Why a War & Shrinking Economy Can't Stop Syrian Innovation

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Despite operating in an economy under sanction from the European Union, the Arab league, the United States, and 11 non-EU European governments; young Syrians are mustering an entrepreneurial spirit above their nation's zeitgeist of violence.

"Entrepreneurship isn't only about advanced technology startups; a lot of [Syrians] are starting [non-technical] businesses, initiatives, and projects to solve local problems," Al-Amjad Tawfiq Isstaif, a co-founder at Wikilogia, said. "The local needs are huge, and I think there is great potential."

Between a crowded, youthful conference room and a procession of Syrian business mentors, Startup Weekend Damascus was cause for optimism in the nation's business community. The Startup Weekend format is based on a 54-hour incubation period for entrepreneurs, allocating time for team-building, mentorship, and product evaluation. Ideas are judged at the event's conclusion, and teams are awarded further startup resources for their business.

"Seeing my talented friends and colleagues disappointed and uncertain about their future[s], and about the future of their country is the main motivation for me [to organize,]" Isstaif said. "No jobs, closed schools and universities, having to leave the country to make a living for your family... Entrepreneurship is a good answer to face all these challenges."

T3DMaker, the event's victorious startup, designed a 3D printing prototype from local resources. The team also intends to develop and sell plastic filament "ink" to accompany their domestically-manufactured product. T3DMaker will be provided a $1000 cash prize, and complimentary month of mentorship and workspace access.

Robox, an application-versatile robot that is easy to program, won second prize. Robox is programmed through a simple visual IDE that allows users to implement sophisticated applications without the need to write code.

Third prize was awarded to Pharmgram, an application dedicated to helping patients find more convenient pharmaceutical services, while providing drugstores with an easier means of informational exchange.

"The main challenge is to make the right balance between supporting and promoting entrepreneurship - which is of mid-long term [economic] importance - with the urgent [needs] of destruction and relief," Isstaif said. "There are a lot of problems to solve, and cool ideas that can be applied locally, but you can't build a scalable business around them... we are in a war, and there is no reliable entrepreneurial ecosystem."

Isstaif said that the traditional approach preferred by many Syrian entrepreneurs is to build scalable businesses that do not relate directly to local needs, before moving business operations outside the country.

According to estimates by the WorldBank, Syria's economy has shrank between 15%-20% during the last three years of civil war, and is ranked among the most difficult national economies in which to do business. This standard is evaluated by a general access to permits, basic utilities, property, investment, personal credit, and more.

In the case of Syria, an unrelenting, brutal war continues, despite UN-sponsored maneuvering in Geneva last week.

"The main problem we faced [in organizing] was uncertainty... and the safety problem," Isstaif said. "Second comes things like electricity and internet availability."

Developers, industrial engineers, and designers echoed this sentiment, with over 400 sign-ups to support the country's first Startup Weekend.

"The need for [Startup Weekend] came from huge community enthusiasm after launching an entrepreneurship program in Wikilogia Hackerspace," Muhammad Al-Syrwan, a web developer and event organizer, said. "There were a lot of promising ideas that needed support, and at the same time there was no funding for them."

Al-Syrwan suggested that Startup Weekend Damascus could help transition Syria from consumption to production in the global technology market.

"In Syria, there are no big companies in the technology production field, so there aren't many job opportunities for graduate engineering students," Al-Syrwan said. "The only way to make a good career is to make a startup. Otherwise [graduates] find themselves working as IT support, coders, or system administrators."

Students and business people mingled intently in Damascus, as they have throughout the middle east this month. Startup Weekends have been hosted in Syria, Jordan, and Iran during February 2014.

While other communities may not face the same, unique business challenges as Syria's entrepreneurs, there is hopeful, international solidarity in pizza, soda, and three days of hard work.

See all the photos from Startup Weekend Damascus HERE.