The most remarkable takeaway from the 2016 tour was the caliber of MENA health and education startups that are addressing both local and global markets.
This not to say that there was not a wide array of promising startups from diverse sectors; there was a wealth of transit, fintech, e-commerce and social platforms to contend with.
The standouts, however, are making strides in the EdTech, MedTech and health-related technologies. It is hard to pin down what exactly is contributing to this phenomenon. EdTech, MedTech, and Health & Wellness have an inherent social impact; they are sectors that directly touch all facets of society, relevant by necessity. These are also sectors that can be daunting to entrepreneurs due to the intrinsic bureaucracy, regulatory environment (health), and high cost barriers to entry.
These MENA startups are not taking on big pharma companies, but they are reinventing the way schools adopt technology, visually and hearing impaired citizens interact with the world, how patients find doctors, and purchase health insurance. These companies bring a certain set of curated health and education services to a much larger cross-section of society, particularly in lower income communities.
While the number of medical technology startup companies in the U.S. has droppedsharply (almost 70% in thirty years according to Forbes), the number of MENA medical startups has been taking off.
Given that the lack of new companies producing medical devices in the US is attributed to a harsh regulatory environment, MENA’s investors will be closely watching how the governments respond as the industry matures.
However, the majority of these startups will eschew the harsh rules that govern medical devices, and the companies that come in their wake may have to contend with more scrutiny depending on how the first generation performs.
Democrance from the UAE is one of the few startups to take on the establishment. Their mission is to democratize health insurance, making it accessible to the lower-income population of MENA through their mobile phone.
Around 350 million people in MENA (almost 90% of the population) do not have access to insurance. Democrance’s solution hinges on the fact that the low-income portion of the population may not be banked, but most have mobile phones (100% mobile penetration in the region) and they feel comfortable with mobile financial transactions facilitated by their telecom provider.
At the same time, telecom providers, whose revenues have been undercut by skype, whatsapp, and other wifi-based messaging services, need new revenue streams. This FinTech platform simultaneously makes health insurance affordable and accessible to the lower-income population and adds value to insurers and distributors.
Qatar’s Meddy is like the ZocDoc of the Middle East, helping patients find the best doctors based on reviews and credentials while assisting doctors find new patients. This business model is extremely pertinent in the MENA region, as there is a lot of turnover in the expat-dominated healthcare market. Unlike many of their western counterparts, doctors struggle with building a patient base and brand awareness. They still advertise in print media, which is costly and low yield. The online platform is tailored to the region’s cultural and business climate.
Algeria’s Dalil is an object recognition and navigation system for visually impaired people. They have devised “camera glasses” linked to a mobile application to help blind people detect and recognize objects in their surroundings.
The tool is meant to supplement and eventually replace the use of a cane or a guiding dog with a sophisticated environment detection and recognition software and hardware that can be utilized by anyone who has a mobile phone.
Jordan’s MindRockets is also employing digital tools for disabilities. MindRocketsdevelops assistive technologies for the deaf community, their core product is a sign language translation tool that works like google translate for sign language.
They have devised avatars to deliver speech and text for sign language interpretation. This is especially relevant in MENA, where the communication barrier between the deaf and the hearing people is compounded due to high illiteracy rates (nearly 80% of the deaf population are illiterate).
The MindRockets animated avatars interpret speech and text for smartphones, smart TVs, YouTube, and with plugins, giving the deaf illiterate community a wealth of tools to better navigate online and offline.
The demand for educational material in Arabic has spurred a whole range of companies from e-learning platforms to tutoring services that have native content, in some cases straddling different markets like Europe and the Middle East. We have also witnessed educational tools built in the Arab world that have transcended their regional markets to the global scale.
Asafeer Education Technology from UAE was initiated by a young father who observed that there was a dearth of Arabic educational material. He worked with a series of educators and artists to create an Arabic digital library and platform that monitors a child’s reading.
Asafeer’s edge is the data that provide parents and teachers diagnostics about progress and problem-areas. As more students opt in, the data references grow and refine the assessment. In less than a year, they’ve on-boarded thousands of readers and schools.
In Cairo, Tutorama has created a marketplace to connect students and parents with high quality tutors, a self-described “Airbnb of tutoring.” Their ambition is to provide a wide variety of tutoring options, very reasonable prices, and quality control measures that ensure top value.
Their platform allows parents to identify and schedule sessions with vetted tutors in their area and pay for sessions and monitor their child’s progress online.
Beirut’s MakerBrane has designed interactive and educational tools to take on the toy industry; their physical and digital platform lets anyone design, build, and sell toys with things that they already own.
A bit like Legos for the 21st century, MakerBrane is reimagining a toy company for digital natives that is a “collaborative, cross-brand tech platform that scales like software.”
We can already see an interweaving of medical and educational tools that makes it hard to delineate categories. Medtech can work with fintech, and health education is education. I anticipate that the classifications will further dissolve in the years to come as entrepreneurs cross-pollinate across disciplines and use all the tools at their disposal.
In that way, MENA can transcend the siloed and fractured nature of more established pharma and medical technology markets to provide hybrid solutions.