In 2015, Iran’s startup ecosystem was at the peak of its “E-commerce Boom”, and a massive amount of web and mobile startups emerged in this year. It is safe to say that Iran had one of the most fastest growing startup ecosystems in the region. In 2016 we will see more action in the brutal e-commerce arena and we anticipate to see more startups in mobile, SAAS and Fintech. The Fintech vibe got really interesting in Q4 2015 and has turned into the emerging trend in Iran’s startup ecosystem.

 

Facts and Figures

Due to the international sanctions, foreign startups were cut off from the Iranian market. Startups with the good old method of “Cloning and market adapting” showed up and got their share of the untouched market. The Iran deal played a big part in heating up the startup hype. Many international investors are flying in to analyze the market directly. 2015 was also the big year in seed capital activity. The first two angel networks started operating and 2 new VCs have called upon startups for investment. Fanap also opened its accelerator Trigup. The planning of 3 new accelerators and 2 funds are in order to start operating in 2016.

In terms of number of startups, there were around 150 startups by the end of 2014. In 2015 there has been a surprising growth in the number of startups. According to our estimation, there are over 350-400 startups in Tehran alone. This means 150% growth in the number of startups in Iran which shows an impressive growth rate of Iran startup ecosystem. Digikala is still the highest valued company with an estimated valuation of over $300M. Following the big guy: CafeBazaarSaba Idea and Netbarg are among the highest valued Iranian startups.

Fintech is the next big thing. Hackathons, events, and a talk of a Fintech accelerator are on the streets. Iran’s decent banking infrastructure is one of the main causes of the big interest in this field. Banks are also showing interest in this field. Saman bank is opening a funding division to invest in Fintech startups. We might as well call 2016 the year of Fintech boom in Iran.

TV shows, magazines, newspapers and medias are talking about the term “startup”. Startup weekend and other educational entrepreneurship events have reached as far as high schools and elementary schools. We can already see the startup vibe effect on the younger generation and it will definitely have a thing to say in lowering the brain drain rate.

Let’s look at the state of play of Iran’s startup ecosystem.
Accelerators

The Hype of getting into an accelerator really got pumping when Avatech and Dmond, One of the first accelerators, launched in Tehran in 2014. Avatech also became a community hub for holding events and workshops. Lately Dmond has turned into another community hub hosting events and welcoming any relevant event with the topic of entrepreneurship with open arms. Fanap launched its anticipated Trigup accelerator as well. The long anticipated social innovation center, Tehran Hub is going to lunch any day now, making it the center for social innovation activities. There are already events being held in the yet-to-be-finished venue of Tehran Hub in Amirkabir University of Technology. In the past year Avatech managed to complete two acceleration cycles and it’s currently on its third cohort.

 

VCs/Investment Firms/PEs

In the startup community of Iran when the term “Venture Capital” is mentioned the first name to pop is Sarava Venture. Iran’s largest e-commerce Digikala (now valued over $300M), was funded by Sarava. Shenasa, another VC focusing in High Tech, is the VC arm of Pasargad Bank which has been operating for some time. Rahnema is also an investment holding with a minor VC functionality. Rahnema has around 20 startups in its portfolio.

In 2015 Sarava invested on a handful of new seed and early stage startups that are yet to be publicly announced. There is also new guy in town called Iratel Ventures. Iratel is a well known Iranian company that happens to be one of the first companies in Iran to import cell phones. Iratel was also the official representative of Nokia in Iran.  Along side the names mentioned above there are also talks of new VCs that we are going to meet in 2016. More than 5 international VC have also talked to us showing interest in opening office in Iran. Griffon Capital Iran’s first private equity firm also invests in tech. Griffon Capital invests in early stage startups. PSIG’s venture capital arm also made some investments other than their successful Buyex investment (Iran’s leading fashion e-commerce). Zarinpal could be a good example of this years noticeable investments from PSIG.

There is still limited access to seed funding which we hope we would see more investment firms focusing in seed in the near future. In 2015, Sarava comes first in terms of the number of startups it invested in.

We speculate there has been over $20M in investments this year. However Iran’s investment community has not yet reached the sophistication level to disclose the details of investment deals to create a leveled market. There are many different reasons for this which we will get to later in a different report. One of our hopes and dreams is to see more transparency in our sector.

