Armen Orujyan

FAST with Orujyan Advances Armenian Scientific and Technological Innovation

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WATERTOWN — Scientific and technological prowess do not emerge from nowhere. A small, landlocked country without many natural resources, Armenia benefited from the broader Soviet system prior to its independence but now must work hard to create a new system to support cutting edge work that can provide the country with practical economic benefits. There are various government and university programs as well as a number of centers and nonprofit organizations working in this vein. One of the latter, the Foundation for Armenian Technology and Science (FAST), focuses on the route from education and research to commercialization of products, attempting to foster the development of an ecosystem that would drive scientific advancement and technological innovation in Armenia. FAST is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, and its chief executive officer, Dr. Armen Orujyan, provides some insights into its achievements, challenges and projects.

Orujyan was born in Armenia but immigrated to California with his family in 1989 as a teenager. After graduating the University of California, Los Angeles, he obtained a master’s and then a doctoral degree (2007) from Claremont Graduate University’s School of Politics and Economics. In 1999, he founded and served as chairman of Athgo, an entrepreneurship platform and nonprofit organization enjoying consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, the UN Department of Public Information and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

Dr. Armen Orujyan

In 2016, Orujyan met Russian-Armenian entrepreneur Ruben Karlenovich Vardanyan and was invited to visit Armenia and explore working with him and his partners. Orujyan’s first visit in February 2017 went so well that he started to go back and forth over the next six months to see if a working relationship could be established. Orujyan said he was extremely impressed by Armenia as well as the projects that Vardanyan and Boston-based entrepreneur Dr. Noubar Afeyan had achieved and exclaimed: “It was very exciting. It was a different Armenia. There was a spark in young people, in their eyes, and in their thinking. They were more hopeful than a decade ago, when I last had visited Armenia.”

FAST was formally established in late June of that year and Armenia became Orujyan’s permanent home. He began working as FAST’s CEO from November 1. Vardanyan had brought Afeyan onboard as cofounder, along with Fr. Mesrop Aramyan, who at the time represented both the Ayb School and the Luys Foundation, and entrepreneur and engineer/physicist Artur Alaverdyan, who served as chair of the FAST board of trustees for three years. Orujyan said that, while this happened before his own involvement, he had learned that Vardanyan spoke to the government of then President Serzh Sargsyan and made all the initial arrangements to put together a team.

FAST took its place among the numerous other philanthropic, educational and entrepreneurial projects that Vardanyan and Afeyan had initiated in Armenia, including the IdeA Foundation (Initiatives for the Development of Armenia), Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, United World Colleges Dilijan College, and Revival of Tatev Project. As such, Orujyan said that many of the leaders of these and other related institutions, primarily in Armenia, would have weekly calls to discuss what they were focusing on, their accomplishments and sometimes their challenges. This facilitated cooperation when suitable, while at times ad hoc opportunities for collaboration also arose.

A schematic of the network of organizations established by Ruben Vardanyan, Noubar Afeyan and others to work for a prosperous Armenia (image courtesy FAST)

The work conducted by FAST is also reflected in the planning for the future of Armenia through the Future Armenian public initiative and other related strategic studies and approaches of the Armenia 2041 Charity Foundation funded by Afeyan, Vardanyan, Alaverdyan and several sponsors.

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Education

In order for Armenia to maintain its historically high level of scientific achievement, it needs a high level of education. FAST works to bolster such education through a variety of programs.

FAST periodically offers bootcamps in the fields of artificial intelligence and chemistry when there is a need and provided graduate students with a course on the mathematical foundations of deep learning in 2021. Through its SciNova program, it also developed a curriculum on research design and science commercialization for graduate students which is to be shared with higher education institutions in Armenia.

One of the FAST initiatives which Orujyan qualified as very successful is called Unit 1991. It is an educational platform it created some three years ago to teach upcoming Armenian army recruits mathematics, machine learning and some other subject matters that would be useful for them to continue their education while they will be serving for two years. It first began with about 40 highly intelligent “cream of the crop,” as Orujyan put it, Armenian youth, but that number then was raised to 100-110 every quarter. Now, there will be 120 youth who will be trained to be competitive in knowledge of artificial intelligence.

