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This article was published on September 25, 2011

Startup Weekend Alexandria: Grassroots startups inspired by a grassroots revolution

Startup Weekend Alexandria: Grassroots startups inspired by a grassroots revolution
Nancy Messieh
Story by

Nancy Messieh

Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Fol Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Follow her on Twitter, her site or Google+ or get in touch at [email protected]

If Startup Weekend around the world has taught us anything, it’s that geek is the new entrepreneur – and Egypt’s coastal city of Alexandria is no exception to the new rule. And Alexandria isn’t Egypt’s first city to have put together the 3 day marathon of getting a prototype up and running.

Startup Weekend first came to Egypt’s capital Cairo in April, and just 5 months later, Alexandria, the second largest city has followed suit. Receiving over 3,000 applications, the selection was narrowed down to just over 300, and after the first day of pitches, over 30 ideas went from concept to reality.

With startups ranging from medical to environmental, from games to social networks, from parenting tools to ecommerce, Egypt’s young entrepreneurs showcased their ideas, and then spent 3 long days working on the concept and prototypes. Not all teams actually got to the prototype, and some ideas overlapped severely, but the energy, enthusiasm and motivation of everyone involved was electric.

Speaking to the young entrepreneurs, a recurring theme in the conversation was the January 25th Revolution. It was a topic hard to avoid, even by those who seemed reluctant to bring it up, but in one way or another, for many of them, it was a driving force behind their participation, and for some it was the driving force behind the idea itself.

Inspired by a grassroots movement which toppled a 3o year-old dictatorship, many of the participants who had come to Alexandria from all over the country were inspired to do something that they felt proud of, that they were passionate about, and that would better the country in one way or another.

What are Egyptian entrepreneur’s focusing on?

The range of ideas and products pitched at Startup Weekend Alexandria were extremely varied, focusing on several different fields, but there was one factor which was constant to most teams -their ideas were intensely personal. Most of them had come up with an idea based on a personal experience, and finding that there was nothing that catered to a problem that they had faced, each of them decided to come up with a solution themselves.

One example is Es3efny (which translates into English as Aid me) is a mobile application which makes it easy to find a doctor based on your current location. Once you choose the type of doctor you’re looking for, you can look up details about the doctor or clinic, such as checkup fees, as well as user reviews.

Es3efny’s co-founder, Ahmed Abu Dahab, plans to take the app much further than just a medical director. Eventually, he envisions features including reserving doctor appointments through the application, recording prescribed medication following an appointment, and even reminding the patient to take his or her medication on time.

Speaking about where Ese3fny all start, Ahmed said:

“I had a very hard time finding a good doctor when my wife was pregnant with our son, and because of that, my son was born with pneumonia, and that experience was the inspiration behind the idea.

The majority of the concepts were either entirely local, or localized versions of an international idea. An excellent example of that is Faselty (which translates to My Blood Type), a concept that was pitched by Mahmoud Ahmed, and he was joined by Samar Ali on his team. Starting out as an Android application, it makes it easy to find a potential blood donor. Awarded Vodafone’s prize for Best Mobile App, using location awareness, members are notified when they are within the vicinity of a hospital or blood bank in need of their blood type. Once they accept the notification, they have to then check in when they get to the hospital, so that the request can be removed from the database.

Another great example of localization came in the form of Khasesny, from Mahmoud Metwally and Ahmed Soliman, a site which helps you get healthy, lose weight, and track your nutritional and exercise habits. Not only does the site have an Arabic interface, it also caters to a local audience by taking into account the types of food eaten in the region, giving users information on the calorie intake of our favourite guilty pleasures from the Egyptian kitchen – which if you’ve tried – you’ll know it’s just about impossible to find that kind of information online.

It’s interesting to note, however, that most of the winners were startups that had potential to go global, such as the Twitter app, AsTweeted which came in third, and the iPad photo app, YouPik which walked away with second spot, as well as 60,000 Egyptian Pounds (over $10,000) in seed capital from a new Egyptian startup accelerator, Flat6Labs. The app gives users a way to share, customize and print their photos all from the comfort of their iPad.

An Egyptian Twitter app inspired by the revolution

The only Twitter-related app pitched at Startup Weekend was AsTweeted. The two-man team, Mahmoud Said and Alfred Nagy worked on addressing one of the main Twitter gripes – the fact that you can only search for topics going back a few days. AsTweeted users can select a hashtag of their choice and track and save all of the related tweets. The site makes it easy to keep a record of an event, conference, campaign, and more.

AsTweeted is Mahmoud’s brainchild, and while it’s an entirely global concept, it’s inspired by a very local experience – the January 25th Revolution:

“I was inspired by what happened during the January 25 Revolution. When you followed tweets at that exact moment, you could see the reality of what was happening, imagine what was really happening. I don’t trust the official newspapers, that go through editing and filtering. What if we could have captured the tweets of certain demonstrations, and say, ‘Yes, that’s what really happened.'”

Inspired by the concept and Mahmoud’s enthusiasm, Alfred was happy to jump on board, and the team’s enthusiasm led to a 3rd place finish in the competition.

