Arab Tech Startups Try To Seize The Moment : All Tech Considered Social networking sites have been at the vanguard of the Arab uprisings over the past year. Egyptians used online pages to organize protests, and Syrian activists have posted frequent YouTube videos showing government forces shelling civilian areas.

Arab Tech Startups Try To Seize The Moment

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The past year has been one of political upheaval across the Middle East, fueled in part by the spread of information on Twitter and Facebook. So one year after the revolutions began, we're going to check in now on how business is changing for the Arab world tech industry. From Beirut, Tim Fitzsimons reports.

TIM FITZSIMONS, BYLINE: The Habtoor Hotel is packed with hundreds of people wearing the unofficial tech entrepreneur uniform: open shirt, no tie, jeans and a blazer. And the conversation sounds like the sort you'd overhear while having lunch at a swanky cafe in the heart of Silicon Valley, except there's a lot more Arabic.

OMAR CHRISTIDIS: We are at the ArabNet Digital Summit, the largest gathering for the Arab Web and mobile industry.

FITZSIMONS: That's Omar Christidis, founder and CEO of ArabNet. The revolutions got a lot of people logged into Twitter and Facebook, but ArabNet started chipping away at the Middle East's digital disconnect years before the Arab Spring uprisings.

CHRISTIDIS: People were not talking to each other from Egypt, from Saudi, from Syria, and there were no real online places where you can find information about what's going on.

FITZSIMONS: This, Omar says, didn't reflect the potential for tech growth in the Middle East.

CHRISTIDIS: Internet is booming in the region. When we started the conference in 2010, there were about 35 million users. Today, there are over 70 million users of the Internet.

FITZSIMONS: On the other side of the hall, past eager conversations between young entrepreneurs and white robe-clad investors from Gulf states is Abraham Kamarck, an American working for a tech firm in Qatar.

ABRAHAM KAMARCK: ArabNet is the place to meet other entrepreneurs and investors in the Arab world at this point. It's the hot place right now.

FITZSIMONS: He isn't worried about the political upheavals sweeping the region. If anything, Kamarck says, the long-term nature of tech investment means now is as good a time as ever to invest in a place like, say, Egypt.

KAMARCK: You would be taking that type of long-term nature and that type of bet in Cairo at this point. If you look at the demographics of the youth, if you look at the Internet penetration and the mobile penetration, it's a very attractive market.

FITZSIMONS: Fast-forward to Egypt. Beside the River Nile, just outside Cairo, is a stately old apartment building. Behind door number six is a tech business incubator called Flat6Labs. Tonight, about 20 young men are milling around, eating from buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. They're all pretty lucky to be here; over 60 companies applied for just seven spots at Flat6. The selected firms get about $12,000 and 12 weeks to hire a staff, start a company and find investors. Their proposals range from apps to help tourists connect with locals to an online video-learning database for Egyptian students. During their three-month stint, they refine their business pitches with the help of each other and outside eyes, which is what they're up to tonight.

HANY AL-SONBATY: And the beauty of this is that we're using Twitter. There's a big difference between somebody who's clever at doing a product and somebody who's running a company. This is where they learn it.

FITZSIMONS: That's Hany al-Sonbaty. He's the co-founder of the venture capital firm that set up Flat6Labs. He says the whole point of Flat6 is to make it easier to start tech businesses in Egypt. Things are going well now, but the journey hasn't been totally smooth. Sonbaty's company was just getting ready to set Flat6 in motion...

AL-SONBATY: ...and then the revolution happened.

FITZSIMONS: And so he met with his partner to figure out what to do next.

AL-SONBATY: It was a very short conversation, and there wasn't any compelling reason why not to proceed.

FITZSIMONS: Today, Egypt's economy may still be struggling, but for Flat6 grads, things are going well. Several companies from the last class are already generating revenue. No one is really sure what's going to happen in Egypt's political and economic future, but Sonbaty sees one way the revolution impacted the entrepreneurial spirit of the country's young techies.

AL-SONBATY: It emboldened them to follow their ideas, and they have no shadow of a doubt that some of them said, you know what, let's just do this.

FITZSIMONS: For NPR News, I'm Tim Fitzsimons.

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