FAST is working with the Armenian government, Orujyan said, to expand and scale the program on a national level and is working on a pilot project for 10-12 high schools. He declared, “We are very proud of this particular educational program. It was an arduous process, both putting this together and learning how to provide both curriculum and the right type of faculty.” The graduates of the program will enter a special track within the armed forces.

Research

FAST began giving out fellowships for 25 individual PhD candidates in STEM fields studying in Armenian in 2018. Orujyan said that this approach was helpful for the recipients but not effective for broader systemic impact.

In its place, FAST created what it calls the ADVANCE STEM Research Grant program. The grants it issued were up to $65,000 per researcher team and four were given in 2020, he continued. Armenian scientists are connected to an international high caliber scientist, called a principal investigator. The university where this principal investigator works is connected to a local university in Armenia and FAST funding helps pay the salary of all the scientists, the cost of publications, lab materials, and travel. The outside scientist is brought to Armenia to help build capacity, not only for the individual local grant recipients but also in the broader sector, as they teach while in Armenia. Meanwhile, local Armenian grant recipients can do what they love to do, scientific exploration, without having to worry about how to financially maintain their families.

This year, the amount of each grant will be raised to $125,000 per principal investigator plus local team, and if fundraising efforts go well, ten of them will be given. In other words, ten principal investigators with five local scientists each, for a total of 50 local scientists, will be supported from two to four years. Over the next five years, if this program can be funded and further expanded each year, Orujyan said he expects “it will change the narrative about scientific discovery in Armenia.”

FAST also has sponsored a new grant program for teams of local and international experts to develop a roadmap for Armenia to attain energy independence. FAST initially was interested in exploring the capabilities of solar energy in Armenia and the Armenian solar panel manufacturing company SolarOn (founded by FAST cofounder Artur Alaverdyan) agreed to fund the entire grant and expand it into an investigation of other energy sources as well. When asked whether there might be an inherent bias due to the funding source, Orujyan replied that in fact it was SolarOn which wanted to expand the study to include various non-solar alternative energy sources. It wants uncompromised data on the capability and projections for other alternative energy sources in Armenia to be able to plan for the future in a smart way, he explained.

Commercialization

There were two main programs aiming at commercialization that FAST attempted. The first one was called InVent, which was a 15-week venture development program to form startup teams focusing on artificial intelligence ideas provided by FAST and partners. After a competition for $5,000 seed money prizes, winners made pitches for early stage funding to the Science and Technology Angels Network of investors put together by FAST. Orujyan said that though there were a few extremely successful startups produced which are already funded, the time and effort put in did not give sufficient value. Instead, FAST is looking at another model which it will soon unveil.

However, a second program, Advanced Solutions Center (ASCENT), was created some three years ago that Orujyan said despite his initial reservations, ended up being quite successful. It was modeled after what Noubar Afeyan’s Flagship Pioneering in the US did. Research groups are formed to explore “out-of-the-box” research ideas and when they come up with something appearing successful they create a prototype and patent it if possible. A proto-company is formed with the involvement of business members, which eventually will lead to a full-fledged new company under ASCENT leadership raising money for investments.

ASCENT first focused on artificial intelligence and then began a second round to create companies dealing with molecular biology, microbiology, biochemistry, biotechnology, computational biology, pharmaceutics and biomedical sciences. After scientists were given fellowships for training at Flagship Pioneering, they were hired to study research ideas to find unconventional breakthrough concepts, and, just like the AI program, eventually create companies to promote those products.

Two companies in particular emerged from the ASCENT approach that have been successful so far. Denovo Sciences is a pharmaceutical company using artificial intelligence approaches to create therapeutics. In 2021 it participated in the Entrepreneurship World Cup, a contest with some 100,000 entries from 200 countries throughout the world. There were two winners from each of the countries involved, and Denovo was one of the winners from Armenia.

