It looks like a busy year for Beirut.
In its 12th edition, MIT Enterprise Forum Pan-Arab Region has announced last week plans to host its regional competition in Beirut for the first time. Seedstars, a global startup competition for emerging markets, is also hosting its regional chapter in the capital for the first time and this week, TechCrunch Battlefield MENA organized its first MENA Battlefield in Beirut, thanks to its sponsorship with Facebook.
These events may target startups and entrepreneurs in the entire Middle East and North Africa region, yet their presence in Beirut gives the local community access to global speakers and networking opportunities. They could also contribute to an increase in the local participation.
Held on October 3 at the Beirut Digital District, 15 startups pitched during TechCrunch Battlefield MENA for a chance to win US $25k and full sponsorship to attend the Startup Battlefield at TechCrunch Disrupt 2019 in San Francisco. Three out of the five shortlisted startups were Lebanese or had Lebanese cofounders.
Ozan Sonmez, managing director of Growth Circuit VC in San Francisco, believes the reason why the majority of the finalists were from Lebanon is because Lebanese founders tend to focus on building products that can attract global attention.
“It’s because the Lebanese market is small and Lebanese entrepreneurs focus on building scalable products and building international teams,” explained Ozan Sonmez, managing director of Growth Circuit VC in San Francisco.
The winning startup was Buildink, a 3D concrete printer for construction companies cofounded by Bilal Farshukh. It is currently in the process of signing a deal with a big construction company in Lebanon. Buildink, according to Farshukh, has a mix two times stronger than the regular construction mix, a 20 times faster setting time and an environment friendly product that saves 75 percent of construction time.
“The money we won from TechCrunch startup Battlefield MENA competition will be mainly used to do some final enhancing edits to the cable-robot 3D printer. The money is also needed for the upcoming intensive testing phase. […] as soon as our 3D printer is fully tested and ready for the market needs, we will operate anywhere around the globe.” said Farshukh. “Buildink is currently seeking a round of investment in order to upscale our prototype, and assemble a 3D printer capable of building a 100m single level house. Hopefully we can do it by end of 2019.”
The runner up was Synkers, another Lebanese startup that provides online private tutoring. The team has already signed 5 memorandum of understanding (MoU) with universities in the UAE and has a partnership with the Ministry of Education there and Dubai Fintech Accelerator, according to cofounder Audrey Nakad. [Disclaimer: Synkers was part of LebNet Ignite program in San Francisco]
During a panel at TechCrunch Battlefield MENA. (Image via LebNet)
The other three finalists were Seez, a mobile app that reduces the time people spend searching for a car from 17 hours down to a few seconds; Naturansa, a startup that uses pre-consumer fruit and vegetable waste and decomposes it with specific insects to create sustainable protein sources; and Pure Harvest, a smart farm that relies on controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) to produce fruits and vegetables in arid climates.
The event was a mix of pitching, workshops and panel discussions around numerous topics including exits in the Middle East and Lebanon’s infrastructure and connectivity.
Imad Kreidieh, chairman and director general of Lebanese telecommunication company Ogero spoke to Ari Kesisoglu from Facebook on the internet situation in the country, the abundance in talent and the factors that are helping or hindering the growth of the startup ecosystem.
“Lebanon has amazing universities but the challenge is that the talent might leave and it’s hard to keep them,” he said. He believes a number of steps must be considered to retain them, the first being the provision of proper legislations to protect the work of innovators.
Such obstacles are also one of many reasons why the Middle East isn’t witnessing yet a recurring number of acquisitions and exits.
“It takes time to build exits,” said Henri Asseily, managing partner at Leap Ventures. His ecommerce company Shopzilla was acquired in 2005 by E.W. Scripps Company in the US. In his opinion, for companies to be acquired, they must be able to achieve a goal or solve a problem the potential acquirer isn’t able to achieve or solve.
Big acquisitions in the Arab region, such as Amazon acquiring its Middle Eastern competitor Souq.com in 2017, were shy in numbers. It will take time before we see regular exits coming out of the Arab region, but to have ‘real’ exits, according to Priscilla Elora Sharuk, the cofounder and COO of password creator and manager Myki, we need to see more companies acquiring proprietary technologies and not just copycats.