Boston Innovation Summit Encourages US-Turkish Commerce


By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Usually the Mirror reports on Armenian efforts to rally American political and economic support for Armenia. This time, I thought it would be interesting to see how one of Armenia’s neighbors, the Republic of Turkey, does it, especially in light of the dramatic events of the recent failed coup and its aftermath. On July 21, the Washington DC based American-Turkish Council (ATC) sponsored the US-Turkey Innovation Summit at Harvard University’s Knafel Center. Its stated goal was “connect private companies, universities, and government institutions to facilitate partnerships in research and development, and address related topics including innovation ecosystems, methodology, risk and legal considerations.”

Indeed, American and Turkish government officials and various industry specialists as well as academics spoke at the event, which appeared to be attended by as many as 150 people of various professional backgrounds, including representatives of the Swiss government and of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Intriguingly, perhaps the two most famous speakers, including the keynote speaker, were a Greek-American and an Armenian-American.

Sponsors included the Consulate General of the Republic of Turkey in Boston, the Investment Support and Promotion Agency of the Prime Ministry of the Republic of Turkey, Turkish Airlines, dFA (a Turkish engineering and consulting company) and Uber. MassChallenge was listed among the media partners, though it is primarily a nonprofit accelerator supporting entrepreneurs and startups in various industries both in the US and abroad.

According to its website, ATC is a bilateral non-profit association “founded in the mid-1980s by US diplomats personally devoted to the US-Turkey relationship. ATC staff continue to emphasize the friendship and professionalism that has shaped the bilateral partnership for decades.” At present it has evolved into a business association with large multinationals as well as smaller American and Turkish firms in 15 business sectors as members. Its website declares that it “exists to help member companies achieve their bilateral business and investment objectives and to facilitate stronger US-Turkey relations.”

Judging by its staff, it seems to be a part of what often is called the US military-industrial complex. The chairman of its staff since January 2014 is a high-ranking US general, James L. Jones. Jones is the former commander of the US European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe, where, according again to the ATC website, he led all military operations for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He also is a former US National Security Adviser. Its president and chief executive officer since February 2015 is Howard G. Beasey, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran and retired United States Marine. Beasey studied Turkish and worked as a Turkish Area Officer. After retiring from the Marines in 2014, he joined Goldman Sachs as a Corporate Security Associate.

ATC, according to its website, “routinely hosts leading government officials for special events and private meetings with member companies.” It sponsors seminars, workshops and conferences in the US and Turkey, and “educational trips” to Turkey for members of Congress and their staff, as well as separate trips for US business leaders.

After an introduction from Beasey, inaugurating the summit and stressing the need to work to increase trade between Turkey and the US, Turkish Consul General Ömür Budak of Boston spoke. He first dealt with the startling recent violence in Turkey. He condemned the abortive coup as contrary to democracy. “This coup attempt was staged by a terrorist organization, named the Fethullah Gülen terrorist organization. … Those who were part of this organization will be duly investigated, prosecuted and punished in accordance with the law.” He then lumped together the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and YPG (People’s Protection Units) as another type of terrorism – “Kurdish terrorism” – and declared that the Turkish government was simultaneously fighting both, as well as the Islamic State.

He then switched gears to make an optimistic presentation concerning the fast growth of the Turkish economy. He said that the markets responded positively to efforts to reassure them after the coup events. The Turkish business community, he continued, was strongly opposed to the coup attempt and it would not have lasting effects on economic indicators. The Turkish economy was resilient, he stressed, and the government was continuing to introduce reforms.

He presented basic information about the economy, some of which was repeated later by other speakers and included in printed literature. For example, since 2002, a largescale transformation of the Turkish economy has taken place, with annual 5 percent growth. Exports have increased from 36 billion to 144 billion dollars. National income has grown 3.5 times. He said, “gigantic” infrastructure investments are being made. Turkey wishes to increase its investment in research and development to the level of developed countries. Budak said that the consulate, opened in Boston in 2010, naturally focuses on science, technology and innovation.

After pointing out Turkey’s economic progress, he said, “Do you see what damage this coup attempt is trying to make on [sic] our country? Do you see why we are here, why we are trying to say no to this?” However, he again turned back to the positive, saying “I hope today we can focus on the positive.”

The majority of the one-day conference consisted of speakers in panels or solo providing a wide range of talks on business and innovation. Some talks were general surveys of fields such as patent law (by Michael Belliveau, partner in Clark and Elbing LLP), or robotics (Taskin Padir, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Northeastern University). Dr. Greek-American Nicholas Negroponte, founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Media Lab, gave a general talk called “Maintaining Big Thinking in an Entrepreneurial Economy.”

Other talks more specifically dealt with Turkey. For example, Zehra Öney, part of the panel on “Opportunities and Challenges for Innovators Exploring Foreign Markets, is chief executive officer of Blippar Turkey, an augmented reality platform, and she provided one example of expansion of a company into the Turkish market.

The keynote speaker was Daron Acemoglu, an Armenian born in Turkey who now is Killian Professor of Economics at MIT. Co-author of the bestselling book Why Nations Fail, he spoke on the factors supporting innovation and creativity in society in general, but also addressed the contemporary economic situation of Turkey.

Acemoglu stressed the importance of allowing people the opportunity to create. He said that most people in Turkey do not have this opportunity due to lack of access to the necessary education and other resources. Openness to disruption by entrepreneurs is a second important necessary factor for innovation.

He stated that there is nothing specifically cultural, whether American or Turkish, to make you open to new ideas. Norms develop over history shaped by formal institutions. Democracy is important for openness. Acemoglu found a correlation between democracy and economic growth.

When it comes specifically to how well Turkey is doing with these two important factors of opportunity and openness, Acemoglu declared, “not great.” He said that “Turkey is a work in progress,” but despite advances and fast economic growth in the mid 2000’s, at present “there is some significant worsening.” During the early period, there were market reforms, increased transparency, and less corruption, partly due to World Bank reforms, and greater government accountability and rule of law.

Some of these institutional foundations were “rolled back” later, he said. There have been some improvements in opportunity such as the availability of education, but not in openness to disruption. Part of the problem seems to be that the government is too involved in the business environment on all levels.

In general, the American-Turkish Council’s conference provided a smorgasbord of talks and panels at various levels of specificity in the august setting of Harvard University. As in many such events, the networking behind the scenes probably is the most useful product for the sponsors. American venture capitalists and entrepreneurs are introduced to Turkish businessmen and scientists. US and Turkish government officials on the state and national level are present and approachable.

Prof. Daron Acemoglu

Prof. Daron Acemoglu