Nicolas Rouhana

Nicolas Rouhana


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Chairman & CEO at IM Fndng, Growing Entrepreneurship in Lebanon

Challenges and initiatives in lebanon’s startup ecosystem – Nicolas Rouhana


Nicolas Rouhana is currently Chairman and CEO of IM Fndng, grouping IM Capital & IM Ventures, aggregating $60M under management, and respectfully funded under USAID MENA Investment Initiative & Lebanon Investment Initiative, providing Matching Capital, Equity Guarantee and Technical Assistance to businesses and investors in Lebanon. The funds co-created the first Seed accelerator SpEED@BDD in Lebanon that graduated more than 35 startups, created and managed 5 business angel groups (Seeders & LWAF) with more than 135 angel investors, trained more than 65 mentors, invested in more than 45 startups, leveraged more than $40M from private capital, and created and maintained more than 800 jobs.

Between 2002 & 2015, Nicolas was the Executive Director of Berytech, a leading Technology Business Innovation & Incubation Center in Lebanon, and currently serves as Board Member. He is also President of the Internet Society-Lebanon Chapter, and EBAN (European Business Angel Network) Board Member.

Nicolas has a Telecommunications Engineering degree from Saint-Joseph University in Beirut, a PhD in Networking Systems from Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, and an EDP graduate from INSEAD, France.



Nicolas Rouhana

The full #OPNAskAnAngel talk

Jeffery: Welcome to the Supporters Fund. Ask an investor. I’m your host, Jeffrey Potvin. And let’s please welcome Nicolas Rihanna, CEO of I am funding ISOC Iban Angels as our investor for today. Welcome, Nicholas. It’s a real pleasure having you join us.

Nicolas: Thank you for having me. Glad to be here.

Jeffery: Well, I’m pretty excited to have you here, Nicholas, because we’ve had the opportunity to, I guess we’ll say, travel the world somewhat. We met in Egypt, and then when I was traveling through Lebanon, I was able to to come check out and spend some time with yourself. And what I find the country to be absolutely a beautiful country. So I’m excited to kind of dive into all these great things that you’ve been doing over the last 20, 30 years inside of Lebanon and pretty excited to jump in. So the way we like to start our show off is we want to learn a little bit more about you so perhaps you can share a bit of your background, obviously from the days, your education on side from being in Paris all the way through to spending the last 20, 30 years working as an accelerator and really driving some amazing opportunities in the Lebanon ecosystem. And then one thing about you that nobody would know.

