By Cody Saleh & Ziva Shachar
At the CMED conference in Doha, Qatar, I got a glimpse into the entrepreneurial scene in the Middle East. The focus wasn’t on Israel, the “Start-Up Nation,” although they were represented, too. What surprised me and others in the audience was the optimism of Jordanian, Palestinian, and Saudi entrepreneurs who presented their accomplishments, undaunted by the odds against them. And those odds should not be understated. Unemployment rates in MENA, especially in the youth population, are among the highest in the world. Middle Eastern countries are not exactly known for their cultures of innovation. In fact, many are stifled due to politics, the bloated public sector, policies that inhibit new enterprises, or a combination thereof.
But these broad impressions obscure the incredible work of groups and individuals who continue to forge new paths that will hopefully become the standard in the region and a foundation for economic growth. Perhaps at last, in the wake of the Arab Spring, start-ups are getting the opportunity to flourish: government meddling and crony capitalism is down, investment in SMEs is up.
With good reason, too. Many of these new enterprises are developing amazing innovative products or services. The below are just a few examples:
- Dancing pillow: Dancing Pillow is an electronic device made for hearing-impaired people to help alert them of their surroundings with the use of a smartphone application. It recognizes specific warning sounds, such as an alarm ringing or a baby crying.
- Nobel Chemist: Syrian NobelChemist is developing water-purifying tablets that can be used as an alternative to harmful chemicals like chlorine. It was selected as one of the semi-finalists teams for this year’s MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab Region Startup Competition for the Ideas Track.
- MyIDKey: A fingerprint-encrypted voice-searchable USB drive that saves and displays up to 16 GB of username and password information. It backs up to the cloud and can connect to an electronic device via USB or Bluetooth.
- Psychaid: A Lebanese service which plans to partner with global mental-health NGOS to provide an online text-based psychological counseling service that is free for up to four “inputs”. Its goal is to make free psychological counseling services available to everyone.
- VitalTronix: founded in Jordan in 2011, the company develops mobile medical testing and mobile health applications to make medical testing more convenient. So far they have developed a mobile ECG monitoring device, and an ECG monitoring smartphone app.
- Iris Interactive Solutions: A Palestinian company specializing in interactive touch technology that works with showrooms, galleries, trade shows and exhibitions. It also offers interactive tourism services such as interactive maps, interactive technology equipment rentals, and "sensory rooms" for people with special audiovisual needs.
Start-ups are also gaining regional and international support. Start-up accelerators are proliferating, with many based in Egypt, Lebanon, UAE, and Jordan. As the name suggests, accelerators specialize in quickly getting start-ups off the ground and into the market, usually offering work space, training, mentorship, and access to seed funding in return for partial ownership of the company if it succeeds. Some of these foster specific types of start-ups, for example Startup Reactor in Egypt focuses on clean technology, energy, electronics, media and market intelligence.
Of course, you know you’re relevant when Silicon Valley takes an interest. Tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, and Intel, among others, have an established presence and are actively involved in funding innovative ideas. For example, Google for Entrepreneurs recently helped found The Library Giza, a workspace in Cairo for entrepreneurs. The Intel Business Challenge is another program that offers free education resources and workshops as well as cash prizes for the top 4 winners, who will compete at the Intel Global Challenge at UC Berkeley. Silicon Valley start-up accelerators, too, have opened branches in the Middle East too, such as Plug and Play Egypt.
Universities have also played an important role in fostering innovation and collaboration. Higher Colleges Technology in the UAE and UPenn’s Knowledge@Wharton have initiated an annual tournament for this purpose. The second annual tournament was held in May 2013, and over 200 groups applied from UAE, India, Iraq, Pakistan and Europe. Similarly, MIT established the Enterprise Forum of the Pan Arab Region in 2006 in Beirut, Lebanon. It organizes the MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Startup Competition in partnership with Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives, involving 21 Arab countries and bringing in more than 4,000 applications every year.
Support for entrepreneurship and innovation is proliferating in the region, even in the non-profit sector. These organizations are often tailored to certain demographics, such as youth and women. Techwadi is one such group that specializes in linking Silicon Valley with the Arab World by hosting conferences, networking events, workshops, and mentorship programs. INJAZ is another whose mission is to educate Jordanian youth in entrepreneurship and give them the business skills necessary to be innovators; they work lower and higher education institutions, as well as in youth centers and orphanages. For women, the MENA Businesswomen’s Network and Vital Voices specifically support female businesswomen and entrepreneurs who face the same challenges as their male counterparts, as well as additional legal, institutional, and cultural obstacles.
(Thumbnail photo from The Library Giza.)