Alva Emerging Fellowship Application

I recently applied to the Alva Emerging Fellowship. I submitted a discovery that came out of my thesis, which I've been calling Open Startup Failures. I pull from arguments in my thesis to discuss the implications, the importance of entrepreneurial learning, and the need for Open Startup Failures. The winners of the Alva Fellowship had some exciting projects and can be found here. The following is what I submitted:

Describe the project you are currently trying to realize, and why it will make an impact on the world.

As I've been working on my graduate thesis, I've discovered a need for a searchable and open database of startup failures – a tool that I've called Open Startup Failures.

During my research into the Philadelphia tech startup ecosystem, I became aware of entrepreneurs repeating past mistakes. The purpose of Open Startup Failures is to make failures and past attempts at solving problems publicly accessible in order to decrease the learning curve for tech entrepreneurs. The goal is to increase the chances of success. I understand this is not a silver bullet, but it tackles one aspect of entrepreneurial learning.

Entrepreneurial Learning in Perspective:

In the following paragraphs, I'm arguing that the unemployment problem is connected to a startup problem, which is connected to a learning problem. Designing and developing Open Startup Failures to tackle one part of the learning problem will have an impact on the unemployment problem.

To put this into the context of the current economic climate, my generation (those graduating post-crash) is having difficulty finding their way into established companies. According to the Bureau ofLabor Statistics, the fourth quarter of 2011 had unemployment ratesamongst those aged 16 to 19 at 23.6%, those aged 20 to 24 at 14.2%,and those aged 25 to 34 at 9.4%. According to Gallop Poll trackingJanuary 2ndto September 30th,2011, for those aged 18 to 29, 30% are underemployed and 14% areunemployed. This means that it has become much more difficult to find employment in existing organizations for those aged 16 to 29.

Also, in recent years, there's been a growing and revived interest in entrepreneurship. The connection between the crash and the current rise of entrepreneurship in American society seems more than correlated. I think it's one of the current causes of, as one of my interviewees put it, “start-up companies popping up like Rock bands in the 80's.” While interviewing a community leader in the Philadelphia startup ecosystem, he said, “every startup that comes in creates ancillary jobs that generate taxes that gives back to the city, that gives back to build better things to make things better.” This isn't simply anecdotal, but is supported by a job growth study performed by the Kauffman Foundation. The report concludes that “newfirms add an average of 3 million jobs in their first year, whileolder companies lose 1 million jobs annually.” The Kauffman report studied startups and existing firms from 1977 to 2005 and defines startups as firms younger than one year old. The report goes on to say that policymakers do not correctly focus their attention on supporting startup growth. This opinion is reflected in the same startup community leader, “the older institutions that were fostered in the 60s, like Ben Franklin tech partners, like the science center, like the chamber of commerce, these bureaucrats and older generation, are trying to sustain their positions and their jobs and companies and they're not fostering innovation.” This community leader has been an advocate for startups in Philadelphia for the past decade. Putting his opinion side-by-side with the findings from the Kauffman report means that people have already realized the potential behind getting involved in a new firm or starting one.

However, ninety percent of startups fail. Seventy percent of them, discovered by the Startup Genome, scale prematurely along any one of five dimensions, which they think may partly explain the ninety percent failure rate amongst technology startups. The Startup Genome has published two reports, one with a data set of 650+ internet technology startups and another on 3200+ internet technology startups. The Startup Genome set out to test three hypotheses, and one which is of interest to this project is, “learning is a fundamental unit of progress for startups. More learning should increase chances of success.” They went on to discover,
“Founder's that learn are more successful. Start-ups that have helpful mentors, track performance metrics effectively, and learn from start-up thought leaders raise 7x more money and have 3.5x better user growth.”
They point to three factors being relevant for funding and user growth: helpful mentors, tracking metrics, and learning from thought leaders. All three provide the foundation to learn. Being able to raise funds and maintain user growth is key to a healthy startup, which means that learning is vital for a healthy startup.

Open Startup Failures will be a significant learning tool for startups that may result in greater successes and thus greater employment opportunities.

Please describe your plan for executing the project. (If the product or service is the subject of a patent application or issued patent, please include that information.)

