Global Innovators

The Global Innovators Community is an invitation-only group of the world’s most promising start-ups and scale-ups that are at the forefront of technological and business model innovation.

Amid major global disruptions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a critical moment for innovative companies to bring forward new ideas and innovations to help protect the lives and livelihoods of communities and industries around the world.

As the Organization for Public-Private Cooperation, the World Economic Forum provides the Global Innovators Community with a platform to engage with public- and private-sector leaders and to contribute new solutions to overcome the current crisis and build future resiliency.

Companies who are invited to become Global Innovators will engage with one or more of the Forum’s Platforms, as relevant, to help define the global agenda on key issues.


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UConn Startup Snags Third Place in Largest Graduate-Level Student Pitch Competition

Encapsulate co-founder and CEO Armin Rad (right), co-founder and COO Leila Daneshmandi (center), and co-founder and CTO Reza Amin (left) at an awards ceremony late last year.

By: Eli Freund, Editorial Communications Manager, UConn School of Engineering

A startup with origins in the University of Connecticut School of Engineering was awarded third place in the Mercury Fund Elevator Pitch Competition category of the Rice Business Plan Competition, the world’s richest and largest graduate-level student startup event.

The startup, named Encapsulate LLC, is run by current biomedical engineering Ph.D. candidate Leila Daneshmandi, and former UConn Engineering Ph.D. students Armin Tahmasbi Rad and Reza Amin. The three co-founders are building up a company that offers an automated tumor-on-chip system that grows cancer patient’s tumor cells outside the body and tests the efficacy of chemotherapeutic drugs against them to advocate for the best course of treatment for doctors.

This year, the Rice Business Plan Competition, which according to their website will be the 20th year for the competition, had 42 teams competing for $1.5 million in cash and prizes. Since 2001, the competition has grown from nine teams competing for $10,000 in prizes to this year, where the very large competition transitioned to a virtual experience with over 400 applicants for 42 spots.

The competition is designed to give collegiate entrepreneurs a real-world experience to fine tune their business plans and elevator pitches to generate funding to successfully commercialize their product. Judges will evaluate the teams as real-world entrepreneurs soliciting start-up funds from early stage investors and venture capital firms. The judges are asked to rank the presentations based on which company they would most likely invest. According to the organization, 87 percent of the competition judges surveyed considered investing in a team that presented at the 2019 RBPC or referred a team to a third-party investor.

For more information on Encapsulate, please visit


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The Iranian immigrant who conquered online video tech

Shahrzad Rafati
Shahrzad Rafati arrived in Canada with just one suitcase and little English

The BBC’s weekly The Boss series profiles different business leaders from around the world. This week we speak to Shahrzad Rafati, founder and boss of internet video technology firm BroadbandTV (BBTV).

Shahrzad Rafati was only 13 when she decided she would one day build a global business.

She also knew that she wouldn’t be able to achieve her dream if she stayed in her native Iran.

So at the age of 17 her drive and confidence managed to persuade her parents to let her move by herself to Vancouver to go to university.

Shahrzad arrived in the city on Canada’s Pacific coast in 1996 with just one suitcase, and only a limited grasp of English.

“I couldn’t communicate what I wanted to say [when I arrived], and I think that was probably the biggest challenge,” she says. “But I was determined to make a success out of my life.”

Shahrzad Rafati
Shahrzad, pictured here as a young child, left Iran to chase her dream

Today the 40-year-old continues to run BBTV, a company that helps firms around the world secure advertising revenues from videos on YouTube, Facebook and other websites and apps.

Launched by Shahrzad in 2005, its high-profile clients include everyone from the National Basketball Association, to Sony, Warner Bros and Disney. Canadian newspapers have speculated that the business is worth more than $1bn (£760m).

“It’s important for entrepreneurs to think as big as possible,” she says.

Shahrzad was born into a family of business leaders in Tehran in 1979, the year of the Iranian revolution. Her mother ran a textiles firm and her dad owned a property company.

Life in the Iranian capital became increasingly difficult for her family following the revolution and the Iran-Iraq War that raged from 1980 to 1988. To escape the bombings by the Iraqi Air Force, Shahrzad and her family moved out of the city to a small village.

“Iran was at war for eight years, and a lot of my family’s success had been taken from them,” she says. “I knew that I needed a different future, and a life where I could make a difference, and where equal was equal.” So when she became a teenager she was determined to move abroad.

Iraqi troops firing on Iranian positions in 1980
The Iran-Iraq War caused an estimated 500,000 military and 100,000 civilian deaths

In Vancouver she enrolled at the University of British Columbia to study computer science. She didn’t know much about computers, nor did she have one to begin with, but she was passionate about maths and technology.

Graduating in 2000, Shahrzad then studied French at the Université Paris-Sorbonne, and leadership at Oxford University’s Said Business School.

Looking back, she says that she was interested in how Apple was disrupting the music industry, and the way people consumed music, with its then iPod player and iTunes service. She realised that video would inevitably follow suit, and be streamed over the internet.

