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For Entrepreneurs, By Entrepreneurs: AstroLabs Sets Out To Vitalize MENA Tech Startup Ecosystem "In aggregate, our alums have raised over US$50 million in capital over the last two years, and have generated hundreds of jobs."

By Aby Sam Thomas

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Muhammed Mekki and Louis Lebbos, Founding Partners, AstroLabs

While AstroLabs has been in existence for more than two years now, the October opening of its first coworking space in Dubai's Jumeirah Lakes Towers neighborhood marks a significant point in its growth and evolution. After all, as an organization that was set up by founding partners Louis Lebbos and Muhammed Mekki (perhaps best known for being the co-founders of e-commerce portal Namshi.com) with a mission "to create a thriving technology ecosystem in the MENA region," AstroLabs' new hub is aimed at becoming, as Mekki put it, "a physical home for tech entrepreneurship, starting in Dubai."

"We focus on two core areas: practical education and community building," Mekki explains. "We have started to make an impact on both fronts, but there is still so much more to be done. We have trained over 150 tech startups across MENA in the last two years in our Scaling Online Startups program alone, with many more attending our other programs. Some of our earliest participants have gone on to become the biggest success stories in the region; for example, Careem, Souqalmal, etc. In aggregate, our alums have raised over US$50 million in capital over the last two years, and have generated hundreds of jobs. We have just started community building with our coworking space AstroLabs Dubai, and are already seeing the results emerge. With one acquisition already (Beneple) and many companies raising rounds of financing to grow, the members of AstroLabs are on an amazing trajectory."

The workspace at AstroLabs Dubai. Image credit: AstroLabs.

Aiding AstroLabs in its drive to help scale new online ventures in the MENA region is another company that once was (before it became an Internet giant whose name became a de facto verb) a startup founded in a garage: Google. Thanks to a partnership with Google for Entrepreneurs, a Google-run program aimed at helping startup communities around the world, AstroLabs has been able to offer entrepreneurs in its program the opportunity to leverage the global Google network, and of course, its many advantages and deep expertise. "We feel we can add the most value to aspiring entrepreneurs by acting as a support network and giving them access to the rest of the world," says David Grunwald, Senior Partnerships Manager EMEA, Google for Entrepreneurs. "For example, by being a member of AstroLabs in Dubai, the entrepreneurs will be able to leverage all the advantages of the Google for Entrepreneurs community, which includes access to all Google-run or our partners' physical spaces all over the world including Seoul, Silicon Valley, London, New York, Paris and Kenya. This will provide the entrepreneurs a unique opportunity to explore new markets, spark new connections, and even experience the serendipity of being at the right place in the right time. In the sense of easing the challenges typically faced by startups, we aim to provide a regional opportunity out of Dubai and act as a connection to the rest of the world, while giving them access to local and global Googlers, classes, hangouts, etc."

It's important to note here that Google for Entrepreneurs has been especially influential in supporting and encouraging the cause of entrepreneurship globally- the entity has been privy to some amazingly successful startup communities in locations around the world, with Grunwald name checking places like NUMA in Paris, France, Dogpatch Labs in Dublin, Ireland and Factory in Berlin, Germany. Given that history and heritage, Google for Entrepreneurs' new partnership with AstroLabs is especially exciting for Dubai and the Middle East- but why Dubai in the first place? Besides noting the readiness of the entrepreneurial ecosystem here, the substantial presence Google already has in the region, and the fact that they found a great partner in AstroLabs, Grunwald also points toward HSBC's Expat Explorer 2015 survey for the answer to that: according to that particular poll, the Emirate has been ranked the second best city in the world for an expat to start a business. "Dubai's startup scene is growing very fast in the region, and is attracting a lot of international talent to be based here," Grunwald says. "Unlike other parts of the globe where Google for Entrepreneurs operates, the issues we identify in MENA are not related to the absence of business or tech talent- this exists in abundance. If anything, the region could benefit from denser startup clusters, with more entrepreneur-focused community spaces. We also feel that startups should adopt a more "international first' outlook, where they think from day one about scaling their products across borders and accessing foreign markets, whether elsewhere in the Middle East or beyond. For both those reasons, we're particularly excited to be partnering with AstroLabs in Dubai."

