Sci & Tech

Stemming Brain Drain

Stemming Brain Drain
Stemming Brain Drain

This week, ISNA profiled an Iranian product designer and his redesign of the much maligned airplane seat. The researcher and CTO, Alireza Yaqoubi from the University of Malaya, spent the past four years refining his AirGo plane seat and has received many accolades for the redesign from as far away as the United Kingdom.

The latest version of AirGo, reduces fuel consumption and makes less environmental impact compared with the traditional airline seat.

 AirGo substitutes elastic, form-fitting fabrics for bulky cushions and uses three motors that provide more recline with less intrusion and adds telescoping tray tables and TV screens on articulated arms, according to CNBC's interview with the designer in 2013.

  Localization Problems

Yaqoubi was ahead of the startup curve, leaving Iran to study in Malaysia in 2009, several years ahead of the accelerator program that only kicked off in 2014.

The story of AirGo Design is one of Iran's startup industries: The designer had little chance of moving his product forward in Iran at the time, due to a lack of investment among other problems.

Despite Iran having one of the best tertiary education sectors in the world—third only to the US and Russia with 233,695 according to Forbes—the retention of these brains remains the most difficult task in Iran.

In fact Iran's "brain drain" issue has become so acute in recent years that top government agencies in Tehran have been tasked with keeping some of the talents before they head for places like Singapore and Silicon Valley.

Yaqoubi is not the only engineer that could have stayed in Iran. A former student of Shahroud University, now based in London, also took his Iran developed product abroad.

Amin Rigi, developer of the robotic lifeguard which can save thousands of extra lives a year relocated for a number of reasons, one of the most serious was the sale of his "safety drone" and another was the development of his company in general.

According to Christian Science Monitor, statistics from the Migration Policy Institute indicate that 67,000 Iranians left the country in the 1970s and 281,000 in the 1980s. That grew in the 1990s, with 2.1 million leaving. The numbers leaving in the 2000s remain as strong.

Accelerators like Avatech and Dmond alone are not going to stem the crisis but they are the beginning of a sea change in business attitudes across the country.

The startup sector, if it continues to grow over the next few years, should in theory help other sectors to think in a more dynamic manner.

What would be good is for universities across the country to host startups in engineering sectors such as medical, aeronautical and defense to name a few.

  Government Response

The Hassan Rouhani administration has stated repeatedly that it is willing to host companies in Iran, with a special emphasis now being put on future-growth areas like electronics manufacturing and medical research in places like Kish Free Zone et al.

Earlier in June, the administration announced Behzad Soltani as the secretary of the board of trustees of the Innovation and Prosperity Fund. The IPF's main aim is to divvy out small amounts of money to "unique research" which works for the betterment of the country. The fund is tasked with paying some of the resources to construct technology complexes in different cities and has called for domestic knowledge-based companies to purchase office space in the business parks either paid by installment or hire-purchase.

In addition to the Innovation and Prosperity Fund, other ministries have begun their own efforts to fund research. The oil Industry has begun efforts to push for new graduates to join them.  

However, funding alone is not the full answer to the ongoing lackluster performance; dissemination of information about these research funds also seems to be lacking.

In a recent interview with one government agency worker who asked to remain nameless, he mentioned his agency could not find enough people to take their R&D funding. "Unfortunately we had to give back 95% of funding back to the government at the end of the fiscal year."

This issue remains one of the most prescient for modern-day Iran, after the previous administration's lackluster performance in funding local graduates, millions of tax dollars which would have been paid to the treasury are now being paid to several other countries' coffers.

The change in attitudes of both graduates and investors alike will take longer than the government probably wishes but, with the groundwork now in place, many budding inventors, product designers and engineers can now test the strength of their products in Iran.