Techies, Entrepreneurs Talk Business at Seaside Startup Summit

Photo: Seaside Startup Summit

SEVAN—Residual smoke billowed in the air from newly extinguished campfires, as the last tents collapsed along the shores of Armenia’s Lake Sevan. The 2019 Seaside Startup Summit had officially closed. A record-breaking 10,000 people attended the event which ran from July 28 to August 3.

During the week-long Summit, entrepreneurs, investors and mentors mingled, networked and shared ideas in the relaxed outdoor setting provided by the picturesque backdrop of Lake Sevan. Industry leaders hosted workshops on all sorts of tech-related topics from writing business plans to manufacturing in China and everything in between. Startups competed for $100,000 of prizes and a million dollars worth of investment pledged by attending venture capital firms.

Photo: Seaside Startup Summit

Founders from 100 startups participated in one of two week-long acceleration courses designed to help grow their startup ideas into viable businesses. The first, called the “Starter Program” was tailored to “idea-stage” startups, which had not yet begun developing a product. The course helps new entrepreneurs craft a business model, identify their target market and establish a growth strategy. The “Booster Program” offered guidance for startups which already had an early-stage product on how to close investment deals and grow their businesses.

Sveta Jaghatspanian, who heads the Hi-Tech Gateway office in Vanadzor, coached several such startups. She explained to the Armenian Weekly, “The five teams I mentored received a unique opportunity to network with important people, many of which are investors, and gain insights that would not have been possible anywhere else.” She advised her teams to keep in touch with their new acquaintances as they would come in handy down the road. In her view, the event’s value lies in its non-commercial nature. “We emphasize mentorship – every successful tech entrepreneur volunteers a minimum of four hours to pass on their knowledge to the next generation,” she clarified. 

CowNet team pictured with their prize money (Photo: Seaside Startup Summit)

At the end of the week, teams from both mentorship courses participated in two startup competitions known as the “Starter Battle” and the “Booster Battle” respectively. Thermoscan’s innovative AI thermal camera won them $5000 at the Starter competition. The app CowNet, which offers early detection for cow health, and the accounting software developer Xpressbook won second and third place prizes.  

At the Booster competition, the German startup Soraytec won first place and took home a $5000 check for their next-generation medium-voltage smart meter. The content platform ForgeFiction won $3000, while the automated customer care chatbot RetentionForce settled for third place and $2000.

The previous day saw another competition with startups vying for best in a number of tracks. Globbing’s new event planning app Eventor won the $1500 award for innovation in tourism and travel. SFL’s film collaboration tool, Creatr, won in EduTech category. Thermoscan won best HealthTech startup for its AI-based approach to detecting signs of breast cancer. Lemon, a fashion-startup co-founded by Lebanese-Armenian repatriate Arthur Bizdikian, won the FinTech category for its innovative approach to e-commerce. CowNet, apparently not content with its commendable placing in the Booster Battle, took home the $1500 prize for CleanTech as well. 

Several high profile individuals in the tech world also attended this year’s event. Speakers included angel investors and successful tech entrepreneurs from around the world. Meruzhan Danielyan, who co-founded the globally successful AI-driven recruitment software Teamable, shared his experience with his compatriots. Dutch investor Maurice Beckand discussed lessons from his work with early-stage Armenian startups. Yervand Sarkisyan, who co-founded Armenia’s first venture capital firm, Granatus Ventures spoke as well. Several Cabinet Ministers were spotted at the summit, including Health Minister Arsen Torosyan who livestreamed parts of the awards ceremony. 

Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan speaking at Seaside Startup Summit, August 2, 2019

Among the surprise visitors was Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Accompanied by his spouse Anna Hakobyan, Pashinyan attended the final startup competition. In a speech to attendees, he stressed the importance of nurturing a vibrant tech scene in the country. “Many in Armenia complain that there is no money. […] but if anyone has an idea that can triumph, the money will come,” said the Pashinyan, alluding to a well-known dictum among entrepreneurs. 

The Prime Minister went on to explain that the Sevan Summit exemplifies his vision of an “economic revolution.” He explained, “the economic revolution is, first of all, a revolution of thought; it all starts with an idea; this is the revolution in Armenia.” The Prime Minister’s attendance offered a visual reminder of the Armenian government’s continued commitment to supporting the country’s tech-driven economic development track.

Once known as the “Silicon Valley of the Soviet Union,” Armenia has worked to resuscitate its volatile tech sector following the economic hardships and crippling brain drain of the 1990s. This recovery first came in the form of Silicon Valley-based outsourcing offices hiring local engineering talent. However, in recent years, the country’s efforts to develop a native tech scene has met considerable success. Several local tech startups have received international funding or acquisition offers. The industry has expanded so rapidly that the job market has had trouble keeping up. 

The Sevan Startup Summit owes its existence to the Startup Armenia Foundation. Members of the Foundation launched the first Summit in 2016 to, in their words, “create a new platform, where the startups and investors will cooperate in the same level.” The event has taken place on the shores of Lake Sevan every July since. The Summit’s growth mirrored the coming-of-age of Armenia’s rapidly-growing tech community. 

The Startup Summit has quickly become the most important event of the sort in the entire region. Along with the extremely-popular Barcamp event, the Sevan Startup Summit is among the premier opportunities for anyone involved in Armenia’s burgeoning tech scene. 

Over the years, the Summit began to attract thousands of entrepreneurs, hundreds of globally renowned personalities, dozens of venture capitalists as well as influential political figures. The atmosphere generated by the gathering of such high-profile people on a secluded lakeside campground might invite comparisons to America’s own Bohemian Grove retreat.

The Summit has become so successful that it even spawned a couple of international counterparts. The Seaside Summit gathered some of the most influential tech companies, investors and personalities for the Middle East at Ras Al Khaima, UAE in February of last year. A follow-up event also took place in Goa, India. 

As this year’s Summit came to a close, attendees took to social media to praise the organizers for holding such an impressive event. Jaghatspanian, who has been a fixture at every iteration of the Summit had only good things to say. “If the idea of a ‘camping summit’ wasn’t cool enough, the organizers have managed to outdo themselves every year.”

Photo: Seaside Startup Summit
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Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian political risk analyst and journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. As correspondent and columnist for the Armenian Weekly, he covers socioeconomic, political, business and diplomatic issues in Armenia, with occasional thoughts on culture and urbanism.

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