David Grunwald, Senior Partnerships Manager EMEA, Google For Entrepreneurs. Image credit: Google For Entrepreneurs.

"Google began as a startup in a garage, and it remains a startup at heart," Grunwald adds. "Entrepreneurship is in our DNA, and we're committed to enabling the next generation of entrepreneurs to be successful. Through Google for Entrepreneurs, we focus on building entrepreneurship communities around the world through partnerships with leading tech hubs, accelerators and startup community organizations, and Google-led Campus spaces. We believe that entrepreneurship in the technology sector can play an increasingly important role in opening new economic opportunities across MENA. That is why we partnered with AstroLabs, so we can help to provide a classroom for entrepreneurs, a support network, access to local/global mentors, and a chance to aid entrepreneurs in creating a community among themselves."

The space that AstroLabs now provides its startups is, by itself, pretty impressive: besides the coworking space, the hub -which already has 41 member startups- also features a mobile device development lab designed and supported by Google for Entrepreneurs, alongside dedicated rooms set aside specifically for training, coding, meetings, etc., as well as a café, which is open to the general public too. Perhaps it's a testament to the nature of the environment (or maybe even the sense of community that AstroLabs seems so intent in instilling with its startups) that during a visit to the AstroLabs prior to its official launch, it was easy to spot the sense of camaraderie that linked all of the entrepreneurially minded people in that space. "We curate a group of the highest potential founders, and provide them with the jet fuel they need to scale up," Mekki says. "We have an engaged mentor pool with some of the top practitioners, investors, and technologists in the region, who regularly visit the space to meet with our members. We host AstroLabs Academy workshops on a regular basis at the space, in addition to a range of meetups and events open to the public." Mekki also draws attention to AstroLabs' partnership with the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre as being one of the space's signature benefits for its members. "We wanted to be able to address the biggest challenges facing startups here in Dubai, and so we worked on a unique partnership with the DMCC Free Zone to make it very easy for companies to get registered," he says. "Our startups can come from anywhere around the world, and get set up with a company, bank account, and residency immediately. This is a big draw for our international entrepreneurs."

H.E. Mohammed Al Gergawi with Muhammed Mekki touring AstroLabs Dubai. Image credit: AstroLabs.

As for the entrepreneurs who were already part of the AstroLabs program, the ones I met were quick to sing praises of the community they were a part of. Tarig El- Sheikh, founder of Beneple, an HR software management platform that was acquired just eight months after its launch, was one such startup founder. "As soon as I heard Muhammed and Louis were launching AstroLabs, I wanted to know how we could sign up," El-Sheikh says. "The timing was opportune, as we were still in the customer discovery and revenue testing phase at that stage, and we wanted to avoid high set up fees one typically expects when setting up in Dubai. Above and beyond all the bells and whistles one would expect from one of the leading regional accelerators in the MENA region –i.e. access to venture funding, mentors, good connectivity, lower set-up costs etc.- we've been really surprised by -and incredibly excited to be a part of- the AstroLabs community. It's a real community!" Richard Fitzgerald, founder of Lovin Dubai, an online publication aimed at being "a fresh voice" for the city, agrees with El-Sheikh, adding that AstroLabs' partnership with Google for Entrepreneurs is also an indication of how well Dubai is doing in terms of being an entrepreneurial ecosystem. "It just goes to show how advanced the region and the city is becoming, there isn't much that you can't get here compared to London, New York or Hong Kong," he says. "That's also what Lovin Dubai is all about, to showcase the great opportunities we have here. For us, as a business, we want to collaborate with AstroLabs as much as possible in our first few years- to contribute to its growth, as well as benefiting from its ecosystem."

AstroLabs currently offers four different kinds of membership packages (one of them, the Moonlighter Package, seems to have been designed especially for the wannabe entrepreneurs among you), and startups need to apply to be a member- Lebbos and Mekki reveal that the space has received more than 200 applications already, and it currently has a less than 20% acceptance rate. The appeal of the space is pretty obvious, given the aforementioned offerings- but one other detail that makes AstroLabs particularly interesting for startups is the fact that it is run by Lebbos and Mekki, who are two entrepreneurs that have gone through the experience of setting up an enterprise in the MENA region, and perhaps more importantly, making a success out of it.

