It is Sunday night in Amman, Jordan, and the Jordanian startup scene keeps moving full steam ahead at an event called Dealmakers Weekend, organized by Endeavor, a nonprofit that supports high-impact entrepreneurship and Int@j, a nonprofit representing the Jordan IT industry. The cream of the local startup crop were paired up all day in matchmaking sessions with local and international investors in hopes of creating lasting relationships.
One of the startups, Mixed Dimensions (MXD), is representative of the new breed of company emerging from the local ecosystem. Founded in 2009, MXD is a technology and tools provider for platform developers, gaming companies and interactive 3D online application developers. Its co-founders, Muhannad Taslaq and Baha Abu Nojaim, are examples of the diverse entrepreneurs Jordan is producing. Born and bred in Jordan and of Palestinian origin, they are graduates of Jordanian universities and active participants in promoting grassroots technology entrepreneurship in Jordan.
Unlike many startups in Jordan and the region overall, MXD's vision extends far beyond its home country’s borders. Having begun its journey at the iPARK, an ICT incubator in Amman, MXD was from day one building technology targeted at a global audience. Its flagship product, a 3D asset development tool called GameDraw built for the Unity gaming engine, is used by over 16,000 game developers in 110 countries (as of January 2014). The company has expanded its global footprint, completing the Alchemist Accelerator program in Silicon Valley in August 2013 and venturing into new technology niches within 3D modeling and development.
MXD will become one of the first portfolio companies of the Badia Impact Fund, which announced its first close February 24 with Cisco (as part of our 2011 Venture Capital Commitment to Jordan), European Investment Bank, and King Abdullah Fund for Development.
In the Arab Middle East, Jordan is renowned for having the region’s most evolved startup ecosystem. With a population of only 6.5 million and no natural resource wealth to rely on for its sustenance like many of its neighbors, Jordan has been forced to look for economic growth elsewhere. The country has focused on developing a solid education system, especially adept in its ability to turn out quality IT grads. The IT sector’s modern roots date back to the 1970s, but the sector received a large boost when King Abdullah II took the throne in 1999. The King has offered support to the IT sector on a number of fronts, from streamlining bureaucracy (it takes days to establish a new firm in Jordan today, versus months in the past), to liberal ICT regulatory policies that have led to Jordanians enjoying some of the best internet connectivity in the region today.
Jordan is known in the region for turning out strong gaming and media companies, with Rubicon, a digital content production company, serving as a standard bearer for the sector. Randa Ayoubi, a female Jordanian entrepreneur, founded Rubicon in 2004, and with capital backing from Accelerator Technology Holdings in 2005, subsequently built the company into the leading animation studio in the Middle East today, with relationships with MGM, Fox, and Sony, and over 300 employees globally.
Jordan is also home to the splashiest IT exit success story in the region. Maktoob, a Jordanian Internet portal, was sold to Yahoo in 2009 for US$175 million. Success stories like Rubicon and Maktoob laid the groundwork for the launch in 2011 of Oasis 500, an accelerator in the classic Silicon Valley vein. Oasis 500 and other organic efforts in country have led to the creation of hundreds of startups in Jordan.
Despite its relative success in the regional context, Jordan’s startup ecosystem is still very much in its early days. Like nascent ecosystems in other emerging markets in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, Jordan lacks depth in such pieces as the number and quality of serial entrepreneurs, angel investors, and seasoned managers. And crucially, despite the relative prevalence of seed money below the amount of $30K on the market, finding funding for an early stage round from $200,000 to $5 million is nearly impossible. This early stage funding gap is exactly the market void that the Badia Impact Fund will attempt to address.
Emile Cubeisy, Managing Partner of Silicon Badia (fund manager of the Badia Impact Fund) explains, “The progress made in our tech ecosystem is just amazing. You sit in a cafe anywhere in Amman, and you feel the buzz of young men and women all around you with laptops open, talking product, exploring technology, or trying to figure out funding. You attend local pitch sessions and see entrepreneurs from across the region with real talent that have the aspiration to make the world take notice. At first, we were learning how to be entrepreneurs, building mostly “me too” products, and not believing in our global relevance. Now, startups all around us are setting their sites on global markets, tackling opportunities that tech startups from Berlin to London to Palo Alto would have their eyes set on. We’re going to back special teams like MXD, and continue Jordan’s trend of building startup success stories.”
If you want to learn more about the rapidly maturing Jordanian startup scene, please read these articles from The Economist:
- Start-up spring: Clusters of Internet firms are popping up all over the region
- All together now: What entrepreneurial ecosystems need to flourish
And if you happen to be in Amman someday, feel free to stop by for a coffee with Emile and Team at 123, Zahran Street, the offices of Silicon Badia.