A review of last night's Democamp - We've still got a lot of work to do

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If there is a word to describe last night's Democamp, "ambivalent" might probably work best.

It was the second time that Democamp, an internationally recognized event that celebrates new internet startups, was hosted by Dubai Internet City at the Knowledge Village Auditorium - and the corporate partnering of what is traditionally a community-run event showed.

Brightly coloured beanbags borrowed from the Dubai International Film Festival replaced the throne chairs that were widely criticised from the DIC's first attempt at hosting Democamp - yet they sat idly unused.

A overtly strict MC -Dubai Eye's Brandy Scott (although I'm not 100 per cent on this, but that's what this Twitter message claims) - was given the task of introducing the event with a uninspiring speech and held all participants, except for session's first speaker, the chief information officer for Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, to a rigid time allotment for presentations and Q&A.

Meanwhile, us journalists were left out in the cold by Democamp's organisers who did not disclose who the presenters would be, citing that the "client" did not give that permission, and instead informing us of the "nature" of their business ie. online advertising, e-commerce, social media, etc.

(I'd like to address this right now by simply stating this is a very flawed system. Apart from not informing the journalists covering the event, withholding of the disclosure of the presenters failed to attract enough angel investors and venture capitalists who might have heard some buzz from these companies or piquing the interest for the one's they haven't. From my conversations with several people prior to the session, I was not alone in feeling this way.)

In any case, the actual demo's were a mixed bag. O-Minds, a software company from Jordan, has a potentially disruptive program that allows you to debug Flash files on the go, yet was rushed by the moderator when Ashraf Amayreh, the presenter, demoed the company's interesting first-person Flash game "Maze of Death". Mr Amayreh says that while the software O-Mnds has released is free and built using open-source technology, the applications have begun to spread its name globally and has actually landed several paying programming contracts, an important point to note for any potential investors in the audience.

Following next was Book Trader, a website that allowed students to buy and sell used textbooks that was designed by a pair of American University of Dubai students. The concept showed early promise but was given a hard time during the question and answer period for correctly finding flaws in the company's business plan.

The third, AdGoing was, well, to be honest, not very impressive at all. The Saudi Arabian company is described as an publisher of online adverts yet borrows extensively from Google's main bread and butter. Furthermore, the Power Point presentation was littered with spelling and grammar mistakes and several notable factual errors. It was, unfortunately, an example of what not to do when approaching potential investors for funding. I won't embed it to this blog post, but you can check out their presentation on SlideShare.

The next session was devoted to the UAE's The Question Company. Unfortunately, I ducked out to conduct an interview but The National previously reported on the company here.

I managed to catch TwtrTales, another one of the bright spots found at DemoCamp. Conceived by Kedar Iyer, Rami Kayyali and Nagranee Channa, the website utilises Twitter to create a threaded narrative shared by social media users in 140-character bursts. The website appeared slick; the presentation was light and conversational while the concept showed decent promise. A business model may not be immediately clear but like other startups such as Foursquare and Twitter, if it's fun to use, it probably will generate money later.

The last spot of the night was reserved for Loomni, the educational platform developed by ex-Googler Nagi Salloum. I've previously written about Loomni so I won't go into what the company does, but the presentation was a key example of how the strict time allottment should have been eased. It was quite clear to the audience that Mr Salloum was nervous condensing his company into an 8-minute pitch from what he claimed was a 30-minute presentation.

While one could argue that it's all part of the game when dealing with busy investors, Ms Scott did Loomni no help by counting down Mr Salloum time as the minutes rapidly died down. In fact, as the clocked inched closer to 9 o'clock, I noticed on several occasions Ms Scott checking her watch - maybe she had a prior engagement at that time?

Lastly, there was talk of notable judges in the audience. According to Jiwin, the PR company in charge of promoting Democamp, they were revealed to be:

  • Eng Marwan Salem Bin Haider, the vice president and chief information officer for, DEWA
  • Khalid Khawaja, the dear of ICT Department, American University of Dubai
  • Raghu Venktaraman, the chief strategy and investment officer for du
  • Imad Choucair, the chief information officer of TECOM Investments
  • Rabea Ateya, the chief executive of Bayt.com and
  • "Senior representatives from KPMG, Microsoft and QualComm"

Unfortunately, at least two judges failed to show up and none of them, except for Mr Bin Halder, was introduced to the audience. In fact, as soon as the Loomni presentation was over, none of the judges rose up to give their thoughts on the night or what some of these companies should do to make their businesses better.

As a reporter covering the technology space for the past four years or so (and as an engineering student who saw the development of some start-ups first hand), I openly admit I'm an ardent supporter of internet entrepreneurs. I also see events such as Democamp as a crucial element at improving the ecosystem for more Arabic internet startups to flourish and grow.

While it is admirable to see a government-owned organisation such as the Dubai Internet City facilitate these types of events, these companies need more encouragement, support and nurturing to help them get the level of success they deserve.

But that will never happen if the events are filled with the air of a corporatized environment rather than a communal and organic atmosphere, the withholding of vital information by the PR agency and de facto publicists, the strict timekeeping held by a moderator whose links to the startup community are minimal and the absence of judges who failed to offer support or even attend the event.