After scouring through 65 cities across the world’s emerging markets to find the most promising startups, from Peru, to Nigeria, to Azerbaijan, Egypt and Jordan, Seedstars World - the global startup competition focused on emerging markets – brought its 2016 round to a close this month, crowning six winners, two of which were Middle Eastern startups.

The event, held last weekend at the SwissTech Convention Center in Lausanne, Switzerland, gathered over 1,000 participants and nearly 70 startups, as the 12 finalists competed for an equity investment of up to $500,000. And Arab entrepreneurs shone. Jordanian sign language startup Mind Rockets was awarded the Public Vote, while Emirati educational platform Asafeer Educational Technologies was given the TRECC Transforming Education Prize, nabbing a $50,000 grant. Among the finalists was also Raye7’s co-founder Ahmed Negm, named by CairoScene one of Egypt’s 25 under 25 in 2015.

“What’s so interesting in the Arab world is the sheer volume of people with similar cultures and interests,” Seedstars co-founder Alisée de Tonnac told Startup Scene. “For a long time, we’ve been seeing entrepreneurs in the region trying to copy-cat what was happening in Europe or trying to move as quickly as possible move to the US; but finally we are seeing entrepreneurs understanding more and more that we have got huge problems to tackle in our own homes, and thanks to technology and the support of initiatives, we can start building real solutions for real pains in our region; that’s biggest potential,” she said.

Emirati educational platform Asafeer Educational Technologies was awarded the $50,000 TRECC Prize. 

In her speech at the Summit opening, the entrepreneur herself – and one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 – considered that we should “stop comparing Silicon Valley with these parts of the world,” given that they have had different cultural foundations. “Too much of the narrative of these countries has been monopolized by one story, usually a negative one; we are talking about economies that are huge, and cultures that are extremely diverse within the country itself so these entrepreneurial ecosystems are fundamental in building a culture of promoting success, because then you have real local role models,” she told us later.  

For a long time, we’ve been seeing entrepreneurs in the Arab region trying to copy-cat what was happening in Europe but finally we are seeing entrepreneurs understanding more and more that we have got huge problems to tackle in our own homes.

Later on stage, Jordanian winning startup Mind Rockets won the crowd when Business Development Executive Malek Zuaiter gave an inspiring pitch on stage, partly using sign language himself. The startup develops assistive technological solutions for the hearing impaired, creating avatars for films, Netflix series, online platforms, or devices that can instantly translate text and voice into sign language. “We already have 60,000 downloads of people who are using it on an individual level to communicate with deaf friends or family for free,” Zuaiter tells Startup Scene. “On the institutional, level we are integrating this into the infrastructures around us; services, pharmacies, and airports, to design solutions based on this technology. We are also developing the app in Korean sign language!” he explains.

Emirati winner Asafeer Education Technologies also focuses on Arabic-language content, aiming to impact their community through a smarter, cost-efficient way for children to learn to read. The final winner, who took home $500,000 in seed funding, was Filipino startup Acudeen Technologies, an innovative solution that turns SMEs invoices into cash through discounting of their receivables, providing them with necessary working capital they are not getting from the banks. Other winners included Mexican UnDosTres, which was awarded the PayU Fintech Prize; Peruvian qAIRa, awarded Best Woman Entrepreneur by Hublot; and South Korea’s PiQuant, acclaimed as the Most Innovative Startup.

"I wonder if we should stop comparing Silicon Valley with these parts of the world,” said Seedstars founder Alisee de Tonnac in the opening speech. 

But prior to the summit, another Middle Eastern startup had racked up a prize, as US Launchpad for International Startups VIAGlobal presented the Virtual Presence Prize for US Expansion. One of the winners, Democrance, is a Lebanese startup setting off to make insurance available to a wider population by engaging insurance companies and mobile network operators. The startup will receive 12 months of VIAGlobal’s Virtual Presence services, which provide an economical solution for companies that want to expedite a commercial presence in the US without moving personnel immediately.

The summit also featured a broad range of workshops that probed different topics from agriculture and healthcare to investment and e-commerce, including keynote speeches Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore, and Iranian innovation catalyst, serial entrepreneur and philanthropist Kamran Elahian, who spoke about Techpreneurship in the AMENA region. Seedstars also officially launched Seedstars Community, a network of startup ecosystem enablers and doers across emerging markets.


Video by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Shot and edited by: Federico Corno.