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Getting off the ground

With funding and ideas plentiful, what startups lack is support

by Maya Sioufi

The ingredients for creating a successful technology hub in Lebanon are on the table: ambitious entrepreneurs, power hungry venture capitalists and enthusiastic accelerators and incubators. Along with this growing ecosystem, there are increasing opportunities to invest in startups and when opportunities arise, money usually follows.

In previous years, there were essentially two cards to play to fund a business in Lebanon: ask family and friends (the most commonly played card), or apply for a loan with Kafalat, the government-sponsored entity that helps provide small and medium enterprises (SMEs) with commercial bank funding by acting as a guarantor. The straight loan-from-a-bank card was, and still is, absent from the deck. “The environment is risky and startups are even riskier,” says Ibrahim Salibi, head of commercial and corporate banking at Bank Audi. “It might not be the right timing today [for banks] to finance startups.” 

So far, banks have predominantly provided funds to new businesses through their corporate social responsibility departments — by launching competitions for instance — and through providing Kafalat loans, with a total of $165 million in loans extended last year and another $71 million in the first six months of this year.  “I call Kafalat the Lebanese miracle,” says Walid Hanna, chief executive of Middle East Venture Partners (MEVP). “They are credited to having started and funded thousands of companies in Lebanon and created tens of thousands of jobs.” Guaranteeing at least 75 percent of the payment, Kafalat allows banks to confidently lend to entrepreneurs but those loans are not extended to all sectors; they cover the industry, agriculture, tourism, traditional crafts and high technology sectors, leaving some startups without access to these loans.
While stressing the “fantastic value” of the Kafalat program, Habib Haddad, chief executive of Wamda, a regional platform for entrepreneurs, does not recommend taking on such a loan at an early stage as he believes “the earlier the stage of the startup, the more value added it needs beyond cash in the form of mentorship, contacts, helping in hiring and in negotiating with clients etcetera. All this comes from venture capitalists.”

The ventures of capital
Venture capitalists (VCs) are a more recent card added to the funding deck. While only a handful of VCs are active in the local market, the increasing awareness of the value added provided by these experienced backers, combined with the growing need for capital, is making this avenue of financing one that is gaining more and more importance. Many banks are also supporting VC players by investing in their funds.

“The general attitude of local banks is ‘let someone else get the process right’, as the industry has not been streamlined yet. It will take some time and once we start to see real genuine long-term businesses, we will allocate resources to it; this a testing period,” says Khaled Zeidan, who wears both the hat of a banker as general manager of MedSecurities, a BankMed subsidiary, and of a venture capitalist as chairman of one of MEVP’s two funds.

Berytech Fund, MEVP, Cedrus Ventures and more recently Wamda are all looking to invest in early stage startups. Accelerator Seeqnce has also jumped on the bandwagon through a different proposal: a competition in which anyone with an idea within the tech space can apply and the founding members will eventually create eight startups — each receiving $100,000 of which $38,000 is in cash and the rest in services — in exchange for a 30 percent equity in their newly founded startup.

Lack of upstream support 
Fadi Bizri, one of the founders of Seeqnce, said the idea to start this competition came because of the lack of upstream support for start-ups in Lebanon. Entrepreneurs at an early stage often struggle to find enough support — regarding things such as developing a business plan or finding missing talent in the team — to turn their ideas into viable businesses that would eventually become interesting investment opportunities.

Hanna believes that what is missing within the ecosystem is “more of the like of Seeqnce and Berytech”, providers of upstream support for early stage entrepreneurs. Michel Nehme of Cedrus Ventures agrees on this shortfall and believes that all venture capitalists should provide a “shove” to entrepreneurs through mentorship on a voluntary basis.

Targeting that lack of upstream support, Ideaz Factory has made a call for business ideas from Lebanese between the age of 16 and 30, to be submitted to a high profile jury made up of established entrepreneurs who will select eight ideas and help develop them into viable businesses. The whole process, which ends with the selection of a winner, will be broadcast on national television from mid-September and provide an opportunity for the public to invest in the ideas too. Many believe the lack of upstream support curtails the development of quality start-ups and investment opportunities. Zeidan notes, “There are very few quality companies and quality entrepreneurs in Lebanon.” Hanna concurs, saying “there are only one or two crème de la crème start ups in Lebanon."

Collaboration vs. competition

With only a few quality startups to pick from, one might think there would be tight competition between VCs to scoop up the best pickings, but, running small funds — no larger than $15 million in size — they are actually more likely to cooperate and share the meals. For instance, Berytech’s fund and MEVP invested together this year in Wixel Studios, a provider of gaming applications, for an undisclosed amount. Hanna says that VCs go “clubbing together” and share investment ideas.

A celebration for innovation
Large scale competitions, networking activities, opportunities to meet investors, chances to add talent to a team — these are some examples of the activities organized by Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW), a worldwide event, launched in 2008 and held annually in November. Starting initially with 37 countries, GEW now takes place in 115 countries, including Lebanon. With more than 24,000 partner organizations on board, GEW aims to honor innovators and helping startups reach their full potential through organizing more than 37,000 activities globally. This year GEW is being held between November 12 and 18, and eight countries from the Middle East will be participating: Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Lebanon will be hosting its fourth GEW and the number of participating partners has more than doubled in just one year, from 27 in 2011 up to 59 this year. Incubators, venture capital firms, governmental and non-governmental organizations are all hopping on the bandwagon. 45 activities were organized during the week last year and more than double are expected this year with several partners organizing joint events. Expect a lot of noise both online and offline in the build up of these activities.

Cooperation can spoil the meal though, as hungry VCs can turn into “vulture capitalists” by taking control of the venture from the entrepreneurs. “Asshole VCs that team up together can come up with very harsh terms,” complains Haddad. Bizri adds that “a lot of entrepreneurs know very little about raising funds, don’t know what their options are and they get massively ripped off by people.”

Infrastructure issues

The workshop, however, for building any sort of hub for innovation in Lebanon is lacking some tools, among them proper Internet and telecommunication connections, online payments facilitated by local banks and talent mobility, to name a few.

“If you want to use Lebanon as a test bed for your e-commerce company it is very tough to do that,” says Haddad of Wamda. Stephane Abi Chaker, head of investment banking at Blom Bank also notes that, “information technology (IT) infrastructure is much more important than financing for technology and telecommunication start-ups.”

Talent mobility is another issue. “In the United States, a country of 300 million people, there is lack of talent as Google and Facebook hire from all over world,” says Haddad. “So in a country of four million people, of course there is a lack of talent and we need to open up to allow that talent to come in.” He points to Jordan’s more advanced web space and to companies such as Maktoob Yahoo as sources of potential talent.

In the end, however, “If you are a real entrepreneur, nothing will stop you,” says Nehme of Cedrus Ventures. Financing issues seem to be less of a challenge, as most of the players of the ecosystem tend to agree that when there is a good deal, there is the money. Getting more of the deals “investment ready” seems to be the key obstacle for now. “Entrepreneurs in Lebanon are not mature enough and not trained well enough to become investment ready but once they are investment ready, they could find money” adds Hanna.

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Maya Sioufi

Maya is a research consultant on Arab youth entrepreneurship and employment. She headed Executive's banking, finance and entrepreneurship sections from 2011 to 2013. Previously, she worked at JP Morgan in London in equity sales for three years. She holds an MSc in Accounting and Finance from the London School of Economics (LSE) and a BA in Economics from the American University of Beirut (AUB).   

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