An Arab Spring You Need to Hear About – A Look at the Jordanian Tech Scene

Mohannad El-Khairy of Plug and Play International reports on the changing entrepreneurial climate of Jordan Is it just me or do the mainstream media love to cover the negative things coming out of the Middle East. Only bad news about divided nations fighting seems to make it onto the front covers. As I sit here in […]

Mohannad El-Khairy of Plug and Play International reports on the changing entrepreneurial climate of Jordan

Is it just me or do the mainstream media love to cover the negative things coming out of the Middle East. Only bad news about divided nations fighting seems to make it onto the front covers. As I sit here in sunny Silicon Valley, California, I realize (and frankly feel rather embarrassed) at how simple it is for me to say that. Innocent people from all beautiful faiths and creeds in the region being displaced, injured and killed for no reason. What started as a genuine yearning for justice and democracy, dubbed a supposed Arab “Spring”, quickly turning into an Arab “Fall”.

This blog post will attempt to shed light on a different Spring in the region, one that is about action of hope and change, not just talk of it. In the middle of the chaos, there is a small country with big aspirations: Jordan. As a Palestinian-Jordanian-Canadian living in the US, going to Jordan on business is like a homecoming. Family and friends greet me at the airport; I stay my uncle’s house; I eat home-cooked meals; I see my beloved Grandmother every time.

I also meet with Jordan’s startup ecosystem players, and over time I have learned to appreciate how Jordan’s legacy and vision intertwine despite the noise of politics and war. Over 35 years ago the Late King Hussein embarked on a journey to transform Jordan into the most advanced startup ecosystem in the MENA region. He planted the seeds to develop a true knowledge-based economy, and we now taste the fruits born of its trees.

It wasn’t easy; there were pessimists – some folks simply didn’t want to understand why I was in Jordan to bridge their ecosystem to Silicon Valley. But a shared vision, a desire to collaborate and a willingness to take action ultimately resulted in a fantastic partnership. Here’s how it all happened:

First stop: Endeavor Jordan, the local offices of Endeavor Global, one of the most important entrepreneur organizations in the world. As we sat and discussed Plug and Play’s model, the team -Rasha Manna, Rayan Ghosheh, and Ismail Al-Atrash- took me to see the CEO of Jordan’s most innovative, youth-oriented, disruptive Telco, Ihab Hinawi of Umniah Mobile, owned by the Bahraini Telecommunications Company, Batelco. A true visionary with a charming personality, and cleanest cut suit, Ihab is the sort of guy that is not afraid to shake things up. He and his entire team see the transformation of their sector very clearly: one that moves the Telco from a communication/data services centric model to a more elaborate technology driven platform. It is a win-win situation that will mobilize the Jordanian high-tech entrepreneurial ecosystem in the right direction. Mahmoud Abu Zannad, Rania, Nicole and the rest of the Umniah team work incredibly fast, unlike any Telco I’ve seen and more nimble than some startups even (I work with several Telcos and startups around the world. I was amazed by the speed and execution of the partnership). I knew I couldn’t have picked a finer group of people to work with.

They say the harder you work, the luckier you get. As the partnership with Umniah formed, the ICT Association of Jordan, also known as int@j (meaning ‘production’ in Arabic), organized a Reverse Trade Mission to Silicon Valley with USAID Jordan. They brought with them a phenomenal delegation of established high-tech companies, primarily in the health tech space where Jordan does so well. As they learned of our potential work in Jordan, Mohammed Tahboub (Chairman), Abed Shamlawi (CEO) and Sandy Tolan (from USAID Jordan) didn’t hesitate. They seized the opportunity to bridge Jordan to Silicon Valley.

