If you were going to choose an interesting place to run an accelerator program for startups, Beirut would probably be one place you’d pick. I recently travelled to the city to meet with Seeqnce, a unique project which hopes to woo the Lebanese diaspora – spread throughout the world after Beirut’s notorious war-filled history – to a newly peaceful Lebanon.
This summer it plans to create 8 new startups drawn from Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world. Each startup will get investment, mentoring and offices. So far they’ve had over 275 applicants from 17 countries apply for the program which starts in September and ends in March 2013. Located in the the cool Hamra district of Beirut, in an office that was converted from a derelict apartment, Seeqnce plans to accelerate Beirut’s startup scene.
Already one of its startups, Cinemoz, is on its way to becoming the “Hulu of the Arab world” and has already partnered with Brightcove. It offers over 1,000 premium Arab entertainment titles and is heading towards an audience of 100,000 – big when you consider broadband penetration in the Arab world is still not high.
Speaking to Samer Karam, one of the key co-founders Seeqnce, he was quick to point out that Seeqnce is not an incubator, but an accelerator.
Founded in May 2010, he and his friends decided they needed a place for early stage startups to come together and work. They were joined by AlterKey and ClashWith (a gaming startup).
The first few months were run as a collective. Then – after a big party in Beirut in November 2010 (as part of global entrepreneurship week) attracted over 300 people – they realised there was a growing tech and startup scene in Beirut.
“We set out to create a big startup space. We funded it through friends an family, and invested a lot into turning this old apartment into a space, says Karam.
They decided on a 6 months incubation programme, allowing for the time it would take to train brand new entrepreneurs and engineers from the region. They also actively recruited people to come into the programme as opposed to people knocking on the doors.
The new Seeqnce programme invests $75,000 for 30% equity with 10% buyback option based on performance. Follow on rounds have the right of first refusal. The large amount of equity is structured on the basis that they are skipping a round based on the fact they are going through Series A. But “We are not adamant that it will always work this way,” says Karam.
He admits the “exit potenial in Beirut is limited to say the least. But Lebanon is a multi-language region, which means we can reach far beyond our borders.” This will work well with content-oriented startups like Cinemoz that will appeal to the big media companies in the Arab world, as well as the traditional players like the telcos.
Plus they are starting to lure back the Lebanese diaspora and talent from the rest of the world.
“The beauty with Lebanon in terms of the Arab region is that there is a great deal of free speech. So we are seeing huge amounts of ex-pats returning to this newly stable country.”
It’s certainly early days, but if you can build a startup accelerator in Beirut, then, well, look out world.