April 27, 2013

MIT Arab entrepreneur contest gains stride in seventh year

April 27, 2013 12:55 AM
By Brooke Anderson

The Daily Star
Hala Fadel, Head of the MIT Enterprise Forum in the Pan Arab region speaks before an audience of contestants in an annual business competition in Beirut, Tuesday, April 23, 2013. (Photo courtesy of Greg Demarque/MITEF)
Hala Fadel, Head of the MIT Enterprise Forum in the Pan Arab region speaks before an audience of contestants in an annual business competition in Beirut, Tuesday, April 23, 2013. (Photo courtesy of Greg Demarque/MITEF)

DOHA: Education apps, environmentally friendly home solutions, personal finance programs, Web development tools, advertising and even some healthy food firms were among entries at an Arab business plan competition.

This week, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Enterprise Forum of the Pan Arab Region gave $80,000 in cash prizes to five winning teams that participated in a weeklong conference on startups. The event drew participants from across the region, as well as speakers and judges from the United States and Europe.

Coming in first place was Instabug from Egypt, which won $50,000 for a mobile app that helps developers test their applications through a feedback platform. Second place went to the Jordanian Darebni TV, an online vocational training portal. Third place was a tie between two Jordanian teams: Gallery AlShark, a provider of Middle Eastern stock photography; and Home Page, a portal that helps customers decorate their homes.

Winning the award for best female entrepreneur was Diana al-Rajani from Jordan, who developed an educational online platform for children.

Hala Fadel, chair of the MITEF of the Pan Arab Region, said she hoped the increasing enthusiasm of participation every year would result in a new culture of entrepreneurship in the region.

“The entrepreneurial talent is here in the region, and we need to encourage it and invest in them,” she said shortly before the winners were announced. “We have a historic opportunity to change the image of the region from one of crisis to one of innovation.”

Indeed, the regional competition that started seven years ago, initiated by Lebanese MIT alumnus Fadel, only drew modest interest when it was first launched with only a handful of applicants. This year, there were over 4,000 entries from throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Last year’s winner, Hind Hobeika from Lebanon, who invented a device that monitors swimmers’ activity underwater, is now developing her own company based on her product.

So far, she has raised over $100,000 in investments.

Tarik Yousef, CEO of Silotech, a partner of the event, described the trend in technology entrepreneurship in the region as “one of the boldest experiments in social change in the Arab world.”

If young people believe in themselves and continue to work hard, he predicts that in 50 years “competitions like these might be considered part of the Arab renaissance.”

The onset of the Arab Spring over two years ago which saw regular people challenging the status quo with the help of new technologies and social media, brought to light many of the region’s problems, including youth unemployment. Some entrepreneurs are seeing this as an opportunity to create jobs and develop technology that will solve social problems.

Alex Sloan, a longtime investor based in Silicon Valley who manages a portfolio for overseas grant investment at the philanthropic Skoll foundation urged entrepreneurs to make a social impact with their companies from day one.

“It’s easy to get distracted by capital,” he said shortly before the awards were announced. “You can and will have a social impact on your community. How you respond to the opportunity will be your legacy.”

He noted that he’d seen contestants this year with useful products that respond to society’s needs.

Kathleen Kennedy, president of the MITEF who came from Boston for the event, said she saw the contestants in this region as unusually motivated.

“I see entrepreneurs all over the world. But the level of enthusiasm here I find to be electric. We have a solid foundation, and we need to build on it with a high level of support.”

She added, “There’s a sense that the region is encountering change, and this is a part of that change. People know they’re in a period when they’ve hit a tipping point, and they’re responding.”