150 Startups and Counting: V-Lab’s Mohamed Hamza Tells Us What ‘Acceleration’ Really Takes
We talk to the associate director behind the award-winning accelerator to find out why V-Lab’s approach stands out from the rest, and how they’re always evolving to better understand and serve their startups.
AUC’s Venture Lab has firmly established itself as one of the top, if not the leading, acceleration lab in the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, the University Based Incubator Index (UBI) has recently named V-Lab as a ‘High Impact Incubation Program’ and a ‘Top Challenger’ for the MENA region. Mohamed Hamza, V-Lab’s Associate Director, is undoubtedly one of the reasons behind the accelerator’s success. To date, Hamza has been able to support over 150 founding teams to build their startups’ business model, bring them to life, and develop their growth in an innovative way.
“Entrepreneurs don’t just need investment, they also need knowledge, support and credibility and that is what we try to offer them. You don’t come to V-Lab to get free money; we’ve managed to efficiently utilise our resources to guide entrepreneurs towards the best way to grow their companies whether funding is a part of your journey or not,” says Hamza. “Our UBI award shows that we’re not just committing to the local standards when it comes to our knowledge and our work with entrepreneurs, but we’re always trying to shoot for an international standing.”
In order to continue the escalation of high quality mentorship and fundraising strategies, the acceleration lab is devoted to the consistent reinvention of their programs in order to be at the highest level of benefit to up-and-coming startups. “Over the last years, we have been formulating our offerings differently to help entrepreneurs find the best market entry points that would later help them achieve growth. Besides the traditional services that all accelerators offer, from training to matchmaking, we capitalise heavily on the advanced business knowledge that we offer and we understand that individuals have different learning styles and needs,” explains Hamza.
From integrating bootcamps into their selection process, organising startup exhibitions, and hosting a retreat at the beginning of the cycle, V-Lab takes an agile, ever-evolving approach to mentorship and acceleration. “Since our entrepreneurs come from different backgrounds and at different levels of knowledge, we’ve created a multi-layered, parallel system through which they can benefit differently from a variety of resources at the same time, according to their individual needs,” elaborates Hamza. “The bootcamps helped us get to know the entrepreneurs better in a work environment, our mid-cycle on-campus EXPO allows us to engage with students and our entrepreneurs to engage with the wider AUC community, and our startup retreat has helped us with our entrepreneurs on a different level and create a more supportive community among them.”
From training sessions by esteemed AUC faculty and industry experts to long-term mentorship from the accelerator’s rich network and corporate partners, V-Lab also aims at helping startups expedite connections that would usually take years to forge. “Mentors play a great role in supporting startups as we’ve seen a lot of our graduates include mentors on their advisory boards, which helped them benefit further from their experience and knowledge and opened doors for them in the long run,” adds Hamza.
Meanwhile, the accelerator acts like a mediator or meeting point between entrepreneurs and major businesses, to the benefit of the whole ecosystem. “Our collaboration with corporates gives entrepreneurs a good opportunity to understand the markets they are trying to penetrate and provide us with a dimension where we can better monitor what functions well in the market and discover industry-specific insights,” explains Hamza. “On the other hand, corporates are often interested and willing to work with entrepreneurs but they don’t always know how, so one of the things that we try to work on is improve the level of engagement between corporates and entrepreneurs.”
Over time, V-Lab has carved out a few specialisations, and has designed industry-specific tracks that corresponding to the ever-changing business and consumer worlds. “We maintain our strong core of cross-cutting business knowledge that helps us work with startups in all industries but we started introducing industry-specific details to improve the support based on each market’s needs. Our programs currently support FinTech, e-commerce, energy and sustainability, healthcare and creative industries,” explains Hamza. “We always try to identify trends very early on and focus on the ones that would pick up and have worthiness.” With that in mind, V-Lab has noted that governments and businesses in Egypt are increasingly looking to digitise products and services, so Hamza and his team work to integrate the emerging trend into their program’s offering to expose these new opportunities to both existing and new startups.
Always active, responsive and evolving, it’s clear that V-Lab’s merge of methodologies and innovative approaches are what enables the lab to deliver the real guidance that entrepreneurs need – and why the accelerator continues to win accolades. From connections and know-how, to developing their technical skillset, V-Lab’s mission to equip entrepreneurs with the weapons they need to make their visions reality continues to become abundantly clear. “Seeing the different innovations that entrepreneurs are able to come up with and seeing how our work impacts their thinking and their businesses, respectively, over the span of four months is very inspiring," Says Hamza. "Witnessing the resilience of entrepreneurs to get their models to work and reach the best possible value for their customers makes it worth the hard work."
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