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Entrepreneur sees tech startup potential in Arab world

Progress in Technology Middle East seeks to foster Silicon Valley connections for Mideast startups, including one that turns Muslim prayer into an app.

Nima Adelkhani, the man with a dream.
In a region plagued by religious tensions and violent political strife, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Nima Adelkhani sees economic opportunity.

Through Progress in Technology Middle East, a company that launches today, Adelkhani plans to connect startups in the Arab world with the American technology industry's movers and shakers, part of a larger plan to help a fledgling ecosystem grow and foster stability in the area.

But let's be clear -- Adelkhani doesn't see any of the 27 businesses he is working with as charity cases. These are ideas that bring him goosebumps because he believes they are original and have the opportunity to do well in the Middle East and beyond.

In addition to new entrepreneurs like a 19-year-old Muslim woman who has created an app that turns prayer into a game to encourage on-time praying, Adelkhani has signed on established companies like the Lebanon-based Dermandar, the company behind the popular photo app DMD panorama. Dermandar is known for creating the app despite the country's restrictions on Internet bandwidth and electricity limited to six hours per day.

"The end goal is not just to bring the companies here and help them monetize, but for them to go back and become investors and angels in their local system," Adelkhani said. "PITME stands for Peace in the Middle East. We changed it to Progress in Technology Middle East because its basically the same thing."

Adelkhani's plans do not -- at least for now -- extend to Israel, which has built a thriving high-tech industry over the last couple of decades. He plans to focus his efforts on the countries that need the resources more, like Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates.

The over-arching idea is not new, although it has yet to pay huge dividends. Many policymakers have long argued that more robust job creation would help defuse social tensions in a region with a fast-growing cohort of young unemployed men. Adelkhani said he believes that if young professionals can create businesses that can provide jobs for other people, there would be less focus on in-fighting and revolution. The networking and development will culminate in a conference, named Catalyst, in Dubai this October.

If Adelkhani's words sound idealistic, they are. A self-described poet, dreamer, and storyteller, the 35-year-old worked for incubator Founder Institute for a year and a half. He then worked at a startup for a year before quitting in May because he got bored. Adelkhani decided he would always be working with several companies at once rather than just one, and with this interest and quickly-fostered relations in the Middle East, PITME was born.


He wants to create a bridge between startups and investors and mentors, essentially "sprinkling a little Silicon Valley flavor" on their businesses. In turn, Silicon Valley gets access to a new market that is becoming more lucrative with the progress in cities like Dubai. Adelkhani said he will make the connections, and make some money along the way through commissions, revenue-sharing agreements and other deals, depending on what develops from the connections his team makes. The amount will vary depending on the company or deal.

Adelkhani has some firepower behind his romantic notions of peace and prosperity.

He has recruited a council of possible mentors for PITME businesses. Those on the council include Brian Wong, founder and CEO of Kiip, a company that provides real world prizes for gaming; Kavan Baroumand, founder and CEO of incubator NestGSV; Ken Rutkowski, host of radio show Business Rockstars; Mona DeFrawi, founder and CEO of liquidity crisis relief company Equidity; and Torsten Kolind, CTO of entrepreneur network YouNoodle.

A few of these entrepreneurs are scheduled to speak at the Catalyst conference as well in addition to people like Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, and Shaherose Charania, founder of Women 2.0.

This list of mentors will probably need to get longer if PITME wants to sustain its abilities to make connections in the long term, but Adelkhani has already started putting businesses in touch with Silicon Valley folks. He saw the potential for Wong's business Kiip, which lets apps reward real world prizes, like promotional items or services, to collaborate with the Muslim prayer app, Prayer Garden. The app was originally designed to just grow a virtual garden whenever the user logged a prayer. Adding Kiip allows users to also get physical rewards and allows the company behind the app to make money.

Adelkhani recognizes that there are challenges ahead. In addition to the stereotypes and images most Americans have about the Middle East, the startups have their own cultural notions to overcome. He said there is a secretive nature in startups, and businesses aren't used to collaborating with others or sharing ideas in fear that those ideas will be stolen.

"The entrepreneur that is educated, talented and has a good idea does not have the power to look beyond their own ecosystem...the Middle East has this mentality and I'm trying to change that," he said, ever the optimistic dreamer. "Someone told me that it would take me 20 years and I think I can do it in 5."