“The shift in the music consumption trend was a clear indication of where video content was heading,” she says. “Audio was at the start of the evolution, and it was clear to me that video was going to be next.”

So in 2005, at the age of 25, and the same year that YouTube was born, she founded BBTV.

Shahrzad Rafati with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Shahrzad Rafati to represent Canadian businesswomen at a G20 event in 2018

Initially it was a hardware company making a set-top box that enabled users to watch internet videos on their televisions. But not popular with buyers – people are happy to watch online videos on their computers – within just three months Shahrzad decided to change the company’s focus.

“You need to fail fast, and learn from your mistakes quickly,” she says.

To pivot the company, Shahrzad says she noticed that internet users were pirating videos and uploading them to online platforms, such as the new YouTube. The copyright holders, the movie or TV companies, would then move to rapidly get the videos removed.

That’s when she had her big idea – to create software that would allow these firms to profit from advertisements put on all that content, rather than seek to take it down.

Shahrzad Rafati and Susan Wojcicki,
Shahrzad Rafati, pictured here with YouTube boss Susan Wojcicki, is a regular speaker at business conferences

BBTV’s software tracks uploaded video content, such as the highlights of sports games, or clips from films.

It does this through audio and video recognition technology, and adverts are then placed on the videos. The advertising revenues then go to the firms or sporting bodies affected, with BBTV taking a percentage.

Only two years after its creation, BBTV landed one of its first major clients – the NBA – with whom it continues to work to this day. “I was in my 20s and I was very nervous, but I really believed in our solutions,” says Shahrzad.

To help grow the business, she gained a number of investors, including Canadian tech businessman Hamed Shahbazi. Then in 2013 European entertainment group RTL purchased a 51% stake for $36m.

RTL has subsequently increased its stake to 57.3%, but Shahrzad continues to have one of the largest individual shareholdings. RTL does not release separate financial data for BBTV, but its “digital activities” division, which includes the Canadian firm and two other businesses, had revenues of €452m ($539m; £408m) last year.

An NBA game between the LA Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers
The NBA was a key first client

BBTV now also produces software to help make online videos, and its services are available to individuals as well as companies. It claims that videos connected to its various technologies were viewed 429 billion times in 2019.

Stephania Varalli, chief executive of Women Of Influence, a Canadian organisation that promotes businesswomen and other female leaders, says that Shahrzad’s secret is her ability to evolve with the industry.

“She has constantly pivoted, which has kept her ahead of the game,” says Ms Varalli.

As a female entrepreneur in a male-dominated industry, Shahrzad says she has had to work harder than her male counterparts. “I have less room for error,” she says.

In BBTV she has fulfilled her ambition to create a global business, The 400 employees are spread across four main centres, its headquarters in Vancouver, and offices in New York, Los Angeles and Mumbai.

Shahrzad says that there is no pay gap between her male and female staff, and that women make up 43% of the total workforce, and 46% of managers, high figures for a technology company.

“It gives me great pride,” she says. “This is a key factor in the reason why we are so successful at BBTV.”


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Engineering prof aims to increase participation of women in STEM

Image from
Associate Professor, Schulich School of Engineering, Laleh Behjat and doctoral student Emily Ann Marasco have redesigned a fourth-year algorithm development class to incorporate videos games as a teaching aid.

Success, for Dr. Laleh Behjat, PhD, would mean working her way straight out of her new job. For the University of Calgary’s newly named NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (Prairies), making the prestigious position obsolete would be the pinnacle of achievement, as that would mean the goal of diversity and equity in STEM careers had finally been met.

“The ultimate accomplishment would be making it so this chair is not required anymore, when we have a system and culture that’s truly inclusive,” explains Behjat, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Schulich School of Engineering.

Program aims to encourage, celebrate and create opportunities

Launched in 1996, the NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (CWSE) program aims to increase the participation and retention of women in science and engineering, with five regional chairs across Canada nominated for five-year terms.

Each chair has three goals:

  • Encourage girls to consider careers in science and engineering professions through outreach and public advocacy, with a particular focus on inspiring Indigenous girls from the prairie region.
  • Celebrate women role models in science and engineering professions and ensure female students have access to these mentors.
  • Develop and implement a communication and networking strategy to ensure a regional and national impact on opportunities for women in science and engineering.

Change equals opportunity

With great change taking place in society and in the workplace, Behjat says now is the perfect opportunity to ensure the future is one where all voices are heard and respected.

We are at a moment of upheaval — the climate crisis will change our environment, artificial intelligence will change how our work is set up, and biotechnology is going to charge our bodies.

“All of this will take place over the next decade, so the question is not about bringing about change, it’s a question of what do we do with the change we now face,” explains Behjat.

Recent Statistics Canada data shows women make up 34 per cent of STEM bachelor’s degree holders and represent only 23 per cent of science and technology workers, and Behjat says the time is ripe to envision a new system.

“This is an opportunity to make the entire system more equitable and diverse, and more inclusive, not just for women but for all people.”

Plans include leadership program for women

Behjat’s plan as chair includes a leadership program that takes advantage of the digital revolution and other looming upheavals to re-envision the future STEM workplace, to one where all of society is represented.

