Shakhzod Narzullaev, project Manager at IT Park Uzbekistan:
"We are more interested in putting a startup on its feet to come back as a resident, rather than getting a stake in the project"
From intern to manager
— When did you start working at IT Park?
— I was studying at a branch of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics in Tashkent, and at that time IT Park started opening incubation centres in universities. I was taken on as an intern at the IT Park to help successfully open such a centre at my university. After which I was hired as a junior specialist in the startup development department, then as an accelerator development manager, and now I am a project manager.
— What is your responsibilities in the project now?
— I have different responsibilities: this includes working with projects and with documents, we have opened IT centres around Uzbekistan. Also, we have organised acceleration and incubation programmes, hackathons and ideathons.
"Children with autism have huge potential to work in IT"
— The IT Park is known to work towards inclusion as well. Together with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), you have launched a pilot project for hearing-impaired children, you are also planning a project for children with autism...
— We decided to smoothly enter the direction of inclusion because in Uzbekistan there are many hearing-impaired people, people with autism, those who have problems with the locomotor apparatus and many other people with disabilities. On the one hand, there are cool rehabilitation centres in Uzbekistan: the Republican Centre for Social Adaptation of Children, the IMKON rehabilitation centre, and Aaron Academy Kids, which have very cool equipment. Now, these centres help children to integrate into society and develop different skills. We want to open rooms at these centres, where children can take our educational courses. This way they don't have to get used to a new place, and at the same time, they will get to know their future profession. The first thing we started with was a room for hearing-impaired children. Now we want to create a programme for children with autism.
Because autism is not so well known, many parents think that their children have innate mental problems. They bring them to psychiatrists, who prescribe sedatives and thereby ruin the children. People with autism are non-verbal: they understand everything but do not give answers. They live in their world.
It is not always worth forcing a child to communicate with others to create a successful future. Children with autism already have enormous potential to work with. Moreover, I am convinced that a child with autism can handle IT better than a normal child. I'll explain.
They are idealistic children, they like absolute order and silence. They are not lazy, they are ready to work on the same task for a long time, they just need to be interested. These are precisely the qualities that IT professionals need.
Our educational course consists of 4 parts: electronics, 3D modelling, IT and robotics. We want to cover all these areas so that the child then chooses one of them to explore in more depth. Some children like to play with lego very much: they build multi-storey houses from a construction set and make partitions and staircases in them.
We want to show what opportunities 3D modelling offers, to encourage children to develop further. Or electronics and robotics, for example. You can use these modules to apply code to iron and understand how a light bulb burns in a robot, how electricity flows, and what current, transistors, and resistors are.
"Just a year ago, there were no venture capital funds in Uzbekistan"
— Back to the subject of startups. As we know, many of them fall off at the idea level. To help startups, IT Park runs three-month acceleration programmes. How do you select startups?
— Most startups fall off at the idea level because, in reality, they realise that the solution is not so simple: you have to conduct a lot of surveys and find out who their project will be useful. Of all applications, around 30% are just an idea. We sift them out straight away. Then we consider those that can be implemented, and hold pitch sessions for them. This is the second stage.
After that, we conduct another sifting process, and then there are the finalists who take part in the programme. During this programme the startups get to know each other, learn from each other, and in the end, everyone comes to a result. Start-ups can ask us for help - to contact someone, to help with administrative issues, to write a letter to the agency to have their project considered. And only then do we help them get investment.
It is worth noting that only a year ago there were no venture funds in Uzbekistan. Now they are actively beginning to open, and the topic is on everyone's lips. But we changed the mindset of many students: they thought that if they don't have money, it is better to save up first and then think about the project. And this was a barrier they often could not cross. But in reality, it turns out that in the early stages, you can do everything yourself.
— How many times a year does the IT Park hold acceleration programmes?
— We have two acceleration programmes a year at the park. But we also run additional programmes together with partners, including corporate accelerators. In total, there are about 7-8 streams in one year. One of the first was with Ucell, the largest mobile operator in Uzbekistan. Now we are negotiating with Sber Unity: we want to launch a joint accelerator with them in Uzbekistan and connect Uzbek startups and investors to the Sber500 platform so that they can enter the international market.
From training to administration – what is included in the accelerator programme
— How does the mechanism for interaction between the startup and IT Park look like during these three months?
— The first part is educational. We give startups a squeeze-out, how to work with clients, and how to look for the real problem. The second part is tracking: a mentor stands over the startup and offers solutions to problems. The third part is administrative help. When a startup needs meetings, or partners, when it can't reach someone, IT Park as an administrative resource can help with that.
— Which projects do you find the most successful?
— Of the most successful projects, Iman, received a $1 million investment.
— Does IT Park ask for a piece of the startup to receive dividends?
— No. Our position is a little different. We are much more interested in a startup becoming an IT Park resident. It will find itself in an environment it is already familiar with, it will have good tax benefits, and in return, it will only pay 1% of the total return. Income tax for residents drops from 12% to 7.5%. The remaining taxes are zero. Residents can make all domestic transactions in foreign currency, and for personal use, they can import appliances or products without customs duties.
So, today we have 665 residents. And we adhere to the logic that there is no need to enter a startup's share. It is better to put a startup on its feet and take it on as a resident. And it will be a win-win for everyone.
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