I have no idea how many innovators there in Lebanon fiddling around in their mountain garages with dreams of dethroning Facebook, Google and Twitter. But I’m sure they can find all the resources they need in Beirut’s startup accelerators.
Since there’s not really a clear definition, you can get an idea of what a Middle East accelerator is by using Y Combinator as a reference. The Mountain View company launched in 2005 with a “new financing model.” Over seven years it has funded 380 companies that incubate in their space for three months. On average, it invests $18,000 in each company.
Samer Karam opened Seeqnce.com with three of his friends in May 2010. His friends are “really intelligent people who were very successful, but but didn’t have a place to work together in.” So they found and remodeled an apartment right in the center of Hamra, the techiest neighborhood in Beirut.
Glass partitions give startups their own space while at the same time preserving common areas like a brainstorming room, a war room, and community space. “I conceived and designed it myself. Tables and walls are white boards to write on. It lets people be creative,” he says.
There’s no doubt for him that if “in Silicon Valley, proximity is vital for success, Beirut’s need for it is ten times greater.”
Seeqnce makes early-stage investments of around $200,000, and are aimed at “the global market.” It’s only focus is for-profit companies. Its two star startups are Cinemoz.com, which wants to be the Hulu for the Arab world, and Jogabo.com, which lets soccer fans across the globe organize games, using a mix of social networking and geolocation.
A few blocks away, AltCity.me is a “co-working space that also functions as an accelerator and incubator,” says founders Dima Saber and David Munir Nabti. They emphasize communication above all, which is essential in a country where identity is defined by religious affiliation. “We have people here who have never seen anyone from another city or from another sect,” Saber explains.
“We wanted to bring together content creators, activists, coders, developers, graphic designers, social entrepreneurs, media people and others,” Nabti says. “And to do this, we mix formal activities like workshops and conferences with more informal networking, like what happens in a cafeteria.” It’s not only for social entreprise. “What’s wrong with creating an Arabic version of Angry Birds? But we inspire them with everything that’s happening here, and maybe their next application will have a bigger social impact.”
“Startups laugh at our differences,” says Habib Haddad, who directs Wamda.com , (a company financed through Jordanian funds, and which is also dedicated to early-phase startups, and whose offices are little farther away). Wamda is simultaneously a media company, investor and education and training initiative. “They build their services in their garage, in Byblos (which is on the ocean) or in the mountains, and when they start gaining momentum they move to Dubai, or America.”
With only four million inhabitants, Lebanon is too small to constitute a market, but the high number of Lebanese who are interested in IT can either aim at the Arabic market, one of the most dynamic, or for a global presence – the Lebanese diaspora is considerable, between 12 and 15 million people. The temptation to leave is also considerable. Seeqnce, AltCity and Wamda