Iran’s tech ecosystem struggles to catch up to Persian diaspora startups
A casualty of emigration out of Iran, or brain drain?
Neighboring emerging markets, like Egypt, tell a more advanced tech ecosystem story. Recently, CNN Money ran a piece by Chris Schroeder that emphasized optimism in the broader MENA region for tech innovation and investment. Schroeder made no mention of the scene in Iran nor in Turkey. Another question remains: how much longer are we going to see phone apps as the mark of innovation in the MENA region?
Where there’s talent, there’s innovation. So...how do we identify Iranian talent? And will knowing where the talent is better project some sort of timeline for innovation for Iran?
“Iran has the tech talent and a separate pool of people with the business know-how, but the two groups need to merge--especially since foreign investors express interest but face the limitations of sanctions,” Malayeri said.
That is one of the reasons why he approached Iran’s Kerad Institute, which focuses on information technology, to join the list of sponsors. Iranian Bank Pasargad, and global, non Iranian ones, like Startup Labs, rounded out the first Startup Weekend Tehran event. (Startup labs boosts early stage startups with seeds capital and mentorship.) Aside from inviting Iranians from around the world to attend SWT, both Khavarzamin and Iran Web Club, have offered training workshops to over 125 tech entrepreneurs at its fourth Iran Web Forum. Also, between 4,000 to 5,000 tech startups attended. Meanwhile, there’s a parallel universe tackling a different tech entrepreneur challenge: matching the tech talent with seed funding in areas with large Persian American communities, like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and the Washington, DC/Virginia area.
The Persian American tech startup community succeeded in part, by maintaining connections with another, but vital, segment of the Iranian Diaspora: the Venture Capitalists who supplemented the idea with the financing needed to transform many of the startups into global name brands. There’s a site that promotes the synergy between the tech idea and investment for Persian Tech Entrepreneurs--it’s called persiantechentrepreneurs.com and is preparing for its annual October Elevator Pitch competition in San Francisco.
Aside from Silicon Valley, DC metro area and Boston is a huge hub for tech entrepreneurs of Iranian descent can establish their startups. Boston also has universities densely covered the city, which reap the benefits of heavily defense-funded projects.
Alternatively, private investment offers stronger support within the Persian Diaspora. For example, Amidzad Investment Group is widely known on the West coast as a venture capital group that funds tech startups, many of which were founded by those of Iranian descent. However, what is not widely known is that it originated in a Persian rug store in southern California where Pejman Nozad first identified connected the investment with the idea and made all stakeholders a healthy sum of money.
“Innovation is a function of opportunity and culture--a culture where there is no fear of failure,” said both Shams and Hooman Radfar, the founder of Clearspring and Addthis.
Iran’s government produced more than a political and religious shift following the events of 1979. The ripple effects went beyond brain drain as regulations became tighter in the business and academic communities, which resulted in limiting tech innovation. Consequently, the risk-loving culture--which is so critical to the startup phase in the tech industry--never developed in Iran. Even if the Iranian Diaspora took an active interest in re-investing money and tech know-how into Iran, via sponsoring startup competitions, local Iranians would have to risk going beyond phone applications development.