Experts discussed the need for smart growth and increased transatlantic collaboration
On September 14, 2017, THO hosted a teleconference titled “Turkey’s Innovation Ecosystem: The Role of Tech Startups.”

The teleconference brought together two prominent members of the Turkish-American tech ecosystem, Mr. Egemen Tas, CTO of the Innovation Lab, Comodo Security Solutions, and Dr. Erdogan Cesmeli, Executive Director of Catalyst, GE Ventures. Both speakers have long histories of working to spur entrepreneurship, innovation, and collaboration in both the Turkish and U.S. tech startup sectors. A third contributor, Ms. Selin Arslanhan Memis, Program Director of the Innovation Studies Program, TEPAV (The Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey), was also slated to participate; she was forced to withdraw due to medical emergency.

Conditions for Tech Startups in Turkey

Following THO’s Executive Director Yenal Kucuker’s introduction, the speakers began by discussing the state of Turkey’s tech startup ecosystem. Dr. Cesmeli highlighted how Turkey has dramatically increased its tech spending as a share of GDP in recent years, and will likely continue to do so over the next decade in parallel to that of global economy. He exemplified that tech sector reached 4.5% of the global GDP from 2% in 1992, translating to 5 times the size of Turkish Economy. He also explained how this sector is uniquely placed to help the Turkish—and the global—economy grow. Cesmeli stressed how job creation is driven increasingly by startups compared to large multinational companies. Mr. Tas also highlighted how Turkish tech startups have helped bring wealth into the Turkish economy.

The discussion turned to Turkey’s place in the region concerning tech entrepreneurship. Mr. Tas talked about what lessons Israel, with its successful startup ecosystem, can offer its Turkish counterpart. First among these was that Israel is forced—due to its size—to look outside their own national market, whereas Turkey’s need to look globally is less urgent. Tas also discussed the difference between Turkish and Israeli startup investment options, particularly Israel’s superior venture capital environment. 

Dr. Cesmeli praised Turkey’s extensive network of incubators and mentorships. He gave the example of Turkish Entrepreneurship Foundation (Girisimcilik Vakfi) where the selected college students receive fellowship, coaching and training, by building on their entrepreneurial drive and characteristics. He argued for a general culture change but also for patience, citing ecosystems’ two-decade maturation period.

International Cooperation & Promising Sectors

The speakers then shared their perspectives based on their American corporate experience. Mr. Tas, for instance, explained Turkey’s R&D appeal for Comodo Security Systems, which has an R&D section located in Ankara. He described how Turkey offers both heavy incentives and a highly skilled technical labor pool—a uniquely appealing cocktail for any multinational tech company.

When asked about promising tech sectors in Turkey, the speakers were optimistic and their answers wide-ranging. Cesmeli mentioned that the current startup focus areas range from e-commerce, real estate, and telecom or other software services. . He also urged Turkey to focus on strategic development in terms of sectors, instead of trying to be the best in numerous areas, arguing that the government and investors should look to grow areas for which infrastructure investment is inexpensive and Turkey’s talent pool is sufficiently skilled. Cesmeli and Tas were both firm proponents of a national software initiative, starting from elementary school, making software part of the curriculum and perhaps having dedicated industrial vocational schools, for instance. 

Role of Diaspora Communities

On the importance of diaspora communities in technological entrepreneurship, Dr. Cesmeli and Mr. Tas were equally positive. The speakers discussed Turkish-American billionaire Hamdi Ulukaya’s HUG Program, which brings promising Turkish entrepreneurs to the U.S. for professional development, and OKYAY (enabled by, a platform, initiated  by Dr. Cesmeli & Turkish business executives in New England area that connects Turkish venture capitalists and entrepreneurs with their American counterparts. Among their activities are entrepreneurial symposia, hosting startups & small medium enterprises from Turkey, & mentorship to Turkish startups, thanks to the leadership support by the Turkish Boston Consulate, Mr Omur Budak. Mr. Tas discussed his experience of having his Turkish startup bought up by Comodo’s Turkish-American CEO, and Comodo’s wider investment operations in the country.

Cesmeli emphasized the importance of globalization in the flow of ideas, and the need for collaboration in the pursuit of higher ideals. Both speakers saw Turkish-American interchange as a win-win; interaction was described as a way to create jobs in Turkey and bring better products to the U.S. In short, both Dr. Cesmeli and Mr. Tas felt the Turkish startup ecosystem was doing well and growing steadily. While opportunities for improvement remain, Turkish-American tech and business interaction will continue to guide the ecosystem’s growth.

To learn more on this subject, please consult THO’s September 2017 issue brief on tech startups in Turkey.