By Aby Sam Thomas / Entrepreneur Middle East
There was a moment during the final ceremony of MIT Enterprise Forum (MITEF) Pan Arab’s 12th Arab Startup Competition at the Hilton Habtoor Grand in Beirut, Lebanon in March this year when Hala Fadel, Chairperson of MITEF Pan Arab, while on the stage, reflected on the response this particular edition of the contest had received. In her address, Fadel made it a point to give a shout-out to all of the Arab countries that were represented in this year’s edition of the Arab Startup Competition, with every nation’s name she uttered receiving its own share of resounding cheers and applause.
For those of us watching the proceedings in real-time, it was hard not to be swept up by the fervor of, say, the Palestinian contingent in the audience exulting when Fadel mentioned their country’s name, or even just the host country’s citizens joining in her exultation over having the Arab Startup Competition being staged for the first time in its history in Lebanon. For all of the challenges that currently rock the Arab world, none of them seemed to matter in this particular setting: as a grand celebration of the promise of the region’s entrepreneurial community, MITEF Pan Arab’s 12th Arab Startup Competition served as a good reminder of the incredible potential for growth, development, and prosperity in the Middle East.
But don’t just take my word for itconsider the data presented in the 12 Years of the MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Startup Competition: Unraveling the Entrepreneurship Maturity Index report, which was unveiled at the final ceremony of the Arab Startup Competition in Beirut. Built in partnership with global consultancy firm Roland Berger, this report by MITEF Pan Arab looks into the impact the Arab Startup Competition has had on the region through a survey of the startups that made it to the semifinals of all of its 12 editions so far.
Mohamed Choucair, Minister of Telecommunication & Chairman of Lebanese Economic Organizations
Looking at the numbers the report professes, it’s safe to say the Arab Startup Competition has made a significant contribution to the region’s macroeconomy: for one, it’s estimated that at least 14,000 jobs were created by the startups that passed through the contest, with the vast majority of the newly created employment opportunities requiring skilled resources. The report also points out that the average financials of startups indicate an estimated contribution of at least US$415 million to the Arab economy, with a key driver of this being the Arab Startup Competition’s offering of equity-free cash rewards- this year’s edition, for instance, was giving away a total sum of $160,000 in prizes. But that’s not all the winning entrepreneurs have to look forward to- the report notes that following their graduation from the Arab Startup Competition, startups have also been able to effectively attract further investments (an average of $320,000) in their enterprises.
Now, while these numbers are a great indication of how the Arab Startup Competition has left its imprint on the region, they are also a testament to how this initiative by MITEF Pan Arab has grown and developed since its humble beginnings in 2005. The Arab Startup Competition has received almost 50,000 applications over the course of its existence, with the program having trained more than 2,300 entrepreneurs along the way. MITEF Pan Arab Managing Director Maya Rahal points out that this is one of the longest-running (and not to mention leading) startup competitions in the Arab world, and its appeal can be traced to the various benefits it offers the entrepreneurs joining the contest- which extend far beyond the monetary rewards at the end of it.
“This competition is not only about the cash,” Rahal says. “Yes, people can say they’re in the competition to win the cash prize, but we don’t look at it in just this way- because we don’t think this is only what startups in the region need. Entrepreneurs need to get exposed to investors, to mentors, to potential partners. So, we have corporates meet and interview them. We have VCs and mentors with whom they can build long-term relationships with. Startups [in the region] don't always know where to go for training; they don't always know who to learn from- we provide that mentorship with our pre-boot camp and training sessions. So, this is the main value of what we provide; next to the cash, of course.”
Winners of the 12th MITEF Pan Arab Startup Competition
Rahal tells me that this year’s instalment of the Arab Startup Competition saw around 10,000 applications come in for its three different tracks, i.e. Ideas Track, Startups Track, and Social Entrepreneurship Track. 66 of these were then chosen to move into the semi-finalsthis included 19 teams from Lebanon, nine each from Egypt and the UAE, six each from Jordan and Tunisia, four from Saudi Arabia, three from Morocco, two each from Syria, Yemen, and Algeria, and one each from Sudan, Qatar, Palestine, and Bahrain. All of the short listed teams then underwent a two-day preparatory boot camp in February at Zain Innovation Campus in Amman, Jordan, which was followed by training sessions in March that delved into topics like fundraising, marketing, user acquisition, etc. 30 startups were then announced as the competition’s finalists, who then had to pitch and present their enterprises to two different judging panels.
“We’ve had a very good quality of finalists this year- the judges mentioned it many times, especially the loyal judges that join us every year,” Rahal says. “Every year, they say that the quality is getting better and better. The entrepreneurs are more and more aware of what they're doing- they're more on time with their pitches, for example, and they know better what to put in their slides, and how to go about answering questions. A couple of judges said that they would invest in certain startups during the judging processso that’s already a success story for me. Whenever a judge is interested in partnering or investing in one of the startups pitching, that's a winning point for me.”
It’s aspects like these that have enabled the Arab Startup Competition to attract startups to it on a yearly basis, and in some cases, caused them to revisit the initiative as well. For instance, Peter Abualzolof, co-founder and CEO of the Palestine-based startup Mashvisor, got his first taste of the Arab Startup Competition three years ago, and he found himself liking the experience and the connections he made through the program. Based out of Ramallah, Mashvisor helps real estate investors in the United States find investment properties- according to Abualzolof, the process is currently complicated and time-consuming, and his startup aims to eliminate that and make it a much more streamlined (and not to mention, quicker and easier) effort.
Maya Rahal, Managing Director, MITEF Pan Arab
With 21 employees in Palestine, the startup has been able to generate $1.2 million in revenue, with over 100,000 registered users across the US. “We’re now starting our next round of fundraising,” Abualzolof says. “So, we thought, what better way to kick that off than by being part of MITEF Pan Arab’s Arab Startup Competition!” And Abualzolof seems to have played his cards right by choosing this edition of the event to return to- Mashvisor ended up winning $50,000 by securing the first place in the Startups Track of this year’s Arab Startup Competition.