Business

This former Soviet republic became a nacent biotech dynamo



A celebrity entrepreneur in Armenia, Marina Aghayan is an embodiment of her nation’s ambitions in biotechnology—and a mirrored image of its grit. From her fatherland of Yerevan she went as a graduate pupil to Spain, subsisting on a meals finances of three euros a month.

“I found a place to buy bread with 25 slices for 33 cents,” Aghayan tells me. “I found out that when you cook rice—80 cents for 1 kilogram—you triple the size and the mass of the rice. So it’s really very nice to use when you’re suffering.”

Quickly finding out to triumph over starvation and adversity, she started publishing prolifically within the box of fabrics science and went directly to earn a PhD in Estonia. Last yr her adventure got here complete circle: She returned to Armenia and based AIP Scientific, a bioengineering company that produces custom designed orthopedic implants. The corporate makes use of Three-D printing and biodegradable fabrics that advertise new bone expansion. Aghayan could also be cofounder and CEO of Fact Industries, a bio- and subject matter engineering corporate in Estonia that develops Three-D-printing prototypes for the European Space Agency.

I met Aghayan a couple of months when I moved to Armenia with my circle of relatives. It was once an early-pandemic way of life transfer: My husband and I, born within the U.S. and Canada, respectively, each grew up in ethnic Armenian families. We idea it might be an excellent enjoy for us and our youngsters to climate the lockdowns in Yerevan whilst soaking up the tradition and language plus roaming the mountains and monasteries within the geographical region. What we didn’t look forward to was once assembly marketers like Marina Aghayan, who surprised us with their interest, perseverance, and attainable, and briefly grew to become us into angel buyers on this nation.

Aghayan is a part of the leading edge of biotech marketers aiming to construct a manufacturing hub for area of interest merchandise, cutting edge instrument, and mathematical fashions in Armenia. In the quietly rising ecosystem of businesses and academic projects, lots of the standout founders are ladies like her, representing a mix of technical ability and outstanding resolution. According to the Armenian Bioinformatics Institute, 60% to 70% of pros in biotech are ladies (in comparison to an estimated 47% in biotech firms international). And they’re positioning Armenia’s biotech sector for expansion.

Those ladies founders are a number of the causes I’m satisfied that Armenia is a major vacation spot for world tech buyers and affect accelerators. Their tales and the field alternatives they’re developing are too compelling to omit—a vintage case of underinvestment in ladies and in rising marketplace generation clusters. Despite the robust basis and significant openings for the Armenian biotech trade, biotech startups right here attracted kind of $50 million in project capital funding in 2021, a fragment of the $3.6 billion invested within the sector globally.

Given the ability and alternative on this nation, extra buyers and affect price range will have to come with Armenian ventures of their pipelines. They’d be in just right corporate: Earlier this yr Nvidia, a world high-tech massive with a vital AI and device finding out portfolio, opened a analysis middle in Yerevan. “There are a lot of great brains over here that can contribute to what we’re building,” Lev Lebaredian, a VP at Nvidia, stated in an area media interview.

Armen Kherlopian, cofounder of BAJ Accelerator, which helps Armenian biotech corporations, was once additionally pushed to take a position after seeing strengths in human capital and ability building. “I think it’s something in the educational system. The women are excelling,” Kherlopian says. A local of New Jersey, he finished his PhD in biophysics with a focal point on device finding out on the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences.

“The mathematical prowess you see here is now making its way into biotech,” Kherlopian seen from his new house in Yerevan. As one central instance, he famous that during Armenia, “computational drug design, building medicines by computer, is making major strides.”

Jack Topdjian, a spouse at Healthcare Equity Angels, a syndicated healthcare and biotech funding company in Miami, says that one thing giant is occurring right here. It pressured him to put money into the rustic and start advising startups, on the lookout for spaces the place the small landlocked nation can excel.

“Several AI applications in biotechnology, personalized medicine, genomics, and agriculture are already making their way from the labs and early-stage companies to global markets,” he says. “The two areas that impressed me are the acceleration of R&D and precision medicine. It’s the combination of deep computational science across artificial intelligence, machine learning, advanced visualization, and quantum computing along with a deep expertise in medicine, biotechnology, and genomics fields,” Topdjian says. “You need these complex sciences working in tandem to make big breakthroughs happen.”

By leaning into that intersection he sees what he considers Armenia’s homegrown benefits: Its deep pool of human ability, related fields of complicated training, value benefit, and diaspora connections to main analysis facilities the world over. He predicts project funding within the nation may just double by means of subsequent yr.