Nicolas: Nobody, nobody. I mean, I was born in Accra, Ghana, but I surprised you didn’t know that. I did. You want me to go all the way back? So I have been, you know, expats outside Lebanon. So my grandfather actually was born in in in Ghana. So my father and then me and my my sisters and we moved back to Lebanon. You know, primary school was in Accra, in Ghana. And then we came back in the early eighties to finish up, you know, the country school and university in back in Beirut. So and so, A, I’m getting by birth and obviously with Lebanese blood. And then by education, I mean, I did a computer and telecommunication engineer in Beirut and then I went to France and did the PhD. So my first life was, you know, I was associate professor at the St Joseph University Faculty of Engineering. In my then years after my graduation and then the university, uh, which is a French speaking of which, is the Saint Joseph University, and it belongs to the Jesuits and what they did when the the order to go into, you know, the, the third millennium, the 2000 and then they wanted to like make a dent in the economy in Lebanon, not just education but the. So they came up with the first technology board or business development center or technology incubator for tech. And it was it was within the campus. And I was lucky enough to be part of the the founding team of this technology incubator. And then, you know, so I had two offices, one at the Faculty of Engineering and one as the incubator manager across the street on campus. So I had to deal with, you know, the students and uni students. And on the other side, entrepreneurs, whether they came from the the campus or from outside campus, any, any walk of life. So I started, you know, helping entrepreneurs, you know, as they did with the students, obviously. But, you know, entrepreneurs are a different type of breed. But it’s the same you know, I used to tell students, you know, you come in at the university and you get all the support of 44 years and then you get your weight as a successful student. Same for the incubator, because at the time it was like something that people didn’t understand. You know, it was really the early days of these types of words, you know. So it was semantics that no one really understood. And so I told them, it’s like you come in as an entrepreneur and you sit 3 to 4 years as well in the incubator with all the support that we give you, and then you graduate as a typical, you know, a good startup. So I had two heads, I had two bosses at the time. So I had the dean of faculty, who was my boss at the faculty, and then I had the chairman and CEO very thick, my second boss, you know, So it was really very hard to deal with both because, you know, it was not easy to coexist. But this is another story behind us now. And so I said, well, I so I picked up the activity in benefits, you know, And then slowly I started to shift, you know, to to this side of, of of the life. So I left my previous life and started in the finance and the incubation and, you know, supporting entrepreneurs, mentoring, etc., you know, coming up with incubation awards, you know, startup weekends. And really, I mean, did it all it was like 20, 32 years ago. So can you imagine at the beginning of these types of ecosystems? And that was quite the time. And so we had to really construct everything, you know, with the mentorship, you know, and, and all the the awards, the grants, you know, the competitions that the the hackathons, etc.. So we really, really all of those we built them over the years. And then in 2008, we started the first technology fund that was nobody. See, there was no a venture capital fund at the time. There was access. I mean, there was banks obviously that do lending. But, you know, the funds of money about startups couldn’t get access to this type of money because it’s it’s typical. You know, you cannot get that capital from a startup, you know, because you’ll have collateral, no history, no cashflow, etc.. So so we came up with the first technology fund, which was at the time really a pretty tiny early stage fund, $6 million fund that we started in 2008 right after the 2006. You know what I mean? I don’t have to remind you that, you know, we’re in the region, which is not that easy, you know, So it is we often have, you know, instability within within Lebanon. So it’s really hard to to I mean, to to come up with innovative stuff. So we came up with the first Fund six money at the time, and we we started, you know, this this type of of a VC investing which again you know it meant for startups to open up a capital, you know, and get other foreign investors in. So this is something that was not in the in the mindset at the time. We also had to change the mindset of the people of the Lebanese mentality, which, you know, it’s just the businesses and we don’t have enough capital. And what’s this new investors and what’s this fund? What does it mean, valuation? You know, you give up. So it was really a learning curve for all the ecosystem. So this was in 2008. And then, you know, we grew from one center, by the way, to three other centers in an incubation each in different campuses of the St Joseph University. So one in the campus of engineering, the other one by the medical sciences, and another one which is more a downtown by what we called the Beirut initiative, this in 2012. So so this is the activity picked up and you know, we had a community of of tens of of of startups and entrepreneurs that were either mentored, trained or hosted within within the community. And and what happened, I mean, in Lebanon, there are, like I said, to to to be two big dates, one in October 2013 and another one is first one is August 20, 2012, and the second one is October 2019. The first one August 20 different is when the Central Bank of Lebanon allowed the banks to open up the capital and to inject capital in startups. You know, banks usually do debts. They do not have the right to, you know, do equity. And so the central bank came up with a nice financing scheme, financial engineering with the banks to guarantee the whatever equity they put in in startups up to 3 to 5% of their own capital reserves. So this unleashed over overnight half a billion dollars of of investments in startups. So it really, you know, leapfrogged a bit the ecosystem in Lebanon where we had little access to finance as a startup community to really, you know, have $1,000,000,000. And it was like all the golden years from 12 2013 up to October 2019 where we had accelerators that were created to these programs. So this funds we have like ten of tens of funds that were created under this scheme of the central Bank of Lebanon through the banks. And so we had really an ecosystem that was starting to to to build out. And personally within all of this, I was managing a fund, the first one, AMP Capital, in 2014, which was geared to early stage. So it it was a $20 million fund. And this is particular because it was funded under USAID program. So it’s different from the Central Banks program. So it was this weird early stage where we did matching capital equity guarantees or insurance capital and technical assistance for startups. And to these to the first four or five years we created, you know, the accelerator program, we created a business angel community, a mentorship program with with the PMC program that they have. So we really built building blocks within the early stage ecosystem in Lebanon, right? So this is now October 2019. This is like a date is when the economic crisis hit Lebanon, you know, So other since so for me, there is a there is a life previous October 2019 and post October 2019 because post October 2019 and it’s before COVID because COVID came to you want you to 2020. So just to put things into context, but particularly in Lebanon, this crisis started in October 2019 where, you know, they had the revolution and riots on the streets, etc., and the whole banking system collapsed. So you wake up one day and all of your deposits, the banks are gone and there is no much liquidity. You can have access to your money. And then if you’re a startup that just got funding and also like 3 to $4 million funding like a month ago, suddenly you have you know, it’s like you had zero cash, you have you have the money at the bank, you know, you see it on the screen but actually don’t have access to it. You can transport it more cash about, etc.. So so everything collapsed since then and we wen