Rolling updates on Beirut, a city and a tech community devastated


It was only relatively recently, in October 2018, that TechCrunch held Startup Battlefield MENA to unpack startups in the Middle East and North Africa. When TechCrunch went looking for a city in the region to host the event in, it quickly became clear that Beirut was the one for us. Vibrant, full of creative entrepreneurs, and a fantastic startup scene made it a natural TechCrunch choice.

That year Beirut came into its own as a tech cluster, with the ongoing emergence of the Beirut Digital District, Antwork and similar initiatives and spaces in the city.

Beirut has created many standout startups including Instabug and MYKI, as well as local VC funds including BeryTech Fund and Leap Ventures among others.

Startup Battlefield MENA was a huge success and helped shine a light on that ecosystem.

But it goes without saying that both Lebanon’s financial and political crisis last year, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, has hit Beirut very hard.

We have therefore witnessed the explosion yesterday, which devastated the city and so many lives, with enormous sadness. Our hearts go out to everyone there.

So this post will not be a traditional TechCrunch post about startups and investors.

This will be kept as a rolling list of updates and stories from the tech enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and investors in a city that is close to TechCrunch’s heart and will be updated as we get information, and put into sections.

Any tech founders or investors in Beirut can email me a statement about how they are doing, if they are well, how their team are doing, if their office was damaged, etc. Any stories AT ALL can be sent to mike [AT] mikebutcher.me and I will assemble them for publication here. Put “Beirut” in the subject line.

(Video byRana Tarakji of One SEO who writes below).

URGENT NEEDS:
Maps of Shelters, Initiative to Locate Victims https://helplebanon.carrd.co/

FINANCIAL DONATIONS:
• You can donate to the Disaster Relief Fund, Lebanese Red Cross and others here.

• Association d’aide à la mere et l’enfant à l’hopital (ASSAMEH) is a non-profit hospital dedicated to providing specialized medical care to families who cannot afford it. Donate here.

https://www.assamehbb.org/donate?fbclid=IwAR1x39tb8alV_8Ofm2hkjb3-azxjE0yumthpW-Lz3_hQdPWMdADrw5e4gK0

Lebanese Red Cross donations should be done on desktop (not mobile as their app has some glitches).

• Impact Lebanon, a nonprofit organization, is a social incubator for driven Lebanese around the world and is raising a crowd-funder here.

• Stanford Business School students and alums have rallied together to launch a GoFundMe campaign.

Life Lebanon is a relief fund created by the Lebanese in Finance organization (a serious organization formed of expats mostly in the U.K. and U.S.)

SEAL USA is a 501c3 organization founded in New York City in 1997 helping underserved communities in Lebanon. In response to the horrific August 4 explosion in Beirut, they have started a Beirut Emergency Fund to assist in the relief efforts.

• Habib Haddad, Venture Investor and Managing Partner @MediaLab’s @E14Fund, has helped createThe Beirut Emergency Fund“. He writes: “All donations will be US tax-deductible. Please contribute and consider seeking matching opportunities whether friends, folks online or from your employer – if your company offers donation matching. And this goes into fresh dollar accounts.”

• Humanitarian organizations, Alight and Questscope are helping to organize housing rebuilding efforts for the more than 250,000 people that were made instantly homeless due to the blast.

• Clothing brand “Minuit à Tokyo – 5h au Mali” (@minuit.5h) has been created which offers a t-shirt to support Lebanon. All profits will be donated to the Lenbanon charities listed on their website.

DONATE BLOOD:
To donate blood in Lebanon: https://dsclebanon.org/who-we-are | http://www.redcross.org.lb/SubPage.aspx?pageid=317

RELIABLE NGOs:
Lebanese Red Cross
Offre Joie
Chance Association
Bank to School
Arc En Ciel
Bassma
Sesobel

VOLUNTEERING:

• A group of volunteers is using open map data and tools to connect people in need of help with organizations and suppliers following the Beirut blast. See Open Map Lebanon.

• Offre-Joie is an organization that is very respectable and has done good work in reconstruction post-civil war, it’s now seeking volunteers and raising a relief fund here.

