways in which iBridges represents a collaborative community, which isn't competitive or hierarchical; it doesn't belong to any single person, "but is the collective achievement of a collaborative community."
Mohsen Malayeri is founder of Avatech, one of Iran's leading start-up accelerators. He described the relatively recent phenomenon of a startups in Iran, which has grown substantially over the past three years despite economic sanctions: over two dozen successful startups were launched in 2012-2013.
It's noteworthy, Malayeri said, that the global entrepreneurship index, which was released in 2014, considered Iran to have the highest growth of entrepreneurship. Among the most significant startup successes in Iran are the following firms: Digikala is an online e-commerce platform, which has become the largest in the Middle East with around 750,000 unique visitors per day and is estimated to be worth $150m. It's founded by Hamid and Saeed Mohammad. Café Bazaar, the leading mobile app store in Iran, is another successful example. Hessam Armandehi is the founder. It is serving millions of users, with twenty percent of Iran's population using its products.
During his presentation at the event, Malayeri said: when we see this growing number of successful startups in Iran, we believe there is an opportunity to invest $100 million in the Iranian technology market to take it to the next stage.
Saeed Amidi, founder and CEO of the Silicon Valley-based Plug and Play Technology Center , one of the world's leading technology start-up incubators, was another keynote speaker at the event. He provided first-hand accounts of the seminal contributions of Iranian-American technologists and investors to the high-technology sector's entrepreneurial ecosystem in the U.S.: Arash Ferdowsi, co-founder of Dropbox; Omid Kordestani, creator of Google's business model, and Pejman Nozad, an early investor in numerous multi-billion dollar technology companies, many of which were incubated at Plug and Play.
"Our passion at Plug and Play is to build a successful start up one person at the time," Amidi said, voicing his confidence in Iran's future in the high-technology arena, given the successful record of the Iranian diaspora in this area.
Similarly, Rasoul Oskouy, an Iranian-American technology entrepreneur, and co-founder of Juniper Networks, highlighted the vast potential of Iran's expatriate talent in propelling Iran-based entrepreneurship to the next stage, using the example of the Indian and Chinese diaspora as a model.
Alinaghi Mashayekhi, professor of management at Sharif University in Tehran, gave a substantive presentation on the shortcomings of Iran's ecosystem: a weak private sector, excessive government red tape, and an over-reliance on theory as opposed to practice in developing Iran's human capital. Nazanin Daneshvar, Iran's leading woman technology entrepreneur, and founder of Takhfifan.com (Iran's equivalent of Groupon) and Nasser Ghanemzadeh, founder of Techly.co (Iran's equivalent of CrunchBase) added their voices to the need for a the right mix of capital investments and talent.
The quality of the presenters and the buoyant energy of the conference showed the vast potential of Iranians in this area, which can be realized by building more links between entrepreneurs inside Iran, and sympathetic entrepreneurs and innovators who have been given the chance to succeed outside the country. The conference was about limitless processing power and capacity. It will pave the way for unleashing Iranian aspiration and talent, internally and externally. Personally, the conference reminds me of the notion of "runaway singularity," namely that after the year 2045, "computers will become so advanced that they will make copies of themselves that are ever-increasing in intelligence." It is something akin to unleashing an Eldritch Abomination. This unlimited human potential can bridge nations and tackle looming unresolved problems.