Tunisian incubator Esprit aims to turn engineers into entrepreneurs

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La première promotion d'ingénieurs-entrepreneurs tunisiens a présenté vendredi dernier ses projets dans les domaines de la santé et la sécurité.
The first promotion of engineers-entrepreneurs presented health and safety-related startups at Esprit's demo day. (Images via Esprit)

If there’s one thing MENA entrepreneurs agree on, it's that there is a gap between university education and the professional needs of businesses and startups.

In Tunis, one school in particular aims to close this gap.

Esprit has built itself a nice reputation since it launched in 2003. Its students are often making headlines for winning international hackathons and competitions, as was the case with the Global Mobile Challenge which took place at the Mobile World Congress 2015 in Barcelona, Spain.

And recently, the school presented the first batch of startups graduating from its incubator.

An incubator to train a new generation of innovative entrepreneurs

It is vital that young entrepreneurs understand the role that tech plays in society and the improvement of underprivileged communities as early as possible, said Alaya Bettaieb, the incubator’s director. As such, the process of innovation is woven into its curriculum.

Instruction is interactive at this engineering school. Students learn by doing, trying and, sometimes, failing. Developing an entrepreneurial mindset allows students to not only experiment and learn, but also to turn their ideas and dreams into realities.  

Behind this incubator is a mission to help students turn their graduation projects into startups, Bettaieb said.

He partnered with seasoned institutions to kickstart the program.

In January of 2015, the incubator received assistance from Yunus Social Business’ incubator to organize their first intensive month-long workshop on entrepreneurship.

Lancement du cycle de formation à l'entrepreneuriat d'Esprit
Kicking off the first entrepreneurship training cycle.

Then, they banded together with Jordanian accelerator Oasis500 to organize a five-day bootcamp. More than 70 startups applied, of which six were invited to join the incubator.

From May to November, the selected teams worked on their projects at the incubator’s workspace and received mentorship, financial support, legal advice, and training.

Thanks to a 300,000 dinars (USD136,000) fund from private companies (Proparco and STAR) and the Qatar Friendship Fund, each team was given 15,000 dinars ($6,800) to help them focus all their efforts on the project.

Six startups

On December 4, during the incubator’s first Demo Day, three teams introduced their startups to corporates and investors:

  • Secure Drive Company offers on-board solution to report accident in remote areas and improve response time

  • Map My Tunisia uses big data to gather information on traffic and potholes.  

  • B3 developed a kit to warn loved ones and emergency medical services when chronically ill individuals lose consciousness

Sernefy, a startup in dermatology telemedicine, chose not to join the Demo Day. The startup will instead join the Dubai-based accelerator Turn8 if the team gets visas. For now, Sernefy is developing its services in the Gulf, where its services are more relevant.

As for the two other teams that didn’t pitch, one quit after a few days, the other after five months. They realized their project was not relevant given the market and the competition. Although they’re now focusing on their studies, they intend to go back to entrepreneurship at some point.

“Even if all those teams […] didn’t manage to reach their goals at the end of the incubation process […] they most certainly won new habits, learned good practices and connected with useful people, which will help them rebound with a better success rate,” Bettaieb said.

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