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Recipe for success in science: One woman’s unlikely story

It’s impressive enough to hear about a young Armenian woman who is a mathematician, engineer and an expert in the sphere of aerospace, but when you learn that she also founded her own startup company dealing with high resolution and frequently updated geospatial data, you can’t help but wonder what sequence of events had lead her there. With the odds stacked against her, how did she get from point a to point b? This is Hripsime’s story, a story of probabilities, and an unlikely journey. 

Family-Sparked Love For Science

With only around 20% of engineers worldwide being women, the field isn’t exactly the most welcoming for the female gender. So, what got Hripsime inspired to enter this male dominated terrain in the first place? Certainly there is a glass ceiling for women in the industry today. It turns out that Armenia is historically well known for having a surprising amount of women in the field of Computer Science between the 1980s and 1990s (a whopping 75% to be exact, compared to today’s 44%).

Perhaps among these pioneering women was Hripsime’s own mother, a programmer who always found ways to spark her daughter’s interest towards everything dealing with IT and programming.

“My mom bought me a computer when I was in my early teens, and I remember making little animations for my cousins,” recalls Hripsime “It was the first time that I realized I can create something using technology which can have an effect on people.”

Hripsime was born in Yerevan and raised in a family of engineers, mathematicians and physicists. Her grandfather, who was an engineer, would spend days with her as a kid, teaching her the Armenian, Latin and Russian alphabets, all things science and tech.

“He would explain complex ideas in the simplest ways, like how changing the angle of my slingshot plane would affect how far it flies,” she reminisced. “He had a way of explaining the science and math behind the magic, and help you understand the world using math and science.”

The Fundamentals and Foundations

Her journey in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) started in Physics and Mathematics Specialized School, or shortly – PhysMath, where she studied with perfect grades.. Upon completion, the Ministry of Education of Armenia awarded her with a Gold medal – the highest award for academic distinction in school. She was then accepted to Department of Informatics and Applied Mathematics at the Yerevan State University. During her third year of studies Hripsime got also involved with IT startups and outsourcing projects pushing herself to exploration of her own potential in IT applications. 

Another important turn in her life was her internship at the Institute of Systems Programming of Russian Academy of Sciences. Each year the Institute would select 2-3 students to participate in an internship program, and Hripsime was one of the lucky few selected in 2011. The internship allowed her to spend the last semester of her 4th year of studies in Moscow. Soon after she was offered a full scholarship at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, thus pursuing her Master’s degree at one of the top universities in Eastern Europe.

A Strike of Serendipity

Hripsime always had the intention of working in an aerospace company, especially as she was nearing the end of her studies for her Master’s degree. Yet, what led her towards her path was a somewhat unexpected stroke of chance. It all started with a friend asking if she would like to participate in a Hackathon organized by the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), a private graduate research institute in Moscow, built by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Skolkovo Foundation. The topic of Hackathon was not exactly relevant to her previous work or experiences, but after a few hours of brainstorming she coded with her friend an app and they won a prize!

“That was when I first heard about Skoltech,” said Hripsime. “I checked the Skoltech website and searched through the Space and Engineering Systems Department, found Professor Alessandro Golkar – the head of the Department, and sent him my CV with a motivation letter to start a PhD programme at his Department.

Luckily the old lessons taught by her grandfather remained true in new environment — everything can be understood better with math and science.

 “All my skills were super applicable in the field too, so adjustment wasn’t a huge challenge for me,” explained Hripsime. “I would still code and use math to explore new areas of inquiry. I knew it was a start for an exciting journey for me.”

Fortuitous Encounters

Diversity of experts and students from all over the world working side by side in Skoltech enabled rich exchange of ideas and new encounters with talented people.

“While working towards my PhD I met many different people from all around the world, including my current cofounder Ignasi Lluch,” said Hripsime. “Our research group was one of the very few in Russia that won a prestigious Horizon 2020 grant helping the European Commission to plan the future of their Copernicus satellite project.”

Among other things, the team studied the user needs for imagery data and analyzed available solutions to cater for these needs. It was obvious that numerous user experiences would improve if the images were of higher quality and were updated more frequently.

