March 21, 2019

The journey from Iran to the US

Our lives are full of surprises and things that no one would consider possible. Yet they still happen, because we believe in them.


Our lives are full of surprises and things that no one would consider possible. Yet they still happen, because we believe in them.

PayPal is a multinational corporation founded by Peter Thiel. In 2015, soon after I started working with Exabyte, we tried to establish a monetary exchange through PayPal. Their employees canceled mine and the company accounts without explaining the reasons. Later on, we understood that it was because of my Iranian nationality.

Two years after, we received our first US-originated investment. Guess what? It came from the Thiel Foundation…


In 2014 my application with “Phoenix Computing” was selected by the Electronic Support Fund for Research and Development (ESFRD) of Iran, the analog of the US Small Business Innovation Research program. Only three applications were selected that year, and the award was $200,000. “Phoenix” was starting its journey into the cloud.

Along the way, “Phoenix” made me understand the entrepreneurial mentality, meet some of the Silicon Valley’s brightest people and eventually arrive in the US as part of my company — But it all really started in the past …

“Work long, hard or smart, but not two out of three”

I learned how to work hard for the first time when I met my wife, Sanaz. Her parents brought a condition required for our marriage to happen — I had to be admitted to a Ph.D. program. As you may guess, the prize was always on my mind, and so I did it :)

In Sep 2010 the National Supercomputing Project of Iran started to build a network of supercomputers. My entrance to the Ph.D. program coincided with this super-project, and I participated in the design and implementation of the largest one — NHPCC.

During the early days of NHPCC, we often had to be on site day and night in order to open the center on time. As a student, I did most of the work while taking classes. I also learned right on the job. We were limited on time but made it happen. I worked hard because I liked the tech and could see how the new generations of scientists and engineers will use the facilities that we build to make our world better.

Phoenix Computing

At NHPCC I dealt with users with different needs from chemistry simulations to movie rendering. Our most important concern was about maintenance and reliability. In my mind, the multimillion-dollar cost of the supercomputer and its expensive maintenance were simply not justifiable compared to the services we provided. So one day I thought — why not use cloud computing? Nobody else thought about that at the time, and colleagues remained indifferent to my idea, so I had to embark on the entrepreneurial path.

Succeeding in business requires thinking outside the box, especially in volatile economies, like Iran. Any type of monetary exchange is difficult because of the sanctions. Most western websites are not accessible directly within the country. I decided to try and reach outside of the “box” and went to Yerevan, Armenia.

Thank you, Rich Bruckner!

I did not know Rich Brueckner from InsideHPC, but am forever thankful to him for publishing a short post about in Sep 2014. Although the content is now obsolete the post is still online at this link. I happened to read this post, got excited and reached out to Timur by email. Looking back, it is still hard to believe what happened after.

We were on the opposite parts of the globe, but somehow we had so much in common that soon we both felt that we should work together. After a few online meetings, we decided to try and get together in person. US consulate in Yerevan denied my visa applications twice: in Nov and Dec 2014. Dark times…

We had a long and difficult conversation and decided to try working remotely. In 2015 it became official. My Armenian residency came in very handy, as there was no other way to exchange with Timur and Exabyte but through it. What I learned with “Phoenix” allowed us to start off at a good pace.

I had to think about the ESFRD award and how to apply it. Obviously, there was no way to use it while working with Exabyte and it would be inefficient to do two things at the same time. I decided to focus on Exabyte and returned the award.

Early days with Exabyte

Working remotely could be fun at times, there are, however many drawbacks. First, we were dependent on the network connection, which is often problematic. Second, as our work is very innovative, we inevitably had to iterate and redo things. This could be very slow when you have to wait for 12 hours (time zone differences) to ask a question.

In mid-2015 we received our first investment from Impulse VC. By early 2016 we were ready to invite first customers, prepared our first case studies, and started to grow the team. It was clear that I needed to come and visit San Francisco and finally meet everyone in person.

I will spare the reader all the details, but getting a US visa for the first time required a combined effort of a dozen people, including the immigration lawyers, US senator offices, US consulate offices, the Alchemist Accelerator, Impulse VC, Russian consulate in Iran, and obviously, Timur and myself. Appointments for Iranians in bordering countries were booked for a couple of months in advance (I suspect it is still the case), so I had to fly to Moscow, where visa interview appointments were available.

Finally, I came to the US in Oct 2016.


My first time in the US I lived in the Castro district of San Francisco, as we could only book an apartment there. For anyone who understands the current Iranian realities, there could hardly be a more contrasting place. Halloween 2016 was very memorable, and I got a bit more fit after biking up the Market street on a daily basis. We were also able to accomplish 2x more work per day than usual.

I realized that being “on-site” makes up for a more efficient work environment. So when I left the US in Nov 2016 I told my wife “You should go and see San Francisco with me”. I could not stay longer during 2016 because of my daughter Atrin — she just turned 7 months and needed me around.

A few months after that we closed a milestone contract with our largest customer to date and started fundraising. Anyone familiar with the process knows that the first question investors would ask is about the team. I had to go back to the US and be present to help.

Imagine yourself in front of a Sequoia Capital partner discussing a multi-million dollar investment. And then imagine telling him/her that your teammate is an Iranian citizen currently abroad. Then imagine the look on their face. That’s what we dealt with.

Once again, after a team effort of half a dozen people and multiple trips to Russia all three of us, including myself, my wife and daughter had visa stamps. I wanted them with me so I could spend more time in San Francisco. It did take 4 months to get visas, however, and by the time we arrived to the US many of the investor conversations were concluded.


Moments before I arrived in the US for the second time we found our first US-based seed investor. We first spoke with Hemai and Lindy @ Breakout Labs back in 2015. They liked our progress and decided to partner with us in mid-2017.

Upon entrance to the US when asked how long our trip would be, I mentioned that last time I was admitted for 6 months. Next moment we were sent to a secondary inspection and ultimately given a choice to “stay for 1 month or fly back home”. All of a sudden we had to understand how to accommodate the change in plans. Again — we had to think quickly and outside the box.

We sat down at the Exabyte office the next day and started thinking. If something had to be done it had to be done quickly. We decided to contact legal support. After hearing us they said: “You guys are clearly doing something cool and likely within the US national interests (high-performance computing, materials science) — you should be upfront, tell the story and apply for permanent residency.”

Early this year I received my green card right on my birthday! Once more I am grateful to many people who extended their support to me — our company advisors, investors, and customers, all were very accommodating and worked with us to provide evidence and support my green card application.

Why am I here today?

During one of the summer days, we were pushing a major update and we were still in the office at 3 am. The timing was right for a conversation about “Why am I here now?” Our other teammate whom we worked with since 2015 struggled to answer. That uncovered an important problem and ultimately lead to his departure. We had his H1B visa ready and he visited San Francisco office twice in the past.

I am here in the US today to build the future, to change the way we use computers to develop new materials. I am in the office at 3 am in the morning because I see how the world can be different, believe in this different world and want to make it a reality.

Things that first appear impossible still happen when we believe in them.