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Rise of the Startups: Firm looks to give young businesses a leg up

Attendees at Seegnce’s rooftop event study the selected business plans. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

BEIRUT: It was a rooftop party that had been two years in the making.

When Samer Karam founded Seeqnce at a small office on the outskirts of Beirut in 2010, he dreamed of creating an ecosystem where young companies could flourish with the help of funding, mentorship and networking.

Now, the 2-year-old startup accelerator is sponsoring eight new promising firms at its spacious offices in Beirut’s cultural and academic hub of Hamra.

“In a country where people are always trying to stop change, we’re here to show we’re not going to let anything stop us from making a difference,” Karam told an audience of at least 200 at a rooftop event above Seeqnce’s offices Saturday night. Dubbed Rise of the Startups, the gathering celebrated the ideas and execution of these eight startups that had been selected over a period of six weeks from among 436 applicants from six continents.

The Seeqnce accelerator acceptance selection brought together dozens of entrepreneurs who pitched their business plans for startups, following a screening process over the previous few days, culminating in a 48-hour hackathon (an event in which programmers and designers develop software products under a short period of time).

At the end of the process, the best eight teams received $78,000 in funding for each of their projects, which Seeqnce was able to provide through months of capital fundraising both at home and abroad.

With their new companies formed, the teams tried to solve for others a variety of everyday problems that they themselves had experienced. Some ideas are takeoffs on Western concepts that have already proved successful in the market, while others that are more original are hoping to go global.

A few of the new startups are dedicated to sales, such as Bayt Baytak, a map-based real estate website; Presella, a platform that helps people pre-sell events in order to guarantee a specific number of attendees; and elManshar, an online venue for Arab designers to expose their work through graphic T-shirt sales.

Other ventures aim to connect users who might not otherwise find a way to meet the people they need to meet, such as Kaktus, a community generated database of to-do lists; Med HP (Medical Help Portal), a computer and smartphone application that helps patients; Yoofers, a crowd funding platform that helps people buy items or services they need; Rikbit, a platform that helps people meet others with similar interests so that they can enjoy events and activities together; and et3arraf, a dating website for the Arab world.

These newly formed companies will now enter the Seeqnce accelerator program, in which they receive six months of training, mentoring and advising.

At the end of the six months, Seeqnce will organize an Investor’s Circle and help the startups pitch and raise funds to go to the next level of their company lifecycle. Selected candidates then graduate from the program after the six-month program, allowing for the new batch of startups to move in.

The program, modeled in large part on Tech Stars and Y Combinator in the United States, is the first of its kind in Lebanon. Organizers hope that it will inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs who can be leaders in the country’s nascent technology sector.

“In Lebanon there aren’t enough startups,” said Fadi Bizri, program co-manager at Seeqnce, while taking a short break from the company launches. “Instead of waiting for startups to come to us, which is what we did before, we decided to be proactive.”

Indeed, their thorough publicity campaign and subsequent selection process appears to have paid off, showing them that there’s big interest in starting new technology businesses in Lebanon if people see there is a strong support network.

He says what separates Seeqnce from Startup Weekend, the hackathon done in cities throughout the world (including the Middle East) in which participants create new companies in 54 hours, is that their program helps develop companies for six months following their initial launch. Many entrepreneurs say that the execution is the most important part of a startup, because it shows whether or not the company can follow through on their plan.

“For us, the real work starts a month from now – spending time with the teams and helping them build solid businesses,” he said. “We want to follow up thoroughly.”

If Seeqnce’s track record is anything to go by, they might indeed have some serious firms by the end of the six-month incubation and training period. Cinemoz, an online Arabic entertainment service, similar to Hulu in the U.S., established last year and developed with the support of Seeqnce, now boasts 10 employees and has secured over a million dollars in funding.

Though it’s just a small step for now, Bizri believes their relatively small group – seven full-time members of Seeqnce as well as the 28 entrepreneurs working on their new startups – can make a difference in Lebanon’s tech sector, despite the country’s notoriously weak power and Internet infrastructure.

Bizri also acknowledges that even with their drive and determination they aren’t immune to politics, noting that an excellent team from Romania cancelled its trip due to the recent security incidents. Still, he doesn’t appear to be deterred.

“As long as it’s not a full-blown civil war and we have Internet, we’re OK,” he said. “There’s a huge atmosphere of negativity in Lebanon right now. I say screw the zeitgeist.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 27, 2012, on page 5.

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