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Innovation Centres at Lebanese Universities Try to Keep Talent at Home

BEIRUT—Several Lebanese universities have set up innovation centres to encourage students to start news businesses in the country, despite its deep economic crisis and accelerating “brain drain.”

Lebanon has many of the right elements for fostering innovative start-ups, programme directors at the universities say, but entrepreneurs also face many drawbacks. Lebanon is a small market and is further limited by poor infrastructure and the multiple economic shocks the country has endured over the past two and a half years.

These include the financial crisis that began in late 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the devastating explosion at the Port of Beirut on August 4, 2020.

Universities hope to compensate in part by setting up innovation centres to help students develop patents, bring promising ideas to the market or launch start-ups that will remain in the country and contribute to its economic growth.

Institutions that have established or expanded such centres in recent years include the Lebanese American University, the American University of Beirut, and Saint-Joseph University of Beirut.

Lebanese American University

The Fouad Makhzoumi Innovation Center at the Lebanese American University was founded three years ago to help innovators develop ideas into viable products and businesses.

Elie Badr, the university’s vice president for business and global affairs, told Al-Fanar Media that the centre offers two programmes: LAU Spark, a business incubator for students, staff members and alumni, and LAU Innovatus, which helps science and technology researchers turn ideas into profitable products.

“We hope that by creating more opportunities, innovators would rather stay than leave, or maybe have their back-office operations here while they market outside Lebanon.”

Yousif Asfour
Chief innovation and transformation officer at the American University of Beirut

“Under the Spark programme, students whose ideas have a potential for growth go into a six-month boot camp whereby they are mentored to bring the idea further, get technical help and learn how to build a business model and market their product,” Badr said.

Students pitch their ideas to an investment panel. Those deemed the most promising receive $10,000 in seed money from the university to help them develop and market their product. In return, recipients agree that LAU will have discounted shares in any start-up that might eventually be created.

“We also set an intellectual-property right policy that guarantees copyrights for the university, the innovator and investors,” Badr said.

Several teams of LAU students recently participated in an Innovation Challenge sponsored by the College of Business and Economics at Boise State University, in the United States.

Two LAU students (Elie Abou Issa and Abdelrahman Ghalayini) collaborated with American peers on a project that won one of the contest’s top prizes. Their project, Wind Turbines Powered by Cars, seeks to convert waste energy from roadways to electricity using vertical turbines.

Other teams from LAU also won prizes.  One team designed an app for farmers to make agriculture more efficient, while the other designed an app to help small businesses compete with big companies in local markets.

American University of Beirut

The Talal and Madiha Zein AUB-Innovation Park at the American University of Beirut was established two years ago to help entrepreneurs develop start-ups.

The innovation centre, also known as the AUB iPark, offers a 14-week programme helps young entrepreneurs devise a financial model, sales and marketing plans and a minimum viable product.

Yousif Asfour, the university’s chief innovation and transformation officer, said: “Anybody in the university, whether student, alumni, faculty or staff, with an innovative idea and commitment to turn it into a start-up can apply to the programme.”

Selected candidates “are assigned a mentor and an entrepreneurial resident who works with them on a daily basis,” Asfour said. “We basically help them prepare for the ultimate goal of demonstrating their product and pitching it to investors.”

The programme targets two types of start-ups. It helps those in the development stage, who are still refining their “minimum viable product”, and those in the growth stage, who already have a product but need to broaden their market.

Over the past two years, Asfour said, the programme has led to the creation of more than 30 start-ups, employing 20 students and raising $3 million in investment funds.

“Even those who stay in Lebanon see the world as their market. The best scenario is that they stay in Lebanon and service internationally.”

Ursula El Hage
Director of the Career and Placement Office and Entrepreneurship Center at Saint-Joseph University of Beirut

The AUB iPark also organises local and international challenges to boost innovation. The annual AUB President’s Innovation Challenge is open to teams of entrepreneurs that have at least one member from the university community. In the past two years, it has awarded cash prizes worth a total of up to $55,000, and the winning teams automatically enter the university’s  incubation programme.

One of the successful start-ups that emerged from the AUB iPark developed virtual SIM cards that travellers can download to their phones to use local mobile services instead of paying expensive roaming charges. Another developed medical software that can analyse the opaqueness of the cornea, aiding diagnosis and treatment.

Saint-Joseph University of Beirut

Students at Saint-Joseph University of Beirut also have an Entrepreneurship Center to help them develop ideas for start-ups. Models developed there can be referred to Berytech, a leading incubation hub for Lebanese start-ups.

Ursula El Hage, director of the university’s Career and Placement Office and Entrepreneurship Center, said: “In the pre-incubation phase we offer workshops on all aspects of entrepreneurship, starting with the innovative idea to market research, marketing, finance, funding, networking and pitching.”

“We also invite entrepreneurs and ecosystem players to meet with them and prepare them for the various competitions that we organise,” she added. “Once they have a comprehensive business model, we refer them to Berytech to join a programme where they have incubation, acceleration and fund raising.”

Combating the Brain Drain

Officials at all three universities expressed alarm over the brain drain that is depriving Lebanon of its innovative youth, as rising numbers of young people emigrate to escape the country’s difficult living conditions and lack of opportunities.

“Part of what we are trying to achieve is to slow down the brain drain by creating opportunities and encouraging people with innovative ideas to develop entrepreneurship and start-ups locally,” said Asfour, of AUB’s iPark.

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“Part of our mission is also to help develop the entrepreneurial ecosystem. We hope that by creating more opportunities, innovators would rather stay than leave, or maybe have their back-office operations here while they market outside Lebanon.”

El Hage agreed that the option of keeping a headquarters in Lebanon while marketing abroad would be better for the economy than seeing innovators leave.

“Even those who stay in Lebanon see the world as their market,” she said. “The best scenario is that they stay in Lebanon and service internationally.”

Badr said that LAU’s efforts to reduce the brain drain included setting up an industrial hub in its Byblos campus, north of Beirut. The hub will house the innovation centre  and provide office space for industries.

“Industries will have access to a stable infrastructure and modern labs and can benefit from the expertise and talents of faculty and students. The aim is to engage  industry to be part of the university’s DNA.”

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