• This new facility to find housing for those left homeless has been launched BeirutHomeFinder.com

• Malak Yacout is co-founder of The Volunteer Circle, a smart skill-sharing platform and community linking 3000+ people to volunteer opportunities across 150+ organizations, in real-time. He writes: “The platform is currently designed in a way that if anybody asks: Where can I volunteer? How can I start? How to gain experience while helping my community?…they will find an answer on our platform… When we first launched The Volunteer Circle in April 2019, our vision was to create a community that is readily available to support Lebanon and fulfill as many needs as possible, in a context that was already precarious… I hope we can build on that and find investors that can help us keep growing in parallel with the social development of our Beirut, Lebanon and the entire MENA region.”

MEDIA / INFORMATION:
The961 is one of the leading Lebanese English media/news sites and one of the handful of independent and non-politically backed media outlets in the country, launched by Anthony B. Kantara. They are working with a few full stack developers, Gabriel Nazi, Elias El Teeny, and Jean Claude Aoun from the dev community in Lebanon to develop a platform where people can submit missing people and their info. It will be set up directly on The961.com as an extension to the news site. It also launched a fundraiser for the Lebanese Red Cross through their NGO (legally registered in Canada).

These Instagram accounts just launched to help locate shelters and missing people after Beirut’s explosion

• In the coming days it will be worth watching Ghayd Chammas, the man behind @El_3ama, who is a social/political activist and full-time comic who won’t be letting the government off the hook on this issue. He has launched an account in English.

STARTUPS:

Mysayapp.com is a regional startup offering gamified polling and statistics for Lebanon. They are contributing their platform running a damage assessment survey mapping the explosion’s intensity, physical damage, population mental health and material damage. They will also run a needs assessment survey to share with international donors.

• Business Empower is a Beirut-based technology company that offers e-commerce, data analytics, security and cloud solutions for several local and multinational companies. The business has sustained significant damage from the event. It was established in 2008 by founder Mouhammad Fakhoury. Fakhoury, a Syracuse University alumni and previous Software Engineer at Adobe Systems and Microsoft, moved to Lebanon to start his own company. Thankfully no one was physically hurt; employees were working remotely due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Letsbot.io has more than 1,300 upskilled Lebanese freelancers from underprivileged communities on their platform but “with the recent explosion and devastation that happened, we fear the worst.” They provide outsourced digital services remotely for companies outside of Lebanon and provide data collection and survey services for NGOs in Lebanon. They say they “cater clients in e-commerce product listing services as well as AI data training services with a massive managed workforce and with a guaranteed high-quality delivery system built in place to provide optimal delivery in each job.”

• Serene Touma <[email protected]> writes: “Headquartered in Vienna, Austria, Medicus AI has a team of 9 strong in our Beirut hub, where our CPO Makram Saleh is also based, as well as a team of researchers, developers and doctors who work for Medicus. Our office at Beirut Digital District was hit with significant damages, however thankfully due to the ongoing concerns around coronavirus, our team was working from home that day… They are devastated, and working to support their families at home. For me personally, Beirut is my home and that of my family, as is the case for Dr. Nadine Nehme, our Chief Science Officer, and we have been coordinating closely with our team in Beirut to see how we can help in a meaningful way. We are working with our CEO Dr. Baher al Hakim to put together a fund to support in the repair of damages, as well as contributing to causes in the community that need us, such as hospitals and ambulance services. As a tech company in the healthcare space, we are deeply committed to improving access to healthcare and data to people everywhere and in this crisis, we simply have to live up to that commitment.”

STORIES FROM THE GROUND:

Image Credits: Geekexpress

• Sophie Ghaziri and Rayan Najdi of Geekexpress.com (office pictured above) write:
“We are based in antwork ‘Geek Express’ and our offices were hit. We had a couple of employees in the office at the time but we are all safe. However, this blast has set us back even further than corona and the economic crisis.”

