Lebanon is a country of contradictions. The tech
space proves no different. Incredibly, Startup Weekend Beirut began on
July 5 - the same day internet returned to Lebanon after two days of complete
A format which encourages participants to team up and launch a startup in three days, the first Startup Weekend in the Arab world was hosted in November 2010 by YallaStartup. “It was a call to action”, said the initial instigator Habib Haddad. An entrepreneur turned venture capitalist, Haddad founded Boston-based Yamli in 2007, which recently licensed its Arabic search and transliteration technology to Yahoo.
In recent weeks, I’ve been amazed to discover a young
but growing startup community across the Middle East. While Tel Aviv’s startup
hub is the best known outside the region, Arab countries are beginning to
cultivate their own entrepreneurs with big ideas. Meetups where entrepreneurs
can meet and share ideas, along with accelerators such as Seeqnce in Lebanon and Oasis500 in Jordan, have become more common
in the past few years.
The picture today of this buzzing new tech space is completely different from five years ago, when Haddad first confronted the myriad difficulties of trying to found a tech company in his native Lebanon. Wamda, which he heads, is working to facilitate the ecosystem by covering regional startup news, supporting entrepreneurs and making early stage investments with the backing of Abraaj Capital.
But despite great ideas in the region, there are few
Arab startups that anyone has head of in Silicon Valley, for instance. Perhaps
they know of Woopra, the Lebanese
analytics company that relocated to California. Or of TwitMail, whose Saudi founder Saleh Al-Zaid was
recently interviewed by influential Silicon Valley tech blogger Robert
Scoble. (Incidentally, Scoble blanked when trying to name examples of
Middle Eastern startups.) The Arab tech scene is still in its infancy, with “plenty of ideas and early stage
companies,” said Haddad. “But what you
lack is the startups scaling up.”
For now at least, the region presents its own opportunities. “There’s so much white space; entrepreneurs should be focused on filling this gap,” Haddad said. Initially, this space was filled by clone companies, such as UAE-based group-buying website, GoNabit, which was acquired by LivingSocial last year. But inspired by the problems they encounter, young Arabs are creating innovative solutions. MindTalk is one example, founded by five women in the UAE. Unable to attend a conference in the US, cofounder Meerah Ketait created a solution that would allow Gulf women like herself to participate without being physically present, in a more interactive way than a typical conference call.
Launched at Dubai Startup Weekend in October 2011,
the idea won “Most
Innovative”, with prize money from the Khalifa
Fund for Enterprise Development. “MindTalk has received great support from
both the public and private sectors” said Ketait. Along with the other teams
participating in the competition,her young startup was incubated by the Sheikh Mohamed Bin Rashid Establishment,
providing physical space, mentorship, and business, legal and cash flow assistance.
Given problems of high youth unemployment, it’s not surprising that some
governments in the Middle East are eager to promote entrepreneurship.
In Egypt, the change of government has been credited with instigating entrepreneurship. KarmSolar’s cofounder Ahmed Zahran said, “The revolution was the graveyard of the old way of doing business, which depended mainly on personal connections, corruption, and government inefficiency.” Research and development for KarmSolar began in 2010, with the company only officially formed in 2011 after Mubarak’s departure. Providing standalone solar energy that can be used for water pumping and desalination, KarmSolar seeks to move parts of Egypt off the grid and away from expensive oil dependency. With this innovative approach they recently won the HCT-Wharton Innovation Award, hosted in the UAE.
When we met, Zahran was wearing a t-shirt proclaiming
“حرية”, meaning “freedom”. His optimism for the future of Egyptian
entrepreneurship was infectious. “Things will change dramatically in the region
over the coming 10 years once this generation gets a hold of things,” Zahran
But Haddad was more cautious about the impact on startups of regional political change. “If no real action takes place, it might backfire on the whole momentum and positive movement happening in terms of entrepreneurship,” he said. Like the revolutions of the Arab Spring, the region’s startup revolution carries a lot of hope and promise — just waiting to be fulfilled.