Azat Harutyunyan

From STRIVE to Silicon Valley: Starship Co-Founder’s EPIC Journey

5 min read

Azat Harutyunyan is the co-founder of Starship, a platform designed to help students secure financing and financial aid to help pay for university tuition upon acceptance into a foreign university. He created the Starship startup during the EPIC Jam two-day ideathon, in which he took part after successfully completing the STRIVE program. Azat is a computer science student at AUA and one of the participants selected for the EPIC/HIVE Silicon Valley ten-day industry tour in the summer of 2023. 

Besides his university studies and endeavors founding his startup, Azat also works as a data scientist for a med-tech venture.

Can you share your EPIC journey with us, from your first interaction with STRIVE to becoming a startup founder and visiting Silicon Valley to meet with tech giants? What inspired you to take these steps?

My interaction with AUA EPIC is truly epic. STRIVE served as the ideal starting point for my entrepreneurial journey. During the program, I gained valuable insights into the essential theories and tools and learned about real-life entrepreneurship stories. On the program’s final day, we formed teams and generated ideas, which gave me a taste of true business enterprise, including networking, decision-making, execution, and celebration.

The next phase of my entrepreneurial journey was just around the corner: EPIC Jam, a two-day ideathon where I crossed paths with the future co-founders of Starship — a platform designed to help students secure financial assistance for overseas university tuition. Following EPIC Jam, Starship was still in its infancy, and our team needed to validate the concept. We turned to EPIC’s incubation program for guidance and were fortunate to be accepted. This experience not only equipped me with the knowledge of idea validation, but also a deep understanding of the essential components of running a startup.

My next adventure in the entrepreneurship and tech realm was equally exciting. AUA EPIC, in collaboration with HIVE Ventures, organized a Silicon Valley visit for AUA students and entrepreneurs. I was fortunate to be one of the selected students to explore the heart of innovation and technology in Silicon Valley. It was an unparalleled opportunity to meet with venture capitalists, as well as executives and tech experts from companies like Pinterest, Nvidia, Google, Synopsis, Siemens, and various successful firms. I had the chance to ask them questions and gain insight into their management styles, decision-making processes, and big thinking, while realizing that even top professionals and renowned company executives are fundamentally human.

Tell us more about your startup, Starship. How did you come up with the idea, and what problem does it aim to solve? 

Starship was conceived during EPIC Jam when Kevin, Siranush, and I came together around a shared challenge each of us had faced: financing our education. We discussed our individual experiences in seeking and securing funding for our university studies, identified common obstacles, and set out to develop solutions that could alleviate these challenges.

At present, Starship’s primary focus is to help identify financial assistance for students accepted into international universities. Our goal is to offer these students a variety of financial assistance options to help them cover their tuition costs.

How did participating in STRIVE and EPIC Jam shape your entrepreneurial mindset and lead to the development of your startup?

STRIVE, for me, was like a practical entrepreneurship 101 course. Right at the start of the program, Alisa Chalakhyan, the program lead, mentioned that by the end of STRIVE, we would have the ability to identify problems that could become opportunities for startups a pretty ambitious outcome. Yet, in my case, that’s exactly what happened. My whole perspective on identifying problems shifted. Now, I can easily visualize and conceptualize products based on the problems I discern and view them as opportunities.

This entrepreneurial mindset has directly translated into my work at EPIC Jam and the development of Starship. In the research phase of this startup, numerous issues have emerged that I view as additional opportunities for expanding Starship while addressing the challenges.

What were some of the challenges you faced during the EPIC Incubation program, and how did you and your team overcome them?

My primary challenge revolved around time management, especially during the Incubation program when we had to juggle between startup development tasks and other coursework and assignment deadlines. However, the most crucial skill we developed as a team, and one that was instrumental in navigating these challenges, is effective communication and trust.

We established a team routine to meet nearly every day to discuss ongoing developments, allocate tasks, ensure everyone was on the same page, and openly address any concerns about specific issues and assigned tasks. We also provided support and coverage for one another as needed, which built a strong foundation of trust within our team.

EPIC is known for its supportive ecosystem. Can you describe the kind of support and resources you found most valuable during your own entrepreneurial journey?

One of the most valuable aspects of my experience was the unwavering commitment of the EPIC team to ensure the incubation program was as effective as possible. They expected us to be fully engaged, ask questions, and actively supported us in navigating the complexities of running our startups. It meant a lot to me to know that these individuals were not just invested in our success, but also genuinely cared and did their utmost to assist us.

Additionally, EPIC provided invaluable access to numerous mentors and advisors, both within Armenia and globally. These industry experts have walked the path of an entrepreneur themselves and are more than willing to share their experiences with us and guide us through our own entrepreneurial adventures.

What are your future plans for Starship? How do you envision its growth and impact in the coming years?

We hold a strong belief in the significance of investing in education, particularly in a country like Armenia. Our mission is to encourage and empower Armenian youth to take the leap and pursue studies in international universities, showing them that it’s not only possible, but also within reach. We want to ensure that financial difficulties should not be an impediment to attaining the education they aspire to, with the ultimate goal of bringing back the knowledge and skills they acquire to contribute to Armenia’s prosperity.

Our upcoming plans involve launching our services by the end of this year. Beyond that, we aim to expand our offerings to not only support those who have already secured acceptance and need financial assistance, but also inform students about the differences in the educational systems across various countries. We want to guide them through the entire application process and continue to provide assistance, even after they’ve embarked on their educational journey abroad.

Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs, especially students who are just starting their entrepreneurial initiatives?

In closing, my advice to students is to take advantage of all available opportunities or engage in projects and activities AUA offers. Don’t restrict yourself solely to coursework; there are numerous exciting events and extracurricular programs to consider.

Above all, do not hesitate to seek help. Entrepreneurs who have walked the path upon which you’re about to embark understand the influence of mentors and they were once in your shoes.

Don’t be afraid of judgment. Regardless of what you pursue, there will always be those who will judge you. So, pursue what you’re passionate about and remember, you have the capability to achieve your goals.