• George Elhabr, co-founder of Groovy Antoid (Techstars and [email protected] backed game development startup based in Beirut) writes: “This is our office [video]in the Beirut Digital District after the blast. I had just left the office around 15 min before the blast. Our colleague William was working late and sitting behind that desk on the left end of the room where a huge sheet of glass collapsed. I still have no idea how William made it out with barely a scratch. He described how the office music stopped right before it all happened.”

• Entrepreneur Omar Itani: “Yesterday I lost a lot … my car, my house, my phone, one of our shops. The shop was inaugurated less than three months ago, we have poured hundreds of hours of work into the shop and invested thousands and thousands of dollars. Since its opening, the shop has been doing tremendously well and became one of the city’s fashion landmarks. Today the shop is only a memory, nothing remains, all vanished in a second.” Read here.

• Jean Bou Rjeily, Co-Founder of CME Offshore writes: “CME (www.gotocme.com) is a multinational technology company that provides end-to-end hardware and software business solutions, with 185 software engineers working from Beirut. Only the team members who live near the explosion area were impacted when the blast hit, and a few had to relocate. However, we were all emotionally affected and found ourselves coping with an unexpected crisis layered on top of the pandemic and the country’s economic challenges. In these unprecedented times, our team members showed solidarity with each other and with the community. Many volunteered in cleaning the streets and clearing away debris with the full support of the company. Today, our day-to-day activities are little disturbed. We have our sleeves rolled up. Standing for each other motivates us and boosts our confidence that Beirut will rise from the ashes, again.”

• Firas Abdallah is the founder of Ur My Type, a bootstrapped startup creating a personality-based dating app. This is his story:

“I am very lucky to be alive today. I was sitting on my laptop on the 10th floor in a building about 500 meters away from the blast. When the blast hit, I was thrown a few meters out of my seat and immediately felt blood coming out of my head. I also felt I was ‘missing’ a piece of my head when I placed my hand on the bleeding part. I didn’t lose consciousness, so I kept hope that I didn’t fracture my skull or actually hurt my brain. The floor above us collapsed onto our apartment and everything was a wreck. I grabbed my girlfriend, my shoes and my phone and immediately went out and took the stairs.

I had initially thought that the explosion happened in my building, so I knew we needed to get out ASAP before there was another explosion or before the building collapsed. As soon as I got out, I saw an unimaginable amount of destruction. I tied my T-shirt around my head to try and stop the bleeding, as I knew I was going to have to walk a long way to find my way out of the rubble and receive medical treatment. After 45 minutes of walking and bleeding around 1-1.5 litres of blood, we found my brother in his car about 3 km away. The bleeding had slowed down at this stage, so I asked him to take me to the local hospital in my town in the mountains (around 1 hour away), as I knew all the hospitals in Beirut were going to be overloaded, and I might bleed out before getting the help I needed if I tried to get into a Beirut hospital.

After getting to the local hospital, I was immediately tended to by the surgeon, who basically told me that I had a massive wound in my head, deep to the skull, which was clearly visible, but that the skull didn’t break. He stitched my cut temporal artery and closed the wound in my head with about 30 stitches. And then the scans showed that indeed both my skull and my brain were intact and unaffected. So despite the serious injury, I didn’t hurt anything that wouldn’t heal with time. I felt very, very lucky. Unfortunately, the security guard in the Beirut building I was in didn’t make it. I had known him for a long time and he had always been kind and helpful, and he had helped my girlfriend tremendously during a serious accident that happened to her in the apartment last year. Today I found out he was actually from my town.

The whole thing is surreal, and I don’t think I have fully processed it yet. I don’t feel any form of anxiety, sadness, depression or trauma, but I do have the scene of the blast repeating in my mind when I go to sleep. After recovering, I want to take my team of three and leave this country for good. Life is too precious for us to continue suffering here.”

• Cherif Massoud of Basma writes: “We are a team of 25 people and were all in our office in Beirut when it happened. Thankfully we all survived. No words can describe my anger. Five of us were badly injured with glass shattered on their bodies. The fear we lived was traumatizing. The next morning day, we went back to the office to clean all the mess, took measurements of all the broken windows and started rebuilding it. It’s a miracle we are alive. Our markets are mainly KSA and UAE, so customers were still buying our treatments online, but the team needed to recover so we decided to take a break, stop the operations for a few days and rest until next Monday.”

