Against a backdrop political turmoil in Egypt, entrepreneurs in the West Bank gathered to implement a more basic kind of change: to transform ideas into full-fledged startups
Youthful optimism amid the intransigence of age seems to be the regional trend for 2011. Although Egypt’s uprising stole many of the headlines away from the Palestine Papers, the ongoing failures of the pre-internet generation had not been forgotten in the West Bank. In late January, as 50 aspiring entrepreneurs gathered in Ramallah for Grendizer Intaleq!, a weekend-long Startup Weekend-style event at Bazinga, the theme among the youthful delegates was clear: if you want something done, you really have to do it yourself. Bazinga is a catalyst established to nurture startups in Palestine, and if the energy of the launch event is any indication it is both much needed and very well timed.
The focal point was a lightning round of 40 idea pitches, which were distilled by votes into a top nine that then were delivered as elevator pitches. With only 48 hours to craft their ideas, entrepreneurs coded furiously from their multicolored beanbag chairs, fueling their ambitions with cinnamon buns, coffee, and pizza, while ICT heavyweights hovered over their unfolding work. Ideas ranged from the locally focused – a wedding planning site, an online traffic information hub – to those with global potential – a platform for mobile cash transactions, a portal for social learning at universities.
Winner Amr Tamimi pitches his idea- a research assistant program with automated online resource retrieval
Importantly, all ideas were website-based. One doesn’t need to gaze at the hand-painted Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube icons on the wall to realize that ICT dominates the imagination at Bazinga. It’s no surprise given that ICT is one of the fastest growing sectors in Palestine. Yet it remains dominated by large telecom companies; of an estimated $USD 350 million in annual revenue, only $USD 20m is produced by technology export, estimates George Khadder, an independent ICT consultant and serial entrepreneur. New business creation is low, but Khadder, who sits on the on the steering committee of Peeks, an organization focused on empowering technology entrepreneurship, hopes that grassroots innovation will change that. “Hopefully Bazinga will help spur the creation of a sustainable knowledge-based economy in Palestine- a goal that Peeks is actively working towards."
So far, the energy needed to drive this transformation thrives at Bazinga. Not only did the five founders – Mohammed Khatib, Morad Taleeb, Rasha Hussein, and Ayman Qarout –invest their own money, along with angel investor Wasel Ghanem, to create the space, enlisting their mothers to emblazon social media logos on pillows, but the leader of the winning team, Amr Tamimi, stayed up all night in order to create the prototype for Spiktra, a “research assistant” program that uses automated search to display relevant photos and articles as one types. After his team- Saed Shela, Abood Qiwi, Omar Rayyan, and Wa'd Taweel- won seats in an upcoming Amideast Cisco Entrepreneur Institute course and a cash prize of $1,500, from Google and an anonymous angel investor, Tamimi grinned: “I can barely speak.”
Hazem Abu Khalaf of Abraaj Capital advises a startup team on their business plan
Community leaders and investors have thrown their weight behind the community. Serial entrepreneur Sam Bahour, investor André Hawit of gSoft, and Hazem Abu Khalaf of Abraaj Capital stood by to judge the event and advise, supported by advisor Ashraf Abumaraq of Cisco Entrepreneur Institute. Abumaraq attested that Cisco was happy to welcome a winner with so much passion, and Abu Khalaf confirmed that Tamimi’s dedication set him apart, noting, “I would love to see what he can do when he has some money and some full-time help.”
Mohammad Kilany of successful Palestinian SMS platform Souktel also egged on the next batch of innovators. “We need ambassadors to show the world how entrepreneurs have energy and can change their reality.”
Saed Nashef of consulting company Eqiom pointed out that the ideas presented still have a ways to grow to have real effect. “Change is going to depend on new startups starting to think about global or regional markets, not just about Palestine. We need to push the innovation envelope further to reach the level of competitiveness that we’d like to see here.”
Yet the seed has been planted. As one attendee summarized in a tweet: “After attending Grendizer Intaleq, school doesn’t make sense anymore.”