Enter Roza Bejanyan, some other feminine founder main her nation’s biotech surge. Her corporate, Medpoint Technologies, is construction gear for previous and extra exact analysis of illnesses together with pediatric most cancers, mind most cancers, and lung most cancers the use of virtual pathology: AI algorithms carried out to examining medical samples. One of the corporate’s merchandise is a cold, noninvasive AI-powered take a look at in response to nanostructures for early-stage lung most cancers and respiration illnesses.

From her base in Yerevan, Bejanyan leveraged some tough benefits in construction her algorithms—predominant, a trove of biomedical knowledge that was once more uncomplicated to get admission to than in different nations. “In post-Soviet countries medical data is more centralized,” she says. “As long as the patient has agreed you can use their data.”

The 2d benefit was once a deep pool of ability, particularly within the type of the well-trained pathologists who may just collaborate with biotech startups. The presence of specialised pathologists in Armenia and surrounding nations has helped Bejanyan transfer ahead sooner with product building. “Data annotation was ​the most critical limitation in having the kind of data we need to train our AI model,” she says. “We need whole slide images of a biopsy, annotated and classified by a pathologist. . . . It’s impossible to generate a big amount of data without these advising pathologists.”

She is now turning the ones docs right into a product unto themselves, construction a platform for pathologists within the area who can annotate biomedical knowledge for tech firms around the globe. The virtual supply of goods and processes additionally makes it more uncomplicated to shape joint ventures: Denovo Sciences, an early-stage biotech corporate in Armenia, is participating with Emory University to codevelop treatments for hepatitis B and with the University of California, San Diego, to do the similar for hepatitis C.

Denovo makes use of AI to boost up drug discovery. Irina Tirosyan, the corporate’s lead knowledge scientist, could also be a lecturer on the American University of Armenia, teaching the following era of experts in her box. That is a part of a unified technique, led by means of Tirosyan and others at her corporate, to create a cadre of long run hires and co-workers.

“There’s a good talent pool when it comes to AI and data science, but it’s hard to find people at the crossroads of natural sciences and AI. We create our own talent acquisition pipeline,” Tirosyan says. Denovo began Cheminformatics Bootcamp to boost up the method, instructing individuals computational chemistry and knowledge science for drug discovery.

As the biotech ecosystem has grown, world generation corporations have began to make the most of Armenia’s ability pool. Vineti, a San Francisco-based corporate that produces undertaking instrument to control customized therapeutics, constructed a crew of 60 folks in Yerevan. That place of work handles engineering, product, and improve, in addition to human assets and administrative purposes.

“Having a strong team in Armenia gives us significant advantages,” says Ann Klein, Vineti’s CEO. “Our Armenia team is an important part of working with our customers in Europe and Asia. Their perspective helps us understand our customers worldwide.” She has arrange her Yerevan place of work partly to serve the reasonably shut Middle East and Indian markets.

“Armenia is a perfect hub to serve all those regions with significant cost efficiencies compared to the U.S. and Europe,” Klein provides.

The boundaries of operating in Armenia are like cliffs that the ecosystem is operating to scale. As the founding director of the Armenian Bioinformatics Institute, Lilit Nersisyan and her colleagues are pulling in combination the labs and costly equipment required to coach Armenia’s subsequent era.

“We are still behind in terms of genomics infrastructure development,” Nersisyan says. The upshot: staying targeted, for now, at the much less equipment-intensive spaces of knowledge research and the good thing about a small, tight-knit ecosystem the place interactions are simple and common.

“We can [easily] collaborate across fields and find solutions to whatever problem is in front of us,” she says. “We can have a niche as an interdisciplinary workforce.”

Topdjian, the investor in Miami, says the important thing for Armenia is to increase specialised subfields of experience, spaces that leverage deep science so as to add worth to the worldwide fitness and biotech trade. This would monitor the function Armenia used to play ahead of the autumn of the Soviet Union, when it manufactured high-tech parts for the broader nation’s mechanical engineering and aviation industries and invented one of the most global’s earliest computer systems.

Aram Salatian helped identify the Museum of Science and Technology in 2008, a part of Yerevan’s Engineering City, to seize that historical past of analysis and innovation. “Our natural calling is to be a place for difficult and complex problems, problems that are not easy to be solved by the average specialist,” he says. “It’s the role that we historically and existentially have had to play.”

Reflecting on that monitor report is helping inspire a brand new era of science and arithmetic brains on this small nation. They are drawing near the longer term with the arrogance to take at the thorny, advanced issues in their box; above all, the ladies founders I’ve met embrace that grit and perseverance round a singular set of hindrances. With the interior pressure and few cunning work-arounds, they’re bent on developing issues of top quality that enchantment to the worldwide box of health-tech buyers. That is an angle and method price having a bet on.


Lara Setrakian is a journalist and affect investor founded in Yerevan, Armenia. She is an Impact Partner with Fresco Capital, a world project capital company. She is on Twitter @lara





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