AEIC Receives GIZ Representatives to Discuss Areas of Cooperation


Representatives from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH met with the AUIS Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center (AEIC) on July 5, 2021 to discuss potential areas for future collaboration between the two organizations.

AEIC Director Dr. Hemin Latif delivered a presentation introducing AUIS, its academics, student life, and University community before detailing the Center’s mission and goals as well as AUIS’s entrepreneurship and innovation activities going back a decade.

Eileen Brewer, Director of the Takween Accelerator housed at AUIS, provided an introduction to that program and highlights from activities since its founding in 2019, including a current pre-accelerator program and an upcoming seminar in digital readiness launching in August 2021.

The meeting’s participants discussed ways to further develop the AUIS-GIZ relationship, including collaboration on future projects that further mutual areas of interest in growing Iraq’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

Dr. Hemin Latif Named AEIC Director


Dr. Hemin Latif, Assistant Professor and IT Department Chair, has been named the new director of the AUIS Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center (AEIC) following the departure of Mr. Pat Cline, who led the center since its establishment in 2017. The appointment was made by President Bruce W. Ferguson due to Dr. Latif’s personal experience with startups and his demonstrated commitment to the development of business opportunities for young Kurdish entrepreneurs.

Dr. Latif is an educator, and an entrepreneur. He holds a PhD in Interactive Systems and Robotics from Nottingham Trent University (NTU) and has worked as a Research Assistant at the Center for Innovation and Technology Exploitation (CITE) in the United Kingdom (UK). His research interests include Creative Coding & Computing, Interaction & Experience Design, Physical Computing & Robotics.

As an entrepreneur, he is the founder of two businesses operating in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). He has always been a strong advocate for entrepreneurship and innovation. In addition to his formal duties, he has supervised numerous capstone projects of IT students including winning projects of the City Award of Sulaimani and featured projects on multiple TV programs. He has also mentored and led a number of student teams to participate in different activities and competitions, including the top winning teams in the local competition of Microsoft ImagineCup for 2012.


Sulaimani Forum Policy Roundtable: Fostering Entrepreneurship & Tech Innovation in Iraq

On Wednesday, March 6, the AUIS Entrepreneurship Initiative hosted a roundtable titled “Fostering Entrepreneurship & Tech Innovation in Iraq” in coordination with the sixth annual Sulaimani Forum. The discussion convened representatives from various startups, incubators and coworking spaces, and government and non-governmental organizations invested in supporting the entrepreneurship ecosystem. The discussion was moderated by Pat Cline, director of the AUIS Entrepreneurship Initiative, and focused on increasing the technical and entrepreneurial capacity of young Iraqis through university education, private sector funding, and support from government and NGOs.
Many of the participants echoed the sentiment of the majority of successful entrepreneurs in Iraq--that the major obstacle to entrepreneurship was not a poor regulatory environment--despite the clear need for reform--but rather the lack of investment. A number of issues, ranging from a lack of loan guarantees for entrepreneurs to exorbitant stake and control existing investors often take in nascent companies, prove to be deterrents for starting a business, and more significantly, scaling up. Existing government-led initiatives aimed at increasing financing for entrepreneurs had done little to truly expand access to capital. Tamweel, one such program, had allocated funds for small businesses, but many of the funds were restricted to particular industries or projects, and thus, had gone largely unused.
Participants raised the prospect of working through universities to expand access to capital for young entrepreneurs. Jafar Sadik, CEO of BeCorp in Baghdad, referenced a program at Dijla University that offered financing to students at low interest rates, and Hameed Al-Naser noted that during ISIS’s occupation of Mosul, organizers who later created Mosul Space used universities in Erbil and Kirkuk to hold training sessions and raise awareness about maker spaces in Mosul and around Iraq. Furthermore, a number of private companies and international organizations have begun focusing their efforts on universities. GiZ, the German development organization, recently launched a program called Intilaq--or Launch--to encourage entrepreneurship on campuses.
Another issue that entrepreneurs raised was that of “brain drain,” or the exodus of qualified employees in fields such as business and IT, in addition to a large pool of under-qualified applicants in Iraq in general. In response, companies such as Careem and Ammar Ameen’s Miswag had shifted their focus to recruit smart candidates with soft skills and the ability to learn quickly. Instead of recruiting candidates on the basis of their major in college, they offered training and professional development opportunities to complement existing soft skills. Such a business approach encouraged talented Iraqis to remain in Iraq and contribute to a stronger private sector.


Research Workshop: Innovation in Startups in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq


On Wednesday, February 20, the AUIS Entrepreneurship Initiative hosted Rava Khorshid, Business Development Manager at the Professional Development Institute at AUIS and candidate at the Masters of Business Administration program at Lahti University of Applied Sciences in Finland, for a workshop discussing the research findings of her masters’ thesis. Over the past year, Rava had been conducting research on innovation in startups in the Kurdistan Region or Iraq (KRI) in an effort to support and inform AEI priorities for entrepreneurs at AUIS and in the local community.


