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Tue 11 Oct 2016 12:59 PM

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Smart city essentials: Prashant Gulati, TiE Dubai

In the region’s entrepreneurship community, Prashant K. (PK) Gulati is a name to be reckoned with. In this month’s column, Gulati talks to Tamara Pupic about all the essential components of a Smart city.

Smart city essentials: Prashant Gulati, TiE Dubai

Most start-up founders will go to extraordinary lengths to connect with people who can help them — experienced serial entrepreneurs, seasoned technology experts, angel investors, and mentors. Those who have been embraced by Prashant K. Gulati, commonly known as PK, have benefited from his expertise and active engagement in all of the above mentioned roles.

Gulati is the president of TiE Dubai, the local chapter of this global, not-for-profit organisation originally set up in Silicon Valley which has grown to over 61 chapters in 18 countries.

Inaugurated by HH Sheikh Maktoum Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Chairman of TECOM, in 2003, the local chapter currently has over 1,800 members. Among their many events throughout the year, including the Dubai edition of TiECon, an annual invitation-only entrepreneurship conference, most of them also traditionally meet at TiE Dubai’s dedicated networking lounge for mentors and start-ups at the GITEX Technology Week. However, Gulati praises the event organisers for shining a spotlight on technology start-ups at this year’s event, which is taking place in October under the theme of “Reimagining Realities.”

“We have had TiE entrepreneurs at GITEX for the last six years,” Gulati says. “But it is good that this year the organisers are putting start-ups on the agenda for everybody.

“We will invite people from all our 61 chapters, and we will have people coming from at least 15 chapters in this region alone. Since we will have all those talented mentors and entrepreneurs joining us, we will use that as a base to build a place where people can pitch to everybody. The idea is to create a resource space for start-ups from all around the world.”

Gulati has been associated with a large number of successful start-ups and has an active portfolio in the US, Middle East and India. Some of his most recent engagements include advising Zophop, a Mumbai-headquartered transit information company, Wrappup, a meeting productivity app developed in Dubai, and Youplus, a mobile platform for consumers developed in Mountain View, California.

Contrary to the popular belief that Dubai lacks technical talent, Gulati says that some of the local success stories, namely Careem and Souq, prove that Dubai is a great attraction for talent. “I think that talent will come, but only if we make an enabling environment, which is a work in progress,” he says. “Yes, it is difficult, but you need to work hard and if you have a good enough idea, there are exceptionally good execution teams around.

‘Furthermore, Dubai does not invent technologies for now, but it can be a great first place to test technologies. If you ask any start-up founder, they will say that getting the first paying customer is a big problem. So, if Dubai becomes the first paying customer for a technology, implements it, deploys it, I think it will have a far bigger chance of attracting the best technology.”

In 2014 His Highness Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, launched a strategy to transform Dubai into a Smart City. Under the strategy, which features six key pillars and 100 initiatives in transport, communications, infrastructure, electricity, economic services, and urban planning, more than 1,000 government services are planned to go smart by 2017.

The initiative is in line with a worldwide trend of internet and software start-ups slowly losing their distinct advantage over hardware start-ups. Connected cars, homes, wearables, and everyday objects have become the next big emerging opportunity.

The number of connected devices worldwide is expected to rise from 15 billion today to 50 billion by 2020, according to Cisco. IDC, an American market research firm, estimates that global spending on Internet of Things devices and services will rise from $656 billion in 2014 to $1.7 trillion in 2020. The trend is further expected to open new niche markets as wearables start connecting to smart homes and connected cars, among other possibilities.

Enabling better hardware product development is one of Gulati’s favourite topics. “We believe that the next level of entrepreneurship will not just be software or hardware, but software and hardware together,” he explains. “We have made all kinds of new technologies accessible to ordinary people. When they were not accessible, nobody thought of building a hardware. Today they think about it, and that is a very big difference.

“Typically, hardware used to be a ‘millions-of-pieces’ kind of solution. A problem was considered solvable only if it was big. This is a problem which is very well documented in the pharmaceuticals industry. For example, diseases which affect a small number of people do not get medicines created for them. If you are unlucky to get a rare disease, the chances of finding a solution or a medicine are very low because it is not commercially viable.

“It is the same problem hardware used to have in the sense that if, for example, fishermen in Dubai need a special alarm clock to tell them when to wake up, and there are only a hundred fishing boats in the city, nobody would make that for them. Nobody in the US is going to sit down to solve their problem. On the other hand, the community here is still not smart enough to build that alarm clock for them. In that case, they will never get the solution.

“Now, with every city wanting to become a smart city, they will have to find solutions for their own local problems. They can find ideas from here and there, but they will have to build their version of the solution. We are making people capable of doing that.”

Gulati is talking about The Assembly, a community-collaborative, smart innovation hub based at the In5 Innovation Centre in Dubai Internet City, which he launched in 2015 to help develop a local pool of technology experts. To its over 500 members, The Assembly has offered more than 50 free workshops, typically held on Saturdays, on topics ranging from Internet of Things to smart home concepts, robotics, and drones.

“We are focused on building smart communities,” he explains. “We cannot build a smart city if the community is not ready to use it. What we are doing is a very important portion of that smart city talk, which is currently missing. Actually, we believe that a smart community is the most important part. Smart cities are supposed to solve problems of the cities, but you first need to have smart people who can find out what the problems are.

“We create a smart community by teaching people [about technology] and getting them involved. They obviously want to take part in this because they come on weekends. Most of our teachers are actually practitioners provided by the community itself. So we are talking about really creating a knowledge base, and that is where we are different from what anybody else is doing. We are also not charging for any of this.”

Gulati co-founded Smart Start Fund, an angel investment firm, with Amit Singhal, the former head of Google Search, to support hardware innovations, such as one of their portfolio companies Goqii, an India-based start-up which makes fitness bands and activity trackers.

With regional investors getting more comfortable with investing in app-based consumer products, the question that arises is how quickly the regional hardware-funding ecosystem will be developed. As to many of our other questions, Gulati answers that he is hopeful. “Private investors will always invest where they think they will make money, so we need to make start-up investing attractive,” he concludes. “When they see more success stories, they will start investing in them.”