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.
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.”