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These Egyptian Students Helped Form Zurich’s Unicorn Labs, Fusing Acceleration & Hackathons

Combining the best of three approaches to forming a startup, we talk to Unicorn Labs’ Karim Saleh about the innovative way they’re helping initiate prototypes, and their plans to bring the Swiss concept back to Egypt.

We all know and love the thrill of a hackathon. A bunch of whiz techies, entrepreneurs, design-thinkers and creatives amped on caffeine, brainstorming and developing tunnel-eye vision by the minute. And while these idea hubs have thrived greatly in the ecosystem, yielding outstanding solutions along the way, it was only a matter of time till this popular disruptive force of idea development was, well, disrupted. Or rather enriched.

Three years ago, a group of plucky and ambitious students, from different educational backgrounds, banded to form Unicorn Labs. A Zurich-based non-profit startup serving as a mishmash of an accelerator, incubator and hackathon to form the ultimate go-to for a startup to develop fast, cost-effective prototype solutions to pivot or to tackle issues hindering day-to-day operations with no obvious fix in sight.

Among the five current board members of this initiative are two Egyptian students with engineering backgrounds, Karim Saleh and Magdy El Barbary, that have helped catapult Unicorn Labs from an ambition into a fully-functional solution generator for startups across Zurich and Germany. “The initial idea behind Unicorn Labs was to mould the hackathon format to become more value-driven so startups benefit 100% from the results,” Saleh tells Startup Scene. “We take on startups with either niche or widespread issues looking for a prototype fix that is sustainable and wouldn’t cost a pretty penny.” 

Launched in 2017, Unicorn Labs has since worked on tech-based projects from several sectors, from advertising, law, hospitality, restaurants, real estate and health. In addition to their core team, they boast a talent pool of 60+ students and experts that all take part in their sessions, called ‘Breedings’, which happen over the course of a weekend. They emerge on the other side of the weekend, after extensive brainstorming and innovative ideas bouncing around, with a fully-formed and actionable prototype for a startup to start implementing. 

“After a startup outlines their issue, we then start thoroughly researching the subject and recruiting relevant experts in the field,” says Saleh. “The recruitment is usually quite easy given that among our team there’s already an incredible diversity of students and experts from a slew of fields.” An example of one of the issues a startup presented them with was a beekeeping business that were plagued by insects preying on bees.

After assembling their team and settling in for the weekend, they discovered that the predator insects are affected by a specific acute temperate that does not harm the bees. They then developed a solution that involves wiring up the beehives with ventilator tubes, that consume low power, controlled by an app to adjust the temperature in order to regulate the heat.

Other examples involve utilising analytics to help a hospitality startup in reducing food waste, implementing a chatbot system to a law firm’s website in order to identify specific client cases and then assigning them to the relevant department

“While these ideas aren’t 100% launch-ready over the weekend, it gives entrepreneurs a clear-cut starting point with a validated idea plan on where to start. That helps them especially when later speaking to investors, or even when expanding their team, to have a tangible prototype that bolster their chances of acquiring investment,” Saleh explains.

Unicorn Labs are a non-profit, however they do charge startups with a fee that mostly covers the costs of the Breeder sessions. If a startup is unable to cover the fee, then there’s a good samaritan system put in place where instead of paying, they can exchange Unicorn Labs’ services by helping out another startup in need during one of the other Breeders.

You can also add Unicorn Labs to one of the thousands, nay, millions of startups and businesses affected by the current COVID-19 pandemic. “We were definitely hit hard by the outbreak. As all of our Breeders involve us getting together with the client and our entire team during that weekend to foster all of our pitches and ideas that eventually become a consolidated solution,” adds Saleh.

There’s almost a sense of irony in how Unicorn Labs has been affected, as they are now faced with the dilemma of having to develop a solution internally to conduct the Breeding sessions virtually. But if there’s a group up to the task, we can definitely trust these thinkers to hit the ground running digitally in ease.

“The Coronavirus put many plans on the back-burner for now. We were planning to expand to Germany very soon, and it was always a dream of mine and Magdy’s to bring Unicorn Labs to Egypt, and to be able to enrich the ecosystem,” says Saleh. “And despite the future being a bit hazy to forecast right now, it’ll remain to be a dream of mine to bring all the experiences we’ve amassed in the past few years to Egypt when this pesky pandemic blows over.”

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