Dave McClure wants to dispel some stereotypes about his venture capital firm's latest stomping ground: "The popular image of what's going on in the Middle East is either Isis or sheikhs with a bunch of oil, but the reality is there are millions of people who aren't rich or poor," said McClure, the Silicon Valley-based founding partner of 500 Startups.
The venture firm, which invests small amounts of money in hundreds of young technology companies around the world, said on Thursday that it's establishing a $30 million fund in the Middle East and North Africa. 500 Startups plans to make initial investments of about $75,000 each in nascent companies in a region that McClure said is poorly understood by other tech investors.
McClure said the area's large concentration of people under the age of 26, their high smartphone adoption rates, and the low penetration of Western tech companies makes the market attractive. "I've been there five times a year for the past three years," he said. "These are vibrant and growing economies, and as much as there are challenges there, there are opportunities."
The new fund joins a string of similar geographic-focused microfunds started by the firm during the past few years. 500 Startups said it doubled the size of its Southeast Asia fund in October and is also seeking to invest in Nigerian startups. Additionally, the firm has standalone funds for startups in Mexico and Latin America, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, Turkey, and Nordic countries. Its main global fund, which closed in September, manages $85 million.
Although there are other tech investors in the Middle East, including accelerators Oasis500 in Jordan and Flat6Labs in Egypt, the numbers are small. Venture investors put $205 million into 33 area startups last year, according to a 2014 report by trade group MENA Private Equity Association. It's the highest amount for the region since 2008 but still a paltry sum compared with other places, such as Israel or the Nordics, let alone Silicon Valley.
Hasan Haider, a former investment banker, serves as venture partner for the new 500 Startups fund in the Middle East and North Africa. He said the fund, which has so far gotten investor commitments for half of the $30 million goal, will back as many as 300 companies. Haider's ideal investment is a mobile and social media startup, with simple business models that aren't costly to build. He also sees opportunities in e-commerce. "Amazon and EBay don't operate here," he said.
One such company is ShopGo, which Syrian entrepreneur Moe Ghashim created to help retailers develop an online presence. Building his business in Syria had different challenges from starting up in, say, a garage in Palo Alto, Calif. "The government started to cut electricity and Internet very randomly, which made it very difficult to work," Ghashim said.
Ghashim moved from Aleppo, Syria, to Jordan in late 2011. Since joining the Oasis500 accelerator there and raising $3.2 million from investors, including 500 Startups, ShopGo said it has grown to a total of 32 employees and more than 300 customers. While the company now has reliable electricity, Ghashim said he faces a challenge familiar to many upstarts in a country not commonly known as a tech hub: "The next step is figuring out how to capture a bigger market."