As the startup ecosystem in Saudi and the greater Middle East region continues to grow and thrive, it’s important that more and more startup lifelines continue to provide support.
So, AMEinfo spoke to Nawaf Al Sahhaf, CEO of the Badir Program for Technology Incubators and Accelerators, a major support program in Saudi Arabia. He has provided insight on the work that goes into supporting startups within Saudi and beyond, as well as the success stories that have emerged as a result.
1- Can you give us a brief rundown of your process of support for startups?
Badir Program for Technology Incubators and Accelerators was established in 2007 to improve and support technical entrepreneurship throughout the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by helping the strategic policy applied in entrepreneurship and incubators in collaboration with government agencies, universities, and the private sector.
The Program covers four main roles: incubation, acceleration, funding facilitation, and entrepreneurship awareness. In the beginning, we started with just one incubator in 2008. Over the last ten years, we have been able to expand from one incubator in the field on information technology to seven incubators in six cities across the Kingdom.
We provide services to startup companies in the idea stage as well as those that have ready products and can enter the market. We help them with shared working spaces, private offices, infrastructure support, legal support, accounting, and bookkeeping services. Additionally, we provide workshops, courses to develop the skills of the entrepreneurs.
The role of “Badir” program does not only reside in incubating these projects at its headquarters and providing facilities that help entrepreneurs turn their ideas into successful investment projects, but also in contributing to the creation of promising investment opportunities for these companies and helping them launch strategic partnerships with other startups to achieve success in the local market.
In terms of impact, the program –which aims to promote and enhance the culture of innovation and independent business amongst Saudi youth- contributed an estimated 2.1 billion riyals ($560 million) to Saudi Arabia’s economy on a cumulative basis from 2010 to the end of last year, based on the total revenues of 620 million riyals achieved by the incubated and graduated technical companies in the Program.
2- Can you tell us about some the startups you’ve supported and where they are now?
Since its launch in 2007 by King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), Badir Program for Technology Incubators and accelerators has exponentially grown supporting budding entrepreneurs and succeeded served more than 280 startups since.
The program currently has 248 technical projects incubated through its seven incubators throughout the Kingdom, and we have seen innovation from the companies incubated at Badir in various fields, like ICT, advanced manufacturing and Biotechnology.
In ICT, we have MORNI, which revolutionized the road-side assistance experience for vehicle owners. Today it is the largest roadside assistance company in the region with over 8000 providers. In 25 months, it grew from two co-founders to over 40 employees. There is also Quant which achieved amazing strides in data analysis and actuary sciences, selling their advanced software to companies to organize and assess big data.
Another success is Foodics Company that provides a cloud-based iPad POS Solution for complete restaurant management. Their system is being used by over 350 brands in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Turkey, and Egypt. The company currently employs 52 employees. Foodics recently closed a SAR 15 million ($4 million) investment round, led by Raed Ventures and Riyadh Taqnia Fund (RTF) with the participation of Neseel Holding and 500 Startups Fund.
When we look at other fields like Biotechnology, Diabetic Science International is a company incubated at BADIR biotechnology incubator, where the company has successfully developed a bandage lined with a substance extracted from shrimp shells that has natural healing properties beneficial especially for diabetics. This product is now on the verge of industrial-level production.
3- What is your opinion of the startup community and ecosystem in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East?
The entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Middle East has significantly grown and become much more structured in recent years; as the governments, in addition to other entities, got more involved in supporting the ecosystem.
When we have a look closely at the Arab world, for example, we will see a region on the cusp of something bold and innovative, as the region’s youth drive a transformative era of technological disruption. This is a generation of trailblazers, spurred by creative and technical prowess, who are reshaping industries, creating new sources of wealth and building a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem – a potent counterbalance to high rates of youth unemployment in the ME.
But despite their formidable potential, startups face many impediments such as regulations and bureaucracy, access to funding, and access to talent.
Access to capital even though a much smaller issue today but still is very much a challenge, opening the Middle East markets for businesses to scale still a problem. Finding talent is an ever continuous challenge as well.
The governments in the Middle East are effectively addressing the challenges that exist for entrepreneurs through the establishment of government institutions and initiatives to support entrepreneurs, but even though multiple support entities are interacting, some challenges still remain here.
Nationwide, the Saudi Arabian startup ecosystem has gone a long way over the past years. Ten years before there were no incubators, no accelerators, no angel investment networks, and no proper funding options. Now, all these programs have established in Kingdom by the participation of Public & Private organizations.
During the next five years, I see the startup ecosystem in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East going to a second level where it will be on par with the developed world. The local entrepreneurs will have access to global markets.
4- What do you think is most needed by local startups right now to properly thrive in the region?
I must say here that we need first to ensure that all stakeholders in the ecosystem including entrepreneurs, investors, policymakers, incubators, etc. are playing their roles correctly.
An entrepreneur should have the tenacity to listen, learn and grow. A policymaker should engage stakeholders to understand their needs and incorporate them in the policy-making process. The same applies to investors and other players in the ecosystem, which itself need to ensure that entrepreneurs and start-up companies can get the help they need to build scalable businesses.
I believe that it is our collective responsibility to build and strengthen startup ecosystems in the region.
5- Can you tell us more about your “Soft Landing Program”?
The Soft Landing Program is an international program for attracting international start-up companies, facilitating their introduction into the Saudi marketplace, enhancing the setting up of effective partnerships with Saudi entrepreneurs. The Program targets international and regional start-up companies from the GCC, Arabian countries, the USA, the United Kingdom, Eastern European countries, as well as South East Asian countries.
We will be looking out for startups in diverse sectors for example technology, entertainment, education, and FinTech. The startups should have already built significant traction in their local markets and have a product which has the market fit for the international clients.
The International Program aims at assisting international start-up companies to access the Saudi market and facilitate collaboration with Saudi partners. On the other hand, the Program will operate closely with local partners with experience in assisting international companies to access the Saudi market and facilitating the access of the relevant stakeholders.
This Program provides more opportunities to the foreign start-up companies that wish to be introduced to the Saudi market and receive administrative logistical support, in addition to the relevant contacts. It will also assist such companies to comprehend the business culture and applicable practices in the Kingdom, through providing guidance and awareness to the incubated persons and providing an environment to connect the incubated entrepreneur to the entrepreneurship environment in the Kingdom, as well as to the relevant entities concerned with the business field thereof.
The Soft Landing Program services include having a license issued to the foreign investor by the Saudi General Investment Authority and facilitating the formalities of incorporating the company through connecting with the governmental ministries such as the Ministry of Commerce and Investment, the Saudi Ministry of Labor and General Authority of Zakat and Tax (GAZT). The Program also includes providing a venue for start-up companies in Badir Program throughout the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.