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Innovation and flexibility allowed MENA startups to raise over $1 billion in 2020

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Innovation and flexibility allowed North African and Middle Eastern startups to raise over $1 billion in 2020

Despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, investors continued to believe in the potential of North African and Middle Eastern tech start-ups. The growth in venture capital investments in MENA countries in the latter portion of 2020 speaks volumes about the expected high returns in the coming years. While the total number of investment transactions in 2020 decreased 13% overall from numbers in 2019, a record breaking first half of 2020 and a rebound in late Q3 led to a year that, despite a global pandemic, shattered expectations for investment numbers.

The sectors benefiting most from high investment

While the total number of deals may have dropped, several key industries have experienced major growth throughout 2020:

  • Fintech, or financial tech did very well. Despite losing 19% of the number of deals, total funding for this industry shot up to $162 million.
  • eCommerce was a sector that lost 23% in deals but managed to come out with 24% more funding than the sector received in 2019.
  • Healthcare and Healthtech was an obvious winner given the public health crisis, and investment in Healthcare start-ups soared by 280% compared to 2019 for a total of $72 million in funding

Big winners of the year included the digital healthcare agency Vezeeta, securing a staggering $40 million in series D funding in early 2020, shortly after moving their headquarters to Dubai, and Dubai-based used car marketplace, that raised $35 million to expand the number of branches across the country.

United Arab Emirates takes the lion’s share of investment funding

The UAE maintained its powerful lead in total funding, taking 56% of the total of venture capital funding raised within the Middle East and North Africa for the year of 2020. Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia follow with 17% and 15% of the total funding, respectively. As a percentage of the deal share, very little changed compared to 2019. Most changes were only 1 or 2% of the deal share, with the exception of Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia increased the share of the number of deals by 6%, likely because of the large shift towards ecommerce and Fintech within Sauda Arabia during 2020.

Seed rounds and series A receiving the biggest boost in funding

Despite the increase in funding overall, the investment landscape does seem to have been altered by the Covid-19 pandemic. Pre-seed and early stage venture funding decreased in 2020, while Seed funding and Series A investments exploded, potentially reaching up to $3 million of funding. While exact numbers are still being confirmed, it suggests investors are less willing to expose themselves to risk on companies that are yet to bring a product to market, and instead focused on those with a promising outlook for rapid growth. Given the impact the global economy has seen from Covid-19 and the many countries facing a harsh recession, this change of tactics could be seen as a more cautious approach from investors.

A promising outlook for tech start-ups in the Middle East and North Africa

Although Covid-19 is far from over and many of the long-term economic impacts are still to hit home, raising over $1 billion of funding in 2020 is an incredible achievement for MENA start-ups. Chief Operating Officer at 500 Startups Courtney Powell, among others, have said that the outlook for 2021 is positive, and if the Fintech, eCommerce and Healthtech industries can innovate and succeed through the challenging year of 2020, then there is every reason to expect they will succeed in 2021.

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MIT in MENA: Bringing Arab Minds Together for Change

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MIT brings MENA’s smartest minds together for a universally beneficial competition.

On April 14, the smartest technology-oriented minds from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) will meet in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the third and final round of the MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab competition. Organized by the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), this forum brings together innovative minds from 21 Arab countries to change the way we think, learn and access services.

In its 9th year, this competition brings together MENA’s smartest innovators in four tracks: ideas, social entrepreneurship, start-ups and The Silicon Valley Program. This year, more than 5,000 applications were received from 21 countries in French, English and Arabic. All finalist teams will receive top tier coaching from leaders in their respective fields; networking opportunities with budding and well-known specialists and the opportunity to learn from others in their category. The top three finalists will receive, in order, US$15,000, US$10,000 and US$5,000 to turn their ideas into tangible reality.