Participants in Behjat’s program will turn ideas for an inclusive future into a viable and collaborative strategy, through leadership training, network building, and their own leadership equity action projects.

“The idea is not to have women fit into the current system, but to have women who can envision a better system and then build it,” she says.

“The goal is to systematically change the recruitment, retention, and advancement trends and realities of women in science and engineering, by enabling the women in these area to envision, strategize, build and scale up their works.”

Prestigious position returns to Calgary

The last time the prairies region chair was at UCalgary, it was held by future university president Dr. Elizabeth Cannon, PhD.

The return of the position to the Schulich School of Engineering is a tribute to Behjat’s efforts in making science and engineering inclusive to all, says Dr. Qiao Sun, PhD.

“We are so proud to bring this chair back to our school, almost 20 years later, and there is no one more deserving than Dr. Behjat to act as a mentor and champion for women in science and engineering,” says Sun, senior associate dean of diversity and equity at Schulich School of Engineering.

“Laleh brings strength and vision to the chair, and her initiatives will increase the participation and influence of women in science and engineering.”

Five-year term for each chair

Along with Behjat, Ontario has another newly named chair, Dr. Shohini Ghose, a quantum physicist at Wilfrid Laurier University, while Quebec Chair of Dr. Eve Langelier, a mechanical engineering researcher at the Université de Sherbrooke, is being renewed.

Each chairholder will receive $135,000 per year for five years, including $25,000 per year over five years to support a postdoctoral fellow.

“The stellar efforts of the CWSE Chairs to increase the number of women in fields where they are underrepresented support NSERC’s commitment to fostering equity, diversity, and inclusion in the natural sciences and engineering,” said Alejandro Adem, NSERC president, in a release.


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San Francisco State University Announces Additional $1 Million Gift from Alumna and Philanthropist Neda Nobari

SAN FRANCISCO, October 17, 2019 — San Francisco State University announced that the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies received an additional $1 million from alumna and Iranian American philanthropist Neda Nobari, building upon her generous gift of $5 million from June 2016 that established the first-of-its-kind center.

Photo of Neda Nobari leaning on a piano in a living room

Administered under the College of Liberal & Creative Arts, the center is dedicated to research and teachings that examine the historical and cultural experiences of the global Iranian diaspora. The $1 million will expand Nobari’s vision for the center and provide grants and fellowships that will amplify the importance of studying the impact of migration, immigration and patterns of ethnic and racial identity formation.

“The impact of this gift will solidify the stature of the growing interdisciplinary field of Iranian diaspora studies and increase the University’s ability to nurture its continued vitality,” said Andrew Harris, dean of the College of Liberal & Creative Arts. “SF State is thankful for Neda’s generosity as the gift will provide faculty and students opportunities for intellectual growth and dissemination of new research and knowledge, which are central to the University’s mission.”

Over the next five years, the gift will be used for a variety of student and faculty initiatives that will roll out in 2020. The initiatives include the:

  • Iman Nobari Post-Doctoral Fellowship: An inaugural fellowship that will support a recent Ph.D. graduate to work in fields related to Iranian diaspora, Iranian-American studies or Iranian studies for one academic year.
  • Azar Hatefi Graduate Student Fellowships: Two annual fellowships will help two SF State graduate students advance their research and studies in the field of Iranian diaspora.
  • The Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies Faculty Research Grants: These grants will support SF State faculty members with their research related to the Iranian diaspora, Iranian studies or other diaspora communities. An advisory committee made up of SF State faculty will be established to review submissions for these awards late in the fall 2019 semester.

“The post-doctoral and graduate fellowships are named after my parents Iman Nobari and Azar Hatefi,” said Neda Nobari. “Neither had opportunities for higher education, but they made sure that my siblings and I did in Iran and abroad. I am grateful for my parent’s commitment to their children’s education and want to honor them in this special way and share their vision with others.”

Nobari emigrated from Iran to the U.S. in 1978 at the age of 15. She graduated from SF State in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and earned a master’s degree in Liberal Studies from Dartmouth College in 2015. Her graduate research at Dartmouth focused on the intersection of diaspora and cultural identity of Iranian American women.

From 1985 to 2006, Nobari served as the director and vice chair of bebe stores Inc. After transitioning away from the for-profit sector, she established the Neda Nobari Foundation. Over the past 12 years, she has guided the private foundation in supporting organizations and initiatives associated with the arts, film and education in service of social justice and cultural awareness. In addition to her philanthropic support, she also serves on the board of directors of the San Francisco State University Foundation.

Please visit the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies website for more information about the center and the latest updates about the fellowships and grants.


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The Medical Power of AI and Metabolites

Many diseases are driven by metabolites — small molecules in your body like fat, glucose, and cholesterol — but we don’t know exactly what they are or how they work. Biotech entrepreneur and TED Fellow Leila Pirhaji shares her plan to build an AI-based network to characterize metabolite patterns, better understand how disease develops — and discover more effective treatments.


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