From college dorms in Lebanon to a startup in Silicon Valley
A journey of 2 friends who met at a college dorm, became co-founders of a company that reached to Silicon Valley.
Ibrahim had a passion for robotics since he was a young child. He was always curious about how everything worked specially when it’s related to machines. He visited lots of factories like LEGO in Hungary, Volkswagen in Germany, Ferrari in Italy and Nestle in Ghana and was astonished by the capabilities of robots in the industry. He graduated as a Mechanical Engineer at Lebanese American University (LAU), co-founded LAU robotics club and has been a robotics instructor for the past 4 years.
He believes that robots will have a major impact on our lives and wants to help prepare and inspire students for a future full of robotics.
Basel’s favorite toy was the screwdriver from a mechano kit he had. He pulled apart every toy he had and built stuff Frankenstein style; Connecting a remote control car to his room’s light bulb transforming it into a wirelessly controlled lightbulb. Basel also self-learned programming from doing simple PC games and softwares to programming mobile applications. He had his first job in 2nd year at university as an iOS developer, then started freelancing mobile applications, website development and organizing and teaching Robotics for high-school students. Basel believes in the power of Robotics and is passionate about empowering students to invent and create stuff.
University is where Basel and Ibrahim first met. They both had interest in robotics, they used to hang out in their dorm late nights, between courses or in the weekends to tinker, build robots and just make stuff. Whether it was for fun, doing pranks, or for a course project they always enjoyed building. Soon enough their room transformed to be somehow a makers hub, where students asked for advice, receive help in their projects or just looking for components. One thing for sure, there is no single student who ever left the room without a robot randomly poking, or pranking them.
Eventually they realized they could take this from a plain college room to a club that is based in their university. And that is when they co-founded LAU Robotics Club. Ibrahim was the president in the first year, followed by Basel in the second. The club created an amazing community of makers and robotics enthusiasts. They organized annual robotics competition held at college and gave workshops for both university and high school students.
Approaching their last year at university, Ibrahim and Basel had to come up with a project idea for the Final Year project (FYP). Although they were in different majors, their request to work together and submit one project was approved. Coming up with an idea wasn’t a problem at all. They wanted to invent a product that would help them in teaching robotics for their students, and so the work began.
From getting components from the US to Manufacturing the Circuit boards in China and assembling in Lebanon, there was a lot of hard work put into this project to produce what they had in mind.
In the middle of the semester, when they went to update their Doctors about their progress, they were amazed how professional their work was and the response was: “You went far beyond FYP” — Barbar Akle PhD. Dr. Dani Tannir also acknowledged that it was one of the best FYP projects he has advised.
This didn’t stop them from working on it, they were thinking about this project much bigger than just a course or a grade.
Soon enough, FYP was done, both went out with an A and university was over.
They both got job offers even before graduating, however they wanted to continue working on their product and follow what they are really passionate about.
So what’s wrong with robotics education today?
Both Ibrahim and Basel have been teaching robotics for the past 4 years from university students to as young as grade 5 students, experimenting with different kind of robotic kits. And came to realize that there was a huge gap between robotics being considered a toy for children and the professional and technical world of robotics, they’ve seen lots of students dropping out and stop learning robotics because of how complex the tools have become. The desire to learn robotics for a young child is high, but it suddenly drops when they get introduced to the technical professional tools. And since robotics will alter and change every field and major, robotics education is going to be crucial and that’s where they saw a big opportunity.
MIT pan Arab Competition
This project was among the top 20 semi-finalists in the MIT pan arab competition.
The 2 co-founders went through a pre-boot camp in Jordan, then traveled to Bahrain for the big competition. They didn’t win, but they got a lot of strategic connections, and learned a lot from various mentors, experts and judges which helped them in their next stages.
The original product
The original Idea was called SIB (Smart Interactive Breadboard) which helps makers and engineers in debugging the circuit, detects any errors in the circuit and guides them in connections (with built in LEDs, and auto-detection of inserted components).
That was an ideal project for engineers who wanted a hardware debugging tool however, they pivoted into another product due to many things:
- Sure it was awesome and quick to build the circuit with, but it wasn’t an effective tool for learning since students tend to rely on the board for detecting their errors and not using their mind to analyze it.
-It costed a lot to make. even if it solved the problem, this was not going to be an affordable product.
- Lebanon is not technically ready to host a hardware startup yet. They used to manufacture the PCBs in China and order the components from the US, which were stuck with the customs at the airport every time.
The birth of Cherpa
At this point, they started brainstorming and testing to find a solution that is effective in education and affordable.
Upon experimenting with students and many iterations, they came up with a solution.
An online platform that teaches robotics to the youth in a fun and interactive way. From building and coding projects to interactive virtual missions, Cherpa is introducing a new dimension that reshapes the world of robotics.
They are not making any hardware product anymore, The platform is compatible with pre-existing kits and components available today in the market.
At this time, they had to come up with a name for their new product, and that’s when they came up with “Cherpa”.
Sherpa (with an S) is the person who guides you to the top of the mountain.
And that’s what the platform does to the students, it guides them to the top and makes them inventors.
They applied to Speed Accelerator in Beirut Digital District in Beirut and got accepted. The program started in March and lasted for 3 months where they got access to funding, office space, mentorship, workshops, exposure and many more.
Speed was a turning point for them, they learned all what is required to start a company and grow it, by strategies, tips and one-on-one mentorship from top notch industry professionals.
Speed also helped in matching them with Hind Houbeika, Founder and CEO of Instabeat (a head-up display unit which attaches to swimming goggles and monitors your heart rate, calories, laps and turns during your swim)
Hind was and is still the guardian of Cherpa, who is their mentor, giving them advice, tracking them and making sure they’re on the right track.
Speed Demo Day — the BIG day for Cherpa!
At the end of the acceleration period, Speed organizes a Demo Day, where all startups came on stage and pitched in front of an audience of 250 investors, officials, experts, and media representatives.
At the end of the demo day, Sami Abou Saab, the CEO of Speed goes on Stage and reveals 2 big announcement to the crowd.
1) The top 2 startups that will go to Silicon Valley and get immersed in the ecosystem.
2) And the winners of the SeedBoost Competition. (A total of $50,000 from 5 different investors. Mr. Elias Houayek, B&Y VP, Phoenician Funds, Berytech Fund II and MEVP Impact Fund. This is a competition organized by Speed for the first time, which will allow the startup to operate and grow in the months following acceleration and prior to securing their next round of investment.)
Guess what, they won both!
This was a very BIG day for Cherpa, they received strategic funding and are going to Silicon Valley.
Upon gaining access to funding, The team grew from 2 to 5.
Behind all this madness is a passionate team that consists of Mary Jo (Frontend), Charbel Daoud (backend), Samer Jalaleddine (Game developer), Basel (CTO) and Ibrahim (CEO).
Today, Basel and Ibrahim are in Silicon Valley working on their startup to become a global company.
They are part of LebNet Ignite powered by Blackbox, a program that gathers founders from all different countries around the world and get exposed to silicon valley experts, entrepreneurs, investors, and founders. Their aim is to take the mindset of a global company and apply it to their startup and possibly export it to the ecosystem at home. The new perspective they have now of the startup world is changed and their mission to transform the robotics education is now closer than ever.
In only 6 months Ibrahim, Basel and the team went from having an idea, to growing their startup in Silicon Valley.
They were rejected at some points and had big wins at others, and this is what makes the entrepreneur’s journey so valuable.
And the best is yet to come.
“Students have creative minds and love to create stuff, it’s our role to provide them with the tools to make it easier and engaging for them to proceed.”