With more than fifteen years in the gaming industry and eleven years in higher education, Reine Abbas founded Wixel Studios in 2008 with Ziad Feghali and Karim Abi Saleh. It was the first Indie gaming company in Lebanon and one of the first in the Middle East. Under her leadership, Wixel studios raised equity funds from 2 Lebanese high profile investors to create products for the international market.
She then founded Spica Tech Academy for kids and teens in 2014, targeting education – the fundamental and most important pillar in the gaming industry. The project is led by game veterans and educators, with the professional support of Wixel Studios.
Spica Tech aims at teaching kids (5+), teenagers and university young adults game development as a way to reshape entrepreneurship, innovation, science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
Alongside her Wixel role, she’s a tutor and advisor for some of the most talented Lebanese students in major private universities in Lebanon.
How did you get your business idea and what was your main drive?
I’m a serial entrepreneur. In 2008, I started a gaming company called Wixel Studios. The idea was to start a gaming company in a region with no gaming industry. It was a crazy idea back then that has gone on to create several award-winning games. Another business I’m currently focused on is Spica Tech, an academy I started a few years ago to teach kids and teens video games production.
The idea for Spica Tech started with my son when he was 4. He asked me to teach him how to design video games. I asked him why he wanted to learn, and he answered that everyone at school plays video games and no one knows how to make their own. He asked me to come to his class and teach him and his friends how to create their own games.
First, I was happy that he did not only think of himself, but he also thought of his friends. He also thought that he wanted to be productive and not only play, but also learn. So, to please my son, I convinced his teacher to conduct this class that had never been done before. I created a 14-hour course in game design, and I taught a class of 25 kids how to make their own video games. They understood the logic and the design process, and it changed how they see things and their thinking process. I also received great feedback from parents and teachers.
That’s when I understood that the concept of the academy has receptive ground. It was the right time to turn kids from digital consumers to producers, especially that kids in the MENA region are the biggest digital consumers in the world. Yet the gaming industry is still very poor in the region. We are still Arabizing and importing video games. We cannot grow an industry that can create millions of jobs in the MENA region except through education and we lack education in gaming. This is another reason why Spica Tech was born.
What was your biggest fear before starting up? How did you overcome it?
My biggest fear was dealing with kids. How do you teach kids how to design video games? Will they understand? Will it be hard for them? Will they be interested? Am I really shifting them to producers or am I keeping them on a screen? I thought of all of this.
Am I really solving a problem for these kids?
What I eventually realized is that we can’t really remove the kids from their screens, but we can turn the time they are spending on them to be more productive, and this is what happened. Kids are already changing; they are understanding how video games are designed. They don’t only play; they are now using open-source software to create.
How do you describe your core business activity and what’s the key value you offer to your customer?
At the academy, we created 15 courses with 6 different levels with a project-based learning system. There are a lot of people who teach coding to kids as a skill, just as any school would teach you skills. Teaching them just coding and just design is giving them only the skills. What has allowed Spica Tech to win competitions and receive high-value world-wide is this project-based learning approach. At Spica Tech, we believe that if you give kids and teens the knowledge to create their own product, we are creating a powerful state of mind that can shift any mountain in any society. We are creating a path for a resilient, creative generation because we are using project-based learning.
Kids are able, throughout the program, to create a full product and publish the game online. By allowing them to share it with the world, we are changing them. They are learning game design, coding, implementation, art, testing, publishing, and marketing in the 20 to 30 hours of course time, depending on the level they are in.
Because of that, they are learning critical thinking, creative thinking, problem-solving, especially since in video games you have to create a problem and a solution for it.
They also learn entrepreneurship, production and project management skills. So, whatever they end up doing with their lives, they now have all these skills to do anything and to be creative.
What are the key strategies you use to expand your business?
When we started Spica Tech, we started working business to consumer by doing workshops in Lebanon in many centers. We recently started the business to business operations. We are now teaching courses at 4 schools. What is most important is that the courses are not an after-school activity, we are on the course schedule during class time and we are able to do that because we are gamifying the courses. We also involve the teachers in our courses.
Kids are learning math and science, writing and reading and creative thinking through this course. They are learning advanced subjects without realizing it and while having fun.
In order to grow our business, we recently started our online platform to compete and scale the business internationally. For now, only some of our courses will be offered online. We launched the first free course as an introduction targeting 10 to 14-year-olds. This is really a big slice of the MENA population who spends US$2.3 billion on games.
How big is your team? What do they have in common?
The team is made of 6 people between instructors, marketing and school coordinators. All in all, the team has 20 years of combined experience in gaming, game development, business development, marketing and education. We all have a passion for teaching kids and teens and really shift the generation into a productive one. Most of the team members are already parents, so they understand the pain and are working with us to be more inclusive.
How do you describe yourself in 3 words?
Out-of-the-box thinker, multitasker, hardcore gamer.
What’s your favorite part of your business, and why?
My favorite part of the business is the result: when the kids finish the course and the feedback we get from their parents – always great feedback. Most importantly we are not dealing with only one type of kid, but we are able to reach out to different kids: kids with difficulties, kids with autism, dyslexia, ADHD, etc. They all go through the same program, pitch their projects and work in groups. This is what I enjoy the most.
I want to reach all kids, sick, poor, spoiled, or with challenges. We are using their passion for games to help them become part of a better generation no matter where they come from. This is why I work with NGOs. All kids deserve an education, especially this education, because video games are one of the hardest and most complex to design and I am making that accessible and available.
We are not only giving them the know-how, but we are using real software that developers use to develop professional games. My biggest challenge is to have more girls in our courses. Girls are less than 15% in tech and video games and I want his number to change. I offer girls 50% to join the courses. It changes them, helps them realize their own capacities and tells them they can do whatever they want.
How do you advertise your business? How do you advertise your product/service?
I am really happy that we participated in 3 competitions and we were big winners. This is giving Spica Tech and Lebanon more visibility all over the world. The last competition, the Cartier Women Initiative in San Francisco included 3000 applicants from around the world. They chose 3 from each country and out of the 700 regional applicants, we were chosen, and we won exposure and services that are very important to grow the business. I am now going to Japan with Forbes Japan and Cartier Japan. They are asking me to help empower their girls in tech, especially in video games.
If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?
When I started Wixel Studios in 2008 I didn’t know what an entrepreneur was and what a startup was either. The ecosystem was not present. We were just a group of three people who decided to open a video game studio and register a company. It was a really big risk. If we were not patient and motivated to create games, we might not have survived.
It’s really hard to start a business. I advise game developers to create a product, publish it online, test what they want and assess the result, and then if they want to create a startup then they could go ahead. They might not succeed the first couple of projects, but if they have goals and dreams, they need to follow them. It’s not easy. Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur and have a startup. I also encourage my students to join companies, use the experience to understand company dynamics before they start their own projects and startups.
My biggest advice is: share your idea and don’t be scared that someone might rip it off, even if they do, it’s proof that it was a great idea!
How do you balance the different aspects of your life? (well-being, family, social and professional)
I’m a mother of 3 kids – 9, 6 and a 5-year-olds, and I have never heard anyone asking a man this question. For me it’s a question of time management and finding solutions. When you create a support system and delegate tasks, problem-solving gets you to what you want.
I have always been stubborn, and I never let anything stand in my way. I always believe that there are solutions to every obstacle. You always need to be positive facing any problem.
Women on Top Series
Berytech has partnered with the Lebanese League for Women in Business – LLWB, to create ‘Women on Top’ to highlight women entrepreneurs and executives in a series of motivational interviews about their stories, overcoming their own challenges and their entrepreneurial endeavors. Read more.