The inventors behind the ‘Google Glass of goggles’ and edtech littleBits have found success Stateside. But some Beirut-born entrepreneurs are returning to help the local startup scene thrive.
Hind Hobeika invested hundreds of thousands in testing her product. (NICK OTTO / WIRED)
Like many good ideas, Hind Hobeika’s startup was born from frustration. Growing up in Beirut, she was a keen swimmer and needed a streamlined timekeeping device to monitor her training. “I started looking around and was shocked to find there were no products,” she recalls.
That was in 2009. Today there are multiple models available but Instabeat—launched by Hobeika eight years ago, and which has attracted $6 million in funding—has become the training product of choice for the likes of Palestinian Olympic swimmer Sabine Hazboun and Ironman athlete Matt Hanson.
It comes down to accuracy, which is often compromised in mainstream training watches by the movement of the arm through the water. “Most of these watches don’t have a very accurate heart rate reading. Even if you’re not an Olympic swimmer, a reading that’s a few beats off is not good enough,” Hobeika explains.
Three years after launching the company in Beirut, she moved to San Francisco to tap into the dynamic US startup scene. This has long been a pattern for entrepreneurs from Lebanon, where the internal population is just 6 million people, compared to some 15.4 million living abroad, including 504,000 in the US. Many of the country’s major success stories come from its US diaspora community, from Ayah Bdeir, founder of edtech business littleBits (which was recently acquired by Sphero) to Mark Haidar, who helped launch the first “internet of things” shisha pipe, and is now a successful US entrepreneur.
Goggle it: Instabeat products show live metrics on the lens. (NICK OTTO / WIRED)
Recent years have brought efforts to boost Lebanon’s budding startup ecosystem and create a more fertile environment for the country’s enterprising youth. Investment drives like the Banque du Liban’s Circular 331 funding initiative, and new platforms to support emerging businesses such as Beirut Digital District, could stem the flow of talent overseas. “It’s getting better and better… creativity is one of the strongest assets in Lebanon,” says serial entrepreneur Fadi Daou, who left Lebanon in 1981 and launched his first company in the US. Now he wants to help harness this creativity at the Houmal Technology Park in Lebanon, a new development he’s driving to incubate tech startups and attract multinational technology companies to the country.
At accelerator events in Beirut, Hobeika is impressed by the level of pitching on display. “We’ve come a really long way from when I started out,” she says. Her product, which has been called the “Google Glass of swimming goggles,” shows live metrics on the lens, enabling swimmers to monitor their heart-rate and other performance indicators in real time. Workout analytics are then logged on an app, including distance, lap count, and strokes recognition, providing swimmers with data to help develop their performance. Hobeika invested hundreds of thousands of dollars perfecting and testing the product, before hitting a major hurdle when manufacturing companies in the US refused to take on the challenge, saying it was too difficult and risky. So she spent a year living in China, working with a specialist manufacturer to develop a technique capable of creating the product she needed. A second-generation product was released last summer and is quickly attracting a high-profile client base; the question now is whether to expand to other sports using the same technology. “All the cards are on the table,” Hobeika says.
The Lebanese entrepreneur was one of the lucky ones. Her company raised $100,000 in 30 days through crowdfunding, and secured $4 million from the Berytech Fund II, a venture capital fund based in Beirut. Hobeika also hands some credit to a mentor she met through a Lebanese business network in the US. With so many of Lebanon’s brightest business minds based overseas, however, local entrepreneurs often lack access to this kind of support. It’s one of the reasons why Beirut’s tech scene buzzes with bold ideas, but once off the ground Lebanese startups can struggle to scale.
For husband and wife duo Ayssar Arida and Sabine de Maussion, Lebanon offers some advantages—but lacks scope when it comes to growing a business globally. Last January they launched MakerBrane, a digital and physical platform to design and build items with play blocks—it could be anything from Lego-style creations to furniture—via a 3D web app.
Parts can be 3D-printed and brought to life with an Ikea-style building guide, or uploaded online and used in animations, video games, and virtual reality.
The couple has a particular mission: to break the monopoly big toy companies have on children’s play. “As parents we were frustrated to find that so many children’s toys represent only Western cultures and values, because Westerners comprise most of the world’s toy market,” said Arida, a Beirut-born urban designer. The global toy business is projected to draw revenues of more than $120 billion by 2023 and, while Europe remains the largest market, the Arab world is one of the regions with the highest potential for growth in the coming years, he says.
Ayssar Arida and Sabine de Maussion, founders of MakerBrane. (MAKERBRANE)
Around 40,000 users have created over 22,000 toys on the MakerBrane platform, many of which are reflections of their creators’ culture or interests. “While many users in the US will build Star Wars characters, we have wonderful examples of Vietnamese architecture built with Lego or a series of Istanbul streets and monuments built by users in Turkey,” says Arida.
The company operates internationally with offices in New York, where it was accelerated via XRC Labs. Lebanon is the ideal environment for piloting edtech products due to low human resources costs, the couple said, but the limited market and heavy red tape can be especially challenging for new businesses.
That’s why Fadi Daou, the serial entrepreneur, moved back to Lebanon in 2006 after 25 years in Boston. “I felt compelled to do something to help people in Lebanon,” he says. For three years Daou focused on advising, educating and supporting startups, drawing on his 30 years’ experience founding high-tech companies.
Lebanon is a tricky environment, he says, not least because the ecosystem to support tech companies is lacking. But the poor infrastructure is partly offset by a creative and committed workforce brimming with potential. “The startup industry here is very young and lacks the relevant expertise,” he says. “But we have a well-educated workforce in Lebanon that’s eager to succeed.”by