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Former Soviet hub Armenia looks for ways to revive its tech sector

YEREVAN -- Once seen as a “Silicon Valley” of the Soviet Union, the tiny Caucasus nation of Armenia is hoping the launch of its first tablet computer and smartphone could kickstart a comeback for the country's tech sector.

Designed — and soon set to be constructed — in Armenia, the ArmPhone and ArmTab devices are seen as a key stepping stone as the landlocked state seeks to overcome crippling trade blockades from its neighbors to become an unlikely industry hub.

“The high-tech sector in Armenia already has a long existence and now we need to take it back to an international level,” Vahan Chakarian, president of the joint Armenian-U.S. company Minno told AFP.

“By building an Armenian tablet computer we'll create a brand that will make Armenia more recognisable on the world market,” Chakarian said.

Compared to major international brands, funding and production targets for the start-up are modest. The firm is spending US$6.5 million over its first three years and aims to get manufacturing levels up to 100,000 items annually.

While the devices are designed by Armenian experts, up until now production has been taking place in Hong Kong and the United States. But those behind the project hope that will change soon.

“We've been spending a lot of funds sending our Armenian specialists to China to conduct quality tests where the tablets were being assembled,” Chakarian said.

“Given the engineering capabilities in Armenia, we plan in the near future that all the work on the exterior and motherboard design and software implementation will take place exclusively in Armenia.”

The company already has a contract with Armenia's education ministry to supply all first-graders in the country with a tablet computer by 2015.

For many the resurgence of the high-tech sector in Armenia comes as no surprise. From computer systems in space ships to the electronics in submarines, Armenia was at the heart of the USSR technology sector.

“One-third of military electronics was designed and produced in Armenia and there were several hundred thousand specialists worked on developing and manufacturing computer technology,” said Karen Vardanyan, executive director at the Union of Information Technology Enterprises in Yerevan.

Armenia though faces considerable challenges if it is to compete on the international level.

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