5 surprising digital startup hotspots

Anna King
07 September 2016
3 minute read

We all know about Silicon Valley and Silicon roundabout, along with other burgeoning European and US tech destinations; LA, Austin, Berlin and Amsterdam to name just a few. But, with internet access and mobile technology rapidly spreading to every corner of the globe, these places don't have a monopoly on innovation.

Dig beneath the surface and you'll find tech hubs, coding hot spots and up-and-coming digital destinations popping up all over the place, with governments around the world eager to encourage the growth and job generating benefits of this exciting sector.

Here are some of the more unlikely candidates:

Seoul, South Korea

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A world away from its turbulent past and communist neighbour to the North, South Korea is set on becoming a leader for enterprise, with government investment to the tune of $3bn making it a bona fide tech start-up destination.

Its credentials aren't to be sniffed at. With the highest broadband penetration in the world, it is the home to mobile brand Samsung and has now attracted the likes of Facebook and Google, along with significant VC investment. It was also listed first on Bloomberg's list of most innovative countries last year.

As a result, the number of startups in the country soared to roughly 30,000 in 2015, up from a mere 2,000 some 16 years ago, according to Korea's Small and Medium Business Administration.

Nairobi, Kenya

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Kenya's capital used to be known by the name 'Nairobbery' due to the amount of crime in the city. But it's been shaking off that moniker in recent years, with development in tech innovation one of the improvements - so much so that some are now dubbing it the 'Silicon Savannah'!

The shift is attributed to a surge in internet penetration, which rose from 14 per cent to 70 per cent between 2010 and 2015, as well as the rise in mobile ownership, with 82 per cent of Kenyans now in possession of a device. Nairobi also benefits from having a number of good colleges on its doorstep, producing thousands of STEM graduates every year.

The result - Kenyan startups brought home over $47.3m last year (African Tech Start-ups Funding Report 2015), placing it third in Africa after South Africa and Nigeria.

Medellin, Colombia

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Not so long ago, Colombia was a war zone, known primarily for drug trafficking, violence and political instability. Medellin itself was the epicentre of the problems, home to notorious drug-lord Pablo Escobar and dubiously named "the murder capital of the world".

Against all the odds, Colombia – and Medellin in particular - has undergone a remarkable transformation, with the government investing heavily in IT growth and innovation, through tax incentives and training. A $2.58 billion industry has developed as a result (IDC, 2015) – a five-fold increase in just 11 years.

Beirut, Lebanon

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The centre of many conflicts over the years, Lebanon has certainly had its fair share of problems. Bordering Syria and Israel, the country has often become a battleground itself, with economic and technological development severely impacted as a result.

But despite the unrest, a fledgling start-up culture is forming, encouraged by $400m funding from the government, which hopes to stem the flow of talent abroad – there are now many more Lebanese people living outside the country than within.

This spark has led to more VC funding, as well as support from the international community, with the UK establishing an international accelerator hub in partnership with the country, which opened last year.

Tehran, Iran

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Hardly the first place that springs to mind when you think of tech startups. Known more for government censorship, trade sanctions and corruption than enterprise, Iran is now seeing a boom in startup activity, driven by a young population – two thirds are under the age of 35 - a new tech and enterprise friendly president, plus more recently, the lifting of US trade sanctions. The changes mean the country can now access online services from Google, Amazon and Facebook, which were previously off-limits.

While still in its early stages, Tehran is definitely one to watch, with the number of start-ups currently at around 400, according to Iranian site TechRasa - up from virtually zero just a few years ago.

These unlikely success stories remind us of the crucial role of entrepreneurship and enterprise for people living in all corners of the globe. Even without the facilities and support that those in more modern or stable economies take for granted, ideas and innovation can flourish. All you need is the vision, drive and determination to make amazing things happen.

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