Dr. Armen Orujyan (photo Aram Arkun)

CEO Orujyan Raising Awareness about FAST in US

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WATERTOWN — Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology (FAST) CEO Dr. Armen Orujyan held meetings in Los Angeles, New York and Boston at the end of 2022 to increase awareness of the work done by FAST in Armenia. The meetings were both with people interested in the core work FAST does in science as well as those who are more generally interested in the work being done for the Armenian nation.

FAST was established around 5 ½ years ago to help drive scientific advancement and technological innovation in Armenia, focusing on education, research and the road to commercialization of products. Orujyan said, “To many people, this is a great surprise, because they have not heard of us. It is useful to introduce us to them and for us to also get to know them….Every meeting and every community requires a different type of presentation of who we are, the work that we do, and why we do it.”

The goals of FAST are very ambitious. Orujyan declared, “When you display that ambition then you better have some kind of logical path to get to that, the mission. Otherwise, having an idea without a plan for execution is hallucination.” Orujyan therefore explains what will happen over the next five years, and also where FAST wants to be in 20 years, yet in between the two, things are less clear, because despite all the planning, sometimes the universe has its own plans. For that reason, the organization must be agile and adaptable, he said.

Some people ask why FAST works in the space of education, research and commercialization. Orujyan responded that a high level of education is necessary to have a grasp of scientific advancements and generative science, as well as to maintain some kind of scientific bank, so to speak. Secondly, after Armenia has all this information about science, then it must do some work on its extension or development. At this point, the question arises as to what capacity Armenia has to do scientific programs. If you do not have enough people being prepared in its educational pipeline who can make scientific discoveries, then you need to make adjustments in the educational system to increase the numbers in scientific disciplines.

Finally, one might ask how Armenia benefits if it has gained scientific knowledge and advancement — intellectual property, in other terms. Orujyan said that this is where commercialization comes in — turning some of these scientific discoveries and knowledge into tangible solutions for people in various fields.

He said that although many things in modern life have become very dynamic, with exponential growth, people’s education remains linear, with step after step. It still takes some 15 to 20 years of education before you get to some kind of expertise. For this reason, Orujyan said, you have to do this properly and work in parallel so that you can get results now from the existing commodities and intellectual property that you have, and then prepare others for the future.

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Artificial Intelligence

One example of FAST’s work in this realm is the attempt to introduce artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities into the Armenian educational system, and ultimately broader society. FAST has a pilot program called Generation AI which it is launching in 2023 to serve about 200 students in approximately ten schools, probably five in Yerevan and five in Tavush Province, according to Orujyan. As this first cohort advances from 10th to 12th grade, the information learned will help in expanding the program to more schools. Generation AI itself is based on an earlier program FAST had developed around four years ago called Unit 1991, which taught upcoming Armenian Army recruits mathematics, machine learning and several other useful topics.

Dr. Orujyan said that as it is scaled, Generation AI will become accessible to all high school students in Armenia, with its reach increasing from hundreds to tens of thousands of students in the upcoming years. He declared, “Now we are talking about a serious pipeline. That changes the narrative.”

It also raises the question of whether there will be an appropriate higher education system set up for the high school graduates to continue on a similar path. If there is not, Orujyan said, then they will leave Armenia for other countries where they could get the necessary support, and many would also be discouraged from entering the high school programs if they might reach a roadblock in college. For that reason, he said, FAST is speaking with several public and private universities to set up university programs soon.

Why choose AI vs. other fields for this educational prominence? Orujyan said that FAST looked for what fields an advantage can be generated for Armenia, taking into consideration existing intellectual, financial and network capacity as well as the impact of various types of technologies. AI is in a certain sense interdisciplinary, he said, because it is important in nearly every domain or field today, including biotechnology, chip design and many other verticals. “Its impact is everywhere – it is omnipresent,” he exclaimed. In other words, once young people are trained in AI, they could apply it in the fields that they have the most affinity for, whether fashion, accounting, chemistry or biology.

Secondly, AI is not capital intensive as in fields like semiconductors or biotechnology, Orujyan said, and so the only limitation is computing power, which is easier to resolve than putting labs in high schools for biological experimentation, for example, or licenses for programs necessary for semiconductor design.

Cooperation

There are some other organizations working on similar programs in Armenia. Synopsys, for example, is preparing a three-year high school online learning program on AI. Orujyan said, “We are speaking to our colleagues in Synopsys to make sure that there is not an overlap. Thus far, we understand that it is complementary. At least we are not in the same schools…We are looking to see how these two models are evolving and how we can join them.” He added, “There is much for us to learn from Synopsys, because it has been doing that in higher education for many years.”

