Google backed the only startup accelerator in the Gaza Strip

Gaza Sky Geeks acceleratorGaza Sky GeeksA startup weekend at Gaza Sky Geeks.

The Gaza Strip has a single tech startup accelerator.

Thanks to a one-time $US900,000 grant from Google, US charity Mercy Corps was able to set up Gaza Sky Geeks in 2011. It started out as a tech hub, offering a co-working space and running startup weekends where companies could meet investors, but developed into an accelerator in 2013.

Carpooling and taxi app Wasselni was one of the first four companies to go through the GSG acceleration programme. GSG manager Said Hassan refers to the company as “Uber for the Middle East.” But, because Gaza has no 3G network, Wasselni customers can only find nearby taxi-drivers when connected to WiFi.

Startups like Wasselni face dramatically different challenges to most young companies — poverty, travel restrictions, and a limited infrastructure damaged even further by last summer’s conflict between Israel and Hamas. Despite these challenges Gaza’s startup movement is gaining a lot more attention. When the funding from Google ran out last year GSG ran a crowdfunding campaign which raised $US250,000 from 800 people in January.

GSG started an incubation programme in March, and is now looking after 20 early-stage companies. The simply-named Walk and Charge has created a device that transfers the movement from walking into electricity. It means that Gazans can charge their phone on the go, or if their electricity shuts off. An electricity blackout can last for up to 16 hours in parts of the strip.

Walk and Charge is one of Hassan’s favourites.

“The people working there are in difficult situations,” he says. “Sometimes they don’t even have the transportation money to come here or to the pitch days. Sometimes they don’t have money to buy equipment. But they’re resilient.”

Gaza Sky Geeks acceleratorGaza Sky GeeksOver 600 people applied to the centre’s last startup weekend.

One of the biggest problems for Gazan startups isn’t conflict or poor infrastructure, but finding investment from outside the country. Locals need express permission from the Israeli or Egyptian authorities to leave Gaza, which isn’t easy to come by. A lot of GSG startups end up pitching potential investors over Skype.

“Because of the travel restrictions, startups have to imagine how markets outside operate too,” Hassan says.

Without help from GSG, startups like Sabeel would have no idea how ordinary markets operate. Sabeel, which means The Path in Arabic, describes itself as “the Foursquare for Muslims,” It helps those travelling to Europe and the US find nearby Halal restaurants. But because GSG is a part of Mercy Corps, it has been able to help a lot of people travel from Gaza to places like Morocoo and Dubai to understand more about the markets, Hassan says.

Working with larger Middle Eastern venture capital firms and accelerators, such as Jordan’s Oasis 500 and Nablus-based Palinno, Gaza Sky Geeks has helped four startups to secure investments so far. Along with Wasselini, 2014 saw social networks Tevy and Datrios and business intelligence solution DWBI get seed funding.

Out of the 20 startups currently being incubated, Hassan expects four or five of them to go through GSG’s next acceleration programme in September. And the programme is ony getting more popular. When the accelerator announced its latest startup weekend, over 600 young Gazans applied.

“We are still in the beginning and are not big like Silicon Valley,” Hassan said. “But many young Gazans have the essence of entrepreneurs.”

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