Ideas Track

20 teams are short-listed for the “ideas” track. In order to be eligible, candidates must form a team of at least two people including at least one Arab national; are not required to have a working prototype of their invention; are forbidden from having any current sales; and are not required to be registered or incorporated in any way, but are required to incorporate a company in one of the Arab countries in order to win prize money; applicants may not have received any previous funding for their idea; and the idea can be in any industry–technology, food security, health delivery or otherwise.

Since the goal of this competition is to bring fresh ideas into the global marketplace, much of the judging criteria for this track is based on the feasibility of an idea. Teams are judged on three criteria.

Experience: the value each member adds to the team and the relevance of each team member to the incubation and development of the idea

Innovation: the creativity of the idea and whether or not it improves upon an existing solution/business process or introduces a new solution to a current challenge in any field

Scalability: the relevance of the idea to the global marketplace is judged on whether markets outside of team’s community would find the product useful. At a minimum, teams are expected to be relevant on a national scale, and should be replicable on a global scale.

Social Entrepreneurship Track

The Social Entrepreneurship track is similarly judged for eligibility. Teams must have a minimum of two members with at least one Arab national, the team must have a registered social enterprise either for or non-profit, the core product/service must address a specific social challenge faced by marginalized/disadvantaged peoples, and the enterprise can be in any industry.

The 20 finalist teams are judged on similar criteria as above, but with different details.

Innovation: the product/service must provide a new way to tackle the specific social challenge the team is addressing

Scalability: the social enterprise should not be limited to a local market, but should be scalable to the national level at a minimum. Preferably, the model could be expanded and replicated as the enterprise grows, where relevant.

Social Impact: the team will be judged on the efficacy of the project, and the extent to which it benefits the targeted population

Financial Sustainability: the team must prove that their enterprise is financially sustainable in the long-term for both for-profit and non-profit enterprises

Startups Track

30 teams will be selected for the second and final round of the Startups Track competition. These teams must be comprised of a minimum of two members, one of whom must be Arab, must have a working prototype of their startup, must already generate more than $500,000 in revenue, must have been in operation for no more than 5 years, must be legally registered in any Arab country and the start-up may be in any industry.

The teams will be judged on the following:

Team: judges score teams based on their individual experience, the value added by each person and the relevance of each role

Innovation: the start-up will be assessed for creativity, and whether it replicates an existing product/service

Scalability: the start-up must be relevant outside of the local context and should be easily replicable in other relevant fields, regardless of location.

The Silicon Valley Program

Unlike the above tracks, the Silicon Valley Program competition will finish in September, when finalists receive a much more comprehensive and hands on package than the other finalists. The Silicon Valley Program brings entrepreneurs from 20 start-ups to Silicon Valley (in northern California, United States) for a week-long immersive program. Finalists will attend and participate in conferences and workshops with some of Silicon Valley’s most successful start-ups and learn how to successfully “pitch” ideas to funders. Mentors include current industry leaders as well as members of the Arab diaspora who are better able to speak to the specific challenges entrepreneurs from the MENA region face.

This program accepts a higher-level of start-up teams than the other tracks. Start-ups must have been in operation for more than two years, must have global or regional reach/presence, must have successfully completed one round of fundraising and must have more than $500,000 in revenue per annum.

The Rising Tide

Competitions like this provide an incredible opportunity for young, successful and intelligent people to gather and share ideas. Not only do they have the potential to receive funding to scale up their operations to the global level, but they receive invaluable exposure and mentorship opportunities. Previous winners include Visualizing Impact, a Lebanese social enterprise that operates a citizen data laboratory to share science, design and technology data for social justice outside of formal channels; Kotobna, an Egyptian team that provides alternate means for young Arab authors to publish and monetize their written work and Screen DY, a Moroccan team that created a platform for users to quickly build complex, culturally relevant apps for all mobile technology platforms.

This competition is an important hallmark for young Arab entrepreneurs. Benefitting from the experience of others while gaining exposure to other like-minded people can invaluably change the way people in the MENA region and beyond access knowledge, share information and obtain products.

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