TechTown Hosts North African Entrepreneurs as Part of State Dept. Program

7/5/12Follow @XconomyDET

What brings a group of entrepreneurs from the Mahgreb region of Africa to Detroit’s TechTown? It’s an interesting story that started in Egypt three years ago.

On June 4, 2009, President Obama delivered a speech in Cairo that was aimed promoting harmony between the United States and the Muslim world. Tensions were high after eight years of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, which was perceived by many global leaders to be especially hostile toward Islam. Obama, predictably, devoted a lot of time to the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, but he also dedicated a section of the speech to economic development.

Muslim countries, Obama noted, have historically been at the forefront of education and innovation. He announced a flurry of new initiatives meant to drive economic development in the Muslim world, including a Summit on Entrepreneurship to identify how to deepen ties between business leaders, foundations, and social entrepreneurs in the United States and Muslim communities around the world.

In April 2010, the Global Entrepreneurship Program was announced at the Summit on Entrepreneurship, to which 55 Muslim nations sent envoys of entrepreneurs, and as part of the Global Entrepreneurship Program, the North African Partnership for Economic Opportunity (NAPEO) was launched. NAPEO is a private-public  partnership of U.S. and North African business and civic leaders, entrepreneurs, and governments with a mission to spark job creation and entrepreneurship. NAPEO reccently sent entrepreneurs from Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria to spend a few months at TechTown, the business incubator on the Wayne State University campus in Detroit, to receive mentorship, refine their business plans, and pitch their ideas to investors.

Lorraine Hariton, special representative for commercial and business affairs for the State Department, said the goal of NAPEO is to use entrepreneurship as a pathway to engage the Muslim world in ways that extend beyond economic development. “We’re promoting economics as foreign policy,” Hariton adds. “It’s a way to build relationships as well as promote U.S. companies around the world. Entrepreneurs are the ones who create jobs—by working to help develop entrepreneurship, we’re fostering job creation and economic growth.”

After holding business plan competitions in North Africa last fall, three winners were selected and awarded residencies at TechTown. Detroit was chosen as the city to incubate the winners, Hariton says, because of its large Arab community and its familiarity with economic challenges. “We believe Detroit is a better fit than Silicon Valley,” she explains. “Silicon Valley is not struggling with the same issues Detroit is.”

While in Detroit, the visiting entrepreneurs will take classes at Wayne State, network with the Arab American Chamber of Commerce, and polish up their investor pitches at TechTown. TechTown officials say the entire three-month trip is valued at about $30,000.

Souad Rouis, a college professor and founder of BRP Biotech, the first company of its kind in Tunisia to develop vaccines and diagnostic kits, began her TechTown residency in May. Her winning business idea involves diagnostic kits for cancer detection based on antibody interaction, and she says she hopes to leave Detroit with an investor or partnership to move her company forward.

“Biotech is new in Tunisia,” she says, noting that finding financial backing for new ventures is difficult. “Entrepreneurship is mostly in IT. What’s lacking is the ecosystem. I think the training [from TechTown] will be very useful when I go back, because I have a lot of contact with students who are also interested in entrepreneurship.”

In America, I told Rouis, the presence of women is somewhat rare in the biotech world. Was that also true in Tunisia? Rouis responded with a hearty laugh. She told me of an expression they have in Tunisia: If you teach a man, you teach a person—but if you teach a woman, you teach a nation. ”In Tunisia, women work harder than men,” she explained, “and there are more women in science and medicine than men.” A career in biotech requires long hours of study, she added, which many men can’t do because they have to enter the workforce. Women, on the other hand, often pursue advanced degrees after they get married.

Rouis has enjoyed her stay in Detroit so far. She’s been out to eat at a couple of restaurants and was on her way that night to a performance at the Detroit Institute of Arts. “This experience is amazing,” she says. “I like all the things I’m doing here. The people are warm and friendly, which was one of the good surprises for me.”

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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