By Que’Nique Mykte’ Newbill and Dina Shahrokhi – Innovative startups, driven by young entrepreneurs, continue to thrive in the Middle East even amidst the evolving challenges in the region’s transitions. Many of these auspicious ventures adapt existing technology to their local context. Other young enterprises have developed new technologies that hold promise for the global market. But beyond their varied approaches, these new endeavors represent an emerging entrepreneurial ecosystem that supports the Arab transitions by generating economic growth through innovation.
Beirut’s eclectic hub of entrepreneurs and Amman’s developing Silicon Valley embody two examples of rising Middle East tech hotspots. These entrepreneurial communities encompass a budding ecosystem of angel investors, accelerators, and information-sharing platforms that support entrepreneurs launching startups.
Lebanon’s mix of promising startups cover a wide range of new, adaptive, and hybrid tech ventures. Butterfleye, founded by young entrepreneur Hind Hobeika, uses infrared sensors to monitor a swimmer’s heart rate in real time. Butterfleye goggles are the first heart-rate monitors designed for swimmers. The company also plans to develop this new technology to track calories, laps, and speed. Hobeika’s efforts garnered first place in the most recent MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Business Plan Competition. The MIT Enterprise Forum also named Hobeika one of this year’s Top 5 Arab Innovators.
Other entrepreneurs take existing technology and adapt them to regional needs. Eastline Marketing (ELM) created the first digital marketing agency in Lebanon. Capitalizing on the region’s growth in internet usage, ELM offers a suite of social media marketing tools. Its premier product, Sweepz, is the only trademarked social media tool in the region that supports Arabic language. Through Sweepz, ELM clients can launch a variety of promotional campaigns on various social media platforms.
Lastly, CardioDiagnostics, founded by another young entrepreneur Ziad Sankari, pairs a portable GPS-enabled heart monitor with a local monitoring center that communicates over mobile data networks. This hybrid technology allows hospitals to monitor cardiac patients in out-patient settings.
A nascent community of regional angel investors, incubators, and information platforms support these promising enterprises. Berytech, one of Lebanon’s first incubators, has incubated dozens of startups including Hobeika’s Butterfleye. Seeqnce, another Beirut-based organization, runs yet another highly acclaimed startup accelerator. Newly established venture capital firms such as Beirut-based Middle East Venture Partners invest in the early stage startups. Finally information-sharing platforms such as ArabNet and Wamda.com, both Beirut companies, provide additional tools for entrepreneurs through informative articles, workshops, and networking events. Overall, these efforts bring visibility to promising startups and highlight their innovative ventures to the greater region and global community.
Lebanon’s efforts mirror other developing MENA innovation hotspots. Jordan-based Oasis500, a seed investment and development company, aims to launch 500 start-up companies within the next five years. Curl Stone Studio, one of its portfolio companies, is a production studio as well as a distributor across mobile and web platforms. It is one of the few companies creating original, localized, and Arabic-language digital content. Another Jordan startup, Altibbi.com, provides online health information services and offers subscribers access to health specialists. Recognizing a scarcity of online medical information in Arabic, Altibbi developed a free interactive medical portal and the first fully Arabic symptom checker.
The entrepreneurial spirit extends beyond the Levant. In the Gulf, Seed Startup and i360 accelerator, two Dubai-based programs, assist entrepreneurs to an early stage and prototype phase. Reflected in the focus of some Gulf startups, e-commerce represents a growing market. Dubai-based Namshi.com focuses on a single product: shoes. Namshi, started in late 2011, now manages about 600 transactions a day. Namshi sells shoes from aspiring small enterprises in the region and international brands not otherwise readily available. Its successful model has attracted a slew of funding from various US capital firms. Another e-commerce site, GoNabit, the first group-buying site of the Middle East, was recently acquired by Living Social.
In North Africa, green energy accents a number of startups. In Egypt, Schaduf tackles Cairo’s urban challenges by spawning low cost micro-urban gardens on rooftops. These “edible green roofs” are hydroponic, meaning they require little soil and recycle water through irrigation channels. More importantly, the gardens provide an additional stream of income for the family that can then sell their crops at local markets for a profit. Other startups in the region capitalize on the area’s wind energy potential. Saphon Energy, a Tunisian enterprise, developed a zero blade technology that converts wind harnessed by a sail to electricity. KPMP granted Saphon Energy its 2012 Innovation Award.
Undeterred by the daunting tasks that lie ahead for the Arab transitions, entrepreneurs in the region continue to lay the groundwork for a more positive future. Their new and adaptive uses of technology offer innovative ways to solve problems and capitalize on the region’s new markets. While the ecosystem itself remains nascent in part hindered by unfriendly business laws, access to financial capital, and other country-specific structural issues, young entrepreneurs and their success have begun to erode some of these barriers. Channeling their creative energy into diverse innovative ventures, these blooming enterprises and emerging ecosystems may very well represent the new cornerstone for the region’s economic future.
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