In hi-tech, Gaza Sky Geeks sees way to break through isolation

Gaza Sky Geeks aims to harness an entrepreneurial streak among Gaza's isolated youths. The company already has investment from Google to help start-ups grow.

Christa Case Bryant/TCSM
Reem Omran is program manager for Gaza Sky Geeks, which is launching a hi-tech accelerator for start-ups this fall.

Reem Omran, a petite dynamo with impeccable English and sparkly gold shoes, has grand plans to grow bushels of Gaza entrepreneurs.

Given the tough conditions of working in this tiny coastal territory with no port of its own, her ideas and optimism may sound fanciful.

But already, Gaza Sky Geeks is benefiting from a $900,000 grant from Google and landed airy modern offices in Gaza City with the help of Mercy Corps, whose economic wing promotes information communications and technology (ICT) education in Gaza. (Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the origin of the grant and Ms. Omran's role at the organization.)

Now Gaza Sky Geeks is in serious talks with venture capitalists who could help the outfit transition from a nonprofit organization to a bona fide business whose mission is to help hi-tech start-ups develop into full-fledged companies.

“We know that the Google grant is an opportunity for Gaza.… Showing the world what Gaza really has [in terms of] entrepreneurs and start-ups is going to bring more attention and support to the ICT community,” says Ms. Omran, who started with Mercy Corps as a student volunteer and helped coordinate Google’s visits to Gaza, which began in the summer of 2010. “We want to prove that yes, those start-ups, those entrepreneurs [and] freelancers from Gaza … are able to compete and produce those Web and mobile applications.”

While Gaza’s near-moribund economy, and strict Israeli and Egyptian controls on exports, are notoriously bad for business, the potential for success in hi-tech is perhaps higher since the industry is less hampered by physical barriers. Web- or mobile-based applications can be used and sold outside Gaza without any need for physically exporting products.

The difficult conditions in Gaza also contribute to an unusually Web-savvy youth population, suggests Omran. The social restrictions on young women that prevent them from going out after school, the inability to travel outside Gaza, and the high rate of unemployment – among 15-29 year olds it is nearly 50 percent   – all mean that young people spend an astounding amount of time online.

Gaza Sky Geeks is launching Gaza’s first hi-tech accelerator to help other start-ups develop into proper businesses, and to provide more of a market for some 2,000 university students who graduate each year with degrees in information communication and technology and are largely unable to find jobs.

“We looked at entire ecosystem of start-ups … then we tried to figure out missing parts of ecosystem,” says Omran, ticking off a handful of players, from the Business and Technology incubator at Islamic University to the Palestinian IT Association. “When there’s a market for these start-ups, it’s time to accelerate them.”

Later this month, they are holding a boot camp of three to five weeks for potential grantees. Six teams will be chosen from among the boot camp participants and awarded grants of $15,000 to $20,000. They'll then be given three months to use Gaza Sky Geeks’ facilities, which include iMacs with huge screens, modern bar swivel chairs, and fairly reliable Internet and electricity.

After that, Gaza Sky Geeks will organize an opportunity for the teams to demo their products for investors, either in Gaza or in another Arab country if it proves too big an obstacle to get investors into Gaza.

To that end, they recently sent employee Mohammed Ballour to a conference in Jordan sponsored by Wamda, which trains entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa. There he received training on how to start an accelerator and develop criteria for mentoring start-ups.

The small Gaza Sky Geeks team acknowledges that their aspirations are high, but so is their motivation.

“All our dreams are trying to reach the sky,” says program coordinator Mira Bakri, originally from Lebanon. “This is what we were trying to do with this name [Gaza Sky Geeks].”

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