Out of the 400 winners at the first stage, 25, including Denovo, were selected to go to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for the next round. While Denovo did not make it into the top ten, Orujyan said, “We take pride that on the first try we were able to create a company to place among the top 25 in the world.”

The fintech company 8Nook, which helps banks to cut down their default rates for individual loans using AI, also came out of the ASCENT process.

Orujyan exclaimed, “ASCENT is an incredibly successful model, a well-oiled machine. We are in the process of expanding it and possibly putting together a multimillion dollar fund to do more exploration.” While FAST is a nonprofit, its spinoff, ASCENT, has a for-profit component which one day may hopefully allow even further expansion of its activities, especially, Orujyan said, if any of the companies it nurtures become unicorns (startups reaching a valuation of $1 billion or more).

Velvet Revolution, Covid and War

FAST, like the rest of Armenia, has had to deal with the triple challenges of the Velvet Revolution, Covid and the 2020 Artsakh war. Orujyan said that there would be challenges expected in a country like Armenia no matter what type of governing system it has, while many of the FAST initiatives require cooperation with the Armenian government, especially for the purposes of scaling them up for broader education.

Speaking only on his own behalf, he remarked that the new government brought some new stability in certain areas, and instability in others. He continued: “We are not naïve to expect that everything is going to be smooth, regardless of who is in power…I think the revolution had brought new hopes for an accelerated process of development in Armenia, at least for a few years. Now Armenia is in a tough place. Perhaps Armenia was on the right track before Covid and the war hit the nation. One was unpredictable, and the other a matter of time, as the conflict [with Azerbaijan] needed to be resolved.”

The war did lead to at least one new project, called Revive Deep Tech Accelerator. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was interested in supporting war veterans, and in multiple conversations with FAST, Children of Armenia Fund, and a number of other partners, came up with the idea of Revive, to invite growth stage startups from around the world to give a demonstration of what they can create which would help veterans.

Research in Armenian hospitals first defined the needs of the veterans. Twelve successful startup applicants, from Armenia, India, Iran, Tunisia and the United States, were provided assistance through accelerator programs and relocation and support to produce products ranging from 3D protheses to software systems. After deployment in Armenia, ideally the work of the new companies will have global application.

While Armenia may still in a sense be licking its wounds over a year after the end of the war, which makes focusing on modernization difficult, Orujyan and the FAST team remain very hopeful that they can help in building a prosperous Armenia.

Covid forced FAST staff to largely work remotely, Orujyan said, though it was able to continue to work with local teams and achieve funding for local startups. Several international projects, such as collaboration with Indonesia or several East African countries, could not take place. Furthermore, FAST had to cancel big gatherings of people. The most important, he noted, was its Global Innovation Forum, which for three years up until 2019 had brought together leading scientists and thinkers from throughout the world in Armenia to share their expertise and help build networks and knowledge for many FAST programs. After two years in abeyance, Orujyan said that new dates have preliminarily been set for this October.

Funding

Considering all its activities, it seems like it should be much larger, but FAST’s annual budget, paying for all the programming and overhead, has been approximately two million dollars so far. Orujyan said that to this date, it has almost exclusively been provided by the founding team of FAST. The understanding was that its own resources would be used to test all its new ideas and see what works well. At the point when some projects will be ready to be scaled (in business lingo, scaling implies exponential growth without comparable costs), others will be invited.

In fact, this year, for the first time, outside fundraising will be attempted through a gala on March 31 in Los Angeles to support and expand the ADVANCE Stem Research Grant program mentioned above. For more information on the gala or FAST, see www.fast.foundation.org.

FAST’s vision, according to its three-year report covering 2017-2020, is “Armenia’s transformation into a top 10 global innovator nation and a top 5 data science and artificial intelligence innovator by 2041.” While it seems like a long time till 2041, the 50th anniversary of the current Republic of Armenia, to see the full realization of FAST’s work, certainly it has already launched some fruitful programs.

Orujyan was optimistic, concluding, “I tell you, it has been the most rewarding experience of my professional life to be here at FAST in Armenia…Everyone has a stake in this and ownership in bringing prosperity to Armenia.”

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