Anna Khachatryan
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From Idea to Impact: EPIC’s Incubation Program Decoded

6 min read

YEREVAN, Armenia Anna Khachatryan (BAB ’18, MSM ’21) is a graduate of the American University of Armenia (AUA). Since completing her Bachelor of Arts in business and Master of Science in strategic management on a full academic scholarship, Khachatryan has focused her career on business development and management. She has worked as an advisor with over 100 startups, offering products/services to both local and international markets. She helps the teams refine their value proposition, improve their pitching skills, develop marketing strategies, and raise funds.

In 2017, Khachatryan joined AUA’s Entrepreneurship and Product Innovation Center (EPIC) as a program coordinator. During her two years in this position, she was part of the implementation team for five batches of EPIC Incubation programs. She also first organized and later coordinated the mentorship program provided to EPIC residents and managed relationships with partners, coaches, and community members. Khachatryan then worked at the Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology as an innovations analyst, where she took part in the planning and implementation of several cycles of venture building, incubation, and acceleration programs, as well as investment pitching events.

Since rejoining the EPIC team in 2021 as operations and community manager, Khachatryan has continued her dedication to empowering entrepreneurs and fostering a thriving startup ecosystem. We sat down with her to delve into the insights and experiences she gathered while shaping the EPIC Incubation Program and its impact on Armenia’s entrepreneurial landscape.

What inspired the inception of EPIC’s Incubation Program?

Established in 2017, EPIC aims to cultivate entrepreneurial skills within the AUA community. Initially restricted to teams with AUA representation, EPIC opened up participation to those outside the University in 2019 upon the request of former President Dr. Karin Markides and now embraces all aspiring entrepreneurs. The Center’s flagship initiative, the Incubation Program has thrived, completing 14 successful cycles in the past six years. 

In its early days, EPIC lacked the structured approach and popularity it enjoys today. With limited participation, the Program lacked competitiveness due to fewer applications. However, through diligent effort and feedback integration, the EPIC team found its problem-solution fit. Over time, the Program evolved significantly. Customer interview sessions were introduced, and the Program adopted a sequential, task-based approach with gamification elements. Additionally, mentorship became a cornerstone feature, with each team now assigned mentors for individualized support. 

Can you provide an overview of a startup’s journey from joining the Program to achieving impact?  

The Incubation Program kicks off with a lively, full-day “team building plus communication” day, during which selected teams engage in games, workshops, and team-building activities to foster bonds. We then delve into introducing the entrepreneurial mindset and the lean startup approach, distinguishing between small businesses and entrepreneurial ventures while ensuring teams grasp the essence of the lean methodology. Next, we guide teams through mapping assumptions and developing hypotheses, followed by an intensive customer interview phase supported by dedicated coaching and mentoring. The subsequent weeks are dedicated to analyzing learnings and defining brand promises, value propositions, and the minimum viable product (MVP). As the Program nears its conclusion with Demo Day, the focus shifts to honing pitch decks and the presentation skills crucial for effectively conveying ideas to diverse audiences.

What criteria do you use to select startups for the Program?

Entry into the EPIC Incubation Program is competitive. A key consideration for the EPIC team is the potential of the business idea to thrive in Armenia and be scalable. The focus is not solely on the U.S. or highly developed countries, but also on exploring opportunities within the region and accessible markets for startups. Our aim is to emphasize that there are valuable ideas capable of addressing real issues in Armenia, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and other regions. Consequently, we reject the notion that scaling is solely achievable by venturing into the U.S. market. 

Additionally, the composition of the team is a critical criterion, as we seek diverse teams that have both technically- and business-minded members within the startup. Coachability is another essential consideration, as teams must demonstrate a willingness to learn, embrace feedback, and adapt, given the intensive nature of the Program, which often necessitates pivoting to achieve problem-solution fit. Thus, EPIC looks for individuals who are not only open to challenging themselves, but also receptive to constructive criticism and feedback from coaches, mentors, and others throughout their journey.

How does EPIC differentiate itself from other Incubation Programs in the region?  