• Mohamad El Hoss, CEO, cloudsale.co writes: “I am writing you from Beirut, where we survived the half atomic blast. Before that day, things were not doing good, in fact we were on the verge on the complete meltdown. One year exactly, I was running a successful B2B marketplace for bulk shopping of HORECA supplies.

In September 2019 I was on my back from San Francisco where I was exhibiting CloudSale at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2019 and attending MITef Arab Silicon Valley program as part of the Lebanese promising startups.
The average growth of the e-commerce was at 200% MoM.. then Lebanon happened.

Touchdown here, the local currency was gearing up for inflation, then on October 17th the revolution erupted. Cafes, Restaurants, Clubs, and pretty much all our client base shut down due to security reasons. While banks were closed for three weeks, the Lira (our local currency) doubled against the USD – and guess what – The banks decided not give the people their money anymore! IF you have money, it is a number on the screen you check on every while but you cannot touch it – or do anything with it!

December to February protesters were shot on the streets, people gave up and started adapting by trying to stock food for the coming days where there will be no imports. Lebanon’s economy is solely based on services, mainly Banking and Hospitality that are now gone. Unfortunately our economy does not produce any single thing of value, not even food!

By the end of February we were in a total lockdown due to COVID-19, stayed that way till mid-June if i remember correctly. Locked-down, now the USD is worth roughly 7 times what it was worth for the last 20 or 30 years.

A Mass exodus, every single person that can read and write is applying for immigration, including all the startups i know.. Cannot get proof of funds, cannot travel abroad, no electricity, no fuel, no food, no internet, endless rough patches.. then BOOM.

Loved ones are gone, Houses are gone, Offices are gone. Basically everyone in Beirut lost a very dear thing. We only survived physically a semi-atomic blast, placed in our heart, that killed the happiest places in our city.”

Rana Tarakji of One SEO writes: 

“- My first thought was that it was a big earthquake, this is because I live in an area called Ramlet al Bayda, close to the sea, far enough from the explosion not to be certain that it was an explosion, yet near enough to feel the entire building shaking and to hear heavy things breaking from other apartments.

-The phones were not working properly right after the explosion. This was probably due to significant congestion of telecommunications as people were attempting to reach their families and friends all at the same time. After several trials and/or trying different modes of communication, we were able to reach one another.

-The first reaction for me was to think that it was an earthquake until I looked outside of my window and saw that there was pink smoke in the air, after which I was certain that it was some kind of an explosion. The explosion was so powerful that everyone in the city thought that the explosion happened right under their homes. No one imagined it was an explosion strong enough to be felt by the entire country and even some neighboring countries such as Cyprus (where some people heard and/or felt the explosion and where some even had their home’s glasses break).

-People are uncertain still as to what happened exactly, some blaming the government’s negligence on this incident, while others are saying it’s definitely NOT an accident. One thing that a majority of the population seem to be agreeing on though is that leaving that amount of ammonium in the midst of the city is negligence on behalf of the government and that the government is at least somewhat responsible for this disaster if not entirely.

-The situation is currently catastrophic, with more than 50 people still missing, hundreds dead and thousands injured and homeless. Food shortages and hyperinflation are only adding to the catastrophe.

-The government, already under a lot of hatred from the population, does not seem to be doing much to help the Lebanese citizens and seems not to be taking any responsibility but rather throwing the blame on each other. Everyone I talk to is bewildered and furious at the government’s reaction and position and part in this catastrophe.

-I left Lebanon a week ago as I was no longer able to stand the negativity, depression and anxiety that the country has been causing me and that has recently been intensified. Things are not back to normal, people are still helping clear rubble and find missing people. There has been a spike in COVID-19 cases and people are struggling to rebuild their homes and businesses with a shortage in raw material and a hyper-inflated economy where the US currency is in steep demand and where banks are not allowing people to withdraw their US dollars. Protests have been ongoing and have intensified since the explosion, with no major results so far.”