Apr 25,2013
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The Global Context

In his famous online essay “Why Software is Eating the World,” venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape, makes the case that the new generation of internet entrepreneurial companies are “building real, high-growth, high-margin, highly defensible businesses. ” These lean Silicon Valley startups have transformed how large organizations innovate, rewarding the outsourcing of R&D through engagement with startup communities. Cheaper technology costs, easier routes to customer acquisition and better forms of direct monetization all suit these nimble, talented teams able to iterate a product or service quickly. The resulting startup community – founded on a culture of collaboration and creativity – has blossomed. Interestingly (and gratefully), it has spread past Silicon Valley, past software, and became a call to action for the connected world.

The Rising Tide of Entrepreneurship

A change of similar magnitude is taking place a hemisphere away, in the Middle East. The generation of connected, ambitious and talented Arab youth is now the loudest voice of change. Tens of thousands of youths have turned to the promise of the expanding startup community to answer their demands. The allure of the opportunity to make their own future and put their skills to use on the global stage has caused a rising tide of Arab entrepreneurship to sweep across the Middle East.

The Confluence of Arab Talent

Last week a perfect storm of ambition, expertise and opportunity landed in Qatar. The cultural village of Katara played host to the MIT Enterprise Forum›s Arab Startup Competition. 150 of the Arab world›s most promising entrepreneurs, narrowed down from over 12,000 applicants, joined international ecosystem players for a week of workshops, mentorship, education, collaboration and, quite important in a region where failure and risk are not tolerated, celebration. From cuttingedge university entrepreneurship programs like the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, to regional support organizations, the inspirational startup founders were able to engage with accomplished entrepreneurs, mentors, academics, and investors as they refined their strategies and pitches.

The Ecosystem of Innovation

An additional infusion of Silicon Valley flavor was noticeable throughout the four-day celebration. TechWadi leader Dr. Rand Hindi took the reins on the QHackathon, the first Middle East wide hackathon, designed and scaled for the finalists. A common occurrence in Silicon Valley, hackathons are the epitome of iterative collaboration and have yielded tremendous value in condensed periods of time – Facebook›s «Like» button emerged from one such event. Local ecosystem players Qatar Foundation (QF), Ooredoo, Al-Jazeera, and successful startups led by diaspora entrepreneurs were among the mentors and judges representing the galvanization of the international community around enabling success. The Skoll Foundation, the premiere global social entrepreneurship foundation, was on the ground working at the center of proceedings. Portfolio Director Alex Sloan led the way as a mentor, judge and keynote speaker, emphasizing the role entrepreneurship will play in the future of the Middle East.

The Celebration

The event culminated in a final ceremony featuring prominent speakers and pitches by this year’s eleven finalists. As she addressed the finalists, MITEF Pan-Arab Chair, Hala Fadel made sure to emphasize the tangible value of the relationships cultivated during the event: “you are here to win something so don’t go home without winning it, then go home and make it happen!” Five inspirational winners took home the financial prizes of over $80,000 to accelerate their projects. Third place was split between Egyptian furniture platform, The Home Center, and Jordanian Gallery AlSharq, provider of Middle Eastern stock photography. Second place went to another Jordanian company, Darebni TV an online training platform with over $900,000 in revenues within eight months of launching. Best Female entrepreneur went to Diana Al-Dajani and her company edutechnoz, providing Arabic learning games for children. And the grand prize of $50,000 went to Egyptian company InstaBug, crowdsourcing the debugging process for mobile app developers with a single line of code.

Qatar Rising

The setting of this festival of innovation was of symbolic significance this year. Recently selected as host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar›s ambitious National Vision targets a diversified knowledge based economy by 2030. The government is committed to enabling entrepreneurship and innovation as a long-term strategy for converting its natural resource wealth into high-value industries and services. High-impact SMEs, in the form of Silicon Valley-styled tech startups, will have a significant role to play. In a high-impact panel discussion titled “Qatar’s Mission to Empower Entrepreneurs,” the Qatari ecosystem came together to discuss their efforts and ambitions for rising to the challenge of supporting the regions brightest entrepreneurs. Moderated by TechWadi chairman Dr. Ossama Hassanein, the panel included QF’s Qatar Computing Research Institute Executive Director Dr. Ahmed Elmagarmid, who discussed the spin-outs of intellectual property into high-value startups, citing their first major success story, Data Tamer, now based at MIT and funded by Google Ventures and NEA. They were joined by Enterprise Qatar CEO, Noora Al-Mannai and Silatech CEO Dr. Tarik Yousef who focused on the roles of small and medium enterprises and entrepreneurship to promote development in Qatar and across the Middle East. Lastly, Al-Jazeera Executive Director of Development & Strategy, Yaser Bishr, contributed to the conversation by explaining his vision for the future of the media giant and concluding with a powerful statement for the audience of entrepreneurs: “Don’t go to Silicon Valley, we will bring it over here!”

The Launch Pad of Arab Entrepreneurship

The confluence of changing currents in Doha: whether the global technological shift, the ambitions of a regional generation, or the rise of a nation, all gave a glimpse into the bold future of the Middle East. “Since the beginning of this decade, we have been witnessing the Arab youths’ rise to create a new era, a new model of innovation and economic development. My friends, behold and celebrate: we are journeying in the Decade of Arab Entrepreneurship”, concluded Dr. Ossama Hassanein. And the global ecosystem is coming together to make it happen.

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