We had earlier brought you news about Dropifi, Silicon Valley accelerator, 500 Startups’ first African founded startup as well as Saya Mobile, a Ghanaian startup that launched last year at global startup launch conference, Techcrunch Disrupt. Both startups were incubated at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) in Accra, Ghana, an incubator increasingly gaining global renown for churning out impressive startups from Ghana. Check out our interview with David Osei of Dropifi here.
We decided to find out who was behind the incubator and are happy to share the interview below with Norwegian entrepreneur Jorn Lyseggen, Founder of MEST and C.E.O. of Meltwater Group. Born in 1968 in Korea, Lyseggen in 2001 established Meltwater News, a B2B online media monitoring service. This has since grown into Meltwater Group, a company with more than 50 offices, 800+ employees, more than 16,000 global clients and over $100 million in annual revenue. He founded MEST in 2007 as the non profit arm of Meltwater Group.
Check out our interview with him below and share with your network.
Interview with Jorn Lyseggen, Founder of MEST
CP-Africa: Why did you start MEST?
Jorn Lyseggen: I had never been to Africa before I started MEST. Originally I had an aspiration to do something in the non profit world one day and I had this idea about establishing a school to help entrepreneurs. I initially wanted to establish the school much later in my life. However, one of my friends challenged me and said “why do you want to wait until you become old to start this non profit? You can start now.” That really made an impact on me because at the end of the day, you never know. Tomorrow, you might get hit by a bus so why not just do it now. You can never take anything for granted. You can get hit by a truck and it is all over. And also, at the end of the day, maybe you do become old and maybe at that point, you are tired. Maybe you don’t have that fire in your belly anymore. For that reason, I decided, I just have to do something. In January 2007, I announced to the whole company, at a big company offsite and said, one year from now, we are going to have a school of entrepreneurship in Africa. It would be a school for entrepreneurs and it is going to be under the non profit arm of Meltwater Group. Like I mentioned, since I had never been to Africa, I decided to embark on getting more information about the region.
CP-Africa – Why did you pick Africa as a region?
Jorn Lyseggen: Well I thought it was the one continent where people would benefit the most from the program. However, this was all without really knowing much about the continent. Based on that intuition, my team and I set out on a fact finding mission. We travelled across Africa and did hundreds of interviews with numerous NGOs, entrepreneurs and companies and based on all that information, we concluded that we would set up shop in Ghana. Ghana is politically stable, English speaking, it has good education, and also, (this might sound like a really petty thing but for us it was pretty useful) and that is that there are direct flights to London, New York, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Dubai, Washington DC and more from Ghana and that’s really helpful because there are a lot of people flying in and out in connection with the program.
The program is a two year program and is fully sponsored. We take only the top graduates from local universities. We train them on everything that they need to know. They do not need an engineering or a science background or a background in Computer Science. We teach them how to code and how to build software. We don’t care about their technical background, we only look at their traits. During the two year program, they are taught programming, software development, entrepreneurship, how to write a business plan and how to pitch to investors. In the last six months of the two year program, they form startups with their team mates and for six months, they work on the startup from making the technical prototype, to writing the business plan as well as crafting their investor pitch. If the idea is strong enough, we give them up to $200,000 in funding. For instance, Dropifi got $75,000 in funding before getting funded by 500 Startups.
CP-Africa: Why did you pick this model for your foundation? Why didn’t you endow a university or donate to an existing cause? Why did you choose to establish a school of entrepreneurship?
Jorn Lyseggen: This is Meltwater’s core expertise and it was a great way of transferring our expertise. Meltwater is built on nurturing and developing talent so this is something I am very passionate about. This is basically what I do for my day job so it was a way to use our core expertise for the foundation. We also wanted to do more than just give people money. I think money is cheap The most valuable thing is really expertise, competence, passion and conviction.
CP-Africa: How has the experience been so far?
Jorn Lyseggen: The experience has been great. First of all, the recruitment process we have in place is very, very rigorous. I just got back from our recent batch’s graduation in Ghana and had 10 board meetings and also helped with the selection of the next batch of students. It’s been a great experience. All they need is someone who can give them the right guidance and after that, they can pretty much show themselves the way.
CP-Africa: Are you looking to expand the program to other African countries or is it going to continue to be based only in Ghana?
Jorn Lyseggen: For us, quality is really important. For example, every year, we take on 20+ students and they become entrepreneurs in training, EITs. The faculty to student ratio is 4:1 and that is the highest faculty to student ratio that I know of. The faculty on our board are practitioners and are not academics. They are people that have built something in the industry. We also have teaching assistants from top universities such as Stanford, Berkeley, etc that have just recently graduated and are maybe taking a gap year, etc
CP-Africa: Which of the startups are you most excited about?
Jorn Lyseggen: We have ten companies in the incubator right now. Four of them are profitable. Two others are making big strides internationally, Dropifi and Retail Tower. Retail Tower is a company that people will increasingly hear about soon. Retail Tower is one of Amazon’s featured retail vendors and they were approached independently by Amazon. They have thousands of online retailers as clients. Many of them don’t even know where the company is located. We encourage our startups to think global but sometimes people start with ideas that work locally. For us the whole purpose of the program is to create role models. We want to develop successful entrepreneurs but more than that, we want to create role models. Our long term vision is to create jobs and wealth locally in Africa. The way we want to do that is that we want to create role models that hopefully inspire the upcoming generation across the continent. We don’t need a success like a Facebook for instance but if we get a $10 – $20 million exit from one of our entrepreneurs, that would be huge. They will become instant rockstars. They will be on the front page of newspapers, magazines, on TV and they will be rockstars across the African continent. All of a sudden young people would want to be like them. If we can contribute by inspiring the upcoming generation across Africa, that would be great. All people usually need is a computer and they can do amazing things with their own drive, creativity and stamina. That’s the idea.
CP-Africa: Where do you see MEST in the next 5 years?
Jorn Lyseggen: We will continue to churn out entrepreneurs. We will continue to be a small program with quality students. I hope our graduates and entrepreneurs are considered some of the best coming out of the continent. I hope they inspire people locally in Ghana as well as across the continent and maybe even in other parts of the world. We have gotten approached by people in Asia and Latin America and from people that want to either set up schools in those parts of the world or join the program.
CP-Africa: Are you open to letting these people join the program?
Jorn Lyseggen: We are not open to letting them join because we only want Ghanaians. The reason is that the whole theme of what we do is focus. Focus creates quality. Also, we like the idea that churning out entrepreneurial people in the local community of Accra overtime will have an impact. The sheer concentration of entrepreneurs in a limited area, we hope will help contribute to society positively.