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Thu 19 Apr 2007 02:11 PM

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Aiding Lebanon’s redevelopment

Intel chairman Craig Barrett touched down in Lebanon this week to unveil initiatives to help the country back on its feet.

As part of his role as Intel chairman, Craig Barrett is a regular visitor to the Middle East. However, his visit to Lebanon this week was a little unusual even by his standards, as he announced a series of initiatives aimed at helping to promote redevelopment of the war-torn country.

Barrett was in the country under the aegis of the Partnership for Lebanon: a group of companies dedicated to supporting the restructuring of the country following last year's conflict. Through the group, Intel, Cisco, Ghafarai, Microsoft and Occidental Petroleum are providing critically needed resources to bring long-term economic growth and stability to the country.

Speaking to IT Weekly last week, before the trip, Barrett said that the aim was to "help rebuild Lebanon in a way I think different than direct government financing [which is] trying to rebuild roads and bridges and basic infrastructure."

"Our activities are really directed more toward longer-term sustainable economic development, educational development, infrastructure development in the country," Barrett said.

The Intel chairman admitted to being "really worried" about a number of key issues affecting Lebanon's long-term recovery and development: improvement of the ICT infrastructure; workforce training and employment opportunities; development of businesses; healthcare capability and improvement in governance were some of the key areas he identified.

This week saw Intel unveil a number of key projects aimed at addressing some of those concerns, including state-of-the-art WiMax networks deployed at hospitals and community centres, the donation of high-performance computers to university engineering labs and the enrolment of up to 5,000 teachers in a technology training programme.

"It's gratifying to see concrete results at advancing the economic and social foundations of Lebanon thorough Intel's work with the US and Lebanese private sectors," Barrett said in the statement announcing these - and several other - projects.

One area where Intel is keen to support development in the region is in the creation of a stronger entrepreneurial culture. This is not altogether surprising - Intel claims to be the world's largest venture capital firm and half of its investment activities are outside North America.

In Lebanon, Intel has invested in a technology incubator fund, the Berytech Fund, which aims to invest in as many as ten technology companies in the region.

Barrett last week acknowledged that other investment initiatives that Intel has undertaken in the region have not done as well as the chip giant would have liked - a US$50million venture capital fund designed to invest in regional technology companies has seen less than 10% take-up so far.

"The way that we structure our fund is that we look for viable business plans, typically we are not in the mode of what I call angel funding or funding business ideas to turn them into plans, we typically get involved with other entities to fund what we consider viable business plans," Barrett said.

While this approach has been very successful in other regions, a lack of a strong regional entrepreneurial culture here in the Middle East has made progress slower, according to Barrett.

"What we have seen is that there is not a large amount of what I would call the venture capital infrastructure, the basic seed funding or angel funding to create business ideas into business plans, where we would then get involved in funding," Barrett told
IT Weekly


"So we are looking to modify some of our funding activities more towards the back-to-basic incubator level, the pre- business plan format, so that we can help to facilitate turning some of those basic ideas into viable business plans."

As well as looking at investing in incubator funds, such as those announced this week in Lebanon, Intel is also working on changing the culture, at least a little, with the development of programmes designed to teach and cultivate more of that entrepreneurial spirit.

As part of this week's announcement, Intel said two university students are on their way to the US to learn the basics of starting a business so they can bring that knowledge back to their country. They are the first from Lebanon to enroll in the Intel Entrepreneurship Program, which was jointly developed by Intel and the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

Barrett said schemes such as this would help to promote different views to business here in the region.

"I think as you're probably well aware, depending on the culture and society attitudes to business failures and business successes [change] some areas look down on failure, other areas assume that if you've tried to start two companies and fail then you're probably more likely to be successful in your third attempt," he said. "So there is societal and cultural issues to overcome as well as basic funding mechanisms: the incubators, the angel investors, the very early seed money and the bank's willingness to invest in young companies."

The Partnership for Lebanon has also committed to placing 500 qualified interns at US companies over the next three years, with the aim of providing them with the work skills needed to compete in the global marketplace.

Last week saw 15 interns arrive in the US, to work in Cisco's California corporate headquarters and its Networking Academy in Arizona. A further five interns have arrived to work at Intel, with Intel committed to take up to 120.

"The goal of that is to take Lebanese young professionals, give them work skills and insights consistent with what goes on in major international corporations and bring those skills back into Lebanon and to take them into their daily work environment," Barrett said. "Whether they are lawyers, business people or engineers [the aim] is to give them that opportunity to help for a period of time, six months or so, in a professional environment where they can increase their professional skill base."

All of this is for the future of course: this week, the focus was firmly on Lebanon and some of the schemes announced were aimed very much at providing immediate relief.

For instance, a telemedicine system is designed to link the American University of Beirut's Medical Centre with the Nabatiyeh Governmental Hospital in southern Lebanon. The system allows real-time video consultation between doctors, sparing patients an arduous journey.

"The Nabatiyeh-Beirut Telemedicine Program could not come at a better time," Dr. Nadim Cortas, vice president for Medical Affairs and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Medical Center. "Since last summer, there has been an increase in eye and skin problems due mainly to crowding, particularly among the residents of South Lebanon. Now we can bring medical expertise to more people, and faster than before."

Intel's aims are high but people in the region have already seen benefits, as Barrett puts it: "The ideas are on the table and it is just a matter of a follow-up and continued investment to make that happen."

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