The following interview is part of the EBN study on Shaping the Future of Incubation published in December 2020, which provides a strategic framework on how to move forward following disruptive events, such as the Covid-19 pandemic.
The publication, produced in collaboration with the CAST Network, features contributions from EU|BICs around the globe and strategic partners such as the UNWTO, including Berytech in Lebanon.
Read the entire study here.
The Berytech Interview
We join a conversation with Ramy Boujawdeh, Deputy General Manager at EU|BIC Berytech, and discuss the very unique context of supporting entrepreneurship in Lebanon, a country which has endured an ongoing financial and political crisis and a shocking explosion while facing the Covid-19 pandemic.
Beirut-based EU|BIC Berytech provides a dynamic ecosystem for the creation and development of Lebanese startups fostering innovation, technology and entrepreneurship. Berytech offers incubation facilities to entrepreneurs as well as support services. With approximately 12,000 m2 of space, Berytech charges tenants that rent office space and reinvest the income to run the facilities and some of the programmes, including three acceleration programmes in different sectors (agri-food, cleantech, and social entrepreneurship) and three venture capital funds. In addition to that, Berytech runs several programmes funded by international organisations. The organisation employs around 67 people.
In the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” Ranking, Lebanon stands in 143rd place, between Nicaragua and Cambodia. Starting a business in Lebanon is not an easy task – it is geopolitically located in a very specific context and you probably have had to deal with more external crises and challengers than the majority of the EU|BICs in the network.
In what ways is the Covid-19 crisis different from other crises you have faced in recent years ?
Being in a hotbed of a geopolitical situation in the East Mediterranean (often referred to as the Middle East), Lebanon has faced several crises. However, Lebanese entrepreneurs have generally been very resilient in these difficult times. The private sector is thriving, and companies tend to work across the globe. Over the last year, we have faced a lot more challenges than other parts of the world. These difficulties grew in October 2019, when people took to the streets taking part in riots. We had a big issue with capital control, which led to all bank accounts being frozen. This was a particular challenge for entrepreneurs who were not able to access the money they had in their banks.
Moreover, we saw the economy dwindling, with many losing jobs, as well as major inflation and a devaluation of the currency by 600% which affected everybody. Unemployment increased, instability on the streets increased, along came the pandemic, and finally : August 4th. There was a blast which hit Beirut affecting not only people (with over 200 deaths and 6,000 people injured) but also directly and indirectly 190,000 businesses, including Berytech – one of our business incubation facilities was destroyed which will not be reopened until next month.
You mentioned being resilient and able to adapt as essential factors. Considering that you had been already dealing with an unsettling situation before the outbreak of COVID-19, had you already implemented some solutions that could then be easily adapted to face the pandemic ?
On that front, we were already ahead of the curve. When the curfew hit Lebanon in March, we were ready for it. Since the uprising in October, we’ve had roadblocks, and we’ve had entrepreneurs coming from different regions who could not reach us. So, in October we shifted to digital platforms – a lot of our coaching sessions, incubation sessions and mentoring sessions took place on digital platforms. We started using Trello board, and the amount of communication via Slack started growing. Then we began to onboard the startups, coaches and mentors. The businesses had started moving into virtual conferencing way before the March lockdown, which gave us a head start. One thing we introduced from early on was crisis management. This was a very important way to stabilise the community. When people didn’t know what to do, we worked with them on several crisis management modules. We’ve offered several different types of support, we’ve lobbied for financing to help them, and recently we’ve worked with different donors and global communities to try to provide different types of training, grants and loans to help them deal with the situation at hand.
Unquestionably, you have a real effort to support your startups and help them address their challenges. Did you apply these same principles to your organisation, the business innovation centre ?
In the same way that we applied these actions to our entrepreneurs, we applied them to ourselves. When the uprising started, we had to reorganize the team. Our priority was our team’s safety, considering the riots and roadblocks. Then, we onboarded them on the different virtual tools and made sure that they knew how to use them properly. Our way of meeting entrepreneurs had changed and some of our revenue streams which come from the rental of facilities, including rental of offices, coworking and meeting rooms, were affected. Notably, when teleworking became the norm, we saw our demand for coworking space become higher, but our revenue from meeting room rentals and space decreased.
With the team, we went through a crisis management mode, where we improved the general digitalization of the team, ensuring that we maintain multiple structured weekly meetings as if we were in the office to make sure we continue to engage with the team. We also had to follow up on the concerns of the team who were worried about poor internet connections, and a lack of decent space to work from. This meant we supplied them with all of the equipment they needed to work well – headsets, internet connection boosters. With the management team, we introduced methods to enable them to remotely manage their staff, including tools for monitoring their activities, and tools that allow you to give better support. We had to adjust to our context, in particular the state of the economy. We also saw a shift in the type of entrepreneurs who were joining. Many entrepreneurs who were in their mid-careers who had been laid off but had always had a goal of starting a business. We started seeing an age group that was not necessarily there in the past. Rather than staying at home unemployed, these soon-to-be entrepreneurs took the opportunity in the crisis and decided to make the most of it.
What do you foresee for the post-Covid era ?
I think there will be a new reality. Working remotely will continue to be part of the equation, yet human interaction will always prove to be valuable. Employers and entrepreneurs will be more flexible when it comes to allowing teleworking. Travel will decrease and we will have more virtual conferences. I hope physical conferences that allow for face-to-face contacts, where we can have a chat, laugh and real-time interaction will remain. Certainly, businesses can become more efficient with fewer face-to-face and more virtual meetings. Yet everyone in this sector needs that irreplaceable human interface.
About the European Business and Innovation Centre Network
EBN (European Business and Innovation Centre Network) is a not-for-profit that serves a pan-European, global community of people that use innovative business as a driver for regional (economic) development. EBN’s initiatives include EU|BIC certification, development and distribution of quality business support programmes, facilitation and initiation of project collaborations, global networking and advocacy for excellent business support actors like the EU|BICs.
EU|BICs, quality-certified European Business Innovation Centres, are on a mission to drive economic development and wellbeing in their regions. There are now more than 130 certified EU|BICs and 46 Associate Members shaping our global community. Becoming an EU|BIC means responding to our mission to use business and innovation as a force for regional development with the best possible actions to create thriving startups and SMEs. In other words, EU|BICs take real steps to ensure that their services are as best as possible to their clients and best advantageous to their regions.
Berytech is a member of EBN and has been an EU-accredited Business Innovation Center since 2006, which certifies our compliance to a set of standards known as the EU|BIC Quality Mark Criteria, the only quality system recognized by the European Union. Berytech’s Deputy General Manager, Ramy Boujawdeh is an EBN Board member representing Lebanon.