The relocation of geolocation: Syrian startup Rootal finds a home in the UK

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Last month, Adnan Al-Khatib had a happier reason than usual to follow the news from his home city of Damascus. From his office in weather-beaten London, he was compulsively checking the tweets and blogs coming out of the Syrian capital’s first Startup Weekend, trying to size up from afar the state of a scene that was “almost non-existent” when he left in the summer of 2012.

Al-Khatib is the young entrepreneur behind Rootal, a Damascene startup now making its way in the U.K. Rootal provides geolocation software for developers who want to integrate location-based services into their programming. Rather than having to undertake the costly and complex task of coding their own geolocation tools from scratch, businesses can borrow (or permanently install, depending on the pricing plan they opt for) the Rootal software and “the job’s 95% done for them.”

There are of course other companies that provide a similar service: Al-Khatib names Qualcomm and Urban Airship as his main competitors. However Rootal’s unique selling point is the fact it doesn’t just plot individual users; it can also plot the location and density of groups. As a result, its potential applications go far beyond the push-notification advertising that provides profit for his rivals (for example, by allowing restaurants to reach out via smartphones to individuals who are in their catchment area around dinner time). Because Rootal helps marketers understands the movements of crowds, Al-Khatib believes it can corner the market for events management, where organizers want to chart the movement of groups and of individuals in relation to them.

Like all entrepreneurs, Al-Khatib dreams big. His hope is that one day he will find a developer who wants to use Rootal to create an application that ensures the smooth-running of the Hajj. The ability to locate one user in relation to the group would, he believes, provide peace of mind to pilgrims. “This would be our showcase application” he tells me, but accepts that for the moment he must set his mind to slightly smaller goals.

Al-Khatib is aware of the privacy concerns associated with geolocation technology, which he agrees can be “like a tracking device in your pocket” if done badly. He insists that Rootal has followed industry-best practice to the letter; data is encrypted, and there is no way for individuals to be personally identified. “As Syrians we’re somewhat obsessive about these things related to intrusion” he points out.

The feedback Al-Khatib has received from the projects currently testing Rootal has been largely positive. He estimates that developers creating apps using Rootal have been able to cut development time by three to four months, around half of the usual gestation period for such apps.

But for all its potential, the software’s progress towards commercial viability has been a protracted affair. It needs both more testing and more investment before it can launch commercially, which the team hopes will happen within the next few months.

When new ventures blame delays on external contingencies, they are generally met with accusations of scapegoating rather than sympathy. However it would be hard not to agree with Al-Khatib when he attributes Rootal’s shaky start to forces beyond his control. Since the project was initially conceived in 2010, he has twice had to contend with his team disintegrating around him: first in April 2011 when the developers fled Syria, and again in 2012 when Al-Khatib was himself compelled to flee, first to Dubai and then to the U.K., where he holds dual-nationality. As of December 2013 things are back on track with a committed new line-up, although working lunches are likely to be few and far between; the all-Syrian team are now spread out across the MENA region, with a particularly strong presence in KSA. 

Al-Khatib is a staunch believer in the importance of providing employment for displaced Syrian programmers and developers, but he admits that working entirely remotely has its challenges. “It’s impossible to underestimate the importance of presence for morale,” he says, “but we have protocols for communicating with Google Hangouts, we have deadlines, and we still know how to motivate each other to stay up all night to work on a bug if it needs doing.”

The disruption caused by Syria’s on-going civil war is, however, not the only reason why Rootal has taken time to get off the ground. Despite being a company firmly committed to its Middle Eastern identity, the region has not proved to be the most hospitable investment environment. “This isn’t the next Facebook or Twitter. We’re doing a complicated service which is aimed at developers” rather than casual internet users, Al-Khatib explains. He characterizes the Arab region as generally cautious when it comes to investing in abstract technology. “If you’re looking for funding in the Middle East, you should be focused on replicating or localizing already existing startups. The will to actually take an unorthodox technology and test it out is there in the people, but it isn’t there in the investment climate.”

The disjuncture between a conservative investment climate and the popular propensity for risk taking is a recurring theme in Al-Khatib’s depiction of entrepreneurship in the MENA region in general, and Syria in particular. He has watched with admiration as a startup scene has grown up amid the rubble of the country’s bloody conflict, without government support or even a legal framework to allow for capital investment. “Pre-2011 there were no regional players – no one was in the startup game,” he says. “In my opinion if things had ended quickly in Syria we’d have one of the more advanced and dynamic sectors in the Middle East, even in the world.”

It is creative talent and a ‘can do’ atmosphere to which Al-Khatib attributes the recent successes of his compatriots at Damascus’s first Start-Up Weekend, despite the fact that “we [Syrians] are sanctioned to hell and back.” Critical platforms for developers like GitHub, Google Code, and Source Forge have imposed a uniform access ban inside Syria, and it is impossible to get a local credit card.

He also believes that this technological entrepreneurship is indicative of a nation-wide spirit of enterprise in Syria, albeit one which has its origins in necessity rather than choice. “A lot of cities are now self-managing, with their own locally elected councils, their own security, garbage disposal, and utilities. It reflects a society that possesses an inherently startup culture. We might not know it [as such], but it is.”

Despite wishing he could be present to witness the birth of Syria’s startup scene, Al-Khatib has nothing but praise for the welcome the U.K. has extended to him, which has so far included an invitation to discuss technology and entrepreneurship at 10 Downing Street (the Prime Minister’s residence). Indeed, he is now turning toward U.K. incubators and grants, rather than Middle Eastern investors, as he makes the final push to secure the capital needed to get Rootal’s commercial prototype to market.

Success for Rootal would be a rare but welcome good news story from the unhappy displacement of many of Syria’s brightest young professionals over the past three years, and a reminder that there exists a fleet of capable entrepreneurs ready and able to address the task of rebuilding their country’s shattered economy, whenever that time might come.

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