Firstly, our Program is highly structured and intensive. We meet three times weekly, with mandatory attendance for all team members at each session. This structured approach ensures the program’s quality remains consistently high, guiding participants through every stage of startup development. Secondly, we prioritize the lean startup methodology, with in-house experts proficient in this approach. The latter impart frameworks and insights, fostering a deep understanding among our startups. Another notable advantage is our unique gamification strategy, a rarity in Armenian incubation programs. We employ a scoreboard and a robust gamification process, assigning points for each completed activity or task.  We especially emphasize points for interactions with potential customers. The goal is to get the teams out “on the streets” to talk to people. This system motivates participants and rewards outstanding performance, setting EPIC apart within the local entrepreneurial landscape.

Can you share a success story from a previous cohort of the Incubation Program?  

We have had several success stories, among which Contractee, a legal tech startup, stands out from our recent batch. Initially, it lacked a well-defined solution and was still in the process of forming its team. However, the members’ openness to learning and experimentation proved invaluable. In just four months, they achieved a problem-solution fit, validated the business problem, and developed an MVP. During graduation, they announced five contracts with top Armenian companies, demonstrating tangible progress. Such success is uncommon in incubation programs, and notably, the team leader is an AUA alumnus from the Master of Laws program, while another member is currently a student at the University.

How crucial is mentorship to the success of startups within the EPIC Incubation Program?

Mentorship plays a pivotal role in the success of startups within the EPIC Incubation Program. The entrepreneurial journey is inherently challenging and intense, and startups often encounter various hurdles along the way. Mentors, who stay with the same team during the entire 15-week Program, provide a supportive ear, helping startups articulate their needs and identify underlying problems. Mentors offer both operational and strategic guidance, complementing the support provided by the EPIC team, and actively share their contacts and networks with teams to facilitate further opportunities for growth and development. When selecting mentors, we prioritize individuals with entrepreneurial backgrounds and diverse experiences, enabling them to share insights and networks with our participants. Those with a product management background are particularly helpful, given the alignment with our Program’s focus on customer interviews, discovery, and MVP development. After graduation, teams often continue to consult with their mentors.

What are some of the challenges startups typically face during the Program, and how do you help them overcome these obstacles?  

One common challenge startups encounter is the lack of competitiveness in their business ideas. Often, they approach us without conducting prior market research or competitor analysis. It is not until the second or third week that we delve into researching competitors, revealing numerous similar companies already in operation, of which the entrepreneurs were unaware. While disheartening, facing such realities is integral to startup growth. Moreover, having competitors indicates market viability, presenting opportunities alongside challenges. 

Another significant challenge is time constraints, as many entrepreneurs have full-time jobs or academic commitments alongside the Program, which limit the extent to which they can commit to it. Balancing these obligations in the early stages of a startup can be challenging. However, some entrepreneurs eventually transition to full-time dedication to their startups, demonstrating the value they have found in their ideas.

Lastly, could you share any forthcoming initiatives or advancements within the EPIC Incubation Program? What are the hopes and aspirations for EPIC’s future trajectory?

Looking ahead, the EPIC Incubation Program continually aims to raise the quality of the startups it produces. Initiatives like STRIVE and EPIC Jam seek to expand our applicant pool, anticipating a positive impact on the Program’s overall quality. We aspire for a future where Armenian startups have more competitive and technologically advanced ideas, scalable both domestically and internationally. As for upcoming plans, our 14th batch is currently underway, featuring nine promising startups. In early June, we will host our Demo Day, showcasing startups from the current and previous batches. Additionally, we will be awarding the Michael Agbabian prizes to the best teams. 

The Entrepreneurship and Product Innovation Center (EPIC) is a platform of the American University of Armenia (AUA) for promoting entrepreneurial education, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and startup venture incubation. EPIC provides an ecosystem for emerging entrepreneurs consisting of first-class facilities and collaborative workspace, programs and events, and a network of mentors, advisors, and investors. EPIC fosters the understanding and application of entrepreneurship in students and faculty at AUA to craft high-impact multidisciplinary ventures.