Mike Butcher is the editor-at-large of TechCrunch, the world’s largest online source for technology and startup news, while he is also invested in numerous educational initiatives in the UK that teach youth how to code. Attending his third ArabNet in Beirut, Executive caught him at the informal startup pitch-off TechCrunch Meetup (co-hosted by Bader Young Entrepreneurs) where he served on the judging panel. Hosted at Coworking +961, eight startups competed for tickets to attend TechCrunch Disrupt NYC.
You’ve been coming to ArabNet in Beirut for a couple of years. What is it about the Lebanese startup scene that is making you come back?
Well, I think the enthusiasm, and there’s clearly credible talents coming from this region even under obviously difficult circumstances. There’s an interesting marriage between creativity and design, and technical capability and technical execution. That’s something that’s really Lebanon actually. There’s a long heritage here of media and culture and arts and engineering as well. These are some of the key elements why we’re seeing some really interesting technical products appear from this region.
What developments have you seen in the Lebanese ecosystem in the last couple of years?
Everyone is getting a lot more professional, the pitches are getting better, the presentations are getting slicker. People are obviously watching what’s going on outside in the rest of the world and the way that the technology world is moving and taking queues from that. You can see it everywhere you go.
Based on the startups that you saw tonight and maybe other startups that you’ve talked to in Lebanon, what are some of the strong points across the board?
I think the strong points are slightly out-of-the-box thinking – thinking about things in a different way than you might in another part of the world. I think also there’s some interesting executions of existing ideas which we’re all familiar with such as market places or dating, and then adapting those business models to the region, often in quite a clever way. Those are the kinds of differences we see.
What about ways the entrepreneurship sector can improve?
Things to work on would be the fact that there is a lot of copying, a lot of clones. This is something that you see a lot in emerging markets. But sometimes you can learn some things when you clone something.
Lebanon lacks coders. You support many programs in the UK which teach youth to code, some teaching children as young as 9. What is the advantage of learning how to code at such a young age and would you recommend replicating this in other places?
Absolutely, totally. This is the next industrial revolution and if we don’t get our kids to learn how to program and do computing and design and that kind of thing then they’re going to miss out in the future because all the high value jobs will have to do with technology. So it’s desperately important that governments and society get on board and make education systems understand the importance of technology.
You’ve been involved in the UK startup scene for some time now. Based on your experience, what degree of change can a startup ecosystem have on the economy?
There are a lot of benefits to a startup ecosystem. For every technology job that is created, about four other jobs are created; whether it be in urban regeneration, in manufacturing, in terms of the fact that you create a product and then you have to employ people to make that product, factories employ more people because you have to create more hardware. So there are a lot of uplifts. It’s not just a few guys in the corner coding. There are a lot more benefits.
I’ve seen for myself how whole areas of London have been regenerated because people moved in and started creating technology companies. And that’s led to all sorts of stuff, such as better housing, that didn’t exist before. So there’s a lot of things that can be said for it.