The workshop convened local entrepreneurs, relevant AUIS staff and faculty, and members of the Sulaimani Chamber of Commerce to discuss main points, key findings, and practical implications for AEI goals and curriculum development. Her research relied on a variety of secondary source material and interviews with local entrepreneurs to determine and evaluate major enablers and inhibitors to innovation in regional startups.


After a brief review of the goals of her project and guiding question of her research, “How can startups in the KRI enhance their innovation practices and contribute to private sector growth?”, she explained the unique ways in which the entrepreneurs she interviewed interpreted and implemented the concept of innovation. She noted that despite the fact that many entrepreneurs viewed innovation as a new, creative way of thinking or a change in mindset, few innovated through deliberate plans and processes or reinvented well-established and successful business processes. While many sought to fill existing gaps in the local market, they did not aim to create new or groundbreaking technologies on a global scale.


Rava found that many of the barriers to innovation in the KRI revolved around the lack of local networking opportunities, limited customer responsiveness to innovation, scarce financial resources, weak transportation and delivery infrastructure, and outdated intellectual property laws. However, despite these barriers, many entrepreneurs found that the myriad gaps in the market allowed for innovation and entrepreneurial ventures.


In concluding the overview of her existing research, she posed five questions aimed at crowdsourcing ideas to strengthen AEI programming and curriculum development:


1. As a facilitator, AEI could have a significant role in developing the entrepreneurship ecosystem in the region. What educational initiative should AEI run to remove the identified barriers, and what kind of actors should cooperate with AEI to make these initiatives possible?


Participants advocated for greater opportunities for networking events, startup fairs, and connections to mentoring or consulting services. In particular, they suggested establishing an “Innovation Hub” in cooperation with the Sulaimani Chamber of Commerce (SCC) to provide a coworking space for startups to gather and work together.


The conversation also acknowledged that the current legal, regulatory, and financial services environment would be unlikely to change in the next five years, so entrepreneurs and educational institutions had to promote skills to help entrepreneurs flourish despite structural obstacles, or opportunities to slowly grow a body of resources. In reference to the latter, the entrepreneurs and government officials stressed the need for market data, as well as information on the numbers and types of businesses present in Sulaimani or the KRI. While a senior official at the SCC noted that the Chamber is required by law to collect data on businesses registering and operating in the city, he acknowledged that the law had not been implemented. Participants also noted that the data acquisition process for existing information held by the SCC was extremely time consuming and costly. While in many other countries, data was free and publicly available, requests for access to data in Sulaimani could cost up to 100,000 IQD. They suggested that AEI could play a role in facilitating access to data or coaching entrepreneurs to collect and publish data on their own businesses in a standardized manner.


2. How could AEI support the university to improve the balance of preparing students to be both jobseekers and entrepreneurs?


Participants reiterated the need for entrepreneurs and educators to connect and learn from each other, particularly through the following:


  • Networking sessions
  • Mentorship opportunities
  • Data collection on market trends and businesses
  • Formalizing, standardizing, and/or digitizing existing data and making it free and easily accessible

Again emphasizing the need for clear and usable data, participants recommended working with ThinkBank, a recently-established Sulaimani-based market research company that conducts feasibility studies and provides concept testing, advertisement and campaign evaluation, and consumer tracking.


Given AEI’s location at AUIS and potential benefits for AUIS students, it is also important to ensure that a wide range of students--beyond the business department--have the opportunity to take coursework on innovation and entrepreneurship. Participants agreed that the development of an entrepreneurship curriculum should involve new courses on creativity and innovation and benefit students in business, IT, engineering, and other disciplines to ensure maximum collaboration and opportunities for graduates to start their own businesses.


3. What research could AEI undertake in the future to understand and address the local entrepreneurship and innovation challenges?


The question sparked a discussion among entrepreneurs about the most pressing needs of startups in the KRI, including:


  • Cultivation of an innovation mindset
  • Government support for entrepreneurs and startups
  • Knowledge of and solutions to the root causes of startup failure in Iraq
  • Development of models tailored specifically to the needs of regional consumers
  • Greater knowledge of consumer behavior in Iraq and the KRI
  • Widespread understanding of and efforts to increase proliferation of online payment systems

4. What kind of knowledge transfer initiatives and programs shall AEI perform with different actors in the ecosystem?


Again, participants focused largely on information gathering, collaboration with the public sector, and understanding of consumer needs. In particular, the following suggestions were made:


  • Encouraging entrepreneurs to collect, standardize, publicize, and digitize more data about their businesses and customer base, and promoting greater public collection and disbursement of data
  • Supporting the development and disbursement of customer surveys and interviews
  • Working with government institutions such as the SCC to publicize success stories

5. What can AEI do to attract funding for startups and ecosystem building in general?


  • Provide education on proper investment practices, including legitimate amounts of ownership to take in young companies
  • Provide trainings for entrepreneurs and investors on how to develop exit strategies
  • Promote and inform long-term investment options from major institutions

AUIS Hosts Campus Round of Hult Prize Competition


On Saturday, November 17, 2018, AUIS hosted its first campus round of the Hult Prize Competition, an annual entrepreneurship competition in which undergrads and MBA students around the world present business plans to solve a pressing social issue. At each campus round, a panel of judges evaluates the campus round teams and selects a winning idea to move on to the regional round of the competition. From there, students compete for the chance to join a group of 50 teams at the Hult Castle accelerator program in London for six weeks over the summer. The final six teams from the accelerator pitch for a chance to win $1 million in seed capital for their startup.


