The Iranian Entrepreneur challenging the Apple Watch

When Alireza Tahmasebzadeh visited Silicon Valley two years ago, he was still thinking about being an academic. A student at the Imperial College in London, admitted from Tehran, he’d had papers published in academic journals on user interfaces.

Then, on a trip to Silicon Valley with other students, he met successful Iranian-Americans, and got the idea that there could be another path for him: entrepreneurship.

Two years later, the company he co-founded, Blocks Wearables is about to launch a modular smartwatch that will sell for $270. Blocks has $500,000 in funding, including from one of Silicon Valley’s top angel investors, and 70,000 people who have signed up as interested in ordering one. And the watch, which will be sold online and is launching in weeks, is being produced with Qualcomm mobile processors.

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Over the past few years, I’ve heard from visitors to Iran about the entrepreneurial potential of young people in Tehran. Those entrepreneurs will have a major leg up if and as Iran moves into the world economy — a powerful diaspora. Tahmasebzadeh points out that diaspora, and is already tapped into it.

On his visit to Silicon Valley, he met, briefly, Arash Ferdowsi, the co-founder and CTO of Dropbox. He also visited PlugandPlay Tech Center, founded by the three Iranian-American partners in Amidzad, who have, according to their web site, invested in Dropbox and the Lending Club. Bobby Yazdani, the founder of Saba Software and according to CB Insights, one of the Valley’s top angel investors, is an investor in Blocks, Tahmasebzadeh said.

Serhiy-Vasylechko“We’re not just building a smart watch; we’re trying to reimagine the way technology can be built,” said Serge Didenko, Blocks Wearables’ co-founder.

Apple Watch, of course, has been in the vanguard in the wearables category (and there were a bunch of pundits who said that it was a disappointment). But the truth is that there will be tons of innovation and new companies to come in this space, and Apple is likely to be one of the biggest players.

Tahmasebzadeh and Didenko have their minds wrapped around the challenges of competing.

For one thing, they point out, the physical engineering is tricky when you’re working on wearables, especially watches. Didenko, a “keen runner” wanted to produce a watch that would monitor his exercise. Tahmaseb was more focused on the ability to take payment. How could they fit it all on one watch?

One day, Tahmasebzadeh got a flash of insight. Why not make a modular smartwatch? He started texting his co-founder like crazy to share the idea. “He sent me 121 messages about it,” Didenko remembers with a laugh. Their watch will launch with modules that include a GPS sensor, a payment module, a heart rate monitor and a motion sensor. Consumers mix and match as they order.

The duo won a couple of competitions early on, including being finalists at the Seedstars World competition in Tehran. The competitions helped give them some momentum. Eventually, they found a manufacturer, Compal, offering them support in exchange for a share of the profits on the watches. And a company called Tateossian is providing customizable shells for the watches.

To their minds, modularity also solves another problem (at least, it’s a problem from the consumer perspective). Technology, from digital watches to iPhones to laptops, grows obsolete. But modularity allows people to update without replacing. There’s a strong environmental argument for this, Didenko said.

“Seventy percent of the world’s toxic waste is from technology,” he says.

Tahmasebzadeh says he misses Tehran, which he says is an open social city. “At 10 or 11 at night, you find people hanging out, hiking, being together.”

That same sense of community is what appealed to him in Silicon Valley, on his pivotal visit there. “I just enjoyed the vibe. Everyone is working towards making something that you can actually see,” he remembers. “In academia. 100 other people read a paper and you hope it makes change. I wasn’t that patient.”

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