Aylien’s Parsa Ghaffari: ‘I came to Ireland for the tech, stayed for the weather’

27 Feb 2017

Aylien founder Parsa Ghaffari. Image: Aylien

Iran native Parsa Ghaffari is a stalwart of the Dublin start-up scene and is not short of global ambition for his data science business Aylien.

The first time I met Aylien founder Parsa Ghaffari in 2012, he was like a proud parent showing off his newborn child. That child was a big data analysis tool that could parse thousands of the world’s news sources in an instant.

He returned to our offices in 2014 with a more refined version, even more proud.

‘I made the decision then and there that I was no longer going to build things for a local market, I was going to build them for a global market’

And now that baby is not only walking – it is running. It has evolved into a big data tool for enterprises with more than 25,000 users, including some of the world’s biggest finance and media businesses.

Last year, Aylien raised €580,000 in a funding round designed to help it expand globally. The company now employs 13 people and it is hurtling towards 30 within the year.

Aylien’s technology is a text and image analysis API that allows developers and data scientists to filter and make sense of massive amounts of contextual data.

“We started working with bigger enterprises, growing our customer base significantly since 2015. The core of what we provide hasn’t changed much. It is about our API and the quality of our analysis.”

The story of Ghaffari and how his life led him to Dublin is going to be told in person this Tuesday night (28 February), as part of Bank of Ireland-backed Startup Grind at Google’s The Foundry on Barrow Street.

“Our technology lets you grab every bit of data and make sense of it. Our tools let you set out nuances, break down sentiments and get to the heart of what you need to understand.”

All roads lead to Dublin

Ghaffari’s life as a tech entrepreneur mirrors that of all tech founders: he simply fell in love with computers in childhood.

“I started taking basic classes when I was 10 or 11, and I always had an interest in building software.

“When I was 16, I decided that I wanted to build useful and impactful things.”

This began with an early version of Facebook that Ghaffari built with a schoolmate, focused on schools in his district. It was a clever hack that mashed people’s Yahoo statuses to show who was online and wanted to talk.

“That was the first time we felt the power of the internet, and how building software and combining it with the internet could result in useful things.”

Ghaffari followed this up with a rudimentary form of iTunes for fellow Iranians, directed at the underground music scene in Tehran.

“Rock and hip-hop were not allowed on Iranian television and we knew there was an abundance of artists in Iran who wanted to reach their audience through the internet, because it was less restricted. So we built this website, or platform, called ‘021 Music’ because, similar to Cork, ‘021’ was the area code for Tehran.

“It helped artists in Iran to become mainstream artists. This was just one of the early projects that I felt made some impact.”

College beckoned and Ghaffari studied process engineering, although his heart was still in software.

He continued to build clever apps such as one called i-News that helped Iranians to access information on feature phones.

“This was before the iPhone and Android, and people were just delighted to get their news without having to use the clunky browsers of the time. I tried to sell it to some of the telecoms companies in Iran but they weren’t interested.

“I made the decision then and there that I was no longer going to build things for a local market, I was going to build them for a global market.”

Ghaffari decided that the best course of action was to leave Iran and join an accelerator programme such as Y Combinator. Visa issues prevented from him joining an accelerator in Denmark but he soon got wind of an accelerator being run in China by Sean O’Sullivan’s SOSV.

“There was a one-in-three chance of getting funding on this accelerator. We moved to China in 2010 and a few months later in 2011, we closed our first round of half a million euros with SOSV.”

Ghaffari and his colleagues worked hard in China but realised that more visa issues loomed on the horizon.

One night at 3am in the local McDonald’s after working late, he bumped into O’Sullivan, who told him about Ireland and a new visa programme being devised for foreign entrepreneurs.

“Growing up, my dad had a friend who was one of the Iranian ambassadors to Ireland and I remember the beautiful postcards that had pictures of a beautiful place with lots of nature.

“We were at a crossroads. China and the US were closed to us. We couldn’t go back to Iran because it would be too difficult to go global from there. We assessed the tech scene in Ireland and it seemed positive and growing, and we had a lot of support from SOSV and decided to make the move. We were desperate to find a new home.

“We came here for those reasons, especially the tech, and we stayed for the weather,” he laughed.

Growing up in Tehran with its population of 15m people, the intimate scale of Irish towns and cities was a revelation for Ghaffari and his team. They first moved to Cork before settling in Dublin.

“Dublin wasn’t too big that you could get lost, but the community you needed in terms of investors and talent was there.

“I noticed a lot of similarities too between Irish people and Iranians; we’ve both had tough, recent histories and developed similar characteristics such as a good sense of humour and down-to-earth nature, and it is easier for me to relate to.”

Aylien has landed

Next on the agenda for Aylien is the introduction of new products.

“80pc of our customers are in North America and these include many news and media companies, and financial companies, most located on the east coast.

“We are going to start with a small office in the US and use that to grow commercial and tech development in the US.

“We are growing to 30 people across the organisation on three fronts: engineering and product; research; and sales and marketing.

“Our main focus is research-centric so we will be concentrating on hiring postdocs and PhDs.”

Ghaffari said that Aylien is in Ireland for the long haul.

“With all the stuff that is happening in the States, I couldn’t be happier that we are living in Ireland right now. It is a great place to be in the middle of all of this chaos.”

Disclosure: SOSV is an investor in Siliconrepublic.com

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years