Lebanon’s start-up business has a female face.
Named one of BBC’s 100 women in 2014 and winner of the MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab Business Plan competition in 2012, 25-year-old Hind Hobeika is the funder of Beirut-based sports technology start-up Instabeat.
by Federica Marsi
BEIRUT – The atmosphere in Beirut’s newly launched co-working space is thriving. Small groups of young entrepreneurs put heads together, hashing over new ideas on whiteboard positioned at different corners of the high-tech saloon. In one of the tiny adjacent rooms, Hind Hobeika is examining the prototype she has been working on for the past four years: a heads-up display mounted on swimming goggles that is revolutionizing the life of athletes and every-day swimmers – as well as her own.
Despite her nomination this year as Endeavour Entrepreneur, Hind does not have the looks of a businesswoman. She was still an engineering student at the American University of Beirut when she had the idea that changed her life. The inspiration came from the coach of the university swim team, who gave training exercises based on heartbeat. “I asked him where I could buy a device that would monitor my heart rate but he told me, you can’t, there isn’t one”.
Hobeika went further than filling a gap in the market, devising a display that mounts on any brand of swimming goggles and responds to temporal arterial beat with colour codes projected on the lenses. Each colour corresponds to a different training goal – fat burning, muscular enhancement and maximum performance – so that users are able to determine if they are swimming at the desired speed according to whether they want to break a personal record or simply loose weight. The device can then be connected to a laptop through an USB device to store information on hart rate, calories, laps and turns and regulate the colour code according to one’s own personal parameters.
“Prototyping my own idea was completely life-changing, I had never thought it would been possible”, says Hobeika while her team of peer employees is brainstorming on user analytics. “You always have ideas at the back of you mind but sometimes you need the trigger for them to become real and materialise”. The trigger was pulled the day she received an invitation to apply for the new edition of Stars of Science, a TV competition where 12 aspiring technology innovators from the Arab world develop their projects with the support of engineers and designers. The only woman in the 2011 edition, Hobeika won the third prize and a kick-start to her career.
“The guys used to hung out among themselves and I could not join them”, she remembers, “but I did not feel intimidated, just annoyed”. Now she does not perceive any different to her male counterparts in the business environment and, despite being nominated one of BBC’s 100 women gave her credibility and exposure, she regrets there still being two separate lists. “While it is a appropriate in sports, this is an out-dated divide in business”, she says. “I think this is still being done because there fewer women than men in powerful positions and no one wants to highlight that. But in the future, there will only be one list.“
Lebanon is now trying to jump leap-frog not to loose the creativity and willpower of its people to other countries. In the first international start-up conference, held in Beirut in November, its determination to become a Middle Eastern silicon valley was not concealed. Despite growing efforts, the decision to base a start-up in Lebanon is not out of commodity. “There are the things you have to struggle for as they are not given for granted like in other countries”, says Hobeika, “like electricity, fast internet, even water”. The proximity to the main technology markets and the education of young entrepreneurs are also obstacles that raise start-up costs. With the trend of technology just kicking in in Lebanon, it is difficult to find local engineers and industrial designers with the appropriate technical expertise. This obliges new companies to hire foreigners, which implies higher wages and a working fee.
At the moment production is at full regime and Hobeika is not planning to slow down, at least until she will decide to build a family. “At the moment I have no intention of marrying, so the problem is inexistent”, she says, while her colleague gives her a mocking side-look. “Alex, why are you laughing, do you want to propose?”, she teases him. He is the only man in the room and Hobeika admits Istangram’s branches in Lebanon, California and Ukraine are predominantly female-led. “Alex asked me the other day, aren’t you planning on hiring some guys?”, she says before remarking that she had never realised the imbalance before.
No matter the hunger to find a husband, the country’s female workforce has steadily increased over the years as many women are shifting their focus to their career. According to UNDP’s Programme on Governance in the Arab Region, adult female illiteracy dropped from 37 per cent in 1980 to 19.7 per cent in 2000. In addition, 29 per cent of the workforce is comprised of women, and 90 per cent of bank employees are female.
The team is developing new features, improving the software and implementing the feedback received from the first users. Starting from January, the device will be sold on-line on Istabeat’s website and shipped to the four corners of the world. While updating a product is a full time job, Hobeika does not exclude pushing the boundaries of wearable technology with another swimming innovation. “We hope to expand and become a leading company, but we don’t have a new idea yet”, she says. “All I can say is it will not be a gym bike”.