Egypt’s Youngest Entrepreneur

Ihab Essam is possibly Egypt’s youngest entrepreneur, and was definitely Startup Weekend Alexandria’s youngest participant. At 15 years-old, Ihab was leading his team on a concept that he first thought of back in January, during the uprising that swept the nation. Ideas Square is a platform for entrepreneurs, mentors, investors, and more, to come together, where ideas can be exchanged, advice can be sought, and eventually concepts can become a reality. In other words, it’s a virtual Startup Weekend which takes place every day.

He got his first job at a design and programming firm at the age of 11, is a self-avowed open source fan, has experience in almost 10 programming languages, and has helped organize and participated in several local tech events including the ArabNet Conference and the S3 Geeks event.

“I’ve been a geek for a long time. You might not believe it, but I’ve been a programmer since I was 8, but have only been taking part in programming events since 2010. After the Revolution in Tunisia, I saw that they hosted something called Startup Weekend Tunis. I looked up Startup Weekend, and what it’s all about, and I applied to Startup Weekend Cairo, but I didn’t get in, and I had exams at the time anyway, so it’s probably good that I wasn’t accepted.”

With the school year just beginning, Startup Weekend couldn’t have been timed better for Ihab, and submitting his concept Ideas Square got him accepted. Asking him what inspired the idea, Ihab told The Next Web:

“When I started out as a developer, no one knew me. When I’d come up with an idea, I couldn’t find anyone to help me and I didn’t get many visitors. No one would see my ideas. When I got to know people in the geek community in Egypt, I found that if you tell one geek something here, they can help get the word out to the entire community.”

As he started using Twitter and Facebook, he found that it was a useful way to connect with the community but it wasn’t tailored to a young entrepreneur’s needs.

“I started using Twitter and Facebook, but not everyone on Facebook and Twitter is going to use it 24 hours a day because they have other activities. They have to have something simple which can help them connect with other people quickly.”

Ihab is a self-taught programmer, depending on tutorials and online resources:

“I program everything myself, and if I face a problem, I Google it and I learn. At first, I taught myself how to program using an English site.”

So what kind of advice does he have for other young aspiring programmers in the region?

“I’ve tried to help other youth to get into the field. The main problem they face is that they don’t speak English. The first piece of advice that I give them is that they have to improve their English so they can understand programming tutorials.”

While Idea Square did not walk away with the Startup Weekend prize, Ihab did earn himself an Android phone from Google for his participation.

Advice to Egypt’s entrepreneurs from Saad Khaan

Saad Khan is an angel investor, and partner at CMEA Capital. Projects he is involved in at the moment include Silicon Valley based search engine Blekko, Evolution Robotics, JobVite, and Luminate, among many others.  His time is split between the venture capital world and the film industry, where he co-founded Film Angels, an angel network for the Indie film industry.

TNW: What do you think of the entrepreneurial scene in Alexandria? 

Saad Khan: The energy of the entrepreneurs, the ideas, the stuff that they’re working on feels exactly the same as it would feel anywhere else, whether it’s in Silicon Valley, or otherwise. When you get a bunch of geeks together, we all sound the same, we look the same, we speak the same, and it feels exactly the same. To me it always feels like home wherever I go.

I’ve met a few people who seemed very sophisticated even about the funding ecosystem, they know what they’re doing, they ask me for advice, but then I realise they already know exactly what they’re talking about.

The one thing I would say to people is to think big. You can be sitting in Alexandria and servicing a market anywhere in the world, especially online. not just to think about local services but how your footprint can be exercised anywhere in the world and there’s more customer acquisition channels, things like Facebook, and other things that literally allow you to show up in every location at once.

TNW: Do you think that’s a mistake that most of the entrepreneurs here are making, by focusing on local concepts? 

SK: No, you have to start with something, but it’s a unique feature of a time that we live in that these things are available to us, they weren’t available 4 years ago. There’s 700 million people on Facebook today. That’s bigger than almost every country in the world with the exception of China and India. So that is a powerful tool that we are all struggling to figure out what to do with. It’s a new phenomenon. It’s hard to do but if you get it working, it’s awesome.

TNW: Do you think they have it easier than you did when you were starting out? 

SK: I think it’s just different. It’s still super hard to get it to work. If anything they have more competition now because the cost of doing a startup on the web has come down so dramatically so anyone can do one. That’s good and bad. That means that you have to be world-class from the beginning if you want to win on the other hand, everyone’s got a shot. I don’t know that its harder or easier, it’s just different. But the one thing that is unique is that when things do hit, the speed at which they can hit and how big they can get are much bigger than ever before, and that’s exciting right? That’s why I say, act in Alexandria but the world is your oyster.

And the winner is…

Sweet Heaven, the brainchild of Sara Galal, is an online incentive website for kids. Parents can create accounts for their kids, and then begin to record various kinds of achievements, depending on the child’s age. It could be anything from going potty to finishing their homework. As the kids accumulate their points, they can eventually redeem the points for a gift or reward. Sara compares it to a piggy bank, but instead of collecting coins or money, kids get to collect points.

The business model of the startup comes in through the actual products, where parents can purchase the products directly from Sweet Heaven.

The inspiration behind the idea for Sara is her own daughter:

I have a 2-year-old daughter, and she already likes to use the computer. So I figured, we need to be a bit modern. The things that might have caught our attention as kids won’t attract theirs. The site has to be designed simply and attractively for kids to want to use it.

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