Issue 2, 2015. April-May

   

GEORGIA'S IT GENERATION

Young Georgians are pushing their generation to innovate and create, using technology to give life to a new era of Georgian scientists and inventors.

Heather Yundt

Gears interlock across the back of the leather glove, wires running down each finger. When the prototype is complete, the interactive glove will allow gamers to feel the shape and temperature of objects in virtual reality.

The idea belongs to 17-year-old Dimitri Tskhovrebadze and it's already drawn the attention of investors. If all goes according plan for Tskhovrebadze's team, InGlove will be the world's first affordable virtual reality glove — and a Georgian innovation success story.

Tskhovrebadze and his team member Simon Invia, also 17, show me around the room that the Agricultural University has loaned them to use as their lab. The boys still attend school at Komarovi #199, but the technology- and mathematics-focused high school has supported their innovation — even funding a trip to a tech competition in Ukraine.

The InGlove team was one of three Georgian teams to be selected at an idea-pitching competition in Tbilisi last June to join Turn8, a Dubai-based accelerator. The chosen teams spent more than four months in Dubai last year developing a business plan, being mentored, and meeting investors. Now back in Georgia, the InGlove team plans to finish their prototype in the next few weeks and then head back to the UAE to show it off to potential investors.

Tskhovrebadze and Invia show me the product's complex digital designs on a laptop, a photo of MIT on the computer's desktop background. Tskhovrebadze says the technology behind the glove was not difficult to learn.

"I think it's not something to learn because you get those things in everyday life—you just have to observe, like motors. It's the basics of physics that we learned in school," Tskhovrebadze says.

The team members are quick to point out the support they've received. The motors and gears are attached to the glove by plastic parts the team 3D-printed at Ilia State University's new government-funded fabrication laboratory, or fab lab.

When I visit Ilia State University's fab lab, the room is humming with the sounds of drills, machines and chatter. More than 30 young men and women crowd around the computer stations, desks and machines. A Led Zeppelin composite is printing on the laser engraver.

I've walked into an art-focused startup competition. The deadline is approaching and the teams are putting together their final products. One group called MT Design shows me their creations: cat- and guitar-shaped cellphone holders that hang from electrical outlets as your phone charges.

The fab lab's technical assistant, Dimitri Shishlovi, shows me the lab's high-tech machines: several 3D printers, a programmable woodcutter, and a laser cutter.

"This fab lab is mainly for people who have some kind of concept, ideas or some kind of crazy thoughts about what to make or innovations. So mainly these are students," says Mikheil Darjania, the fab lab's technical expert.

This is the first fab lab built by Georgia's new Innovation and Technology Agency, known as GITA. The agency was created last April to boost innovation and has been pushing forward with a series of projects, including a technical park that will house a business incubator and accelerator, a co-working space, a conference room, and GITA's new office. The first stage of the tech park is set to open in September.

GITA, with a 2015 budget of 6.3 million GEL, has recently opened two innovation labs — spaces anyone can use to develop software ideas — including one focused on game development. More innovation labs and fab labs are in the works. The long list of projects is intended to help Georgia make a name for itself in the field of tech and innovation.

"We see lots of talent," says Giorgi Kintsurashvili, GITA's head of skills development and capacity building. "We see lots of passion from young people who have lots of ideas. But at the same time we understand that the whole country is early in the beginning phase. Because, for many years, there was nothing happening, and the whole world accelerated so fast."

Lasha Kvantaliani's startup, Plex was another one of the three Georgian ideas selected to join Turn8 in Dubai. Plex is an application that allows event attendees to find other attendees by interest, exchange contact information, chat, and meet up using indoor maps. Once he finishes developing his prototype, he plans to pitch it to investors in the US.

"We have a cool new generation [in Georgia]. We have big potential, I think," he says. "What's most important: we need one success story. This is critical for Georgia now. For example, in Estonia [there was] Skype. Skype developed the hopes of a whole generation of entrepreneurs. We need one international successful startup in Georgia."

There is one startup that everyone I speak to mentions: Deehubs, a company that allows people to broadcast their messages on digital billboards around the world.

Giorgi Gurgenidze, one of the founders of Deehubs and now living in Seattle, says he believes that the constraints Georgian innovators have faced in the past pushed to them to be more creative.

"The problem is that we do not make innovation popular in Georgia," Gurgenidze says. "Young people might have curiosity and drive to go ahead and create, but at some point getting a diploma in other fields is more common, and it's not about universities, but about the fact that we as a society do not praise innovation as much as Western cultures do. I really hope we will have more role models in this field and that more young people will aspire to dedicate their time to bring innovation, because the talent is there, and it doesn't require anything more than that and determination."

GITA's Kintsurashvili says Deehubs' founders themselves are role models.

"What I personally like, and what we think, is that these people have a good impact because they got very popular in Georgian society, and they are just typical Georgian guys who got a startup and were successful," Kintsurashvili says.

Back at InGlove's lab, Simon Invia and Dimitri Tskhovrebadze tell me about their hopes of going to MIT. Like many Georgian startup founders, they are drawn to the opportunities of the U.S. But both say they would like to come back to Georgia afterward.

"Georgia is a place that you would miss after a while," Tskhovrebadze says.

There has been great progress in the past two years, Invia says, and innovation in Georgia is "flourishing." Still, he thinks the country would benefit if it had its own engineering-focused university like MIT.

"I think it would be a great thing for Georgia to have such an environment for students," he says. "And then students wouldn't go to another country like the USA to study. They would study here; then they would work here, and it would be beautiful for the country."

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