Creating connections: MENA tech startups on the rise

With Dubai’s STEP Conference in April attracting creatives and techies from across the world, Vision explores the growing number of startup communities across the wider region

Middle Eastern creatives and technophiles descended on Dubai on the last day of April for the third annual STEP Conference, dedicated to innovation at the intersection of media, technology and design, for talks, 'interactive experiences', and plenty of opportunities for networking.

While some speakers at STEP flew in all the way from Silicon Valley and Berlin, many were local to Dubai. These included Mudassir Sheikha, who co-founded Careem, an app that allows users to order a chauffeur-driven car with the touch of a finger; Jad Hindy, of digital marketing agency Netizency, and Ramy Assaf, who created Friendshippr, an app that allows people to use their network of Facebook friends as a free shipping system.

We need to celebrate and support people who take risks by pursuing their dreams

David Munir Nabti, AltCity CEO

During the last decade, Dubai has been establishing itself as one of the MENA region’s main hubs for technology and entrepreneurship; and the regional headquarters of tech giants like Facebook and Microsoft – as well as more than 30 startups – can be found in its tax-free industrial zone Dubai Internet City.

Jordan is also a major hotspot for innovation, with a dozen incubators to help new businesses get on their feet, and startups are proliferating fast in places like Morocco, Cairo and Beirut. A report by business intelligence website Sindibad Business found that investment in MENA tech companies in 2010-2012 was triple that of 2006-2009.

Among those who came to talk at STEP from the wider MENA region were Lebanese engineer Hind Hobeika, who invented an attachment for swimming goggles that tracks the athlete’s pulse, and David Munir Nabti, the CEO (‘Chief Entrepreneur and Organiser’) at Beiruti start-up community AltCity, which combines the roles of a café, training centre, co-working space, library, event space and design lab.

STEP 2014
Collaborative thinking and networking was one of the pillars at STEP 2014

“We are excited to help build and support the community of people who are dreamers and doers,” he tells Vision. “The sprouts of an amazing community are here.” While this has a positive ripple effect, especially in areas with high unemployment, he believes that more can be done.

He would like to see continued improvement in “most every element of the ecosystem,” including entrepreneurship programmes in universities and high schools, more hackathons, accelerators, and forums for discussion like STEP. There's a social element too, he adds. “We need to celebrate and support people who take risks by pursuing their dreams."