February 18, 2015, Cairo – The third cycle of the Venture Lab (V-Lab) at The American University in Cairo (AUC) has succeeded in attracting talented entrepreneurs with lucrative startup ideas. Named among the Top Five Most Promising University Business Incubators in Africa by the Swedish-based company UBI Index, the V-Lab is currently incubating several startups, including Top Choice Admission (TCA), which is a rising startup that connects high school students with a large network of current university students and alumni in Egypt and worldwide while working with almost 600 college hopefuls. The company boasts a nearly 100 percent success rate of acceptance to a top-choice university. It also provides academic tutoring and SAT preparation classes, and is working on a recruiting platform to pair outstanding students with top-tier employers to offer the kinds of jobs that might incentivize Egyptians to return to their homeland.Omar Khashaba, chief executive officer of TCA, initially met with students in cafes and their homes, and drew on personal experiences to guide students through the university application process. He acknowledged that, while he had a viable business model before entering the V-Lab, "once you're at that stage and you're ready to take things to the next level, being in a program like this where you get exposure to the investment community and high-profile speakers who can help you address specific problems, versus the general notion of 'starting-up,' is very helpful."
Other startups incubated in the third cycle are Waffarly, which provides sustainable and resource-efficient products for the home and office; Tumbleweed, a local travel guide and social community where Egyptians can share travel experiences; Stebn, a bike-sharing system in Cairo; Ion-7, a game development studio; Creative Bits, platforms to enable non-technical people to create electronic applications, prototypes and robots; Shireet; a digital network targeting underground musicians to manage their digital presence and create high-quality videos at a low cost; Soutak.com, an online platform that connects the public with elected representatives and candidates at all levels of elections; Jozour, which produces wood panels from date palm midribs to provide an alternative green product for furniture manufacturers and interior designers; and Gyma, a smartphone app that provides training, diet and exercise tips tailored to Egyptians.
Founded in 2013 by Ayman Ismail, assistant professor in the School of Business and the Abdul Latif Jameel Endowed Chair of Entrepreneurship, the V-Lab business incubator helps promising Egypt-based entrepreneurs turn their startups into commercially viable ventures that will contribute to economic growth in Egypt. "We are very interested in supporting economic development, economic growth, competitiveness and job growth,” Ismail affirmed. “All of these things come from entrepreneurship and starting new companies that contribute to that economy. One of the best ways of doing that is trying to accelerate the cycle of transforming innovation into new startups."
The V-Lab provides numerous resources to help entrepreneurs fine-tune their businesses. Services include work space in the School of Business, use of AUC facilities, business management training, funding opportunities and a LE 20,000 award. V-Lab entrepreneurs also benefit from access to the AUC community. "There is a lot of collaboration and interaction that happens between the students, the faculty and the entrepreneurs," noted Ismail. "That's one of the biggest values of having V-Lab entrepreneurs on campus, unlike any other incubator."
The third cycle of the V-Lab began in September 2014 and will conclude with Demo Day on March 5, an opportunity for the 10 startups to showcase their ideas to the AUC community and investors. Like TCA, the most recent startups came into the Venture Lab with solid business plans already established. "They are a wonderful group," remarked Ismail. "Some of the companies are already starting to produce. They have revenues, and some of them are already profitable."
Ismail aims to capitalize on the V-Lab's success and recognition by expanding the program. He envisions a partner incubator at the School of Sciences and Engineering that guides students through the product development phase, while the V-Lab helps commercialize the resulting products. Ismail also hopes to expand beyond the AUC sphere and allow V-Lab members to collaborate with other startup incubators regionally and across the globe, especially at universities with entrepreneurship centers.
One way Ismail hopes the V-Lab can encourage entrepreneurs to stay in Egypt is by connecting with AUC's alumni network. "Alumni with vast experience are among the most interesting profiles for entrepreneurs," he said. "I want them to think , ‘Well, I should go back to AUC because that's a very interesting place. It's my home; it's my base.'"
As the V-Lab gains momentum, “the increase in quality has been very noticeable," Ismail observed.