Event strikes upbeat note despite challenges
BERKELEY, Calif. — Iran has the engineers and universities to spawn a Silicon Valley in the Middle East, but US sanctions combined with the country's own shortcomings hold back its potential.
That was the conclusion from a conference of more than 500 Iranian high-tech executives and entrepreneurs here. Participants in the Bridge 2014 event said they hope to overcome the hurdles, believing prosperity is the best antidote for a long and painful history of political conflict.
“What is needed is funding universities and advanced R&D to transfer technology in the schools to practical applications,” said Maryam Rofougaran, a senior vice president of engineering at Broadcom, who told the story of her rise from a small town in Iran.
Born in the “beautiful but conservative city” of Isfahan where “career choices for women were quite limited,” she pursued her dreams initially through education. “Form early on, my clear passion and strongest subjects were math and physics,” she said.
Rofougaran became the first woman to conduct research in one of the engineering labs at UCLA. For her Master’s thesis, she developed the first 900 MHz power amp in CMOS. She worked with her brother to create a full CMOS transceiver and formed a startup based on the design that Broadcom bought in 2000.
“Today I am responsible for developing and shipping more than 2 billion wireless chips a year,” she said.
Iran is probably not fertile soil for chip design startups today, she said, responding to an audience question. “We think [innovation] will be through universities at first, given issues with politics, and I would not suggest [chip design] as a startup right way, it would be easier to focus on software.”
Next page: Sanctions and other hurdles
Sanctions and other hurdles
In another keynote, Mahmoud Nazzari, founder and chairman of Iran’s largest software company, Systems Group, outlined challenges for high-tech companies in the country. Iran lacks a strong patent system or a robust set of competitors and loses much of its top talent to other countries.
And there are the sanctions.
“I don’t know how they work on other industries," he said, "but in IT, they are killing us. We cannot officially buy software licenses or get service. We cannot go beyond our borders even in the region, so we cannot cooperate. We have many friends, but we don’t know when we can start real business transactions with them.”
Even travel is difficult. The US requires background checks that can take six months for people traveling from Iran, even if they passed a check for a recent prior trip, he told EE Times.
Iran's top tech challenges are its under-developed ecosystem including immature capital markets, a brain drain, and sanctions, said Mahmoud Nazzari, founder of the country's largest software company.
Iran’s government invests about $500 million a year in startups, a drop in the bucket compared to the $30 billion a year spent by venture capitalists in the US, said Hamed Ghoddusi, an assistant professor of finance at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.
The country lacks a robust community of VCs, and angel investors are practically non-existent, he said. Also missing are the legal underpinning that supports private equity and venture capital investments as well as a specialized and efficient bankruptcy court.
A quarter of Iran’s college students are in engineering, and Systems Group signed on to an international treaty on intellectual property. Nevertheless patent applications are low, mainly because the country lacks an effective patent system, said Robert Babayi, managing partner of Vector IP Law Group, noting Iran has a patchwork quilt of 26 different patent examination authorities
Perhaps the biggest missing ingredient is the culture of Silicon Valley that rewards entrepreneurs and tolerates failure, said Pejman Nozad, who runs a $50 million venture capital firm in Palo Alto, Calif.
Despite the challenges, the conference gave some signs of progress. For example the Maps incubator in Iran is now home to two startups employing about 20 engineers. Over the past two years, the Iran Startups group has held educational events in several cities around the country.
Many attendees here expressed hope for a future event in Iran and more exchanges between the two countries.
“Some of us had a enough success -- we don’t need to make another million dollars,” said Saeed Amidi, chief executive of the Plug and Play Tech Center, an incubator in Silicon Valley. “If can make a difference in another entrepreneur’s life, that gives real meaning.”
— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times