In the weeks leading up to the campus round, AUIS teams crafted their ideas, drafted their business plans, and had the chance to receive informal mentoring and strategies from a pitching workshop to address the 2018 Hult Prize challenge: youth unemployment. By the day of the the campus round, 13 teams were ready to compete. Ideas ranged from online platforms for skills development and product delivery to the domestic manufacturing of agricultural products such as olive oil and tomatoes.


After a day of pitching, four finalist teams were selected to pitch to a panel of five judges that included Shady Atef, Hult Prize Iraq Director and co-founder of InnerG; Avin Mohammed, manager of Click company; Meeran Sarwar, CEO and co-founder of City Gym; Bayad Jamal, CEO of Bayad company; and Broosk Hamarash, CEO of Meta Solutions. The finalist teams included the following:


  • F4: online service that connects employers to skilled youth seeking employment
  • Olive Quest: business focused on cultivating olive plantations in Kirkuk to yield table-ready and commercial olive oil
  • Dream Catalyst: delivery service for online businesses that connects buyers to products using on online payment and tracking system instead of cash on arrival
  • Karsaz: agricultural community that focuses on maximizing the use of natural resources around Darbandikhan and Dukan dams

After a period of deliberation, the judges selected Team Olive Quest to advance to the regional round. Details of their participation are forthcoming.


Open Discussion with Yara Salem, World Bank Special Representative to Iraq

On Wednesday, October 17, 2018 the AUIS Entrepreneurship Initiative hosted an open discussion with Yara Salem, the World Bank’s Special Representative to Iraq, during Women’s Entrepreneurship Week October 13-20. The discussion focused on existing World Bank initiatives in the context of Iraq’s reconstruction, rebuilding, and financial management. It ranged from the social aspects of reconstruction and partnerships with Iraq’s Ministry of Planning to anti-corruption projects and finance for development projects.


Salem focused heavily on the social aspects of reconstruction, namely improvements to the Iraqi education and healthcare systems. She noted that the World Bank programs geared toward these areas focus on connecting universities and expertise abroad with the Iraqi education system to address relevant issues related to technology development, environmental innovation, and increasing workforce capacity. According to the World Bank, an Iraqi born today will work at 40 percent of his or her capacity as an adult than if they had full access to health and education benefits. The Human Capital Project, which evaluates health and education systems in Iraq, is aiming to change that statistic by working with the federal government to increase programs focused on childhood development and social protection systems in an effort to increase future capacity.


In a similar vein, Salem relayed the details of the World Bank’s collaboration with Iraq’s Ministry of Planning to improve and ensure implementation of the National Development Plan. She acknowledged that despite a wealth of knowledge in academia and the population generally, preparedness for the job market remains low and people still perceive public sector employment as a more feasible option than the private sector. Therefore, the World Bank is helping to increase the domestic capacity of Iraqis to improve their own government institutions and reduce their reliance on migrant labor and external expertise.


Parallel to efforts to increase workforce capacity and strengthen implementation of the National Development Plan, the World Bank is working to improve Iraq's Public Financial Management systems to increase oversight, efficiency, and management of public resources. This initiative, implemented in coordination with the EU Technical Assistance Program, pairs closely with other initiatives focused on public finance in Baghdad through eliminating ghost workers on the payroll and implementing biometric registration systems.


Salem emphasized that many of the issues related to capacity building can be solved through peer-to-peer learning and knowledge sharing, the incorporation of expertise from women, minorities, and NGOs and community organizations, and engagement of the private sector in addition to government institutions. With regard to the last point, she noted that before the World Bank gives loans to the Iraqi government, it tries to involve the private sector first to ensure public-private cooperation and increase confidence among private sector actors that payments for government contract work will be disbursed on time.


Salem wrapped up her discussion by acknowledging that Iraq has a long way to go in terms of increasing confidence in financial management and the banking system. In addition to having one of the lowest numbers of bank accounts in the world, Iraq also maintains very low levels of confidence in e-banking, anti-money laundering measures, and data privacy. Despite these obstacles, however, the World Bank is working closely with the Central Bank of Iraq and commercial banks to push for better corporate governance, address challenges related to mergers and capital reserve requirements, and strengthen public and private banking standards.


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