As a human centered designer, I've learned to co-create with my target audience. This means I have one part of the solution and the entrepreneurs I've been studying have the other part. Together, the final designed service may better meet their needs. Co-creation is part of my plan for executing this project.
The integral part is making knowledge accessible. To make knowledge of startup failures accessible for these entrepreneurs, the knowledge needs to be in a form that is useful to these entrepreneurs. I currently meet with them, receive feedback on the form the information needs to take, and let the entrepreneurs inform the most important aspects of the design. This phase should take up the next month of thesis work, and will lay the foundation for data gathering, frontend web design, and backend server development.

I expect data gathering to happen continuously once a useful form has been structured. Frontend web design for Open Startup Failures will come next and take a month and a half. I'm visually sensitive, know how to architect information, and have experience user-testing products. Backend server development is going to come next and take another month. I'm proficient and have experience developing server-side code in java. The entire data input and retrieval is going to be automated and is informed by the co-created work between the entrepreneurs and myself.

At this pace, we should be in mid-August and launching at Philly Tech Meet-up. I am going to leverage my entrepreneurial networks in Philadelphia through Philly Startup Leaders and the local accelerators, incubators, and coworking spaces. These spaces include Venturef0rth, Novotorium, SeedPhilly, IndyHall, Good Company Ventures, the Corzo Center for theCreative Economy, and the Science Center where DreamIt Ventures is currently housed. The goal is to inform people about the tool and have them contribute – in a fashion similar to Wikipedia.

After Philadelphia, the next logical steps include New York and DC. Again, I believe it's best to use local venues to spread word of mouth and in person. If there's anything I've learned from observing and interacting with entrepreneurs is that they value meeting face-to-face. This means face-to-face is the best way to reach out to them.

Tell us about past initiatives, actions, or projects you've undertaken that qualify you to execute on the project you described above.

I'm interested in pushing the boundaries of human-computer interaction and I've recently had the opportunity to explore and study entrepreneurship with my thesis. You'll see examples of this on my website, but there's a few I'd like to point out.

I'd like to tell you about the work I did at the Franklin Institute. The Franklin Institute is a science museum in Philadelphia. While there, I was in charge of two projects. Both projects leveraged the Xbox Kinect to build full body interfaces to teach kids and adults about science by means of experiential learning. The first project was about teaching kids and adults about change blindness, which is a person's inability to notice their visual surroundings change. Videos and images are available at the following link: http://www.benfarahmand.com/2011/09/change-blindness-at-franklin-institute.html. The second project is about peaking the museum patron's interest to learn about the human nervous system. This project has the distinction of being made a permanent interactive when the new “Your Brain” Exhibit opens in the Franklin Institute in 2014. Recently, this second project has made it into the local ABC news, videos and images may be found at this link: http://www.benfarahmand.com/2012/04/in-local-news.html and a demonstration of the interactive is at the following link: http://www.benfarahmand.com/2012/03/visualizing-human-nervous-system-at.html

Another example is the work I did with Slavko Milekic, a professor of mine. The project is called Electrofolksonogram (EFG) and was demonstrated at the Museums and the Web conference in 2011. EFG is the fusion of electroencephalogram(EEG, which is a device that measures brain waves) and folksonomy (which is a collaborative method to categorize content). The EFG adds a new layer of information by recording the user’s engagement, excitement, and opinion about a particular piece of art. This is a proof of concept project displaying the potential applications of the Emotiv EEG, the data gathered from the EFG can be turned into a database in order to find correlations amongst large populations of people and to better cater to museum goers. Videos and images may be found at this link: http://www.benfarahmand.com/2011/08/electrofolksonomy-museum-and-web.html.

Over the summer two other industrial designers and myself designed an environment to encourage collaboration amongst museum patrons. We called it Collabritique. The first iteration of this project was demonstrated at the Museums andthe Web conference in 2011. Collabritique brings people together in a museum space. It fosters collaboration by facilitating a conversation between three people about a single or multiple pieces of art. In this way, Collabritique not only promotes interactions, new discussions, and critiques about art, but also highlights the inherent connections created when artworks are juxtaposed. Collabritique provides a richer experience for the museum patron and a satisfied museum customer. Videos and images may be found at the following link: http://www.benfarahmand.com/search/label/Collabritique. Our current website for the product is here: http://collabritique.com/

Describe what you're focusing your energy on right now. For example: Are you a student? Are you running a startup? Are you working on a “passion project” alongside a full-time job?

