#Asia How this pharmacist-turned-VC is piping money from the Middle East to Southeast Asian startups


Ahmed Shabana, founder or Parkpine Capital, prefers to keep it casual. Photo Credit: Ahmed Shabana.

Ahmed Shabana can spot an opportunity. In 2006, while still in university in Cairo, he took his family’s pharma business online. Agzakhana became the first Egyptian online drugstore to use social media to reach customers. It delivered medicines across the Middle East.

In 2013, while honeymooning in Bali, he sensed a new opportunity. With its positive economic outlook, unruffled by uncertainties elsewhere, Southeast Asia was booming. Shabana could see internet businesses beginning to make an impact. He wanted to take part in that change and set the wheels in motion.

There’s an appetite to get out of traditional investment sectors, like oil.

“How intensely people were immersing themselves in messaging apps, and later, transportation apps like Go-Jek, made me believe in the growth opportunities for tech startups in the region,” Shabana recalls.

Fast forward to now. After Vodafone took a 22 percent stake in Agzakhana, he left the business under the management of his family and moved to the US. He topped up his pharmacology degree with an MBA and set up Parkpine Captial.

The former pharmacist, now 31 years old, is launching a US$50 million VC fund. It targets startups in the US and emerging markets like Southeast Asia, linking capital from the Middle East with opportunities abroad.

The political situation in Egypt has been tense, and the economic outlook bleak. This made fund-raising easier for Shabana. “A lot of investor money from the Middle East is going out of the region. And there’s an appetite to get out of traditional investment sectors, like oil.”

The fund plans to make relatively large seed investments of up to US$2 million. It’s particularly interested in consumer health, logistics, and big data.

The majority of Parkpine’s first US$50 million fund is closed, according to Shabana. While most contributors to the fund are from the Middle East, some individuals from the US also put in cash.

Cairo at night. Photo credit: Dennis Jarvis.

Part VC, part venture builder

Parkpine Capital works with a hybrid model. It’s part venture builder, part VC.

Shabana plans to put 50 percent of the funds Parkpine raises into companies the firm builds itself. “The rest goes into companies that complement our ventures,” he says.

Parkpine currently operates two businesses. Instapill is an online store for prescription-free health-boosters, like vitamins and supplements, and naturally falls into the domain of Shabana’s expertise.

The other one, Global Ventures Summit (GVS), is an events company. It’s both a standalone business endeavour and a vehicle Shabana devised to get his brand new VC firm known and help fill its deals funnel.

In part, it’s also an excuse for Shabana to spend more time in Bali – the place that first piqued his interest in Southeast Asia when he came over on his honeymoon trip.

Putting people in the same room

The first edition of Global Ventures Summit is set to take place on the island next week.

It’s certainly not the only startup event in the region – there’s, of course, Tech in Asia’s conference series, the Echelon events, as well as Rise in Hong Kong, which also attracts Southeast Asian firms, and others.

Building the bridge between Middle Eastern investment interest, the US, and Southeast Asia, is an angle unique to GVS and reflected in its lineup.

There is, for example, Abraaj managing partner Ovais Naqvi among the speakers. Abraaj is a UAE-based investment group that became known for backing Uber-competitor Careem. It has already made moves in Southeast Asia, investing in Singapore-based logistics startup Ninja Van. STC Ventures, also from Dubai and another Careem investor, is also in the lineup.

Setting up an event from scratch as a young and relatively unknown VC hasn’t been without challenges. “One speaker contacted the venue to make sure that we paid it,” Shabana says. Some high profile speakers opted out at a late stage.

Building trust will take several years, but Parkpine plans to stage Global Ventures Summit in Bali each year from now on because it ties in with its seed fund.

“You already see co-investments from high net worth individuals and family offices from the Middle East in Southeast Asia.” Now is the time for more Middle Eastern funds to lead some rounds and take more active participation, Shabana believes.

“It starts by bringing people together in the same room.”

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