Monty Munford

New Joint Angel Fund Between Armenia and Turkey Builds Bridges Through Capital

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By Monty Munford

This weekend in North America and Europe, the sporty population will have turned to baseball, basketball, soccer, rugby and similar sports to enjoy their leisure time. In Armenia, however, they do things differently.

Instead of watching TV, many Armenians will have been tuned into their radio stations to listen to live commentaries… of chess. The country, one of the youngest in the world since gaining independence in 1991, certainly likes to do things differently.

Doing business, however, is more of a challenge than merely taking a sacrificed pawn or a captured knight. Landlocked between Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran, Armenia currently has open borders with only Georgia and Iran.

Tourists to Turkey, of which there are many, have to travel through Georgia and relations with Azerbaijan are on a constant war footing because of the Nagorno-Karabakh.

However, in spite of these difficulties, Armenia’s business community takes inspiration from so-called Startup Nation Israel as a similarly hemmed-in country that is achieving, although perhaps Palestine is another example of a country landlocked by its neighbors.

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Politics apart, Armenia is doing well in business. According to the World Bank “Doing Business 2017” report, it is placed 38th among 190 countries and a recent announcement of a joint Turko-Armenian angel fund is kickstarting  Armenia’s incipient startup community.

Announced last week, the angel fund will attempt to heal the antagonism, or outright hostility, between the Turkish and Armenian governments, a relationship that soured during WWI with the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians as the Turkish Ottoman empire collapsed.

The Armenia-Turkey Investor Day was initiated by the Public Journalism Club and the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey within the framework of the  Exchange of Entrepreneurs Project under the Support to the Armenia-Turkey Normalization Process and is funded by the European Union.

So, can capital do that politics has so far failed to do? There appears to be hope, not least because of Armenian-born celebrities such as the Kardashian family, Manchester United soccer player (and country role model) Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Cher and Andre Agassi.

Their so-called fame means interest in Armenia is ongoing and a widespread diaspora means Armenia receives millions in remittances from abroad, something European investors are beginning to find interesting.

VC representatives at last week’s Armenia-Turkey Investor Day included Tugce Ergul, Angel Labs Director, Harald Braunstein, Founder Partner at German-based NFQ Capital, Ertan Can of HR Ventures, as well as Alana Tung, ex-Time Warner Investments and now at Delivery Hero.

Topics: Turkey

Already, there are startup stories emerging out of the country’s capital, Yerevan. Teamable,  “an employee referral and diversity hiring platform that transforms social networks into high-performance talent pools” last month raised $5 million Series A funding.

Its charismatic Co-founder Vazgen Hakobjanyan describes the company as “the next LinkedIn” and while the company has a strong presence in Silicon Valley, Hakobjanyan makes it very clear that his company is based in Armenia.

He also believes Yerevan has a future as an AI cybersecurity hub, based on the cybersecurity wars that Armenia and its neighbors are currently engaged in. Moreover, the YerevaNN research lab is one of the world’s most searchable terms for machine learning algorithm expertise.

The Armenian government, not surprisingly, plays a straight bat when it comes to Armenia’s future as a tech hub while it reaches out to investors in a more traditional manner.

“We are implementing an ‘open-door’ policy with regard to foreign investments. Significant reforms and several developments have been achieved during the last decade to make Armenia a more favorable destination for foreign investments, including both reforms of the legal system and practical steps in easing business processes.

“Armenia is ready to become a hub for the international business community and act as a bridge between the member states of the European Union, the Eurasian Economic Union and Middle East countries,” said Hovhannes Azizyan, deputy minister, Armenian Economic Department.

In a country where the citizens love playing chess to the extent they listen to it on the radio, it is no surprise that Armenia is playing the long game when it comes to technology and investment.

The launch of its joint angel fund with Turkey may be an interesting first move across the board, but whether it takes further pieces via capital co-operation and can overcome 100 years to create mutual and benign checkmate will be a long game indeed.

(This column originally appeared in Forbes.com)

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