The entrance to AstroLabs Dubai. Image credit: AstroLabs.

When asked how much of contribution did their experience with Namshi.com bleed into the formation of AstroLabs, the reply is almost instant: "Basically, a hundred percent," Lebbos replies. "We saw the big gaps [in the ecosystem] that a lot of people complain about or talk about- but then nobody does anything about it. There are specific issues in the entrepreneurial ecosystem of the region that everyone is suffering from, but not a lot of people are actually dedicating their lives and times to solving them." With AstroLabs, Lebbos and Mekki are thus trying to better the environment for startups in the region- and building a sustainable community that does just that is at the top of their agenda.

AstroLabs at Jumeirah Lakes Towers in Dubai. Image credit: AstroLabs.

AstroLabs Dubai: The Rundown

"In taking the astrolabe as inspiration, AstroLabs aspires to foster a culture of big thinking and innovative exploration among startups across the Arab world."

WHAT AstroLabs is aimed at enabling technology entrepreneurship in the MENA region. Besides its coworking space, AstroLabs also runs a number of digital training programs through AstroLabs Academy.

WHO The co-founders of Namshi. com, Louis Lebbos and Muhammed Mekki, are the Founding Partners of AstroLabs.

WHY "We are the only Googlepartnered Tech hub in MENA, and are entrepreneur-run. We have a strategic partnership with the DMCC Free Zone, which enables our startups to get up and running quickly without the usual expenses associated with setting up a new company in Dubai. Our space is focused only on scalable tech startups, and we are looking for the best companies from all over the world."

WHERE Cluster R, Parkside, Jumeirah Lakes Towers, Dubai

Plus points

A few of the Google for Entrepreneurs initiatives startups at AstroLabs Dubai can take advantage of:

  • Passport Program allows members to access space over 20 Google for Entrepreneurs partner tech hubs and campuses globally
  • Mobile Device Development Lab in-house to experiment with changes to your mobile app and see them displayed across multiple screens in real time
  • Link to Google's Dubai office with mentorship, office hours and educational programming
  • Network of Google for Entrepreneurs partners to learn from and collaborate with, amongst the best startup-facing organizations in the world.
  • Silicon Valley Blackbox Connect offers a chance to link to resources, mentors and a network in the U.S. via a residential program in Silicon Valley for international startups
  • Invitation to GFE's Women's Demo Day wherein femaleled startups in the Astrolabs community will be eligible to pitch Silicon Valley investors in December at the Googleplex
  • Google for Entrepreneurs Exchange: Astrolabs members will be eligible to apply to the Google for Entrepreneurs Exchange, a global immersion

Who's who: A sampling of the startups that are currently a part of AstroLabs

  • Beneple A simple HR platform to manage admin and benefits, thereby providing a digital solution for business owners to streamline the entire HR workflow. www.beneple.com
  • Lovin Dubai An online publication that features everything from restaurant reviews to recipes, to launches and events, and other fun lifestyle content. www.lovindubai.com
  • Exclusive Tables is a mobile app that allows you to easily make table reservations at high-end nightclubs, lounges and restaurants in Dubai, Barcelona and Ibiza. www.exclusivetablesapp.com
  • ClassDive A mobile app that allows you to access all of your fitness workouts in Dubai, by allowing for you to search, book and locate fitness workouts in the city on the go. www.classdive.com
Aby Sam Thomas

Entrepreneur Staff

Editor in Chief, Entrepreneur Middle East

Aby Sam Thomas is the Editor in Chief of Entrepreneur Middle East. In this role, Aby is responsible for leading the publication on its editorial front, while also working to build the brand and grow its presence across the MENA region through the development and execution of events and other programming, as well as through representation in conferences, media, etc.

Aby has been working in journalism since 2011, prior to which he was an analyst programmer with Accenture, where he worked with J. P. Morgan Chase's investment banking arm at offices in Mumbai, London, and New York. He holds a Master's Degree in Journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.  

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