BEIRUT: For American connected-car company Vinli -- the maker of a plug-in WiFi hotspot for vehicles -- the expansion into the MENA market is natural, but coming to Lebanon has added purpose for CEO Mark Haidar, who originally hails from the Jezzine district, "I always love coming back," he proudly notes.
The Dallas-based company has been in market trials in the Middle East since the beginning of the year, and Haidar told Annahar that Vinli will be rolling out its product in June with Touch as its local telecoms partner.
"In addition to extensive local testing, I test drove it myself throughout Lebanon," the 32-year-old Haidar said. "We Lebanese love cars and we love tech, and Vinli is a perfect combination. Drivers go from having a smartphone, to having a smart car."
Haidar's visit to Lebanon for announcing Vinli's partnership with Touch comes after meetings in Bahrain, where the company has partnered with telecoms company VIVA, and meetings in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai. Vinli has plans for partnership and product sales throughout the larger MENA region by the end of this year.
"Things just fell together in Lebanon, Touch really shared our vision, we were very impressed, and the Telecommunications Ministry facilitated the whole process," he said. Vinli sees Lebanon and Bahrain as leading edges into the larger MENA market, with the company helping to meet an expanding regional demand for smart, Internet-connected cars.
"Touch is enthusiastic about entering the world of IoT (Internet-of-Things) through a connected car premier. No doubt, Vinli is the right partner for us in this space to build a proven value proposition that solves a problem and is relevant to our market and customers," Nadim Khater, Chief Commercial Officer, Touch, told Annahar via email.
"This solution also addresses the B2B (business-to-business) segment, since many car dealerships expressed interest in this device as well as other Lebanese companies interested in developing apps for Vinli through leveraging its open ecosystem, " the Touch executive added.
While Haidar said dealership partners would be announced later, the vehicle models the company is targeting are Mazda and Hyundai. Both Haidar and Touch's Khater noted that the device will give dealerships an attractive option package for vehicles.
Priced at $199.99, the Vinli plug-in transforms vehicles into 4G LTE, rolling, hotspots, with the device connecting directly into the car's on-board diagnostics (OBD) port which is located directly beneath the steering column. All cars built after 1996 feature OBD, which is most often used at automotive shops to check a car's systems.
The Dallas-based company is not only selling "the most advanced cloud-connected-car system in the Middle East," but Haidar added that by end of year there would be hundreds of new apps available. He said that Vinli's connected-car platform and comprehensive app store enables consumers to customize their driving experience with information and features they want, including safety features, immediate car diagnostics and entertainment connectivity.
"We are all about empowering the driver," he said.
"These apps cover almost any and every use relevant to cars, drivers, and passengers as well, and range from real-time driving dashboard apps to integrated platforms for commercial/industrial fleets to backseat streaming entertainment for kids with tablets," the Vinli CEO said. "For the driver as well, there are music and news streams that are tailored for their interest."
Additionally, the Vinli apps are allowing linkups with smart home systems, allowing drivers to signal their arrival and automatically activate a range of amenities from home heating to lights.
Haidar noted that one of the youngest of the company's app developers is 15-year-old Nicolas el Mir, a Harissa-Daraoun resident, who told Annahar, "Vinli represented an opportunity to design an app that would allow drivers to follow favorite podcast and radio broadcast for an audio feed while driving."
It has aptly been dubbed by el Mir as "Podlle.
There are a variety of competitors in this business sector, including Verizon's Hum, Samsung's Connect Auto, AT&T's ZTE Mobley and Verizon's Wireless Delphi Connect. The business at stake for Vinli and other players in this competitive space is gaining definitive share in the market for connecting the world's one billion vehicles, a lucrative possibility.
For Vinli, breaking into new regions -- including the Middle East , Europe, and Asia -- represents a large growth opportunity as the entire connected-car industry includes car makers, telecom providers, and software companies.
"We are working diligently on expansion," Haidar said.
On a personal level, Vinli CEO Mark Haidar is a classic Lebanese expat story of using tech smarts, business enthusiasm, and entrepreneurial acumen to wow the business world; and in this particular case, taking on the challenge of helping to lead a company into the global marketplace.
In 2006, Haidar moved to the U.S. from Lebanon and after graduation from Detroit University with his master's in Electrical Engineering helped lead projects for the US Army Tank Automotive Research Development Engineering Center (TARDEC). Shortly after, Haidar co-founded Dialexa, a product-focused technology innovation and development company headquartered in Dallas, Texas. In September 2014, Dialexa Labs launched Vinli. Its backers include Samsung, Cox Automotive, Continental, The Westly Group, and First Round Capital.
Haidar is also a graduate of Beirut Arab University where he earned his bachelor's degree in Computer Engineering. He is from Lwaiza, in south Lebanon.
For more information: http://www.vin.li
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