Last week, the largest gathering of Iranians outside of the country in more than three decades took place at iBridge Berlin during a global summit exploring the challenges and opportunities of high-tech entrepreneurship in Iran.
Over 2000 Iranians convened in Berlin, Germany, with 500 attendees from Iran alone alongside diaspora and tech leaders from the U.S. and Europe. They came to learn about Iran’s leading high-tech startups and entrepreneurs, discuss key issues and challenges facing the country’s economic development, and forge the path forward to a vibrant and booming tech ecosystem, in a country that has been cut off from game-changing relationships in Silicon Valley and access to international capital due to U.S. sanctions.
Learning from MENA Stars & Beyond
While currently supporting Iran’s neighbors in the MENA region, TechWadi brought in leaders from its own growing ecosystem to share knowledge and opportunities with the budding Iranian tech network: Egypt’s Ossama Hassanein (Rising Tide Fund) lead a session on go-to-market strategy, using examples from his own entrepreneurial journey and similar stories from the MENA region, while Hala Fadel (Leap Ventures) discussed venture capital 101 with a room full of engaged Iranian entrepreneurs, and shared her excitement to identify and invest in high-growth Iranian start-ups for her recently launched Lebanon-based firm. And finally, former telecom minister and Palestinian presidential advisor Sabri Saidam (Netketabi) shared his views on the necessity of social entrepreneurship alongside other social impact trailblazers, including Skoll Center for Entrepreneurship’s Stephan Chambers. Tech entrepreneurs from the U.S. were also present. Among them, 500 Startups Founder & serial investor David McClure addressed the audience in a keynote, sharing his eagerness in gaining access to opportunities to what he sees as a highly attractive investment opportunity with many advanced startups and and a huge supply of local talent.
Iran’s Key Players and Rising Stars
Perhaps the most astonishing content during the conference came in uncovering some key players in Iran’s growing start-up ecosystem. Companies booming in Iran include CafeBaazar, the largest android app marketplace; Takhfifan, the largest group-buying site (which also happens to be founded by Iran’s most notable female entrepreneur Nazanin Daneshvar); and both Divar and Sheypoor, two Iranian versions of the classifieds web giant, Craigslist. Also active are local accelerators like Avatech (housed at the University of Tehran) and Dmond to help entrepreneurs connect to mentors and capital. Yet as evident by these stars, much of Iran’s entrepreneurial success has been dependent on “copycat” companies, where U.S. sanctions have created an opportunity for Iranian entrepreneurs to fill this potentially temporary ban. The question is, what will happen if and when the economy does open up? Will these companies be washed aside by their larger predecessors, or will these web conglomerates find ways to absorb the work of Iranian companies at fair value?
Dealing with Demographics
While it may only be a matter of time before Iran’s economy opens up to the West, the country’s current demographics will present a challenge for any potential domestic capital flow in the meanwhile. As outlined by financier and economist Hamid Biglari (Managing Partner, TGG Group), Iran is currently dealing with a youth bulge, where 45% of the country’s population is between ages 20-44. While these are great numbers for entrepreneurial growth, only 18% of the population makes up the mature/risk averse individuals (45-65) who would traditionally serve as capital providers. Compare that to Silicon Valley’s baby boomer investor generation, and the numbers point to a heavy reliance in international investments for success in Iran.
The Future is Bright for Iran
With a booming tech scene well on its way, Iran needs to make sure it fosters a ecosystem that can grow, scale, and ultimately work together, both with domestic and international players. The success of iBridge Berlin has created an anxious and eager Iranian diaspora network ready to support the high tech entrepreneurial generation back at home, when the time (read: law) allows. And perhaps the best way to capitalize on the momentum is for iBridges to follow TechWadi’s path and continue to strengthen this network of diaspora tech superstars, that will soon bridge Iran to the Silicon Valley connections needed to succeed in a rapidly growing tech society.