Lebanon launches ‘tech hub’ to boost startups

BEIRUT: “I seem to have mislaid my speech, is there anyone in the tech hub who can help me with this?” What seemed like a genuine hiccup was revealed as a tech gimmick, as a small drone - produced DNY group's Innovo- flew from the back of the audience with a package for British Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher.

The diplomat encouraged the country to embark on a revolution “not made with guns, but with innovation” at the official launch of the UK Lebanon Tech Hub, a two-year program backed by the Central Bank and the British government to boost the startup scene in Lebanon.

Under its flagship International Accelerator program, global entrepreneurs and other experts will help 45 applicants develop growth plans with an aim to internationalize their operations. The 15 deemed most ready to compete globally will go on to attend a 10-month program in London, with opportunities to network, find talent, and develop overseas partnerships.

The tech hub falls under the Central Bank’s Circular 331 initiative to boost local startups.

Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh told the audience he believed the knowledge sector would “play a major role in the future of the country. It will be as important in the future as the financial sector, and maybe one day, the gas and oil sector.”

“All these sectors are going to give leverage to the traditional sector. They are going to allow us to be more competitive and create a sector that is not subject to ... political risks and also the security risks.”

Salameh added that the Capital Markets Authority was preparing a proposal for an electronic stock market linking banks, brokerages and other financial institutions, as well as external exchanges. The CMA would then grant an operating license to the private sector.

“This is important for the knowledge economy, for the startups who are seeking an exit and do not want to be sold to another entity,” he said, adding it was hoping to set up the market by the year’s end.

Some local startups have taken a more regional perspective while Lebanon gears up.

“[Lebanon] is a small country so I’m not expecting a huge ecosystem,” said David El Achkar, who founded Bitcoin payment network Yellow Pay in January 2014. While he said funding was “not critical right now,” thanks to U.S. angel investors, he would welcome regional investment in the second round.

Right now, “it’s important to get exposure as Bitcoin is this new technology,” Achkar said, also acknowledging the difficulty of buying Bitcoins in Lebanon in the first place. He has staff in Jordan, Dubai and Egypt, working to get merchants and consumers to adopt the platform.

Karim Safieddine, who founded video-on-demand website Cinemoz in 2011, believes “the ecosystem is at a turning point: We’re now in the early stages of an actual industry in Lebanon,” he said, adding the hub’s launch had good timing.

While Cinemoz is based in Beirut, “it’s not a Lebanese product; it caters to Arabic-speaking viewers,” Safieddine said, adding it was most realistic to achieve critical mass in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

ServMe strategy executive Sarah Hawilo believes “it would be more motivating for startups [if there were] more initiatives in the ecosystem.” She cited Lebanon’s notoriously poor Internet as a challenge, though the predictive dining software, which began its operations six months ago, manages to evade it with the better connection at its Beirut Digital District office.

Internet aside, the funding process is “very strenuous ... banks don’t have a basic understanding of what startups need,” she said, calling for greater collaboration between banks and the Central Bank to speed up the funding process.

“You want to scale up quickly and sometimes finding the right talent in Lebanon is hard,” she added, given its smaller, less experienced pool of UX/UI developers and graphic designers.

The tech hub will be based at new premises in the Beirut Digital District downtown, with a funky, narrow three-floor space with glass walls, blue neon-lit walls, and industrial staircases.

Aside from the International Accelerator, the hub will run a capacity-building program offering workshops and master classes.

It also plans to offer a signposting service to direct Lebanese tech companies to international contacts, workshops and other opportunities.

An outreach program will work with schools in Lebanon to identity curriculum gaps, while a communications and marketing arm will promote Lebanese entrepreneurs internationally.

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