With these activities and new guys at the door step, the investment landscape and access to capital (especially seed capital) will see major positive changes in 2016.

 
Angel Networks
Supply and demand. More seed stage startups means more need of seed funding (or perhaps a more empty garages can bring more cars). The first angel groups have emerged to invest in seed stage.

Avaangels started its activity in Q1 2015 focusing only on seed stage startups. Karaya also started its activity in 2015 and are ready to invest in seed stage startups.

 
NGOs and Community Enablers 

The big jaw dropping number for Iran is the community events happing there. Over 90 startup weekend and startup camp events in over 30 cities is a number not seen in every country. NGOs like Iran Entrepreneurship Association has the ultimate goal of inspiring and educating aspiring entrepreneurs. IEA was also responsible in facilitating startup weekend events in Iran. The new player in town Jahesh, has also started its activity by organizing a monthly hackathon called Hackarestan. Iran’s vibrant startup ecosystem gives us a good hint of the massive potential this country has.

 
Governance

The Government had a key role in spreading the culture of entrepreneurship. The Vice-Presidency for Science and Technology started an initiative named 100×100. The aim is to fund 100 entrepreneurial event to train entrepreneurs in order to empower and inspire Iranian aspiring entrepreneurs. Because each event hosts 100 attendees, the name of initiative was called 100×100. The aim is to have 10,000 aspiring entrepreneurs as participants in these events in 2 years. The government is also trying to help entrepreneurs by easing the regulations and tax laws for early startups, though we have to wait to see the results. The government also supports VCs and accelerators by providing venue spaces in university campuses as they’ve provided for Avatech and Dmond in Tehran University. Pardis Technology park aka. “Silicon Valley of Iran” which also hosts many incubators, is funded by the government to help the tech sector.

 

Media & Educational Content 

Witnessing the growth of startup activities in Iran, the need of a media and educational content was deeply felt. Karya Startup school, run by IEA, proved itself as a useful source for aspiring entrepreneurs to educate themselves. Khoshfekri is another educational website for learning the fundamentals of entrepreneurship and startups.

TechRasa, launched on June 2015, was founded with the sole purpose of exposing and empowering the startup activities in Iran and connecting Middle East’s startup ecosystems, in order to help Iranian entrepreneurs globalize. ITIran is also a media that focuses on tech and e-commerce. Peyvast is a monthly magazines that focuses on technology and features tech entrepreneurs. Techly another Iranian English startup blog launched in early 2014 to cover and introduce Iranian startups to the world.

 
Startup Summits

The only startup and tech related annual event held in Iran is Iran Web & Mobile Festival with 800 attendees from all around the world last year.  TEDxKish had big role in promoting Iranian startups to the world. TEDxKish provided booths for selected startups and a chance to pitch for the “TEDxKish Prize”. Winners would get a chance to get in to the acceleration programs in accelerators in Europe and Silicon Valley. There are plans for an annual startup summit that will take place in 2016.

Startup Events & Meetups

In 2014 most of the startup community action was centered in Iran’s capital, Tehran. However in the recent years many regular monthly and even weekly events can be found in every corner of Iran. Typically the startup communities started to form in small and large cities through Startup Weekend events. Following with networking events and afterwards, fireside chat came along. Today startup events can be found in more than 30 cities around Iran.

 
Check out Iran’s startup ecosystem players in a recap bellow.
 
Iran Startup Ecosystem
The Iranian Startup Ecosystem Map in 2015
What Will We Expect in 2016

With this growth rate and the doors opening up (thanks to the Iran deal), 2016 will be a key point in the evolution of Iran’s startup ecosystem. Foreign capital and international players will change the landscape significantly. By the end of 2016 we think there will be 900-1000 seed stage startups all around Iran, which will also trigger a motive for more seed capital. Fintech is already starting to boom and innovation in payment methods will be one of the key subjects.

What Iran’s startup ecosystem needs most is role models and international exits. When the exit takes place we would see a massive boost in the ecosystem’s vibrancy as it has happened in other ecosystems in the region. If the regulations keep up and sanction fade away, we would see some international mergers and acquisitions. This will also inject more capital to the market and will also change the market valuations intensely.

So far Iran has had a great start and is currently in the fast lane with more great news to follow. We are sure to hear coming from Iran’s startup ecosystem in 2016.

The previous photo by Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji for this article has been removed by the request of the photographer’s representative.

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