Seedstars reveals why Bahrain might be the next startup hub in the region

Seedstars cofounder Alisée de Tonnac announcing their mission statement (Image from Wamda).

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“Ecosystem, it’s a bit of a cliche, an important one though.”

This is how Simon Galpin, managing director at investment agency the Economic Development Board (EDB), kicked off the day at Seedstars MENA summit, which took place at the Corporate Hub 9 in Manama last Thursday, for the second year in a row.

Around 150 people attended the event, including entrepreneurs, VCs, students and major stakeholders like EBD, corporate hub CH9, global accelerator 500 Startups and the Babson Global Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, a subsidiary of Babson Global for educational leadership.

Everyone talks about ecosystems, but no ones knows what they really are, added Galpin. "The Bahraini ecosystem doesn’t have to be the same as the one in Dubai to become a really important catalyst of economic growth," he said.

The day featured an investor forum, an invite-only assembly, where entrepreneurs have one-on-one meetings with VCs to discuss their business models, pitches, and any topic related to their startup.

The bustling crowd, still enjoying the continuous rounds of traditional coffee, all came to attend and participate in three main panels: Governmental support of entrepreneurship in MENA, The Future of Food and Technology in MENA, and The Commercialization of Virtual Reality.

 

The first panel for the day was moderated by Alexander Wiedmer, partner at Iris Capital, and brought together Judith Baker from the US Embassy in Manama, Amal Dokhan, director of Babson Global Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, and Pakiza Abdulrahman, ICT manager at Bahrain Economic Development Board.

The discussion initiated with an intriguing idea which challenges the argument that governments must stick to their original purpose of tax collection, policy making, and regulation, instead of investing in startups.

Dokhan highlighted the need to differentiate between the innovation capacity and the entrepreneurial capacity in an ecosystem, where the former is concerned with an ecosystem’s ability to create new ideas and to continuously file for IPs, and the latter is the number of people who are willing to risk leaving their jobs and venture into entrepreneurship: “We need to focus on enabling these entities by giving them the right incentives to go on; that there is another option than a 9-5 job,” she said. Furthermore, the discussion continued to address questions relating to government’s role in educating the public and whether governments should directly invest in innovative companies, taking the Obama administration’s decision to invest in (failing) power companies as a case study.

Bahrain’s budding ecosystem

Seedstars’ decision to host its regional summit in Bahrain showcases that the country is well on its way to get regional attention. Indeed, it was because of last year’s success that the organizers decided to host the summit in the kingdom again. In fact, around 70 percent of young Bahrainis were ‘interested in the idea of starting their own business’, twice as many as anywhere else in the Gulf, according to a recent study conducted by Ernst & Young.

Bahrain’s ecosystem has taken several progressive steps that put it at an advantage relative to other regional hubs. Last November, the Bahrain Economic Development Board, in partnership with accelerator Fintech Consortium, announced their plans to launch the ‘Bahrain Fintech Bay’ which aims to bolster the Kingdom as a regional fintech powerhouse. Another step forward is Amazon Web Services’ decision to choose Bahrain as the place to establish its first office in the Middle East, propelling the economy towards cloud services.

Perhaps what encourages entrepreneurs to launch businesses in the country is the fact that Bahrain, in its entirety, consists of one free-zone area, rather than limiting it to a small region. Also, the regulatory framework for Amazon Web Services (AWS) has paved the way for further innovation and interest in fintech among entrepreneurs. Though, just like in the UAE, there will be a new bankruptcy law to be announced soon in Bahrain, with the purpose of encouraging more entrepreneurs to take risks and endeavor in business ventures, without having to worry about any legal liabilities that would otherwise stop them: “there would be no reason why [entrepreneurs] would not do it,” commented Mohammed Altawash, managing founder of CH9 during a chat with the media ahead the event.

To attract regional VCs and funders, EDB announced during the event that they will be creating a new ‘fund of funds’ with the aim to increase the flow of capital into the kingdom, by allowing investors to fund tech companies while still benefiting from the kingdom’s attractive economic policies (free-zone and bankruptcy laws).

EDB is also planning on having a Startup Week in March, a Fintech week during the Euromoney conference, and a Tech Week which will be held in October 2018.

The day was constantly punctuated by a series one-minute pitches, where winning entrepreneurs get to showcase their innovations.

  • JunkBot (UAE): a DIY robotic kit that enables individuals to create and build working robots from almost anything.

  • Vision in Motion (Lebanon): a B2B software solution that helps retailers understand their customers behavior by utilizing security cameras and computer-assisted vision.

  • WNNA (Bahrain): an AI based contextual search engine that utilizes Big Open Data & Semantic Web to provide users with personalized recommendations on what to do during the day.

  • 3oun (Jordan): an on-demand mobile application which connects users to vetted handymen located nearby.

  • Paym.es (Turkey): a secure shopping chatbot that helps users sell or purchase items on Messenger App.

  • Favizone (Tunisia): a Plug&Play personalization solution that enables retailers to deliver recommendations across several channels.

  • Hooplacar (Morocco): an adtech startup that connects brands with drivers to create on-vehicle advertising campaigns, live monitored through GPS tracking and marketing KPIs.

  • WideBot (Egypt): a bot-builder platform, allowing anyone to build his/her own chatbot without coding experience.

  • General Senses (Kuwait): UX startup with focus on sensory and experiential technologies (AR and VR)

The day ended with two talks. The first one was given by Hasan Haider, venture partner at 500startups, on the MENA landscape in 2018, during which he discussed the shortage of human capital in the GCC, Egypt’s growing interest in deep tech, and the Levant area’s ability to design beautiful products. “The vision for the region is bright, otherwise we wouldn’t be investing in the region.”

The second talk was given by Kamran Elahian, an Irani entrepreneur during the eighties and innovation catalyst and how he was able to convince an American VC to give him $1.8M to develop his prototype. Elahian emphasized on the importance of tenacity in front of racism and prejudice: “As an entrepreneur, you don’t get confused by the facts, you have a mission, you can be an agent of change.”

All attending startups will be flying in to Lausanne next April, to represent their countries in the Global Seedstars summit.

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