David Ian, programmer

Russian computer wizards compare their American counterparts to intelligent, disciplined dogs, while their compatriots are unruly, freedom-loving tigers. So it is no small achievement that David Ian, 32, president of ABI, has managed to tame an elite band of Russian tigers.

ABI, founded just 10 years ago, has created the world’s second most popular text recognition software—Fine Reader. Employing a new theory of text recognition, the software turns “hard” documents in 53 languages into digital documents that can be stored, manipulated and reproduced with ease. According to Ian, the software also makes only half as many reading errors as its best competitor, which may be an important reason why firms like Samsung, Sumimoto Electric and Siemens Nixdorf, among others, have lined up to license Fine Reader. In Russia, Fine Reader is used by the Government Pension Fund, by tax authorities, the State Duma and the Federation Council.

How could such a young firm possibly have made a name for itself so quickly? First, there is the rich scientific culture of Ian’s provenance. Educated at Moscow’s elite “Fiztekh”– the Physics and Technical Institute—Ian and his band are the crème de la crème of Russia’s new generation of programmers. Second, there was the patronage of Academician Yuri Gulyaev, who made sure the young scientists were heard at the Academy of Sciences. “Can you imagine some callow youth from some unknown firm making a 40-minute report (instead of the standard 15 minutes) relaying his theories, and, what is more, stealing applause?” Ian asked. “I felt like wings were growing behind by back.” Third, there is Ian’s unique background: he comes from a dynasty of physicists of mixed Chinese and Armenian blood. “My father has Chinese origins. He met my mom at the Physics Faculty at Moscow State University (MGU),” Ian said. “I studied in a secondary school specializing in physics and math in my mother’s native Yerevan. There I won many school Olympics [in physics and math].”

This specialization naturally brought Ian to the halls of Fiztekh, where every student dreams of winning a Nobel Prize. Ian recalled how a friend of his, “upon seeing both our names on the list of students who successfully passed [Fiztekh] entry exams, quipped: ‘So, see you in Stockholm?’ The spirit of Fiztekh is indeed unique. There they taught us to think off the beaten path, to question everything, without bowing to authorities.”

In his third year at the institute, Ian and a friend decided to work on an electronic dictionary to earn some money. They thought it would take them just one summer, but they ended up working on it for more than a year. Today, the dictionary is sold in every Moscow computer kiosk. The product’s success gave the two students a taste of enterpreneurship and they spent the proceeds setting up their own business, one to create and market text recognition software.

“Our plan was simple,” Ian recalled. “We knew there were some bright minds in our country ready to work 24 hours a day. It was just about enticing them. So we unveiled a contest, intriguing the pretenders by unusual work. We told them, ‘Forget the academic work you were used to in your institutes. We are talking about a scientific industry, about a production line where each of us depends on one another.’” Out of 200 applicants, Ian hired on three new team members, the core around which he assembled his team, many of them Fiztekh alums.

After the success of Fine Reader, it was time to move on to a new project. In the space of just one year, Ian conceived, developed and unveiled a low cost pocket computer targeted at youth—Sibeko. Users could use the small handheld computers to communicate or “chat” with one another via wireless infrared technology. Not the least significant achievement was Ian’s ability to pull together $12 million in venture capital financing for the project.

The Sibeko computer was introduced last year in the US in time for the Christmas buying season, when it was a huge hit.

Success has not jaded Ian, who still lives in a “typical” Moscow apartment building and drives an ordinary Russian made devyatka (Lada-9). While he travels a great deal, he said he intends on staying in Russia so that his son can be brought up here and “absorb the great culture of the country he was born in.”

What is more, Ian, said “one needs to develop new products only in Russia. It is less expensive, plus the scientific level here is no lower than the rest of the world … By the way, two years from now we will be finishing up yet another promising project: software which can make a two-page digest after analyzing 200-pages of text. This software has no counterpart in the world.”

Why are we not surprised?

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