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How Hind Hobeika Created the Google Glass of Swim Goggles

Fast Company

One part wanting the money, one part looking for cheap and efficient marketing, entrepreneur Hind Hobeika turned to the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo this past spring.

Her new product, Instabeat®, is a revolutionary swimming device that can seamlessly and instantaneously track an athlete’s workout. Mounted to any pair of swimming goggles, it displays conveniently, Google Glass-like, your heartbeat, calories, and number of laps and flip turns, giving real-time feedback and syncing to your mobile app or computer to track progress over time.

Little surprise that her target goal of raising $35,000 was more than twice surpassed in the first days of her campaign. Contributors came from the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

What might be surprising is where she is from. Silicon Valley? San Diego? New York? How about Beirut, Lebanon.

In the midst of the political instability we most often see in the headlines, Hobeika is leading one of tens of thousands of new, tech-centric startups from across the Middle East. The daughter of academics, herself an engineering grad from the American University of Beirut, she once presumed she would become an executive in a larger global company in the region like Procter & Gamble. But she was also a fiercely and passionately competitive swimmer in college, and she saw a market for an unmet need.

She and her teammates were long frustrated that they could only track their heart rates by counting them manually at the end of the race, or by using heart-rate monitors that presented drawbacks for swimmers. “Most of them were designed for runners and bikers,” she told me, “and even when adapted for swimming, none of them were truly sensitive to our sport’s unique biomechanics. Heart-rate watches and other external chest belts were cumbersome and all but impossible to check while training.

What if she could integrate a monitor into an accessory swimmers already wear? By conveniently mounting a small screen onto any type of swimming goggles, swimmers would have invaluable data while reducing any friction to their training routine. In addition to the raw numbers, she also plotted to make it even easier by color coding the workout: blue if in the fat-burning zone, green if in the fitness zone, and red if in the maximum performance zone.

Her company, Butterfleye, was born. Hind was invited to participate in a four-month “reality TV” competition in Qatar, called Stars of Science, where she honed her prototype and her patience. “I was the only woman competitor among the five top contestants,” she recalls. “Even so, some of the men refused to speak to me on camera as they didn't want to be seen working and interacting with women.” She proved them wrong. Butterfleye came in third, and has since earned awards and recognition (and investors), including the prestigious 2012 MIT Middle East business plan competition.

One of the leading seed investors in the region, Berytech Fund, took her first round. Ayah Bdeir, a top global interactive artist and engineer, who is active in the tech innovation ecosystem of the Middle East and a design mentor on Stars of Science, became a mentor. “Ayah provided me with a work space and moral support when I had no idea what to do next,” Hind notes, “She and my mother were the two most important people in my journey.”

“Clearly things were happening with tech entrepreneurs in the region,” Hind told me. “But it was also clear from the start that Butterfleye was going to be a global product. Swimming is popular in the Middle East, but the U.S., Australia, and Europe--they are the nations with the biggest number of swimmers, health-aware people, and tech freaks!”

She has built a global team for her global market. “As we are developing a technological tool for athletes to seamlessly monitor their training, we work extensively with electronic components, microcontrollers, but also with a lot of coding and web interface. My team is based in London, France, the Netherlands, and Dubai, so I spend 90% of my day on Skype.”

The team branded the product as Instabeat in 2013 and established manufacturing in China. The product launched in Las Vegas last January to rave reviews at the 2013 Computer Electronics Show (CES), which averages 140,000-plus attendees. There, Instabeat was named one of the 17 Most Intriguing Gadgets. She is finalizing negotiations with U.S. distributors for launch in the fall.

“I wish I had these when I competed,” she smiles.

Hind is not alone. Last year, the same MIT Competition had almost 6,000 competing companies representing nearly 15,000 entrepreneurs from North Africa to the Gulf. A recent study notes that 35% of startups in the Middle East are run by women--a stat Silicon Valley has yet to approach.

The lesson: Don’t limit where you look for the next great innovation. Today’s global technology is in the hands of, well, everyone, which means the next big thing might come from the least likely of places.

First published in Fast Company on August 27, 2013.

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