I'm a graduate student studying for my Master of Industrial Design. I'll be graduating mid-May and am currently working on my thesis. As a part of my design thesis, I've been studying the information technology startup ecosystem in Philadelphia. Within this ecosystem, I've focused on enabling entrepreneurial learning. The problem being addressed is the disconnect between novice and experienced entrepreneurs and the gap in knowledge and experience transfer. I've spent the last seven months researching, interviewing, observing, learning, prototyping, networking, and meeting passionate people that want to change the world.

What character traits do you think have contributed to your ability to execute on your ideas thus far?

Curiosity, creativity, persistence, skepticism, and empathy. I've also been influenced by three distinct cultures: American, German, and Iranian. My Iranian parents and I moved to Southern California from Germany when I was a young child. I believe this has nurtured a mindset that draws connections between disparate ideas and a curiosity about people and where they come from. Attending UCLA, I know my degrees in Aerospace Engineering and Philosophy are a direct result of my cultural experiences growing up and the traits I pointed out.

As much as I enjoy building new technologies, my desire to understand people influenced my decision two years ago to pursue a Master of Industrial Design. As an industrial designer trained in human centered design, I pull from fields such as cognitive science, anthropology, psychology, and sociology to quantify the human experience. This means I design and develop interactive technologies to teach kids and adults about science, to foster collaboration between people, and to make sure technology doesn't get in the way of being human. Design is my lens to focus engineering to solve human problems.

If you are selected for the Alva Emerging Fellowship, how would you use the funds to get your project off the ground?

I will use the money to cover the cost of web hosting, server and database space for two years. I'm adept at developing the required software, so what I most need is to cover the overhead cost of online space. As the project develops, I also expect to use a small amount of the funds to cover transportation expenses between New York, Philadelphia, and DC.

What else should we know about you?

I'd like to share about the art I make, how I currently experience art, and why I think it reflects where I am in my life.

Over the past two years, art exhibits and galleries have become therapeutic for me. I enter into these spaces and see objects that spark an emotional reaction. I reflect on these emotions as a way to learn more about myself. In essence, the art I see becomes an external embodiment of an internal emotion. I feel like I transcend the space, the art, and myself.

I've recently tried to imbue the art I make with this same property: an opportunity for the observer to self-reflect and transcend. I'd like to share Chris's story as he experienced a digital interactive art piece I made, titled myFace.

Chris is a brick layer. He walks into Little Berlin's gallery space and he's confronted with a wall of one hundred faces he doesn't recognize. He stands perplexed at the expressions of the hundred faces, and why they loop like online gif images over and over again. As he's observing the wall, he notices his face has appeared on the wall. He doesn't know why or how, but one of the videos of his face is mixed in with a brick wall. I was standing and watching him, he walked over to me and told me his art is laying bricks. I could feel the chills going down his spine as he watched the brick wall behind him transpose on top of his face. The paradox present in this experience is that myFace reflected Chris' art (brick laying), not mine. myFace simply facilitated an environment for Chris to transcend the moment. Videos and images of myFace at Little Berlin's gallery can be found at the following link: http://www.benfarahmand.com/2012/03/myface-at-little-berlin.html

I have a passion for leveraging the digital to create spaces that empower people – whether it's to enable entrepreneurial learning or for trans-existential environments. With the case of myFace, my motivation was to create a space that evolves and grows with each passing observer. I had also hoped to reveal people's emotional states when they do not have control over how they are perceived – an intrusive concept in this day of editable text messages and emails. myFace has had a polarizing effect on its observers. One group refuses to step into the space where interaction occurs and the other group can't seem to leave that space. At the same time, this piece imbues the space in front of the screen with a digital memory, allowing observers to know who has passed through the space.

I hope you've learned a little bit about me, and you should know I'm exuberant about the Alva Emerging Fellowship enabling Open Startup Failures to get off the ground. If there are any more questions feel free to email or call.