Over the past decade, Egyptian universities have launched a dozen business incubators to provide financial and advisory support to students establishing startup companies. Some have also started teaching entrepreneurship as a major.
This has led to the creation of at least 600 startups in disciplines such as sustainable agriculture, technological innovations, water and agricultural waste management sectors, and artificial intelligence.
Business incubator services usually include financial support ranging from 20,000 to 250,000 Egyptian pounds (about $1,200 to $16,000), the use of laboratories and meeting halls, technological and commercial guidance, office space, and help with marketing and communication with potential investors.
“The main objective of establishing business incubators is to embody research papers carried out by professors and students into actual successful projects, thus creating a stimulating environment for innovation and consolidating the culture of entrepreneurship,” Heba Medhat Zaki, founding director of the Business Incubator of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University, said in a phone interview.
The university administration manages the incubator with funding from the government and the private sector, but unlike most nonacademic organizations, it does not own a stake in the companies it helps set up.
The incubator headed by Zaki offers a training program that lasts from four to six months in skills such as business basics, marketing support, market research, and incubator financing management. Since its establishment in 2016, it has established 46 startup companies and created about 133 jobs.
“The main objective of establishing business incubators is to embody research papers carried out by professors and students into actual successful projects.”Heba Medhat Zaki
Founding director of the Business Incubator of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University
Zaki, a lecturer at the university, said that after the incubation period, participants present their ideas to a jury of investors and experts. The best projects receive financial support and specialized advisory services.
A New Emphasis at Cairo University
Heba El Gendy, 33, received about 10,000 Egyptian pounds about a year ago from the Cairo University incubator for her company, which specializes in providing general insurance, life insurance and saving services to its clients, through an electronic platform.
“I was excited about the idea of the project through my work in the insurance field. I was only looking for someone to support my choice and support me in implementing it,” she said in a phone interview.
Her company, which aspires to be a pioneer in providing insurance services to middle-class individuals and workers, currently employs four people.
Universities which have begun to teach entrepreneurship as a specialized curriculum include Cairo University, the American University in Cairo, the British University in Egypt, the German University in Cairo, Nile University, and the Knowledge Hub Universities.
“The application of the entrepreneurship curriculum comes within the framework of the university’s endeavor to shift to the model of third-generation universities,” Mohamed Othman Elkhosht, president of Cairo University, said in a press statement in 2019 when the new course was announced. He added that the aim was to develop students’ scientific and research capabilities and said the curriculum would be available online, and students would be tested orally.
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Cairo University has also started to train some 35 faculty members and assistants at its Faculty and Leadership Development Center on the entrepreneurship curriculum.
Criticism of Curricula as Too Theoretical
However, some students at public universities complain that entrepreneurship curricula are too theoretical and do not offer practical training.
“The curriculum relies on memorization with the absence of an adequate training aspect,” Youssef Abdel Aal, a student at the Faculty of Commerce at Ain Shams University, said in a phone interview. “The admission requirements are very difficult and unclear.”
Ayman Ismail, a professor of administration at the American University in Cairo, recommends an unconventional approach based on participatory education.
“The main objective of teaching entrepreneurship is to enhance the entrepreneurial capabilities of students, and not necessarily create startup companies” he said, stressing that the main element of a project’s success is usually the association of its idea with the university’s specialization or needs.
“Unfortunately, there is no entrepreneurial programs strategy in the public universities, which is reflected in the design and continuity of projects.”Heba El Gendy
Founder of a startup who received help from Cairo University’s business incubator
Ismail founded the Venture Lab at the American University in Cairo in 2013. The entrepreneurship program is considered the first business incubator in an Egyptian university and has helped to generate more than 200 startups since then. (See a related article, “Teaching Entrepreneurship.”)
The university started a specialized curriculum in entrepreneurship ten years ago but now teaches it to more than half its students. Ismail stresses that the objective is to make the establishment of a startup company one of the choices for students during the study period or after graduation.
Lack of financing remains an obstacle to the growth of business incubators in public universities, however.
“We face an increasing financial deficit, as the finance we receive does not exceed 1 percent of what business incubators in private universities receive,” said Heba Zaki, who was forced to limit the business incubator at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University to four individuals.
Heba El Gendy said she hopes to see an independent body that will design the strategy of business incubators in public universities with a fund to support them financially.
“Unfortunately, there is no entrepreneurial programs strategy in the public universities, which is reflected in the design and continuity of projects,” she said.