Innovation, fresh ideas and plenty of hard work all paid off this Wednesday when Tech Crunch (TC) hosted its internationally-famous Startup Battlefield competition, where select-few entrepreneurs from the region pitched their ideas to a live audience, as well as a board of judges comprised of veteran industry members.
The first iteration of the competition in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), it was presented by FBstart, and was hosted in the heart of the vibrant startup ecosystem at Beirut Digital District (BDD). The Battlefield stage has seen the debut of big names such as Dropbox, Beam, Vurb, and Trello. Buildink, a 3D printing construction startup, won first place.
AMEinfo spoke to Mike Butcher, Editor-at-large at Tech Crunch, about bringing their world-famous competition to the Middle East, and why they chose Beirut as the site of their regional debut.
Butcher, who’s been a regular visitor of the Middle East since 2008, has been keeping tabs on the rising technology scene in the region.
“We’ve seen some companies really start to emerge that we would call proper technology product companies emerging out of Lebanon and the Middle East,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that startups are coming from everywhere in the [region] – all countries have a part to play. You know, Egypt has a much better technology ecosystem than ever before. Dubai, Lebanon too.”
“When it came to the point that Tech Crunch wanted to expand its coverage and its events, Lebanon seemed like a natural place to take [Startup Battlefield].”
This has not come to a surprise to some, with Ali AbuKumail, a Senior Private Sector Specialist at the World Bank, revealing that “Even if investments are happening in places like Dubai mostly, ideas and talent are available elsewhere. More than 40% of ideas that came to Dubai last year were actually from Jordan and Lebanon.”
Last year saw TC expand the scope of its Battlefield competition, when they went to Africa and Australia. This year, they have brought it to the Middle East, and will head to Nigeria and Brazil later this year.
Tech Crunch boot camp
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When asked about how candidates are selected, he said, “We have a very open book, a very editorially-driven process. We get hundreds and hundreds of entries. What’s interesting about Tech Crunch is that our Editorial team is involved in selecting the companies that we eventually put on stage. Journalists look at all these things, and they whittle through these hundreds of entries to get down to the final 15-20 companies that end up pitching on stage at our events.”
The selected startups then pitch on stage in front of a panel of expert judges, and are eventually narrowed down to the top 5.
“It’s really quite a big deal – this isn’t sort of thrown together in a couple of weeks. What you’re seeing here at Startup Battlefield MENA in Beirut, Lebanon is the culmination of months and months of planning.”
Besides the $25,000 prize and an all-expenses-paid trip to participate in a future Tech Crunch Disrupt San Francisco, we asked how else they intend to support the winners.
“What [the winners] do is that they end up becoming alumni of Tech Crunch’s Battlefield itself,” Butcher stated. “So, they get lifetime entry – the CEOs and founders – into Tech Crunch events which is pretty amazing and worth thousands of dollars. Tech Crunch journalists follow up with them weeks and months afterward.”
“It’s a badge of honor, a badge of validation to have gone through the whole Tech Crunch process. It’s that sort of validation that they can then use to go to investors, or to go to accelerators, etc. It means that we’ve done a lot of the due diligence that investors would normally partake.”
A growing ecosystem
Speaking about the general tech startup ecosystem in the region, he noted that a lot has happened in just the last 10 years. The rise of a new generation with technology interwoven into its members’ whole lives has led to a higher acceptance and adoption of new tech, which in turn leads to more entrepreneurs seeking business in this field.
“[These young people] realized ‘Hey, you know, I can become a technology entrepreneur,’ and that clearly happened in the last few years,” he noted. He believes this has led to a natural rise in tech startups.
“I think what’s happened in the last few years is that you have more early-stage funding coming through. You’ve had more accelerators, more incubators, more angels, more serial entrepreneurs who then become investors themselves. And then, gradually more funds to fill the gaps in funding that startups require. It possibly means that later-stage funding is still a little bit more absent.”
Butcher is certain, however, that as the ecosystem matures, more funding will become available at every stage of the startup lifecycle.
“People like to have heroes”
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We asked Butcher how he believes we can give a push to the entrepreneurs who are sitting on the bench, who might have an idea but not the motivation to go through with it.
“People like to have heroes. When they see someone who’s maybe close to their age being successful, getting on stage at a Tech Crunch event, pitching, they look like them, they might have the same education. They go, ‘You know what, maybe I can do this.’”
This is what hopes Startup Battlefield will do for them.
“It’s a real thing, and you can see it in the raw. And you can possibly see the fluff and the mistakes that people make and how they recover. It just makes entrepreneurship much more real when you see it actually happening in front of you and how it works.”
The abundance of expert opinion makes it ever the more worthwhile.
“The kinds of questions judges ask [are] exactly the same as the kind of questions you’ll get from investors, journalists, and the people who are gonna use the product that you’re gonna make. It’s a great experience, and in one day with Tech Crunch Battlefield, you’ll get a real education, plus you get to actually network with people doing this day in and day out.”
Stay tuned for further coverage from Startup Battlefield MENA.
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