The idea about one possible solution came unexpectedly. “We were stuck in a traffic jam with Ignasi chatting about all sorts of theories and suddenly we had this small eureka moment,” said Hripsime. “What if it were possible to make high resolution imaging from relatively inexpensive autonomous flying platforms?” This became the foundational idea for our company, Swiftera. “We shared our thoughts with our friend Albert Caubet, who was at that time working for a leading German satellite manufacturer OHB as a Guidance, Navigation and Control engineer. He got so excited that decided to join the journey with us. For a few months we were trying to push the idea forward with academic support from one of our professors in Innovation,  Prof. Zeljko Tekic,” Hripsime recalls. “Despite enthusiasm, it quickly became apparent that startups dealing with this kind of technology would have hard time generating adequate support in Skoltech. The VCs and funding support were limited, forcing the team to search broader. The opportunity presented itself in August 2017.

A Rewarding Journey

URBAN-X accelerator in Brooklyn, NY, was accepting applications for funding innovative projects demonstrating a potential for tackling modern age urban challenges. Hripsime and her team applied, got selected, and secured US$100,000 funding to create and test a prototype of their solution in 5 months.  

Starting their business was certainly not easy. The goal and ambitions were extremely high, so were the associated risks.  However, the founders were excited to start the journey and see their unique idea through. Of course, this came with a sacrifice — Hripsime had to drop her PhD program, at least for some time: “I already have major contributions in the field of Space Systems Engineering, and, maybe I will go back to it at some point to get the degree as well”, she points out. 

In September 2017 Swiftera moved to New York. The team tirelessly worked on their prototype for 5 months and became the first company to create a high resolution map taken from high altitudes on a large scale, covering a full city with just one flight.

“That’s what’s unique about our technology. With just one of our autonomous flying platforms we’re able to deliver what only 100s of 1000s drones or constellations of satellites are able to do,” explained Hripsime.

This opens up big opportunities in a number of applications. One of those is post-disaster response and damage assessment. “Because our platforms are fast and easy to deploy we can provide real-time situational awareness for first responders. Our resolutions allow us to map the debris after hurricanes and find optimal routes for rescuers to get to people fast. During wildfires we’re able to map how fires spread helping firefighters contain the fire. It can also help insurers  to measure the damage caused to  properties by natural disasters or accidents enable fast and accurate support in recovery.” There are a number of areas from remote sensing to telecommunications where Swiftera’s offering can play a key role.

Growth and the Future

Hripsime unveiled their prototype and outcomes of 5 months of work in February 2018, during the Demo day for 800 people invited by URBAN-X. The presentation was a hit, yet Hripsime was facing another exciting challenge: convincing investors to join the journey with Swiftera. For the next couple of months she would fly back and forth between Silicon Valley and New York  pitching to investors in both locations. “URBAN-X did a great job in setting up the initial meetings during the first couple of days. It all took off very fast from there and soon I was having around 5-10 daily pitches for couple of weeks. The momentum was great.”, Hripsime recalls.

In addition, Lady luck played her hand in helping Hripsime meet with Siri Srinivas from Draper Associates – a large investment fund that supported such companies as ICEYE, SpaceX, Cruise and others. “It was a pure coincidence that we met for ten minutes. I quickly pitched our company and Siri got excited to meet again and learn more,” she explained. “I have then met Tim Draper, known in the investment world for identifying and supporting the best companies in our field. We were really excited to become part of their portfolio.”

Now Swiftera has a second office in Barcelona, where they work on hardware development, while their New York office is focusing more on customer development. Their technology is in high demand, and can have a high impact in many industries.

The company’s growth is on the horizon and with growth come new challenges. Yet, it seems,  Hripsime and her team are able to tackle the challenges as they come. Their company is now hiring professionals, a new phase to get used to and another interesting experience. They are working to create a healthy and attractive company culture.

 “It is fun working for our company because we provide opportunities to fly and work in both New York and Barcelona for months at a time,” said Hripsime.

Hripsime has overcome many obstacles, through both hard work and a pinch of luck, and we can come to expect great things from her and her company in the future. A young woman born and raised in Armenia, she is an inspiring example for the younger generation of girls interested in experimenting and growing in STEM. Let them take a look at the probabilities of success straight in the face and say, “we can conquer that, after all, Hripsime did!”


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