The Fab Lab Egypt team risks ar­rest to cul­ti­vate star­tups

Wary of the cops, young Egyp­tians are grind­ing and 3D-print­ing their way to a tech scene

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - The Global Tech - Lo­ca­tion Cairo Tech­nol­ogy Hard­ware Story Stephan Faris Pho­to­graph David Deg­ner

At a shared workspace in cen­tral Cairo, a 15-minute drive from the Nile, Mo­hammed Abuel­ha­gag is work­ing on a stem cell in­cu­ba­tor. The bot­tom half, hous­ing the mo­tors, is made of laser-black­ened wood. The top, where the stem cells will be grown, isn’t done yet. Sen­sors to track hu­mid­ity, tem­per­a­ture, and air qual­ity have yet to clear cus­toms. “Here in Egypt, if you want to make some­thing, it’s like a trea­sure hunt,” says Abuel­ha­gag, 29.

He’s a reg­u­lar at Fab Lab Egypt, a home for as­pir­ing de­vel­op­ers that’s be­come an early build­ing block of the coun­try’s tiny but grow­ing tech scene. In the five years since the so-called Twit­ter revo­lu­tion drove Pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak from power, star­tups, in­cu­ba­tors, and angel in­vestors have sprung up like shoots of grass af­ter a drought. “The revo­lu­tion showed me what peo­ple can achieve when they work to­gether,” says Hisham Khodeir, a soft­ware en­gi­neer who helped found Fab Lab in 2012.

When I visit in March, a young cou­ple is slouched on bean­bag chairs, watch­ing videos on cell phones. A man fid­dles with wiring at a work­bench. Aser Na­bil, 21, one of the lab’s first mem­bers, shows me a wooden drone he’s been work­ing on, then he walks me through the rest of the room: 3D printer, laser cut­ter, a ma­chine to print cir­cuit boards. Na­bil ends the tour at a rack of jig­saws, drill presses, and grinders. “Any­thing that can cut you, bruise you, or burn you is here,” he says.

Since the revo­lu­tion, vi­o­lence and po­lit­i­cal crack­downs have kept tourists and in­vestors at bay. The coun­try’s bu­reau­cracy can also be pun­ish­ing, and not just when deal­ing with cus­toms. The World Bank ranks Egypt 131st out of 189 economies in ease of do­ing busi­ness. “Our reg­u­la­tory frame­work is like our ar­chae­ol­ogy,” says Ahmed El Alfi, a ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist from Cal­i­for­nia who opened a Cairo tech hub called the Greek Campus in 2013.

Ed­u­ca­tion can also be a chal­lenge. When an en­tre­pre­neur named Ahmed Shaa­ban set up Sim­plex, a com­pany mak­ing ma­chines for wood­work­ing and stone carv­ing, he had to lit­er­ally ed­u­cate the mar­ket. “About half of our cus­tomers didn’t know how to use a com­puter,” Shaa­ban says. Then there’s the po­lice. Hob­by­ists and pro­fes­sion­als alike hes­i­tate to carry their tech projects around Cairo, where cops could mis­take them for bombs. In Fe­bru­ary, two in­terns at a hard­ware com­pany called In­te­greight were ar­rested, pos­si­bly be­cause they were car­ry­ing chips, and de­tained for two months. “Some­body once got ar­rested for car­ry­ing a volt­meter,” says Amr Saleh, In­te­greight’s chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer. Saleh re­cently built a game fea­tur­ing a large, red count­down clock. When he brought it to the of­fice, he was care­ful to keep it tightly wrapped in a bag.

Fab Lab Egypt has twice been vis­ited by men its mem­bers pre­sume are po­lice. Both times, they in­spected equip­ment, asked some ques­tions, and left. “In Egypt, you don’t know who came ex­actly,” says Omar El­safty, the lab’s gen­eral man­ager.

Yet the coun­try’s chal­lenges also sug­gest its po­ten­tial. “When you have a lot of needs, a lot of gaps, a lot of prob­lems to solve, you don’t need to be very in­no­va­tive,” says Saif Edeen El Ben­dari, a man­ager at Riseup, which or­ga­nizes an­nual tech con­fer­ences.

Last year the lab started mak­ing enough money—through mem­ber­ships, work­shops, and equip­ment rentals—to pay a few salaries and start set­ting up in other cities. Some reg­u­lars are start­ing busi­nesses. “A few years ago, peo­ple didn’t know what a 3D printer was,” El­safty says. “To­day, they’re build­ing their own.”

Abuel­ha­gag, a for­mer med­i­cal stu­dent who treated wounded pro­test­ers in Tahrir Square in 2011, plans to use his new en­gi­neer­ing skills to cre­ate anatom­i­cal mod­els for med stu­dents. He also hopes to turn his stem cell in­cu­ba­tor into a cheap, open source re­search kit. “Tech, it’s some­thing you can ac­tu­ally have an ef­fect on,” he says. “Maybe this is how you can change the world, fi­nally.” <BW>

Abuel­ha­gag (left), El­safty (cen­ter), and Na­bil take a break in Fab Lab Egypt, with­out mys­te­ri­ous in­spec­tors

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