All Aboard: Google Bus Seeks Start-Up Ideas

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Google’s new initiative, Ebda2, means “Start” in Arabic

DUBAI — A bus branded with the Google logo will be traveling across 10 governorates in Egypt starting this week, including stops at universities in Cairo and Alexandria, scouting for the next generation of technology entrepreneurs with homegrown ideas on the scale of Facebook or LinkedIn.

“We will put someone’s dream through a seven-month crash course that will help turn it into a commercially viable business,” said Wael Fakharany, Google’s manager in Egypt. “We have been working on this concept for nine months. We had signed a contract with the Egyptian government in 2009 to invest in the country’s Internet ecosystem and this is part of that commitment.”

Google’s new initiative, Ebda2, which means “Start” in Arabic, is the latest in a string of seed and mentorship programs designed to support the wave of entrepreneurial ventures sweeping across Egypt. The revolutionary spirit that had youth demanding job creation and speaking out about their political concerns through social media has also encouraged them to start online businesses, experts say.

“We are at a very important transition point socially and culturally, and this empowering sense of throwing off the shackles will be a big driver of economic growth,” said Ahmed Al Alfi, founder and chairman of the venture capital firm Sawari Ventures, who will be a mentor at Ebda2. “Young tech graduates had three options before: work for a multinational like Microsoft, or the government, or start a business with friends. The change is that more people are now considering the last option first.”

This year alone, incubators, angel-investor networks, and mentorship and seed investment programs like Alexandria Startup Weekend, Tahrir2, and have cropped up to provide necessary support for young, local entrepreneurs. Similarly, Google’s Ebda2 plans to provide 1.2 million Egyptian pounds, or about $200,000, in seed capital to bring a winning business idea to the market.

“Small entrepreneurial ventures will help create the ecosystem for entrepreneurs and investors in tech, which will lead to more jobs,” said Samih Toukan, founder of the Arabic e-mail service, which was sold to Yahoo in a landmark $175 million deal in 2009 to become Yahoo!Maktoob.

“Especially now in Egypt, there is a feeling of excitement and new beginnings,” Mr. Toukan said. “But what is lacking is support from investors and the government. We need to create the right framework to make it easy for people to set up businesses and secure financing.”

That is what Ebda2 sets out to do. During the eight-month project, Egyptian entrepreneurs will go through a screening process based on a specific set of criteria laid out by an independent judging panel of experts from various industries. The entrepreneurs will also receive mentoring and coaching from industry professionals and executives.

After designing the concept, Google has handed the program over to Science Age Society, a local nongovernmental organization, and InnoVentures, a local tech incubator, for execution in order to maintain impartiality — for example, for entrepreneurs who choose to work with domains other than Google.

Entrepreneurs can submit tech business ideas in areas like cloud computing, digital advertising, e-commerce, as well as mobile applications, location based applications and Arabic content.

“In the stage that we’re in, the ecosystem that endorses entrepreneurs is still being put together — everything from funding, to starting a company easily, to getting exposure,” said Hanan Abdel Meguid, chief executive of the technology company OT Ventures, who will serve as a mentor at Ebda2. “The pieces are slowly coming together and we need to create more momentum.”

“We have so many brilliant people working at multinationals, why not encourage them to create their own companies that can go global?”

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Ms. Meguid started her first company in 1993 and failed, only to try again with a new venture in 1996 that succeeded. Her current company operates across the region and is an exclusive partner with Facebook for the Middle East and North Africa.

“I go into a lot of boardrooms and find myself the only woman at the table — this is something I am particularly looking forward to discuss in this initiative,” she said. “I want to mentor women on how to create the right impressions and overcome prejudices.”

Ms. Meguid is one of 112 mentors who have signed up with Ebda2, alongside 47 Google employees. Over the next month, applications will be accepted online as well as during the road show, after which judges will select 200 candidates with whom to work. Fifty candidates will develop a working business model with mentors and 20 will be selected as finalists until a winner is granted $200,000 in seed money in May. The winner will be chosen based on innovation, potential for impact and job creation, skill set, well-designed business model and potential for revenue, organizers say.

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