There are also discussions with ArMat (of the Union of Advanced Technology Enterprises), which may incorporate AI in its labs. Orujyan emphasized, “When we talk to our partners, we care if they are trying to transform the educational system. That is where our alignment begins.”

Global Innovation Forum Introduces Newest AI Developments

After a two-year hiatus, FAST organized its fourth Global Innovation Forum in Yerevan in October 2022 focusing on AI. The conference involved some 1,300 people from 20 countries, and nearly 70 speakers, including some well known names. Orujyan said that the idea of such conferences was to establish Armenia as a place where AI scientists and entrepreneurs go to congregate and learn, but Covid temporarily halted any progress. In 2022, Orujyan said, “We were able to awaken it and many partners from the past joined us. It gave us a boost and energy to try to bring this back again. We probably need at least one or possibly two more events for us to really build that brand in Armenia.”

There are three things Armenia may gain from such conferences, Orujyan said: networks, knowledge and money. Money at present is the least probable, but networking takes place when people from companies like Apple, Google and Huawei participate. Secondly, the speakers share cutting edge solutions on which they are working, which can help Armenians avoid duplicating existing efforts, possibly provide epiphanies concerning new approaches, and thirdly stimulates thinking about how to go beyond what is being done.

Orujyan added that in the future, in addition to the current knowledge exchange and network building, there will also be a component where investors can learn about actual products and potentially make investments in them.

Fundraising

Since the inception of FAST, the organization has been reliant on the financial resources of its founders. Orujyan pointed out that this was the understanding from the start. He said, “We make mistakes on our own dime and once we figure things out, this is where we invite the broader community to join us to executive things together.” In March 2022, the point came when FAST was ready for its first formal fundraiser, a gala in Los Angeles to support FAST’s Advance STEM Research Grant program.

It was a sold-out event with 550 people packing the room and the goal of raising funds for grants of $125,000 each for ten research teams was reached. Each research team in Armenia will be connected to an internationally renowned scientist abroad whose university will be connected to a local university in Armenia. The grants will pay for the salaries of all the scientists involved, the cost of publications, lab materials and travel.

Orujyan said that by December 2022, seven of the grant programs were already set up, and the three remaining ones will be ready shortly. In September 2022, Orujyan went to Los Angeles to report to most of the gala donors about progress.

At present, Orujyan said, active STEM researchers in Armenia number about 1,000, so through these 10 grants, approximately 50-60 people will receive FAST sponsorship. This is roughly 5 percent of all Armenian scientists, and this is just in the pilot phase of the program, he added. “We want to go to hundreds of these grants over the next four or five years. That will be a $10-12 million commitment annually which will essentially give opportunities to roughly 50 percent of all current active scientists in this space. To us, that is transformative. That changes the narrative,” Orujyan said.

Another positive development is that the Armenian government is itself offering similar funding, based on the ADVANCE model, Orujyan said, to about 18 principle scientific investigators. He said, “This is a testament to the success of the program, when the government adopts something similar to what we are doing. That is also the nature of our organization – every tool that we create at some point is going to be spun off and become an independent entity….The point of this foundation is not for us to own them but to create and mature them, and spin them off for them to work independently of the foundation.”

In other words, if the government program works well, Orujyan said that at some point FAST may exist from this to focus on something else.

Meanwhile, in 2023, FAST has four fundraisers coming up. The first one will be in Boston in March, then one in Los Angeles in April or May, and afterwards events will be organized in New York and London. Starting in 2023, the AI program alone will add at least $2 million to the FAST annual budget, so there is a lot of work to do.

Orujyan remarked: “These fundraisers are structured in such ways for the organization to become sustainable in offering continuously its product. They are not one-off types of deals.”

Institutionalization

One important goal for Orujyan to realize in 2023, he said, is to create or mature the proper institutional framework for FAST to be able to continuously function and maintain stability. He said, “We assume these things just run by themselves….Yet many entities come and go, which is normal. Organizations need to have ways to survive that are not based on individuals. There must be memory retention, so that there is not a tabula rasa every time leadership changes.”

Mechanisms must be in place to ensure proper functioning. Orujyan pointed out one such mechanism which has been successful so far: FAST has been doing independent auditing since the inception of the organization, always with one of the big fours. For the last three years, he observed, it has not received a single comment on FAST’s accounting mechanisms.

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