Can the UAE deliver on its massive start-up promise?

Singapore, Seoul and Amsterdam are thriving after laying foundations for healthy integrated start-up ecosystems in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
By Samm Medina
Wed 05 Jul 2017 03:57 PM

Dubai and the UAE are on the cusp of greatness. Some might argue it is already great. Others, with their eyes fixed on the horizon, can sense that this is only the tipping point.

As the geographic intersection between Europe, Africa and Asia – where fragmented markets are creating innovators targeting local challenges – the Gulf seems like a natural hub to bring together the global startup scene.

The hype around Dubai having a shot at becoming ground zero for innovative minds seems well founded. Already the region’s financial and politically stable centre, the unsaturated market in the UAE is also fertile with heavily digitised communities and a large youth population – making it the perfect place to incubate an idea for export.

Answering the call, global incubators and accelerators – such as 1776 and Startupbootcamp – have joined homegrown players Dubai Future Accelerators and GITEX Startup in opening doors for meaningful connections between corporate entities and start-ups looking for market traction.

“Dubai is on the dawn of greatness when it comes to innovation,” says Todd O’Brien, Managing Director of Startupbootcamp Smart City Dubai. “Yes there is a lot of hype, but to truly disrupt you have to raise the level of awareness to get people to buy in and innovate.”

In the past, many cities have been careful not to run before they can walk. Singapore, Seoul and Amsterdam are thriving after laying foundations for healthy integrated start-up ecosystems in the late ’90s and early 2000s by implementing programmes and policies that nurture the development of critical IP, solve local problems intelligently and leverage technology to do so.

More recently, O’Brien witnessed the UK prove this pace is accelerating. “I moved to London in 2008 and the start-up scene was just blossoming. Within a few years, it was exploding. This is what we see and feel now in Dubai. With some of the great acquisitions – like souq.com, raises like Careem’s $350m and a maturing accelerator market – we will see innovators pour resources back into the ecosystem and start the engine to success.  Dubai is primed and ready for massive growth in the next 3 to 5 years.”

James Jung, founder and CEO of BeSuccess, one of Korea’s biggest start-up platform, agrees. He recognises the UAE potential and is taking part in GITEX Startup in October to help build more connections.

“In Korea, the startup scene boomed in the last 5 years. Creating more jobs and empowering the economy, Korean entrepreneurs have a strong passion for scaling internationally, and believe the UAE and GCC is an important market for high-tech piloting and growth. With 700 start-ups from 70 plus countries exhibiting to meet tens of thousands of government and corporate buyers, plus hundreds of investors, GITEX Startup is up to the very big task of connecting MENA to global opportunities – and vice versa.”

Wanting to fly before running – let alone walking – the UAE still has a long path, and investment is high on the agenda. “The UAE is not really creating innovation yet,” says Elissa Freiha, angel investor and founder of WOMENA, a Dubai-based angel investment platform.

“We are a young country that has been led by the limitless: truly future-minded leadership that wants to challenge convention and legacy. This mind set is the crucial element that is needed for disruption and we have that in abundance, all we need now is the right tools and the right talent.

"The UAE has been focussing a lot of not only creating a state of the art infrastructure, but also on creating connections: with local events like WOMENA pitches or global platforms like GITEX Startup, we are seeing that all the right pieces are coming together. There is no doubt that the UAE will be a true nucleus for global innovation very soon.”

As an alumni of Dubai Future Accelerators inaugural cohort, the gravity and potential scale of working with GCC governments is not lost on Alice Tark, COO of Guaana, an Estonian start-up with globally disruptive potential.

“The UAE has definitely proved a commitment to be the cradle of innovation. The ecosystem really has the vision, drive and resources to be the best,” she says before highlighting a significant caveat that she will discuss in detail on her panel at GITEX Startup. “Consistency and efficiency in executing the grandiose plans still has some room for improvement. Especially coming from a highly organised European business culture, the somewhat hectic processes require plenty of patience and persistence for successful results.”

GITEX Startup is committed to translating hype into reality onsite at the show in October. Beyond traction from the 100,000 plus buyers that descend on Dubai every October for GITEX, start-ups get the chance for investment from the world’s biggest venture capital firms, such as Sequoia, Softbank, Global SparkLabs Ventures and Accel Partners.

Education is high on the conference agenda, furthering conversations around AI development platforms, open data alliances, crashing costs of tech, democratised investment through the power of angels and crowdfunding and more.

Plus the cool $180,000 prize money in the pitch competition has global start-ups buzzing in anticipation. The 2016 winner, Acacus Technology not only took home $100,000 cash, but also scored a contract with the RTA and is exhibiting his RTA integrated fleet technology vehicle in the 2017 show.

Pitch competition judge in 2017, Christopher Schroeder, global venture investor and author of Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East notes things can only get better.

“There really are two significant shifts I’ve seen in the last four years and they are related. Dubai has become a significant network effect of talent – the more of the best that come from across the region and beyond, the more want to come. Second, entrepreneurs are no longer talking about replicating successful enterprises from the West, but leveraging the latest technologies – blockchain, AI, VR, genomics – to solve real problems in the region. Both are driven by Dubai’s pro-active rule of law and encouragement of talent.”

GITEX Startup takes place October 8-12 at Dubai World Trade Centre. More details of speaking and competition opportunities are available at www.gitexstartups.com.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.