A few months later we attended the MENA ICT, one of the premier ICT events of the region, held at the Dead Sea resort in Jordan. The Dead Sea felt like an ironic venue because the Forum, organized by int@j, was alive with a buzz so electrifying, so uplifting, you could see the excitement in the entrepreneurs’ eyes. Umniah shined bright that day, announcing several ground-breaking partnerships with Plug and Play, Skype and others. I joined a VC panel organized by Endeavor, in which our dear friends Fadi Ghandour and Emile Cubeisy participated– true pioneers in the push for entrepreneurship throughout the region. I talked about the importance of smart money, the need for entrepreneurs to carefully select their investors, that investors should also work for their investees– be it business development, technology strategy, mentorship, etc. It’s a two-way partnership where both parties work together to create value, which they can benefit from. Later I met with startups in face-to-face speed networking sessions. That’s when I could really feel that something special was going on in the country, and to what extent the startup scene is in Jordan is growing: what began as primarily localized versions of existing products a few years ago has now matured into globally-minded solutions that could cater to the entire world. The successful outcome of organizations like Oasis500, the Queen Rania Center of Entrepreneurship, the Princess Sumaya University of Technology, iPark and others was evident. In fact when Umniah decided to sponsor 5 Jordanian companies to join Plug and Play’s three-month international acceleration program, there was so much excitement that int@j and USAID Jordan decided to match the number, and even exceeded it! Over the course of the next year and a half, we’ll be receiving not 10, but 15 startups from Jordan 🙂

A particular challenge that I kept hearing from the startups is the fund raising process. Obviously this depends on several factors and on each individual startup’s circumstances so I won’t generalize too much. But when you hear of 30% equity stakes for 15k pre-seed investments, it’s concerning especially if the company has so much global potential. That kills a startup’s potential growth path. Venture is not just about investing and making money. It’s also about value creation and value sharing, partnership and above all seeing the potential in someone and helping them achieve it. If a Jordanian startup has the potential of becoming the next Google, Facebook or Twitter, taking too much equity early on greatly undermines that potential. It’s like clipping a bird’s wings just as it’s done learning how to fly. Again, that’s not particularly a Jordanian thing. I tend to think it’s a non-Silicon Valley thing because I see such stories elsewhere. Clearly each market has its startup valuation structure but that’s not the point. It’s about thinking ahead. Isn’t that what makes Silicon Valley so unique?

Back in California, we finalized the preparations for the event and a press conference was in order. Through Skype I was dialed in at 3am local time (lots of Arabic coffee that night) to join Ihab, Abed, Mahmoud and the folks at USAID Jordan for this historic moment in Jordan’s entrepreneurial development: The Jordan Silicon Valley Bridge Program.

After the partnership was announced, we launched the Umniah-Plug and Play website. During the holy month of Ramadan, a month of fasting and inner reflection (ie also a slow month :)), we managed to receive over 60 applications. That showed us just how ready and willing those entrepreneurs are.

With the help of int@j’s fantastic team, Mais Daoud and Mona Jaradat, we selected 15 companies to pitch in front of a Selection Committee represented by Mahmoud Abu Zannad (Head of VAS and Strategic Projects at Umniah), Abed Shamlawi (CEO of int@j), Emile Cubeisy (one of the most genuine Venture Capitalist you’ll ever meet), Bashar Hawamdeh (Founder and CEO of the awesome company MENAiTECH), and yours truly.

Judging those companies was engaging and inspiring. One Search company, called Trevx, is fed up with links so they are building a solution that takes you directly to what you’re looking for. Another company called Mixed Dimensions aims to democratize 3D printing. Cheezu is a platform-agnostic photobook company with a unique B2B business model enabling anyone to curate and publish their albums. While Curlstone Studios is an IP-focused global animation company with global players as partners and offices in the Philippines!

“I was floored by the quality, dynamism, passion and ambition of #Jordan‘s high tech entrepreneurs. Congratulations to CurlStone, Mixed Dimensions and Cheezu for being the first three companies to join the @umniahbelong and @plugandplaytc program this October! Truly proud of all of you!”

That was the Facebook message I sent out as I made my way to Amman’s new airport, designed to look like the elegant desert dunes of Jordan. Out of them emerged incredible minds and true entrepreneurs with a change-the-world-for-the-better mindset that will finally put Jordan on the global tech map– an Arab Spring of innovation and technology. Looking forward to welcoming them at Plug and Play in the Fall!

Ahlan wa Sahlan 🙂 أهلاً وسهلاً

Mohannad


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